Monday, 28 June 2010

An Italian in Gwangju

Well I was supposed to be going out for a meal with my principal, vice principal and the English department this evening, I was really hoping it would be fun and relaxing since my 2nd grade class had been the worst behaved, most insolent little buggers that I've had the misfortune of trying to teach since coming to Korea. It was a pretty nice evening, if somewhat bizarre, much like Korea in general then!

The principal couldn't make it because she had a meeting and half the English department got out of it due to a variety of excuses so it was the usual suspects of my handler, my schedule organiser and my boss plus the vice principal and the co-teacher from my awful 2nd grade class. We went to an Italian style place (emphasis on the style, it was definitely not authentic) called Sorentos. I was offered a menu to choose something from and I went for spaghetti carbonara as a fairly safe and hopefully cheesy option.

We ate it Korean style, that is we had 3 big plates of pasta between us, and we would take bits from each onto our own little plates, a little weird if you're used to sitting down to your own plate of something but a good way to taste a lot of things and make sure that you don't end up wishing you had what someone else had ordered. Korean style eating also involves serving all the dishes at the same time rather than in order like a western meal.

The three spaghetti dishes were carbonara, spicy tomato and prawn and cream and prawn, all fairly unremarkable. The carbonara was pretty poor, with lots of cream and no egg in the sauce, hardly any cheese and no pepper, but it did have some reasonable ham in it and the mushrooms were ok although they were random Korean mushrooms. The spicy tomato and prawn was better and surprisingly not ridiculously hot. I didn't try the prawn and cream.

Next we got a pizza, which was nothing special, thin crust, lots of cheddar style cheese and a few olives and olive tapenade. Also pretty awful squid and clam risotto which rather than being cooked with regular stirring and slow addition of stock in an open pot to produce a creamy texture had obviously been cooked in a rice cooker.

The chicken salad was definitely the highlight of the meal due to the dressing of... (wait for it) strawberry yoghurt! That's right folks, lettuce, tomato, coated chicken strips and a gravy boat of strawberry yoghurt, one of the more bizarre adventures in Korean food I've had yet. They really have some strange ideas about western food over here. They seem to have the strange notion that all Western food is supposed to be sweet - maybe that is why you get sugary garlic bread over here and even the infamous garlic donut!

Desert was another interesting adventure although a suprisingly tasty one. We had iced azuki beans called patbingsu (팥빙수) with fruit and random chewy, gooey sweeties, I wasn't too keen when I saw the pile of red beans sat on top of ice shavings, but it was actually pretty good, sweeter than most Korean deserts but not sickly and definitely not trying to be Italian!

Thursday, 24 June 2010

The smell of Korea, part 2

So I said that the main smell in Korea is the smell of kimchi, and that is true but you quickly get used to it and to be honest I hardly notice it any more. What I have been noticing in the last fortnight or so is that it is Linden tree flowering season here. There are loads of them between our apartment and my school so I smell them everyday on my way to work. In case you're not sure what Linden trees smell like you should check out this video from Mitchell and Webb.

The smell of Korea in early summer

Kimchi, the taste (and smell) of Korea

aOne of the first things I notice when traveling to a different country are the different smells in the air. In Dubrovnik, Croatia the air is fresh and smells of the sea, in Marrakesh, Morocco the air is a heady mix of mint tea, spices, and the stink of tanneries but in Korea one smell stands out above all the others. Permeating everything three times a day is the unique garlicy odor of Korea's ubiquitous kimchi.

A plate of cabbage kimchi (from wikipedia, not taken by me)

Koreans LOVE kimchi, I mean really love it. If they had a choice between eating only kimchi or eating everything else in the world except kimchi for the rest of their lives I suspect most of them would choose kimchi. But most people in the UK have never heard of kimchi let alone tried it, so what is it?

Kimchi or 김치 in Hangul is a mixture of fermented vegetables, (usually cabbage but sometimes radish, cucumber, or spring onions) with salt, chilli paste, garlic and fish sauce.

The main smell of kimchi is the smell of garlic and fermented cabbage and it's this smell which fills the air three times a day. The Koreans eat kimchi for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Kimchi really is at the heart of Korean life, not only is it eaten with almost every meal, it has been taken into space with the first Korean astronaut, there is a kimchi field museum, it has been at the centre of a Japanese-Korean trade dispute, and it has featured in a verse from Korea's premier English hiphop group- the EV-boys

The EV-boys - "Kickin' it in Geumchon" or what might have happened if the Beastie Boys were English teachers in Korea

Koreans even have a special fridge dedicated just to kimchi (no really they do!) I'm not sure if its because they have so much of it, because it needs special storage or just because it would make everything else in the fridge stink of kimchi, but you can get dedicated kimchi fridges in Korea and most Koreans have one.

For the record I think kimchi is pretty good even though it smells bad, but given the kimchi or all the other food in the world choice I wouldn't be restricting myself to just kimchi.

Thursday, 17 June 2010

Miss Gwangju 2010

OK time for my first post, Sophie has talked about arriving and our first few days so I'm not going to bother going over that again except to say that after my easy first day my next day was much like Sophie's start i.e. I got put in front of a class and told to get on and start teaching them English. Needless to say that was just a little daunting but it sure does force you to learn fast, there's nothing quite like the thought of being stood in front of 40 screaming kids with nothing to say to get you motivated to learn how to teach.

So last week was my school's English festival, a whole day at the school devoted to the wonders of the English language, really exciting huh? Well it sort of was because it meant I had a whole day of no teaching, yay!

But of course an English festival involves plenty of work for an English teacher so no slacking off for me. First of all I was told I needed to produce some questions for the school "Golden Bell" competition. Golden Bell is a South Korean game show and apparently the format is a load of true or false questions followed by some written answer questions which gradually whittle down the contestants until only one is left. Then maybe the golden bell rings or something like that... It wasn't really explained very clearly to me and the clips I've found don't make much sense.

So anyway my version quickly descended into farce as my co-teachers got me to change the questions midway through (despite them having already OKed them!), revealed the answers, displayed the wrong slides and accepted wrong answers. Because of all that we ended up with too many kids left and I had to come up with more questions on the spot to finish the contest.

As well as the Golden Bell I was told I had to give a presentation on English culture, I wanted to talk about food but this being an all boys school that was vetoed and I was told I should talk about sports. If you know me well you'll know just what a massive sport fan I am and how much I love talking about football etc... I couldn't really be bothered with doing a load of research about the premier league and then pretending to be interested in it so I took a different tack and decided to talk about unusual British sports. My presentation featured conkers, bog snorkeling, hurling and cheese rolling, so if they didn't think the British were mad before they certainly do now.

The next delight of the day was the English pop song contest, oh joy there's nothing quite like the sound of a class of boys in the middle of puberty attempting to murder, sorry sing Westlife songs, my love of Westlife is second only to my love of football. But I was a judge so I sat through song after song of cheesy lyrics, breaking voices and mis-pronunciation doing my best to look attentive and not cover my ears too much and mainly giving marks to the shortest and quietest songs.

After lunch we had the Miss Gwangju 2010 contest, but wait I hear you cry I thought you were at a boys school? Well you're not wrong, the Miss Gwangju 2010 contest was the school drag queen contest! 10 boys from each year dolled up in make up and dresses strutting their stuff on the stage! Not the kind of thing you'd get a British school boy doing in a million years.

The role of host was played very well by a 3rd grade boy with excellent English and the perfect mannerisms for a drag queen contest host, camp as a row of tents and bitchy as hell. Lots of the boys looked awkward and a bit embarrassed but of course there were a few from each year who obviously enjoyed it just a bit too much including one boy who got so into the dancing stage he had to be stopped after spending about a minute gyrating around the stage. I wish I'd brought a camera and got some photos but I only had my phone and they were too far away to get them on that.

Saturday, 12 June 2010

The Wonders of E-Mart

An E-Mart was opened in Gwangju shortly before we arrived. E-Mart is kind of like a Walmart style store and although it is evil it does raise our little town up in status from being a one horse town to being a one horse town with a bloody great shop in it - apparently. It's good for cheap clothes and getting Western style foods but not as cheap as our beloved Mega Mart. Also, whenever we go there we seem to spend so long inside that it is always dark when we get out again.

Gwangju's recently opened E-Mart. Bringing civilisation and cheap trainers to the masses.

Rowan and Dean descend into the E-Mart underworld...

'Adult Sunday School Ministry' - just one of the many exciting Konglish (Korean English) t-shirts available for purchase in E-Mart.

Spam is very popular in Korea. Here's Dean with a tin of bacon spam - mmmmm...

Silkworm Pupae also seems to be a popular snack!

Octopus tentacle anyone?

You can get pets at E-Mart too. This is one of the most expensive. It's a miniature hedgehog and was really tiny.I really want one but not at that price.

Don't mix your drinks, especially if one of them is Gorangju, Chinese Fire Water (only 52%).

Fly like paper, get high like, (Peppero) planes! (Peppero is a Korean Chocolate coated biscuit stick snack so popular that Korea has a national Peppero day!)

A Korean style picnic set of Japanese sushi, Kimbap (Korean sushi) and...ham sandwiches.

Thursday, 10 June 2010


Wednesday 2nd June was Election Day in Korea so we got the day off work - wahey! Why don't we get the day off in the UK? It's a great idea! Anyway, Dean convinced us to go down to Busan on Tuesday night after school so we would have Wednesday daytime on the beach and go back Wed evening. I think this turned out to be a slightly ill-advised trip as it took us a hell of a long time to get there. Unfortunately, Gwangju is at least 2 bus rides away + taxi ride to get to the nearest KTX (Korea's high speed 'bullet trains') station and we had to contend with rush hour, holiday traffic so it took over 2 hours just to get to the station! The train journey to Busan then took another 3 hours or so followed by a 30 min taxi ride across Busan to get us near the beach for the following day - ouch! Expensive and time consuming but it was nice to chill out on Haeundae beach on Wednesday! When we told other people we were planning to go to Busan for a day they had seemed surprised - now we know why - it's too far really for a day trip. It's pretty much the other end of the country from where we are! See the map below - we live just east of Seoul near the city marked Songnam. Busan is on the south coast.

The train ride down to Busan was interesting. We had to buy slightly more expensive tickets than we really wanted as those were all that was left. I was really tired and was hoping I would be able to doze off on the train but 5 mins into our journey a big screen was lowered from the ceiling in our carriage and the blinds were all pulled across our windows by KTX staff - so much for seeing something of the Korean countryside. We had ended up in the movie carriage and had little choice but to watch the film as the volume was turned up incredibly loud. Just to add to the weirdness, it was a Japanese film set partly in Korea. The only bits of the film we really understood were 'Do you speak Englishee?' as everything else was either in Japanese or Korean. Still it was pretty entertaining trying to work out what the hell was going on! Film was called Tokyo Taxi if anyone's interested. I think it followed the journey of a Japanese indie star who seemed to be getting a taxi from Tokyo to Korea (or something like that!) and the adventures he and his taxi driver had along the way including the start and sudden inexplicable end of what appeared to be World War 3. Like a kind of Asian Odyssey, but in a taxi.

Do you speak Englishee?

Anyway, we finally got to Busan and found a cheap motel for the night and were refreshed and ready to go the next morning. We spent pretty much the whole day on Haeundae beach, South Korea's most famous and most popular beach. It was a really hot day and we went swimming though the sea was still pretty cold to be honest. I think us Brits stood out as we were in shorts and t-shirts - Koreans don't generally like to get a tan as in the past getting a tan was linked to being a poor person who had to work outside all day. Because of this, most Koreans we saw at the beach were wearing lots of clothes, carrying parasols (or sun umbrellas as they seem to call them) and some were wearing face masks! We even saw one lady lying on the beach with a towel over her face to avoid the sunshine - don't why she didn't just stay inside! Most of the Koreans we saw swimming in the sea swam with all their clothes on too which was quite an amusing sight. One little girl was trying to play with her friends in the shallows with her little dress billowing out around her.

There was a sand sculpture festival planned for that weekend and we saw some of the entries being prepared with heavy moving equipment and scaffolding!

Building sandcastles with scaffolding

A sand Eiffel Tower

And a sandy Statue of Liberty

We didn't have time to explore much of Busan other than the beach but we did have a look round China/Russia Town, an area near the KTX station with various ethnic restaurants, clubs, shops and brothels of course. We can read the Russian alphabet and it was surprisingly comforting to be able to read shop signs for a change! The train journey home was a lot more normal than the one to Busan had been. I was able to take some photos out of the window of the passing countryside of Gyeongsamnamdo. the province surrounding Busan in the SE corner of Korea.

Pictures through the train window

Rice paddies from the KTX window

We finally got home about 11pm after having to catch a taxi from the station to save some time. Overall a fun trip and we will definitely go back to Busan again but maybe for a long weekend next time!

Wednesday, 9 June 2010

My first day at school

We had to get up at 7am - much earlier than I am used to getting up for work! Our working hours are 8.30am - 4.30pm here. Both Rowan and I were picked up from our apartment by our co-teachers and driven to school which was great as we didn't need the stress of getting lost on our first day.

My first day started with a bang. I met the Principal and the Vice Principal who were both very nice. There was lots of bowing and shaking hands and I gave them my gifts - we had been told it was a good idea to get in their good books from the get go. My Principal and VP are both men and the VP seems to speak quite a bit of English but the Principal spoke only a little. Then I got to briefly see my staffroom up on the 5th floor and the main staffroom on the 2nd floor where my main Korean handler sits before being whisked back outside the school where I was told I would be addressing the entire school on the PA system and introducing myself which was a bit daunting at 8.40am! Apparently the school was having a special disciplinary meeting where all the students had to line up in the playground and the PE teacher with his massive stick (corporal punishment is still practised to some extent in Korean schools although it is technically illegal now) seemed to be giving their names to the Principal. It was to these lines of students that I gave my English address on the microphone. I was fairly confused about all this but it seemed to go ok.

I then had to teach my first lesson, straight away, 1st period. I had hoped to be observing a few classes before I started teaching as I haven't taught before but this clearly wasn't to be! Luckily, our friend Dean had given us a basic intro lesson plan we could use so I spent my first few classes that day introducing myself and getting the students to introduce themselves and then letting them ask me some questions. Some of the most popular questions they asked me were 'Do you have a boyfriend?' 'Do you have a baby?', 'Who is your favorite singer?' and of course 'Do you like kimchi?'. They also asked me my height quite a bit and when I told them they always seemed very impressed - teachaa very tall! Anyway, the first few classes I taught in my first week were pretty hard work and it's been a steep learning curve - that first day of teaching was mental but I think I learnt a lot (I hope!).

My English classroom and the site of my first ever attempt at teaching

I have been automatically signed up for school dinners as I think most new Native English Teachers are. The lunch was interesting, not like school dinners back home. First of all you get metal chopsticks and a spoon not a knife and fork. You also get a metal tray with 5 round bowls punched into it, 2 large and 3 small for your food. On the first day I got kimchi and rice (you seem to get that every day), some kind of soup, a slice of watermelon, some kind of tofu and green beans dish and whole dried anchovies (at first I thought they were beansprouts but the tiny eyes gave them away) all of which I had to eat with chopsticks and a spoon!

I had one class in the afternoon and then I was taken to the main staffroom to attend a staff meeting which was all in Korean so it meant nothing to me. I had to introduce myself to all the teachers at the beginning of the meeting then I just sat there trying not to fall asleep and scoffing more watermelon.

I finally caught the bus home with one of my co-teachers at 5pm feeling exhausted but having had an exciting if slightly bizarre day. I was keen to ask Rowan how his first day had gone and whether his school had thrown him straight into teaching like mine had. Imagine my surprise when I got home to find that Rowan had been to the school, been shown round and introduced to people and then been taken back home at 9.30am and told he had the rest of the day off! Just the first of many instances of Korean public school randomness.

Tuesday, 8 June 2010

Our first couple of days in Gwangju

We arrived in Korea on a Friday afternoon and went to bed fairly early that night as we were sooo tired after the journey. By Friday evening I kept feeling like I was about to fall over even though I was just standing still in our apartment - definitely time to get some rest! We both felt much better on Saturday morning and surprisingly didn't seem to have suffered much jetlag which was
cool. We spent the weekend getting to grips with our apartment, exploring Gwangju our new home town, and we even took a trip out to Bundang on Sunday which is a wealthy district close to Seoul and about 30 mins away from Gwangju by public transport (on a good day).

Firstly, our apartment - we love it! It's bigger than our place in London was and it's on the 15th Floor (though actually it's the 14th Floor by UK standards but the Koreans count the ground floor as the 1st floor). We have great views from the windows out over Gwangju city and to the hills beyond.

View from our front window out over the stadium

Apparently we wouldn't get this if we lived in a bigger city as there would be too many other high rise buildings in the way so that's one good reason to live in the rural backwater that Gwangju apparently is (it's not rural by UK standards with a population of about 230,000 but my colleagues at school say it is by Korean standards). Our apartment has a Western bathroom with real bath which is apparently unusual and a study room and a totally pointless spare bedroom - it's pointless because it doesn't have any furniture in so we just use it as a suitcase storeroom!

Rowan hunts for an internet connection in our apartment on our first day, hence the open, as yet unpacked suitcase in the foreground.

We also have a big enclosed balcony which is really cool but which Rowan is slightly scared of due to the 14 floor drop!

Don't look down!

Our friend Dean came over on Saturday afternoon and we explored Gwangju together. He has been living and teaching in Korea for more than 2 years so he was a great guide. The fact that he can speak and read Korean really helped too! Gwangju is a fairly small city, in fact it feels more like a big town.

Rowan and Dean walking to the Mega Mart - our local shop which we seem to visit with alarming frequency

One of Gwangju's many churches. At night the crosses are lit up with red neon. We can see at least 15 from our window.

See the picture of a man and a lady playing chess - apparently that is a sign for a place where a gentleman might go to get a little female company...

Giant public juicer for use by Gwangju's citizens! No actually it's a war memorial for the defeat of the Japanese.

Korean citizens celebrating the defeat of the Imperialist Armies.

The main reason Rowan came to Korea - to eat Tornado Potato. A whole potato cut into a spiral, deep fried and dipped in cheese powder.

Gwangju's recently opened E-Mart. Bringing civilisation and cheap trainers to the masses.

One of Gwangju's many genuine foreign restaurants run by real foreigners and everything. This one is Indian obviously. Gwangju is unusually cosmopolitan by Korean standards as it has a lot of migrant workers from SE Asia living there.

The mighty World Mart, home of all sorts of exciting foreign produce and the place to go to get your pay-as-you-go phone sorted out.

Chillies growing by the side of the road, every spare bit of ground here is farmed for something, tiny patches of chillies and lettuce are dotted round everywhere.

On Saturday night, Dean took us out for dinner. We had sam-gyop-sal (a barbequed bacon-type pork), which is a traditional Korean meal where you get to sit around a table with a barbeque on it and cook your own meat and vegetables - DIY eating out Korean stylee! The bacon was really tasty and the kimchi was much nicer cooked than raw (more on Korea's favourite dish later).

On Sunday, we went to wealthy shopping Mecca Bundang. It was a world away from our little Gwangju what with its expensive shopping malls, high rise buildings and big, planned parks.

Shops on the road between Bundang station and the park, one of the few pedestrian areas we've seen although its still open to scooters and motorbikes.

Korean balls in the park, if you look closely to the left of the bronze cow you will see a small bronze poo!

Monday, 7 June 2010

Day 1 - Journey to the East

We finally managed to get our bags packed and our flat clean and tidy (can't wait to get that deposit back!) and so we waved goodbye to Brixton. We had booked a taxi to the airport because we were feeling lazy and didn't fancy trying to tackle the London Underground at rush hour with all our bags and suitcases whilst wearing all our heaviest clothes especially as it was actually quite a nice, hot day in London for a change. The taxi was definitely a good idea.

We had an 11 hour flight from Heathrow to Seoul leaving at 7.50pm and landing at 2.30pm Korean time. I was feeling pretty apprehensive as I have never flown that far before but it was an easy enough journey. Didn't get much sleep though as the guy sat next to us on the plane went to sleep as soon as we took off so we had to creep around him but once we wanted to go to sleep he decided to wake up, put the overhead light on and start writing postcards until about 4am! Nice one! On the bright side though we got to try bibimbap , a Korean dish of rice, fried vegetables, meat and chilli paste which I thought was pretty tasty though I don't think Rowan was very keen on it.

The best thing about the flight though was the skymap which was an interactive map that you could look bring up on the small TV screen in the back of the seat in front of you. The skymap showed you where the plane was and a load of other stats such as the altitude, speed and how many miles there were left to go to the destination - very cool! We also saw what we assumed must be the Gobi Dessert from the plane window which was exciting and there was a call on the plane pa system asking if there was anyone on the plane who had medical training which was kind of alarming - I thought that only happened in films!

We were met at the airport by our friendly Korean taxi driver who managed to scare us out of our minds on the journey from Incheon Airport to Gwangju where we would be living and working. We really didn't think we were going to survive that journey, it was terrifying. There were no seatbelts in the back only for the driver though he chose not to wear his for most of the journey. Despite this he still drove at over 150km p/hr often one-handed or no-handed whilst also on the phone or watching the small TV he had on the dashboard that most Korean cabbies seem to have just in case watching the road gets too boring. We were told that this was a common experience and Koreans called them 'bullet taxis' - presumably because taking one is as dangerous as taking a bullet perhaps?

Miraculously, we made it in one piece to Gwangju and were dropped off at the school that I would be teaching at where we met one of my co-teachers who took us to our apartment. By this point we were really tired and in serious need of a shower and some sleep but first we had to meet all of Rowan's co-teachers who came round to our apartment. There were a gaggle of about five excited, giggling Korean women who bustled in bearing gifts of groceries and toilet roll which was reallly sweet of them. It was all a bit overwhelming but the co-teachers were all very friendly and welcoming. We were glad when we got to be on our own and crash out though!

Sunday, 6 June 2010

Packing, repacking, packing, repacking....

So after months of looking for English teaching jobs in South Korea we finally found a couple position that will allow us to live together in the same apartment - woohoo! Unfortunately, we had less than a month from getting the positions to actually leaving the UK and going to Korea so we've been insanely busy doing TEFL courses and getting all our documents together.

So on our last day in London we were still desperately packing and repacking out bags to get them to the target weight of 20kg each - yes we were allowed to bring a grand total of 20 Kg of checked in luggage each plus one piece of hand luggage up to 12kg each. Not much for a whole year in a country that is very proud of its 'Four Distinct Seasons' and where the people are considerably shorter and smaller than your average Westerner. We flew out of London on a Thursday evening and on the same Thursday morning we were still a few kilos over the weight limit and seriously starting to panic.

In the end, we had to make some sacrifices to the Korean Airlines god including:
  • several t-shirts,
  • a couple of pairs of jeans,
  • bedsheets (as we were told we should bring bed linen as it's hard to get good bed clothes in Korea)
  • bath towels (we were also told to bring these with us as Korean towels are usually really small, like hand towels) - we brought 3 flannels instead as a compromise!
We did bring a few weird things with us:
  • an electric ukulele and mini amp plus a few books of uke tunes (for me, Sophie 'Uke Master' Hale)
  • an envelope of za'tar seasoning (for Rowan, the chef of the outfit of course)
  • one cheese making kit including rennet tablets (cheese isn't widely available in SK)
  • loads of deodorant as Koreans apparently don't really sweat so deodorant is expensive and hard to find in Korea
  • loads of painkillers and Lemsip for all the colds we will apparently catch off our students
  • a couple of nice, patterned pashminas for decorating the walls of our apartment plus some random photos and posters
We also wore our heaviest clothes including our winter coats, the pockets of which we stuffed with loads of books and a piece of cake which caused some confusion at the airport scanners! All of that stress and when we got to the airport we were still a couple of kgs over on both bags but they didn't seem to mind. Lucky considering how expensive the charges are for being overweight on your bags. Bit unfair that people flying from the US get to take 2 x 23kgs bags of checked in luggage EACH. Lucky bastards!