Day 648 – The Journey Home

The time has come to leave Korea and return to England.

I began the final day, May 26, by saying goodbye to my dear Korean friend Juliet in Angel-in-Us cafe. She left me with some precious parting gifts. I then bought two rolls of kimbap to eat on the train for lunch. When I told the lady in my favourite Kimbap 365 restaurant that it was my last day in Korea, she didn’t charge me for the kimbap.

At 12 noon I stood outside on the street at Byeongyeong Sagori, waiting for my Korean family to arrive, to take me to the KTX station in Eonyang. I took in the sights, watching the people come and go, thinking it was remarkable that I had lived here for twenty-one months.

A flock of doves appeared on the street in front of me. I have never seen these white birds before in Byeongyeong. I took it as a sign that I can find peace in leaving Korea, even though in this early, raw state it feels harrowing to be leaving behind the life I had created for myself here.

The Korean family arrived and had even brought me a packed lunch to take on the train. This is testament to just how generous and kind most Korean people are. I will really miss Da Jeong and her parents. I waved goodbye to them as I boarded the KTX train at 1:30 bound for Seoul.

I arrived at Seoul Station around 3:40 and transferred to the subway shuttle to Incheon Airport. I befriended an elderly Korean couple who sat next to me on the subway and we spoke at length about my Korean experience. They had lived in Vancouver for 23 years so their English was impeccable.

They were so taken by me and my Korean speaking abilities that they agreed to take me to dinner in the airport, which was great because I had five hours to kill before checking in for my flight. We ate don gass (pork cutlet) together and chatted until 8pm. We parted ways and I settled in for the long wait before my flight at 11:50pm.

We got off the ground early, taking off at 11:30, for a gruelling 11-hour night flight to Istanbul, Turkey. I wasn’t expecting to be able to sleep on the plane, and I didn’t, not a wink, crammed into my seat like a sardine with no leg room, and an overweight Turk beside me with his elbow practically digging into my sides.

I witnessed Koreans on the plane using their smartphones mere minutes before take-off. One guy then eagerly switched it back on the second we landed in Istanbul the next morning. I find this constant dependence on one’s phone a little worrying. If we are not careful, human beings will devolve and begin to be born without vocal chords or voice boxes. Don’t people just talk to each other anymore?

I arrived in Istanbul airport an hour earlier than scheduled, at 5am Turkish time. After a three-hour wait I boarded the next flight and spent a further four hours above the clouds until finally arriving at Manchester Airport at 10am UK time, 6pm Korean time. All in all I had travelled for 30 hours.

Immediate reactions to being back in England are hard to digest at this current time. To say it is surreal is an understatement.

I imagine reverse culture shock already has me gripped in its talons and won’t release me until a few days have passed.

So here are my final thoughts on South Korea.

I went to South Korea in August 2011 to experience living abroad, seeing another culture, and having an unforgettable adventure, after struggling to find work in my chosen field of law in England.

What I found was a country steeped in 5000 years of history, with old Buddhist temples and futuristic glass structures in the same landscape, a country which is 70 per cent mountainous and which offers beautiful hiking opportunities. I found a race of people kind and generous, curious about me, who work extremely long hours and demand services whenever they want them.

There are hospitals on every street corner. Cafes stay open until 11pm. If your electronic gadgets are broken, they can be fixed for free.

Crime is rare, and in a city of more than one million people, I could walk around any part of Ulsan on my own at any time of day or night and feel completely safe, totally at ease. Sadly, the same cannot be said for England.

Korea’s thirst for education is insatiable, as can be seen by the many hagwans littered about the cityscape. Confucian ideals remain, and the elder generations are respected by the young.

In some respects Korea seems like a utopia, there is a clean efficiency in the mechanics of society.

The food of Korea is on the whole very healthy. In fact the World Health Organisation stated that if not for being a little too salty, Korean cuisine would be perfect. In Korean dining, rice and vegetables take a dominant role, whereas in Western dining the meat does that. It has to he said, you don’t see many overweight Koreans.

Korea may just be as culturally different from England as it is possible to get. I had no idea what to expect from this country, and now that I have lived there for nearly two years, I can honestly say that it is a force to be reckoned with, rich in culture and bustling with pride. I think Korea is a great country. I hope I can return one day.

I honestly cannot believe that my Korean adventure is now over. I now have to deal with reverse culture shock, adjusting back to life in England. Being in Korea has been the most incredible phase of my life so far; there will always be a place in my heart for this remarkable country and the wonderful people I have met, both Koreans and other foreign teachers alike. I have made some lifelong friends for sure.

THE END.

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Day 636 – Teacher’s Day

IMG_5730Today is Teacher’s Day in Korea. Instead of having classes, the students were invited to make or buy gifts for their teachers and take part in games and sports in the school gymnasium.

IMG_5728The day began with a ceremony in the gym whereby all the teachers (myself included) were invited to stand at the front of the hall and face all the students. The students applauded as we bowed, and then the national anthem was sung by all.

IMG_5726IMG_5727It is traditional to give carnations to teachers on this special day, so I have proudly been wearing mine on my shirt all day.

IMG_5733I also received a letter written by a Grade 5 boy called Tae Jang. It even came in an envelope upon which Tae Jang had drawn and coloured in a picture of a teacher in a suit and tie wearing a carnation.

IMG_5735IMG_5736The letter was written entirely in Korean, so I am in the process of getting it translated with the help of my co-teacher. Needless to say, I will treasure it forever.

Here are my lovely co-teachers, Jennifer and Irene.

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Day 630 – KGB

nonameIt’s been nearly five weeks since my last post. From a teaching point of view, not a great deal worthy of note has occurred in that time, hence the lack of posts during April. We are teaching the same classes from the same text book as we did in 2012, so to discuss them here would be a fruitless endeavour.

The grade three students new to English this year are expectedly curious about me, the token foreigner in the building. One girl, Sung Yon, with her cute red glasses and her pigtails, and my old favourite Hee Yong who drew that delightful picture of me back in March, are particularly worthy of note as they frequent the library on a daily basis in an attempt to converse with me (with mixed results – sometimes I can ascertain what they are trying to tell me, other times I’m at a total loss).

Besides these two girls, and the posse of five second graders who sometimes visit the library around 3:30pm to play a card game called Old Maid (and who drive me crazy because they always argue and make a lot of noise, until one of them, So Yoon, starts the waterworks and Irene has to come dashing in to tell them off), the library these days is a ghost down bereft of life. The occasional student will visit to watch a dvd, but it doesn’t happen everyday.

Plus, Irene has taken to working in her classroom these days, leaving me in solitary confinement in the library. After a lifetime of bustling office roles with the banter between co-workers and the phones and the fax machines chirping away, sitting in the library all afternoon alone is an isolating experience.

In April the school held an English speaking contest for the students. The way this usually unfolds is that higher-level students who volunteer for the contest prepare a speech written in English, practice speaking it over and over again, and then finally reel it off in front of an audience (the other contestants) and the judges (my co-teachers and I) using a microphone.

For about an hour I felt like Simon Cowell. I was asked to score the students based on fluency, accuracy, attitude and content.

905770_10200434339034939_328304298_oThis year it was made even more comical by the sign advertising the contest, where, rather ironically, they mis-spelled the word ‘English’ as ‘Enlish’!

902727_10200448582031005_130246984_oOne week in April I was strolling through the Ulsan Arts and Culture Centre on a warm Saturday morning and I stumbled upon the annual Youth Music Contest, which felt like seeing a live version of K-POP star.

There were fifteen contestants, most of which were middle or high school students, and some of them were incredibly talented. I was taken aback by the standard of singing.

905793_10200448470268211_1325511051_oThe event also marked a momentus occasion for me. I met the first Korean guy taller than me! I’m 6 foot 2, which equates to 188 centimetres. This guy had an extra inch on me. We had to take a picture, naturally!

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893764_10200315599266519_1313638557_oTo highlight once again how hi-tech Korea can be, I took a photo of this exercise bike in the park close to the Taehwa River. You can plug your phone into it and charge it up by pedaling! Genius.

921046_10200560800516397_1530623804_oI finally learned the purpose of these white flags, which are everywhere in Ulsan. They have blue green and yellow triangles on them, and they are there to remind the citizens about the routine military war drills that occur on the 15th of every month.

This is especially pertinent considering North Korea’s war rhetoric last month, which had the Western media in a frenzy. I was particularly interested to hear them officially warn all foreigners to leave South Korea in case of war. Hmmm. I’m sure Kim Jong Un has my best interests at heart.

Needless to say, I didn’t encounter a single South Korean who was the slightest bit concerned during that time. And if the locals aren’t getting worried, I won’t waste my time on it either. I even made a joke in the school cafeteria at lunchtime about my principal possibly being a North Korean spy (because he’s a very mysterious little man), and the whole table creased up in laughter. No tension here.

We’ve entered May and the Boston bombings took precedent in the news (and quite rightly so – that was a terrible tragedy and my heart goes out to the people of Boston). Things in the North have cooled down momentarily, it seems.

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922596_10200571535544766_168065113_oBut I might have other problems. I spotted this truck parked suspiciously the other day, lurking behind the trees. I saw the same truck again a few days later parked right outside my house. I think the KGB are onto me!

886112_10200315594586402_1725561101_oI also found this helpful sign on a trip to Ilsan Beach last month, showing me in which direction I should run like the devil is chasing me in the event of a tsunami. Very helpful.

It was 23 degrees today. Just like autumn, spring is very short in Korea. Winter and summer certainly have more dominance over the Gregorian calendar. Summer is already here it seems. I’ve stocked up on mosquito deterrents (namely a device that you plug in and which releases a chemical that kills the little bar stewards). Time to get my t-shirt suntan.

I’ve also booked my flight home to the UK on 20th August. So I have about 100 days in Korea. The posts will be sporadic in this concluding chapter of my Korean adventure, but any interesting happenings or trips worth talking about over the next and final three months will be reported here.

The low quality of the photos in this post are due to the fact that I used my LG smartphone as opposed to my digital camera.

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Day 596 – Independence Day

IMG_5712As I was walking home from the hairdressers last night I noticed a large stage being erected near my house. I remember this happening in April 2012. I remember seeing a congregation of people in traditional dress and a series of tents erected as I jumped on the bus to Korean class.

IMG_5713Today the school held a special ceremony which meant that I had no classes to teach. The ceremony was connected to the stage near my house. On March 1 Korea celebrates Independence Day, when it was liberated from Japan.

IMG_5714Today’s ceremony was a memorial for that occasion.

IMG_5715And they really went all out for it. The entire student population congregated in the playground, along with the teachers and other guests. There was a brass band to play the national anthem, and female dancers dressed in traditional hanbok performed a ceremonial dance. Everybody had a flag and were encouraged to wave them at specific moments.

IMG_5716I couldn’t follow the MC’s directions as he spoke in Korean, but I relished the chance to be outside on such a beautiful spring day.

IMG_5717IMG_5718IMG_5721This last photo is of me with the Vice Principal, a lovely lady.

I also took a video of the event and put it on Youtube.

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Day 590 – Mugeodong Cherry Blossom Festival

60644_10200387789671234_206022725_nAfter nearly a month’s hiatus (the reason being twofold – illness on my part, and the fact that I am writing less about my classes to avoid duplication with last year’s posts – the text book is the same therefore the class material is the same) I am happy to inform you about the Mugeodong Cherry Blossom Festival on Saturday.

150179_10200387787111170_1986529837_nThe cherry blossom trees have bloomed about a fortnight early this year, turning a glorious pink colour.

392644_10200387789511230_1971270392_nThe festival itself was crowded and as usual I appeared to be the only foreigner in the grounds where an outdoor stage had been erected.

539863_10200387790031243_925358931_nThe highlight of the festival was when the over-excitable MC dragged kids up on stage to do the Gangnam Style dance. Other than that, there didn’t appear to be much activity other than a few food stalls.

578288_10200387789551231_208453436_nI now have four and a half months left in Korea, and as such the blog posts are probably going to become more sporadic. Jennifer and I are teaching grades 3 and 6, Irene and I grades 4 and 5.

The new grade 3’s seem nice so far, although it is too early to tell, and of course one of those new students includes Kim Hee Yon, who I have blogged about on several occasions before.

408017_10200387788271199_876903361_nThe temperatures are beginning to rise but it’s taking longer to reach the 20 degrees that April 2012 consistently saw. The school building is still relatively cold and I still work with my winter coat on!

There are 17 teaching weeks remaining, and I can already feel myself winding down.

Tensions between North Korea and South Korea continue to fill the news headlines, as NK’s leader Kim Jong Un claims to have ended all non-aggressive pacts with SK and is now considering declaring war on SK and the USA.

Everybody here still considers these empty threats. Any aggression by NK would be suicidal considering America’s influence in SK and China’s disapproval of any disruptions to trade in the Korean peninsula. If anything kicks off then I will be on the first plane south to the Philippines – me love you long time.

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Day 568 – Hee Yong

859704_10200266008546782_1822517324_oJennifer and I began teaching from the text book today for our grade six lessons. The first chapter of the text book is What Grade Are You In?

The chapter introduces the concept of cardinal vs ordinal numbers, so we highlighted the fact that in certain situations, such as the finishing position of a marathon competitor, expressing the date or the floor of a building, we use ordinal numbers, i.e. first, second, third etc, not cardinal numbers (1, 2, 3, 4 etc) which are used for counting items.

Jennifer is already beginning to identify the problem students in each class and is thinking about ways to keep them in line. I think it will work out well – Jennifer is quite strict and the students respond to her in a favourable way, so slowly their behaviour might improve.

I was delighted when newly-grade-three Kim Hee Yong poked her head through the library door and came in to talk to me. You may remember me blogging about her all the way back in 2011 when she was only a first grader but could count from one to ten and had a small arsenal of English words at her disposal already. It’s a very occurrence at my school so exceptional students like Hee Yong always stand out here.

For the very first time I will be teaching English to Hee Yong in this final semester, as she has now progressed to grade 3.

To my absolute delight Hee Yong asked for a pencil and paper so she could draw a picture of me (pictured at the top). I was half hoping to get to keep the drawing as a keepsake but she took it away with her. Oh well. At least I got the picture!

The temperature peaked at 18 degrees today. It’s such a pleasant relief to walk around the playground without my coat on. I’m looking forward to my second Korean spring. In three weeks the cherry blossom trees will bloom.

Yesterday the vice principal visited the library but it was bereft of students at that time. She is worried that not many students in general are visiting the library. About five minutes after she left, the regular four-member grade 2 girl clan, led by the boisterous So Yun, came in to play a board game. I think the VP’s timing was just off. We get plenty of visitors to the English library.

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Day 565 – Back Into the Swing

picToday is the first day of back to business as normal, with the first classes of the new semester taking place.

My alarm failed to go off so I got to school about 3 minutes before the first class was due to start! I had five 6th grade classes with Jennifer.

I was interested to see what the chemistry would be like with this combination. I am glad that Jennifer, the strict but fair authoritarian, will be teaching the new grade 6’s, which are my least favourite students in the whole school – incredibly low-level and with the most disruptive behaviour.

Jennifer even remarked at lunchtime how low-level they are, after giving them a test at the end of the class to determine their capabilities. But I think with Jennifer’s stricter teaching style the students’ behaviour will be kept more in check, which can only be a good thing.

Before the test we introduced ourselves and gave them an introductory lecture about English, why it should be studied, and the rules of the classroom.

The statistics were interesting. For example, by population Chinese is the most widely spoken language in the world, followed by Spanish, with English coming in 3rd place.

By the number of countries who speak that language, English comes in first, French second and Arabic third (115 countries around the world speak English, 35 speak French and 24 speak Arabic).

English is also the most influential language in the world. French came in second and Spanish third, so that leads me to believe that by influential they are talking historically about the three biggest empires who would have enforced their language upon other nations after invading and occupying them.

English is also the biggest language by number of internet users around the world, with Chinese coming in second and Spanish third.

The sun is getting stronger. 15 degees today. I’ve taken to spending at least half an hour in the playground every day to get that vital vitamin D on my face.

As I left school I ran into two middle school girls that I used to teach over a year ago when they were elementary students – Ann and Katie. Ann used to bring me my milk in the afternoons and Katie was in my very first winter camp in January 2012. Both were really nice students so it was great to see them again after twelve months.

They walked part of the way home with me (their hagwan was in the same direction) and we talked about how they were getting on at middle school.

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