Relationships

One of my friends recently started a 30-day writing challenge, and since I had nothing to blog about today, I thought I’d have a go at topic number one. I may or may not complete the challenge, but I almost certainly will not do it in 30 consecutive days! ;) It can be a source of inspiration on days when not much has happened…

Topic One: Your relationship. If single, discuss how single life is.

It has taken me most of my twenties, but I can now finally say it: I am good at being single. I don’t mean I’m good at putting on a brave face and enduring this terrible, lonely, manless existence, which is what people tend to presume is going on with long-term Singletons. No, I mean I work well as a Singleton. Singledom and I get along. We’re a match. We function. We are happy together. We just fit. We’re right for each other.

And yet, when I tell people I’m single, the reaction is generally not happiness for me in the way that I go to celebrate their happiness in relationships at weddings and so on. Strange, that! ;) Instead, they try to encourage me, perk me up, assure me I’ll find someone. No one has ever asked me if I actually want this to happen.

As an introvert and a self-confessed loner, I need a lot of time by myself. Also, I happen to like my own company! And while I love my friends and family, and enjoy socialising with them, I can’t be constantly with them for extended periods of time – I need to get away and just be quiet. I love living alone, and struggle to understand how many single people speak of their loneliness at coming home to an empty house. They, on the other hand, struggle to understand my preference for it! While I relish the moment when I arrive home and close the door behind me, shutting the rest of the world outside (no matter how much fun I’ve just had in it!), others seem to dread it, and even put it off. One of my friends told me last year that her idea of heaven would be a future where she has a huge house that is always full of people, and spends her days looking after them. There will be children everywhere, she said dramatically. I want to sit down at the big table filled with  all the children chattering and being noisy, and watch them eat the meal I’ve prepared.

I looked at her in undisguised horror. Heaven?! That sounds like my idea of hell! When asked what my own ‘heavenly house’ would be like, I thought about it and told her to replace all the people with cats. I’d be happy in that house. Just me and my cats. No noise, no crying, no arguing, no compromising. What do you know? It turned out that my vision of heaven sounded just as hellish to her as hers did to me!

I don’t want the traditional life. If I’m happy on my own, why would I try to change it? And honestly, my only experiences of relationships have convinced me that this is the right life for me. While I’m single, I’m free, happy, friendly, and content. Put me in a relationship and you’ll see that confident person gradually disappear and be replaced by a self-doubting, needy, codependent, insecure, jealous creature I don’t like in the slightest. Yes, maybe that’s just evidence that I’ve been with people who were wrong for me, but lately I’m more inclined to see it as relationships being wrong for me. I’m all or nothing: if I fall in love, I do so with every ounce of my being, and I don’t know how to retain enough of ‘me’ to remain self-assured and happy with who I am. It’s all about the other person, so much so that I lose sight of my own identity. And damn it, girl, that’s not right!!

I am single, and I want to remain single. I don’t even date. Most people find this odd, and I don’t mind that – I accept that it’s not the norm. But it’s what works for me! After all, dating is basically like trying on various outfits until you find the one that fits best. I’m not looking to buy, so why bother with the trying?

And honestly, the more I see my friends going through those crazy mind games, dating nightmares, misunderstandings, arguments, failed relationships, miserable relationships, boring relationships, relationships that suck the life out of them, and all that stifling/restrictive commitment… the more I observe of this lifestyle, the more certain I become that I do not want it. Yes, there can probably be good relationships, but there can be good singleships too! My life is fun. It is meaningful.  It has value. It is exciting. It has love and laughter and friendship. It has freedom. It has adventure. It has everything I need to feel fulfilled. And it is MINE.

So, while it is indeed possible that romantic love may find me again one day, I’m not looking for it. I have no need for it! I’ve chosen a different kind of life, and that’s OK. I don’t feel sorry for you when you tell me you’re married with children, as alarming as I find the idea… so please don’t feel sorry for me when I tell you I’m single! Be pleased that I’ve found happiness, not sorry that I haven’t found someone I’m actively not looking for.

Single: not an unfortunate label I’ve been unwillingly assigned, but a choice that’s working very well for me!

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Yes…?

I still don’t quite know what it is about the Koreans and staring at foreigners.

It doesn’t happen quite as much in the big cities, but here in my little corner of a relatively small city, I get stared at on a daily basis. I know you could try to excuse this with “Aw, they don’t see foreigners often, they can’t help it”, but that’s just nonsense. Korea is full of Westerners teaching English, serving in the army, working in electronics companies, backpacking, and so on. I’m pretty sure almost every parent in the country must try their best to ensure that their children have places in schools with native English-speaking teachers. So why, Korea, are you so surprised to see us?

My own home town in NI is vastly smaller than Daejeon, and yet no one stares at ‘foreigners’. At least, I hope they don’t. And if they do, I hope they get told off for it by their friends. I have no recollection of ever feeing curious enough to gaze unashamedly at an Asian, for example. There weren’t many of them in my mostly white town, but there they were, generally running restaurants. And here we are, in a much bigger city, teaching English. And yet the Chinese population of my tiny town weren’t given a second glance, while I’m still gazed at as if I’m a circus animal or something. It’s really, truly bizarre. Why?!! Why are we so strange to you?!

This issue happens to be on my mind today because on my way to work this morning a woman walked into a car while staring at me. The car was parked at the time, but still. There I was, minding my own business, walking to work along the same road that I have walked along on a daily basis for two years, and this woman came out of her house and caught sight of me while crossing the yard. I kept walking, trying to ignore the gaze (which they make no attempt to hide, by the way), but I couldn’t help but see her out of the corner of my eye. Stare, stare, stare: you can practically hear the staring. And then, BAM! She walked straight into a parked car just outside her gate. She sort of doubled up, swore at herself, clutched various parts of her body, and then tried to pretend everything was fine and she’d intended to do that.

And I laughed. I didn’t even try to hide it: I laughed and laughed and laughed. If I knew how to say “Serves you right for staring!” in Korean, then that’s what I would’ve done, but I don’t, so I just laughed. I don’t think she was as amused as I was, but quite frankly I don’t care. It was frickin’ hilarious.

Not as dramatic, mind you, as the day a guy crashed his car because he was staring at me instead of, I dunno, paying attention to his driving. I was walking down the hill towards my apartment, and naturally stepped in close to the side of the road when a car approached me. They are small, narrow, back-street roads with only room for one car and not a lot else when you take into account all the parked vehicles at the side. So this guy was driving towards me, gaping incredulously at the -SHOCK, HORROR! – foreigner walking along the street, and I noticed to my consternation that he appeared to be using kangaroo petrol. Rrrr-rrr-rrr! went his car as it bounced up the hill in a series of mad bounds. You could tell at a glance that he’d totally forgotten he was driving, and was simply proceeding uphill by the happy accident that was his foot resting on the accelerator and occasionally leaning a little more heavily than before.

This was not a huge problem for me until I realised that he had also forgotten about the whole steering wheel part of the driving process, and was in fact drifting casually sideways, towards me. Rrr-rrr-rrr! he bounced in my direction as I edged closer and closer to the wall, with nowhere else to go. I could see him gaping at me through the windshield, and then all of a sudden my alarmed expression seemed to register with him and he remembered he was driving a car.

In his panic, he simultaneously yanked the steering wheel in the opposite direction and pressed down more firmly on the accelerator, resulting in a spectacularly hilarious slow motion crash into a parked car on the other side of the street. I managed to contain my laughter until I’d hurried down to the bottom of the hill, but I still go into fits of giggles when I think about it. The last time I saw him, he was outside his car calling the number on the parking card of the car he’d smashed up. You can only imagine what he was saying.

Yeah, sorry about this, but I just wrecked the entire passenger side of your car… well, there was this white person walking down the road… yeah, you understand…

To Fall (and colour blind children)

Yep, that’s right, I call it “Fall” now. Another little part of my linguistic identity drifting forlornly to the ground amongst the leaves, but colour still has a ‘u’, for now.

But whatever you want (or are required) to call it, the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness is finally here, and I could not be happier about it. The air is cool and fresh, but it’s still sunny and acceptable for me to be wearing short sleeves. This is probably the most beautiful time of the year in Korea, and I am looking forward to getting out of the city in week or two when the leaves have all changed colour, to see how well I can capture some of that beauty with my camera.

While I’m waiting for Mother Nature to do her work, I decided to bring a bit of Fall into the classroom. I did some classes on “Fall colours” with the little ‘uns, and had some cool projects lined up for the next few weeks. One of them involved gathering leaves with them at the picnic we were due to have today, and then doing leaf rubbing collages and scrunching up the rest to glue to bare tree pictures, but the picnic was cancelled since  obviously the day we planned to have it turned out to be the first rainy day we’ve had for weeks. Grrr.

This saw me fretting anxiously last night about what I was going to do in the art classes that I’d thought weren’t going to happen today, and for which I had nothing prepared. It is also why, on the way home from French class, I suddenly began pouncing on fallen leaves like a cat chasing them in the wind. Lucy looked at me in amusement and told me I looked like ‘une SDF‘ (homeless person) foraging for supplies, but before long she, too, was scrabbling around in the gutter with me, triumphantly waving her finds. The passing Koreans gave us some rather intrigued and disturbed looks, but really, two foreigners crawling around picking stuff up off the street isn’t any stranger than some of the stuff I’ve seen them doing.

What was strange, though, was the fact that almost every single child in every single class today insisted that leaves turn blue in Fall. It was very confusing. I showed them pictures, we identified all the colours, and then I gave them little leaf pictures to colour and cut out before we did our leaf rubbings. And despite my repeated, increasingly bewildered “No, leaves are not blue!” responses, about half the children in each class determinedly went ahead and did blue leaves anyway. What is that about?! I mean, I could understand if they were just ignoring or not getting the “Fall colours” thing, and just using their favourite colours, but in that case there would have been a much wider variety. It wouldn’t just have been “Fall colours (and blue)”.

Sample tree...

...typical tree!

This is confusing me as much as the whole “Earth is Korea, Teacher is an alien” incident from last year. Possibly even more so. Children are so clever and so creative and so funny… and yet also, at times, so damn weird. I want to know what goes on in their heads.

Maybe they just see things we don’t…

Pretend I didn’t say that.

When you teach little children all day, it’s easy to forget how young they really are. It can be kind of a shock when you see your students out with their parents and realise that they’re not much more than babies, in spite of how hard you see them being pushed in school.

What’s even more strange for me is how I’ve actually come to see my afternoon elementary classes as practically adults. After a day of dumbing it down for the tiny tots, it’s lovely to be able to have more meaningful interactions with my students. My second grade girls are an absolute pleasure to teach, with their eagerness to communicate and question everything, and I love being able to joke with them in the knowledge that more often than not I’ll get laughter rather than blank expressions. In my head, they’re practically teenagers, but in fact they’re only 9 years old in Korean age… maybe 8, in our terms?

My fourth grade class, however, are adults to me. I didn’t even realise how strange this was until a friend was showing me a video he’d taken of one of his classes, and said “they’re only in the fourth grade” in an “aw, bless, look at the babies!” kind of tone. My fourth grade class are the oldest children who come to our school, and they look like grown-ups when you see them walking up the corridor amongst all the screaming 5-year-olds. They’re starting to stretch out, and they’ve lost their chubby-cheeked, baby-faced look. They can understand me when I speak English at a reasonably normal speed, and they are already so highly educated in all subjects that I sometimes feel a little intimidated by them! They all have strong personalities and well-thought-out opinions on just about everything.

I must confess, I am a much better teacher to this kind of group. Lower ability classes are not my specialty – possibly because I’m not actually a qualified teacher and haven’t been trained in how to deal with the ones who aren’t all that interested, or possibly because I lack the extraordinary, superhuman patience that it seems to take. Fortunately, this year, I only have one such class – a small group of first graders, whose class comes between my super-smart second grade and my young adult fourth grade. It is the only class I don’t enjoy teaching, and I suppose when my fourth graders arrive at the end of the ordeal I greet them as if they are my native-speaking friends.

Our time together tends to be more like a rather strange, rambling conversation than a structured class. I do start out with a plan, but before I know it the 50 minutes are up, we’ve only covered the introduction to my lesson, and my board looks like this:

"How did we get here?!"

It is a little disconcerting. And the fact that they are capable of following the whole thing, getting really interested in topics you wouldn’t imagine children could understand in a foreign language, and contributing their own thoughts, opinions, and anecdotes on the subject, all adds to the distorted impression I have of their age. They are at least 15, but probably nearer to 20.

In fact, they are about 10 years old. This just does not make sense in my head; I can’t accept it. And it does lead to the occasional blunder on my part, when I catch myself telling them something that you shouldn’t tell 10-year-olds, only realising my error when they react with delighted laughter and a burst of fascinated questions I don’t want to answer. On the plus side, they now have an excellent understanding of the phrases “Forget I said anything”, “Never mind”, and “Moving swiftly onwards…”.

Then there was the day I suddenly saw them for the little children they actually are. We were discussing myths, legends, and the word “strange”, and the question in their book asked them to tell everyone the strangest story they’d ever heard. They weren’t sure what that meant, so I gave them an example, starting with “The strangest story I’ve ever heard…” and proceeding to tell them the first story that popped into my head, which happened to be this one (#6 Isla de las Munecas) that I’d read a few days earlier.  In short, it’s about a weird hermit guy who lived alone on an island collecting dolls and hanging them on trees to appease the ghost of a girl who drowned there. He did this for 50 years or so before drowning in the the very same place as the little girl, and to this day the dolls remain hanging from trees all over this uninhabited island, with their rotting hair matted with spiders’ webs, and maggots wriggling out of their eye sockets.

In retrospect, it probably wasn’t an ideal story for a group of 10-year-olds.

Nor should I have shown them the pictures, now that I think about it.

My colleague thought it was hilarious when I crept sheepishly into her classroom later and explained that I had just had to bribe our traumatised students with the promise of ice cream in exchange for them forgetting the whole thing and pretending I’d never mentioned the terrifying haunted island of wandering souls and Chuckyesque mutant dolls and little girls drowning and psycho hermit men warding off evil spirits.

Sometimes I really do marvel at the fact that I am a teacher of young children, you know.

The glitziest sports day in the world.

As so often happens, the event I wasn’t happy about attending actually ended up being a lot of fun.

I decided that since I’d made the choice to hold my tongue and just fit in with the way things are done here, then I had to bring the right attitude along with me and not show up with an “I don’t want to be here” sign flashing above my head. And so we all piled cheerfully(ish) into cars on a sunny autumn Saturday morning to spend the day in a sports hall packed with over-excited children.

Obviously, a Korean sports day is nothing like a Northern Irish sports day. I don’t even know why I’m surprised any more – I mean, I definitely didn’t experience the dizzying confusion of “What sort of parallel universe have I landed in, here?” that I would have if I’d attended the event during my first few months in Korea, but there was still plenty of jaw-gapingly wacky stuff to get my sleep-deprived head around.

But first, a little context. Sports Day at my primary school involved us all walking down to the park at the bottom of the road, each of us carrying our own little chair. Some white lines would have been marked out on the grass for the occasion, and we would place our chairs along the sides and sit down to wait as the parents arrived. There would then be a series of races including sprint, egg and spoon, three-legged, and sack, each run class-by-class from the starting point (a teacher shouting “On your marks… get set… GO!” into a megaphone) to the finish line (two teachers or parents holding a frayed rope). As soon as one race started, the teachers at the start line were already organising the competitors for the next one. It was all very fast and efficient, and although it was a simple affair, we had a great time.

So, flash forward a couple of decades and picture my bemusement as I walk into a large sports hall with my colleagues and find what I can only describe as an entire team of professional children’s sports day organisers setting up an experience not all that unlike a Disneyland parade. There were balloons and flags and banners and streamers, but those almost paled into insignificance next to the huge inflatable fairytale castle that took up most of the specially-constructed stage, and the mountain of prizes that it took 20 of us about an hour to arrange in an attractive shop front style display. I was a little confused by the fact that most of the prizes were not at all the sort of thing you’d imagine any child being excited about winning. Sacks of rice, for example. Kimchi pancake mix. Car wiper liquid.

In the midst of all this, the event organisers (all very attractive men in their 20s, wearing sports uniforms and the thick-framed glasses that are so trendy in Korea) were running around barking orders into their headsets. The leader eventually gathered all the teachers together to instruct us on our parts in the opening ceremony, in the manner of an army drill sergeant. Hang on, our what in the what?! I began to feel a little confused and lost as I tried to follow the insanely detailed and complicated instructions with the help of a couple of hastily whispered translations from my boss, who eventually got told off for talking and just told me to follow what everyone else was doing. I swear, they had us marching – marching! – around the hall in perfect unison, then leading the national anthem (of which I know approximately one line) with hands on hearts, and then performing a cheerleader-type dance involving – I kid you not – scarves. Of course everyone else had rehearsed this dance while the foreigners hadn’t been told a thing about it. I really don’t understand what that’s about (the fact that the Koreans are told about things and given time to practice, while no one thinks to allow the foreign teachers the same time to prepare), and it’s not the first time it’s happened to me. Being forced to perform a dance you’ve never practiced in front of hundreds of people would be grounds for protest in most countries, I would imagine!

But anyway, everyone arrived and spread out their picnic mats and ate their lunch while the hall gradually filled with people. Then we performed our opening dramatics, which went on for almost an hour and ended with loud bangs, a fanfare, and sparkly streamers cascading from the ceiling. Utterly surreal.

The games themselves lasted for about 5 hours, and quite honestly involved parents more often than children. The whole crowd was divided into two huge teams, and so there was no individual competition, just team games, with the scores being kept on large professional scoreboards at the front – not that it mattered, since the whole thing was carefully rigged so that the teams took turns at being in first place throughout the day before finishing with exactly the same scores. ;)

Although it was nothing like my previous experiences of Sports Day, and nothing like anything I could ever have imagined, it was a great day. I liked how it was a real family event, with the parents and grandparents getting into the spirit of things with the children. I liked how it was a really big deal, however bizarre it may have seemed to me at first. And I loved having the chance to just relax and play with ‘my’ children for a change, instead of constantly having to order them around and tell them to sit and be quiet.

By the time the grand finale rolled around, we were all utterly exhausted, but even my extreme tiredness couldn’t prevent my enjoyment of that finale. It was a disco dance-off… between all the grandparents. They all gathered on the stage in their two teams, several of them were fitted with pedometers, and they proceeded to dance to heavy dance tracks played by the DJ (who, incidentally, had been providing musical accompaniment to every game). They were all very earnest about it, and I found myself cheering my team’s grandparents with as much wild hysteria as everyone else, as they bopped like Duracell bunnies on the stage. It’s one of those surreal and hilarious sights that you know will stay with you for the rest of your life.

And while I may still believe that I should have been paid for the state of utter exhaustion I found myself in by the time I finally got home around 8pm (a couple of hours, eh?!), I’m very glad I decided to let it go and do the right thing. It was a cultural experience, and isn’t that what I’m here for? They can’t all be exactly what I’d choose for myself, after all. Plus it’s not like we were treated like slaves – we were given breakfast at school, a lunch of freshly-made kimbap after the rehearsals, and a huge dinner in a samgyeopsal restaurant after the event, where we were thanked for our efforts.

Lesson learned: if you want to adapt to a foreign culture, sometimes you’ve got to do things that you don’t want to do. And maybe, when you do, you’ll be glad you did. They’re still never going to get me to the top of a mountain though… ;)

What would you do?

For the most part, I have no real difficulties in adapting to foreign cultures.

I’m an easy-going person, despite what you may assume from my occasional hot-headed rants on my blog. I go along with what other people want to do, I rarely insist on getting my own way (e.g. with restaurant choices, movie options, what’s next on the agenda for the day), and I don’t get into a lot of arguments because I tend to try and reach a compromise or point of mutual understanding, and smooth things over before they turn ugly. None of this is me being a selfless martyr, incidentally – it’s just that having everybody living in peace and quiet and harmony with each other makes me far more content than being right or getting my own way ever would. I suppose, then, that while I could never be a politician or a lawyer, I do have the ideal personality for travel and living abroad.

When things are done differently from your idea of normal, it’s very easy to become angry and frustrated. The feelings of “I just don’t get it” can quickly build up in a pressure cooker of “WHY?!!”s until you explode in an angry, undignified outburst that just makes you look ignorant and disrespectful. I’m thinking especially of this guy, who was the topic of conversation up and down Korea a few weeks ago after he screamed at and physically assaulted a woman and an older man on a bus.

I’ve only watched the video once, because it makes me cringe in utter embarrassment and horror. For a start, the outburst reportedly happened because the Korean man was pointing out a free seat to the American. He said “Niga anja”, which basically means “You sit”. Apparently the American misheard the “niga” part, I dunno. Anyway, the point is, he’s the foreigner – he’s the one who doesn’t speak the language of the country he lives in, like so many of us here. To explode like that and cause a scene in a country where such a thing simply doesn’t happen… argh, it’s horrendous. And ranting in a language that just sounds like gibberish to everyone listening isn’t going to do anything but make you look like a raving lunatic.

But although that guy’s behaviour was extreme, I sometimes wonder if there’s ever a point where it’s OK to react. Is it possible to be justified in objecting to something that’s acceptable in your current country but not in your own? Or should you just bite your tongue at all times and do as you’re told, because that’s how things are done here and you need to respect that?

The one issue that does genuinely frustrate me, and has cropped up again and again in my time here, is work-related. Koreans are work-oriented people, as I have mentioned before. There are strict rules when it comes to obeying your boss: total respect at all times, no disagreement, and following orders without questioning them. If I had to pick one word to describe my Korean colleagues in general, it would be “meek”. I don’t think that’s an insult, and it’s certainly not meant to be offensive; it’s just my observation. They are incredibly respectful towards their superiors – much more so than we foreigners are. I mean, I definitely wouldn’t call myself disrespectful, but I know I will never have the level of formality and unquestioning obedience that the Koreans do. In a western culture, it’s not natural. We ask questions when given orders that make no sense to us. We suggest alternatives that seem more practical. We point out errors and show our surprise when something seems odd to us.

And although I have learned to accept many of these things as cultural differences, there remains one that I struggle to take. It’s the issue of working without being paid. I am fairly certain that my Korean colleagues do not get paid a penny over their standard 40-hours-per-week wages, yet they spend far more than 40 hours a week in work. Not only that, but they show up on weekends for parents’ days, meetings, sports days, “camps”, and dear knows what else. Unpaid. I doubt that they’ve ever asked to be paid overtime… which is why, of course, it comes as such a surprise to the bosses when the foreign staff seem to actually expect it.

It’s happened again this week, with sports day happening tomorrow (Saturday) and all teachers being required to attend. Will we be paid? I asked almost apologetically when it was first mentioned at a meeting last month. No, but it’s only for a couple of hours – just show up and encourage the kids and then you can go, came the reply before the subject was hastily changed. Well, that was fair enough: I’d be taking a couple of hours out of my Saturday to cheer on my little ‘uns. As long as I forgot about the part where my attendance was compulsory, I was fine with it. Then, as so often happens, an extra detail was thrown in today, the day before the event. We will leave here at 10am and come back at 5pm, said the director casually, again changing the subject immediately after dropping this bombshell and pretending not to notice the dismayed expressions on the three foreign teachers’ faces. That’s almost a full extra day at work!

It is the one area where we truly differ from our Korean colleagues. They don’t bat an eyelid at that sort of thing, and yet we can’t hide our feelings. We may now be able to control ourselves and not fly off the handle or start protesting vehemently, but the reaction it triggers in us is instant and instinctive.

It’s not that I resent putting extra time into my work: I love my job, and I am dedicated to doing it well. I regularly stay late to plan lessons and research material because I don’t feel that the books I’ve been given are good enough on their own, and I voluntarily stay behind to help out when I see that people are busy preparing for some event or other. But when I’m told that I have to be present at a time that is outside of my contracted hours, that’s when it changes for me. If it’s no longer my choice, and I am being kept from doing whatever else I might have been doing during the time that is supposed to be my own, then that’s when I expect to be paid. I find it very, very difficult to make this cultural adaptation. Actually, I find it impossible to accept. I would probably have wandered along voluntarily to the sports day for an hour or so tomorrow, because I know it would mean a lot to the children if I came to cheer them on. I wouldn’t have thought about money. But now that I’ve been told that my entire Saturday is being taken from me and that I must be present between this time and that time, it’s work. I cannot leave if I want to: therefore, to my mind, someone should be paying for my time.

I deliberated all day, rehearsing my carefully-worded speech in my head. I was going to approach the director in a way that has been proven to work in the past – by acting as if I genuinely assumed that attendance tomorrow would not be mandatory, since it was unpaid. She’s generally caught off guard with that and doesn’t know how to tell me that I’m wrong, so I get out of it simply because of her fear of confrontation. But today, when it came to it, I couldn’t do it.

It wasn’t because I believed she was in the right (I don’t. I really, strongly believe that if they want me to give up my day off, they are obliged to pay me.), and it wasn’t because I was afraid of a row. No, the thing that stopped me was the fear that I would be behaving like that guy on the bus, insulting the people of the country where I live as a foreigner, refusing to shut up and fit in, drawing attention to myself and my foreign behaviour. It was the sense that it just wasn’t fair to demand payment or exemption, because I knew that if I stuck to my guns I would get it on the grounds that I’m a foreigner and somehow have extra rights because of that. It was the knowledge that my Korean colleagues would be pitching up to work together on this event without protesting or making demands, and I would be having a lie-in and enjoying my day off, simply because I’m from a country where people don’t work for free. I’m no longer in that country. What right do I have to demand preferential treatment?

I’m not particularly happy with my decision, and I’m not even sure that it was the right one, given that I really, truly, firmly believe that if they want me to work on my day off, they need to pay me for it. But at the same time, it was the only decision I could live with. If I’d chosen otherwise, I’d be the stroppy foreigner, wouldn’t I?

What would you do?

Yukgaejang… and the cooking lady.

The cooking lady sat down at the lunch table on Tuesday looking very pleased with herself.

I have come to recognise this look. It happens when she is about to tell us what she’s in the process of preparing for the next day’s meal – normally, we don’t know what we’re getting until we sit down to eat it, but there are three dishes that she always tells us about in advance. Why? Because they’re my absolute favourites, and she seems to get as much pleasure from seeing my delighted anticipation as I do from eating them. It’s very sweet. :)

She said something in rapid Korean, but I caught the most important words. Hayley Teacher…. happy… tomorrow… make… yukgaejang. 

Assah! (Hooray!) I responded excitedly… actually, with more excitement than I would generally display for a bowl of soup, but I do love to see how pleased it makes her! And yes, I will admit: after my screaming baby related sleeplessness that night, the one thing that made me feel enthusiastic about getting up and going to work was the knowledge that there would be yukgaejang.

Yukgaejang (육개장) is a very spicy soup/stew made with beef and vegetables, and it rocks my world. I was never a fan of soup until I came here, but the Koreans take it to a whole ‘nother level. Some are bland and fairly blah, of course, and others are not to my taste (I still can’t eat seaweed soup, although I did recently discover that it was very tasty when it had some oily tuna added to it), but the majority are mouth-blisteringly spicy and packed with flavours and textures that send my taste buds into ecstacy. Yukgaejang is my absolute favourite of them all. (At least, of those I’ve tried – there really are a lot.) As with most spicy soups, it’s usually served while still bubbling hot. It is a fiery red, boiling, dangerous-looking bowl of lava. And ohhhh… it’s fabulous.

The cooking lady’s version is made with minced beef and contains a variety of stewed vegetables, including bean sprouts, courgettes, onions, kimchi, various species of mushrooms, and other things that I have been unable to identify thus far. It’s another one of those extremely healthy meals that don’t taste like they can possibly be good for you when they’re that incredibly delicious. Eaten with the ubiquitous bowl of steamed white rice, it’s filling, satisfying, nutritious, and the sort of food that kills conversation at the lunch table because everyone’s too busy slurping and going “Mmmmm…”.

Everybody goes into the kitchen for seconds on a yukgaejang day (which doesn’t occur very regularly, sadly – it’s one of the slightly more expensive-to-make “treat” meals that we have now and again). Some of us have been known to have thirds. I believe I may actually have had a fourth helping once, purely to come to the assistance of a colleague who had overestimated her ability to finish her third bowl. I’m kind like that. The cooking lady makes almost double the normal volume of soup when it’s yukgaejang, because people would most probably cry if they only got one bowl. Teaching afternoon classes on a yukgaejang day is obviously something of a struggle, as all you want to do is collapse in a bloated heap and take a nap in front of the TV.

Yesterday, I was in the kitchen ten minutes before lunch time, hovering excitedly around the cooking lady with a lot of dramatic Bisto-kid-style sniffing as she stirred the bubbling contents of the huge soup cauldron and batted me away. She shoved the chopsticks and spoons into my hands and shooed me out to set the table, and when I returned she gave me an appetiser of a few spoonfuls of broth over a spoonful of rice, presumably to keep me out of her way while she ladled out the soup. She was trying to act annoyed, but she couldn’t hide her proud smile. She is right to be proud. The woman is a culinary wizard, who cooks a tasty meal for a hundred people every day and still notices when one of them can’t reach the kimchi plate.

Hayley-sen, manni mawgaw! she said encouragingly as we sat down at the table. That’s a common instruction from Korean hosts, literally meaning “Eat a lot!”. Noisy enjoyment of the food (we’re talking lip-smacking and soup-slurping here, as well as the “mmmmm” noises and frequent remarks of “Mashisawyo!(Delicious!)”), backed up by consuming more than you would believe could possibly fit inside your body, is seen as a great compliment to the chef. Well, I complimented the heck out of her yesterday, let me tell you. She wouldn’t even let me go into the kitchen for more soup – she just rose when she saw me lifting the bowl to my lips for the final dregs, took it from me, refilled it, and repeated the stern order to eat a lot.

There are people living in Korea who don’t like Korean food. This waegook, however, is in love and devoted. In fact, I believe it may have overtaken Chinese food to become my favourite national cuisine… and our cooking lady beats any number of celebrity chefs hands-down, if you ask me. ;)