‘Tis the Season

Hands down, Spring is the most enjoyable season in Korea. The sun is (usually) out, the temperature is just right, hot but not too hot and life awakens. This is not limited to plants and trees, it also applies to the people. After a winter of hibernating, the streets are busy again, people start sitting outside late into the night and even my female, middle school students risk stepping out onto the playground at lunch time. My days become filled with longing looks out of the window, just wishing I could be outside enjoying the season while it lasts, which sadly isn’t nearly long enough.

My excitement is however, not shared with my colleagues who are somewhat divided on whether to love or hate the changing weather. It isn’t the sun or flowers that turns them off, it is the ‘yellow dust.’ Now, while yellow dust, which moonlights as Asian dust, is a legitimate occurence I find that there is somewhat of an overreaction from some. This morning for example, I stopped at a local mart on my way to work, only to be shouted at to come inside quickly and shut the door. The shopkeeper then proceeded to come out from behind her counter forcibly put a mask over my mouth, her English was limited but she was able to tell me, ‘China air make you die.’ On my way out she gave me another word of advice, this time in Korea, ‘today, you must eat pork.’

Dust really is blown across the Korean pennisula every year from the desert and dry areas of Mongolia and China and it truly can be harmful to respiratory systems. I understand that. However, it was definitely not a dusty day, further confirmed by weather reports that warn that while dust may be blown this way unexpectedly, today is looking relatively, dust-free. Did the shopkeeper know something the weatherman didn’t, perhaps, a sixth sense of sorts? She was adament after all. I’ll keep my mask on standby just in case. In the meantime, I have every intention to keep on enjoying the weather and stay outside, dust or no dust.

Coincidentally, I will be eating pork tonight (which is apparently a preventative of respiratory illness caused by yellow dust) so hopefully, I’ll be safe. Check out the article below, for The Korean Times take on the dust influx and pork remedy.

http://www.koreatimes.co.kr/www/news/nation/2012/03/117_108082.html

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Comedy English on T-Shirts # 1

We are not the first and we will not be the last to delight in poorly worded English printed on T-shirts. It never gets boring. And luckily for us, Korea happens to have the highest number of printing faux pas I have yet to come across on my travels. They are also some of the funniest because more often than not, it isn’t just one world mispelled or a play on a brand name. Oh no, in Korea, the shirts have lengthy, detailed stories and mottos that make absolutely no sense whatsoever to anyone. I have a penchant for buying up these beauties whenever I stumble upon a particularly good one and sending them home as unwanted cherished gifts for my friends and family. My most recent triumph was a pair of socks adjourned with the most terrible of expletives that I will not be seen dead in, but may be gracing a letterbox near you soon!

Here are a couple of the tamer and yet still mind boggling slogans we were lucky enough to spot in our Korean home town.

1. ‘Me Happy Me Move’

This is, on the whole, a true statement. True but horrendously worded.

Me Happy Me Move

2. ‘Get Off My Smile’

You know how it is, you’re walking out of the bank and you see a balaclava cladded stranger running towards you. Instinct tells you to reach for your wallet, protecting it as well as you can, but nothing could prepare you for what’s about to happen next. It’s all over in a matter of seconds, your wallet is safe but your smile certainly isn’t. Not even your smile is safe in this day and age. You cannot be too careful. So, why not invest in this gem? Warn everyone around you that you are not to be messed with, ‘Get off my smile,’ sends a clear message to any potential smile stealers out there. Yours for a bargain, 5,000W.

Get Off My Smile

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Feel the Fear

For months the Koreans warned us about the upcoming winter. And I mean months. Summer was only just on it’s way out when the warnings began,

When winter comes you will not breathe well. Or go outside. Or be happy. You will have to wear all your clothes and stay inside. Winter makes everyone sad. Even you.

Understandably, after receiving such dramatic warnings on a daily basis, the worry began. Hailing from the South East of England, extreme weather is a rarity and I felt incredibly under prepared, both physically and mentally. As if I wasn’t nervous enough already, the other foreigners started to chip in and add to the dread,

I’m from (Insert hardcore country/area here) and our winter’s are terrible but, I’ve never felt as cold as I did last winter in Korea.

I must add that this flurry of concern began as autumn was starting and most days were filled with sunshine, blue skies and mild temperatures. So there we were, almost waiting for life to take a turn for the worst. Our fabulous, autumnal weather bubble could burst at any moment and the prescribed winter misery would then ensue. We waited and waited. Now, it did get colder, much colder. We became accustomed to leaving the house wearing full body coverage, hoping to beat the bitter morning winds on the way to work. Yet, the days we felt beaten by the weather were few and far between. It was by no means warm, but it was also sunny most days without a cloud in the sky. The mountains looked fantastic against crisp, blue skies and there was rarely a need for an umbrella. The long, Korean winter I had been so frightened of, wasn’t so scary after all.

Although Spring will still be welcomed with open arms, it is likely to be tarnished by the constant worry of death by humidity that summer will bring. My office is already buzzing with rumours of a scorching, sweat filled summer that will run us into the ground. That’s if we haven’t had a nasty run in with a fan by then.

See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fan_death for more.

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Getting Snap Happy

We were supposed to be in Busan for the International Film Festival, but tickets were hard to come by and so, finding ourselves at a loss for the afternoon we meandered down to Songdo beach. We’d heard rumours of a Sea Art Festival in the area and thought it might kill an hour or so. It turned out to be worth well over an hour of our time. The weather certainly helped, the sun was shining and the beach was fairly quiet. The installations themselves were such good fun we couldn’t help but get into the spirit of things and get snap happy. We were not alone, we even spotted our Korean counterparts who were doing the very same thing. This was definitely interative art in every way. It was cheesey, it was ridiculous and it was absolutely hilarious.

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Teacher Fail

The new first grade students were thinking of questions to ask me. As usual, 99% of them had written ‘How old are you?’ and ‘Do you have a boyfriend?’ As usual, the other 1% covered my favourite Korean food and the obligitory shameless height and weight question. Then out of the blue this happened,

Student: ‘Do you have a boyfriend?’

Me: ‘Yes.’

Student: ‘What’s your type?

At this point I let my imagination run wild. What a good class this is going to be! They are talkative with original ideas, we could go all sorts of exciting activities. I mean, the question’s a bit personal but 10/10 for originality. Yes!

Me: ‘Well, I like someone who is funny, likes to travel…’

I rambled on awkwardly for way too long when the student interrupted,

Student: ‘No Teacher, what’s your blood type?’

Me: ‘Oh.”

And once again, I had gotten over excited. All of the questions were exactly the same as the previous class. And I still didn’t know my blood type. We were all left unsatisfied.

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The Day of Moving.

The eagerly anticipated moving day had arrived. We were moving from our one room apartment into what is best described as a massive box. But, being massive it does mean we have a lot more space. There will be no more washing drying in the prime spot in front of the TV, no more running to the fridge that only fits into the apartment if it is kept the furthest distance away from the kitchen area that is humanly possible and, no more lazy crawls under the covers from the bed-cum-sofa-cum-dining table. We will now actually have to walk from the living room into the bedroom to go to bed. It just won’t be the same. 

After the minefield of finding a suitable apartment that was a). available b). in our price range and c). existed, it was a relief to know that we would move into a place before we went on our holidays. Between the language barrier and the Korean specifics of apartment hunting it was quite the task. The only minor issue being that we had no idea what time we would be moving, how the moving would take place and which exact apartment in the building would be ours. As we sat, nervously texting one another, surrounded by boxes in our individual one rooms for the last time, it occured to us that nothing would be final until we were physically moved in, with keys in hand. 

Now, it is natural to worry at times like these but we should have known that all of our concerns were wasted on the two caretakers from the school who showed up, only a little late and ready to go. Before we knew it the wheels were in motion, one load of boxes had already been dropped off at the new building and my place was next to be emptied. The look of shock on their faces was priceless. They looked around and took in the scale of the job. The few boxes at the other place were nothing compared to the furniture that had to be taken from my apartment. I almost felt sorry for them, they had been tricked into thinking this would be an easy afternoons work. They did it though, to their credit and the only thing scarier than watching the men half carry, half throw the washing machine down the 3 flights of stairs to the pick up truck waiting at the door, was walking behind the fully loaded truck as it moaned and heaved its way down the road. Things were piled up in every which way. All I could do was watch from behind as the microwave lunged towards the sides and chairs slid across the pile of my sad looking things. Unorthodox as their methods were, they did successfully complete their mission, we moved and the furniture is still holding together, at least for now.

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The Day They Danced.

Performer

The plan was to see a taekwondo performance at Namsan Folk Village in Seoul, but after walking in circles to find the venue, we found out it was cancelled. Any initial disappointment was quickly forgotten when we saw a spot of traditional Korean dancing nearby. Drawn in by the colourful costumes and semi-chaotic routines, we made ourseves comfortable on the tiered, wooden benches. In all honesty, the excitement wore out fast. Partly because we had walked tirelessly around Seoul for hours, but mainly because the performance was quite repetitive and it never seemed to end. The show took its toll on my jet lagged dad, who was in Seoul on a flying visit while enroute to Hong Kong. The battle with the back of his eyelids began to take a turn for the worst after the 6th encore.

It was all too much for some!

Just when it looked like all was lost, in true Korean style, they unexpectantly changed the pace. It was time to laugh at the foreigners dancing skills. While, I escaped the gaze of the performers, others were not so lucky. Dad was rudely awoken from his nap, closely followed by my boyfriend were dragged kicking and screaming to the stage area. And they danced, and danced and danced.

It looked similar to the Hokey Cokey, if the Hokey Cokey was performed by drugged monkeys. Their moves were only topped, by the mass mayhem that started when giant pinatas were burst and the chocolate riot began.

______________

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The Day We Took On Woraksan

In the height of the Korean summer, enticed by the high temperatures and even higher humidity, we went hiking. Woraksan National Park is easily one of my favourite Korean parks thus far. It isn’t huge but it is steep and the path is full of boulders to squeeze around and the odd rope to help pull you up on the steeper parts. I am now doubting if it was even that steep or that exciting when I remember how sweaty the whole affair was. Seemingly, we were the only ones struggling up the mountains in our shorts and t-shirts because our Korean counterparts were covered from head to toe in dark clothes. It was not dissimilar to ascending a mountain with a herd of sun hating ninjas. Again, perhaps my imagination was running wild, fuelled by dehydration and the sugary snacks we bought at the trailhead.

Anyway, we made it (with the help of a shot or two of soju, [Korean liquor] courtesy of the ninjas) to the top. The view was stunning and the slippy, final few steps to the peak provided us with one last thrill that served to remind us that, there really is nothing better than a gentle summer’s day stroll…

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The Day of the Bread Roll Epidemic.

There must be a shortage of bread rolls in Korea. I haven’t seen anything in the news and the bakeries seem fully stocked but there must be a shortage. There could be a rationing system in place that I wasn’t aware of, if so, I need to work on getting hold of a ration book. What else could explain the stringent distribution of bread in Seoul?

An afternoon in Seoul with my father, who was visiting Asia on business, found us stopping for lunch in a lovely outdoor cafe/restaurant. The sun was shining, the company couldn’t have been better and the people watching potential from our table was second to none. All in all, it was a great lunch spot. The selection of sandwiches and salads on the menu was perfect for a light lunch and we happily ordered what we wanted. The waiter was very pleasant, he spoke very little English but that didn’t matter. Drinks were no problem. But attempting to order an extra bread roll was not as straight forward. My father, understandably could not understand why he couldn’t order bread and pay extra. After all, it is common practice in the UK. So he kept trying. He eventually gave up, somewhat exasperated. We, however looked and one another and laughed because of course, we are in Korea.

In Korea, people work hard. They take pride in making your hamburger or salad and they will follow the specification carefully. So carefully, that modifications are,

“not possible.”

I’ve lost count of the number of times I have heard this little phrase.

So, my father’s garden salad arrived minus a bread roll while my chicken salad came with one, as promised on the menu. We shared the bread but it didn’t end the confusion. If you should ever end up in a similar situation, remember, if it’s not listed on the menu, it just might not be possible.

Cheers!

(The food was fantastic by the way, bread roll or no bread roll.)

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The Night of Queues and Lanterns

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Seoul Lantern Festival 2011. The lanterns decorated a long stretch of the Cheonggyecheon Stream in Seoul and seemed like they were never ending. No one line likes lining up and believe me, the queue was long but these lanterns were … Continue reading

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The Day of the Vegetable Exchange

After a busy morning of non stop classes, I was in need of a energy boost and I most certainly got one. I walked into what I thought was the office and instead found a full blown market. There was incessant chatter, cabbages changing hands and abundant bargaining. It took me a minute to take in the scene and realise that I didn’t want to miss out. On my desk, as if by magic, was a very large bag of muddy carrots. I glanced around the room and eyed one teacher with an equally large bag of potatoes in her right hand. She was trying to exchange them for a pumpkin and failing. While she was down, I jumped in and offered my carrots to her.  It was a good deal for us both. Since moving to Korea, my rice intake has sky-rocketed out of my control and potatoes not only remind me of home, they also mix up my diet. Once I had the potatoes in my hands, I sat down to watch the final deals take place.

With the commotion over I was able to find out what had just happened. It turned out a student’s grateful parents had delivered a pallet of vegetables for the teachers. The random distribution was a stroke of genius by the administative assistants, they were able to share out the gifts and take a step back. Teachers battled it out with one another to get the vegetables they wanted. It was about that time that I walked into the office. When it was all over, I looked around at the contents of everyone’s bags and at their happy faces. It was all sorted out, everyone had goodies to take home and I had had the most entertaining lunch break of the year so far. Thank you to those generous parents who provided such comedy (and the potatoes).

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The Days of Traffic Light Angst.

Yes, I do mean days. Almost all days. Between the two of us, we encounter a ridiculous number of pedestrian crossings each and every day. We have found that being on a bicycle can add to the frustrations experienced when waiting for the lights to change. You are zooming along one minute, the world is whizzing by and you have overtaken at least twelve whole people and then you reach a set of lights. There is not method to the madness in my humble opinion even though it has been explained to me several times. Whatever they say, it does not excuse the slow, slow, slow light changing process in Korea. The people that were so much fun to overtake always catch you up while you wait for the lights to change and you feel like an utter moron for having rushed in the first place. Now, I know traffic lights and pedestrian crossings can take a while to change anywhere in the world but I truly believe they are slower in Korea.

We took a trip to Tokyo, Japan a few months ago and crossing the roads was like a dream come true, it was painfree and never took more than 30 seconds. If I was going to start a campaign for anything right now, this might be it. If the lights changed just little more efficiently I could spend an extra ten minutes in bed every morning, be home after work ten minutes earlier and make it to the supermarket before you could say ‘traffic light.’ How good would that be?

I’ll make some banners.

This one gets me every time. It's a sneaky one.

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The Day We Drank Our Way Up the Mountain

Going Up

I‘d heard rumours that mountainside drinking was popular in Korea but I hadn’t given it much thought. During midterm exams there are no classes and the students go home early to study which means the teachers are able to organise staff trips in the afternoons. My office cannot get enough of staff bonding sessions so for the second time that week we went hiking. The hike earlier in the week was more of a dawdle around a nearby lake, very pleasant but not challenging which explains why we didn’t have regular beer stops. It was very achievable, sober. The second hike was a little more difficult, not terribly so but definitely more of a workout. We started out strong and were keeping a good pace until we made the first of the many refreshment stops. I couldn’t manage more than a few sips, it was early in the afternoon and I had my walking face on but the others did not disappoint and worked their way through several generous sized beverages and still made it to the top (without a toilet break, I might add). If going up was entertaining, the descent was non stop comedy; the sliding, the slipping and the facial expression that accompanied the slipping and the sliding were priceless. If the alcohol consumption helped on the way up, it definitely hindered on the way down. Hilarity ensued.

First Beer Stop

At the Top

Since then we have been offered rice wine, beer and soju on every decent hike we’ve been on and while it no longer surprises me, my coordination is bad at the best of times and I just can’t hack it without tumbling down a hill! Owing to my lack of balance, I regularly find myself declining offers to the disappointment of my Korean co hikers. Until after the hike, once I’ve earned my beer and I can sit down and drink it!

While I may fail miserably, there are also those who excel at trail drinking.

http://mountainbeering.wordpress.com/

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The Day School Got Scary.

When most people hear the word ‘Halloween’ they think of either children trick or treating dressed in costumes or terrifying horror film type scenes. I’ve never been a big Halloween fan, it is no where near as popular in the UK as it is in the US and the day could quite easily pass me by. Except this year. Teaching English abroad isn’t just about teaching the language, it is also about sharing cultures and traditions so I decided to take the plunge and do a Halloween class with my students. It helps that my students are really interested in all things Halloween and had been asking me about a special class for weeks.

Halloween was on a Monday this year and I made sure I had stocked up on halloween balloons and sweets over the weekend. My classes really enjoyed the decorations and the liberal prize/sweets giving. It was a huge hit.

It just happens that Mondays are the one day of the week when I teach an after school class until 6.15pm. The nights have been drawing in for a while and by the time I leave school it is pitch black. After a fun filled class of mask making and horror story telling I turned off the computer, drew the blinds and put on my coat ready to go home. The second I switched off my classroom’s lights, I was thrown into complete darkness. The corridor lights had already been turned off, the stairways were big black holes and there wasn’t a soul in sight. My students had disappeared with the bell. As I mentioned earlier, I am not a die hard Halloween kind of person but I don’t particulary enjoy horror films either and as I felt my way along the wall to go down the stairs, horror film images kept creeping into my head. Even worse, the stories in my head started to mirror the stories my students had thought up, most of them disturbingly set in the school. Halloween had well and truly gotten to me. I was spooked. I made it to the ground floor, made my way for the nearest exit and upped my pace to a a definite jog. I admit it, I jogged.

Masked Students

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The Day We Walked Into The Night.

At the Start

A friend of ours was already signed up for the moonlit walk in Gyeongju and I simply couldn’t resist signing us up too. So on Saturday night, we walked 30 km or 18.6 miles in the moon light around a beautiful city. It was a treat, really it was. We met some great walking companions, were provided with hot tea and coffee at various points along the way and finished much earlier than we expected. We lost our friends early on in the crowd but we were lucky enough to find some comic relief in a young, Korean couple who walked with us for most of the way and amused us for most of the way. They truly were excellent company.

Half Way

The whole course took us four and a half hours and we proudly collected our medals and ‘diplomas’ before trying to find a bed for the night. Unfortunately our our good luck was over for the evening. Every motel was full. We definitely added a kilometre or two onto our walking total for the day before giving up on motels and resorting to a jimjilbang. It was not easy getting comfortable on the hard floor surrounded by snoring people sprawled across every inch of floor but at least we’d stopped walking!

The next morning was not pleasant. Standing up from the hard floor was near impossible and the prospect of walking again was bleak. Yet, the walk was worth it, I loved every minute. Now to convince him to do the 66km next year…

Finishing at 00.30

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