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.