Monday, 27 August 2012

End Times

Well, we are sat in the Incheon Airport Hotel ready to board our flight tomorrow morning. We have packed our bags and we're ready to go. Weather permitting (there is a huge typhoon expected to hit the Korean peninsular tonight) we should be heading out at 9:35am. Good timing, huh? It's set to be the biggest typhoon Korea has seen in over ten years. Oh, joy! Let's keep our fingers crossed for no delays!

So, my last day of school was probably my best day of school. It began as it usually does, I boarded my bus and set off into the mountains. I watched the scenery roll past my window for the last time. It's funny how until something is ending you don't realize how much you take it for granted. The bus pulled into Damok and I walked into school. I still wasn't sure which students knew of my impending departure and which students didn't, so, I said "hello" to anyone I saw as I usually would. I put the cake that I had bought for the teachers in the fridge and set up my classroom for the days lessons.

I taught 5th Grade first thing, we just had a regular textbook class (a pretty good one as textbook classes go) and at the end I announced that I would be leaving. The students were momentarily sad until I offered up sweets. I had a photo with the class and sent them on their way. A big deal wasn't really made which was nice. It felt conclusive. 5th Grade are / were my favorite class along with their teacher and I shall miss them most of all. 4th Grade followed and we played some fun games and I gave them sweets and took a photo, they seemed a little sadder to see me leave and were telling me that I should stay which was sweet.

Lunch rolled around and I said goodbye to Mr. Chae who had to go to Hwacheon on a business trip.

Side note: (best Mr. Chae line ever the day before my leaving dinner): "Tomorrow, I will kill you with soju." I live to tell the tale.

After lunch I gave my final two classes 2nd Grade and 4th Grade afterschool. The 2nd Grade kids all brought me little gifts and notes that they had made for me which was really heartwarming and sweet of them. They were a great class and I was so grateful they had taken the time to make little letters for me. After classes I sorted some last minute administration things out with my co-teacher and then we all ate the cake that I had brought in. The principle gave a small speech telling me that he appreciated all of the hard work I had put in, and that the students will miss me, and how he is always pleased to see my happy face. He wished me good luck and we cut the cake together. It was nice to talk properly with all of the teachers for one last time. They all told me they would miss me and that the students loved me and I'll stop there before this starts sounding egotistical. It was nice to hear all of the positive things that they had to say but I'll take it with a pinch of salt.

Come 5 o'clock it was time to leave. As I was walking out of the door some of the straggling forth graders grabbed hold of me and tried to make me stay, but alas, I was on my way. I waved goodbye to the students and to the school and said my farewells to the teachers and I was on my way, watching the school fade out of view, out of my life.

Natalie and I spent about an hour on Friday evening finishing things up around the house and making sure everything was packed and then we said goodbye to Nathanael, Russell and Deanna and got on our way. Watching Sachang disappear out of the bus window was sad, but it felt like it wasn't the end. It felt like I'd be coming back on Monday. I had made Sachang my home for a year and it was like saying goodbye to a close friend, although I'll miss it, it will always be with me.

We have had a wonderful weekend in Seoul. The hostel we stayed in was very friendly, clean and welcoming and we had a great time there. We got talking to a couple of people from India and Pakistan who were in Seoul on business, who were really lovely.

It was Natalie's Birthday on Saturday and in true Natalie style she decided she wanted to go to the zoo, which was fine by me. We headed out to Seoul Grand Park which really is Grand, it's huge! There is so much to see and do there that you couldn't possible do it in a day. We focused solely on Seoul Zoo and we must have spent about seven hours there, getting our £1.50's worth. We saw a tonne of animals that we had never seen before, huge hippos, naked mole rats, lots of different snakes and insects, bears and wild cats, huge eagles and performing flamingos. It was so hot, we slugged our way back to our hostel and freshened up before going out for dinner. We had our last Korean BBQ and we really enjoyed it.

Other highlights from our last weekend in Korea include the dog cafe (a cafe in which about twenty dogs are running about for you to play with as you enjoy your chocolate latte). A trip to Myeongdong. Lunch in Namsan Park. Shopping at the COEX mall, (although it was stupidly busy) and chilling out on the picnic bench outside the hostel. I sent all of my money home today and thus concluded all of the last things I had to do before I leave Korea.

So, here we are. I'm sat looking out of the seventh floor window at our favorite airport guesthouse, we're about to go and have some dinner and wait for news of the brewing storm. If our flight is unaffected we'll be waving goodbye to Korea tomorrow morning, it's been an amazing year and I've met some truly wonderful people. I'll need some time to get some real perspective before I can accurately make sense of my time here and blog it with a sense of denouement, until then, this will have to do.

Farewell, see you in Bangkok.

Thursday, 23 August 2012

For Good

So, it’s the last week of school. I guess it’s time for some reflection. The prospect of writing this blog and trying to sum up my experience in Korea is rather overwhelming and no matter what I write I’m sure I’m not going to do it any kind of justice.

When I first arrived in Korea, I was both nervous and confidant, excited and anxious. The orientation period flew by and I was shipped off to my new home. It took a while to settle in here. The first few weeks of school were tough and adjusting to life here wasn’t easy. The first few weeks were full of exploration and new experiences but by the end of October things started to settle down and I started to get into the swing of life here. I became confident in my teaching ability and lessons have proven to be easier and easier to plan ever since.

The things that made life difficult here almost always came down to communication issues, whether it was with regard to cancelled or re-scheduled classes, or simply not knowing how to ask simple questions. Eventually things just started taking care of themselves. The more I got used to the fact that I’d just have to roll with the punches the easier life became.

The first semester was definitely easier than the second mainly due to having more available co-teachers. I feel like in the second semester I was trusted more to teach on my own which worked against me rather than for me as trying to control a class of kids who don’t speak your language can be a constant struggle, no matter how experienced you get at it.

The kids have (for the most part) been what have made this experience so worthwhile. Although there have been bad classes they have mostly been a joy to teach and get to know and I’m sure that I’ll miss them in the months to come. I haven’t quite figured out how to tell them that I’m leaving yet, I’m really not sure whether they’re aware of it or not.

There are things I’ll miss about living here and there are things that I won’t and I guess I should spend some time talking about those things. We’ll get the negative stuff out of the way first, in list format, things I’m going to be so glad to leave behind:

Not being able to communicate effectively (and therefore struggling to fully engage with the culture), the spiciness of the food, dak glabi stomach (something that I’ve spent many hours on the toilet dealing with), soju, kids that won’t listen when I tell them to sit down, kids that scream, kids that try and poke me, the bitterly cold winters and ridiculously hot summers, the raspy voice of the man in the bus station, the lack of individualism (this is one of the key players in reasons I couldn’t stay here for another year), couples who wear the same clothes,  having to say hello to everyone, soldiers being everywhere, the hill I have to walk up every single day, taking walks and stumbling across army bases that just get in the way, people gozzing everywhere, the smell of smoke, the smell of sewage on Seoul sidewalks, and kimchi. I won’t miss that at all.

Then the things I’ll miss, and long for: kids that laugh at my jokes, engaging with students and having fun with them, school dinners with Mr. Chae who tries to get me to eat super hot peppers, sharing a coffee with the maintenance man every morning, the beautiful bus journey through the mountains, the gushing rivers, the mountains, Korean barbeque, the smiley buzzy faces on my students when they’re enjoying my class, school lunches, the fresh air, the low cost of living and extremely generous pay packet, rides home with my Kindergarten teacher, the five day market, the way Russell sulks when he loses a game, Nathanael’s home cooking, norae bang (karaoke) , and the sense of achievement I get out of my job.

All in all I’m looking forward to leaving, after all, I have a lot to look forward too, this time next week I’ll be at the airport flying out of this country for the first time since January. I’ll be moving onto a totally new chapter of my life and will no longer have to worry about lesson plans and motivational tools. This week will no doubt fly by, today I had my final Kindergarten class and was presented with a lovely booklet full of pictures that my kids drew for me, and a CD of photographs from throughout the year, it got emotional in there. Tomorrow we’ll be heading to the fish restaurant for the last time to get some of that wriggly octopus we are so fond of, Wednesday we’ll be having dinner in town for the last time, Thursday I’ll be having my leaving dinner with my school followed by Birthday cake for Natalie, then Friday marks the end, we’ll be getting on a bus and leaving Sachang-ri behind. Leaving my students behind. Leaving this life behind.

For good.

Monday, 13 August 2012

Hwacheon Tomato Festival

The Hwacheon Tomato Festival has been held in the small village of Sachang for ten years now. The highlight of the event is a huge tomato medal hunt in which five golden rings are hidden amongst thousands of tomatoes that are sprawled out on the road. Everybody dives into the tomatoey, watery mess, throws tomatoes and searches for the rings. I couldn’t quite decipher what the prize was, something worth getting covered in tomatoes for, I suppose.

The festival set itself up on Friday, two large balloons floating above the road highlighted where the festival was. Nathanael and I walked down to the festival on Friday afternoon. At this time there wasn’t much going on, people looked like they were still setting things up. The sun was shining and it was interesting checking out all of the stalls that were on offer, we also watched a small parade that I suppose marked the opening of the festival.

We watched the real opening from the roof of our apartment block. We were merrily  playing rummy when we heard what sounded like bombs going off outside, it turns out it was fireworks and we darted up to the roof to watch the display, which was pretty impressive considering it was all about tomatoes.

Saturday was the main event. The town was heaving with people; I’ve never seen so many people here, so many cars on the road. We were meeting two Korean high school students from Deanna’s’ school. They run the English club there and wanted to hang out with us during the festival. It was good to have some guides. Joshua (one of the students) told us that he had been to the festival every year. He was ready to dive into the tomatos, but Nathanael and I opted for observation. Two giant lorries offloaded the tomatoes onto a red plastic sheet that was sprawled out across the road. Tractors and people with spades proceeded to sprawl all of the tomatoes out across the road. Then it was time to go. Everyone leapt into the tomatoey mess with much excitement, a fire engine started blasting everybody with water and I couldn’t help but think about how many delicious tomatoes had gone to waste. Soon after, the smell hit me. Gosh, it was a repugnant smell and everyone was gleefully covered in tomatoes from head to toe.

It was strange seeing an influx of foreigners in town; I think I’ve only seen one other foreigner in our town the whole year so seeing hundreds of them was strange. They were doing what foreigners in Korea usually do; being loud, obnoxious, and taking photographs of each other making outlandish facial expressions. I guess it’s kind of hypocritical to complain about that, they were just having fun. After the main event we strolled down to the stage set up at the head of the road and watched some Korean party games before a huge spaghetti cook off.

Elsewhere at the festival there were overpriced food stalls, several ‘Olympic’ events, like tomato soccer and tomato archery, its probably best not to ask about these events as they weren’t anything special. There were also several stalls selling tomato based products. I’m not sure how much money the festival bought to the town but I’m sure it bought a lot to the county. The food stalls weren’t anything special but we used them to eat most of our food over the weekend, but if you want to sample good Korean food then festivals probably aren’t the best places.

There has been a heat-wave here over the first week of vacation something that ended on Sunday with a day full of rain, which brought the festival to a close on Sunday afternoon. Outside of attending the tomato festival I’ve done lots of cleaning and packing things up ready to move out. I’ve cooked a lot and played a lot of cards with Nathanael. I went to Chuncheon on Monday to get my haircut and do some shopping; mostly I’ve just been chilling out and awaiting Natalie’s arrival. I’m happy to say that she’ll be arriving this Friday. There’s so much to look forward to, the next few months are going to be something special…

Friday, 3 August 2012

Summer Camp

Well, long time no see my fellow brothers, sisters, comrades. I’ve not written a blog in a while. I’ve been busy, mostly, also I’ve been procrastinating, mostly busy though, I promise.

School ended on July 24th and starting July 25th I’ve been teaching an English camp at my school. Today was the last day of camp and I can’t pretend that I’m not happy it’s over. Summer camp has been very different to winter camp. During winter camp I had a maximum of three forty minute classes per day and on one day a week I had only one forty minute class. I also taught winter camp from a textbook. During summer camp I’ve been teaching two, one and a half hour classes, every day. The first class being grades one through two, and, the second class being grades three through six. I had no text book this time around so I had to make things up as I went along. It’s been stressful at times. Summer camp was the equivalent of three weeks of winter camp smashed into eight days.

Camp started off incredibly well; in my first class on the 25th I had about seven students in the lower grade class and a whopping fourteen students in the higher grade class. The first day of camp I had a super hero theme. I taught sentences like ‘he can fly’ or ‘he is wearing a mask.’ The students got to make their own superhero and play some games and the camp ran incredibly smoothly, I enjoyed it. This continued through Around the World camp on day two, in which I taught the continents, and some basic ‘I’m from Korea’ stuff, and it continued through Amazing Animals camp on Friday which was one of the best out of the bunch. The kids enjoyed the activities and games and there were enough kids in each class to have a lot of fun.

The second week rolled around and students started to drop off, there were only ever four kids in my lower grade class right through to the end after that, and on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday I only had two kids in my higher grade camp which was incredibly stressful. Having planned a class for twelve or more kids and then having two show up really knocks your plans out of the window. You have to be good at improvising.

Monday was Pirate camp which went pretty well mainly down to the fact that the bulk of the class was taken up by making pirate hats and eye patches. We did food on Tuesday, Under the Sea on Wednesday and Weather on Thursday. This was a struggle, whilst the classes didn’t bomb they felt stretched like butter over too much bread. The activities and games felt repetitive and students were losing interest because it was hard to engage such small classes. I did my best though and I’m pretty sure they took something away from those camps. Today was the best out of the whole summer camp even though I was really worried it was going to bomb, I guess taking risks is worthwhile.

Today we had Olympic camp. Luckily, (due in part to the incredibly nationalistic mental state of the country) the kids were really into the Olympics. I introduced the topic, taught them gold, silver and bronze and then got on to teaching them the names of all of the Olympic games and to my surprise even the lower level kids were remembering the long words like ‘gymnastics’ and ‘synchronized swimming’. We then made some medals and had our own elementary school mini-Olympics, something that could have flopped very easily but turned out to be a blast.

I’m glad it’s all over now though. I have two weeks off and then I’m back at school for a week before my contract ends and Natalie and I leave on our travels. The year has gone by very quickly, or at least, it feels that way now I look back on it. The reality is that it dragged in places and there were as many highs as there were lows. It has been a worthwhile experience coming to teach here and I’ve managed to save a great deal of money, most of which I’ll be spending (or have already spent) on the trip.

I feel like a year was enough for me and I’m looking forward to moving onto the next chapter of my life, one that will be filled with many an adventure through many a strange land. That’s what this has all been about. I was sitting in my trailer on Cape Cod this time three years ago dreaming of a day when I would take off and travel around the world, I even pictured myself teaching English in Asia to raise the money for such an odyssey, three years later and I’m proud to say that I’ve achieved that dream. My twenty-one year old self would be proud of me, and I’m kind of proud of me too.

Time for vacation, a well earned vacation.