Monday 31 October 2016

So Long, And Thanks For All The Kimchi

Da Capo Al Fine
Well, I'm done. I'm done with work, but I've been so far beyond done for so long that now that I'm really done, it doesn't even feel like it. In the last blog entry I said I was burnt out like most Koreans, and that remained true until the end. Having short weekends and only one week off in the year was a bit overwhelming and took a lot of the fun out of the experience. As I've said before, the TEFL experience is sold as "Come Explore Asia!", but if you work in a hagwon you don't have the time - so in certain ways I don't really feel like I did explore Asia, rather that I just worked here. And yet, that in itself is a pretty Asian experience - the fierce work expectations are part and parcel of what life is like for most Koreans, so perhaps my experience here was more authentically Korean than it would have been if I'd had a nice easy public school job.
My advice to anyone who's thinking of teaching here would be to proceed, but with caution. Try to find out about the place you'll be working, don't jump at the first offer that comes your way and don't put absolute faith in a recruiter who's primary goal is to get a placement fee out of your school. You know well by now that I wouldn't describe the year I've had here as a barrel of laughs, but I did the best with what I was given, and definitely had some great experiences along the way. Oh, and it really helped to dispel my Eurocentrism. Asia is crowded and houses  60% of the world's population, and it has helped me reconsider the world and my place in it to come here and try and adapt to what I saw. Those things are definitely positives. So, for the last time, let me try to share a few of the things I learned about this country.
Korea is...
Life is competitive and exhausting for most Koreans. Grades are seen as the be-all and end-all from a very young age (around 10) and seem to be strangely tied to the assessment of one's character. One of my colleagues said "In Korea, if you get an A in a test, you're an A standard person. If you get a C, well then, obviously, you're a C." Status seems to be of pinnacle importance, from where you study to who you marry, how pretty you are to how much money you earn. And they're honest with each other about it. While it was amusing for me to be called handsome a lot, students would equally call each other ugly at the drop of a hat, colleagues would tell me there was a spot on my face that I should cover up, several kids assured me that I have a very big nose. It's no surprise then that  plastic surgery is so popular here; a Korean friend of mine told me her grandmother used to tell her she should get work done when she grew up.
Koreans are so busy, and so wrapped up in their jobs (where they spent the vast majority of their lives) that a lot of them are hard to relate to from a Western perspective. Coming from a country where craic, charisma and personality are nurtured from an early age, I found it difficult to have a real conversation with most of them, too busy with themselves to form opinions on world events or have tastes in music and movies. They have a collective identity rather than individual taste, and as a result society is quite homogeneous. They don't travel and are fiercely nationalistic, far more interested in talking up the few Koreans performing on the world stage (the current national hero is that guy who plays for Tottenham) than they are in learning about places they're never going to go to. Oh, and they rush. They rush everywhere and everything has to be done post-haste, all the time.
Those are some generalisations, and like all stereotypes they only apply up to a certain point. Some of them are pushy (try getting on a bus), and some of them are welcoming and polite beyond anything I've ever encountered. Some are extremely hardworking, and some (the young, college educated) are completely disillusioned with the country they're growing up in. Some of them are casually racist, and some of them desperately want to embrace other cultures and visit other countries. Some of them I'll miss, and some of them I won't.
These are some of the ones I'll definitely miss. Best line of the year came when I explained that during Lent some people give up things they like and Jay-Hoon quipped "like cocaine?"

My Last Few Weeks
To my surprise, all the things I wanted to get done have worked out. Trying my best to keep calm, I showed up to my black belt test at the end of September, and passed it. The whole thing was pretty nerve wracking, with a whole rake of judges appearing from the sidelines to watch the foreigner do a Korean thing, but despite being the only foreigner competing in an auditorium full of Koreans, I kept a cool head through the routines and had no trouble in the sparring match. So in the space of about 10 months I managed to get to Il-Dan, first level black belt, which is without doubt the best and most productive thing I did this year. It gave me a focus to get through the year and was a fun new skill to learn. I really think hobbies are the key to happiness, and between taking up surfing, yoga and now taekwondo over the last 5 years, I feel like I've added all sorts of new activities and interests to my life. It takes another year of training to get to second-level black (I-Dan), and I'd like to think I'll pursue that in the new year. For anyone who's hoping for a little more information on taekwondo, there are four aspects to it: self defence, breaking, sparring and poomsae, which is a series of learned movements put into a routine as if you're fending off an attacker. While poomsae is by far the most tested aspect of the exam (at least in Korea), I find it a little tedious compared to the fun of sparring, which is probably my forte. So far I haven't enjoyed breaking that much - it hurts if you don't get it right. I'd rather try to kick someone in the face. I decided shortly after arriving here that I would focus my free time on the sport rather than learning the language to a semi-passable degree, and I think it was the right choice for me. I was lucky to find and English-speaking trainer and I'll take it with me into the future.
Oh-u-en     Kel-lee
The Other Korea
In an attempt to understand life on both halves of this peninsula, I'm taking a trip to the North in a few weeks as part of a private group tour. I've had a nerdy fascination with the country since I first learned about it when I was around 15, so we'll see how that goes. It's part of a bigger trip to China, bouncing around Shanghai, Xi'an, Beijing and Hong Kong before making it home in early December for an extended Christmas. While I didn't get much time off during the year, I'm delighted that I'll have been to both Koreas, China and Japan by the time I make it home. That, along with the money I saved and the experiences I've had, has made this whole thing, challenges and all, completely worth it. 
Korea's future is bright, though easily distracted
So There You Have It
It's been a year, and honestly, it's felt like it. One year here was enough for me, and I'm looking forward to seeing everyone at home over a mountain of potato waffles, rivers of Guinness and similarly flowing conversation. Thanks to anyone who's indulged my ramblings for the year, I hope they were if not enlightening, at least mildly amusing. Lastly, to the friends and family I've skyped, whatsapped, facebooked, emailed and instagramed over the last 12 months, you're what kept me sane when Korea was too much. I'm in your debt, and I love you. See you soon.
Good luck, new guy!

Tuesday 13 September 2016

The End is Nigh-ish

Hi there.
As I suggested several months ago, it might be a long time until I decided to post again, and so it was. It was a long, hot summer, hitting the mid-thirties most days with humidity stalling up around 75%. That's a lot of sweat. It hit the foreign teachers earlier than it did the Koreans - it seems Westerners sweat a lot more than Asians (really, I'm not making that up. They also have powdery ear wax whereas ours is wetter. Look it up.) but it caught up with them eventually as well, and after a short commute you would find the staff crowded around the air conditioners at work. This was the first summer I've ever had to work the whole way through, and it made me realise why so many people go into teaching for the holidays. Even in Spain we were never more than a few weeks away from the next significant break, which really hasn't been the case here. As I explained much earlier in the year, while kids here do officially have a vacation, it's not really a vacation at all. Most of them undertake extra classes or study academies for the summer, so we actually saw more of some of the kids in the summer than we did during the school term. And I, like them and the entire South Korean workforce, have been burning out. Koreans work some of the longest hours per week in the world, but suffer from some of the lowest efficiency rates per hours worked. People feel as if their lives are spent at work, and they get very little done. With a slowing economy though, it doesn't look as if there's set to be any major overhaul of work culture. From my own perspective, it's led to a deep malaise setting in, and I was both excited and relieved when my only week off in the year finally arrived in early August (not before my boss put me under pressure not to take it at all; her view is that her Korean staff don't take any vacation at all in the entire work year, and that I shouldn't either).
All of the lights, Shinjuku, Tokyo

Sorry Korea, but you're not Japan
In this week I hit up Tokyo and Kyoto, finally getting to the country I probably should have moved to in the first place. This wasn't really intended as a travel blog, so I'm not going to give you a breakdown on all the things you should do and see in Japan, though they are plentiful. Japan is exceptionally clean and safe, often beautiful, very friendly, remarkably easy to get around (except for the labyrinth that is the Tokyo Subway system) and pretty expensive. Tokyo was overwhelming in its heat, crowds and size, but could never leave you bored, and hiking Mount Fuji overnight, reaching the peak in time for sunrise was one of the highlights of the trip (especially given it didn't rain on the mountain that night). From watching sumo training to the weird arcades and maid cafes of Akihabara, to the people dressed as anime characters for fun in the street via the famed Shinjuku Crossing, Tokyo is worth several days of your time. But I left my heart in Kyoto. A far smaller and more manageable city, you couldn't swing a cat for hitting a beautiful temple, garden, shopping arcade, or landing said cat in a fantastic bowl of ramen.
6am atop Mt. Fuji. Hungry, tired, sweaty and cold, but with a view of the sun above the clouds.
So I finally got to visit a country I've been dying to see for years, and it was the only week out of this whole Korean experience where I got my head out of my damn job.
The Yen is not the Won
When buying my flights from Korea to Japan I thought I had landed an exceptionally cheap flight, only to discover a few minutes too late that I was dealing in Japanese Yen, not Korean Won. About 100 Yen equals €1, whereas it takes 1000 Won to do the same, so I had actually paid ten times the price I thought I had for the flight. Oh well. Live and learn.
Ticking "Earthquake in Asia" Off The Bucket List (With No Drama)
The windows and walls had a short-lived boogey a few days ago, but it was all over before anyone had time to shout "earthquake". Turns out it hit further south, somewhere around 5.5 on the Richter scale, but there was no damage. Unlike last weekend in China, at least this one wasn't caused by Kim blowing things up across the border.
My Last 2 Months
I'm getting out of Dodge 7 or 8 weeks from now, with a few trips in the works, which I'll go into in my next post, provided I can get my passport back from the Chinese embassy with a Double Entry Visa on it; if not, I'll have spent a whole lot of money on a whole bunch of trips that won't go ahead. Lastly, I passed my red belt test in late July, and I'm practising to see if I might manage to pass the first black test in a fortnight's time. If I can manage that, I'll give a bit of an explanation of my year with taekwondo, and what I both like and dislike about it.
So you'll probably hear from me once more via this medium. It'll sure be good to see all of your faces again soon.
All the best, for now.
An unwise choice of shirt colour for Test Day, but I swear there's a red belt over it

Saturday 11 June 2016

Vaguely connected tangents

In my first entry last October I said I would only keep this blog updated if I had things to say, which is why it's largely fallen silent as time has moved on. Since crossing the halfway mark I've been far more aware of time passing, and my desire for it to pass. In a lot of ways I feel like by the time I was maybe five months into the year here I had gained as many insights into Korea as I was going to get, or maybe even wanted.  In the run up to coming here, when I spoke to ex-TEFLers who had lived in Korea, boredom was often cited as one of the reasons they left, and while weekends are fine (and of course, too short), midweek boredom is certainly a factor, when not only is your job pretty unsatisfying but you can't have a proper chat with anyone at work, ever, because you're the only one there who really speaks English.
Some of the taekwondo crew not doing taekwondo
My parents came all the way across the world to visit last weekend, which was a good chance to reflect on everything that the year here has and has not been, as well as a chance to do some sightseeing in Seoul and treat them to the weird Korean experience. It was probably the first time I felt like I properly cleared my head of work and nonsense since coming here, given that 8 of my 10 annual vacation days are yet to come. Now would be the perfect time to post a photo of them passed out after a long day sightseeing, but they'll kill me. Instead here's one of us at Korean barbecue.

The pointlessness of my job
I'm not sure how much I've explained about my job, but essentially I'm not a teacher. Hagwons (one last time, that means private after-school English academies) employ at least one native English speaker because parents will pay more to know their kids are learning from a native. The trouble is, while my boss knows she needs me, she's at a loss about what to actually do with me. The school focuses on prepping the kids for exams which are 100% written exams, so what use is a teacher whose main asset is native pronunciation, when they never get tested on it? Because we can't speak (much) Korean and certainly can't teach through it, we've been assigned the made-up and poorly thought-out role of "Speaking Teacher", which is essentially an excuse not to give us books, and they tell us to come up with a topic for presentation class after class for the week. It's mind-numbing, it's pointless, the students learn nothing and there's no progression from week to week. It's not teaching, but I've learned here that making suggestions as to how things can be improved is akin to openly saying you think management is shoddy, and you're best to keep your mouth shut and wait for your contract to end. I've met people who described their TEFL jobs in Vietnam as being "the white face of the school", and that's a pretty good description of what I am.
"It's too fucking hot in summer for those white suits", quoth my trainer, "so we'll buy tracksuits and tie our belts around them,"

Time is Running Out/"I'm Moving to Busan"
Tomorrow I start skype interviews at work for the person who will replace me come Halloween. I guess I have to strike a balance between honesty and not scaring away applicants who might want a more authentic teaching job, or a more exciting town. The best thing about teaching in Spain was that I was able to choose a place, move there and find a job. In Korea though, it's completely out of your hands, especially if you work in public school, though my recruiter intentionally kept me in the dark about job offers in the hope that I would jump at the first one I got. While I was sold the idea that I was basically in Seoul (not quite), another teacher in my town was told we were very close to a surf beach (absolutely not). Recruiters have a tendency to lie. All this lack of choice usually leads to people trying to move south in their second year, and shouts of "I'm moving to Busan" are cropping up again - Busan is a city on the south coast, milder weather, a beach and a more liberal attitude by Korean standards, and also where I initially applied for, but had no luck.
That's all, folks
Really, that's all I've got. Since coming here I've covered work culture, the school system, hierarchies, alcoholism, my inability to relate to natives, the depths of winter, the pleasantries of spring, too many taekwondo and peace-sign photos, too many self-important moans about work, the border with the North, the great food, among other things. I'm happy to share my own experiences here as long as they remain fresh, and I can supplement them with anecdotes on the differences with life as I knew it before being in Asia, but I think the well may have run dry for now. There'll probably be a couple of musings as my departure draws nearer, but for now I think I'll fall quiet for a bit.
Still working my way through the Westlife haircuts though.

Friday 29 April 2016

Days Go By

Time is starting to go by much quicker here as we enter the hotter part of the year. Spring was brief, as we were told to expect, lasting only two or three weeks, and we're just starting the "uncomfortably warm" stage, which is set to worsen over the next few months. Still, I spent so long bemoaning the freezing cold that I'm not gonna complain. At least not until the next blog post.
This week I cross the six month hump, meaning assuming I finish when my contract states, I have less time left here than I have already completed. At some stage over this series of posts I'm sure I've mentioned how I came here with an open mind to spending a few years here (though not really expecting to). I think the world in which that would have been likely to happen is the world where I landed a public school job here the first time I applied. With the majority of my friends here working in public school I can draw easy comparisons and contrasts with them, and it's certain that between shorter work days, more social work hours, freedom to teach how you want and far more vacation (and in-school excursions), hagwon work definitely counts as drawing the short straw. It'd be easy after a year in a public school to say "that was great, I'll take another, please", but I finish my contract around Halloween, which is far too late to apply for a public position even if I wanted one, so I think I'll call it quits. I did get another job offer pretty recently though...
A perfect example of shoebox Korean housing (photo credits to my friend Alex Castillo)

Two Fridays ago I had my most authentic Korean drinking experience to date, sitting at a dinner table for six hours knocking back shot after shot of soju with my taekwondo class (only the adults, naturally). While that night is consequently draped in a foggy haze, one thing I recall from it was my taekwondo trainer suggesting that if I can level up to black belt in October (which is a significant IF, but not impossible), would I consider staying here to work with him as a taekwondo trainer when I finish my hagwon contract. Given the state I was in I immediately assented and we drank to it. It has, however, come up in class since then, and I told him if I have time on my hands when I finish teaching (which is completely dependent on whether or not I get into a masters any time soon) there's no way I could pass up such an opportunity, and that I would give him six to eight months of my time. Ultimately I don't see it coming to pass, but even if it doesn't, just being asked made me feel as if I had really accomplished something here over the last six months - in coming here I never foresaw myself taking up taekwondo, let alone flirting with the idea of teaching it, and that's something I'll take with me from this whole experience. 
(I should at this point explain that while in karate a black belt is the sign of a master, the same colour in taekwondo only means mastering of basic skills, and so while it takes years to level up inside of the black belt levels, to get to stage one of black belt can take as little as a year if you put in the right training. I passed blue this week and will be doing red in a few months.)
These beauties are mannequins in a clothes store downtown. It makes me wonder if Koreans see all Westerners as bobble-headed Aryans. I sure hope so.
I wrote once before about Korea's struggle with suicide among teenagers, and the rate remains depressingly high here through to adulthood. As with many conservative cultures there is a massive stigma attached to mental health issues here, to the point where therapy and counselling are greatly looked down on and misunderstood, and I think in some cases going to a therapist can even be grounds for dismissal from work. Instead of tackling these problems with the intelligence, love and understanding they require, some Korean employers have come up with a "novel" way of dispelling their workers of emotional imperfections: new workshops have been set up where, across the space of one day, bereaved families of suicide victims lecture workshop attendees on how their lives have been ruined by their family member's selfish suicides. Later in the day attendees are told to imagine what it's like to be dead, which is facilitated for them by actually putting the participants into coffins and shutting them for an unspecified amount of time. When the coffins are finally re-opened the oft panicked and tear-stricken workers claim to be revitalized, newly appreciative of life and, crucially, ready to rededicate themselves to their jobs. Poor call, Korea.
In lighter news, a recent trip to the Jindo Sea Parting Festival gave me the chance to attend a Holi Colours Festival, the most perfectly instagrammable event known to man (and a lot of fun). 

Boyband haircuts
The barber who cuts my hair doesn't speak English, and I don't speak Korean, but that's fine, because he has a book of presumably famous Asians whose hairstyles I can point at (that is to say, they are presumably famous, not presumably Asian). For the days I don't feel like getting a perm like most Korean men seem to want, there is, happily, a foreign celebrities page. On this page there are two photos. One is of Brad Pitt. The other is of Westlife. I decided to make it my goal to get all the Westlife haircuts, so I started with Shane's, and after that I got Mark's. I can't decide whose to go for next but it's almost that time again and I sure am excited about my options. It's a photo from before Bryan left the group too, so it should sustain me the rest of the year without any need for repeats, or the Brad Pitt one.
Or maybe I'll just go with one of these
To conclude
There was a flu going round in the last few weeks, and my bosses's daughter picked it up. For reasons that remain unclear, instead of sending the kid home, my boss erected a tent in her office where the child could study and presumably sleep. I'm not sure if this was a weird Korean thing to do, or just a weird thing to do.
Sometimes I am very baffled by this country

Friday 1 April 2016

Holidays, Urban Stylings, Pins and Pongs

It's getting warmer here and there's plenty of hiking to get under my belt. Koreans love to hike. Which suits me fine, cus hiking is one of the things on my long list of Interests I Don't Get Around To Nearly As Much As I'd Like. And they love getting kitted out in the latest hiking fashion - you'll even find air hoses along many trails for you to keep your sports gear looking new and dust-free. It certainly helps explain why, when I did the Camino de Santiago two years ago, every South Korean we passed (and surprisingly, they were plentiful) was laden down with walking sticks, sun hats, sun gloves and everything in between. Myself and my good buddy were a sorry sight alongside them, blistering as much of our pale Irish skin in the Castilian sun as we could possibly manage, looking bearded and haggard. At least our bandannas looked good.
I'm in a pretty solid routine here between work, taekwondo and jamming as much as possible into my weekends without feeling completely wrecked come Monday morning. The worst thing about it by far is the lack of holidays - as little as ten days vacation in the whole year because I'm in a hogwon (public schools get a minimum of 18) - which leaves you with no time to see much of Asia. The idea the Tefl companies sell, essentially "Want to get paid to travel?? Come teach in Asia!" is a complete lie if you work within the hogwon system, and there's no way the recruiters aren't aware of that. The majority of the travelling I'll do here will be when I finish the 12 month contract and not before then. It puts a bit of a damper on the whole experience; if you had a week off every few months you would always have something to look forward to in the near future, but ticking off the months here instead ends up feeling like your only focus is completing your contract and leaving, which really is not what this was meant to be.
At the same time, I can't argue that it's not part of the Korean life experience. Given how few Koreans ever travel and how kids start a new academic year the Monday after the previous one ends (the vast majority spending their only days off in study rooms), it's made me think that they must view life in a completely different manner. In the West we have a tendency to survive the work year by peppering it with vacations, bank holidays, festivals, short excursions, that kind of thing - but it seems to me at least that life is far more linear here. It's summer, and you're at work, then it's winter, and you're at work, then it's summer again. I'm sure it's a little more complicated than that (I sure hope it is), but that's as close as I've gotten to figuring it out, for now at least. The fact that this country is still sometimes referred to as The Land of The Morning Calm is farcical, a 700 year old nickname that holds far less relevance now than the tourist board like to bestow upon it; from intense work culture to intense drinking culture, "calm" is not a suitable adjective for this place.

In terms of traversing this country itself, I'm sad to report what most foreign teachers here eventually discover - there's actually not a whole lot to see here. There are plenty of mountains, yes, and if I had to sum up Korea in one image it would be a distant mountain sitting in a haze of fog (with someone taking a selfie and making the peace sign in front of it), but the cities that are squeezed in between them (and mountains make up a whopping 80% of the peninsula's terrain!) look depressingly similar, to the point of being almost indistinguishable from one another. One of the country's dictators, somewhere around the 1980's, decided Korea should look as modern as it was starting to feel, and put great emphasis on urban development. The problem with building all your cities to look super-modern in the 80's and not continuing the development after that, of course, is that by 2016 your cities look distinctly 80's and dated (think UCD arts block or East Germany, not Bowie and black Michael Jackson ). Tourism has only recently been under development here and with the Japanese having destroyed many of the historical sites during one of their famed unlawful occupations, there is very little that separates one city from the next. (After looking at travel itineraries for visiting here, in fact, my parents decided it would be best to spend a few days in Seoul and then go see Japan instead).
The famed Cherry Blossom

Foggy, yes, mountainous, yes. Perfect.

It's been an interesting month for English names at work. All the kids are given an English name they use in their English classes which they will often keep if they ever move to an English-speaking country, which might sound like the arrogant white man refusing to integrate culturally by not learning his students' names, and you're right. But with the high turnover of foreign teachers here it's impractical to try and learn anywhere from 100 to 1000 Jay-Hoons and Gil-Huns and Hyuk-pans.  So we come up with a name for them (and I've been naming them after old school friends, for the most part. There is now a Harry, and a Gordon, and for some reason there were already five Jakes). On occasion the kids will have their own names already, which they won't give up no matter how you try to swing it - so while there's been a girl called "Cake" since I arrived (yes. Cake.), this week I got a boy called Pin and a girl called Pong. I warned her that we say her name in the West when we smell something bad, but she seemed pretty happy with it. At least she's found a good way for me to remember her name.

Kids in Seoul love learning off choreographed dances to perform on the Street. Standard Saturday afternoon in Hongdae. As for the surgical masks, people wear them when they have a sniffle, nothing out of the ordinary. Face mask fashion is pretty interesting though.

Friday 11 March 2016

Finding my place in the weirdness

My knowledge of philosophy is shoddy at best, but I found myself identifying with existentialism a few years ago, and stuck to it. Nothing has objective value, just the worth you assign to it. And so I set about creating my own meaning, or to quote the great Tim Minchin, "finding meaning where there is none." This echoed in my head a few weeks ago when I met a fellow TEFLer who has been in Korea for five years, is the only person I've met who has learned to speak Korean and struck me as the first English teacher I've met since arriving who seemed content to be here in the long term. Picking his brain on the subject he shrugged and said "either you find something that keeps you here, or you don't". On first view that may sound overly simplistic, but really it's the same point on existentialism - he's managed to create meaning for himself here, so he's content.
It's probably obvious to the majority of people reading these posts that I haven't fallen in love with the country, nor do I plan to stay longer than the 12 months my contract stipulates. That's partly due to Korea, and partly due to the fact that I want to go back to university sooner than I expected to. In spite of this, however, I've very recently noticed myself finding a foothold here, hence the title of the post.
To be sure, I still dislike a lot of things here: the language barrier, the intense work culture, the general conservatism, nationalism, casual racism and homophobia so often on display, the 9 hour time difference between myself and the majority of my friends and family, to name a few. On the other hand, I've started to carve out my own life here, and having finally put winter to bed (though today is -3°), I'm noticing the things I enjoy more and more:

  • The friendliness of strangers, who will often try to talk to talk to us in the street or in bars, tell us we're handsome (still getting that "nice small face" compliment) and invite us to drink with them (although the conversation doesn't take long to stall, between their poor English and my non-existent Korean).
  • Being surrounded by Koreans, who I generally find to be quite attractive. 
  • The pay - though the Won is fluctuating and several hundred euros have been wiped off my salary since last summer - is still pretty good, and a hell of a lot better than it was in Spain.
  • Being able to go to Seoul every weekend if I want to, and take advantage of all it has to offer.
  • Learning taekwondo (you knew that was coming) several mornings a week before work (got my green belt last week. Come at me bro).
  • Getting to snowboard in Pyeongchang - this only happened once, and I wish more than anything that I had known about it earlier in the winter, but like surfing last year it's something I would like to do much more of in the future, if at all possible.
    And the food, which is still fantastic
  • And, of course, karaoke. How could I forget.

And if all the above fails to engage you, you can always join the Tefl Drinkers Club.
An insightful morning flyering
The first Wednesday in March marked the first day of the new academic year, and meant we had promotional duties, getting up early to hand out flyers for my hogwon to parents dropping their kids to their first day of school. It ended up being far more informative than I expected, as we saw parents bombarded with merchandise from english academies, study rooms, piano schools, taekwondo classes and math academies, all hoping the parents would sign their kids up for an hour a day, five days a week, for the next 10 years of their child's existence. It gave me an inside view of an entire after-school economy Korea has set up for itself, which appears to employ half my town, from the teachers to the bus drivers whose schedules specifically cater to individual students, shuttling them from one activity to the next until their parents come home later that evening. It's all in the name of helping their child get into the best university on offer, and is the reason I see kids falling dead asleep on their desks every week.
Let's leave it at that, I've already been at my desk too long and Saturday morning awaits. See you soon.
There were some graceless falls, but it was super fun

Saturday 13 February 2016

Drinking, Lunar New Year, Another Confusing Workplace Situation and More Taekwondo Photos (except now my belt is yellow)

Mentioning to people over the year before coming here that I was planning on teaching English in Korea for a stint, the advice I often got was to "watch your drinking while you're there". They weren't wrong. Like most people I try to keep a bit of an eye on my drinking, but since coming here I've kept an eye on it as its become a little too frequent. There are a few reasons for this, and let's start with the one I could put the most blame on, but won't; Koreans drink a lot. I mentioned this before, but it can't be overstated. Koreans drink more recklessly than the Irish. While the Irish often drink with the intention of getting drunk, Koreans drink as if they've forgotten that's what will happen. It's not that they could out-drink us, but rather they will drink until they can't lift their glass any more. Much to my surprise, I've seen far more comatose Koreans on nights out in Seoul than I ever have Irish at home. While the Irish might drink themselves into a stupor, the Koreans drink themselves into unconsciousness (if you want a documentary on it, check Al-Jazeera's recent "South Korea's Hangover" on youtube. At times it appears as if it was put together by interviewers who've never heard of alcohol before, but all in all it gives a fair account). For me though, it's been the TEFL effect rather than the Korea effect.

  • There are culture and language barriers here that are hugely isolating. You can't engage with the majority of people you come into contact with on an everyday basis, and a year living here is never going to develop your Korean like a year in Spain will your Spanish.
  • Whatever your hobbies were at home, they probably stayed there. While having an English-speaking taekwondo teacher has been a major asset for me, chances are you left your guitar/tennis racquet/football boots/yoga mat/vinyl collection/poi set back where you came from. Where hobbies have left gaps, alcohol can easily become the replacement.
  • You need to make new friends. This is usually done by meeting the local expats, more than likely in a bar. Even if they become close friends, there's not a lot of hosting opportunities when you all live in small one-person apartments. Better head back to the bar.
  • On that note, a blog I read recently warned against all of your friends being "jaded expats who drink too much". I can assure you they are plentiful.
  • Whatever events and festivals might run from spring through autumn, they generally come to an end for the dark, cold months. The bar, though? Yeah, that's still open.
  • All the above things can be challenging. When your days are exhausting, you indulge yourself a little more. Have that extra drink. One big difference might be that if you were back home, your support network of friends and family might become aware that you're not your normal self. But if you live in a foreign country where your friend group changes year on year, you might just wake up five years down the road with an alcohol dependency issue and confusion as to where the previous few years have gone.
That's obviously taking things to a bit of an extreme, but I do think it's somewhat characteristic of the TEFL world. I saw it in Spain, and I've seen it in my few months here. And it's obviously not to say anyone who teaches English abroad ends up with a drug or alcohol problem, but it's certainly worth keeping an eye out for.
If you're concerned for my well-being, fear not. Spring arrived this week, winter coats are going back in the closet and adventure plans are underway :)

Lunar New Year, more commonly known as Chinese New Year and known in Korea as Seollal, was last week. While China goes all out for it, with firework displays, dancing 100-man dragons and 15 days of celebration, for Koreans it is a much more subdued affair. As with their other main holiday, Chuseok, Seollal sees businesses close down for three days as most people return to their parents or grandparents house to ring in the new year, with Korean women bemoaning all the cooking they have to do and Korean men not bemoaning all the cooking they don't have to do. As a foreigner here it was much like being in Ireland on Christmas Day if you don't have family - not a huge amount to do other than enjoy the time off with your friends and wait for things to open back up again.
My boss gave me an expensive selection box of assorted meats for Seollal
Another Bizarre Workplace Scenario

One of the teachers at work bought lunch for all the staff two weeks back. What ensued over the week that followed was all the other teachers falling over each other to be the next person to buy coffee or lunch for everyone, lest they be marked as selfish. Which would have been fine, I would have gotten around to it as well if I had been given the chance, but the enjoyment was certainly taken out of the occasion by the head teacher turning to me and saying "you're selfish" every time someone else walked in with something to offer. Eventually I decided the best way to avoid this was to make a reservation - I told everyone I would buy coffee on Friday, and the head teacher seemed satisfied with this. In fact, she was very grateful when I walked in on Friday with coffee for everyone, as if the whole thing had been out of the goodness of my heart. On that same point, don't think about coming into work with something of your own unless you have enough to share with everyone - I've been scolded a few times for arriving at work with a coffee in my hand and not having one for the other nine people I work with. As I said before, live by the group, die by the group.
Taekwondo is where I spend most of my time, so here's another shot. I'll take off the flash next time.