Bittersweet

As I dejectedly sipped a beer tonight, I told some friends about the blog post I wrote one year ago, entitled “I don’t like these ones“.

I resented those children. They replaced my little angels from the year before, and I wasn’t happy about it. They were noisy and unruly and impossible to teach. They wouldn’t listen, wouldn’t speak English, and wouldn’t stay in their seats. “I was so frustrated and exhausted that I gave up on trying to teach them, and just wrote the answer up on the board for them to copy down,” I said to Alex one lunch time, trying not to weep into my soup. “And they STILL got it wrong!”

I was so sad that my beloved classes had been replaced by these children whose specific aim in life seemed to be to piss me off. I’d cried at the graduation ceremony, and couldn’t imagine ever taking to these new students like I had to my old ones. A reader commented on my post, one year ago today: What state are you going to be in next year, when it’s your turn to leave….?

Well, as it turned out, I don’t have to leave after all, and I have another year to enjoy doing this job that I love so much. But the really surprising part is that my sorrow from last year was nothing compared to how I feel right now. I actually find myself likening my feelings to “The Sad” I felt after the breakup. Of course, I don’t have any of the destructive negative feelings like hurt and anger that went along with that, so I know I’ll be right as rain after a brief period of grief, but at the moment I honestly feel the kind of raw emotion that makes you want to curl up and cry your eyes out whilst listening to sad songs and eating only chocolate and ice cream!

Last year, the children didn’t show any emotion when they left – but this year, several of them started to cry during the “Goodbye, teacher” song. Oh, it was horrendous. Torture. And of course there we are, teachers all lined up on the stage staring desperately at the back wall in a furious attempt to hold back the tears as the kids sing to us. At least four of us failed miserably, and cried right there on the stage, in front of the audience of proud parents and sad children.

I know it’s wrong to have favourites, but I always do, much as I try to ensure that it doesn’t show in class. There were 5 girls this year with whom I formed a real bond. I love them with all my heart. They are bright, enthusiastic, positive, and so friendly that you can’t help but smile when you see them. They’d come into my classroom if they were passing, just to say hello or show me what they’d made in their science class, or tell me about their plans for the weekend. I read that post from a year ago and find it almost impossible to believe that I didn’t always adore them.

After the ceremony, my favourite little girl came flying out of the hall, dropped her diploma on the floor, and flung herself at me with such force that I nearly fell backwards, barely having time to crouch down to catch her. And she howled. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a child I really care about in so much distress before, and it broke my heart. So we cried together. And then her mother came along to try and coax her to leave, and she was crying as well. It was both horrible, and beautiful. Horrible to see a child so upset, and to be saying goodbye to one that I’ve come to love as if she’s my own. Beautiful to know that she loves me as much as I love her, and that my job involves so much more than just earning a living.

I don’t know who grabbed my camera and took this photograph, but I will treasure it for the rest of my life.

And now (as I can no longer see the screen for the tears – this is ridiculous), onwards! To the new school year and the new lot who’ll no doubt drive me mad for a while before putting me hopelessly under their spell…

Shabu Shabu, and other tales.

Shabu shabu is a Japanese meal which is very popular in Korea.

I’ve been to quite a few shabu shabu restaurants since I got here, although I must confess it’s not one of my preferred dishes. I don’t dislike it – there are just other things I find more appealing. I went to a local shabu shabu restaurant tonight with work for the annual end -of-term dinner – a farewell for the departing teachers, and a welcome for the new teachers. Just as an aside on that, the staff turnover rate in schools here is unbelievable. I have been working at my school for a year and a half now, in a staff of  about 20 – and at tonight’s event I realised that I am about to become the longest-serving teacher bar one Korean homeroom teacher.

But as usual I digress. Shabu shabu is yet another cook-your-own-dinner affair. This time, it’s a big pot of boiling water/broth in the centre of your table, which is turned up high by staff as you head off to the buffet table to stock up on ingredients. When you return, you cook your raw meat and veggies by dipping them into the boiling water and swishing them around a few times. The swish-swish sound this makes is translated as shabu shabu in Japanese.

Originally, shabu shabu involved just thinly sliced beef and vegetables, but Koreans have cheerfully added about a million other ingredients to the mix, as they’re loveably prone to doing. When I went to the work do this time last year, I was confused and helpless with my foreign colleagues, each of us putting a few measly slices of meat and a couple of mushrooms on our plates before realising that everyone else was working as a team – every member of the table piling their plate high with one particular ingredient. They returned to their table and dumped the huge platefuls into the broth. None of that tedious swish-swish business in Korea, thank you very much!

This time around, I felt very much in the know. Alex anxiously caught my eye from further back in the queue, as if to ascertain that I knew what I was doing for our table. I’m getting the meat, I called back to him. Terri’s getting the vegetables. He looked pleasantly surprised, in the manner of a mentor who can finally let his protégé fly free. OK, good – I’ll do seafood.

Because, you see, there are HUGE amounts of food available for Korean shabu shabu. It’s all about quantity here, which obviously pleases me. :) You can return to the buffet tables as many times as you like for vegetables, raw meat, noodles, dumplings, and a selection of seafood that would make your mind boggle – clams, oysters, unknown Things in Big Long Shells, whole baby octopuses, shrimp, and various curly things I’d rather not think about. And that’s just for the shabu shabu pot. In addition to all this, you’ve got an ordinary buffet just in case you’re not entirely satisfied. Sweet and sour chicken, battered fish and pork, various delicious cooked noodle dishes (hot and cold), kimchi, gimbap, fried rice dishes, and my favourite part of all – a sushi bar with three chefs working flat-out to keep up with the constant stream of customers waiting to grab the next freshly-made piece as soon as it’s set down.

As I said, I’m not mad about shabu shabu – but the buffet is to die for. I spend more time standing at the sushi bar than anything else, delighting in watching the sushi makers at work. It’s like an art! I love watching them prepare each piece individually, especially when – as tonight’s guy did – they put on a special show for the foreign girl and make their speciality pieces for me. :)

I was quite happy to leave my colleagues boiling octopuses* and chewing intestines for that!

(*favourite quote of the evening – “Chris, would you care for a baby octopus?” “Ohhhhh, yes please! Thanks awfully.”)

I’ll never see John Lennon.

I really should get out of the bizarre little time warp I’m stuck in.

I don’t know exactly how I came to believe that I was a child of the Sixties, but I suspect that my parents’ love of music – and the exposure I had to it throughout my formative years – has a lot to do with it. I mean, sure, I’ve liked some modern bands. There was no 12-year-old girl more devoted to Take That, and I’ve always enjoyed rather more obscure bands like The Divine Comedy. I’m also partial to a bit of Bon Jovi. Occasionally, there’ll even be a Top 40 hit that I like.

For the most part, however, I am unimpressed by modern ‘music’. I refuse to move forward, choosing instead to remain firmly ensconced in a musical era I wasn’t even around to experience firsthand. I grew up watching recordings of concerts by The Beatles, Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Bruce Springsteen, Simon and Garfunkel, Queen, Elvis, and The Carpenters, and listening to the likes of John Lennon, The Travelling Wilburys, and a vast selection of Blues singers. I generally like anything that happened before the year I was born. You can keep your Lady GaGas and your Pinks and your Rihannas. I don’t actually know which one’s which, to be honest. Don’t know who sings which song, for the most part, and wouldn’t recognise a picture of any of the Top Ten artists (I just checked – I got to 31 before I found a group I would be able to identify by sight and recognise by sound. And it was Take That. ;)).

However, there are two main problems with being a child of the 60s (or earlier) even though you grew up in the 80s.

1) You’re a bit out of the loop when your friends are all up to date on the latest in the music scene and you’re listening to Woody Guthrie recordings from the 1950s.

2) You rarely get the chance to see your favourite singers/bands perform live.

The former doesn’t really bother me too much. They have their thing, I have mine, and we’ll agree to disagree and/or not understand each other. The latter, however, is painful. I will never, ever see my all-time favourite band live in concert, shaking their mop-top heads and strumming their guitars in unison. I will never get to witness John Lennon playing that white piano and singing my own personal anthem. I will never attend a Monkees concert. I will never hear Karen Carpenter’s voice fill an arena.

Woe.

So, when I do get the chance to see one of my musical heroes, I seize it as if it’s my last – because I have the fear that it might just be. I remember being devastated for the first few minutes of a Simon and Garfunkel concert, because I’d watched their Central Park concert so many times that they’d become stuck in my head just as they looked when they recorded it. It was only when two almost unrecognisable old men came on to the stage that I recalled that that particular concert had been filmed in the year that I was born. Nope, I don’t like being jolted out of my comfortable time warp. I don’t want to live in a world where Art Garfunkel has no hair.

I was going to come alone if I couldn’t find anyone to keep me company, I confessed to my companion last night as we sat in the rapidly-filling arena of  the Seoul Olympic Stadium, wearing our tour souvenir t-shirts and waiting excitedly for another long-time favourite of mine to come on stage. I know this sounds awful, but… well, I had to make sure that I see him before he dies.

She looked a little taken aback at my frankness, but her expression changed when he walked on to the stage and the big screen showed a close-up of his lined, softened face, with the wispy grey hair falling in his eyes. I knew that she, too, must be prone to retaining a mental image of someone as they looked in their heyday. I mean – Eric Clapton looks like this:

Or at least this:

But not like this:

(taken from http://www.cnbluebeat.com/) - Clapton last night in Seoul

It’s just a bit of a shock and a reality check. And a little sad… you want the people you love to stay young and vibrant forever, don’t you? Even the ones you’ve never actually met. Of course, it doesn’t make the slightest bit of difference to the concert – if anything, Clapton’s voice sounds even better with the slightly gravelly, husky quality that seems to increase as someone gets older. And honestly, anyone who can play the guitar like he can would probably look sexy even with no teeth and a beer belly and a food-stained t-shirt. I had goosebumps throughout most of the concert, and found myself in tears when he played my favourite (Wonderful Tonight). Just being there in the same place as him while he sang a song I’ve known and loved all my life was a magical, unforgettable moment.

By the end, the whole crowd had risen to its feet as if drawn upwards by the power of the music, swaying and dancing and jumping and clapping. The cheering went on for a good ten minutes after he left the stage after his final encore. He may heading towards his 70s, but Clapton is not an old man. Far, far from it. What a star!

* Videos not mine – I only took a couple of short clips as souvenirs, as I much prefer to watch the concert through my eyes rather than through a camera. You can always find videos online… good old YouTube!

A day to howl?

Today is 대보름 (Daeboreum) – literally “Great full moon”.

It’s Full Moon Day! my colleague informed me as she reached me a handful of peanuts. I’m not sure how I missed this last year (probably too sick – damn these allergies!), but apparently it’s one of five traditional holidays in Korea. There are celebrations the night before the first full moon of the (lunar) new year, where they dance around naked and perform sacrifices on bonfires. No, not really – but you’d have believed me, wouldn’t you? In fact, they do make bonfires and Catherine wheels out of the dried grass between rice fields, and play traditional games. I wish I’d known about this in advance and I would’ve tried to find out if there were any local celebrations I could have watched. Still, there’s always next year.

On the day itself, Koreans… eat peanuts. Not the salted or honey roast varieties, of course (and they happen to be the only kinds I like), but peanuts from their shells – we always called them monkey nuts, for some reason, so when I hear “peanuts” I automatically think of the wrong thing. This always ends in disappointment.

Have some peanuts!

Oh, yes please! [face falls in disappointment as hands are filled with monkey nuts]

I can’t eat them. I chew and chew and chew, and my mouth becomes drier and drier as they absorb all available saliva to the point where swallowing the chewed-up, mushy, tasteless mess is a physical impossibility.

Of course, today would not be the time to mention this to my colleagues and students, and so there is a small and troublesome mountain of monkey nuts sitting on my desk. It is customary to routinely crack them with your teeth throughout this day, as it will ensure that you have healthy skin and teeth for the next year. Erm, OK. Still, it’s better than the other food-related tradition, which is the belief that if your pet dog has a meal on Full Moon Day, he will contract gad flies and become ill during the summer. So, yes, the pooches of Korea have to go without food today! :(

All over Korea, people will be climbing mountains this evening – in the snow! – in a bid to be the first person to see the rise of the moon and therefore have good luck all year.

I think I’ll just hope for the best.

Not all the neighbours are bad.

I had the most surreal yet heartwarming experience today.

I’ve been in bed all day with a pounding headache and sore throat, the bug I picked up during the week having settled in nicely and taken my voice away. Reluctantly, I had to drag myself out of bed when the doorbell rang a couple of hours ago, as I knew it was the landlord’s wife bringing the plumber to fix a problem with my water heater.

Shivering and sweating at the same time, I croaked a hello at the door and then sank back on to my bed while they did whatever it was they were doing. The landlord’s wife is a kindly but no-nonsense ajumma, who insists in talking loudly at me every time she sees me, in her very gruff and occasionally frightening voice, despite knowing that I really don’t understand most of what she says. I always come away feeling like I’ve been told off, but not entirely certain why. Anyway, today she chattered away to me while the plumber did his work, and I sat wrapped in a blanket and whispering confused replies until finally, to my relief, they left.

Two hours later, the bell rang again. I only answered the door because I assumed they’d forgotten something, and was mentally cursing them for interrupting my sleep as I threw open the door. I was greeted by the sight of the landlord’s wife and an elderly lady who could have been her mother. One was carrying a plate of kimchi and vegetable side dishes, the other a tray with a big pot of steaming hot soup.

Tteokguk, they said. For your throat.

They pushed past me into my apartment and began bustling around, the old lady settling me into bed again and actually tucking me in (!), and ladling out the delicious, comforting soup as the landlord’s wife went into the kitchen and proceeded to wash the abandoned dishes in the sink. Then, satisfied that I was eating the soup, they left, smiling at my ridiculously feeble, repeated croak of “kamsahamnida” (thank you).

When you’re sick, you really just want to lie in bed and have someone to bring you soup. It’s something you usually have to sacrifice as an adult living on your own… but not with a kindly and determined ajumma or two living upstairs!

I feel better already. :)

Murder, she wrote.

I’m not a violent person, dear readers,  but I think I may be developing murderous feelings towards my next door neighbour.

For a long time, the apartment on the left of mine was either empty, or occupied by a very quiet man who has now been joined by his girlfriend. I have never seen them; I wouldn’t recognise them if I met them in the hallway; I don’t know their names. I am, however, fairly intimately acquainted with them thanks to the paper-thin nature of the wall between our apartments.

Some facts about my neighbours:

  • They work late and/or socialise late during the week, returning home between one and four a.m.
  • He is quiet unless provoked
  • She is a spoiled, whiny, childish, noisy cow

Theirs is not a happy relationship. Inevitably I’m awakened by their return before they’ve even come up the stairs, their raised voices echoing throughout the building with seemingly no awareness of the time or the fact that most people are trying to sleep. They are almost always mid-argument. The door is opened and thrown back with such force that it crashes against mine and removes the last glimmer of hope that I’m going to get back to sleep any time soon.

He is usually telling her that he’s not going to keep arguing with her about this, and marches into the bedroom, where he falls silent, presumably getting undressed. Our wall is so thin that I hear him unbuckling his belt, and the squeak of the bed as he sits on it. Meanwhile, his girlfriend is screaming at him from the living room, her voice becoming more and more banshee-like with every wail. Eventually she storms into the bedroom, at which point he jumps furiously back into the argument. Occasionally she will throw something or he will pound the wall in frustration. Or she will storm out in a huff, right out into the hallway, where she lingers outside my door waiting to see if he’ll come after her – which he generally does, and there’s some more yelling and echoing before he drags her back inside. If he doesn’t come after her, she gets annoyed about this and storms back in to ask why.

None of this is the murder-inspiring part.

No, the part that makes me want to do horrible things to this girl I’ve never even seen is her voice. It is the single most irritating, annoying, nerve-gratingly painful noise I have ever heard. Without a doubt, her boyfriend is louder – when he yells, his voice booms and the windows practically vibrate. And yet I don’t want to kill him. It’s her. Her, with her shrill, nasal, droning, WHINE.

The Korean language and accent means that every sentence ends in a long, drawn-out vowel sound. This can sometimes make someone sound like they’re angry or whining even if they’re not. But whereas in English an angry person will put emphasis on a particular word, perhaps making it louder than the others (“What do you expect ME to do?!!!”), in Korean the anger comes through in that final vowel sound. The more angry the speaker, the longer and more varied in pitch that vowel sound will be (“What do you expect me to dooooooooOOOOOOOOoooOOOOOOO?!!”).

Now, add that to the fact that I can’t understand much Korean, and that I can only hear sounds (not distinct words) through the wall, and that it’s 3 in the bloody morning on a Tuesday. And try to hear what I hear:

Whine-whine-whine-whine-awAWWWWawwwAWWWWWWWWWWWW. Whine-whine-whine-eyyyyyyyyyyyyyEYYYYYYY. Whine-whine-AWWWWWWWWWWWWW. Whine-whine-whine-whine-whine-whine-ahhhhAHHHHHHHHHHahhhhhAHHHHHHHH.

She sounds like a spoiled child throwing a tantrum. I can actually picture her stomping her feet and sticking out her bottom lip. And the more she goes on, the angrier I become, lying there in my bed listening to her whining until I can take it no more and just scream something impulsive and not terribly complimentary in English. I’m not really a swearer or a shouter by nature, but I have surprised myself with some of the words I’ve yelled through that wall. It never makes any difference, of course.

I could be a little more forgiving if I thought she was some poor girl trapped in an abusive relationship, but I don’t get that impression at all. Especially after last night, when she came in alone for the first time and proceeded to call the boyfriend and fight with him over the phone. A whole hour of whining and shouting and sobbing, to the point where I was actually getting a bit alarmed and wondering if I should go round and see if she was OK. She was sobbing so hard that she could hardly breathe (she could still whine, though). I thought she was going to make herself ill. And then she hung up, and the crying stopped instantly. Not only that, but she put on the TV – and started singing along cheerfully to an upbeat pop song! What a manipulative shrew. If there’s an abused person in that house, it’s the boyfriend.

And of course, when they’re not fighting, they’re having horrifyingly passionate make-up sex. Honestly, speaking as a neighbour with thin walls, I’m not entirely sure which is worse.

I don’t believe I’ve ever hoped so fervently for a couple to break up since David Duchovny married Tea Leoni and broke my heart.

 

Just imagine

I think that, as an English teacher, you’ve got to accept the fact that some of your students will simply never be able to speak English.

However, as an English teacher, you’ve also got to continue to teach them English.

This makes for some frustrating, trying, and generally exhausting classes – even if it’s just one student who’s struggling. You can’t let them get left behind, and yet you can’t wait forever for them or you end up with a class full of bored, impatient pupils who finished their work ages ago.

Case in point: today’s first class. To be fair, I got roughly three hours of sleep last night, and was suffering from what can only be described as ‘holiday lag’ – having been off work since Wednesday for Lunar New Year, I fell into a most unhealthy habit of staying up late and sleeping most of the day, which resulted in my not being able to sleep until around 5am this morning. Ugh. On some occasions, coffee really doesn’t seem to help as much as you’d hope.

But there we were, all the same, learning how to describe animals by saying things like “It has long ears and a fluffy tail” and “It has a long trunk and big ears”. They had to make up a new animal each – some weird and wonderful creature born of their own imagination – and then draw it and describe it to the class. 80% of the class understood this instruction after my first explanation: Draw a new animal. Not a real animal. Pretend! Imagine! Maybe it has 7 legs and 1 eye! Or green fur with pink spots!

Ahhh! went the 80%, and excitedly started upon their creations.

Everyone else got it after my second, slower recap, with actions and a couple of example illustrations on the board.

Ahhh! went everyone else, also starting to draw.

Everyone, that is, except Kevin, who looked wonderingly at me as I pranced around pretending to be an orange and purple winged creature with two trunks. Not real! Think! Pretend! Imagine! Make up! YOUR animal, funny animal, silly animal!

Tiger? he asked hopefully.

No, Kevin, not a real animal. NEW animal. Many legs, silly colours, no eyes! Pretend!

Rabbit? he mused.

No! Look at your friends’ drawings. Look! See? Funny animals. It has three eyes and a giant tail! It has wings and a long trunk! Do you understand?

Yes. He looked confident now.

Great! So, can you draw your animal now? I prompted.

Kitchen? he queried.

He meant chicken, but this was really no consolation to me at this point. I broke my own classroom rule out of sheer exhaustion and despair. Alvin, please can you explain to Kevin in Korean?

Alvin obliged. The others contributed to the explanation. Everyone showed Kevin their pictures. I gulped down coffee.

Kevin drew a dog.