Saturday, September 14, 2013

Saying Goodbye

I've thought about this particular post for over a year, and debated whether or not this is something I should write. In the past, I've received e-mails from other foreign teachers in Gunsan regarding specific content in my blog, and I've usually acquiesced when asked to consider removing certain information. In order not to hurt anyone involved in this particular situation, I've hesitated about talking or writing about this particular subject for many reasons. However, I find myself now debating internally as to why I should so carefully consider the feelings of the people involved when I'm continually being hurt by stories that are so completely fabricated and make me look like a total bitch, when actually certain things were the opposite of what has been said.

For those of you reading this particular post, I respect your decision to think that perhaps I should just have left this issue alone and let bygones be bygones. Similarly, I respect your decision to stop reading at this point, just as I hope that you respect that this was initially a situation between two people who, at some point, might even have been friends, and that I have a right to set the record straight and defend myself against the numerous accusations that have been levelled against me for the past 18 months now.

Friendships in Korea

I've got over my naivety of finding any real or lasting friendships in Korea. In so many ways, I wish that I could return to my first year here and never have anything change. It was a lot of fun, and I met a lot of truly amazing people who meant a lot to me. Unfortunately, that naivety has passed and I've realised just how self-serving relationships are in Korea. And yes, I'm guilty of this too. We're all friends with people who can help us or do something for us in some way. Once people outlive their usefulness, we tend to shove them aside like the pig fat used to clean the galbi grill.

To see a completely different and callous side of someone whom you think you know so well, with little explanation, has hurt more than anyone who thinks they understand what happened could possibly imagine. Even as someone directly involved, I still don't fully understand what happened or what brought about such a sudden and harsh turnabout. I also don't understand how someone who constantly professed to be my best friend could so easily cut me out of her life with nary a glance or a real explanation. But more than this, I don't understand the motivation for twisting the truth and telling other foreigners in Gunsan how it was me who completely cut her out of everything.  Of everything that happened, things that were said and not said, this last point is perhaps the one that has hurt the most.

18 months later, I still hear from other foreigners how badly I treated this particular person and how I blocked her on Facebook, email, Kakaotalk and refused to answer her calls. I also have heard, on three different occasions and from mutual friends as far as Seoul, how I am the reason that she left Korea, and how hurt she was that I ended our friendship so abruptly and without any explanation. I've listened to people talk about how bitchy I was and how I should have been the one to leave instead of her. I've also had mutual 'friends' cut off all contact with me because they 'don't think that [they] can be friends with someone who treats her friends so badly.'  All of this has hurt far more than anything that was and wasn't said between myself and the other party 18 months ago, and I'm now tired of hearing such falsities and outright lies about things I know little or nothing about.

The Other Side of the Coin

There are two sides to every story. Many people have asked me what happened last year and I've tried to be respectful and not discuss the issue.

There were many things said between myself and this friend. There were also many things that were not said. To this day, I still read the last contact I had with her and try to figure out how things ended so badly because, in all honesty, I miss my friend. I miss the good times we had together and the things we shared. It's hard to say goodbye to someone who doesn't give you that opportunity and who seems perfectly okay with cutting you out of their life so abruptly and callously. It leads to so many questions, the foremost of which is: Were we ever even truly friends? With such questions comes the realisation that many other relationships are perhaps not quite what they seem either and it becomes increasingly difficult to know who to trust and who to be wary of. For me, it's led to a steady withdrawal from the foreign community in Gunsan.

I think it's reasonable to ask someone for an explanation as to why they suddenly don't want you in their life. It's immature and cowardly to cut off all contact with someone and simply say that you 'don't want to give the reasons for this sudden change.'  Ignoring people doesn't make them go away, and it certainly doesn't stop them caring about why things went wrong. I can't understand how someone can walk away from a friendship of more than a year and not be willing to explain why or even want to try to work things out. Sure, there are many things about me that annoy, frustrate, anger, irritate and exasperate other people but then there are many qualities that I dislike in other people, too - that's still not enough of a reason to walk away after investing so much time and emotion in a relationship and not be willing to explain your reasons for leaving. It also is not a reason to twist the truth to portray the other person in a negative light by attributing your actions to them.

So, here's the truth (or at least my side) of the story. I was not the one who cut off all communication, blocked anyone from any form contact (Kakao, Facebook, e-mail, Skype) and refused to discuss things. Ladies and Gentlemen, it gives me absolutely no pleasure to say that it was, in fact, the other way around. I was the one who was cut off; I was the one who was discarded when I outlived my usefulness; and I am the one who never got an explanation for the sudden termination of our friendship. However, I'm not the reason she left Korea - we were no longer even friends at the time that she made that decision. I don't appreciate hearing these rumours repeated by people who know nothing about the situation - and, in some instances, don't even know the people concerned.

Here's what I do know: I encouraged her to hang out with other foreigners and not only me from the start. She made her own decision that the female teachers in Gunsan were too cliquey, and that she didn't want to be part of the debauchery, incestuous drinking that seemed to be the regular pastime for so many people at the time. I heard many uncomplimentary things about foreigners I still don't even know - except by name - and things that happened at nights out to which I wasn't even invited, but she attended. Therefore, I find it quite ironic how I was accused of making her feel that she could only be my friend and that once she started hanging out with other foreigners, she found that she enjoyed their company. I also find it ironic how she suddenly started spending so much time with people she had so completely and utterly lambasted and criticised prior to that. When she was in hospital last year, I received a message from a mutual friend telling me that I wasn't welcome to drop by and visit her. That comment still hurts - as does the fact that when I was in hospital earlier this year, many of those mutual 'friends' made it very clear that we're not exactly friends.

For everyone who has told me how I should have behaved differently towards her, and how they can no longer be my friend or have anything to do with me because of the way I treated her, you'd be surprised by some of things I've heard about you, too.  My pulling away from social gatherings was an attempt not to make things uncomfortable for our mutual friends, or to put anyone in the middle of an unpleasant situation. It hurt to realise that some of those friends seemed to 'take sides,' and it shocked me to find out just how much gossip there has been - even more so that there still is in some circles.


However, I don't want to dwell on the past any longer. I tried to resolve things between us, and I tried to give her the space she wanted; I tried to let her grow up. I really hope that one day she isn't on the receiving end of such an unpleasant situation. I don't wish her ill, and I never have. I just wish that I had had a chance to understand exactly what happened and, if our friendship ever really were what I had considered it to be, that she had actually cared enough to say goodbye properly.

So, since I can't change what has happened and I can only change how I respond to the situation, this is the last that I will have to say about this matter. The memories we share and the experiences we had together - both good and bad - will always be a part of me; some are reflected upon happily while others are more wistful and perhaps even a little nostalgic. They're always there and always will be. However, I am now closing this chapter of my life and saying goodbye to the characters who have played such an integral role in it. It's unlikely that we'll ever meet again, but then I've always been willing to give sequels a try.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Please Understand Their Situation

The number of times I've heard "Please understand their situation" from my co-workers this year has reached nauseating proportions. This phrase is starting to feel like a get-out-of-jail-free-card except that there seems to be an infinite number of them rather than only two such cards in the deck. It doesn't seem to matter what the students do during lessons or how they behave, it's always excused with an automatic response to please understand their situation and understand how difficult it is to speak English. It's become tiresome and a cop-out.

If I were to say that mathematics is too difficult to study, and therefore I don't even try to do the exercises, the teacher would be standing over me cracking a whip; the same thing would happen if I said this about Korean or Korean history so why should I accept this response when I toughen up, put my foot down, and tell my students that they're being lazy by not even attempting to do the exercise? This question is apparently too complex for some people.

I was told earlier this week, after a particularly bad lesson, that my questions are too broad and too difficult. Apparently, expecting the students to know what a 'topic' is in relation to topic sentences, is unrealistic, and too complex and demanding of them. I was then told that nobody could understand why I was a bit annoyed with that particular class when they hadn't done anything wrong; the fact that they hadn't done the 'homework' (despite having had more than enough class time to finish it in the previous lesson when they slept instead of worked), carried on personal conversations for the first 5 minutes of the lesson after I had greeted them, took 10 minutes to settle down so that I could start the lesson, only started looking for their worksheets after they settled down and then proceeded to sit and stare at their desks or read other books instead of even attempting to do the homework that they hadn't finished was not sufficient reason to understand why I was annoyed and reprimanded the class for their poor behaviour.

Today, after asking a student if she could understand why her topic sentence (Students must throw away this idea of studying hard.) was not clear - a question that required nothing more than a yes/no answer, which she never gave - I was told to please understand her situation and not ask complicated questions. I'm still not quite sure which part of this question was complicated: The 'Yes' or the 'No.' I was also asked to understand that English is very difficult and that the students cannot speak fluently. This was my red flag.


I have never expected any second language speaker to speak English fluently in order to be understood. My very first lesson of the year - and something that is reiterated several times throughout the year - is that I don't expect them to speak fluently or write perfectly; I do, however, expect them to at least try.  And yes, I most certainly do get frustrated and exasperated when I am trying to help a student to improve and actually learn something, ask a simple question and get not even an acknowledgement of that question let alone the luxury of an actual reply.  How dare I expect a reply to a question; how dare I challenge my students to learn something new; how dare I actually attempt to teach them English.

I'm very lenient and very patient in lessons. I don't insist that Korean never be used in lessons. I don't shout at them when they're late or sleeping in class or doing other work during my lesson. I reprimand them, but I have always tried to do it softly and discreetly - until now. I spend hours every week providing written feedback on their journal writing - feedback that many of the students never seem to read or attempt to implement. I spend hours trying to make lessons as fun, engaging, relevant, useful and easy as possible so yes, it ticks me off a little more each time I have to listen to how hard it is to be a high school student or how all they do is study, how hard English is and that they'd be able to speak it fluently if they had the luxury of studying abroad, and how learning a second language is too difficult.

As a linguist - and one who specialises in how people acquire multiple languages - I understand what is involved in learning a language. Besides this, however, even if I weren't a linguist, Korean students are not the only ones in the world who have a mandatory second/foreign language at school. Koreans are not the only ones to learn English as a foreign language - hundreds of millions of people do this around the world and guess what: they somehow survive without the 'woe is me, my life is so hard' whine. I, and most of the ex-pats living in Korea, understand very well how difficult it is to express oneself in a foreign language: We do it every fecking day we live in Korea! These kids don't have to explain health problems or legal or financial issues in English; if we make the lessons any easier, they'll only be able to say, "Hello, how are you?" after 10 years of studying the language at school - sadly, this is all that many of them can do, and they seem to take a sort of pride in this limited knowledge. Don't they realise that the joke is one them?

English in Korea

Students have 10 years of mandatory English study at school. From Grade 3 of Elementary School, they have regular English lessons and many students attend private lessons, too. Granted, not everyone is interested in learning English and not everyone is going to be good at learning languages, but they're all capable of trying to learn the language. They're surrounded by English and finding English resources online is incredibly easy. I have met several people here who speak English fluently without ever having been abroad or having had private tuition. Their commonality is their desire to learn the language.

The kids here are spoiled and many of them have black belts in complaining. There are English movies constantly broadcast on television in addition to numerous educational shows. Schools have ridiculously high budgets for English and many foolishly spend this money on books and games that get locked away in a dusty and forgotten office, never to be used or seen again. Oftentimes, the books that are purchased are not even useful or an appropriate level (or interesting!) for the students. Complaining about how difficult English is seems easier than actually investing any sincere effort into making it relevant, interesting or - heaven forbid - useful. Instead, the Korean approach is Grammar-Translation and an attempt to bore them into submission and zombie status.

Grammar is memorised and applied in the most irrelevant, useless, impractical and confusing manner possible. Instead of a necessary tool for effective communication in the language, grammar and vocabulary are used as weapons to discourage students. While there are many tricks to improve your language skills, memorising grammar answers and words out of context are not among them. Spending hours memorising vocabulary lists achieves nothing more than spending hours on a useless task. Finally, giving the instructions - and even some answers - in Korean is not an English test. After four years of studying a language, it is quite reasonable to expect students to be able to read instructions in the target language. If the powers-that-be feel that this is too difficult, then surely that should be the equivalent of a big, hairy, naked guy in a trench coat running up to you and flashing you in the street. You should be sufficiently shocked into taking the necessary steps to change the situation.

Please Understand

But, of course, what do I know about any of this. I'm just the person who has to give them a grade, asks complicated questions that involve yes/no answers, expect students to at least try to apply the language they've been studying for 8 years already and have little patience for students who are sleeping in class because they were up until 3am playing games online or on their phones. Perhaps I understand their situation more than I should, so I'd like to ask them to understand mine:
  • I understand that it's easier to complain about things than try to improve the situation.
  • I understand that whining and complaining about things doesn't change them.
  • I understand that language takes time to learn and master. I've never expected anyone to learn a language overnight.
  • I understand that learning a language takes actual work. Living in a country that speaks the target language, while certainly a big advantage, doesn't guarantee fluency and automatic acquisition of the language. If it did, I'd be fluent in Korean.
  • I understand that I teach high school students and that their role at this stage in their lives is to study while at school.
  • I understand that I'm their teacher and that my job is to teach my students - not play games and babysit them.
  • I understand that the Korean education system has MANY problems and flaws. However, foreign teachers are not responsible for this. Koreans are the ones who can change things.
  • I understand that I work extremely hard to deliver my best work possible and I expect the same of my co-workers and students.
  • I understand that many people are incredibly lazy, but that doesn't mean that I have to lower my standards to meet yours down below.
  • I understand that Korean students - and even many adults - are extremely short-sighted, ignorant and egocentric.
  • I understand what is considered to be polite and impolite in Korean culture. I also understand that if I'm making an effort to be polite in your culture, you should be extending me the same courtesy.  

Friday, August 30, 2013

Driving in Korea

After nearly three years in Korea, I bought a car rather impulsively - an old car but a car nonetheless. It happened over the course of a weekend after a particularly expensive week of having taken one too many taxis in order to make it to several appointments on time. Plus, the increasingly hot weather has made walking a rather 'wet' and uncomfortable experience all round.

I surprised myself by buying this car - a 1998 Daewoo Matiz.  I guess you could say that it was a 'right time' kind of deal; the seller happened to be advertising it on Facebook just when I'd reached the end of my patience with coughing up nearly $10 a day in cab fares. Within a week, the car was mine; the only remaining obstacle was exchanging my South African driving license for a Korean one.

Licensed to Drive

Getting a Korean Driver's License is an easy enough procedure but still daunting when attempting to explain that I have dual citizenship and am registered in Korea as a British citizen but have a South African driver's license. The reason that this clarification was so important is simple: With a British license, I have to take a written test for the license whereas the South African license is a simple exchange. With confidence that I didn't truly feel, I set off for Jeonju (50 minutes from Gunsan) one afternoon after the final exams since we were released early from work.
Getting to Jeonju was the easy part; getting from the bus terminal to the Department of Motor Vehicles where I need to do the exchange was a 15 minute taxi ride of apprehension. Armed with the address, written in Korean, I was fairly confident that I wouldn't have much trouble getting to the department - particularly since I know the general vicinity in which it is located. Apparently, the taxi driver and I disagreed on this matter. Despite an address in his own language, and a GPS system at his disposable, the entire trip was spent with him asking me exactly where I wanted to go and me repeating the name of the destination. I was relieved to be safely delivered to the right address after wondering if I would simply have to turn around and call it quits.

The licensing office itself is a row of counters and filled with dozens of people - mostly teenagers - waiting; I never did find out what they were all waiting for but they waited most of the hour that I was there.  Drawing on my false confidence, I pick the least busy counter and ask where I need to go to exchange my license; the woman points to my right and says to keep walking although I'm not quite sure how far I should walk: Do I need to walk to the opposite end of the counter or up the stairs to the second floor where the actual testing is done or out the door and from where I originally came?  After watching numerous teens climb the stairs with various paperwork they've filled out, I settle for the opposite end of the counter where I take a number and wait.

Herein begins the fun: My Alien Registration Card identifies me as a British citizen but my driving license is South African. Many Koreans don't seem to understand the idea of dual nationalities to begin; throw in poor Korean skills and it's a rather frustrating and complicated issue to explain. I will never understand why, when I can produce two valid passports, original documentation and embassy-certified authentication of said documents, dual nationality has to be such a big issue each time.

It takes four people (two clerks and two supervisors) forty minutes, much decision, internet searches and two phone calls to decide if my documentation is real or not. Eventually, I'm deemed a harmless foreigner who will not be lethal on Korean roads.  I'm given the relevant form to complete, directed to an eye test (which I suspect I pass simply because I respond in Korean), pay 10,000 won in total and am issued a Korean Driving License. An hour after first walking through the doors, I walk out with my new license and trust that they won't lose the South African one that they insist on keeping on file until I leave the country.

Rules of the Road Are Merely Suggestions

South African taxi drivers are notorious for their general disregard of the rules of the road as well as their lack of consideration for other road-users from pedestrians to cyclists and motorbike enthusiasts. Driving in Korea is like driving with thousands of taxi drivers back home; in short: Be aggressive, B-E Aggressive!

As one of the Japanese teachers at my school once said, you have to be a bit like Rambo when driving in Korea. Indicating your intention to change lanes or turn is optional, stop signs and traffic lights are mere suggestions, the use of seatbelts has only recently been made mandatory and cars are superior to pedestrians and cyclists. Throw in the fact that everything is in reverse here (having driven in South Africa), and the mere thought of driving here can be panic-inducing. It's every man for himself: If you see a gap in the traffic, you have to take regardless of how many other cars there are or who was there first. It's a rather selfish and immature way of driving although understandable when one considers that Korea has a relatively young driving culture and you can go from never having driven to having a license within six hours. This combination of immaturity, lack of consideration and lack of experience leads to regular accidents and thousands of near-misses.

One of the most frustrating, annoying and downright confusing characteristics of drivers here is how much they love to use their horns (or hooters as we say back home). A traffic light will have barely changed to green and you're guaranteed to have some impatient jerk five cars behind you blowing his horn because he thinks you should already be 100m past the light. If a car is driving too slowly for your liking, you can blow your horn at them. If someone cuts you off (when they actually have right of way), you blow your horn at them; if a pedestrian is trying to cross at a legal pedestrian crossing that has no traffic light but you don't want to slow down, you blow your horn at them; if someone tries to turn (again, when they have right of way and usually at an intersection) while you fly through the red light, you blow your horn at them - everyone else is the idiot driver here. However, what puzzles me most is the length of the horn blast: it seems that if you blow your horn at another driver (or a pedestrian or cyclist), there is a minimum length requirement. From the sanctuary of my apartment, I regularly hear horn blasts that last for at least 20 seconds or longer. Road rage appears to be a suppressed issue here, but an issue nonetheless.

Surprisingly, there is actually a road etiquette in Korea even if it is extremely limited and rather impractical. While driving on a rainy day, I noticed that most drivers don't use their headlights despite the darkened sky - I've also seen this at 10pm though in poorly lit areas! In addition, they only set their windscreen wipers to intermittent. This combination is illogical and potentially dangerous - especially since the majority of drivers do not adjust their speed or in-and-out swerving style of driving when the roads are wet and the heavens are sobbing upon us.  However, I was told by a colleague that it's acceptable to keep your headlights on their brightest setting, which is blinding to other drivers, and that considerate and 'polite' drivers turn off their headlights when stopped behind another car at a traffic light because the lights can be a distraction for the driver ahead of you and this can result in accidents. This makes no sense to me!

How Good is Your Parking?

Parking is perhaps the biggest bone of contention for me! I'm the first to admit that I'm not particularly good at parking, but Korean drivers are generally far worse than I in this regard. Parallel parking doesn't seem to exist here; you drive until you can stop or, if you have a fancy (i.e. expensive) car that does it for you, you can park by yourself. Alley docking is extremely popular here although many drivers can't look behind them and reverse at the same time; they either have cameras installed in their built-in GPS systems or their cars beep when they get within half a metre of another car.

I find it simultaneously amusing and disempowering that so many female drivers here will actually get their husbands/boyfriends/male friends to park their cars for them because they can't do it themselves. The irony is that many men here aren't much better at parking! I can still feel the combined disbelief and withering look I gave my boyfriend the first time he saw me parallel park in one movement and complimented me on being able to park as well as a man, and being able to drive a stick-shift. He genuinely thought that he was giving me a compliment because this is something many women (and many men) here simply can't do.

I'm grateful that there is an abundance of parking available in my apartment complex because finding a parking space would otherwise be problematic with the way so many people park here. Finding parking elsewhere is almost always a nightmare, and I find it somewhat ironic that for a country whose very culture is founded in community and collectivism, so many people are incredibly selfish and inconsiderate. Numero Uno is the only person who counts, and this is reflected in both their driving and parking. It's incredibly common to see cars deliberately parked in the middle of two parking spaces, but it's also common to see cars parked so haphazardly that they make it impossible for anyone to park next to them. Ironically, it's usually the smallest cars that take up the most parking space.

We all drive and park badly on occasion but many Koreans have perfected this skill and employ it daily. Each time I see this lack of consideration for others, I feel my blood pressure slowly start to rise and I'm reminded of why I've never really been a fan of driving in the first place. Sure, it's convenient but sometimes I wish that it weren't necessary. As for parking, I'm tempted to print out 10cm x 15cm cards in neon orange with a standard message saying, "I am an inconsiderate driver who needs to learn how to park properly." and paste a card, with the stickiest and most stubborn glue I can find, right in the middle of the windscreen on the driver's side each time I see a car occupying more than one parking space or blocking other vehicles. Perhaps if they're sufficiently inconvenienced by their own parking, they'll do something about it....

Saturday, May 4, 2013

A Few Harsh Truths

There comes a point in every ex-pat's sojourn in a foreign country when the host country just seems to get the better of your sense of peace and balance.  For some, it comes sooner rather than later while others manage to last years before succumbing to this storming of one's emotions. 

For the past month, I've been trying to put my finger on the cause of my seemingly constant irritability and general annoyance with so many things around me lately. I've finally reached the conclusion that I'm simply tired. I'm tired of being stared at like I have two heads instead of just being a regular person - albeit from a different ethnicity. With the increasing number of foreigners in Korea over the past decade alone, I cannot find any reasonable justification for Korean people to stare so openly at those who are not Korean - particularly in cities. To some extent, I can understand this happening in the very rural areas where fewer foreigners are been seen but in a city with over 3,000 foreigners (teachers and military personnel), I find it rude that people still stare and still feel the need to point out the 'waegookin' on buses, in stores, at the cinema, on the street, etc.

I'm tired of people talking about me in Korean while I'm standing/sitting right beside them. With complete strangers, I can still understand (again, to some extent) the ignorance of the belief that most western foreigners don't understand much Korean. However, I cannot excuse the ignorance - and arrogance - of colleagues and students who do this. Surely after nearly three years at a school, people cannot be so arrogant as to think that I don't speak or understand any Korean. 

I'm tired of being asked, several times a day, if I'm not cold because I'm wearing a short-sleeved top in early spring while my colleagues and students are all wrapped up in jackets and light sweaters. Surely, at the age of 31, I'm old enough to know when I'm cold, and smart enough to put on a sweater or something warmer if I were actually cold. If I were to constantly ask them if they were not hot because of their choice of clothing, they'd be equally annoyed and probably even think me rude.  My all-time favourite though is when teachers stare at me open-mouthed like I'm walking around naked simply because I am wearing summer clothes while they are still bundled up and whining, "Ah, Chuwayo" every five minutes. I'm hot-blooded and I don't get cold easily; accept it and move on.

I'm tired of being talked at in Korean when I've already said I don't understand what is being said or I'm clearly not interested in talking. It's rude. I don't have to say, "Hello" to every Korean student or adult who screams it out at me while walking down a street and minding my own business. It's rude. I don't have to answer random people asking me where I'm going, where I'm from or what I do. It's rude. I don't have to tell people how much money I earn. It's none of their business.  I have a skill (I'm actually a qualified and experienced teacher outside of Korea) that is in demand in this country and I work exceptionally hard for my money; it's the law of economics around the world. I did not get my particular job simply by being a native English speaker and, even if I did, if you object to it, take it up with the government - don't harass me about it.

I'm tired of backstabbing people but thinking it's okay as long as it's done with a smile or you give an embarrassed laugh when you're caught out. I'm tired of hearing that I make so much money for so little work when I actually work harder than some Korean teachers. I've written three guidebooks and one textbook for my school.  I've taken work home most weekends and, lately, almost every day, and I work through every lunch break. I've initiated several programs to help maximise speaking opportunities for students, offered to teach conversational classes for teachers, and comment on approximately 120 journals most weeks - all of this is on top of preparing lessons for classes that have no textbook and no clear syllabus in a course that is formally assessed, which is different to the situation of most foreign teachers. While many of my colleagues chat over coffee, go for long walks/lunches, play badminton during break times, study Korean (foreign teachers), shop online or watch movies, I'm often sitting and commenting on journals or doing some form of editing. I more than earn my salary each month.

I'm tired of listening to immature students who can't see the world beyond Korea but think they have such hard lives because they're at school until 23:00. Granted they're at school longer than most westerners but they don't actually work harder or longer hours - and many students are just as lazy here as they are back home. Korean students are becoming increasingly rude and disrespectful. The gangs of middle school girls who roam the streets in loud, giggling and silly lines of four/five while dominating sidewalks and not caring who they plow over are among the worst. The constant mirror checks to straighten bangs and do lip-gloss checks while in lessons is like a throwback to another century when women were expected to be little more than a pretty distraction for men. The cram and regurgitate method of education annually graduates robotic students with little independent or creative thought.  Any attempts to deviate from this method are increasingly met with resistance and defiance: crossed arms, scowls, exasperated sighs or, if you're lucky, sleeping in class.

I'm tired of hearing that Korean food is too spicy for foreigners - maybe we just don't like certain things. And, no: We do not eat pizza and hamburgers every day - we also consider that to be junk food.  We're not all fat - we have different bodies. And even for those of us who are overweight, it's rude to constantly comment on it. Speaking Korean while miming and pointing at a person makes it obvious what you're saying even if we don't understand the words.

I'm tired of being pushed and shoved constantly by older (and not so old) people who think that age gives them preference to behave in any manner they like or simply that not being Korean makes me inferior to them.

I'm tired of the hurry up and wait approach, and the speed check out in stores where checking out always turns into a race of who can shove through the line the fastest even if the person ahead of you is not finished with his/her purchases.

The sad reality is that while teaching in Korea is becoming increasingly frustrating, it's still generally better than teaching back home. What disappoints me the most is that the mindset of the Korean nation in general seems unchangeable in so many ways. I defended Korea for so long when I heard negative comments and I excused a lot of rude behaviour under the guise of culture or age  but the truth is that the longer I stay in Korea, the less I can excuse. When people my age and younger  make utterly ridiculous comments or are overtly racist/rude/ignorant/arrogant, it takes every ounce of my patience not to reach over and slap them.

I take my hat off to foreigners who have lived here for 10 years and longer even when not married to Koreans. I hope that I will again discover more of the things that I once loved about Korea because this constant frustration and annoyance is exhausting and depressing. It's not that I hate Korea right now; I'm more disappointed that certain realities have become rather stark this year. I know that there are many good things about Korea still, and I truly hope that these harsh truths don't over-power those positives that I have seen in my time here - even if they currently appear to be preparing for the world championships of hide-and-seek....

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Embrace the Suck (24 January 2013)

In the past two years, I’ve said goodbye more times than I care to remember. Some of those goodbyes have been in person with many tearful and emotional promises to stay in touch; some of them have simply been a result of life and growing up; some have happened alone in the darkened comfort of my bedroom while others have happened more publicly and with spectators. All of them have been people I’ve loved in one way or another; all of them have been people who have touched my life and my heart; all of them have been painful and sad goodbyes. Not once has it been a relief to end a relationship regardless of the situation or hurt that’s been experienced or unpleasantries exchanged.

I’ve said more goodbyes than I thought possible and, while many of them have ended in promises to remain friends always, I’m old enough, cynical enough, well-travelled enough and – dare I say it – wise enough to understand that the seemingly unbreakable ties that bind us to one another at that point in our lives become far more breakable with distance, the passing of days, weeks, months and years, and simply growing up.  In a foreign country such as Korea, those strong bonds are formed even more quickly creating an even stronger illusion of eternity – an illusion that can make the inevitable goodbyes seem that much more painful and the willingness to open one’s heart to newcomers decreases just a little more with each exiting figure. 

February is, without a doubt, the worst month of my years in Korea. Each year, as it draws nearer, you can almost hear the collective inhalations that signal how we all simply hold our breath and wait to see what life has in store for us.  It’s the time when co-teachers you’ve come to love and rely on may be transferred to another school, when the uncertainty of the new school year makes every day at work feel like you’re walking on nails without the appropriate mental or emotional preparation, when other foreign teachers may be moving on with their lives outside of Korea, when beloved students whom you’ve started to treat like younger siblings graduate and move on with their lives, when routines change and, every once in a while, when that extra special person who has managed to creep into your heart with breathless and expert navigation of all the high tech emotional security systems you’ve installed around it is told that it’s time to move on too “just because”. 

Saying goodbye to someone when things have gone horribly wrong is a little easier to bear than saying goodbye to something good for no reason other than that you’ve run out of time. It’s hard to accept that something so good for you is being taken away simply because the powers-that-be, who don’t know you, decide it’s necessary to make changes in other people’s lives. Death, personal choices, fights…all of these provide some logical end to a relationship despite the similarity of pain; they’re all escorted by some inevitable form of closure and conviction. Obligatory transfers for work are like children in a nasty divorce: at least one person always suffers from a separation in which they have no voice.  They carry no logical or rational end – they simply are.  And, while those seemingly unbreakable ties that have bound you so tightly to one another for any period of time may seem strong enough to weather any challenge the transfer guarantees by sheer distance, they do, sadly, weather and weaken as time takes its toll. In the end, some silently mourn the death of the relationship while others don’t even realise it may have already ended long before that.

John Lennon famously said, “Life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans.” With each passing year of my life, I gain a slighter better understanding of just how accurate this is. As another February approaches, accompanied by the inevitable goodbyes that this season brings, all that can be done once more is to embrace the suck that is this annual period and remember to exhale as we all “wait-and-see” what the year ahead holds for us. I guess there’s a reason that in the northern hemisphere, March is the beginning of spring and brings with it renewed optimism, new opportunities, new relationships, and even acceptance and closure for the relationships with those we may never again see but who will always hold a very special place in our hearts.

Chuseok (9 – 12 September 2011)

Korea’s two biggest holidays are Seolnal (Lunar New Year) and Chuseok (Thanksgiving).  2011 is a fantastic year with public holidays since most of them fall on either a Friday or a Monday and therefore create a long weekend.  This means that it’s really feasible to go away for a couple of long weekends that would otherwise be too tightly scheduled.  This weekend is no exception and we’ve signed up for the Ullengdo/Dokdo trip with AK.

This trip is particularly exciting: Dokdo is a seriously controversial topic in Korea – one that most foreigners have never even heard of prior to coming to Korea.  To sum up, it is an island halfway between South Korea and Japan.  Both countries claim ownership of this little island and it is the source of much hostility, among other things, between Korea and Japan.  Korea has gone a step further and built a research facility on the island and there are reportedly around 2 000 people currently living there.  We’re excited to see what all of the fuss is about and my colleagues are quite envious that I will get to see Dokdo – something that many of them aspire to see in their lifetime. 

The Adventure Begins 

Catfish and I head to Seoul on the 20:00 bus to meet the AK group at the Express Bus Terminal pick up site at 23:00.  Once we’re on the bus, we have six hours of sleeping fitfully on the bus, which always seems just a little bit too cold overnight.  By 6am, we’ve arrived at Chuam Beach where we’d planned to watch the sunrise.  Apparently this is the beach from which the sunrise that is used on one of the famous television news stations was filmed.  The constant drizzle ruins any hopes we’d been harbouring about seeing the sunrise; instead, a few of us merely watch the sky lighten somewhat while standing huddled beneath umbrellas while the rest of the group sleep on the bus.

After a hidden sunrise at Chuam Beach, we make our way to the ferry terminal where we split into two groups since AK was not able to get ferry tickets for all of us on the same ferry.  However, the second ferry is one of the faster ones so we arrive on Ullengdo no long after the majority of the group and we’re soon trudging uphill, in wet flip-flops that are determined to fall off, in a constant light drizzle on our way to our hotel.  The rain doesn’t dampen our spirits though as we take in the magnificent aqua waters that surround the island of Ullengdo, which lies just about 100km off the East coast of South Korea. 

After ditching our bags in our rooms, we all head out on a rather wet walk around the island.  The views are breathtaking though as we skirt along the slick path around the base of the rocks while the weather-angered oceans beats the rocks below us.  The constant drizzle does little to quell our contentment of a weekend away and it seems to encourage many people to try bridge jumping on the way back to the hotel. 

Standing on the edge of the bridge, looking down into the tourmaline-coloured waters, I can see several rocks on both sides of me but I can’t see how deep the water really is.  Several people have already jumped ahead of me so I decide to take the plunge into the salty but surprisingly warm waters below.  What was initially supposed to be a 10-minute stop turns into nearly an hour of jumping and taking posed photos mid-jump.  The result is that we get back to our hotel just in time for dinner and a tour of the Dokdo Museum before Catfish and I decide to turn in for a very early night after a rather eventful day.

You See These Rocks... 

Sunday morning brings even more drizzle so we start our day with a three-hour bus tour around the island. One of the first things that is pointed out to us is “Turtle Rock,” a giant rock just off the first beach we pass.  Considering the event of the previous week that made national news – where a foreigner assaulted a Korean man on a public bus the previous Sunday – it seems inevitable that someone repeats the idiot’s catchphrase of “You see these rocks” followed by, “My rocks are bigger than yours.  This continues all through the tour and it soon becomes clear that we’re on the party bus of the three tour buses; we’re also on the bus that copes the best with the slick and steep mountain roads as we notice the one in front of us smoking a little more than desired as it strains its way up the rocky paths. 

By the time we finish our tour, the rain has cleared up enough for a more pleasant hike – which Catfish and I opt out of in order to hang out with other foreigners down at the harbour where drinking games ensue.  The Korean guides are exhausted when they get back from the hike in time for dinner and drinking with Seokjin.  We head to a different part of town where we’re shown a giant, ice-dispensing penguin and take a photo before heading back to the hotel to eat chicken and drink more soju.  This is also the moment that Seokjin chooses to tell us that we can staff on the next trip, which thrills us. 

Ferry Ride From Hell 

Monday morning is another early start as we board a ferry for Dokdo at 7:00am.  The constant rain over the weekend had make it uncertain as to whether or not the ferry would run that weekend at all so we’re excited that the sea is deemed sufficiently calm for the ferry road to Korea’s most controversial island.  We board the ferry excitedly and settle into seats near the back of the boat that looks like it can carry approximately 300 people.  We’ve barely left the dock when I realise that this trip is not going to be smooth sailing – and many people seem to be feeling it judging from the number of people around me who are reaching for their barf bags.  Catfish also moves out of her seat and people start lying down in passageways in a desperate attempt to beat the rising nausea that is quickly spreading amongst the passengers.  I have a very sensitive gage-reflex and the sound of people puking all around me is enough to turn my stomach inside-out, stomp on it repeatedly and swallow the unpleasantness of the experience over and over unless I can tune it out somehow.  I turn my ipod up to its maximum volume, apologise to my ears, close my eyes and try to breath only through my nose as I attempt to block out the wretchedness that now surrounds me. 

Approximately an hour into the trip, Catfish comes to tell me that the doors have been opened to allow passengers onto the deck since so many people are sick.  She also warns me not to go into the bathrooms that have recently been re-decorated.  As we make our way carefully over the bodies of rather ashen-looking people who have more than succumbed to seasickness, I try hard not to breathe while taking in the sight of hundreds of people feeling the effects of the battering of the ocean as it flings the boat around.  The movie scenes of people projectile vomiting that I’ve seen in bad action and horror movies are nothing compared to the sight of roughly 280 of the 300 people around me who have given up even trying to find barf bags.  Outside on the deck, the air is a bit fresher although the smell still lingers as people around us continue their descent on what has rapidly become a ferry ride to hell. 


By the time we reach Dokdo three hours later, the ferry reeks of the contents of the stomachs of the majority of the passengers.  We’re all grateful to finally be at Dokdo, which, in all honesty, is just two large rocks, one of which has a large research facility built atop it.  We’re allowed to get off the ferry at Dokdo for just 10 minutes due to the number of people who have been sick.  It doesn’t take long to take a few photos but many people are simply happy to be back on firm ground while others are curled into tight fetal positions and begging not to be forced to get back on the ferry from hell.  Unfortunately, staying on Dokdo permanently is not an option and we’re all reluctantly herded back onto the ferry for the return trip to Ullengdo.  Mercifully, the return trip is much smoother and we’re back on terra firma two and a half hours later where ambulances are waiting for several of the more severe cases of seasickness.

Sadly, we have only another hour before boarding the next ferry that will take us from Ullengdo back to mainland Korea – something that many of us are painfully aware of and dreading.  Fortunately, the second ferry is larger, more comfortable and, thanks to insufficient seating, some of us get bumped up to first class seats for the smooth trip home.  At Pohang, we’re happy to be off the ferry and boarding the bus back to Seoul – grateful that we won’t be going anywhere near a ferry in the foreseeable future – as our Chuseok weekend winds down.