Monday, January 31, 2011

Post-Christmas Awe (26 December)

Considering what a late night we had had the last two nights – especially after an extremely eventful Christmas Day – I’m surprised to find that I’m not too tired when I wake up the next morning, dress and head down to breakfast.  Catfish has already been to breakfast and goes for a walk on the beach so I head down to a very quiet restaurant where KiwiKat and NZ2 are on breakfast duty.  The Kiwi breakfast looks good and it’s really entertaining when Seokjin comes along with his chopsticks to eat fried eggs.  With breakfast out of the way, we’re herded onto the bus and soon on our way to our first sight for today, Jeju Circus World, where we’ll watch a Chinese Acrobatics’ and Motorbike Show.  I can’t say I’m terribly enthusiastic about this particular activity but I’m blown away by the incredible performances that all end too soon.

Chinese Acrobatics and Motorbike Show

From the dancing girls with their spools and ropes to the acrobatic couples on the hoop suspended from the ceiling, and the tumbling acts, the performances seem to just keep getting better and better. By the time the three contortionists re-appear with several candlebras that they proceed to balance in various awkward positions while moving each other, we’re sitting on the edge of our seats.  The next act with the spinning fans is equally impressive and we’re all marvelling at the flexibility and dexterity of the performers when the next act starts. 

It involves two adult males and two kids (the girl is apparently 15 years old as we later discover).  It’s a tumbling act and the two men tumble and juggle these kids with their feet.  The strength required to do this is unthinkable and it really is an impressive act.  When both kids are juggled until they’re balancing on the legs of just one of the two guys where they all strike a pose, I can’t help but utter a semi-sarcastic, “What? No juggling!” much to the amusement of those around me.  The big finale is the motorbike part.  The act starts with a single biker who zooms around inside of an enormous sphere. Slowly, more and more bikers are added until there are a total of seven in a sphere that seems to have suddenly decreased considerably in size.

Green Tea Not Green Leaves...

Our next stop on the itinerary is O’Sulloc Green Tea Farm. As we arrive at the farm, it starts snowing rather heavily creating the impression that we’re part of a giant snow globe that’s just been shaken up.  Since it’s so cold, it’s probably the only time I’m ever going to see 30 plus 20-somethings, who genuinely like to party, head straight for the museum!  The rows of tea look beautiful in the snow and a group of us head up the road to take photos of “THE tree”.  I’m still not really sure why this particular tree is so important but it’s a beautiful sight nonetheless and we have a lot of fun taking lots of silly photos.  At this point in the trip, all of our cameras seem to be common property with several people happily snapping random photos on different cameras.  By the time we’ve finished taking photos and we head back down the road to the museum to have a quick look around and hopefully find a hot drink.  On the way, however, we’re easily distracted by the red berries on a tree and stop to take a slew of posed photos before finally heading indoors. 

Apart from seeing some of what looks like my art work on display, the museum doesn’t take very long.  Catfish and I need little encouragement to head back outdoors where it is once again snowing beautifully.  We spot some reeds in the garden which prompts another short photo shoot with some fantastic results.  We then spot the snow that has built up along the path – enough to start an impromptu snowball fight with each other.  Two Korean kids nearby see us throwing snow at each other and decide that it’s okay to join in which leads to Catfish and I chasing them around the garden in an attempt to throw snowballs at them.  The kids squeal in delight as they fly over the snowy grass – that we later realise is actually a roped off section on which we’re not meant to walk but it’s great entertainment at the time.

After all the snowball fights, we’re starving so we’re happy to arrive at the Greek-decorated Korean restaurant where we have a delicious buffet lunch.  Lunch is gulped down rather quickly and Catfish, NZ2 and I are soon back outside and rubbing the nose of the hallabong at NZ2’s instigation.  Koreans believe that rubbing its nose will make you have a boy baby.  We then take a short walk past mini-land where there is a miniature Eiffel Tower and Statue of Liberty among other things.  We also pass this rather self-satisfying (or self-gratifying) lamp!

Gone With the Wind on Songak

Since Mt HallaSan is closed due to the heavy snow, Seokjin decides we should go to Songak Mountain where we can see Cow Island and more beautiful scenery.  Like most Korean parks, this one has an outdoor gym – a concept which I particularly like since the equipment is all equivalent to actual gym equipment without the cost and guilt associated with a gym membership that only gets used twice a year.  This particular climb is fairly easy but the wind makes me feel like I’ve entered the moors in Wuthering Heights or some other Jane Austen novel and the people with whom I’m walking turn back fairly soon under the mistaken understanding that we need to be back on the bus earlier than anticipated – spot the English teachers who don’t listen to instructions!

Raise Your Hand if You're an English Teacher Who Can't Read

From there, we head to Hallim Botanical Garden where, once again, my friends and I apparently don’t understand clear English instructions (or signs) so we start the tour path from the exit and spend a frustrating 30 minutes trying to figure out why we have to keep climbing over fences and through bushes in order to get to the path that leads to the lava tube caves.  Feeling adventurous, Catfish pauses long enough to purchases Cactus juice which is reminiscent of cough syrup and tastes far worse. 

Along the way, however, we witness an entertaining Iguana fight.  This particular iguana was just ‘chilling’ on the branch and his amusing expression was what made us stop and take photos of him.  Not to be out-photographed, the biggest iguana of all pushes his way across the branch, over the other two (notice how the smallest iguana is hanging from the side for dear life) and proceeds to initiate a fight with the first iguana by biting his tail.  This fight continues for nearly 15 minutes and is well-documented by us.  The end result: Big iguana is thoroughly peeved and the original iguana gets the prized spot once more.  We then meet up with Seokjin who asks us if we want to see the caves that we’ve actually been searching for for the past 30 minutes.

The caves are an interesting experience with several key points.  There is a living rock in the first cave and Seokjin explains this to me – since I don’t realise that there are actually signs that explain key points to idiots like us.  The living rock is a piece of rock that fell from the ceiling of the cave but continues to ‘grow’ in size due to the chemical compounds within the rock.  Consequently, it is now considerably larger than the original hole in the ceiling.  Next is the Ssanyong Cave where there are two dragon caves – that is, the shape of the caves resembles that of a dragon.  At the end of the cave, just as one would expect to find, is a “Merry Christmas” light display.

Unfortunately, time in the caves is short and we’re soon hurrying through the caves in order to do some quick memorabilia shopping before Seokjin once again rounds us up and shepherds us halfway across the botanical gardens to where the bus is waiting to leave for the airport to drop off half of our tour group who only had the weekend free.  NZ2 is among those leaving while Catfish, KiwiKat and I still have a third day of exciting – and, let’s be honest, exhausting – activities to look forward to.  But first, dinner is a priority….

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Merry Christmas Korea (25 December)

An Early Start

Despite a late night and a very early start, we’re all in good spirits as we leave the hostel at 7:00am the next morning.  The sun’s not yet up and it’s really cold but, wearing our Santa hates, we’re eager to continue spreading Christmas cheer in a country where Christmas doesn’t seem to be as big a deal as it is in Western countries.   At Hongik station, we relieved to see that it’s relatively quiet and it’s easy to find people willing to take group photos of us and wish us a Merry Christmas.

On the subway, we continue the merriment and I somehow find myself standing at the end of the carriage singing Christmas carols and dancing while taking photos of my friends. The Koreans on the subway don’t seem to mind – they seem to find it all rather amusing – and KiwiKat cheekily takes out a 100 won coin and throws it in my direction in mock appreciation of my impromptu ‘busking’ on the subway.  This, of course, prompts much laughter and false protestations all around. 

Airport Antics

Before long, we arrive at Gimpo Airport where we are to meet the entire tour group outside of Starbucks.  We have approximately 30 minutes to have breakfast and I end up eating yoghurt and granola with impromptu chopsticks from Starbucks.  KiwiKat and Catfish play the sliding game while the group slowly increases in size and Seokjin, who runs Adventure Korea (the company through which we do almost all of our travelling), starts organising the masses.  We’re soon checking in our luggage and queuing up for the security check where KiwiKat’s friend’s bag is thoroughly inspected in a bid to find the scissors that are unknowingly hidden somewhere in her backpack and definitely strong contenders for the 2010 Hide-and-Seek Championship Award considering it takes three people nearly 15 minutes to search her tiny backpack. 

While we wait, we snap photos of Catfish in her ‘naughty Santa’ hat which is currently standing up straight like that of an elf.  We don’t even think about the fact that she’s standing right in front of security so an airport official tells us not to take photos but, strangely, doesn’t make us delete the ones we’ve already taken.  Either she’s realised we’re harmless and were only taking photos of our friend or she thinks we’re just downright stupid – either way, we don’t seem to pose any immediate threat.

The antics continue in the departure lounge where we attempt to get the perfect photo of four people clicking their heels in the air simultaneously which, naturally, is almost impossible.  These unsuccessful attempts make the time fly by and we’re soon boarding the most awful flight I’ve ever taken.  Although the flight is only an hour, the cabin pressure and constant fluctuations in altitude make me quite nauseous and I’m not in the best mood by the time we finally land in Jeju. 

Merry Christmas Jeju

When I see that it’s snowing and we’re having a white Christmas after all, however, my mood improves considerably and we’re soon laughing away on the bus as we head to the restaurant where we have a traditional Korean meal of Jeju’s famous black pork.  Lunch is a fairly quick affair as we hungrily gulp down delicious traditional food and the snow outside is just too perfect to resist.  It takes Catfish and I only a few minutes to discover a patch of undisturbed snow behind the restaurant and I need little encouragement to immediately make a snow angel that Catfish documents. 

Seokjin sees us making snow angels and having a mini snowball fight and shows us a flower that only blooms in the snow.  After seeing this flower, we resume our snowball fight which quickly escalates into a fight involved roughly eight people (naturally all six of us who are travelling together, Seokjin and one or two other people).  Not even the arrival of another tour group entering the restaurant stops this fight – they’re simply another obstacle not to hit and we continue pitching snow balls over their heads.  A snowman is even attempted by someone in our group.  After about 20 minutes, everyone has finished eating lunch and we’re soon back on the bus and heading to the Trick Art Museum where we spend an hour taking ridiculous photos that create a rather realistic effect.  In the cafeteria area, Catfish and I can’t help but chuckle over the “Phohibition of Taste” sign!

The rest of the afternoon passes fairly quickly as we have a very short horse ride and take even more cheesy photos followed by an “easy” walk (according to Seokjin at least) up Seongsan Ilchubong which is also known as Sunrise Peak.  There are several man-made caves here that were created by Japanese soldiers to store ammunition and weapons during the Japanese occupation of Korea.  I can’t help chuckling every time I see stairs leading up the side of mountains – it’s even funnier to see mini-restaurants set up half way up the mountain and I can’t help but wonder if the delivery guys hate having certain customers since they have carry all deliveries halfway up a mountain for this particular restaurant.  It’s even more amusing to find arrows at certain points along the path just in case we’re not sure which side of the path leads to the top of the mountain and which side leads down.

In every hike, someone has to be last so I usually volunteer.  It takes me nearly an hour to get to the top of the mountain and I can’t even remember when I last saw someone from my tour group.  At this point, I’m puffing up the mountain solo completely oblivious to the fact that I’m all alone wearing a Santa hat which many Koreans seem to find amusing.  The views up Seongsan Ilchubong are incredible and it’s definitely worth the workout to get photos from the top.  I proudly take the last step, ecstatic that I’ve finally made it to the top and can now start looking for my friends when NZ2 and his sister greet me with: “You made it! Time to head back down or we’ll miss the bus”. 

Party Time!

Back on the bus, we head to our hotel where we sort out the room assignments and head straight to dinner and the Christmas Party that Adventure Korea has been kind enough to organise.  We have a proper turkey Christmas dinner, with cranberry sauce, and various more Korean side dishes – all eaten with chopsticks, naturally.  Our table is lively and Christmas cheer is all around.  Unfortunately, 'domestic violence' ensues between NZ2 and Catfish who, after only 24 hours of marriage, file for an immediate divorce!

  After dinner, it’s time for the gift exchange which involves each person choosing a gift, table by table, from under the Christmas tree.  Since our table is the last one to choose gifts, we’re allowed to ‘steal’ gifts that other people have already opened and that we like.  Catfish decides to steal the bottle of wine someone received and can’t conceal her smugness over this minor coup.

Once the gifts are all gone, it’s time for Karaoke.  The OzKo (Australian-Korean) and I kick off the karaoke with a few Christmas carols and proceed to line up several more before handing over the microphone to the people standing nearest us.  Catfish is looking rather glum at this point and sitting at the piano which is located on a very cool looking alcove above the bar.  Before long, we’re sitting side by side at the piano, singing along to the karaoke below us at the top of our voices.  Each sip of wine makes us a little happier and a little happy but, hey, it’s Christmas and someone has to liven things up from time to time….

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

It’s Christmas Time, There’s No Need to be Alone (24 December)

I’m not really prepared for anything when I arrive at school this morning.  I’m tired, I still haven’t packed for my Christmas trip to Jeju Island and I have no clue what is happening at school today other than the pop song contest.  I calmly head to the auditorium with my camera where I’m greeted enthusiastically by several of the Korean teachers, principal and vice-principal.  I’m also greeted by name by most of them which is a novelty – it seems attending last night’s event at school has earned me major brownie points and elevated me from a ‘non-entity’ to ‘actual person’ status in the view of my colleagues.  Whatever the reasons, I’m thrilled!  I’m not so thrilled by my principal always bowing so deeply to me, however, since it means I have to bow even lower every time – I’m waiting for the day when I bow and just tumble head over heels in my attempt to bow lower than him in greeting.

A Korean teacher shows the kiwis and I to move closer to the front of the auditorium when the MC announces a language competition.  Since the only vacant seats at this point are the very first row – where the principal and vice-principal are seated – we sit here and I’m suddenly aware of what an enormous faux-pas this appears to be. As if this discomfort is not enough, it quickly becomes clear that we actually did not need to move since this is a speech competition for Spanish, Japanese and Chinese! I hurriedly excuse myself with the pretence of needing to use the restroom where I encounter my co-teacher; she informs me I’m meant to be judging the pop song contest so I have to return to the auditorium where another teacher then fills me in on the details. 

JFLHS Pop Song Contest

The pop song contest is extremely entertaining and, for perhaps the tenth time in 24 hours, I’m left somewhat amazed by the students I have the privilege of teaching.  Despite clearly being exhausted, they’re enthusiastic and completely committed to the task at hand.  One of the classes performs “Summer Night” from Grease much to the enjoyment of the audience while another sings “Mony, Mony, Mony” complete with props and over the top actions.  I find myself laughing through all of the songs and genuinely enjoying myself so much that I forget to grade some of the performances.  I leave the auditorium as soon as the last song is over and rush back to my office where, miraculously, the pastries that I ordered on Wednesday have actually arrived.  One of the Japanese teachers in my teachers’ room helps me to hand these out around school and the remaining ones are randomly handed out to students who happen to walk past me at that moment.

Getting into the Christmas Spirit

With school officially over, I rush back to my apartment to pack for the weekend and then NZ2 and I meet Catfish at the bus terminal.  Due to miscommunications on our part (NZ2 and I both assumed the other person had confirmed the meeting time with Catfish), Catfish has been waiting at the bus terminal for over an hour and is chomping at the bit to get going to Seoul.  We just miss the bus and it’s so cold that the water in the faucet at the bus terminal has frozen solid but this doesn’t dampen our spirits and so silliness naturally ensues while we wait for the next one.  We’re the only foreigners in the terminal and, enthusiastic about our upcoming trip; besides, no matter what we do, we’re foreign and we’re going to stand out in a crowd – three of us is just upsetting the foreigner ratio so we get caught up in our own enjoyment.  Somehow, this leads to NZ2 and Catfish getting “married” which turns into a running joke that lasts for the next 24 hours.

Once on the bus, our merriment continues and we chat happily for the first half of the trip.  After the rest-stop, however, we calm down and make the most of this opportunity to get some sleep before arriving in Seoul.  It’s Christmas Eve, a Friday and it’s been snowing quite a bit so traffic is fairly slow.  By the time we arrive in Seoul, we realise it’s peak hour on the subway and the next part of our journey is probably not going to be pleasant.  As we head for the escalators, Catfish comes to a sudden stop as she realises that we’re standing outside of the jimjilbang where we spent a night nearly three weeks ago.  We pause for a moment to take a photo and make a mental note that not to walk around the entire bus terminal looking for the jimjilbang next time since we now know where it is, before plunging back into the sea of people heading for the subway.  What follows is only just short of a horror story…

The Nightmare Before Christmas
Disclaimer: If you scare easily, please skip to the section “Arriving in Hongdae”.

As we descend into the bowels of Seoul, I can feel my eyes widening as my brain begins to process just how many thousands of people are currently cramming into the subways.  This is the busiest I’ve ever seen the subway and I’m almost terrified enough to turn around and head straight back to Gunsan!  Instead, spurred on by NZ2 and Catfish, I find myself pushing forward into the masses and praying that we don’t get separated.  It’s quickly agreed that, in the horribly likely event that we are separated, we’ll wait for each other at the next subway stop.  This plan makes perfect sense – in theory; when we can actually see the platforms; tonight, it probably isn’t going to work.  We wait for two trains since there are so many people and when the next train arrives, we’re swept onto it by the people behind us.  I’m the last person on and the doors are starting to close but, incredibly, another 15 or more people managed to push me further into the centre of the carriage so that they can get on the subway too.  We’re packed so tightly that even the subway were to suddenly brake, we wouldn’t move.  All around me, I can hear people moaning and struggling in the overcrowded carriage. 

I can hear NZ2 but I can’t see him.  As for Catfish…she’s carrying a duffel bag that is slung across her shoulder and has now been caught under the arms and bags of other passengers causing her to shrink about four inches.  She’s standing right in front me although she is physically bent over at the waist and resting her head of the chest of the Korean guy next to her.  For some reason, this is hilarious to us and we’re laughing uncontrollably.  Incredibly, Catfish manages to raise one of her arms, with camera in hand, and take a few photos much to the amusement of almost everyone around us.  From somewhere nearby, NZ2 can be heard asking rather incredulously: “Where did you find a free arm?”

Each time we reach a new stop and the doors open, we’re in danger of being swept off the subway by the masses of impatient commuters and separated beneath Seoul.  To combat this, we take turns calling out “Marco” and “Polo” to check that we’re still, somewhere, on the same carriage.  Catfish and I have managed to stay together, despite our awkward positions (and probably because we’ve decided to form a human chain), but NZ2 seems to be moving further and further away from us.  In reality, however, he’s only standing about a metre and a half away but with at least fifteen people between us.  The Koreans around us are clearly confused to be hearing this English conversation happening around them without being able to see the foreigners doing the talking.  When the time comes for us to change lines, we’re relieved for the brief respite in the subway attack.  It’s only once we’re off the train and adjusting all of our belongings that we realise one of my gloves is missing – one of my leather gloves that Catfish offered to hold for me. Dismayed, there’s nothing more for us to do but head towards the next line which is just as busy.  As we take the escalator to the next line, Catfish takes a photo of my “Did we seriously survive that?” expression.

Arriving in Hongdae
The next line is just as busy and I beg and plead with NZ2 and Catfish to wait longer for the next train instead of trying to fight our way onto the current carriage.  Unfortunately, being Christmas Eve and a Friday night (and the fact that this is a really popular line!), the reality is that no matter how long we wait, each carriage is going to be just as busy as the last and it’s best to simply brave the current one.  We manage to get onto the same carriage once again and, once again, we’re pressed close together.  The final trip seems interminable but we survive and we’re soon being introduced to KiwiKat (NZ2’s sister) and a friend of hers.  The trip from the express bus terminal to Hongik Station in Hongdae takes just over an hour and, incredibly, our only casualty for the evening is my missing glove.  We’re tired, hungry and eager to reclaim our Christmas spirit so we head over to Bebop Guesthouse where we’ll be staying tonight. 

Christmas Eve Dinner and a Sexy Santa

Having dropped off our bags, recovered our composure and dug out a few more warm clothes, we’re soon off to a Mexican restaurant for dinner.  It’s freezing outside but we’re in high spirits although eager to get indoors and eat.  Seoul is enormous but the foreigner community clearly tends to populate certain areas because we encounter several other kiwis (two of whom live an hour south of Gunsan and whom I met on the bike trip I did nearly two months ago) in the Mexican restaurant.  When the food arrives, we attempt to photograph Christmas Eve dinner but we’re clearly dealing with a hungry Catfish who just wants to eat her burrito.

With our hunger sated, we head over to Starbucks where KiwiKat spies a Korean guy dressed in a Santa suit complete with red sack.  Deciding that a photo with Santa is necessary, she and Catfish head over to his table to take photos with him.  He promptly pulls out a white beard and a santa hat to complete the look and happily poses as they each take a photo with him.  He then looks for his own camera and asks his friend to take a photo of him and the two waegooks.  His friends takes the photo and then asks the woman who is also sitting with them to take a photo of the four of them together.  This is one of the thousands of things that I love about Korea.  We’ve barely sat down at our table again and drunk half of our hot chocolate when KiwiKat sees someone standing outside of Starbucks wearing a rabbit head  mask.  Two Koreans, in funny masks, are standing outside handing out ‘free hugs’ so we promptly take advantage of this before continuing on our way. 

We’ve barely walked a hundred metres when we meet up with Santa from Starbucks and his guitar playing friend.  When Santa sees us, he strikes a cheeky pose.  Our response is to whip out our cameras and start taking photos.  He strikes two more poses to our encouraging cheers of “Sexy Santa” before running out of ideas and courage.  Two women are selling santa hats a few metres away so we all buy hats to wear around Seoul.  We then meander around Seoul and do a bit of shopping before heading back to the hostel to try and get an early night.  Once back at the hostel, however, we get involved in further conversations that result in a rather late night and it’s clear that we’re going to have a fantastic weekend in Jeju.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Cultural Festivities and Balance (23 December)

It’s finally Christmas time and, as my co-teacher said last month during our chat, the rest of the staff seems to have reached the conclusion that I intend staying for at least the duration of my one year contract.  As a result, coming to school is a lot of fun and the next two days should be even more so. 

Music Recital

Today is the first of the two day Christmas festival at my school.  The morning starts with a concert in the auditorium that is more of a music recital.  Several students perform a variety of pieces on different instruments and I can’t help but wonder where they find the time to fit in music lesson never mind actually practise.  One of the Korean teachers informs me that lessons are usually done on a Saturday morning at the school.  The highlight of the performances is a traditional Korean instrument called a haegum which is one that I would love to learn to play. 

Much to my delight, several of the teachers also participate in this concert with two performances: one is a string quartet accompanied by piano and the second is a music video.  The music video is ingenious and I’m still trying to find out who has a copy of it because I would like it as a keepsake!  All of the male teachers at school formed a ‘boy band’ and pretended to sing a song by some Korean artist whom I don’t know.  The video starts with Six-pack and another teacher (wearing a long red wig) embracing each other.  They’re obviously the ‘couple’ who are either saying goodbye or breaking up (I don’t understand the song).  The rest of the video shows the teachers in various locations both around school and around Soryong-dong.  It was so interesting seeing the different personalities of my colleagues.  Some of them really seemed to be enjoying themselves (even playing on slides in a children’s playground while dressed in suits) and the students really responded to the video.  When one of my male colleagues saw me laughing at the end of the video, he seemed a bit embarrassed and curious as to my view of it.  Ironically, seeing my colleagues behaving in such a silly manner actually makes me respect them even more and I really admire them for doing something like this!

Cultural Festivities

After the music recital, everyone has lunch and then heads to the school’s gymnasium where there is a booth set up for each language (English, Spanish, Japanese and Chinese) in addition to a couple of other booths.  The Korean English teachers have done an amazing job of decorating the booths and it’s really interesting to see culture specific items in each booth.  The fact that the teachers also see no problem with making us wear santa hats and Christmas aprons shows just how popular “cute” is in Korea.   

The fantastic English teachers at Jeonbuk Foreign Language
High School, Gunsan, South Korea.  They really are some of
the most amazing teachers I've worked with!
The next 90 minutes fly by as the Kiwis and I prepare numerous bagels, hot dogs, and drinks that are part of our booth’s set up.  Since we’ve run out of food, we now have free time to walk around and participate in all of the other activities which are still running.  The Japanese booth has a really fun traditional kids’ game, kendama, which involves trying to swing a ball onto a wooden spike. It’s purely by fluke that I manage to get this right so I’m quick to hand back the game after being successful – I won’t push my luck.  The Chinese booth also has Mahjong which I’ve only ever played on a computer so even after numerous explanations by several enthusiastic kids and nearly an hour of observing games and trying to figure out the rules, I’m still none the wiser. 


There’s also a Chinese version of hackey-sack which proves far more difficult than I think it will be.  There’s a group of girls and a group of boys playing two separate games: The boys really look like they know what they’re doing and Six-pack is in the middle of this game; the girls’ game which I join involves more chasing of the hackey-sack after someone kicks it out of the circle.  All in all, however, it’s clear that we’re all having a lot of fun.  In fact, so obvious is this point that several of the Korean teachers invite us to taste traditional foods and participate in other games so that this can be filmed for the DVD that the school seems to be making of the festival.  We’re happy to oblige, laughing our way through everything.

By 16:00, we’re exhausted and pretending to look busy just isn’t working as successfully anymore so we just sitting around observing things around us.  We’ve watched a hackey-sack competition on stage (which Six-pack naturally wins) and an olive eating contest of which I’m not really sure of the outcome.  It’s at this point that the batteries in my camera die.  When we hear that the dance contests our classes have all been practising so hard for will be taking place that night in the gym, NZ2 and I immediately decide that we’ll be returning to school.  It’s a good day of bonding with my fellow Korean teachers and I’m prepared to drag this out for as long as possible.  It also means cancelling plans with Catfish which I feel rather guilty about so I invite her to come to my school’s festival that evening, which clearly upsets the balance of waegooks.

Upsetting the Waegook Balance at School

I’m back at school within an hour and waiting for Catfish to arrive when I’m approached by several female teachers I don’t recognise.  They’re keen to chat to me apparently and I’m floored by the fact that they speak fairly good English. My principal and vice-principal seem equally surprised to see me back at school and something tells me that I’ve just earned major brownie points with my colleagues by coming back to school this evening.  When Catfish arrives, I meet her at the front entrance and we head back to the gym where we find a seat nearer to the stage.  I’m not entirely sure what tonight’s events are but we’re having a good time just chatting and figuring out things.  Clearly the female foreign teacher ratio has been unbalanced, however, and male teachers who don’t even talk to me at school are suddenly coming over to chat – again, I never knew some of them spoke English!  I’m starting to think my colleagues prefer Catfish to me but all’s good when they leave us alone once more and we get caught up in the students’ excitement and joy in the evening’s entertainment. 

It’s funny watching the boys dressed as girls – and going all-out to be a convincing girl – and impressive to watch the single female teachers and two of the younger male English teachers perform a really energetic hip hop style dance.  The class dances are just as good and it’s a really enjoyable evening that leaving at 23:30 almost seems quite natural. I love Korean enthusiasm and the fact that the teachers here are willing to get so involved in things like this.  Again, it makes me sad that the teachers back home aren’t this easy-going!  It’s interesting to see how much effort Koreans seem to put into everything: Once they decide to do something, they seem to always give 100% whether it’s work, recreation, studies, friends, family and even silly concerts that only last a day and a half – it’s one of the things I love most about this country…

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Compliments, Competitions and Comic Attempts (22 December)

I’ve been asked to judge a speech competition hosted by the Gunsan Municipal Offices.  I have no details of the actual competition apart from a date, time and the fact that one of the third grade (Korean) English teachers at my school will also be judging this competition this afternoon.  With this in mind, I dress smartly in a black dress, heels and suit jacket in order to look as professional as possible. 


My morning classes pass fairly slowly since the students are currently using the lessons to prepare for the upcoming school festival.  While Mr Jeong and NZ1 talk about an interesting article in the latest issue of Time magazine, I attempt to mark student journals while actually watching the students practise.  The conversation is still taking place as we all walk back to the main building from the English Lab.  I notice a student in front of me is limping slightly but I don’t recall seeing anyone being injured during the lesson.  She struggles to tell me what happened so turns to Mr Jeong to ask for a translation: She has a blister on her foot which she proudly repeats to me after Mr Jeong translates the word.  I respond with “And in Korean, it’s called…?” which leads to a short, impromptu pronunciation lesson in a very cold corridor. 

Mr Jeong then explains the logic behind this new vocabulary I’ve only just acquired and we then start talking about another word that he taught me two weeks as well as acquiring vocabulary in general.  It’s in the middle of this conversation that one of the older Korean teachers at my school approaches us.  He greets us all, we greet him and then he turns his attention to me, looks me up and down and manages to communicate today’s English statement to me: “Sarah, your figure looks very nice today. It makes me so happy. Thank you.” These two sentences probably only take him about two or three minutes to say but I’m embarrassed beyond belief.  Mr Jeong and NZ1 seem to just be staring at the ground, smiling, uncertain of where to look while I attempt to hide my embarrassment.  This particular teacher regularly talks to me in his rather limited English but everything he says is always a compliment of some sort: It’s flattering, good for my ego and sometimes, like now, rather embarrassing, but I know he means well so it’s easily forgiven.  Mr Jeong then proceeds to tell me how admirable and impressive it is that I’m trying to learn Korean and I once again find the colour in my cheeks increasing with embarrassment so I excuse myself with empty protests of work to finish before the speech competition.


There are three teachers from my school who are involved in the competition which apparently involves English, Japanese and Chinese.  When we arrive at the public library, we’re soon given the pertinent information necessary to judge the contestants – and it’s all in Korean so Erin has to translate the questions and notes for us.  Before we know it, the mayor is welcoming us all and introducing all of the judges for the three languages, saying other things myself and the Canadian judge don’t understand and then we’re being divided into our different sections.  We have 13 contestants for the English part although several of them don’t actually arrive for the competition.  It’s more of a speaking competition than a speech contest and within 90 minutes, we’re finished, 100 000 won richer for an easy afternoon, and still finishing our working day early. 

Comic Attempts

I head back to Gunsan to put down my school things before going to Paris Baguette where I’m going to attempt to order 75 sweet potato pastries for the staff at my school and hopefully be able to have them delivered on Christmas Eve which is the last school day of the semester.  One of my students has already translated my request into Hangeul and I’ve been practising my pronunciation all day.  Unfortunately, I still need to read most of the writing but I’m fairly confident about the speaking part.

When I arrive at the bakery, I quickly buy the few items I need and head to the counter where I manage to indicate that I need something else.  All three of the staff are standing at the counter and they look amused when I start reading my request, in Korean, which quickly distracts me and my self-confidence goes into sudden hibernation.  I reluctantly hand over the page on which everything is written and they confirm that there won’t be a problem with my request.  It’s only when they ask where in my school to deliver the order that I realise I’ve neglected one of the most crucial pieces of information.  As I walk home, I send several fervent and silent prayers that the essential information has been understood but I’ll just have to wait until Friday to find out.

Getting to Know You…And Another Hospital (20 December)

It’s starting to feel like every second or third post is about yet another hospital or doctor’s visit. Following last week’s frustrating day at the Gunsan Medical Centre, my fantastic co-teacher has asked a few Korean teachers for their opinion and has made an appointment for me with a doctor at the Jeonbuk National University Hospital in Jeonju.  Since she lives in Jeonju, she’ll meet me at the hospital and then we’ll return to school together.  I really appreciate that she’s taken a morning off from school in order to help me with a doctor’s appointment and trust that she’ll be able to translate things for me far better than anything that’s happened so far in Gunsan.

Getting to Jeonbuk National University Hospital

I very nearly miss the 9:00am bus to Jeonju and literally manage to catch the bus as it’s getting ready to leave.  It’s my first time taking the bus to Jeonju but I’m fairly confident with the directions that I’ve been given – until I get to Jeonju and realise that I’ve forgotten at which of the two stops I need to get off the bus.  Since the final stop is the bus terminal, I rationalise that I can’t go too wrong with waiting until the second stop.  It turns out, I should get off the bus at the first stop since it’s closer to the university. 

I manage to get to the hospital where I’m shocked to see just how big it actually is.  It’s certainly larger than I had anticipated and I’m starting to worry that I may not be able to find my co-teacher in the mass of people who are already sitting inside.  A sign on the outside of the building catches my attention and I start doubting that I’m actually in the right place. I see a general map on the other side of the entrance and, comparing the pictures and the building where I currently am, I reach the conclusion that I must be standing outside of the main building so I phone my co-teacher to ask where I should meet her.  As we’re talking, she drives past the main entrance, waves and heads to the over-filled parking lot.

A "Western" Approach?

We then head inside and try to find the doctor with whom I have an appointment.  After a 30 minute wait, we’re finally called in.  My co-teacher had asked me to email her with all of my concerns and symptoms and she’s written them out for the doctor who seems to understand a fair amount of English.  Incredibly, this particular doctor spends over an hour with me as he questions every last detail.  I feel a bit guilty that my co-teacher has to translate so much information but she does an amazing job and it’s the first time a Korean doctor has spent so much time with me.  It’s somewhat ironic that I’m now surprised by doctors who spend more than five minutes with a patient when, in fact, this is fairly common in most Western countries.  Even more impressive is the fact that the doctor refers me to the head of the department for a second opinion and “because he speaks better English”. 

The second doctor is equally thorough and asks just as many questions before reaching the most unexpected and difficult question of all: Tell me about yourself.  I never know what to say when people ask me this question and it’s almost always asked in the context of an interview.  To suddenly be asked this by a doctor is even more perplexing and I find myself struggling to answer the question.  At the end of the consultation, I’m advised to have a MRI done since I can’t have a CT with iodine and a full set of lab tests are ordered to make sure there are no general health problems.  The doctors are kind enough to arrange to fit me into the MRI schedule today when my co-teacher explains that I actually live in Gunsan and it’s difficult for us to both come back on another day.  Unfortunately, I’m still going to have to wait until 16:00 in order to have the blood tests done since they can’t be done within eight hours of having eaten a meal – so four hours ago.

The Korean health system requires patients to pay for all procedures and tests in advance.  I’m dismayed to discover that the MRI is going to eat up all of my savings since this particular test is only covered by health insurance if there is actually a problem found on the test results.  Unfortunate situation but if it needs to be done then so be it. 

Do These Test Scores Count? 

In the MRI room, the doctor explains the vital information to my co-teacher who translates it and then attempts to give me instructions in English during the procedure.  One of the most important things is that I don’t swallow during the first part of the procedure.  I’m one of those annoying patients who, when told not to do something, will become so fixated on trying not to do it that I can’t seem to do anything else but the very thing I shouldn’t be doing.  As a result, I soon find myself face to face with a different doctor who speaks a bit more English and who recaps the important parts of the procedure.  I feel like a schoolchild being reprimanded by the teacher.  With firm encouragement all the way, the 30 minutes seem to pass at a reasonably pace and I’m soon being released from the myriad of straps and grates holding me down.  The doctors are all really patient and kind but I once again find myself in a situation where I’m not entirely sure I understand what is happening – and it has nothing to do with verbal communication.  In my haste to be finished with the procedure, I sit up a bit too quickly and soon find myself being physically supported by all four doctors in the department; apparently moving too quickly after an MRI is not a good idea.

You Really Like Me...

By the time I’ve changed back into my clothes, I discover my co-teacher is no longer in the waiting room.  Fortunately, she’s only just stepped outside in order to make a phone call. She has two classes later this afternoon which means that she may have to leave me alone at the hospital.  When phones our principal with a status update, however, he tells her not to worry and rather to stay with me. As strange as it sounds, my only thought is “YES!” – my school really likes me if they’re prepared to make a plan for a Korean teacher to be away all day with a foreign teacher and I now get to spend quality time with my co-teacher and get to know her a bit better.  We have at least two hours to kill so we head over to the pharmacy to fill my script and then to a convenience store for her to get some lunch. 

This is perhaps the first time my co-teacher and I have had uninterrupted time to just chat about anything.  It’s not ideal that it’s the result of a hospital visit but then, since I seem to form friendships with people while at the hospital, I’m not going to object.  The time passes far too quickly and we’re soon heading back to the hospital for the blood tests which take a total of about 10 minutes.  Once done, my co-teacher suggests going somewhere to eat and, since she studied at Jeonbuk National University (which is apparently the fourth largest university in Korea), she takes me on a brief tour of the campus before leading me to a coffee she used to frequent as a student.  We chat a bit more, she shares some personal details with me, invites me to have dinner at her home sometime after the winter camp is finished (it’s a huge honour to be invited to a Korean person’s home) and then accompanies me to the bus station where she waits with me until I’m safely on a bus back to Gunsan.  Although it’s been a long day, I feel like we’ve bonded a little more and we’re on our way to becoming friends – finally!

It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas (19 December)

Today is my first, and probably only, Christmas party in Korea.  The Canadian couple who live near me have invited me to join them at the Christmas party hosted by their church in Jeonju this morning.  It’s the first time I’m going to Jeonju since I arrived in Korea two nearly three months ago.  It’s somewhat ironic that I’ve been to Seoul several times but I haven’t yet gone to Jeonju which is a mere 45 minutes away from Gunsan and considerably cheaper.

I once again attempt to walk to their apartment and, once again, can’t figure out which road I’m meant to turn down again.  Thinking that I’ll have to take the longer route once more as I try to figure out where I went wrong, Connie phones me to ask where I am.  It turns out I’m at the intersection that leads straight to their apartment complex and this is where they meet me on their way to Jeonju.  The drive to Jeonju is over too soon as we chat about all types of things.

I’m still not quite sure what I expected but the church doesn’t look like a church to me. Churches don’t all have to be cathedrals but I’m definitely used to churches that are housed in individual buildings and usually only really have one floor or maybe a balcony second. This building looks just like any other building except for the presence of a red cross on a steeple which looks rather odd.  Inside, we take the stairs to the second floor where the rows of pews confirm that this is, in fact, a church.  The Children’s Church section is literally a soundproofed room at the back of the church. 

While everyone else bustles around me in their preparations for today’s service, I stand self-consciously in a corner looking for something to do.  It’s a rather unique experience suddenly being surrounded by so many English-speaking people – foreign and local or other Asian countries.  Before long, it’s 10:30 and things get started.  Today’s service is more of a talent show with various members of the congregation performing songs or traditional dances that show how they celebrate the holidays in their own countries. Everyone is so friendly and approachable that it’s comforting being here for a few hours.  After all of the performances, we share pizza, chicken, cake, drinks and various other party foods while everyone mingles and I meet several new people.  When it’s time to leave, I’m amazed to discover that it’s nearly 14:00 already and that I’ve actually spent most of the day in Jeonju – it feels like it’s only been an hour or two as we head back to our little town of Gunsan.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Harry Potter Finally Reaches the ROK (17 December)

For some reason, the most recent instalment in the Harry Potter franchise was only released in South Korea nearly a month after the rest of the world.  In fact, South Korea was one of the last two countries in terms of worldwide release dates which was a rather discouraging bit of information for hundreds of foreigners living here.  Nevertheless, it was an eagerly awaited movie and top of our list when the day finally arrived.

Last night, I was meant to go to the final concert for 2010 of the Gunsan Philharmonic Orchestra.  Since I wasn’t feeling well, I excused myself and went to bed early.  School today was a bit of a stressful occasion as I continued my unsuccessful attempt to catch up all of the work that I should have done on Wednesday.  Consequently, I spend most of the day frantically attempting to complete my notes for the winter camp workbook and I’m determined not to be the weakest link in the chain: NZ2 has already submitted his work and, if the Korean teachers have to have everything completed by tomorrow (yes, they’ll be at school on a Saturday), then why should I be any different.  Miraculously, I do manage to finish these notes and, although it means leaving school 30 minutes later than usual, I’m relieved and proud to know that I’ve still managed to adhere to the original deadline – particularly since my co-teacher has informed me that she’ll be taking me a specialist at Jeonbuk National University Hospital next Monday since the teachers are all worried about me.

Galbi and Harry

It’s been another long and tiring week so all I really want to do is collapse in an exhausted heap when I get home.  I’ve barely lain down when I hear a strange noise that turns out to be my mobile phone vibrating in my handbag (I’d forgotten to change the setting back to audible after school): Catfish is impatient to watch Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part I, which, in all honesty, I’d forgotten had finally opened today, so we agree to meet for dinner and the movie.  Somewhat reluctantly, I drag my tired body off my bed, bundle up in warm clothes once more and head out.

Lotte Cinema is usually our preferred cinema but the next available show is only at 21:55 so we decide to head up to CGV Cinema which is about two blocks uphill and compare the schedules. Of course, no foreigner seems to be able to work out the schedule at CGV or, in our case, even where CGV actually is in this building.  We manage to communicate our question as to where the cinema is and we’re soon buying tickets for a show that is only about 25 minutes earlier than that of Lotte Cinema since the next show is already sold out.  With much time to kill, we head to the Galbi restaurant where we are greeted like long-lost friends. 

Once again, we sense a fair amount of hovering on the part of the servers but we’re now starting to find this rather humorous – it’s probably one of the many reasons, apart from the great food, that we continue to return.  Harry Potter is great although we both seem relieved that the movie is finally over – there are just a few parts in the movie that seemed a tad too long!