It would be very boring to be travelling straight home. That’s not what I do. I decided to pop back to Korea for a week. There are many reasons for this. The flight, going via China, was pretty cheap. It was also the closest I was going to be to the Korean peninsula for a while. But most importantly, a lot of the good friends I had made during my year teaching in Korea were still living in the country. It would be a great opportunity to see them all and briefly re-live the fun and frolics of 2010.
Not that I told many of them of my arrival. I told no more than five people that I was returning to Korea, and swore all of them to secrecy. The reason for this was so that I could spring a surprise on Kelly, one of my best friends and the girl who persuaded me to come to this part of the world in the first place. I have a history of springing surprises on people, usually family members. From turning up at my Gran’s 80th birthday when most thought I was in Prague, to my Dad thinking I was some sort of annoying carol singer because I had come home early from university, I like creating an element of surprise.
Kelly was the first person I surprised. The video is at the bottom. As you can see, she had no idea. Still, once she had got over the shock she was more than happy to see me. The surprise was meticulously planned. Kel is a rather busy girl, meaning that Matt had to organise meeting up for dinner (with ‘a friend who has travelled to many of the same countries as you’) almost two weeks in advance. We then arrived early at the venue, and made sure that our target would sit in a seat that faced the restaurant, so that she wouldn’t see my approach.
The week mainly revolved around me racing to see as many people as possible, and having coffee/food/beer/soju with them. Monday was spent in Bucheon, an area I used to visit frequently to see Kelly, Matt and co. Tuesday night and Wednesday were spent in Siheung, where I used to live and breathe. And occasionally teach. Wednesday night was spent in Suwon, where my reliable drinking partner Tom now lives. Thursday was initially spent in Seoul before going to a satellite city called Gwangmyeong for food with some of the teachers from my school who have moved to new schools. Friday was Seoul and then Siheung, and Saturday was spent in Itaewon in the capital. As you can see…BUSY.
After the main surprise I opted to inform people through Facebook that I was back in Korea. It was difficult enough organising one surprise and, as you can see from that list of places, I needed to know if people were around and wanting to meet up. This led to an impromptu gathering in an old stomping ground, Von Tees, that night. I felt that my alcohol tolerance had slipped somewhat during my time in India, and that was severely put to the test during this week.
I spent a month without alcohol in India, and drank it only on rare occasions during my whole time in the region. That may sound like the proud confession of an alcoholic, but ask yourself the last time you went a month without a beer or a glass of wine or a jello shot. Whilst this abstinence has undoubted benefits, there are drawbacks: drawbacks that were brought to my mind as we sat in an apartment at 4.30am singing and dancing to the sounds of a strummed guitar. That isn’t the actual time in the photo – it was the time until Jaryt had to teach. Needless to say, he overslept.
That is, however, the amount I time I spent asleep. The decision to go to bed at 5am didn’t rear its ugly effects until I woke up. At 8.30am. To go to school. Even though I am no longer employed by Sorae High School, I was still going to the site at a very early – in my state, ungodly – hour. Still, suited and booted (in trainers for now – I bought shoes the following day), I wolfed down a coffee and walked through those gates for the first time in almost 6 months. The first time I had ever worn a suit to school, interestingly.
This was brought to my attention when I was met by the current replacement teacher, an American girl called Sarah. She was the only one who knew of my visit. Unwittingly, she was also wearing a suit. No video for the surprise, this time, and no pictures either (most pictures in this blog were last year or taken by someone else). Most people will blame that on me struggling to keep my eyes open, but my co-teacher had also moved office, and I was unsure of his new location. The surprise on his face was similar to Kelly’s. His first utterance was also similar. Not ‘Oh wow!’ or ‘Hey!’ Oh No. What do I get?
‘Why are you here?’
Brilliant. Good to see that people appreciate me returning into their lives. I guess it’s just a shock to them. I have no idea how I would react if someone did that to me. I hope I haven’t started a trend and people keep popping up on my doorstep over the next few years. Neither of them swore – I don’t know if I would be the same. Once people got over the shock, they seemed pleased to see me, and I was delighted to see so many of the people who made last year the best of my life in a job that was too good to be true. It was also great to see that Sarah is enjoying herself as much as I did.
The reaction of the students was the most fascinating insight into this day. Sarah had been telling me how they seem to react indifferently to her, or how they often misbehave. There are reasons for this, but if anything is going to stun a teenager into silence I guess it would be the return of their former teacher. Well, a brief silence, then a gasp, and then riotous cheering. Seems that they still love me as much as before, which is wonderful. Very few of them also answered, ‘I am fine thank you’, meaning that I did leave a legacy aside from the knowledge that foreigners drink a lot after all.
In addition to returning to these individual locations and people that are close to my heart, it was interesting to come to Korea with a slightly different mindset – one that has been used to accepting Indian values for the past ten weeks. I’ve never noticed so many legs. The shorts are SO small. I often found myself staring, simply because I hadn’t seen female legs so publically shown since…well, considering the cold snap at home…for a long time! The air is very hazy. There are too many restaurants. Everyone has an electronic gizmo that they can’t stop staring at or listening to. People don’t often smile, or have any emotional expression at all.
But there was one overriding emotion striking me throughout the week. I felt as if I was at home. It was like returning to Cardiff after a term at university. Sure, some shops have changed, but you know the streets as if you had an in-built GPS in your brain. Sure, some words have been forgotten, but you know enough of the language to get things done. I only had one problem with the language. ‘Neh’ is yes in Korean; it is ‘no’ in Hindi. So when I bought a bottle of water on the first day and said thank you in Korean, her response of ‘Neh’ confused me a bit. Had I done something wrong? What was WRONG?? Then I saw her face was bursting with a smile, and I remembered. I was home.
Except I’m not. I came back to see friends, colleagues and students. But some of my friends have left Korea. Some of my colleagues have left Sorae High School. All of the students are now in the second grade, and will be in university in two years. People move on. It was fantastic to be back, but it is time for me to do the same. Korea has made me as a teacher and as a person, but I won’t be back for a while. I want to maintain the happy memories, and then make some more elsewhere.
Love you all