Monday, 31 October 2016

So Long, And Thanks For All The Kimchi

Da Capo Al Fine
Well, I'm done. I'm done with work, but I've been so far beyond done for so long that now that I'm really done, it doesn't even feel like it. In the last blog entry I said I was burnt out like most Koreans, and that remained true until the end. Having short weekends and only one week off in the year was a bit overwhelming and took a lot of the fun out of the experience. As I've said before, the TEFL experience is sold as "Come Explore Asia!", but if you work in a hagwon you don't have the time - so in certain ways I don't really feel like I did explore Asia, rather that I just worked here. And yet, that in itself is a pretty Asian experience - the fierce work expectations are part and parcel of what life is like for most Koreans, so perhaps my experience here was more authentically Korean than it would have been if I'd had a nice easy public school job.
My advice to anyone who's thinking of teaching here would be to proceed, but with caution. Try to find out about the place you'll be working, don't jump at the first offer that comes your way and don't put absolute faith in a recruiter who's primary goal is to get a placement fee out of your school. You know well by now that I wouldn't describe the year I've had here as a barrel of laughs, but I did the best with what I was given, and definitely had some great experiences along the way. Oh, and it really helped to dispel my Eurocentrism. Asia is crowded and houses  60% of the world's population, and it has helped me reconsider the world and my place in it to come here and try and adapt to what I saw. Those things are definitely positives. So, for the last time, let me try to share a few of the things I learned about this country.
Korea is...
Life is competitive and exhausting for most Koreans. Grades are seen as the be-all and end-all from a very young age (around 10) and seem to be strangely tied to the assessment of one's character. One of my colleagues said "In Korea, if you get an A in a test, you're an A standard person. If you get a C, well then, obviously, you're a C." Status seems to be of pinnacle importance, from where you study to who you marry, how pretty you are to how much money you earn. And they're honest with each other about it. While it was amusing for me to be called handsome a lot, students would equally call each other ugly at the drop of a hat, colleagues would tell me there was a spot on my face that I should cover up, several kids assured me that I have a very big nose. It's no surprise then that  plastic surgery is so popular here; a Korean friend of mine told me her grandmother used to tell her she should get work done when she grew up.
Koreans are so busy, and so wrapped up in their jobs (where they spent the vast majority of their lives) that a lot of them are hard to relate to from a Western perspective. Coming from a country where craic, charisma and personality are nurtured from an early age, I found it difficult to have a real conversation with most of them, too busy with themselves to form opinions on world events or have tastes in music and movies. They have a collective identity rather than individual taste, and as a result society is quite homogeneous. They don't travel and are fiercely nationalistic, far more interested in talking up the few Koreans performing on the world stage (the current national hero is that guy who plays for Tottenham) than they are in learning about places they're never going to go to. Oh, and they rush. They rush everywhere and everything has to be done post-haste, all the time.
Those are some generalisations, and like all stereotypes they only apply up to a certain point. Some of them are pushy (try getting on a bus), and some of them are welcoming and polite beyond anything I've ever encountered. Some are extremely hardworking, and some (the young, college educated) are completely disillusioned with the country they're growing up in. Some of them are casually racist, and some of them desperately want to embrace other cultures and visit other countries. Some of them I'll miss, and some of them I won't.
These are some of the ones I'll definitely miss. Best line of the year came when I explained that during Lent some people give up things they like and Jay-Hoon quipped "like cocaine?"

My Last Few Weeks
To my surprise, all the things I wanted to get done have worked out. Trying my best to keep calm, I showed up to my black belt test at the end of September, and passed it. The whole thing was pretty nerve wracking, with a whole rake of judges appearing from the sidelines to watch the foreigner do a Korean thing, but despite being the only foreigner competing in an auditorium full of Koreans, I kept a cool head through the routines and had no trouble in the sparring match. So in the space of about 10 months I managed to get to Il-Dan, first level black belt, which is without doubt the best and most productive thing I did this year. It gave me a focus to get through the year and was a fun new skill to learn. I really think hobbies are the key to happiness, and between taking up surfing, yoga and now taekwondo over the last 5 years, I feel like I've added all sorts of new activities and interests to my life. It takes another year of training to get to second-level black (I-Dan), and I'd like to think I'll pursue that in the new year. For anyone who's hoping for a little more information on taekwondo, there are four aspects to it: self defence, breaking, sparring and poomsae, which is a series of learned movements put into a routine as if you're fending off an attacker. While poomsae is by far the most tested aspect of the exam (at least in Korea), I find it a little tedious compared to the fun of sparring, which is probably my forte. So far I haven't enjoyed breaking that much - it hurts if you don't get it right. I'd rather try to kick someone in the face. I decided shortly after arriving here that I would focus my free time on the sport rather than learning the language to a semi-passable degree, and I think it was the right choice for me. I was lucky to find and English-speaking trainer and I'll take it with me into the future.
Oh-u-en     Kel-lee
The Other Korea
In an attempt to understand life on both halves of this peninsula, I'm taking a trip to the North in a few weeks as part of a private group tour. I've had a nerdy fascination with the country since I first learned about it when I was around 15, so we'll see how that goes. It's part of a bigger trip to China, bouncing around Shanghai, Xi'an, Beijing and Hong Kong before making it home in early December for an extended Christmas. While I didn't get much time off during the year, I'm delighted that I'll have been to both Koreas, China and Japan by the time I make it home. That, along with the money I saved and the experiences I've had, has made this whole thing, challenges and all, completely worth it. 
Korea's future is bright, though easily distracted
So There You Have It
It's been a year, and honestly, it's felt like it. One year here was enough for me, and I'm looking forward to seeing everyone at home over a mountain of potato waffles, rivers of Guinness and similarly flowing conversation. Thanks to anyone who's indulged my ramblings for the year, I hope they were if not enlightening, at least mildly amusing. Lastly, to the friends and family I've skyped, whatsapped, facebooked, emailed and instagramed over the last 12 months, you're what kept me sane when Korea was too much. I'm in your debt, and I love you. See you soon.
Good luck, new guy!

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