Taekwondo? No can do.

Since I’ve been losing weight at a steady rate since I’ve been here, I decided now was the time to take up some form of regular exercise. I haven’t been actively trying to slim down, but it’s been slowly starting to happen anyway thanks to a combination of (a) my new Korean-style diet (steamed rice, fresh vegetables, no fried/fatty food), (b) not over-eating due to not wanting to look like a pig at a table where everyone shares food from communal plates, (c) not eating junk food due to it all being, well, crap, (d) keeping busy all day and most nights, and (e) teaching 8 music and drama classes a week, involving dance routines and much running around trying to keep order.

Anyway, I’ve always hated gyms and running, being the easily bored type. I need to be learning as well as exercising, so I enjoy dance classes, aerobic workouts, and kickboxing – anything that has a bit of variety and a series of moves to memorise. Recently a friend that has been going to a Waist Trainer Center has had great results, so I am gravitationg towards that. Combine this preference with the fact that I’m living in Korea and also the realisation (during a spot of Wii boxing) that I still have a worrying amount of anger and aggression bubbling away inside me, and you’ve got my new fitness effort: South Korea’s national sport and very own martial art, taekwondo.

A colleague phoned around and found a studio nearby that claims to have taught a foreigner once before. She took me there on Friday evening to be my interpreter as I registered, and tonight I found myself in my brand new uniform and white beginner’s belt, entering a class full of… children.

Well, think about it. There’s no such thing as an adult beginner class in Korea, because everyone here starts learning taekwondo as soon as they can walk. They’re crazy about it. Everywhere you go, you see people in their uniforms walking to and from their classes every night. The club assured me that at this particular class there would be adults, but it turns out that by “adults”, they just meant teenagers rather than elementary school children. And of course as soon as I walked in I was the centre of attention, being the awe-inspiring white girl. Children here fall to pieces when they meet a foreigner. The girls giggle and blush and whisper, and the boys nudge each other to try and make someone use one of their few English phrases.

Fortunately, I just had to do the stretches and warm-up with them, and was then taken into another room for private instruction. I have returned with mixed feelings. On the one hand, I think I could really love this sport if I stuck at it and got beyond the almost falling over as I try to kick a pad my instructor’s holding at shoulder height. It felt pretty damn good to punch and kick furiously like that, never mind the fact that you have to yell as you do it. Heheh.

However, I really don’t want to be in a children’s class. And I don’t want the private instruction – my self consciousness is still a little too great for that, and I just want to be an anonymous figure at the back of a class for a while until I get some sense of what I’m doing. But the main problem is the total language barrier. My instructor is lovely – the same age as me, warm, and friendly – but he speaks next to no English. My knowledge of Korean is at roughly the same level as his knowledge of English. Maybe higher, in fact, now that I know a variety of TKD commands like “kick”, “punch”, “attention”, “yell” and something that may or may not be “try not to kick me this time”.

If he really did teach a foreigner before, that foreigner must have known a lot more Korean than me, because he didn’t seem to know what to do with me. Several times he just stopped and gazed at me as if desperately searching for words that I would understand, and we could only communicate by me copying the moves he showed me. He couldn’t explain anything, and I couldn’t ask anything. It was frustrating. So I kicked and screamed a bit more. :)

Anyway, I’m now pondering what to do. Stick at it despite how uncomfortable I am with the kids’ class/private instruction set-up,and see if we overcome the language difficulties? I’m not sure that I’d be happy with that. Leave and concentrate on my language lessons, and return when I can speak better Korean? Search for another class especially for foreign ESL teachers (surely there’s bound to be such a thing)?

Nothing’s simple. And my simmering frustration with living in a country where I can’t communicate in the most basic situations is nearing boiling-over point now that I badly want to be able to do something and am being held back by the language barrier. I think it’s a gym and Korean lessons for now… sigh.

Eating innards

It’s been a while since I blogged about food. Expect it to be a recurring theme.

I’m slowly but surely getting the hang of what things are in the supermarket. The only way that I have been able to do this is by just taking a guess at what something is based on its packaging and its location in the store, and then buying it, eating it, and seeing how far wrong I was. Sometimes, I end up eating something delicious as a result. I have become a huge fan of ramen, for example. The closest thing we have to this in NI is probably instant noodles (“Supernoodles”), but ramen is so, so much better – close to the flavour and texture of noodles you’d get in a decent restaurant. A supermarket’s ramen selection takes up at least one whole aisle, with dozens of different flavours, multipacks, special individual “luxury” packs with added meats and vegetables… I’m cheerfully working my way through them all. I can’t tell you what eating ramen every night has done for my chopsticks abilities.

Sometimes, on the other hand, I end up eating something that bears no resemblance to my original guess. This can be a pleasant surprise, or a very, very bad thing. I found what I thought was a packet of cheese puff crisps (I was thinking Wotsits), and they turned out to be exactly what I thought, but with a strip of sugar icing on top of each one. I didn’t finish the packet!

The other morning, having overslept and not had time for breakfast, I grabbed what I thought was a bread roll on my way to work. On biting into it, I found this:

Who knows?

In restaurants, it’s not quite so bad, because I don’t go to them alone. And whoever I go with is always Korean, and able to pick something out for me, or Alex, who has been here for long enough to know what’s what. So far, every restaurant meal has been amazing – until tonight, that is. Tonight, I finally gave in to Alex’s request that we try some of Korea’s trademark fresh seafood. Seafood restaurants far outnumber all the other restaurants here, and they’re meant to be really good… if you like that sort of thing.

I don’t. The only seafood I really enjoy is sushi (and sashimi), because it’s completely different. It doesn’t have that ‘fishy’ taste that has never appealed to me, and its texture is very different from cooked fish. Still, I said when I came here that I was going to be adventurous and try every food I was offered as long as it was definitely dead, so into the nearest seafood restaurant we went.

We removed our shoes and sat down cross-legged on our floor cushions, and Alex ordered the mixed spicy seafood platter. As with most meals here, it arrived in a large dish which was set in the middle of the table for us to share. I looked dubiously at it.

In amongst all the beansprouts and lemongrass (those weren’t noodles, disappointingly) were all manner of things I would normally never consider calling dinner. Oysters, clams, hacked-up bits of crab and lobster, huge shrimps, and a whole octopus which the waitress cut into pieces for us using scissors just before I took the picture. It was all mixed up in a spicy tomato sauce. And it was horrible.

I tried everything, true to my word. I ate octopus tentactles, I ate things that I had to suck out of shells, I ate something that had an eye. What is this? I asked cautiously, holding up a curly mass of white flesh and tendons and inspecting it from all angles. Alex considered my question. I’ll tell you once you’ve eaten it, he said diplomatically. I ate it, but only on the condition that he never, ever tells me what it was. It was alright, by which I mean that it didn’t make me gag. That’s more than can be said for the small grey thing I ate. It looked a little bit like a brain, and I wouldn’t rule out the possibility that it actually was one. I put it in my mouth, bit into it, and discovered that it was filled with a vile-tasting liquid that oozed out like pus, filling my mouth and traumatising my tastebuds. With great concentration of the “this is a mushroom, just a mushroom” variety, I managed to chew frantically and swallow it, but even three shots of soju in rapid succession failed to take the taste out of my mouth.

Never again. I have tried, and I have failed. My stomach is still churning. Korean seafood is not for me.

Noise pollution, or natural behaviour?

I blogged before about how some things that would be considered rude in our culture are not considered to be so in Korean culture. Asking personal questions, being just a little too honest, eating with your mouth open…

But while I’ve quickly adapted to this and am no longer startled by such behaviour, one thing continues to trouble and disgust me – and I don’t see myself changing my mind about it.

Have you ever been walking along the street behind someone – and I don’t mean to sound sexist when I say that (in my experience, at least) it is always, always a man – and witnessed them clearing their throat in a very loud and obvious manner? If you’re eating something now and easily put off your food, you should probably stop reading, by the way.

Americans call it “hocking up a loogy”. I’m actually not entirely sure what we Northern Irish call it. All I know is that when someone makes that loud sound in the back of their throat and then proceeds to spit the resulting mucus on to the ground, it makes me want to throw up and punch them. Probably in that order. It is absolutely disgusting. And in Northern Ireland, that’s the general opinion. If someone does this in public, there will almost certainly be at least one person who shoots them a poisonous, disgusted glare, or who turns away with a sick expression on their face and mutters to a friend.

I have always hated this behaviour. If you must do it, go somewhere private so that the rest of us don’t have to be repulsed by the noise and sight of your sinus contents being expelled. To me, it is rude, stomach-churning, and utterly anti-social behaviour.

Unfortunately, I now live in a country where it’s apparently not frowned upon at all. In NI, people certainly did it, but it was widely considered to be lout-like behaviour. Those who did it would always be on the receiving end of a revolted stare. But in Korea? It’s no different from blowing your nose, sneezing, or scratching your head.  And it’s everywhere. In the halls of my apartment building, I hear the sound of hocking echoing day in and day out. In the streets outside, the sound drifts up and enters through my window. As I walk around, I see and hear men clearing their sinuses as often as I see them talking on the phone or crossing the road.

At first, I was horrified. It wasn’t just the odd one here and there, it was constant. It is constant. I’m not exactly surprised that Korean men have so much unnecessary gunk in their throats, since chain-smoking is all the rage here, but I continue to be bewildered by how no one else can find this method of getting rid of it as disgusting as I do. I try to refrain from shooting them the repulsed glare that I habitually direct at anyone who does this at home, since it’s clearly socially acceptable behaviour here, but inside, I am still every bit as eager to give them a piece of my mind. And yet no one else bats an eyelid. Men walk along with their girlfriends, perform their loud throat/nose exercises mid-conversation, and then continue talking – and the girls don’t flinch.

What’s your opinion? Am I wrong to find this so disgusting? I mean, when you think about it, it’s not much different from blowing your nose in public, and we don’t condemn that. And yet I find this to be very, very different. Why should the two provoke such different reactions? And is this a cultural difference that I should be as keen to accept as I try to be with all the others? Why is it that I (and all the other foreigners I know here) find it sickening, and yet natives don’t seem bothered by it? Why should it produce a different physical and mental response in us just because we’re from different countries? If it’s just a natural action that should cause no offence, then why do men here do it so openly and so often, and yet women never do? And lastly, would it be wrong of me to use my newly-learned Korean swearwords to swear at someone for doing it just as I’m taking my first bite of my galbi in a restaurant?

These are the questions that weigh on my mind.

We don’t speak the same language.

I still haven’t worked out whether it’s the language barrier or just a completely different style of communication, but I now have more misunderstandings in one day than I used to have in a month.

Even when you think you’ve been completely clear, and that there’s no way you’re taking the other person up wrong, there’s a misunderstanding. Even when you rephrase your question  half a dozen different ways, or double check that you understand what the other person is really asking you before you answer, there’s a misunderstanding. Even when you think that there’s absolutely no way a particular situation could be in the slightest bit complicated, there’s a misunderstanding.

Jennifer, there’s a subway station at Daejeon Train Station, isn’t there? I asked my boss this evening as I put on my coat in the school entrance hall. Yes, she nodded, pausing at the door with her keys in her hand. And it’s pronounced “Daejeon yawk”, right? I checked. She nodded again. It was one of our most uncomplicated and crystal clear exchanges to date. And to get there, the nearest subway station for me is at Lotte, isn’t it? She thought for a moment and then nodded again. Yes, you walk to Lotte, get subway to Daejeon Station. You know way to Lotte?

I paused, wondering whether I had the energy to complicate things, but decided that I might as well make the effort to endure another misunderstanding for the sake of not getting lost on the way to the subway station at Lotte. I think so… I said dubiously, but can you point me in the right direction?

I take you now, come! she said, ushering me towards her car. No, no, thank you, but I’m not going now, I replied hurriedly. And there it was. Somehow it was becoming a misunderstanding. She looked puzzled. Not now, later! I explained. Lay-ter. Meeting friend. Later. Not now. I always resort to very short sentences at this point, but I really don’t think it helps.

But hang on, what was this? She was nodding. Did she understand? Were we communicating sans errors? I hardly dared to hope so, but Jennifer was gesturing towards the car. I drive past there, she said. Ah! I said gratefully, you’ll show me where it is? She nodded and got into the car, and I followed happily.

I was slightly surprised when she didn’t head down the road that I knew to be the start of my journey to Lotte. I was even more surprised when she drove me in the direction of my apartment. Perhaps she was going to show me how to get to Lotte from my apartment, though, because she knows how clueless I am about directions? I decided that this must be the case. Which is why I was utterly baffled when she pulled up outside the apartment and said, Good evening, see you tomorrow! I got out in a daze and watched with feelings too difficult to express as she drove off (in the direction of Lotte).

I’m heading out to find the subway station now.

I c-an r-ead Kor-e-an

I’ve finally gotten around to making a serious effort to learn Korean.

What with one thing and another (Swine Flu, parties, all-day meals, difficulties with the air here that make my nose bleed and cause me to feel generally urgh), I still haven’t made it to a lesson. But having talked to a few people who have, I’ve decided that I have to teach myself as much as possible first. The first week, the teacher spoke in English, said one guy last weekend, but after that, it was all in Korean. Now I know how the kids at school feel when we talk English all the time.

The main difficulty is the completely different alphabet. If I’m going to be receiving class handouts written in Hangul, they won’t be much use to me unless I know how to read them. Seeing a vocabulary word written in Hangul will mean nothing to me if I can’t read it and know how it’s pronounced. And so I have embarked on an internet course to learn the basics before I venture into a class where I have the potential to look like a complete idiot.

Now, many people, like me, would probably freak out when confronted with words written in Hangul. 안녕하세요!* You glance at that and you see a bunch of meaningless symbols . The thought of ever being able to read them, never mind write them, is impossible. This is exactly how I have been feeling until now – but all has become clear. (* It’s “Hello”, by the way. “An-nyeoung-hah-seh-yo!”.)

It’s not a system of individual characters for individual words that you have to memorise, like in Japanese or Chinese languages, for example. It really is just a different alphabet. You don’t have different symbols for every word – you put the words together from the same selection of symbols every time, just like in English. This has made the whole thing a lot less daunting, particularly when I studied it closely enough to see all the patterns and connections.

And you know what? It makes an awful lot more sense than our alphabet. The character means what it means, and isn’t pronounced about a dozen different ways depending on the word that it happens to be in. I realised today that when I encountered new words, I couldn’t master the pronunciation until I saw them written down in Hangul rather than in their romanised form – mainly because the sounds in our alphabet vary so much. You only have to look at this poem for proof of that! I’ve caught myself struggling a few times with the romanised forms, where they spell out each syllable in letters with which I’m more familiar, and yet only when I look at the Hangul can I clarify whether that sound is, say, “aw” or “oh”.

I can only do it syllable by syllable, like a small child reading with their finger following every letter, but I can do it. I can read again! It’s incredibly liberating, even if I still haven’t a clue what most of the things I’m reading actually mean. And so I’m walking along the streets banging into lampposts because I’m staring so intently at a two-word sign on a shop door, sounding it out bit by bit. I’m sitting in restaurants reading every item on the menu board. I’m spending a whole hour after work reading the supermarket flyer that was stuck to my door when I got home. I get so ridiculously excited when I discover a word that I actually know the meaning of, or that’s just an English word written in Korean characters.

안녕하세요, 제 이름은 헤 리 입니다.

That says “annyeounghahsehyo, jay ireumeun hayley imnida”. Or, yes, “hello, my name is Hayley”. I believe it may even be grammatically correct. And I wrote that all by myself! Excuse my childish excitement. Even my 6-year-old students are excitedly saying “yayyyyyyy Hayley Teacha!” when I say or read something correctly in Korean. :) I may be prematurely turning 30 on New Year’s Day (no, I hadn’t forgotten that cheerful fact), but I am a primary school child at heart. Long may it last!

Get A Room!

I was going to write a post all about Korea’s noraebangs, but last night I discovered something even better.

Noraebangs (literally meaning “song rooms”) are ubiquitous in Korea, and a truly wonderful concept for anyone who’s ever been kicked out of a bar for refusing to heed staff requests to stop singing. Yes, they are karaoke venues, and there’s one on practically every street corner – often more than one. It is very easy to leave a bar at any time of the night or day and dance merrily into a noraebang without walking more than a few feet. You go in, you pay, you buy some drinks if you wish, and then you’re shown into your own private room with sofas, a table, screens, disco lights, microphones, tambourines, and a karaoke song book. Sing away to your heart’s content, safe in the knowledge that no matter how bad you are or how crap your taste in music is, you’re not annoying anyone other than your friends. Hurrah! And because there’s no bar audience to applaud your efforts, the machine will even score you for your attempt after each song.

My two soju-drinking nights out so far (now that I’ve recovered from all illnesses and commenced a social life) have somehow ended up in a noraebang, dancing wildly under a colourful disco ball, singing tunelessly, and playing the tambourine. I’ve found that the privacy element means that everyone in the group will sing, dance, and be silly – even those you know wouldn’t dream of doing it in a public karaoke bar. I love it.

But last night, after a quieter, civilised, soju-free meal at a Vietnamese restaurant downtown, I found myself in the sober person’s alternative to the noraebang. Described as a “multimedia café”, it’s called Smile, and it’s basically a place to come and hang out with your friends. It’s a great idea for young Korean adults, in particular, who generally live with their parents until they get married. A place like Smile gives them a bit of space to be with their friends and do their own thing. It’s also great for foreign teachers like us, who live in tiny one-room apartments and can’t have more than one or two visitors.

We went in and paid for a room, noraebang-style. The rooms come in different sizes – there were eight of us, but there are smaller rooms (and possibly larger ones) too. Then we picked some things to do from the communal area, which reminded me slightly of a hostel lounge. It had shelves full of computer games and DVDs, board games, and books, as well as a clean and bright kitchen area where you could help yourself to free popcorn and snacks, or buy cheap soft drinks.

Then we went into our room (which is priced by the hour, and worked out at about maybe a couple of pounds per person per hour), which was a cheerful little space with low foam sofa-mats and a coffee table, a big screen, a Nintendo Wii, a PS2, a DVD player, a karaoke machine (and tambourines, of course!), optional disco ball lighting for the karaoke, and lots of cute homely touches like a bright, furry ladybird rug, a giant teddy bear, and the bright “smile” design made from coloured plastic balls on the wall.

It was a lovely way to pass the night with a new group of friends. We played Wii sports games (and I surprised everyone by being unbeatable at boxing, even against the cocky guys, despite losing at every other game I’ve played since coming here. It seems I have a lot of stored-up anger and aggression. ;) The thumping and punching and beating felt extremely theraputic!) and Mario games, we ate popcorn, we drank some weird-flavoured Korean soda drinks, we lounged around chatting on piles of cushions, we sang some karaoke songs, we laughed a lot. Before we knew it, it was 2 in the morning. So we, erm, went to McDonalds for bedtime snacks.

I have to say, it really is fun to have a social life again. And in Korea, there are so many things to do with friends that a social life can be more than just drinking. I can’t wait to see what the next entertainment will be!

Guys and Dolls

The other day, I was waiting in the media room at school for my movie class to start. I say class, but what it involves is sitting with a dozen children and watching half an hour of a Disney movie. Every week. Twice in one day. Love My Job.

Anyway, my class hadn’t turned up because they were still in the gym listening to a talk by a visiting speaker. The media room windows look into the gym, so I sat down on an infant-sized chair and peered in to see what was happening.

I saw a woman with dolls on the stage. I couldn’t understand anything she was saying, of course, or read any of the colourful signs she held up, but the kids seemed spellbound. I listened as carefully as I could, but I was only able to recognise a word here and there… mummy, daddy, love, tummy, baby… hmm… hang on… yes, this was a sex education talk. To five- and six-year-olds. I was instantly as attentive as the children.

First of all, I didn’t receive a sex education class until I was 12 or 13. And by then, we already knew everything anyway, but from all the wrong sources – TV, movies, teen magazines, playground chatter, the problem pages of our grannies’ Take A Breaks. No one had ever ‘officially’ spoken to us about sex, so when we became aware of it, we logically assumed that it must be this really bad thing – otherwise why would the grown-ups of the world have kept it hidden from us? It was obviously bad, dirty, wrong, taboo. Sex education classes were both embarrassing and hilarious. We knew that this was a horrible, dirty subject, and here was a respectable teacher talking to us about it! We giggled every time she said ‘penis’, and she looked uncomfortable as she stumbled through the lesson.

Secondly, our eventual sex education only covered the topic from a strictly biological viewpoint. It described the physical act for the purpose of procreation. And they threw in a sentence about using condoms to prevent pregnancy. And that was that. I was left wondering why on earth anyone would engage in such an activity unless they really, really wanted to have a baby. It sounded unnatural, embarrassing, and mechanical. Why on earth would you do it and use something that would prevent it from doing the very thing that it was intended to do? And yet I can just see the Head’s face if someone had suggested teaching about the concept of sex as a pleasurable and/or emotional activity, an act of love.

Anyway, here I was watching a bunch of children who can’t even blow their own noses listening to a sex education talk, with visual aids, which described not only the physical process, but also the connection to love, attraction, pleasure, and even the more unpleasant aspects, like sexual abuse. Just shows you how well done it was when I managed to follow all that without understanding the language of the talk!

Beware flashers!

I’m very impressed. The children aren’t really old enough to have heard about sex from anywhere else and formed opinions like the ones my friends and I had by the time we were 12. To them, it’s not something to be embarrassed or giggly about. It’s not taboo, it’s not dirty, it’s not a secret. They’re being taught it as a new topic, and in an informal, child-friendly way that doesn’t bombard them with biological terms without explanations. Hopefully, sex will never have the mysterious, secretive, shrouded-in-mystery image that it seems to have for children in the west. It will just be a fact of life, and one that can be discussed as openly as maths homework or favourite foods.

Yes, I’m impressed – now that I’ve had time to think about it. As I watched the talk, however, I was just helpless with laughter. All those tiny little figures seated on the floor, watching as a woman stripped some cute-looking but anatomically accurate dolls of their clothes and pointed out all their parts – pubic hair and all! – before showing exactly what happens on the wedding night. I nearly fell off my chair at this point. It was like a weird cartoon sex show (plus I could see the reactions of the shy lady Korean teachers in the gym).

By the time the girl doll gave birth to a baby doll, I had forgotten all about my Disney movie!