A Feast of Firsts


As the days fly by, I’m loving Korea more and more. There have been very few frustrations (the ones that exist are usually related to the fact that people walk really slowly here…and if that’s my only grumble, you can probably see that it’s an all round decent place to live), I’m getting to grips with the language barrier and am finally able to at least order something in Korean when eating/shopping, and I’m beginning to realise half of the information I read about Korea before coming is really not applicable to my experience here.

I expected people to goggle at me non-stop, but hardly anyone stares. Kids might, but children do that everywhere around the world, so it’s hardly unique. I stressed myself out for days trying to remember exactly how to greet the principal of my school, bogged down in all the information I’d received relating to first-time meetings – make sure you hold your arm whilst shaking their hand (as it’s rude to just extend one), bring gifts, address them with the correct title, bow, and at the company dinner, don’t refuse soju if your life depends on it. So far, when shaking people’s hand, I’ve not seen them touch their other hand to their arm once. Deep bows are for serious formal occasions. My principal is a wonderful human being who couldn’t care less about titles and invited me for tea in her office despite me never uttering 만나서 반갑습니다 (formal – nice to meet you), a sentence drilled into my head over orientation that flew out my head when I had to actually say it. Nobody even cracked open the soju at our school hweshik (company dinner). All the bottles that had been put out were taken back. Only one person drank beer. Obviously, everyone’s experience is different, but I really don’t find Korea to be as uptight and strange as the internet painted it to be.

Cosmetic stores here are on every street corner. Beauty is big business here, and Korea is quite image conscious. You can see girls touching up their make-up on the subway, quite often with a roller still in their hair. Sheet face masks are a big thing, and you can even get ones with animals printed on them, so you can be cute while your face gets the treatment it deserves. Every society is superficial in some way, so I don’t think of it as a bad thing at all. In fact, for a girl like me, who loves her make-up, it’s pretty dangerous. I want to try it all. I spend ludicrous amounts of money on snail slime cosmetic creams (no, really). As I type, I’m sitting with my feet in individual bags, a foot-peel solution working its magic on my poor rugged old tootsies. I’ve tried carbonated bubble masks that make you resemble human moss as they puff up over time, sheet masks with tiger faces printed on them, and am currently in love with Korean lipstick, which tints your lips and lasts for hours. Free samples are a given when buying make-up at most stores, which is an added bonus – except when the samples are skin-whitening cream. Think I’ll pass on that one.

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The other day’s make-up haul. I have an addiction. 

This neatly allows me to move on to something I am not able to take a pass on – the school’s ‘enforced sports’. Participating in school sports is a must, lest the principal passively-aggressively ignore me for weeks. It’s bad enough being the token foreign teacher who doesn’t speak the language; there’s no way I’m ostracising myself by choosing not to take part in the weekly ‘yoga’ classes/hikes/volleyball. The ‘yoga’ deserves its own inverted commas, because it is not like any yoga I have ever seen. I have never seen so many flexible people in a room who weren’t putting on a dance show. The PE teacher moves these teachers-by-day, apparently-contortoinists-by-night, into deep stretches that even my yoga instructor at home wouldn’t do. The principal, a woman I assume to be in her 60s, can get her nose to touch her knees in a sitting position. I can barely touch my own feet. This is then followed by a round of volleyball, where bruises are easily gained due to how seriously the sport is taken. We have a match coming up in May, and as I am tall, I was Nakmin Elementary’s Most Wanted as regards to who would be playing. As you play, you’re met with calls of ‘Ni-suuuuuuh’ (nice) – Koreans are keen to add an extra vowel onto the ends of many English words. It is truly wonderful motivation, and as I understand it, I’ll leave the pronunciation class for now.

In Korea, even something as simple as ‘yes’ can be tricky to understand. Say I know that little Soo Young is sick, so I ask you the question “He isn’t here, is he?” What’s your answer, as an English speaker? I hope it’s a resounding “No”. The children here will do quite the opposite, and answer “Yes.” It was very confusing the first time I heard it, and I had to repeat the question – but was still met with “Yes.”

In Korean, if you make a negative statement, you usually have to answer “Yes” in a situation such as the one above. Imagine the full sentence to be “Yes, you are right. He is not here”, rather than the English “No, he isn’t here” that you don’t repeat back. It actually makes a lot of sense – you’re in agreement with the speaker and are affirming the statement, but it takes some getting used to. I do try to correct the yeses, but it can be really confusing for everybody involved. It may just be easier to ask questions that don’t merit a yes/no response.

Similarly, the signal for ‘come here’ looks rather like the signal you would use to mean ‘go away’. Stretch your hand out in front of you, palm down, and move your fingers in and out. Koreans do this, as it’s rude to do it palm facing upwards. That’s how you’d beckon a dog. On first glance, it can look rather like the gesture you’d make to tell someone to leave, or go. Whilst playing volleyball, I confused the 6th grade teacher rather a lot by backing off every time he beckoned me to come towards him. I finally realised what he was doing, and had to explain to him that I wasn’t stupid (honest), I had just misunderstood the hands. If I can’t even understand Korean hand gestures, I don’t think I have much hope when it comes to speaking the language.

With my skin feeling silkier than it ever has before, a newfound (slight) appreciation for team sports, and a love/hate relationship with soju, Korea is getting better and better as time goes by.

Tomorrow brings my first school trip with the kids from 5th grade. They are my favourites – last week I asked them “How are you?” and one of them responded “I’m angry.” I asked him why, and he responded “Teacher ugly.” Those little rascals. I’m pretty sure it’s because I had a spot on my chin, as it’s the only day they’ve said it to me. 10 year old boys certainly tell it like it is. Imagine what it’ll be like spending an entire day on a bus with them – my next post will probably be titled ‘Why I decided to go under the knife in Korea’. Watch this space.

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Little Buddha figurines at Haedongyonggunsa Temple (say that with your mouth full)
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Haedongyonggungsa temple – the temple by the sea
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Ramen socks! The love for the ramyeon is all around, here.

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Crying cockles, and mussels, alive, alive-o. 
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Rabokki – ramen, tteokbokki (rice cake), boiled egg, spring onion, fish cake.

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Enjoying my second baseball game of the season – go Giants!
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Spring Has Sprung


Over a month in Korea, and it feels like it’s been longer than that already. I still have to really get myself into the swing of things at my school, but now I’ve started teaching solo in the afternoons, it’s become more of a challenge for me. Every day, after we’ve all stuffed our faces (or, in my case, due to my strong fish aversion, accepting I will be hungry until dinner time after only eating a select few items), I head to a homeroom classroom and teach 25 grinning faces some English. Unless the class is sixth grade, and the grinning faces turn into surly ‘What on earth could you possibly teach me?’ kind of faces.

Taking the class alone is certainly something which requires you to be on your toes. Kids in one class panicked as they realised they weren’t going to have their Korean teacher to assist them or translate (good), kids in another went mental at the prospect of Miss Lawrenson alone for forty minutes, and kids in the sixth grade glowered at me through too-cool-for-school eyes. The children at my school don’t have an incredibly high level of English either, so it can certainly be a tough forty minutes to get through. Worth it, however, when a third year tells you ‘I love you’ at the end of your lesson. Quite what the reply to that is supposed to be, I don’t know.

Teaching, however, is nothing new – the same problems have followed me around the globe, along with the same rewards teaching brings. Children here are a dream compared to wily, wall-climbing Spanish kids. While some of them are a little naughty, it’s usually one per school year, compared to at least half the class, as I was used to all those years back in Barcelona. Korean kids (and adults) are really inquisitive, too. Here are some of the questions I’ve been asked in virtually every introduction class:

“How old are you?” (No English/Spanish child would dream of asking this)

“How tall are you?”

“Are you married?”

These are the standard questions we were told to expect from pretty much everyone in Korea.

Other questions, such as “What’s your favourite Korean food?” were met with sniggers, as apparently I can’t pronounce Japchae…even though I am relatively sure one can’t really go wrong with that one. I should be the one laughing at them, considering there is both an L and an R in my name, but I’m supposed to be the adult here.

“What’s your blood type?” however, was an interesting change from the same old same old, and the child seemed rather surprised when I told them I didn’t actually know.

Teaching, however, is not something that interests most people, so I’ll move on to the juicy part of today’s post – cherry blossoms and spring springing.

Korea, as I’ve stated before, is by no means striking. It has a certain homely charm to it, however, which means everywhere you walk, you feel comfortable. It is hard to describe quite what the feeling is, but the very streets themselves emit warmth. It is somewhat beautiful in its ugliness. I would really like to find out the method behind the madness of rebuilding the entire country as one singular tower block (or so it seems), and I’m sure I’ll get closer to finding the answer by the end of the year.

Now it’s spring, the edge has been taken off the stark, sharp towers by the arrival of the cherry blossom. Trees all over the city have bloomed into pink paradise, lighting up our path as we stroll. Cherry blossom festivals are held all around Korea, and I was lucky enough that one was in my neighbourhood. Down the 온천천 (Oncheoncheon) river, stalls popped up and lanterns were hung delicately between the trees, ready for the thousands descending upon the banks to see the glorious cherry blossoms. Food stalls aplenty, we were faced with so much choice that we didn’t quite know what to buy – craving starchy food in order to do away with our rotten hangovers from too much Soju the night before. Soju is a Korean drink, and at a ridiculously low price for 18%, it is pretty much the go-to. Koreans pushed their way through the crowds to take selfies by the trees, and in among the small patches of rapeseed. The selfie game was incredibly strong. You only have one chance a year to get that cherry blossom pic, after all.

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Reflections in the 온천천

 

 

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Another spring festivity was today’s Holi Hai festival of colour, held at Haeundae Beach. Haeundae is packed with foreigners as it is, and today even more flocked to the area to chuck coloured powder at one another, dance around in the sand, and eat delicious samosas. Holi is a spring festival in India, which is becoming very popular around the world. Coloured dust is thrown into the air, sticking to everyone it comes across, and the spring festival sends out a message of frivolity, love, and togetherness. It is impossible to leave without a smile and ten different colours plastered on your face. You can almost smell the neon in the air. As it was my first Holi festival, I was unsure of how much this would just be some gimmick to get us to part with our hard-earned cash, but it was very much a day to remember – a time for us all to let loose and experience something new.

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The beautiful people

Spring makes everyone happy, and as the days get warmer and the flowers creep out of their dainty buds, our grins here get larger. Here’s to the new season, and to many a new adventure that lies ahead!

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Enjoying the colours
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Not a selfie in sight for us
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Whole potato, cut and then deep fried. Perfect hangover snack.
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Not the perfect hangover snack. Silkworm larvae – an adventurous friend bought it, and instantly regretted it.
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Crab, anyone?
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Rabokki – a mix of tteokbokki, which is a spicy rice cake dish, and ramen, with egg and fishcake.
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Making a human pyramid at the Holi festival. Gage professes his love to Soju.
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Me and Ruth all coloured up
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The face of happiness. Let’s leave it there.

 

Finding my Feet


I can’t believe it’s almost been a month since I arrived in South Korea. I expected to be wailing under the covers by this time, sniffling and puffy-eyed because I missed home. Not true in the slightest. These few weeks have been very strange for me…mostly because I don’t feel strange here.

I imagined complete culture shock, foodshock, and oh-God-what-am-I-doing-with-my-life shock. Aside from the latter, which is felt by most people on a regular basis, I have yet to really experience any kind of shock. The language barrier is certainly very real, but it hasn’t been a cause for any kind of trauma (yet), apart from a shouty taxi driver who pretended not to know where I was going. 5 minutes later, we pulled up outside my local metro station – I get the feeling he only pretended not to know so he could drive around the block for that extra 200 won.

Not including my new shouting taxi friend, perhaps one of the reasons that I feel so at home here is that people are so genuinely friendly. They really want to help you, really want to talk to you. Even if they don’t speak a word of English, and you can’t muster anything other than ‘thanks’ in Korean. Old ladies have offered to put my bag on their laps when on the metro. Well-meaning gentlemen point out arrows leading us to where they think we might want to go. Being called beautiful in the street isn’t completely weird. Even if you stutter out ‘hello’ in your terrible Korean, people praise you and commend you on your wonderful pronunciation (so, yes, they are obviously a nation of fibbers). Korea is helpful, friendly, and safe.

I’m settling in to my school rather well. My co-teachers are both lovely, and keen to help me wherever they can, whenever they can. I hope that we will make a good team. My principal has already given me a toothbrush, a water bottle, and a phone charm as gifts – keen on me feeling welcome at the school, obviously. One day, the other English teachers and I were called to her office. A little worried about what I’d done to be summoned, I tentatively nibbled on the rice flour biscuits she passed around, and waited to hear the bad news. It turns out she wanted to start a tea club with the younger teachers in the school, and all of us were then called upon to arrange a day, chat a little, and finish up the biscuits. Not content with just a Tea Club, the teachers were told that they were to attend sports activities every Wednesday. No exceptions. Last Wednesday, we marched around the hall to rousing military-style music, and took part in ballet yoga. It was very surreal.

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School meals…are you jealous, Jamie?

On Saturday, I awoke to find it was a glorious, sunny day. The sky was clear, the air was as fresh as it could possibly be here (more on my new worry, pollution, at a later date), and the chill in the atmosphere had subdued. We decided it would be a good day to explore. Busan tower, situated near the port area of the city, made for a fine excursion. A 120-metre high viewing tower, it sits on a hillside just out of Nampodong, a hustling and bustling shopping area with fashionable shops aplenty, and a rammed marketplace – selling everything from Korean won-themed taekwondo shorts to imported Japanese build-your-own sweet boxes. Up on the hill, it’s peaceful, and your climb is rewarded with a look over Busan. The port, with hundreds and hundred of fishing boats lined up and ready. The mountains, jutting out of the city, powerful and strong. The high rise Haeundae beach buildings – glinting at you in the distance, a faraway reminder of just how big this city is. Up the tower, dizziness greeted us, with even more spectacular views of the surrounding area.

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Busan tower

Busan tower is also an area for true love. A mini-pilgrimage of romance, where star-crossed lovers put a padlock on the surrounding wire fence, along with a plastic engraved heart, or even phone case (well, you know, it is Korea). These pretty hearts swamp the whole fence, and the entire tower is surrounded by declarations of true love. Perhaps I’ll be visiting there myself, padlock in hand, at a later point.

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All you need is love

Another weekend of food experimenting was also to be had. We ventured down into the local market, towards the food stalls and bars, not quite sure what we had in mind. Deeper into the market, street food was being sold at ridiculously low prices. Vats of kimchi, pre-prepared bowls of Japchae ingredients, ready to be tossed into a pan and cooked at any moment, among a myriad of things that we yet have to try…or summon up the courage to.We found a place quickly enough – slightly off-putting in that ‘Korean Pizza’ was written on the window, but not a lick of cheese was in sight. We ate Jeon, a traditional Korean pancake, ours stuffed with kimchi and meat. Jeon can be eaten as a side dish, or often with alcohol. We made sure to do both, and then order Kimchi Jjigae on top of that. Kimchi Jjigae is a warming, rich stew made with the famous fermented cabbage, spring onions, traditional stock, and tofu. It was truly delicious, and the best meal I’ve had yet.

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Yum!

Life day to day in Korea is very normal for me – and perhaps that’s not the interesting thing you wanted to hear when reading this blog. But to me, that’s the beauty of it. My year in Korea is letting me experience a culture at normality, just like when I was in Spain. I could truly enjoy the culture, and didn’t feel pressured to do everything I could, as quickly as possible, as one often does when visiting a new place on holiday. Korea is treating me well so far, and I can only hope I continue to have many more normal, slightly mundane adventures to share with you all.

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A vending machine of insanely cute Japanese trinkets

 

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Cat sushi collectables. Of course.

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A Week in Korea


The day finally came. The night before, I slept not a wink – tossing and turning in the Gatwick hotel room I’d booked. I’d said I wasn’t nervous, but my body was clearly telling me otherwise. On the morning of February 17th, I woke up long before my alarm, rubbed my blurry eyes, and told myself it had finally arrived. I was going to Korea. Problem was, it would take nearly a day and a half’s travel to get there.

My journey was London > Amsterdam > Doha > Seoul > Busan. A mammoth journey, on a minimal amount of sleep. I touched down in Busan 30 hours later, adrenaline coursing through my veins – even though I was exhausted, I was buzzing. That night, in the hotel I stayed at, I couldn’t sleep again. My roommate, luckily, was exactly the same. We chatted through the early hours of the morning, ready to start the next leg of our overwhelming journey.

We are here to teach English with the EPIK program. It places native teachers in schools across Korea in an effort to get kids in touch with real, native speakers of English. We had all come from around the globe to be a part of this. We, however, would not just be sent into schools willy-nilly – first there was an 8-day orientation to attend. During orientation, the English Program in Korea would be giving us thorough lectures on culture, teaching, tips and tricks, and the Korean language.

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They’re waiting for us!

Busan University of Foreign Studies was the setting for our training period – a beautiful, modern campus in glorious mountain surroundings. We shared a dorm room for the 8 day period – I was lucky with my roommate. I don’t know how many others were! The first day on campus, we were all still exhausted but immediately went out to explore what the neighbourhood had to offer. Korea in the daytime, I have to say, is not the world’s most beautiful of places: but this is understandable when you think of what Korea was like almost half a century ago. The country was destroyed by the war, and Japanese occupation. The Korea that you see today is fresh and new – there is hardly anything that was still standing at the end of the war. Bear this in mind when visiting Korea. It makes everything they have accomplished that much more incredible. Suddenly, the streets you walk don’t seem so ugly.

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View of Busan from the top of a mountain right by the university – you can see the university in the foreground. We used a spare hour to climb to the top and breath in the peaceful, still air, next to a Buddhist temple.
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Temple at the top of the hill – a rewarding climb

Orientation was a series of lectures and classes designed to help us as EPIK teachers – there were people from all walks of life. Some people had taught before, others had little to no experience, and some were simply wishing to try the program out as a way to experience a new culture. Whatever we were there for, we all bonded and slipped into friendships quickly, much like at university. When everyone is new to a situation they use it to bring them closer. Eight days with perfect strangers might be scary to some (myself included – I’m not too good meeting new people), but in this new country it was easy, unforced, and definitely a lot of fun.

We also had to undergo a medical test (again, ridiculously early in the morning – sensing a pattern here?), which none of us were all too happy with, but was over rather quickly. We were weighed, measured, x-rayed, and tested on our eyesight – and last but not least, blood and urine samples were taken. Though not together. Our results would be given to us within a few days…all was well!

Lectures were broken up by a field trip out to Haeundae beach – where skyscrapers tower over the seafront, glistening in the sunshine. A flat in one of these is said to cost billions of won – meaning they don’t come cheap. For a pure, unadulterated view over the East Sea, and practically all of Busan, it might be worth it. The design of these buildings was also striking, compared to the uniform high rises seen all over the city. Barcelona is a hectic mess of old and new, closely crammed in together. It is beautiful because of this, a complete mesh of architecture. Korean housing simply shoots up into the air, and doesn’t do much more than that visually. Looking out over Busan, many districts seem to be a repetition of the same photograph – blocks upon blocks of flats have everything in common.

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High rises at Haeundae Beach

Our day out was brought to a close by a visit to the UN Peace Park. This is a memorial to those who fought from the UN in the Korean War. I haven’t studied too much about the war, and thus was interested in learning more about it. There is, however, not too much information given at the memorial park. I was met, unexpectedly, with a wave of emotion. A wall of all the US soldiers who died in the Korean War snaked around a pretty pond. Columns and columns of names went on and on, making eyes smart in realisation of just how many people lost their lives in this terrible conflict. Names from all over the globe were engraved there, and we were all shocked into silence as the list simply became a blur – too many names to take in. Over 30,000 US soldiers lost their lives, and over 1,000 British. The UN memorial is home to 837 of our British soldiers’ graves – more than any other nationality buried there. It is a quiet, contemplative place, where I hope they have found peace.

The rest of the week rolled on with further lectures, classes, and information. Visiting lecturers came, talking about Korean culture, engaging us with funny stories, and teaching us how to deal with alien concepts such as co-teaching, which is the widely used format over the EPIK program. In all, it was a tiring, but informative week, that I was glad to have had the opportunity to experience. Being thrown in at the deep end would certainly have been difficult to deal with – a new school, new apartment, and new life all at once might make anybody consider returning to their old life.

Then, finally, the day came where we were to leave orientation and meet our new co-workers: our co-teachers, in fact. Nervously waiting with our luggage, one by one teachers came out with signs, calling out our names (or how they thought our names might be pronounced). Finally, after an agonising half an hour or so – two voices piped up with my own. My co-teachers loaded my very heavy luggage into the car, knees buckling under the weight, and drove me across town to my new flat. My eyes were as big as saucers as I looked out over the city hustle and bustle – being confined to the university meant we hadn’t seen much of Busan life yet. It was just as you might expect Asia to be: terrible driving, hundreds of people crossing the road in all directions at once, and rows of tall buildings with bright, beaming lights. I was attracted to them immediately – like a moth to the flame.

The teachers chit-chatted away to each other in Korean, and asked me some questions. After some nervous laughter we began to talk a little more, and I learned small things about them, the area I would be in, and what kind of food I should try. As we drew up to my apartment block, I couldn’t wipe the smile off my face. The flat inside was a pleasant surprise – quite large (we’d been told flats were a mixed bag), with a double bed, separate kitchen, and plenty of storage space. Underfloor heating is a complete revolution for me and I doubt I will want to give that up at the end of the year. Now, decorated and cleaned, my flat feels very homely. I’m very pleased with my lot.

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My cosy little flat

The area I live in is called Dongnae, and I explored it at once. It’s very busy, due to it being right opposite the local market, and I loved it right off the bat. So many sights, sounds and smells were there to take in. Ahjummas sitting at the side of the road, selling all sorts, from kelp to ginseng, from sea slugs to hotteok – a hot Korean pancake stuffed with a cinnamon syrup filling. Navigating the Megamart (the local hypermarket) was a stress-inducing experience. Too polite to simply barge through the aisles with my trolley, I spent most of my time waiting for a gap in the throng, weaving in and out late-night Friday shoppers, getting everything but the kitchen sink.

I’m still finding my feet here, but I’m getting used to the idea of living in Korea. It still isn’t as real as I expected it to be, and I’m sure the culture shock and homesickness will set in soon – but until then, I’m going to enjoy strolling around the food stalls, singing my heart out at the noraeban (karaoke bar – yep, Korea loves them too), trying not to buy everything that has a cute face painted on it (even sponges do), and assuring the restaurant staff that spicy is absolutely fine, thank you. Korea, so far, is everything I ever hoped it to be!

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Korea Kalling


Four years ago, I moved to Spain. In the UK, I had wanted to become a teacher. Applying for jobs and schemes usually had the same result though – ‘looking for someone with experience’. How can you get that experience if you can’t get the job in the first place? However, I soon saw a light shining at the end of a tiny tunnel. A conversation assistant in a Spanish school: great! That’ll give me something to pop on my CV. I’ll go back after a year.

Four years later, and there I still was. TEFL-qualified, experienced, and loving it. Barcelona is full of charms, and I am incredibly glad of my decision to move there. It helped me learn a language, blend into another culture, and taught me so many things.

Four years ago, I was also looking down other small tunnels, in the maze of life. One such was the opportunity to teach in South Korea, as a guest English teacher on a state school programme. I applied, and was interviewed. I pulled out because I was scared. I pulled out because I didn’t think I’d be able to be that far away from home, to live in a culture so different to my own. I pulled out because I told myself I couldn’t do it, and I wasn’t experienced enough. There’d always be someone better.

Four months ago, I began again. I believed in myself enough to apply for a position in South Korea, and wanted it enough to know that I could do it. I wanted to live in another place, experience such a new world, learn a new language, and better myself as a teacher. South Korea, an economic powerhouse steeped in tradition, but pushing itself ever forward into the modern world of technology, beckoned me. So off the radar as a tourist destination, I believed it would give me a true glimpse of life on another side of the globe.

Four months later, here I am, back in the UK, after weeks and weeks of preparation. I’ll leave all that for another day – the hoops I’ve had to jump through, and the endless paperwork I’ve almost wept tears of frustration over, have given me enough stress to last a lifetime and even two panic attacks. Four months later, however, here I am with visa in hand (well, it’s on my desk), and a position with the Busan Metropolitan Office of Education. I’m €700 worse off (not even including the flight), but my heart is lighter and sings with happiness: I did it! I got there! I’m still pinching myself over it.

So now you all know: one of the reasons I’ve been so quiet on here recently. I was planning. Plotting. Scheming for my next great adventure.

Hello Korea.

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Juegos de Manos


One thing that I’ve been enjoying here is participating in being part of a family that genuinely wants me to play with their children in both Spanish and English, to be natural and myself around them – and learn with them together. In school I listen all day to the children and try to pick things up, but there are many things I’m finding myself missing from school days in England. Being in a primary school makes you nostalgic, and I really wish the children had a similar point of reference to me at times, so I could play games with them, know the equivalent of silly kids’ rhymes, and so on, and so forth.

Tonight I’ve been doing hand clapping games with a three year old and a five year old, which whilst it might seem a little immature for a twenty-two year old to do, is actually really useful for my Spanish learning. I pick up words and the rhymes stay in my head, plus I have a lot of fun with it which is nice for both me and the two girls. Even the boy participates sometimes when he’s not caught up in Scoobidou. I remember fondly the days of oranges and lemons, say the bells of Saint Clements. I have been able to indulge a little bit in children’s clapping games in English, what with two native English children fresh off the plane moving here this year, and an English theatre company who came to tell the story of Treasure Island, which conveniently included the ‘A sailor went to sea, sea, sea’ rhyme that I remember so well. Apparently they play this one in Spanish, too, but I’ve never heard it.

Tireless the world over – you can keep your video games, as far as I’m concerned.

I think that clapping games are actually overlooked as a classroom idea; I’ve learned a lot from them and I’m absolutely certain the children learned from ‘A sailor went to sea’, as they wanted to do it so much and they learned what the words meant through doing it frequently, with explanation. It practices homophones, too, so I would be keen to teach it in the classroom as a fun activity to introduce the crazy world of the homophone, of which we have so many in English.

Here’s some examples of what I hear in the playground, and what I’ve been clapping away to this evening. As soon as I’ve learned the words by heart, I’ll be teaching it to my children, you can bet, as an easy and fun way to learn Spanish. Learning through song and rhyme makes things more easy as you genuinely don’t feel like you’re actually doing any work to remember it. The way rhymes work makes the words stick in your head, and they certainly will be staying with me for a while yet, I’m sure.

En la calle veinticuatro

En la ca-lle lle

veinticua-tro tro

ha habi-do do do

un asesina-to to.

Una vie-ja ja

mató a un ga-to to

con la pun-ta ta

del zapa-to to.

Pobre vie-ja ja,

pobre ga-to to,

pobre pun-ta ta

del zapa-to to.

And what does it mean?

In the twenty-fourth street,

There has been an assassination.

An old lady killed a cat

With the point of her shoe

Poor old lady

Poor cat

Poor point of the shoe!

El indio mapache

El indio mapache-che-che

Se escribe con ‘’H’’ che-che.

In-di-o ma-pa-che

Se es-cri-be con a-che!

And what does it mean?

Now, I don’t know if this is a raccoon or a type of Native American, but I’m going to go with raccoon, just because I would like it to be about that. It just means that the word ‘mapache’ – raccoon – is written with an ‘h’.

Don Federico

Don Federico metó a su mujer, la hizo picadillo y la puso a cocer.

La gente que pasaba olia que apestaba, era su mujer que bailaba el cha cha chá…

What does it mean?

This one is actually much longer and you can view it here.

However, I included it because it made me laugh; it means Don Frederico killed his wife, cut her up into small pieces, and started to cook her – I thought it was humorous content for a children’s rhyme. It then says that the people who passed started to smell her, that it was his wife who did the cha-cha. The wonders of children’s rhymes never cease to amaze me – but at least I’ve learned how to use various forms of the verb ‘matar’!.

A Day in the Life


Having been here now for over a month, I have managed to somehow settle into a routine of sorts. Of course, each day at the school is different – otherwise I wouldn’t enjoy it so much, but I thought I’d give you a taste of what most days are like for me in Spain. I also want to describe my first week’s experience with running a drama class for six year olds, perhaps so you can share my pain, perhaps so I can gain a little sympathy – needless to say, it’s no mean feat, teaching drama in a language the children have little comprehension of.

I usually wake at 7am, the sound of violins plaguing the morning air, as the children of the family I’m staying with practise every single day, come rain, come shine, come Sunday. I had expected a lovely long lie-in on Sundays, snuggled in the duvet, enjoying the last few hours of darkness and warmth. However, this can’t be the case for me. Instead, I get the screech of the bow across the strings, and the shout of the mother who doesn’t want the child to play that note, that way, thank you very much.

Breakfast is a scratched attempt of whatever is in the kitchen. Here, breakfast isn’t such a big deal – it tends to be rather small, maybe a biscuit, a yoghurt, oats with milk (but not hot – that would be porridge, and that would be disgustingly English), or cereal, eaten from what else, but a mug. The notion of having cereal in a bowl here, for kids, is as strange as we would find it drunk from a mug, with warm milk and chocolate flavouring. It’s essentially hot chocolate with corn flakes. Suffice to say, I don’t partake in this particular breakfast offering.

Fancy a cuppa? Cereal, that is.

School starts at 9am, and already by this time, my hand is aching by the amount of waving I have to do between getting out the car/dismounting the train, and walking up the stairs to the Sala Profesores (staff room). I usually have classes straight away – there’s a few lucky days where I can sit on my laptop and work in silence, preparing for the tutoring I’m doing, the Science in English (yes, you read correctly – Science classes in English) that I take twice a week with eight and nine year olds. Mostly, though, it’s class time. I’ve yet to observe a register being taken – part of me doubts that it exists as a process in Spanish schools. Class is supposed to begin at nine, but by the time the children have moved from their own classroom to the special English room, or in the case of the younger children, hung all their clothes, ‘mochilas’ (schoolbags), and sportswear on the pegs, then returned to their seats – it’s already around 9.15. Some lessons are only half an hour long, so this usually means that the class lasts ten minutes, and then the children return to their own classroom or get ready for the next lesson to begin. This continues until 11am, when it’s time for the first break of the day, lasting half an hour. It’s common for kids to eat a sandwich, what looks like a whole packet of biscuits, or even cereal in a tub, without the milk.

Certainly a thing of the past in this school.

Recently, it’s been raining quite a bit, which means the children stay inside on their break, and of course cooping them up like that makes for difficult behaviour in lessons. They’re pent up with play that they couldn’t get out the way, short bursts of energy taking over what they do inside the classroom. It doesn’t help that the discipline system here doesn’t seem to be that effective. The most ‘telling off’ I’ve seen is a list of the children’s names on the blackboard who weren’t sitting in the correct place at the correct time. It often seems that they can get away with murder: shouting, screaming, meandering around the room and corridors to their heart’s content. What I do in classes depends on the age group. From eight years old upwards, I take children out the class and practise spoken English with them. This can range from simple ‘I like hockey/swimming’, telling the time, posing questions related with ‘to be’, or starting basic grammar in preparation for ESO for the children in their last year. ESO is our equivalent of secondary school, and all the children in their sixth year here aren’t excited about learning English there – because they think it’s going to be page upon page of grammar conditioning. They’ve moved out of the ‘English is fun’ phase, because they no longer get to play bingo, or participate in a quiz show. I find them an interesting group to work with. They’re very difficult sometimes, because they don’t want to behave, but their level of English is relatively good, so it’s nice to see them put a sentence together, or the concentration on their faces when they’re struggling to get the words they want to use out their mouths. It’s also a lot more fun in other ways – they begin to understand you can have fun with English, which means we result in sentences such as ‘Miley Cyrus has got a potato nose’ when dealing with describing people, or ‘Pablo has fish eyes’. During this same ‘description’ session, I became affectionately known as ‘Blonde Giraffe’. I’m sure that they’ve called me that because I’m the only one tall enough to turn off the digital projector without using a ruler to press the button – Spanish women, and men for that matter, tend to be shorter than us.

Come to think of it, they might have a point with this one.

For the children younger than eight, I take the role of ‘button-presser on the computer’ or ‘skipper of the next track on the CD player’. That is, I walk around the class, and simply act as an assistant to the teacher. I rarely go out the classroom with these children, because they don’t have enough language skills to make oral expression practice worthwhile. Every morning, we ask for the weather, the date, and run through basic questions with the younger children. Whilst I appreciate they’re very young, and it’s difficult to learn another language, I can find this a little frustrating. Bear in mind they do two hours of English a week, from the age of three, and very little changes during the first few years. They start with reciting the date – which is usually quite easy for them, but then we get to the difficult part. ‘How old are you?’ ‘What’s your name?’ ‘What’s your favourite colour?’ Sometimes the children have no idea how to construct these questions, and often give the wrong answer even when it’s given to them word by word. Yes, it’s difficult – it’s another language, and I myself have problems with Spanish, but it can be frustrating repeating the same thing time and time again to no avail. Mostly the classes with the younger children consist of listening to annoying songs about crayons and toys, and reciting parts of the body like there’s no tomorrow.

So, then 1pm arrives, and it’s time for lunch. Now I come to the saga of the drama classes in English. When I suggested taking these classes, I imagined doing drama with children of around 9-10 or more, where the level of English is relatively good, and they are able to understand full sentences with good ability. Others had different ideas. It seems that the family I’m staying with were keen to get their children to do drama – considering here it’s not a curriculum subject, and they don’t get much chance to express themselves in this manner. I think this is problematic, and agree they should be doing drama classes – but not in English. Imagine doing drama with a group of nine/ten children who are six years old. This is quite difficult in itself due to the attention span, the time that the children are doing the classes (it’s 1pm and their usual time for lunch, so they’re hungry), among other factors. However, when you throw in the fact that they don’t speak the same language as me, this takes an entirely new level of difficulty. I can’t imagine being able to do this all year – sure, they can play games in English, but limited ones, that they already know. They can’t do drama with a basic vocabulary of primary colours, classroom objects, and farmyard animals. We wouldn’t get much further than three sessions, tops. I’ve been shocked at the lack of organisation on the school’s part, the parents’ willingness to leave their children alone in a laboratory (yes. Laboratory. That’s where you do drama now, apparently) with a woman who doesn’t speak Spanish or Catalan and isn’t CRB-checked, nor a qualified teacher. I’m essentially just a girl who happens to have done a drama degree, and that speaks volumes amongst Spanish parents apparently, as of course that means I am trustworthy, capable, and can work miracles with a group of young children who don’t have a clue what I’m talking about.

Suffice to say, the drama classes aren’t going to happen any more.

Alas, poor drama class, we tried you well...

Lunchtime ends at 3pm – yep, that’s right, two whole hours for lunch. Some children go home, leaping on their father’s motorbike, or trailing behind after mum with their nose streaming because they want to finish their painting of a squirrel. Two hours works for the kids that go home, but the ones who stay here seem to have it a little tougher. They eat at 1, so it doesn’t take them long – even though there’s three courses every day. I eat at 2 o’clock, with the rest of the teachers, and try to imagine I understand what’s going on, when really I have no idea. Usually it’s the wrong thing – the other day I was convinced they were talking for twenty minutes about pasta, when I think in fact it was football. The children, when finished at approximately 1.20-1.30, then have until three to run rampant and generally scream themselves hoarse or collide into each other until they’re exhausted by it. This is when it’s not raining. When it is raining, they’re back into the classrooms they’ve spent all day in, playing Conectar Cuatro or trying to dance on the tables.

3pm, and classes begin again, with little point, in my opinion. The children are excited from lunchtime and playing, and they don’t want to do anything that requires concentration for over five minutes. I have one of my Science classes straight after lunch, and whilst I love it, it isn’t half a slog to get the class interested enough to participate for the whole hour. It’s not really what you would describe as a ‘Science’ class, of course, being in English. Most of the complex vocabulary relating to that subject prevents learning about osmosis, the central nervous system, or photosynthesis, and so on, and so on. Instead, we learn about body parts, muscles, things we can feel, different senses, and parts of the skeleton for the older kids. I really enjoy it, and I think the children do as well – in my first session, they all moaned and groaned, but now when I come through the door they shout in happiness, and all of them tell me English is their favourite subject. So either I’m doing a good job, or it’s an entire class of teacher’s pets. It helps me pick up Spanish as well, even though I’m not sure how much ‘clavicular’ (collar bone), ‘caja torácica’ (rib cage), and ‘columna vertebral’ (spinal cord) are going to help me in my day to day life.

What a Science lesson in English amounts to. This is our big version of Adriá, a somewhat willing volunteer who allowed himself to be labelled poorly in the name of classroom displays.

The last lesson of the day begins at 4pm, and finishes at 5. The children watch the clock at this time, and are generally either asleep on their desks, or ridiculously overexcited because it’s nearly hometime. Most Tuesdays – my ‘small people’ day, I spend the last ten minutes of the day waking up a particularly sleepy little Natalia, who always conks out on the table and wakes up with a handprint on her tiny cheek, wiping drool from her mouth and looking especially confused at the girl who orders her to wake up in incorrect Spanish. Then we get the children dressed properly, as they’re still not able to figure out how to put on a rucksack the correct way, or notice that their ‘xandal’ (tracksuit) is on inside out.

Home-time, and I’m usually hard at work, preparing tutoring sessions, learning Spanish (and failing), and looking for new ideas for Science classes. I spend little time with the family, who remain rather closed off, and occasionally play with the children if I’m not too tired or in the mood to be ignored for a good two hours by the parents. Dinner time can vary – they’re trying to get the children to bed earlier these days, possibly because of the winter nights, and that means dinner is often at 7:30, a staggeringly early time for Spanish ‘cenar’. Sometimes, however, it can be as late as 10pm, if we don’t eat with the children, and the parents unsuccessfully call me downstairs. I’m getting used to the way of eating, and now I’m even at a point where I can’t decide which I prefer. My mother kindly brought some parkin over when visiting recently, and it was rapidly devoured in the staff room over comments that it was rather rich, but all agreed it was certainly nice. When describing that it was made with oats, some had been a little timid about trying it, but gave a good effort and listened patiently when I explained in bad Spanish about November 5th and Bonfire Night.

Parkin - northern, gingery, a nice homesickness cure.

No day, of course, is the same, but I hope that what I’ve given is a taste of my life in a Spanish school – sometimes difficult, often testing, but very enjoyable all the same. All I can say is, I’m at a stage where I wish I could speak Spanish, had a PGCE, or a qualification (despite the fact that Spanish teachers receive a lower pay packet than English ones for much more work in the school day) and I’d try to teach here in an instant.