Sunday, 28 November 2010

Korea - The first Arirang dance

Hello everyone!

I have received a lot of messages in the past week, and I appreciate the concern, so I will discuss the North Korea situation next time.

Final week in school now, and from Wednesday I have been doing final lessons for each of my fourteen classes. I say 'lesson' - its just games, and in one class we played keep-ups with a football for 20 minutes. The goodbye thing is proving to be quite difficult. In one class, eight of the boys formed a line at the end of the lesson to each walk up to me and hug me. Holding on for slightly longer than they should. It was adorable.

I screwed up somewhat on the Friday. Due to a (very) heavy drinking session on the Thursday night, which I will talk about later, I was 45 minutes late for my first lesson. I popped my head into the room to see the board filled with goodbye messages and pictures. Oh dear. I felt terrible, to the extent that I demanded that I reschedule their timetable to give them one final class. They drew another picture for my return, and forgave me. I think...

I'm not going to lie here - I came very, very close to crying in a class on Thursday. Class 1-9 is one I do with a teacher from my office, Yeong-shin. She was delaying, so I left the office without her and made my way up the hill to class. She started shouting behind me, imploring me to wait as she ran after me. I've never seen her run before. I looked up to the building where the class was, and saw one girl's head popping out of the entrance. No sooner had I seen it then it had disappeared. Strange.

We walked up to the class. Silence echoed from the room. No lights were on. Very strange. I slowly opened the door. That silence I mentioned? Yeah, that evaporated, to be replaced by a crescendo of singing and clapping. My eyes then diverted away from their faces to my desk. Something was on it, and a candle was shimmering on top of it. Chocolate cake! The candle was extinguished, accompanied by screams, and then I looked at the board.

Filled.With.Messages. The only word I could utter for over five minutes was 'WOW'. They then also presented me with a poster of goodbye messages. It almost did for me, until one of the girls urged me not to cry. 'Boys don't cry!' I shouted, and my tears receded from the precipice. I didn't to do my lesson with them - conversely, they wanted to teach me something. Specifically, a Korean folk song and dance called arirang (아리랑). The dance is simple - it's the lyrics that were the ultimate test of my Korean linguistic skills. We tried a couple of times, and then I asked if the students wanted me to try one final time. A resounding NO. I was obviously so good that they

I went out with a co-teacher later that night. He wanted to give me another new Korean experience, so took me to a singing club. I know what you're thinking - this isn't new, you often end up in a noraebang and sing your little lungs out. Fair point, but this is a different, more expensive experience. Why? Well, you don't just buy singing time. You also buy 'company'.

Aah, the infamous noraeclubs. You buy a woman for a period of time and they do what you want them to. Even though I was very drunk, I found the whole experience pretty disgusting and degrading, and then finally told my co-teacher that I was bored and going home. It wasn't a nice place. Sorae high school is a nice place, filled with amazing, wonderful students who I will miss immensely.

Love you all


Sunday, 21 November 2010

Korea - The first university entrance exam

Hello everyone!

I walked into class on Tuesday and a girl offered me a glass of milk. I do love Korea. And milk. I felt you needed to know that. I also think I might be lacking a creative spark today. Speaking of that, it's becoming increasingly difficult to conjure up creative blog titles. Fifty weeks in, and I am finally beginning to run out of new activities. So apologies for that.

Other people have more serious problems than blogs, however. In particular, the third grade high school students across the country. Thursday 18th November was without doubt the biggest day of their lives. Now we have a stereotype at home of Koreans - Asians in general - being mind-bogglingly hardworking and obsessed with education. Well these two characteristics are weaved together for SUNUM - the university entrance exam.

Now I know we have university entrance exams at home, and that they are also very important to us. But imagine having to sit all of your A-levels on the same day. Imagine only finding out the location of your exam the day before, and that it can be in a different city. Imagine the level of competitiveness that has led to most of these students sleeping for less than five hours a day, everyday, for the past few years of their lives. For the sole purpose of studying. Just for this one day. Not nice, is it.

To say that this is an important day would be the biggest understatement since (insert funny here). Most workers have a delayed start to enable the roads to be clear for students to get to their respective exam locations. During the listening exams - one for Korean, one for English - planes are not allowed to fly over Korea. A no fly zone so students can listen to a dodgy British accent. I don't know what is more extreme - this, or the fact that if you honk your horn during these exams, you can be arrested.

Then you have to consider the poor teachers who have to monitor these exams. They have to stand up straight for the whole day - something in the region of ten hours - but that pales in comparison to other sacrifices they have to make, especially the women. No bright clothing. No heels. No skirts. No make-up. No perfume. Why, you ask? Well, apparently it can distract the students. And then the students sue the teachers. And invariably WIN.

One story a co-teacher told me was that a boy was coughing, but the monitor didn't give him permission to leave the room. He then stated that his whole day and life had been ruined because of this teacher's negligence, and sued her to the tune of $20,000US. And WON. With that in mind, all teachers had a two-hour meeting the day before to ensure that everything was done correctly.

The flip-side of all of this stress and the exam itself was that I got a day off on the Thursday. I won't get many more of these, so needed to make the most of it. I went for lunch with Min-Jin 민진, the substitute teacher at my school. As a temporary teacher, she also didn't have to monitor. Indeed, the reason she was at my school was because my co-teacher was actually helping to write the exam. Five weeks locked in a house on a hill in the middle of nowhere, and not allowed to leave, use the internet, phones etc. Before you give him sympathy, two points: he got paid over 10million won ($10,000US); and he said they spent the last two weeks just getting hammered. Lucky man.

Now the exam has occurred, Min-Jin's time at my school is over. I will miss her, as it is always nice to have someone around in school who is a similar age to me and has spent time abroad, so has a different style of humour to the standard Korean. Even if she refuses to have her face in a photo. It's not the only goodbye I'll have to say this month, of course.

I then headed down to Hwaseong fortress in Suwon. Big tourist attraction of Korea, even though Min-Jin hadn't heard of it. Korea used to have lots of fortresses, and Hwaseong is the one that has been preserved the best. Like Gyeongbokgung a few weeks back, it's very nice in autumn. A little bit on the chilly side, but it's a very nice walk. And very nice to be away from school and the potential to be sued for sneezing.

Love you all


Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Korea - The first pepero day

Hello everyone!

November 11 is a very important day. In Britain, it is of course Rememberance Day, where we pay our respects for those who fought for and protected our country in our hours of need. It is also very important in Korea. As part of my announcement to my students that I was leaving, I circled this influential date and asked them what happened on it. A few bright sparks gave an alternative answer - the G20 summit, which was in Seoul on that very day - but most of them got the answer I was looking for...

Pepero Day - pepero in Hangul is 빼빼로 - is one of the most ridiculously commercialised ideas I have ever come across. If you thought Valentine's Day was bad - and I do - then try this on for size. Pepero is a not particularly appetising chocolate-covered biscuit stick that is mass produced by the Lotte group, which is one of the biggest conglomerates in Asia. Lotte, along with Samsung, Hyundai and LG, have a lot of influence out here. A lotte, you could say. I'll get my coat.

Back to point, the company introduced an advertising campaign a while ago, strongly suggesting to couples that love could be shown through exchanging boxes of pepero. This has snowballed into one of the biggest days of the year for couples. I thought I would try to take advantage of my seemingly powerful position in school by demanding boxes of pepero off the students.

I got seven boxes, which is pretty impressive until you hear stories from elementary school teachers about how they cannot see their desks due to all of the pepero. Or the forty-five boxes one of the other English teachers on my school managed to accumulate. Was I jealous? I told her she would get fat. So yes? What concerned me more was the fact that three boxes came off teachers and four came off boys. None off girls! Need to get that charm working again. I did steal some from students in the one girls' class I took that afternoon though.

I'm going to call it cultural adaptation, but I well and truly got sucked into pepero day. I bought a box for the girl I'm seeing, and gave it to her that evening. I received a bigger tube, so got the better deal. And pumpkin soup, randomly - I don't think that's a 빼빼로 thing. Also had a Korean-style tiramisu coffee that night, which is one of the best non-alcoholic drinks I have sampled out here. Outstanding.

Almost as outstanding as my lesson for this week. I am beginning to run out of ideas for lessons - actually, I've been struggling since August - so am going for increasingly bizarre lesson topics. This week - optical illusions, of course! The students loved it - many of the pictures really confused them. Their favourite part of this lesson, however, was the video I played them at the conclusion of the fifty minutes. I've embedded the video into this blog - follow the instructions and be amazed. I told the other teachers that it is the closest thing to drugs that these students will ever experience unless they leave Korea. Maybe why they liked it so much and demanded I play it again...

Bit of a Lotte week, in truth. I Went back to Lotte World on Saturday to make use of the free ticket that my VP gave to me when I went with the students on their field trip. It was surprisingly awesome. It is half indoors and half outdoors, but the sun made one final push to drive the temperature into double figures, so that wasn't an issue. Was almost warm enough to eat the ice cream dots, as superbly modelled below. Every ride was really good - even the teacups, which we span to the point that we struggled to walk when disembarking them.

The six of us who travelled across the city to Lotte World had a blast. We were, however, all very surprised that the Disney corporation have not realised that many of the signs and buildings are an outrageous ripoff of the Magic Kingdom. Compensation ahoy there, though if they keep selling 빼빼로 at their current rate I don't think Lotte will have too many problems with a payout.

Love you all


Thursday, 11 November 2010

Korea - The first trip to Gyeongbokgung

Hello everyone!

It's gotten cold all of a sudden. Not happy.

Anyways, rumour has it that I am into my final month. I am firmly in denial about leaving this wonderful place, so often refuse to talk about my future, even though deep down I know I'm leaving. I sound like a Premier League footballer. I am now the next to go - Ellen left on Tuesday, which was very sad for me. The middle school across the road from me now has no native teacher. I will miss her a lot - from strolling in serenity down the streets of Shibuya in Tokyo, to hanging out on the benches in her school and having all her students ask if I was her boyfriend, only to get confused when I said I was her father. Fun times.

But much to do, so denial wears on. One major tourist attraction was ticked off last weekend, though. The main one, actually. Seoul has five palaces, and on Saturday I visited the biggest - Gyeongbokgung. Where the King, Queen and co. used to live when they were alive, back in the day. I went along with my Korean friend Cho-Rong 초롱 - she was taking around one of her Korean language students.

What I didn't realise is that she was taking the whole family. And another family. And another friend. So what I thought would be decent hangout time turned out to be a family expedition. I'm not going to complain, however - it added to the experience.

I mean, if the family hadn't been there then I wouldn't have witnessed the little boy vigorously chasing after a pigeon for over 10 minutes. The little scamp had an incredible amount of energy. Shame it will be sapped out of him when he enters the Korean education system.

The toddlers were great fun to play with whilst walking around the palace. It was similar to the other palaces, but had a bit more of an aura to it. The fact we went in fall - I'm turning more American by the second - meant that it looked spectacular.

It was a fun day, and turned into quite the fun night as well. Tom and Nikki's birthdays were around the corner, so we went to the Intercontinental Hotel in the COEX mall. Bit too classy for someone like me, you might think. Then you will hear that it is a 27,000W all-you-can-eat and all-you-can-drink buffet, and realise that it is right up my alley. Free wine was always going to make this an interesting night. Some people ended up more drunk than others. We all trekked over to Itaewon afterwards, and four of us ended up in Hongdae - to put that into context, think of starting a night in far east London and ending up in very west London, with your house being in Reading. Bed at 7am.

This week has been the week that I have been breaking the news to the students that I am leaving Korea. Disappointment and surprise reigned supreme, as well as asking why I was going. I tried to explain that Kim Yu-Na - of Olympic Gold and Korean goddess fame - wanted me to be her boyfriend, but they didn't buy it, so I explained the India dream and they accepted that I was going to a decent place. They studied India in a textbook module a couple of months ago, and all have an obsession with tandoori chicken.

To counter this disappointment, I gave them a lesson involving Spongebob. Who knew that that cartoon was so popular amongst 16-year-olds. Spongebob was my tool to teach them some basic slang and idioms. At the end of one of my lessons, a girl shouted, 'Matt! Break a leg!' It took me a second to realise what she meant, but obviously they were listening! To be fair, how can you not listen to Spongebob.

Love you all


Friday, 5 November 2010

Korea - The first game of billiards

Hello everyone!

Halloween last weekend. Not that big of a deal out here, to be honest. They know about it - and the students know candy is involved - but they have no idea why certain activities and themes promote themselves on this day. In reality, a lot of people who celebrate Halloween have no idea of its roots. My brief research meant that I told the students that people dressed up to scare the dead people so they wouldn't come back to life and eat everyone. Hmm...

Costumes are of course par for the course on Halloween, and I wasn't going to miss out. I was told that I wouldn't better my predecessor in this job - he transformed himself into a zombie over a five-day period - so I contented myself with buying a Scream mask for 1500W and then creeping up behind everyone in my school and trying to scare the living daylights out of them. I tried this on teachers as well as students.

The best example of this was inflicted upon our new substitute female teacher. I went to the class and explained to them what I wanted done. One student volunteered, put on the mask, and hid behind the A/C machine. Five minutes pass, and I return to the class with the teacher. The co-teacher always stands at the back, so I told her where to stand - right in the target line of the hiding student. I go to the front and start my lesson, with every other student and the girl paying full attention. Two more minutes pass, and...BOO!!!!! Teacher - up in the air. Mission accomplished. Hilariously, she started bollocking the kid, who then ignored her and looked at me with a smile. She then looked at me, I laughed and proudly stated, 'Yeah, that was me', and we moved on.

The Halloween weekend is one big blur, but split into two parts. The blame for part one rests solely with my school's football team. I was invited along to play billiards with them. Being quite good at pool, I joked that I would school them. Oh dear. The lack of pockets was an issue for me. As well as not knowing the rules. I got better, but the damage was done. Well, the sporting damage.

When Korean men play billiards they invariably order Chinese takeaway food. On this occasion, it was the noodles with heavy black sauce. Good, but mighty filling. Two hours later, the vice-principal announced that we were leaving - to eat. WHAT?! Of course, with every meal comes soju, and we had taken a couple of shots before heading to a nearby restaurant. I hardly touched the food in the restaurant - and it ended up being difficult to do so, what with the number of soju bottles sitting on the table. 50 green bottles, sitting on a wall...

So it turns out I made a speech in Korean - didn't last long - and promised that I would return to Sorae high school in 2012. And this was before I even turned up to the Halloween party being held in Siheung. I don't really remember that, but know that I lasted less than an hour before taking a surprisingly mature decision and going home. I was on 'top form', supposedly.

Saturday was a similar tale. Most weekends seem to be a similar tale. Hungover with no desire to leave my bed --> a text message questioning my manhood --> a couple of beers --> into Seoul, more drinks --> shots --> no recollection about getting home. Well, there is a blurry moment about me getting home, but I won't go into that here. A 25 minute taxi ride took 80 minutes. The only reason I know that is because I have a receipt that says so. Bizarrely, it cost less than normal as well. Love the taxis out here.

Well, most of them. I went to Suwon on the Thursday and missed the last bus. By over an hour, it turns out. So I jumped in a cab. The one cab that has the one driver who doesn't know how to use a sat nav in Korea. He got to Siheung but then, instead of listening to me, spent the next 10 minutes driving around and asking strangers on the street how to get to my destination. Idiot.

One other thing of note. One of my friends from uni, Jess, has moved out here to teach. Very excited. I met up with her on the Wednesday, and it was very nice to see a familiar face. And she gave me beans. I love people who do that.

Love you all