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.

Monday, 5 September 2011

Hiking Up and Settling Down

There are soldiers everywhere. They are marching along the sidewalks and avenues. They are parading down Main Street. They are sat down in front of a stage watching scantily clad Koreans sing crass pop songs. Soldier Fest came to Sachang-ri on Friday. The town that I live in is full of soldiers all year round. We are about 10 miles away from the DMZ (essentially the North Korean border) so there are a lot of soldiers who are stationed here. Not only that, Koreans have national service and must join the forces for at least two years, so there are a lot of them about. All of them, walking around in their camouflaged army slacks. Every year my town hosts a festival for these soldiers, people come and watch live entertainment, drink Soju, eat silk worms and sausages, go on fairground rides and take photos of themselves on tanks and artillery vehicles. Which is more or less what we did on Friday night, certainly the highlight was the firework display, Koreans sure know how to use their gunpowder for the sake of entertainment. We also went on children’s fairground rides which were scarier than they looked. It was a pretty decent Friday night but we got home early because we were hiking a giant mountain on Saturday.

The mountain we climbed soars 950 odd metres above sea level and from the top you can see for miles in every direction, the cars driving through town look like ants. We set off at 9am, we got some lunch ready from the local market (Kims Mart) and we set off hiking down the long road which I usually take to school. We didn’t really know where the trail head was, we had done a little research most of which was in Korean, but we only had a vague idea of where we were headed. We must have walked about 1.5 miles down the road in blazing sunlight before we reached the place (where we thought) the trail up the mountain began. We walked over a small bridge and up a path which led to an eldely lady’s house, she was drying chilli’s in the sun. “This doesn’t seem right”. We turned back and started off down another road which we thought might lead us up the mountain. Then as if from nowhere a silver truck pulled up next to us. There was a bald lady inside who we later discovered was a Buddhist monk from a local temple, she spluttered and spurted at us in Korean and tried to show us the way. The way which she thought we could take was overgrown and to dangerous, so she invited us into her car and drove us half way up the road to the head of the trail. She dropped us of right next to a sign which led the way. What a lovely monk.

The hike was hard. The mountain was steep pretty much the whole way up and the whole trip took us about a hour and a half from the trail head to the peak. Which was pretty good going considering how steep, narrow and treacherous the path was. We stopped for lunch on the peak and took some photos. What a view. You could see for miles around from up the top which was truly magnificent. Then it was time to come down. The road down was tougher than the road up, there were ropes tied to trees so you could scale down rocks and metal foot holds knocked into the rock so you wouldn’t slip, it was a very steep climb down but we made it, and the round trip was about six hours. We headed for pizza and spent the night relaxing on the roof of the apartment.

On Sunday we decided to visit a place called Nami island. Nami island has declared itself it’s own country and its a quaint little island which reminded me of the ‘Curse of Monkey Island’ video game series. We jumped in the back of Ben’s car and in an hour we were there. There are two ways onto Nami island. By boat, or by zip line. The zip line is 80m in length and goes from high up a man made tower over the water and onto the island. We took the zip line. The only really scary part of the zip line is when they strap you in. You are leaning against a metal gate which opens at the push of a button. It’s fear of the unexpected. But as soon as the gate opened we were off, and it was a pleasant smooth ride down the zip line and onto Nami island. It’s a cool island, with very good ice cream, sculptures of breasts and penises, musical instruments, a train ride, black squirrels and ostriches which you can feed. We spent an hour or two here before heading back for more fabled dalk galbi!

That was a pretty decent weekend. I’m back at school now and my classes have gone well so far. It sure was lucky I prepared something for my grade 1’s though, because it’s like they speak more English than their teacher does, I guess I won’t really have a co-teacher for that class.

All the best from Korea, and wherever you are in your day, good morning, good afternoon, good evening and good night.

Thursday, 1 September 2011

The Lady In Wellington Boots

Sometimes you feel lost in the vernacular of conversation that hustles and bustles around you. There is only so much you can communicate through hand gestures and body language and whoever said 60% of human communication is down to body language, is a liar. For a start, body language and the way you hold yourself is a purely cultural thing. For instance it is considered rude to point here, it is considered rude to gesture somebody towards you by flicking your hand. The elderly lady in wellington boots who works in the bus station next to my school was trying to tell me something yesterday and I had no way to understand her, much like she had no way to understand me. This isn’t the case with everybody you come into contact with, I went out for dinner and drinks with my school two nights ago (I night in which I drank so much soju against my better judgement, that I felt like a sky diving accident) and although some people who I work with speak little to no English we are able to get by. It doesn’t mean it’s not difficult. Everywhere you look there is a new language barrier challenge, waiting for you.

Travelling in English speaking countries is easy, indeed travelling in non-English speaking countries who have western cultures (most of Europe for instance) can be easy. Here, living and working among people who don’t speak English and don’t know about your culture can be quite a challenge. One that is equally as rewarding as it is demanding, you can get a sense of achievement from buying a bus ticket or ordering food at a restaurant. It’s bittersweet.

I’ve been working at my school for nearly a week now and I’m starting to settle in, even now my co-workers are shouting across the office in a language I can’t for the life of me decipher. I took my first classes yesterday and they went very well, my kids are sweet and my co-teachers are humble. Lunch has been an interesting experience on a daily basis. Yesterday I struggled, I’m not sure what I was eating but I was sure I didn’t like it. Whatever drink that is served everyday has a sweet tang to it as well, note to self: bring water. It’s enjoyable though and you never know what’s going to happen next. No seriously, you don’t. At a moment’s notice you’ll be swept off to do something, or teach a class, or have a class cancelled. There is very little planning here, people tend to just go with the flow. See what happens.

I’ve missed home on and off, there are moments when I just want to get in my car and drive to the forest, take the dog for a walk and spend time with the people I love. There are other times when I’m so swept up in this new experience that it all feels worthwhile. I suppose when you sum all of it up travel is about highs and lows. It’s important to miss home just as much as it is important to ‘not think about it’. When it comes down to it, I’ll arrive back in England a better person (hopefully) with new experiences and new perspectives all under my belt, and that’s what it’s all about right? Doesn’t mean I’ll be able to communicate with the elderly lady in wellington boots, but just being here is a good start.