Monday, 26 March 2012

Subways and Supermarkets

The Seoul Metropolitan Subway System is without a doubt the best subway I’ve ever had the displeasure of riding. I say displeasure because let’s face it; subways are hardly the epitome of city life. They are a necessary part of city travel and provide efficient, fast and easy access to a variety of inner-city locations but I think it’s safe to say that nobody rides them for the sake of riding them.

With that in mind I quite enjoy riding the Seoul subway; there are 16 lines (9 of which are part of the greater Seoul area), there is a rapid service to the major airports, and it gets used by 7 million people per day. That might give the impression that stepping onto a train in Seoul is like stepping into a chicken factory farm where people are piled on top of each other struggling to breathe let alone move, however, this is not the case. It is a rarity for a metro line in Seoul to be extremely busy to the point of which you cannot move; in fact in my whole seven months here it might have happened to me once. Usually the rides are comfortable and more often than not you’ll even get to sit down. This is probably due to the sheer number of lines that there are. They criss-cross their way across the whole city in such a well thought out manner that literally anywhere in Seoul is easily accessed from anywhere else. Not only that, its dirt cheap.

Travelling to pick Natalie up from the airport this weekend I caught the train from Gangbyeon on the green line (far East) to Incheon International Airport on the AREX line on the opposite side of the city, and it cost approximately 4000 won (2 pounds fifty) . That’s a journey that takes around 80 minutes (it’s that far), a journey of this distance would cost upwards of fifteen pounds or more in the UK but here in Korea public transport is cheap, fast and easy. In-fact the most expensive buses you’ll find in the Seoul area are from the airport into central Seoul, it cost us 15,000 won (7 pounds 50 pence) to get the bus from the Airport back to Gangbyeon, we only took the bus for comfort and of course so we didn’t have to drag Natalie’s bag around the subway, but still, I’d never consider paying that for a bus here otherwise. The bus back to my town in the far flung mountains of Gangwon (a whole 2 hours from Gangbyeon in Seoul) costs 10,000 won (5 pounds), and these aren’t buses in the traditional sense, they are practically coaches and the only downside they have is that there are no toilets on board.

On Sunday we caught the inter-city bus from my town to Chuncheon in order to do some grocery shopping at E-Mart. Now I’ve told you all about the Seoul Subway I’m sure you’ll be equally as interested in hearing about E-Mart.

E-Mart is the biggest retailer in South Korea, it would be the equivalent of Wal-Mart (Asda) in the US, or Tesco in the UK. There are 127 stores across the whole of South Korea. It is essentially a discount supermarket chain that sells everything from food to clothing, from hiking gear to electronics and from pets to gardening goods. The E-Mart that we frequent is spread over two floors, the ground floor sells food, they have huge selections of fish and meat, baked goods, sushi counters, pizza takeaway, wine and liquor, fruit and vegetables, you name it, I suppose it’s not all that interesting outside of the fact that it has striking South Korean sensibilities. For instance there is a whole counter dedicated to kimchi, all kinds of kimchi, kimchi you didn’t even think could ever possibly exist. The fish counter sells everything from squid, to octopus, to giant crabs and live lobster, sushi and sea snails. Well, I’ll finish stating the obvious and move onto the second floor which is full of clothing stores, electronics stores, a pet shop and some home ware outlets. I could see Koreans spending hours in this store as the culture seems to be obsessed with branding and commercialism but on Sunday we spent roughly an hour stocking up. This was plenty. We caught the bus back and unpacked before heading out into town to get a few things that we knew we could get cheaper at the market. Natalie made friends with a dog and we stumbled across a new restaurant which looks like it sells barbequed kebabs, we’ll be checking this out later this week.

My parents arrive on Friday evening which is very exciting. So, I guess that’s what I’ll be writing about next, that is unless something happens at school that I think is worth documenting. I’ve finally purchased the whistle that I’ve been threatening to buy and am looking forward to surprising my misbehaved students with it later this week, that’s not very optimistic of me, I know.

Fun times ahead sailors.

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

The Harsh Light of Day

Good evening ladies and gentlemen, we join you here live from a small town in a rural South Korea to bring you this important update: The sun is back. Boy, has it been a long time coming. The winter was long! So long that both Nathanael and I have blogged about how it’s dragged and how we don’t think the spring will ever come. Alas, it’s here. I think. Another spout of snow would send me into a spiral of catatonic rage akin to the scene in ‘Leon’ when Gary Oldman’s character Stansfield cries out for “EVERYONE!” I can just see myself stamping my feet through the school corridor ripping pages out of English textbooks and crying “why oh why?” The snow has gone. The cold has lifted. For now at least the sun is back and things are warming up at a pretty steady rate. The trees aren’t fully blooming yet, but, give it a couple of weeks.

Instead of talking about what I have done I want to mention a few things that I will be doing in the coming weeks as I’m very excited about all of them. As a matter of fact once this week has up and packed its bags its pretty home free for at least 4 or 5 weeks of pure joy and bliss oh and still lessons but hey, you can’t have your cake and eat it, right?

Natalie arrives for her third trip to Korea on Saturday. I’m looking forward to having her around again. It’s nice to have something to come home to that isn’t just your own face in a mirror, a pot noodle and a laptop. Of course, now the sun is coming back and it’s starting to warm up there will be a whole lot more to do in the evenings so I mustn’t grumble. I’ve also been cooking a lot more, Nathanael taught me how to make pad Thai, I’ve cooked some egg and vegetable based dishes, getting used to the tofu, cooking some stir fries, I’m no Gordon Ramsey but I’ve been eating a lot healthier this past week.

The week after Natalie gets here my parents arrive, which is really exciting. I can’t wait to show them around and spend time with them. It’s been a long time coming and I’m sure they’re going to have a great time amongst the shock of the new culture. We are spending a weekend in Seoul, mainly sightseeing and then heading back to my town for a week, after that we’re heading off to the coast to check out Seoroksan which should be in blossom by then, I hope.

Directly after that Kieran and Naoko arrive for a week which we’ll mainly spend around town. Oh, the joy of having folk come to visit. On top of that there are lots of spring festivals to check out, I think Natalie and I are going to head down to the Jinhae Cherry blossom festival at some point and if we can’t make it there then hopefully we’ll catch the spring flower festival in Seoul. I’m happy that things are starting to happen again.

Even this weekend Nathanael and I managed to escape our apartments. We headed down to the fabled swing which hangs below a bridge at the edge of town with a mission to fix it up. The mission wasn’t entirely unsuccessful but it could have gone a little better. The main trouble was that the swing was hanging too close to the ground, so once we remedied that we thought we were home free, alas we were wrong. The distance in-between the two ropes was so wide that it was very hard to get a proper swing going. We eventually gave up and headed down the river and sat near a little waterfall for a while. We cooked some fish that evening and then everyone hung out in my room for St Patricks Day. Whatever that means.

So, I suppose you could say things are brightening up. Even at school things are running a little more smoothly now I’ve worked out when to plan my classes. 3rd Grade are still giving me headaches but I guess I’ll keep trying. I think bribery is the next trick. Other than that though every class runs really smoothly, and despite a few last minute cancellations the schedule is being stuck too. Makes a change. There was a joke on a teacher forum that was something along the lines of “once my co-teacher gave me 5 minutes notice and I didn’t know what to do with all the extra time.” Round about sums it up, huh?

I was attempting to write another cultural reflections blog yesterday but I didn’t finish it, so expect that soon. They’ll be plenty more to write about in the coming weeks I’m sure. I’m also planning a new video blog (involving dogs), which I might even film tonight if the sun stays out. No promises.

You never know what might happen.

Wednesday, 14 March 2012


Soju is a traditional alcoholic Korean drink made from rice. Its taste is similar to vodka without the burning sensation and it has a slight sweet tang to it. It is very rarely mixed and is usually consumed neat. It’s alcohol content averages out at around 20%. It is widely consumed at nearly every social gathering in Korea and there are certain rules and regulations (etiquette if you will) surrounding its consumption. For example, pouring to your superiors with two hands. When I first arrived in Korea, I took a swift disliking to the drink but after time it has grown on me and it goes down quite smoothly. Just don’t give me too much of it and I’ll be a happy chappy.

We had another school meal yesterday. I’ve become quite good at these social gatherings and always manage to score points with my co-workers when we go out. I pour soju for my superiors, I slyly pour cider for the teachers that don’t want to drink soju but don’t want the principle to know. I humour my co-workers with answers to their sometimes intrusive questions and I play along with the clapping and chanting. It’s all very structured, but it makes work that little bit easier.

What I have noticed is that seating arrangements seem to be a big deal. Nearly none of the teachers want to sit anywhere near the boss man. They run into the restaurants to get first dibs on the best seats (at the end of the tables the furthest away from the man himself). The man himself (my principle) always sits in the middle of the table with the other men from the school which often means I’ll be around him somewhere. It’s not a big deal, if I can stay on his good side then all the better.

I’ve also picked up enough Korean now to know when I’m being talked about. I’ll hear the Korean word for English, or English teacher or just flat out hear my name and it can be quite disconcerting. However, I do think I’m still held in high regard as lots of the teachers shake my hand and tell me I’m doing a good job, “I think you are good teacher.” Very humble.

School is still busy but I’m far more prepared for it this week. I planned nearly all of my classes on Monday and have just been going through the motions. 3rd Grade are still out of control, this week they ran around sticking things to the walls, chasing each other, and being generally naughty until I got my co-teacher to put them in their place. If it wasn’t for that class then every class would be going amazingly. They’ve all settled into a class routine and my lessons have some structure to them again.

I had a very lazy weekend in which much soju was consumed on Saturday night. We only planned to stop in on Ben and Russell who had gone to the bar but ended up staying with them until we had to pretty much carry Russell home. He seemed happy with himself. I guess that’s what too much soju does to a person. The trouble is, amongst Koreans, it’s really tough to say no to a glass. The weeks drift by quite casually and before I know it Natalie will be back, and then my parents will be here and then Kieran and Naoko will arrive. I’ve got a very exciting couple of months ahead. Let’s hope the spring weather gets here soon and we can all share some soju in the sun.

Gun Bae.

Friday, 9 March 2012

Back to School

Why haven’t you written a blog all week you selfish capitalist? Well, I’ve been astronomically busy with the first week of term. My workload has pretty much doubled this semester. I thought I’d write about the differences between last semester and this semester. Because, that's entertaining, right?

Well, my timetable used to be pretty evenly spread out over the week with Friday being the only day in which I had six classes; those six were evenly spread throughout the day as well, leaving gaps for any last minute planning in-between classes. This semester my classes are pretty much all in the last 3 days of the week. Monday, I have kindergarten and that’s it. A good day for planning the rest of the week.

Tangent alert. I’m about to go off on a tangent about my new kindergarten students. They are really young. One of them looks like he’s only just left the birth canal. Was that a little crass? I’m exaggerating of course but they have no English ability. They are fresh and new. In my first class I taught them the ABC song and went through some flashcards of some basic alphabet related words (Apple etc). They seemed to enjoy it, despite being so low level they are very well behaved, all eyes looking up at me from the floor. Which makes for successful classes. Songs, thats how I’m planning to win them over. Lots of songs. I wish I had some hand puppets as I feel like that would be another good way to engage them. Meh.

Back on track. So, Mondays is for planning and its pretty much the only opportunity all week that I’ll get for planning. Tuesdays used to be my favourite days as the specialist English teacher who was totally awesome but has now been drafted into the army used to teach with me. He was such a good teacher and so helpful. I didn’t ever need to plan anything myself for his classes (4 in total), now he’s gone and not being replaced I’m left with those classes myself. Which is both good and bad. They are my favourite classes (1 and a half hours of 5th grade and 1 and a half of 6th) they are the highest level students in the school and they enjoy my classes. This encourages me to always make them lots of worksheets and fun games and activities that don’t appear in the text book. I teach these classes solo without a co-teacher and they are my favourite classes of the week but they are no longer on Tuesdays, they are at 9am on Thursdays and Fridays, I’ll get to that later.

So, what happens on Tuesdays now? I have 3 normal classes (2 after school). I see Grade 1, Grade 2 and Grade 3. My three worst classes. Grade 2 being the best of the bunch. Grade 1 have just moved up from kindergarten and I have yet to have a co-teacher in the room with me during those classes. If there was a co-teacher there then I feel like the classes would be more successful, however, it’s really tough when I’m on my own. They run around, they jump around, and I really need to try hard to find activities that will engage them. I’m looking to really improve in these classes in the coming weeks and find some methods that can allow me to teach them more successfully.

Grade 2 are a joy, there are a lot of new students in the class and all of the first graders from last year. The new kids are all really sweet (nearly all girls) and their English ability is at the level it should be at this stage. We play basic parlour games and learn mostly nouns and some adjectives, usually using flashcards as prompts (I’m trying to steer away from heavy computer based classes this year). Basically I’m just trying to improve on their vocabulary and help them form basic sentences.

Grade 3 are my worst class. All the best students from last years grade 2 have left and all the troublesome ones have stayed making for a nightmare in after school class (yes, its sad to report that waistcoat boy has moved school). This is contrasted with great textbook classes. The reason for this is the new 3rd grade teacher is a middle aged man. He’s a nice guy, he seems very gentle, amenable and approachable. In Korean society, as far as the kids are concerned, he is to be heavily respected. So, during textbook classes when he is co-teaching with me the kids are great. They listen, they participate and I have no doubt that they learn. When he goes away they think they can get away with anything. Therefore in after school classes I’m spending more time on discipline than on educating them which is a trial and one I’m hoping to find solutions to soon. I just need to be patient with them and try and make those classes as entertaining as possible.

Wednesdays is when the fun begins. I have 6th grade and 5th grade first. Then 4th. Then 3rd. All textbook. Then I have 1st and 4th grade for afterschool classes after lunch. That’s six classes in a row with no breaks. This is the same on Thursdays with double period 6th grade, 3rd and then 2nd with 1st and 3rd after school. These days go by really quickly but I have to plan so much more than I did last semester.

Last semester I could plan 3 afterschool classes and I would deliver those classes to both 1st and 2nd grade, meaning 6 classes, 3 lesson plans. I can’t do that anymore because of the vast difference in level and ability. Last year I didn’t have to plan the double period 5th and 6th grade classes, which is a lot of work as I try really hard with these classes, this year I do have to plan those classes. Last year I could plan 3 afterschool classes and I would deliver those classes to both 3rd and 4th grade, meaning 6 classes, 3 lesson plans. This year they are using different books. Already, thats an extra ten lesson plans every week. Put making resources and activities on top of that and the sum of it is I’m a busy bunny.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not complaining. This week has just felt a lot busier in terms of workload than I am used too. I will continue to try my best and overcome some of the issues that have arisen in class. For the most part every class this week has been a success. Especially in 4th, 5th and 6th grades. I may be teaching on my own a little more and I may have extra classes to plan but it doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy it.

I’m looking forward to a weekend off and I’ll be ready Monday morning to come in and plan my week. I'm thinking of buying a whistle so I can blow it when things get out of hand. School is officially back in town. No more desk warming. I can’t believe its March.

Friday, 2 March 2012

Candlestick Rock

The weather has been a source of frustration here since December. The days have been short and cold; the nights have been long and freezing. The snow hasn’t fully left the ground since the first snowfall back in December and the ability to do any outdoor activities (apart from maybe skiing) have been very slim, especially in the small town I live in. There have been intermittent things to do (the ice festival for instance) but for the most part winter has been spent curled up inside. Nathanael and I decided that we were going to go hiking this weekend and that we wouldn’t let the weather beat us any longer. However, I had forgotten that March 1st is a public holiday here in Korea, and yesterday (Thursday) we had a day off, yesterday the sun shone brightly.

It was Independence Declaration Day in Korea, or in other words ‘Fuck You Japan Day’. It marks the day of the earliest resistance towards the Japanese colonialists when 33 nationalists who formed the core of a resistance group known as the ‘Samil Movement’ read the Declaration of Korean Independence at a restaurant in Seoul, this sparked an array of protests throughout Seoul and the rest of Korea that would eventually lead to Korean Independence on May 24th 1949, after years of torture and oppression by the Japanese.

So we had a day off that we didn’t know about and decided to move our hike to Thursday. I’m glad we did. The sun was shining brightly on Thursday and it was incredibly warm compared to the cold we’d been experiencing recently. We were heading out to ‘Candlestick Rock’ which is approximately 7km outside of town. Deanna accompanied us and we set out at about 9:30am after figuring out exactly where we needed to go. It turns out it’s a pretty easy route to follow, you basically take one winding road through the mountains until you get to the rock.

There were several interesting things we found along the way. There were many dogs either tied up or running freely out in the open which provided several stop offs. The way some dogs are treated here is truly awful; they’ll be chained to fences or bound up in cages with only a few feet to move around. Whilst other dogs are running around in the roads seemingly having the whole world as their kennel. I guess that’s how you can distinguish between the ones that are dinner and the ones that are pets. It’s sad.

The first major stop off point was an old gazebo on top a high rock in the middle of a river, presumably and old mediation retreat for a Buddhist monk the gazebo was incredibly well preserved, probably because you could only get up to it if you could navigate your way up the rock. Nathanael found this very easy; he flung his arms and feet up and pulled himself up to the top. I took some time to follow but eventually made it to the top and we sat and had a snack and took in the scenery for a while. It’s pleasant living so close to such tranquil places.

Just down the road from the gazebo was a beautiful temple complex with temples literally carved into the mountains. To get to the top we had to climb up a frozen waterfall, but fear not, there were steps. Although, half way up and on the slipperiest section a dog ran onto the cliff face which freaked Deanna and I out a little, he was harmless though and followed us up to the top. There were thousands of little Buddhist sculptures and ornaments and the buildings cascaded up the whole side of the mountain. We looked inside some of the buildings and spent some time looking around and getting a feel for the place, which isn’t hard as the monks play out this old spiritual drumming and chanting through loudspeakers across the whole mountain. This place was a really good find.

The trail then escalated and it was uphill for the remainder of the journey to candlestick rock. The rock soars up into the sky and is clearly a landmark, however, there was absolutely no trail to it so we had to scramble over another frozen river to get to it. The river may have been frozen but it was super hot by now. Nathanael managed to scale half of the rock but said that it was too dangerous to climb the rest so we preceded down and climbed some easier rocks. Bruised and battered I felt accomplished, and I was glad that we hiked out to the rocks. I even invented a new extreme sport, I’ve decided to call it mountain surfing and it’s where you find a really steep dirt cliff face and slide down it from the top.

We headed home after about an hour of messing about on the rocks and admiring the view. We made it back into Sachang-ri just in time for some pizza on the roof before it got too cold. A successful day off if there ever was one and much better than sitting around at home. I have missed hiking over the winter and I plan to a lot more of it over the coming weeks and months, I really want to explore some of this area which we haven’t had a chance too yet, it seems like there is a lot to see around here.

It’s the first day of school today for the kids and as usual I’m in the dark. I haven’t got a new schedule so am assuming for now my schedule is going to stay the same. I haven’t been told whether I have classes today or if there are new textbooks. This makes it very hard to plan any lessons. So, as usual, I’ll just go with the flow and hope for the best. We have our opening ceremony at 10:30am. The homeroom teachers have all changed hands and there are two new teachers taking over. The old 2nd grade teacher is now teaching 1st grade, my co-teacher (the old 4th grade teacher) is now teaching 2nd grade (a rather odd decision), the new teachers are taking 3rd and 4th and 5th and 6th are staying the same. Very strange indeed. Alas, no matter what may have changed it is good to have the kids back in school. It’s good to hear them running down the corridors. I’m looking forward to getting back into the swing of things here at school. I just hope I won’t be left in the dark for much longer...