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


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