Sunday, 26 September 2010

Sunrise and sunset in the land of the morning calm

So by writing this blog before the end of next week, I will have managed to mantain my one blog per month goal and thus kept myself very pleased!

There has been so much that has gone on in the last 5 or 6 weeks since my last blog that it is hard to get it all down and to do it justice. I am often torn over the kind of blog that I want to write too, there's a lot of comments I would like to make about the nature of living in Korea, observations that I have made about the experience but I also just want to talk about the sights, the sounds, the food and the number of funny occurences.

I guess I'll just meander for the next few hundred words and hope it makes some kind of sense to you, trying to pick out the best bits, best bits being things that are interesting rather than just making those back home feel envious!

Ok, so this month was one of real ups and downs, we had to rehearse for an open day at our school (Airport day...I'll explain in a sec), work a saturday and long bloody hours but we also got gifts from the school, an extended vacation and me and some pals got the chance to get down to Busan.

Airport day was basically one of the most surreal experiences I have had in Korea, the notion was that for two open days the school would basically become an airport. The class rooms became different parts of an airport and the teachers became airport workers! For example Edison class became a ticketing office and I worked on the ticketing desk..Newton classroom was a plane and Geoff teacher was a pilot...Analie teacher was an air stewardess.

All the kids had to recite lines...and were absoloutley brilliant at it... We taught them through chants and one and one encounters. "Can I see your passport"...."Here you are"...."Where are you going"..."I'm going to England"...."How many bags do you have"...."I have one bag"...etc..etc.

The kids had to learn songs about airports and countries too..."Buckle up for safety" "I'm a little airplane" (based on I'm a little teapot) and so on and so forth. It did verge on the surreal at times, I remember one rehearsal just staring at these bewildered five year olds and being in tears with laughter...wondering what on earth was going on!

Mrs.Yu our boss was really on edge at times and that sometimes filtered on to us and then on to the kids which was a little unfortunate...It seems odd looking back on it now because for the parents it was just nice to see their children interacting with their foreign teachers, speaking English and having fun.

I could go into the nature of education in Korean Hagwons here but it's a little arrogant having only been here three/four months...basically I would just wonder how much education is really gained by recital rather than understanding what it is that you are saying but annnnnyway.

We had to work a saturday that week...for me that was teaching from 9.40 until 7pm but it did mean that they gave us an extra day for our chuseok holiday. The following saturday me and two buddies went down to Busan... Which is pretty much across the whole country..Koreans will probably tell you that this journey would take 10 hours and at chuseok the traffic would be so great that it would probably take a whole day... It took about 5 and a half hours and traffic was fine! It was a pretty cool experience seeing the Korean country side, going through the southern cities but I can't be too descriptive, it was at night on a motorway after all!

We got to Busan at about 5am having left off at 11.30 and went to hauendae beach... Staring at out at the pacific ocean for the first time as the sun came up was awesome, I suppose my most abiding memory would be how when it was still dark we could see hundreds of glowing lights over the sea, there were so many that we assumed that they were cars travelling over a bridge. But as the sun came up it dawned on us (excuse the pun) that they were actually boats...I think most of them were fishing boats but you can imagine that there must be a heck of a lot of marine traffic over the eastern sea or sea of Japan or Korean sea (Depending on your nationality)...cargos upon cargos going from Japan to China or vice versa.

After drinking at the beach for a little (we didn't get hammered), we went and stayed at Jimjilbang...a Jimjil bang is like a means getting your tackle out in front of lots of korean men but it is really relaxing...lying in the hot baths and staring out across the ocean.

Sleeping in a Jimjil bang is another matter, in a Jimjil bang you will see a floor full of sleeping people covered with a tiny blanket (they are dressed) and resting their heads on tiny leathery cusions.

The first time you see it , it is a little bit like seeing a video of one of those mass suicides that take place in religous cults..and then you just have to find your own spot and get your head down.

Sleeping for as long as I could... I was woken once by a guy having a nightmare and another time by an Ajuma kicking people...that's kind of like their job at health spas...kicking people awake..I wasn't kicked but I saw her moving towards me...and a bunch of kicked...angry Koreans ahead of me sprouting up like grass shoots from their slumber.

That day we headed down to a holy spot on the coast...It was incredibly beautiful..There are a ton of photos of it on my facebook page and I would recommend checking them out. I would also recommend sites such as this to anyone wanting to come to teach in Korea, it can be very easy to see this place as just a bunch of neon lit bars stuffed ontop of each other.

After this we headed down to a motel, got cleaned up and hit the tiles, I taught a bunch of Korean girls the macarena and "big fish" "little fish" "cardboard box" which was fun... clubbing here can be a lot of fun...if you want to party rather than just scope out women to pull... it's easier to meet people that way too.

The second day we spent at a park and then headed off to the jalgachi fish market, what an explosion of sights and sounds that was. Old women dragging huge buckets of fish slop through a bustling maze of people, trucks and movement. Row after row of dead fish hung out in ice baths and king crabs spending their last moments heaped into huge tanks of water. On every corner was a fish restaurant with people begging you to come in and try their offerings, bartering and hustling.

We did spend an awful amount of time debating where to go but it was all the worthwhile to see more of the market around us. We ended up having one of the most colorful dinners I've ever had and will probably ever have... we were served by this chef/waiter/fish monger who had this unforgettably strong face and slicked back black hair.

He presented us with the fish we could eat (still alive) and even let my mate Dave hold one before it ended up on our plate. The setting of our meal was this giant fish market that surrounded us and while fish were being cooked and killed we were sipping our beers waiting for the starter.

It was all fish too, maybe a bit of seaweed thrown into a tasty soup or the odd side dish of soy sauce but other than that it was just plain fish...grilled, boiled and raw! I managed to eat live baby octopus tentacles...which was odd. The worst bit of consuming such a dish would have to be the tasteless strips of slop sucking on your tounge as you try and down it, like some last bid for survival.

After the fish market we found another motel (all of these places have dressing gowns for him and her, a box of tissues and porn on the telly btw) we headed out into town and found a few cool bars...setting off fireworks on gwangali beach at night was a highight, as was my first experience in the batting cages at the amusement park (I was surprisingly good at it!)

On tuesday we left for seoul with heavy hearts as the rest of the world around us went and spent chuseok with their families.

I guess I have become a bit lassiez fair about partying in Seoul (what a thing to say) but I can't speak about the remaining days of my holiday with much enthusiasm. There were a couple of highlights in Gangnam, the first being a visit to a booking club, we had wanted to go to a club and been brought to a korean booking club.

The deal with a booking club is as a fella, you come in and get a table you spend like 90 quid on a bottle of brandy and women are brought to your table. The women aren't hookers but are looking to meet men, they get dragged around the wrist by these bell boys and are asked to spend time with paying customers.

I'm proud to say that me and my mates came in with flip flops, requested no women and just a shit load of beers for 100,000 won. We stole fruit from tables and watched in disgust as needy women were lugged to tables of absoloute tossers. My girlfreind Song came down to meet me and that made for a pretty funny experience. Everytime my back was turned she would be dragged away by one of these bellboys and there would be me running desperatley to retrive her.

We finished our beers and then sat outside a seven eleven until my buddy diego decided it would be a cool idea to drink some more on the roof of an apartment. We snuck into this apartment building and took the lift to the 15th floor and then go on to the roof where we were able to see the sun come up over the Han river and the bustling seoulites travelling over the bridges that surround it.

Phew...well that's it for another month, I wish I could give you more...I wish you could see the things Ive seen these last few weeks...but I guess that's up to a wise man once said "get busy living or get busy dying".

Monday, 9 August 2010


It's been 3 weeks since I posted a blog and that's not because I haven't had a lot to say, it's probably because I've been so busy.
We had elementary evaluations at the end of this month which was pretty tough because we could only use one computer to write them up on!
So I spent alot of time teaching and then writing paragraphs about my elementary kids, trying to be positive about everyone.

So from the middle of July to the start of August, I had a lot of fun and I worked pretty hard too, one of the best things I did with the school was go to a water park with the kids.
Apparently the water park was about an hour north from Uijeongbu, if you look at a map of South Korea and look where Uijeongbu is, you'd think a water park an hour north from uijeongbu would have statues of Kim Jong Il everywhere, maybe a giant slide where you fall right out of the dear leader's mouth!

Anyway, obviously standing pretty close but not on the toes of the North Korean army, everyone managed to have a lot of fun.
You definitely feel like a celebrity living in South Korea and the day at the water park was probably the biggest example of that. The school had me and the other foreign teachers pose with hundreds of kids, kids we didn't know or teach.
Then we would walk around waving to water park goers and saying hello to all the co workers who wanted to meet us!
I wish I had pictures for this blog but to be honest as water parks go, it was nothing really exceptional and it rained!

Everyone went on vacation the following wednesday, a vacation that I was personally dreading! I had no phone, hardly any money and no plans! Fortunately I had a really good week...It got off to a great start with the river galbi experience! I talked about galbi in the previous post and if you want to know more about galbi, you can always drop me a message or even better give it a look on Google!

What made the river galbi experience was, the river itself... It wasn't beside the river or even on the river, it was in the river, I call it a river it's more of a mountain stream...most of the summer it runs gently down from the mountain but when there's heavy rain it can become a little turbulent.

So, basically my flatmate Dave had been for a run and had ran past this restaurant where people had propped up plastic tables and chairs in the river and were being served by a bare foot waiter. He mentioned it to me and my neighbors Steve and Jonathan and so we walked in and chose our spot in the river, although it wasn't particularly easy or comfortable to find a good spot to rest my chair, the feeling of eating tasty food while dangling my feet in a cold mountain stream was amazing.

It was a perfect summer day too, there were kids walking back from their mountain hike saying hello to us and the waiter/guy who owned the restaurant caught some fish in a plastic bottle and gave it to a little kid who was sitting on a table across from was awesome.

On the weekend of my vacation I went to see my first ever baseball game the Doosan Bears taking on the Hwanhwa Eagles from Daejon, it was a pretty good experience. I sat with two guys from Georgia who were huge Atlanta Brave fans and I got the low down on the rules of the game and all the nuances of the sport.

The beer flowed pretty easily and Korean baseball fans are something to behold too, their togetherness and almost militaristic approach to chants and songs is something of a spectacle in itself really!

On Monday, I made my first trip into downtown Seoul, I have to say that I think Seoul is probably the greatest city I've ever visited ... of course it can never compare to Norwich!! I managed to take photos of my Seoul trip which probably say more than I could ever write but I haven't yet got a computer that will let me upload my photographs.

My first experience of actually walking into down town Seoul was hearing my mate Steve say "welcome to Seoul" walking out of the subway statuon and being confronted by a long blank path where at the end, a huge golden statue of King Sejon stands and all of Seoul's metropolitan buzz.

This isn't my photo but I really think you ought to take a look

It isn't a statue steeped in history, I think it was only built a year ago but it does give visiting Seoul a sense of occasion, which is right.

Seoul is a strange city, in many senses you get the huge steel high rise buildings, the neon drenched high streets and the hustle and bustle of 33 million Seoulites but also there are smaller high streets which feel like town markets.

People are selling their wares, their buddah statues, their rice cakes, their jewelery but it's all very peaceful, very civil... some big cities namely London, you can really be struck by the ugliness of it's insides.

People hassling you, alcoholics arguing in the street, that kind of thing...I don't think you'll find it in downtown Seoul..probably Itaewon but not in the centre of Seoul.

There was this awesome Buddhist temple in Seoul which I got some snaps of, they had opened the doors of the temple because of the heat of the summer air and inside were about 60 people praying to these huge golden buddahs.

The monks chants were entrancing and I couldn't help noticing how beautiful these statues looked, they are crafted in such a way that you feel like their eyes are staring right into you. I even put my hands together and thought about praying... not because I'm buddhist or of any faith but the power of the statues and the chanting made me sort of want to comply...maybe that's why religion has been able to bring so many people in for so many years... I guess I thought alot about that.

Ok, fast forwarding to last weekend, I had a blooming amazing time in Hongdae... Hongdae is somewhere I would recommend to people I only really like. It is Korea's student town... and the vibe is awesome... It's a younger, fresher Korea..I guess.

There's a big park where people sit and drink... which sounds pretty basic... but such is the number in the park, there is a lot of live music both spontaneous and planned. Big groups of people intergrate with each other and generally it's a lot of fun.

After the park we went to a club called club OI which is a big sack of fun, it's the strangest club I've ever been to and one of the best. The corridors are really narrow, you almost feel like your climbing through a cave to get in and then once your inside it's like being in the brain of the beatles during the late 60's... twisted colors and crooked walls.

It also happened to be a water party in Club OI so from the ceiling it showered and the dance floor was a paddling pool, I spent much of the night soaking my freinds, freindly Koreans and cool foreign teachers. I did however, trash my phone and ruin my wallet but all in all I would have to say it was worth it.

Wednesday, 14 July 2010

"And the higways jammed with broken heroes on a last chance power drive"

So, Wednesday I left gumadong and moved in to my new place in Dong Makal, Dong Makal is Korean for 'a poor place' apparently!

The neighbourhood is a little rough around the edges but rough in Korean terms, I mean there are crop patches here that would be trampled over every night in an English 'poor place'. Our apartment block is free of grafitti and as far as I can tell there's not much violence here.

Surrounding the building I live in are green mountains and ram shackle stores, minutes from my house are old ladies sitting on unwanted leather sofas, no doubt putting the world to rights.

Men in vests camp themselves by crappy steel fans, chain smoking and watching Korean tv news on an endless cycle.

I sometimes wonder whether I am in Korea or Cambodia when I walk to work in the morning, the fact that huge shopping centres are a hop and a skip down the road make the whole experience even more surreal.

Last Thursday, me and my new flatmate Dave went out for birthday drinks with one of our neighbours Beth. There was a nepalese curry that was enjoyed earlier in the evening but the German beer hof was probably the more notable experience.

This bar was enormous, huge marble stairs, large wooden tables and a music stage that would put many small festivals to shame. We also got the opportunity to see some live music, it was a female solo artist knocking out some Korean folk music but it was throughly enjoyable.

Even though I couldn't understand what she was talking about I thought she managed to evoke emotion in her music , I thought of that scene in The Shawshank Redemption when Morgan Freeman's character mentions how he listened to an Italian opera singer and how he couldn't understand what she was singing but in many ways he didn't want to, thats sort of how I felt, maybe I was just pissed.

The Friday night was pretty cool, I had a great day with my kids, we had a making day, creating Elephant masks, life is so much easier when you give them something to do and you have a plan, it's only really when you're clueless that they start to play up.

Friday night was my first experience of Galbi, the experience of eating Galbi is pretty special, I would recommend it to anyone. basically you sit around a table with a grill placed in the middle and slabs of pork are cooked on top, side dishes of kimchi, garlic, peppers, egg broth, spicy soup are all thrown in to add to the experience.

It's such a communal way to eat, everyone keeping an eye on the meat cooking on the stove, throwing in whatever seasoning they want. I really love the way people eat and drink over here, everything is always communal, always shared.. the aim is always to keep your glass and your plate full until everyone is stuffed... it's something I would love to bring back to England.

Then we went out in dong Makal and drank beer outside a convience store, it's not particuliarly romantic or intersting I know but you can do that here. You just pick up a table and a few chairs from the front of the shop and the guy behind the till becomes an honorary bar man.

Koreans do it too, a gang of old men were sat behind us, drinking soju (Korean vodka) and singing some old Korean songs. Even though the old guys were drinking with paper cups outside a convience store, I noticed how old customs still remained, receiving drinks with two hands on the cup, nerver pouring their own drink and always endeavouring to keep each other's cups full.

There was a lot of getting to know my fellow foreign teachers and we evantually ended up in a Noraebang where I butchered a Sex Pistols song (if that's possible!) and then I ended up going to bed pretty tanked up.

My Saturday was pretty quiet, it's hard to meet up with people at the moment because I don't have a plans are always pretty tough to make.. a lot of knocking on people's doors or biding my time at home hoping someone will knock.

My second full week of teaching was pretty cool, I genuinenly feel that I am getting better at this lark.... I hope by the time I'm done here in Korea, I'll have it down to a T... The best thing about this week was going to the Waterpark on Friday for the kids summer camp.

It was probably more enjoyable for the kids than for us teachers but still it was cool seeing them out of the classroom, although alot of them did seem pretty stunned by the whole occasion.

It is certainly the case with teaching English in Korea that you are used as something of a mascot for the school. I can't remember how many times I've been filmed or had my photo taken since I've been here and I imagine all of these photos end up in brochures for prospective students. I don't know about the videos...I've never asked.

In all honesty, it doesn't really bother me, I guess in some ways it's pretty flattering, it does add to the feeling of a being a celebrity over here.

Tuesday, 6 July 2010

six days in...

Korea is a pretty different country to back home, I guess that's obvious but until you get here or somewhere like here, you really have no idea how much.

In Uijeongbu.. behemoth towers soaked in neon consume the skyline, everything here is neon, the hospital is marked with a big neon green cross, red crucifixs dot the skyline, shop fronts, adverts anything you can think of presented in bright lights.

The church situation here is like something from a Damian Hirst exhibition, there is one church I pass on the way to work that has a giant neon cross and underneath is a video screen reminiscent of the small animation screens you come across when playing on a pinball table.

The video has the face of Jesus moving up and down, it looks so cool and in Korea it is done without a hint of irony, it has to be...there are too many of these things...these steel neon churches, like something from the scorched earth of a 2000ad comic.

The other thing about the buildings here are the contents of them, the commercial buildings are numbers of stores topped upon each other... a gym on top of a vets, a bar on top of an ESL school (these are true btw) I guess it's symptomatic of a place where 49 million people are stuffed into a country the size of portugal.

So I went out on the weekend, me, a dude called Diego and his girlfreind Melissa went to a Samgyeopsal place near home. Samgyeopsal is worth checking out on the internet for a fairer description but basically everyone shares this hot plate and cooks bacon on it, then you wrap it in a lettuce leaf and eat it with garlic and sauce.

Following the samgyeopsal we went to a german bar, there I met a few of the fellow waygooks (foreigners) living in Uijeongbu, they were all pretty cool and welcoming, the german bar was ace, we watched Brazil's demise to the Netherlands and then moved out into the street.

You can drink pretty freely in the street here, on the weekend alot of young people pick up a few bottles of cass (Korean beer) from the nearby family mart and sit on a bench drinking into the early hours...there's never any violence or social problem here...never anyand ean violence (I've heard things about the military) or social problem anyway.

Saturday was spent at a big bbq on top of the roof of a giant building in a place called nabu, I met a heck of a lot of people and drank into the night with them. Later on we went to a noraebang...noraebang is a korean karaoke room...although I normally enjoy a warble on the old karaoke mic... karaoke is always best enjoyed when people are a little nervous coming to the mic to sing rather than 8 people doing it at once three sheets to the wind... I was pretty fed up listening to some of my favourites being butchered all evening.

On Sunday night I got the news that my grandfather died which was pretty gash, it did make work difficult on Monday morning. I don't really want to say too much about it here but it was a very sad bit of news and I wish I could have been at home for my immediate family.

Summer vacation is coming soon here and I'm looking forward to doing some travelling but I don't know where and who with yet... watch this space...more updates soon.

Tuesday, 29 June 2010

Two days in....

If I'm being totally honest here, I nearly didn't even go. Kneeling on my suitcase I wondered whether I really wanted to throw myself in to this but then I thought about all the goodbyes and goodlucks and I thought about facing those people on Monday morning and also facing myself knowing that I'd bottled it.

I reassured myself that if I hated being an English teacher in South Korea I could always comfort myself with the fact that I could come home and I wasn't being held at gun point. Sounds pretty negative doesn't it? It's amazing how fear can grip you... My family were very understanding and evantually we headed to Gatwick.

The flight from Gatwick to Seoul took 16 hours with a stopover in Dubai, I have to say despite the length of the journey, the flight was pretty enjoyable.. I would defintley recommend them. I watched Lovely Bones, Diary of a wimpy kid and a some of Shutter Island... The food was pretty decent n'all.... Curried chicken with rice defintley being a highlight.

One thing I will add to my comments about the flight..was the stop over in Dubai, although I was only in transit I got to experience the heat of the place! We arrived in Dubai at midnight and the tempreature was 35 degrees! 35 degrees at night!

Coming off the plane I thought someone was burning excess aviation fuel in my face, the heat in that country is cripppling..just getting a bus to the arrivals area was a nightmare..however as one might expect the airport has some pretty fine air conditioning... Dubai airport was pretty awesome

you get a sense of that country's ambition just walking through the duty free... Giant water fountains...fine dining on the top floor of the airport overseeing the country.

After 7 maybe 8 more hours of flying..which was spent looking at the Gps and saying to myself every hour ( I've just flown out of Europe..that's mental...I've just flown over India...that's mental...I've just flown over China that's mental). I arrived in South Korea... As I stepped out of the gate I looked at loads of Koreans waving badly spelt western names...ace I thought...where's mine? I realised I had walked out from the wrong gate but it was only a short walk.... I managed to see a guy with my name on his sign walking away from the gate...I ran up to him and smiled expecting a warm welcome but all I got was "this way this way" we ran to a counter where he bought me a bus ticket..he threw me on the bus (sort of) and then tucked my luggage underneath the bus. "erm...where I am going?" I asked, he looked pretty confused and then said to the bus driver something in Korean. I'm no Korean speaker but I imagine it was along the lines of "can you just let him know" so off we went...on the road to god know's where...uijeoubong city hall.

I stuck on my i-pod and took in the sights... it was weird how unafraid I felt..the buzz of being in such an alien place just takes over, you take in so much stuff to... even the bus ticket you hold in your hand is interesting..written in this bizzare's like being a child again everything is new...everything is different.

I got dropped off at the bus stop and asked the driver where I was going or what was happening...he just shyed away...obviously not knowing a lick of English. There I was at a bus idea where to go or what was happening...I thought about walking into the city...walking back to the airport! Then a people carrier screeched by the bus stop and Mr.Chun asked if I was "tomasu"... thank fuck.Yes. Yes I am.

We threw my luggage into the back of his car, I was lucky enough to meet his cousin Christopher who was about 7 years old and adorable..he told me how he wanted to visit london and how he was sad that England were out of the world cup...all in pretty good English by the way.I met Mr.Kim and then we drove down to my apartment.... My current living quarters is in an old school...It's on the 6th floor of my neighbours are an office called robatech... no I'm not just picking out random words...when I get up to use the toilet I walk past the reception..I have three toilets to choose from and all the other rooms are locked classrooms. Signs like "a job well begun is half done" and "where there's a will, there's a way" are still on the walls. My first room was a shit hole... It obviously used to be a staff kitchen...the air conditioning didn't work and there were no sockets. It was bloody awful... I stayed a night with no sleep and then went for my medical in the morning.

I met two new English teachers.. a couple of yanks and then we went to get checked out and stuff...It was pretty interesting being in a korean hospital... there were a few funny things that happened... probably the funniest was having to take a piss test..and when Mr.Chun saw my urine test he said "ahh so many water"...or getting our forms back and for some reason they all had HIV written on them in red pen!

That day I went to ECC English to meet the children, the 12 little rugrats I will be teaching this year are Davinci who are followed by a couple of elementary classes, I have to say the English of 5 year old Korean kids is pretty impressive as is their behaviour. Sometimes they get a little restless but its normally because they find the work a little easy!

You'd imagine that if the 5 year olds were impressive the 10 year olds would be fluent but sadly that doesn't seem to be the case... I've only been at ECC two days but it seems to me that reading and comprehension only gets them so far... They can all read any sentence and can pick out loads of words but conversationally the 10 year olds talk like 5 year olds or vice versa.

So I start teaching today and I'm a little nervous, it's not so much the kids, I think the longer I know them the easier this will be but the schedule might take a little bit of getting used to. I kinda wished I had longer to go over it but hopefully it should be ok...I'm pretty good at blagging and improvising.... hopefully that will not have to be used.

The food here so far has been pretty good although I haven't really done the whole eating out thing yet.. Because I'm not moving to my new place for another like 5 days I'm a little out of the loop with the foreign teachers...the ones I've met have been sweet as but I don't live near them and I don't have a phone I work and then go home at the moment but to be honest I think that might change Friday...Could well be the case that everyone's just going home until the weekend.