2 months

I’ve now been living here two months. It feels like it’s been a lot longer than that. I’m starting to live a lot more like a local. I’ve learnt the tricks of the metro – like where to transfer to different lines, when to wait for an express, how to ride standing up without holding on to anything or falling over and even what many of the announcements mean before they’re translated into English. My workmates now feel that I’m eating properly because my standard lunch includes rice and will often have seaweed and be eaten with chopsticks too. I have a Korean debit card, and smart phone so I feel like a legitimate resident. A shopping spree on Sunday has meant that I’m now dressing like a Korean much to the delight of my coworkers. I still don’t like Kimchi, and somehow have escaped the noraebang, so I’m not fully Korean just yet.

Yesterday was ANZAC Day. Google did not produce evidence of any events to be held to mark the day so I had to mark it in my own day. I started the day with marmite on toast and a feijoa tea. Taking some time to read about New Zealand’s involvement in the Korean War. I wore a red poppy which I had thoughtfully saved from last year and took some Whittakers kiwifruit chocolate to share with my workmates. This act of generosity has depleted my rations of NZ chocolate. Offers to replenish it will be gratefully accepted, especially with some of the new Whittakers flavours I’ve been reading about.

We’re now two thirds of the way through the quarter. The next month of classes will include a lot of review sessions to prepare students for their Junior Test which helps determine whether they move up a level for the next quarter. I’m gonna have to get creative to make these classes fun. I’m still don’t have any strong feelings, be they positive or negative, about teaching. My class sizes now range from 1 to 8 students. Each has it’s own dynamic. Some classes run really smoothly and others border on complete anarchy.

Tonight is Thursday, which means I’m here till 10pm. Not cool. But I do enjoy having a free morning each week. Last week I went to the blossom festival. Today I slept in, did my laundry and went for a run to the next neighbourhood. My dinner break is now finished, so better get back to it.

 

Here are some of the photos I took at the Yeouido Blossom Festival last week.

52

Yesterday was my 52nd day in Korea.

A lot has happened in 52 days, but it seems 52 weekends shall be the more telling figure of this trip.

Hours during the week seem to be split between work and the office, with not much happening in between. I’ve decided to try and get up at a normal time to make the most of the mornings before my 11am start, rather than saving up my waking hours for evenings which are spent in front of the computer in my apartment. These are my relaxing times so that I have energy for work and for the weekends.

I’m now halfway through a Neuvo Tango class, which I think has been the best thing I’ve chosen to do here. The class itself is really good, but the connections I’ve made there have already made this city so much more liveable. I now have people to wander round with on Saturday afternoons with plans now getting underway for trips outside of the city.

Korea is a much more exciting place when you have friends to share it with.

Korea is also much more inviting when the sun is shining. I had kinda been feeling like I was living in the backwaters of Seoul, especially after visiting the upmarket Gangnam and trendy Hongdae. But now that the sun is shining, my neighbourhood is starting to gain colour. Not from evergreen neon signs and billboards but with blossoms, magnolias and leaves. I went for a walk Sunday night along the Hangang right by house. The sun was setting, there were heaps of locals out exercising and enjoying what was a beautiful evening. It’s starting to look and feel like a place I would enjoy living in. Tomorrow I plan to visit Yeouido, an island in the Hangang where they are having a blossom festival. Rest assured my camera will be joining me.

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.

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.

For your pleasure

Today my training was interrupted by a trip to the hospital in order to complete a medical for my alien registration card.

I was accompanied by one of the operational staff from the school as we travelled by taxi to the ‘hospital’ which I would have called a medical centre, or a Labtest.

My completed forms were traded at the reception desk for a plastic cup. I was then directed towards the nearest bathroom. I figured there wasn’t much point asking anyone to translate into English what I was expected to do.

The next test was to measure my height. This involved a bit of balancing and hopping about as I tried to yank my boots off. And a similar amount of balancing and wiggling as I tried to get my boots back on again.

An eye examination chart was then flicked on and a black line pointed to on the floor. Excellent. An eye examination chart. I have a wealth of experience with these. They let me keep my glasses on, if they hadn’t I would not have been able to ready the top line if it had been in Hangul, English or Punjabi, I really wouldn’t have been able to tell. She skipped the large Hangul characters at the top which I could see, and could have sounded, if not named but I guess they figured I didn’t speak Korean, and went straight to the teeny tiny numbers at the bottom. It was true I knew how to name these, but my ability to identify them correctly was seriously questionable. I took my best guess, trying to act confident in my answers (quite the opposite of how I would approach an examination for a new prescription), but I had no hope of reading anything on the bottom line. I wouldn’t have even been able to tell that they were anything more than dots on the page. Hopefully I did satisfactorily, but I don’t think eye examinations are part of the alien card application.

I was then ushered into a sound box and given a headset and a button. “Click when you hear a “b.” Huh? When I hear the letter ‘B’? When I hear a bumble bee? Having them repeat the instruction didn’t prove any more enlightening. Ah “Click when I hear a ‘beep’?” Yes, Yes. Ok. Clearly their onomatopoeia is slightly different, Korean words normally ending in vowels.

The beeps were so quiet I wondered if I had the headset on properly. Bebebeep……. bebebeeep. They’d start in one pitch very quietly and then grow louder, before starting faintly at another frequency. They didn’t really mix up the delivery intervals, so I pretty much just sat there pushing the button every 2 seconds. I started to wonder if I was imagining beeps, or if I was missing beeps when I swallowed because I heard that louder than the beeping. I started to wonder if I’d been forgotten, but the beeping stopped and the nurse soon opened the door of the sound booth.

I then went into a room with a female doctor. She spoke a bit of English, enough to say ‘blood pressure’ as she indicated that she wanted me to roll up my sleeve. Thankfully my sleeves, which after taking off my coat and cardi were now a tightly fitting thermal and an equally tight merino, could be forced far enough up my arm to satisfy her. They probably worked equally well as a tourniquet as the inflated blood-pressure arm band. My sleeve then stayed up whilst she took a blood sample. This was the only part of the test I knew was coming, and I’m not fussed about needles so this was fine. She laughed kindly at me when I said ‘kamsahamnida’ (thank you) as she applied a bandage, I think both out of surprise and mild amusement that I at least knew one work in Korean.

I went from there into another room with a new nurse and a new pointing game began. She pointed at my boots, so I took them off again. She pointed at the bed in the room so I sat. She then pointed to the pillow on the bed so I lay down. She pointed at my feet, so I took my socks off. She then pointed at my necklace and bracelet, so I took them off. I lay back down and she pointed at my earings – just simple sleepers – but I took them out. I then had to lift up my top. I had no idea what was going on. She started wiping down metal clip things which went around my ankles, and then my wrists. I began to wonder if I should be concerned that I had been instructed to take off metal I was wearing, but that I was still wearing my glasses and had an underwire in bra. I don’t think my pointing at these objects was interpreted properly. Metal clips were added to my wrists and then things like plugs positioned at various points around my chest. A machine was turned on. I assumed since I was lying down I was supposed to try and relax. Readings of my heart beat or something were taken on a machine. The clips and plugs were removed, and I got myself presentable again. If the metal I was wearing was supposed to contribute to risk of electric shock during this procedure I’m really not sure. Perhaps after 3 nights on my fluffy purple bedding I’ve been desensitized to shocks. I’m honestly subjected to a crackle of shocks every time I get out of bed. It’s nuts.

I was then directed into a final room with a male doctor. I figured the machine in the room was a chest x-ray. I’d had one before, so it looked vaguely familiar. The old doctor put his hands flat on his chest and said “For your pleasure.” Huh? He then pointed to me “For your pleasure” Clearly he was talking about my chest, not his. My ‘pressure’ had already been measured (Koreans often get ‘R’ and ‘L’ mixed up for reasons related to their own language) I figured he didn’t mean that. His guestures then seemed to indicate that I needed to take my top off – which I figured went with the whole x-ray thing, but I was still puzzled “for your pleasure”. What did he mean? Surely me taking my top off would be more pleasurable for him than for me. He then pointed to a gown in the corner. I nodded and he left the room, coming back when I was appropriately robed. I then played some weird game of heads, shoulders, knees and toes as my chin, hands and shoulders were appropriately positioned in front of the machine. He called these words out in English as be moved me into place.  When I had replaced the robe for my thermals and merino I came out to see my x-ray on the screen. He told me my lungs were clear, and that my heart was of normal size.

I get the rest of my results in a few days.

I’m still not sure about my pleasure.

38,000 Feet over Guam

My inflight entertainment unit tells me that we’re traveling at 38,000 feet, and are currently flying over Guam. We’ve been flying 7 hours, leaving a lovely 5 to go.

I really shouldn’t have done that math. It is not encouraging.

Lunch was hours ago and I am so hungry!

I’ve got an isle seat which is great, and the wing exit is behind me leaving a little space to stand up and move around for a bit.

I am however right next to the catering facilities. There’s a lot of commotion there at the moment as hot towels are distributed to all the travellers.

I’m really hoping that commotion also produces some food.

I’m starving.

The flight booking said that lunch would be served. I really hope there is a second lunch coming (making me feel very hobbit-ish) because one meal in the first few hours of a 12 hours flight is not enough. And it would make sense for a flight that leaves at 10am and lands at 5.50pm to only serve lunch. 

 Oooh – I see plastic trays of plastic containers being distributed. I better make this quick so I can clear my tray. 

After feeling rather overwhelmed by the end of Thursday I decided to take Friday, my last day in NZ, a little slower. I didn’t achieve everything I wanted to, but I got my bags packed, I was fed, and I got to spend some time with a few friends, even if that time was spent finishing off last minute errands.

I got some sleep last night, waking up well before my alarm. Things at the airport went smooth enough, apart from a 30min delay to board. My farewell party was small but greatly appreciated. Somehow I have managed to get myself through to this point without too many tears. No doubt they will come shortly.

Right.

Time for my second lunch, another movie, then a nap before landing.

24 hours to go. Eeek!

So in just 24 hours I will be boarding a plane bound for Incheon.

Today shall be spent sending off the last of items that have been purchased on Trademe and packing…. And other important things like getting travel insurance, exchanging my money and working out when I’m supposed to be at the airport tomorrow… and the rest of it.

I did a test pack a few months ago, and seemed to do alright. But I’m pretty sure I’ll be having to leave a number of items behind.

Decisions.

Just what I need.

Last night was a bit rough. Over the last month I’ve had a sore throat which keeps coming and going when I’m really tired. My glands have now been up for a few days as I’ve been running around trying to get everything done. I was fed up of being sore, tired, and frazzled, and feeling like I wasn’t really giving people my full attention when we said our goodbyes. 

I was rescued by two friends who came round, brought me dinner, answered my emails, helped eat my cheesecake, and watched TV with me.

I now know that I won’t get everything I want to done, so I need to prioritise all the things I have to get done, and where possible, delegate.

24hrs.

Ready, set, go!