The scariest

One of our vocabulary items yesterday was “the scariest.” The PowerPoint had been illustrated with a young kid screaming his head off on a rollercoaster (which can’t have been too intense as he only had a lap bar). So we got talking. Who had been on a rollercoaster? Not many, they were probably still too short. But it seemed many of them didn’t even want to go on a rollercoaster. Not even in the safety of the hypothetical where I would expect them to act braver than they really were. Many of the young boys openly admitted that The Viking was more than scary enough for them.

I had to chuckle at this. The other day I caught a bus. It was a local bus, meaning it was an old machine. The back seat was the only one available, so I shuffled my way down the isle as the bus took off, and climbed up into it. I thought I would feel safer sitting down, but oh no. Korean bus drivers do not drive with riding comfort or fuel efficiency in mind. As soon as the last passenger has climbed inside they hit the accelerator hard. Never mind the passengers walking to their seats or still trying to pay. Their stops are equally abrupt. And I was clearly reminded of this as I felt like I was on the back seat of The Viking ride, the other seats declining in front of me and then rising back up to the driver. I got air a number of times, bouncing and sliding on the stuffed vinal seats as I frantically tried to find something to hold on to.

I didn’t mention the bus, but proceeded to share stories of some of the scary things I had done. I’d been on rollercoaster’s and other rides at Disney World and Universal Studios. I’d been abseiling off the roof of Centre City, and rock climbing on Paritutu. I’d delivered a speech on a stage in front of 2500 people. I moved to Korea by myself. And earlier this year I’d been…

Bungy jumping.

The sharp intake of breath and the gaping mouths told me they were clearly impressed. Some almost disbelieving.

But it was true.

An optional extra to my DMZ trip was to extend my tour by a day to go rafting and bungy jumping on the Hantangang (한탄강). Having not done much rafting before I was keen to try this. I’d considered bungy jumps before but had never liked the look of things when the rope recoiled, it looked like it would be uncomfortable, so I hadn’t the desire to do one. But this jump would only cost me $30. That sounded super cheap. I checked out prices in NZ. To jump at Kawarau, where AJ Hackett pioneered bungy jumping in 1988 = $180, Auckland Harbour Bridge = $150, Taupo = $150. I started to think that it was just too good a deal to let pass by without a strong reason not to. I did consider the ‘you get what you pay for’ concept. Here I wasn’t going to be paying for the 52m of air I would hurtle through headfirst but rather the equipment and staff that were supposed to allow me to live to tell the tale. Korea really isn’t the most safety conscious country I’ve been too, but surely if they’d had a few fatalities they’d have to make some improvements or shut up shop…

I decided to do it.

Our itinerary stated we would be leaving our pension in the morning to go bungy jumping, having a lunch break, then going rafting. Nerves and excitement where shared over dinner that evening as we tried to mentally prepare for what we were about to do. Rain Sunday morning put things into jeopardy. The company wouldn’t let us do the jump. We were fortunately able to bring our rafting booking forward with the hope the weather would improve enough to jump in the afternoon.

Our bus, of mainly English teachers, pulled up at the rafting base. We disembarked wearing our togs, jandals and singlets. We watched tour groups of Koreans in matching ponchos and crocs, or raincoats, wetsuits and water shoes gathering around rafts (Koreans take dressing for outdoor pursuits very seriously). I’m not sure which group would have found the other more amusing.

Donned with lifejackets and wetsuits we carried our raft down to the river. We quickly changed the chant to keep us rowing in time from 1, 2, 3, 4 to 소주  (soju = distilled liquor, Korean vodka equivalent) 맥주! (mekju = beer). This of course added to our entertainment factor as we paddled our way down the wide bends of the Hangtan-Gang.

White water was in short supply, so to make things a little more interesting we went ashore a couple of times to leap off rocks into the water. It seemed that jumping was mandatory. Normally I might have had second thoughts, but as I was about to go jump off a bridge I figured I couldn’t let a few meters cause hesitation. As I waited in line to jump I instead turned my thoughts to the safety of the people jumping who clearly didn’t know how to swim. We hadn’t been asked before we set out on the water about whether or not we could swim. I would think that an important question to ask, but as I’ve said, safety doesn’t seem to be a big concern here. It makes me angry when I see professionals letting people think that they’re invincible just because wearing a life jacket.

As I pondered this I also pondered the wisdom of drinking and rafting, as set up along the river were tents serving soju and beer. Clearly we weren’t the first people to think of these things whilst rafting. But seriously, drinking and water sports is not a combination that should be encouraged. And it’s not like anyone’s journey down the river was going to be a particularly long one.

Of course you can’t have a drink here without having a smoke. Rain and rafting, not to mention splash fights with friends and jumping off boulders had ensured we were all thoroughly saturated. No logoed poncho or fancy raincoat would have saved us from that. And why would we want it to. Yet somehow dozens of Korean men had stowed their cigarettes and lighters away somewhere nice and dry, so that they could light up at that beer tent 10mins downstream from their buses. The mind boggles.

Back on land we received the good news that we would be able to do our jump after lunch. Dry and fed we boarded the bus and drove downstream to a big red bridge. We eyed it up quietly. It looked strong, that was reassuring. There were people jumping off it and, after a bit of bouncing, being safely collected by a man in a rowboat. This was also reassuring. But this bridge was definitely a lot higher than those rocks we’d just been jumping off.

No time for thinking though, After a short look over the side we were ushered into the office to be weighed (the results of which clearly showing my appreciation of the buffet meals on my recent trip to China) and sent upstairs to get our ankle harnesses. A waist jump was possible here, but we decided as a group that we wanted an authentic bungy experience. A couple of buckles around the ankle didn’t seem enough to be reassuring. But it was tight. A Korean came up to the ledge to translate the instructions. “Jump like this or like this, as if you’re diving. Don’t just do a little jump like this.”

That was it.

I discussed with the others the absurdity of what we were about to do. We were about to override our protective instincts that tell us jumping off really high bridges is a dumb thing to do. We were paying for a few seconds of ‘thrill’ (probably better described as terror) as we hurtled downwards. But mostly we were doing it for the feeling of accomplishment afterwards. I know I was. I hadn’t done something like this in a long time, and I knew I needed shaking up a bit.

I was about 4th in line from our party. The first guy jumped before we even realised he was on the platform. Clearly he didn’t want time for thinking. The second guy didn’t jump on his first or second count. I was glad to see them quickly send him to the back of the line before anyone else caught his nerves. The next jumper went in an orderly fashion, and then I was summoned to the line.

My new friends shouted words of encouragement. “Fighting!” “You can do it!” “You’re a New Zealander, you invented the bungy, this is in your blood!” To that I replied. “Yip. Kiwis can fly.” I couldn’t back out now. National pride was on the line.

I stepped forward and a purple rope was attached to my ankle harness. I tried to dismiss consideration of what would happen if that rope got tangled in anything. It seemed no further instructions were necessary, and I was given the nod. But to be sure everything was in order I established the protocol with the instructor. “3, 2, 1, Bungee.” I edged forward, swearing in my head. I fixed my eyes on a point across the river and let go of the railing.

Gulp.

“3, 2, 1, BUNGY!”

Falling, falling, falling, my heart in my throat.

Boing.

Exhale.

Down, up, down. Try to enjoy this. Wave to your friends.

Woah. Spinning. Spinning. Why do I have to be spinning? Hurry up little rowing boy. Catch me and stop me spinning.

Lying, ankles bound, head spinning in the bottom of the boat I tried to push my anger about the spinning out of my mind to think of a response to the inevitable question “How was it.”

I don’t think I came up with anything particularly profound.

“I did it.”

I kept my cool, and I did it, and yeah, I guess it was fun. And next time I go to do something scary I can remind myself of that.

Kiwis can fly.

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DMZ Visit

Disclaimer: I started writing this a long time ago….

This week South Korea celebrated 광복절 (Gwangbokjeol) on the 15th of August, the date that in 1945 Korea was liberated from 40 years of Japanese occupation. This happened at the end of the Second World War when the Axis forces were defeated. The withdrawal of Japan left a power vacuum in Korea. The US and the Soviet Union became potential parties to claim responsibility for administering Korea until it could become independent. Being unable to reach a joint agreement Korea was divided into two along the 38th Parallel. By 1948 governments had formed in each section, both desiring the unification of Korea following their respective visions of communism or capitalism. Tension between governments increased until 25 June 1950 when North Korean forces invaded South Korea. This was the start of what we know to be the Korean War.

One of the things that first fascinated me about South Korea was that they had pulled themselves from the devastation of war to become the 13th largest economy in the world. At that early point I had not heard about the Japanese occupation that had oppressed them just a few years beforehand. Their progress then became all the more impressive.

A year after deciding to move to Korea I had learnt a little more about the war but, not being a fan of military history, had never really delved into it. A trip to South Korea would not be complete without a visit to the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) that separates North and South Koreas. So when the opportunity came I booked myself on a tour to visit the two main tourist areas of this infamous strip of land (a day which would then be followed by a second of whitewater rafting and bungee jumping).

At first going to the DMZ may sound like a bit of a stodgy thing to do, unless you’re a military buff or have some sort of personal connection.  But when you think about it what you’re doing is travelling to the front line of a battle without fear of being shot at (or at least very minimal justified fear). That was one thing I did know, that this is not a border. The Korean War is not actually over. There are also vantage points from which you can look into what is perhaps the most mysterious country in the world. If you don’t think it’s mysterious, check it out on Google Maps. In what strange land will ‘Google it’ not answer all your questions?

Before my trip I decided to get a little bit more educated. I headed to Youtube and found this 30 second clip showing the change in territory over the course of the war. I could not believe that at different points the peninsula had been almost completely overtaken by each party. I then found a semi decent looking documentary to fill in some blanks (But of course I can’t find it again to share with you).

The tour fell on a weekend where my usual travel buddies were busy. I knew there would be other tours, but I particularly liked the itinerary of this one, so decided to sign up by myself. I was relieved to spot a number of familiar, faces as I boarded the bus.

The journey from Seoul to the DMZ is short, taking less than two hours. As we traveled our tour guide briefed us on the history and significance of the area we were visiting. It was interesting to hear a Korean talking about these things. I thought he did well to give a balanced presentation. At the end of WWII communism had promise, and North Korea initially fared better than the South as the Soviet Union provided a great deal of support. Both sides desired to see Korea reunited, which seems like a good goal to me. Oddly the person who was spoken of most critically isn’t Korean at all. According to our guide, progress was being made in peace talks. Things were looking so promising Dorasan Station (more about this below) was refurbished in South Korea, in the anticipation that travel from the South into the North would soon be permitted. Then George W. Bush won US presidency and named North Korea on the ‘Axis of Evil.’ North Korea got defensive and peace talks were halted. Now they wait to see what direction Kim Jong-un will try to take the North. It was the hope of our guide that he would resume peace talks and that the North will begin to make moves towards capitalist trade like those being made by China.

Our first stop was Imjingak (임진각). Here we saw a number of different monuments, but bypassed the main facility. Our main point of interest here was the Freedom Bridge over which prisoners of war were returned from the North. The bridge is covered in emotional photos of that famous day and of colourful ribbons on which people’s prayers for peace and reunification with family are written. There was also a train punctured with bullet holes rusting away. I couldn’t quite work out its story, but I love trains, so I was fascinated nonetheless.

From here we went through the military checkpoints and to the Dora Observation platform. Here we could see across the 4km wide DMZ into North Korea. We were told that on some days you could see people working in the fields by using the binoculars there. On this day we didn’t see much.

We drove from here to the third of four tunnels that have been discovered by South Korea. These were dug from the North into the South. They appear to have been dug for a surprise attack on Seoul. They’re not big enough for vehicles to pass through, but they estimate that thousands of lightly armed infantry could pass through every hour. We were able to enter the tunnel through a tourist access shaft. Donning our yellow safety helmets, and getting our ajuma bend on to avoid hitting the ceiling with our heads, we walked through the roughly cut tunnels. How thousands of troops could travel through here at a consistent pace beats me.

From here we moved on to the Cheol Won area. Here we visited a peace observatory. There were binoculars here, but no towns to look at. Instead you looked over the green of the DMZ into the fields and hills of North Korea. It was really pretty. The DMZ, an almost surely fatal place for people to wander, has become a safe haven for many rare species of birds and animals. Many people hope that this area will remain protected if ever the two countries are reunited.

We got back on the bus and travelled to Dorasan Station. This is a railway station on the Gyeongui Line which runs between Seoul in South Korea and Pyongyang in North Korea. Services do not run across the DMZ, but at the height of peace talks it was hoped that it would just be a matter of time before they would resume. The station was restored and outfitted to be a customs port for travel in and out of South Korea. Instead it stands as a weird monument of hope and disappointment. The station is large and spacious, the departure gate is labeled Pyongyang, there are metal detectors and luggage scanning machines. It looks all set to go. But there are no passengers. The station is open as a tourist destination, not a thoroughfare. A world map above the ticket booth links rail lines from Busan, at the Southern tip of the Korean Peninsula, through to tracks in China and into Europe via the Trans-Siberian. What a magnificent trip that would be.

After this we went to the second tunnel, which was much like the first, and to a memorial park where an English speaking soldier gave us a tour and told us about the Battle of White Horse, a name given to a hill the park looked towards. I don’t remember too much, as I was pretty tired by this point, but I do clearly remember looking at a gun that was on display. It had got so hot from use that the barrel was bent about 20 degrees.  With thoughts of war and peace, conservation and trains I settled into our accommodation for the night.

A couple of years ago I didn’t know much about Korea (quite likely I would have got the North and South confused in my head), except that they made Hyundai cars and that there was a war there. Now that I live here these would not be the first things to pop into my head when you said Korea. When I first got here I was driven crazy by the prevalence of Hyundai cars, trying to spot non-Korean model cars whenever I was out and about. But I’ve (mostly) gotten over that. In the same way war doesn’t quickly come to mind. But there are certainly frequent reminders. Young soldiers are frequently seen particularly about train stations. Military training is compulsory here, so I guess all my male Korean friends have been in training, and if things don’t change my students will have to do it. You also see weird military outposts dotted about the place, and every now and then a raid siren can be heard. The war is not officially over, and so South Korea remains prepared to defend themselves. I’m aware that people around me have differing opinions about independence or reunification. Either way I sincerely hope no act of violence takes all this progress away from them.

 

My name’s Hannah, and I’m an addict.

I have an addiction.

I don’t quite remember when it started, but it’s become a significant part of my current lifestyle.
I have sessions once, twice, sometimes three times in a day. Sessions vary in length, I kinda loose track of time, but I’m sure multiple hours can be consumed by my addiction in a single day.

It’s time I came clean to friends, family, and random people who have found their way to this blog through keyword searches.

I’m addicted to flashcards.

Korean flashcards.

Not the rudimentary ones made with real card and print.
I’m talking sophisticated, computer generated flashcards.

The kind that give instant feedback, and which adjust the frequency of a cards appearance as you become more familiar with it. I’m tested for aural recognition of a spoken Korean word or phrase, translation of a printed Korean word back to English, and the ability to produce the Korean equivalent of a printed English word. When I can successfully do all of the above after not being exposed to a card for more than a week I am said to have ‘learned’ that vocabulary. If I can successfully complete all 3 tasks a few weeks after learning the card I am said to have ‘mastered’ that card.

Of course I didn’t become a full-blown addict overnight.

It started when I was trying to choose a country to teach English in. When I was 12 I leant a little Japanese. It was hard. Chinese, well, that’s one, or rather several, crazy languages with thousands of characters and tonal differences. Then I read somewhere that Hangul, the Korean alphabet, can be learnt in just a couple of hours. I thought they was talking crazy. I’m no language ninja. And Korean has all those crazy lines and circles…

I could waste a lot of English alphabet trying to describe this to you, but how about you check out this short video instead. This is how I got started. Before long I was able to read (though not necessarily understand) signs along the Albany Highway. Once you can read Hangul you soon realise that there are a lot of words written in Hangul that are just their best imitations of English, like 아이스크림 (ice cream), 커피 (coffee) and 뉴질랜드 (New Zealand). I’m always surprised and disappointed when I meet people who have been in Korea for more than a couple of months (some of them multiple years) who haven’t taken the time to familiarise themselves with this alphabet. Sure you can get around Korea pretty good without any Korean, but it makes life so much easier. And for me I’m sure it made the move here a lot less intimidating. Instead of crazy, arbitrary symbols surrounding me I saw something carefully constructed (it’s actually really interesting to read about the creation of this alphabet), with noticeable patterns and bestowed meaning. Sometimes, if I was lucky, my time to phonetically read a word was rewarded with the realisation that this was an English word. Café menus are almost entirely translatable in this way.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

After watching this video I wanted more.

After trying several podcasts and websites I found I most favoured the learning format of Koreanclass101. I started with the free package, but soon paid for a basic subscription. This allowed me to access a whole library of audio lessons. I could stream these and listen to them while I was eating my lunch or download them and play them on my iPod when I went out running.

I had managed to stick to this whole Korean thing, and was serious about moving there, so I paid for a premium subscription. This let me download review tracks which I could flick through on the way to work, and PDFs so I could read transcripts of the lesson.  By this point I was becoming familiar with key vocabulary. I could recognise Korean when I heard it spoken and I would instantly identify Korean names when I encountered them.

Then one day whilst exploring more of the tools available with the premium subscription, I started my first collection of flashcards.

My commitment to learning Korean wanned in the last few months prior to my departure. I just had so much to do. When I first got here I found myself compulsively reading Hangul on everything, even if I had no idea what it said, but I didn’t engage with lessons. There was enough new information to be taking in. Names of people, places and students, and all the other essentials for life here.

A few months ago I felt settled enough to get back to studying. But I couldn’t be bothered sitting and listening to a lesson, and I didn’t take in a hell of a lot of new info when I was multi-tasking. Flashcards, however, provided me with an instant hit. I could learn several new words in a session. I could watch my statistics improving as I slowly learned and then mastered vocabulary. I could watch the progress bars on my decks inch towards completion, first the Core 100, then core 200….

My current stats are (and of course I’ve just had a good session before writing this to improve as much as I can):

Mastered: 876

Learned: 44

Started: 182

I must admit that there are some cards that seem to be doubled up between  decks, and my pronunciation of  words like 머리 (head, hair) and  멀리 (far) may not be different enough for a Korean to give me the thumbs up, but I think I can be pretty proud of my stats.

I’m finding that I’m able to learn words faster as I learn root words. I recently learned 사진 (photo) and today was introduced to 사진 촬영 (photography). I’m also loving that almost everyday I’ll encounter a word I’ve just learnt, whether it’s seeing it in the window of a shop I pass on my way to work, or hearing it in a conversation between workmates.

But now it’s time to admit that my addiction is not entirely healthy. I know lots of words, but will never be able to speak Korean until I know how they’re supposed to be put together into sentences.

I’ll get on to some proper lessons….

But first, just one more session.

Haves and Have Nots (Part 2)

So this is part two of my blog “Haves and Have Nots”. Part 1 took a look at just some of the things I have experienced since moving to Korea. Part 2 is a look at the things I haven’t experienced since being here either because I cannot, I dare not, or am yet to seize an opportunity to do.

Let’s get the most obvious question out of the way.  No I have not eaten dog.  Gaegogi (개고기) literally dog (개) meat (고기) is eaten in Korea. I have done my best to remember the name of the soup bosintang (보신탕) which features the meat, but still have to look it up. I originally wanted to remember the name of the soup so that I could try it. Provided an animal is fit for human consumption I don’t really see why anyone should take offence to it. I can understand that endangered species, such as whales, should be protected from ships hoping to stock the black market with some colossal kaimoana, and that whole deal of cutting the dorsal fins off sharks seems rather senseless. But what should make a dog (or horse or whatever) any different from a cow, a chicken a sheep or a fish. If you think it’s wrong, go the whole hog and become a vegetarian, and then I’ll respect your stance a lot more. Having not remembered the name of the soup, and hence not having found anywhere to eat it, I haven’t tried it. I’ve since heard tales of how terrible it tastes and how bad it smells. Having not liked much of the Korean food people think is good, I don’t really think I want to try something that is generally thought to taste bad. So now I’m trying to remember the word bosintang so that I can avoid it, if the smells emanating from the restaurant don’t warn me off first.

The second most popular question I hear is have I found myself a Korean boyfriend. The answer to this is no. This of course tends to be quickly followed up with the question “Would you?” I might try and share my thoughts on that in another post, as I’ve found much of what I’ve learnt about Korean dating culture and relationships very interesting.

Have I had tea with Kim Jong-un yet? No. It seems the majority of people think North Korea is completely closed off to foreigners, but you can legally enter with an approved tour company. It’ll cost you an arm and a leg, and your time there will be highly regulated, but a visit there would be pretty special. I have just read that 2012 will be the last year that the Ariring Mass Games will be held. This event sounds absolutely mind blowing, and something I would have really liked to see. But none of the tour dates I’ve found seem to work in with my holidays here. It seems the closest I will get will be a trip to the DMZ in a couple of months. I will then have pretty much traveled the length of South Korea.

Still left high on the agenda of places to visit is Jeju-do. Labeled the ‘Hawaii of South Korea’ and ‘Honeymoon Island’. There are many things to do here, including hikes up Halla-San, and trips to the teddy bear museum (precisely where I’d want to go on my honeymoon) and Love Land (a park full of sexually themed sculptures). Of course if I’m there and I don’t have a boyfriend, (or suitable substitute), with whom I can wear matching outfits I’ll feel rather left out. This is very common in Korea. Stores specifically stock his and her outfits, even your underwear can be matching.

I’ve been really surprised to have not yet met any kiwis here. I’ve met people who know kiwis here, and have met Koreans that have studied in NZ, but I haven’t had the opportunity to practice the theory of two degrees of separation. I have had a NZ Pure Lager, and have seen Villa Maria wines in restaurant menus and Mainland cheese in E-mart.

I have not run out of Marmite.

I have not stopped saying ‘Kia ora’ to people despite no one knowing what I’m saying.

I have not (despite determining to at some point almost every day) learnt how to say “I can only speak a little Korean” and “I do not like spicy food.” This is especially pathetic since I think ‘a little’ and ‘spicy’ are the only words I don’t know. I think once I learn these terms I know enough Korean to put together decipherable Engrean (I’m penning this term as the opposite of Konglish – where the known language is Korean, and English is the attempted language) sentences to communicate these ideas.

I haven’t failed to learn my students names because I think they all look the same. I’ve actually been surprised at how different everyone looks. It actually took me some time to identify common facial traits that seem to be Korean.

I haven’t lost weight from eating all the Korean food. I’m not eating a lot of  Korean food, so am instead eating western food. I can get stuff from the supermarket, but with meat, fruit and vegies so expensive and working till late I don’t really feel that motivated to cook. As such I’m visiting the western style food stores in my neighbourhood a lot more than I should: Pizza School, Paris Baguette/Tours Les Jours Bakeries, the Belgian Waffle and Gelato café and (whilst considered Korean, it feels pretty universal to me) the BBQ chicken restaurant. As such I’ve put on an unknown amount of weight so that some of the clothes I brought with me, and even things purchased in Korea no longer fit.

I have not become a K-Pop fan. I can however hum along to a few songs that are big right now.
Wow. Fantastic Baby.

I have not picked up any tutoring jobs to supplement my income (which would be breaking the terms of my visa). What’s surprised me is that I haven’t really been asked by anyone. I think the guy who sold me my camera is about the only person who’s really asked.

I haven’t paid off my student loan and don’t expect to be the end of the year, or next should I stay. I have however put a little bit aside to send home. And hope to have a bit more go heading that way in the next few months.

I haven’t gone to a dentist or an optometrist. But these are definitely things I want to do, as their services are much cheaper here than in NZ.

I haven’t felt homesick for my family. I haven’t lived with them for 5 years. People don’t seem to appreciate that if you’re not making frequent visits there’s not much difference being 10km or 10,000km away from someone.  People who I spent a lot of time with before my departure have been missed more frequently. Mostly when I’m doing or seeing something I know they would appreciate.

I haven’t kept a regular, informative yet insightful blog that is of interest to both my friends and other people looking to share a similar experience. My close friends, however, tend to have Facebook to follow me on, so I hope they’re not feeling too neglected. And look, here’s two posts in as many days. That’s got to be a record.

Haves and Have Nots (Part 1)

A friend once asked if I was someone who was more likely to spend my money on experiences or possessions. I answered that I was more likely to spend my money on stuff, as I liked to have something tangible, with a bit more permanence to show for my efforts. But choosing to travel is choosing experience. Either that or large international shipping expenses.

This blog is not some insightful piece about possessions or the lack there of, but more of a log of things I have experienced (in no particular order), to be followed up shortly by a list of have nots.

I had reduced my earthy possessions to two boxes, 1 suitcase, and a carry on. Oh, and a dining suite and set of drawers. I have now gone on a mad shopping spree, buying an entire summer wardrobe in an afternoon (and in doing so bumped myself up to two suitcases). I now have some very Korean outfits; pretty dresses in pastel colours, a gorgeously tailored trench coat in tan, the ‘it’ colour of the season, cute blouses to pair with short-shorts and heals, or short shorts and baggy tops. I’ve also bought some tops from a hiking shop; total bargains at W15,000.

I have learnt that if you put food in front of me, I’ll eat it. I may not like it, and if it’s Korean food the odds of that are greatly increased. But for some reason I’ll keep eating. If I have to eat with chopsticks I am more likely to persevere with eating despite not liking something because I enjoy the challenge of getting food from plate to mouth without it ending up on the table or in my lap. Noodles is an exception to this. Noodles + chopsticks + overbite = damn frustrating and messy.
I’m determined to give things a go and at least try them once. Korean food often does not look or sound appealing so I’ve adopted an eat first ask later policy.
I’ve now eaten sashimi (including squid, sea-squirt and some kind of snail), shaved dried fish that is so fine it crumples in the heat and so looks like it’s moving on your plate, kimchi of course, a whole chicken stuffed with rice and served in a steaming pot of broth.

I’m learning that one question should be asked before I eat. “Is it spicy.” I’m not very good with spicy foods, and don’t really feel the need to prove I’m tough by eating it. It’s really not pleasant when it goes in, and it’s certainly not pleasant the next day, and thus it should be avoided.

Not only do I seem to eat anything that’s put in front of me, I seem to drink anything that’s put in front of me. I did not drink beer before I came here, but I seem to have had a lot of if in the past few months. And yet I still do not like it. The closest I got to liking a beer was actually a NZ Larger that come with the cover charge of a bar we went to.

I have gotten drunk on soju, and decided I actually quite enjoy the drink. I much prefer it over a beer. A friend convinced me to try ‘soco’, soju mixed with iced coffee. Not being a big alcohol drinker, or a drinker of coffee I didn’t expect to like it. But it’s now become my standard drink for having in the park at the start of a night in Hongdae. It helps that the ingredients can be bought at the local convenience store for about $3.

But my time here hasn’t been all about eating, drinking and shopping. I’ve been to enough palaces, temples and pagodas to not feel the need to see another in a very long time. The palaces are certainly impressive and the colourful painting on everything very beautiful, but it’s all far too similar. The other weird thing about visiting a lot of these places is that the site may be very old, but the buildings themselves often are not having been destroyed by invaders and rebuilt, often very recently.

I have travelled to the southern end of the peninsula to visit Namhae Island. A weekend trip that provided what has thus far been my only trip out of this city. I enjoyed watching the landscape roll by through our bus window. The mountains, the rivers and the ocean. The patchwork of fields and terraces of rice, garlic, and other crops grown in small quantities. I travelled out to smaller islands, went sea kayaking, fishing (and caught several fish), swan in the ocean, attended a garlic festival, and trecked up to a budhist temple on a mountain peak to watch the sunrise.

I have been to the zoo. I could not tell you if any of the animals I saw were indigenous to Korea. Perhaps the did not feel them worthy of inclusion.

I have been to half a dozen swing venues, dancing mostly lindy but a bit of blues and bal, and even taken a few tango classes. A number of times I have left a bar after sunrise to make my way home on the subway which opens at 5:30am.

I have been pushed into a subway carriage that resembled a can of sardines. I’ve taken buses and wished there were seatbelts… and helmets. I’ve ridden in taxis and felt my driver thought we were in fact in the grand prix.

I’ve hired a bike for free and spent half a day peddling along a river not really knowing where I was or where I was going but just loving being on a bike (as crappy as it was) after so long and enjoying the sights along the river.

I’ve taught English (funny that). Teaching in full emersion. I’ve found that Korean kids, in contrast to some peoples assumptions are not perfect students. Some are really motivated, but even they have their off days. Some start out super quiet, but then never stop talking. Others are moody, mischievous, or demanding. Some are clearly very ‘special’. Some adore me (or at least that’s what I tell myself), some love to wind me up and others I’m sure couldn’t care less about who was standing in front of them. As such I’ve had classes I thought went really well, and classes that have gone terribly. But I don’t think I’ve cried yet, so things haven’t got too bad.

I’ve had conversations (very brief and basic) solely in Korean, and felt that at least some of what I said and what I heard was correctly understood. I’m often told I have good pronunciation, which I think is often just a polite response to my speaking, but then I heard other foreigners try to speak the language as if it used only English phonemes which clearly it does not.

I’ve become a millionaire. Millions of won entering my account every month. I’ve put aside a bit of money already to put on my student loan, but am mostly enjoying finally having a disposable income after living the student life for so long and of course making sure I’m not so stingy I don’t make the most of my time here. I’ve already got a couple of weekend trips out of Seoul lined up, as well as an upcoming trip to Beijing. Christmas this year will likely be spent in Thailand.

I’ve joined a gym. A women’s gym, called Diva Fit, that has pink stuff. On the surface it is so not me, but I’m enjoying doing some regular exercise in an environment with a regulated temperature. More so I’m enjoying doing something other than work in the community where I live. Most people there have proven to be friendly attempting to communicate with me in whatever way we can, whether it be English, Konglish, Korean, Google translate or a lot of hand motions. So I start my mornings with a good workout, a Korean practice and K-Pop induction.

I have been to a Jimjilbang; a Korean sauna, with single sex areas with pools of varying temperatures and steam rooms. The thing with these is that you have to be naked. So it took a fair bit of courage but I did it and did my best to relax. At places like that I’m glad that I can’t see very much without my glasses, and kinda forget that other people can see better than me. It can however be bad if I forget that blob I’m absentmindedly gazing at is actually a person, a naked one, and they probably think I’m having a good geeze.

I have met some great people who have really helped make the weekends something to look forward to. I’m really grateful for those people. I’ve also had great people to work with and found myself in a well run (or at least that’s what I’m still thinking 4months down the line) hagwon who have been really welcoming and appreciative of my contribution to the team.

I have also been homesick, and at times have had a good cry about it. Food has been a site of struggle, as has the lack of a social life during the week. But none of this has been bad enough to consider packing it all in and heading home. Skype dates and mail from special people have been greatly encouraging. There have also been reminders that home is already different, and in returning I couldn’t slip into the life I had 4months ago. I decided to come to Korea for a reason; (at the time) I didn’t feel like I was making any headway in terms of a career, or a relationship, so why not go out and have a bit of adventure. So I’m well aware that I’m here to make myself feel like I’m doing something I want to do, even though I’ve never had any desire to go to Korea, or to teach English. It doesn’t help that four months into my contract I still don’t feel strongly for or against teaching, or Korea, and so am filling my weekends with various activities to make me feel like I’m doing something cool. I’m quite happy to move on to something new at the end of my year, and know that I have a lot of options (recent politics have closed off a few), but don’t feel that there’s anything that I particularly want to do, which I find really frustrating. So in absence of a grand Plan A, I’m sticking to Plan B, which is to stay in Korea for a second year (probably with the same school), try to pay off my student loan as best as I can, whilst exploring as much of Asia as 2 weeks annual leave will allow, then head to the UK while I still can and do the traditional OE there. It sounds good, but I’m still not sold on it.

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.

Not your average Friday

As far as days go, yesterday was pretty huge.

I submitted the final essay of my degree. Wehoo!

I sat the last exam of my degree. Wehoo!

As I am confident I’ve done enough to pass I can now say I have completed my degree. After 7 years of on-off study I have a Bachelor of Arts with double majors in Education and Sociology. WEHOO!

That was my morning, which did I say started at 5:15am for some last minute study?

I decided to celebrate my newfound freedom with lunch in the sun.

An hour later I was in the office, having re-entered the world of full-time work.

A contract was signed increasing my temporary office work from part-time to full-time for the duration of the summer.

I also accepted another contract. One offered by a school in Balsan, Seoul! This Korea thing is getting official now!

Here’s a quick rundown of the main details of the position.

I arrive in Seoul around the 24th February 2012 for a brief orientation before starting work on the 28th February.

The school will cover my airfare to Seoul, and also a flight home (or wherever else I choose to go of the same or lesser value) at the completion of my one-year contract.

I will be teaching 7-12 year olds in 45 minute teaching blocks with no more than 12 kids per class.

It sounds like our schedules for teaching/prep hours vary a bit from quarter to quarter, but I shouldn’t have more than 6 classes a day, totally about 20-25 hours a week. With prep time I’m expected to be at the office from 11am-8pm Mon, Tues, Wed, Fri and 1pm-10pm Thu. These may seem like quite strange hours, but classes have to run after the students finish their normal schooling. They’re quite long days, but seem to be pretty consistent with other jobs around and I figure not that different than you’d get in your first week teaching here.

I’m getting paid 2,600,000 Won per month. I know 2.6 M I L L I O N ! How awesome does that sound? On today’s exchange rate it’s worth NZ$2936.20, so it’s actually not too different from what I’d earn in my current job, but way better than what I’ve been living on as a student. The cool part is that my costs of living should be a lot less in Korea, so I’ll be able to make the most of my weekends and still pay off a good wad off my student loan. It’s actually a really good salary for a first-time teacher. I’m sure I will earn every won of it!

I’ve been put in contact with an American teacher based at the school who will likely be the one training me. She sent me a massive email explaining all sorts of things about the school that really helped me make my decision. She’s clearly really willing to support new teachers coming through and promises that the managers are also really awesome. She’s just signed up for a second year with the school, so that’s always a good sign.

I’m still pretty nervous about a lot of things, there is really so much that I can’t know until I’m actually there, but I’m pretty happy. It’s particularly nice to now have an idea of when I’ll be going so that I can get myself organised. More on that to come.

Right now I’m celebrating the end of study and my new job. Wehoo!