Sunday, December 19, 2010

Big Size Opsseoyo, Big Shock Isseoyo! (15 November)

Saturday involved a long and unsuccessful shopping trip to Itaewon in Seoul.  Another Gunsan South African and I decided to get a really early start and headed to Seoul in an attempt to find some warmer clothing.  The score of the end of the day? Money spent: about 900 000 won (nearly US$900) – Clothing purchased: 0. So what did I spend my money on?

I didn’t find any clothing that fit me – or that I would actually wear - but I did buy shoes: lots and lots of shoes…and a really expensive handbag!  I can justify the shoes because they’re an investment.  I bought winter Teva boots and sturdy sneakers for hiking.  I couldn’t accompany my second graders on their hiking trip yesterday because I didn’t have appropriate clothing – at least, now, I have the appropriate shoes which will probably sit in my shoe closet (I love that I have a shoe closet!) until next year sometime.  The other shoes are all incidental and seasonal so they can also be justified.  After all, you can never have too many shoes.  The handbag…not so much.
It’s a handmade, genuine leather bag so it is an investment.  It’s in a classic style and it’s black so it’s practical but most important: It’s SO PRETTY!

Big Size Opsseoyo

As a foreigner in Korea, you need a really thick skin to go clothes shopping here!  If you’re even slightly larger than the average sized Korean, you’re probably going to have to do your clothes shopping in the ‘Big Size’ stores in Itaewon or similar areas.  I feel like an elephant in Korea.  I know I’m large and slightly overweight but does it really have to be shoved down my throat every time I walk past a store.  Itaewon is the (very sketchy) mecca for many a foreigner living in Korea and the number of ‘Big Size’ or ‘Plus Size’ stores (seriously: That’s what they’re called!) in Itaewon is a testament to this status.  Itaewon is near the US Air Base in Seoul which explains it’s western dominance.

I have yet to have a Korean person or colleague comment about my weight (or maybe they do and I just don’t understand them) but I’ve heard many stories where Koreans have told even US size 8 women that they’re fat or that their “stomach very large”.  Maybe I have kinder colleagues, maybe I’m just oblivious but the truth is…I’m also terrified of walking into most clothing stores that aren’t called ‘Big Size’ because I don’t think I could bear the humiliation of being chased out of the store.  I’ve heard horror stories of foreigners being chased out of stores by staff crossing their arms to form an ‘X’ (Korean sign language for ‘No’) and saying, rather loudly, “Big Size Opsseoyo” (We don’t have big sizes).  Perhaps this hesitancy partially explains why at six pm when we decide to give up on shopping for the day, we haven’t found many clothes because we’re a little hesitant that we’ll be chased from the store by angry mobs throwing the verbal equivalent of flaming torch at the overweight foreigners!

When it’s finally time to leave Seoul, our bus mysteriously seems to be running later and later which is rather unusual for Korea.  We’ve hit major traffic leaving Seoul and we’re so far behind schedule that we don’t even stop at the rest stop on the way home.  Our driver is clearly attempting to make up for lost time too and I find myself feeling rather sea-sick as a result of the swaying bus and manic driving that gets us to Gunsan by just after 23:00.  The next day is spent simply recovering from the failed shopping attempt in Seoul.

Big Shock Isseoyo

Monday morning brings with it a new and rather uncomfortable surprise.  Since the Korean CSAT is being written this Thursday and we have mock exams and all types of other things happening at school and have already lost two days of teaching in the previous week, it means that my filmed lesson will have to happen within the next two days – and not with my desired class.  At least, this is the news that I’m given first thing Monday morning.  My first lesson of the day is easy – this particular class is always an easy class to work with which kind of makes up for the fact that the class directly after theirs is the complete opposite.  My week starts with a lesson that almost seems to run itself followed by a lesson that feels like I’m not only drawing blood from a stone but pounding it to death at the same time as I use my entire weight to drain the fraction of a millilitre of blood in this 11 person rock.

For some reason, my co-teacher is not in this particular lesson from the start so I’m not too concerned when the door at the back of the English lab opens, a head peeps in and then disappears outside again.  My co-teacher is used to my rather casual style of teaching where I generally sit on a desk and try to just ‘chat’ with the students on a Monday morning.  The ten Korean men, all dressed in very official looking suits, who have just entered the English lab with my principal (at least, I think he’s the principal) and vice-principal, however, do not seem as comfortable with this style of teaching.  My kids are oblivious (or just don’t care) to the fact that several suits have just entered the lesson and are currently standing at the back of the room looking at the newly decorated room and listening to my lesson.  I’m equally oblivious, thankfully, to the fact that these suits are actually doing a school inspection and are from the Jeonbuk Department of Education – ie. They’re technically my boss!

By the time I realize this, I’ve already endured the awkward 10 minutes they’ve observed of my conversation lesson – the one where I’m the only one talking on this particular day – and I can only make sure that I am fully prepared for my filmed lesson on Wednesday.  I’m so engrossed in ‘rehearsing’ this upcoming lesson that it takes me 20 minutes and four students to realize I’m meant to be teaching in that particular hour.  Considering it took my kids 20 minutes to come and look for me, I don’t think they’re too worried about missing half the lesson even if I feel like an idiot at that point.  Fortunately, my vice-principal is still entertaining the suits somewhere in the school and isn’t in our teacher’s room to see my latest screw up…

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Pepero Day (11 November)

I love Koreans!  They’re all about building relationships and showing your love and appreciation for people with cutesy things.  It’s all about the love!  This is seen by the fact that they have about a dozen versions of Valentine’s Day – each with it’s own etiquette and gift policy, it seems.  Today is one such day: Pepero Day!


Unlike the other versions of Valentine’s Day that are usually held on the 14th of each month, Pepero Day is always held on the 11th day of the 11th month and it’s a celebration ‘holiday’ that was created by the company that makes Pepero candy which is an ingenious marketing idea!  Pepero is similar to Pocky (I think) in Japan and is long, thin biscuits dipped in chocolate.  The aim is to get four of these (11/11) which show the date of Pepero Day.  NZ2 warned me about it yesterday so I went to Lotte mart to buy some supplies to hand out at school. 

I’ve read that Pepero Day is also a good day to give candy to secret crushes without having to feel like an idiot.  I already feel like an idiot most of the time but today, I feel particularly ridiculous walking into my teacher’s room with a bag of candy.  I can’t quite get over my awkwardness of handing out kiddie candy to my colleagues – and no one else seems to be doing it – so I resort to handing it out to all of my classes.  Bear in mind, I’ve actually bought enough candy to give to every teacher in my school and I’ve only used about a tenth of this on my classes – the rest is sitting in my desk drawer. 

In each class, I hand out candy which is always popular with the kids here – trust me, they need the sugar rush! – and I’ve been offered Pepero sticks by a couple of students.  I don’t see any teachers handing out Pepero but, somehow, I find several boxes of Pepero that have mysteriously appeared on my desk while I’ve been in class.  Where and who it came from, I have no idea but I do know that I probably have enough Pepero to keep me going until next November!

Understanding my School (10 November)

A couple of days ago, I wrote about my co-teacher’s confession that she had thought I wasn’t planning to return to Gunsan after the EPIK orientation.  It’s been just over a week and I can’t help thinking about what she said.  I understand that the female GETs at my school haven’t ever finished a contract and the stubbornness in my personality is determined to see my contract through just to prove my school wrong.  However, I’ve noticed that NZ2 seems to have been welcomed by our Korean colleagues with far less hesitation that I have even though he’s only been at the school five weeks longer than me.  One of my co-teachers, with whom he has no classes, has even taken him out to dinner but doesn’t ever talk to me – the teacher with whom he actually has a class!

My Korean colleagues are great and I can understand that they’re trying really hard to help me settle in but I can’t help feeling a little envious of the stories other GETs have of their colleagues and co-teachers: They all seem to socialise with them outside of school whereas mine seem rather reluctant to get to know me.  It’s almost as though they’ve already decided that I won’t be staying very long and I’m just another GET who’ll soon tire of trying to adjust to the very different customs of Korea.  I get it: No matter how long I stay, I’m temporary and always will be but then…aren’t we all temporary even if we do see our contracts through?

I snoop for background information on the previous female GETs by asking everyone I meet who mentions them.  Finally, NZ1 and I have a rather frank chat which kind of helps but I’ve decided that it’s time for a heart to heart with my head co-teacher.  After all, I really do want to be friends with her!

An opportunity presents itself when I finish a lesson in the English lab and she’s there fixing the sound on a computer.  Feeling more cowardly than I had thought, I approach her with a tentative request to talk to her about something when she has time.  Bad choice of words: I can see the fear, hesitation, anger, and finally suspicion flicker across her face and she insists that she has time right then.  She shows me to the opposite side of the lab and indicates that I take a seat at the table.  Rather than face her squarely across the table (I want a friendly, reassuring chat after all, not a confrontation!), I pull out two chairs so that we’re forced to sit more side to side thinking of everything I’ve ever read about non-verbal clues.

I immediately state that the subject is nothing bad because I can sort of guess what she’s probably thinking: Oh crap, another one bites the dust. I hate being the head co-teacher! The thing is: I genuinely like my co-teacher but I get the impression that she’s not too fond of me.  I try to phrase this as delicately as possible and generalize it by saying that everyone seems a little bit suspicious of me.  I’ve already lasted longer than my predecessor since I’ve been here five weeks already so my next milestone is six months which is when I’ll have outlasted my predecessor’s predecessor.  My concern is that, as much as I’m determined to stay for at least my one year contract, six months can become a very long time if I’m going to have to constantly prove myself to my colleagues.  I don’t want to get to the end of my contract and have only just made friends with the people I work with.

A 45 minute heart to heart later and I think that my co-teacher is starting to come around.  I’ve reassured her that I’m really happy in Gunsan and I can keep telling people that but, at some point, they’re going to have to start to believe me.  When that might happen is anyone’s guess.  She thinks the rest of my colleagues will start to come around by Christmas so seven weeks to go then!  The most reassuring part of ‘the talk’, however, is when she tells me that several of the Korean staff have already commented to her that I seem to be very different to the other GETs they’ve had and that was all the result of 60 000 won worth of sweet potato bread that I shared with my colleagues last week! Long may it continue…

New Discoveries (6 – 7 November)

Having dragged myself to last night’s potluck dinner rather reluctantly, I wake this morning with renewed optimism and hope.  The Canadian couple I met last night have offered to take me around Gunsan today.  The day is both interesting and fun; their daughter is really sweet and has already taken to calling me “Onni” (spelling?) which is a term that Koreans use for ‘elder sister’.  Had I not had this explained to me at the EPIK orientation last week, I would probably have been rather confused at her constant use of this – although, for some reason, she occasionally calls me Lisa by mistake.

For most people, today probably wouldn’t be exciting at all.  These Canadians have lived in Korea for seven years, their daughter attends Korean school and I’m content to be shown around my town by people who know the little hidden away places that I wouldn’t otherwise discover.  It’s also great to get a couple of the larger things that I need for my apartment (like a small wardrobe that has shelf space) and advice on where to buy future items that are already on my shopping list but spaced out over the next three months’ budgets.

The Canadian couple is awesome!  They take me to Subway, the fabled Lotte mart where we do actually see quite a few foreigners and finally they introduce me to the Galbi restaurant which I probably will never manage to find again followed by ice cream at Cold Stone which is a novel experience in itself.

The next day, I’m exhausted.  Somehow, this weekend has proved to be the most social I’ve been since arriving in Korea (apart from orientation).  The potluck dinner has opened up a new realm of possibilities and foreigners to get to know.  Considering that I’m not the most social of people at the best of times, I find myself looking forward to a relaxing Sunday at home, attempting to assemble the mini-wardrobe that I purchased yesterday. 

I’m woken by a text message from NZ2.  He, NZ1 and NZ1’s wife are going to Wolmyeong Park for the day and invite me to join them.  My apartment is begging to be cleaned and I’m working on an essay for a competition – exciting, I know but I can’t really do a third day of socialising at this stage so I decline the invitation. 

DIY Efforts

My day proceeds with a trip to the store to buy a screwdriver and a few other items that I’m not entirely sure I really need although this doesn’t seem to stop me.  Back home, I find that assembling a wardrobe is not as easy – or quick – as I’d anticipated.  First, the instructions are in Korean (of course) although the parts are all numbered as I discover on closer inspection.  Getting the basic frame together is rather satisfying but I’m looking forward to securing the two shelves and being done with this mini project. 

The bits and pieces waiting to be assembled...

Thirty minutes later, I’m feeling rather proud of my DIY efforts even though I don’t quite remember the edges of the shelves being as rough as mine appear to be.  Unbelievably, I’ve put the shelves in backwards which involves another 15 minutes of undoing and 20 minutes re-doing the shelves which I carefully triple check.  Nearly three hours later, I have a mini-wardrobe and finally finish unpacking my suitcases which have been doubling as shelves.  I feel a sense of achievement at having assembled my first project but I’m not sure I’ll be tackling something like this again too quickly. 

The finished product.

Fortunately, my school will be holding interviews for students for the 2011 school year so there are no lessons tomorrow, which means an entire day of trying to look busy at work although there’s nothing for me to do.