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.