Thursday, 23 December 2010

Korean Culture Seminar

Last week Tom mentioned that our boss said we had to go to Suncheon (the nearest big city, about thirty minutes' drive away) on the 23rd for some kind of seminar. Earlier this week, I brought it up and tried absolutely refusing to go - it's our free time, and it's two days before Christmas - and ended up having a slight argument with the boss. Apparently it (whatever 'it' is) is now a legal requirement for foreign teachers in South Korea.

This morning, we got up early and were picked up by the boss's husband at 8.50, along with some other foreign teachers, and went to Suncheon. The seminar was at the university - other than that, all I knew is that there were going to be two hundred English teachers there, and there was going to be a lecture.

We arrived, and yes, there were some other foreigners there. We stood in a higgledy-piggledy 'queue' of sorts for a while before the boss's husband made us skip the queue - the other foreigners were judging us! It was really embarrassing! There was a piece of paper with lists of schools and each school's teachers, and we had to sign our name. Someone knocked me while I was signing so it just ended up as a squiggle. No one looked at me or anything. Anyone could have signed against my name.

Then we were given a booklet and ushered into a lecture hall. We sat down, and I brought out my knitting - after all, I was attending under protest and wanted to make that as clear as possible. After a loooong wait, while a 'photographer' (read: guy with a camera) took many photos of the audience, the shockingly uncharismatic leader of the seminar came out and spoke into a microphone. Everyone ignored him. Eventually he managed to get some attention, and did the odious thing of repeating "Good morning!" until he felt that enough people had shouted it back at him. Ugh.

After some speaking, which I didn't bother listening to (and during which the photographer got a picture of our row, which included my knitting and several people looking very bored and/or asleep), there was a 'cultural performance'. Seven women in traditional Korean dress played traditional Korean instruments and sang a traditional Korean song. It was quite nice, although they weren't very good, and it went on for ages.

When they finished, the uncharismatic speaker said "in Korean we say encore! It's a Korean word!" and tried to encourage the audience to repeat after him. Well, first of all, it's blatantly not a Korean word, and secondly, some of the more persuadable members of the audience did repeat him and unfortunately the singers took them seriously. And played the same song again. I was making snarky jokes about having deja vu and getting my book out, because seriously.

The singers had apparently finished too early - while we waited for the main lecturer to show, someone decided to take it upon themselves to read out the booklet we'd been given. One of the first things she said was "on page six, there is a list of some cultural differences that might arise between foreign teachers and their students." Page six is headed 'Act on the Protection of Children and Juveniles from Sexual Abuse'.

She went on: "you might think your students are cute, but don't pet them" was particularly interesting. And then she just continued reading from the booklet. Apparently we can't exhibit our students' physical deformities for profits or entertainment - rubbish! I think there was a pretty big translation mistake because juveniles also aren't allowed to "deliver the teas, etc. deviating from a place of business which mainly prepares and sells the teas, etc., or promoting or tolerating it." Juveniles can't tolerate tea businesses? What does that even mean? I guess that maybe a 'teahouse' is used as a euphemism for a brothel and there was some misunderstanding there, but still, come on.

She finished speaking. We were still pretty much in shock. The lecturer appeared to have arrived, but he was talking to the presenters off-microphone - I joked to Tom that he was trying to get out of doing the lecture. Eventually the presenters returned to the mike and said "please understand, this is the first time we've done this. The seminar is over."

The lecturer had gotten out of doing the lecture.

Now we really were in shock.

We left, were showered with sweets, promptly got separated from our boss's husband, hung around for a bit, and then were driven home. We were told the seminar would last from 9.30 till 12. It lasted from 10 till 10.35.

I understand that a sexual abuse seminar for teachers is a good thing. But it was patently ridiculous. They should have sent letters out to the individual bosses and we could have had in-school lectures rather than the complete rubbish which went on. We're definitely planning on being well out of this country by the time this rolls around next year.

Sunday, 19 December 2010

6 Days Until Christmas!

Since the surgery, we've both had a nice week. With not much time left until Christmas, we've been in a frenzy of ordering things (in Tom's case) and knitting things (in mine), and I'm pleased to announce that I only have a few more inches of knitting to go. I might possibly have to rip back a finished sock and re-knit the top of it - I ran out of yarn on the second sock so had to make that one about an inch shorter - but I might conveniently 'forget' that socks are meant to be the same length. I'm not decided on that one yet.

I've been having a much better time with my classes - Tuesday and Thursday are guaranteed to be good days, because all of my students are lovely, and I'm now dealing much better with my Wednesday and Friday problem students than before. I'm lucky in that my kids who 'act out' generally only go so far. If I let them talk in a stupid voice or spend two minutes acting out how sausages are made (including sound effects), then at least they'll speak English and join in with the class. Tom, unfortunately, can't allow that because his students will take an inch and run with it. I wonder why: there are several differences, such as my students are generally from wealthier families, spend more time together (each class is at school together, and possibly in other academies together)... I'm not sure.

The major events of this week were that both Tom and I went out, individually, with an adult student.

Tom went to a 'hof' (which we've been told means 'bar') with a male student on Thursday, as theirs was the last class of the day. I can't tell the full story here as I wasn't there at the time - I just know that Tom came home tipsy with 'shock' (also quite a lot of beer). The waitress had stayed with them, drinking herself, fawning over them, and when he saw the bill it was obvious that they were paying for the privilege of her company! Given that this student has a wife, Tom was disturbed by both the woman's obsequious behaviour (I like to think that obsequious behaviour is something he would never expect from me) and how much his student enjoyed it. He drank as quickly as he could so that they would leave sooner (!) - and was glad to turn down the offer of dinner because he knew I was cooking at home. What annoys me is that the waitress and his student responded by complimenting him on what a good girlfriend I was - aaaaargh. Poor Tom.


On Friday one of my students invited me to go for coffee with her friends. She and the other student in that class have already taken me out for lunch at a very nice, cutesy, Cath Kidston-esque Italian restaurant - I went back there with Tom last weekend and on the way we saw this wonderfully named cafe on the right - so I was looking forward to it.

My student took me, with her two best friends from high school and her daughter, to a very nice coffee place downtown. I've met her daughter a couple of times before - she's about seven (I hate Korean ages, they're ridiculous), and has come with her mother to class when she's been unwell, and I've provided her with colouring pencils and tissue. Combined with the fact that I'm white, and this little girl is in awe of me. She draws pictures of me (her mother is an art teacher), and I often get updates in class along the lines of "my daughter misses you!" It's very sweet. After what happened at the hospital, with a stranger trying to initiate a conversation with me moments after I came out of surgery, I've gotten more and more annoyed with people constantly staring at me, and shouting at me in the street, and generally treating me like some kind of circus freak - but my student's daughter I still have some patience for!

Anyway, we went on to a seafood restaurant and oh my god. Four things are important.

1. I ate raw seafood. A lot of it. It was good!
2. Korean meals are huge. There was so much food... and then the waitress took away the remains... and brought another whole fish out for us. I was the only one who hadn't eaten that afternoon/evening and I simply could not match the amount of food they were putting away. It was astounding.
3. The seven year old was eating clams from the shell, and picking apart crab legs, and eating raw cuttlefish, and so on and so on. I know she was brought up like that, but it was amazing to see a child eating fish that wasn't covered in breadcrumbs!
4. I nearly ate something and then they told me it was alive so I didn't eat it. Urgh.

I had a really lovely evening, although when I got home Tom complained that I stank of fish. Understandable, really.

Today we're hoping to go back downtown because the Christmas lights are now up! We went to see them last week but there was nothing, apart from a few (unlit) bulbs on a couple of trees - but on Friday my student's friend drove past them and there were lots of Christmas lights everywhere. It was very exciting. Pictures will hopefully be forthcoming.

Korean Surgery

So last week we ended up not going to the Namhae Hilton, which wasn't a huge surprise given how things seem to work around here! We've been told 'maybe around New Year' but no one's holding their breath.

My hospitalization went well, as did my recovery - the whole experience was more traumatic than painful or risky or anything. Unfortunately, the moment I stopped taking the various medications I was on to prevent an infection, I started to develop another bad cold. I'm very angry at whichever student it was who gave me this cold, and I fully intend on punishing them for it!

This is an email I sent to my parents on the day of the surgery, if anyone's interested in what it's like to have surgery in a country where you don't speak the language, or quite understand the culture, or have the same beliefs:

Saturday, 4 December 2010


I've been a little bit lax on the whole 'updating' side of things - not really for want of anything happening, because funnily enough it's been a fairly eventful couple of weeks!

Last Thursday (the 25th) was Thanksgiving in America, and as I am never one to ignore a holiday, especially when I have even the flimsiest of excuses to observe it (we lived in America last year!), we hosted Thanksgiving dinner on Saturday 27th. The day before, I had begun writing an entry for this - I had a bad head cold and felt horrific. It was like someone had stuffed my head with fibreglass, and my teaching that day sadly suffered. Luckily, by Saturday morning I felt much better, although I'm still recovering from some aspects of that cold now, a week later.

The cooking details of Thanksgiving can be found meticulously recorded here, here, here and here. We invited some of the other foreign teachers, all of whom are American, and are pleased to report that we cooked and served a somewhat-convincing Thanksgiving meal - despite the lack of turkey. And cranberries. And so on.

As usual, hosting Thanksgiving meant that we were Buying Things in Korea, and hence Mistakes Were Inevitable. Turkey was nowhere to be found, so we bought a duck, and then on the day decided that the duck was unlikely to be big enough so I returned to the butcher's, bought a smaller duck, stuffed it with a tangerine and an onion, cooked it for a few hours, and then realized it was a chicken. Thankfully that was the worst of our issues, which was almost surprising.

 The next day, we climbed a small mountain opposite Tom's school and took some photos of the city that has been our home for over two months now. The paths were fairly treacherous: I'm not known for my superior balance anyway, and the steepness combined with the mass of autumnal leaves on the ground meant that I was clinging to Tom for dear life most of the way.

The industrial nature of Gwangyang surrounded by the mountains was kind of spectacular, although Tom in particular couldn't decide whether it was horrifically ugly or not. We could see the bridge to Yeosu, which is meant to be completed by 2012, when there's some kind of expo here. (And Wikipedia says: something about Yeosu's Expo 2012 bid. Well, that makes things far clearer.) Tom says that bridge is named after a Korean general who fought the Japanese off from here. The bridge lights up at night - oddly, given that it's not in use - which is nonetheless very pretty.
At the top of the mountain is what we believe to be a war memorial. This tall, tower-like structure is the centrepiece; a couple of engravings at the bottom show men with guns, and some Korean writing. There are signs plastered all over the place saying "CCTV", although no one else was there. In fact, the whole mountain was strangely deserted, given that it was a sunny Sunday and (you would think) more people would be out for a walk.

The first part of this week was less fun, with various work issues. Another English academy in Gwangyang is closing, and my school is inheriting a couple of classes of students. Of course, any parent wants the best for their child, but my Korean co-teacher and I are reluctant about the whole thing. First of all, the students want to keep learning in the same way they did in the other school, so we're not allowed to use the books that form the E Bo Young curriculum. Nor are we allowed to have classes bigger than three students, although the actual school rules prohibit classes larger than nine. Secondly, the parents have been badmouthing many other English academies and teachers in the area, so we're worried about what might be said about us. Thirdly, this means that from next week I'll be working 2.40-9.10 without a break two days a week, which will rise to four days a week from January. The parents are paying more for all of these privileges, obviously, but none of this extra goes to the teachers.

My health has also suffered slightly, and on Friday I'll be in hospital to have some precancerous cervical cells removed. I'm psyching myself up to have my insides electrocuted by a doctor with whom I have no language overlap (not to be melodramatic or anything), but am pleased with the prospect of a day off, sitting in bed knitting. Recovery time is very short, so the next day we're off to Namhae Island, about one hour from here, to spend a weekend at the Hilton with the other foreign teachers.

This week, there has also been the start of December! And hence the start of Christmas celebrations in our home and schools. I made Tom an advent calendar after he woke up on the 1st distraught, and individually we've been doing Christmas crafts in our classrooms. I have five classes a day and have given each class a section of the wall which currently displays their Christmas work, but which from January will display anything I feel like. This is a picture of Class 2 and Class 3's work: class 2 did some colouring (they're about seven years old) and class 3 (about eleven years old) wrote letters to Santa.

We also made some snowflakes, and taped them on to the windows to prove that it does snow in Gwangyang! As you can see, Class 1 (aged six) were very busy with their proper work yesterday and didn't get to do any colouring or anything Christmassy. It was tragic.

We also decorated our apartment - yesterday we went to Home Plus and bought a Tesco Finest (!) Christmas tree. It's 150cm tall, and very wide, and (slightly peculiarly) came with fake cinnamon sticks, berries and pine cones attached.

We documented (almost) the entire process of decorating the tree on Facebook, but here are a few highlights:

 An empty space where the tree will go! We used to have a huge, ugly armchair here, which we have been fretting over for a couple of weeks now (where oh where can we put it to get rid of it?). In the end we have just dumped it unceremoniously on the balcony, justifying it by telling ourselves that we won't use the balcony in the winter. Except to dry clothes. And we can get those out there by climbing out of our bedroom window rather than using the living room door. Sorted.

 First thing to go on: lights!

 Tom adds some decorations.

 And I put the star on top. Incidentally, I also bought that jumper from Home Plus yesterday. Under 20,000 W (about 11 pounds) for a pure cashmere jumper! It's very soft. I'm happy.

And the final shot of the tree in all its glory. The lights have eight settings, and can do all kinds of amazing things. When I got home last night, I sat in the dark with the lights on and felt very Christmassy.

The tree feels very special because we earned the money to buy it. I'm perfectly happy knowing that each of us taught for one hour to buy that tree. Definitely one hour's work well spent.