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On History and Striking Children

I type this with a 90p-equivalent bottle of wine in hand, pondering miserably on today’s brats and fanatically following Star Wars: Clone Warsin an attempt at geeky escapism. In lieu of having had any semblance of teenage angst in my youth, I am now going to school in the fear of being picked on, hit, insulted unintelligibly and called ‘fat’ and ‘ugly’.

We love this lady. She keeps us fed on odeng and hoddeok.

Green pancakes filled with honey, sugar and love. On the subject of ‘weight’…

Thusly I defend the reference to casual violence toward those younger and smaller than myself: the school is in possession of a number of admirably-designed implements for striking fear into the hearts of children, if not for simply striking the children themselves. I don’t want to worry anybody that this is a corporal-punishment-endorsing establishment, so to clarify: the weapon of choice is a colourful hammer which squeaks on contact. In response to this fact, I have spent the majority of my employment history in Korea re-enacting key scenes from any Marvel Comics films featuring Thor.

My own thoughts on child abuse/infanticide vary from day to day.

Not to say that all of my students are necessarily the spawns of Satan. A handful of the boys are wonderful and comparatively non-violent, and all but a maverick few of the girls are, by contrast, absolute angels. Included among this number are my adults’ class – a group of four ladies who make the teaching process a dream by not only not physically or verbally abusing me, but also by actually wanting to remember the words I’m throwing at them.

This Thursday – otherwise one of the two weekly lessons I have with Belle, Kelly, Nina and Michelle – myself and Meg were invited out to a walk by a nearby Buddhist temple, ‘to take advantage of the leaves’ as they insisted. They weren’t wrong.

It turned out to be highly educational for all involved; they proved to have suitable English skills to fill me in on the history of the place, and I regurgitated what Buddhist history I remember from secondary-school PhSE (Philosophy & Social Ethics to the layman) for their amusement and enlightenment – if you’ll pardon the pun.

As if this weren’t enough, they also insisted on treating us to an unfamiliarly sumptuous lunch of mushrooms, beef, acorn jelly (slightly less weird than it sounds), seafood pancakes and kimchi. Always with the kimchi. I neglected my camera at the time for the sage of ingestion.

I apologise in advance for taunting you with the following fact as I have no worthwhile photos to prove it – but, upon departure, we saw an elegant driveway rising up the mountain lined exclusively with ornately carved penises. The mansion atop the path was crowned with the most impressive architectural phallus I have yet seen and, if we do not return to this place, I shall be sorely disappointed.

From left: Meg, Michelle, Nina, Kelly & Belle.

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Halloween Hits Kangs

I received a call from Eric, our head teacher today, asking me to bring my camera to school. In a show of seasonal enthusiasm which would put your average apathetic British family to shame, Kang’s Academy cast aside the first four lessons of the day (2-3 hours) in order to throw a Surprise Halloween Party for the throngs of kids attending today – and the teachers get to join in!

As taken by Eric. Believe it or not, that’s not an artificial ‘hardworking’ pose.

I in no way claim to have an indepth knowledge of any other language than English. I can say mon chien c’est un papillon (French: my dog is a butterfly), wo ist das krankenhaus, mein hund ist kaput (German: where is the hospital, my dog is broken) and hola, mi perro es muy bueno con la cerveza (Spanish: hello, my dog is very good with beer), but  cannot converse with any semblance of normality or fluidity unless my dog is the subject.

Every damn photo…

Similarly, many of my students are unfamiliar with words such as story, but can happily reel off zombie, phantom and/or werewolf at will; this came in handy as they incessantly played ‘Ghost, Ghost, Zombie!’ (a variation of ‘Duck, Duck, Goose,), running trenches into the floor with the tiny pounding and slipping of their Angry Birds-socked feet. As Meg is still in possession of the voice of a lifetime chain-smoker, she was all too happy to take over at the face-painting station while I led the Activity Gauntlet – and her clientele were all too happy to assault me in waves of ghosts, spiderwebs and surprisingly artistic moonlight vignettes.

Blindfolds courtesy of whoever was wearing a scarf at the time.

On a more pressing note, I’ve been humming/falsetto-singing Adele’s Skyfall all bloody day. I’m not getting any more soulful, alas.

There’s always one, and it’s usually him.

Discerning Dinner and Strange Plaices

Octopus. ‘Yum’, I hear you cry.

I’ve had 24 hours to digest now, so I’m fairly sure I’ve escaped the grasping clutches of Tempting Fate.

The grisly remains: the mollusc-like things in the middle were apparently as ‘living’ as the undulating things in the shell.

Last night was an Educational Experience in many ways. Firstly, it is entirely the norm for the director to take out the whole staff (at great expense, I guiltily suspect) to a local restaurant after work. Secondly, it is also entirely normal for the entire group to drink merrily and continuously; I’m still not entirely sure who was meant to be driving, but everyone turned up hale to work today. Thirdly, such merry drinking is rarely, if ever, a good idea the night before teaching, especially when one is expected to live up to one’s energetic expectations in the classroom.

Fourthly and finally, it is apparently customary to ingest food which, over the course of the meal, appears to gradually require less actual heat to prepare in the kitchen. By this, I mean that the last thing I ate actually wriggled in its beautifully-prepared little grave – leaving me with a mixture of guilt, intrigue and hedonistic gluttony. I never even knew its name.

Relatively few worries about the mortality of this fish, at least.

Despite our phobia of consuming anything intestinal, tentacled or still-respiring, I took childish joy in slurrrrping several octopi limbs while Meg eyed me with disgust and rage, clearly having doubts about this man she was stuck with in Tentacleville. Nonetheless, I persisted in my carnivorous endeavours, gleefully downing shellfish with varying levels of consciousness and mobility. We were proudly presented with an enormous, somewhat belligerent plaice which made a heart-wrenching bid for freedom, flapping about the tiles at our feet, before being wrestled to the kitchens by its unsmiling executioner. When next we met, it was on a bed of (as it transpired, artificial and therefore inedible) noodle-like strands, raw and beautifully prepared. I can only hope to have a similar experience when I go.

A pot of, for pathetic English tongues, Unbelievably Hot Stuff.

Dining in Korea, especially with Koreans, is particularly poignant to observe – even if one observes in hindsight, with gochujang still smeared about the mouth. As Westerners, we are particularly prone to the defensive this is MY food attitude towards dining, regularly resorting to wielding utensils as a deterrent to reaching fingers. I know of one particular incident whereby a (otherwise peaceful and lovely) friend of mine defended her pizza from opportunism by burying her fork in her assailant’s tendons, thereby disarming said poacher and saving her dinner. I know that my chopsticks are a barely-discernible blur to spectators when presented with a group-size pan of dak galbi, but this is a result of both my own greed, and my culture’s encouragement of said greed.

(사진= Photo, I believe) – taken by Amy’s phone, featuring (left → right): Eric, myself, Amy, Jun, Meg & Sunny. The pictured beers show that this was the START of dinner.

When eating with others, I realise that is must be a relatively violent scene for them to behold: a smear of sauce across the table, a mumbling and smacking of lips and three people’s dinners are gone. And yet, I found myself defeated by two-thirds of the way through the meal, while the rest of the school hadn’t broken stride in their conversation. Apparently patience is not only a virtue here, it’s a recommended dietary technique. I’m taking notes.

Also, an entirely unrelated but nonetheless bizarre story to end on: yesterday morning, shortly before school started, the staff room was filled with the heartwarming sound of tweeting infant birds. This in itself was not entirely unusual – plenty of trees around – but for the fact that it was coming from a bag in the very confused Sunny’s hands. As it turns out, a young student had decided (without her parent’s knowledge, I gather) to purchase two chicks from just outside the school, casually bringing them in with her. We placed the entirely confused birds under a colander in the kitchen for their stay.

Terrified beyond reason, I believe.

I am duly informed that they were intended as pets, and choose to believe this to be the case.

* A note, for credit/information: the majority of photos in this particular post are mobile-phone pictures taken by either myself or colleagues. Had I actually brought my camera to the seafood slaughter, I would have taken more.

 

 

– On Bigotry and Confucianism.

They guard those cellos with their lives.

Happy Chuseok, everyone! I know you’re all partying already: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chuseok

You can feel Meg’s enthusiasm for yet another bloody photo.

So, it’s been another week of blood, sweat and tears in literal amounts; the school has intervened in three otherwise uncommon altercations between students (tears), I have managed to survive the first of my year’s exercise in blistering heat (sweat) – and one of my students absent-mindedly scratched his leg until it bled, prompting all of the other boys in the class to daub their fingers in it and paint themselves tribally (blood). The surreal scene felt a bit Lord Of The Flies, and no – I don’t understand it.

This has also been a week for quiet and completely unjustified rage at the state of the English language and holy s**t I sound like an English teacher. As a foreigner in another land, I would suffer greatly if I harboured any feelings of ‘superiority’ or pretentiousness concerning my own nationality. I do, however, feel my eyebrow pulsing slightly every time the teacher’s book tells us to make the students pronounce ‘fog’ faahg, ‘dog’ darg or ‘bob’ baahb. It’s a dichotomy of whether to teach them English English or American English, which wouldn’t be an issue were it not for the fact that I don’t sound like that when I teach them.

A particularly cropped/fuzzy pic of same heron.

What I believe is a Korean heron zooming about the waterways.

I’m not going to launch into some prehistoric, spittle-fuelled rant about the ‘origins’ of the English language or if anybody in the world speaks it ‘well’ or ‘badly’ – but I had to choke down the pedantic arsehole within me when I held up three different pictures of turtles, tortoises and terrapins and ensured that the Korean students would spend the rest of their lives lazily conglomerating all under the name turtle. It’s a tiny point, but as a tortoise owner it’s one close to my heart. This wrath was not abated by Meg’s discovery of a particularly repulsive article concerning the ‘eventual and inevitable conquering of the flawed English language by the superior American dialect’. Grant Barrett can go headbutt a moving train, in my personal opinion:

[…]The point that Americans are ruining English is enough to puff a Yank up with pride.

Soon we’ll have Sainsbury’s to ourselves! Our victory over English and the English is almost complete.

(-seethe seethe seethe.)

Doesn’t that mean ‘sorrow’?

Hence, bigotry (myself included). I would like to emphasise that I in no way generalise anybody as having such views – merely that I am slightly disappointed in the human race after reading that. The sheer number of (I hope) incorrect red lines under words in this post saddens me; all because I don’t have a fetish for the letter ‘z’ in ’emphasize/generalize…

Aha- there’s ‘joy’.

On a more relevant, less ranting note, last night we had the surprise and privilege of coinciding with Sunny and Amy at a local dak galbi restaurant (oh my god, it was good), which (in true English fashion) promptly led to hours of drinking and bad language skills – on our part, anyway. Sunny, Amy – I’m so sorry for your 3:15am departure. Our colleagues will be very disappointed in us.

Meg has gleefully discovered a Korean variation of rosemary growing with abandon in the area.

To clarify the latter part of the title, my adult morning class (all wonderful beyond a teacher’s dreams, as they basically teach themselves) eventually spiralled into a discussion on Korean/Asian culture, heritage and spiritualism, culminating with a unanimous apology for their ‘bad’ English skills. At this point, we had been discussing Confucian doctrine, ancestral spirits and less-than-positive relationships with in-laws. I remain convinced of their English ability.

A particularly bad shot-from-the-hip photo, but I had to. It’s got pink ears, for god’s sake.

To finish, I would like to apologise for the sheer length of this, and to anybody ‘cross the pond for my rants. I don’t give a hoot about accents, expressions, colloquialisms etc. (for God’s sake, we have Ireland, Wales, Scotland AND England to contend with) – but, as with all aspects of life, I can’t tolerate somebody inflating their opinions to prohibit another life, culture or experience. I don’t want to use the ‘Nazi’ cliché, but I did anyway.

Also, there’s no ‘z’ in ‘apologise’.

Chance Encounters of the Third Kind

Seoul is big. To quote Douglas Adams on the subject of space, ‘Space Seoul is big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind- bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist’s, but that’s just peanuts to space Seoul.’

Part of the constant construction work around Seoul – like Lego meets Minecraft meets Sim City.

It is a megacity (a title I had only previously been aware of courtesy of the dystopian Judge Dredd comics), and the world’s 4th biggest city – yet, in true fashion for foreign travellers, you still seem to manage to bump into people you actually recognise. (see also: fellow photography geek Chris Brown and Swedish/Chinese couple Kris and June, who told us where H&M is much, much earlier in the day).

Well, I’m enticed.

Perhaps more poignantly, it is a megacity which Meg & I are, on some basic and culturally-disabled level, able to traverse without getting lost or suffering loss of life nor limb nor wallet. As a child born in London I feel this is something I should have adjusted to by now, but what do I get instead? Verdant, lush countryside for the last decade+ of my life. ‘Thanks, Mum & Dad.’ (expressed sarcastically, but in fact meant with conviction)

We have survived the expedition to Itaewon, but are left craving a little more in the way of actual Korea; Itaewon is the most culturally diverse area of Seoul, and as such everybody rips/is ripped off. Or indoctrinated into a ‘real’ American Baptist Church for ‘real’ Bible preachers. Tempting as such a proposition was, I refer to the ‘religion/penis’ dichotomy (don’t whip it out in public, don’t force down people’s throats unless in the appropriate registered building) for my unspoken, imagined retaliation. On the bright side, Meg got a poncho.

Not to say we didn’t explore thoroughly; there is an unbelievable range of antiques shops, country-specific restaurants, leather retailers and tailors, usually crammed into their purpose-specific streets around Itaewon.

I don’t know, either.

The most engaging/heart-wrenching point of the venture would be the battle of sense/longing we experienced when told by a RSPCA (or Korean equivalent) street petition group that we could adopt any of the wagging dogs milling around, as they needed new homes. I suspect that, if we’d had any idea that we’d actually be allowed a dog in any way, we’d be the joyful owners of a three-legged Pungsan (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pungsan_Dog)  called Tripod by now.

On a shorter note, I have been the victim of polite paparazzi (could I photo you thankyou?), and an unashamed shopkeeper politely inquired of Meg, you with baby? Meg was not impressed. I was in hysterics.

So they tell us.

I type this as I wrap Meg’s birthday presents for the morning (she won’t see this until then), so do feel free to convey any love not transferrable via Facebook. If the cake’s in the same state I’ve been all day, it’ll have to be eaten with a straw.

Wildlives and Disappointed Retrospection

A surprisingly vain neon dragonfly – one of MANY.

I like titles with syllables.

Another two days, another single post. C’est mon vie en Corée, eh? (Bad Ben – I’m having enough trouble learning Korean without looking up the French name for the country.) To quote myself repeatedly this week, choe soong hamnida – yong-guk saram (‘sorry – I’m only British, ie. crap’).

We’re two weeks, four restaurants, ten schooldays and (nearly) one birthday into our expatriation, and slowly starting to acclimatise to the madness surrounding us. I now bow respectfully/sycophantically for wizened ladies and gentlemen in the street, cautiously eat gimchi and slur annyong-hi kaseyo whenever I say ‘goodbye’ in the vain hope that I’m getting it right.

If spiders have the capacity to be ‘endearing’, this is it: wee little thing. For size context, it’s on the same pillar as the above beastly dragonfly.

On the subject of local customs – never, or rarely in England would one’s colleagues collectively opt to go on a lakeside stroll in the hour before starting work for the day. One expects others to loathe any such suggestion, and to veer away from the notion like a hypochondriac from lepers.

In Korea, the headmaster gets the iced coffees ‘to go’ en route to the lake.

Juliet made me a little spoon out of a nutshell and a twig which I now love with all my heart (think ‘double-headed daisies/daisy dumbbells’ arboreal wizardry from your youth, and translate it to Korean).

Avec caramel mocchiatos.

Such is the way here; I’m only now starting to realise exactly how much Westerners fear and despise one another as a rule. One cynically expects anything of beauty or value in a public space to be defaced, stolen and/or set alight – and one is usually correct in such an expectation. In Korea, you can walk down the high street at 11pm, with closed shops having left rails of clothing, etc. outside the locked building. Crime just doesn’t seem to occur to the population in general – even littering doesn’t seem to be much of a pastime for local youths.

My nut-spoon. Thank you, Juliet.

The main, daunting crime central of Korea is claimed to be the Itaewon district of Seoul, and guess why? That’s where we live (and by we I mean the vast majority of expats, not ourselves per se). Westerners are the thieves here, preying on the generosity and resources of the natives, and taking their jobs and getting drunk and living illegally and where have I heard this before? (answer: any given English pub)

Also, we’re totally going to Itaewon tomorrow to ‘splore, browse and try desperately not to get mugged by a fellow British scrote. I paid for the privelage of escaping that fate when we got our plane tickets.

Kang’s Gang, from left: yours truly, Juliet, Amy, Meg, Sunny and Eric.