Friday, 23 July 2010

Korea - The first teachers' retreat

July 11-19

Hello everyone!

I've been here almost 8 months now, but still seem to be trying new foods with incredible regularity. I'm being fed 'summer foods' now. One of them is called bibim naengmyeon (비빔 냉면), which was described to me as 'ice noodle'. It is a cold soup with noodles in it. Very refreshing on a hot and humid day, though picking out an actual block of ice with my chopsticks was strange. Still, no way I could have done that when I first got here.

Another new food I have been treated to is only served on certain days of the year. The three hottest days, in fact, known as Chobok(초복), Jungbok (중복), and Malbok (말복). These are not always the most sultry days in the year - the following day was much, much hotter - but on these days they eat a very interesting soup called samgyetang (삼계탕). This is a ginseng-based soup, served with chicken in it. A whole chicken. The young chicken is stuffed with rice and plopped into the soup. That was a chopstick challenge. The teachers told me to use my hands, as most of them were, but I played my stubborn card and managed to eat the thing with my chopsticks and spoon. The chicken was really, really good - it was nice to have Korean meat that wasn't flame-cooked for a change - and worth the effort.

Final week of term, which meant that the kids were a bit more unruly than normal. I was teaching them about summer holidays, but that soon boiled down to me showing them pictures, 'hunting', making funny sentences about sexy girls and singing the Cliff Richard classic. Cliff could have a career renaissance if he toured out here, my kids loved Summer Holiday. Though maybe the amount of choco pies on offer swayed them.

Final weekend before summer vacation, which of course out here means extra summer classes. But still, the semester was done, and all of the teachers were taken away for the night to celebrate and relax. I felt quite honoured when I was asked to come. I had been due to go to Mudfest that weekend, but the school and teachers have done so much for me that I felt they needed to be rewarded with a night in the company of a drunk Welshman. So at 11.30am on the Friday we left the heavy rain of Siheung on two big buses heading for Yangyang, on the East coast.

Beers were duly cracked at 11.35am. I had heard that this day was going to be spent drinking. Many Koreans have a problem pacing themselves, and I was concerned about peaking way too soon, so took it slow on the bus, contenting myself with chatting to some of the English teachers sat near me. We stopped in a service station for food, another common theme of a Korean excursion, and soon it was approaching 3pm. The cool VP who plays football with us stood up at the front and spoke for a while, and I understood one word - noraebang.

A bus of about 45 people. To 45 people, it was obvious who was going to have to sing first. The different one. The one with the 'milk skin', as one of my students put it this week. Teacher Matt. After trying and failing to convince the English teacher next to me to do a duet, I plumped for Bohemian Rhapsody by Queen, and demanded a shot of soju to prep me. Not the best song choice - not enough of them knew the song, I was sober and sound really bad singing it sober, and it dragged on. And on. And on. The English teacher next to me, Miss Seo, told me that I was a 'hard-working' singer, one of the funniest yet harshest remarks I've ever heard about someone's singing abilities. The others were a lot better, though as I knew none of the songs they could have been terrible and I wouldn't have known.

An hour of singing later and we were in Yangyang. We had a view of the sea from our hotel balcony, which was nice. The rain stopped at a convenient time, so we decided to kill time by playing foot-volleyball. Same rules as volleyball, but the ball can bounce one time between kicks, and obviously using your hands isn't allowed. I was told that it is a very popular army game, so all the male teachers knew it. Good fun, and more difficult than you may imagine.

The fun was really going to begin when we went for dinner. About 90 of us piled into a room upstairs and, after a quick speech from the principal, began drinking whilst waiting for the food. This was all part of the school's budget, and you could see that many teachers were keen to make the most of this generosity. I've never seen actual boxes filled with soju bottles brought to a table before. Soon, a lot of food being deposited at our table. As with the other huge teacher dinner I've been to, we were treated to an industrial-sized washing bowl of somaek, the soju and beer combo, which we had to chug from petri-dishes.

Sashimi was the main food, but plenty of other bizarre sea creatures as well, such as these black things. I've since been told they are sea urchins. Not great. I had more fun attacking one of the teachers from my office with a fish head, as you can see.

The food was fantastic. It always is when I leave it to Koreans to choose. Sounds obvious, I know, but they haven't failed me yet. What happens in events such as this is that you begin to move around and talk to other people in the room. I had a bit of a queue of people wanting to talk to me, but that was usurped when the cool VP came over and wanted to drink with me. It turned into a drinking contest of sorts, as we ended up going shot for shot for a while. He left to go talk to someone more important than me, so I'm claiming this as one for the W column.

Live octopus didn't happen. Mr Kim told me he tried to order it but they didn't have it. Shame. More photos, then all of us moved onto the beach to play with sparklers and stuff. The Japanese teacher from my office, Miss Oh, lost an earring. I may have promised to buy her a new one in China. Just as the heavens began to open, we were back on the bus, heading to a club. Many of my teachers told me that they had never been to a club before, which I found surprising. They're not that old, after all. Going clubbing with a large amount of married, older, Korean colleagues was going to be interesting...

It didn't happen. The people from my office bailed, and dragged me to a noraebang. Probably a good thing, as I couldn't do anything I would seriously regret. Queen's We Will Rock You was my anthem of choice this time, and I got some clapping along so it obviously went down better than Bohemian Rhapsody. Still a 'hard-working' voice I imagine though.

I ended up in a room with my football teammates, watching them play complicated Korean card games before passing out at 4am. We were at breakfast 4 hours later. One of the guys in that room doesn't speak English, but made a funny face at me. It was clear enough - he was telling me that I had been dribbling in my sleep. I was pretty drunk.

That morning - again somehow missing the rain - we went to a temple. It was a very nice place, complete with giant Buddha statue and 'holy' water. What was not nice was the bus ride back. I drifted in and out of sleep, aided by the pitter-patter of rain and Jason Mraz's dulcit tones in my ears. It was a really good weekend, really nice to spend time with some of the other English teachers that I don't teach with, and great to see many of them come out of their professional shell. And I still have a job. That's the main thing.

Love you all


Wednesday, 14 July 2010

Korea - The first movie set

Hello everyone!

As it's summer, it is high time to start moving around the country. Especially before the monsoon season kicks in. I've been told that typhoons don't pay Korea a visit - China and Japan on either side bear the brunt of those badboys - but we still get the rain. And lots of it, so seeing the country in its natural, dry splendour is a must.

Thus twelve of us congregated at Songnae station at the rather early time of 8am to head away to an island. Unsurprisingy, I hadn't been entirely sensible the night before - the lure of ddak galbi and Jailbar is too much for me - so I wasn't my bubbly self, but we had plenty of time to change that.

We were heading west. Our destination was Silmi Island, or 실미도 to those with a Hangul tongue. Island is -do in Korean, so we all call it Silmido. We had to head towards Incheon Airport, and then keep going on a ferry to an island called Muuido, from which Silmido was a hop, skip and jump away.

On the ferry we were treated to some Chinese liquor. No idea on the name, and I don't want to know the name. Unless I can cheer when I find out that the company goes out f business from poisoning people with this foul concoction. We all forced each other to drink a shot of it, and the facial expressions tell the whole story. I don't honestly think I've had a worse drink in my life.

That rancid aftertaste was still in our mouths when we got on a bus on Muuido to take us to our beach. It did do this - eventually. I mean, the tour of the whole island was nice, but a bit unnecessary. And bumpy. But still, we had got to our destination with no major hiccups.

The weather was threatening to be a hiccup, as it was very much overcast. I don't wear suncream anyway - unless its Thailand and I've already been turned into a lobster - so the lack of a visible orb of light in the sky vindicated my decision to avoid lathering myself in the white stuff. We decided to play keep-ups with a football we had found on the beach. I get quite active in these things, and spent a lot of time perfecting my bicycle kick. The problem with doing this was that the beach wasn't overly sandy. It had quite a few tiny shells on it. I wasn't overly concerned about cutting my knee, mainly because we were finding it difficult to walk after a while.

When three Koreans came over and said that they wanted their ball back after lunch, we decided to call it a day. 14 was our shocking personal best for group-keepy-up, but it was nice to lie down on the beach for a while. I managed to turn quite red whilst doing this. I know the sun can get through the clouds and burn you, but my burn turns to a lovely brown within two days. Unless it's Thailand.

Whilst lying on the beach, we saw a gaggle of soldiers storm towards the sea en masse, complete with lifeboats. I was happy to be naive and to believe the hype, but it was pretty obvious that they were not real soldiers. Their lack of ability to navigate their boats in the not-so-clean sea was testament to that. Still, it was an extraordinary sight. We also spent time reading the blurb of a book in various accents. My ghetto accent needs some work.

As the light began to fade, we fired up our barbecue. Turns out quite a lot of us like to play chef in this situation. It's a man thing, I think. Meat and power whilst drinking a beer is a possible definition of the good life. We cooked a lot, ate a lot - I don't think I've ever eaten as much chocolate as I did that weekend - and drank rather a lot as well. Not that Chinese stuff, though. Afterwards we went back to the beach and watched some fireworks being set off. We weren't entirely happy when one flew through our spot at a very low height. Others also spent time catching small crabs, before we headed back into our places and got royally drunk. Big gap in the memory. Not helped by the fact that my camera konked out on me again. I need to look into that.

I knew we had drank a lot though, because the next morning my body was not in the mood to move. However, we were going across from Muuido to Silmido. Silmido is uninhabited, so you can't stay there, but you can visit. However, you can only visit when the tide is out, as you walk over from Muuido. Yes, you can literally island-hop if you feel like it. Silmido is famous out here. They filmed a movie there a few years ago - I was told about it by some Koreans on orientation - that is based on true events that happened there. In a nutshell, to respond to an assassination attempt, Korea's President in the 1960s set up a secret elite force - think MI5 - to assassinate the North's leader, Kim Il-Sung. They were called Unit 684. The response never happened, and eventually the soldiers got bored and did the obvious thing - they mutinied. Marched to Seoul, killing numerous people on the way. It's quite shocking that a Modern History graduate had never heard of this, I think.

Anyway, we spent Sunday exploring this movie set of an island. Interesting place, full of rocks to clamber over Rather disturbingly, we found a dog prostate on the rocks. It definitely had not died of natural causes. Made me think twice about eating the thing, for sure. What we did instead eat, and why I ate so much is confusing as I was still stuffed from Saturday, was an industrial-sized amount of bacon and eggs. This is probably about half of one of the three packs of bacon we had. Awesome.

We can't thank Juno enough for organising this trip, it was so much fun and really nice to get away from city life, even for a short time. Can't eat that much every weekend though, otherwise I'll come back spherical. But a lot of fun, and a great way to spend a weekend.

Love you all


Monday, 12 July 2010

Korea - The first television interview

Hello everyone!

Exams were still ongoing on the Monday, so I took the opportunity to venture into Seoul. I did genuinely need to go in, for reasons I will explain shortly, but I decided to make a day of it, checking out some new areas I hadn't been to.

I had to go to Hongdae to collect my passport, complete with ARC card and Chinese visa, from the travel company. The company had sent it once before, but got one piece of information slightly wrong - they sent it not to Sorae High School, but to Sorae Elementary School. They do sound similar in Korean, but the fact that I wrote it in English scuppers that flimsy defence of their actions. What made it worse was when I went to the elementary school last Monday to collect it - the fact that they had signed for the delivery was confusing enough - they told me that they didn't have it. It had been 're-sent'.

Where? No idea, they essentially said. It could be the high school. It could be my Korean address. It could be the British Embassy, the travel agency, the post office. Or, worst case scenario, they could have looked at the emergency contact details inside and then sent it back to Blighty. But I had a phone call on the Wednesday from the travel agency saying that they had it in their possession, and all of my anxiety vanished. They asked if I wanted it sent again. As if. I was going to get this badboy myself, and duly went in on the Monday. Problem over.

Monday was a scorcher. There have been many scorchers of late in Korea - all on weekdays. The sun seemingly hides when we are not supposed to be inside an office. The humidity, though so far not as bad as many made it out to be, is consistently irritating. I sweat from walking to school at 8am, and two showers a day seems to be the bare minimum. Not using my A/C in the hope that I would adapt better to the humidity has turned out to be a foolish move, so I have started to use it in my flat. No such joys when walking around Seoul in the daytime, though. It gets damn hot.

I was on my own for this adventure - well, everyone else was in school - so decided to go on a cultural binge. First stop, a palace called Changdeokgung. What was it like, I hear you ask. It was...closed. Good start. Not to worry, though, there is plenty to do in Seoul. I decided to meander down through the tourist district, Insadong.

Whilst there I was stopped in English by two Koreans. The man had a giant camera hoisted on his shoulder. The woman had a small mic in her hand, and asked me if I wanted to be interviewed. Why not, even though some people may feel I have a 'face for the radio'. She pulled out an A4 piece of paper with some scribbles on it, and showed me the question that she wanted to ask me. It was about the oil spill, and what I thought of the impact to the local economy and environment. Not something I've really been following too keenly - the World Cup has been on - so I told her that such a question would be better answered by an American.

No problem, she said, and found the next question. What do I think about American gun laws? Now, if I ducked out of the first question because I said it was more for an American to answer... Again I said I wasn't going to answer it. Cop-outs, sure, but this is going on real TV, and I don't want to answer something I have little interest or knowledge of. She got the point, and found a British-related question. European immigration. Much better, something I am much more comfortable with. I answered her question, mumbling along, and was duly thanked for my time. Arirang TV on Friday, July 23 at 11pm, if you're interested. I'm not - Friday night after all.

I walked through Insadong, stopping in the park for lunch as one of the English teachers called me with a grammar problem, before walking on to my next port of call - Namdaemun Market. There are two giant markets in Seoul. I have been to one of them, Dongdaemun, a few times now, but was yet to experience Namdaemun, so figured I would check it out. On the way I saw a woman carrying a truckload of used plates and crockery on her head. Anything they do in Africa...

Namdaemun was pretty cool, wasn't as busy as Dongdaemun has been. Probably explained away by it being daytime on a Monday, I guess. One interesting find (that I didn't purchase) was a bottle of whisky. In this shape...

The weather got the better of me at this point, and I figured I should head home for a brief nap before going over to Bucheon for food. I collected the Lonely Planet China book off Matt to use for planning - its over 1000 pages long. Beijing and HK are about 100 each! Mental. I didn't realise quite how big the place is. Whilst out for food we also drank Tsingtao beer, the Chinese national beverage. And it is so, SO much better than Korean beer. That got us very excited. Though we were an excitable lot that evening, being especially happy when a man walked past carrying a cooler of ice-creams. Yes please!

Fun day followed by a quiet-ish week, with a strong desire to save money for our weekend excursion. Find out about that next time...

Love you all


Thursday, 8 July 2010

Korea - The first fish market

Hello everyone!

So we're now into July, and I'm into my eighth month as an English teacher in Korea. My weekends are packed up until the end of August now, so expect plenty of fun in the next few blogs. The first of these action-packed weekends was a trip to Busan, Korea's second city.

Busan is on the south-east coast of the Korean peninsula, so pretty much as far away from us as possible. It has been a must-do on my Korean bucket list for some time now, though. As it is on the coast, it has something that we don't have in the immediate Seoul area - a BEACH! Thus we were very excited to be going.

I headed down with Tom, who was going to meet a friend from home who currently lives down south. We set off on a gloomy, overcast Saturday morning, with an impending threat of a heavy downpour. The quickest route to Busan is on the KTX, the high-speed train, but we were leaving from Suwon instead of Seoul, so weren't able to use it. Instead, we had a four-and-a-half hour train ride ahead of us. We passed the time by drinking, playing squares, being told to quieten our voices by the attractive stewardess, and then napping. In no time at all we were rolling into Busan station.

Aftermeeting Joe, our first job was to find somewhere to stay, so we headed over to the Haeundue Beach area on the subway. Busan is very, very different to Seoul, and this journey was a case in point: no pushing and shoving, people waiting for others to leave the train before boarding, a bit of chatter on the train itself. All different to Seoul. The sun was threatening to break through the gloom as we searched around for a motel.

We found a few which were charging extortionate amounts of money. We also found a quite bizarre love motel which had statues of teddy bears outside. We eventually settled on a location, dropped our bags and headed over to the beach at around 6pm. It was still exceptionally cloudy, and there was little chance of us getting some serious sun, but Haeundae Beach is one of the most famous beaches in Korea, so had to be checked out.

The atmosphere at the beach proved something that we had been told before going - that Busan is very, very different from Seoul. It may be something in the air, the quality of which seems better down there, but it just has a more relaxed vibe to it. I saw a Korean couple piggybacking along the beach - you just wouldn't get that on the streets of the capital. The beach itself seemed nice enough, in spite of the grey skies.

Soon enough, hunger struck, and we ventured away to find a restaurant. The place we found had a waiting list, so I had to give my phone number. I did this, successfully, in Korean, which took the woman by surprise. Good ego boost, that. We had galbi, which was very good if a little on the expensive side. But we were on a vacation of sorts, and it was 30,000W for a ridiculous amount of meat, so still good value relative to the Western world.

We finished up at around 10, which gave us an hour to find a bar in which to watch the Germany-Argentina game. After briefly going to a foreigner bar, we settled on a place close to the beach called the Fuzzy Navel. We got in just in time - we got the last free table, and the heavens opened as soon as we got inside. We were treated to a fire show in the bar before the game started. They need practice - one guy almost set the place alight, but literally, as opposed to doing so with his skills. Still, very entertaining.

The night gets a bit fuzzy after we go to our next location. It was a club inside a hotel. It was also a place that sold tequila, which explains why the night becomes a drunken blur. The next morning I found a lack of money and numerous receipts for tequila shots. I hate tequila. I spent most of my time in there chatting to a Korean woman. I'm not going into details here. All I will say is that I managed to escape before I did anything that I would really, really, really regret. Damned tequila. Tom and Joe had left long before, so I headed back to the room and passed out. No idea what time.

Sunday started with a hungover catch-up session in KFC. Aside from the Korean meal on Saturday night, this was a shocking weekend for our health. Fast food in Lotteria, KFC and Burger King, coupled with the beer and tequila, is not going to lengthen my life span. Joe had a ferry to catch at 2pm, so we got in a taxi to the ferry terminal. The taxi driver, appreciating our need for speed, put the pedal to the metal. He didn't need to accelerate over the speed bumps though, that added hours to our hangovers.

Joe left, so Tom and I headed over to one of Busan's famous attractions - the Jagalchi Fish Market. I'd heard that it is the biggest fish market in Asia, so was excited to see it. Well, as excited as one can be in my state. The sun had come out as well - cruel, as we were nowhere near the beach and not intending to head back.

The smell was predictable, but still very formidable. The market consists of lots of outside stalls and two large buildings which house the majority of the Nemo wannabes. We headed into the first one. I started asking about 'san-nak-chi' - live octopus. We weren't going to partake in this condition, but I wanted to see how they did it. The first guy fished out an octopus from his tank and started dangling it in front of us; a strange sight.

It got weirder as we progressed along each stall. There were some very strange-looking fish, both dead and alive. We got to the end of the row we were walking down and spotted a fish that had fallen out of its tank onto the floor. We pointed this out to the seller, and he duly grabbed a net. Then put the net by the fish. Then flicked the fish into the net. With his FOOT. Then flipped the fish elegantly...back into the tank. At this point we decided that we were 1000000000% not going to get any fish, and turned down a different row to head out.

Whilst walking down this row, an irritating noise was getting louder and louder. No, it wasn't a vuvuzela. It seemed to be coming from a bucket. I'll let the video explain the rest...

The fish market was quite an experience. Busan itself was quite an experience. I had high expectations when I came down, and it didn't disappoint. Sure, some things could have been better - the weather, my choice of woman, the choice of drink - but everything could be better. I'm typing this having just watched the World Cup final. That helps to put things in perspective. I'm asuming the octopi in Busan aren't psychic, otherwise they would have told me not to bother waking up for it. Busan was great fun, and I would be more than happy to go back. Though the KTX would be a better option next time, as it took us over 5 hours to get back to Suwon. With no seat. Good practice for China, anyway, as was the crazy taxi driver who drove us a ridiculous route home on toll roads and expected us to stump up the cash. But on the whole, great success of a weekend.

Love you all


Korea - The first K-pop performance

Hello everyone!

So last time I left you on tenterhooks about what I did with my Saturday night. To people following the World Cup, it is obvious what I did. Korea were playing, so I was watching, and I was watching in Seoul.

Different location this time, though. We were watching the game in Gangnam, south of the river. Specifically, we were going to the COEX mall. They turned the main road outside the mall into a fan park for us to watch the game in. We arrived about 4 hours before the game, and were surprised to find quite a decent spot on the right of the screen. We mingled for a bit with local fans, and supped on whisky or soju, whilst the crowds and the atmosphere built.

It got to about two hours before the game when a group of Koreans behind us started shouting at us. Turns out that COEX was the same as City Hall - you had to sit down for the game. We were used to that now. What we weren't expecting was the ferocity of the shouting behind us, imploring us to be seated over two HOURS before said game actually started. We shouted back, and stood our ground. Literally. Undeterred by our stance, the people behind us did the mature thing, and taddled on us to the security guards.

There were a few Koreans in our group, and they were busy explaining our position to the guards, when we noticed that, about 10 people to our left, was a group of Koreans. Stood up. With no one complaining to them. Our Korean friends leapt on this point, and played the race card. 'You hate foreigners' was essentially our message. In the end we had to relent, but not before I took our petulance to the next level. For the next two hours, anyone who was stood up - especially security guards - got hit by my plastic clapper, and shouted at until they sat down. I was flying through the soju at this point, flimsy defence that may be.

The reason we sat down was because a concert started. Now if this happened back home, there may be one E-list band to come on and blare out the one song that was on Radio 1 once upon a time. Not here, though. There is a great degree of importance stressed on these events, so the big guns come out. We were treated to a show from not one, not two, but three of K-pop's biggest bands.

Those of you not in Korea will not recognise the names of these groups, but I can assure you that they are a very big deal. First up was a boy band called 2pm. They are everywhere in Korea, though all of my students hate them, so I can't figure out how or why. Maybe they're like the Westlife of Korea. Next was a girl group called AfterSchool - similar to the Sugababes, perhaps, but with more members. Finally the third band came on, called 2am. That's not a mistype. There are two massive Korean boy bands called 2am and 2pm. My students much prefer 2am.

I'm quite taken by K-pop thesedays, even possessing some on my iPod. 'Teacher - illegal download', as one of my students kindly pointed out to me. So it was a good way to warm-up for the game, and took my mind off hitting people who dared attempt to stand up. And the monsoon that was trying to soak us. Shame about the game really, with Korea playing very well but losing gracefully 2-1. I actually spent a lot of the game chatting to some guys with a big drum. They even let me hit it for a while, which was awesome.

I wasn't willing to risk my trainers getting soaked, so had taken them off and put them in a bag earlier. At this drunken juncture I decided to not bother putting them on until I was in a dry place, so walked through Seoul and the subway system barefoot. Whilst singing a song from Grease, naturally.

It's getting towards the end of the semester now, so it is every student's favourite time of the year - exams. They started on Thursday, lasting for five days, and ending on Tuesday. How does that work, you ask? Thursday...Friday...SATURDAY...Monday...Tuesday. They only do exams in the morning. Before you think they have it easy, let me run through the schedule for EACH DAY. 50 minute exam - 10 minute break - 50 minute exam - 10 minute break - 50 minute exam - home to study for the next day's exams. Ouch. I feel really sorry for them.

So sorry, in fact, that we played games in the lessons I had this week. It was to do with opposites. I call up a member from each team, write a word on the board, and the students run up to the board, pick up a marker and write down the opposite. It vindicated how low the level is of a lot of these students. Not knowing the opposite of 'deep' is quite bad for high school English students, but they missed the boat when the big influx of native speakers came into the elementary system, so its not entirely their fault.

The free time has meant I have begun to plan my summer camp. Only two weeks this time, which is nice. And the day after I finish that I go to...Beijing. Life is good.

Love you all