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.

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