Thursday, 31 December 2009

Korea - The first Korean Christmas

Hello everyone!

I'll warn you all now, this is going to be a looooong blog. A lot went on. You may want to split reading this into chapters or something, but here goes...

Merry Christmas to you all! Koreans don't celebrate Christmas with the vigour that we celebrate it in Europe and North America. They know of certain aspects of Christmas, such as Santa Claus, but, simply put, it is not a particularly big deal. Students go to school on Christmas Eve, and if Boxing Day hadn't fallen on a Saturday, they would have gone to school then as well. It is at least given as a day off for schools, if not for businesses.

With this in mind, the lessons I gave the week before Christmas was designed to educate my students about some of our Christmas traditions, whilst also trying to inject some fun into their lives at this festive time of year. To aid this, I wore the Santa hat I purchased in Bucheon Market a few days before. Naturally, I opened with a slideshow, to give them background information about some of the key traditions of Christmas. The fact that I had to explain to them what turkey was maybe hammers home to you guys how little they knew. I know that we are all naive about lots of different cultures, but it works two ways, which is a pleasant surprise to me.

They enjoyed it when I moved the lesson on by playing them Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, and giving them a copy of the words so they could read along. This joy quickly turned to a look of mortification on their faces when I told them that they would sing along when I played it again. This is where my energy, and a lot of coffee, comes into play. Shouting 'ARE WE READY!!' before starting and 'LOUDER!!!!' at the end of each line managed to energise the classes to scream the song at the top of their voice. It was amazing, teenagers of 16, 17 years of age, singing along to a children's Christmas song. Well, maybe more like shouting than singing. Wouldn't get too far on X Factor, but would definitely get their 15 seconds of fame. And can you imagine a sixth form class in Britain doing that? No chance. It was incredible.

I also got the students to ask each other what they wanted to Christmas. Some of the answers were, quite frankly, brilliant. What they didn't really understand was that a Christmas present generally has to fit in a box under a Christmas tree. A lot of the girls said boyfriends, and a lot of the boys said girlfriends. The reason? 'Because I'm lonely'. It was kind of sweet, but also a bit sad. This linked in with a lot of other answers, particularly from girls, who wanted the band 2pm as their Christmas present. My usual response was along the lines of 'Good luck'. Other answers were highly ambitious. World peace instantly became a personal favourite. Some of the boys, being the age they were, were after presents of a more adult nature. 'Sex!' proclaimed one boy in class 1-3. 'Porno!' roared another. I don't tell off my students that often, but these two were asking for a ticking off. I also told them publicly that the one thing they wouldn't get for Christmas was sex, to put them in their place a little bit.

Some of the presents, however, were of a more stalkerish nature. 'I want a wedding dress' said one girl. For who, I asked. 'erm...(giggle)...erm...2pm' was her muffled response. One of the girls came up to me at the end of the class, strongly suggesting that said girl wanted the wedding dress to be used with me at her side. She wasn't the only one, though others actually proclaimed their desire for me to be under their Christmas tree rather more vocally. One of them even justified why she should have me ahead of everyone else. 'Am I nice? Yeah I am, you are too.' I actually laughed when she said that. A lot. The most concerning present, asked for by a lot of people, Santa hat. Hands off!!!

The previous Friday one of the second graders had barged her way into my office, and started to talk to me about an event she was involved in. It was a piano concert, to be held the next Monday, and she asked, nay demanded, that I come along. Never having been to one before, and thinking it might have some sort of Korean culture and influence to it, I said yes. Mr. Kim wasn't as forthcoming, claiming that he had to look after his two children, so he set me up with two teachers who were going. Two teachers who were not English teachers. And out here, that pretty much guarantees that they don't speak it.

I was told that I would be picked up at the school gates at 6. As I finish at 4.30, there was little point me heading home, so I took up the opportunity to have dinner in school. A lot of students, and the teachers who look after them, are also fed dinner in the respective cafeterias. But the native teacher is never around at this time. Consequently, the looks I got from the various teachers as I waltzed into the room to get my second fill of kimchi, rice and soup of the day were ones of bewilderment. Growing some cojones, I sat right next to them. And said my hellos in Korean. They then tried to humour me, which was yet another incentive to improve my Korean.

I went to the gates at 6, and there was a car running. Thinking that was my ride, I hopped in the front. The woman in the driver's seat looked at me with shock and started talking in Korean. I probably should have got in the back, but when I offered she flatly refused with the international 'no' gesture of putting your hands and forearms in an X shape. She did have a very small amount of English in her, telling me her name. All Koreans found it hilarious when I try to repeat their name, and this was no different. At this point another woman got in the car, and we left.

We got to the Siheung Youth Centre for the start of the performance, which was at 6.30. I was put in the front row with the teachers I was with, and immediately people started coming up to me, students and teachers, to ask me questions. The fact that I worked for Manchester United always goes down well in our broken conversations.

There were thirteen pianists in total. The girl who had invited me was up second, and blushed a little when she saw me in the front row. I was immensely impressed by their quality - I mean, my sister is good, and maybe if she was schooled as intensely as these girls were, she would be as good if not better, but this was very pleasing on the ears. Laura, I'm not saying that your piano playing isn't, but I haven't heard you play any Beethoven yet. Get on it, girl. I thought they were all brilliant, probably because I wasn't familiar with the songs being played. Beethoven, Chopin, Shubert, Liszt. I've seen where Chopin's heart is stored in Warsaw, but didn't know what his music was supposed to sound like. It was all very nice, though, and an evening well spent.

I have mentioned the lesson I was teaching this week, but on Tuesday I didn't teach any lessons. The students had their end of year field trip to a place called Lotte World. It was described to me as an amusement complex, but one that had an indoor as well as outdoor part. Mr. Kim told me that most outdoor amusement places shut during the winter as people cannot deal with queueing in the cold. He also told me how much he hates rollercoasters, and we had a friendly debate as to why you should go on them.

Due to this trip, I was told to come in for midday. I did, and was whisked away to the car park and into my head of department's car. Damn nice car as well, like a Chrysler Voyager. We parked up and went to the second floor of a building. There were now six of us in total, with three female teachers joining us. Sitting on a cushion, thus again losing the feelings in my lower limbs, I attempted to engage the ladies in conversation. Attempted is the operative word here. One of the teachers taught Chinese at the school, but is obviously a multi-lingual genius. Her English was decent enough to stimulate the most basic conversation.

This meal was another new experience for me. More specifically, the food was new. There was soup, of course. Rice, of course. Octopus, of course. Kimchi, of course...hang on. OCTOPUS!!!! Yes, this was new. They were rather small, and they were dead. I will do a live thing at some point, but for now...not particularly on the agenda. I was rather impressed that I could actually hold the thing with my chopsticks - eventually. Slippery buggers, octopi, even the little ones. I'm not going to lie, it tasted odd. Bit chewy, bit difficult to cut with chopsticks, but still pretty good. There was a lot of food, and once again I didn't require dinner. Always good.

The next days were spent teaching and doing the obligatory (and fun, I will make this clear, fun) Skype calls. These are, for the moment, restricted to my family, as Skype doesn't seem to have taken off in Britain, and certainly not amongst my friends. The one to my brother was a 6am call, which obviously means that I'm not at the top of my game, but I'm happy to do it. And soon enough, it was Christmas Eve...

...which I spent in school. At least in the day. As I previously mentioned, students go to school on Christmas Eve. It was on a Thursday, which threw a small spanner in the works for my lessons. Casting your mind back a week, you may remember that I slept in by accident and missed two of my three lessons. Those two lessons were not the problem, as I could actually do the Christmas lesson I had been doing for the past week. No, the problem was the lesson I had actually got my sorry hungover state to the previous week. I had nothing to teach them. My solution may be proof that I am destined to become a teacher as a career choice - I decided to show them a film. Not just any film, a Christmas film. And not just any Christmas film - Home Alone.

Problem solved, I opted to watch the Mr Bean Christmas episode. It showed me all of the things that I might actually miss about Christmas - the turkey, the carols, the presents. But to be honest, I was excited to do something different for Christmas, and I've never been a fan of carol singers. Even when we tried it years ago, I still knew we were pretty bad. Presents, however, was another matter. My parents were sending me some stuff which I had requested, and it was due to arrive at the school on Christmas Eve. Upon finding out the previous day that my box was stuck in customs, I managed to get through to one of the important folk at DHL, who assured me that, having done the paperwork he requested in double quick time, that my box would arrive Christmas Eve. The stuff I had asked for was a collection of items, edible and non-edible, that I needed and desired. Teabags, baked beans, custard, my mini Wales flag, my Cardiff City mug - it was a rather long list. However, I also had an inkling that within this box would be a couple of surprise Christmas presents, and even if there weren't, I was more than happy to accept what I had asked for from my parent's as them doing Santa's bidding.

The day moves along quite quickly. My Christmas lessons are great, with both classes booming out Rudolph to the point that students from other classes were actually peering through the windows to have a peek at what the Dickens was going on. At lunch we were given a little present - two little pieces of cake. I mean little, they couldn't last more than one bite apiece, but it was a very nice gesture. Koreans don't really do the present-giving aspect as much as we do, hence the reason Mr. Kim was a bit frustrated with himself that when I got him instant coffee as a present that he hadn't got anything for me. He's helped me out so much, and more to the point spent so much money on dinners for me, that I wasn't bothered.

Then hitches began to appear. The media on my laptop opted to malfunction when I attempted to show Home Alone. With Ms. HR Kim nowhere to be seen, I point I made to Mr. Kim later on as I'm not supposed to be in the room on my own, I could have panicked. I'm really not trying to compare myself to some popular religious figure here, but then I saw the star up ahead and it led me to my destiny...YouTube. This was how I had watched Mr. Bean earlier, so I decided to show them this. Having watched the episode earlier, I did also realise that I would have 10 minutes to fill at the end of the lesson. When Mr. Bean went on screen I, still wearing my Santa hat, sprinted back to my office. I did indeed leave my kids in a class on there own, but that was Ms. HR Kim's fault. Besides, they do love Mr. Bean out here.

I will explain why another time, but I had actually been looking at class activities during the morning, and quickly found a game I had seen earlier. It's called 'Stop the Bus', but I changed it to 'Christmas'. The basic concept is that I write categories, such as countries, food and animals, on the board, split the class into teams, and then write a letter on the board. The students then have to put a word under each category beginning with that letter, and whoever finshes first shouts 'Stop the Bus!'. They were better at it than I anticipated, so we played it five times until the bell went. One category I had was Western names, and this brought to my attention the fact that although Koreans can pronounce names easily, they have more difficulty trying to spell them. The letter P highlighted this more than most, with names such as Pole (Paul) and Piita (Peter) being outdone by one student who claimed that Piona was a name. I took a class vote on this, which really hammered home the point to the girl that it is indeed Fiona, not Piona.

After this class I was free to leave, but was waiting for my package, so stuck around, and tried to learn those pesky Korean numbers. I also had a few visitors, which was nice. One girl, a third grader, has entered an essay-writing competition (I know, the things kids do for fun out here), and I am mentoring her on the art of essay writing. The group of second-grader boys that fancy me paid me a visit as well. One girl even came with a present for me. I got really excited, until I realised that I had actually left my Santa hat in the last class after playing 'Stop the Bus', and she was merely returning it in a novelty-sized bag. I hope she got a kick out of that. Then a receptionist came into my office with a package. I was confused, as it was very, very small, and not in the shape of a box. And also said Royal Mail, rather than DHL. Uh oh. In my package were teabags and fruit bars, both of which had been on my list. But no more. I tried with DHL, but it was in vain.

Feeling a bit bummed, I left the school to head back. However, we had plans to go to Bucheon to get some food and drink a bit, so I didn't feel too annoyed, just a bit frustrated. 6 of us went to get food in a galbi joint. We ordered rather a lot of the stuff - one portion of galbi each, plus all of the sides and rice and alcohol, seemed like a lot and took a long time to cook up - but it was awesome. We tried to get into a bar called Jailbar, which has a bit of a reputation of being a freaky place, but they claimed they were full. If you're not with a Korean, its difficult to get in, supposedly. We went to a place called Mister Africa, on the fifth floor of a bright building with a really wobbly bannister. We were in this place when the clocks struck midnight, thus giving us our Christmas Eve toast. The girls left sometime after, leaving three of us - me, Julian and Codey - to drink until the smaller hours.

A lot of this night is blurry. This will undoubtedly become a feature of my blogs, and quite frankly I'm surprised it hasn't already. But there are key things that I do remember, albeit not in what order they happened. They do at least help to shine a light on more aspects of Korean culture. The buses stop at midnight, and don't really pick up again until sometime between 5 and 6, meaning that the cheap taxis are the best bet to get home. That is what we did, which helped me as I woke the next day without my T-Money travel card.

One other aspect we learnt was that Koreans don't particularly like their photo to be taken unless they look good. This is where I made my first major faux pas since coming here. We were stumbling around and came across a fight. A fight between two girls. A catfight! Without thinking, I whipped out my camera to take a photo. As it was dark, the victim of the fight was soon illuminated in a bright light coming from my camera. We walked off, only to be confronted by four Korean guys asking for my camera. What they were going to do with it, I don't know. My thoughts branched from them stamping on it, to them deleting the photo, to them wanting a photo with me as I had such great photography skills. But I went for the first option, and consequently tried to hide it. It was in my left pocket, with my phone. After Julian, who is bigger than me so a lot bigger than your average Korean, stepped in the way to prevent any physical occurence, I then showed them my pockets. Phone in one, wallet in the other. All while keeping my left hand in my left pocket with my camera. They eventually bought this and left. It was a ridiculous thing to do, I know. I even knew at the time. Can't easily change old habits of being an idiot when drunk, I guess. The irony in it all was that the photo I took was terrible, and showed nothing resembling a catfight.

One thing a camera is good for on heavy nights like this, however, is helping to refresh the memory, and this was undoubtedly true when I looked at my pictures the next day. The final picture, as you can see, is of me sat next to a Korean guy who has a guitar in his hand. I had no recollection of this until I saw the photo, and all of a sudden it came flooding into my memory. Having got out of the taxi at GS Mart, I was walking back to my place when I saw this guy playing his guitar in the freezing cold. I sat down next to him and listened for a minute or so, before asking him a load of questions he didn't understand. I then asked him what music he could play, and mentioned Radiohead. This was a reasonable guess, as a lot of students know of them. So did he. He began to play, and we sung every word to Creep. Loud. Drunken Koreans walked by staring at us as if we had just broken out of the zoo. But it was fantastic.

I set my alarm to ensure I was awake at a decent time on Christmas Day. I was having lunch with people from Bucheon at 3, but two people from Sihueng, Josh and Tony, were also coming, so I was going to meet them earlier. Needless to say I was in a bit of a state, but I met them and a couple of other people just before 2. Walking down to the other part of eunhaeng-dong was strange, in that every shop was open. To Korean workers, it was just another day. Every little shop was still open and trading, it was bizarre. Soon after my arrival a guy I hadn't met before, who I think was called Neil, said we should go for a drink before we headed our different ways. Beer and a soju shot later and it was 2.30, and we really had to dash.

30 minutes is ambitious for that journey. When there is traffic, that becomes a pipedream. We were meeting a friend of Josh's at Bucheon station, but he was running late as well. This is where a phone did help. We didn't know where the restaurant, Mari's, was, so I was planning on meeting Matt at around 3. At the station, as a group we decided that I should meet Matt, find out where Mari's was, then wait for a call from Josh and then meet them. Having a phone is awesome!

Turkey doesn't exist in Korea, save for in Itaewon, the expensive foreigner part of Seoul. We thus decided to mix it up a bit, and went to Mari's, which was described to me as a seafood buffet. This was true, but it was also so much more than that. Firstly, unlike many places which proclaim buffets but then only let you take a minimal amount, this was a full blown all-you-can-eat extravaganza. Secondly, it wasn't limited to seafood. Oh no. In fact, it might be fair to say that the only thing they didn't actually have was turkey. The place was huge, the amount of food was incredible, and my hair-of-the-dog tactic meant that I was rather hungry. I avoided the pasta, which seemed to be most people's downfall, but did gorge myself. Steak, seafood, Korean food, Chinese noodles, Japanese sushi, soups - and this is just the stuff I can remember. I even had kimchi on Christmas Day. That is adaptation, folks.

Five plates and a bit of beer down, and feeling as if I were a rather large dam about to burst, but you have to get value for money from these places, so time for dessert. There were a lot of desserts, and I may have gone overboard. I think the photo says it all really. Everyone claimed I would never finish it, and we all know that if someone challenges me then it merely spurs me on...but not this time. I think I did well to be able to see the bottom of the plate before giving in.

Myself, Kelly and April opted to walk this off on our way to Woodstock, which was a bit of a trek. Whilst walking the most amazing thing happened - IT BEGAN TO SNOW!!!! WHITE CHRISTMAS!!!! No matter how old you are, it creates a feeling of giddiness and excitement deep within, even deeper than the baby octopus I had stuffed into my stomach in one bite an hour or two before. As we were walking, we came across an ice rink, on which a sole little Korean girl was scooting around. On closer inspection, it wasn't ice, but in fact plastic, but that was quickly forgotten when the girl's minders came over to talk to us. I don't really know how, but we ended up singing 'Jingle Bell Rock' to them. Well, as much as we knew.

We chilled in Woodstock for a bit before retreating back to our respective flats. I passed out before midnight, which, given the lack of good sleep and the amount of food and beer, should come as no surprise. It was a fantastic Christmas Day, just incredibly chilled, and I have to be honest I didn't really miss anything about being at home. My brother sent me a picture of how they replaced me at the table - putting clothes and a picture of my face in my normal seat - which was pretty funny. But it's so refreshing to see how people of different cultures, not just Korean, go about celebrating at this time of year. I really enjoyed it, and felt as if I had the Christmas spirit. Also, a white Christmas!!

Day three of the Christmas festivities is Boxing Day, and traditionally a day to once again get drunk. I didn't disappoint on that front, but will leave that for next time.

Love you all,


Wednesday, 23 December 2009

Korea - The first Korean birthday

Hello everyone!

So my birthday was indeed on the 16th. I am now 22 - at least I would be if I was in the UK. Works slightly different out here, and I still haven't got my head around how it works. You are 1 when you are born, which is easy enough. But if you are born in a certain period and then Lunar New Year falls within one or two months of birth then you get another year tagged on. It is feasible for a baby to be born, and then a day later have a Korean age of 2, if Lunar New Year is the next day. So all of this means that I am either 23 or 24 in Korean age. I'm gunning for 23, myself. Though as I did lie to my students and said I was originally 26, I guess I'm now 27 in their eyes.

The exam period ended the day before, on the Tuesday, so I was under the impression that I would be teaching on my birthday. Not quite. The school's exam period, where they get graded and whatnot, ended on the Tuesday. But today was even bigger for the third graders - University entrance exams. I was told that I would definitely be teaching the next day. I had mentioned to Mr. Kim the day before about my birthday, and the two of us, and Ms. Woo, went out for lunch. More would have come but for the panic that was setting in over their students' futures. We went to a Japanese restaurant for sushi.

I may have had sushi before, but not like this. It was amazing. The amount of food alone was jaw-dropping. Plate after plate after bowl after bowl of food came flying onto the table. It could have fed 8 people and they wouldn't have complained of hunger afterwards - instead it was left to 3 of us to be struggling to move after finishing up. There were some really cool elements to the meal, one of my favourites being what looked like funky edible insects. There was slithers of raw fish, such as lobster, placed carefully on top of sticky rice, which you had to pick up with your sticks, dip in sauce and then eat in one go, without dropping any of it. A good test of my skills, that, and one I passed with flying colours. Those things were delicious.

One test I didn't pass was the soup. Now I do like spicy food. I do like hot food. More to the point, I have thus far coped pretty well with the 'spice' that Korean cuisine has hurled in my direction. But this was different. This was off-the-wall spicy. Mr. Kim did say as I was putting my spoon into the shared bowl in the middle that it may be pretty spicy, and he was not lying. The searing heat scorched my mouth as soon as the liquid molten set foot on my taste buds. The spice irritated like nothing before. I gulped, quickly, to get it out of my mouth without it ending up on the table, and in correlation with my previous gochu experience, did the wafting-of-the-hands-over-the-mouth gesture. But more frantically. They both got a kick out of it, which was good. For them.

Not surprisngly, the soup remained intact for the rest of the meal. The rest of the food did not. Even the side dishes were insane, with one, sweetcorn in melted butter, being the outstanding accoutrement. Whilst we were eating, Mr. Kim pulled out some birthday presents for me. There were three, but all were essentially the same - ground coffee. The stuff is an essential component of my teaching day. The energy and enthusiasm (say would say mindless idiocy) I put into each lesson means that I need to constantly top myself up at every available break between lessons. It tastes better than instant, and all three bags were from the Tesco's Finest range. Obviously it is so good that they opted not to change it to the Home Plus 'Plus' range. It was gratefully accepted by myself, and I stashed the carrier bag of caffeine gifts under the table to keep them safe.

I may have kept them a bit too safe. We were on our way out of the restaurant when I slapped my pockets to check I had my valuables, and realised that I was missing something. As I did that, the waitress duly shouted something in Korean. I had camera. Whoops! I had realised though, so was in the process of turning when the waitress alerted us. I took the camera, bowed and said thanks, and left the restaurant, putting both hands in my pocket to keep them warm. Hang on. I had been given a carrier bag. AARGH! I motored back into the restaurant, met with gazes of bemusement from all, and headed for the table. Sure enough, the bag was there, and disaster had been averted.

As I did touch upon, it was pretty cold. Everyone was stunned when I actually took off my coat in the restaurant, and then concerned for my state of mind when I took off my light jacket and just had a shirt on. But as in many places out here, the cushions we were sat on are electronically heated, which is a very good feeling. Outside, however, it was cold. Anyone moaning about the snow and how cold the UK has been recently gets no sympathy from me. The high temperatures throughout the week never seemed to be able to break -5'C. It was so cold that Ms. Woo's car wouldn't start upon leaving our lunch. Normal, you may think. Maybe not when you consider that it wouldn't start because the ignition seemed to be frozen in place, and the key would not turn. It took a considerable effort from me to manage to twist the key to start the thing.

I spent the afternoon trying to digest food, but also headed to Bucheon on a mission. For reasons I will divulge later, I needed a Santa hat. Saying 'Kris-mass-ee' and pointing to my hat didn't seem to work, but I spotted one in the shopping complex under Bucheon station. Complete with actual Santa face on the front. I felt I needed to get back to Siheung, so paid the 10,000W price for it. Expensive for a hat, I know. I'm still not entirely sure if you are supposed to barter out here or not.

Soon enough it was evening. I was meeting Siheung people at 10, when they had all finished work, so took the opportunity to be wished a happy birthday by my mum over Skype. Beer in hand (me, not her - bit early in the day for that in Britain), I set about opening the presents that I had been obliged to pack in my suitcase. I had had some of the presents at home, so it was left mainly to presents my siblings had got me. Laura had got me a really nice photo frame with two family pictures in it, which now sits snugly in my office. Richard and Jess, his girlfriend, had seemingly gone all out, getting me 4 birthday presents. Not knowing if there was an order to open them, I opened the first one. String with mini stars on it. Not quite long enough for a second washing line, I supped my Cass and opened another. A box of 18 gems, each with string attached in a loop. At this point I was confuzzled. Number three was a bit of a giveaway, however. Especially as Rich had written XMAS CAKE on top of it. I left the largest of the quad for last, and it was the one that wove all of these obscure gifts together - a mini Christmas tree!!!! How glad I was that I hadn't plumped to buy one in Bucheon earlier! The string was, of course, tinsel, and the gems were baubels. Quite special that I didn't work it out, really, but I'll survive.

I couldn't find my USB stick, on which was the lesson I was teaching for the next week, but had other priorities. We went to Bier Garten for drinks in the late evening. A lot of people, including several I had never met before, showed up, so I got to meet and socialise with a lot more people. Again, most of those were British, but there were also new people from South Africa and the United States. It was good fun. Beer and soju are standard fare on any alcohol night, but I was introduced to soju cocktails. Does exactly what it says on the tin, but tastes a lot lot better than what I imagine Ronseal tastes like. Some of the girls bought the strawberry one and indulged me in it. It tasted like a dacquiri, and was very easy to drink.

An innovative feature about this place was the cup holders built into the table. If you flick a switch on the side of the table, they become chilled, keeping your beer colder for longer. If it begins to ice at the bottom, as one of mine started to, it is a surefire sign to hurry up your drinking. A great idea all round! One reason we had gone to Bier Garten was the rumour that they provide free cake and beer if you prove it is your birthday. Inexplicably, we forgot about this until well past 1am, thus being the next day. However, Michelle arrived with a slice of chocolate cake which looked truly mind-blowing. I couldn't fit it in my stomach at that point, even though I hadn't eaten since lunch. I didn't need to eat until breakfast the next day.

Remembering I had to be actually teaching at 8.30am the next morning, we eventually took our leave, and I got back to my flat at about 3am, and drank some water after realising that I was going to be awake in less than 4 hours for school.

Well I was supposed to be. I got a knock at the door to wake me. That hadn't happened before. I opened my eyes, which was an almighty struggle, and glanced the clock. My first lesson was at 8.30am. It was 10am, and it was Mr. Kim at the door. Bugger. I opened the door, propping myself up against it to stop me from falling over. I may have still been drunk, but managed to hide it. Upon being asked if I would be ready quickly enough to get in to teach my 10.30 excuse, I was desperately thinking of ways to say no. Then it dawned on me. How could I teach without my USB? It was a genuine reason. I said I would keep looking, but wouldn't be able to find it quickly enough to be ready. I was told to be in by lunchtime, and Mr. Kim left me to ponder what punishment would be imposed upon me. Maybe a crack of one of Ms. Woo's eight caning sticks? I was actually hitting hangover stage, so wasn't particularly concerned either way.

I got myself in for lunch, and had to survive one lesson in the afternoon, which was fairly easy as they were a talkative bunch. That evening consisted of decorating the tree my brother had bought me, and monging in a hungover daze watching Scrubs, which I am progressing through at a frightening rate. The joys of having two laptops. Though I also hit that chocolate cake, and it hit every single spot. Michelle, thank you!

Friday I checked the temperature when I woke up. -13'C, before wind chill. Lovely. I don't have student classes anyway, but my two teacher classes were cancelled on the grounds that there were MORE exams. I wouldn't mind teaching every once in a while, and though it is partly my fault - I mean, of the three lessons I was supposed to teach over a 10 day period, I missed two of them - I expected to be worked significantly harder than I am right now. This gave me the opportunity to, amongst other things, polish off the majority of the Hangul alphabet. Numbers will be next, I think, but they have two types of numbers - pure Korean, and Sino-Korean. A bit more complicated to know when to use which number, but as long as I learn up to 10 either way then I think I'll survive.

I also made plans to meet Matt in Bucheon and go for food and a couple of drinks. I wasn't feeling the drinks, but didn't want to turn down a social opportunity. Have to make the most of every opportunity out here, you never know when things are going to happen, especially without a phone. We went to the galbi place we had been on my first full day in Korea. There were five of us - me, Matt, April, Sean (the Canadian) and an American called Matt. Yes, it was a Matt-majority table. Motions to make non-Matt's pay were quickly shot down, however.

Of course, me being the borderline alcoholic that I am, after a couple of little beers and a bit of soju during dinner I was up for carrying on. After a brief stop at a supermarket to buy a football and a basketball, we went to a place called R'n'B's, a bar on the third floor of a building. The balls were for a charity Christmas gift drive, which got you a raffle ticket in return. But back to the place. Proper bar this, none of that buying food first malarkee. And also, for the first time, it seemed that foreigners outweighed locals. By a big margin. Beers in, and I chatted to Matt and a few of his friends for a bit before I noticed Sean moving over to the pool table. Feeling I needed to avenge my pitiful display from the previous drunken Friday, I followed.

I waited a while for my turn, but then proceeded to win 6 in a row. Kid gets his swagger back. The beer then begins to hit me, and I lose to a nice elder gentleman from Florida. We chat for a bit, and he tells me that he has been out here for over 2 years. Outrageous. Even at this early stage, and as much as I like Korea, I can't envisage myself staying that long. Though 2 years ago there is no way that I would have considered living out here - we were only just getting our Eurotrip plans into gear. So swings and roundabouts, really. Nowadays I sometimes get the urge to do what the main character does on The Last King of Scotland - spin the globe, put my finger on it, and go to the country that I land on. As long as I don't hit the sea, of course.

Soon enough the raffle is drawn, Matt and April don't win, and we move on to a new place called The Park. Though I am very drunk at this point, the place instantly looks familiar to me. I look to the right and see a pool table, and memories of last Friday come to the forefront of my brain. So THIS is where I was last Friday. Matt introduces me to another American, who I think was called Ryan. Or Sean. Whoever he was, he was the cause of my drunkenness moving up a notch or two, as he immediately called for a beer bong. I had heard the term, but couldn't remember why. Then a funnel appeared in front of me. Brilliant. Last time a funnel was put in front of me I had to funnel a bottle of wine at a house party, and was removed from Oceana within half an hour of arriving for showing vomit-like symptoms.

No such problems this time. Beer poured down, throat sufficiently opened, job done. But damn did I feel dizzy. I then went about chatting to strangers for a while, talking to one English girl for a while before realising that she was quite ugly and moving on. I was quite impressed I got out of that potential venus flytrap in time. I tried to talk to what in my memory was a hot American girl, but she wasn't too hot on the talking and being sociable aspect of life. I noticed that the others had left, so I bolted when she did actually talk to me, saying 'I'm going to the restroom'. Great night.

Killer hangover. I had two options for Saturday - one of them was an invite from Ellen to go out in Seoul for a big night, as she has friends up there who she crashes with. I wasn't feeling that, for some reason. But the other Siheungers were going out for dinner and drinks for Lee's birthday, and were not venturing further than Bucheon. This suited me a lot more, so I dragged myself out of bed at 3 and got myself in gear to meet them all at Bucheon station at 6.

I didn't bank on the ridiculous volume of traffic. They don't really have a rush hour here, it's more a rush late-afternoon-and-evening. But it was still a lot worse than normal. My 15-20 minute bus ride took almost an hour, meaning that I got to Bucheon station at 6.15. This would have been fine, of course, if I had a phone. Oh dear. I hung around for a while, hoping they would randomly see me as I had with Kelly the week before, but no such luck. It's very frustrating when your social life is constantly curtailed by the lack of communication. People have since pointed out that I should have noted their numbers and used a payphone, but I'll blame tiredness and the hangover for not doing that.

All in all, my birthday activities were great fun. And Christmas is just around the corner!!!!! I'll tell you how that goes next time.

Love you all


Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Korea - The first exam period

Hello everyone!

Remember last time that I had rolled into my flat at 2am, with school the next morning? It turns out that the next day wasn't as bad as it could have been, mainly because I didn't have any lessons to teach. My school's exam period started on the Wednesday. I did have knowledge of this, and consequently did know that I wouldn't be taking any lessons, but I like to keep you all on the edge of your seats!

I did also have to be in for 8.30. Why, I don't know. It's not as if I had stuff to do - no lessons until next Wednesday, so no lesson planning to do until next week. The Korean exam period is a bit different from ours. All exams are crammed into one week, and they sit between 2 or 3 a day. However, all of these are taken in the morning, with the afternoon and evening reserved for revision. This seemed harsh to me, as we had a one month period to sit 3 A-levels, but they also seem to work harder for longer out here, so it wasn't much of a surprise to hear this.

Teachers were allowed to leave at the end of the exams for each day, so around midday. I took advantage of this on Wednesday to do a bit more exploration - specifically, how to get to Bucheon on a bus. This would be crucial in order to meet up with the people I knew there, and also how to get back if I had gone there for the evening and had any soju.

Thursday we left school even earlier, though with good reason. We took a trip over to Incheon, a reasonably big city which was, and still is, the gateway to Seoul. I'm technically closer to Incheon than the centre of Seoul, but am technically in Seoul's metropolitan catchment area - that's how big it is. The reason we went was to apply for my foreigner's card, and thus my access to a phone and a bank account. Once I have these, things will really take off.

Apart from Mr. Kim not checking his blindspot and almost veering into another car, the drive was quite uneventful. We had to wait around for about an hour before being called up to the desk, so had time to chat about various things. As I had ran out of money, and couldn't access my British bank accounts, Mr. Kim said he would lend me my settlement allowance, a 'golden hello', of 300,000W. Mr. Kim had spent time living in Canada, mainly because his rich friend got sent there by his dad to learn English and said friend needed company, so paid for Mr. Kim to come out. He also told me that Koreans eat rice for breakfast, something I still can't get my head around. Three meals a day, all containing rice. It explains why cereal is so expensive, I guess.

On the way back he told me that I had Friday off. Awesome! He dropped me off near my house and drove off, at which point I realised that he had forgotten to get money out for me. I decided that I would go into school the next day to get this money, but was spared the early morning by Mr. Kim knocking on my door an hour later with lots of notes. The largest denomination is a 10,000W note. The housing system is different here, in that you put down a large lump sum in cash before moving in - about 50% of the price, rather than one month's rent - and I read that people will take huge bags of these 10,000W notes to pay for it. Not seen that yet, though.

Friday I had plans in place to head down to Bucheon for some food and a few drinks, so consequently slept in late and, apart from have a wander around, did nothing of note until about 5.15pm, when I left my flat to get the bus over. I knew my exploring would come in handy! Kelly had told me to meet her by the big GS department store at 6 - specifically, outside the Baskin Robbins shop. This was the quote: 'I'll meet you in front of that baskin robins. It's the only one in that area so it should be easy. It sticks out like a sore thumb haha PURPLE AND PINK among the reds, oranges, and yellows.' So my bus gets to Bucheon station, and I take a taxi to GS from there to make sure I'm not late. The taxi was only 4000W, about 2 quid, which is wonderfully cheap.

I got to GS about five minutes before 6pm, and then realised I didn't know where BR was, so went up to the woman directing traffic and asked. I say asked, I said hello in Korean and then said 'Baskin Robbins?' while scrunching my face and shrugging my shoulders in a very exaggerated way. Fitting in well with the culture, obviously. The woman does understand, however, and points to the GS and then points down, all with a nice smile. Sounds simple, and it is easy to find - down one floor, on the food court. So I wait.

And wait.

And wait.

It gets to about 6.15, and I decide that Kelly may be waiting outside, so have a look. No luck. I try the other side of the department store. Not there either. Thinking the scenario resembles what happens in comedy films when a person waits for ages, gets agitated and leaves just as the other person arrives from a different direction, I head back in to the BR.

At 6.30 I have another brainwave. I vaguely knew my way around this part of Bucheon, and, having stayed there for a few days at the start of the trip, I knew where Kelly's place was from GS. As it was only a 5 minute walk away, I headed over to see if she hadn't left yet, if she was asleep, etc. Alas, there was no answer, so I headed back to the GS, beginning to wonder about where I could get a taxi back to the station from.

I waited for 10 minutes more at the BR in GS before giving up, cursing the fact that I didn't have a phone, and walked out of the store. I cut through a pedestrianised lane of restaurants to get back to the main road. As the road appeared in front of me, something else across the road caught my eye. It was big, bright - and purple and pink. And stood underneath it were three Westerners, two of whom seemed to be walking off from the third, a girl who looked very cold, as if she had been waiting there for a while. Yes, it was indeed a Baskin Robbins, with Kelly stood in front of it. I put my hands over my face in disbelief, and at that moment she saw me. Cue a huge look of shock on her face. I started laughing - you have to in a situation like that. Some things are just meant to happen!

I walked over with April and Dalyn to the bar we were going to. As well as wanting to see them all, a reason why I had come down was this bar. From 6 until 9, it is all-you-can-drink. For 2,500W. That's something like £1.25 for unlimited beer. Absolutely ridiculous. Of course, as with most places in Korea, you have to buy food as well, but a lot of us hand't eaten, so that wasn't an issue. They don't eat spag bol with chopsticks, which actually surprised me a little bit. Not much difference between noodles and spaghetti, really.

There were a lot of people arriving in our group, so I got to meet many new people. I spent a lot of our little session talking to a South African guy and a Canadian whose names I can't remember, and a Geordie called Colin. It's good to be able to talk to someone about football, I had missed that. 9pm arrived, and after April had fallen over, we headed over to Woodstock, the 70s place we went to on my first night. It's a very small place, and there is only one place in the corner where a large group can all sit together. Amazingly, a group of Koreans who were sat there got up and offered us their seats when we got in. I am still astounded at times by their generosity.

So more was drank in Woodstock, including a deceptively strong JD and coke. A bottle of JD was almost $125, so whoever got it was feeling a bit rich. People began to filter away, tired from the stresses of their week teaching. I had had no such stresses, of course, and five of us soon ended up at another bar, and then four of us - myself, Colin, April and Russell - ended up in another bar with a free pool table. I lost at pool, mainly because I was beginning to struggle to see from all the beer, but it was great fun, and a great night. Colin plopped me on a bus at around 5.30am, and an hour later I stumbled into my flat. How I pressed the right numbers for my various combinations still confuses me.

I just about saw daylight on Saturday. 3.30pm was when I managed to haul myself out of bed. The only reason I did so was to head into Seoul for an event in Gwanghwamun Square, called Seoul Snow Jam. Essentially, they built a giant ramp - 34 metres high, and 100 metres long - and had a three-day skiing and snowboarding competition, with professionals from around the world and the token Korean entrants to boost the crowds. It seemed like a really cool idea, and I'm sure I would have appreciated it a lot more if I hadn't been quite so hungover.

We had talked about going down at some point over the weekend, but I had forgotten to check facebook to see if a plan had developed, so dragged my bleary body up to Seoul to witness it on
my own. Feeling the way I did, that was probably for the best. I really didn't feel sociable, partly because I thought that if I tried to talk to someone then vomit, rather than lyrical genius, would flow from my mouth. The event started at 5, and I got there a short time after. It was packed, but I somehow made my way to the front of the mid-section. Quite far back, admittedly, but considering how far back the end of the crowd soon was I was quite happy with that. I was soon overtaken by two American girls in full Santa costumes, who I'm guessing had popped over before going on the Santacon march later in the evening, where people go on a pub crawl and have to be dressed as Santa. Can't imagine many Koreans participated in that. It sounded right up my street, but I didn't know anyone else going on it, and didn't feel as if I should splurge part of my loan on a fancy dress costume.

The main problem now was the temperature. I was wrapped up, but as daylight disappeared, so did the positive number on the Seoul thermometer. This was compounded by the fact that I seemed to have lost a glove the night before, so had to keep my hands jammed in my pockets except for taking the occasional photo. Beginning to lose the feeling of my toes in my right foot, I started to hop around, which must have looked strange.

It finally started shortly before 7, but only after some serious propaganda from Hyundai, in particular advertising their Hyundai Card. Samsung make cars, and Hyundai have bank cards. What next? The competition itself seemed aweseome, every fall being greeted with an 'ooooh'
and the odd cheer, whilst the roar for the Korean boarder was amazing. However, I increasingly felt as if I was going to be sick, so after about 45 minutes I slipped out. I went into an underpass to get across the busy road, and found myself in a Korean history museum, which actually seemed really interesting, especially this weapon. Kind of like a crossbow of lots of spears.

One of the Siheungers, Lee, had told me about a pizza place near McDonalds which was pretty good, so I went down to get my first greasy takeaway in Korea. To all students in Manchester, think Pizza Champion and you're pretty much there. One thing I found quite funny was that they put a pink ribbon around the pizza box and tie it in a bow. Maybe its to stop the box from opening accidentally, maybe its to make you feel extra special about buying it. The crust tasted like wholemeal bread, which was strange, but it was exactly what I needed.

Sunday, apart from investing in a kettle, was a non-entity of a day. I turned up on Monday as was told I could leave quite early, so I took the opportunity to find out where exactly I could withdraw cash from. Contrary to what Nationwide told me, my card does not work at every single ATM with the Visa logo out here, but I managed to find a site that listed ATMs that it
should work at, hence I began to splurge on luxuries and necessities, like the kettle. All of the ATMs listed were in Seoul, but my co-teacher was convinced that I could get money in Siheung, and we found the location of a Citibank I could go to. Well, kind of. He found it on the map, which I then claimed was wrong, as it was on my route to school and I had never seen it. I know I'm not awake properly at that time, but I would have noticed it? Where the map claimed it was lied a rival bank, so I went in, took a ticket, listened to their very Western-orientated Christmas music, and was then called up to the desk.

I had been trying to work out exactly how to communicate my problem to the woman, who unsurprisingly didn't speak English. Each time my card had failed it had printed a receipt, so I gave her them and pointed at the Visa sign on my card. She laughed, and called for someone else. A young man, complete with massive spiky hair, came out of the back. 'Can I help you?' he says, in pretty fine English. 'Maybe', I said, and tried to explain the problem. Turned out that bank was for industry folk, so they couldn't help me. I then thought that he might know where Citibank was, and tried to impress him by writing it in Hangul (I know the consonants now, I'll show off another time). I failed. Miserably. He didn't have a clue what I had written. What was strange was that when I wrote it in English underneath, he knew straight away. He drew me a map, telling me that Citibank was three blocks away, and then showed me y pointing outside. Whilst doing this he asked me a question: 'Are you Canadian?'. Why do so many Koreans think that???? First it was the Korean Embassy in London, then it was a random person in a bar, and now this guy?? What is remotely Canadian about me, eh?

Finding Citibank was the easy part. Getting my card to work, less so. Even the ATM which had 'Global ATM' stuck above it refused to give me any money, just saying 'Error' and printing me a receipt. The amount of paper I've wasted in receipts, those people in Copenhagen would lynch me if they found out. I tried my show-and-tell tactic I had used in the other bank, but there was no one here that spoke English. They sat me down and got busy, walking around purposefully and all trying to help. About 20 minutes later I was ushered over to a phone, and motioned to speak to the person on the other line. Who told me, in no uncertain terms, that my card didn't work out here. Brilliant.

At this point I decided to take a trip into Seoul to one of the ATMs on that list, and see if I had any luck with that. Looking at the map, I went to what was suggested as the closest subway stop, Jongno5-ga. The map told me there were two of these ATMs about three blocks away, so I walked. Aboot six blocks (OK, maybe slightly Canadian?). Nothing, except for a hotel with lots of international flags on it called the Ambassador. I went in and asked them how to get to the plaza these bad boys were located at, and he told me that I was about three subway stops away and on the wrong line. Stupid maps.

I got to the station, Euljiro 1-ga, and came out at a crossroads in what seemed like Seoul's financial district. I found the Citibank on the 20th floor of a high-rise and went in. Needless to say, the same thing happened again and again until they gestured to me that there was nothing they could do. Two days before my birthday and funds being drained by the day, not kosher.

What was strange was the sight of a Manchester United Red Cafe about a block away. Well, if I am Seoul at an ungodly hour and desperate to watch a game, at least I know somewhere that really really should be showing it. I've worked out that European games will be kicking off at the very sociable time of 4.45am. I guess I could go straight from there to work, the timing may just about work!

So a strange week, but I'll have lessons to teach again soon, and then there is a birthday to look forward to!

Love you all


Thursday, 10 December 2009

Korea - The first encounter with Siheung Westerners

Hello everyone!

Monday is quite an easy day for me. I only have two lessons, both all-girl classes, and then have one teachers' class in the afternoon. The latter class normally just involves them talking to me in English for a while, so we decided to go out to lunch to do this. We had food that is known as shabu shabu. It seems similar to galbi, but there is no need for the lettuce leaves, you just eat the meat as it comes. It also comes with the 15 or so complimentary side dishes. One of these was an egg-like roll, cut into slices. It tasted like scrambled egg, it was amazing! I want that as a side more often. The kimchi was also pretty good, and was spicy as well. Shabu shabu is thought of as Japanese; the difference is that Koreans actually have taste buds, so don't eat the bland, boring Japanese version, they spice it up a bit. Very nice, but samgyupsal is still my favourite. It seems to be everyone's favourite out here; they love a bit of pork belly!

After lunch Ms. Yang drove me and Mr. Kim back to school. She hasn't been driving for long, and you can tell. I am slowly getting used to the 'drive-into-traffic-and-hope-for-the-best' driving attitude though. Intruigingly, her care is a Samsung. Samsung, the company that makes cameras, computers and the like. Out here, it seems, they also make cars. Talk about branching out. I only know of three global brands that have originated in Korea: Samsung, Hyundai (a lot of them about) and LG.

My morning lessons were pretty good. I managed to get both classes to belt out the chorus of 'Yellow Submarine', which they loved doing and also gave me a little sense of pride. Do I care that they, not even the teacher, have no clue what a submarine is? Not right now. I have time to teach them. Both times I had the girlfriend question. Both times I gave my long-winded answer, which ends in 'no'. The cheer from the first class was deafening, almost as if they had won the lottery. They all seemed excitable about me being single. This was topped, however, by me showcasing my knowledge of Korean popular culture in my second class. I was asked what my favourite Korean band were. This was a question that I could easily have tripped up on. However, I had randomly asked Ms. Woo about this the other day, and she had told me about a boy group called 2pm. There is also a more classical equivalent, called 2am. Being a class of girls, I hedged my bets and said that I knew of the former. I'm surprised that the windows didn't shatter, such was the ferocity of the screams. Another rockstar moment, undoubtedly.

What they also noticed, courtesy of me wearing a white shirt, is my tattoo. On my health forms before arriving in Korea I was specifically asked whether I had tattoos, and I responded by essentially saying that they wouldn't see it, so wouldn't know I had one. Upon my students noticing it, and asking millions of questions about it, I told Mr. Kim, who then asked the same millions of questions about it. 'Did it hurt?' has become a popular one, and 'Does everyone have one?' is another. It is striking to realise that they know next to nothing about cultures besides their own and those of their neighbours, and so every little detail about me can be dissected as part of British culture.

Another of these is the fact that I hand out worksheets myself. I was confused when a class started chuckling when I was handing out wordsearches the other day, so asked the teacher what had been funny. She said that no Korean teacher ever does that themselves, that they just give them to the front tables and the sheets work their way back, so they found it strange and cute that I put the extra effort in.

I spent a good deal of the afternoon playing an epic game of chess with Mr. Kim. He said that Brad had won the first few games between them, but then he had won every game. I put down a marker by winning, surprising as it may seem. I am pretty bad at chess. I also learnt some more vowels.
ㅑ - a 'ya' sound
ㅏ - a sharp 'a' sound
ㅣ - an 'ee' sound
ㅓ - an 'aaw' sound
ㅗ - a bit like an 'orh' sound
ㅡ - difficult to describe, a bit like 'uh'
those are the singular vowels, so next I need to learn double vowels and consonants. Not as hard as it looks, though!

Having managed to acquire a wire from the supermarket by getting Mr. Kim to write what 'string' was on a piece of paper for me and showing people in the shop, I finally did a bit of washing. It needed to be done. Once I put this up to dry, I decided to explore. I walked along for about 5 minutes and came across a bus stop on a major road. Suddenly resuscitating the traveller's instinct within me, I decided to get on the next bus that came along, and see where it went, getting off if there were enough neon lights to suggest things were there.

The bus bumped along for about half an hour, passing through one built-up area but mainly sticking to highways. On the route map there were four stations written in English as well as Hangul (the Korean characters), one of which was a stop called Oido station. From my newly-expanded knowledge, I could work out that it was pronounced 'Orh-ee-dorh'. I was so busy deciphering this that, when I looked up as a few people were getting off, I noticed a large building with 'Oido Station' written in very large lettering to the left. The bus began to move, but I swiped my card and hopped off before the doors had shut.

Someone had mentioned Oido to me before, but I had no idea why. Seeing a map in the station, I realised that it was near water, so I headed towards the edge. Of course, it is difficult to really explore somewhere when it is very dark, save for the neon lights on the two main streets, and very, very cold. The temperature has been slowly dropping, with my computer telling me earlier in the day that it was -3'C. Whether I believe that, I don't know, but it felt close to sub-zero in the late evening in Oido. Some books I have read have suggested that the average HIGH temperature in January is 0'C, but that's a long way away yet.

I saw two fantastic ideas in Oido. The first was a golf driving range. All normal, you think. It is, until you realise that it is suspended in the air. Over a car park. You drive from a building into green netting, and the netting on the bottom stops the golf balls from causing collateral damage to the Hyundai's and Samsung's sat innocently below. My one query is this; how do they get the balls back???? The other fantastic idea was spotted as I was walking back towards the subway station. I was walking along a purpose-built path, which had plants and small trees lining it. Probably looks great in the light, when I guess there is a bit of colour added to them. But all of a sudden, on the right, there was a clearing. In this clearing sat about 10 machines, each one being slightly different. It didn't take me long to think that the nearby gymnasium had been ambushed, and the heavy equipment dumped there on the getaway trail. But I looked closer. These were bolted down in the clearing. One was like a step machine, another was for bicep curls, another for shoulder presses. A free gym!!! What an idea. Get Cardiff council on it!

Tuesday is my busy day. I say busy; what constitutes 'busy' in this job is 'normal' for other workers, and proabably a normal day on the placement I did in Stalybridge in the summer. I have five classes, all back-to-back, apart from the 10 minutes between each lesson and the lunch break after the third of those five. Brad had told me that he always needed a beer after doing that schedule, but I was looking forward to actually earning my Korean Won for a change.

I had now worked with all of the teachers, and they all mentioned to me that my lesson seemed a lot more polished than it had when I had been teaching previously under their supervision. As a result, I can dedicate more time to having banter/giving abuse to my students. Mr. Kim told me that his class of girls, 1-9, were often quite loud and difficult to control. Obviously they let me have one lesson of peace, besides the inevitable grillings about girlfriends and height. Where they surpassed previous questioning was when they asked how much...I weighed. I was a bit taken aback by this, I have to say. I had a vague idea of how much I weighed in kilograms, so wrote 62 on the board. I couldn't play the guessing game with that, who knows what they would have said. They didn't boo, so I guess that 9 and a half stone is acceptable for them.

My second class, 1-8, were without a doubt the highlight of my first week of teaching. They were just off-the-wall. They were fairly rowdy, but manageable, and they were very interested in all aspects of the lesson. Especially me. They were also keen to show their enthusiasm in English. Upon giving a wordsearch to one, she said: "You are a gentleman". Cue a nod from me, and an eruption of giggles. Yet another rockstar moment, but topped moments later by a girl spontneously shouting out: "I LOVE YOU!". Was it 100% genuine? Unknown. Do I care if it wasn't? Definitely not. As if my ego wasn't large enough as it was.

Towards the end of the lesson, this class started asking me questions, and one of them was about my knowledge of Korean music. Remembering the success of the previous day, I mentioned 2pm, and then held my ears for about 10 seconds to prevent the shrieking from bursting my eardrums. It was at the end of this cacophony of high-pitched noise that one girl shouted out that another girl knew the dance to one of their songs. We all know what girls of this age are like; soon enough, every girl in the class was actively, and loudly, encouraging this one girl sat in the middle of the class to get up and dance for me. Normally I wouldn't bow to such pressure, it's incredibly harsh to pick on a student like that and I could tell she wasn't keen, but I also thought that it would be very funny, so told her to do it. I did give one condition: the rest of the class had to sing the song while she danced. So up she comes to the front. Just as she's about to start, the bell goes. Disaster? No chance. We'd come this far, she may as well finish what her friends had started. And they all begin to sing - out of tune, it has to be said. La dee da, something in Korean, something else in Korean. And, incredibly, the girl takes a step to the right, clicks her fingers down, step to the left, clicks her fingers down, again, again, again. It was simple, yet so amazing. She got into it, and only stopped when the rest of the students forgot some of the words. And the fact that I needed to go to my next lesson. Hilarious lesson, and the students found it hilarious, and that is essentially what I am here for. Good job, me?

Teaching three lessons back-to-back, with the amount of energy I put in, requires two things: water and coffee. Together and separate. So when we ran out of coffee just before lunch I became concerned, and a bit jaded. Lunch was nice, though not a patch on eating out, and my two lessons in the afternoon passed off, on the whole, without incident. The one incident that sticks in the memory was in my boys class, 1-5, when I asked them what football team they supported. One guy sticks his hand up in the way that students often do in school, actually trying to touch the ceiling which is about 3 metres above his head. "Manchester City!!!" he shouts. With a sense of pride, as well. Oh dear. I think my spontaneous response of "Get out" and pointing at the door did the trick. Everyone else laughed, so playing to the greater good works nicely. Interestingly, he still adores Park ji-Sung, showing that perhaps the local rivalry isn't transmitted particularly well on a global level.

Brad was right, it's not the easiest of days, but about 99.9% of the population here have it worse than me, so I'm not going to complain. What was beginning to get to me, however, was the fact that I still hadn't found any Westerners in Siheung. Well, I had, but I don't think the Mormons and myself would have had much in common in terms of social activities. I decided to step up my search through the internet, and facebook in particular. I found a couple of groups about Westerners in Siheung, and messaged each person in the group. I did this until I got a message from admin saying that I was sending too many messages too quickly (?), and if I carried on I would be temporarily blocked. However, I got a couple of responses, with one, a girl called Michelle, saying that a few people were going for drinks later, and that I should come along. With nothing to lose, I headed down to the McDonald's for 10, and soon enough was met by two girls; Michelle and Ellen.

We went to get some galbi, at which point I remembered that I had eaten just 2 hours before. I was also low on funds, with only 25,000W left and without access to my money in my British bank accounts. But galbi is a damn good meal, so we got to know each other whilst having it. More British people turned up, so there were seven of us in total. All apart from Ellen were British. All lived in the same building. I think I was unlucky in that aspect, especially as it turns out Ellen teaches in Sorae's middle school, across the road from me. The others all teach in a hagwan, which is a private school, as opposed to my public school. This means that their hours are different, working in the afternoons and evenings.

After food we went to a billiards club. They do play billiards here, but what is advertised as a billiards club is generally where you play pool. It was all good fun, and good to get to know some new people who I could talk to without slowing my voice down. Getting back to my place at around 2am, a bit tipsy and with the knowledge that I was in school early the next day, was not the sensible choice, but long-term it will be worth it.

Love you all


Monday, 7 December 2009

Korea - The first trip to hospital

Hello everyone!

The title of this blog is not as bad as it sounds. I was always supposed to go to hospital for my medical checks. The fact that one of my glands decided to swell up on Thursday is irrelevant really. We opted to go in the morning on Friday as I don't have any student classes on that day. I have two teacher classes, where I help the teachers with their English. The since-departed Brad told me that half the time the teachers won't turn up, and if they do then all they wish to do is to talk to you as a means of practicing their English. We had to go to the hospital between 10am and midday, so Mr. Kim to leave at 10.30 to try to avoid me missing one of these classes.

It turns out that my co-teacher is quite the comedian. Late in the school day on Thursday he whisked me off to the weekly teacher's meeting, where he said he would introduce me. On the way, he also said that I would have to say a few words, and that he would translate them for me. That's fine, it would be good for all of the teachers to know who I am, and though obviously a little bit nervous I knew I didn't have anything to worry about. The room where the meeting was being held was new to me, and similar to a small lecture theatre, with a medium-sized Korean flag attached high to the wall the seats were facing towards. I was ushered to the second row, next to Mr. Kim and behind all of the bigwigs I had met two days previously. After standing to salute the flag (I didn't salute, but felt I had to at least do something) and a brief monologue from the principal, a microphone was held out in my direction. True rock star, I grab the mic, and stare at my adoring fans. Well, maybe not yet adoring. And maybe not yet fans. But you never know.

I introduce myself, where I am from etc, and then go all PR-friendly, saying how nice everyone has been and how I hope to uphold their traditions and do my best, yadda yadda. It was only for about 30 seconds. Mr. Kim takes the mic to translate, and talks for almost 2 minutes, within which there is a collective 'oooooh' and also a roar of laughter from everyone. There are not many things that can unnerve a human being quite like the sound of laughter, obviously relating to me, when you don't know what has been said. Especially as, for once, I didn't say anything remotely funny. I let it slide during the remaining half hour of the meeting, of which I understood approximately zero words; but once we had left, I had to ask him. My mum's sense of paranoia kicking in there, I think. And he had indeed added some information that I hadn't divulged in my speech. The 'oooohs'? Painting a wonderful picture of me, he told the teachers that I had been lying to the students about my age, saying I was 26 instead of 21 as a means of gaining respect. This is 100% true, but the reaction suggests that maybe, just maybe, he could have worded it better? And the laughter? Well, let's just say that my gochu experience with the head of department might be becoming the stuff of legend here.

But back to Friday. Turns out that the hospital checks take longer than either myself or funnyman Mr. Kim expected. It is similar to a medical check at home - height, weight, eyesight, hearing, blood sample, urine sample and chest x-ray. Of course in a different language it becomes a bit more difficult to do simple tasks: reading letters which you have no clue what sound like off a board to check eyesight, for example. There were ways around this; I was asked to read the numbers rather than Korean characters. Everyone seemed impressed by my eyesight as I got down to the last line before not being able to work out the number. Mr Kim had a look of amazement on his face. The hearing was made easier as well; put on some headphones and raise the hand corresponding with which ear had noise in it.

I had heard bad things about the urine sample - that they watch you pee being the main one - but I had loaded up on water throughout the morning, so was a wee bit (sorry) desperate by the time this came round. Also what I had been told wasn't true in my case - into the toilet, nice and simple.

You hear a lot of crazy things out here, whether to believe them is another question entirely. One thing I have heard from Westerners is that Koreans are afraid of 'fan death'. I had no clue when I heard this, thinking it was to do with sports fans or something. Oh no. An actual fan, as in what you put on in summer to cool you down. The notion suggests that if you leave a fan on long enough in a shut room then your core body temperature will drop to the point where you die. No lie. So what they do out here is they install all electric fans with timers, and they shut off at a certain time. To prevent death. I would have thought the ridiculous science may have been that the certain amount of oxygen in the room would be used up and the fan would be recycling non-useful gas, but no. You become cold, have a system failure and die. I wasn't sure of this, so asked Mr. Kim about this 'superstition'. "It's not a superstition", was the blunt reply. OK. Remind me never to put a fan on ever again. And surely then if we have the heater on all the time then my body temperature will become too hot and I'll die? But I digress.

Medical checks done, assuming they went well, Mr. Kim took me to lunch. To McDonald's. A meal without chopsticks, HOW WILL I COPE?!?! It's pretty similar to the ones at home, though I have to say that I would be seriously worried if they adopt the McDelivery service - available here in the form of a moped, like a pizza delivery guy - in Britain or the US. Obesity levels would never be the same again. As would be expected, they have different burgers out here, such as the bulgogi burger and the spicy chicken crispy burger, which was what I had. No dog burger, though, sorry folks. That might prove to be another myth in itself, am yet to see a dog twirling on a spit roast. One thing i was surprised at was that there was no kimchi burger. It's a vegetarian option, but also I have seen fast food outlets stock kimchi products out here. Dunkin' Donuts do a kimchi donut - that wasn't a typo, they sell a donut with kimchi as the filling. I saw it last weekend, and even more amazingly it had almost sold out, whereas the chocolate donuts were close to fully stocked. I will get a kimchi donut and report back to you, I promise.

We got back to school just before lunch break, and just at the end of what was due to be my second teacher's class. As we walked up the slight incline to the main building, four teachers came up to us and said hello, and asked where we had been. Turns out they had been waiting for us in my office for almost the whole period. While we were getting a McDonald's. Woops! Shame, as one of them, Ms. Yang, who I had as a cover teacher on Thursday, is quite pretty. She said she would come another time. As a result, I had no other lessons that day. An afternoon of Korean alphabet and StickCricket was to follow.

There was one very funny interruption. Three boys, from second grade so were probably 17, came into our office to see Mr. Kim, who then left to get them something. So they were left with me. I engaged them in conversation - well one of them, the other two's English wanted me to stop playing games and give them a lesson - to try to make them feel more comfortable. The more proficient speaker, on the right of the three musketeers, talked to me about music. I played him his favourite Iron Maiden song, Run to the Hills, off my ipod, which he liked. In return, I made him try to play the office guitar, with less success. More success than I would have playing it, mind. The one on the left looked as if he wanted the whole experience to be over, and quivered when I asked him his name. After that, I let him be. But the middle one, complete with puffer jacket (they love them over here, almost as much as kimchi, and if I had a choice I would take the fermented stuff every time), kept looking at me and smiling. Even when his friends were talking to him in Korean, he was looking at me. I thought it was what I am dubbing the 'New Foreigner Effect' - the mysterious foreigner, all of whom must be taken in by the eye even if it makes him feel slightly confused. Alas, not this time. He turns to his friend on the right and whispers something. Student on the right, fresh from bobbing his head to Iron Maiden, says to me...

"He thinks that you are very handsome".

"Erm, come again?"

Strange 'I don't have a clue what you just said' look


"Yes teacher, he thinks you are very handsome"

Riiiiiiiight. Either it was a joke, and the speaker has a fantastic deadpan face, or he was being serious. I'm not bad looking, I guess. Nice to get recognition for it, so I said thanks. But from a seventeen-year-old boy? Homosexuality is still frowned upon here, so good luck to him, that's all I can say. Was not expecting that.

So, the Korean alphabet. It looks daunting to the untrained eye, but is actually quite simple. Each block of characters is a syllable, and usually has one, two or three characters which make the sound. Right now I am trying to learn the singular vowels, of which there are 10. On Thursday and Friday I learnt my first four:
ㅕ - this sounds like 'yaw'
ㅛ - this sounds like 'yo'
ㅠ - this sounds like'yoo'
ㅜ - this sounds like 'oo'
Once I learn all of these I will be able to read signs and words, and then all I have to do is translate them. Get the feeling that might be the hard bit, but considering a week ago I knew next to nothing and couldn't use a pair of metal choppers to save my life, I think I have progressed well in a week.

Yes folks, I have been here a week. It's been pretty awesome, to be fair. Everyone has been so nice and welcoming, be they Korean or otherwise. I doubt they take people out to dinner quite as frequently as I have been this last week, but if they do then I don't think I will ever return! OK, slight exaggeration, of course I will be back. But right now I don't miss too much about home. I feel I have settled in well, and that once I make some friends in this particular district then I will be set for the whole year.

There are a few issues, of course. The fact that I can't access my British bank accounts means that I am pretty much broke, to the point where Mr. Kim had to pay for my medical fees. He offered, but there may have been issues if he hadn't. I can't get a Korean bank to transfer that money into until I am issued a 'foreigner card', and the same applies to getting a mobile phone. That particular problem was brought squarely into focus on Friday. Trying to arrange something with people in Bucheon is difficult anyway, but without a phone it's pretty much impossible. We had tentative plans to go out, but as no one knew what was going on I ended up having to miss out. Possibly for the best, as I don't exactly have money to throw at bars, but still pretty frustrating. The fact that I seem to be the only foreigner in this district is also frustrating, but at the same time encourages me to get out more to try to spot one and befriend them. Wow, that almost sounds sinister. Walk around with the sole intention of going up to someone and asking them if they want to hang out.

But right now these are all minor issues which are easily ironed out. If I hated the school, the food, the people, then there would be a problem. But I love all of these facets of Korean life, and right now I love and am very happy with the decision I made to come here.

One thing I will have to get used to is the driving. I've already mentioned that it's eccentric at best. It got taken to a new level on Friday when I was walking around after school. I was on the pavement. I almost got hit by a motorbike. ON THE PAVEMENT. It's not as if he was going slowly, either. A step to the left instead of the right and I would have been catapaulted into the air. I have seen it since, as well. The pavement is occasionally used as an extra lane by bikes and cars if they are on the wrong side of the road or traffic is a bit heavy for their liking. Madness!

As my initial Bucheon plans had fallen through, and the fact that tiredness struck me from being awake at 7am for most of the week, I took an early night after watching Battle Royal. A few people, upon hearing that I was heading east, told me to watch this film. It is essentially a Japanese prodcution about a class of students who become a bit too rowdy, so they are taken to an island and have to kill each other, last student standing. For a reality TV show. The sickle to the groin region was a particularly rough kill, but it's very funny. They do still hit their students here, but I can't see myself taking any tips from that film anytime soon.

After school on Friday I had allowed myself to get a bit lost for the purpose of exploration. Until it got too cold, at least. I found the Siheung Pizza Hut, where Brad told me to direct a taxi to should I ever need one. They are quite cheap, the taxis, and, judging from how complicated the buses are, might become more frequently used by me. I also walked by a stall that was playing Christmas songs. In my efforts to adapt I had almost forgotten that it is December. They do celebrate Christmas here, but I've been told the enthusiasm is lower than in Britain. That might be a nice change.

I decided early on on Saturday that I would once again allow myself to get lost. I saw a road sign for gymnasium, written in English, so followed it. And then ended up on a dual carriageway. Not quite as bad as when I went running in Boston a few years ago and ran onto the freeway, but still a bit special. I had created a list of things I needed and wanted. One key need is string, to make myself a washing line. I didn't bring many clothes out with me, and really could do with washing some before having to go inside-out with my boxers, as in Europe when I didn't have the means of washing them. A plug adaptor for my computer would also be nice, as would a kettle, so I popped into an electronics store to have a look.

Now, I know how it works in shops like these. The salesman will ask you if you need anything, if you are OK, blah blah. I expected a bow and hello when I walked in, which I gave back in kind. I did not expect then to be followed around the shop, about two paces behind me, by an obviously very keen salesman. Maybe he also thought I was handsome, I don't know. So I walk around, past the phones, past the TV's, and then stop. He stops. I half turn. He pretends to be reading some product information. Maybe we were just on the same route, I think to myself, and carry on. But then, as I get to the kettles, I realise that he is again two steps behind. I stop, half-genuinely this time as I wanted to see how much a kettle costs, but also to see his next move. A game of chess in an electronic store, how very odd. He stops, says nothing, but smiles at me. I note the price of the cheapest kettle, about 19,000W, and move on, only to be intercepted by another salesman. Checkmate! This one, however, is not strange, and asks me if I need any help. Well I'm telling myself that's what he said, I don't have a clue. I say no thanks and, browsing complete, head for the exit. Neither salesman follows me out of the door. Strange experience.

I won't be back there anytime soon, simply because I found a cheaper kettle. But I opted not to buy one on Saturday, thinking that food was more of a priority. I went into a fruit store, and eventually got the woman to understand that I wanted two apples. Apples here are massive, they could be a meal in themselves. She tills it up as 2,000. I give her 2,000. She then goes over to the tangerines and, before I can do anything, drops three in my bag. Incredible, what a lovely person. I will be back!

Alas, I couldn't find any string, so opted to take my fruit home and have a cuppa before heading out again. Finding my way to the building of my flat was easy enough. Getting up the stairs was an altogether more challenging experience. Strange, you may think. Personally I found it strange that, whilst I had been out for about 2 hours, they had fitted a door on the first flight of stairs, complete with combintation lock on the front. Do we not get told about these things? I tried the simple method of turning the handle, but that didn't work. I tried the simpler 'run through the door' shoulder charge method, to no avail. Strong door, this. Not to worry, though, I thought, the code is probably linked to one of the two I already need to put in. I put in my floor combination. No luck, complete with beep from the door. I try my room number. No luck, and another beep. I try both together. This time the refusal was accompanied by a shrill alarm from the top and bottom of the building. Uh oh. That quickly stops, but still, I had an issue. I couldn't get to my flat.

I stood in front of the door for a minute or two, before deciding that there might be a lock on the other side. I stand on the edge of the stairs and try to reach around, but to no avail. This attempt had, however, given me an idea. I'm quite skinny in nature, and had noticed a small gap inbetween the two bannisters and the concrete of the above flight of stairs (top left of the picture). I put my fruit on a higher step, and pushed myself up so that my weight was held on the bannister. I then grabbed the upper ledge from behind, and fitted my body through the gap. It was a tight fit, but being a twig can have its advantages. Some people would say I had broken into my own building; I prefer to think of it as being inventive to avoid a troublesome situation.

I deserved my cup of Tetley's after that. There weren't many 'home' things I brought with me - a bag of haribo, a Wales flag - but I had to bring tea with me. I do not trust any other country to be able to do tea properly. It is NOT Earl Grey, like all the Americans think, it is NOT drunk without milk or with lemon or some stupid substitute, and it not left to brew for 10 seconds and then the teabag removed. Do it properly.

Rant over, I headed back out into the brisk daytime of Siheung, withthe thought of having to clamber through a small gap ever-present in my mind. There was a phone number on the door - great help as the rest was in Korean and I don't have a phone. Even if I did, I doubt they would have been able to help me due to the language barrier. I went away from the areas of Siheung I had been to, and started following signs for Siheung City Hall. On my way I walked past a shop, which was playing a song I recognised. Recognised, but didn't like. What was it? I'd heard the lyrics before: "It's all about you, it's all about you, bay-beh". The voices, so annoying, who was it? And then, like in a horror movie when the victim realises that their friend, stood in front of them and blocking every exit, is the ghastly murderer, did the shocking truth unleash itself upon me. McFly have made it in Asia. Good Lord.

That took some digesting, but I snapped back into focus further down the road when (on a dry day) I almost got soaked by an old lady throwing the remains of her FAKE tea (sorry, still a bit worked up) out of a doorway. I carried on walking, hoping to find some inspiration. Alas, this town is not an inspiration-filled place. Seoul might be, but Seoul this is not. This is merely where people who work in Seoul commute from. Once again I ended up on a dual carriageway, and had ran out of pavement, so after a long trek decided to head back in a slightly different direction. I walked past lots of schoolchildren - yes, Korean children also have to go to school on a Saturday. Sucks for them.

I didn't really do too much on the weekend. Saturday, at least during the daytime, I had gone hunting for people and activities, but found nothing, so Sunday I did absolutely nothing. It gave me time to relax and recharge for the next week in school, but I didn't even leave my flat - proper lazy day. I contented myself with the thought that very few weekends will be like this once i had a) a phone and b) money.

What Sunday did do was allow me to digest the World Cup draw for South Africa next year. One of my original plans had been to go to South Africa, either leaving here after 6 months or using up my vacation time. Neither is really feasible, and besides, I'm not paying $400 for a room for the night. If you don't like football, I'd skip down quite far. If you do, here are some of my views on the draw:
- Group A - Uruguay are not getting out of this group. France are, but will have to cope without Thierry Henry for the last game, due to a harsh red card for supposed handball in their second match. A toss-up between South Africa and Mexico for the other spot.
- Group B - I will be supporting South Korea in this World Cup. It won't be for long, however, as they have no chance of getting out of this group. Argentina to top, and I'm hoping Nigeria over Greece, but think the Greeks may nick second.
- Group C - Arth told me the other day about the Sun's headline in the aftermath of the draw: EASY. While it's easier than it could have been, it won't be a walk in the park (Trinidad and Tobago at '06, anyone?). They should qualify, and I'm backing the United States to edge Slovenia.
- Group D - A lot of people seem to be writing off Germany. Don't. Ozil looks a class act. They will top this with ease. A lot of people seem to be writing off Serbia. Again, don't. I think they will take second and give England a tough game. Shame for Ghana that they are again in a tricky group, and as for the Aussies? Stick to cricket, eh chaps. No hope here.
- Group E - This is a real shame. If Holland had to face any other quarter-finalist, I would back them. But Brazil?? Damn, that is rotten luck. I expect them to cruise through this group. Denmark are solid but I think that one African team has a real chance to make waves, and that Cameroon are that team. Japan...well good luck to them. They'll need it.
- Group F - Anyone who thinks England got the easy group should direct their attention to this group. Italy may as well send a youth team, they would still romp this group. I'll take Slovakia over Paraguay here as well, but it will be tight. New for Australia, but replace cricket with rugby union. Good lads.
- Group G - Group of death? A group of death should not become reliant on who can put the most goals past a country whose most successful club team is named after the birthday of one of their leaders!! I think Brazil will top this, and as for the other's a toughie, but this group will have two quarter-finalists.
- Group H - That previous line is my radical prediction, and of course means that I think Spain will not progress past the second round. They will top this group, but I think they will be taken out by Portugal or the Ivory Coast. The other three sides seem very equal: Chile have an excellent creative front 4 or 5; Switzerland are obdurate and can nullify and grind down teams; and Honduras have the unknown element, but what is known is that their better players, such as Figueroa and Palacios, would walk into the other two teams. I'm tempted to say Honduras, and really tempted to say Chile, but I think the Swiss will get the chance to lose to Brazil in Round 2.

I'm not going to predict further than this, so my QF line-up is this:
France vs England
Holland vs Brazil
Argentina vs Germany
Italy vs Portugal/Ivory Coast

So Sunday didn't really exist for me, and as a result a new week has begun. I'll post next time with the latest.

Love you all