What’s Up?

This one’s really for my mum and dad, to let them hear my progress in the whole guitar-learning area. I debated giving it a password and letting only them have access to it, but then I thought, hey (yea, yea, yea, hey, yea, yea), I’ve never done that, and if my readers don’t want to stay with a world-travellin’, blog writin’, cocktail drinkin’, English teachin’, guitar playin’, 90s cheesy pop singin’ sensation, they can find some other blog to read, can’t they? ;)

I recorded this after a mammoth practice session, simply because I was genuinely overjoyed to finally be able to play a song and sing it at the same time. Granted, the only reason I can do this is because it contains four easy chords repeated over and over again, but hey (yea, yea, yea, hey, yea, yea), it’s a start – and it has the bonus of being a song I loved as a teenager, too. Parents, click the link below to hear how I’m spending my evenings over here…

What’s Up

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Shoes

I’m quite sentimental about my trusty walking sandals.

My cousin had a pair, and recommended them for comfort and durability, so I bought them the day before I left Northern Ireland (the first time around) to head off to Estonia for my first taste of travel and adventure. They’re nothing special to look at, but they’re practical and super-comfortable. I’ve probably walked for hundreds of miles in them, wearing them through all the warmer months each year since that first Eastern European trip in 2008. From exploring along a rickety old disused railway line in Tallinn in my first week away

…to a whirlwind 1-week voyage through several Japanese cities last summer….

…and everywhere from the Hungarian countryside to ancient Roman ruins in Italy to the top of the Eiffel Tower in between.

And yes, now I’ve dusted them off once more and put them into use for their fourth year in a row, and will choose to wear them almost every day from now until the end of October. This time around, I do actually have other shoes. Pretty little girly sandals, kitten heels, summery canvas shoes, trainers (I actually typed ‘sneakers’ there), boots – a veritable treasure trove of footwear compared to what I had during the penniless freelance writer years. And yet when the warm weather hits, all I want to do is throw on some shorts and a t-shirt, and my comfy old Velcro-strapped sandals.

We’ve been through a lot together. We’ve walked uncertainly out through many, many airport arrivals gates and train/bus stations to face the unknown world on the other side. We’ve collapsed in a heap together at the top of very big hills in France and at the foot of very big mountains in Switzerland. We’ve wandered, lost and confused, through Bratislava and Keszthely and numerous other places where we didn’t know where to go or what to do. We’ve joyfully skipped along beautiful old cobbled streets, and broken-heartedly curled up outside grotty bus stations with no money, no home, and the occasional rat. We’re a team.

But now, alas, I am in a country where shoes are not welcome. At least, not indoors. Not only must you take your shoes off when you enter someone’s home, but also when you enter a restaurant, a gym, your workplace… and of course my trusty old shoes are great for this, as well, being easy to slip off and step back into in a hurry, when others are waiting behind you – unlike winter boots and complicated strappy sandals with buckles and whatnot, which always have me flustered and hopping around frantically in the restaurant doorway. However, my beloved shoes are beginning to show signs of wear and tear. No, actually, that was last year. This year, they are positively embarrassing  – but not from the outside! No, once they’re on my feet, they look relatively presentable. You know what’s so great about footwear, it’s so adaptable and actually quite rigid in some ways. You might need a guide to understand all the different specific shoes used for different reasons. Endlessly complex, like the humans making them and wearing them.

When I take them off, though…

So now I’m always trying to hide my shoes at the back of the shelf in the school hallway, and racing to get to them first when leaving someone’s house. But Korean hospitality being what it is, I am usually not allowed to keep my shoes lurking in a position of shame underneath a sparkling pair of stiletto heels. Last night in the dak galbi restaurant (no, I still cannot get enough of that stuff – the restaurant staff now treat Terri and I like family, and don’t even ask us what we want any more, just bring all our usuals. They all come over to personally greet us, and wave to us if they see us walking past.), I tried to kick them under the raised floor platform where we sat, and when I jumped down after my meal I found them laid out neatly for me, facing outwards so I could just step right into them. People do the same thing in their apartments, turning my shoes around to face the door for when I leave. It always gives me a sinking feeling of shame and horror, when I see those scruffy, overworked soles next to all the glittering, sparkly, delicate shoes, and imagine the disgust on my host’s face as she picked them up. Not that they ever let on, of course, but their politeness somehow makes it worse. I can imagine someone at home going “Look at the state o’ them there shoes doll, thon’s a disgrace!”, and I suppose I’m just more comfortable with that reaction. I don’t know how to react to polite avoidance of the subject, so I usually just put my trusty old shoes back on as hurriedly as possible, and scamper off trying to look like someone who’s actually on her way right this minute to buy some new footwear.

Sigh. I just can’t bear to let them go…

Carry on, Camping.

We had a huge thunderstorm here on Friday afternoon.

The day had been ‘very close’ as the folks back home say, and then all of a sudden the sun disappeared, the heavy grey clouds seemed to drop right down on top of the buildings, and darkness fell. I have to admit, it was a little eerie for it suddenly to be dark at 2 in the afternoon. My class of second graders joked that I should turn out the light and tell a ghost story, and were delighted when I did it.

One of the things I love about my job is that because my goal is to get them speaking in English as much as possible, we don’t have to stick rigidly to the course books – it doesn’t matter if they’re excited about some other topic and just want to chat about it. As long as we chat in English, I’m still doing my job and they’re still getting good practice. Probably more than they would from conjugating verbs and answering grammatical questions.

And my kids really love to chat! They’re very bright, imaginative and entertaining, and as their English gets better, I enjoy my conversations with them more and more. I’ve stopped standing at the front of the class in the traditional teacher pose with my 3 (relatively small) elementary classes, finding that seating them in a group and then sitting down at the table with them makes the class much more informal and conducive to conversation. I don’t shush them if they stray from the book topic at hand, preferring now to encourage the conversation and ask them questions.

“What sort of weather can you predict by looking outside now?” I asked, seizing the chance to practice recently covered science vocabulary as they stared in fascination at the ominous darkness outside. “It’s going to rain. I predict very big storm!” said Lily. “What other things happen in a big storm?” I asked. “Thunder!” “”Lightning!” “Wind!” came the replies from around the table. “Let’s keep looking out while we work, and see if your predictions were correct,” I said, pleased, and picked up my book again to resume the lesson. Lily, however, was looking thoughtful.

“Teacher? Do you know the man in America, says the earth is going to die?” Excellent. A discussion on end-of-the-world prophecies with 8-year-olds, just as the view from the window had started to look decidedly spooky. Unsure of how to handle this, I tried to pretend I hadn’t heard, but by then her friends were all intrigued, and before I could decide what to do she had explained the whole sorry Camping tale to them. They looked amazed.

“The world is not about to end!” I assured them firmly, just as the sky was suddenly ripped apart by blinding flashes of lightning. Rain began pounding against the windows, and the thunder rolled so loudly that it wouldn’t have been difficult for a child to believe that the world was indeed on its last legs.

“Now, listen!” I said firmly above the thunder and the gasps, fearing impending disaster in the form of tears and screams. “You predicted this! You studied this! You know why storms happen, and you know what all these things are. You predicted the weather – but NO ONE can predict the end of the world, understand?”

They stared at me. Then Sally piped up, “We know, Teacher. Man is very very crazy, I think.” The others nodded and giggled. “And storm is very fun!” added Kelly. “May we watch please?”

And I agreed to let them take a break from working to watch the flashes light up the rain-drenched landscape, with a chorus of excited “Ohhhhhh!”s and “Wowwwww!”s at every clap of thunder and every burst of lightning. They were impressed and thrilled by the spectacle, and I was impressed by them.

The world did not end. And I think I love those children even more than I did before.

While my guitar teacher gently weeps.

I am not the most gifted guitar player in the world.

Learning to play is proving to be a lot like learning other things in my life: languages, games, how to be in a relationship… I’m great at studying the topic and getting a solid grasp of the theory, but suffer miserably when it comes to putting it into practice. Playing the guitar is much like speaking Korean, where I’m concerned, in that I can do it really well when I’m practicing all alone at home where no one can hear me – but as soon as there’s someone there listening to me and expecting me to have something to show for all my efforts, it sounds like it might be my very first attempt.

The fact that I have a rapidly-growing crush on my teacher is really not helping matters.

It only goes to show how Koreanised I’ve become, when the man who can now reduce me to blushes and sweaty palms is not a big, burly fella with long hair, but a sweet, sensitive, delicate Korean boy with neatly manicured fingernails and salon-coiffed hair, who wears little waistcoats and pink sparkly neckties and thinks that’s “casual”. He looks like a k-pop boy band member, for crying out loud. But regardless of what that says about my changed tastes, it’s making guitar lessons both exhilarating and exhausting. As far as the former goes, I’d forgotten what it felt like to have a crush on someone. The little flip of your stomach when your eyes meet; the quickened pulse when your hands touch; the wondering whether that glance was just the tiniest bit flirtatious. But yes, exhausting. I’m glad I no longer do this crush thing on a regular basis, because I really don’t have the energy any more for all the nervous twitterpation.

A guitar teacher will, of course, hold your hand occasionally throughout a lesson. At least, he will if his student is yours truly. My fingers have some stubbornness about them, often refusing to press down on the correct strings when things get complicated, and Seonsengnim (Teacher) patiently holds them in the right place and moves them for me until I get the hang of it. Unfortunately this is not at all helpful when my reaction to Seonsengnim holding my hand is to blush furiously and lose all concentration on the task at hand. Eventually I inevitably descend into nervous giggles. Coupled with my inability to communicate with him in Korean, I’m pretty sure this makes me look like a gibbering fool of very little brain. His patience only makes him more desirable, of course, and so we have settled into a routine of me going in and behaving like a giggly schoolgirl, and him suppressing sexy smiles and persevering with the lesson, rewarding me with “Chal haseyo”s (“well done”s) and getting a deepening red blush in return.

The whole thing is ridiculous. Every week, I come away feeling like I’m 12 years old again. Hopefully it passes soon and normality can be restored. However, I must admit – happy as I am being single, and reluctant/scared/unwilling as I am to ever change that status again, having a schoolgirl crush is sort of fun. It’s nice to be reminded of that, I suppose. ;)

Listening for the clicks

I’m spending my free time these days looking for jobs in France.

Originally, I reached this decision reluctantly, wishing with all my heart that Korea were closer to home so that I could be a bit more connected to my family and visit more regularly – to enjoy my life abroad as an ESL teacher while still being a proper member of my family. I’d stay in Korea forever if I could, I sighed wistfully. But it wasn’t worth the constant feeling of guilt and regret that I’m missing out on so much at home. From big occasions like birthdays, births, deaths, and marriages, to exciting things like my sister and her boyfriend buying their first house (which I won’t get to see for a long time to come), to seemingly trivial little events like lazy Saturday BBQs, the local Blues club, or just having a drink and watching gameshows at my parents’ house at the weekend… I wouldn’t exactly call it homesickness, because I truly have no desire to live in NI. It’s more of a growing, nagging feeling that I’ve turned my back on people I love, and that while I would be no good to them back at home, unemployed and miserable and restless, there are countries much closer than one that requires over a full day of travel and half a month’s salary to get back from.

Alors, bonjour la France! I wasn’t at all enthusiastic about this when I first made my decision a few weeks ago, but I felt as if I had to do it, or live with overwhelming guilt for the rest of my life. A friend advised me: Do your research, make inquiries, weigh up your options. And a few months from now, you’ll know whether it’s right, or whether you just can’t bear to leave Korea. 

She was right. It’s been like this for years, now: things happen suddenly and unexpectedly to confirm which road I should take. Like being made redundant at the same time as meeting someone who nudged me into following my dream of travelling the world. Click. Like being offered luxurious house-sitting jobs that coincided exactly with where I wanted to be, when I had nowhere else to live. Click. Like being offered the perfect job in Korea approximately a day after considering that teaching in Asia might be an option for me. Click.

You’ve just got to train yourself to be still and listen for the clicks. Don’t get into a fluster and panic about what to do next, or whether this is the right move. Take a tentative step, and listen for the clicks. And of course I could have refused to take the risk involved with becoming a nomad. I could have turned down those housesitting jobs. I could have decided that moving to the other side of the world to do a job in which I had zero experience was just too insane. But listening for the clicks only makes a difference if you act when you hear them.

So, what clicks am I hearing at the moment? Mostly, I think I’m becoming tired of Korea. This is partly because of my generally restless spirit. I don’t like settling down in one place for very long. I like new places, and new challenges, and new surroundings. I’m not sick of my life here, but I’m ready to start winding it down. Little things I’d previously ignored or let go are starting to grate on my nerves, and I’ve said from the start that if I ever became one of those Complainers, it would be time for me to leave. I’m not one of them, and I hope I don’t become one, but I’m less likely to start spontaneously singing the praises of all things Korean than I was several months ago.

For the most part, I do still love my life here. I’m still having fun, and still loving my job, and still enjoying exploring. But I’m becoming less easy-going and less tolerant of some of the differences that cause so many clashes between foreigners and Koreans. Tiny things, sometimes, that don’t seem like a big deal at all when you’re not putting up with them every day. It frustrates me, for example, to have to justify my clothing on an almost daily basis. All winter, every day, people asked me “Aren’t you cold?”. Every day. Towards the end, I found it more and more difficult to smile and shake my head, and more and more tempting to yell “Why can’t you assume that if I’m wearing a t-shirt, then no, I am not cold?!!! If I’m cold, I will have the sense to put on a sweater, OK?!! Please stop asking me the same thing over and over again!!!!”. Now it’s summer, and I still get comments about my clothes. My sleeves are too short, my top shows too much cleavage, and why can’t I wear my hair down like I did in the winter? So much prettier!

And speaking of hair, I am immensely angry on behalf of Terri, who cut her hair short the other week, as it was becoming difficult (and expensive) for her to care for her (black African) hair in a country where no hair stylists have any experience of dealing with such a hair type. She looks beautiful, and I’m slightly envious of how easy it will be for her in the summer humidity. But a woman with short hair is unheard of in Korea. That’s fair enough – but what is not at all fair is how people feel that they have the right to laugh openly at her, to point and stare, to ask “oh, are you a boy?!”, and to generally make her feel unattractive and unfeminine. None of our colleagues complimented her. Instead, they either laughed or looked horrified, with comments like “I suppose it will grow back”, or “Why did you do that? It’s too short.”. She literally cannot step outside without people judging her or laughing at her. That is just plain nasty. It’s as if, because we look different from Koreans, they see us as less human, somehow. We don’t have feelings. We are creatures in a zoo, to be pointed at and stared at and laughed at. I once had a colleague tell me she’d looked through my old Facebook pictures and found some of me aged 18, at my school formal. I was slim then, and wearing an elegant dress. And my colleague said “You were so skinny! You were so beautiful! But look at you now… what happened to you?!”. I laughed it off, but I was deeply hurt.

Indeed, Korea’s general attitude towards foreigners does verge on racism from time to time, and while I have spent a lot of time defending it with arguments such as “They just don’t see a lot of foreigners” or “It’s ignorance, not hatred”, sometimes it becomes too much. I have left out some of the uglier stories concerning my encounters with Koreans, due to my usual desire to focus on the positive. And most of the time, my experiences are positive – I just want to emphasize that! But there have been hurtful, annoying, and even frightening incidents of racism, too, some of which I’ve mentioned… like the restaurant who made us feel like dirt because we weren’t Korean, or the crazy bus driver who went psycho on us and tried to drive off with our friend.

I’ve been attacked by a drunk girl in the street, who screamed “You are in Korea, speak Korean!” and left bruises on my arm from pulling at me so hard.

I’ve been pushed back with batons and sworn at by hateful police officers who, when we asked what we’d done wrong or why they were angry, just hit out at us some more. (“You did nothing wrong,” said some sad, embarrassed-looking Korean friends. “This is the corrupt Korean police force. They do what they want, with no explanation.”)

I’ve been openly insulted right to my face, by colleagues who assume that I don’t understand enough Korean to know what they’re saying about me.

I’ve been told to shut up, and sworn at, by taxi drivers who didn’t like that I was chatting quietly to my friends in English – one put his hands over his ears and yelled in Korean that our conversation wasn’t at all interesting to him because he couldn’t understand it. Another turned the radio up so loud that passers-by looked to see what was happening, and we couldn’t have heard each other even if we shouted.

And even right now, today, I am being given the cold shoulder by my boss for not going to the top of that damn mountain on Saturday.

So many clicks, and so many of them all click-click-clicking over the past few weeks. Yes, it is almost time to wrap up this chapter. Korea has been a wonderful, life-changing, mostly positive experience, and hopefully it will continue to be just as incredible until my contract ends in February. I have friends here, and a wonderful job, and so many more places to explore and things to do. To anyone considering doing as I have done, I’d encourage them with great enthusiasm. It’s an amazing country, with a population of mostly warm, kind, friendly people.

But I’ve heard the clicks, and I know now that this was just one more chapter in my story. I still don’t know if France will be the next one, but I’ve started taking steps, contacting friends in France, re-learning French, and searching for jobs. I don’t yet know what will happen next, but I’m starting to get excited about finding out…

Kill me now (or, “Reasons why I do not enjoy hiking”)

I wrote this post in my head today between 11am and 4pm, as I was climbing a mountain just outside Daejeon.

I am not a hiker. In Korea, however, hiking is pretty much the national pastime. You can sort of understand why when you see the breathtaking sight of the beautiful – but mostly mountainous – countryside. At the weekend, thousands and thousands of people journey out of the cities and up the nearest mountain, seeking exercise, clean air, and wide open spaces. Not that the latter is even remotely possible, considering that if half a city empties itself out on to a mountain hiking trail, you end up with a much more ridiculously crowded situation than you’d have in your average city centre. But anyway. People here are mad about it. They get all kitted out in their special hiking clothes, complete with every gadget and accessory you can imagine. They pass you in droves, marching resolutely upwards with a steady clink-clink-clink of their hiking poles.

And of course, members of staff from Korean workplaces spend their team bonding days participating in this insane pastime together. Which is how I came to be writing this blog post in my head, up a mountain, on a bloody Saturday. Attendance is not optional.

No, I do not like hiking. I really, really cannot emphasise this strongly enough. It’s not that I don’t like exercise (although admittedly it’s not my hobby of choice). I mean, I like working out in the privacy of my own home with my Wii Fit, where no one can see my red, sweaty face. I enjoy playing competitive games like badminton and squash. I love dancing and swimming. I can walk for hours on end around a new city, looking at the sights and visiting museums. But I do not like hiking.

Hiking involves going up, and up is never a good thing. Up means breathlessness and sore calf muscles and tripping over tree roots and falling over loose rocks. Hiking also involves buying an annoying amount of gear, you need; Boots, warm clothes, shooting authority tactical backpacks and weapons to fend off the animals… Im joking, but you get the point. Anyone who tries to persuade me that it’s wonderful to be out in nature, enjoying the beautiful trees and waterfalls and so on, is talking rubbish, for how can a girl enjoy her surroundings when she daren’t look up from her feet? Enjoying my surroundings would mean sitting under a tree with a picnic. I spend a hike staring intently at the ground, watching my feet take one cautious step after another. If I were to look up in order to, say, observe a pretty butterfly, there is a 90% chance of my unsupervised foot wedging itself under a protruding tree root, sending me hurtling to my death over the side of the mountain. And then of course, there’s the cramp I get from looking down constantly – not to mention the sunburn on the back of my exposed neck.

And – just BTW – it’s really fecking hot up a mountain at noon. I don’t believe anyone could enjoy the feeling of sweat streaming down their back and down their shorts. And when you’re surrounded by chirpy colleagues who were probably born wearing little hiking boots, and they’re all going “Oh, are you warm?” (which is like asking someone wrapped in a blanket and shivering if they’re cold) and going over the most banal and mind-numbing chitchat while you’re trying to concentrate on breathing and staying upright, hurtling to your death over the side of the mountain begins to seem like less of a disastrous end to the day.

I stopped about three quarters of the way up and just sat down on a rock, unseen by most of the group ahead, my face burning painfully and my neck spasming in protest at all the downward gazing. I’m done, I announced flatly to those passing me. I sat in the shade of some trees by a little waterfall, dangling my feet in the cold water until my body temperature dropped a little, and then made my way back down the mountain. To my surprise, I met a couple of my non-English speaking colleagues, who apparently shared my views on hiking, and we walked down in amicable silence. And when the others finally got back, the director was clearly displeased – more with me than with them, for some reason. Why did you quit? she asked sharply. Because I DON’T LIKE HOT WEATHER and I DON’T LIKE HIKING!! I told her for approximately the squillionth time. It’s the first time I’ve come close to actually losing my temper and yelling at my boss, which is basically grounds for instant dismissal in Korea. Honestly, I think I’m one of the more adaptable, easy-going foreigners in this country. I don’t complain about trivial things, I love the country and the people, I do as I’m told, I respect the culture and traditions, however odd they may seem to me, and I’m totally non-confrontational (a major Korean trait). But there has to be a limit. And all I ask in return for my hard work and generally positive attitude is that you don’t force me to hike up a bloody mountain in the blazing heat, ON MY DAY OFF, when you know from much-repeated experience that I suffer in hot weather, and when – on multiple occasions!! – I’ve answered the question “Do you like hiking?” with an emphatic NO.

I DO NOT LIKE HIKING.

Teachers’ Day

Teachers’ Day in South Korea is almost as big a deal as Children’s Day, although we teachers don’t get to enjoy a national public holiday (boooo).

It’s on May 15th, which unfortunately falls on a Sunday this year, so there aren’t too many presents to be seen in school today – only a few devoted individuals remembered to bring in gifts and cards in advance! I did get this card from one of my new boys in the ‘baby’ class (about 4 or 5 years old), and it made me well up:

Bless.

But sadly, Teachers’ Day has mostly become something of a corrupt occasion thanks to the crazy, focused determination parents have to get their children ahead in the fight for good university places and good career positions. Although it’s not a national holiday, many schools do actually close when it falls on a weekday, because the ridiculousness of the obvious bribes being disguised as Teachers’ Day gifts was just becoming too much.

You still get the odd parent who persists, though. I’ve probably mentioned before that there’s often food to be found in the office, as a parent will have brought in a big box of doughnuts or half a strawberry field. Well, around Teachers’ Day, this generosity increases. Yesterday evening I called into the office on my way out, and was presented with food and drink from a high-end burger/steak restaurant. We’re not talking crappy processed McDonald’s here – these were thick, good-quality steak burgers in proper floury bread rolls, with all the trimmings. It was a full-on dinner, and would have cost about 15,000 won per head. And the mother of one of my students purchased these for about 20 members of staff! Make sure you change the grades on her son’s reports now! said Terri wryly as we chowed on our burgers and slurped at our drinks. For yes, coincidentally, we are in the middle of writing the Spring progress reports. Maybe we’re too cynical? Hmm. All I know is (a) I have no previous experience of parents demanding good grades rather than honest ones, and (b) I don’t remember any of my teachers receiving gifts more lavish than a World’s Best Teacher mug.

But obviously I’m not complaining. And possible bribes aside, I really do like the fact that Teachers’ Day is celebrated with gifts and cards here, and that the teachers are shown appreciation for their work. Tonight, the school is taking us all out for dinner after work, and tomorrow we’re going out for the day. Teachers are pretty fantastic creatures, after all, and should be given treats on a regular basis! But failing that, one day a year will do.

Happy Teachers’ Day!

Hayley Teacher and Amy. :)