Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Sports Day (27 May)

Sports Day is the last day of freedom for the final year students in high school.  It’s their last participation in a school event and their last fun day before they have to get even more serious about studying for the KSAT in November.  It’s also a day anticipated by the rest of the school and competition, as always, is great.

For the last few weeks, there have been several preliminary rounds between the various classes to determine the two teams to compete in the finals on the actual Sports Day.  Games include: soccer, dodgeball, basketball and others that I’m not too certain of.  Like everything else in Korea, it’s a big competition and the kids take this rather seriously, determined not to be the weakest link in their team.  They diligently practise and write in their journals of their determination to be the best that they can be and to do their respective teams proud.  For my school, there are three teams grouped according to their language majors: Chinese, Japanese and Spanish.

The festivities continue throughout the day as the teams compete to get the highest overall score, win individual competitions and the best cheering prize.   The teams have clearly worked hard to create original cheers and to show their spirit.  Also, each sports event is taken seriously whether it is jumping rope, the soccer final, basketball, tug-or-war or the ladder below.  Naturally, there are a few injuries along the way and a few disappointed enthusiasts but a lot of fun is clearly had by all – including the teachers who join in for a soccer game.

Surprising T-shirts

Another big part of the day is the team t-shirts.  Even the teachers have been divided into the three teams and sport the matching team shirts that the students wear.  Apparently the students could choose what they wanted written on the back of their shirts and the classes chose messages for their various teachers too.   Six-pack, having recently broken up with his girlfriend, has a message on his shirt that apparently reads, “Looking for a girlfriend”. 

However, these shirts are my personal favourite:  How, on earth, they managed to get these shirts approved, I’ll never know so all I can say is…Oh, Korea!

Incidentally, number 18 manages to cover this message in both English and Korean.  The Korean word for "18" is the same as the English word on her shirt....

Teachers’ Day (16 May)

5 May was Children’s Day.  It’s a national holiday and a chance for kids to just be kids – something they don’t often get to do in Korea.  Similarly, on 15 May, we celebrate Teachers’ Day.  Although it’s not a national holiday, it’s a day full of celebration nonetheless.  Since it falls on a Sunday this year, my students decide to celebrate on Monday instead.  I had forgotten that it was Teachers’ Day and so was a little puzzled by the sight that greeted me at the main entrance of my school this morning.

Basically, Teachers’ Day is a day where the students show how much they appreciate and like their teachers.  Essentially, it’s a bit of a popularity competition and a contest between classes as each homeroom class tries to outdo the others.  It’s mostly the homeroom teachers who are recognised and celebrated by the students but some students acknowledge other teachers too.  I was fortunate enough to receive a few letters from some of my students telling me how much they enjoy and appreciate my classes. 

The students photo shop their teachers’ faces onto various other pictures like movie posters, bodies of figure skaters, doing skateboard tricks, etc.  My personal favourite this year was that of Six-pack, the PE teacher, whose face was photo shopped onto the physique of a bodybuilder.  Fortunately, the teachers all take the pictures in a good natured manner and, I think, they really appreciate the efforts of the students.  There's even an attempt at matchmaking between two of the single teachers.  Sadly, the match is unsuccessful but the teachers take it all in a good-natured manner.

Some classes even get balloons and line the paths from the office of their homeroom teacher to their classroom, paste post-it notes all over the school, decorate every available wall space with pictures and notes, have balloon decorations or make big banners.  It’s fun to read all of the notes, even though I don’t understand most of them, and to look at the pictures.  Here are some of the photos I took around my school:

Monte Cristo Comes to Jeonju (15 May)

Having studied classical music all through school, I’m a big fan of musicals.  I love the theatre in general but musical theatre is definitely my favourite!  Cute doctor told me about going to Seoul to watch Monte Cristo a few weeks ago and I decided that it was time for me to watch a theatre performance in Korea.  Fortunately, I don’t have to go to Seoul to watch Monte Cristo as the show was on, with the Seoul cast, at the Sori Arts Centre in Jeonju.  Gunsan is in the process of building a similar Arts Centre and we’re hoping that shows like this will come to Gunsan eventually.

M booked the tickets online and we travel together to Jeonju on a pleasant Sunday afternoon to watch the show.  The sets are impressive, the costumes are colourful and detailed, the choreography is energetic and the singing is mesmerising.  Overall, the show is extremely engaging and well-performed.  Just over two hours later, I’m satisfied that I’ve had my musical fix to last me at least a few weeks and we’re soon on our way to meet Catfish in downtown Jeonju for an hour or two of shopping – especially shoe shopping.

Happy Birthday, Buddha (10 May)

Today is Buddha’s birthday and a public holiday in the ROK.  Since Buddhism is a fairly dominant religion here, there are guaranteed to be celebrations taking place at the various temples.  One of the closest major temples to Gunsan is Geumsansa where I did a temple stay in mid-February.  I meet Catfish, M and NZ1’s wife at E-mart at 10:00am and we head to Geumsansa for the day.

Disappointments and Creepy Men

Unfortunately, the temple is busy but rather disappointing.  There are hundreds of people and the temple has been decorated with many lotus lanterns but, if you’re not Buddhist, there’s little in which to participate at the festival.  Consequently, we take a quick walk around the grounds, take several photos and decide it’s time for lunch.  A brief moment of entertainment arises when an ajeossi strikes up a conversation with Catfish.  She manages to answer all of his questions in Korean and proceeds to do a happy dance to celebrate after the man walks away.  While I film the dance, he decides to return for a photo with the pretty blonde Migook (American) – creepy photos that he also asks us to take using his phone.  We don’t even want to know what happened to those photos….  Kudos to Catfish for still managing to smile and pose with this creep!

Lunch is a pleasant affair at T.G.I. Friday’s in Jeonju where M’s friend makes our second round of JuneBug’s even stronger than usual leading to a very entertaining drive back to Gunsan.

‘Convicts’ and Lunches (4 May)

Today is the last day of exams and so, since tomorrow is Children’s Day (and therefore a public holiday), the English Department at my school is going to lunch together.  We go to an Italian restaurant in Naundong, Gran Piatto.  The food is pretty good and the atmosphere is lively despite the conversation mostly being in Korean.   By the end of lunch, all I feel like doing is walking off the enormous meal we’ve just had and so, I bid farewell to my fabulous co-teacher and tell her that I’m going to go for a walk before going home. 

I meander around Naundong, exploring streets I’ve only passed before but never ventured down previously.  When I see the public library, I remember that I’m on the road to Catfish’s school.  I head further down the road and see a PE class in session at the school on the corner ahead of me.  Recognising the convict-like orange PE outfits, I’m fairly certain that I’m outside of Catfish’s school.  After walking around for a bit, I give Catfish a call and she meets me at the front gate of her school before showing me around.  Like the teachers at my school, her teachers have heard all about me.  After the tour, we agree to meet outside her school 30 minutes later when we walk to Paradiso for dinner followed by dessert at our Kiwi mom’s apartment.

Warty Sea Squirt Anyone? (3 May)

Part of the adventure of living in a country as different as Korea is accepting that food is probably going to look very different.  I’m used to being uncertain about the identification of many of the dishes served in the cafeteria but today’s offering makes me very hesitant and very curious. 
I tend to avoid the soups at school lunches mostly because they usually contain shellfish of some sort.  Today’s soup, however, contains something that I have never before seen.  It’s an ambiguous looking nugget-shaped gray-ish coloured type of seafood.  It also has little bumps all over it giving it a really unappetising appearance.  I spend most of lunch eye-balling my colleagues’ soup and trying to figure out what on earth this curious addition is without much success. 

As we leave the cafeteria, I ask my co-teacher about the things that look like little brains much to her amusement.  I’m told that they are called mitodok in Korean, and they are good for anti-ageing.  When we get back to our office, she googles a translation for me and a few pictures: In English, they’re called “warty sea squirts” – an even less appealing name than their appearance and not something I’ll be tasting anytime soon. 

Dodge Ball…Korean Style (2 May)

As of today, my working day starts at 7:50am instead of 8:50am.  While the very early start, especially in winter, can be tough, it’s also great to finish school at 15:50 instead of 16:50.  The total number of hours hasn’t changed but, mentally, the day now feels shorter.  As a bonus, to ease us all into this new schedule, this week is mid-term exams so little mental effort is required.   As an extra bonus, from my perspective anyway, today is also a staff sports day or rather…sports afternoon.

Catfish’s school, and others, often seem to do staff bonding activities.  My school, however, is special – seriously!  As a specialised high school, my teachers honestly have a lot of extra lessons and therefore more work, which means little time to really socialise all together.  Today is one of the rare occasions when my colleagues will all change into their sports gear and have a friendly competition involving games of volleyball and dodge ball.  It’s been years since I’ve played volleyball and, let’s face it, I’m not the most athletic person around but I’m pretty much game for anything and willing to have a go. 

Figuring Out the Rules

The Kiwis and I are placed on a team with 6 other teachers and we simply follow the instructions of when to serve and where to stand.  It’s a confusing two games but still fun.  After a brief snack, we’re soon setting up for dodge ball – a game that proves to be far more complicated than I anticipated.  With limited explanations, we’re well into the second game before I finally figure out the Korean rules. 

Each team chooses a “queen” whom all of the team members have to protect.  However, we can’t let the other team know who this chosen queen is so we also have to have a mock queen with whom to attempt to mislead the opposition.  If we’re hit by a ball, we stand on the outside of the square and we can help to catch and pass the ball to our teams – this was the confusing part as it differs significantly from the rules by which we played at summer camp in the US, which is my only other experience with playing dodge ball.  Overall, however, it’s an entertaining afternoon of friendly competition and my teams walk away with a prize each – a tube of toothpaste. 

Jonmyo Kings’ Memorial in Jongno-gu (1 May)

Each year there is a memorial service for the Kings of Korea.  Our friend M has told us about the service this year and we’re meeting her and another friend of hers today at the subway station closest to Jonmyo in Jongno neighbourhood, Seoul.  As we enter the impressive gates of the site, M tells us that we are not allowed to walk on the brick path before us as it is reserved for the kings: the row on the right is for the kings, the middle row is for the ancestors and the row on the left is for the kings’ sons.  To walk on the path in the middle is to bring bad luck (to whom, I’m not sure) and we’re not eligible to walk on the kings’ path.  We make our way around the path, stopping to pose for a few photos along the way, and eventually find the location where the first of the ceremonies is underway.

There are so many people present that it’s rather difficult to get decent photos of the ceremony.  M briefly explains all of the proceedings before us: The square of ‘guards’ to our right are patiently awaiting their turn while the group to our left are performing their ceremonial movements.  In this courtyard, there are 16 rooms – one for every king – and each king must be honoured individually with a feast and certain rites.  The traditional hanbok and uniforms of everyone participating in the festival are beautiful and it’s a truly special sight to behold.  The traditional Korean music that fills the air is also spectacular, and I’m amazed to learn that traditional Korean music such as this consists of only five notes.

When the ceremony ends in the courtyard, crowds scurry to get prime locations beyond the courtyard’s walls for the procession that’s about to take place.  Since we’re unaware that this is what is happening until most of the people have already left, we don’t get good positions for photos.  Fortunately, many of the people involved in the parade are only too willing to pause for photos when they see us.  We have the same experience outside the main entrance of Jonmyo where a much larger procession enters and we’re amused to see even a few foreigners dressed in traditional Korean outfits and participating in the parade.

Seoul Antics

From here, we move to Gwangwamun, which is in front of Gyeongbokgung Palace.  We’re planning to go to a Karsh photo exhibition at the Sejong Centre of Performing Arts so we move directly there.  Since we’re early, we stop at a restaurant called “Good Restaurant” for the most delicious kimchi jigae (kimchi stew) that I’ve yet had in Korea.  After lunch, we still have time to kill so we look around the statues of King Sejong (probably the most famous – at least among the foreigners – of the Korean kings as he is the one who created Hangeul, the current Korean writing system).  We find a booth filled with traditional Korean outfits that we can try on and pose for photos with and Catfish and I are soon dancing around as usual in our red and yellow garb. 

Karsh Exhibition

After playing in the water fountains in front of the centre, we finally head into the Arts Centre for the exhibition.  Karsh is a famous (Turkish?) photographer who photographer hundreds of celebrities in his career.  The photos are amazing and we only wish that we could understand the short descriptions that accompany each photo.  After a long day, Catfish and I again say goodbye to M and her friend and head back to Euljiro-sam-ga station to retrieve our bags from lockers.  Unfortunately, we get very turned around in the station and it takes us much longer than anticipated to find the lockers in which we’ve stowed our bags.  Even more frustrating is that we can’t figure out how to open these particular lockers since the instructions are entirely in Korean.  Fortunately, Catfish has only to bat her blue eyes in the direction of a young Korean guy who happily helps us and we’re soon on our way to the express bus terminal and then on to Gunsan.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Can We Take Turns Sleeping (30 April)

This weekend is a Seoul weekend.  Catfish and I head to Seoul to do a spot of shopping and I have made an appointment at Healing Hands for a much needed massage. 

We arrive in Itaewon in time for a delicious lunch at Gecko’s.  Their fish and chips is a guaranteed choice but we’re also in the mood for junebugs and quesadillas. Needless to say, we gorge ourselves somewhat on a delectable lunch that, to the best of our knowledge, cannot easily be found due south of our current location.  Unfortunately, clothes shopping after having gorged ourselves at lunch is not the smartest decision we make today.  Nonetheless, we head over to B & T, the “big size” store that KiwiKat showed me in January.  After a bit of shopping there, I head to What the Book while Catfish heads to Myeongdong to see if Uniqlo and Forever 21 have any suitable clothing for her.  Soon, it’s time for my massage…

As I settle in at Healing Hands, I can feel the tension in my shoulders resisting the upcoming exorcism.  I’ve booked for a 70 minute full body massage with an additional 20 minutes of a hot stone massage and the foot care package.  The 90 minutes fly by all too quickly as the masseuse slowly exorcises the tension that has been solidifying my muscles for a few weeks now.  In addition, my feet love the paraffin wax and scrub that they’re receiving today and, at the end, I’m amazed at the smoothness of my feet, which, I’m pretty sure, is something that I haven’t had since I was a baby. 

New Friends

After 90 minutes of pure bliss, I stumble out of Healing Hands in time to meet Catfish so that we can go to Tartine – yet another amazing find courtesy of KiwiKat who refers to this heavenly bakery as “the pie shop”.  We have a quick coffee and pie before meeting M and her friend Astro (self-named because he is a fan of the Astroboy cartoons) for dinner.  We decide to go to the Buddha’s Belly in Itaewon, which is a Thai restaurant that we’ve heard about but have never been able to find.  Fortunately, Astro is clearly a Seoul City Boy and confidently leads the way up a side street and down another street parallel to the main drag.  The food here is delicious and, after a few drinks, Astro becomes more talkative. 

From the Buddha’s Belly, we head to a bar down the road whose name eludes me but contains the word “Bungalow”.  Here, we sit in hanging seats in a sandy garden where we swing to our hearts’ content while sipping the most delicious Raspberry Pina Colada.  Losing track of time, we phone our hostel to let them know that we’re running a bit late but will be checking in within the next hour and then we say a hasty goodbye at 22:00.  At 22:30, we again phone the hostel to tell them how close we are since their cut-off for check-in is 23:00.  By the time we get to Blu Guesthouse in Hongdae at 22:45, we’re surprised by the rather snotty attitude with which we’re greeted at the reception desk.  Admittedly we did say that we would check in at 22:00 but we’ve been in constant communication with them in the last 45 minutes so we’re somewhat disappointed by the unfriendly greeting.

We’re shown to our room which we will be sharing with 5 other girls.  The room is quite comfortable and we’re quick to take showers, pack our purchases into our bags and make our beds.  In all honesty, we consider ourselves to be fairly considerate roommates and try to minimise our noise production in hostel rooms when other people are sleeping.  Unfortunately, we cannot say the same of our roommates for tonight.  When the party girls return at around 2:00am, they don’t seem to give a moment’s thought to their noisy entrance and movement around the room.  In addition, one of our roommates is clearly a light sleeper and someone is snorting.

Excuse Me...

I snore.  I sometimes snore so loudly that I wake myself up.  I know that I snore – other people have also told me – and I always apologise in advance to those unfortunate enough to be placed in a room with me.  I also encourage people to wake me up in any way they like if my snoring bothers them.  Around 2:00am, I wake to the complaint of one of my unknown roommates who, at the top of her voice, calls out from her bed, “Excuse me, you’re snoring.”  Who, exactly, she is talking to remains a mystery but I naturally assume it’s me.  I roll onto my side and go back to sleep only to wake a few minutes later with the same comment.  Again, I assume it’s me so I force myself to stay awake for about 20 minutes while I play with my phone. 

By now, it’s after 3:00am and we have an early start in the morning.  When the same girl issues her next comment, however, I become confident that she’s not talking to me.  Her comment, however, cracks me up: “Can we take turns sleeping?”  Ironically, I’ve been awake for the past 20 minutes and no one has actually been snoring.  Clearly, though, something is bothering her and I decide that it’s simply tough luck as I fall asleep once more but not before making sure that my snore volume is set to the max just to annoy her.  With the snottiness of the staff upon check-in and the rude and inconsiderate behaviour of some of our roommates, this is a hostel that I would be hard-pressed to stay at again in the future.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Royal Weddings (29 April)

I’m a British Royalist.  I love the idea of a monarchy and the much anticipated wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton is a highlight of 2011.  I only wish I were currently in England so that I could also stand in the streets with my friends and watch the golden couple both before and after their ceremony.  Unfortunately, I have to settle for watching the live streaming of the wedding via my laptop, on an internet connection that, thankfully, began cooperating again just last night!

Unsurprisingly, it doesn’t take long before amusing cartoons such as this one surface online.  Sometimes, fairytales do come true…

Over the Moon, Lucky Fish (25 April)

My first class of the week is often my toughest:  It’s 9:00am on a Monday morning, my kids are tired of all the studying they do and, quite frankly, thinking in another language so early in the morning is not an easy task.  I remember having French Translation lectures at 7:30am on a Monday and Friday in my third year of university and French always seemed so much more difficult in those two hours than any other lecture of the week so I understand and sympathise with my students.  As a result, I try to make the lesson as entertaining as possible: This means acting like a fool most days.   Today, as I regale my students with highlights of Saturday night’s concert – brownie points for me for attending a Korean concert in the first place! – my students tell me that I’m dynamic;  I think this is merely a synonym for “you’re acting like a clown but we like it!” so I continue my foolish antics. 

Part of my antics involves miming new vocabulary and expressions to try and help students to guess the meanings.  Our textbook this semester is a British based rather than American based book, which works perfectly for me, and contains many uniquely British expressions among others.  Since my kids are mostly exposed to American English, there are regularly new expressions in the dialogues that require clarification.  Today is no different…

We’re finishing off the unit about News.  The dialogues in the unit give scenarios of people receiving good and bad news and how to respond appropriately.  One of the responses is “lucky fish” – an expression that simultaneously conveys happiness and a touch of envy.  While encouraging my students guess this expression to fill in the blank in the dialogue, I suck in my cheeks, place my hands on either side of my face and proceed to move them back and forth in what I think is a reasonable fish face.  After three classes successively guess “monkey”, I question my last class of the day as to what is wrong with my fish face.  Turns out, I had accidently inverted the motion and was waving my palms towards my nose instead of my ears – monkey indeed!

Over the Moon!

The next expression we cover is “over the moon!”, which I explain is used to describe your feeling when you receive very good news.  Their next activity requires students, in pairs, to do a short news ‘broadcast’ on a topic of their choice.  To make it easier for some students, I encourage them to cover school related topics like events in the classroom and dormitories or the reason that the side gate (which is the shortest route to my apartment from school) has suddenly been locked for the past two weeks.  Some groups gets creative and make up entertaining fictitious stories of school events while others report on real happenings of which I’m unaware.  As mentioned in a previous post, these kids are very close to their homeroom teachers and often know personal details about the lives of the teachers, which they then happily share with me.  Today is no exception.

The topic of one of the news clips is that of Six-pack having broken up with his girlfriend.  When describing his reaction to the break-up, the students reported that he is “over the moon”.  Having seen Six-pack looking a little less confident the last few days, something tells me that my students haven’t fully understood the meaning of the second of today’s expressions.  The news clips, however, provide great entertainment and comic relief in the last 15 minutes of the lesson.

Sunday Marathons (24 April)

Catfish and M have signed up for the Saemangeum Seawall Marathon in Gunsan.  The Saemangeum Seawall is one of Gunsan City’s biggest sites and proudest achievements.  It is basically a long bridge that connects Gunsan to Buan – a city approximately one hour south of us.  Catfish and M have signed up for a marathon along this seawall and so have had a very early start to the day while I opt to stay home and do some work before meeting them at Lotte Mart after the marathon.

From there, we head to Paradiso Perduto, an Italian themed restaurant overlooking Eunpa Park with magnificent views of the lake, a peaceful and relaxing deck and the best brie/pastrami Panini sandwiches in Gunsan.  It’s easy to while away the next five hours relaxing on the deck of the restaurant, enjoying the balmy weather and just generally lazing about.  When we finally decide to move, it’s a mere 100m migration to Santa Rosa, the famous coffee shop next to Paradiso.  From our table on the second floor, we have an even better view of Eunpa Park and notice that the cherry blossoms in the park have finally bloomed – something we’ve been eagerly awaiting for weeks!

After relaxing in Santa Rosa for another hour or so, Catfish and I finally say goodbye to M before going for a walk around Eunpa Park to see the cherry blossoms.  The trees are beautiful and the park is busy with many people as eager as us to see the promenade of blossoms at the entrance to the park – a site that is apparently one of the most beautiful in Gunsan.  The cherry blossom trees are a special sight that mark the beginning of Spring: The flowers are small, delicate white blossoms that look like little icicles or crystals from a distance; they also only bloom and last for approximately one week.  Quite simply, it’s easy to miss the cherry blossoms altogether because the blossoms do not last very long; by next weekend, the trees will simply be green.

Fresh from our walk around the park, it’s time to take care of a few admin details like doing the transfers to secure our places for our next two adventures with AK: the Pumba Festival with sea rafting and the Baek Islands trip in June.  It’s still a month to go until the first of these trips but, as we all know, time flies when you’re having fun in the ROK…

PSY Rocks! (23 April)

After a morning spent doing prep for school, I meet M at E-mart at 3:30 – the first of our meeting points before heading to Jeonju for a Korean singer’s concert.   We then pick up Catfish and head to the meeting point for the fourth person – another American – before finally leaving Gunsan at 16:30.  Unfortunately, there are major roadworks happening on the highway to Jeonju which, although amusing to watch cars reversing and driving the wrong way down onramps, means we only get to Jeonju at 17:20.  Since the concert starts at 19:00, we’re hoping to have a quick dinner at T.G.I. Friday’s before finally heading to the concert venue.

Although we manage to get to Jeonju’s Sori Arts Centre by 18:55, it’s after 19:00 by the time we finally find the correct door to get to our seats and the concert has clearly begun.  I’m still a little bit hesitant about this concert because we’ve only ever heard one of Psy’s songs, which I didn’t particularly like.  After three or four infectious songs, however, it’s hard not to join the jovial mood of the rest of the crowd as Psy performs an amazing jazz number that could easily have been part of some big Broadway musical or even straight from the 1920s itself. 

Over the next two hours, Psy performs a variety of hip hop and pop numbers including hilarious impersonations of hit songs by the Wonder Girls, Girls’ Generation, Burlesque and Beyonce’s Single Ladies – all with complete costumes!  Catfish and I are in agreement that Psy could very easily have done a full show of impersonations and we would have happily paid 60,000 won for the tickets.  He’s an extremely gifted performer and one who, incredibly, can keep the audience entertained for a considerable length of time complete with serious costume changes, impressive props and sets. 

We anticipate the concert ending by 21:30.  When Psy returns to the stage for his encore, we can’t even begin to predict the 90 minute encore that’s about to follow.  Psy looks exhausted – and pretty drunk.  His ‘water’ bottle actually contains soju and he downs it on stage between songs.  When his lengthy encore finally ends, the venue clears out within minutes – something I’ve never seen happen before.  We dawdle and take our time because, from a foreign perspective, we’re anticipating long queues of cars leaving the parking lot; surprisingly, we’re one of the last cars in the parking lot and the venue is almost deserted as we happily settle in for the drive back to Gunsan.