Dae-han-min-guk!

The people of Korea are incredibly patriotic. They’re so proud of their country, their culture, and their heritage, that listening to them talk about it is a fascinating experience – and I think it’s also why they’re such good hosts. They want to share with foreigners all the things they love so much about their country, so they give us gifts, cook us meals, teach us their language, tell us about Korean history, and take us to see culturally important spots.

The other week, I was mightily impressed with namdongseng when he launched into a 30-minute lesson on Korean history. I hadn’t asked for the lesson. In fact, as far as I can tell, we hadn’t even been on the topic of either Korea or history. But some little thing I said must have triggered off his great desire that I should know about the journey of his country, with all its changes in name and ownership, from ancient times until the present day. The boy is about 11 years old, and he knows more about his country’s history than the average adult from the UK knows about theirs. Today, he called me in great excitement to see if I’d been watching the Olympics. I hadn’t, as I’ve never been into that sort of thing, but I couldn’t fail to be aware that South Korea’s Kim Yu-Na had won the gold medal and broken a world record in figure skating. They’re all going crazy with excitement.

The patriotism gets a little annoying at school sometimes, mainly because we foreign teachers all have a passion for travel and other cultures, and want to share it with our students. I designed a four-week course to teach them about other cultures, and we set the topic of a few of our conversation classes as “countries around the world”. We put loads of effort into it, with colourful powerpoint presentations, funny pictures and interesting facts, clippings and photos cut out of magazines and printed from websites, of everything from the Eiffel Tower to the Pyramids to the Grand Canyon and even Disneyland. But were they interested? Were they heck as like. For them, Korea is the whole world. Nowhere else is even worth visiting. One of the units in our workbook recently required me to ask the kids where they would go if they could visit any country in the world. What would they like to see there? Where is that country?

9 out of 10 children said Korea. It just became frustrating at that point! I finally managed to persuade most of them to pick somewhere else, because you can’t take a trip to a country you’re already in, but one little boy was utterly stubborn about it. He really did not want to leave his beloved Korea, even for an imaginary 5-minute holiday that didn’t even require him to leave the classroom. I began to lose patience with him, because I knew he understood the concept. Just pick a different country!! He stuck out his lower lip, looking sulky, and thought for a moment. I go to Jeju Island, he said eventually. Jeju Island is a Korean island. I looked at him in exasperation, and he thought quickly, and changed his answer. North Korea! he said triumphantly. Different country, he assured me, looking worried that I might not allow it. I gave up and let the child choose a visit to a strict totalitarian Stalinist dictatorship with zero human rights over any other country in the world.

In a game I’d devised to get them to remember the things that were associated with various countries, I’d given them all a slip of paper with a country name written on it. The idea was that when I shouted out something that was associated with that country, they had to run to me and show me their piece of paper, or they were out. All the classes loved it, and we had great fun, except that I learned the hard way not to let them choose which country they wanted. A full-scale brawl broke out in my first class, and one little girl ended up in floods of tears when I confiscated the Korea she’d obtained by pushing a smaller child over, and insisted that she take the USA instead. After that, I just randomly distributed the countries and told them they weren’t to peek at each other’s!

For such a proud nation , the Koreans don’t seem to be particularly prone to racism. Other than where Japan’s concerned, but the history there has some of the same flavours of Scotland/Ireland vs. England. From what I’ve seen, it’s not so much racial hatred as a feeling of smugness when Korea somehow “gets back” at the country they remember as having caused their people so much suffering and oppression in the past. They don’t seem to treat Japanese people badly – they just like to remind them that Korea’s doing just fine without them! As namdongseng gleefully put it when telling me about the Olympic victory, “Korea is hero, Japan goes dowwwwwn!”.

I’ve heard stories about the racism of Koreans, but I’ve found them to be very welcoming and hospitable – even giving me preferential treatment over other Koreans! However, on Friday night I had my very first brief taste of being on the receiving end of what I suppose amounts to racial discrimination. I’d gone to a bar/restaurant with some friends for dinner. Two of us were white, two were black, and two were Korean. The two Koreans had gone to find a better parking space, leaving the four foreigners to get seats and look at the menu. First of all, however, the two members of staff who greeted us wouldn’t let us sit where we initially chose to, near the front so that we could see our friends when they came back in – despite the fact that the place was nearly empty, they moved us to a dark corner at the back. Then they hovered around us, murmuring things that we couldn’t understand. They looked uneasy. Finally, when our friends came in and joined us, they came to the table and spoke Korean to them. Our friends looked first surprised, then angry.

Were you making a lot of noise, or saying anything bad about these guys? asked K in a low voice. Surprised, I hook my head. Actually, we’d been speaking quite quietly because we sensed the suspicious looks we were getting, and felt uncomfortable. They want your ID cards, she said, after another hurried discussion. This was initially flattering, because I thought they suspected us of being underage, but as we rummaged for our cards, B got into quite an angry-sounding argument with the staff. It turned out that they didn’t like foreigners coming into the bar, because we “would probably cause trouble”. They were willing to let us stay, but only if we handed over our ID cards – presumably so that they could hold them behind the bar in case they needed to call the police on us and we were tempted to run away.

We looked at B and K, half-laughing, half-annoyed. Because we’re not Korean? asked Terri, disbelievingly. K nodded. That’s… a little offensive, I remarked. I really was surprised by how hurt it made me feel. They didn’t know us. We’re a hard-working, polite, friendly group of people who’d done nothing but have the wrong colour of skin, and they were treating us like troublemakers. I know that in terms of what other groups of people have gone through (and still do) in terms of racism, it’s nothing at all. But it wasn’t nice!

What made up for it, however, was how utterly insulted and angry our Korean friends were about it. Much more so than the four of us, who were more disbelieving and amused at anyone thinking we looked like a group of football hooligans. They said “let’s go eat somewhere else,” and gave impassioned speeches to the impassive staff as we walked out. It took a while before they stopped looking upset and embarrassed. Their outrage was very sweet, and made up for not being allowed to sit in a restaurant in case we contaminated it with our nasty foreignness. :)

And fortunately, I’ve been treated so well in this country that it will take a lot more than one unfriendly restaurant to alter my opinion of it!

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That Friday Feeling

I had a very surreal moment on the way home from work yesterday.

It was one of those moments that, no matter how good a writer you think you are, you just know you’re not going to be able to describe in a way that lets people know just how bizarre it really was. Fortunately my camera also records video.

Anyway, as I was finishing up in school, I heard a lot of loud banging and clanging and whooping in the streets below. I stuck my head out of the window to see what it was, as the area where I work is usually very quiet and non-clangy. Seeing nothing, I shrugged my shoulders and forgot about it.

Until, that is, I was almost home. I suddenly heard the noise again, and it seemed to be getting louder as I neared my apartment. Sure enough, I emerged from a side street on to the main road and saw the source of the clanging. A group of maybe a dozen people, dressed in matching outfits with hats and coloured  ribbons, were banging drums and blowing horns, and dancing their way into an office.

This is not normal behaviour, at least not in my sleepy little neighbourhood, where people work quietly in their offices and little old women sit on the streets gossiping and peeling vegetables for their roadside stalls. I tentatively approached the office, and a man at the door saw me. He was laughing, and beckoned me to come forward to see.

And what I saw was possibly one of the most fabulous things I have seen throughout all my travels. All those quiet, reserved, dignified office workers, the men in their suits and ties and the women with their carefully pinned-up hair, had had their workplace invaded by these smiling, dancing, noise-making lunatics, who had spread themselves out right across the office. And they were being urged to dance. And they were doing it! I laughed and laughed. It really was a heart-warming scene. They were all dancing away at their desks, forgetting about phones and computers for the moment, arms in the air, with surprised but smiling expressions on their faces.

I have no idea who those drumming people were, or why they were doing what they were doing. Maybe they were from some kind of religious group? There was no way to find out, but the best assessment I could make of the situation was that they were marching around from one workplace to the next and getting people to smile and laugh and dance, just because. If that’s even close to being true, I think it’s wonderful.

I ran quickly around the corner to my apartment and grabbed my camera, but when I returned I discovered that the office workers were sitting quietly working at their desks again as if nothing had happened. I bumped into Terri, who was arriving home from work, and explained what I had just seen, at which point the noise started again. We looked all around, but couldn’t see our drumming friends until a woman working in the shop across the road came out and yelled at us to look up. She pointed above our heads and we looked up to discover that they were now dancing on the roof of the next building!

Obviously, we had to go in. We headed up the stairs and peeked out on to the roof, at which point several workers from that building spotted us and dragged us out. The drummers had just finished, but when they saw us and I waved my camera at them, they cheerfully performed another number for us. Dancing was not optional.

(For some reason YouTube has started refusing to let me upload my videos unless I compress them so much that the quality becomes utterly rubbish – as you can see. Hopefully you can get the idea despite the crap video. But if anyone can tell me of a way of getting my videos on here without reducing the quality so much, I’d be very grateful!)

Ladies and gentlemen, nicotine has left the body.

It’s been one week since I smoked my last cigarette.

I will always remember that cigarette. I’d sneaked into the toilets at a bar downtown, not being able to wait any longer for a puff. Unfortunately, the niceness and cleanliness of a bar in Daejeon is absolutely no indication of what the toilets will be like. Often, they’re not on the same floor or even in the same building, and you might have to go out on to the street and into a grotty cubicle down an alleyway. You might find a luxury bathroom with a toilet that politely offers to clean your bum (really), or you might find a dark, smelly, damp place with a hole in the ground for you to squat over. There’s no telling until you go in.

Anyway, this place last week was closer to the latter description. It was smelly, dirty, and cold. I stood there in a cubicle, shivering in my winter coat, and lit up, trying to avoid touching anything other than my cigarette. Inside the cosy bar, my boss (now becoming something resembling a friend, at least as far as our infamous communication problems permit) and a mutual friend were sitting chatting and sipping beer. I took a few quick drags and then choked, my nose and throat already painfully scratchy and dry from allergies, now aggravated by the smoke. At that exact moment, a guy in the men’s toilets did that horrible hacking, throat-clearing thing that turns my stomach. He kept right on going, to the point where I couldn’t bear it any longer. I put out my cigarette and hurried out, just as throat-clearing guy, still making terrible noises, emerged and lit up a cigarette.

That was it. That was the moment. I watched him take a drag and then spit on the floor, my stomach lurched again, and I rejoined my friends in the bar, deciding that I’d much rather be there with them even if it meant going through a little bit of withdrawal pain.

One week on, I have gone through said withdrawal pain and emerged shaky but triumphant. I have been ill with that weird “quitter’s flu” thing. I have had the shakes (I caught the non-English-speaking principal of the school watching my hand as it tried and failed to raise a spoonful of soup to my mouth the other day. I couldn’t explain, so I’m pretty sure she thinks I’m a raging alcoholic). I have been dizzy and nauseated. I have had serious breathing difficulties. I have been unable to sleep. I have cried at a carton of sour milk and lost my temper over a missing pencil. I have endured the ultimate test of the first night of partying without cigarettes.

I know I’ve still got a long way to go and many more hurdles to overcome, but I feel ridiculously pleased with myself already. I feel good. Last night, I slept soundly for a full 8 hours. My body has been working around the clock to clear all the gross stuff out of my lungs, and I’m beginning to find it a little easier to breathe. I can taste my food. I don’t feel self-conscious about the smell of my clothes or my hair, and instead am enjoying using girly scented pampering products and smelling good rather than smoky.

I don’t want a cigarette. Yes, I do have my moments, but after the first few days of withdrawal they became more about subconscious associations than conscious cravings. Like I’d automatically feel the need to smoke when I arrived home from work, or when I was out with friends and had had a few drinks. Not because I wanted to, just because that’s what I’m programmed to do! So I’m retraining my brain into making new associations. The cigarette after work is the hardest one, and I noticed that as soon as I started walking home, I was already thinking about the first drag, to the extent where I could almost feel the nicotine entering my system. I didn’t realise how automatic that act of going home and lighting up had become. So now I go home and peel an apple, cut it into slices, and nibble on it as I tidy up, wash the dishes, and so on. The act of preparing and then eating it gives me the hand to mouth activity that I want, and has the added bonus of taking the edge off my appetite, thus stopping me from cooking a far-too-large portion of rice when I make dinner. Win-win!

I feel free rather than deprived. And next week, having given my lungs this time to recover, I start the gym. Stay tuned for that. Not only is it the unlikely idea of me in a gym, it’s me trying to communicate in Korean my desire to join said gym, and figure out how everything works without being able to understand much of the language.

I predict much confusion and embarrassment…

Goodbye, teacher.

In Korea, the school year starts in March, not September. That’s why if you’d stopped by my school today, you would’ve seen dozens of little people in graduation gowns and hats. Yep, a kindergarten graduation ceremony – really.

The pupils are split into two main groups – 6 year olds and 7 year olds (that’s about 4/5 and 5/6 in Western age) – and today it was time to bid farewell to the 7s as they prepare to start elementary school next week. Now, maybe it’s the nicotine withdrawal messing with my emotions, but I was surprised by the strength of my own feelings as I watched the children leave for the last time. When I first got here, they were a mob of faces and a roar of noise. I couldn’t tell them apart, much less remember names. And now, just 5 months on, I know each little personality as well as I know any of my friends. Saying goodbye was awful.

They sang the national anthem and were presented with their certificates and beautiful ‘memory books’, and then the teachers were called up on stage to be introduced to the watching parents. This was all fine and well. But then the kids all stood up where they were, in the front rows, and someone started playing a tune on the keyboard, and they all launched into the sweetest little song I’ve ever heard. Well, I couldn’t understand all the words, since it was in Korean, but I was able to pick up the words for “teacher”, “thank you”, “goodbye”, and “love you”, so that was really more than enough! They sang to us as we stood on the stage, and to my great alarm I felt tears pricking my eyelids. Good grief, I feel them again now just remembering it.

I did make it off the stage before the tears escaped, and I had to run for a tissue as Alex rolled his eyes and the Cooking Lady tried to comfort me by offering me a tangerine (we have no common language other than food). Then I was surrounded by lots of my students and their parents, wanting a last picture taken with me, the Teacher With Red Eyes. Some of them gave me parting gifts. Others just wanted a goodbye hug. And then they were off, never to be seen by us again.

I had no idea teachers went through this every year. It’s heartbreaking. Or maybe it’s just me…!

Anyway, the new term starts on Tuesday after a long weekend that appears to be the workaholic Korean equivalent of the Norn Irish 2-month summer holiday. I wonder how I’ll feel after a whole year with my new students?!

No longer an outcast

The jitters have set in.

I try to fill my mind with other things, but I can turn every thought back to that single, shrieking, wailing one.

For example.

OK, coffee. Let’s have some coffee. Mmm, coffee. Strong, black, aromatic. In a big mug. With a nice cigarette in the other hand.

No, OK, work. Work, work, work. End of term reports to write… Julie is a good student, who works hard and is continuing to make good progress. However, sometimes she can be a little distracted. I know the feeling, and find that a quick cigarette can settle the mind quite nicely.

No, no, let’s see. The weather. Let’s think about the weather. Starting to get warmer… soon be spring… nice warm evenings, sitting outside having a few lazy drinks… with a cigarette

You get the idea. Plus I’ve got insomnia – real, mind-messing, achingly-tired-but-wide-awake insomnia, which has never affected me before in my quitting attempts, but which actually led to me getting up at 6am this morning, having had 2 hours of sleep. I’m in for a fun day. And t’internet’s advice re: nicotine withdrawal insomnia? Avoid caffeine. Did you ever?!!!! Caffeine is going to be practically life support for me today.

On the plus side, I’m hoping that my allergies will start easing up slightly now that my insides aren’t battling against smoke as well as hopelessly polluted air. No sign of that yet though. Still cand breade.

But let’s find some more positives, lest I run downstairs to Alex and demand that he gives me back the Marlboro Lights I handed over to him yesterday (couldn’t trust myself with them, couldn’t bring myself to destroy them). Well, yesterday when I got up, I realised that I wasn’t grimacing at the unbearable taste of stale smoke in my mouth – plus I could taste my cereal, and when I drink coffee now, my taste buds practically scream in ecstasy. And I’m more inclined to exercise, if only to distract myself from the gnawing, painful, tormenting cravings.

I don’t know exactly why I decided, yet again, to make a serious attempt to quit. It’s definitely something to do with the fact that it’s not exactly acceptable to be female and a smoker in Korea. I overheard one colleague of mine remarking in amazed and slightly disgusted tones that she’d seen a woman standing outside a bar smoking a cigarette: “not hiding – but proud!”. That’s the Korean attitude towards female smokers. If you are one, you should do your best to hide it. Women aren’t welcome to smoke in public, even though men chain-smoke practically everywhere – in bars and restaurants, in the streets, in apartment buildings, in taxis…

Women smokers do exist, but they can’t smoke in a public building like a bar or restaurant without fear of condemnation. It’s not against the law or anything, but I can imagine the horrified stares you’d get if you tried lighting up after your meal – unless you’re in a Western bar. On nights out in Korean bars, I’ve encountered (and joined) a handful of Korean girls furtively puffing in the grotty, smoke-filled toilets while their male companions smoke contentedly in the air-conditioned bar, sipping their beer. I don’t like it. It makes me feel like I’m doing something wrong, like if someone knows that I smoke, they think I’m less of a woman or something. I want to not have this horrible guilty secret any more.

I’ve tried in earnest to quit smoking about 5 times in the past 10 or so years. Once, I stayed off the cigarettes for almost a year, but usually I slip back after about 3 weeks. The time that I had the most success, I was quitting because I strongly wanted to, and because I felt that I could cope without cigarettes. Slipping back after all that time was a stupid mistake I’ve regretted ever since. The times when I quickly failed, I was being pushed or doing it to please someone else. It has even come close to being a form of control – a situation that makes me try in misery for a while out of a need to please the other person, and then subconsciously rebel through resentment, lack of support or encouragement, and a barrage of accusations. Leading to me becoming a secret smoker who hides around corners and carries breath mints, a clean jacket, body spray, and feelings of shame and guilt everywhere.

Will it be easier now that I’m doing it for myself, living in an anti-female-smoker culture where it’s probably easier not to smoke, and enjoying a healthier, more active life? Time will tell.

I need another coffee. And I’ve still got another hour to kill before work.

Secret Numbers

This is my door.

Not the most exciting opening there ever was to a blog post, but you know how I like to include all the little details of everyday life, the mundane as well as the interesting. And besides, I am actually rather a fan of the Korean door lock system (oh, help – the words “get a life” spring to mind).

As someone who has something of a reputation for losing door keys, it has been a huge load off my mind to know that I can’t lock myself out of my apartment. I can’t lose my key, as there is no key. I key in a 4-digit number at the front door of the building, and it slides open to let me in.

And at my own apartment door,  the silvery panel there just flips up like a mobile phone, to reveal a space-agey keypad.

I punch in my ‘secret number’ (that’s what the Koreans call it, and I think it sounds much more fun and mysterious than PIN!), and it plays a little happy tune to tell me I can come in. It lights up in funky neon blue and green at night, and beeps each time I hit a button, so I know if I’ve accidentally pressed twice.

It’s very convenient and secure, and means I don’t have to live in my old constant fear of “where are my keys, did I bring my keys, did I lose my keys, did someone else find my keys and break in…?”, you know the sort of thing. Ahem. And it seems to be the way they do things here, as I haven’t seen a single apartment without this sort of system.

It does, however, have its drawbacks, particularly when you’re living in a building where the walls are as thin as they are in mine. Now, at first I worried that the constant beep-beep-beep noises of neighbours returning home and punching in their secret numbers would be incredibly irritating, but I quickly got used to it, and barely notice it any more. However, the other night my next door neighbour was either very drunk or deliberately trying to piss everyone off, as he felt the need to type in his number over and over again (beep-beep-beep-beep), resulting in it going from playing the happy tune (dee-dum-dee-daa!) to beeping furiously at him (beep-beep-beep-beep-beep-beep-beep!: I believe this is door language for “Either come in or go away!”). This went on forever. At around 3am. Eventually I lost it and yelled “SHUT UP!!”, at which point he paused briefly and then recommenced his beeping. Then someone else yelled what I imagine is “SHUT UP!!” in Korean (I have made a note of it for future use) and he stopped.

Fortunately, a lovely blog reader friend has sent me some ear plugs. Take that, noisy neighbours! :)

May I take your picture? Please sign this consent form…

This post started out as a comment on K8’s blog, but it got so long that I felt bad about taking over her blog and decided to just make it a post on my own instead! You can read her post here. Basically, she said that when the school photographer turns up without warning and takes pictures of her child, then demands money for the pictures, she feels “invaded”:

It got to me that nobody had asked my permission to take that picture, or at least warned me about it so that I could have given her hair a pre-emptive brush.  It suddenly struck me that if I didn’t pay for this photograph, somebody else would get at it and could potentially do strange and unimaginable things with it.  I felt compelled to give these bastards my coal money, just to save my daughter’s soul.

It also occurs to me that there is now a negative picture somewhere in someone’s studio with my kid on it, and no amount of cash can get it back. Not sure my kid needs that.
I’m highly bloody un-nerved by this.

I understand her point, but I can’t agree with it, other than the being blackmailed into buying them. But even that, I agree with for a different reason! To me, the obligation to buy a photo is not because you want to get it away from a stranger – more because you might feel like a bad parent if you’re the only one who doesn’t buy one. That’s the bit that would annoy me!

Maybe this is something that I can never understand because I don’t have kids, but it does actually really annoy me how taking pictures is close to becoming a criminal activity in our culture nowadays. If you take pictures of a child, you’re a pervert. If you take pictures of a building, you’re a terrorist. I mean, yes, there’s a very small minority that *could* be perverts or terrorists, but does that mean everyone should have to apply for permission before they take photos? If a small minority of people throw themselves in front of trains, should all train users have to undergo psychiatric tests before stepping on to a platform? (Not the best example, I’m tired!)

When I was in Switzerland, I saw a little boy and girl in a garden up in the mountains. They were wearing very quaint, old-fashioned clothes, and busily tidying up using a wheelbarrow and a rake, from what I can remember. It was like a scene from a picture postcard, and I badly wanted to take a photo – but I was scared of being seen and getting into trouble, so I didn’t. In the UK and Ireland, strangers taking photos of children is a Very Bad Thing. The person who was with me, on the other hand, went ahead and took a picture, saying that there was no law against it. He was perfectly right, and he did what I wanted to do but was too afraid to. Neither of us had any nasty,  sick motive – we wanted a picture simply because it was a beautiful scene and the kids were so cute. They were in their own garden, but there was no high wall or fence – we didn’t have to snoop or climb or peek through a gap. Anyone walking past could quite easily aim their camera and click.

If those had been your kids, would you have been angry? What if they’d been on the other side of the low wall, i.e. not in a private garden? And does it stretch to adults as well? Like photos of crowds, street scenes, etc.? I’m interested to hear opinions on this. Here in Korea, the teachers at school take pictures of the kids practically every day, and I like that I can do that without feeling like I’m a bad person for it. I have dozens and dozens of photos of my students now, simply because I love them and I want to have reminders of them for when they leave. Parents have absolutely no issues with it – it doesn’t bother them at all that some woman they don’t know has pictures of their child. The people here don’t even understand the concept when I try to explain how people back home would feel about it. Is that wrong?

As for adults, I don’t really mind strangers taking pictures of me (which is a good thing, since I’m something akin to an exotic animal in a zoo, here!), because how is them having pictures going to affect me? I take pictures of people without them knowing all the time – I wouldn’t enjoy this photo half as much, for example, if I’d drawn attention to the camera and they were all making peace signs and saying cheese:

I did, however, ask permission from this girl:

I asked because she was watching me and it seemed rude to brazenly photograph her without even checking if she minded. To me, there’s a difference – it’s not that one photo is somehow more OK than the other;  it’s about politeness. If I could have taken a natural, unposed picture without her noticing, I would have, and I don’t think that’s something to feel bad about. I feel the same way about pictures of children, but I’m just a lot more nervous then about what people might accuse me of!

You can see why I decided not to post all this as a comment on someone else’s blog, can’t you?! But what do you think – about any of it? I’m interested, in case you didn’t pick up on that! I love taking photos of people, adults and children alike, going about their daily lives in the various places I visit. I will be polite and ask, if they see me. If I can do it without them seeing, I won’t ask. I’m simply capturing an image that is right there for every other passer-by to see, and preserving that moment. I’m not snooping or spying.  As I see it, I’m doing nothing wrong.

Thoughts?