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.