Monday, 27 September 2010

Korea - The first Chuseok

Hello everyone!

Quick recap of the previous week before I get to the main event. My lessons were on criminals (I am beginning to run out of topics), and as part of this I was asking students to name some crimes. On the Tuesday, one of them shouted something in Korean, which my co-teacher, after laughing and initially refusing, explained was a 'sex crime'. 'What, rape?' was my response, to roars of classroom laughter. Bingo.

Fast-forward to Friday, and I have a class of boys sans co-teacher. I ask the same question, but don't get the desired response, so I write it on the board in Korean - 성폭행 - and ask what it is. Once they settle down from laughing, one says 'sex crime', so I reply by asking them to be more specific. One boy at the back, a chirpy kid, puts up his hand, so I silence everyone and point to him. 'Teach-uh', he booms loudly...'MASTURBATION'.

Wow. There are not many things that can stop me dead in my tracks when teaching. THAT was one of them. Myself and the whole class - obviously they know of the word masturbation, though from where I'm not entirely sure - spent the next two minutes in stitches. What an answer. My subsequent questioning of his tendencies regarding that subject may have crossed a line, but I did successfully explain to them that masturbation is not a crime. No matter what Rosie O'Donnell says.

Part of this explanation was writing 'rape' on the board, under the Korean letters. Almost fatally, I forgot I had this on the board. I soon noticed it, and rubbed it off. Two minutes later I was discussing material off my PPT and I spotted head at the interior window - the vice-principal - whose eyes were directed at what I had written on the board. His English is minimal, but I am sure he knows that 성폭행 is maybe not required on the board in an English class. Lucky escape.

That weekend was fun and sad in equal measure. Two good friends were soon leaving, so had their farewells. I'm not going to talk about what happened Friday night, but on the Saturday I dragged myself to have an awesome curry for Stevo's farewell before heading into Hongdae for Jackie's goodbye. These are two people I will miss a lot. It was great fun with a lot of people. Some of us ended the night in one of Seoul's big clubs called M2. Better, though not as messy, as the one in Manchester.

So onto the main event. We only had one day in school the next week because Wednesday was Chuseok, Korea's national holiday. It is often described as similar to an American thanksgiving, in that it is a time for families to be together and eat special food, but there is more to it than that. It is also about visiting the tombs of your ancestors, meaning that every Korean will go home. That's difficult for us to do, so our prize is instead a week's vacation.

With the dual aim of saving money and exploring my adopted country, I travelled south to the old capital, Gyeongju, with Stevo and Jon. We only went for two days/one night as Stevo had to sort out various issues before leaving Korea for good on the Saturday, so we got a bus on the Wednesday. This was tactical. We figured Chuseok would be similar to Christmas Day, in that there would be little traffic on the actual morning, and we were proved right.

It is a beautiful town. Even when rain is lashing down upon it. It rained heavily in most places Tuesday and Wednesday - above is a picture of what part of Seoul looked like. We arrived in drizzle to Gyeongju, but as soon as we started exploring the heavens well and truly opened. It was as if a ziploc bag had been ripped open. The main attraction in the town is a set of green hills. Each hill is the tomb of a dead King from the Silla dynasty that ruled over a thousand years ago. I want one, and may write it in any will I create in the future. I will also ensure that no one stands on it, unlike certain idiotic Canadians who tagged along with us.

We wandered around these impressive mounds for a while, accompanied the whole way by strange, out-of-place upbeat music from speakers placed throughout the park, and trudged around another park before accepting defeat to the weather. We made some friends in the hostel, frequented a noraebang (100 score for 50 cent's In Da Club, cheers) and then drank the night away under shelter from the rain.

Jon had the misfortune of passing out in this area, so we hid one of his flip-flops. ONE. Was a bit of a shock when he couldn't find either the next morning. We bought bus tickets for 3.30pm before, hungover and dehydrated, we set off in glorious sunshine for Bulguksa, a UNESCO temple. On bikes. At midday.

I am increasingly confident on two wheels, but may have bit off more than I can chew here. It was a long way - a lot longer than we thought, which is an integral part of this story - and hilly. We took our time cycling along, before realising that a) time was against us and b) it was getting increasingly difficult. I was moaning a lot. Even more than usual.

Having walked the bike up an enormous hill, we got to the entrance of Bulguksa. Huge place. And it had passed 2.15pm. We had been taking our time, but it had taken us over 2 hours, and we had a little over one to return the bikes and get on our bus. We didn't go in, gambling that we could get back in time. We missed it by five minutes.

Yet in spite of the communal frustration with the weather and my cycling, we thoroughly enjoyed our time in Gyeongju. It was a lot of fun, and we made some new friends. The setting was wonderful, and it was very nice to get out of the city for a while. And away from students talking about playing with themselves.

Love you all


Tuesday, 21 September 2010

Korea - The first border run

Hello everyone!

I spent a rainy Saturday in Seoul. Tom and I went to the N-Seoul Tower - a needle on a hill that gives you a view of Seoul. Not the most pleasant view, actually, though that may be more to do with the weather than the masses of similarly-styled apartment blocks littering every inch of space. The overcast conditions made the river look very muddy. Decent, but I've been spoiled by going to some of the best city view sights in the world.

To get up to the Tower most people take a cable car. My fantastic orientation skills meant we couldn't find this, and accidentally ended up hiking one-third of the hill. Not what I wanted to be doing, as I needed to exert as little energy as possible. More on that later.

I then headed to Itaewon to find a place to sleep. The rain was becoming relentless, though not even close to typhoon levels. I had an early start, and a tight budget, so I did my usual trick of hunting for a cheap love motel. Itaewon has many of these, and I accidentally ended up on the reason they have so many - Hooker Hill.

This is at 5pm. I walk up the hill to locate a motel. Each bar's door is shut. Well, until I pass them. Then I get catcalls about having a 'good time' and how 'cheap' they are. It's 5pm - not exactly the first-class workers. Not that I ever consider doing that. Anyway, I found a motel. Which had a sign up, saying that they had just started cleaning. Cleaning which lasted until 9pm. NINE.

It took a while, but I found a decent place slightly off the main strip. I then proceeded to lie down and not exert any energy at all. I had to be on a bus at 5.30am for a 10k race. On the border with North Korea. One wrong turn and I'm a dead man. I considered wearing a George Dubya mask, but opted to do the ninja fancy dress as with the rest of the team I am in. Ninjas vs Pirates was our theme of choice, though some went a bit overboard. Looking good if we got popped by a sniper, at least.

Originally there were a group of us from Siheung running, but people dropped out one by one, and Jon contrived to miss the bus, so I ran with the rest of the running team. The course was pretty flat, and the weather just about perfect. The rain had relented, a slight breeze moving across us under an overcast sky. The sun did pop out in the final kilometre, but Rocky had kicked in on my iPod by this stage. Lots of Korean teenage girls screaming when I waved to them as I passed was also inspirational to an extent. I finished third in our big team for the 10k in a time of 43:38, shattering my personal best. Will probably never catch Ryan, though.

I had abstained from alcohol for two weeks prior to this race, so needless to say I enjoyed myself afterwards. I am a sucker for makkoli after a race. I passed out on the bus home. Long day, but very happy with what I achieved. Jon wants to do one more race before I leave, so we are looking at our options, but I don't want to run for a while after that!

Love you all


Wednesday, 15 September 2010

Korea - The first open class

Hello everyone!

Another week done in the ROK. I've been breaking the news of my impending departure to the other teachers this week. Some have taken it well - others have not. Many were genuinely surprised, saying that I seemed really happy in Korea. I am, but that doesn't guarantee me staying anywhere.

My classes this week were about using the telephone. To get to this topic, I used the rather tedious link of the Lady Gaga song 'Telephone'. I made an amateurish error here, however. I had never seen this video, and forgot to watch it to validate before showing it to my students. Lady Gaga as well, what was I thinking. Needless to say it caused a bit of shock in the classroom. I managed to find a live version done on the BBC, which thankfully doesn't include scenes of Gaga writhing around in tape.

There were two days when I wasn't teaching this lesson. I will explain Friday later on, but on Wednesday we had an important day. My open class. I explained this in an earlier blog, but the basic premise is that you teach your lesson and are watched by the bigwigs in your school and other foreign teachers. It's a big show where everyone tells you how good you are, as long as its not a complete disaster (or you have a horrible foreigner present, as Ellen did). Each teacher has to do one in a school year, and this was my time to shine.

In the second week of this semester I did a lesson on bucket lists, so I decided to use this. There were a few changes, however. For example, my opening was a Michael Jackson video, to then introduce the idea that he kicked the bucket. However, it was decided that the video for 'You Are Not Alone' was too racy, so we eventually plumped for 'Black or White'. One other, more fundamental change - my co-teacher for the lesson was to actually teach. This was new to me. Normally I insist on them not getting involved. This time they had to.

Miss Yoon was teaching the lesson with me. I chose class 1-7, an all-boys class I have a really good rapport with, months ago. That's how seriously they take these things. Priorities sometimes move the focus away from fine-tuning these shows, however. One of the students from Miss Yoon's homeroom class went AWOL in the week before. This may not be a massive thing at home, but in Korea this is huge. They said this happens in my school once a year. Maximum. Worse still, she had run away from home. The police found out she had logged onto a Busan. Not good. Understandably this was on Miss Yoon's mind, so practice time was limited.

Though the practice we tried was almost always disrupted by technological failures. We got one good practice lesson in - on the day. The open class was period 3 - I was teaching period 1 and 2. I came back from teaching second period, went to check on everything in the main room...and the computer crashed. Again. TEN minutes before the lesson. Wiping my Youtube videos in the process. I wasn't nervous about this lesson until that point. Then I began to lose my nerve.

Luckily this class is amazing, and they pulled us through it. They understood that it wasn't a normal lesson - so no saying that their dream was to marry a Saudi prince (1-11), blow up the school (1-2) or kill the President (almost every other class). No screaming to show them a picture of a 'glamorous' woman (1-4). And all getting involved. The lesson went without a hitch. Marvellous.

Lessons were cancelled on Friday afternoon. In addition to an open class, once a year each school will have a 'festival day'. It was explained to me as the one day where the students can express themselves and have fun. Wow, one whole day of the year, lucky buggers. Anyway, Sorae High School's festival day was on the Friday. I had no lessons, but was still involved. I spent over an hour-and-a-half playing Rummikub - similar to rummy, with pieces instead of cards - and Jenga. I ruined the students at Jenga - less so at Rummikub. They live up to some stereotypes, and they are ALL good at maths in my school. This is what it looks like - there are photos of me playing, but the teacher keeps forgetting to give them to me.

I left school for a bit and returned at 8pm (yeah, on a Friday night) to watch their big talent show. Lots of 17-year-old girls doing provocative K-pop dance routines, often in revealing clothing. My mind never slipped away - I am their teacher, and even when doing the popping dance move they were still my adorable students. The boys loved it though. I stayed until 10.30pm, of my own choice. It was very entertaining.

They are a talented bunch in this school. It has a reputation around here for that. 'Iconic', is what a Korean teacher from another school described Sorae High School as in the aftermath of my open class. I'm glad that my class seemed to live up to that tag, and I am very glad to be in this school.

Love you all


Thursday, 9 September 2010

Korea - The first typhoon

Hello everyone!

So this week I did a full week of classes for the first time since mid-July. Yes, life out here is so hard. How do I cope. But that doesn't mean there wasn't any disruption.

On Wednesday rumours started swirling around. A storm was gathering. That's not a metaphor - literally, a typhoon was gathering in the East Sea (to all the Japanese who claim its called the Sea of Japan, go cry into some sake). I went to bed with the harmony of light drizzle rhythmically tapping against my window.

I woke up at 5am to a different sound. The sound of a cable violently, and not very rhythmically, crashing into said window. In spite of this rude awakening, I didn't think that the storm was particularly bad - just sounded like a bit of a gale, and we have them at home from time to time. I actually fell back asleep for a brief moment, before awaking for school.

The first signal of what had really happened came when I opened my window to find the plastic chairs from the bar across the road scattered across the gravel. Still, they are only plastic chairs, I can kick them over with little effort. So I step out into a slightly strong wind, take a turning and find this:

It's a neon sign. On the floor. Not where a neon sign belongs. OK, pretty strong.

More carnage was noticeable on my walk to school, which at this point I was hoping would have been cancelled, or at least delayed. Oh no. It was for elementary schools, it was for some middle schools, but in high school? No chance.

That's fine, I thought as I walked into my office. The workplace seemed different, however. Darker, for one. And hotter. And lots of items from the fridge were on the table. Marvellous - a power cut. Well, at least I wouldn't have any lessons. Or that's what logic would dictate when 95% of lessons I do rely on a PPT. But no. I had to teach old-school. In rooms that were getting increasingly hotter without fans or A/C.

It was actually good fun, and proved to myself that I might be a half-decent teacher after all. Though I didn't teach anything remotely constructive - we played pictionary for two lessons, then the electricity came back. It allowed my students to be quite creative as well - one team had apple, so drew an iPhone.

The majority of lessons that week were spent trialling the topic I was doing for my open class the next Wednesday. More on that next time. In the meantime, I think we are finally going to start adopting the British winds of austerity out here in Korea. We had a night in Hongdae on Saturday, naturally, but I have had FIVE leaving do's in the past week. Brittany on Sunday; Phil on Monday; Deb on Tuesday; Nat (and Deb again) on Friday; and Sean on Saturday. Not for the weak, a week like that. I will miss them all.

Apart from the first, I have attempted to save cash by not drinking on these occasions, though this is also to do with my impending 10k race. It is actually quite nice to wake up on a Sunday and not feel as though I'm at death's door. Something I might consider for when I get home, though unlikely. This time in three months I will have left Korea...but will NOT be at home...twist!

Love you all


Monday, 6 September 2010

Korea - The first parental visit

Hello everyone!

Back to reality after China. I only had four days between arriving home and starting back at school, so got back into our usual rhythm of drinking a lot and having fun. Noraebang until 6.30am? Check.

It wasn't going to be a usual week in school, however. Mainly because I was only working two days. You see, my parents had decided to take the plunge and come visit me from Tuesday to Saturday, to see how I really live out here. To see if I actually do anything that isn't in my blog (unlikely, I know). And to see if people in my school actually like me.

I guess they wouldn't have got that impression on Monday morning, when it was relayed to me that the VP's, in all their wonderful wisdom, had decided to perform a U-turn and not let me take any days off. It would disrupt the students, supposedly. Because I'm that important? Not too sure about that. They soon relented to an extent - I had one day of vacation left to use, so said that would be for Friday. But they wouldn't budge further, so we went over their heads directly to the big dog - the principal.

I've never spent so much time in the principal's office as I did on the Monday. If I spend any longer in the future, it is because I will have been fired. I gave some ground, and agreed to work Wednesday and leave after I finished my lessons. I then explained that I was planning on bringing my parents to school on the Thursday, so didn't want to teach. The principal, through my co-teacher, was happy enough with this, on certain conditions:

1 - My parents meet him. Absolutely, I was expecting to do that anyway.
2 - He takes us out for lunch. Brilliant, fantastic food without me pulling out my wallet.
3 - He takes us to...Everland. Everland, Korea's equivalent of DisneyWorld. My 60+ year-old principal wanted to take us to...Everland.
4 - All of this is without a translator.

Myself and Mr Kim were both gobsmacked by this. He later told me that the principal has never been that generous to any teacher before, Korean or native. I couldn't say no, even though I had grave reservations about the Everland idea. I thus taught for two days, and then bombed off to the airport to surprise my parents.

In their minds, I was going to meet them at their hotel in Seoul. I was never going to do that. I went to the airport, gave my little Wales flag to the woman waiting to show them to their car, and then hid behind a pillar. Hid too well, in hindsight, as they all walked straight past me. Over 30 minutes after I had hid, the woman came sprinting up to me and told me that they had left.

Backfired? Not quite. They had left the concourse, but not the airport. So I met them, dished out some hugs, and we were on our way. I spent Tuesday evening with them before heading back to Siheung - I did have to work the next morning. I told them about the principal's idea, and got the impression that they weren't comfortable with it, so relayed this the next day and we made some alterations.

Having knocked out four lessons on unusual food - the I'm a Celebrity video didn't go down too well right before lunch - and avoided having to go to an after-school workshop, I went to meet my parents in Seoul. I took my mum to Namdaemun market to buy some trainers, before we headed out in the rain to meet Juno for dinner. Weather-wise, they chose a bad week to come, but it could have been worse, as you'll find out in later blogs.

Food is a key aspect of any Korean experience. I tried to cover as many bases as possible, and can't really think of any obvious Korean food that they didn't sample. I was very surprised with their impressive chopstick skills. My dad was a big fan of the kimchi, which took me by surprise. My mum's favourite was possibly the bulgogi. However, they seemed to like everything thrown in their direction, which pleased me a lot. The spice didn't disrupt them too much, either. They said that their least-best meal was the one they had when I wasn't there to assist. Well, and an extortionately-priced hotel breakfast.

They really liked Juno - I got the impression they wanted to adopt her as their own - and really liked everyone else they met as well. They met a lot of people - Thursday must have felt like being a celebrity to them, being introduced to the vast majority of my friends in Bucheon and Siheung, as well as people in the school - but they took it all in stride, and everybody liked them as well. I think one of the girls in Bucheon wants to marry my Dad.

Thursday was quite a day even before meeting folk in Bucheon and Siheung, as I took the rents back to school. They got to meet the teachers, and I introduced them to some of the students. I did this by barging into unsuspecting classes and dragging my parents in with me, before demanding the students say hello. For one class they even got to watch me teach for a little bit, which they found hilarious and frightening in equal measure.

We did lunch with the principal and two other teachers before heading, not Everland. We went to a Korean folk village, which was pretty cool. One of the English teachers was allowed to accompany us as well, which helped so so much. I enjoyed it there, but I honestly think the principal enjoyed it more than anybody. Running around like a schoolkid on Christmas morning.

The other sight of note that my parents took in was the DMZ. Proper tour this time - the one by the US Army, not the excuse of one I went on last time. It was a very early start, which wasn't aided by our lack of sleep after a taxi tried to do a number on us the night before. Slight aside, my dad said he has never seen one of his children drunkenly berate a taxi driver in a foreign language before, I'm quite happy that he has now. It was a very interesting tour. We went into the Joint Security Area (JSA) and were stared at by a North Korean soldier who was using binoculars. Even though he was about 25 metres away from us.

I really enjoyed seeing my parents. I guess with all of the fun I have been having that I forgot that they are an integral part of my life. They enjoyed seeing me too, and enjoyed their Korean experience, which also made me a very happy son.

Love you all


Sunday, 5 September 2010

China - The first boat ride

Hello everyone!

Final day in China today. Two-and-a-half weeks of incredible adventures end here - time to go back to Korea. To do this, I was utilising a new method of transport for this trip - a boat. I restrained myself from singing 'I'm on a boat', don't worry. My 17 hour boat ride from Qingdao to Incheon was aboard a very Asian-sounding vessel - the Golden Bridge V.

It took my hungover body a wee while to find the port. I walked through Qingdao in the heat - though not as hot as the other cities on this trip - to the port. Upon arriving, I eventually discovered that I was at the wrong port. Even though the map said there was only one port. Luckily, someone finally understood my crazy gesticulating with my hands and pointed me in the right direction.

The boat was pretty cool. I'm not going to say luxurious, but it was very nice, and had some intriguing amenities - a PC bang and a noraebang, for example. It was big - my room had fifty people in it - but didn't seem cramped. Was a bit hot, though. I met two other Westeners, a French couple, on the boat, and talked to them for a bit, but the journey was pretty uneventful. I did score a free dinner though, just by walking in minutes before they were closing the restaurant. First kimchi in almost three weeks, and it didn't disappoint.

I arrived back at around 11am, then trekked back to Siheung. The volume of travelling allowed me to take stock of my trip. China is a fascinating country. It might possibly be the longest I've spent travelling in one country without having a job, yet I feel I have only scratched the surface. At times it can be difficult - the language in particular is a pain - but it has a rugged charm to it. Apart from the obvious places, it's not geared towards tourists, and the travellers we met on the way all had a similar mindset to us. The vast majority of locals were nice, albeit have some rather disgusting habits - spitting, squatting, obsessive horn honking.

I don't think I could live there, but I loved it. Korea seems more polished and a little bit superficial in comparison, but I'm sure I will come to love Korea again very soon. Highlights? Beijing was my favourite city, but all of the cities we spent time in had a unique charm that really appealed to me. The food was very good, but I think Korea trumps it on that front. But the Great Wall has to be number one - it was special, and you know how special it is when you are there.

The trip made me realise how much I missed travelling. It was in China that I made one of the hardest decisions of my life - I'm not staying a second year in Korea. I need to be moving, and ultimately I am too young to spend two contracts of my formative years in the same place. Incredibly difficult decision, though. Where next? Who knows, but I won't be settling down anytime soon.

Back to normality, now. Or not, as my parents are turning up next week.

Love you all