Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Crossing the Border

This is one to check off the list. The Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) is a four kilometre wide strip of land running roughly along the 38th parallel. This area serves as a buffer zone between North and South Korea, with each country caring for the two kilometres of land lying on their side of the Military Demarcation Line (MDL). Measuring 250 kilometres from east to west through the Korean Peninsula, it is officially the most heavily militarised border in the world. Even though the war effectively ended in 1953 with the Korean Armistice Agreement, peace between the two neighbours remains a long way off.

Unsurprisingly, such a unique destination tops most recommendation lists for visitors to South Korea. Despite its serious nature it is surprisingly easy to book a tour, assuming you carry the right passport. From the Camp Kim USO office in Seoul it took us just over an hour by bus to reach the outskirts of the DMZ. There we were met by two playful American soldiers who would be our guides for the morning. At Camp Bonifas, in the Joint Security Area (JSA), we took in a very clear and informative history lesson. The JSA, located in the abandoned village of Panmunjom, is a blue battleground where staring matches are fought between northern and southern soldiers on a daily basis. It also has the honor of hosting very occasional diplomatic negotiations.

As we were escorted outside, just metres away from the MDL, we were instructed not to make any gestures or attempt to call out to any North Korean military personnel we may see. In the end we saw only one, a uniformed figure who observed us silently from a distance. Supposedly he had backup hiding in the building behind him. The North Korean soldiers only come down to take a closer look if the tour group appears to be of particular interest. It turns out that we were neither rich nor female enough to warrant their attention. After a photo opportunity everyone packed into the small MAC Conference Room. This is where, like it were no big deal, we stepped across the border and onto North Korean territory. The unwavering posture of the aviator-wearing South Korean soldiers reassured us of our safety.

Until 1976 North and South Korean personnel were permitted to move freely on either side of the MDL, provided they stayed within the JSA and carried no weapons. This privilege was revoked following the aptly titled 'axe murder incident', which involved the brutal killing of two United States Army officers. They were planning to trim an obtrusive tree, with the feigned approval of the North Koreans. Needless to say it all went horribly wrong. The tree was eventually cut down three days later in a gigantic operation that cost millions. We were able to grab a view of the monument that sits where the tree once stood, right near the inconspicuous Bridge of No Return, which crosses the MDL. It is a pity we did not get a better look around this spot, as it is one of the eerier points of interest in the JSA. A bit further up the hill at Observation Post 5 we spent some time surveying the mostly empty northern half of the DMZ. The southern side is lush with trees and bush, while its opposite is almost entirely bare. Trees or not, it would be hard to miss the 160 metre high flag pole that rises out of North Korea's uninhabited Peace Village. To the rest of the world this facade is better known as Propaganda Village.

Since the armistice North Korea has made at least four attempts to tunnel south, with the presumed intention of launching a surprise attack on Seoul. The Third Tunnel of Aggression, which we had the opportunity to walk along, was discovered in 1978, based on a tip from a defector. North Korea initially denied responsibility for the tunnel, and then declared that it was simply part of an innocent coal mine that lost its way. Retreating soldiers were ordered to paint the walls of the granite tunnel coal black to strengthen the illusion. The southern end of the tunnel emerges just 44 kilometres from Seoul, and has a constant stream of civilians descending the 73 metres below ground to take a look. This involves a lot of hunching for those cursed with being taller than 5'4". For the disinterested-looking school children that passed us by, the low ceiling was not a problem. One boy was even playing with his Nintendo DS as his class marched single file down the damp passage.

We made it back to the surface and headed straight to Dora Observatory, the northernmost point in South Korea. With the assistance of binoculars this is the best place to get a wide, high up view of the DMZ. From here we laid our eyes on part of the Kaesong Industrial Region, which houses collaborative manufacturing facilities that provide employment to any and all Koreans willing to make the risky commute. The vista was spectacular, but unfortunately photography is strictly prohibited. Our final stop on the tour was at Dorasan Station. A peculiar place, it waits in limbo, kept lightly staffed in hopes that one day North Korea will allow the railroad to reopen on their end. This would not only help to reunite the countries, but also give South Koreans a route to access Europe by land. Right now it is a curiosity for tourists, who are able to purchase fake tickets and mosey out to the platform. There the tracks sit quietly, waiting for a train that may never come.

You can check out a few more photos here.

Friday, 12 October 2012


One of the longest public holidays on the Korean calendar is Chuseok. Taking place in the middle of Autumn, Chuseok is, or at least traditionally was, a three day harvest festival. For Koreans this break is often spent with family, visiting hometowns, eating songpyeon (a kind of rice cake), and paying their respects to ancestral spirits. As we both lack a Korean family this left us free to vacation for the five day weekend. It comes as no surprise that this period is also the worst time of the year for traffic congestion. Aiming to avoid this nuisance, a lot of foreigners flee overseas. We decided to ignore this wisdom and instead headed straight for Seoul, which turned out to be as empty as it ever gets, although still quite crowded by our standards. In the end not a minute of our holiday was lost to traffic, and we even made it up to the capital city in record time.

Seoul is a convenient place to stay as it provides numerous options for travelling to nearby cities and provinces. It is also home to a wealth of great places to shop and eat, a luxury we took advantage of as often as possible during our stay. We picked a hotel within walking distance of the bus terminal in Gangnam and by noon on Saturday were set up to visit several of the best sights Korea has to offer. The weather was perfect too, just as it was promised to be during this most photogenic of seasons.

Early on Sunday we departed for Suwon, the capital city of Gyeonggi Province. Sitting at the end of a Seoul metro line, this is a quick and easy destination to hit. We were surprised to find the streets a complete mess upon our arrival. We must have missed quite the party. That was fine though, as we were in town to explore the World Heritage listed Hwaseong Fortress. This nearly six kilometre long wall surrounds the city centre, ascending and descending hills as it links up four gigantic entrance gates. In the crisp morning air we enjoyed a pleasant bit of exercise walking around the wall. Not long before lunch we marched inward to reach Haenggung Palace, where we discovered a cultural festival in full swing. It was a charming scene, even in the blinding midday sun.

For Monday's excursion we had booked our bus tickets well in advance. This cautious planning proved necessary, as the return trip from Sokcho was sold out until the next day. Sokcho is a city that rests on the eastern side of Korea in Gangwon Province. It has a nice beach, a small town vibe, and a lot of fishing going on. It is a popular stop for tourists due to its proximity to Seoraksan National Park, one of the most picturesque nature reserves and mountain ranges in the country. Predictably, that is why we were there, along with a few thousand others. It really didn't seem that busy until we made it into the queue to buy tickets for the aerial cable car, which would take us a kilometre upwards for a serious view of, well, everything the eye could see. The wait ended up being around an hour, as we were early enough to beat the real rush. The ascent was exciting and the view breathtaking. This would also provide our first, but not last, holiday interaction with squirrels. Photos do not do justice to the pristine beauty of this area, far removed from the crowded cities that most of the population resides in.

With plenty of time to fill before our late bus back to Seoul we bumbled south to Naksan Temple. Apart from the pathway of spiders, this was a tranquil place to visit, with everything we have come to find familiar about Buddhist temples. There was also the bonus attraction of a great view out over the Sea of Japan. As the sun was beginning to set we found ourselves back in Sokcho, walking along the waterfront. This unplanned detour turned out to be one of the nicest moments of our Chuseok weekend, and even reminded us a little of home, save for the absence of wind. And so we ended the longest day of our break, strolling through a sleepy part of this quaint city as the last golden rays spread out across Cheongcho lake.

Unfortunately for our tired bodies we had a plan for Tuesday and it involved getting out of bed. Namiseom is a tiny island found near Chuncheon, the capital city of Gangwon Province. Amazingly, this can also be reached by riding the Seoul metro, for just a tad more than an hour. Less amazing, the train was packed, and we had to take turns sitting. Namiseom advertises itself as a place for couples to savor romantic strolls amongst tall, celestially placed trees. In a different light, its history involves treason and an assumed gravesite being turned into an amusement park by a tourism company. This may explain the peculiar mix of sights and activities that fill the gorgeous plot, from pseudo-yurts to a flying fox that reaches from the mainland. Not only did we get to chase squirrels here, but chipmunks too! We never did find the ostriches, though.

On the morning of our final day in Seoul we made our way slowly over to the food court in the Central City Shinsegae department store. This is not just any regular food court, it is, as far as we can tell, heaven on earth. The quality and range of food available is almost enough to make it worth working a retail job in one of the overpriced stores above. We had sushi, kebabs, fresh fruit juice, and cake. Then we returned home, satisfied with our five days full of inspiring places, flawless weather, and delicious food.

You can view the rest of our photos right here.

Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Emma Learns Korean

I'm sitting at my desk in the staff room of my city school in Gunsan, where I teach four days a week. I had three classes this morning and will teach one more later this afternoon, and my mood is good. Everything is prepared; I'm ready for this afternoon, for tomorrow, and actually for the next two weeks. I know what is expected of me, I know what is going on around the school, and I'm completely comfortable in this moment. If anybody had told me it could be like this way back in March, when I was stressed and overwhelmed and questioning my life choices, I would never have believed them.

I remember feeling very lost, back then when we first arrived. I felt I had too much responsibility, and too many people were watching me flailing about, doggy-paddling madly in a choppy ocean of strangeness and embarrassment. I did not know what I was doing, it's as simple as that, and I was incredibly uncomfortable. My co-teachers would not tell me what they wanted me to do, even when asked directly, and the students were largely unresponsive when they weren't being outright disrespectful. I'm doomed, I thought. I can't compete with classes of 36 bored, resentful teenagers. I can't cope with the lack of communication from colleagues. I can't get my head around this high context culture where saving face is more important than making sure people have the necessary information to actually do their job properly. My first lessons were terrible. My materials were inappropriate and my presentation was poor. I didn't know how to manage the time properly, and I really didn't know how to manage the students. It felt like I was drowning.

A natural response to finding yourself engulfed in a language and culture you don't understand is to turn inward. I was in a busy place all day, people chattering noisily all around, but the only person I could communicate with easily was the voice inside my own head, so that is where I largely stayed. Alone, I chewed over the inconsistencies and perceived slights dealt out by these indecipherable, frustrating, foreign people. Why was I suddenly expected to run a 45 minute class when nobody had given me any clue how to prepare? Why was nobody bothering to inform me of schedule changes until five minutes before they took effect? Why were the students obsessed with my blood type, face shape, and whether or not I have babies? I had a lot of trouble relating to Koreans, in the beginning. All I could see in many of their actions was the opposite of what was familiar to me. I knew, intellectually, that Korean society runs according to different social rules than I am used to. Korean history, traditions, and philosophies have shaped a people very different from those of the western societies I am familiar with. And yet, despite being aware of these dissimilarities, I was not prepared for them.

One important difference between Korean culture and western cultures is how strangers relate to one another. Whenever I started a new job back in New Zealand I can remember being introduced to everybody in the office, and often a buddy was assigned to show me the ropes and be a first friend in the new place. There were training periods and instructional literature, and time was made for questions and feedback. Westerners like to talk; our societies are generally low context, meaning shared expectations and experiences are not necessary for communication. We'll talk and talk and explain away, possibly too much, because very little is assumed just from the context. Koreans however live in a high context culture, where the opposite is true and many things remain unspoken. It can take a while for foreigners to accept that they will repeatedly be put in new situations here and many things will simply not be explained to them. Korea is the deep end, and you will learn how to swim on your own.

There is a difference, thankfully, between it being assumed that you can keep your own head above water and actually being abandoned. In my time here I have experienced, first hand, how warm Koreans are as people. Generally speaking, they love to share, they love to eat together, they are often very tactile, and while there is a definite competitive streak, there is also an innate compulsion in the strong to help along the weak, particularly in the classroom setting. Becoming friends, or even just acquaintances, with a Korean person can be immensely rewarding and gratifying, just as with all other peoples. The issue for westerners is to recognize and remember that the way you are treated as a stranger here is not the end of the story. It is true that, in contrast with the way westerners may make eye contact with those they pass on the street or exchange pleasantries with their neighbours despite not knowing their names, Koreans are more likely to look away and remain in their own bubble when confronted with somebody they don't know. Even in a controlled setting like a middle school, this hesitance to interact with strangers combined with the language barrier, and all mixed up in a high-context culture, can lead to what some guest English teachers experience as coldness or indifference. Trust me though – it really isn't.

As I came to get to know more of my colleagues, as they found their confidence with English and I learned to relax and keep my guard down, things did improve. The students, in particular, are now completely different people to those I encountered in my first few lessons. It seems obvious, but people need time to adjust. I wasn't the only one dealing with new things back in March; the students were also in new classes after a long winter break, they had their middle school hierarchies to feel out, reorganised routines to get into, and of course I was completely baffling to many of them. Modern Korean children are exposed to some western, usually American, culture through pop music and blockbuster movies, but there are still not that many of us running around their neighbourhoods, particularly outside of Seoul and Busan. Even if they were not surprised by how their new English teacher looked, they were certainly thrown off by the way I talk. There are many native English speakers, even members of my own extended family, who at times have trouble with the Kiwi accent and my rapid rate of delivery. It is not really surprising then that it took the students a little while to get their ears around my strange vowels and dropped Rs. The most important factor though has been getting past that initial wall that Koreans throw up when faced with strangers, and the only thing that can break through that defense is time.

Now, six months later and from the comfort of the other side of the stranger wall, I see many similarities between Koreans and westerners that had previously escaped me. There are traits, behavioural quirks, which mean I can never forget where I am. The sense of being a fish out of water, to borrow an idiom I taught just last week, is gone however. There are still bad days, days when certain students feel the need to keep pushing the boundaries, days when I get frustrated at the inefficiencies of the local education system and the negative effects of the intense learning culture, but these are the exception. Now I can't walk across campus without half a dozen students calling out “hello Emma Teacher!” with grins on their faces. They write me notes, draw pictures for me, get excited when they see me around the neighbourhood after school. I've even had to learn some of the boys' secret handshakes. Many of my colleagues are now friends, with whom I exchange text messages, go out for coffee, and attend a local book club. I am connected to these people, and with over five months left to go on my contract I can already tell that I am going to miss my life here immensely. It wasn't what I expected, and there are times I have been deeply unhappy here. Life is crests and troughs though, and you need to hang on. The Korean wave will carry you ashore safely, if you give it time.

Monday, 17 September 2012

Jeonju Jaunt

Our Korean summer has ended rather abruptly. Temperatures have dropped to the low and manageable 20s, and we are currently in the midst of a third minor typhoon, bringing ever more rain. Now is the prime time for tourism in Korea, and we intend to make the most of it. Before we even came to Korea we were aware of Jeonju, the capital city of our province which lies just an hour east of us by bus. The most famous attraction in this pleasant city is its Hanok village, featuring traditional Korean dwellings which are built according to the baesanimsu principle, in which the ideal house has a mountain to its back and a river in front. Jeonju is also famous for its local version of one of our favourite Korean dishes, bibimbap, which we made sure to devour for lunch.

Since the beginning of the year we had been planning a trip to the Hanok village, but kept putting it off in favour of other, more remote destinations. Last Saturday we finally hopped over to take a look, and found ourselves in the middle of a sori festival. There were musicians and other performers dotted in between the shops and market stalls, and although the festival appeared to be well supported the streets were not uncomfortably full. We took our time wandering amongst the old but colourful and well maintained buildings, enjoying the relaxing weather and surroundings. On the way out we picked up a bag of delicious walnut cakes and so concluded our quickest and easiest tourist outing to date.

Here's the photo album.

Wednesday, 15 August 2012

Taiwan 101

For the last month, Korea has been hot. With temperatures reaching over 35°C and humidity often hitting 100%, it would be fair to say that we have been mildly uncomfortable. We had originally hoped to spend the summer vacation in a cooler climate, though that quickly proved to be a fanciful wish. Taiwan became the obvious choice when two old Kiwi friends offered to not only show us around their surrogate country, but also accommodate us on the floor of their living room for no extra charge. The perfect deal! Before we knew it we were booking tickets and making plans for the eight full days we would be spending on the beautiful, kumara-shaped island, officially, but not affectionately, known as the Republic of China.

Just days before our scheduled arrival a typhoon passed right over Taiwan, causing a substantial amount of damage and cancelling flights. We were lucky enough to fly in shortly after the storm had cleared, although the flooding would have an impact on a few outdoor activities we had lined up for later in the week. Our flight landed behind schedule, as befit China Airlines' reputation. The luggage also took a strangely long time to unload, but at least immigration was a breeze. In the end, a new passport stamp makes all the hassle worth it. Shortly after midnight we made it to our makeshift sleeping arrangements, where slumber swiftly concluded the long but thankfully painless day of travelling.

As the sun rose over Saturday morning we were given our first look at Taipei and its inhabitants. The similarities to Korea are numerous, but it is the little differences that are the most noteworthy. Despite their city being grubbier and a bit more rundown, the Taiwanese people seem happier. A large part of this may be due to the Korean stigma surrounding interacting with strangers. Still, life feels more relaxed in Taiwan, and this is reflected in everything from the friendliness of its citizens to their more casual fashion sense and marginally lower incidence of cosmetic surgery. Either way, the abundance of smiling faces made for a warm welcome as we rushed from apartment to subway to bus on the way to our first sightseeing destination.

Jinguashi is a small tourist town in the Ruifang District of New Taipei City, known for its historic copper and gold mines. We took the bumpy local bus up a misty, winding hill road, occasionally catching a glimpse of clusters of the traditional family mausoleums which pepper the countryside. As we wandered through the old town looking for the entrance to the open mine tunnel, we met for the first time an odour which we will forever associate with our time in Taiwan: stinky tofu. This local delicacy is commonly found at night markets and roadside stalls, and authorities have recently ruled it an offence to bring this fermented delight into enclosed public spaces, such as cinemas. Despite the encouragements of our hosts, we did not partake.

After a pleasant, sweaty walk into the hills behind Jinguashi to an old Shinto shrine we made our way down to Jiufen, also a former mining town now famous for its labyrinthine streets which have served as the setting for several films. We sat out on the balcony of a local restaurant, perched precariously over the Pacific Ocean, sipping cold beers in the warm evening. As the sun eased out of sight in front of us, faraway mountains slowly sliding from view, it was hard to deny the charm of this precipitously placed settlement.

A few hours from Taipei by train rests Hualien, the largest county in Taiwan. Sparsely populated, the area is favoured among travellers looking to experience scenic views and outdoor adventures. We were there for a bit of both, with our Sunday to be spent river tracing, a famous activity in the area. Our guide Matt, a Canadian expat who has lived in the area for a number of years, treated us to a scrumptious breakfast at a local western-style restaurant before we set out for the river. We were lucky to be in a very small group, consisting of just us, the couple we know from New Zealand, one of their American friends, and a mate of Matt's. The original plan may have seen us joining a group of over 60 Taiwanese and Chinese river tracers, and after passing one such group at an early stage in the river we knew we'd made the right choice. Togged up in full body wetsuits, attached to climbing ropes and waiting patiently for their turn to be escorted by whistle-blowing officials across the tamest of rapids, many of the members of the larger group looked on enviously as our compact party of seven forged past to reach more exciting parts of the river.

The water was running much higher than usual due to the typhoon, so between bouts of fighting our way upstream and scrambling over wet rocks in our felt-bottomed booties, we ventured into the forest, along traditional hunting paths forged by local aboriginal peoples. Enter the spiders. Due to the fact that she has something of an aversion, Emma was careful to place herself at the back of the group for these overland parts of the trip, and Matt, to his credit, did his best to protect her gentle sensibilities while still enabling the rest of the group to enjoy the various eight-legged beasties that presented themselves. Many of Taiwan's native spiders grow to the size of dinner plates and can spin expansive webs. Despite this there were only three instances of paralysing terror and no tears, so we count this a victory. The majority of the afternoon was spent wrestling with waterfalls and seeing who could jump the furthest into natural diving pools. Stephen claimed the most memorable slip of the day, sliding several metres down a rock face and then being dragged under the rapids before the white water spat him out into a whirlpool. He smiled as he fell, and resurfaced unscathed.

Monday saw us back in the city, enjoying a local water park. The rides were fun, the water not too cold, the sun not too bright, and the froyo mighty delicious. With a few hours to kill before dinner we treated ourselves to a much needed full body massage, while listening to the soothing sounds of Simon & Garfunkel's greatest hits played on the xylophone. You never know how sore a muscle is until someone is burying their knuckles into it. Perhaps our favourite meal of the trip was not a traditional one at all, but rather some unpretentious South African cuisine at Frankie's Pies. We were even lucky enough to spend the evening with the owner of the establishment, listening to the story of his rather unique life.

For a change of pace we took the next few days at walking speed, passing Tuesday at the enormous Taipei Zoo, where we did not even come close to seeing all the animals. Of all the creatures big and small it turned out to be the slow loris that we found the most captivating. That night we walked to a street market in the Banqiao district. It brimmed with atmosphere as we tried out various foods and carnival games; a colourful and lively scene, with plenty of scooters buzzing by to keep us on our toes as we flittered from one stall to the next. Tasty kebabs too!

Now confident navigating the public transportation system alone we set off for a more conventional day of tourism. Up first was the National Palace Museum, a gorgeous building that was striking in the perfect weather, and, luckily for us, air conditioned. Tragically the crowds prevented us from getting a look at the famous 'Jadeite Cabbage'. Back down the metro line we found Baoan Temple, a vibrant, highly decorated symbol of Taiwanese folk religion. A surprisingly peaceful spot, considering its location in the city. Taipei 101 served as our final stop for Wednesday. The enormous pagoda shaped tower was the tallest building in the world until 2010, and still boasts the fastest elevator, for now. We learned a lot about the layout and history of the city with the help of an audio guide on the 89th floor observation deck.

5am is an early start when on vacation, but defying sleep deprivation we made it to our pickup spot on Thursday morning and were soon on a plane heading back to the lovely Hualien, this time for a tour of its most notable landmark, Taroko Gorge. To see as much as possible the majority of the distance is covered by van, with plenty of opportunities along the way to hop out and explore the most picturesque regions. From brightly painted shrines and temples nestled into the cliffside, to dazzling waterfalls and rock formations, the entire trip was a natural, harmonising feast for the senses. We were guided by Josephine, an enthusiastic Taiwanese woman who toggled between Chinese, Japanese, and English to point out the effects of the 'rockfall situation and typhoon condition'. It was heartening to see how proactive local authorities have been about getting crews out to clear the many parts of the gorge road that were blocked by falling debris, despite the remoteness of the area. The provided lunch at a 5-star hotel was an interesting twist, with the Taiwanese custom of offering hot tea rather than cold water to guests who have been on their feet in the humidity and heat all morning causing much bemusement. We enjoyed lively conversation with a young Londoner who was also on vacation from his teaching position in Korea, and three adult sisters from Malaysia who now live in Melbourne.

Due east of Taipei City sits Pingxi, another old mining town. Pingxi is famous for hosting a sky lantern festival every year in late winter, giving locals and visitors an opportunity to have their wishes carried up to the gods aboard large lanterns made of oiled rice paper on a bamboo frame. The district is also renowned for its hiking trails and waterfalls. Heading out around lunchtime we arrived at the base of the Pingxi Crags by 2pm. The three crags jut violently from densely forested foothills near the town, with hand carved steps leading one along an almost vertical path 450m into the air. We climbed two of the crags, hauling ourselves up with the help of guide ropes installed by locals to create what are possibly the most exciting short hikes to be found anywhere. Virtually deserted, accessible, completely free of charge, and with spectacular views, exploring the Pingxi Crags was easily one of the best experiences of our Taiwan holiday. We returned to the town below as the sun began to set, and in the hour before the bus came decided to let off our own sky lantern. A friendly local man sold us a 1m tall bright red lantern, provided markers with which to inscribe our messages, and as the sky darkened he helped us send our wishes up into the night. We capped the halcyon day off with a delicious dinner at an all-you-can-eat (and drink!) hot pot and ice cream restaurant in Taipei City.

The final day of our trip came about sooner than expected, but as we would not depart until the evening we still had time to visit a few more local spots of interest. A short ride on the metro brought us to Mengjia Longshan Temple, a lively place of worship, extravagantly designed and overflowing with incense smoke. It was great to see it all in action, with the tables drowning in offerings of fruit and other items, and barely enough room to walk around without bumping shoulders. Our crowning destination was one that few tourists in Taiwan would miss, the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall. An august structure, it sits alongside the equally impressive National Theater and National Concert Hall buildings, with the land between them forming Liberty Square, a prominent location for gatherings and festivals.

None of this trip would have been possible without the great generosity of our hosts. Thank you for taking the time to introduce us to Taiwan, for offering us your home and hospitality, and for making this vacation an all-around marvellous experience. We can't wait to reciprocate in the future!

You can find the full photo gallery right here.

Wednesday, 4 July 2012

The Braai

One of the many pleasures of becoming a foreign English teacher in South Korea is joining the expat community. There are dozens of us here in Gunsan - Americans, Canadians, South Africans, Brits, Australians, Filipinos, and a strong Kiwi contingent. One of my closest friends here is an Afrikaner from Cape Town, and it was with her and a couple of others that I experienced my first braai in Seoul last weekend.

A braai is a South African barbecue, a casual social gathering where people stand around drinking, chatting, and grilling boerewors. The South African community across Korea regularly holds such events, and this braai in Nanji Park attracted well over 100 people, despite the rain. We sheltered under canvas gazebos until the weather cleared, chewing on biltong and waiting for the braais to heat. Unfortunately there was no beer available but I did enjoy acquainting myself with Savanna and Hunter's Dry, two eminently drinkable South African ciders.

The thing that struck me most was the openness and friendliness of everybody there. I had genuine, comfortable conversations with South Africans of all backgrounds, and a few other foreigners besides. When we needed a braai for the boerewors, a friendly Afrikaner named Karel was right there to help. On the way to the loos I started chatting with a young woman from Johannesburg, and on the way back bumped into a girl of Pakistani and Arab heritage who spoke with an English Midlands accent. When it was my turn to get the round I was instructed to greet the 'oke' selling drinks as 'oom' (uncle), and to ask for 'vyf Savannas asseblief'.

Chilling at the braai, surrounded by South Africans, I felt almost at home for the first time in four months. South Africa is a complicated tapestry of many different languages, histories, cultures, and politics. Beneath all that, to me at least, the people seem to enjoy a common easiness, an unhurried approach to life that is shared by New Zealanders. The braai wasn't quite the same as the Christmas Day barbie, but it will do handsomely until we get home.

Tuesday, 26 June 2012

The Old and the New of Seoul

Dinner time this past Friday found us munching on toasted ham sandwiches and enjoying the view out over the green mountains behind the bus rest stop which marks the halfway point between Gunsan and Seoul. The hostel we had reserved a week earlier was conveniently located in the Hyehwa district of the capital city, where we had spent several nights back in March during the EPIK orientation course. With only a single familiar subway transfer to remember we arrived in good time and checked in. A young woman who spoke excellent English lead us a few blocks from the hostel offices to a traditional Korean house situated down an alleyway behind a cafe just off a bustling main street. The building was old, but charming. Unfortunately the double room we had booked had somehow been given to a different couple earlier that day, so we ended up in the twin next door. These things happen, and we were pleasantly surprised to find the abode had its own detachable shower head above the sink, sparing us the inconvenience of the shared shower facilities described on the booking site.

Bang on 8:40am Saturday we were picked up from the hostel and shipped off to begin a full day tour of Seoul. We were the only English teachers on the excursion, the rest of the group being either tourists or businessmen. Sally, our guide, was very friendly throughout the long day and kept everyone moving forward at a good pace. There was a lot to see, with the lineup including six points of major cultural significance. Our first stop was just across the street, at the chief temple of the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism. The lanterns, ancient trees, and three giant golden Buddha statues all looked radiant in the summer weather. We even learnt a bit about the associated history and rituals; one of the many benefits of having an educated tour guide. 

From there we hopped onto the air conditioned bus which took us to Cheongwadae Sarangchae, a recently opened historical center full of information about Korea and its past and present leaders. This was only a short stop, with the real destination being the nearby Gyeongbok Palace. While walking between these locations we were lucky enough to see a large group in costume rehearsing for a memorial march that would be taking place in the city that evening. Before entering the palace we were treated to a distant view of the Blue House, where president Lee Myung-Bak sometimes resides. Gyeongbokgung itself is an exquisite sight which we walked through peacefully, enjoying the keenly maintained buildings and gardens. The history of this palace is a familiar one; it had been burned down by the Japanese long ago and since rebuilt, several times. Less than half of its former glory remains, although the restoration work is never ending. When we finally reached the other side of the sizable grounds we were just in time to catch the colourful and musical 'changing of the guard' ceremony.

Lunch gave us a chance to talk to a few of the other guests on the tour, and share some of our knowledge of Korean dining etiquette. The bulgogi was delicious, as it always is. As the temperature hit 33°C it was time to kick off the afternoon schedule, which we had been assured would be easier going. Changdeokgung, another of Seoul's 'Five Grand Palaces', was first on the dessert menu. Sadly we were not able to get a look at the famous gardens hidden behind the enormous walls, as that requires a separate tour by itself. To finish off the trip we were taken to two less traditional but nevertheless integral parts of the Seoul experience, the Insadong and Namdaemun street markets. We picked up a few souvenirs for ourselves as well as friends and family, and that concluded the packed outing just shy of 5pm.

Our plan for Sunday was a simple one: get to Lotte World amusement park and ride a bunch of roller coasters. This plan was almost thwarted by confusing signage which left us sitting outside what certainly appeared to be the entrance but in reality was far from it. Eventually a security guard instructed a group of children to lead us to the correct location, which was underground and through part of a department store. Odd, even the kids looked lost at times. We kicked off our thrill seeking with 'The Conquistador', a pirate ship ride that had us almost floating out of our seats as it swung back and forth 180 degrees; the perfect way to get the adrenaline pumping. The queues were not too long and the heat proved manageable. The 'Atlantis' and 'The French Revolution' (named for its multiple 360 degree loops) rides ended up being our favourites. All in all, Lotte World was a fun experience and our necks are still stiff. That must be good, right? Back to Gunsan!

Check out the full photo gallery here.

Friday, 8 June 2012

Gunsan at a Glance

Last Saturday guest English teachers from around the area were invited by the local education board to gather at the Gunsan Modern History Museum for the 2012 Modern Cultural Heritage Tour.

Our morning began with an address from Mayor Moon Dong-Shin, who through a translator outlined the basic shape of our adopted city's history. Gunsan did not escape the notice of the Japanese during the 35 year colonial period, and the port was relied upon heavily for the export of great quantities of rice to Japan until 1945.

Mayor Moon spoke of his aspirations for the city and a desire for the area to move on from the past. Koreans have a very complicated relationship with the Japanese, the intricacies of which I could never hope to represent adequately here. It is fair to say however that the occupation continues to cast a deep shadow over the community - on more than one occasion I have had students launch into loud and lengthy tirades against the Japanese upon the merest mention of their eastern neighbours. With this in mind it was interesting that as well as the old customs house, the historical attractions chosen for the tour were a Japanese Buddhist temple and the Japanese-style Hirose House in Shinheung-dong.

Click here for the full photo gallery.

Sunday, 13 May 2012

Busan and Back Again

May is a magical month for teachers in South Korea. Spring is in the air, Buddha's birthday and Teachers' Day mark a couple of welcome three-day weekends down on the calendar, and it is also the month when students are rewarded after their first set of midterms with sports days and field trips. Last Friday we were both fortunate enough to be excused from the sports days at our respective rural schools, so we booked a hotel, circled a few popular tourist locations on the map, and headed off for a three-day mini-break in Busan.

Busan is the second largest city in Korea after Seoul, and is well known for its lively atmosphere, foreigner-friendly hangouts, and the famous Haeundae Beach. Leaving Gunsan on the 8:20am express bus service we reached Busan just after lunch and immediately caught the subway down to Busan Station where we hopped onto a bus tour that took us around the east side of the port city. This was a great way to gradually orientate ourselves in this big new metropolis while we waited for check-in to open at our hotel so we could drop off our bags.

If there were one lesson we wish Wellington and Auckland would learn from other cities it is that affordable, functional public transport systems are both possible and necessary. Underground trains in particular are a recurring source of delight to us due to their efficiency and ease of use, and Busan's system was no exception. The subway may be a simple pleasure, but being able to quickly, cheaply and easily move around a city despite a language barrier is something we value greatly. Perhaps, one day, if New Zealand gets a lot bigger and the population density increases, our dream will become reality.

The hotel turned out to be much nicer than we were expecting. While small the room was still very tidy and comfortable, and even included a large double bed! This is important if you bear in mind that, due to the idiosyncrasies of the local education board bureaucracy, we have been sharing a twin bed since our arrival in Gunsan. We grabbed a complimentary bottle of water from the fridge and descended back into the underground. It cannot be stressed enough how convenient it is to be able to use the same pre-paid travel card across all of Korea, for buses, subway rides, and even taxi trips.

It was late afternoon when we reached the first destination on our list, Beomeo Temple. Getting there proved to be a little sketchy, as Koreans do not cater much towards non-Koreans when it comes to signposting their attractions. With a bit of guesswork, vague (and inaccurate) instructions courtesy of the Korea Tourism website, and frequent checking of our GPS location, we landed on a bus that took us up a beautiful, winding, tree covered hill to the peaceful Buddhist temple that hides nestled against Geumjeong Mountain. The weather was serene, showcasing a rare blue sky, golden sunlight, and warm but not humid heat. Ready the camera!

As you cross an old stone bridge the gentle sound of water running over rocks in the stream below welcomes you on to the entrance pathway, which is decorated overhead with a mass of colourful paper lanterns. At the end of this rainbow walkway we found an arch that contained four large statues representing the temple guardians. The one manhandling a fire dragon while crushing a man beneath his foot was especially evocative. Unsure of exactly where to go, and avoiding 'do not enter' signs whenever possible, we wandered around to the back entrance and eventually found ourselves walking by room after room of people praying by candlelight. Silently a group of monks passed us by. We followed them from a distance as they ascended a wooden structure that contained a giant drum, a bell, and a digital clock. One of the monks noticed us standing around and with surprisingly natural English invited us to stay and watch their musical performance at 6pm. And that is exactly what we did. It seems they all had a good time putting on the ritual show.

After the meditative atmosphere of the temple we were ready for some of the energetic and modern culture Busan is renowned for. A short trip down the orange subway line brought us to the Pusan National University area. It was after 7pm and the place was packed. The narrow streets were full of young couples and students out shopping, eating, and generally enjoying their Friday night. The view from above was like a cinematic tableaux, wriggling with colour, noise and light. Despite our growing hunger we were able to resist the many food stalls that lined the pedestrian-filled roads.

Coming from an international city like Wellington in a colonised country which continues to enjoy waves of immigrants from all over the world, it has been a little difficult for us to adjust to one particular aspect of life in Korea - the lack of variety when it comes to dining out. In Wellington we regularly ate Malaysian, Japanese, Chinese, Mexican, Thai, Indian, and Italian food, not to mention good old English pub food. While Koreans have embraced American fast-food and chain coffee shop culture, there is little else around that isn't Korean. Even our local Chinese restaurant in Gunsan, while greatly enjoyable, is heavily influenced by the Korean palate and local dining customs. When your sweet and sour pork is served with gimchi, yellow radish and other banchan, you know you're not in Kansas anymore. Luckily the radish is delicious. During our research the previous week we had learned there was an Indian restaurant in Busan and this is where we were headed for dinner on our first night. Despite the crowded streets the establishment was nearly empty, because even though the food has been altered to reflect local tastes, it appears that the average Korean is not overly interested in this particular international cuisine. Korean food is generally very subtle in its flavours so we found the curries a little tame, but it was nice all the same to sit down to familiar fare that resembled one of our comfort foods back home.

Saturday morning heralded the most anticipated part of our trip to Busan - the aquarium. As we had predicted the Haeundae Beach facility was packed with young families out to catch a glimpse of some of the 35,000 marine animals on display. Busan Aquarium houses 250 different species of fish, shark, turtle, jelly fish, and shellfish, not to mention the penguins, otters, and Stephen's favourites, the finless porpoises. It was hard to get photos through the curved glass but we did our best. We took in all the aquarium had to offer, including a short glass-bottomed boat trip over a portion of their biggest tank, and a 3D adventure ride that did an admirable job of making one feel that they were plummeting into terrifying glacial crevasses.

After a spot of lunch we headed out to the Shinsegae department store in Centum City. Shinsegae is the biggest mall in the world and houses a large cinema, a golf driving range and an ice skating rink, as well as beauty salons, restaurants, an extensive supermarket, and dozens of clothing shops. To be honest we found the mall a bit disappointing. We didn't go up to the driving range and the skating rink was small and seemed to cater only for children. The vast majority of floor space is taken up with more than seven storeys of designer clothing shops, in which we have no interest. The book and stationery level however is magnificent, and the Studio Ghibli figurine collection was beautiful and extensive. It was here that we stumbled upon Totoro, the newest and most regal member of our stuffed furry family.

On Saturday evening we set out with a particular destination in mind - the curiously titled It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia theme bar and restaurant. The signage is large and bright and so we found the place quickly, only to discover that it had closed down and been replaced with some kind of small corporate office. Our alternative was the nearby Wolfhound Irish bar where we indulged in the traditional pub fare of greasy fish and chips and bangers and mash, washed down with a pint of Hoegaarden. We concluded the evening with a leisurely stroll along Haeundae Beach. The manicured shoreline is popular with young people enjoying ice cream and coffee as they are serenaded by the occasional busker.

On Sunday morning we made the trek out to the Yonggung Temple. Yonggungsa is located on a rocky section of coast a few kilometres east of the city centre. The hundreds of Korean sightseers swarming around us proved that this is one of the most popular locations in the area, made particularly famous by the large statues of the 12 Chinese zodiac signs which stand sentry at the main entrance. The outside of the temple is painted with scenes from the life of Buddha, depicted in the beautiful traditional Korean style, and the entire site is watched over by a giant golden sculpture of the spiritual leader. Despite the crowding we were truly glad to have made the effort to come out to Yonggungsa and we highly recommend it to anybody visiting Busan.

Our final destination in Busan was the Jagalchi fish market. Many people had recommended the market to us but we were somewhat skeptical going in. We've been to markets in Korea before and the prospect of voluntarily walking though cramped stalls of stinky fish products was not appealing. It turned out to be exactly what we expected, but the sheer quantity of seafood on display was impressive enough to make the visit worthwhile. Giant crabs may be terrifying, but they are hard to look away from. Probably the point of most interest to us were the older Koreans who tend each stall, as their worn faces emit an aura of welcoming gravitas.

By 9pm we were back home in Gunsan and exhausted. The weekend was a treasure of great weather, new sights and fun experiences. Everything went off without a hitch and three days proved to be the perfect amount of time to get away from it all without suffering the fatigue of extended tourism. We'll no doubt end up back in Busan later this year.

Click here for 85 more photos!

Thursday, 26 April 2012

Spring is Here

On the whole our last few weeks have been peaceful and routine. The rising temperature has brought with it increased rainfall, leading us to trade jackets for umbrellas. Still, most days are pleasantly sunny, and all across the city cherry blossoms have been flooding the streets with colour. Beauty, however, is fleeting, and these petite pink flowers last only a short while. Already they are drifting to the ground and giving way to a sea of green as all manner of foliage begins to grow again. Rapidly the landscape is changing, and each day it is becoming more of a pleasure to explore. It wasn't until late on the Sunday of the Gunsan cherry blossom festival weekend that the rain ceased and we were able to make it out to nearby Eunpa Lake. Despite the late hour the crowd was still sizable as we strolled beneath the majestic early spring display.

The modest city of Gunsan, if it is known to anybody outside of Jeollabuk-do at all, is renowned for two things; the US Air Force base, and the world's longest man-made dyke. Last week we were fortunate enough to be taken out to see the latter with a new friend and his family. The Saemangeum Seawall, which measures 33.9km from end to end, was officially opened to the public in April 2010 and is the key step in the Saemangeum Reclamation Overall Development Project. The project, first announced by the Korean Government in 1987, aims to reclaim the mudflats of the Geum, Mangyeong and Dongjin rivers, creating 400 square kilometres of new farmland and freshwater reservoir. Sightseers can walk or drive along its length, courtesy of a pristine four-lane bitumen surface, to reach a rest stop and tourist centre at the midpoint of the wall.

This tourist area is located on one of the Gogunsan Islands, a collection of more than 60 islands which dot Jeollabuk-do's west coast. A number of walking paths scramble over the most central of these islands, offering fantastic views to those who are willing to work for them. Recently Emma was lucky enough to trek one of these paths with a few colleagues on a school picnic day.

The Geumman Plains, previously known as the Gimje and Mangyong Plains, were renamed once more in 1986 to become the Saemangeum Plains. The letters of the name Geumman were juggled to produce mangeum, meaning 'fortunes', and sae, or 'new', was added as a prefix to reflect the Government's hopes for this reclaimed land. Heading across this impressive feat of construction gives one ample opportunity to stare out over the endless blue ocean. Eventually it reaches China, beyond where the eye can see.

After completing the drive down the seawall we continued south to the Naesosa Temple in Buan. Naesosa was built by the Buddhist monk Hye-Gu in 633, and then rebuilt by Cheong-Min in 1633. Nestled at the foot of Kuaneum Hill, the temple site enjoys the quiet company of fir, cherry and magnolia trees. Of particular interest to us were the fearsome statues of the Sacheonwangsang gods who guard the temple. Naesosa is a popular destination for local sightseers and temple stays are also offered. It is a very serene, picturesque location.

Make sure to check out the full photo galleries here and here!

Monday, 2 April 2012

EPIK Orientation in Seoul

Our EPIK orientation experience fell somewhere between a paid vacation and an endurance test. Each day was packed from morning until night with 'mandatory' lectures that ranged in quality from essential to grotesque. They were mandatory in the sense that once at orientation you are expected to show up each hour and sign your name on the attendance register. The course itself however, from our understanding, is not a prerequisite to teaching at all, and the main downside to not attending is simply that it reflects poorly on your province. How personally the provinces take this affront is unknown. There is also the threat that failing to complete orientation could be used as an excuse by EPIK authorities to withhold your end of contract bonus, so with that in mind we suggest full attendance! While more draining than a week of teaching, primarily due to the long hours, orientation is considerably more relaxing. With the perks including free food, a chance to visit Seoul, and a week of speaking beautiful, proper English, why not go along?

Wednesday the 21st dawned crisp and bright as we prepared to make our way to the capital city for the first time. The directions we had been supplied with only began at the Gangnam bus terminal in Seoul, so getting that far was up to us. Fortunately Korea has excellent public transportation and our journey could not have gone more smoothly. We were on an express bus out of Gunsan by 8:45am. The trip took two and a half hours with a single stop at a large truck stop which looked more like a small mall. The bus was comfortable, the weather generous, and the price an astoundingly cheap 17,500 won each. This was for the deluxe service, too; there is an even more frugal option available. We arrived at one of the three major bus terminals in Seoul and descended to the subway system below. Subway systems are nothing new to us, and Seoul's is certainly the best we have ever used. Cheap, immaculately clean, fast, frequent, and as simple as can be. One transfer and 12 stops later we reached our destination, Hyehwa. Up on the street a friendly Korean man offered his assistance by pointing us in the right direction, and we arrived at the NIIED (National Institute for International Educational Development) buildings just in time for lunch. Typically, we were the first to arrive, a good four hours ahead of schedule. The friendly EPIK staff spoke excellent English and issued us each with a hoodie, a bath towel and a textbook. We managed to negotiate a double room on the first floor with its own bathroom, although most others in attendance ended up sharing a room with a stranger (or new best friend!) and had access to a shared bathroom and shower area on their floor.

By mid-afternoon over a hundred EPIK teachers had arrived. Some like us had already been teaching for a few weeks, some had been in Korea for months or even years with various other employers, and some had arrived in the country only a few hours earlier. The newest arrivals were all eager to absorb our month's worth of wisdom, so there was plenty to talk about as we waited for the opening ceremony to begin at 4pm. The course officially kicked off with several welcoming speeches, after which we were treated to danso (wooden flute) and samul nori (traditional drumming) performances. The drumming was especially impressive, and loud. Up next was a rather interesting presentation on Korean culture, which despite only scratching the surface did provide a degree of enlightenment with regards to some of our earlier interactions with Koreans. Before we knew it we were having dinner in the cafeteria and then being shuffled into four class groups. We were in class 2B, which was made up of about 30 teachers from the Jeollabuk and Gyeongsangnam provinces, including a handful of foreigners we had already met in Gunsan. It quickly became apparent that there is a bafflingly high number of New Zealanders in Korea.

The majority of the next four days was occupied by a series of 90 minute lectures on topics such as PowerPoint use in the classroom, classroom management, lesson planning, working with co-teachers, and how to prepare for after school classes and vacation camps. Each of the presentations was more relevant to some than others, as every guest English teacher has a different level of experience and what is expected of us varies widely from province to province and school to school, not to mention the simple fact that some are teaching elementary and some middle or even high school students. We particularly enjoyed the PowerPoint demonstration and the lecture about classroom management. Emma found that although she had already learnt many of the things discussed during her TESOL course, orientation was still of huge value. It is easy to forget your training when you are faced with the reality of a classroom full of teenagers and you are on the back foot from day one. The EPIK programme reminds you why you are teaching and gives some timely perspective on the whole situation. Korean co-teachers are often hesitant to outline explicitly what is expected of the guest English teacher, so keeping that basic, universal lesson structure of 'present, practice and produce' always in mind is essential. Some of the lectures may have been painful to sit through, but the best of them were highly inspirational. Even having to prepare and present a lesson in groups of three turned out to be a generally worthwhile, fun time.

It wasn't until 8:30pm each night that our schedules freed up and we were finally able to go out and explore a bit of Seoul. Handily we were staying in the greater downtown area, putting several places of interest within walking distance. The first night we left the dormitory as a large group of foreigners. Not interested in following the pack to the nearest pub, we broke off with a smaller group and wound up in a jazz bar. Cover charge aside, it was a good choice. We were the only foreigners there, and clearly underdressed, but the atmosphere was vibrant and the music pleasant. They even put an old Whitney Houston concert up on the television after the live act finished. Slightly incongruous musically, but entertaining nonetheless. Here we got to know a few fellow foreigners a bit better, and we made it back to our room with time to spare before curfew. The doors to the NIIED dormitory lock at midnight, leaving any unlucky souls to either freeze on the ground outside or spend the night in a nearby karaoke room. Several teachers succumbed to such fates over the course of the week, many willingly.

The following night we found ourselves out alone, marching as far from our room as possible in the time available. Seoul is beautiful in the dark, and probably in the light too, but we hadn't yet had the chance to confirm that. The streets are filled with endless flashing coloured lights, restaurants and cafes bustle with activity, and the pedestrians, while often staggering from intoxication, fill the air with a non-threatening vibe, like floating in a gentle ocean. The main streets may have the biggest footpaths and all the shining shops, but it was the alleyways that really caught our attention. Tucked away behind tall stone buildings are night markets that extend for hundreds of metres in multiple directions. Scores of people, from businessmen to beggars, come to these places to eat and drink and talk. From tanks of live octopus to tables overflowing with candy, if it can be eaten, you can eat it here. We weren't quite hungry enough to throw ourselves into the maelstrom and try something, but simply looking was still quite a feast.

After the success of our previous night's walk we decided to set off in a different direction come the end of lectures on Friday. With our tourist map of Seoul duly consulted we chose the famous statue of King Sejong, which we had learned about earlier that day, as our destination. For almost an hour we walked alongside a highway as cars flooded by. To the right towered a massive, thick stone wall, behind which we could only imagine the expansive forest and palace that the map had suggested. As we reached the main street in Seoul everything became bright and lively. On an island perpetually encircled by traffic we found King Sejong and not far from him a statue of Admiral Yi Sun-sin. Just as Stephen snapped a photo of Sejong the spotlight that illuminated the monument went out. It was then that we came to wonder, why are there hundreds of police standing in a line bearing riot shields not 20 metres from us? We asked a young man with a camera and he told us it was a 'demonstration'. Strange, as there were no demonstrators to be seen. The police asked us to move away from the statues and so we did, rejoining the pedestrians and ending up on the opposite side of the wide street. Unbeknownst to us we were now directly in front of the Central Government Complex, and over the next minute the police circled around us, and a cloud of other civilians, and closed in with their shields. Our best guess is that the police were demonstrating their security protocol in preparation for the Nuclear Security Summit that was to begin the next day. Still, that was quite enough excitement for us, and we navigated our way through the wall of officers and took the long way home through a quieter side of Seoul.

On the afternoon of Sunday the 25th, with all lectures thankfully over, we went with our class to Namsan Gugakdang, a traditional Korean village in the middle of Seoul. There we made songpyeon (rice cakes), watched a pansori demonstration, made fools of ourselves in the mask dance workshop, and got to try on beautiful traditional dress, known as hanbok. This village is popular with Korean as well as foreign visitors, and is very professionally run. That evening we had dinner at a large seafood buffet called Marisco's, which was superb. The sushi alone was incredible, boasting a wide, colourful variety of styles and flavours. By the time we reached dessert our stomachs were bursting and our taste buds sated. If only there were an all-you-can-eat buffet restaurant in Gunsan! On second thought, such an establishment would pose a significant risk to our waistlines.

Midway through the next morning, after a brief farewell ceremony, we waved goodbye to the friendly orientation staff and headed out into Seoul for one last look around, this time in the daylight. Sadly, all we managed to find was a cafe and a five storey shopping centre devoted entirely to fabric. We were back in Gunsan by 4pm, the return journey proving just as carefree as our initial venture. Overall the EPIK orientation was a much needed opportunity to take a step back and get some perspective on what we are doing in Korea. So much has happened in this first month and it was easy to feel overwhelmed. It often seemed like we were constantly one step behind when it came to teaching, but now we have an actual idea of what is expected of us, so we are better able to prepare and feel confident in the classroom. Already our lessons have improved, and we are able to get more out of the students. This week of training provided invaluable context and secured our footing as we head into the next 11 months of our life in Korea.

Click here for more photos.

Saturday, 17 March 2012

Emma's First Week

Despite having completed a Graduate Certificate in TESOL at university just two summers ago, I was completely unprepared for my first week as an English teacher. On the morning of Monday the 5th a colleague picked me up from our apartment block and brought me to the city school where I am responsible for 16 different classes, Monday through Thursday. Other than the name of the establishment and the fact that I would be teaching middle school students, I had been given absolutely no information. That first morning I was introduced to the principal and vice-principal and shown my desk, which is in the middle of one of two staff rooms. It is a nice desk with a phone, a computer connected to the Internet, and my own set of drawers. The best feature of my desk however is its location, or more specifically who I sit next to. Every EPIK teacher is supposed to be assigned an official co-teacher, somebody who not only takes classes with them but also helps them with out-of-school necessities such as organising bank accounts, phone plans, accommodation, and other things of this nature. Our first few days here were rough for me because the woman assigned as my co-teacher moved out of town before term started and my school neglected to nominate another teacher in her place. After the initial introductions that first morning I found myself abandoned in a big school with no English-speaking allies and no idea who to ask for anything - I didn't even know where the restrooms were. I am so thankful that S swooped in and took on the role of being my co-teacher, out of the goodness of her heart or perhaps simply because it was her bad luck to be seated next to the foreigner. S is also new to the school this year and only teaches one class with me (I have four co-teachers here in total, two of whom I teach with five times every week).

The first two days were very stressful, mostly because I did not know what was going on and, worse still, I did not know what was expected of me. My colleagues seemed to be under the impression that I would already have materials prepared and that I knew how to teach, despite this being the first day and nobody even showing me the textbook, let alone outlining which elements of the curriculum I would be responsible for. Technically I spent some time teaching L2 classes during my university course, but these were small classes of adults - the youngest person I came in contact with was 18 - and the students were there voluntarily. In Korea I am faced with classes of up to 36 bored 15- and 16-year-olds who make no secret of the fact that they would rather be anywhere else. I think teaching these classes would be a challenge for anybody, regardless of the language barrier or confusion about the course work. By Wednesday I had established that I was there just for listening and speaking activities, and I was told that my classes were entirely discretionary and not to be based on the textbook. This sent a wave of panic through me - I had not been invited to sit in on any of the Korean teachers' classes so I had no idea of the general structure or what to expect of the students. We do not go to Seoul for training until March 21st, and I did not have even a rough idea of the students' language level. That night at home I hurriedly made a slide-show of photos about my life and New Zealand so I would at least have something to show the kids and which I hoped would generate enough questions or discussion points to get me through those first classes.

It turns out I may have expected too much. By the time the students get to middle school it seems their English career will have gone one of two ways - either their parents are wealthy enough to send them to after-school classes and they can keep up with the textbooks and possibly even hold a basic conversation, or they cannot afford extra classes and have therefore fallen irretrievably behind. Classes are 45 minutes long, and I was dismayed to learn that my slide-show could not generate anywhere close to the amount of discussion I had hoped for. In an attempt to simply get the students talking so I could assess their level, I set them a basic activity of introducing a classmate, along the lines of "this is Tom, he has two brothers and a dog, his hobby is baseball". Simple, I thought, surely this is much too easy for 16-year-olds. Korean kids start learning English from kindergarten and Stephen has indicated that many of his seven-year-olds can introduce themselves without much prompting. Not so my teenagers. To be fair there were always five or so who could do this no problem and were clearly keen to continue a conversation with me. Unfortunately for these eager beavers the vast majority of students either could not or would not complete the activity. Being teenagers however they were not content to sit quietly when they couldn’t follow the lesson; there was yelling, things were thrown around, the boys started hitting each other. Usual behaviour from teenagers, sure, but nothing I was prepared to deal with.

Friday heralded a repeat of Monday. Another colleague picked me up near our apartment and took me to my rural school, where I will teach two second grade and two third grade classes one day a week. As at my city school the English teachers assumed I knew what I was doing and after introducing me to the students my second grade co-teacher actually left the room altogether, leaving me alone with 30 15-year-olds. I played my slide-show; the students were not interested, I tried to get them to introduce each other; this once again largely failed, and yet somehow I made it through the four classes. Between periods one of the staff told me I was to do listening and speaking activities, but that was the extent of my instructions. No hints about the class schedule, which chapters needed to be covered before which exams, what aids I was expected to use, nothing. During the final class of the day the third grade teacher sat at the back and silently observed. Great, I thought, she's going to have a chat with me afterwards and outline my role here. As it turned out I spent the final hour and forty minutes of the day twiddling my thumbs in the staffroom. No feedback, no clues, no nothing. Then I left.

Stephen's First Week

Right now I have less training than the average untrained guest English teacher in Korea. Not only have I never taken a course on teaching English as a second language (such as TESOL), but I have also not completed the week-long training course that all EPIK teachers have supposedly endured before they begin teaching. You see, Emma and I arrived in the country on the final day of the February intake course, which covers teaching methodologies as well as surviving in Korea. As a result of our involuntary tardiness we have been scheduled to take the second run of this 'orientation' course in Seoul starting March 21st. Staying in Seoul for five nights will surely be wonderful, but I fear that the seminars may be too late for us as by then we will be relative veterans of both teaching and living in Korea.

As you can imagine, I was a little apprehensive going into my first proper day of work at my city elementary school, where I teach Monday through Wednesday. The previous Friday Emma and I had taken the bus (without issue!) to this school and met up with my main co-teacher, who introduced me to the principal and showed me to her classroom, where my desk and computer reside. This was comforting, especially as I arrived half an hour early on the Monday morning. I found my way to my desk, but failed to find the light switch, which was hiding in the hallway. Even worse, I couldn't elicit a response from the heating system. My lifesaver in this situation was that the computer at my desk did not have a password and so within minutes I was happily emailing and browsing. It was not until close to 9am that my co-teacher realised we had missed the teachers' meeting at which I was due to be introduced. This did not bother me as I generally like to avoid introductions. We returned to our now warm classroom where I spent the rest of the day occasionally meeting other teachers, rarely seeing any students, and just generally not teaching. At this school English classes do not actually begin until the second week of the semester, hooray!

I whiled away the next three days reading through textbooks and scouring online forums for tips on being a foreign English teacher. On Monday afternoon my co-teacher and I set out to open my bank account and hopefully get my cellphone onto a plan. This turned out to be more of an adventure than I had imagined, taking over two hours in total. It was windy and raining, but luckily you never have far to walk in a Korean city to find a bank or telecommunications provider. We took a number in the queue at the bank, which was very busy around lunch time, and sat down in front of a television that was tuned to a news channel. I understood little more than 'Putin'. It was the NH Bank that I signed up with, after spending a decent length of time waiting and then just as long again handing over my temporary alien registration paper and passport, signing in a dozen different places, and putting my pin number in six different times. There was a charge of 1,000 won for a 'check card', which was handed over then and there. Unfortunately there is no money in my account just yet, so I haven’t been able to test out the card.

Down the street we found an SK Telecom store. There are literally hundreds of these in Gunsan alone. I handed over my iPhone 4S, temporary alien registration paper, passport, and bank account number. Here the charges were substantially steeper. A 30,000 won registration fee is added onto the first bill, which comes in the mail at the end of the month. In addition to this was a 20,000 won 'foreigner insurance' fee and 10,000 won for a new micro-SIM card, both to be paid upfront. The plan I chose comes in at 44,000 won a month, and that gets me 500MB of mobile data and 200 minutes of calling. It is 53,000 won a month for unlimited data; I may upgrade later, we will see. Don't forget that your cellphone must be unlocked for this transition to be possible. You can of course buy a new cellphone, there are plenty to choose from! I’m glad now to have this paperwork out of the way and unsurprisingly the mobile service is very good. Having access to GPS and bus routes makes exploring new areas much more efficient.

On Thursday morning I was picked up from my city school and driven to my rural school. I was relieved to see it was not quite as far away from our place in Gunsan as I had thought, although the bus ride does take an hour in each direction. It is a true change of pace out there surrounded by farmland. The school is quiet, having only 25 students in total and 12 or so staff. My classes range in size from two to six souls, which allows me to cater to each child individually when teaching. The big difference here is that I take more of a leading role in the classes and need to do some lesson planning and resource preparation ahead of time. With the teacher's guide in hand I was able to knock out a simple outline for each of my four classes in less than an hour. These turned out to contain more than enough content to fill the 40 minute classes I taught on Friday, all of which I felt went well. The kids are friendly and keen enough to speak English with me. As they are beginners it can take an entire lesson just to get through 1-2 sentences, but they still seem to be learning the language faster than I am learning Korean.

Sunday, 11 March 2012

Getting There

Welcome to our journal! It has been a hectic time but now, at the end of our first week teaching, things are starting to settle down.

Our trip over from New Zealand went very well. On the evening of Saturday February 25th we flew up to Auckland and met with another soon-to-be English teacher before boarding our Singapore Airlines flight to Singapore. Our seats were great and we were lucky to be able to sleep the whole way. We had an eight hour layover in the comfortable Changi Airport, during which we visited its warm but curious Butterfly House (warning to any mottephobic little sisters who may be reading!)

After another pleasant flight we reached Seoul Incheon International Airport at around 10pm on Sunday night. Immediately we were squeezed into a packed subway carriage that shot us down to customs where we handed over our fingerprints and a mugshot along with our passports. A shuttle van soon rescued us from the -2°C chill and dropped us at the Incheon Airport Guest House, where we were able to grab a few hours' sleep in a nicely heated room. Early the next morning we headed back to the airport and caught the intercity express bus to Jeonju, the capital city of the Jeollabuk-do province.

The bus ride took almost four hours and we had the pleasure of seeing the sun rise over Seoul as we crossed the bridge from the airport island and headed south. We spent much of this trip doing our best to read the signs written in Hangul, the Korean alphabet. At Jeonju we were met outside the Core Hotel by our co-teachers. First they took us to the Provincial Office of Education where we signed our official contracts and received a few important papers. Straight after we were driven to the education board in Gunsan, the smaller city about 20 minutes west of Jeonju where we are to be living and teaching for the next year, to discuss our accommodation options in a quaint and cosy office.

In the afternoon we were taken to a local hospital for the most challenging part of our trip so far, the health checks. It was 2pm by now and we were starving, as we had been instructed not to eat before the medical exam and our last meal had been the in-flight dinner from 8pm the previous evening. The exam consisted of a chest x-ray, getting some blood drawn, peeing into a cup, and basic eyesight and hearing tests. After all that was done we were finally able to eat, so our co-teachers took us to a Chinese restaurant (the nearest Korean restaurant was closed).

Bellies full we went to look at the only double accommodation available, which thankfully was perfect. Our apartment is on the second floor of a large complex in downtown Gunsan. It has a decent kitchen, two bedrooms, a western style bathroom, and is close to many shops. The landlord and his wife popped around on Monday evening to check on us and turn on the heating and gas. We found a local supermarket and managed to buy a snack and clean sheets before heading to bed for our first night in our new home in Korea.

All of Tuesday and Wednesday were spent cleaning. The apartment came with one twin bed, a gas cooker, a cage for a pet rabbit, and lots of grime. Stephen's co-teacher contacted the education board for us and we soon had brand new bedding and a second twin bed, which we are using as a couch. Our neighbourhood has a few electronics stores and we quickly made friends with an eager young man at the Samsung outlet who sold us a computer monitor at a great price. Stephen's Mac Mini survived the flight over in his hand luggage, and when everything was plugged in we were pleased to discover that the previous tenant had not cancelled the Internet connection. Having Internet access suddenly made everything seem a lot more manageable, as not only were we able to email and Skype our families, we could also browse maps and find other information easily. We hadn't been in the country long nor interacted with many people but already we were starting to feel somewhat isolated and lost in a vast sea of Hangul and unfamiliar etiquette.

Our first teaching experiences will be chronicled shortly. We apologise for the lack of photos, the camera still hasn't been unpacked. We promise the next entries will be more colourful!

Click here for more photos.