Wednesday, 2 December 2009

Korea - the first trip into Seoul

Hello everyone!

Last time I wrote I had got up to Sunday morning, and Kelly had a plan of action. I had missed those plans of action from Prague, so was genuinely excited. I became more excited when I found out that our plan was to venture into the nation's capital, Seoul, for the very first time. Seoul is, in my view at least, slightly larger than London, both in terms of size and population. I thought that our schools were both in Seoul, and this (I think) is technically true - however, it takes quite a while, even on the subway, to get to the centre.

So, after more chopsticking, we ventured on a bus to Bucheon station. As I said before, the buses seem complex to a veteran traveller, let alone two relative newbies. The other thing with Korea is the driving - their death rate due to traffic accidents/mowing someone over is one of the highest in the world. We hold on tight, and arrived somewhere near the station - near enough for my navigator to find the station.

The public transport here is similar to London, in that it uses one card - a T-card - which you top up as you go. I found it intruiging that my 10 minute bus ride cost almost double what it charged to get into Seoul from Bucheon station, but there is some sort of discount thing which I am yet to understand. The subway is itself strange, and damn complex. There are 9 numbered lines, and then 5 or 6 Korean-lettered lines. Luckily, we didn'thave to change - or so we thought. The train stopped at Guro, or Goru, something like that. And didn't move. Then a mad Korean storms down the train shooing everyone off. The other passengers looked just as confused as we were, but we managed to find another train quite easily.

The new train actually announced the stops in Korean, English and Mandarin, which was helpful, but not before blaring out some classical music to announce that the train was soon to stop. Nice touch, and on a par with Budapest's musical subway wonders for quality. They dim the lights when you get into the central part of Seoul. I also came across my first street seller - on the subway. Gloves and other random junk was offered; I was more surprised when a woman actually bought a pair of gloves.

Our port of call, after walking past a Korean temple surrounded by roads filled by crazy drivers, was Dongdaemun market, one of the 2 largest markets in Korea. It is an intoxicating combination of outdoor and indoor, of tradition and modernity, and even during the daytime on a rainy Sunday, when it is supposedly quieter than normal, it was pretty busy. Shop owners are more than welcoming - one gave me food, similar to hula hoops but with a texture more resembling cereal, while I was stood in a shop. There was also a machine outside one of the major department stores that we thought was inspired. You put your umbrella into the machine, and it is then deposited into a bag to prevent any rain from the unbrellas ending up in the store. But the bags are kind of skin-tight, and not noticeable. Brilliant idea, though not so much if you're a fan of recycling and not using plastic bags. One thing that struck us as being strange was that so much text in the area, be it on shops or products, is written in English, often with no Korean translation in sight. Can the owners, or the shoppers for that matter, read this?

Shopping done (shaving foam for my increasingly furry face, still no razor in sight in my bag!), we walked around and stumbled upon Deoksugung Palace. This palace was used in the 16th century by the Korean dynasty of the time, until those pesky Japanese invaded and took over. Not the first time they would do that. Before going in, for the whopping fee of 1000₩ (less than a dollar), we opted to find a snack. There are many street vendors here, all selling wonderful smelling, strange looking food. It gives an air of vibrancy to the place. We went to one of these places and bought 2 skewers, one being chicken and the other, I think, was pork. These, as with a lot of Korean food, is coated in a spicy red pepper paste. If you don't like spicy food, you may starve in Korea.

So, so far so good. But I then noticed something intruiging on the stall. It looked, essentially, like a fried squid, tentacles and all. Surely it couldn't be that simple? Only one way to find out, and find out I did (Kelly wouldn't touch the thing, preferring to buy what ended up as a corn dog - with hindsight the better choice). The video (if I can get it on here, the internet is proving troublesome for that right now) says it all.

Having given my jaws a solid workout, we ventured into the palace grounds. All very nice and quirky, though we began to realise why the entrance fee was so small. Not too much there, really. Lots of hand sanitising equipment, though. Kelly was in heaven. Wanting to get a photo of the two of us together in front of the main building, I went to ask someone, opening, as I was used to from doin this around Europe, with "Do you speak English?". "Sure", says the blatantly non-Korean, very American man I had approached. Woops.

The subway was significantly more crowded on the way back. An old Korean man worked his way the crowd to stand next to us, coughed into his hands, and then started trying to talk to us before offering to shake our hands. It's an offer you cannot refuse, but hand sanitiser came in very handy when we got off the train soon after.

That evening myself, Kelly and Matt went to dinner and then for a beer after. Matt has been here for a long time, over a year, so has a lot of knowledge about the area, the food, the way the schools work and whatnot. The chopsticks have improved, but I am yet to use them in front of a local, and I imagine that this would have humourous consequences. For them, maybe not for me.

Monday rolls around, and Kelly goes off on her 'business trip' - a sort of orientation for new teachers to help them settle and know how to teach to Koreans. When you settle and teach as easily and well as Kelly seems to have, it looks a bit pointless, but has to be done. This left me to my own devices before being picked up from in front of her building at 5pm to be taken to my school, and to meet my co-teacher. Without a phone, I was relying on external actors.

I wasted my time in various ways, initially by going for a run. They don't really do that here, mainly because of the mental traffic, so I received a couple of odd looks. One positive of doing this was that, deep within my trainer, I found my razor. So, no longer looking like a paedophile/teenager trying too hard to grow facial hair, I tried to find a coffee shop for internet. Starbucks (yes, I know, they get everywhere) have free wireless internet across Korea - if you are a registered foreigner. Which is something my school has to do for me. My plan scuppered, I headed back to Kelly's apartment and watched tv until 4.45 rolled around.

A slight aside here - in Kelly's place the TV only receives one English channel, called AFN - or the Air Force Network. The amount of US military propaganda on this was ridiculous. However, at this point it was better than what Korean TV was offering me. I'm sure that at some point I will get into Korean period dramas, but for now I needed something that I could watch with a degree of ease.

I am down in front of the building 10 minutes ahead of schedule, and, sure enough, there is a car pulled in to the side of the road. Awesome. I approach the driver in the car, and say "Siheung?". The look of bewilderment and shock I received in response told me pretty bluntly that this wasn't my guy. Especially as he drove off with a Korean woman appearing from the convenience store minutes later. Not to worry, I think. So time passes.

And passes.

And passes to what I assume (no watch) is about 5.15. Nothing. My concerns begin to escalate. It is a busy road, maybe he couldn't park? I gamble, and cross the road. As I am walking, a short, tubby, elder Korean man is stood in my line of walking, so I start to veer out of the way. He moves in my way. This happens again, until he is right in my face. I have a brainwave. "Siheung?" I say. The man smiles and beckons me to his car by grabbing my suitcase and throwing it in. I repeat, "Siheung Sorae?" He doesn't react, instead putting my hand luggage into his car. Screw it, I think, I may as well run with this.

So off we drive, and about 50 metres down the road he tries to reach over me. While driving. I had heard that Korean drivers were bad, but was getting the impression that this guy might be something special. And the driver in my last acts as a human being. He stretches his arm further, right across my midriff, and then grabs something from the passenger door. A phone. A phone while driving, awesome. He makes a call, chats in very very fast Korean, and then passes the phone over. A female voice, in English, is on the other end. I assume it is my contact, Juno, who set me up with the job, and it is. Success!

How I got to the school in one piece is beyond the laws of anything, let alone physics. I worked out he could speak English; well, at least one word. "Shit!" he says as he tries to edge from a lane of stopped traffic into a lane where cars are flying along, probably at 40mph. He edges and reverses back numerous times, and my fear increased with each failed attempt and honk from the moving traffic. He ended up going for it, and somehow we didn't get marmalised. At the next junction we needed a left turn, and again my man went in the wrong lane. Luckily, there was no traffic in the turning lane, so he moved across and was about to take the turn. Not only on a red light, but when the other crossing highway had just turned green. And were moving. Mr Mentalist takes the turn, missing a black car by fractions. He turns to me and utters a nervous chuckle. I simply had to do the same. If the next mad move was closer than that then we were in a whole lotta trouble.

At around 5.45 we arrive at Siheung Sorae High School, where I am greeted by 5 Korean women and 1 American guy called Brad. Brad had been the recipient of my phone interview, and had seemed like a nice guy. He then explained that he already had plans and wasn't able to speak to me today. Wonderful, I think. He tells me that my co-teacher, Mr Kim, will be down shortly to help.

Soon enough, once kids shuffling around the premesis had been ushered away from pointing at me and screaming "HIIIIIIIIIIIII!", Mr. Kim, a slender man with neat black hair and glasses, comes over and introduces himself, along with another female teacher, Ms Yoon. We put my stuff in his car, and he announces that they are taking me out to dinner. I like the sound of this, having only had a 3000₩ sandwich since breakfast (remember how expensive bread is here). I am whisked into a second-floor restaurant, decorated in mahogany. Upon sitting down we began to engage in stilted conversation, where I found out that, having seen my picture on the application, Ms. Yoon expected me to be fat, and Mr. Kim expected me to be an athlete. I tell myself I'm the latter, but I get the feeling that they may have both been wide of the mark...

There were a few things I came to realise during the course of dinner:

- My chopstick skills, though improved, were not good enough. Spending about 2 minutes trying to pick up a piece of meat is mind-numbingly frustrating, though I think Koreans appreciate the fact that you are at least trying to adapt.
- Many Koreans are not used to British accents, and thus find it difficult to understand me. Especially when I speak at a speed which is anything above very slow.
- I'm a slow eater. I knew this anyway, and it may be due to me having to answer a lot of questions, but I finished almost half an hour after the two teachers had put their chopsticks and spoons down for the final time.
- My two teachers were fascinated by everything about my life, and I got the impression that I may be answering the same questions again and again.

Once again, the food was immense - mulgogi is fast becoming one of my favourites. When we were finished, and Mr Kim refused to let anyone else pay, he dropped me to my new abode. He parked in what resembled a dodgy back alley, and found a glass door next to a shop with a pink banner. Up 4 flights of stairs we go, and he keys a combination into the door. We walk in, and are faced with a narrow corridor of doors, similar to that in a halls of residence at university. Though if any halls smelled like this then they would have been closed down and fumigated - the smell was bizarre. It was like the smell of a very hot room, musky and a bit damp at the same time. My room is the last room on the right in the left corridor. Another combination is entered by Mr Kim, and in I go. He makes sure I am settled and then leaves me to it, telling me that he will pick me up at 8.15 for my first day of school.

School! With the volume of dinners and activities I had almost forgotten my actual purpose for being here. I was beginning to get nervous at this point that I wouldn't impress tomorrow - I haven't taught anything since July, and haven't taught English since Prague almost 18 months ago. Any grammar and lexis knowledge I had obtained seemed to have evaporated into thin air. In the end I decided not to fret too much about this, opting to watch CSI whilst unpacking and then falling asleep quite early.

So my first day of next blog will tell you how it goes.

Love you all


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