Saturday, August 20, 2011

A Little Perspective (15 April)

Having taught in South Africa for several years, I’m used to student discipline being one of the biggest parts of my job.  My school in Korea has been rather easy in this regard…which is why we were all shocked to the core at the scandal that occurred at school last night.  I barely make it into the school this morning before one of my co-teachers, who is clearly bursting at the seams to share the news, pulls me aside and fills me in on shocking news.  Your school may have had problems but could it possibly be any worse than this…

Scandal Abounds

Bearing in mind that this is one of the most elite schools in my province, behaviour is seldom a problem.  Last night’s events, however, were so shocking that it was necessary for the parents of the students concerned to be summoned to school immediately and the homeroom teacher was required to fill out a detailed incident report.  From cities nearly three hours away, distraught parents rushed to school, late at night, demonstrating the severity of this incident and the students concerned with dealt with rather strictly.  Communications continued until close to midnight and it was agreed that a disciplinary hearing will be held to determine the most appropriate form of discipline for the two disgraced students.  Disappointment was evident in the faces of all and teary promises that this would never happen again.  

Such a terrible crime must surely involve underage drinking, smoking, drugs or some other illegal activity.  It’s far, far worse than anything you could possibly imagine and the students were stupid enough to be caught doing taking part in this illicit activity outside the store across the road from the school (in front of my apartment building!) – in full school uniform!

What, exactly, was their crime?

They were caught kissing!

The vice-principal apparently saw the students kiss, told them to stop and they ignored him then tried to run away.  Naturally, like any scored educator, he chased them and caught the boy – one of my best and sweetest students.

My colleagues are shocked but I can’t stop at the ludicrous hardline approach the school has taken.  One of my colleagues commented that “these students have had a relationship – they were smooching.  What if they now have a baby!”  I tried to reason with my colleagues by pointing out that teachers back home have caught students doing far worse than kissing but they were not amused.  I hope that next time the students have enough common sense to at least go behind the building to kiss.

Understanding a New Perspective

The reaction of my Korean colleagues is somewhat understandable:  Public Displays of Affection are frowned upon in Korea; kissing is something intimate and should be reserved for the bedroom or, at the very least, the privacy of your own home.   Even holding hands is frowned upon by some older Koreans.  

Statistically, most Koreans live at home until they get married.  Unlike Western countries where a 30 year old man living at home with his parents would most likely be labelled a ‘loser’, in Korea, this is quite common for both sexes.  A lot of Koreans will try to convince you that high school students are not having sex and I’ve had many older Koreans try to convince me that pre-marital sex just does not happen in Korea.  Of course, this is contradicted by the sheer number of Love Motels that exist in every city – particularly in university areas – and exist for the sole purpose of renting rooms by the hour.  Since so many young Koreans live with their parents until marriage, getting down to the dirty deed in the comfort of one’s own home is not exactly possible – enter a lucrative business opportunity that caters to this natural human need.  Love Motels are pretty decent accommodation, however, and can be great places to stay overnight for a reasonable price.  

I should probably also add, as so many other bloggers before me have commented at length, that Koreans do not ‘date’ – they have relationships.  My colleague’s comment of the possibility of these students having a baby since they’ve ‘smooched’ is a direct reflection of the conservatism that is so evident at times in Korea.  Since kissing is reserved for the bedroom, along with other things, this reflects her train of thought: the students kissed, therefore they’re in a committed relationship, and (despite their denial of teenagers having sex) are probably doing other relationship matters too.   

As a homeroom teacher, my colleague is like a substitute parent for this boy (who is in 11th grade in high school) and therefore feels that she has failed.  Since the students spend more time at school than they do at home, she is responsible for his moral guidance and ensuring that he (and other students in her class) toe the line.  From a Korean perspective, his behaviour is a direct reflection of her failure to provide this guidance – something that the vice-principal did not hesitate to tell her.  She was hauled over the coals and told to increase her vigilance of her students.  If the students had been caught having sex, she would probably have been fired, charged with negligence and never allowed to teach again.

This preservation of innocence is simultaneously frustrating and endearing. It’s endearing to meet adult Koreans who are still pure and Korean men generally have a reputation for being very sweet and considerate of their partners – they make sure their girlfriend is never bored, will go out of their way to make sure that you’re always entertained, are true gentlemen, even insist on carrying your handbag and will generally bend over backwards to make you happy.  I’m not saying that this is necessarily ideal but it is certainly different from the Western approach.  

A Foreing View

The frustrating downside, however, is that many grown men in Korea can still seem rather childlike at times.  I can’t help but look at my students and wonder how on earth they would function if they ever live or work outside of Korea.  While the sweet, gentle and innocent approach may be universal in Korea, such behaviour outside of Korea would, perhaps, be laughed at.  My high school students don’t really know how to talk to members of the opposite sex and this is something that seems to continue into adulthood for many.  Granted, the reasons for this apparent shyness may have more to do with Confucianism than anything else, but it can be frustrating for many foreigners.   Girls seem to be programmed to be cute in Korean culture and are viewed as fragile and emotional but many Korean men – which explains why some of the male teachers at my school treat me the way they do.  

Of course, this is not to say that all Korean men are like this or even that all Korean women are meek and mild.  I’m also not saying that it’s necessarily a bad thing – just different and the cause of many interesting (and frustrating) misunderstandings when Koreans and foreigners engage with one another.

The scandal at my school is true eye opener.  However, after having dealt with teenagers swearing at me and students assaulting teachers at my previous school, I’m truly grateful that something so minor in my own culture is the extent of the ‘serious discipline problems’ at my school here in Korea.  

Friday, August 19, 2011

Life is Like a Comic Book ( 7 April)

With the recent earthquake and tsunami in Japan, the threat of radiation poisoning and contamination is ever present in our lives in Korea.  I have been told by numerous people (teachers, friends and students) to make sure that I do “not get rained on” and their advice if I should be so unlucky as to be rained on is to “take a shower as soon as [I] get wet”.  The logic in these warnings is that the radiation, leaking from Japan’s towers that were hit by the tsunami, is being carried across the Eastern Sea and headed straight for Korea.  Similarly, the contaminated water that was used to cool these towers and later pumped back into the Sea is making a beeline for Korea’s coasts – specifically Incheon and the Han River which runs through Seoul.  Consequently, Koreans are rather cautious at the moment and many friends are limiting the amount of time they currently spend outdoors “just in case”.

Catfish described life in Korea as something from a comic book: Radioactive Rains will give us superpowers; Our enemy is to the North andYellow Dust from the Gobi Desert is blowing in from the East.  It seems that only the South is currently safe – except for that pesky radioactive water heading from Japan’s East Coast to Korea’s West Coast….

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Treasure Island and Horror Films

Astro joins us on our second full day on the island and M leaves early in the morning to go and meet him at the bus station.  We then pack and head to a different minbak located in the countryside where Astro shows just how much of a city boy he is.  The main house of our minbak, however, appears to be very traditional and is beautifully built.

Treasure Island

Since our room isn’t yet ready, we leave our bags and head back to the beach for another day of just lazing about.  Astro, being a sun-worshipper, is happy to tan on his towel on the sand while M and I laze about on the loungers again.   Incredibly, six hours whips by all too soon and before we know it, the sun is preparing to set.  M tells us about a place called Treasure Island and we head there to watch a spectacular sunset.  While waiting for the sun to set, Astro plays up to the camera and does mock fitness videos using the benches on the observation deck. 

Near the observation deck is a restaurant built as a ship.  Apparently the owner of this particular spent millions of US dollars to build this restaurant and we decide to see what all the fuss is about.  Unfortunately, it’s a sushi restaurant and we’re not too keen on the menu so we head out in search of somewhere else to eat dinner.  As we drive back towards our minbak, we pass a family style restaurant that looks appealing.  The galbitang there is delicious and Astro insists that we’ll be back there the following day for dinner, at which the owners simply laugh. 

Horror Films

Back in the car, Astro lives up to his nickname of snail and I tell M that we should pretend to leave him behind.  This clearly becomes an entertaining game for us all as we continue to drive just fast enough to make Astro chase the car up the hill.  He then asks us to make a horror movie of him running in front of the car.  I film the scene as we chase him up the darkened hilly roads with him screaming over his shoulder.  At the sight of another car, we decide that we’re probably going to be reported to the local police and we finally allow Astro to get back into the car.

Back at the minbak, it’s still early and Astro and I have have a good chat outside on the lawn overlooking the countryside.  We’ve never really spoken much prior to this and it’s great to get to know him a bit better as we talk about jobs, aspirations and travel plans before turning in for the night.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

April Fool’s Giddy Girl (1 April)

Incredibly, I’ve forgotten that today is April Fool’s Day.  I had planned the most perfect prank for my students but it required the involvement of my co-teachers and this is where I’ve fallen flat – I forgot to speak to them and fill them in on the prank!  Since my school seems to have only just accepted that I’m actually planning to stay for at least the duration of my current contract, I was going to tell my students that I’ve decided to go back to SA and see what the reaction was.  Apparently this would be a bit mean so maybe it’s a good thing that it didn’t pan out as I’d hoped.  My poor planning didn’t prevent my students from pranking me however.

After my first lesson of the day, I must have decided that April Fool’s Day isn’t really acknowledged in Korea.  I was a little disappointed that my first (and favourite) class hadn’t done some type of prank so I am a bit surprised when Mr Jeong tells me to watch out for student pranks just before I enter my second lesson of the day.  As I walk into the classroom, I see them scurrying to get into position for their prank.  My students have turned their jerseys and ties around and are facing the back of the class.  It’s a well-organised prank and I appreciate the trouble they’ve gone to in organising things so I decide to play along for a few minutes. 

No Ms Kim, It's Not Radiation Poisoning...

My co-teacher arrives about 5 minutes into the lesson and doesn’t seem to appreciate the humour.  With that, the prank is over and students return to their normal positions and bored expressions.  In the scramble for books, I notice one of the boys looks like he’s about the throw up – and he does, right next to my co-teacher who looks horrified and scared.  A couple of the students look concerned to see that he’s thrown up blood, I’m a little confused as to what’s going on and my co-teacher quickly shuffles him out of the room while asking if he’s okay.  My attempts to begin the lesson are in vain as everyone’s attention is focused on the student and teacher outside.  Suddenly, the student jumps up shouting some form of surprise word, which my co-teacher seemed thrilled to hear.  She’s visibly relieved to discover the blood is nothing more than a fake blood capsule and an well-timed April Fool’s joke rather than some serious health condition or reaction to the feared radiation poisoning that heading straight to Korea from Japan. 

The students seem to have planned fairly elaborate pranks for several teachers throughout the day and this is a topic of much discussion among the teachers during lunch.  I’m surprised to discover that today is also my fantastic co-teacher’s birthday.  I find it rather ironic that today is her birthday since I’ve been meaning to ask her for several weeks when her birthday is.  I’m happy, however, that the English teachers – who are all sitting together at lunch today – are actually speaking English and including me in the general conversation. 

Mistranslations and Interesting Conversations 

I leave school early for an acupuncture appointment.  My back is really sore but I’m also, undeniably, looking forward to seeing cute doctor again since it’s been a while.  The co-ordinator seems happy to see me and tells me that it’s been a while since she last saw me.  Cute doctor seems just as happy to see me.  He greets me with, “Long time no see” and comments, in Korean, that it’s good to see me.  I get cheeky for a moment and ask if he’s happy to see me even though it means he has to speak English but, as usual, I speak too fast.  All he says is, “too fast” so I repeat myself at a slower pace, which still doesn’t seem to be successful.  The co-ordinator translates what I’ve said as, “even though you can’t speak English” which seems to prompt cute doctor into proving me wrong. 

He tells me that he saw me about a month prior to this outside Angel-in-us coffee shop, meeting a friend.  He specifies that it was a female friend because he knows I’m single – I’m assuming it was Catfish he saw me with – and that he was very happy to see me then.  I’m disappointed that he saw me but didn’t say hello and I tell him this. His response: “I’m shy boy” which prompts me to sing the Korean pop song ‘Shy boy’, which just happens to be playing on the radio at that moment.  I seem to embarrass him too much because he scurries away for something.  While he’s gone, the co-ordinator tells me that Koreans are shy to speak to foreigners when they see them unexpectedly even when they know the people – it has to do with a lack of confidence in speaking English.  Nevertheless, I make cute doctor promise to say hello to me the next time he sees me somewhere other than the medical centre. 

The co-ordinator keeps disappearing during the consultation and cute doctor seems to be out to prove that he can hold a conversation in English.  He also seems to be trying to say something else but is uncertain of how to proceed.  I’m confused by his comments of “hav[ing] an idea that [I] might not like” and “want[ing] to talk to me lots” despite his bad English.  I’m a little too enthusiastic when I hear this and respond in a manner not too dissimilar to that of a golden retriever pup.  He tries really hard to communicate with me in English and I’m impressed that he’s managed to keep it up for nearly two hours.  He even goes so far as to show me an anatomy book, in English, to try and explain what he thinks is wrong with me. 

Towards the end of the appointment, his confidence seems to have grown and he tells me that he wishes he could speak better English so that he could show me how funny he really is.  He says that he’s actually a very funny person, and has a good sense of humour, but this doesn’t translate well due to his bad English.  I’m touched that he seems so concerned about the impression he makes and assure him that I do find him funny. 

Out of the blue, he asks if I have any Korean friends and seems somewhat taken aback when I confirm that I actually do although most of them live in Seoul.  His next question is how I know people who live in Seoul followed by whether or not my Korean friends speak English (yes again) which seems to intimidate him – especially when I try to make him feel more comfortable by telling him that most of them are English teachers or deal with foreigners regularly; unfortunately, this seems to backfire rather than work as I’d hoped.  Despite this, he continues to talk to me and informs me that he is currently doing his compulsory military service; that is how he ended up working at the Gunsan Medical Centre. 

When he asks me how he can improve his English, my brain shouts that this is the perfect opportunity to say, “Let’s hang out” but I don’t and the opportunity quickly passes while I proceed to kick myself repeatedly.  Again, he seems rather concerned about the impression he seems to be making on me and is eager to clarify that he actually had good marks for English when he was at school but that he is now old (32) and English is difficult.  He’s also quick to apologise for causing me pain during the treatment when he asks if I hate him for hurting me before repeatedly telling me that he doesn’t want to hurt me – a common statement from oriental medicine doctors who recognise that acupuncture is rather foreign to many westerners. 

At 5pm, I feel a bit guilty that he’s still working with me although he seems quite content.  I’m relieved to find out that, as of today, the medical centre is open until 6pm so I have nothing to worry about.  After confirming another appointment for the following Friday, I text Catfish and we arrange to meet for dinner at Hoa Binh.  Not having brought my yoga things with me, I have to rush home to change and get my things before heading back to Naun-dong at 8:20pm for yoga. 

Not So Pleasant News

By the time I finally get home for the evening, I’m exhausted.  I switch on my computer to check e-mails before heading to bed and my delirious mood takes a sudden nosedive at the news awaiting me.  My mom has e-mailed to inform me that my cousin’s dog was cruelly murdered and thrown into a dumpster near their house and that my cousin, with whom my parents are currently staying in Cyprus, has been rushed to hospital for an emergency operation to have a rather large ovarian cyst removed.  I feel torn between my elation at today’s conversation with cute doctor and the disturbing news of my cousin and helpless in the knowledge that there’s nothing I can do until at least 4pm tomorrow afternoon thanks to the time difference. 

Meet My Limit Kids! (28 March)

I sleep through four alarms this morning and only wake up at 8:40am which means I am late for school.  I’m tired, I’m grumpy and I don’t want to be at school today.  Despite this, my first lesson actually goes well.  My second class, however, are little monsters whose bad behaviour is worsened by the regular absence of my co-teacher for this class.  I’ve walked out of a lesson back home but this is the first time I’ve walked out of a class in Korea. 

As I stomp out of the class, I feel further frustration as I realise that I can’t exactly march into my co-teacher’s office and ask her to come to class because this will cause her to lose face in front of the vice-principal and the 11 other teachers potentially in her office at this time.  Causing her to lose face will only aggravate the situation; walking straight back into the classroom, however, will only further remove my authority.  My only choice: sit in the stairwell for 5 minutes and let the class (hopefully) stew about where I’ve gone. 

This seems to work to some extent because they’re more co-operative by the time I re-enter the class – even if my co-teacher never did find the venue for this particular lesson.

Don’t Feed the Gremlins (27 March)

The black mold that has invaded my bathroom is like a gremlin that is being fed after midnight and multiplying every time I take a shower.  Considering there is no direct sunlight anywhere in my apartment, let alone in the bathroom, destroying it is requiring nuclear strength cleaning products – pure bleach just doesn’t seem to be cutting it anymore..  Each shower sees the original Gizmo mold shake and shiver in pain before a new patch of mold springs forth and attaches itself to yet another location in the bathroom.  Fortunately, it seems to be contained to just the bathroom.  Unfortunately, I’m starting to feel a little high from the vast quantities of mold remover and bleach I’ve sprayed all over my bathroom…

A Typical Saturday (26 March)

Weekends seem to melt together as my time in Korea passes more and more quickly.  Instead of looking for things to do on the weekends, I now find myself looking for the weekends where I can just stay home and relax. 

Despite promising myself that I would get up by 9:00am, I only wake up at 10:00.  Thus, I have only two hours before I’m due to meet Catfish and one of her former students at CGV for lunch and possibly a movie.  Somehow, I find time to still chat to YeonJeong via Facebook before rushing out to meet my friends.

A quick lunch at the Gal-B, followed by coffee at Café Bene and we’re soon walking the reluctant girls to their Math Academy before heading back to CGV to watch Red Riding Hood.  We again have two hours to kill before the start of the movie so we take in a few games of pocketball.  We’ve both planned a cleaning day in our respective apartments so our evening culminates in the exciting task of shopping for cleaning supplies at Lotte Mart and finding the fantastic BB cream that we’d heard about two weeks ago before heading home and chatting some more on Facebook and Skype.  Just another typical Saturday afternoon.

HOT Yoga (22 March)

After a movie with M on Sunday, she invited us to join her for her yoga class on Monday night. Thinking that we’d try out the classes, Catfish and I were not quite prepared to hear that we have to sign up for a month at a time.  At 80 000 won for three classes per week, it’s hardly expensive – the question in my mind rather is: At 37 degrees Celsius in the room, it is certainly HOT yoga; will I survive?

I’m getting a taste of the summer humidity that everyone keeps telling me about and, honestly, I don’t like it.  I’m not a fan of heat – or sweating – and the idea of going to work in weather that will have me swimming in soaking wet clothes by the time I’ve walked from my apartment to my office is not an enticing one.  The one major immediate advantage of the hot yoga is that I’m so tired after the class that a quick shower is immediately followed by my passing out on my bed for the best night’s sleep I’ve had in a while. 

On a sadder note, I’m reminded that it’s now seven years since one of my closest friends drowned in an untimely accident.  It’s scary to think that you can still miss people so much after so much time without them.

Girly Confessions (17 March)

In a moment of bonding during a post-lunch walk at school, I confess to my fantastic co-teacher that I have a crush on my Oriental Medicine Doctor and I ask for her advice on the situation.  She finds it amusing and seems surprised that I’ve confided in her – so surprised that she keeps asking me if I’m interested in him as a man or as a friend.  I tell her that I’d be happy having him as a friend but that I’m definitely interested in him as a man.  After a brief discussion, she makes me promise to keep her updated because she finds this news exciting and assures me that she won’t say anything to anyone else. 

I find myself repeating most of this story later that night when Catfish and I meet M for dinner at Hoa Binh.  The cute guy who works there comes over to say hello to us as we have our inauguration dinner with M followed by coffee across the road at Ti-amo.  Since M only finishes work at 8:20pm, it’s a late dinner – and an even later night as we all get to know one another a little better.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Hangang Booze Cruise (12 March)

Despite a severe earthquake having hit Japan yesterday, Catfish and I head to Seoul for a Booze Cruise on the Han River.   We head to Seoul early on Saturday morning where we’re planning to take a look around Yongsan Electronics Market, which we’ve heard so much about.  The market is smaller than we anticipated although there are definitely some fantastic deals if you’re in the market for a new laptop, camera or phone.  We’re also surprised to see walkmans (yes, the tape playing kind) and Discmans at the market.  Korea is probably one of the only countries in the world still to be actively producing cassettes.  On a happy note, however, I finally, after five months of searching Korea, find a power cable for my laptop.

With growling stomachs, we head to the foodcourt in the basement for some lunch.  Our options are Korean food, which neither of us are really enthusiastic about today, or the Hooters next door.  Never in my life did I think that I would ever set foot inside of a Hooters yet here I am, at the age of 29, voluntarily entering one for a hamburger.  As we step inside, the conversations of the all-male clientele come to a sudden halt and we awkwardly make our way inside.  The waitresses, however, seem almost relieved to be serving female customers for a moment.  The other patrons create a rather sleazy and unappealing atmosphere and it’s pretty much exactly what I imagined Hooters to be – minus the topless waitresses. 

White Day Fun

With an uber-awkward lunch out of the way, we head to IPark mall’s square for coffee and to wait out the next three hours before we can head to Yeouido for the cruise.  There’s a variety of kid’s games, including hula hoops, available and we participate in these while we wait.  When Catfish discovers that a White Day competition is about to start on the stage, she asks if we can enter as a couple.  The organisers say yes and rush over the announcer who seems flustered at the prospect of including two waegookens in the proceedings.  The Korean participants find it amusing but are quick to try and include us in the fun.  They manage to communicate that we will have to wait for the second round but that we should watch the first round to get an idea of what we will have to do in the competition.  So, seated in the front row, we watch…with sinking hearts.

By now, we should be fully aware that everything that Koreans attempt is approached with a 100% attitude.  I don’t think the word, “fail” is in the average Korean’s vocabulary.  Games are no different. 

First, each couple is given a peppero stick (chocolate covered biscuit) that the woman holds between her teeth.  The man has to bite the peppero stick as short as possible – without kissing his partner because we all know that kissing in public is sinful in Korea.  This proves to be highly entertaining to watch although Catfish is clearly losing enthusiasm for her desire to enter us.  The next game involves a serious workout.
The men are told to pick up their partners.  They may hold them any way they choose provided the partner’s feet are not touching the ground.  Considering most of their partners are fashionably dressed women – in typically short skirts – there is an awkward shuffle to try and preserve their modesty despite these wardrobe interferences.  So prepared are the Korean organisers that they’ve even provided blankets for the women to wrap around their waists to cover what their skirts fail to hide.  The fireman’s carry is my favourite of the choice positions.

The men now have to do squats.  The youngest couple is the first to be eliminated and a joke is made about him being a baby because he has yet to do military service. It’s evident that the rest of the men have done military service in the last five years or so because their levels of fitness are incredible.  They are literally perspiring by the time the MC has finished putting them through their paces. 

After the squats, they have to face each other, throw a ball in the air, spin round and catch it between the pair before it hits the ground.  It sounds easy enough but, judging by the number of contestants who struggled with this, it’s harder than it appears.  The final game is where the couples stand on a rapidly diminishing sheet of newspaper.  As the paper gets smaller, so the difficulty in maintaining one’s balance increases. 

As entertaining as the games are to watch, we realise that we’re out of time and won’t be able to participate in the second round since we have to leave for the cruise.  I wish that I could say that the cruise was as much fun as watching the White Day Competition at IPark Mall but it’s not: It’s a group of loud and drunk foreigners assembled for the sole purpose of drinking and getting even more drunk while the boat travels up and down the Han River for three hours.  After the cruise, we all head back to KiwiKat’s apartment where we’re spending the night before meeting YeonJeong for lunch the next day and a bit of shopping

Lunchtime Craziness (10 March)

Lunchtime seems to always be something of a crazy event and the crazy and amusing happenings in the school cafeteria are not limited to my school.  Speak to any foreign teacher in Korea and they’ll probably have at least a dozen strange or amusing stories to tell of things that happen in their school’s cafeteria.  My school’s the same. 

Yesterday seemed to have been National Curry for School Lunch Day since many foreign teachers in both Gunsan and Seoul reported having had curry on the menu.  The reason I comment on the curry for lunch is because I’m so used to not being able to eat half the lunches on offer (since there’s usually a lot of shellfish) that I’m always tickled pink when I can actually eat everything on that day’s menu – the curry is one of those days and thus one of my favourites! 

Usually, my lunch consists of rice, kimchi and soup with the possibility of one or two of the other side dishes and occasionally the main dish too.  Mr Jeong regularly asks me if I’m eating enough at school and keeps telling me to take more of the food that I do eat – I keep telling him that I eat more than enough and that everything I eat has to be done with chopsticks which naturally takes me longer to eat.  It’s an ongoing commentary.

In addition to frequently having to avoid half the food at lunch, I’m also accustomed to being ignored by the majority of the staff.  Since so few of the staff are willing to speak English, my conversation partners are rather limited.  My limited attempts at speaking Korean are often received with surprise and claps that make me feel like a performing monkey and so, I’ve accepted that people will mostly ignore me at lunch.  However, there are always exceptions and today seems to be one of them. 

Mr Jo is kind of like a Korean father figure for me.  He’s gone out of his way to chat to me at times in his generally limited English, he regularly tells me that I look beautiful, he’s stood up for me when other teachers have been less than kind to me and he regularly asks me when I’m going to get married because I’m “already 30 years old and time is wasting”.  Today was one of the many conversations he’s had with me about my getting married and it’s too funny not to share:

Mr Jo: "Do you think you'll get married this year?"
Me: "Definitely not!"
Mr Jo: "You don't want to get married?"
Me: "I do but it won't be this year"
Mr Jo: "What's wrong with this year?"
Me: "Nothing. I just don't think I'll be getting married this year."
Mr Jo: "Hmmm...but so many men want to marry you."
Me: [Laugh] "No...No one does"
Mr Jo: "Yes. We have lots of single male teachers at school. What about one of them?"

Allow me to clarify that, at this point in the conversation, the teachers who understand this conversation are happily translating it to everyone else who is watching like it’s a popular drama.  They’re all enjoying the lunchtime entertainment and seem to find the entire conversation amusing.  Even the single teachers to whom Mr Jo is referring seem to be enjoying this conversation.

Me: [Awkward laugh] "I want to get married but I don't have anyone to marry."
Mr Jo: "I'll sort that out! I disappointed if you don't marry this year."
Me: "I'm sorry that I'll be disappointing you then."
Mr Jo: "Why has no one married you yet?"
Me: "Um...I don't know"
Mr Jo: "Young men today, they just talk and talk but don't do anything. It doesn't help to talk about someone - you have to talk to them."
Me: "Um, yeah" (when did his English suddenly get this good?)
Mr Jo: " sure you don't have man to marry?"
Me: "I'm sure!"
Mr Jo: "But Lots of men waiting for Sarah. Just choose one! I'll help you choose right man!"
Me: "Okay Mr Jo. Thank you."
Mr Jo: "You marry this year!"
Me: "Maybe."

As amusing as I myself have found this conversation, I can’t help feeling somewhat nervous as to what, if anything, is going to happen.  My co-teacher simply laughs along with the other teachers and later comments that he’s so nosy even if she did find the conversation rather amusing. 

Juhaeyo and An-juhaeyo (8 March)

It’s been a long gap since our first Korean lesson (before Catfish went to Thailand) so we’re thrilled to meet DaYoung at Promessa for dinner and a lesson.  Today’s lesson involves learning how to say “I like” and “I don’t like” which we practise over and over with various objects.  It’s incredible how pleased with are with ourselves when we start to semi-master such a simple phrase but the progress is phenomenal.

Catfish then gets cheeky and asks if I’ll be using the phrase on cute doctor which prompts DaYoung to ask for all the details.  She tells us that saying “juhaeyo” to a man has the same meaning as telling him that you’re interested in dating him.  She seems to enjoy hearing the story of cute doctor and proceeds to take down all of the information I can give her (full name and department) before telling me that she’s going to phone and ask for his phone number or email address to pass onto me so that I can contact him outside of the hospital. Now that’ll be an interesting change of events….

Daedunsan (5 March)

I meet Catfish at the Intercity Bus Terminal at 7:55am.  There are few buses to Daejeon and the first is at 8:05am.  It’s been a chaotic start to the morning, what with having overslept, and we’re hoping we’ll make to Daejeon in time to meet the AK bus at 10:20am.  We don’t know where in Daejeon we’re going, but all we need to worry about at this stage is getting to Daejeon – Seokjin will give the taxi driver directions once we get to Daejeon.

After a few silly photos on the bus, Catfish pulls down her beanie to cover her entire face and we’re both soon catching a little shut-eye in preparation for our day’s hike.  Before we know it, the bus arrives in Daejeon and we’re on the phone to Seokjin for directions.  Catfish dives into a vacant taxi and thrusts my phone at the driver who looks at in confusion while she mimes for him to talk on the phone.   We’re soon delivered to a wedding hall which is apparently the meeting place for the AK group.  With plenty of time to spare, we pick a direction and start foraging for somewhere to buy breakfast.  Unfortunately, our options seem to be limited to the small convenience store at a gas station and we’re soon making our way back to the meeting spot where we’re joined by two other girls who are also on the trip. 

No Spikes, No Hike

At 10:40am, the AK bus arrives and we greet Seokjin enthusiastically.  We’re also happy to see that Patricia and ByungMin are staffing this trip and we soon fall into an easy conversation with Patricia whom we haven’t seen since the DMZ trip.  Less than an hour later, we arrive at the rest stop where we take a group photo and Seokjin shows us the path that we’ll be following along the ridge of Daedun Mountain.  He also tells us that there’s still snow on the mountain so we’ll need to buy spikes before we take the cable car part of the way up the mountain. 

Spikes in hand, we set off for the cable car that will take us most of the way uphill.  The view from the top is amazing and the Konglish signs provide much amusement for the crowd of native speakers.  I love the signposts that treat the mountain like a crossroads, the fact that hiking in Korea seems to always involve climbing up steps for the first part and the road signs that tell us not to ‘trifle” on the bridge and that certain paths are one way: Down. 

The first lot of stairs are fine although Catfish has a few issues with vertigo thanks to the stairs being made of an iron frame and mesh wire – she’s definitely not comfortable with being able to see the sharp drop beneath her although I can’t help but drink in the beauty of the wonders around me.  At one point, Catfish drops a glove and, naturally, it falls underneath the stairs and out of reach.  With an exclamation of disappointment that Seokjin, our fearless AK leader, hears, ByungMin (an AK staff member) is quickly dispatched to climb over the railing and under the stairs to retrieve the glove: Catfish’s hero.

We then proceed to the next part of the assault course: Natural rock stairs.  These are not just any stairs.  Oh no!  These stairs represent my own personal exercise hell.  At one point, I seriously consider giving up and heading back down the mountain with the other girls who’ve already gone that route – I’m just not fit enough to make it up the natural stair-master that only the devil could have created.  Somehow, with lots of encouraging words from Patricia (another AK staff member) and Catfish, I puff, pant and push myself to the top of the stairs.  For a brief moment, I revel in the knowledge that I’ve made it to the top – until Seokjin points out the final stretch to the actual peak of the mountain. 

Competing for the First Fall Award

This is where we have to put on our spikes.  The snow on the ground is patchy but since we’re ‘inexperienced’ hikers, unlike our fearless leader, we need the spikes – no spikes, no hike.  With my first step up the final stretch, I’m grateful for the spikes on my shoes.  I manage to pull myself up the rope, up the final set of stairs and halfway up the rope again when I hit not only a snowy patch but a rocky one too which makes the spikes useless – they don’t grip the rock.  It’s inevitable, I suppose, that one moment I’m looking up at Catfish just ahead of me on the peak, thinking that I’m almost there and the next, I’m sliding face first down the side of the peak.  I sense my arms flailing as my hands reach out for anything with grip and I catch a glimpse of Patricia’s frightened expression and her outstretched hand that can’t reach me.  It takes me a moment to realise that my hand has found a rope – just as my eyes see that my feet are currently hanging over the edge of a rather steep drop down the side of the mountain.  No one can beat me on this trip: I’ve already claimed the prize for First to Fall and Most Dramatic Fall.

After a 15 minute rest to take in the view from the top and get a few classic photos, we’re soon slipping and sliding our way back down to begin our ridge walking.  Here, we seem to split into two smaller groups: Our fearless leader, Seokjin, leads the way (while ByungMin runs between him and Patricia) and Patricia brings up the rear.   We hang out at the back – not because we can’t keep up but because we enjoy the company.

Along the way, we encounter various slippery and narrow paths – usually next to the steepest drops.  At one such intersection, five cute Korean guys, in full Korean hiking gear, step aside to let the foreign girls pass.  They gallantly hold out their arms for us to hold onto as we attempt to navigate the icy and treacherous path.   Pride interferes once more and I attempt to sidestep them without taking the offered arm.  My sidestep turns into a full on slide down the path ahead but, mercifully, not down the mountain itself.  I decide to exercise even more caution in future and take the proffered arms. 

Nice People

The rest of the ridge walking passes rather uneventfully and we’re soon beginning our descent.  Since the descent is rocky, Catfish and I take our time looking for steady rocks while ByungMin, who served in the marines for his military service, flies down the mountain and over the rocks like some Korean mountain goat.  A random Korean man stops and asks me if I have gloves for hiking.  When I shake my head, he quickly removes the gloves from his hands and offers them to me.  Back home, this would simply not happen and it’s just one of many instances of utter kindness from Koreans that constantly amazes and impresses me.  It’s over an hour, and he’s somewhere well ahead of me, before I finally see him again to return the gloves. 

Back on flat ground, the AK bus delivers us to the pick up site in Daejeon and we walk to the bus terminal where a bus to Gunsan is preparing to leave.  We’re delighted that we’ll make it back to Gunsan by 19:00 and in time for NZ2 and his fiance’s engagement party at Promessa. 

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Comings and Goings (4 March)

Although I really like the second grade students and am looking forward to getting to know them a lot better this year, part of me is sad that I won’t be teaching the first grade students.  I really liked this group of students when I taught them during the winter camp and was looking forward to teaching them this semester so I feel somewhat torn that I’m not able to teach both groups.  I’m very vocal in asking the kiwis to remind the first graders that they’re welcome to come and chat to me anytime and that I hope they’ll come and visit me from time to time.  More than that, I can’t really do.

I’m pleasantly surprised when I arrive at school this morning and am soon met by a first grade student I whose name I actually remember.  He’s brought me a folder with several cool postcards and posters about Korea and tells me that he is part of a volunteer group called “Friends of Korea”.  I’m touched that he’s thought of me and has taken the time to come and talk to me and give me such a cool gift. 

The rest of the day passes in a bit of a blur as I attempt to work out lesson plans – something we didn’t really have to do last year – since there are three teachers for the second graders and we have a textbook from which to teach.  By 5pm, when the kiwis go home for the day, I’m still sitting at my desk working and at 6pm I reluctantly pack up my work and prepare to shut down my computer when Mr Jeong returns from his last class for the day.  He seems surprised that I’m still at school and tells me that he’ll be in the office until 9:30pm anyway.  My enthusiasm seems to confuse him further – particularly since it’s a Friday evening - and he asks if I’m heading down to dinner with the rest of the teachers and students.  I’ve already made plans to meet Catfish for dinner at 7pm but am touched by his constant thoughtfulness.  He’s one of many teachers I truly respect. 

At 7pm, I meet Catfish at our favourite Vietnamese restaurant, Hoa Binh, where the cute guy who works there seems to have been banished to the kitchen while we’re there.  Catfish seems disappointed that she won’t be able to see as usual but it only dampens our spirits momentarily.  Dinner, as usual, is the delicious fresh spring roll platter. 

After dinner, we pop into Lotte mart to use the restroom.  Catfish has just had her eyes tested and has taken a bit of a shine to the optometrist who did her eye examine.  She tells me that this is about the eighth time she’s walked past the front counters of Lotte mart today.  As we head towards the main exit, on our way to Coldstone, Catfish clearly has admirers in the cell phone department and from the optometry counter.  I can’t help but tease her about being a magnet in Korea even she disagrees.  Fortunately, we can both laugh about this as we head to Coldstone, the best ice-cream place in Gunsan!

New Acquaintances (3 March)

Girls’ night is officially re-instated and Catfish and I happily head over to our Kiwi-mom’s apartment for a chat and a round of “10 Days in Europe”.  With the other South African having recently left Korea at the end of her contract, we’re now done to only three players.  However, we have the pleasant surprise of meeting M, a Korean friend of our Kiwi-mom.  She’s the same age as me and Catfish, in her now usual style promptly asks if M is on Facebook – after all, if you live in Gunsan, Catfish will become Facebook friends with you. 

Amidst plans to contact each other, I receive a message from NZ2 telling me that Seokjin, who owns Adventure Korea, has invited NZ2, Catfish and I to join him on this Saturday’s AK hike to Daedunsan.  Since we live less than 2 hours from Daejeon, we can meet the group in Daejeon and hopefully get back to Gunsan in time to meet everyone for NZ2 and his fiance’s  engagement dinner.  Having planned to hike Daedunsan at some point, Catfish and I are only too happy to accept this invitation.  Now, if we can just figure out the bus schedule…

Welcome class of 2013 (2 March)

The new semester finally starts and I’m relieved to finally be back to teaching a regular timetable after two months of deskwarming and attempting to keep myself occupied.  I’m also curious to meet the new teachers since the kiwis and I were at a training session in Buan when the school had a farewell dinner to say goodbye to the teachers who were transferring to other schools and to welcome the new teachers to my school.

One of my new co-teachers seems very reserved and I sense it’s going to be difficult to get to know her.  She seems to dislike me and I can’t quite put my finger on what it is that seems so strange.  I’m a little disappointed to hear that I’ll be teaching half of my classes with her because things feel very strained at the moment.   However, I’m thrilled that I’ll be teaching the other half of my classes with my fantastic co-teacher of last year and feel optimistic that things will even out in some way.  Plus, lessons this year will be far more guided and structured since we will be working from a textbook instead of just a vague syllabus.

Opening Ceremony - Korean Style

The opening ceremony in the auditorium is an interesting experience.  With the presence of several parents – presumably of the freshmen students – there are no seats left and I’m surprised to discover that the auditorium is actually rather hot.  It’s an uncomfortable 40 minutes but rather enlightening too.

I don’t understand anything that’s being said but I’m guessing it is the usual “welcome to our school, we hope you’ll be happy here and work hard” spiel that is usually given at the start of a new school year.  The surprising part, however, is when all of the freshmen stand while a representative for the grade stands directly in front of the podium behind which the principal is standing, and reads an oath on behalf of all of the freshmen.  I later learn that this is the agreement that students stand by to honour the school, respect their seniors and always promise to do their best in all their efforts while they are students of this school. 

Once the oath has been read, the freshmen turn to either their left or their right (whichever is closest to the aisle) while the senior students, who are seated in the outside rows, stand and turn to face the freshmen: they all then bow to each other before leaving the auditorium to commence their classes.  It’s an interesting start to the school year and just one of the many cultural differences I respect and enjoy watching.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Happy Birthday, KiwiKat (1 March)

Today is a public holiday in Korea and I’m grateful that I don’t have to go to school since yesterday there were only 10 people at school: 3 admin staff members and seven of the international staff.  Either we didn’t get the memo (translated) or we really were expected to go to school just to keep our desks company.  The kiwis had the day off to move apartments and, for more than a few moments, I really wish I’d been moving apartments rather than sitting at my desk attempting to prevent my soul from escaping for more exciting pastures.  Nevertheless, today will not be as boring as Catfish and I plan to head to Seoul (Itaewon to be precise) for KiwiKat’s birthday celebrations. 

We arrive in Seoul at 10:40 and make our way to the All-American Diner in Itaewon where she has planned to meet friends for lunch.  Although we’ve told her that we’re attending today, she still seems surprised to see us.  Lunch at the All-American Diner is a salivating experience with so many choices that it’s sometimes hard to choose just one item.  I settle for my trusty old faithful order of a proper hamburger.

Determined to make the most of our day in Itaewon, Catfish and I decide to try and get our hair cut.  We make our way to what KiwiKat has termed the “second-rate hairdresser” where, fortunately, they can fit us immediately.  With slight trepidation, I take a seat and cautiously eye out the scissors that are approaching my hair.  I decide to request just a straightforward trim with the hope that it’s hard to screw up and lose in translation.  Korean hair is cut without being washed – the hairdresser simply dampens it slightly with water and eagerly wields that scissors that I hope will not mess up my hair.  I’m relieved when my hair still looks pretty much as it did prior to the cut and am amused, and somewhat hesitant, when I hear Catfish issuing more complex instructions for her hair.  At 10 000 won (approximately US$10), it is the cheapest haircut I’ve had. 

From there we head to B & T for some clothes shopping and I finally get my black spring coat.  We have a few minutes to kill before heading to Healing Hands for a back massage that a friend of ours booked while we were at lunch.  This turns out to be the most amazing massage and I’m almost sorry that I didn’t book for a longer massage.  From Healing Hands, we meet up with KiwiKat and head to the What the Book? before KiwiKat shows us the heavenly pie shop, Tartine Bakery, that is tucked away in a little known side street on the main road. 

We wrap up the day with dinner at Gecko’s where we’re easily sated with their fish and chips. Sadly, both WanSu and Dan have quit their jobs at Gecko’s in preparation for the next academic semester.  We soon say goodbye to KiwiKat and make our way to the bus terminal for our long trek back to the Dreamhub that is Gunsan.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Teacher Training in Buan (24 - 25 February)

Part of our contracts with EPIK state that we have to complete a certain number of ‘training sessions’ during the course of the year: This Thursday and Friday is part of the required training.  NZ1, NZ2, Catfish, another South African and I meet at the Intercity Bus Terminal in Gunsan to catch the 8am bus to Jeonju.  We arrive in Jeonju’s Bus Terminal where it’s just a short taxi ride to the designated meeting place before getting on yet another bus to Buan – a little town only an hour south of Gunsan but which will take us roughly 90 minutes to reach. 

Our first stop in Buan is at a restaurant for lunch where shellfish soup is on the menu so I’m starving by the time we reach the resort where we’ll be spending the night.  We have a full schedule ahead of us and waste no time getting to the conference room where we’re subjected to several hours of lectures by other GETs who supposedly have words of wisdom to impart with the rest of us.  I try to get involved in the lectures but, honestly, I feel like I’m wasting my time.  I can honestly say that the only thing I learn over the course of the two days is that I’m increasingly embarrassed by the behaviour of so many other foreigners ‘teaching’ in Korea. 

I’m grateful that the ‘training’ session is only two days and by lunch time on the Friday, I find myself wishing that I could just go home.  We still have a cultural experience involving a trip to Naeso Temple in Buan.  Much as I enjoy these cultural experiences, I really just want to take a bus back to Jeonju and back to school where, even sleeping at my desk, I’m being more productive than sitting through another minute of foreigners trashing Korea, Koreans and EPIK in general.   Naeso Temple is pretty but, having just experienced a temple stay at Geumsansa, I can’t help being disappointed in my surroundings – the mountains behind the temple, however, are magnificent!

Surprise Happenings in Jeonju

We’re finally on the bus heading back to Jeonju where Catfish an I decide that we’re in need of Western food for dinner.  She proposes dinner in Jeonju before heading home to Gunsan and promptly goes to ask the coordinator if she can recommend some restaurants.  We decide on Outback Steakhouse  which is one of the places at which we can use the vouchers that we won for our teaching videos back in November. At the bus terminal, we say goodbye to the kiwis before taking a taxi to the restaurant in downtown Jeonju where we ravenously attack a platter of ribs, chicken, quesadillas and more.

With our hunger sated, we head back to the bus terminal and are confused by the massive protest happening in the streets of Jeonju heading downtown.  We’re starting to wonder if these are students protesting and what is happening – particularly since the line of protestors seems never ending.  Unfortunately, we’re not able to find out any information.  Back at the bus terminal, the smell of turpentine is strong and we notice people washing off paint on the stairs of the terminal: apparently the protestors paintballed the terminal which makes us even more confused as to what is going on and whether or not it’s safe for us to go into the terminal.   Across the road, several police men are dressed in full riot gear and heading in the direction of the bus terminal which serves only to increase our curiosity as to what is going on.

What Happened?

We follow them into the terminal, with Catfish taking several photos of them, and discover that it’s business as usual inside.  We decide to purchase tickets and get out of Jeonju as quickly as possible.  Tickets in hand, Catfish approaches several people determined to find someone who speaks English.  She finally finds a young student who, in very broken English, attempts to tell us that someone is striking.  We thank him and move away only to hear his friends (who have returned from wherever they’d gone) cheering him on with big ‘bro’ hugs about having spoken to the foreigners.

Still not entirely sure what is happening outside, Catfish approaches a woman outside on the platform and again asks what happened at the terminal: Her eyes widen, she ums and ahs for a few seconds while frantically backing away with profuse apologies of “no, no, no, sorry” as she turns and flees.  Not to be deterred, we get on the bus and Catfish asks the two women sitting behind us what happened.  With the help of their Korean-English dictionaries on their mobile phones, they manage to convey that the protest is over the inhumane treatment of pigs and cows recently affected by Foot and Mouth Disease (Korea simply buried infected animals alive much to the disgust of many people).  We thank them for their explanations and settle back to enjoy the final bus trip of the day, eager to be home once more.