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


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