Seoul, baby! (Part 1)

I was a little excited. In case you couldn’t tell. Ahem.

Friday dawned, windy and wet, like a newborn baby. I opted to take a taxi down to Halla Hospital bus stop, where I was to meet Sylvia, and we would take a taxi to the airport together. In hindsight, this was not a smart move.

Both of us were running late, I due to Skyping with my parents at 1am (6pm SA time) and having the misfortune in getting a taxi driver who couldn’t understand “Halla Hospital”. But we made it into the taxi, and onto the airplane. I’d already discovered that a togbag is not the best way to cart your stuff when you are the one who is going to be doing most of the carting.

At the airport we met three fellow Jeju-ites: a British couple from Seogwipo (the other city on the island) who’d arrived about a month before we had, and an American from Jeju city. We were all placed in the same row on the airplane: I’m sure it wasn’t to keep an eye on us or anything.

Before we knew it we were touching down at Gimpo airport in Seoul (the flight is only 50 minutes), gathering up our stuff and taking a million escalators into the bowels of the earth, which is where the uber-cool AREX (Airport Express) train was to be found. My shoulder already felt like a small elephant had perched on it and it only got worse as we traipsed through Seoul Station, stopping to take a few pics of our first proper view of Seoul on the way, down to the subway line and onto the train. On the other end we met up with another South African (getting so engrossed in talking to him that we ended up on the wrong side of the road and had to walk all the down the stairs and back up the other side, the elephant becoming heavier all the time) and made our way to our home for the week, the National Institute for International Education.

Our first view of Seoul.

After being assigned our rooms and dumping our bags slash elephants, the five of us went out to find food. We ate at a pizza/pasta place we’d passed on the way – it looked good and Sylvia and I were cheered by the sight of a South African flag among the others on the roof. (Incidentally, it was not there the following day, nor the day after that. In fact, we never saw it again. We’ll try not to take it personally.)

The flag's there, I promise. Top right. You can juuuust see it.

The, er, eccentric Italian owner came to speak to us, as we were practically the only customers in the place. He proudly told us he could speak Korean. Ah!, we said. None of us could speak Korean. He told us he also spoke Italian. Oh! we said. Then we looked at each other. None of us could speak Italian either. Thanks anyway, crazy guy!

That afternoon was the “Opening Ceremony”. The most interesting part was a performance by a samulnori group from a local high school. Samulnori is a traditional Korean music form which consists of four different percussion instruments played at different speeds and volumes. For what is essentially skillful banging, it was strangely tuneful and surprisingly enjoyable.

The high school samulnori band performing.

Below, not the band at our orientation (sound won’t work, which entirely defeats the purpose) but it should give you some idea of what it sounds like:

I also re-met a guy I’d known for about five minutes in SA: we met at the visa office in Pretoria. I noticed he was filling in the same forms as me, I said, “Hi, you going to teach?” He said “Yes, can I add you on Facebook?” and that was that.* True story. He’s on the mainland somewhere and teaches at FIVE different schools, the poor dear. There were quite a few South Africans at Orientation – including one who lives on Jeju too! Winning!

*Somewhat abridged version

Our group of about 70 EPIK teachers (English Placement in Korea) was an odd collection of people who’d just arrived, people who’d been in Korea for a while, and people who’d been in Korea for years. We were divided into elementary school teachers, and middle and high school teachers, and within those two groups listed according to district. We were broken up into groups of three for a lesson demonstration we’d be giving on Tuesday morning (after our heads had been stuffed full of glorious teaching knowledge, presumably). Sylvia was with our British friends while I was grouped with two people who’d taught on Jeju before but were new to EPIK.

Between the opening ceremony and dinner we headed out, along with just about everybody else, on a quick walk around our area. We found some interesting things along the way.

After dinner, Sylvia and I went with one of the other Saffas we’d met to watch the Korean movie that was being screened in the main conference hall. It was an enjoyable, if slightly silly, family movie. Afterwards we met up with a bunch of other people at a bar around the corner: Jazz Story. It was utterly fabulous: the interior made out of items that in any other setting would have been seen as junk items; old airplane seats, rusted pipes, old wire, a dilapidated bicycle. Several walls were lined with LP records – originals, with the record inside the sleeve. There were thousands of them, ranging from Michael Jackson to obscure pop stars and Korean musicians from back in the day. There was also a “jazz” band playing, although it was more of a cover band. But their music was awesome, a lot of fun to listen to, and totally worth the cover charge we discovered we had to pay when we got our bill. Singapore Slings were also consumed – highly recommend!

The interior of Jazz Story.

I must add that the bathrooms at the hostel were just wretched. Communal, of course, but that wasn’t even the worst part. The showers (fortunately, NOT communal) were fronted by a flimsy curtain and partitioned with frosted glass. The entire floor was the drain, so if you happened to be in the end cubicle, as I was that first morning, you got everyone’s water passing your feet. Um. EW. Then, the shower heads weren’t standard shower heads, attached to the wall, you know, in a way that would MAKE SENSE. Instead they were the sort of hose attachments you’d find on baths (in SA, anyway). I don’t know why anyone thought this would be a good idea. Look, those hoses are a good idea when you have a basin/shower combo and your entire bathroom is your shower. But in a room full of showers?! I just don’t get it. Anyway, so one had to sort of hose oneself down. (I found one shower where you had to actually keep pressure on the head to get water – so frustrating! And one which worked very well, so there were extremes.) And when one is as inhibited and uncomfortable with public nudity as I am, trying to keep one’s clothes dry and oneself unexposed was a complex exercise in dexterity and skill. It didn’t help that the windowsill was slanted, of course. After the first day I started walking to and from the bathroom in a towel – it was a girls’ only floor, anyway. And that is my sad story of the worst showers ever.

On Saturday morning I was overjoyed at the sight of the breakfast buffet. Toast, eggs, bacon – none of which I’d tasted since leaving SA. Heaven. I was also happy but a little confused about the coffee: it was filter, but hazelnut flavoured. Really. The “logic” just escapes me. Surely you’re catering to the majority, and wouldn’t the majority prefer unflavoured coffee?? I just don’t know.

Classes started at 9, with an introduction to Korean history and culture, followed by a fascinating talk on co-operative learning. After a coffee and biscuit break, we had lectures on lesson planning and life as an EPIK teacher. The most useful piece of advice we were given in the latter talk was this: Just roll with it. They cancel your classes without telling you, you get told about field trips at the last minute, you have to spend three weeks deskwarming? Just roll with it. It’s not worth getting worked up over; just relax and go with the flow. I often have to say “just roll with it” to myself several times a day, when all I really want to do is scream in frustration. Rolling with it is much healthier.

Sylvia and I skipped dinner at the hostel that night to go see my favourite Saffa in Korea, Kay Ay Pee! It was fabulous to see her again AND she bought me an awesome present! (A book, of course. Seoul has English bookstores. Just one of the many reasons it’s so awesome.) We had dinner at the “Swiss” “fondue” place opposite the place where we’d eaten lunch. I say “Swiss” and “fondue” because the only resemblance it had to authentic Swiss fondue is that there was cheese in a pot and bread to dip in it. They didn’t turn the burner on and the cheese smelled funky. Plus they gave us bizarro vegetables like broccoli and cauliflower to fondue too. Weird.

We had to return for Korean class (we were both placed in the lowest level, not surprisingly) which, if nothing else, taught me the complete pointlessness of “listen and repeat”, an activity which is much favoured by the writers of English textbooks in Korea. There is no brain activity whatsoever in listening and repeating. The sounds go from the ear to the mouth and bypass the brain entirely. Two months later and I can remember how to say one thing: my name is Tarryn. Yeah.

After class we went out again, to a bar/restaurant with the most awesome red chairs I have ever seen.

It's so squishy! Want.

We drank delicious soju cocktails and talked…until we had to get back in time for curfew. Yes, curfew. How humiliating. I’d never had one in my life before! But we made it back in time to avoid being locked out. Yes, they really did that.

Sunday morning (Easter Sunday) the breakfast was even better than the previous day’s: there were fried eggs. I was so happy.

That morning’s classes were on the curriculum (snore) and using media in the classroom (like power points and slideshows. Very interesting) and in the afternoon, how to teach reading and writing, and working with a co-teacher.

After another enormous buffet dinner we had the second of our two Korean classes, in which we learnt our numbers and how to deal with money. Ol mai yo? Man chun won! (How much is it? Ten thousand won! Written phonetically, of course.) That night we stayed in and took it easy, working on our respective demonstration lessons and watching a movie on Sylvia’s laptop.

Monday morning, a public holiday back home, we had a lecture on classroom management – easily the best talk we had. The speaker, Jonathan Ressor, was funny, honest and engaging. I loved it. I also heard for the first time about the infamous Korean prank called 똥침 (dong chim) – look here for details. Ahem. (I haven’t had anyone do it to me yet although I had one fourth grade girl playfully pretend like she was going to. I gave her a Look and employed my Stern Teacher Voice and she desisted.)

This was followed by a session on English camps and afterschool programmes – I have TaLK teachers at both my schools so I don’t have to do any teaching  at all in the afternoons. I feel very fortunate. In the afternoon EPIK teachers came in to give “real” class demonstrations. We were the students, so we got to act just like our kids do in our classes. That made it enjoyable (some people gotreeaally into it) but otherwise it wasn’t that enlightening.

During the lunch break I took advantage of the tiny amount of free time to wander around our area some more and take pictures.

To be continued…

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2 thoughts on “Seoul, baby! (Part 1)

  1. Umm…total and complete invasion of privacy and/or personal space!! And a kid trying to do it to their teacher – naughty step!

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