Tuesday, 9 August 2011

Last days in Gwangju-si

So May was rushing by and the day that we would have to leave our lovely apartment in Gwangju -si drew ever closer. Yes, the day we would have to move all our crap out of our massive 3 bedroom apartment in Gwangju-si and take it to our new, much smaller place in Hanam was nearly upon us. We weren't leaving voluntarily but because funding cuts had meant that my job no longer existed so I'd got a new position at a middle school in Hanam, a larger city a few miles away, closer to Seoul.

The sun sets on Gwangju-si (sorry bad pun)! As seen from the back window of our apartment.

Doojin apartments, our home in Gwangju-si. A fairly non-descript looking apartment complex just like the thousands of others you can see in South Korea but it was pretty new and the rooms were spacious. 

Also, as Gwangju-si is still mostly undeveloped, we had great views of the town unobstructed by other apartment blocks which is unusual for Korea these days. You can see the stadium on the left and mountains rising up behind.

Now Gwangju-si is just a small town (or as our mate Dean called it when he visited - a "one -horse town") and there's not much to do other than wander round E-Mart. AND it's at least an hour away from Seoul by bus. But we still liked it there! I remember how excited we were on our first few days in Gwangju-si as everything was so different compared to back home in England and though that excitement faded as we settled down into the mundane routine of everyday life we still liked wandering around our new adopted home.

Gwangju's E-Mart, a massive supermarket where we wasted far too many hours on Sundays fighting it out with the shopping hordes. It only opened a few months before we arrived. Before that there was nothing but convenience stores and small local marts - no cheese!

Gwangju-si has character and more foreign workers form SE Asia than most similar cities (there to work in the fields and small factories) which meant we had access to such rare things as an authentic Indian restaurant or two and a foreign food market that sold all manner of hard-to-find-in-Korea foods and spices at cheap prices. 

Gwangju-si is also surrounded by some pretty countryside as it's a very rural area. In the warmer months, I used to walk back home from my school through the rice fields and it was a really pleasant stroll even if those pesky cattle egrets in the fields wouldn't stay still long enough for me to get a decent photo of them! Also, of course, we were sad to be moving away from our friends, though not as sad as were were about losing that beautiful oven (only joking guys)!

Our downstairs neighbours in Gwangju-si - the lovely Jen and Leif!

Leaving Gwangju meant that we had to leave our Hapkido academy too which was a shame (hapkido is a Korean martial art - click here for a more detailed post about our experiences trying to learn it). The Master was very sad to see us go. He's such a nice guy, always happy to see us, giving us little gifts and trying to chat with us despite our terrible Korean and his phone dictionary English! By the time we left we had got our blue belts but sadly we just weren't destined to become black belt hapkido masters, not at Sinwol Academy anyways! We saw the Master again recently and he told us "Rowan, Sop-ee, Toni - many bo-go-ship-o-yo (many miss you)!" - so cute!  

 Our hapkido school in Gwangju, Sinwol Academy.

I don't have a picture of us with our shiny new blue belts but this girl from our academy is modeling one for you instead.

Earlier in the year, when there was still snow on the ground, the Master took us hapkido foreigners (Rowan, Toni and I) out for dinner at a nice little bibimbap place in the countryside. Following Korean tradition, he paid for the whole lot and afterwards we sat drinking coffee outside by a small bonfire pit.

The Master drinking his coffee by the fire. We never found out his actual name but "The Master" is pretty evocative on its own!

On a more positive note, leaving Gwangju-si meant we HAD to have a leaving party. We decided to give it a fancy dress theme despite Rowan's usual hatred of dressing up. The theme was ajummas and ajjoshis. As previously mentioned on this blog, 'ajumma' is the Korean term of address for an older, married woman or any woman of marrying age. The stereotypical idea of an 'ajumma' is a short, stout, tough old woman with a tight, wiry perm who wears crazy-bright clothes in clashing colors and patterns and who possesses a strong determination to be at the front of every queue. 

The ajjoshi is her male equivalent i.e. an older man, usually married. The ajjoshi stereotype is a little different because it's a guy. The stereotypical image of an ajjoshi is an older guy who enjoys makgeolli, spitting in the street (very loudly), staring at foreigners and like the 'ajjuma' having no respect for personal space and fighting to get that last seat on the bus or subway. 

Of course these stereotypes exist for a reason but not all older Korean folk are like that and it's not all negative anyway! The older people in Korea can be incredibly kind and generous to foreigners and they really seem to know how to have a good time - we often see them out in large groups dancing to "trot" music (a kind of granny techno!) or going off to do some hiking kitted out in the latest gear and carrying plenty of makgeolli to celebrate reaching the top. I hope I'm that active and having that much fun when I get to their age. I'd rather be an 'ajjuma' here than a 'little old lady' back in England, locked up in my house, waiting for meals on wheels with no social life to speak of! 

The aim of our dress up party was to celebrate the best of 'ajjuma and ajjoshi' fashion and to say good bye to our friends in Gwangju-si. We held it round our apartment and in the afternoon some of us hit up the local second hand clothes shops near the market to get our costumes. The women in the shops obviously thought we were insane but had a good laugh at the crazy foreigners trying on the shiny jackets, huge visors, leopard print blouses and stretchy pink sports pants!
In our costumes. Lots of visors, shiny stuff and clashing patterns. The folks at the back are wearing face masks. It's very common here to see women of all ages wearing these masks in the summer. They are shaped to cover your nose and lower face and have a slit i them for your mouyuth so you can breathe. You wear them to keep the sun off so you can keep that attractive ghostly white face so fashionable here. You can see David's home made makgeolli (Korean rice wine) in the big clear tub in the foreground - it was...special!

Jen looking fab and rather convincing as an ajjuma!

Rowan baked a pavlova for the party - it was delish!

Jen and I in our splendid costumes next to a rather rude statement! Now how did that get there...

On our last weekend in Gwangju, we went for a final wander around armed with the camera. We started off walking along by the river and i finally got a chance to get some decent pictures of those pesky egrets that I'd been trying to snap on my way home from work all year! 

A heron in the river in Gwangju-si.

Ha! Got you at last, egret. 

You can see loads of these birds in the rice paddies. They have a very distinctive shape when in flight. 

Some charming graffiti under a bridge in Gwangju-si. It's very rare to see graffiti in Korea. The 5 squares on the right are supposed to represent someone giving you the finger!

By coincidence, we found that there was a community festival going on in the large park behind E-Mart with stalls, a few kiddie rides and a stage with musical performances going on all night. It was a beautiful sunny day and a fun way to spend our last Saturday in Gwangju.

The park behind E-Mart has a river running through it and is surrounded by mountains. The festival was on the left bank.

You could make a pot at this stall.

Or shoot for prizes at this stall (like Jen and Leif here - would you trust these 2 with your kids?!).

Or some delicious but horrendously overpriced pork from this stall.

Or even eat dolphin meat at this place! Tuna friendly dolphin anyone?

Of course no Korean festival is complete without a guy dressed up as a woman with lots of make up singing old style songs with a beat!

There was a performance stage at the festival. These guys are dressed up for their rendition of some traditional Korean music.

More folks dressed up in their traditional costumes.

Cell phone plus hanbok ftw!

Two cute kids from the group of local school children who sang at the festival.

Have you seen these foreigners? If you see them do not approach. They are armed with beer and highly dangerous! (Me, Rowan, Jen and Leif)

I ended up playing at being a press pack photographer for a bit at the festival.I was standing at the edge of the stage trying to get some better pictures and one of the stewards took my arm and pulled me under the barrier to join the proper photographers right at the edge of the stage! It was cool but I suffered some serious 'lens envy' compared to their massive long things!

A pair of scantily clad young ladies to keep the menfolk happy!

These two girls did a kind of break dancing routine to some K-pop music that was pretty cool.

This guy was really getting his funk on in front of the whole crowd! Check out the backwards cap! It was more fun watching him than what was on the stage!

Cool shades too!

Do that funky chicken!

Some more traditional music and fan dancing from the hanbok ladies.

Pretty lit up arch walk at the festival.

For me, one of the saddest things about moving to Hanam was saying goodbye to my school. Rowan was able to stay on at his school in Gwangju-si and he still works there now, commuting in with his friend, the geography teacher, but for me it was the end of the road (sorry bad driving pun)! It hadn't always been easy working there and it had been a steep learning curve for me as I'd never taught English before but I had made friends among the teachers there and there were some really lovely students in my classes that I knew I would miss (and some bloody horrid ones that I'd be glad to see the last of but never mind!). I took my camera to school on one one of my last days and snapped my afterschool class kids and took a last set of photos of my walk home through the fields. (I've been taking pictures of my walk home from school for months and meant to do a proper post about it - watch this space for some retrograde posting!)

My school in Gwangju, Kyongan Middle.

The last session of my afterschool class. We played some party games including pass the parcel with English questions as the educational twist.

Two of my favourite students with the giant chocolate bar that was the prize from pass the parcel. Their English names were Benjamin and Jordan. Jordan  (the boy in front) was the only student that came to all of my extracurricular activities, including my English camps. It was sweet he wanted to come to everything but sometimes I wished he didn't as I had to make new material every time so he didn't have to repeat stuff!

One of my classes were sad to hear I was leaving and wrote me a load of goodbye messages on the whiteboard i the English classroom. By the way, Koreans write  'TT' to indicate two eyes crying.  

The dark empty corridor outside of my classroom as I left for one of the last times TT.

Before (beginning of school year in March): I battled for months to keep the classroom neat and tidy and keep these seat numbers on the table. It was a bitter and hard fought war.

After (last week of teaching): I think it was a ultimately a losing battle!

This is the road outside my middle school in Gwangju. Look closely and you can see an unfinished bridge in the background. They had been building that on and off for the whole year I worked there. I'd hoped to see them complete it before I left - another broken dream!

The following few pictures are a small selection of the ones I took on my last walk back home from my school through the rice fields. i always found these walks relaxing and a good way to wind down after a stressful day doing battle with the more intractable classes that I had to teach.

A funny little quad bike and trailer combo I spotted on my way home. I saw all kinds of bizarre vehicles driving along the little roads that cut through Gwangju's fields. 

So overall, we were pretty sad to be leaving Gwangju-si as despite sometimes finding it a bit boring and wishing it was closer to Seoul it had been a good home to us for a year. Still nothing lasts forever and we were lucky to still have jobs despite all the funding problems even if they were in different cities. Next stop - Hanam! 


  1. I like this blog a lot!

    I like the way you look at Korea... reminds me of my time in Gyeonggi too =) Was up near Seoul but now I wanna visit Gwangju too.

    Thanks for the blog!

  2. Glad you enjoyed reading.

    Gwangju was a fun city, you should visit if you come back to the area.