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.

IMG_3823
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.

IMG_3843
Little Buddha figurines at Haedongyonggunsa Temple (say that with your mouth full)
IMG_3872
Haedongyonggungsa temple – the temple by the sea
13009872_10156815825890717_1471266468_o
Ramen socks! The love for the ramyeon is all around, here.

IMG_3826

IMG_3597
Crying cockles, and mussels, alive, alive-o. 
12968584_10156784872935717_1468841765_n.png
Rabokki – ramen, tteokbokki (rice cake), boiled egg, spring onion, fish cake.

IMG_3846

IMG_3869
Enjoying my second baseball game of the season – go Giants!
Advertisements

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.

IMG_3617
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.

IMG_3647
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.

IMG_3650
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.

IMG_3674
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.

IMG_3672

IMG_3649

 

IMG_3671
A vending machine of insanely cute Japanese trinkets

 

IMG_3609
Cat sushi collectables. Of course.

IMG_3661

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.

IMG_3274
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.

IMG_3326
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.
IMG_3318
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.

IMG_3343
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.

IMG_3406
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!

IMG_3398

IMG_3415

IMG_3337

IMG_3428

IMG_3426

IMG_3389