St Patricks Day

Saint Patricks Day was not an occasion I expected to see celebrated in Korea. But that’s just one of the things I found myself doing this weekend.

It proved to be a rather full weekend. It started Friday evening with drinks after work at a bar just across the street from our campus. There were 5 of us: the two foreign teachers, and 3 of the Koreans. After reading so many horror stories about both hakwons and public schools I’m very pleased to say that I think I have been hired by a fantastic school. They are well organised, well resourced and have done their best to provide me with the best accommodation and support. I haven’t wanted to speak too soon and jinx anything, but their current staff all speak well of the school and management. One downside of the original campus is that the Korean teachers and the foreigners don’t really mix. Fortunately we have enough fresh blood at our campus that this hasn’t really carried over, as demonstrated by us all going out together. We took the time to get to know each other a little better over some bar snacks washed down with a few glasses of beer and soju. This was my first time drinking soju, which I had been told was a horrible thing, but I kinda liked it (but I’d be careful not to have too much of it). It was also my first time trying to eat wedges with chopsticks. It just seemed far too complicated for something I normally do with my fingers.

My American colleague had a friend visiting the Seoul so, joined by his girlfriend we took a taxi into the city. Taxis here are amazingly cheap compared to home. We paid $9 for a ride I thought would be about $40, nothing when split between four people. Our destination was Hongdae, an area known for its youth, and night culture due to a university located there. We went to a restaurant where we enjoyed a meal of Korean Barbeque. If you have not had this before I thoroughly recommend it. You sit around a table which has a little BBQ in the middle. You then order meat which you cook yourselves on the grill. We had meat from the cheek of a pig which was beautifully marinated. When cooked to our liking we grabbed meat off the grill with our chopsticks and dipped it into our own little bowl of our. We then placed it in a lettuce leaf, along with onion, roast garlic, chilli coated lettuce, roast garlic and bean paste. The lettuce leaf is wrapped around everything to make a little parcel which you then stuff into your mouth. Kimchi, radish and soup of course were provided to complete the meal (though I didn’t really indulge in these).

Once we were sufficiently full we wondered off down the street to a makgeolli bar. On the way we passed many bars, restaurants and cafes, which I would have quite happily enjoyed the remainder of the evening in (or morning as it possibly was by then). Makgeolli is a Korean rice wine which I anticipate I will have a lot of whilst I am here. It is sweet, and can sometimes feel almost carbonated, almost like milk and sprite mixed together. It can then be flavoured with, it seems, almost anything. On this occaision we ordered a honey makgeolli, which I liked very much and another one which if I’ve found the right thing on Google is called Yuja Cha. Yuja Cha has been describe to me as a marmalade like substance with citrus zest that is then made into a tea, particularly when one is unwell. I was a little apprehensive about the thought of a marmalade makgeolli, but I was happy enough with the result. I was equally happy with the Kimichi and cheese pancake (sorry, not too sure of its Korean name) that we enjoyed at this bar, though I’m not too sure the food and drinks complimented each other.

Saturday I made good use of the Seoul Metro system working my way first to Yongsan which is famous for it’s electronics markets. My mission was to purchase a decent camera. I did a little research beforehand so that I knew what I wanted (a Canon 500D) and what price I should expect to pay. I don’t think I actually entered the proper electronics market, exploring only the mall attached to the station. If I was in NZ I would be searching hard for a bargain, but as it takes extra effort to do almost anything here I wasn’t in the mood. After entering the photography area I was soon paired up with a salesman who spoke enough English for me to communicate what I wanted and to explore different lens options. I was happy enough with the package deal we came to, so I handed over my money and left camera case in hand, quickly walking past all the other stalls for fear of spotting a better deal. Before I left the mall I explored the other floors, most were filled with electronics, but one floor had wedding and reception venues. Before leaving I located the hairstraighteners. I have wanted a GHD for a long time and now I felt like I was in a position to fork out for them. A bit of internet researchers had led me to find that GHD’s are in fact made in Korea, but that they are sold under the name B2Y. I didn’t see these on any of the shelves, and an attendant told me I would not. He encouraged me to try a particular set of straighteners that “they use in all the salons”. I did, and was not impressed. The second pair seemed to be up to par, though probably not as good as a set of GHD’s they didn’t cost as much either. I started to get the uncomfortable feeling that the salesmen were somewhat enjoying watching me do my hair, so I quickly made my purchase and got out of there.

From Yongsan I made my way to the St Patricks celbrations at D-Cube. They weren’t as big as I had imagined after reading about them, but there was still a large crowd of people enjoying some live entertainment and a lot of beer. There were Koreans in attendance, but it seemed very much an expat event.

At the conclusion of the schedule I ran into the only Irishman I knew in all of Korea, a colleague from our main campus. I was ivited to join him and his friends as they made their way to an Irish pub in Itaewon. I had a large bag and camera in tow and I was pretty tired, but I didn’t want to turn down an opportunity to meet some new people, so we jumped in a cab and headed to Itaewon. I had not yet been to Itaewon, but I knew that it had a strong foreigner influence, and a lot of night life. The Irish pub was as you would expect anywhere in the world, packed to the gunnels despite it being so early. We stayed there for a while before opting for a bit more space and heading to another bar. This second bar was really American. There was autographed money from all over the world stuck to the walls, it was dark, and they were playing country music. It seemed quite intimidating when I first walked into it, but I soon felt it so gimmicky it was quite charming. Right in the centre was a wooden dance floor where people were partner dancing. It kinda looked to me to be a country version of ceroc, not executed particularly well by anyone, but cute nonetheless.

By this stage I had found two members of the group that really took my liking. One was a British teacher and her brand new recruit, a young guy from the states who had arrive just a week and a half beforehand. They didn’t particularly enjoy this second venue, so we decided it was time to head home. I had hardly eaten all day and wanted to make the most of the international foods available. I was tempted to go for a pie from Jesters, but we opted for Turkish kebabs instead.

Sunday was spent closer to home. I mustered up enough enthusiasm to get myself outside for a run. I found that less than a kilometre from my house was the Hangang River which has a walking and cycling track on it’s banks. As it was flat I surprised myself with the distance I ran. Maybe 4 or 5km. In this time I was passed by well over a hundred cyclists and overtook dozens of walkers yet only saw 2 other runners. I’m told that most Koreans find the air quality too poor to run (whether this is the real reason I’m not sure) so they don’t do it outside. I found the air to be quite satisfactory (if a little cold) and plodded happily along promising to make a regular habit of it while it was cool enough to do so. I spent the afternoon at Gimpo Mall. I had hoped to buy some new clothes but as it was a rather upmarket mall the prices were the same as what I would pay for the same thing at home. I enjoyed wandering around and then went to the cinema. I enjoy the cinema because it lets me forget where I am for a while, although the Korean subtitles act as a constant reminder that I’m not in Kansas any more. I tried to finish the night off with some dancing, but found the door of the Dangsan venue locked. So I spent the remainder of the evening at home. A sad end to what, on the outside might appear to be an exciting weekend, but was in fact rather melancholic as I still didn’t find myself enjoying being in Korea.

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First impressions

It’s Saturday night, which means I have now been living in Korea a week.

I’m alive, I’m fed, I’m wearing clean clothes, I haven’t got lost, I haven’t (to my knowledge) committed any serious cultural faux pas, and I haven’t ended up in a sobbing heap begging to go home.

Based on this information, I consider this to have been a rather successful first week.

I was on the ground in Korea for a while before I really felt like I was here. Airports and subways are so homogenous the world over that one would have to try really hard to have a sense of place. The first things to hit me when I walked out the subway exit were the smell, the cold, and a dustiness. I’m never good at describing foods or tastes, but I imagine this one to be linked to some kind of food waste, mixed in with the smell of exhaust fumes. The cold was probably the most extreme I’ve been in but if I piled on enough clothes I was comfortable enough, even if my mobility was slightly impaired. The dustiness seems to be everywhere due to having very little rain this time of year. The roads looked wet this morning indicating there had been some precipitation, but the brown coating on the parked cars suggested it had not amounted to much. The smells, cold and dustiness have meant that my nostrils seem to have borne the brunt of my move. Added to this of course is the prevalence of spicy foods which tend to clear the sinuses.

Having lived in Auckland for some time I feel quite accustomed to being surrounded by people who look very different from myself and speak in languages I don’t understand. It is, however, quite another experience being so clearly the minority on someone else’s home turf. Foreigners are clearly a rarity in my neighbourhood, but I feel that I’m generally regarded as I pass people in the street with the same disinterest as any other stranger. When I interact with people in a shop they are always gracious, both parties just relieved to successfully complete the transaction successfully using whatever communication methods we can. Any use of Hangul on my part seems to bring a smile of amusement to those who hear it. I’m quite aware that whilst I may experience some prejudice due to being different (I have yet to notice any, and don’t expect it to be common) I’m probably going to be my own biggest threat if I choose to dwell on these and let them isolate myself.

As I haven’t been working this week I’ve used my free time to try and forge a liveable base for myself. I’ve made numerous trips to the supermarket to pick up groceries and bits and pieces for my house. I now have a pretty good idea of what I can find there, and where to find it. The meat section remains a little intimidating, and so may become the subject of a future blog. I’ve explored some of the streets in my neighbourhood and have found two really nice parks which I look forward to enjoying through the seasonal changes. It will be good to have these spots to go to if I need a bit of space and nature. Whilst I am determined to experience Korean things whilst I am here I think it’s wise to mix these in with a good base of the familiar. I’m going to enjoy my time here a lot better if I’m having cereal for breakfast than if I force down a bowl of kimchi every morning for the sake of a real Korean experience. Clearly the range of cereals available in the supermarket suggests that cereal is quite a legitimate breakfast here in Seoul. I’ve been out dancing two nights, which is about how many I would dance in a normal week back home. I’d like to get a TV at home in the hope that I’ll have a cable channel with some English shows so I can veg in the evenings, or find some way of obtaining these online. I went to the cinema tonight, choosing the only Hollywood blockbuster on show because I really wanted some sort of passive entertainment. Getting to the cinema proved quite a mission as I had to navigate a seemingly never-ending sequence of escalators and travelators at Gimpo Airport, but now I’ve found it return trips should be a lot easier.

I start work proper on Monday with three classes scheduled for the afternoon. I’ve done all the prep I could this week, with a bit left to be done Monday. This won’t be enough for me to feel ready when I walk into that first class, but as I’ve done all I can I’m not going to stress about it. Learning to negotiate life in a foreign country is one challenge; learning how to be a great English teacher will be another altogether.