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.