Friday, 31 October 2008

Three years on

Today sees the 3rd anniversary of my arrival in Korea. I still remember the nervous excitement and the uncertainty of how my life would unfold from there on. The eleven hour flight felt much longer with many things spinning around my mind. So many things could have gone wrong but so many have gone right for me. I could never have predicted that I would still be here teaching AND in the same area too. Halloween 2005, three years ago but still fresh in the memory. Oh how time flies.

Halloween basically means nothing to me. It's an Americanism as has no relevance in my life back in England or here in Korea. Having said that, it is changing for a lot of people back home with more people getting dressed up and also getting more boozed up (for which we need no excuse). Here where there are many North Americans it's more of a big deal with the foreigners getting into the spirit. It's all just some good fun so I bought a cheap hat from a costume shop for work and some sweets for my students. They all got a good laugh out of me and something to chomp on too and all the classes were very light-hearted with many students talking a bit more and loosening up. I looked ridiculous but that's the point isn't it?

Thursday, 23 October 2008

Biting My tongue

Recently a Korean co-worker said I didn't sound English (whatever that means) and I sounded more American or Canadian. Rarely have I been caught so off guard.

Do I take that as a compliment or an insult? It wasn't meant to be either, just an observation. Well I can tell you it wasn't very complimentary to me! Not that I have anything about anyone from North America or the accent at all, I'm just not from that part of the world. I have met some really great people from there who are good friends, especially Canadians, who form the majority of Westerners living and working as English teachers in Korea.

Most peoples experience of English here is with a North American accent and my voice is often a little hard to follow IF I speak the way I would back home. I have tried to slow down and speak a little more clearly but I haven't changed my voice too much. The one thing I have changed a little, and it pains me to admit it, is I have adopted some vocabulary seen more in North American - PURELY to make things easier in class.

For example, instead of saying toffees or sweets I say candy. Other words I have used include garbage, convenience store and soccer. I can't think of many more right now an to be honest there aren't too many, but every time I say candy my insides twist and I feel like I am betraying my language a little. I often think I must be twitching a little like Derek Jacobi in I, Claudius - such is my dislike of those particular words at times. I must remember to leave these at the check out desk when I leave Korea for the final time.

Wednesday, 22 October 2008

There and back

Last night was no different to most other week nights - I went to Hapkido and came home. I decided to document the walk there and back and to take in more of the things I see but am usually oblivious to these days due to familiarity. Here are some of the sights of me playing with my camera.

Above is the outside burning rotisserie of a restaurant that sells chicken. The place is only open in the evening and the smell is enticing.

The usual sight of cars rushing to their destination. I actually enjoy night-time traffic, the sounds and the sights of rapid movement. There are plenty of cars on my walk, most eagerly ready to try and knock me down with little success so far. I admire their resolve but not their intentions.

Above we see some kind of fitness poster and 2 spinning barber poles. Legend has it that these poles are supposed to 'advertise' brothels close by. Though no Korean has so far confirmed this to me, many Westerners believe this to be true. This surely cannot be 100% correct as when I came here in 2005 there were hundreds and hundreds around the city. I'm told that there IS an element of truth in this for some of them. One things for certain, they aren't advertising barber shops being open at midnight.

I pass this bar every night and I'm dying to go in just because of the name and the Clint Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef images. Gaudy lighting and cheap decor are commonplace here. The plastic chairs are for people who want to drink outside, though not many do this with the current evening weather. Yes drinking outside on the street is VERY popular and acceptable in Korea. Another big plus for this nation! I wonder if this could ever happen in England, I severely doubt it.

Here we see the familiar sight of some inflatable illuminated advertisement outside of a building. These wouldn't last five seconds back home would they. If my Korean is correct, it is for Mr. Mong Ki (monkey perhaps) but I don't know what they're selling. From time to time you see embarrassing foreigners astride of them downtown whilst blind drunk.

Here's a familiar sight. Rubbish. You'd be amazed at how much fills up places here. This looks like someone collecting some to later sell, like a rag-and-bone-man. I often see people in the day and night-time scouring the streets looking for things. Often they are elderly. It is an unsettling sight but a frequent one.

What could be more representative of Korea than the mixture of neon and the church. I still find it literally unbelievable the amount of churches here. On my walk I counted at least fifteen in the skyline. You know them from the neon crosses atop of them, usually red but from time to time ordinary light or even bright green, though not all have tacky paintings on them like this one. There must be thousands and thousands of these in Korea if Daegu is representational of the nation. Surely they can only be half full at best. They are unmissable and unmistakable.

Another shot of the church, this time with one of the local playgrounds in view.

Nearly home now. This is one thing I still can't get over. People leave their rubbish in the street and it's collected usually overnight. It's not right but it's the way it is in some places here.

Eerily quiet, no cars about. My journey almost over and ready to begin again tomorrow.

Super and Good

Yesterday was full of drama with fights in the teachers room and some kids setting off the fire alarm at work. My first class is one of my youngest and also lowest levels, but they are super enthusiastic and try almost anything I ask them to do. It's a lot of fun right now as you can see them improving and taking onboard any advice I give them. I don't take myself seriously at all and usually classes are light-hearted. I was greeted with this message on the board.

Very nice. Super AND good, how little they know about me... Still, a nice start to the day.

Tuesday, 21 October 2008

Beholden to technology

These days for some reason I am spending far too much time at my computer. I find myself reading the newspapers online after waking up and then listening to music, downloading things and messing about a few days a week. Wasting my time or perhaps killing time before going to work. I know some people wake up late so don't waste much time before work but I wake relatively early considering I don't start work till 4pm. I should be making more use of my time.

Monday, 20 October 2008

Looking around

Today as I walked to work the same way as always, with just minutes to spare before I was due in, I couldn't help but look around me and appreciate my surroundings. I reminded myself that I don't always take out enough time to enjoy some of the small things in life. I stopped to take some simple photographs and my mood for the day was lifted. For some reason I haven't been taking too many pictures lately and have decided to try and take as many as possible from now on and will post some on this blog. I take my camera with me nearly everywhere I go and always take it to work just in case I see something interesting. Often I forget its in my pocket but from time to time I see something that is beautiful, revealing, strange or amusing. There is always a picture to be taken but sometimes you really do have to stop and look around.

Tuesday, 14 October 2008

Stockholm Syndrome / Escape Plan / Al Pacino

What does a sane man do in an insane society?

I know that I can't do my current job forever and I know I can't live here long term too. I don't want either. I want to be back in a Western country such as my home for a while. But I'm not. I have just started a new 12 month contract, due to be completed at the end of September 2009. Hand on heart, I don't know if I can stomach another year of doing the same thing every week. I am now covering material that I first covered one year ago. It can be boring but my students by and large are very funny and class is seldom uneventful.

I feel trapped at times. This is a maze of my own making and I either can't see a way out or refuse to find one. I feel like I lack ambition. Surely I should move on. Am I here of my own free will now? I am reminded of the character Capt. John Joseph Yossarian from Catch-22, being forced to fly one more mission and then one more... Just twelve more months. Where will it end?

The ease of life here is hypnotic to me but I have to remind myself I don't live in paradise on some tropical Island or surrounded by palm trees in some idyllic American film scene. I live in Korea. Have I fallen in love with my 'captor' or have I fallen in love with the idea of an easy life?

I really had no intention of staying for two years but the big reason for staying is my girlfriend. Facing up to realities, the money is too good to turn down and another year gives us a chance to put together some money, travel and enjoy ourselves. Working six more months is easy, after that the weather starts to change a bit but eight months is doable. Then comes Summer which is no fun for me but with only a few months to go I can surely finish my contract and pick up the significant bonus' on offer. Don't let anyone tell you this job is hard to do because it's not, but that doesn't mean it's always easy.

To cope with things better, I plan to go home for a week next year. Something to look forward to and hopefully something that will make me appreciate my lifestyle in Korea more. There remains things to be done here, places to see and good times to be had. Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in....

Monday, 13 October 2008

Not all news is bad news

As I said before, time to move on from events of the past week.

Something positive to report. Last week I paid off all my existing student loans and am now debt free. Because of the burglary there hasn't been too much time for this to sink in, and I definitely don't fully appreciate what I did yet.

I have worked with many people here in Korea and most if not all owe a fair bit of money in some way or another. Some have mountains of debt that will surely take them years and years to pay off. I wonder how they will ever be able to afford a house etc etc. This forces them to sometimes cut back on buying things that teachers should easily afford to splash out on here. Often teachers take on extra private classes where they can earn easy money, but this eats up free time.

Paying the debt off was one of the big reasons for coming out here - a place where it is quite easy to save between 30-60% of your salary. Now the monkey is off my back and hopefully I can save some money to plan for some of my future. Unfortunately the current exchange rate of Korean to UK £ is very poor right now so I have to keep working here a little longer before I can retire from Korea...

Sunday, 12 October 2008

Spiderman was here

What a mixed time I've had lately.

There have been many ups recently but the week was dominated by one thing. Whilst at work on Thursday, someone came into my apartment and stole stuff. It could have been worse, they could have taken the laptop I write this from and my passport along with other things. As it stands, the only significant thing taken was money, in the form of coins. Though clearly not happy at this I believe that IF there were no coins here at the time, then a lot more would have been taken.

I recommend the experience to nobody.

The police came round and after things were explained about what I've touched, what's missing etc, the Crime Scene Investigation team came. They checked for finger prints but the burglar worse gloves, however they found a foot print - how they can catch someone from a shoe print, I just cant imagine but we'll see. They showed me how he (I assume it is 'he') came in through the window, which was regrettably unlocked... Though the window should have been locked I've always felt it would be very very unlikely for someone to get in due to me being on the second floor and there being little room to manoeuvre, let alone climb. My Spider sense should have been tingling.

I've often felt, said and written to people that Korea is a very safe place. It remains so, despite this. Much, MUCH safer than my home town in England. However, I can't go back totally to how I thought about the country and its people. Things have changed irreversibly in my mind. Still, time to go forward and try to forget about this.

Wednesday, 8 October 2008

Playing Patience

Right now I am struggling for motivation at Hapkido. I've been told that I have to wait until my next test (end of November) to find out my result. I've passed, I'm sure, but until I receive my belt there will be a seed of doubt. Getting my own black belt will be a huge boost to me here and can't come quick enough. These days, training is just me and the assistant and/or the Master. Nobody else. Nobody to compare myself to and to see if I'm getting better and nobody around my ability level to aspire to. After the warm up and some technique work I usually get to hear the dreaded words "Self training!", which means just me, trying to improve, on my own.

Added to that is the fact that there are two moves I've been working on for over two months that I can't yet do. I practice them every week and one I am so close to doing.... Keep trying, I can do it, they say - and they mean it. The mind is willing but the body doesn't always comply. I don't have the previous aches and pains but I lack energy at times. I've been slacking off lately. It's hard to get myself going when I know its over six weeks away till I can go to the next level. Drinking a beer is now what I want to do after finishing training. I try to resist, but sometimes I give in. I must try harder, but after a days work it's sometimes what I need (here in Korea).


I've just got back from training. I can't deny that there have been times lately that I've thought about quitting, giving myself more free time and getting more sleep. Nights like tonight remind me why I go. As mentioned before, I've been working on some moves for ages, trying maybe hundreds of times with the same depressing results. Today, I successfully managed one for the first time. It's hard to explain the move (a kind of flip forward from a position of lying on your back) but it requires speed, power and timing. I felt like I'd won something, such was the joy running through me and the acknowledgement of my Hapkido Master. I tried maybe 30 more times but to no avail, mainly due to tiredness. However, I know my training is working and I am improving slowly but surely

Sunday, 5 October 2008

Hong Kong in pictures

I had a great four days in Hong Kong. The pictures I took don't really encapsulate what I saw and how good I felt during my stay there but here are some of the things I saw.

Positive and Negative ions

I have noticed that some of my recent posts have been less than enthusiastic about Korea. This is not an honest or fair reflection of my state of mind right now. Things are going well. No stress and no hassles. My overly long visa renewal troubles are finally over. I recently got paid my contract completion bonus (including significant extra money - and what a nice surprise that was). I've had a great holiday in Hong Kong and my Black Belt test went well. And the weather is changing too.

I have to say this even if it's blindingly obvious, but working far away from home for long periods is sometimes difficult. Some people sink, some people swim and some people get eaten by sharks. I think I've done well to be here 32 months with no major drama's, no depression, no alcohol problem and no real bitterness. In my opinion one of the reasons why people in my current line of work have problems is that we have FAR too much free time on our hands. Time that we should try to occupy as creatively as we can. Far too many people let things take them over. Problems at work, problems at home and problems out and about add up. You have far too much time to dwell on things and small things can snowball into acts of treachery or leave you feeling overly pessimistic.

In Korea you cannot choose who you work with and have a limited pool of people that will be your friends. You sign a 12-month contract and people come and go but you remain constant. If problems arise you have to try and ride them out or hope for changes. Also things like where you eat, drink or shop are far more restricted than at home. Familiarity can breed contempt or lead to dissatisfaction or even resentment. I worked with one person who complained every single day about everything. And this person came from a rich family - that was very hard to stomach. People should try to be more positive here or, just go home. I try not to let things build up and be as optimistic as I can knowing that the problem sometimes is not other people, its you.

Saturday, 4 October 2008

Stop me if you think that you've heard this one before

Here is a selection of questions that my students, past and present have asked me more than any others. Questions I hear maybe once a week

"How old are you?"
"Are you marry? / Do you have girlfriend?"
"What do you think, Korea?"
"Why you come here?"
"What blood type are you?"

Thursday, 2 October 2008

Nemesis Watch: Part 1

Princess disease struck in the office yesterday as my nemesis once again showed her true colours.

There is one person that I do not like much at work. I don't speak to her and won't until she gets my name right. Yesterday I had a rare break during teaching time, alas I had to share the office with her. As soon as everyone left the room she leapt at the air conditioning and turned it off without asking how I felt about this. It was as if I didn't exist or perhaps more likely she just didn't care. If I was Korean, would she have asked? At the time of the deed she moaned "I'm cold" in Korean, when it clearly wasn't. But what left me speechless was seventy minutes later in the office with everyone in, she opened her window - this was at around 7:30 pm so it was cold outside. Are you hot or are you cold? Make up your mind and don't complain about it. I don't understand and don't want to.

As well as getting my name wrong she rarely smiles which I find odd. Her demeanour is not that of a likable person. It would seem that nobody else in the office shares my reservations about her. Am I imagining this, or is she really as bad as I think? I am convinced that she hasn't talked to the person who sits next to her yet (2 months and counting!)

Also, this must be said, she has made the ugly office place even uglier. As evidenced in this picture. Is there any need to cover the windows with paper AND paper that has pictures on it that we can all see - of assorted vegetables! I have worked at my academy for nearly a year now and nobody has complained about the sun in their eyes but her.

Many Korean people openly express their emotions to people around them. Such as "I'm cold, I'm hot, I'm hungry, I'm full". This is fine but after a while you start to think, "so what". I somehow doubt people in Africa or Alaska complain about the temperature. To some people it's always too hot or always too cold and life is never what they want it to be. Perhaps this is why so many Korean women don't have boyfriends and there are so many quick, seemingly loveless marriages of convenience.

Of course I am exaggerating this a little and it's a bit tongue-in-cheek. Tensions can rise in the workplace. People don't always get on and you can rarely choose who you work with. There is both the language and the cultural differences too which I should try to bear in mind. She's probably a very nice person who just hasn't shown her true personality yet. Some people are just shy aren't they. We'll see.

Wednesday, 1 October 2008

Dodging the Bullet

A new month. Things to be thankful for and things to look forward to, but some things never change.

There are many things that make some foreigners here cynical, tired, disillusioned and even bitter. One of these for me is the Russian Roulette I seem to play every day. I'm talking about people who drive here in Korea - cars and bikes. I'm not saying they're the worst in the world, I'm just saying they're the worst I've ever seen.

Perhaps drivers feel I have a Death Wish and they are only helping me out, but I doubt it. Are cars genuinely trying to run me down? At times I feel they are. Every day almost without fail, I see something on the road that makes me think WHY? In the past I've seen drivers nearly run over cripples, children and elderly people in the rush to get to wherever they are going. I've also seen people ignore ambulances and fire engines who rush to get to hospitals and fires, basically ignoring their critical needs. To me its a microcosm, at times, of parts of Korean society. The need to to something quickly, cutting corners and disregarding whatever and whoever stands in their way. I find myself asking the question, is the problem Korean drivers or just people in Daegu? To that I do not know the answer, but there is a failing in the mentality of some of the locals here who are quite simply insanely selfish.

Crossings are quite frankly a lottery at times, but one that is fixed because you know what is going to happen. It's green, time for me to cross right? Wrong. How dare I get in the way of someone who wants to run a red light. The truth is that night-time is even worse. Just tonight a driver went through a red light when I was half way across, oblivious to my own existence and perhaps so blinkered that he didn't even know he was speeding through a crossing. Of course this was not the first time this has happened to me. I have lost count of how many times I have felt in danger simply crossing the road.

Taxi drivers are a law unto themselves. They simply do what they want. They are totally different to everybody else. They have their own rulebook and nobody ever says anything about it. It beggars belief. And don't get me started on how many times they've ripped me off by taking me the long way home. I've not even mentioned the crazy deliverymen who zig-zag their days on bikes at high speed across the road and the pavement. Perhaps another time.

To some it may not be important but as someone who works with children all day long, I am acutely aware of how fragile they can be and of how they at times are unaware of how dangerous the world is. I could never bring up a child here as I would constantly worry that they would be run over and knocked down. Also, a worrying amount of Korean men here drive after getting hammered on soju and beer. Most foreigners have seen a hilariously drunk guy get in a car after a long night on the booze and laughed at him and how daft he looks, but there's a darker reality to what could happen. I wonder what the figures are on traffic incidents. They must be sky high.

No this is one game that I don't want to play again but I can't see a way out of it right now. I can only hope that I keep my wits about me and keep on dodging the bullet because I know that nothing here is going to change.
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