Monday, May 21, 2012

When lines are crossed

Maybe you've had something awkward at work happen? You break something, a coworker is being inappropriate with you or you just need some time off. These challenges are normal and bound to happen. But place a language barrier on top of these scenarios and you have one very different situation.

I had something happen to me on Friday with my 3rd grade girls and although I'm all about the sharing and being open in my blog, this is one thing I think I'll choose to go easy on the details with. Basically, I look different to what these kids are used to, and this combined with childish curiosity and a need to test the foreign teacher, I felt a line was crossed and was made incredibly uncomfortable and emotional. Now I have heard that Koreans are not always comfortable with displays of emotion so I sat at my computer, holding back tears and wondering what they hell do I do now?

I've said it before and I'll say it again; the one thing I miss most about home is being able to communicate. And in this situation, I was really torn and anxious. I knew the issue needed to be brought up and addressed to prevent it happening again but who do I speak to and how? What is the procedure here? After a weekend being distracted by the beauty of Korea (blog on that to follow at some point) and asking the advice of friends, I knew walking into school yesterday that I needed to speak to someone. My coteacher is an incredibly warm and understanding person and so chose her as my first point of reference. I managed to get what I needed to say across to her and the kids were spoken to. Although relieved that it's all over, I can't help looking back and being frustrated with the whole situation. I have no way of telling if I was properly understood or not and what the kids were told. In an already awkward situation, I had the added issue of not knowing how to deal with it in an environment where I'm an outsider and largely unaware of 'how things work'. Which brings up another point I've been thinking about lately - where is the line between accepting the different culture I'm immersing myself within and being taken advantage of.

The situation with my 3rd grade girls went beyond cultural/childish curiosity. They were out of line and would never have acted that way with a Korean teacher and that is one of the biggest issues here. I am a big advocate for picking your own battles, especially here. There are things that I have accepted a lot easier than I thought I would; the spitting does not bug me as much as it used to; the stares and questions can be ignored, the noisy eating over-looked, the last minute changes at school can be dealt with etc. I try never to forget that I am the foreigner here, I am an outsider and chose to come here therefore I need to be the tolerant one. But there also comes a point when you need to stand up for yourself and expect to be treated with a little more respect. I got to that point with these kids on Friday, and I feel that's okay. I know a lot of people are going through similar things to me and finding it incredibly difficult to be in an environment where we are so foreign and everything in turn is so foreign to us. And we do need to learn not to sweat the small things and just go with the flow. But when lines are crossed and we are made to feel uncomfortable for the mere fact that we look different, then that is not okay.

I'm glad I got this sorted and my advice to anyone coming into this is although things feel awkward and you never quite know how to bring certain issues up (even asking for leave feels awkward to me) you need to communicate as best you can. They do care, the teachers are there for you in most cases and you will feel more in control if you address the situation which is stressing you out. Goes for anything in life but here especially.

Don't ever be afraid to stand up for yourself.

Having said all this, and realising that not knowing the situation might make this seem all a bit more dramatic than it is, know I'm fine and this was just a note on a hurdle I overcame this week which might help someone else out there :)


Tuesday, May 8, 2012

A waygook on a mountain

Sobaeksan is the kind of mountain where you hear the wind before you see it; where the sun sets the forest on fire at sunset and where you can be completely alone with your thoughts. Allow me to get really metaphorical and philosophical with this post - it's what I had to focus on during the 6.5 hour hike.

The Mt Sobaeksan group :)

I'm not a hiker. The longest hike I've ever been on was probably at my Uncle's Holiday farm in the Freestate, which was a slow and easy 2/3 hours. And that was 3 years ago. It was only once I started the long walk up Mt Sobaeksan that it hit me - 'what the hell are you doing?' These people are serious and so is this mountain. There came a point about 45 minutes in when I nearly turned around, but got some encouragement from a friend and pushed through, all the way to the top. It might not sound like the biggest deal to a lot of people but to me, this is a huge accomplishment. I was SO proud of myself for overcoming the urge to give up and the view from the top was well worth the effort. I also bumped into the kindergarten teacher from Hwadang at the top with her daughter, Audrey, who is in my 6th grade class. She was so beyond excited to see me and after many 'so good to see you', 'oh Brownin wow' 'I love you's' and a naartjie, I felt like I was on top of the world. But I still needed to get down haha. Coming down was much easier and I moved a lot quicker, put my iPod in and actually enjoyed the scenery rather than being focused on how tired I was.

Me at the top :)

Both on the way up and back down I lost everyone as my pace is much slower than theirs, but I was never alone. A really nice Korean man caught up with me at one point and asked about me, where I'm from and what I do here. I could see he was trying to encourage me and it was a special encounter. I also had a couple kids stop and say 'fighting' or 'pighting' as they pronounce it, which is a strong form of encouragement. As I type this I can imagine you all must be thinking that I was probably crawling up the mountain to draw such attention but it was really just Koreans being their friendly selves...and probably slightly concerned about the waygook with the red face ;)

Once I got over the negative thoughts, the silence really gave me time to think. And this is where I get mushy ;) This hike was really symbolic, I feel, of my whole Korean experience. There have been times in the past 2.5 months where I wanted to give up, to throw it all in and come home - take the easy way out. And there are many more of those times ahead I have no doubt. There were times in the beginning that I felt completely isolated and alone all the way over here in a country so foreign, so intimidating. I feel out of breath and tired of trying. But then a bit of encouragement from a friend or a smile from a stranger reminds me that everything is going to be okay and I really should just enjoy the journey. I love Korea, I love the life I'm making for myself over here. But that doesn't mean there aren't any challenges. On the hike, I felt myself comparing my speed and fitness to the others which really got me down, and I do the same here. I look at other people adjusting so well and feel embarrassed that I still get homesick sometimes but it's like everyone said on the hike - your pace, your journey. At this point I feel like I'm at a rest stop - catching my breath, enjoying the view, soaking up some sun :) I know I still need to get to the peak and damn that road is rocky but I can do it. Coming down the mountain and just really stepping back from everything and enjoying nature in all it's beauty reminded me to do the same here. We all live for the weekends but I must not forget to enjoy the kids, the teaching and the little quirks that come with it. It's far too easy to wish our lives away, to wish we were on the bus home already instead of taking a deep breath of mountain-y goodness. And believe me, I know that before I can say 'kimchi' I'm going to be on a plane home, a bag full of memories and wondering where the hell the time went. I know this is really metaphorical and soppy but I did warn you ;) And really, with that much time on my hands I was bound to do some creative thinking. The feeling of accomplishment I enjoyed at the bottom of that mountain will be nothing compared to what I'll feel 30 years from now, telling my kids about my time in Korea. Man, it's exciting. And I wouldn't change a thing :)

Here are some more pics from the hike:

Nicola and I blowing bubbles in celebration :P

Nics and I won the 'flair' award for this hike. Nic and Norb - assah!

FIGHTING! At the peak, trying not to get blown away. 

View from the peak. Breathtaking. 

Danyang is a beautiful area and this is some of the beauty which surrounded us on the hike

So all in all, the hike was an incredibly rewarding experience and I'm so glad I did it. Don't expect too many more hiking posts know, other things to do and all ;) Which might include paragliding this weekend so stay tuned :D

There is thunder in the air and man it makes me think of home!
Love and miss you all, always.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Musings, Gaga and sunshine

So it's Children's Day in Korea tomorrow (May 5th) and the kids are running wild, being given the day off basically, allowing me the time to catch you up on what's been going down.

I've found myself struggling against my own thoughts this week. I feel like I've been in a constant fight against the homesickness and often found myself wishing to be back home and for things to be easy. On the way to school today I was really thinking about why I came here; not in the woe-is-me, whhhyyyy (screams pathetically) way, but because I think it's important to understand my motivations for being here and what that means for the journey I'm on. And the only answer I can really come up with is that I wanted to challenge myself, to really prove that I can do something like this. There was also the obvious reason of wanting to travel as much as possible. As I was waiting to be picked up for school, all these thoughts running through my head, I saw my co-teacher pull up, the biggest smile on her face for me, and instantly I knew why I was here. For all of this; the ups the downs, the people the stories, the kids and the learning (and teaching), the mountains, the food, Korea and all it has to offer. Felt I needed to start this post with that because you're on this journey with me, so you should at least get a peak into the way my mind works (won't show you too much though, you would run screaming).

So, the exciting stuff :) I found myself sitting amongst a bunch of flashing headbands and heart-shaped wands, screaming Korean youth and crazily dressed Westerners and Koreans on Friday night (April 27). Where was I? The Lady Gaga Monster Ball concert.

My friend Danielle and myself
The concert was amazing. I have to admit that I am not "gaga for Gaga" and went to the show for the experience more than for her. But I think that point was exactly what made it so great for me. She is a true performer and was there to please the crowd and spread her message of freedom, pride and let's all not give a damn attitude. And she delivered. And because I had minimal expectations, I sat back, enjoyed it, and did not feel disappointed at the end.

We were far from the stage but the effects were still great!
Seoul did not end there for me though. The next day was spent shopping in Myeongdong, the most popular shopping district, and I was able to find some nice summer clothes and....wait for long awaited iPad!! I felt a bit insecure buying something so big (I may have gone home and curled up in the fetal position, questioning my choice), but I've wanted one for ages and decided to treat myself (I will admit that I wouldn't have gone through with it before getting a little reassurance from my mom that I wasn't being irresponsible). We left Seoul that afternoon which I think is the best - travelling home on Sundays are never ideal as I feel I waste half of my day. This way I was home in Jecheon by Saturday night, ready to enjoy the rest of the weekend :)

School is going well; both my co-teachers seem to really have embraced me and we get on really well, communicating as best we can through the language barrier. Mr Jo has the same taste in music as my dad I've discovered, and have promised to give him some SA music to listen to. My kids are fun, although I must admit I am starting to doubt whether I can hold their attention for the rest of the year. There are only so many times we can play Super Mario and Pass the Ball. A few of the men at both my schools seem to have a little bit of an attitude towards me, some pretty much refusing to acknowledge my presence which is hard and has bugged me a little bit this week but it's something I just need to take in my stride. Maybe it is in my head too. This post was interpreted by an 'excuse me' from one of the teachers. I don't think I've explained this yet; I work in the main office and staff room, and the desks are arranged in the middle with the school secretary to my left, Vice Principle to my right and art teacher opposite me. So I don't have my own classroom or own office. I like it sometimes because people are always around, but sometimes I wish I could put some music on, eat something, take a nap or Facebook stalk in peace ;) But I digress. This teacher (I was never told anyone's names and just call everyone teacher - but I do want to find a way to learn all their names) I refer to as 'Lovely-Teacher' when I speak to my family. She had called me over for some bread/cake thing and conversation. She really is lovely, often taking me for a walk around the school grounds to stretch my legs and her English is great so we have full conversations which I love. She is just another example of Korea taking me in her arms and letting me know I can make it here :)

Here are some pictures of the school hike we went on (April 27).

The 4th grade class - my best ;)

The art teacher and myself - we also manage to have great conversations :)

A shot of the valley in which my school is located. I work in an amazing area!

I had a very weird experience yesterday. I walked into my apartment and as I stepped into the bathroom I realised that stuff had been moved; my shower shoes had been used, my bucket and other bathroom appliances were not where I left them. Someone had been in my apartment. I can only think that they had to fix or check something as the floor was wet, and although  I know there was no malice to the visit, it shocked me. I had left my iPad out, laptop, clothes etc. Nothing was taken (as a South African, this is the first thing I checked) and that was the most surprising part. So although I felt like my privacy had been invaded and still think I should be informed if people will be in my apartment, I was reminded that back home, this would have been a very different and much more upsetting experience.

Best news of all is that it looks like my family will definitely be visiting me at the end of June - I am beyond excited and have gone full travel agent on them, checking out love motels etc for them to stay in and planning their itinerary in my head. I do hope they are prepared for all that Korea has to offer ;)

This weekend I'm off on a 5-hour hike (knowing me, this will be a whole day event and search parties should only be sent out after the 9th hour) in Danyang.

Mt Sobaeksan is part of the Korea National park

Hopefully I will make it here :P

The hike will be followed by a lekker braai with Danielle and her South African neighbour and some other Saffas, so am really looking forward to that. And Sunday will be spent on the roof of a friends house, for a girly day filled with nail polish and gossip. Bliss.

The more I sit here and type this out, the more I want the weekend to come already. So goodbye friends, hope you enjoyed the post (note the pictures!!) and have a rad weekend.

Lots of Korean hugs and kisses