Tuesday 8 December 2015

A briefer and perhaps slightly overdue update

I think from here on out entries to this blog might be briefer and more seldom. During the whirlwind of my first month here it was ideal to have an outlet for acknowledging cultural differences (or, if you will, "how weird is this shit" moments that couldn't be condensed into a snapchat) as well as letting everyone know how I was settling in. Well, I think I've settled now, at least for the time being. I think I've already noticed a lot of the more obvious cultural phenomena here, so it makes sense that I will have less to write about. Also, the more interesting trips will probably have to wait a bit given that we're heading into the depths of winter, for which I really need to buy some boots. Winter is long here and can run into March. We've already had our first significant snow, though I've yet to meet the famously bitter Siberian wind that often touches down here over Winter (the previously-discussed nerd in me thinks it's cool that I'm near enough to Siberia to feel its wind).
Anseong and Routines
Noodles have become a diet staple
As of about a week ago I've started to settle into a comfortable routine here. I've gotten to know the local expat/immigrant crowd (I'm pretty sure the only difference between those two words is both classist and racist), I've moved into a bigger apartment which is infinitely better than my first one, and I've started a taekwondo class. I'm pretty chuffed with the latter as it ticks a lot of boxes - it's a cultural Korean thing, it's physically demanding, it gets me out of bed early two mornings a week, and it's something new to focus and improve on; I think it might end up being one of the main things I take away from this year. I mentioned in an earlier post that I had hoped to getting back into playing live music here, which I had then realised wouldn't happen in a town this size, but the laughable truth is the national obsession with Norebong/Karaoke is taking care of that desire in a lot of ways. While playing in a band requires rehearsal, picking the right songs to suit the group/your voice and several other things, you can just turn up to a private karaoke booth on a Friday night with your mates, fire back a few beers and belt out pretty much any song you want - which as my good friends can guess, is for me almost exclusively hip-hop bangers and the forgotten gems of the 90s. It's a roaring good time and I'd love to see it take off back home too, I think with the right marketing it'd be a real hit (don't steal my idea and make a fortune now). That's it for me then; I'm enjoying myself here.

Creeping up on Asians is my new past time

A few quick points on Korea, in no particular order
Housing and Space
People live in shoe boxes here. My own boss is pretty wealthy but lives in an apartment smaller than the ones we were assigned on-campus when I was in UCD, and that's for her, her husband and her two kids. Asian cities are so overwhelmed with people that this isn't all that surprising. They're pretty stuck for space, and property is incredibly expensive. The cities I've seen so far, including my own town of 100,000, have countless ugly high rise flats on the outskirts of the town where perfectly respectable and well-to-do families have no space whatsoever to their name. Property is so expensive here that people start saving for it and their wedding as soon as they get their first job. And one other thing that surprised me, lots of people here don't sleep in beds. The older generation in particular, but also plenty of younger people, just have a sleeping mat - again, this is no sign of wealth or the lack of it. I thought that was something I would have heard before.
Seeing South Korea as an Island
I accidentally left this out of my post on the DMZ visit, but it was something I had never been aware of until that day. With the North as reclusive as it is, the South is essentially an island off the coast of Asia. You obviously can't pass through the North, and Korea is a peninsula, so all trade and travel must be done via air and sea. This is one of the big reasons some people pine for reunification (while we're on that note, many people are equally against reunification for reasons of having to spend huge money developing the North, were it to fall). If the north opened up its borders, they would be able to join up rail services into China, across Russia and into Europe, which would do wonders for trade, tourism and ease of travel. The most galling thing is they actually built a train line from the South all the way to Pyongyang (capital of the North, but you knew that, right?), which was completed in 2002, but never put in use due to cooling relations with that infamous Kim dynasty. I visited the station. It was new, and clean, and completely empty.
The train that never goes
Military Service
One thing the boys here aren't too happy about is their mandatory 22-month military service which they have to do after high school. The pay is rubbish and there's no way around it save a medical condition. Some of my students had their minds a little bit blown when they found out we didn't have it in Ireland or even the States. Seeing their reactions actually made me wish I hadn't told them. Again, it's something I've always taken for granted, but I'm pretty damn happy I didn't have to spend near on two years in an all-male disciplinary institution when I left school. Instead, I got to fart around and learn a few languages, get a degree and let myself ramble away on a travel blog to my heart's content. It's a good life.
All the best

Sunday 15 November 2015

My chopstick skills are coming on leaps and bounds

I wouldn't say time is flying, but it feels like I've been here a lot more than two weeks (that's probably the opposite of time flying, come to think of it). I guess starting work the day after you arrive will do that to you. I spent this weekend on a staff workshop/team building weekend, though we certainly didn't work any shop, and the only team building that was done was after far too many shots of soju and poor quality Korean beer. There was a lot of eating excellent spicy local foods while sitting on the floor (that's their main place of comfort for eating) and I even got to do Norebong - that is, rent out a karaoke booth and sing your heart out into the early hours of the morning, which I was glad to cross off my list so early. I'll certainly be back for more of that. The whole weekend felt very authentically Korean, and something I wouldn't have gotten to do if I were just a tourist passing through. If all my weekends end up being as fun as this one I'll be happy to hang around here for a good stretch. Anyway, on to a few things I've been taking note of since arriving here.

The Korean Love of Western Culture
This is one that most of us have already heard of. That whole "big in Japan" thing stems from the idea that everything Western becomes popular in Asia, even if it doesn't at home, because they love anything Western they can get their hands on. It is true to some extent, but on a very superficial level. They love white skin here, and go to great lengths to be as pale as possible, with some people even undergoing dodgy medical practices to attain paler skin. South Korea has the highest rate of plastic surgery per capita in the world, and much of it is for smaller noses, larger eyes, and other things they associate with Western beauty. A straight man walked over to me as he was getting off the metro in Seoul and told me I was very handsome, and a gang of youths said it to me as I was passing them on the street one night as well, which was a nice contrast to what gangs of youths generally say to passing foreigners back home. Most of the staff, my boss in particular, have commented approvingly on my "nice small face" several times in the last 2 weeks. As we all know I'm a pretty average looking chap, but if you're white here, you're in the good books. That doesn't mean they've adopted Western ideologies though. Their conservative views are still rampant, from the more harmless ones of disliking piercings and tattoos (my boss told me she was going to sew up the holes in my earlobes) to the less pleasant ones such as their homophobia - after accepting the contract for this school I was contacted by the middle man between the recruitment agency and the school, who emailed me in a panicked tone to make sure I wasn't gay, and told me he had to ask because it "wasn't allowed in their culture". It's not so much a love of the West, then, as it is a love of white skin.
Collectivism plays a big part in the Korean psyche. The students I have are a pretty good reflection of this. A lot of the teenagers appear not to have developed a sense of individuality in the way we tend to in the West, and hate to be seen as in any way different from their peers. Things move in fads - they don't really have favourite things, but rather say their favourite film, for example, was the last one they saw and liked. It's quite strange to go around a class asking 15 students what their favourite film and song is, and for every single one to answer "The Martian" and "Sugar" by Maroon 5, respectively. And it makes trying to keep a conversation going in a classroom a hell of a lot more challenging (and significantly less fun). They have their moments of hilarity though; I couldn't help but laugh when, after telling one class we were going to play a game instead of learn grammar, the students sat and applauded politely instead of cheering.
I had to go get medical tests done in the hospital last week because of my job. Instead of it just being my boss bringing me, she also insisted the other expat teacher come along (losing his whole Friday morning before work), and decided to bring her friend for the excursion as well. So all four of us took a trip to make sure I wasn't HIV positive (phew), and then went out for lunch afterwards. Live by the group, die by the group.
One of the more unusual Saturday nights I've had

Stemming from their old Confucianist traditions, hierarchy in society is held in extremely high regard. I'm not yet used to having students bow to me in the street instead of waving, or seeing how my Korean colleagues stand up when the principal walks into the staff room, or how none of us can leave work until she does, even if we've finished our classes. My classes finish at 7.30 in the evening, but none of us can leave before 8.30. This seems to be a mixture of the 2 heading above - it's both the idea that we can't leave before our superiors, as well as the fact that Koreans always do things in groups. It also very much ties into their hardworking nature, but I promise I'll get on to that in my next post. It's been a long weekend, it's time for bed.
Some things I don't have an answer for.

Saturday 7 November 2015

Finding feet

There are far too many blogs out there which people use to showcase how wonderful and interesting their lives are. It's what drives most forms of social media. There are also too many TEFL blogs where agencies pay TEFLers to document their positive experiences, pretend like they're wonderful teachers who love their jobs, and that moving abroad was the most easy and exciting process in the world. It all seems very American, in the sense that I generally find Americans (not all, of course) feel the need to claim everything they just did was the best moment of their lives. That's one thing I enjoy about the British and Irish - we approach life with a greater sense of cynicism, acknowledging at least on some level that in the end, not a lot matters. It's what allows us to find the "craic" in everything, and defines our humour. Anyway, I'm don't intend on writing one of those super-positive, overly enthusiastic blogs. I'll just state how I've been finding things, and this country, warts and all.
Moving over was made pretty smooth for me. Two easy flights, brought to my own apartment which was ready for me when I got here. I have a good boss, she takes care of a lot of things. It was a bit of a shock to have to work the day after flying halfway across the world, but all of the above made it pretty easy to handle.
There are plenty of things already worth documenting, cultural differences etc, but I'll save some of them for later. For now I'll mention that I'm living in a town called Anseong. The TEFL recruitment agency I worked with didn't exactly lie to me, but nor were they fully explanatory - I told them I wanted to live in one of Korea's main cities, if at all possible. While they then told me Anseong was only 80km outside Seoul, I assumed it was slightly better connected than it is. I thought I'd be able to catch a 40 minute train to the centre of Seoul, but instead it's a 1.5 hour bus ride, and the buses stop before midnight, which is a bit of a game-changer.
Spending some time in Korea had been in my head for so long (I first started applying over a year and a half ago) that by the time it rolled around, I had to try and remember what it was I actually wanted out of this year. As far as I recall, it was to live in an Asian metropolis as an out of place Westerner, do a lot of dating, some partying, and get involved in the live music scene, hopefully getting the chance to play in a band again for a while. As you can imagine, those kind of things generally demand a relatively big city. I haven't been here long enough to know how this will pan out, but I'm not sure how accessible those kinds of things are going to be from where I am. I was in Seoul yesterday and really enjoyed it, and got a much better sense there of the things I had actually come here to see and experience. The friends I make here, as well as the ease with which I can travel around the country and those kinds of things, are going to define my enjoyment of the year, so I'll have to wait and see how things play out, and while I'm not fatalizing the situation, it's fair to say I'm less enthusiastic about how the year might go than I previously was. I might not get to cross as many things of my list as I had hoped.
I should explain that the main reason I ended up in this town is because I chose to work in a reputable hogwon (private English academy), which I was put in touch with by the recruitment agency. That's definitely the big plus in this situation. The staff are all friendly, both my boss and the other expat teacher Tyler have been super helpful, the work isn't all that challenging and the hours are ok. The more I've researched teaching in Korea, the more horror stories I've come across. As an expat you're in a vulnerable situation, coming to the other side of the globe and not speaking the language. It looks as if for every good school there is, there are 2 or 3 ready to take advantage of you, overwork you, not pay you on time, and generally make your experience pretty difficult here, rather than it being the amazing year in Asia that everyone harps on about. As with a lot of things, when you tell people you're moving abroad to teach they tend to envy you and think you're having the best time of your life (and as I was saying, travelers posting photos on Facebook and Instagram of what may have been the one moment they enjoyed in the last week only encourages this view), but when you get involved in the practicalities of finding a comfortable job, there's a pretty good chance your experience won't be as smooth and wonderful as you'd like to think. I guess there are a lot of good reasons to teach abroad, but there are also some relatively good reasons not to.
Knowing these things is what's allowed me not to get too worked up over everything not having fallen into place exactly the way I wanted. I might not be in Seoul, but I'll have to figure that out and make the best of the situation I've been placed in. I've got good working conditions in a good school, I've made some friends, and I can't say I've found the experience really that daunting so far. It may be a bit of a setback but I'll figure it out. And while I'm not going to brag about what a wonderful time I'm having, I will admit that it's been a lot of fun so far.
There'll hopefully be a more substantive post on Korea itself and its differences to Europe coming soon.
All the best.

Saturday 31 October 2015

A Brief Yet Triumphant Introduction

As I'm writing this, still in Galway, I'm watching the Rugby World Cup Final. After that I'm going to see the new Bond film (Spectre) in the cinema. Might be my last splash of Western culture for a while. Ultimately though, probably not. From what I've learned so far of the TEFL community, we have a natural tendency to try and live out our Western or Anglosaxon norms wherever we go. I'm all for cultural integration. Some of the highlights of my first year in Spain were the nights I would only hang out with Spanish people; learning to think as fluently as possible in an entirely different language is an interesting experience. I threw myself in at the deep end in terms of only having native friends, and it paid off dividends for my cultural and linguistic integration. Returning to Andalucía as a TEFL teacher though (this time to the beautiful, if not huge, seaside and surf town of Cádiz), I didn't overwhelm myself with attempts to assimilate to their way of life. On the contrary, I embraced a wonderful, proactive group of TEFL friends almost entirely composed of Irish and English people, and together we shared in a year of trying to improve our dodgy surfing, being complete beach bums, hiking Andalucían hillsides and brilliantly hedonistic nights out. In my own defense, this was partly due to the fact that I already spoke the language; while I only improved it a little, I was able to call on it whenever I needed.
Korea, then, will be a somewhat different experience. I won't be able to fall back on Spanish to instruct students, and I'll feel even more communicatively inept than I did when I first moved to Seville in 2012. I would expect that my group of friends will be almost exclusively comprised of other expats (as of yet I have no idea what the general level of English is among Korea's 20-30 year olds), and the culture shock will be far more significant. I'm sure there of lots of things to learn about how different the Korean headset is to that of a European.
I arrive neatly then, at the name of my blog. I felt if I had named it "An Irishman In Korea" I would have been adding to a series of "An Irishman in..." blogs which presumably already exist. Furthermore, I don't really feel like being Irish is one of my defining characteristics. If travelling and living in Spain have taught me anything, it's that you meet like-minded people most places you go. And for every person you really click with, you meet 20 with whom you don't. While the Irish share a sense of humour with the British (and that can be a significant factor in who you befriend), it's not my nationality that's going to define my experience in Asia. It might be my continent though, or that I'm a "Westerner". Instead of defining that though (because really, who cares), I'll give a brief introduction to myself (in the off-chance that you don't already know me).
My name is Eoin, at the time of writing I'm 24, I'm a languages student, a passionate Guardian-reading leftie, a keen musician, inescapably middle class, a spirited atheist and secularist, a bad surfer, a good yogi, and I'm lucky enough to be able to move to South Korea for what will presumably be a year.
I'm not sure to what extent I'll update this blog. If I don't have a lot to say, I won't say anything. If I do, you'll find a perhaps somewhat censored version of it here.
Let's go