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.



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.

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!

The CV is in. Let the constant guard of the phone and email begin.

Today a new phase of waiting starts.

After lying fallow for a year and a half my CV was pulled out and polished up to make me look like a promising teaching applicant. Hopefully I was more successful at this than I think I was. There really seems to be far too much admin work, and far too little teaching, which lets face it is the reality of my work history. I just hope that I show enough potential in my application to score some interviews. Once I’ve got their captive audience I’m sure I can win them over with my charm.

In today’s blog I intend to summarise nice and succinctly what it is I hope to be doing in Korea. I have made a number of attempts at this, but it’s REALLY hard to do. So in trying my bestest to be direct and to the point I will have to cut out the entertainment for now. No doubt I’ll still leave a lot of questions unanswered, but at least we will have made some progress.

Today I submitted my CV to an agency that recruits applicants for the Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education. If accepted I would have to be in Seoul (which is the capital of South Korea) by the 19 February 2012. I would participate in an orientation with other new teachers then begin teaching at the start of March. In this programme I would be teaching in a public primary school. I would work fairly normal office hours Monday – Friday with 22.5 teaching hours. The school would provide my accommodation, a salary of 1.8-2.0 million won/month, pay half of my insurance, reimburse my airfares etc. In applying to SMOE I won’t be able to choose the specific school I would work at, so I would not know until I was placed what suburb I’d be in, what my accommodation would be like etc. I’ll definitely post about these things as they become clearer.

Feburary 19 places me on a very tight schedule, one which I may find is just not doable. To be eligible for this programme I must have a degree. I will be finishing my Bachelor of Arts mid November. As graduation in March will be far too late to get my certificate I will have to request special documents from Massey once my marks are released to say I have met the requirements of my degree. These then have to be verified and sent various places in order for me to get a job and a Visa. The SMOE programme is apparently quite popular and they place people on a first in first served basis, so the earliest I can get these documents may prove to be too late.

If I am too late for SMOE I have a couple of options (as I don’t want to wait around for their August intake). I could try and get a public school job in another South Korean city, the smaller ones being less popular, so likely to be accepting applicants after SMOE. I’ve really got my heart set on Seoul, so I’ll only explore this option more if I have to. My other option is to try and get work in a private school known as a Hagwon. Because Hagwons are not centrally controlled the conditions there are much more diverse. There is the potential to score a really awesome job, but there are also a lot more risks. The main deterrent for me is the working week. Hagwons generally operate in the evenings, and sometimes on the weekends. In a city where things are happening 24hours this isn’t really a problem, but I just think that I operate better when I work in the day then have the night at my disposal.

Apparently the next stage in the process is for someone from the agency to contact me and arrange an interview. Once this happens I guess I will have a better idea of what I can expect. Until then I shall remain a bundle of excitement with a headfull of possibilities, and wait.

Kiwi to Korea

This week in my Sociology of Work lecture I learnt that a persons career consists not just of the series of jobs a person has in their field of interest that move in a stepwise fashion, but all the jobs a person ever has.

At the age of 25 I therefore have had a rather diverse career, featuring, but by no means limited to; babysitter, cleaner, line dance instructor, newspaper deliverer, registrar, usher, nurseryman, student, fast food crew member, painter, interviewer, retail assistant, camp counsellor, bank teller, fruit picker and peg maker.

Whilst this summary may provide interesting reading to you, the diversity of the collective masks the sheer monotony found within. Hours scrubbing black shoe marks off the school floors, filing for weeks on end, mindlessly entering data until I’m seeing double, asking for the fiftieth time that day “would you like to upsize your meal for 50c?” printing and binding student handbooks every semester, taking thousands of cuttings from big plants then trimming, slicing, dipping and setting them in potting mix in a some damp shed in the middle of the winter holidays…

To mix things up there were of course moments of panic; such as when my count of campers finished at 14 when I was supposed to have 15, disgust; as when finding the remnants of attempts to make 2 minute noodles in the basin of the boys bathroom (and other things I won’t mention), worry; which escalates after every passing hour that missing $2000 from my till remained unaccounted for…. all rather different emotions which seemed to manifest as an ominous feeling of sick in the pit of my stomach.

I have of course had many great moments during these jobs… or at least in a few of these jobs. But great moments do not prove to make particularly entertaining blog material and so have not found a place for themselves here. Blogability, of course, is not the canon by which I evaluate my life experiences. I do hope to have great, fulfilling, awe-inspiring and challenging experiences, I’m not prone to sentimental or inspirational monologues.

Consideration of employment options post graduation have led me to choose a rather unexpected career move. As it stands today the plan is to move to Seoul, South Korea, to teach English. I anticipate the challenges and rewards of teaching will be greatly fulfilling, as teaching and training has been an area of passion for a number of years. What is more the experience of living in a completely foreign environment will be hugely fascinating and growing.

I know that I cannot begin to anticipate what all this will really be like, in both good ways and bad. I do, however, expect that I will encounter moments of panic, disgust, worry and “what the?” No doubt my mind will be running on overdrive in the early months as I try to grapple with my new surroundings and establish a life for myself. The oddities I encounter in my daily life will surely have entertainment potential and as such I have determined to share these with you, and my future adoring fans, here in this blog.

In the months leading up to March when I hope to embark on this adventure I shall begin writing. I will first take a bit of time to explain a bit more about what I hope to do in Korea, and why I have chosen to teach there. March is really not that far away and there is a lot I must do between now and then. There may be ways that you can help me prepare, and no doubt opportunities to laugh at my feeble attempts to learn Korean and reduce my life to a 20kg suitcase. I also want to make sure I take opportunities to connect with friends in NZ before I go, and pencil in some couch bookings from those with future Asia travel plans.

So whatever your motives, whether they be for entertainment, cultural insight, interest in teaching English or you feel that as my Mother you should know what I’m doing with my life, I encourage you to follow me on my Korean, teaching and blogging journey. I look forward to your support, laughter with me, laughter at me, words of advice, encouragement and care packages of Whitaker’s chocolate, Kiwi music and Marmite.