Monday, 26 December 2011

Further Cultural Reflections From South Korea

I've decided to list some of the amazingly good ideas that have come out of South Korea. They are mostly small and simple things that I think some Western countries could get away with implementing to improve on their culture. There are also plenty of negative things that I could list here but for now we'll stick to some of the more positive things that are prevalent in this culture.

Fast food and restaurant delivery services are a huge deal here and they are very professional. You can call up pretty much any fast food chain or restaurant (not just fast food restaurants, any restaurant) and order anything you like. They will deliver it to your door (or wherever it is you may be) for no extra charge. They will deliver the food with all the cutlery and utensils you will need to eat it and then they will come back an hour or so later and take away all of the dirty plates and mess. This is brilliant. This is also how we've been eating lunch at school since school broke up for winter. Great!

There is a service whereby if you are drunk and you have taken your car with you to the bar, you can pay somebody to drive your car home for you followed by a colleague on a motorbike who will give the driver a ride back to the office once you are home and safe. How very convenient and a great way to deter drink driving accidents.

Whilst the buses may not always be efficient and are often crowded they can take you anywhere in Korea. You can visit a very small rural town and not have to worry about how you will get home.

Free stuff! You get free stuff with everything. I once bought some lip balm and got some free hand cream. I bought a can of Guinness and got a free Guinness glass. There are free things attached to boxes on nearly everything you buy, sometimes the product you're given for free will be more expensive than the product you’re buying. It's nice.

Banking has never been easier (if you can get to a bank during opening hours) you can pretty much do everything you need to do via a cash point. You can withdraw money, pay your bills, and transfer money very easily and efficiently. Paying bills this way is fantastic, and if you are late to pay a bill you will not be cut off, they will simply transfer the money over to your next month's bill. Free of worry and hassle.

There are buttons on tables in restaurants. If you press the button, a waiter or waitress is with you in seconds. Easy.

There are lockers everywhere. There are lockers in subway stations and at supermarkets so if you have a lot to carry and need to stop off somewhere for 100 – 500 won (25p) you can leave your luggage or shopping bags in a safe place and come to get them later.

Internet. Oh the internet. I downloaded a 4GB file yesterday. It took 15 minutes. The internet is fast, super fast, the fastest in the world. It is also up there with the cheapest in the world. I pay about 15 to 20 pounds a month for my internet, which is so fast that I never have to wait long for anything.

How do you cut your meat? With a knife? Why? Use scissors. Just sayin'.

If you have a T-Card you can use it on the tube, on the train, on the bus and in a taxi and it will be nearly a third of the price. Anyone can buy a T-card and you can top it up at any subway station. Taxi’s and public transport are both stupidly cheap. To get from one end of Seoul to the other it will cost about 1 pound and 50 pence. A bus journey to Seoul is about 5 pounds from where I live. That’s two hours on a very comfortable coach with luggage storage.

Universal phone chargers. You can buy a phone charger. No matter what phone you have. It will charge it. There are also phone chargers in most major public transport hubs so if you’re running late and your phone has died, you can plug it in and make a call, for free.

Over the counter birth control for about 4 pounds. Not that I've ever needed it myself, but you don't need a prescription here. Safety first, right?

Try and pick my lock. I dare you. Oh wait, I have a secret 6 digit code. So if I lose my key? It doesn’t matter. There is no key to lose. The key is in my head. Not that anyone is going to break in here as South Korea has one of the lowest crime rates in the world. There are reasons for this and to be fair I would rather have the higher crime rate than trade in my individual freedoms, but it works here in Korea.

Posting things anywhere costs next to nothing. I sent a letter back to the UK and it cost me about 75p.

So that’s just a few little advantages of living here in Korea, they are many disadvantages and I’ll talk about them another time. Merry Christmas by the way. Nathanael and I cooked Christmas dinner yesterday and it went down a treat. Camps have started now and work is not stressful at all, my classes are simple and fun and I get to come to work at a later time. Badda bing, badda boom. Goodbye.

Thursday, 22 December 2011

Making a Difference

All of the teachers were supposed to be going to Samcheok this weekend for a celebratory end of year getaway, however, what with the recent goings on in the North this was cancelled and instead we were taken to lunch and dinner and some things happened which I’d like to share with you all.

I didn’t really know what to expect from school today but low and behold all of my lessons were cancelled and I spent the day planning my winter camps (I left my USB at school I hope it will survive the night). We went for lunch in Damok (where my school is) and had a kimchi and meat soup which was actually amazing. This only went on for about half an hour and there was no soju involved so I was a pretty happy customer.

At 5 we left for Chuncheon (roughly an hour away) to have dinner. I rode with Mr. Chen (the man who always tries to get me drunk). He’s a good guy and en route he taught me some Korean and through broken ‘Konglish’ we talked about what its like living in a foreign country. He likes to call me his brother and I have no idea why. He says he likes me because I have a positive attitude towards life. Ha! He ought to read my novel! He told me he learnt English himself and although his pronunciation is off he’s done pretty well.

We arrived at the beef restaurant and I have to admit it was the best Korean food I have ever tasted. Anyway, I sat opposite my vice principle, next to him the principle, my co-teacher on one side of me and Mr. Chen on the other. The whole school was in attendance along with some of the teachers kids (who also go to our school). Toasts were given and we started to eat. I went over to my principle and poured him some soju on two occasions. On the second he pulled my co-teacher over to translate (he speaks no English). My principle told me that if I ever have a problem (any problem) I should go to him and he will sort it out for me, no problem. He also said I am doing well at learning Korean culture. The second time he complemented me was when I got back from the bathroom. On my way back through the restaurant I stopped off at the kids table and played with them for 20 minutes or so, I even got a second grader to spell some words in English (her choice not mine), when I got back to the table the principle gave my a huge thumbs up and shook my hand telling me I was doing a very good job. Brilliant. Maybe this whole going out with the school thing isn’t so bad after all?

Upon leaving, the 2nd Grade teacher (who I always thought disliked me for some reason) approached me and thanked me for hanging out with the kids and all that jazz. Again this made me feel great and really made me feel like I’ve been making a difference in these kids lives.

You know when the kids are bored. You know when they are switched off. Luckily this is a rarity in my classes. It’s nights like this, when I get to spend time with my kids outside of school that I realise how positive the kids are towards me. They talk English with me, try and get me to read them stories and play games, they joke around with me and teach me silly Korean phrases. It’s hard to describe but the kids really make this job worthwhile, and even if its sometimes tough to break through language and culture barriers with the other teachers at work, those kids make it mean something. I’m glad I came here.

Good night.

Monday, 19 December 2011

The Death of The Dear Leader

Shock spread quickly through the office at noon today. They are still talking about it. I don’t understand what they are saying but every other sentence I hear the name Kim Jong Il.

Before we get onto that I can’t write a blog today without mentioning Christopher. I was deeply saddened on Friday to hear that my hero and idol, Christopher Hitchens had died at age 62. I learnt more from Christopher Hitchens through his writing and public speeches than I learnt from any other author, speaker or public intellectual. I will always remember what he taught me through his writing: Don't let anyone else do your thinking for you. Follow your principles to the end. Don't flinch from the truth. Repeat until the last ounce of strength drains from your body. On Friday I raised my glass to the Hitch and had an evening of debate and Hitchslap viewing with my friends. I wonder what Christopher Hitchens would have written today had he been alive to hear of the news of the death of North Korea’s ‘dear leader’ Kim Jong Il.

On hearing the news it is important to remember a few facts about the Kim family and their totalitarian dictatorship. Do remember that Kim Jong Il was head of the armed forces of North Korea and was in charge of the state but was not head of state. The head of state is and remains Kim Jong Il’s dead father Kim Il Sung. You might call it a necrocrasy. Kim Jong ils system was a phenomenon of the very extreme right. It was based on a totalitarian "military first" mobilization, and was maintained by slave labour and fear mongering. The whole regime was instilled on an ideology of the most unapologetic racism and xenophobia. It is an absurd situation and I could never begin to describe the feelings and emotions that Koreans on both sides of the border are feeling today. Never has the relationship between North and South been more uncertain. It is hard to tell what my co-workers are thinking at the best of times, today, is no exception.

It is certainly an interesting time to be living 12 kilometres south of the border (DMZ). There are so many issues at play that I could never (with my limited knowledge of the situation) begin to describe. I am told by my second grade co-teacher that South Korea is now in an ‘emergency state’. I’m not quite sure what this means but I’m fairly convinced it is not as dramatic as it sounds. Simply put, nobody knows what will happen next. North Korea will certainly be mourning the passing of their dear leader for many weeks before new leader Kim Jong Un will really take control of the country. I suppose we had better hope he is not trigger happy.

So, what are some scenarios that could play out here? Well, I can speculate again with my limited knowledge. Never has there been a better time for the South to invade the North. This will most certainly not happen. The South will remain uncertain about the new leader of the country and only time will tell how the new leader of the country will wield his power. One thing you can be certain of is that defences on at least the South Korean side will be heightened. Time can only tell if Kim Jung Un will be open to negotiations regarding a many number of issues that are at play in this area of the world.

Kim Jong Un has been groomed by his father and his grandfathers state proper gander for many years (it is assumed he is in his late twenties). He will be well aware of the power struggle that could easily take place over the coming months. What if other successors or advisors do not want Kim Jong Un to be the leader? Nuclear instability is certainly a worry for many commentators on the subject. Unfortunately there are a seldom few facts about the most isolated country in the world and the truth is nobody knows what is going to happen next. Kim Jong Uns father was certainly keen to build up the countries nuclear arsenal and would frequently call South Korea a puppet to the Western superpowers.

News will continue to roll in over the next few hours and in the half an hour it has taken me to write this the office is still buzzing over the news. I do not know how to react when they approach me and make dead hand gestures and repeat the name Kim Jong Il. Do I smile? Do I sound apologetic? Do I look afraid? I’m not sure how I’m supposed to react, but I’ve been gently smiling and nodding and letting them know that I have heard the news.

I like to think that Hitchens would be warmed to hear that a fascist dictator who brought pain and suffering to millions is dead. Yet, I do not know what he would have written, all I know is he would have written something. I’m saddened that I’ll never get the chance to read it. Whatever it may have been.

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

If You're Bored Then You're Boring

It has been a strange few weeks here against the rural backdrop. I haven’t really left Sachang-ri for 4 weeks aside from going to school. I’ve been saving money which has been going well. I did get out of town twice and both occasions were for school related activities. The first was for an open class in Hwacheon. The purpose of which I have still yet to decipher. From what I can determine, I can only assume that the county like to spend a great deal of money on food for all of the teachers. We got taken out for lunch after the open class. An open class is like any normal class aside from the fact that every teacher in the county is invited to watch. This time a Hwacheon middle school teacher was giving a class on personalities. It followed the same structure of nearly every other ESL class I have seen as examples of effective teaching. I don’t buy it, and I think both us native teachers, the Korean teachers and the council all know there is a problem with ESL education in this country, but nobody really knows what to do about it. Their solution is to promote these workshops as open discussions about how to improve our teaching. They are not. They are like many other things in this education system, a waste of time.

Enough of the negative. The second trip was to a ski resort in Chuncheon with my school. I was asked to participate but after much deliberation I politely declined. I didn’t want to risk yet another knee injury and I don’t really see the point in these high risk sports. You know what kind of injuries you can get doing this stuff? Is it really worth it? I felt guilty for a time but I watched the kids learning to ski from the sidelines with several other teachers who were complaining about how bored they were. I don’t know why they all had to be there. However, much to the teacher’s surprise, I wasn’t bored. I quite like time to just sit and watch the world go by, so I had a fantastically relaxing day on the slopes. I got to mess about with the kids over lunch, there’s this one 2nd grader who loves poking me and calling me ugly. As long as he is using English, right?

I got a lift home that day from the school Taekwondo teacher who cordially invited me to join his Taekwondo club. I’m a sucker for being way too polite to people and it lands me in these awfully sticky situations. I don’t want to offend the guy, but, I don’t want to go to a Taekwondo class with children. I’m not a very sporty person as it is, especially when it involves any kind of violence. I also don’t want to do myself an injury. I just want to write my book, which I’ve finished by the way. Wink. Lot’s of editing to be done on it though. Anyway, I’m digressing. I now have to await the day when the Taekwondo teacher asks me if I’m going to join his class, you must always have excuses pre-prepared. I hope he understands that I don’t want to offend him but would rather not go. That brings me nicely back to the case against ‘boredom’. One of the reasons he invited me was because he thought I would be bored in the evenings as I’m in a small town in a country where I don’t speak the language and don’t have friends or family on call. The Taekwondo teacher told me about how he goes to India every year to teach Taekwondo (I think) and how he gets bored and lonely there. He said he understands how I feel. Erm, no you don’t. I don’t get bored or lonely, I actually quite enjoy the time I have alone to work on my creative bits and bobs. It reminded me of that old Barenaked Ladies line “if you’re bored then you’re boring.” I have plenty of friends here and we have a great time together, I get out of the house all the time and am never bored. It’s tough to explain that through Konglish and without breaking some kind of cultural sensitivity barrier. It doesn’t matter.

I found out my winter camp schedule today. I have it pretty easy. My camp runs for 3 weeks, my longest day is 3 hours, my shortest is 1 hour. I’m hoping it will be a fun time spent with the kids. I need to get planning some of the classes though, as of yet, I’ve got nothing. I'm going to start working on it tomorrow. I’m quite looking forward to the camps and then onto my winter vacation. Phew, time flies. I’ve been here for four months now.

I hope this blog didn’t sound too whiney. You’re lucky I didn’t write about K-Pop like I was going to. We’ll save that for next time.

Monday, 5 December 2011

School Days

So, it’s undeniable. Nathanael had a great idea. He recently posted a blog about his students and I thought it would be a good idea to steal his idea ad write about my students. I’m sure both blogs will be vastly different as we’re obviously writing about different humans. Nathanael can take credit though.

There aren’t many students at my school that I don’t like. Sure, some of them can be annoying at times but for the most part they are friendly, eager to learn and a joy to be around. I didn’t really have any expectations before coming to my school. Mainly because I didn’t know what level I would be teaching. Working with EPIK is a risk, you could get any school, at any level in any region of the country and you don’t find out where you are being placed until the day before. Orientation certainly prepares you for the best and worst case scenarios but in terms of what to except from the students, I’ll be honest, I had no idea.

Kids are kids. No matter where you are they are genuinely free spirited, open minded sponges with a youthfully naive world view. They are fun, excitable and emotional. I’ve even read about children in North Korea getting into trouble for being this way (making eye contact with foreigners), which is absurd, a kid is a kid. At the same time they have these vibrant and individual personalities from the youngest of ages. If I was going to be teaching elementary then that’s exactly what my expectations were, and obviously they were right.

I’ll talk about each of my classes one by one to give you an idea of the personalities of my students. I know a lot of their names by now but most Korean names all sound the same so it can be tough sometimes, where I don’t know a student’s name I’ll just describe them.

Firstly, Kindergarten, I have about eight to ten students in my kindergarten class, they never all seem to be there at the same time. I teach them once a week in the kindergarten classroom at the end of the school corridor. They are probably (without accounting for sixth grade) my most well behaved class. Which is insane. Before the lesson when I’m setting up my materials they are usually deadly quiet and as soon as I start teaching they get really excited and involved without being at all disruptive. There is no curriculum for these kids so I just teach them whatever I want. This week was weather, as its snowing and all. There is a very cute little girl who always wears a different pink dress that sits right at the front of class and likes to dance with me during songs. She also likes to dance with me at the bus stop as her family must own the shop directly opposite. Her English isn’t very good at all, in fact it’s probably the lowest in the class but she is easily my favourite. There aren’t any little brats in this class. All of the students join in, sing the songs, repeat the words and play the games and I usually read them a story every week that they have no way of understanding. The words ‘one more time’ gets used a great deal when they want to read it again though.

My first grade class is my least favourite group of kids. I don’t dread teaching them but they can get out of control sometimes. There used to be six of them but one has been missing for about two months now, I assume I’m down to five. Three boys and two girls. One girl is very good at English and picks words and phrases up straight away and the other girl tries really hard but sometimes just can’t grasp it. They are both lovely but often get dragged down by the boys. Out of the three boys one is really well behaved and really proficient in English, one gets it sometimes and other times can’t be bothered and the other will probably never pick it up. I don’t quite know what his deal is, he likes to get up at the front of the class with me and mimic everything I do. What I point to, he points to. What actions I do, he does. When I walk, he walks. The only thing he doesn’t copy is the damn language. When my first grade co-teacher is in the room with me the class goes smoothly and I feel like they learn a lot, however, when she’s not there, they go mental. They are hard to control with no Korean but some tactics I use are sitting down in the middle of the disturbing table. This always gets their attention back to me in a comedic way. I’ll be really silent and just single out one student to stare at, this eventually works but takes some time. Other times I’ll just start doing some crazy things at the front of the class to get their attention back. I never raise my voice in class. I will never raise my voice in class. I despise any teacher who ever raises their voice in class. The only time my voice will be loud is when teaching them new words or sentences. First grade is usually the only class that needs any kind of disciplinary action though.

Second grade used to be my favourite class but not so much anymore. They are a great bunch though. There is one little chubby kid who always wears a waistcoat and whose English is far above the level of the rest of the class. He always answers my questions and helps me calm the rest of the class down. Sometimes he’ll get so annoyed at the rest of the class he’ll start kicking and screaming. He’s amazing. There is one kid who marvels at using the English I’ve taught him to describe my features."Teacher ugly,""Teacher fat." Shit like that. He’s amazing. There are lots of girls in this class, in fact those are the only 2 boys in the class of 8. They are very good at English and pick things up very easily. I have a lot of fun with this class. We play lots of games and laugh a bunch. Recently we learnt the months of the year and every time it got to October and I said Octopus they would crack up. It’s the simple things.

Third grade are a good bunch. There is one girl in particular who likes to pull funny faces with me. I also play the what’s the loudest noise you can make without laughing game with students as they come into class. They always laugh. They are good at English, but it takes some effort. There is one kid with an annoyingly whiny voice and another kid who is sometimes on the bus with me in the morning. They are well behaved and I rarely have problems with them unless they are screaming ‘game, game’ but they know we’ll always get to a game eventually. I just have as much fun with these kids whilst teaching them English as I can. This class has grown on me in the last few weeks and I look forward to my after school classes with them.

Fourth grade are now my favourite class and its the class whom my main co-teacher is in charge of. I eat lunch with them everyday and have a hilarious time with them in every single after school class. I recently gave a class with a student (Ji-Su?) on the back of my shoulders. The week after that I gave a class wearing his glasses, although I gave them back eventually as he couldn’t see the words on the power point. This is also the class with my little trouble maker Min-Su. He’s amazing. The teachers just treat him wrongly. He hates English they say, but he doesn’t. Back when I taught supplementary classes which were classes for the students who were bad at English he would take part all the time. He just finds it boring. He spends most of the class drawing on his English book and if that energy he has for drawing was just harnessed by the teachers rather than downtrodden then he would be able to pick things up. He is disciplined totally out of proportion and I feel kind of sorry for the guy. I’ve got him sitting at the front with everyone now where as he used to sit at the back alone, and he actually hangs around for after school classes sometimes as well, when he does I make an effort to include him any way I can. The class has 3 boys and 3 girls. The other two boys (not Minsu) are great, they say they are dumb but they aren’t and they do try. The girls are great at English and pick things up almost instantly. Fourth grade are a joy.

In fifth grade there are three students. This used to be my favourite class but fourth grade has been so great recently that nobody comes close. There are 2 girls and 1 boy, both girls are pretty good at the language but Sun-Young (the boy) struggles a little although he is improving. I teach fifth and sixth grades with a separate specialist English teacher and he is fantastic at his job. These classes are often highlights of the week. I also teach them for 40 minutes on my own once a week. With fifth grade these are some of my best classes as I can really teach them something as they understand so much already. A great bunch of kids.

Sixth grade is hell. My 40 minute class with them every Friday is something I dread. There are two girls, Yu-Jin and So-Woon. They are both good at English but they are unbelievably disinterested, Yu-Jin more so than So-Woon. They do homework in class, they speed through the text book activities before I have a chance to get to them, and they are so quiet and reserved. I guess they are just getting ready for middle school but it can be really tough to teach these two. Mainly because it’s hard to get them motivated. Sometimes it works, other times it doesn’t. Every week I come out of class and tell myself that I must try harder with them. They’ll be leaving soon anyhow.

So that’s my school and my kids, I would talk a bit about the teachers I work with but I’ll save that for another time. For now my well traveled followers I bid you farewell.

Monday, 28 November 2011

The Shire

"Do you remember the Shire, Mr. Frodo? It'll be spring soon. And the orchards will be in blossom. And the birds will be nesting in the hazel thicket. And they'll be sowing the summer barley in the lower fields... and eating the first of the strawberries with cream. Do you remember the taste of strawberries?" - Samwise Gamgee, The Return of the King

At orientation we were taught about something called ‘culture shock’. We were taught that culture shock comes in three stages. The first stage is the honeymoon period. What this means is that when you move to a new country, for the first few weeks or months that you are there, you bliss out. Everything seems fascinating to you, you are swept up in the new culture, you are overwhelmed by the new sounds and smells, you are enthralled by all of the new experiences you are having and life on the whole feels like one long holiday.

The second stage is the negotiation stage and I’m not sure why they called it that. Basically it means that after some time (usually around three months, depending on the person) the stark differences between the new culture and your home culture start becoming more apparent and begin to create anxiety. Everything about the new culture that during the honeymoon period you found exciting becomes irksome and annoying. Frustration and anger sets in, just hearing the language of the people in the new culture gives you goose bumps, you start to feel totally disconnected from society. After a few weeks of this; homesickness usually sets in and you start to truly miss those aspects of home which you took for granted whilst you were living there. You long for the familiarity which you are used to, and you would do almost anything to go home for a long weekend. That’s what I understood of the negotiation phase.

The third stage was called adjustment. This is when stage one and stage two, sync up. This usually comes at about six months when one has grown used to living in the new culture and it starts becoming familiar. You get into a routine and become concerned with basic living again rather than longing for things which you can’t have.

They say this is also true of returning home. When you first get home after being away for an extended period of time you experience a honeymoon period, where you see all of your friends and go back to all those places you longed for in the negotiation stage. Then the negotiation stage hits and you start to miss things that had become familiar to you in the foreign culture, and then finally things sync up again.

I’m not sure how much truth there is to any of this. It sounds a little too orderly to be one hundred percent accurate in describing how one truly feels about living in a new culture, miles away from home. I can’t say I really experienced a honeymoon stage or a negotiation stage rather I’ve experienced them both side by side since arriving here. Sometimes I’m fascinated by the language and other times it drives me mental. Sometimes I love the food other times I hate it. Sometimes I really miss home and the familiarity of England, other times I’m not so bothered and am swept up in experiencing this new place.

I had never been incredibly fond of where I came from. There were things about England that really grinded my gears. The things that irritated me about England were obviously swooping stereotypes and minor political grievances but when I was living in England they felt important. Important enough at least for me to want to pack my bag and see what it was like on the other side of the world. Then you get here and those sweeping stereotypes don’t disappear, those minor political grievances are just as apparent in the new culture as they were back home.

I have realised that I really like living in England, I have realised that perhaps England is where I truly belong, where I feel safe and comfortable. This by no means suggests that I don’t want to travel and continue to experience new cultures, but it does suggest that the place I call home is not the open road but is indeed the green, shady, shire. The stereotypes that I used to despise have begun to become things which I miss.

If coming here has taught me anything it's that England is where I'm 'meant to be'. It's where I have a sense of belonging. I guess this experience has given me some perspective. I miss the sun rising through the mist of the New Forest, I miss taking the dog for a walk, I miss my car and the freedom it allowed me, I miss my friends and my family, I miss going for a run in the forest early in the morning before work, I miss the bookstore I used to work in, I miss being able to communicate 'easily' with people who understood my 'place' in society. Korea has been a tough, thrilling, exciting and life changing experience, and I’m excited about the rest of my time here, but eventually, I look forward to going back to somewhere I can finally call 'home'.

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

50 Words for Snow

I downloaded the new Kate Bush album ‘50 Words for Snow’ last night, little did I know I’d be actually seeing snow the next day. I didn’t expect the snow to arrive as early as it has. It’s so cold now that I doubt we’ll be seeing the back of it for a while. Two weeks ago it was still pretty warm here up by the North Korean border, then over night it just turned bitterly cold.

I arrived at the bus stop this morning to be told that my bus wasn’t running. As I don’t speak Korean I couldn’t ask why, or what I should do about it. Luckily there was a kind Korean bus driver who still needed to get to Damok so he gave me a ride in his car. I got to work at the usual time. In Sachang-ri there was still no snow, the ground was wet and walking to the bus stop I remember thinking that it wasn’t nearly as cold as yesterday. Half way down the main road to my school and there was snow all over the ground, hugging trees and licking the pavements. The school looked beautiful this morning under the shade of the mountain covered in a fresh layer of the white stuff. My 4th graders have challenged me to a snow ball fight at lunch time. This could turn out badly for me.

Nathanael and I were right to climb the mountain for sunrise last weekend, as I think it’s too cold now. We got up at 3:30am and hiked to the top of the smaller mountain which lies just south of town. It wasn’t as cold as I thought it would be and the closer we got to the top the more layers I found myself removing. From there we hoped to hike to a taller peak to watch the sunrise, but it was pitch black and our flash light wasn’t as bright as it should have been and the long and short of it is that we just couldn’t find the trail. We ended up lounging about on a Korean gazebo on top of the small peak and we watched the misty morning get its first sprinkling of light from there. Still a well worthwhile experience and we were back home by 8:30am. The rest of the day ahead.

As many of you know as I don’t stop going on about it most of my time over the past two weeks has been spent writing my 50,000 word novel. NaNoWriMo stands for National Novel Writing Month and is an opportunity for writers to get the motivation they need to sit down and write that book they’ve always said they have in them. There’s a wonderful Christopher Hitchens quote in which he says: “everyone does have a book in them, for most of them, that’s where it should stay,” and while this is humorously true I’ve been writing since I was in college, and not so seriously for years before that, and NaNoWriMo has given me the motivation to stop making excuses. I’m writing at home, I’m writing at work, I’m writing on the bus, all to reach the goal of a 50,000 word novel by the end of November, and its going pretty well. I’m over half way.

As I’ve been working frantically on my book there’s really not a lot to report on life in Korea. It is drifting by much the same as it always has. School is good, teaching is good, and life is on the whole pretty good as well. There are still communication problems, I’m still finding certain aspects of life here hard to grasp, and I still don’t know the dates for my winter vacation. We trudge on blindly through the wilderness.

The snow is here now, and I’m looking forward to winter here in the most Northern area of Korea. It’s going to be a beautiful December, and I can pretty much guarantee a white Christmas.

See you soon my sometime friends. Be well, be reckless.

Monday, 14 November 2011

An Unconventional Blog About Pepero and Planes

Pepero is a stick of biscuit coated in a thin layer of chocolate. The western equivalent is Mikado. They have been manufactured by Lotte since 1983. On the 11/11 every year South Korea celebrates Pepero Day because 11/11 looks like 4 sticks of Pepero. This has been an observance since around 1994 and is similar to Valentines Day. You give boxes of Pepero to the ones you love, young people tend to just give them to whoever. It’s a huge deal here and people take it way more seriously than I’m going to give them any credit for. It’s a strange affair mainly because Lotte have a major hold on the Pepero Day market. They do about 60% of their Pepero business during November and they must make a bucket load from it. It’s rather strange. I was laying into the hypocrisy of it all on my Facebook profile the morning of Pepero Day and then to my surprise my students graciously bombard me with boxes and tubes and sticks of Pepero. I now have more of the stuff than I could ever consume! It was lovely of them though and I’m sure it means they like me, at least enough to give me chocolate biscuits, which is just enough in my book.

I like airports.

That’s wrong. I suppose like isn’t the correct word. I appreciate them. Philosophically, of course. They make me feel a certain way. Even though they are these totally contrived spaces. Clean, orderly and efficiently structured for advertisers they are pleasant places to be, right? In arrivals this is obvious. Never is there a dull face, everyone is either waiting in anticipation to meet and greet a loved one whom they haven’t seen for a long time, or they are in the process of meeting and greeting. It’s a beautiful place where there are more smiles than frowns and it gives me a much needed confidence boost in the human race. Departures are a different story. Sometimes there can be tears. People saying goodbye to people whom they won’t see in a long time. A place where business is going on and the hustle is getting bustled.

Nowhere is the airports charm more concentrated than on the screens that line the terminal walls of a departure lounge, these screens imply a feeling of infinite possibility, with ease you can impulsively approach a desk and within a few hours be taking off to a destination completely alien to the one you are currently in. You can fly home from here, from being abroad. The sheer possibility of it all is electric. Yet, this weekend I found myself in the departure terminal saying goodbye. As much as I ‘appreciate’ airports, this is never an entirely pleasant affair.

I’m jumping around a bit.

We booked into a hostel but the hostel didn’t have room for us so why did they take our booking in the first place? Anyway, don’t worry Mr. Kim has a solution as he walks us across the street to his house. He gives us some bed sheets and tells us to make ourselves at home but there is no way we are staying here! We spend the next two hours scouring the streets of Hongdae (a University district of Seoul close to the Airport Railroad) for a hotel to crash for the night. We do not want to sleep in Mr. Kim’s house. After a very long and tiring walk through the streets and alleyways we come across a hotel and we approach the desk and low and behold we have a room. We check out of Mr Kim’s house, we get our money back and we take our business elsewhere.

We eat burgers.

Museums can be boring. (stay with me folks I’m not being ignorant, I promise) I was going to write fucking boring then but I didn’t know who would be reading this but now I’ve said it and now you all know that occasionally I swear. I don’t think you should just swear for the sake of swearing, but occasionally situation is called for, for a little f’ing and blinding, and we all enjoy ourselves. Anyway, museums, right, we went to the Korean Museum this weekend. It was a huge museum and architecturally it was astounding. Huge sheets of glass swooping through the air with an astounding view of Seoul tower. Do you remember when I said museums were boring? I didn’t mean all museums. I meant museums you have no interest in, and you know what I have no interest in? Korean ancient writing, or Korean ancient art, how many pieces of hangul on parchment can you look at when you don’t read the language. You can certainly appreciate them as monuments of a by-gone age, glimpses into history but how many of them must you really see before this feeling of awe for the sheer magnitude of time is eradicated. This museum was big, and unlike something like; The British Museum (a museum I have a place in my heart for) there wasn’t much variety at the Korean museum, in fact it was all very sameish and it probably would have helped if I spoke a lick of the language. The museum shop was wonderful though and I picked up a lot of gifts for people back home. I feel like a right capitalist.

The streets of Myeong-dong are full of hip teenagers and young girls dressed in scantily clad clothes, fish nets and bleach blonde hair. Leather. Harajuko. Gothic Lolitas. Vintage. American. Retro. Femme Fatale. Indie. Hipster. Peruvian. Punk. Scenester. Perfecto. Motorhead. Fetish. Yeah, I know nothing about fashion but what I do know is all of these trendy styles come together on the streets of Myeon-dong in Seoul. It’s a busy shopping district and one of those ‘cool’ areas with a hip reputation, much like the Soho of London, but blended with a little Oxford Street. It’s a cool place to hang out and an even cooler place to buy a hooded sweater with a massive duck on the front, which was basically my mission and you’ll be happy to know that the mission was successful.

We’re sat in Paris Croissant (I had to spell check Croissant). We have ordered a Kiwi shake, an ice tea, some clam chowder and a Panini. In airports you can get all varieties of world foods, a welcome change from Korean dining. We eat. We talk. We leave. Natalie sets forth through the gates to customs and I walk back towards the airport railroad. It’s strange not having her around anymore, even walking back to the airport railroad. I go to buy a ticket and the Koreans are having some kind of problem with the machine so I have to wait. I take the train back to the bus and get the bus back to home and I walk in my front door and I’m alone again. Natalie will return in January and we’re going to be heading to Japan for winter vacation which is something well worth looking forward too. She’s probably up in the clouds by now. She obviously was, she was on a plane.

I went and hung out with Ben for a few hours I skyped Reno which was a pleasure, I skyped my grandparents whose voices it was great to hear and I skyped home which is always lovely. I went to bed.

I’m saving money over the next two months so won’t be going to Seoul again for a while. I’m planning on climbing a mountain next weekend before it’s too late and the snow falls. I’m hoping to get up at 4:00am and hike to the peak to watch the sunrise. I’m going to do a lot of writing and eat a lot of cheap food. So, who knows what my next blog will be about. Keep your ear to the ground.

I'm listening to Suzanne by Leonard Cohen. There is ice outside the window but the sun is shining. This week I will have been in Korea for three months. That's a quarter of the way through my contract. There is chanting coming from the Buddhist temple. The office is empty and my Kindergarten class has been cancelled. I appreciate airports. They keep us connected. Without them. Even with the world so readily connected we would still be much further apart.

Monday, 7 November 2011

More Cultural Reflections from South Korea

Much like living and working anywhere in the world, living and working here in Korea brings with it some problems, some twists and turns, if you will. Sometimes these are minor issues that may well be situation specific and other times they can be larger problems or issues that you find from town to town and from school to school.

Let me give you an example. This is an issue that is both a large problem and situation specific depending on your situation you may be able to deal with it in easy or hard ways, for me this is a defining annoyance of living in Korea. Every month I get four bills. They are cheap bills. Much like anyone living in Korea per month your electricity bill will be no more than about 20,000 (10 pounds), your water will be about 30,000 (15 pounds), my internet is 19,000 (about 10 pounds) and your gas can be anywhere from 40,000 (20 pounds) to 100,000 (50 pounds) depending on how much heating you have used. This is cheap and cost effective living so what’s the problem? The problem is paying the bills. Banks are open from 9 – 5 Monday to Friday. The only way you can pay your bills here is to take your bills to the bank and have them process them for you. I work from 9 – 5 Monday to Friday, and my school is nowhere near a bank. Issue. How do I pay my bills? Well, you can also use a special ATM to pay your bills at the bank between 8 and 10 everyday. However, the machine that allows you to do this in our town is broken or just not switched on. This makes for heavy annoyance. I’m going to have to ask my school if I can leave early tomorrow so I can get these bills paid as it’s been plaguing me. That’s not however the point. The point is, things shouldn’t be that awkward and difficult. That is a common trait within this culture and the‘zeitgeist’ is definitely to blame.

This brings me to the ‘everything is last minute’ cultural trait. Sometimes I prepare a class. I go to class. The students don’t turn up. I wait for around 10 minutes and my co-teacher will come in and tell me ‘this class is cancelled today’, sometimes I don’t get told at all. There was a music festival at my school this weekend that I wasn’t told about until 2 days before, when I was asked to attend. I had already made plans so couldn’t, mainly because that’s not enough notice, right? There was once a school meal in the evening after work that I was asked to attend, I found out about the meal at about 3 o clock the day of the meal. Too late. Have plans. I’m planning to go to Japan for my three week winter vacation. So booking flights and a little forward planning is imperative, right? Wrong. I might not find out when my vacation will be until the very last minute. So why is everything so very last minute? The main reason is probably hierarchy.

Culturally it would be rude to ask a superior (who is older than you) about when something is happening. It is up to them to tell you. If they don’t tell you. Which is often the case. There’s not much you can do about it. There is no questioning of authority here. If an elder says something. What they say goes. This creates all kinds of issues and makes for a sometimes tough existence. You learn to live with it. I still feel a bit like a child in totally new surroundings. Testing things out. Learning how things work. It’s a very surreal experience.

Don’t get the wrong end of the very long stick though my sometime friends. I enjoy my job immensely and living here is a big adventure. The best times on the job are of course the times spent with the kids in the classroom. This is a great place to be and it's a lot of fun teaching here. But the but is that there are a lot of cultural and language barriers to overcome outside of the classroom that can make things difficult. The best way to cope. The best thing to do. Is roll with it. Go with the flow. I-Ching. Adapt. It’s the only way. Otherwise you’ll spend all your time worrying.

Other things can be easy though. I’ve had a bad cough this last week and by Wednesday I had, had enough of it. So I went to the pharmacy, pointed to my throat and coughed and for 5000 won (about 2 pounds 50) I was given 2 lots of tablets and a cough drink and was feeling better in days. Magic. So Korean medicine gets a thumbs up.

We had a quiet weekend this weekend. We went shopping in Chuncheon to the big E-Mart superstore. Oh, that reminds me. Koreans are still the slowest moving, slowest doing humans on the planet. At one point I turned to my friends and said (about a man walking in front) “he’s not even walking, he standing still quickly”. It’s ridiculous. Everything else is done slowly as well which probably stems from the Confucius history of the place. Be at peace. Take it easy. But really, is there any need to walk THAT slowly?

Sunday was spent mostly in Sachang-ri and me, Natalie and Nathanael had a game of Scrabble whilst listening to some Bon Iver. Which was nice. Felt like a Sunday. It was gloomy outside, we had a walk around town. Relaxing.

So on with the week, about to go to lunch and grill my co-teacher about winter vacation and paying bills. Wish me luck. You never know, she might not understand a word I’m saying.

It’s all fun and games.

Monday, 31 October 2011

It's Always Magic at Everland

Everland Resort is much like many other theme parks across the world but its unique (especially for me) as it’s in Korea (this opens it up to all kinds of strange possibilities, huh?). There was a lot of debate as to what we were going to do over Halloween weekend. It was originally going to be spent at the Busan Firework Festival where we would also swim with sharks, but that fell through so we started thinking up other ideas. I came up with Everland, a theme park literally 40 minutes away from central Seoul. We expected it to be really busy on Saturday, especially since the park was holding a Halloween Horror Night. Alas, we woke up to a small downpour on Saturday morning (made hilarious by the fact that Natalie left her shoes outside of the hostel door the night before thus allowing them to get absolutely drenched over night). We hoped this downpour would deter the crowds from the park, which to some extent it did. We hopped on the tube which is always a fascinating people watching experience. There was a drunk (or at least very tired) overweight Korean falling asleep on the shoulder of a young Korean lady who he didn’t know. You had to be there. It was hilarious. After the subway ride it’s a 40 minute bus journey across town and through the misty weather to the Everland bus terminal.

Entrance to the park is much like any theme park, there is fantasy music playing and people dressed in costumes in a mythical magic castle type setting. It sucks you in and entices you to enter and get swept away (spend your money) for the day. We started off by checking out the Go Africa exhibit where you could feed some birds, spy on some rather large tarantulas, and watch a hyena get very horny as he tried to get it on with his female friends. I had never seen a hyena before; they are actually quite majestic and fascinating to watch.

Not all of the rides were open at the beginning of the day so we had to wait a while. We did manage to get on the carousel (slow but no queue), the haunted house (where you’re given a laser gun to shoot things with), and the rotating house (an experience much like HEX at Alton Towers). All of which were pretty fun. After this we got some lunch at the European themed section of the park, I had a sausage selection and it was wonderful.

After lunch fantastic news, the rides are all open. Let’s go! How long is the queue? 80 minutes. Damn! So we queued. And we queued and we eventually got on the ride, which has an almost vertical drop on a wooden roller coaster (it’s called the T-Express if you’re interested enough to look it up). It was super fast and didn’t work wonders for my headache. I was actually pretty terrified on that ride, as you slowly turn the corner and see the sheer drop in front of you. After the ride to recover we went to check out the animals. They have an amazing selection here and loads of animals I had never seen before. We saw a beaver making himself a damn, loads of orang-utans and chimps, tigers, lions and some exotic creatures that I can’t remember the names of. Oh, and polar bears.

What? Yes. Polar bears. World population: between 20,000 and 25,000. It was a privilege to see them even if they were in a cage, but its good that there is some conservation work going on for these animals. They are stunning. You can get really close to the animals on this side of the globe, nothing near the amount of health and safety there is in England. So, it was a pretty good time. Polar bears! I know, right?

Once we had checked out the animals and gone on a lame water ride we went and watched the parade. A sickening experience akin to a Disney parade where people are dressed up in scary animal costumes dancing around singing overly happy songs on top of floats. Magic? Maybe. Then we went on a pirate boat which made my stomach do back flips. Oh, and the cat show, another sickening experience where cats are exploited live on stage performing tricks to an overly excited audience. I didn’t know cats could do tricks like that, but come to think of it, I didn’t care.

Night was ascending and we went and had some more food before getting in line for the horror maze. Where you walk around a very dark building with live actors inside who try and freak you out. The live actors succeeded and I was scared, its this over active imagination of mine. The theme was abandoned hospital and there were people in bloody hospitals gowns chasing you, jumping out on you, following you in wheel chairs and grabbing your feet. Spooky. The whole park was dressed up for Halloween and in horror village everyone was dressed up for a spooky old time.

We had some time left so we went on the Safari. Something very similar to that of Jurassic Park, with big gates that you drive through. They had lions, white tigers, a liger (never seen one of them before, mental), elephants, and these bears that were really playful but if they decided to get less playful and more angry I swear their paws could easily go through the safari cars windows.

After walking around a little more we left to get back to Seoul for about 10pm. I was knackered. As was everyone as far as I could tell. Had a wicked kiwi ice shake on the way out. It tasted so good after a long day!

On Sunday we went to the Korean War Memorial to go to the body worlds exhibit. The exhibit puts on display plasticised bodies (all the bodies that are preserved have been donated, mostly by people who declared while living that they would like their bodies to be plastinated to advance human knowledge). The bodies are pumped full of plastic replacing the water in the bodies cells wit plastic and so on and so forth. It was fascinating. Parts of it creeped me out though and made me really consider my health. They would display normal sliced up brains next to sliced up stroke victims brains (knowing they were real made it quite intense) and it makes you really think about how well you look after yourself. Health is important it seems and I should stop eating burgers. Normal lungs next to cancerous ones, heads chopped in half, dead babies from embryo to nine months showing the progression of human development in the womb. If you’re not squeamish the exhibition is well worth it and can be seen in different cities across the whole world. It’s educational, it’s exciting and its entertaining. You come out a more health aware and health conscious human and you are in a way more appreciative of the fragility of your life. Not every exhibit can boast that, right?

Monday, 24 October 2011

Joint Security Area, DMZ

Ok, so the De-Militarized Zone, right. Phew, I’m overwhelmed. I’m exhausted at the thought of trying to document everything I saw and learnt. Let’s start with the basics:

The De-Militarized Zone or ‘DMZ’ is a 4km wide and 250km long band of land that divides the border between North and South Korea, 2km of the width belong to the South and 2km by the North. The border is heavily guarded (the most heavily guarded border in the world) on both sides. It was designated at the end of the Korean war in 1953 and hasn’t changed much since, it being, the consequence of a stalemate. Technically, these countries (with polar opposite ideologies) are still at war with one another, though this strip of land keeps that war to some extent, at bay. The JSA or Joint Security Area is the only populated area of the DMZ and it is where both forces face off on a daily basis.

The first stop on our tour was the Freedom Bridge.

Let me back track, our tour guide was called Mr. Kim. He called Kim Jung Il his ‘brother’ because they shared a last name. I’m not sure if this was because whilst in the Joint Security Area he wasn’t allowed to mention Kim Jung Il so by calling him his brother he could openly talk about him, or because he was a bit weird. He was very enthusiastic and nearly the whole journey he was giving us information about the history of the DMZ. He also filled us in on the rules of visiting the JSA.

The rules: No pointing (it might look like your pulling out a gun), no reaching for things inside pockets (it might look like your pulling out a gun) if the North Korean guards think you have a gun, they will shoot you. No questions asked. No torn clothing. No sandals, high heels etc (you need to be able to run if things kick off), no photo’s (only when you are told to take photos can you take photos), you will walk in orderly lines to the designated areas of the tour. There were more rules, but I forget.

So, the first stop was the Freedom Bridge. This bridge was where the last train to enter the North and vice versa rode across; it is also where the repatriated prisoners of war and serving soldiers returned from the North. It is right on the DMZ fence and there are several roads that lead into the North here. There are wishes and dreams of reunification and freedom stuck to the fence in this area, mostly written by Koreans but there were some English signs as well. You can also see the train that came from the North, it is full of bullet holes and is rusted into an early grave, but it sits there, a monument to the past.

Next we arrive at the first military checkpoint to have our passports checked before entering the DMZ. Then you enter the second checkpoint where your passports are checked again along with your dress code, once you’ve gone through a few more checkpoints you get to Freedom House, essentially the Joint Security Area visitor centre. We sat and watched a presentation about the Korean War, the DMZ, and North Korea. It was an interesting presentation albeit a biased one, with some strange assumptions getting made throughout (thus seems to be the way with Korean tourism). After this, before you know it, you are back in your coach, and you pull up outside a rather grandiose looking building. You are lined up. You walk up some stairs. Bang. There you are. The JSA. North Korea. There is a North Korean guard who stares at you from the other side, when the tour group steps out it is his job to take photographs of you and watch you like a hawk through binoculars. You are instructed not to make any eye contact with the North Koreans and not to gesture to them in any way.

There is a line of concrete in the middle of the road which is the actual border line between North and South Korea. The buildings on either side of this line are for meetings and negotiations and you are directed into the centre building. Followed by armed guards who stand with you in the building whilst you look around, this is where you can actually step foot on North Korean soil. The border line in this room runs along the centre table and in-between the legs of the guard standing in the middle. You are instructed not to touch him and not to walk between him and the table, oh, but you can take a photo with him. Weird.

So, what would happen if you were to just run for it? Well, this would be the most ridiculously stupid place to do this, however, if you were from the South running North, the South Korean guards would do everything they could to stop you, but if you made it, there’s nothing they can do. The North will probably not shoot at you and will take you in for questioning and try and find some use for you. Apparently there’s some German guy who comes every year and tries to make it across, apparently he thinks he’s destined to save the North Korean people. What a douche.

Now, if you’re coming the other way, from North to South, it’s a different story. In 1984, a Soviet tour guide did a runner. Several North Korean guards followed him across, guns blazing. South Korean guards fired back and eight North Koreans were shot, three killed. Yeah. I know!

After you’ve experienced this for a while you are escorted out and then led back to the coach. You drive around a little more, you see the bridge of no return which is where the two countries orchestrated their POW exchanges after the war. It is aptly named because any POW who crossed this bridge was never allowed back. The dramatic tensions of this somewhat alludes me, I guess it was tougher if you were North Korean.

You also pass a plaque which is where a tree used to stand. What’s that about? Well, back in the 70’s, in the summer months this tree would block the view of the South Koreans watching another South Korean outpost. So, in 1976, the South decided to chop the tree down. This led to what is now known as the 1976 Axe Murder Incident, a stupid name if you ask me. Basically, they tried to chop the tree down, the North got pissed and started yelling ‘Stop’, they didn’t stop so the North retaliated, the North Koreans grabbed some axes and clubs and went cave man on their asses. They killed one US soldier and injured others. The next day, the South came back, with a convoy of 23 vehicles and sixteen men with chainsaws to chop the tree down, oh and 2 lots of 64 armed guards, 20 utility helicopters, 8 attack helicopters, fighter planes and the works. The tree was chopped down. Now there’s a plaque.

From here you can see the North Korean ‘proper gander’ city. There stands the tallest flagpole in the world and atop that the second largest flag in the world. In the city beneath this, there is nobody. Nobody lives there, nothing goes on there. The North Koreans just got jealous of the flag that the South put up, so they put up a bigger one. South Korea has a farming village, so the North had to build a city. This is what they’re up against, a jealous, fascist, sociopathic infant.

They have a gift shop. I got some North Korean wine, and a shot glass. It is ridiculous to have a gift shop at the most heavily guarded border in the world though, right?

A fascinating trip however and there’s no way I can chronicle it all here, but hopefully that gives you an insight into my visit to the JSA.

What else did they have in the gift shop? Oh, bits of the fence, t-shirts, key chains, the usual. What a strange situation. Who knows what is going to happen?

Friday, 21 October 2011

Top Secret

Let me tell you a story about tea. No, no, that’s wrong. It’s about water really. Is it water? They say its water but it’s brown. Maybe it’s brown water? It doesn’t taste like water. Whatever ‘it’ is we have it every day at lunch and I hate it. It’s brown water and the taste is like nothing I’ve ever tasted before and all I wish is that we had real water. But we don’t.

I was told two weeks ago that we would be going hiking with the school on Thursday 20th. This is all I knew. Nothing else was mentioned. So, Thursday rolls around and I’m assuming that we are all going to go hiking with the kids, chase butterflies, play pooh sticks and sing marching songs. I was wrong. This was a staff only trip. Strange, because we left the school at 1:30, leading to the cancellation of three of my classes. No matter. Me, the vice principle, the janitor and the accountant set off together. None of them speak any English. Fun.

We walked about 1km down the road outside of my school when we reached an army base. I didn’t think for a minute that this would be where we’d be heading. There was some commotion as we walked through the front gate. My VP started making phone calls as did the general in charge of the army base. I decipher the reason for the commotion is that I am foreign and I am not allowed on the army base. Several phone calls later, after getting increasingly nervous about the armed soldiers surrounding us we are given the all clear. I was allowed onto the army base to hike to the top of the mountain. I was the first foreign person ever in the history of Korea to be allowed into this army base and to be allowed to go to the top of this mountain. The general approached me, he was a friendly well built and sturdy fellow. He said, (in perfect English) “This is a secret base. Top secret. You cannot tell anybody about what you see”. Weird. “Of course”, I reply.

So here’s what I saw.

There were a few tanks knocking about the base, but we quickly proceeded up a trail into the forest. There was really very little to see aside from some ropes hanging from trees. It was like this pretty much the whole way up, some trees, some birds, some berries that my VP was plucking to his delight. We turned a corner and could see for miles and miles, I could almost see Sachang-ri from up there. In the other direction we could see the top of the mountain, a barbed wire fence with some outpost / lookout buildings on top.

On we trekked. Man, Koreans walk so slowly. My VP was apparently impressed with my ‘climbing ability’ but they were walking at such a pace that they would have been impressed with a snails hiking ability.

We eventually reached the top where the rest of the school was waiting. Apparently they took a car. What? That’s fair. Make the foreigner walk. Now, as I stand on top of the mountain I understand why I wasn’t allowed to talk about what I saw, because what I saw was North Korea. What I saw was the DMZ fence. And seriously, I will not mention what was on the mountain, because I promised I wouldn’t.

We talked a little about North Korea and the feelings the teachers had about reunification. The older generation seemed to have some deep emotions on the subject, talking about how hard it has been, the younger generation don’t seem to care a whole lot. The younger generations primary concerns seem to be purely financial: if reunification happened then what effect would it have on the Korean economy? I imagine it would be similar to what West Germany went through. South Korea would have to deal with a nation that is so astoundingly backwards when they themselves are on a jet plane into the future. It’s an interesting situation. It was a tiring hike and luckily we got a ride back to the bottom with some Korean soldiers who were very welcoming.

When we reached the ground we were taken for some snacks with the soldiers. I did not want to drink, the last time I was in a ‘drinking’ situation with my school they made me drink so much I ended up passing out on my bathroom floor. So, I came prepared.

“I can’t I’m afraid, I’m taking these tablets and can’t drink with them.” (hold up tablets as false proof)
“Oh, we understand.”

Sorted. I didn’t want to offend them but I also didn’t want to drink. After talking to the general (really his English was great) about his time with the UN in India and the Philippians (really interesting), and once everyone had finished drinking we all went for some food, which was pleasant. Although, the amount of courses was preposterous.

Home by 7:30. Duty of socialising with teachers complete. This weekend I go to the JSA and I’m looking forward to writing about it.

They took a photo of me atop the mountain and made me promise I’d never show anyone. Pointless.
It’s a strange old world.

Monday, 17 October 2011

Lazy Daze

This weekend was pretty quiet and steeped in anticipation of the arrival of my film. Friday night me and Natalie ordered a pizza, it was some kind of Bacon Supreme epic fill your stomach up to the brim pizza and was accompanied by wine and Scrabble with Nathanael and Russell. Nathanael is essentially the scrabble champion of the world and remains the undisputed and undefeated king of the scrabble ring. At one point he used up all of his letters and received a fifty point bonus. We all sucked. However, it was a fun relaxing night in. You see, we were going to go to Samcheok to see the underground caves this weekend but after much research we realised just how far this was, so we skipped out on it.

Saturday rolled around and we all got the 10:20 bus to Chuncheon. There’s a mountain in Chuncheon called Samaksan. It’s surrounded by beautiful waterfalls, temples and amazing rock formations. We thought we should probably check this out. Natalie was feeling a little worse for wear so we were taking it pretty easy. We got the bus to the mountain and started hiking, at first you go through this valley of rocks which takes you right next to these amazing little pools and waterfalls. Up quite a few steps and a rocky trail, about an hour and a half later we make it the temple which is near the top of the mountain but not quite there. As we reached the top the heavens they did open and it rained and rained and rained. We took shelter under the temple for a while and had some lunch before manning up and hiking back through the rain. After this we got the bus back to central Chuncheon and went to EMart to do some shopping. Natalie bought herself a new mug and we got some meat and fish in for the weekend. After this we got the bus back home. Oh, we had Dak Galbi. Obviously.

That evening Russell went drinking in Hwacheon with Ben, but Natalie had been ill so didn’t fancy it. Nor did I. Me, Nathanael and Natalie spent the evening watching crap youtube videos and an idiot abroad over some beers. Life in Korea isn’t all that unlike life anywhere else. There was a massive thunderstorm however and we thought it would be a good idea to go and watch it for a while. So, we did.

On Sunday it was still raining. We cooked some fish and potatoes for lunch and it tasted great! We went for a walk around Sachang and spent most of the day hanging out there. I noticed Ben walking outside my window and had an impromptu conversation with him. Apparently he thinks it wouldn’t be a problem if I went running on the track outside Sanae in the evenings, so I think I’m going to do that. I received my film but Ben didn’t feel up to anything (hungover) so we decided to watch it the next day. Me, Natalie and Nathanael (the ones who didn’t go drinking) went for some duck in duck village. I made duck village up, but the duck tasted good there. Another preferably lazy weekend that was then.

Next weekend the plan is to visit the JSA (Joint Security Area) which is where the North and South stand off, so next week I should have a pretty interesting blog for you. Until then chums. Until then...

Friday, 14 October 2011

Things That Aren't Really About Korea

As promised my first Korea vlog. Although, if you count the Apartment Tour (see below) my second.

Thursday, 13 October 2011

You Will Hate Japan, You Will, You Will

Seodaemun Prison was a forcibly built Japanese detention center constructed by the Japanese colonialists during the Japanese occupation of Korea between 1910 and 1945. They used the prison essentially to lock away any Korean nationalists who were fighting to liberate Korea from Japanese occupation. The prisons basement was used as a torture chamber to interrogate inmates who may have had information about the Korean Liberation Movement. Some of the torture devices and methods used are on display at the now aptly named Seodaemun Independence Park, which was the first stop on our school trip yesterday. Some of these methods included locking Korean inmates in boxes lined with nails and shaking the boxes, the classic water torture making inmates believe they were being drowned, putting in mates in coffin like boxes with no room to stand or sit properly, putting sharp needles underneath inmate’s fingernails and all other sorts of debauchery. (I must highlight the fact that while torture shouldn’t be used under any circumstances these inmates had not committed any crimes apart from fighting for the illegal occupation of their country to stop.)

So, naturally, taking a bunch of elementary school children who could never possibly conceive of such atrocities to this prison was a great idea. The kids didn’t really get it, and nor should they. They seemed to enjoy locking themselves in the coffin like boxes or running around the courtyard though. The aim, in my opinion, was to further promote the Korean ideology that you should hate Japan. Koreans (more specifically older Koreans) hate the Japanese. It’s not like the Irish hate the English or anything like that, I mean, they really hate the Japanese. It felt to me like the whole school trip was designed to get these kids to feel the same way. Of course, the kids are more switched on than that and it will probably not work, but I was blown away by the blatancy of the whole charade.

Ok, Japan did some pretty rough and tumble things to this country. Some unforgivable war crimes were committed, and some inconceivable tortures were dealt out. Can you really live in the past to that extent though? Maybe I can’t really understand because I come from one of the most brutal colonialist countries around, but the grudges held by countries who were occupied by the British Empire don't seem to be nearly as fired up as Koreans are about Japan. There’s this phrase here‘must have been made in Japan' which people say when something breaks. This whole Japan grudge is a huge part of the zeitgeist and I think it’s a little silly.

The prison was horrible however, and it reminded me of when I visited Alcatraz in San Francisco. There is something in the air, an eerie atmosphere that shrouds these old monuments of by gone brutalism. You feel guilty for being there. You look through cell windows into spaces that you could hardly move inside and think to yourself, wow, this was somebody’s home. Walking around the torture chamber was really disturbing and luckily I don’t think the kids really picked up on it. Long hallways with cells on each side, old abandoned buildings where lepers used to be kept away from healthier inmates, labour factories where inmates were forced to work 14 hours a day, a really wicked era. I don’t hold a grudge against the Japanese however. Although they suppressed the culture of Korea, tried to destroy the Korean language and tried to destroy or loot temples, monuments and scriptures, it was a part of the past and will remain that way. Yet, for the Korans who went through this, you do begin to understand why Koreans think like they do. This country has been scarred and continues to be (with North Korea's shadow looming) and you feel for such a kind people.

After visiting the prison we went to the palace that me and Natalie had visited a few weeks before. Same old stuff, Japan stole this, Japan stole that, we spent about half an hour walking around this place, a place that took me and Natalie a whole morning to walk around. A shame, I suppose.

After this we went to another palace called Gyeonbukgung palace. This is a much larger palace complex than Chungbeokgung and has a very tranquil pool surrounding one of the temples there. We spent longer here walking around the various buildings and gardens of a place steeped in cultural history. The teachers and kids mainly used this as a series of photo opportunities, with the occasional ‘this building was used for’ now get in front of it and pose. I suppose it stems from another Korean tradition in which look is more important than function. As long as something looks good then no matter, no worries. This was also prevalent on Sports Day and I’ve started to notice it more and more.

This has sounded a little negative and I don’t want it to. The kids enjoyed the trip, and so did I, although I spent most of the day on a coach. We got back at around six and me, Natalie and Nathanial went to get a chicken burger which we ate on the roof. I also found a group of Korean urban explorers on a Facebook group, there's photo's on the page of this old abandoned theme park called Okpo Land on the South Coast that I really want to go and check out. So, hopefully, we'll get down there at some point.

In other news the film me and Dave made before I came to Korea is finished and he sent it to me, I spent most of the day getting excited by the fact I’d be able to watch it. Alas, the file type was wrong (a Mac / PC issue) so I’ll have to wait a little longer until I get to see the finished product.

Last weekend was a quiet one, we had a stroll by the river, went to the Tomato sculpture park in town (crazy I know) ate lots of junk food, went for Chinese, and watched a Korean movie with Ben. So, this weekend, so as not to feel guilty, we are actually going to do something. (EDIT) We were going to go to the Penis Sculpture Park and Underground caves but it would take nearly 7 hours in total on a variety of buses to do it, so instead we are going to check out some sites in the local area.

Oh, and I will make a video blog soon, I promise.

Tuesday, 4 October 2011


We had a three day weekend as it was National Foundation Day here. I didn’t know what this meant, so I googled it, apparently this holiday celebrates the creation of the state of Gojoseon in the year 2333 BC. Weird how they have AD and BC. Maybe not that weird. Whatever, we had three days off. It was Russell’s Birthday on Friday so after work we brought a tonne of balloons and a Birthday cake, decorated the rooftop and surprised Russell with a Birthday party. I think he enjoyed it. We played drinking games, had pizza, and when the roof got too cold we went to Deanna’s room to continue the festivities. Actually, despite much partying we got to bed pretty early.

The next day, me, Natalie, Amanda and Nathanial got on the bus to Sokcho. Sokcho is actually pretty close to YangYang (where we went for the teaching workshop) so we all knew the area a little. We had to get an hour bus to Chuncheon and then another two hour bus to Sokcho. Amanda wanted to do a zipline that she had heard about on the beach, so we headed off in that direction. Despite Natalie being a little reluctant to chain herself to a wire and get pushed off of a tower over the sea we all enjoyed the zip wire. It wasn't quite as big as the one we had done at Nami Island, but it was beautiful never the less. The sea was rough and we walked back along the coast, stopping off to gaup at some odd rock formations along the way. Afterwards, we hitched a taxi back to central Sokcho and had some food at an all you can eat restaurant. The food was great, as much meat, fish and vegetables as you could possibly want, cooked on an iron plate in the middle of your table. It was delicious and although it took us a while to figure out it was all you can eat, we clocked on eventually. It was cheaper if you had beer as well, so we did. 8,000 won for all the beer and food you could drink and eat. That’s about four pounds. Beat that.

After traipsing around town for a while we eventually found a lovely guest house to stay in for the night which was pretty much next door to the bus station. The room was 30,000, about fifteen pounds, split between the two of us (per room) that was 15,000 about seven pounds. Seven pounds! Maybe holiday inn should look at their prices. Huh?

The next day we went to Seoraksan National Park. That place is beautiful, apparently it’s the most beautiful national park in Korea, apparently all Koreans know this, apparently that’s why half of Seoul was there! It was busy! I have never seen a national park as busy as this. When I hiked Yosemite I passed maybe twenty or thirty other hikers. Here, try thirty thousand, all hiking the same trail. There are of course hundreds of trails to hike but the one that we decided upon was Ulsan Bawi, a rock face that has amazing views across the mountains and all the way back to the coast. It was magnificent. It’s just such a shame that there were so many people there, and the paths are ever so narrow, its like an obstacle course of Koreans. If there’s one thing I’ve noticed about Koreans, something they all have in common, they take life very slowly. They walk ridiculously slowly. No, really. It’s so slow you could die. The pace of life is very ‘take your time’ but at the same time this i a country that’s moving forward so quickly. I don’t get it. I’ll get back to you when I do. I personally just wish they would hurry up!

Natalie and Amanda took the cable car up to the top of another mountain whilst me and Nathanial hiked the bad boy. It was a hot day, but thoroughly enjoyable. It really is a beautiful place.

It was time to get the bus back after that, stopping for Dalk Galbi in Chuncheon and then home. On Monday we went shopping and as enjoyable as that was its not exciting enough for me to bore you with, but we got some new stuff for the house, and, I bought myself a jacket to keep warm in the winter. It’s starting to get pretty cold here already and I can only guess that it’s going to continue to get colder.

Natalie cooked an amazing Spaghetti Bolognese last night, and then we watched a French film that I’ve wanted to see for a long time. It was very existential, moving and heartfelt. It’s called Les Chansons D’Amour (Love Songs). Check it out, kids.

As I end almost every one of these posts with: I'm back at school now and another week of classes awaits. I like Tuesday’s because I’m with the specialist English teacher, although during our first class today we had to teach one student, very tough. Not only is it tough to teach just one student but it’s not like she’s very into the class either. You gotta work hard with that. Hopefully the rest of my classes will go well. Next weekend we are thinking of going to see these amazing caves and the penis sculpture park. We might stay in Sachang though, depending on the weather and how adventurous we are feeling.

I'm also thinking about doing one video blog a week. Each one will be something about Korean culture I find funny, odd, emotional, or whatever. I'll keep you posted.

Be well, be reckless...

Friday, 30 September 2011

Being a GET in a KET Environment

Yangyang sits at the bottom of Seoraksan National Park on the east coast of my province. This week many of the public school teachers in my province had to go to YangYang to attend a teaching workshop. The focus of this workshop was effective co-teaching. It was a waste of time. The opening ceremony was long and tiresome and was introduced by a woman with zero enthusiasm, it started with a promotional video about the history of the language institute that this workshop was taking place in. It was introduced by a man who sounded like he was the voice over for an epic Hollywood action flick, with dramatic music to accompany him. It was embarrassing. What followed was a lecture by someone who’s name I forget, much like what he said. He had a phd, in what I do not know, I don’t even know how he got it. He stood at the front of the auditorium making infuriating generalisations about world economics and team teaching. This went on for about seventy minutes until we had a break. Snickers bars were supplied. Maybe this wasn’t all bad.

The second period began and opened with a team teaching demonstration. I suppose they wanted us to see how we should be co-teaching. If that is how we should be co-teaching then I feel very sorry for these Korean kids. They made it clear at the beginning of their demonstration that they would be treating the audience as an elementary class and asked us to go with it, fair enough. This never happened; they described everything they were doing, stepping out of the ‘teacher character’ every five seconds, it was boring, predictable and pointless. I've been a teacher for a month and could have put together a better class. Why are they pouring so much money into this event?

How well do you know your co-teacher was the next presentation. The answer, not very well. Obviously. I've only known her for a month. Some of the questions that were asked I wouldn’t know about my best friend, or my mother, or anyone I’ve ever met. What shoe size is your co-teacher? What!? How is this improving my relationship with my co-teacher? Oh, it’s not? Oh, this whole thing is just a waste of time and money? Oh, now I get it.

So enough ranting, you get the idea. Dinner was good though, lots of seafood, sea snails and sea everything really. It was delicious. That evening we went to the beach with a bunch of teachers, some whom I knew, some whom I didn't. It was a fun night although we got kicked off of the beach by the Korean army. Apparently, North Koreans like to land submarines there sometimes, so there are watch towers everywhere. Mental. We ended up having some drinks in a park which overlooked the beach and the town of Sockcho.

The next day was equally as tiresome and even more degrading. I think just from being here most teachers in that room knew everything they were getting told. Most of them were probably better teachers than all of the organizers put together, and the problems that lie deep within the Korean education system will not get addressed at an event like this. They are deep rooted problems, and I won’t go into detail here, but English education here needs to be changed if they ever want these students to achieve a level of fluency and efficiency. For now we trudge on, try and make lesson plans that the kids will enjoy, try and teach them what we can, try and make a mark on them. That’s what everyone’s doing though, right? In one way or another.

Apologies for the ranty blog.

Over and out.

Monday, 26 September 2011

Sport, Sporting, Sports

There is a distinct lack of individualism in this society and never has this been more prevalent than on Sports Day this Friday. Although this event was a fun day for all of the children everything felt very structured which certainly detracted from the children’s enjoyment of their sports day. You could tell when one student was called up to salute the principle, the child (one of my 5th grade students) was only doing this because he had too. The whole event was full of strange traditional formalities, national anthems and gift offering. It’s harmless enough but kids are getting fed patriotism and tradition from a very early age here, they are getting educated to pass tests from the early hours until late in the evening, and I’m just worried there’s no time (even on sports day) for them to kick back, be themselves and have fun. I sincerely hope that my English classes give them time to do this, at least that’s the mission statement.

During lunch we went for dinner in a restaurant opposite my school, the food was good and this time soju wasn’t forced upon me. However, soju was still there, and I thought it was strange that teachers were taking a break from sports day to go and have a few shots of liquor before heading back. It’s certainly a different way of life here, right?

We got let out of school early on Sports Day, which was nice. Although I was headed to Seoul to meet Natalie and my bus wasn't until 5:20. I spent the hour in-between school and the bus playing angry birds on my phone. It passes the time, ok? The bus arrived and on I got. Buses are very comfortable here, they are basically coaches, every last one of them. From the local bus to the express intercity buses. The ride was good although there was an accident just outside of Seoul that held me up by about an hour. I got into East Seoul station at 8:15 and was due to meet Natalie at the airport at 9:00. This was not going to happen, and I was frustrated as I had no way of contacting her. I hopped onto the tube, crossed my fingers and hoped I would get there as soon as possible. They have only just built the Airport Express that goes from Seoul Station to the airport, but boy is it slow, not because its a slow train, but mainly because it’s such a long way to Incheon Airport. I got to the Airport at 9:30 and 10 minutes later found Natalie waiting where we had planned to meet. Perfect.

We jumped in a taxi as there was no way I wanted to go on that train again. Natalie had a pretty good flight, although the Korean food she had on the plane was apparently not quite up to scratch. No surprises. Taxi drivers here don’t speak English, I don’t know why. You’d think that they would come into contact with enough English people to at least know some basic phrases. They don’t. So directing them can be tough if you don’t speak any Korean either. We told him to drop us near the station which was close to our hotel and figured we could walk it from there. He dropped us to the wrong station. Oh the joys. We tried to work out where we were for ourselves but ended up going into a coffee shop. Luckily Koreans who work in coffee shops have pretty good English so we were able to ask her where our hotel was, she understood, put us in a taxi and sent us on our way and we finally arrived to the hotel at about 11:30.

The next day after a wonderful waffle in the local Italian gelato shop, we got the tube to Changdeokgung palace. This is apparently Seoul's most beautiful palace set amongst a ‘secret garden’ (not all that secret). It is truly magnificent, grand towering Asian palaces soar up through the trees and winding walkways cut their way through shrubs, flowers and ponds. We spent about three hours here walking around and looking at the sights. It was incredibly hot and humid in Seoul, so sooner or later we got tired enough to want to go to an air conditioned restaurant and have some food. We went to a sushi and seafood buffet restaurant and it was amazing. All you can eat sushi for a great price and enough selection of everything else (fruits, desserts, rice, noodles, traditional Korean food) to fill you up. Full we were. Off we went. Back to the hotel to catch up on some sleep and freshen up for the night. That evening we went up N Seoul Tower. It was a lot busier than the last time I went and by the time we got to the top all the restaurants had pretty much stopped serving. Luckily we had a great lunch and didn’t fancy much so we got some fries and eventually made it up the tower. I’ve written about the view from up there before so I won’t bore you with the details. It was wonderful. We got a taxi home and went to bed.

The next day we wanted to find this fish market that we had read about and seen on a TV show. We looked it up and found that the market we were looking for was a few tube stops away from where we were staying. We looked around here for quite a while, but were both feeling a little worse for wear so didn’t end up buying anything. I have never seen as much seafood as this all in one place, you name it, they had it (salmon, sea urchins, crayfish, catfish, shark, stingray, prawns, cockles, massive fish, tiny fish, dead fish, alive fish, crabs, lobsters) the works, all swimming or lying in tanks and on tables across a warehouse as big as an aircraft hanger. It was quite a spectacle.

After this we went to the Hyundai Department Store to make ourselves feel poor and then headed back to Sachang-ri. The bus ride was great, we got back settled in, went for dinner and went to bed. A successful weekend in Seoul. We can only hope that Natalie felt the same.

PS – She did.

Back to work now and my classes have gone well so far, although the first grade were messing about this morning. It’s Monday morning. What, do you like Monday mornings? Two more classes to go and then I’m spending the next two days in YangYang for some teacher training. It’s all go.

Asta La Vista, baby.

Sunday, 18 September 2011

The Swell Season

There's way too much beauty to be cynical, there are moments full of too much joy to be dismissive, you climb too many mountains to be a quitter, you see too many sunrises not to be dreamers...

I was just watching the trailer for the new Swell Season movie, Glen Hansard's opening line is 'I think inside of us all there's some kind of wish to escape to this whole other life'. It's got some truth in it right? A lot of my friends back home would always reflect upon how they wanted to get out of the UK and be 'free' for a while. How they were fed up with their jobs and just wanted to do something new. They never did anything about it. Of course, there are many reasons for this and I'm not going to be one of those condescending types who says 'ah, just get up and do it', it's more complicated than that. I just wish more people would. Get out of their shells you know. Get out of their comfort zones.

We went swimming in a waterfall on Saturday. It wasn't this giant waterfall, it was essentially a small trickle into a crisp blue pool, the water made a trickling sound like rain into a puddle as it echoed through the water. It was this beautiful tranquil place smack right in the middle of Korean tourist centralized Korea. As I dived underneath the surface I realised that it had been almost a month since I had swam. I go swimming all the time at home, me and my friend Dave would take regular trips to the beach at Lee-On-Solent or Hill Head and come rain or shine, come warm or cold, we would submerge ourselves in the waves and let the sea take us. Tell it to the ocean. Whatever was going on in your life, weather it be something huge or just nothing at all, it would all get washed away for fifteen minutes as you let the waves run over you. On Saturday I told it to the waterfall and afterwards I felt great.

Back home when I told people I was moving to Korea, it would seem like a lifetime away, it sometimes felt like I wasn't really going at all, but I was just telling people I was. Now I'm here, and its real and its all around me. A lot of the people I've met here haven't had the mindset I've been expecting however, it seems a lot of expat teachers who have worked here for a long time have this condescending way of talking to you, telling you what you should and shouldn't do here, telling you what goes and what doesn't. Why can't these people just let you find out for yourself? They know they're not giving you essential, helpful advice, really what they're doing is making themselves feel better. They have this bigoted attitude, that somehow just because they've lived here for a few years, they have a moral high ground over someone who has just arrived. In his book 'Vagabonding' Rolf Pott's discusses these kind of expats and travellers, and explains that travel shouldn't be about a moral high ground, by all means share your experiences but don't force them upon people and cheapen their experience. This does not by any means cover all expats who have been living here for a long time, I have met just as many kind, humble and friendly teachers as I have met, snobby, condescending, ego maniacs.

That's just the way some people are though, and it's important to not let it get to you. I'm back to school tomorrow and have a week of lesson planning and classes ahead of me, a week of my students making me smile, a week of trying to make a difference at school, not just being another expat English teacher. You gotta be the guy that swims in the waterfall. More than anything you gotta be the guy that doesn't let other people cheapen your experiences, you gotta make your own way, find your own bliss, swim in your own pool. That's my take on it.

Fair play to anyone who dares to dream. Good night Korea. Good night world.

Friday, 16 September 2011

Cultural Reflections From South Korea

This week’s teaching has been all that of about 2 days. My Grade 6 class this morning was cancelled, so this week I’ve only taught about 8 classes, all of which have been super fun. I feel like I’m really getting to know my kids now and apart from a few minor annoyances (they are very loud) I think they’re a great bunch. To be fair they are some of the kindest, most polite and respectful kids I’ve ever met. They always say hello. They always try. They have good hearts. Which is comforting.

I thought as I’ve been living here for a month now that I’d share some initial thoughts with you all. More than anything else, being non-asian here in the rural depths of Korea you are an outsider. People are polite don’t get me wrong. They greet you with a smile and will go out of their way to help you, but people don’t want to get to know you here. There is something comforting about knowing that no one knows you, and that no one can, not even if they wanted to. The culture is so far removed from what I’m used to. There is such a boundary. It’s exciting. It’s frustrating. It’s exactly what I wanted. At home, as soon as you see someone, you eye them up, you can weigh up their age, sex, body language, clothing, and a thousand other things and make a judgement about who they as a person are and how they relate to you in society. In a culture as foreign as this, that's impossible. You have no idea how the people around you relate to you in society.

One of the things I’ve especially liked about this element of anonymity living in a new culture is that advertising cannot affect you. Advertising here means nothing to me. It is being marketed towards a Korean audience with a completely different cultural position and in a completely different language. Not being surrounded by adverts trying to sell me things every five minutes, is bliss. Also, when sat on a bus, and people are yammering away at the top of their voice, and you have no way of interpreting what their saying, ahhh, isn’t that wonderful? Not knowing what the old lady is yammering on about is lovely.

When removed from your native culture you are forced to examine yourself in ways that you never thought possible. We define ourselves by our relationships. Our relationships to our jobs, our achievements, our friends and family, our hobbies, and the culture we consume. If you strip away all those things you really have to look to yourself to find your sense of identity. Your job might help, being a teacher in a foreign country certainly brackets you as a certain kind of person, but your friends and family aren’t around, your hobbies are out of reach, and the culture you are used to is totally gone.

Basically, living here is a bit like being a child. You never really know what's going on, if you have a question about something, well, asking it could take you hours, you don't have responsibilities the same way you would at home, you're easily surprised, and routine events like going to the supermarket or cleaning your apartment are novel and exciting. It's incredibly frustrating, but also really enjoyable. I’m very happy with where I’ve landed. And I’m ready to be swept away in the adventure of it all.

Good night.

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Chuseok Weekend

The past 3 days has been the Korean public holiday Chuseok here in Sachang-Ri. Well, all over Korea really, it is a time when Korean families visit their ancestral home towns and share traditional food and rice wines with their families. How lovely. Lovely for me, as it has meant I got five days off of school. Which has been great!

On Friday night we took it pretty easy (well some of us did) we had a barbeque on the roof of our apartment building and played some drinking games, a fun way to start the weekend. I was back in my apartment by eleven and settled down for an early night.

Saturday it was time to go to Seoul for the weekend. We left at about midday stopping at the bakery for lunch (they do these amazing hot dog baguettes, I’ve been living off of them). We went to the bus station and boarded the 12:30 bus to Seoul. The bus ride is about 2 hours, the first hour through sparse, windy mountain roads and the second half along a highway which leads directly into East Seoul. Off the bus and a bottle of Aloe Vera juice later we’re on the subway.

Seoul subway, much like Seoul is huge, chaotic and busy, on top of that its one of the most efficient subway systems in the world, you can get everywhere in the city and on the outskirts within a relatively quick space of time. We went to the Myeong district first for a little shopping and a coffee. They have some crazy ass shops in Korea and we mistakenly walked into a nun ran Christian bookshop. Oops. After a time we hit up Seoul Station to meet some of Amanda’s friends from Busan.

We all jumped in a taxi and headed for Hyongdae. Now, let me tell you about Hyongdae. Hyongdae is the Western district of Seoul, it’s a metropolis of Western fast food restaurants, bars, and night clubs. It’s not all that great if I’m being honest. For those who want to come to Korea but pretty much be back in their home country, surrounded by other people from your home country, this place is great. And also certainly a relief when you do for a short stint want to get out of the way of Koreans. However, it’s not the most beautiful part of the city and it’s basically designed for its night life. All well and good only I wasn’t really feeling that great. After checking into a love motel (cheap motels that have a reputation for being seedy but are great if you want cheap accommodation and haven’t booked in advance) we went out for drinks, I was back and in bed by about 2am after only 2 beers, everyone else stayed up till past 6am. Welcome to Hongdae, not really my style, but it was worth experiencing.

As we had an early night we were up earlier than a lot of the other folks who stayed up till the early hours and we headed out to Itaewon. Another western area of Seoul, but in this particular area there is a fabled English bookstore which is fantastic, we spent about an hour traipsing around the bookstore in search of bargains. We also had our first Korean McDonalds, which cost about £1.50 for a meal deal. Amazing!

We left Seoul that afternoon and were back in Chuncheon by about 4:30. Then we got the bus back from Chuncheon after a short stopover in Emart. Home by 7. Glad to be back in the countryside, I guess I wasn’t in a city mood this weekend and my upset stomach didn’t exactly help matters. The next day I was feeling great though.

Nathaniel knocked my door at about 12:00 and we went to get some Kimbop. Kimbop was even cheaper at about 75p each we got a selection of Kimbop rolls. Kimbop is essentially Korean sushi made with pork instead of fish and with radish and a few other choice ingredients. Its tasty, its cheap, its great! After filling up on this we decided to hike a mountain that’s preferably close to where we live and looked modest enough that it wouldn’t beat us into the ground. It was a rather challenging climb after all as there are no real trails up the mountain. We ended up climbing up an old landslide, I was nervous that every time I put my hand around a rock a pit viper would jump out the other side, this didn’t happen. It was actually a really fun climb up through the rocks. We arrived at the peak about an hour later. There’s a helipad on top of this one. We could hear a military training ground below us and on the way back we bumped into an old Korean military bunker. Scary stuff. Oh, how did we get down? We climbed down an even more dangerous and treacherous landslide and nearly fell into the river. What of it?

The day after, we went to Gugok falls, they are truly beautiful waterfalls just outside of Chuncheon and in the winter when the waterfall freezes and turns to ice, daredevil climbers take to this waterfall and climb up it. Sounds fun huh? Fun and insane. I’ll give that a miss but might pop back in the winter to see what all the fuss is about, just watching people climb that thing will be fun enough.

Today I’ve been cleaning the apartment, did some grocery shopping and caught up on some lesson planning for the week. Back to school tomorrow folks for my 9am grade 2 monsters. I love them really.