Saturday, February 4, 2012

Moving Day (3 September)

Moving day is finally here!  As of today, I no longer have to worry about mould in my apartment and although I’m still dreading the schlep of moving, at least the end is in sight.  Catfish arrives at 8:30am to help me pack the last of my things.  Again, I can’t believe how many things I now have. 

I’m anticipating having to carry boxes myself but two ajeoshis arrive with big baskets into which we pack several small boxes, bags and loose items to move more conveniently.  Catfish, M and I don’t have to do anything apart from clarify what has to be moved and where.  When they move my desk and bookshelf, I’m dismayed to see that the backboards of both of these are completely covered in mould.  I have already cleaned the mould off of the front surfaces of these but I didn’t think to check the back of these.

It takes about 90 minutes to load everything onto the two trucks and I decide to simply close my eyes and trust that everything will be fine as the three of us head to my new apartment.

New Home

At the new apartment, it takes a little less time to move everything despite the apartment being on the 10th floor.  My bed is disassembled and re-assembled for me, my couch is set up and boxes are placed in the correct rooms.  I’ve been dreading the move but it’s been a total breeze thus far and is well worth the 200,000 won that I pay.  Unpacking everything, on the other hand, is a completely different story.

My new landlady is a Korean English teacher who is currently living in Singapore.  Since she intends returning to Korea at some point, the apartment is partially furnished, which is a major advantage.  I now have a queen sized bed in the main room and my original bed is in my new guestroom.  I also have great wall-to-wall wardrobes in the main room.  It’s a three bedroom apartment with a separate lounge area, which is a bit big for a single person but it’s great to have so much space around me again.  The kitchen cupboards, however, are almost completely full as all of my landlady’s crockery is stashed in the cupboards. 

M has to leave as soon as the movers are done with everything but Catfish is my slave for the afternoon.  I hate organising kitchens and am relieved that Catfish doesn’t mind doing this while I get to work unpacking other boxes in my bedroom and study.  Of course, moving wouldn’t be quite the same if at least one box weren’t dropped: Murphy’s Law dictates that the only box to be dropped today is the one containing all of my plates and bowls.  At least my landlady has copious amounts of these that I can use in the interim.

Stressors (19 August)

As predicted, the mould is already re-appearing through the new wallpaper in my bedroom and it continues to grow on every possible surface in my apartment despite my conscientiously airing out my apartment at every possible moment.  The situation is beginning to depress me and I am aware that I’m not currently pleasant company.  In an effort to minimise the spread of mould, Catfish offers to let me store some things at her apartment until I move.  She offers me the short hallway in her tiny apartment and I’m amazed at how much stuff I have accumulated in the past year.

On top of the mould situation, I am trying to sort out a few unresolved issues with my previous job.  I’ve had an ongoing salary dispute with my previous employer in SA since January of 2009 and I’ve now been told that I’m being blacklisted by the government’s credit bureau.  Without getting into too many details, I have done all that I can, with the help of my mom who is a school principal in the same district as my former school, to resolve this dispute; my former school now has to finalise the situation.  Naturally, resolving such an issue from halfway around the world is not ideal particularly when the school had already been avoiding the issue when I was still in SA.  After nearly three years, I just want this matter to be closed and I hate that I have to send such strongly worded emails to my former school but it is my good name that is being besmirched by this incident.

Sometimes, I really wish that I could just resign from adulthood and all responsibilities…

Starting With a Bang (17 August)

For months, I was convinced that the new semester would be starting on September 1st.  Summer camp only ended last week and I’d been anticipating and eagerly looking forward to two weeks of deskwarming with no work before the new semester kicked off.  Sadly, I was informed at the end of last week that the new semester begins today.  Furthermore, the vice-principal at my school has insisted that NZ1, NZ2 and I teach an additional four hours per week this semester so that all nine of the foreign teachers at my school teach 20 hours per week. 

New Hours

Apparently some teachers have complained that the three English teachers were only teaching 16 hours per week.  What many of them don’t seem to be aware of is that we have weekly marking, regular editing and additional work that the other foreign teachers don’t have.  While the Korean English teachers have argued precisely this point, other teachers have insisted that we all teach the same number of hours in addition to all of the work we were already doing.  The result is that we will have to attend reading lessons that the Korean teachers usually lead in order to make up the additional four hours.  It also means less time for all of the marking and editing that we already do and I can feel the new timetable already kicking my butt despite today being only the first day of the semester.

New Students 

Another new addition this semester is an American exchange student.  She has just graduated from high school in the US and will be at my school for the next year.  Unfortunately, she arrives mid-school year for Korean students, which makes it difficult to place her in a class with students her own age.  It’ll be interesting to see how she fares and how the school handles this new challenge.

Unexpected Freedom (16 August)

When I arrive at school at 7:50am this morning, I anticipate few staff will be at work today.  However, I’m surprised to encounter absolutely no one in the building.  In addition, my key isn’t working so I can’t open my office.  I have work to do and don’t mind being at school today but if I can’t get into my office, I can’t do anything and I’m not too excited about having to sit in the corridor and read for the day.

I head downstairs and sit outside the main entrance to the building while I text my fantastic co-teacher asking if I have to stay at school.  While I’m sitting there, one of the groundsmen approaches me and asks if my office is locked.  He gets the main key from the administration office and graciously opens up my office for me just as my co-teacher phones to tell me that there’ll be a teacher at the school from 9:00am but I can go home after that.

Delighted to hear that I can leave early as long as the teacher on duty sees me, I get through all of my work for the first day of the new semester and relish the peace and quiet that is so rare in my office.  It’s a very productive 90 minutes and at 9:30am, I manage to lock up my office and I make sure that I’ve been seen at school for the day before heading home.  And unexpected free day means that I can organise and post my niece’s birthday present, run a few other errands and go for acupuncture this afternoon – a good start to the new semester.

Samsung Orphanage, Jeonju & Liberation Day (13 - 14 August)

Having recently paid key money when signing the lease on my new apartment, I can’t afford to sign up for a sea kayaking trip in Namhae with AK this weekend.  I’ve been told that Namhae is the place to go kayaking in Korea and the photos of the area look amazing.  With a bit of luck, AK will have the same trip next summer and I’ll be able to sign up then.  Fortunately, I have other plans to keep me engaged on this rather hot Saturday. 

Volunteering at Orphanages in Jeonju

Several months ago, I came across a group on Facebook called Jeonju Neighbourly, Neighbourly, which volunteers between four local orphanages in Jeonju alternating each month.  I’ve wanted to join one of their trips for a while and today is the perfect opportunity to do so.  We meet at a coffee shop in Jeonju at 13:00 to discuss basic strategy before heading Samsung Orphanage.  At the orphanage, the kids are genuinely delighted to see us and eager to play games.  We set up a few games indoors and some of us head outside to play soccer and badminton.  I’m not much of a soccer fan but, unable to convince a kid to play badminton with me, I find myself playing soccer with three eager boys. 

As the afternoon goes on, I become increasingly aware that the other NET volunteers around me are mostly elementary school teachers who have picked up a fair amount of Korean as a result of their students.  I, on the other hand, cannot really communicate with the kids at the orphanage and I feel a little frustrated with myself and my own limitations.  I honestly thought that I’d be able to speak more Korean than I currently can by this stage of my contract.

The two hours spent playing with the children at the orphanage seem to pass very quickly.  There’s a good selection of balloon animals, halli galli, jacks, bowling, and a few other games.  Most importantly, the kids seem to have a good time playing, and I’m impressed by the commitment of my fellow volunteers, many of whom do this monthly.

Long Weekends

Fortunately, with Liberation Day on Monday, we have yet another long weekend.  After being closed for several months, our local Subways has just re-opened and Catfish and I head there for lunch on Sunday before hanging out in Angel-in-us.  At dinner time it’s back to Hoa Binh and we realise once more that we’re certainly creatures of habit when it comes to restaurants and places to hang out.  Before heading back to Catfish’s apartment to watch The Smurfs online, we make a quick pit stop at Lotte Mart for some wine and snacks, which probably don’t help when we start thinking just how inappropriate some of the dialogue is in a childhood cartoon now that we’re adults.

Cowboys and Aliens (12 August)

Catfish and I meet at a new galbi restaurant – across the road from the Gal-B in Yest Mall for a quiet dinner as we celebrate the end of summer camps.  We’re both in the mood for a movie this afternoon but the only English movie that is currently showing is Cowboys and Aliens.  Our desire to watch a movie is greater than the limitations of English movies and we soon find ourselves seated in the cinema and uncertain of our expectations for this film.

It’s not the worst movie I’ve ever watched but with it’s ridiculous plot, over-the-top clich├ęs and relentless fantasy angle, Catfish and I agree unanimously that this is the perfect drinking movie.  Perhaps we would have enjoyed it more if we’d actually had some alcoholic beverages with us.

Fixing the Mould (3 August)

For a brief moment, I feel a bit demanding when I commandeer Mr Jeong’s attention within 10 minutes of his entering the office.  I had just been speaking to the Head of the International Department about the mould problem and telling her that I am not even sleeping in my own apartment at the moment because the mould has become so bad.  As an asthma sufferer, the situation has become even more unhealthy than it already was. 

I feel a bit bad at the prospect of having to phone Mr Jeong while he is on leave when he suddenly arrives mid-afternoon.  Not on leave as I had thought, he is actually attending compulsory summer workshops and has decided to skip the afternoon lectures in order to prepare for that evening’s lessons that he has to give at school.  With one look at my expression, he accurately assesses just how bad the mould problem has become and promptly contacts my landlord to find out what is happening with regard to the mould situation in my apartment.

In what I presume is an effort to save face, my landlord comments that the repair person has been around to my apartment several times in the past two weeks but I’m never home.  Considering that he knows I’m a teacher and he knows that I teach across the road from my apartment, I find this an unlikely story – even more so considering that I was home for a substantial part of the first of those two weeks!  Thankfully, I receive confirmation that evening that they’ll be coming to my apartment on Wednesday morning to fix the problem.

Repairs: Korean Style

At 8:00am on Wednesday morning, I’m ready and waiting.  True to his word, my landlord arrives and gives me a bottle of some strong chemical with which to clean the mould that has resurfaced in my apartment.  As for the mould in my bedroom, I’m relieved to see that the mouldy wallpaper is being stripped away and am curious to see how, exactly, they’ll be treating the mould.  When I see the woman start cutting all of the edges of the wallpaper in my bedroom, I’m confused until I notice the new wallpaper on the floor and realise that they will be re-papering the room after treating the mould.

An hour later, however, I’m horrified to discover that “treating the mould” as discussed three weeks earlier means simply sticking new wallpaper over the problem.  I’ve heard that this is common practise in Korea where mould is just considered part of everyday life in the summer months but I’m disappointed and disillusioned to discover that this is how the problem is being addressed in my apartment.  Any idiot will realise that the mould will simply re-appear through the new paper given enough time and, despite having recently toyed with the idea of simply staying in my current apartment rather than facing the schlep of moving, I’m so grateful to know that I only have to tolerate the mould problem for three more weeks.

Although I manage to do some work from home while my bedroom is re-papered, I’m frustrated that it takes five and a half hours to paper the little room.  Fortunately, the job is finished just in time for me to get to school for my afternoon summer classes.  Unfortunately, I’m left with a huge mess to clean up when I get home tonight.  Three more weeks is something of a mantra for me at the moment regardless of how stressful arranging the move seems…

Unwelcoming Apartments (1 August)

Sad that our vacation has come to an end, we leave Jeung-do early this morning so that M can be back in Gunsan by midday.  An unwelcome surprise awaits me when I return to my apartment and discover that the mould has not only re-covered everything that I spent the last week cleaning but that it is even growing on my laptop.  This is the final straw and I can feel the stress that I’ve just spent four days evicting come rushing back in a rude slap.  I can’t seem to move soon enough and I need my mom!  I phone my mom on her work number but struggle to hear her over the sudden hammering noise coming from the apartment opposite mine in the next building.  It appears that they are having air conditioning installed. 

Convinced that it won’t be noisy for much longer, I feel my blood pressure continue to rise as the noise continues for the next two hours.  Heaven alone knows what is going on next door but my nerves just can’t take this anymore.  I phone Catfish in tears, stressed out and fed-up with my living conditions.  When she offers me sleeping space at her apartment for the night, I hastily accept it and re-pack my bag as quickly as possible. 

Troubles Pour Over

By the time I arrive at Catfish’s apartment, I just burst into tears.  I’m so tired of fighting with my apartment and struggling to get things done.  I’m tired of not being able to communicate with my landlord myself and feeling like I’m burdening my overworked co-teachers further.  On the other hand, I’ve also been a fairly easy waegook as far as asking my co-teachers for help.  That which I can accomplish solo, I do in order to maintain some semblance of independence and that which requires Korean assistance, I usually ask M for help.  Therefore, I resolve to tackle this matter with my co-teachers in the morning but first, we head to Lotte Mart for wine.

An hour later, we’re back in Catfish’s apartment and attempting to make sangria while devouring a bowl of bibimbap.  Catfish keeps insisting that I drink until, eventually, I’m laughing albeit it somewhat hysterically as we talk about various stressors and coping with things in general in Korea.  I can’t believe how stressful and ridiculous the last few weeks have been and I’m really hoping that things get easier from here.

Salt, Sand and Sea (31 July)

By our last full day on the island, we realise that we’ve done little more than laze about on the beach and it shows.  Both M and I are feeling more relaxed and there’s no argument from either side about spending yet another day on the beach but first we have active plans for the morning.

We head to the Salt Museum where we go on a tour of the salt plains.  I tune out for the talk that lasts nearly an hour and it seems even the Koreans around me who can understand the talk are not really paying much attention to the speaker either.  Mercifully, the talk ends before my soul successfully escapes my body and we’re told to get a pair of white boots.  Once dressed in our stylish boots, we head to a salt plain and each grab a broom.  Sweeping up the salt for harvesting is hard work and the salt layering our skin doesn’t feel too great.  However, we’re impressed with the quantity of salt that we manage to sweep up.

Salt, Salt and More Salt

With our salt harvested, we are shown over to a huge barn like structure that is half-filled with a floor to ceiling pile of salt on one side.  We’re then showing back to our starting point and each handed a 1kg plastic bag to fill with salt and take home as a souvenir.  I’ve never really been a fan of salt and since being in Korea, I’m even less fond of it.  The Korean diet is very high in sodium and it seems that salt is added, in copious quantities, to pretty much everything.  It’s especially prominent in the kimchi making process.  In contrast, it would probably take me the rest of my life to use a 1kg bag of salt!  M is delighted when I tell her that my salt will be going home with her for her mom to use but first we have to pose for a photo with our commemorative bags of salt.

After a quick tour around the salt museum and a nearby garden, we head back down to the beach for a final afternoon of lazing in the sun.  We realise that we’ve spent several hours in this routine over the past few days as the guy in charge of the umbrella and lounger rentals promptly finds us a spot.  Equally familiar with us are the people in the nearby snack stand.  It’s been a peaceful and relaxing vacation of doing very little and I feel ready to face work once more as we turn in for the night.

Jeung-do Explorations (29 July)

We get a late-ish start this morning as we only wake up after 8:00am.  After a quick breakfast of bagels and cream cheese, M tells me that we’re going to Pa-do, an island connected to Jeung-do and one where a popular Korean drama, “Thank you” was filmed.  The road to Pa-do is very narrow and involves a long stretch across a narrow road between two parts of the ocean where the tide has gone out.  At the location where the drama was filmed, there is simply a house with a few cardboard cut-outs and posters.  We take a few photos and then head back to the main island. 

Mudhoppers

On the way back,  we stop to take more photos of the scenery and discover mudhoppers, which is what many of the Koreans around us are attempting to catch.  I’ve never seen a mudhopper before and it reminds of the scene in the movie, Matilda, where The Trunchbull comes to do a class visit of Miss Honey’s lesson and the kids put a newt into her water jug.  The mudhoppers are interesting to watch and it’s amazing how big some of them can get.  The birds circling overhead are clearly also interested in the mudhoppers and we decide to leave them to their hunting.

Chill Time

Back at the beach, we rent an umbrella with two loungers and laze about for four hours.  It’s so relaxing to sleep, listen to the waves licking the sand, the sound of kids enjoying a weekend break and enjoy the warm sun while reading.  We’ve also discovered that Jeung-do is holding a mud festival of it’s own this weekend and we head over to the stage to watch the performances. 

I’m a big fan of traditional Korean percussion groups and I love watching these performances.  There are also traditional dances, some traditional songs (of which I’m not such a big fan since they’re usually sung by old ajummas and seem to last forever) and a few…interpretive…dances.  Hungry once again, we head to the food tents where I’m horrified to see that mudhoppers are on the menu.  Although we choose the buffet option, I’m limited in what I can eat due to the large quantity of shellfish provided.  We, therefore, seek a second dinner of fried chicken at another stand before finally heading back to our minbak and just relaxing for the rest of the evening.

On the Road Again (28 July)

Being a Korean English teacher at a hagwon, M gets only five days of vacation per year – two of which are a weekend.  I’ve scheduled my leave to coincide with her vacation dates so that we can travel together.  We have the same idea: We want a quiet beach vacation where we can simply laze on the beach in the sun.  M discovered the perfect place and has made all of the bookings for us.

I meet M at E-Mart at 10:00am.  I’m worried that there’ll be a lot of mould in my apartment again after the four days but there’s not really anything that I can do about it:  After all, it’s not like I can spend my days sitting at home and watching mould grow!  We do a spot of shopping for a few basics before heading to a car repair shop where M needs to get her oil changed before we can hit the road. 

Roadtrip

The roadtrip to Jeung-do on the southwest coast is a pleasant trip and it’s great to just goof around.  We arrive in Jeung-do at around 15:00 but it takes us a bit of time to find our minbak (inn) at which M has made the reservation for the first two nights.  When we do finally find it, we take a short nap before trying unsuccessfully to find the tourist information centre.  Giving up on the tourist information centre, we head for the downtown area to find a local mart.  There are only two choices and neither is particularly big or well-stocked; this is when we realise just how small the island actually is as it makes Soryong-dong (my neighbourhood in Gunsan) look really well-developed. 

Finding a Chinese restaurant in the downtown area, we eat a filling meal of jjajjangmeong, sweet and sour pork and mandu before heading down to the beach to watch the sunset.   The beach has a bit of a quasi-tropical feel with it’s grass thatch umbrellas and wooden loungers scattered at precise intervals.  We settle on two of the loungers and chat until long after the sun has set and the tide goes out before heading back to our minbak for the night.

Approval (26 July)

My fantastic co-teacher is at school today and has the final draft of the writing textbook, which we now need to double-check and do the final editing.  After two hours of careful reading through the book using my work computer and her laptop, we finally finish the final editing with only six pages requiring major reformatting and corrections due to the different computer programmes. 

By the time we finally finish the book, it’s lunchtime and we head to Paradiso to celebrate and just chat.  My fantastic co-teacher has never been to Paradiso despite having lived in Gunsan prior to getting married.   When we arrive there, I’m surprised to see Catfish and our Kiwi-mom there and we seem to confuse our regular waiters who are used to seeing Catfish and I together instead of at separate tables as we are today.  I jealously guard my lunchtime with my co-teacher and want to be able to chat to her since I won’t see her again until after the holidays.

After lunch, it’s back to school and a quiet afternoon of classes.  Thankfully, I only have one more day of work before heading back to the beach with M for a four day vacation.

Girls’ Night In and Sleepovers (23 - 24 July)

By Saturday, I’m proud of my apartment which has been scrubbed from top to bottom.  I’ve even wiped down all of the wallpaper on the walls and ceilings with anti-bacterial wipes and I’m hoping that my landlord is planning to sort out the mouldy ceiling soon.

While Catfish heads back to Boryeong for the second weekend of the mudfest, M and I do grocery shopping for tonight’s dinner.  Despite the mould, Catfish’s apartment is too small for many people and M’s house is too far away so everyone is coming to my apartment for the night.  It’s a good afternoon together as we catch up on chatting.  When Catfish arrives at my apartment at 19:20, we start preparing dinner.  We’re attempting to make our own fresh spring rolls like those at Hoa Binh and we’re happy that they turn out pretty well.  Dinner, held on the floor in my kitchen, is a success!

Two bottles of wine later, Catfish has regaled us with her day’s adventures in Boryeong and it’s time for the girly part of the evening as we apply face masks.  M has also brought her extensive collection of nail polish and the manicures begin.  By midnight, we’re all exhausted and Catfish has long since fallen asleep. 

We get a slow start to the day the next morning although M has to leave early.  Since it’s raining, Catfish and I chat for the rest of the morning and late into the afternoon.  By 16:00, we’re hungry so Catfish goes home to shower and change and we arrange to meet at the Gal-B at 18:00 for dinner.  Dinner at the Gal-B is usually accompanied by a trip to Angel-in-us for coffee although we’re smart enough to bring out laptops with us so we can work on our summer camp lessons for a few hours before calling it a night and preparing for work the next day.

Progress (20 July)

Catfish has a fantastic school that usually allows her to leave at lunchtime during vacation and exam periods.   My school, unfortunately, is not as generous – probably because there are nine foreign teachers at my school instead of one.  Today, however, Catfish finishing school early is a blessing because it means that we can meet at Paradiso for lunch.  It’s a hot and sticky day at 37 degrees Celsius and 93% humidity.  We’re reluctant to leave the sanctuary of an air-conditioned building so we migrate the 100m across the road to Santa Rosa.

Settled in a corned table, I help Catfish cut out game cards for her summer camp.  She also gives me an outline of her superheroes-themed camp.  I’m feeling inspired for my own camps that I have to plan and by the time we Santa Rosa six hours later to meet M for shabu-shabu, I’ve managed to work out an entire summer camp programme.   The afternoon also comes to a perfect end when I hear that I will be moving into the beautiful apartment that I looked at the previous day.

Unfortunately, a mouldy apartment is still waiting for me when I finally return home and I know that I’ll definitely be spending the whole of the next day cleaning and scrubbing in an attempt to get rid of all of the mould.

More Unhappy Discoveries (19 July)

M comes to my apartment to see how bad the mould is and she shows me how best to use some of the products that I’ve bought whose instructions are obviously written in Korean.  I’ve already started washing all of my clothes just in case there is mould of them and I’ve separated the more expensive items to be taken in for dry-cleaning.  She takes me to a good chain of dry-cleaners where several other people are also handing in clothes affected by mould.  The good news is that they assure me that they’ll be able to remove the mould from all five items and it’s not going to cost me a fortune to do so.  I’m amazed that the total dry-cleaning bill is less than 15,000 won.

From there, we head to KEB (Korea Exchange Bank) where M helps me to open another account.  The transfer fees for international money transfers are reportedly far cheaper at KEB than my current bank.   In addition, their staff generally speak more English and their website is available in English.  It would make more sense for foreign teachers to be taken to KEB to open accounts rather than other banks unless KEB is not available in their area.

New Possibilities

After lunch, M drops me off at an apartment that is becoming available.   Another foreign teacher who I know is moving to Seoul and is looking for someone to take over the apartment.  Although I heard about the apartment a few weeks ago, I couldn’t afford the key money (deposit) required.  Fortunately, this amount has recently been reduced and is now in my budget.  The apartment is beautiful!  I’ve barely stepped through the door and I know that I want to live there, which is what I tell M when I meet her back at her school where I hang out until it’s time to leave for my acupuncture appointment.

You're Married?

At the GMC, Cute Doctor is extremely chatty.  He seems in no hurry to leave today and I’ve realised that there’s a pattern in his behaviour:  Every second week, he is very chatty.  He asks me how I’m enjoying Korea and how long I think I’ll be living here.  Korea has just been awarded the bid for the 2018 Winter Olympics and he’s happy to hear that I’m hoping to be around for the Olympics; so eager, in fact, that he quickly counts the number of years until then and tells me that he’s happy to know that I’ll be around for a while still.   He then asks me if I’m planning to get married in Korea.  I respond that I have no idea what will happen and turn the question on him.  His answer completely throws me off track though when he tells me that he is married and his wife lives in Gwangju.  I’ve never been more confused than I currently am as I leave the GMC trying to figure out what, on earth, has been going on and head directly to Catfish’s apartment to share this latest discovery.

Not a Fun Vacation (18 July)

Not quite the start to my vacation that I had hoped, I’m also grateful that I haven’t really made plans to travel for most of my summer vacation as I now have the time to deal with the mould in my apartment.  Less than enthusiastic about the week ahead of me, I shuffle off to Lotte Mart where I spend a ridiculous amount of money on cleaning supplies with which to sort out my apartment.  M has told me about a couple of products that should help to sort out the mould and I’ve been told to open all of my windows and doors when I’m home to try to air out my apartment – I finally understand why the people in the building next to me always seem to have everything open.  I know that I simply have to tackle the problem head on, I just wish I didn’t have to spend so much money on cleaning supplies.

Lazy Days (17 July)

After the disappointment of yesterday, we decide to stay on the beach and just relax.   Since we’re not going back to Seoul with the AK bus, we’re in no rush to leave.  The day passes quickly with swimming, a few wardrobe malfunctions from Catfish when she dives into the sea and relaxed conversations. 

Unfortunately, the day also passes with significant sun exposure and I get burned.  By the time we head back to the train station, we’re starving and we’re happy to find a cafeteria in the E-mart near the train station.  Astro is a snail as we head back to the train station and back to Gunsan where a mouldy apartment awaits me.

Mudfest (16 July)

After such a long and draining night, I oversleep making me late to meet Catfish at the train station.  Thankfully, I do meet her in time for the train to Daecheon Beach and she’s even bought me breakfast from Lotteria.  M meets us on the train when it stops at her station and we chatter away for the 40 minutes train ride to Daecheon where we meet Astro.  From there, we take a taxi to the mudflats for the marine training part of the trip.

While the Mudfest itself is largely free to attend, the marine training is organised for us as part of the AK package and, quite frankly, it’s the highlight of the trip.  We’re among the first to arrive at the mudflats and we’re dressed and ready for action by the time the AK buses arrive.  The organisers of the marine training is the same company that did the sea rafting and paintball part of a trip at the end of May.  Catfish and I immediately know that this is going to be a great morning!

Getting Down and Dirty

After a brief introduction and once everyone is dressed, we’re given the all clear to enter the mudflats.  While most of the AK group are treading hesitantly through the mud, Catfish and I waste no time in attempting to wrestle each other down and into the mud.  We’re among the first to get muddy and are completely coated in mud by the time we reach the first of our games: Mud soccer.  We’re playing against Koreans – mostly men and mostly guys who have completed their military training and are therefore very fit.  The game, however, is good fun and, surprisingly, the foreigners win.  Next is the chicken fights.

Chicken fights involves holding the ankle of one foot crossed in front of the other knee.  You then hop on one foot and attempt to knock over opponents by bumping into them.  I already know that I’m terrible at this game so I sit it out and instead Catfish, M, Astro, three kiwis and I form a human pyramid in the mud.  Catfish and I also attempt to wrestle ByungMin into the mud as he has barely got dirty.  After many attempts, we finally manage to wrestle him down and insist on a photo of it as proof. 

Doing It Like A Marine!

Our next game is actually marine exercises.  The Korean men all shine in this round as they’ve actually completed these exercises as part of their real military training.  The foreigners, on the other hand, are mostly useless and find the exercises physically demanding.  We soon decide that we’ve had enough and skip the final game of wrestling in order to beat the crowds to the showers to rinse off.  Also, the rain is starting to fall in earnest.  

By the time we’re clean and on our way to our hotels, it’s raining more than we’d hoped.  At the hotel, we drop off our bags and head to the beach and the mudfest area.  The actual mudfest is something of a disappointment and it is basically an opportunity for foreigners to get drunk and behave badly.  In all fairness, there are also a lot of Koreans who are just as drunk and behaving just as badly. 

We paint ourselves in more mud and buy tickets to go on the inflatables inside the demarcated area.  We wait in a line for nearly an hour before finally giving up.  During our wait, however, we witness many disgusting displays of arrogance and inconsiderate behaviour.  The one that stands out the most is a group of foreigners who had a bucket of very watery mud thrown at them by one of their friends.  The mud also hit a Korean woman who was clearly a professional photographer at the event.  Her camera was covered in mud and, when this was pointed out to this particular group of foreigners, they simply laughed it off and gave her a thumbs up. 

Fireworks? What Fireworks?

After playing around the water, we find ourselves desperately wanting a refreshing shower.  After our showers, we walk the strand flat in search of somewhere to eat.  We settle for delicious galbitang and later find enormous take away Junebugs before heading to the stage area.  Deciding that the stage area is too crowded, we head back down to the beach where we build a “2011” with sparklers and unsuccessfully attempt to get them all lit simultaneously.

Promised a fireworks display on the beach, we eventually come to the conclusion that the few rockets we’ve seen are the display and we decide to call it a night.  We no sooner get back to our hotel room when we hear major fireworks exploding.  M, Astro and Catfish decide to return to the beach while I call it a night.  Apparently, I miss some amazing fireworks and great fried chicken….

When Mould Takes Over (15 July)

Incredibly, I’ve finished all of my work and met my deadline.  My reward for working so hard this semester is that I get to hang out with my awesome co-teacher who has invited me to her apartment for dinner.  I’ve been squealing in excitement for days at the prospect of hanging out with her and can’t wait to spend some quality time with her.  I’m even more touched when she tells me that I’m the first foreign teacher she’s ever invited to her apartment.

Quality Time

First, she takes me to O’s Gallery near her apartment.  It’s a small gallery with a coffee shop attached to it and overlooking a misty lake in the mountains.  We chat over coffee for over an hour before going to her apartment where she tells me to make myself at home.  I finally get to see her wedding and honeymoon photos and she insists that I try out the piano that her husband has just bought for her.  She also tells me to have a look around her apartment, which I’m surprised to discover is decorated in a very western style:  Her apartment doesn’t look much different to mine in terms of furnishings and style.  The view from her apartment, however, is incredible and I can only imagine how beautiful it must be in the winter when the mountains and fields are all covered in snow.  She promises to invite me over again in the winter so that I can see the amazing view in all it’s splendour, and then drops me off at the bus terminal.

One Too Many Challenges!

Back in Gunsan, Catfish and I chat on Skype until midnight before we finally say goodnight and I start to pack for this weekend’s trip.  It’s the annual Boryeong Mudfest – one of the most anticipated and biggest festivals in Korea.  To my horror, I can smell mould in my wardrobe as I reach to the back of it for a pair of shorts.  For days, my bath towel has a distinct mouldy smell to it but I haven’t been able to find any mould on it.  Tonight, I manage to find the mould. 

The blackness on my bedroom ceiling is slowly increasing, and as I move clothing aside in my wardrobe, I discover mould on all of my suits, my most expensive investment items of clothing and also my most sentimental items of clothing.  I remove each item of clothing and inspect them carefully, growing increasingly distressed as I discover mould has grown on the inside of my wardrobe and half my clothing.  I then start to separate my mouldy clothes from the non-mouldy clothing and place mouldy clothing on my couch, which I discover also has mouldy patches in places.  Closer inspection reveals a very fine layer of mould on the wallpaper and glass door in my bedroom, my bedside table, my television and even my pillow.

My apartment has no real outside windows and no air conditioning.  As a result, there is almost no real ventilation in my apartment which, apart from making it unbearably hot in the summer, also makes it the perfect humid and dark environment that mould absolutely adores!  I clean for nearly four hours and eventually phone home both slightly hysterical and exhausted.  It’s nearly 4:00am and the more I clean, the more mould I find.  I just want to go home at this point as this is one too many challenges for me to face.

Goodbye Harry Potter (14 July)

I’m absolutely exhausted.  It’s the final week of the first semester and, what with having to edit and unify the format of the writing textbook, I’ve had little chance to mark my classes’ journals this week.  In addition, we’ve just been informed that our vice-principal has offered a parents’ English summer class in addition to the other classes that we have to do.  Considering that I’ve already volunteered to run a Basic Conversation class as an extra hour after school because I feel that these are the students who really need the classes, I’m feeling a little overwhelmed – something that I admit to Mr Jeong today when he asks if I’m doing okay. 

I feel the pressure of Friday’s deadline looming and am grateful that tonight offers a brief distraction in the form of the final Harry Potter movie, which Catfish, M and I watch at 21:50.  Unfortunately, the movie doesn’t quite live up to the hype and I can’t help but feel slightly disappointed by what we all feel is rather an anti-climax to an otherwise entertaining series that has spanned my 20s.

We Wrote a Textbook (13 July)

The textbook is finally finished!  At 227 pages, I’m surprised by how much work I’ve done in the past week and the Korean English teachers are equally surprised by the length of the book.  As long as they approve the book, it’ll be able to go to the printers and, fingers crossed, will convert neatly to a Hangul programme version without too many missing pieces or format changes.

National Geographic Exhibition (9 July)

M’s friend who is the manager at T.G.I. Friday’s has offered us discount coupons to the National Geographic Exhibition in Jeonju this weekend.  Always keen for an excursion, we agree to go to Jeonju for lunch and then the exhibition.  Since I have to work on the writing textbook for school this weekend, I can’t afford to spend an entire day in Jeonju but an afternoon’s respite is certainly appreciated.

We head straight to T.G.I. Friday’s where we’re faced with difficult decisions regarding which of the restaurant’s mouth-watering meals to order.  On our way out, we see M’s friend who greets us and fetches the coupons for us and we’re soon on our way to the Sori Arts Centre for the exhibition.  

Let's Exhibit!

The photos at the exhibition are spectacular and some of the views are simply breathtaking.  Unfortunately, the audio commentary is only available in Korean as are the explanations of each photo displayed beside the prints.  This puts a definite damper on our tour as we like to know more about what we are looking at.  In addition, the exhibition venue is unbearably hot on the second floor and we find ourselves rushing slightly in order to get back out into the cool air.  Before we know it, we’re on our way back to the intercity bus terminal and back to Gunsan, which means back to working on the textbook for me.  Since two of my co-teachers will be away for the entire summer vacation, the book has to be finished by this coming Wednesday so I already know that I’ll be spending the whole of tomorrow working on the editing and formatting of the book.

An Unwanted Addition (4 July)

On Friday evening, while lying on the phone talking to my parents, I noticed a large black patch on the ceiling in the corner of my bedroom.  Closer inspection reveals that it is the infamous black mould I’ve heard so much about and which I’ve only just managed to remove in my bathroom.  I’ve also heard that it can take over entire apartments very quickly and, by this morning, it has certainly taken over an entire corner of my ceiling.  Mr Jeong promises to phone my landlord for me immediately and tells me to try to clean off as much of the mould as possible in the meantime.

Disgusted by my apartment, I meet Catfish for dinner followed by milkshakes at Coldstone.  There is a family of missionaries who live in the house around the corner from her apartment whom she recently met.  This family, the Lemons, have six children and have invited Catfish to join them and a few other Americans tonight for fireworks in Eunpa Park.  When they phone her to confirm the fireworks, she asks if she can bring me along too and I soon find myself being introduced to Mom and Dad Lemon and their six awesome kids.  Seriously, these kids are gorgeous and it’s a lot of fun to be around lively, English speaking children although it makes me really miss my niece and nephew. 

4th of July Celebrations - American Style

At Eunpa Park, we meet another large family of missionaries, the Gengers, and a few other American families – all of whom are involved in mission work in Korea.  There’re approximately 20 of us in total and the kids all have a lot of fun playing with large sparklers that Catfish, the oldest of the Lemon children and I keep lighting, handing out and collecting while the men take care of the larger firework displays.  Much fun is had by all and we wrap up the evening with homemade apple pie and ice-cream at the Lemons’ house.

Re-Contracting (30 June)

I finally managed to have the drug test re-done on Tuesday afternoon.  Unfortunately, my interview with the Office of Education in Jeonju is this afternoon so I don’t yet have the results of my complete physical.  In fact, I don’t have any of the documentation that I’m supposed to hand in today although they’re all in the process of being finished.

Despite this, NZ2 and I head to Jeonju with one of the Japanese teachers who is also renewing her contract.  We’re scheduled to be at the Office of Education by 15:00 but we arrive shortly after 14:00.  Fortunately, several other NETs are also early and lively conversations ensue in an air-conditioned office.  In addition, the Office of Education has thoughtfully ordered patbinsu (red bean ice) as a refreshment for us on this hot summer’s day.  Unfortunately, there is a pre-decided order in which we’ll have our interviews before re-signing our contracts and the five foreign teachers from my school (2 NETs, 2 Japanese teachers and 1 Spanish teacher) are all towards the end of the nearly 30 person list. 

As the interviews drag on, the time slowly ticks by and we’re all attempting to calculate at what time we’re likely to get home at this stage.  Fortunately, the staff doing the interviews realise this too and the interviews get shorter and shorter.  By the time I’m called in for my interview, my questions as nothing more than whether or not I like my school, why I came to Korea and how I stay healthy.  I’m then excused and sent to sign the actual contract and a promise to submit my outstanding documentation within five months of today.

Difficult Relationships (21 June)

By the time I meet M for dinner at Hoa Binh, I’m exhausted.  It’s been a long and frustrating day and, although I don’t like hearing myself complain constantly, I can’t seem to stop venting about things at school – particularly increasingly difficult relationships with NZ1 and NZ2.

We’re currently working on a writing textbook for the second graders to use next semester.  It was my suggestion so that we can create a textbook/workbook that the students can use fully rather than one that requires the omission of several pages and/or exercises.  Since I only teach second graders, I’m willing to compile the textbook – or at least most of it – myself.  However, in the interest of fairness, my co-teachers recommend that NZ1, NZ2 and myself all contribute equally to the book since we’ll all have to teach from it next semester.  We’ve already decided on the chapters and divided the work and now we’re currently writing the content.

Frustrated at all of the examples provided by the Kiwis being New Zealand culture, I ask if it’s possible to include non-New Zealand examples too.  This request seems to be met with some hostility and one of them actually tells me that “our contracts say that we have to teach culture.”  I’m shocked by such a closed approach.  Yes, our contracts do say that we have to teach culture but surely we should also try to include other cultures – particularly when two-thirds of the NETs at my school are from the same country.

Three's A Crowd

I’m beginning to dread work as it’s clear that three is a crowd.  I understand that NZ1 and NZ2 have much in common and that, for all intents and purposes, I’m the outsider.  However, the sometimes patronising and hostile comments from them are becoming unbearable, and I’m starting to wonder if it’s too late for me to request a transfer to another school when I renew my contract.  As much as I love my school and my students, I can’t bear the current working atmosphere among the foreign teachers.  In the interest of fairness, I’m sure that I’ve done much to annoy them too, but I make no apologies for having a different work ethic.  School can be an incredibly lonely place at times though because, to a certain extent, the foreign teachers are expected to get along.  After all, we all speak the same language and we should be able to communicate, professionally, with one another even if we don’t particularly like one another. 

The day comes to a perfect end when Sunny, the International Coordinator at the Gunsan Medical Centre, phones to tell me that I failed the drug test on the annual physical that I have to have done as part of my contract renewal.  Puzzled as to how I could have failed this test, I remember the endoscopy that I had done yesterday morning, for which I was sedated.  When I remember that I returned to school as high as a kite after the endoscopy, I’m not surprised that I failed the drug test and I re-schedule this component for that Friday afternoon.

Magic Straight Perm (18 June)

One of the most important things I learned about on the first day of the EPIK orientation I attended in late October 2010 is that Korean hair salons offer a Magic Straight perm to straighten your hair.  Having naturally frizzy hair – especially in humid weather – I’m determined to have this perm done to my hair in preparation for the humid summer days that are slowly encroaching. 

Although you can have this perm done at any salon, I’m a bit hesitant to do it alone as my only other experience with a hair salon in Korea was not overwhelmingly positive.  I’ve also heard that this particular perm is not good for western hair but just as many people have had positive reviews of the same perm.  Fortunately, M comes to the rescue: One of her brothers has very curly hair and he has it straightened at a small hair salon in her hometown.  She offers to take me there today.

I meet her at 10:00am at E-mart and we head to her hometown of Janghang in Chungcheonbuk Province which is the province just above mine; it’s approximately 30 minutes by car.  The hair salon, Hair DJ,  is on the main road of the little town and fortunately he’s not too busy when we arrive.  I’m soon settled in a chair and having my hair trimmed before we start the perm process, which takes nearly four hours.  Beside me, a little boy of about three years of age is also having his hair permed except that his perm is curly.

Let's Get Things Straight 

The process is lengthy and with hair as thick as mine, it takes two people to flat iron it.  First, a solution is put on my hair and left for approximately 45 minutes to be absorbed by my hair.  Next, the solution is rinsed off and my hair is combed out before the hairdresser and his assistant begin flat ironing it, which takes nearly two hours to do.  Once it is all flat-ironed and straight, more solution is rubbed into my hair and left to set.  This is then rinsed out after another 45 minutes after which I ask the hairdresser to style my hair in layers.  I’m amazed by the end result of hair that is pin-straight – a first for me!


It’s after 14:00 by the time we leave the salon where the perm and haircut has cost me only 60,000 won (roughly US$60), which is a bargain considering I’ve heard that salons in Seoul charge up to 200,000 won for the same perm.  Since it’s after lunchtime, we head straight to the restaurant next door for a filling lunch of mandu (dumplings) – my favourite – and pork cutlets.  From there, we head to M’s house where I meet her mother and we rest for an hour or so before heading back to Gunsan to watch The Lincoln Lawyer at CGV.  I’m like a child with a new toy as I keep admiring my straight hair every step of the way.  I can’t wait to see the reaction of my students and colleagues on Monday morning.
The process is lengthy and with hair as thick as mine, it takes two people to flat iron it.  First, a solution is put on my hair and left for approximately 45 minutes to be absorbed by my hair.  Next, the solution is rinsed off and my hair is combed out before the hairdresser and his assistant begin flat ironing it, which takes nearly two hours to do.  Once it is all flat-ironed and straight, more solution is rubbed into my hair and left to set.  This is then rinsed out after another 45 minutes after which I ask the hairdresser to style my hair in layers.  I’m amazed by the end result of hair that is pin-straight – a first for me!

It’s after 14:00 by the time we leave the salon where the perm and haircut has cost me only 60,000 won (roughly US$60), which is a bargain considering I’ve heard that salons in Seoul charge up to 200,000 won for the same perm.  Since it’s after lunchtime, we head straight to the restaurant next door for a filling lunch of mandu (dumplings) – my favourite – and pork cutlets.  From there, we head to M’s house where I meet her mother and we rest for an hour or so before heading back to Gunsan to watch The Lincoln Lawyer at CGV.  I’m like a child with a new toy as I keep admiring my straight hair every step of the way.  I can’t wait to see the reaction of my students and colleagues on Monday morning.

Surprising Gifts (17 June)

Cute Doctor is very friendly and chatty during my acupuncture appointment this afternoon.  He also keeps asking me if the treatment that he’s busy doing is hurting me but, while all I want to do is cry from the pain, my ego won’t allow me to cry in front of him.  While he does my neck and spine realignment at the end of my appointment, he suddenly leans forward and whispers, “Sarah, I have something for you.”  Not really sure what to say to this, I ramble.  When he finishes the realignment, he says, “Let’s call it a day” before asking me if he’s used this phrase correctly.  He seems happy when I confirm that it is correct and scurries away to fetch his gift for me.

He returns with a gift bag containing a gift beautifully wrapped in pink paper with flowers on it, tells me that he hopes that it’s to my liking and to enjoy it.  He then wishes me a good weekend before disappearing to his final patient of the day.  Curiosity gets the better of me and, as soon as I’m out of the front door of the hospital, I open the gift, delighted to find three Korean books: a Garfield comic book (in English and Korean), a book of what M later tells me are Korean fables (with a 4 – 8 year age guide on the front) and my favourite book of all – The Little Prince – which is also in English and Korean. 

Good Choice!

The Little Prince has been one of my favourite books since I first started studying French as it was the first French book that I managed to read alone although we also covered it as a set work in one of my earlier French classes in high school.  What surprises me even more is that Cute Doctor has also chosen the only comic book that I still actually read (Garfield) and, although it’s a children’s book, fables which is something that I always enjoy reading.   I’m surprised by how well he has chosen books for me and even more surprised by the gift entirely. 

Part of me, however, is not surprised by the gift.  While I give a gift for the sake of giving it or because I’ve found something that I think a particular person will enjoy, I’ve heard that the Korean custom is to always give a gift in return and of a similar value.  In a way, by giving Cute Doctor the English phrase book two weeks ago, he was, in a way, obligated to return the gift – something I didn’t anticipate at the time.  It also, unfortunately, suggests that he’s rather traditional.

All Fun and Games (12 June)

Catfish and I meet M at E-mart at 10:00am dressed in our swimsuits and ready for another day on a beautiful beach.  We meet M’s friend from Seoul, Astro, at the train station in Daecheon at 11:30am and then head to the beach.   Astro is a total sun-worshipper and while we all apply sunscreen, he applies sun tanning oil. 

He is the first Korean person I’ve met who actually tries to tan since white skin is generally highly valued among all of the other Koreans I’ve met.  I’ve jokingly told students that I’m so pale, I’m almost translucent and been surprised by how much they envy the paleness of my skin, which I’ve always tried to tan without success.  

Astro is keen on a day of fun and heads off in search of water guns after a few hours of tanning.  We then have a fun afternoon playing with water guns and taking photos in gangster and Charlie’s Angels inspired poses before heading to Orange for dinner and milkshakes.  Reluctant to leave the beach, we return to watch the sunset and finally heading home at around 20:00.

Foiled Again By Korean Cinemas (11 June)

It’s an easy Saturday afternoon as Catfish and I meet at the Gal-B for lunch followed by a mid-afternoon movie.  We’re both excited to watch the new instalment of the X-Men series: X-Men: First Class.  We settle in happily for our movie, knowing that it will in English with Korean subtitles.  As the movie starts with the introduction of Magneto’s character as a young boy during World War II and we hear the German dialogue, we realise that, once again, we’ve been foiled by cinemas in Korean.  Throughout the movie, there are scenes with German, French, Spanish and Russian dialogue – all of which is translated, via the subtitles, into Korean only.  Chalk up another learning experience in Korea as we rely on common sense, our knowledge of the series and ability to read body language to fill in the missing pieces of the story.