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,


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