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.