Thursday, August 30, 2012

Korea: The Good, the Bad, and the Weird.

This post was supposed to follow shortly after my 6 month thoughts, but I admit I got lazy and demotivated and then went off on a BEAUTIFUL 2 week vacation (post on that to follow soon) so it seems now is the time to get down and do it. I am officially over the 6 month mark and man it feels good. I sat back and read my travel journal entries from when I first arrived in Korea and had to smile. I have come so far and learnt so much - which is exactly why I came here.

 It struck me that when I left South Africa, or even began this whole process, I had no idea what was waiting for me on this side. I still don't. Every day brings a new lesson, new challenge, new memory. I have seen temples and parades, stayed in hostels, pensions and jimjilbangs. I've come to love Kpop and Korean food, I find it unnatural to wear shoes indoors, I sleep on the floor, slurp my soup (cringe) and the drivers no longer scare me (much). I've adapted and tried to fit in as much as my lilly white skin will allow me, and I've loved it. I've learnt to be patient, to let the little things go, to be strong, to eat with chopsticks. I've realised how much I love to write and travel, how important a strong support base and English conversation can be. I've learnt to eat what's put in front of me no matter what (as I type this I'm sitting still feeling a little ill from all the food consumed at lunch) and that trying new things really IS good for the soul. I know now that it's okay to be homesick, as long as I don't forget what an amazing opportunity has been given to me this year. I have also now heard what I sound like when I speak with the American-type accent I use with my aint pretty. But enough about all this now.

Here are 5 pros and cons to living in Korea, from my view point.

Cons (let's start with the bad)

1. Language. If you don't know Korean, it's hard. It sounds obvious but the total impact of not being able to read or speak a language you are surrounded by only hits you properly when you're in the middle of it. And it's not just struggling to chat to Mr Kim down the road about how you like your chicken cooked. It's getting anywhere; communicating with taxi drivers, bus schedules and train sites. It's not being able to tell a doctor what's wrong, or the hairdresser how you want your hair done. It's not knowing what to buy in the supermarket, how to use your microwave and washing machine or how to speak to your landlord if something at home goes wrong. It's not being able to tell the kind coffee store lady that you love her place, or enjoyed a meal at the local restaurant. It's not understanding your kids and not being able to get them to fully understand you that can frustrate you to tears. Having said all that, it definitely doesn't take long to pick up some survival Korean, and to learn to communicate in non-lingual ways. The amount of stuff I can pick up now, while still not understanding much Korean, is really helpful. Logic will help you through this all. If you don't have any...eish.

2. The gross-ness. Korea stinks. I do not understand it, and think it has something to do with the sewerage system, but there are times when the most awful smells seem to seep through the streets. The people also aren't afraid to fart or burp and spit, making being in public interesting. I still hear the guttural build up to a spit ball that the men walking outside my apartment like to do. You never get used to it. Also, the garbage system has people putting their packets of waste outside on the streets where they are rummaged through or left to fill up till bursting point. They are collected regularly and it isn't a bad system, but sometimes you do feel surrounded by rubbish. Also, the whole no flushing of toilet paper and squat toilet systems that most public bathrooms have can get really disgusting. No details required.

3. Culture shock. I'm lucky in that I grew up in the multi-cultural diversity of South Africa and have been exposed to all sorts of people from a very young age. However, Koreans do things differently. You will always feel different, even if the only thing non-korean about you is your looks - that's actually where the whole sense of being an alien comes from. I found the real culture shock only hit me 3 or so months in, once you realise that this is actually your life now and the novelty wears off. It can be hard to adapt to the bowing and the passing with 2 hands and the not looking in the eyes and the always accepting you are inferior in any exchange. The language comes into play here again and the sense that although some Koreans embrace the need for English teachers and are happy to have us here, others are not so thrilled and do not try and hide it. The last minute nature of Korean logic is frustrating to deal with in the work place; the pushing in and shoving when it comes to any public line. The staring, the spitting, the public drunkenness and aggression, school pressure. I can go on but it isn't necessary. Culture shock can be exciting and can help open your eyes to the world, but it's hard to deny the fact that it is not always pleasant. Sometimes it's a rather big pill to swallow.

4. Korean Summer. Anyone who has spoken to me in the last 2 months knows I have struggled with this heat. It's not the dry heat I'm used to, but is as hot and humid as hell. There is a constant layer of sticky moisture over your body, and you never really feel clean. The heat makes me sleepy too. And Korea has the 'fan death' belief that leaving a fan on in a small room can kill you, and they are very aware of energy saving so air cons are not used to their full potential, leaving us to suffer through the heat with little relief. I've heard the Winter is just as extreme but because I haven't experienced it yet, I'm not including it here!

5. Getting the hang of school life. I cannot speak from much experience. I tutored at home and have a brother studying education and a mom who works at a school but I've never taught in an English classroom. But I can imagine things are vastly different. Some people will get amazing co-teachers who help them every step of the way. Some will co-teach like we were taught in orientation. But sometimes it doesn't work out so much. Co-teachers are a huge blessing but sometimes a curse too, who do not always make your job much easier. You need to adapt to being in front of kids who do not understand a lick of English; trying to get them to participate can be a real chore. Chances are you'll find everything out last minute, and this goes for anything from cancelled or changed lessons, to school dinners. You have little to no real authority or say at school and really, you need to learn to do what they want and be happy about it. You spend hours desk warming and not really knowing what the heck is going on - sometimes you love it, other times your brain melts and falls out of your head.

Pros ('cos really, it aint so bad)

1. The money. I know this seems like a really materialistic and superficial thing to put first but really, the money was a huge draw and it's a big enough motivation to get you through the tough times. It allows us to travel, socialise, spoil ourselves and most importantly, pay off debts or save money for the future. We are being paid to really do an easy job. Yes it can be frustrating and infuriating but compared to what else is out there, we're incredibly lucky and I'm grateful for that pay slip every month.

2. The teaching. A lot of my pros and cons cannot be neatly put into boxes because really, there is good and bad in everything. But the teaching is what we're here for and for me, it makes my experiences. I cannot lie and say I'm excited everyday for work. There are times where my motivation levels are below zero and I really want to kill my kids. But there is usually someone, everyday, who makes it all worth it. I get back rubs and hugs and endless hellos. My teachers generally treat me like gold and show genuine concern for me. School lunches are mainly good. I work in the most beautiful area and appreciate the drive everyday. Teaching here gives us the advantage of being something new and exciting to the children - sometimes this works in our favour (other times not so much). But I love the teaching and find it very rewarding. I feel my schools and staff teach me as much as I try to teach them.

3. The art of living abroad. And we're not just living abroad, we're living in a completely foreign world. Again, as mentioned previously in the cons section, culture shock can suck. But there is no part of me that is not completely grateful for everything I'm learning about myself, and the world, here. Nothing can compare to the life experience we are gaining here. Learning to live on your own, with very little support to start with, is daunting.  Your eyes are forced open and you cannot help but change the way you look at race, language, people, creed, everything. Assumptions need to be dropped - they are not going to get you far here. I have been welcomed time and again by the heart warming friendliness of a people so different from me, a people who do not need to speak the same language as me to make me feel welcomed. Korean people have earned a very special place in my heart, as has this country, and I know I will be going home in 6 months a very changed person because of all the experiences I've had here. Unfortunately the travel bug has bitten very hard too, and I feel I will never be content to settle in one place forever. But traveling will do that to you. Also, living abroad reinforces and reminds you just how much you have to be grateful for at home, and just how much the people you left behind mean to you. Homesickness sucks and it's hard to miss big events back home - but I feel that I'm lucky to have something to miss so much.

4. Travel opportunities. By the time my contract is up, I hope to have been to: China, Japan (both done), Thailand, Cambodia, the Phillipines, Laos, Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia. I know I might not get to do it all, but we are in the perfect position to travel as much as possible. We can travel over long weekends or save the money and do a trip at the end of our contract, which is my plan. I've just been on a week's cruise which I would NEVER have done if not for working here. I also hope to go and do some volunteer work back in Africa with the money I'm saving. A big pull for anyone choosing to teach here or live abroad is the travel opportunities we can enjoy. And I fully plan to take advantage of everything I can.

5. The people. From Koreans to Brits, to the Irish, Americans and Australians. Fellow Saffas. I am meeting people from all over the world and loving it. This helps broaden your knowledge of the world and once again helps to open your eyes to the different ways in which people live. They have become my support system here, my little piece of family away from home and I know for a fact that my life in Korea would not be the same without the friends I've made. And the Korean people who go out of their way to meet you or welcome you always warms your heart. I love people, I always have, and I love that being here is introducing me to so many different folks from all different walks of life. And nothing in this world makes you feel quite as comforted as a good ol' South African accent :)

There are so many things over and above these that I could talk many other points to bring up but I feel this is sufficient. It's impossible to neatly divide it all into the good and the bad, because within each point there is some good, some bad. Some really weird things too (it's Korea). But I hope this has helped shed a little bit of light onto what to expect here, or how I'm finding things. Everyone sees things differently and there will be people who read this and disagree - and that's fine. Because we're all on different journeys, in different situations, experiencing different things.

This is just the opinion of little Bron, living in the rice lands. Take it as it is :)

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Jecheon International Music and Film Festival

Jecheon is currently abuzz with people from all over, coming to check out the Jecheon International Music and Film Festival. We were lucky to see a break in the rain and went down to Cheongpung lake on Saturday to check it out. \10 000 got us a ticket, which included entrance to the festival and free shuttle services. We got there around 7.30, as the sun as setting and made our way to the rows of seats in front of a stage. Here is where we sat and watched Step Up Revolution (a cheesy movie with bad acting but good dancing) under the stars. 

The stage

After that we were treated to some Korean Hip Hop (did I not mention that it was Hip Hop night?) which was very entertaining and got the whole crowd dancing. The 2 performances were by 'Dynamic Duo' and 'Jay Park'. I recorded bits of their performances to show you what being at a Korean Music festival is like. Please excuse the shoddy camera work...

I was surprised that there wasn't more in the way of stalls etc there; food and drink options were very limited but then again I need to remember I'm in Korea and this isn't Oppi where you can enjoy an array of greasy, somewhat satisfying foods. 

An enjoyable experience, and seeing as it goes till Wednesday - maybe I'll check it out again :)

Thursday, August 9, 2012

The noise inside my head

My Summer Camp classes are over and I'm feeling happy, so thought I'd try put a collection of the thoughts that regularly cross my mind while in Korea. A Top 20 if you will:

1. Hello, the future is now.

2. Really, you're gonna spit there?

3. When eating with my Principles or other important people: Am I sitting in the right place? Should I sit the opposite way round? Do I look at them? Smile? Am I showing any cleavage? Should I leave my hand on the table. Ew that was gross, look like you're saving if for last and hope they leave soon. Don't. Drop. The. Chopsticks.

4. Oh you're speaking to me? What's that? Um...mol-i-yo? Smile and wave, back away slowly.

5. Why is it so hot. Why are my hands sweating.

6. Don't get angry, don't be sensitive. Bow. A lot.

7. Both hands Bronwyn, BOTH HANDS!!! Now you've used your left hand...great. Idiot.

8. What is that?

9. How do I eat this?

10. Oh, Korea.

11. WHY IS EVERYTHING IN KOREAN??? (this is a pointless question but I ask it anyway)

12. Is it 4.30 yet?

13. Around my kids: You're lucky you're so cute. Wish you would all shut up. LISTEN TO ME DAMMIT. I love your faces.

14. What do I feel like doing this afternoon? Hmmm maybe some series? A know I should read, or clean, or do something productive. That washing needs doing. Ya but I don't wannaaaaa. You do realise you're speaking to yourself right now right? Yes, sadly I do know this but you're the only company I have at the moment *self hug* (this my friends, is a sad reality) ;)

15. Sure taxi, why don't you kill me next time.

16. Holy shit that bus was close.

17. What am I doing.

18. Is this bleach? Or washing powder? Salt maybe? Adventure time I guess.

19. Is that human size?

20. This will be a good story one day.

Welcome ladies and gentlemen, to the scary workings of a mind deprived of conversation ;)

Thursday, August 2, 2012

My thoughts at 6 months

Okay so I haven't exactly made the 6 month mark in Korea just yet. But it's coming up and I have a ton of time on my hands what with desk warming and all so I thought I would begin my series of posts about my experiences, impressions and thoughts about Korea after making the half way mark. I remember when I first got here feeling like 6 months was an impossibly long time away - and look at how it's flown. I think it will be interesting to compare my thoughts and feelings now to how I feel when I leave Korea...they have already changed so much since I first arrived. It really is such an exciting journey being here and I want to record it all, for myself and for those who are here/thinking of coming here.

Before I even start, one thing needs to be made clear. I do not in any way regret coming here. I have made a life for myself here and love it. I'm happy. There are days I hate it and there are things I struggle with but I would not change where I am today for anything. That said, let's get started :)

Things I wish I knew before coming here
People will try to prepare you. You'll Google everything you can about Korea; speak to friends, strangers, read blogs. I remember looking at pictures and thinking 'wow, this will be my home'. But nothing you do can fully prepare you and that's part of the adventure. Depending on whether you come with EPIK, TALK, privately or to a hagwon (there are many options) your first few days will be different. If you have an orientation they will try to teach you in a week what we need months to learn. How to teach, survival Korean, how to deal with the culture shock. Again, although helpful these lessons cannot prepare you for actually being thrown into it all. There are many things I wish I knew before coming, although maybe learning this all has made my journey here that much more exciting. But here are some anyway...I wish I knew just how far I was placed from the girls I came over with - it's not the 30 minute train ride I was promised. I wish I knew exactly where I was placed BEFORE coming so I could do some research, get in touch with people and prepare myself. You might not have a coteacher and so translation in class is not always possible - cue your charade skills. I really wish I knew more Korean (I advise anyone thinking of coming over to seriously get the basics down). I wish I knew how hot the Summer would be :) I wish I had thought to change my plugs before coming as it was a lot harder than I thought it would be on this side. I know that nothing could have prepared me for coming here. It seems so obvious but the thing that I didn't seem to really have thought about at all was the language barrier and just how hard it is to communicate and find your way around, especially in the beginning. Some people are lucky and are placed in areas and schools where English is used more. That's not the case with me. So just be aware that it is possible to be placed in a situation where it all comes down to you and how well you can get your point across using little to no English ;)

I honestly think that if I HAD known exactly how it would be here (especially in the beginning) I may not have come. And what a pity that would have been. You are stronger than you think you are, and that's one of the biggest things I've learnt while being here. So maybe it's better to close your eyes, hold your breath and take a leap, hoping you land on your feet but never really knowing. Guess it's personal.

Impressions of Korea
Busy. Dirty. Smelly. Beautiful. Overwhelming. Friendly. Curious. Naive. Carbon copies. Proud. Stubborn. Different. Warm.
I sat down and typed the words that came to my mind when I think 'Korea'. Of course there are so many more that my hot and tired brain can't think of now but it's a good way to get my ideas out freely. I have found Korea to be the most exciting place. I've learnt so much about the people, about how things work here and really feel that although I came here to teach, I'm the one being taught. I don't even know how to put all my thoughts down so let me try break it up a bit.

1. People. Koreans can be so warm and inviting. This week alone I have had a teacher invite me to her house for dinner where she told me I can come anytime I want. Her mother-in-law is apparently very concerned about me and has told Mrs Baek to make sure she looks after me. My teachers always make sure I'm fed; they give me ice-cream when it's hot and let me have the last piece of fruit. They tell me I'm warm and have a nice smile. They apologise for not being able to talk to me. The local restaurant owner where we frequent always has a smile for us. Sometimes bus drivers seem really happy to help us and taxi drivers try hard to speak to you. People are curious; they want to know where you're from and what it's like there. Koreans in general have not traveled much and because they are not a diverse country, we are SO different to them and that makes them curious. Of course there's the bad side too; the men can be idiots, the people may stare, avoid you, shake their heads, get frustrated when you can't understand them or answer them. Again, they are a proud and stubborn people and so sometimes they struggle to let a foreigner in. You have to take it your stride.
A quick note on the foreigners: the people I've met so far are generally awesome!! We stick together here as outsiders and everyone is always so willing to lend a hand. My experience here would definitely not have been what it is without the friends I've made. One funny observation is that in general, small town foreigners seem to be a little more open and friendly because we understand what it's like to go days without seeing another English speaker. Big city people sometimes forget what that feels like (major generalisation here I know!!). One thing I can say is that I look forward to going back to the diversity of South Africa!

2. The culture. Culture shock did not really hit me all that hard until about a month ago. In the beginning everything is new and exciting and you get caught up in the adventure of it all. However once that wears off a bit, the reality is that you need to be able to live with this culture for a year. There are beautiful parts about it; the way the elderly are respected, how family is so important, the community of it all. But there are other things too like their being so head strong in their ways that any deviation is hard to accept. The patriarchy is hard to deal with...the spitting in the streets. The lack of emotional displays (although sometimes good) and their focus on education to the extent that many children never get a proper childhood but instead spend their lives in a classroom. The way they speak about you right in front of your face (more a language thing) and the excessive drinking and very public drunkenness. Fan death. Sitting and sleeping on the floor. Bowing and accepting things with 2 hands. The hierarchy meaning you always need to smile and wave and not complain. These cannot all be neatly separated into 'pros and cons'. They're just my observations. 

3. The places. Korea can be beautiful. When you're in the cities, even one as small as Jecheon, they can be dull, smelly and ugly. But all you need to do is walk 20 minutes to the outskirts to enjoy the beauty of mountains and endless rice fields, rivers and lakes. I am lucky in that my drive to and from school each day is filled with green scenes and mountains because Jecheon is so 'rural'. But places like Seoul and Daejeon draw you in with their big lights and loud music - they are bustling with energy. Busan has it's pristine beaches and coastal vibes. The islands are awesome little getaways where the sea is calm and the beaches are hot. Cherry Blossoms and Apple trees. Temples are places of such serenity you cannot help but be taken in by them. Korea has so much to offer in terms of scenery and entertainment that it feels like I'll need years to fully be able to experience it all. I love that my city is big enough to provide me with everything I need but small enough to force me to explore.

4.Teaching. This is the main part of my life here and because I have no experience as a teacher other than in Korea, it's hard to compare the experiences and school systems between countries. Koreans place a huge amount of emphasis on education. Children are in school or hagwons or at tutors till all hours of the night. I'm lucky in that because my school is so far out, very few of my students attend hagwons and so still have the childish innocence and energy (although this also means their English level is very low). English classes are more of a time to entertain the children and drill very specific phrases rather than actual teaching. Some GETs (Guest English Teachers) are mere parrots, there for pronunciation. The school schedule changes and we're often only notified at the last minute. You are expected to be prepared at any moment for any change, be it a cancelled class or an added class. School dinners are an excuse for free food and booze, some norebang and a very drunk Principle to be taken home at the end of the night. The Principle is the silent head who is rarely seen and the Vice-Principle is who you need to suck up to. You should never argue or make a scene (also a cultural thing). Basically my motto as a GET in Korea is this: Smile and wave, don't complain and get shit done. Seems to be working just fine :)

5. Everything else. Transport is a breeze here. Everything runs on time, smoothly and safely. The food is amazing, although sometimes incredibly spicy and still alive. Dog is also not as common as people assume. Korean babies are the cutest thing in the world. Men carry their girlfriend's handbags. Everyone is on their phone/iPad/Galaxy tab when not actively doing something else. Things are not as cheap as I thought they would be here. This is something that seems to depend on where you're from but as a South African, some things (fruit, meat, alcohol - not beer, cleaning stuffs) are expensive. Utilities, transport, anything technological and often eating out can be cheaper. But all round it's very similar to the costs back home - I just have an awesome salary to spend now ;)

What do I miss? I'm tempted to say everything ;) My family and friends. My house. English. Being able to hop in my car and drive anywhere I want - I actually really just miss driving. Walking into a restaurant/shop/hair dresser/pharmacist/anything and being able to tell the person what I'm looking for and have them understand. Being in a shop and actually knowing what I'm buying or being able to ask for help. I miss my area, the shopping malls and night life. I miss diversity and always having opportunities to meet and communicate with new people. I miss just being able to tell someone I liked their meal or I'm sorry for bumping into them. I miss being a student more than anything in this world ;)
But I'm young, life is an adventure and I know I'll miss Korea too when I leave.

My goodness but this was an essay. 2 stickers to everyone who has read through to this point ;) But it needed to be said. I want to do another post on pros and cons of being here but that is for another time. I feel like every time I think of this post I'm going to think of more things I should have said but this is good enough for now.

6 months is a big mile stone for me. I never expected to make it this far and am so grateful for all the lessons I've learnt. I'm a much stronger person for this journey; I hope I won't take things for granted as much anymore and my eyes have been opened to so many things. I'm culturally and racially more sensitive and know myself a lot better now too. 

It's been a ride, Korea. Here's to another 6 months of craziness!