Making a big song and dance about it.

It’s election season here in Korea.

As you know, I normally take no interest in such things, but it’s proving impossible to ignore this particular election. Never mind the fact that we’ve had a little bit of a falling out with the folk upstairs in Pyongyang – all that means is that it’s one more thing we foreigners can only find out about by reading international news stories, and generally we feel as if you know more about the situation than we do.

No, the reason an election in Korea is so difficult to ignore is that, much like everything else from cherry blossoms to strawberries to butterflies, they seem to turn it into some kind of festival. I was scared half to death on Saturday morning, having spent the night before discussing and researching emergency evacuation plans with some foreigner friends, when I was awakened at some ungodly hour by someone yelling frantically into a megaphone. It wasn’t the usual droning of the grocer promoting his tomatoes and tangerines – this was urgent, almost terrifyingly loud shouting.

I sat bolt upright in bed, my heart racing, convinced that North Korean troops were marching into the city as I lay in my bed, and we were all being warned to run for the hills. What to do, what to do?! I was both relieved and disgusted to discover that it was the campaign van of a local election candidate.

I’ve experienced the bizarre practice of driving around canvassing for votes in my own country, and I can’t say I’ve ever understood it. You can barely hear a word they say anyway. And here it’s about 10 times the volume, and even the Koreans confess to not being able to make out a single word that’s being said. Then, of course, there are the many, many campaign posters plastered all over the place.

But it doesn’t stop there. I must admit to being greatly entertained by the party atmosphere that election season has brought to our quiet little city. I thought it was some kinds of devout religious group the first time I saw the little gathering of colour-coordinated singers standing by a busy roadside, until I spotted the posters and the nearby parked vans plastered in pictures of their beloved candidate. There’s something almost religious in their support of their chosen one, though, so it was an easy mistake to make.

Anyway, these groups of people are everywhere, and increasingly so this week as election day is almost upon us. They stand at busy intersections and sing upbeat songs when the traffic is stopped at the lights. I mean sing as in almost a full scale pop concert – some of them even have bands and stages! There is dancing – lots of dancing. (Koreans like to dance. Even the parking attendants have choreographed moves with which to direct the traffic and pedestrians!)

And then, when the traffic starts to move again, they solemnly bow to each and every passing vehicle. They also greet pedestrians with a bow and a smile and a cheerful “Anyounghaseyo?” – except for me, as I’m a waegook (foreigner) and they don’t know what to do with that.

So despite what you are all seeing on the news, things are actually quite merry and happy clappy here at the moment. :) Plus it’s election day on Wednesday and we all have the day off to go vote. Except obviously waegooks don’t vote, so I’ll be most likely be in a park or something, having a picnic in the sun instead… hurrah!

Could do better.

This week, I have been mostly writing progress reports for each of my 25 kindergarteners and 28 elementary students.

Much as I like writing, I have to say I’ll be extremely glad to see the back of this particular task, not least because I’m heavily restricted in terms of what I can write. I remember when we used to get our school  reports at the end of term. You really did not want to get a bad report! Parents tended to get annoyed about these things, so woe betide the child who played the goat all term and went home with a report covered in Ds and comments like “must try harder”, “badly behaved”, “doesn’t work hard enough”.

I don’t know whether it’s a sign of the times or solely a Korean thing, but here it’s more a case of woe betide the teacher who writes such a report! The children have no fear. The threat of a bad report (and the accompanying anger or at least disappointment from parents) was our incentive to behave and work hard. And now, as a teacher, I’d like to see reports as my best opportunity for communicating with the parents. I want to sing the praises of the bright sparks who are full of enthusiasm, and the not so bright ones who have made incredible progress through sheer effort. And, of course, I want to explain to parents of the troublemakers and the lazy ones that Something Has To Change. I want to point out that their child holds the whole class back with his running around and shouting, or that if only she would listen, she could do really well. I want to mark some of them “Needs improvement” for everything and then give constructive criticism on how to achieve this. But I can’t.

There’s a list of words at the top of each report, from which we have to choose one to assess each area of the child’s work (listening, pronunciation, phonics, writing, and so on). They are: Excellent, Very good, Good, Fair, Needs improvement. When I first wrote reports I gave excellents to the children who deserved them, and felt just as justified in handing out the “fair” and “need improvement” ones as well. And guess what? I was made to change them. Anything below a Very Good is seen as risky, because the parent will show up red in the face with anger and demand to know why the teacher is saying horrible things about their child.

It pains me to think of my least intelligent, least enthusiastic, and least well-behaved students and yet to write “Very good” on all their work. It makes it difficult to write any helpful comments that might actually improve matters – why would I urge her parents to explain the importance of paying attention in class when I’ve already said all her work is “very good”? Obviously she’s doing just fine without listening to a word the teacher says!

I’ve basically had to give new meanings to the words in my head. Excellent means anything from “pretty good” upwards. Very good means “fair”. Good means “needs improvement”. And fair means “so utterly terrible that I cannot possibly use the word ‘good’ here and still be able to sleep at night”. I have used “fair” several times for some of my more problematic students, and have already been forced to change some. I am holding firm on others and bracing myself for the storm. I just can’t understand this attitude of the parents. Why do they want to hear lies? Why don’t they want the truth if their kid is being a little brat and not learning anything as a result? Wouldn’t they rather know so they can help do something about it? It’s one of those weird paradoxes in Korean life: the one thing parents want more than anything else is for their children to study hard, get lots of good qualifications, and end up in a much-coveted high-paying job… yet they don’t want to hear about it if their child is doing something that might stop this from happening. Rather than wanting to know all the details of their child’s education, they just want to see the word “excellent” on all their work, even if it’s perfectly obvious to look at it that the child doesn’t have a clue what they’re doing.

And so I’m left with this feeling that I’m spending hours and hours on a completely pointless task, since the object of reports is to let the parents know how their child is getting on, and I’m mostly forbidden from doing that. So, just for my own entertainment, here is what I would like to be writing about my least favourite student in the whole school – an elementary boy I (thankfully) only teach once per week:

John is a hateful little brat rather difficult to teach. I believe he may be genuinely on the side of evil unhappy to be learning English, and so he has very little interest in participating in class. He refuses to listen, talks and shouts over me, and makes rude gestures (at me and at the other children). Although I do not know much Korean, I can understand some of the things he says about me, and they are extremely disrespectful and unacceptable. I have witnessed him hitting and kicking children smaller than himself, and when I stop him, he directs a torrent of abuse at me. I think it would be better for him to become a gang member student of some other subject that he enjoys, as he clearly does not want to learn English, and he makes it impossible for anyone else in his class to do so. I have yet to hear him say one word in English (other than a four letter expletive), and don’t actually believe that he has learned anything here. Please remove him from the school, for his own sake as well as everyone else’s.

Instead, I marked him “Very good” or “good” for everything, and his parents will soon be receiving the following report:

John is consistent in all areas of his English studies. He can sometimes be a little distracted in class, but if he settles down and listens, he is capable of some very good work. The area in which he shows the most promise is writing. He has the potential to do very well, and has a lot of confidence, which should help him when practising speaking. If he can learn to pay a bit more attention in class, his work will improve even more!

Note the absence of lies, thanks to sneaky wording. Heheh. At least I have the private satisfaction of knowing what each of those sentences really means…!

When in Korea…

Friday being a national holiday for Buddha’s birthday (cheers for that, Buddha!), we all had a long weekend, and I took the opportunity to go with a few friends on an island-hopping trip. Korea has lots of beautiful islands, from the major holiday hotspot of Jeju-do to the many small, uninhabited islands. We went to Hongdo and Heuksando off the south-west coast, staying on Hongdo overnight and taking a cruise around the islands the next morning.

For the cruise, we had to be up to have breakfast at 6.30 and be on the boat by 7.30. This is all very new to me, not really being a morning person, but I found myself eating my very first traditional Korean breakfast nonetheless. I actually thought my students were joking (or just didn’t understand the question) when I was trying to find out what they have for breakfast and they said “kimchi and rice and soup”. I should have known it would be perfectly accurate! It was fine, much as I would have liked a bit of toast or a bowl of Crunchy Nut Cornflakes. I suppose there’s no real reason why our breakfasts should be restricted to a few ‘acceptable’ food categories – it’s just a matter of what we’ve grown up associating with morning food. The Koreans have grown up eating soup and rice and fermented cabbage for breakfast. Nothing at all weird about it to them!

We had a Moaner on the trip – one of those people who complain about absolutely everything. The food is horrible, the bus is uncomfortable, the people are too loud, the shops are too expensive, the weather is too hot/wet/cold/whatever, we have to get up too early, the journey takes too long, this would all have been so much better if I’d organised it because I would have done X, Y and Z instead of A, B, and C… sigh. I used to know someone like this, and it just sucked the pleasure out of everything for me. He had to point out the flaws in everything and explain exactly how he would do it all better, whereas I tend to try to see the positives and just make the most of the experience. Nowadays, I can’t be bothered with – and tend to avoid or at least minimise contact with – people who want to nitpick everything and aren’t happy to just relax and enjoy the present for what it is. Look, come on, you’re in Korea, I said eventually to the Moaner in a soju-inspired-confidence moment, as politely as I could when I was basically telling him to give over, things are different here. We might not like it all, but it’s an experience. Go and rant on a blog or in an email or something, but for now why not just make the most of it? When in Korea…

It was this theory that led me to the point where I was on a ferry at nine in the morning drinking soju (Korea’s ubiquitous hard liquor, if you remember) and eating a plate of raw fish.

The cruise was great, taking us around the islands and giving us a commentary (not that we could understand it, as it was all in rapid Korean), but the best part for me was when a little fishing boat pulled up alongside us and tethered itself to our boat, proceeding to sell raw fish and soju to anyone who wanted it.

I went out to see what was going on and get a few photos of these mad people and their ways, but it seems that I have been living here too long, for I somehow returned with a familiar green bottle, some cardboard shot glasses, a handful of chopsticks, and a paper plate of raw fish.

Those of us who were more Enthusiastic Traveller than Moaner joined our Korean passengers in their decidedly unWestern breakfast, and a couple of us ended up loving it – even Irish Friend Three, who I admire because she doesn’t really like seafood but never refuses to try the next unusual fishy dish she is offered here. We scoffed it down and knocked back our soju and were singing merrily as we left the ferry not long after 9am.

Ah!! Soju! cried some elderly Korean men excitedly as they spotted the leftover soju stored for later use in a pocket of my backpack. They laughed delightedly and cheered and pointed and gave me huge thumbs up signs, grinning from ear to ear with pride and pleasure at the idea of a foreigner enjoying their national drink way of life. Happy! Happy!

I have to say, it was one of my best experiences so far, simply because I realised that I’m unlikely to repeat it in any other country in the world. To sit miserably in the corner dreaming of chips and pizza and complaining about the weather would have deprived me of the joy of getting to experience a very real slice of Korean culture. The Moaners can moan, but I’ve got fun, laughter, and memories that are just incredible to me (and, admittedly, a little bit of a hangover).

“If you reject the food, ignore the customs, fear the religion and avoid the people, you might better stay at home.” – James Michener

Just relax!

One of the things I love about Korea is how safe I feel here.

The crime rate is extremely low, and you’d be amazed at the number of different ways in which that can affect your daily life and sense of wellbeing. For a start, there’s hardly any vandalism. I say “hardly any” because you’ll occasionally see graffiti here and there – but even this, I’d call pretty harmless. It’s the odd artistic doodling on an old rundown building, not obscenities scrawled across a brand new fence. Other than that, I haven’t seen much evidence of vandalism since I’ve been here. Things are just left alone – which is why there are cool things like electronic timetables at bus stops, constantly updated to let you know exactly how long your bus will be, with no fear of the screens being smashed in by louts. Or fully equipped gyms in parks, and the occasional piece of exercise equipment at the side of the road, for public use.

The fear of theft is also just about completely absent. In Europe, after my pickpocketing experience, I grew used to keeping a protective hold of my bag at all times. I’d make sure it was slung around my shoulders and hanging at my front rather than my back – plus I’d keep my hand on it when in a crowd, lest anyone try to take my purse out again. My heart would briefly stop in panic if I realised I’d carelessly set down my phone/bag/purse and then was unable to spot it again immediately, so afraid was I of someone stealing my belongings.

Of course, when I came here, I behaved in exactly the same way out of habit. It has been kind of drummed into me that you can’t trust people. You have to be careful. There’s always some bad egg waiting for you to get careless. People are out to get you: don’t let them! And what I soon discovered was that such an attitude is unheard of in Korea. I remember being on the subway on my first week here. It was standing room only, and I was carrying several heavy bags with no space around me to set them down. To my horror, a couple of seated people immediately reached out and took hold of my bags! I clung tightly to them, wondering what sort of a country this was, with folk trying to openly mug me on a moving train in full view of everyone. Then I realised that they were simply taking my bags to rest them on the floor by their feet so that I had my hands free to hold on to the rail. I soon learned that this is common practice. It’s polite. It wouldn’t occur to a Korean that someone would even consider stealing their bags.

And that’s why the idea of keeping an eye on your belongings is utterly foreign here. There are no warning signs like “beware pickpockets!” or “look after your belongings!” in the stations, as there are in other countries. People have no qualms about walking through heaving crowds with their bag falling open and their purse and phone sitting at the top. The idea that someone could reach in and take them is absurd.

It didn’t sink in, for me, just how unthinkable the idea of theft is until we went on our school picnic last week. We arrived with handbags, backpacks full of food, and blankets to sit on. At first I thought – with a sinking heart – that we were going to have to carry them all around the zoo with us until it was time for lunch. Then I saw everyone setting down their bags at the picnic area at the entrance, and thought – in confusion – that we were going to eat first, even though it was only 10.30am. And then everyone started walking off into the zoo. Oh… good, we’re leaving everything here? I asked Jennifer, who nodded. Is the principal staying with the bags? I asked. No, said Jennifer. Oh… so who is? I queried, casually. She looked blankly at me. What do you mean?

Who’s staying to look after all our things? Terri clarified helpfully. Jennifer looked mildly confused. No one…

And so we walked off to explore, completely carefree, while our food, drinks, handbags, purses, money, phones etc. stayed, cheerfully abandoned, at the zoo entrance. Obviously we returned and everything was exactly as it had been, untouched. And that’s what I love – that even though you could do that in many countries and it might be OK, here there’s not even a concept of the possibility that it might not be OK. You’re not fretting, while you’re away from your belongings, and then heaving a sigh of relief when you see them again. You expect them to be untouched, because you know no one would take them.

Just a few of our things left at the zoo entrance. Photo by a colleague.

And while Korea may have its flaws, I have to say I think that’s one highly admirable characteristic that you can’t find in many other countries these days. I feel safe walking along darkened streets alone at night. I feel safe standing in a crowd without my bag being clutched tightly in both hands. I feel safe leaving my phone on the table in a crowded bar when I go to the bathroom or to get another drink.

Unlike most countries I’ve been to (and China in particular), Korea is the kind of place where you don’t feel like you’ve got to be on your toes all the time. It’s safe. And long may that last!

The air raid sirens

I was in Seoul the first time I experienced the air raid sirens going off.

It scared the crap out of me, to be perfectly honest with you. I mean, there you are, strolling peacefully through the busy streets, minding your own business and getting used to the fact that, for the most part, you don’t have a clue what’s going on around you. It’s a nice day, you’re in South Korea, life is pretty good. And then, all of a sudden, the air is ripped apart by a sound that – in your short lifetime – you’ve only ever heard in war films and documentaries.

There can be no more chilling sound in the world than that of an air raid siren. It makes your heart stand still and then start pounding furiously. It makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand to attention, and the skin on your arms crawl with fear. I froze in utter terror in the middle of the street, images of those shaky black and white films playing on a loop in my head. Pictures of the aftermath of bombings… screams of women and children… tears and agony… all neatly punctuated with flashes of this guy’s face…

…and concluding with a mental map that looked something like this:

Rough guide to Korea

I don’t think I can quite express my terror at that particular moment. Oh, bloody hell, North Korea’s attacking us! is not a thought I ever expected to have in my life. Life is full of little twists and turns like that.

So anyway, all the traffic stopped, and within a few moments (which seemed like hours) the sound of police and fire engine sirens arrived on the scene to compete with the huge, echoing wail of the air raid siren. Men with flags and whistles appeared from nowhere, ensuring that all traffic came to a complete standstill. Jets roared overhead. Jeeps containing armed soldiers patrolled the streets, which were rapidly emptying. The air raid siren stopped and was replaced by eerie silence that did not match the usually chaotic streets of the city’s capital.

Beyond terrified, I figured I should follow the crowd, and looked around me with an expression similar to the one a dog gets when you tell him it’s time for his bath. A kindly-looking man touched my arm. Don’t be worry, he told me, is not bomb. Is… um… practice. Every month, we practice.

A drill, in other words. Honestly, I nearly fell at the man’s feet and wept.

Apparently (now that I am completely educated and informed about the matter, never again to be scared witless by it), South Korea has a civil defence drill (AKA the nuclear bomb drill) once a month. The air raid sirens sound, and all traffic must stop. People must evacuate the streets and take cover in buildings where possible. Drivers are actually supposed to leave their cars and go indoors, although I don’t think this is very strictly observed – especially since when I next experienced the drill, I was on a bus with a couple of dozen children on a field trip, and personally dreading the idea of safely evacuating the over-excited infants without losing any of them. Instead, the driver just turned off the engine and we sat there at the side of the road until we were given the signal that the drill was over.

It’s all very smooth and efficient and obviously a routine that is well-known by all South Koreans. But it does bring home the grim reality concerning our next door neighbours. I found this video on YouTube, taken in a town not far from my city. It gives a pretty good sense of what it’s like, from the kids in the playground taking cover, to the traffic moving off again at the second siren, and the people getting back on to the bus. I know you don’t have a knowledge of life here to compare it with, but take my word for it that the streets here are never that quiet and still!

Street life

Irish Friend One texted me on Saturday morning. Hey miss, want to go for lunch?

I met him for salad and a glass of wine at one. At 5.30 the next morning, I got home.

Some of the best nights out are unplanned, I suppose! We went to BonBon, the Italian restaurant downtown where Steve and Clare took me after my first week here.

With the chilled-out, mellow background music, and the front of the restaurant opened up to let in the sunshine and the warm summer air, it was easy to lose track of time. One glass of wine turned into 5, a quick catch-up turned into a sharing of life stories, and we eventually had to leave the restaurant because we realised we were hungry for dinner and thought that it would probably be quite embarrassing to ask to see the menu again when we hadn’t even paid for lunch yet.

Dinner was Korean barbecue (samgyeopsal) at a lovely modern cook-your-own place, followed by drinks on the terrace outside the nearest convenience store. This is a part of Korean culture that I’ve only recently discovered, now that the nice weather has arrived. Most convenience stores have tables and chairs outside them, from a cheap plastic patio table and two chairs, to a full-scale picnic area on a raised wooden terrace, complete with proper wooden tables, benches, and parasols.

You can buy some beer, wine, or soju in the shop, along with whatever snacks you fancy, and then just sit outside relaxing with them and enjoying the sun or watching the nightlife get started. I can’t imagine that happening at home. For one thing, you’re only allowed to drink on licensed premises, but for another, the pubs would never let it happen – giving people the choice to spend 50p on a bottle of soju, or a pound on a big bottle of beer, when they should be in the pubs paying several times that!

It feels very casual and summery, and we didn’t want the evening to end, which I suppose is how we ended up ringing all our other friends and then dancing the night away with them.

Welcome, summer, with your lazy long lunches and your warm, balmy nights! (Please don’t get too warm too soon…)

Stay away from the light!

On the first sunny day of Spring, I wandered outside in my shorts and t-shirt, basking in the blissful feeling that is the sun’s warmth on the bare skin after a long, cold, gray winter.

There were no clouds in the sky, and the temperature was the kind that I’d describe as perfect – it was hot in Northern Ireland terms (maybe 20C), but there was a breeze that kept the air cool and fresh. Glorious. I bought an ice cream at the shop to celebrate, and wandered happily along the streets. Sauntered, even! What a lovely day.

Imagine my confusion, then, when almost every woman I passed was carrying an umbrella. An open umbrella.

(I realise I'm using an awful lot of this guy's cartoons, but they're just perfect! I did ask his permission first... although originally it was just for one cartoon!)

Apparently, the Koreans are afraid of the sun. It’s not enough to lather yourself regularly in copious amounts of sunblock and stay mostly in the shade. Nor is it enough to carry around the aforementioned umbrella. No, you’ve actually got to cover every part of your body lest it see the light of day. The hotter the weather becomes, the more clothing they don. It is extremely rare to see an ajumma without a huge sun visor covering most of her face (and the usual mask covering the rest of it), but many people take it even further than that, tucking something that appears to be a tea-towel into the headband of the visor to create what I can only describe as a shepherd’s headdress from a children’s nativity play. They also cover themselves from head to toe in loose, baggy, undeniably unattractive clothing, and wear long gloves in scorching heat. It’s a sight to behold.

Here are a couple of pictures (kindly donated by Terri) of some ajummas doing the gardening at O World, where we went on a school trip yesterday.

All the taxi drivers wear long gloves, too, which I used to think was simply a hygiene thing, but no – I have been informed that it’s to avoid any contact with the sun on their hands and arms while they drive. It’s not even about sunburn – the idea of tanned skin is singularly unpopular here. One Korean friend told me, when I asked why she was wearing long gloves on a day when I was fanning myself in the shade, that she would soon be attending the wedding of a close family member, and couldn’t risk getting any sun on her arms before then. It struck me as just the opposite of our attitude back home, where women might try to top up their tans for a special occasion like a wedding! Here, you aim to stay as white as possible.

That’s maybe why so many people tell me I’m beautiful, here. Many of them stroke my skin and marvel at how white I am. I suppose they’re envious – while most Westerners I know would (and often have, calling me a milk bottle) remark that I need a bit of a tan! The Korean reaction to my sunburn after my beach weekend was hilarious. At home and in other countries, I’ve had people tell me I’m stupid or careless for getting so badly burnt. I’ve had looks of sympathy, amusement, and pity. But not until I came to Korea did I see looks of absolute horror and genuine disgust at my glowing red skin! Even my pupils told me that I was “ugly red teacher”. One little girl observed me in utter disapproval, arms folded, shaking her head in disgust. I found it hilarious.

Mind you, I may have a different attitude before very long, as it’s becoming a little too hot for comfort now, and I’m finding myself hiding in the shade wherever I can. By July, I’m likely to be just as afraid of the sun as any Korean!