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!

More than one claw in this game.

I was walking down the street last night after a post-work detour to the market, and taking in all the sights and sounds that are still very much an exciting new experience for me. The street vendors yelling loudly about their cakes and fast food; the restaurants with their huge tanks of fish outside; the overwhelming array of neon lights and signs; the elderly, straw-hatted men with hand carts; the old women sitting on mats shelling peas; the leaves falling like yellow and red snow from the trees.

I passed some vending machines on the street, which is very common. I hadn’t paid much attention to these particular ones before, simply because they’re everywhere here, stocked with everything from canned coffee and cereal bars to Hello Kitty merchandise and electronics. But I was somewhat startled when something moving caught my eye as I walked past. I stopped to investigate, and realised that it was one of those arcade games with the robotic arm – you know, the ones where you press the arrows to position the claw above a prize, hit the button, and watch anxiously as the arm descends and the claw closes over that teddy bear only to drop it at the last moment as it rises again.

But this machine was not filled with oversized cuddly toys. No, it was filled with lobsters. Live lobsters. Just sitting there in a shallow layer of water at the bottom, waiting for someone to try their luck at the game.

Lobster game

I mean, what the heck would you do if you won a live lobster?! I asked Alex later when I was telling him about it. How would you carry it home? Would you try to brain it against the wall first so that it wouldn’t get away? Would you get a leash and walk it home?

Maybe you’d just go into the market and ask one of the fish stall guys for some kind of live food container, suggested Alex.

But… but… what about the poor lobsters? I asked in some distress. Sitting there in an arcade machine all day and all night. Does anyone feed them? And won’t it be awful for them, seeing a big metal arm descending from above, and having it pick them up and drop them down a chute?

Alex pondered this. I dunno, he concluded, I mean, those things are gonna struggle. You’re even less likely to win one than you are with the cuddly toys. I reckon it’s a surefire money-making scheme for the machine owners. They’ll never have to pay out, they’ll just collect the money.

I sniffed disapprovingly. What sort of person is actually going to play that game, though? I asked dismissively.

He raised an eyebrow at me. Look, seriously, who are you kidding? You know perfectly well you’re going to try to win a live lobster before you’re here very much longer, he said with the air of One Who Knows.

Damn. I hate that he’s probably right.

(But I’d keep it as a pet.)

The longest sentence.

I have managed to end up with a learning difficulties class. I think that’s the PC term. We’re not very PC here (hooray!), so mostly we tend to refer to them as “the slow class” (me) or “the stupid class” (their Korean English teacher).

From what I can tell, they are simply being passed around the school from one teacher to the next, in the hope that one day someone will be able to work miracles with them. And time after time, the teacher throws his or her hands in the air and begs for them to be given to someone else. They are elementary school children. The elementary pupils don’t belong to this school (it’s for 5-7 year olds), but they come in for English lessons  in the afternoons when our younger pupils have gone home. I have two small classes, which I teach three times each per week, and I really enjoy them. But then there’s this other class… oh, heaven have mercy.  I only have them once a week, but that one 50-minute slot feels like a very long and painful lifetime.

I’m turning out to be quite a good teacher, to my delighted surprise. I’m creative, so I can come up with lots of ways to keep the lessons interesting and fun. I’m passionate about spelling and grammar, so find them easy to teach and explain. I’m a bit childlike and, erm, childish, so I can easily get inside their heads and think like they do – which really, really helps. But at 2.50pm every Thursday, you will find me sitting at my desk with my head in my hands, or staring blankly at the wall, wondering if I am, in fact, the worst English teacher in the whole world. Clare has taken to coming in when she sees the kids leaving, partly out of morbid curiosity and partly to check that I haven’t jumped out of the window.

I have spent three weeks in a row trying to teach them the “wh” questions. You really have no idea how hard I have tried. There have been games, pictures, visual aids, rewards, books, diagrams, lists, songs, the full works. Three weeks! My kindergarten classes would scoff at the idea of spending more than five minutes on such a trifling matter. And still this class stares blankly at me every time I check to see if they’ve got it yet.

It gets to the stage when I actually have the answers sitting right in front of them, and still they can’t get it. Like a sentence cut into four parts and labelled. Allow me to demonstrate:

David —— went swimming —— at the pool —— on Sunday.

WHO ———— WHAT —————- WHERE ———- WHEN

There will be arrows, there will be colour coding, there will be squares and circles drawn around words, there will be lines connecting the “wh”s to the sentence parts. Who went swimming? David went swimming! Who? David! What did David do? David went swimming! What? Went swimming! I chant over and over again, pointing at the words on the board, pointing them out to each individual child in their books. Yet no matter how hard I try, they continue to have no idea what I’m trying to show them. Who went swimming at the pool on Sunday? I ask for the millionth time. Blank stares. Who went swimming? I try to simplify it. Blank stares. Who… WHO! Who went swimming? I ask, desperation sneaking into my voice. No reply. I will give you a candy if you get it right, I say finally, selling my soul to the devil and waving a sweet to give them the idea. They sit bolt upright and stare earnestly at their books. Now, I ask hopefully, who went swimming?

On Sunday! cries one child. Seeing my incredulous expression, another one pipes up: at the pool! I see where this is going. I will not give out sweets for arriving at the right answer via a series of complete guesses. And so we begin again.

It is soul-destroying. I went into the classroom of Kerry, their Korean English teacher, last week after a class that pretty much ended with them hating me and me hating them. No English whatsoever had been learned. In fact, I might actually have lost some of my own abilities.

Kerry, I am going crazy! I wailed, slumping down in front of her desk. She recognised my expression at once. Ahh… stupid class, yes?! Ah, these children, they are so stupid! She gave me some soothing green tea and we discussed our plight for a while. I drew her attention to the fact that it’s impossible for me to teach them anything – even if they will never learn English, at least she can try to explain things to them in their own language. I got nuthin’.

But I refuse to give up. I do not like to quit just because something is hard. I’m stubborn like that. I’m determined to be the teacher who finally manages to teach them. They will become English speakers if it kills me. And let’s face it, if it doesn’t kill me, it will probably cause me to lose my mind…


It seems like there are a lot of rules here.

Not the sort of rules we have in the UK, however. Traffic rules are few (and it shows!), you can’t get arrested for taking photographs of public buildings, and it’s perfectly legal to light up a cigarette after your restaurant dinner or in the bar if you wish. But despite the absence of hundreds of official rules and regulations, there’s an overwhelming number of social, respectful rules to confuse us instead. Obviously, these aren’t confusing to Koreans, who are brought up understanding them, just as we are taught from a young age that it’s rude to belch at the dinner table or yell “Mummy, why is that man so fat?!” at the top of one’s voice.

The children at school will always, always cup both their hands together to receive anything that I am giving them, be it a sweet, a pencil sharpener, or a book. That’s because they are infants and I am their teacher – it’s a respect thing based on both age and authority. If I am receiving something from the principal of the school (a very grand man, who speaks little English and simply oozes power and grandeur. I’m a little nervous when he appears.) I will cup my hands as my students do to me. I will probably also bow my head, and look down at the ground – it would be disrespectful to look him in the eye, because that would imply that I want to be friends with him, and it’s not my place to initiate such a thing. When he greets me, I look away, smile (a polite and dignified smile rather than a friendly, cheerful grin), and bow from my waist, keeping my gaze lowered.

The lack of eye contact confused me a little at first. I was unaware of it during my first few days of teaching – and of course, because I was new to my students, they were all being very formal with me and automatically following strict rules of ‘respect etiquette’. I couldn’t understand why they wouldn’t look at me when I asked them a question. I even became slightly annoyed with one girl, who stared at the floor every time I spoke to her. “I’m trying to explain what this word means!” I told her gently, thinking she was shy. “Listen to me!”. She watched me as I walked back to the board, but as soon as I looked at her again, her gaze dropped back to the floor. I said her name a few times, urging her to listen, because it really looked as if she was deliberately ignoring me. When I began to raise my voice in frustration, she looked distressed and stared even more intently at the floor, lowering her head so that I couldn’t even see her face. I only realised afterwards that she had simply been showing me respect by not making eye contact with me, and the more agitated I became with her, the more respect she tried to show me by bowing her head and hiding her face from me – when all I wanted her to do was look at me so that I’d know she was paying attention. Yep, it ain’t easy.

The children make eye contact with me now because, as the elder and the authority figure, I was able to set the tone of our relationship. It just wasn’t up to them to decide that. And in my relationship with the principal, I cannot set the tone – it’s his right, as the more important person. He has continued to keep me at a distance and use very polite and formal greetings, so I must continue bowing low and avoiding eye contact. However, if the school director (with whom I am on friendly, first name terms –although she is still my boss and thus must be shown respect in some small formal way) greets me, or one of the Korean teachers, I will usually not avoid eye contact, and my bow will be nothing more than a slight lean forward. The smaller the bow, the more comfortable and familiar I am with the person – so the Korean English teachers, with whom I can enjoy a bit of banter in my own language, usually just give me a nod of the head, and I do the same to them. If they give me anything, I won’t cup both my hands. Instead, I will hold out just my right hand, but touch it with my left, or support my wrist or elbow (as if I am receiving something very heavy). The only circumstances in which I can receive anything using only one hand without causing offence are if the person passing the object is (a) a great deal younger than me, (b) under my authority, or (c) a close friend or family member – but not an elder!

In shops, the cashier is supposed to show me respect by accepting my money with both hands, and I am supposed to return respect to the cashier by taking my change either with both hands or at least by touching my right arm with my left as I accept the money. This one causes me the most difficulty. I am always fumbling with my purse and trying to lift my shopping bag at the same time as they’re reaching me my change. It’s very awkward to free up both hands, but it seems to be the norm all the same – I’ve even seen a woman carrying a baby and laden with shopping bags managing to do it!

There are all sorts of other rules, and I’m sure I don’t know the half of them yet. I only discovered the other day that if you’re at the table with an elder (I reckon it would be like an older relative, or an employer – and for children, it would definitely include their teachers), you’re supposed to turn your head away from that person when you’re taking a drink. If you have guests, it’s considered extremely rude to say goodbye to them while they’re still in your house. Kind of like you’re throwing them out. A Korean host will always bid you farewell at your car or at the garden gate.

And you have to be careful when you’re answering a yes/no question. Saying no is generally avoided by Koreans, as it can be seen as disrespectful or even taken as an insult. This one, I find infuriating. I have quickly learned, from much painful experience, to rephrase my questions so that they can’t be answered with a yes or a no. For example, you could find that if you say “is there a bus from here soon?”, a Korean will be so anxious to make you happy that they will say yes, even if there isn’t! It’s a strange one. If you phrase it “what time is the next bus from here?”, you’ll get a much more helpful answer. I’ve felt like banging my head against a wall several times because of this one, particularly in work when I’m trying to establish what I need to do, or whether something is ready for me to use. “Ne, ne, ne…” (“Yes” – usually repeated for extra positivity!). It took me a while to figure out that these yesses need to be taken with a pinch of salt, or – even better – completely ignored.

I’m learning something new every day. And no doubt accidentally offending people, too! Fortunately, as a foreigner, you get a decent amount of leeway with The Rules, as Koreans don’t usually expect you to know any better. However, I try to imagine how I would feel if someone came to my home country and did something that would be completely out of order if they weren’t a foreigner. I might be able to excuse it on grounds of ignorance, certainly, but I would definitely be appreciative of them finding out about and respecting our rules. So I’m trying to watch, listen, copy, and repeat… every bit as much as the children do in my English classes every day!