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.

1 comment:

  1. Most definitely an unforgetable night! The commute reminds me of seeing photos of public transport across africa with hordes and masses hanging from every inch they can. Hilarious!!!