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


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