Going to extremes

It is with feelings of despair that I have been contemplating the fact that winter is over and summer will soon unleash itself upon me in all its scorching, humid glory. However, I have managed to think of one fairly major reason why summer might be preferable to winter, even for a cold-dweller like me.

Yes, outside might be unbearable. But inside, in summer, becomes a large and wonderful refrigerator.

You see, Koreans have a rather odd outlook on the temperature. I’d have thought that the miracle of modern heating and cooling technology would mean that we could keep the interior of buildings at the same comfortable temperature all year long, regardless of the temperature outside. I don’t know exactly what this  comfortable temperature is, but it wouldn’t make you sweat or shiver.

But for some reason, people in Korea like to make the indoor climate feel like the exact opposite of the outdoor one. It’s like they’re over-compensating. It’s freezing cold outside – but inside, it feels like a hot summer’s day! It’s swelteringly hot outside – but inside, it feels like the coldest day in January!

It’s altogether bizarre. And in winter, it kills me. I’m not much for socialising as it is, but in winter I want to leave almost as soon as I’ve arrived in a bar or restaurant, because the heat is suffocating. Last night, I went for drinks for a friend’s birthday at Ethnic Bar, where you sit on  the floor at low tables amidst candles and flowers and lanterns and suchlike. All very charming, except that the underfloor heating was turned up so high that I felt like I was about to burst into flames as I sat there. I could feel the heat spreading up through my feet and legs as I sat there squirming miserably, until soon my face was bright red and all I could think about was getting outside into the cold air. When I got home, I stripped off and switched on the fan in an effort to cool myself down – a common occurrence in summer after I’ve walked home, but not what I’d expect to be doing when you can still see your breath on the air outside!

At school, it can get almost as bad, except that I do have some control over the temperature in my classroom (in that I can open the window). That doesn’t stop the burning of the underfloor heating, mind you. Last term, I actually refused to teach my last kindergarten class of the day because the classroom had heated up to a temperature that was utterly unbearable to me, even dressed in the single light layer that gets me shocked and disapproving stares from all the Korean teachers in their sweaters and scarves. I literally could not bear to stand on that hot floor. It felt like it was burning right through my feet (remember we don’t wear shoes indoors).

And so – in a weird twist – summer, when it arrives with its searing outdoor heat and oppressive humidity, will mean that I can once again feel comfortable indoors. The floor will be cool on my feet. The aircon will be blasting icy air. Fans will be circulating the coldness. And I will be one happy Hails. Because yes, they really do take it to the other extreme in summer, chilling rooms to the freezing temperatures they’re so desperate to eliminate in winter. Outside is horribly hot, but when you walk into a bar or restaurant and the cold air hits you, it’s almost worth the walk in the heat to get there. One of my South African friends sat in her coat as we watched a football match in a bar last summer. I, on the other hand, basked in the coldness wearing only a strappy top, shorts, and a big smile.

Oh, Korea… I love your culture, your people, your beautiful scenery, your cities, your quirks, and your children. If only your climate could be just a little bit Irish!


I can tell that I’m going to get a lot of blog posts out of this Art teacher thing.

I’m seriously loving it, by the way. The director was more than happy to hand complete control of the entire Art curriculum over to me when I showed her a sample plan, so I can pretty much do what I want, as long as I don’t go all radical and take the kids out to paint anti-government murals on the sides of houses, for example. And so I cheerfully spend a few hours per week surfing the net (is that still an expression?) for fun and educational art projects, hand over a monthly shopping list of materials to Jennifer, and spend two days a week clarried in paint and glitter. Sure what could be more perfect?!

I’m still a little nervous in my new role, mind you – still finding my feet. This means that I’ve been spending ridiculous amounts of time in preparation, including spending the beginning of Friday night pottering around my classroom with tubes of paint and brightly coloured straws, muttering to myself about the correct ratio of paint to water to washing-up liquid in order to achieve the perfect shade of bubbles.

I gave myself a small panic attack when I began testing the bubbles and realised that the second a drinking straw goes into your mouth, you get an instinctive urge to suck through it rather than blow. I had to make a conscious decision to prevent this action, as if my body would just have gone ahead and drunk the painty water if it hadn’t received any further instructions.

Considering that I was planning on offering these appetising-looking concoctions to three dozen pre-school infants, this was somewhat worrisome. And it was for this same reason that I devoted a large section of my demonstration in each class to miming out what would happen if they sucked instead of blowing into the straws. I can think of no other job where you’re required to stagger around several times in one morning, clutching a cup of bright pink liquid, clawing at your throat with an agonised expression on your face and making retching noises. The children were most amused, and it seemed that they were much more intelligent than me, for the thought of drinking the stuff had never even crossed their minds.

Teacher, very silly! Drink paint is yucky! Sick, teacher, so sick!

Excellent news. And so my confidence increased as I completed two successful classes. The children loved it, I loved it, and we all had a fabulous time. By the third class, I was feeling like the most fun teacher that ever walked the planet.

Blow a bit harder, I encouraged the quiet, withdrawn new boy, whose efforts were producing no bubbles at all. He’s a funny little boy – very silent and unblinking, and with seemingly no understanding of anything anyone says. He doesn’t even acknowledge that you’ve spoken to him, whether it’s a gentle question or a simple hello – but then he’s a bit behind the rest of the class, since they’ve already been at the school for a year,  plus he’s probably quite overwhelmed by his new surroundings, so I’m treating him as fragile rather than sulky.

Anyway, I turned to the girl beside him to check on the progress of her bubbles, and then returned my attention to him. A little harder, I repeated, growing puzzled as to why there were still no bubbles. That’s when I saw traces of green at his little lips, and almost had heart failure. Don’t drink it!!!! Spit, spit! I almost yelled, snatching the straw out of his mouth and then realising he would have no idea what I just said. I had to mime spitting instead, which he did gratefully, a torrent of green pouring out of his mouth. Dear lord, I thought to myself,  I have force-fed paint and soap to an already nervous and withdrawn child. This does not bode well.

And indeed, after having had his mouth rinsed and his teeth thoroughly brushed, he returned to the classroom looking deeply suspicious of me. He still refused to acknowledge that I was speaking to him, but now there was a (somewhat green) tinge of resentment in his glare.

No wonder, if he really thought I was forcing him to drink such an unpleasant mixture, to the extent where he was going to keep forcing it down until I told him he could stop. Only one day of teaching him, and yet I will forever be the evil bitch who tried to poison him. Sigh. You can’t win ’em all…

Caught red-handed

First day of term.

Did I mention that I’m now the Art teacher instead of Musical English? Oh yes. Indeed. I’m launching straight in at the deep end with three Art classes with the brand new babies. This ought to be entertaining.

I’ve just had a brief moment of panic when it occurred to me to check that the ink I’ve been given for finger-painting is in fact washable. I dipped my finger in, washed it immediately, and was still left with a slightly pink fingertip. This did not bode well, and I flapped my way downstairs to the office, panicking to the director about what would happen if I sent the children home after their first day at the school, with their fingers permanently dyed red.

Jennifer did not seem too bothered. It will come off, she said dismissively, and that was that, and now here I am in my classroom with 12 children waving their red fingers (and hands, faces, and elbows, in the case of a few) at me as I try desperately to scrub them back to their original colour.

Eventually I have to let them go, and I run downstairs in a fluster again to inform Jennifer of the latest development. What is it? she asks in the voice of someone who would not be at all surprised to hear that I have lost all my infants or accidentally set fire to the classroom. I wring my hands dramatically, and wail Jennifer, I’ve dyed the children red!

It will come off, she repeats, looking both amused and exasperated.

But it’s not coming off, it’s not!!!

Well, whatever, she concludes with a shrug. I gape at her in astonishment. Jennifer seems a lot more laid-back this term.

So you’re saying, just to be clear, I eventually ask, that I have your full permission to continue dyeing all the new kids red?

Jennifer laughs. Yes. Go ahead.

What a weird job this is at times.


My life seems to have exploded in an, um, explosion of madness.

Mind you, I’m starting to recall that the same thing happened this time last year, and am thankful that it’s mostly enjoyable madness this time around – as opposed to stress levels that became so high I almost quit my job after several months of teaching way more classes than I’d ever anticipated. The school director seems to have learned from last year’s morale-crushing mistakes, for she has taken many of our suggestions (and desperate pleas) on board, and spent a great deal of time designing this year’s timetable to ensure that each teacher gets enough short breaks to catch their breath, and also a few much-needed hours per week just for lesson planning and paperwork. Classes start tomorrow, and we’re all pretty enthusiastic about it.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that it’s suddenly a breeze. Far from it, in fact, as I discovered at 5pm when I found that the day I had allocated to setting up materials and preparing lesson plans had rather spectacularly disappeared in a flurry of teacher training sessions, staff meetings, and elementary school classes. There went my relaxing evening and the only time I’d set aside to clean the apartment and do my laundry – with sinking hearts it dawned on us, one by one, that we weren’t going to be going home any time soon.

I must confess. Secretly, and to an extent, I think I actually enjoy stress. I do, really… I can’t quite explain it, but there’s a certain buzz that comes with rushing around all harassed, clutching stacks of papers and fighting colleagues for the photocopier, and frantically scribbling notes, and cutting/laminating/gluing with ribbons around your neck and drawing pins between your teeth in a way that only kindergarten teachers do. I love the fact that I can go about my tasks quietly, on my own, while sitting on the floor next to a couple of non-English-speaking colleagues, and that we can still somehow communicate with and assist each other when necessary. I love the feeling of real, aching tiredness that tells you you’ve really earned your night’s sleep – even when your back is sore and your eyelids are drooping and your feet are throbbing. I think I’m just thriving on the feeling of being necessary and useful in my workplace after spending most of my adult life feeling useless, not knowing what I could contribute to the world.

Anyway so, it’s 10.30pm and I’m just home. The director suddenly caught sight of the time at around 7 and realised that all her staff were still frantically working. To her credit, she then ordered in dinner for us, which we quickly scarfed down before getting back to work. Terri and I crawled into the office around 9, announcing our departure and receiving the sort of hearty thank you for our efforts that makes me (a people-pleasing praise junkie) glow and want to return and work till I actually collapse. Instead, though, we staggered home in an exhausted stupor, collapsed on Terri’s bed, and shared a bottle of wine with her sister, who’s just arrived back from her holidays and looked like the very image of energy and vitality next to us. Never has a glass of expensive wine felt so deserved (nor so wonderful). Our apartments both look like they’ve been hit by bombs and then sprayed with some kind of dirty laundry-dispensing hosepipe, but it’s hard to care at this point.

And so to bed – for tomorrow, the school will once again be filled with the pitter-patter of tiny feet and the excited squealing of infant voices. And that’s when the real hard work begins!

I can’t wait. :)