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.
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