Days 562-563 Jeonju Revisited – Back to the Beginning

IMG_5483This weekend six of my friends and myself took a 4-hour bus ride to Jeonju and stayed overnight.

IMG_5473Jeonju is almost due west of Ulsan (it’s a little bit north of due west) and if you remember is the place where my Korean adventure began. Jeonju is where orientation took place one and a half years ago.

IMG_5486We decided it would be nostalgic to revisit Jeonju by going back to the beginning.

IMG_5468We arrived around 3pm and immediately checked into our accommodation, which was called a Yeogwan and is a traditional guesthouse. Luckily one of our close friends is a Korean woman who spent 35 years in America, and being fluent in both languages and cultures helped a great deal. She is our Korean mother and took charge of everything beautifully, making the trip a breeze for us, so we are eternally grateful to her. Thanks Young!

The Yeogwan is the cheapest type of accommodation in Korea, I would say it is a step below the iconic love motel. Not that I’m complaining, but a hotel this wasn’t! The corridors were dark and dingy and my room was like a prison cell (it was even fitted with a metal door).

Although, to its credit, it seemed clean enough to me, and the bed was even fitted with a heated blanket (which took hours to cool down after I turned it off, turning my room into a sauna for a while!).

The proprietor of the yeogwan was an ajumma who appeared to be in her seventies. She slept on a small bed inside the reception booth and could be woken at any point of the day if a new guest arrived. Seems like a very hard life for her.

IMG_5489In reality the feeling of nostalgia was absent because many of the places we visited this weekend were new places, and we did not revisit the university area where most of our orientation took place. The only place we revisited was the Hanok Village, the place where I lost my camera case eighteen months ago (I used a sock as its replacement until I arrived in Ulsan).

IMG_5514Jeonju, like many parts of Korea, is an old city with roots going back to the Silla Dynasty. The first thing I noticed as we took our first stroll around was all the wood. There are so many buildings with a wooden decor, ranging from temples to cafes and restaurants to shops.

IMG_5481The streets are small and narrow and many establishments have been packed into the small areas. The streets were lined with people and the restaurants were crammed with as many people as was physically possible and felt a little claustrophobic. It seemed like they had taken the ‘How many people can you fit in a Mini’ competition and applied it to their eateries. It had a quaint feel about it, and almost reminded me of a European city in parts.

IMG_5518As you walk around, gazing at these wooden shacks and temples, you can almost put yourself back in medieval times and imagine samurai warriors marching around.

IMG_5511In the late afternoon on Saturday we found a museum of embroidery work (although the sign read ‘Museum of Embrodery Fork’ – oops) and I bought myself a souvenir – a traditional embroidered painting sewn into paper materials that had been collected and recycled over several decades.

Young and I attempted to barter for a price reduction but the ajumma proprietor didn’t seem willing to budge. In the end we managed to negotiate 30000 when the original price was 40000, not bad I suppose.

IMG_5523Jeonju is famous for bibimbap and it is supposed to be the best bibimbap in Korea. Ironically we didn’t eat much of it this weekend (although we were taken to a gourmet bibimbap restaurant during orientation back in August 2011). We did eat a great deal of other delicious food however, such as the kalguksu pictured above.

IMG_5519There was also some not-so-delicious food on offer, such as this fish (pictured above) which carried with it a putrid smell of ammonia. Suffice to say, I wasn’t brave enough to try it!

On Sunday we returned to Hanok Village, one of the places EPIK brought us to during orientation. The village is a cultural heritage site, with a temple ground, a traditional market and streets lined with trinket shops, cafes and makeoli bars.

IMG_5500We visited a makeoli museum, makeoli being the rice wine beverage popular with people of all ages in Korea. The museum explained in Korean the fermentation processes, with Young acting as translator for the rest of the group.

IMG_5503We then found an arts and crafts museum and I saw decorative fans with many different designs on them (it reminded me of orientation when we were invited to design our own fans in a fan-making class).

IMG_5501Quite bizarrely, enclosed in a cabinet next to the fans was a sample of paper currency from many different countries of the world. I’m not sure where the connection lies between fans and money, however I was surprised to discover that Zimbabwe had this: a one hundred trillion dollar note!!! Fake or real? You decide! But don’t phone in, it’s just for fun.

As late afternoon approached we had some final time to kill before boarding the bus back to Ulsan. We stumbled upon this fascinating little place.

IMG_5542It’s a cafe designed in the most curiously artistic and interesting way I have ever seen. The owner of the cafe appears to have collected a large amount of memorabilia from a bygone era, perhaps the 1970’s or 1980’s, we couldn’t quite tell, and arranged these items in such a way as to decorate the cafe, a tiny wooden shack that can only accommodate a handful of people at a time.

IMG_5537There were old personal computers, books, comics, magazines, toys, trinkets and ornaments. It looked a little like somebody’s loft, minus any dust! Children were attracted to the Spiderman figure hanging beside the window.

IMG_5531So while the trip to Jeonju didn’t provide much of a feeling of nostalgia, it was certainly an enjoyable weekend away. A big thank you to Young for organising the trip, booking the bus and accommodation and acting as tour guide and translator the whole weekend. It wouldn’t have been the same without you.

Oh, and I didn’t find my camera case. That’s too bad.

For the full set of photos from the weekend in Jeonju, please visit my Flickr page.

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Day 561 – 4 Ball

887203_10200213127464788_46399076_oI have always loved playing snooker and pool, right from being an early teen. In Korea I have seen many pool halls in every neighbourhood I have walked through, but for some reason I have never had the impetus to go in and play, probably because nobody has been with me at the time of passing by one of these establishments.

Last night I visited the Royal Anchor foreigner bar in Old Downtown and played some pool and darts there, which suddenly gave me a taste for the green baize once again.

Today, after having lunch and walking around Ulsan Grand Park with my lovely Korean friend Won Yong (English name Hailey), my good buddy Howard and I decided to walk into one of these many pool halls and spend the afternoon there.

We visited a place across the road from my house, one floor under my gym, and we were surprised to find that it wasn’t a pool hall at all.

The tables are pool tables, green baize on slate, but there are no pockets in them, and only four balls. Howard explained that this was a Korean game similar to billiards called 4 Ball.

882808_10200213135945000_1084915482_oThere are only four balls – one white, one yellow and two red. The object of the game is not to pot any of the balls (as I said, there are no pockets, so it’s impossible to do so!).

One player chooses the white ball as his cueball and the second player takes the yellow as their cueball. The object is to hit both reds with the cueball in the same shot. This sounds easy but it really isn’t. If you accomplish it you are granted one point and get to play again until you fail to hit both reds.

If you accidentally or otherwise hit the other player’s cueball with your cueball this is a foul and the other player gains a point. If you hit both reds and then hit the other player’s cueball then your potential point is forfeited by the foul and the score doesn’t change.

Each player starts with a certain number of points (determined by red and white counters on an abacus-style scoreboard). The object is to get rid of all your points before your opponent.

It calls for a completely different strategy to pool or snooker. At first I wasn’t really taken with it and still craved a standard pool (or 8-ball) game, but the more I played 4-ball, the more interesting it became, and I really grew to enjoy it.

I had never heard of this game before, and while I still prefer snooker and pool, it made a refreshing change. One hour of play costs 7000 won (about four pounds) which two players will split between them if they are behaving democratically, so each person spends about 2 pounds an hour on the game.

The owner gave us free coffee as service (this would never happen in a snooker hall in England).

859218_10200213137705044_1101159051_oAfter playing for two hours the owner and his friends invited us to sit with them and eat raw fish and drink soju inside the pool hall. Howard and I accepted. Again, this kind of behaviour would never happen back home. Quite simply amazing.

We attempted to converse with them in Korean (Howard more successfully than I as he has been more diligent in studying Hangul) with a small measure of success.


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Day 559 – Bombshell

856387_10200200136620025_1228908367_oI can feel winter waning. Today was a glorious sunny day which peaked at 15 degrees mid-afternoon.

Today was an important day because all the teachers came to school for a very special meeting – to say goodbye to the teacher’s leaving the school and to welcome about ten new teachers to the school (this happened last year, see my post ‘The New Batch’).

I was interested to see the old Director from last year (Gyo Mu Bu Jang Nim) in the meeting (she left the school in March 2012). I am quietly hoping that she is returning to her old role as the current Director is a guy with a sergeant-major persona who rubs me up the wrong way sometimes!

Teachers in Korea work on a 4-year rotation system. I knew that Lynn wasn’t going to be teaching English anymore so I was eager to meet her replacement. I thought that a fresh new face to be working with might make the last six months here more interesting.

I looked around the room wondering which of the immaculately dressed and nervous-looking ladies was going to be my co-worker.

But I was told to leave the meeting early and go back to the library so I was left still wondering.

A regular posse of four grade 1 (soon to be grade 2) girls came into the library. I haven’t learned their names yet but they come to the library practically every day.

Their English is limited (they won’t start learning English until grade 3) but they enjoy using the library as their personal playground and they are always very friendly to me.

859878_10200200183181189_64820873_oThe ringleader is a little cheeky at times but in an innocent kind of way. She sat on my chair and pretended to be the teacher.

Today she asked me to rate herself and her three friends in order of most pretty to most ugly. I tried to explain that this was cruel and unfair to the loser, but she would not be deterred, so first I made them promise not to cry when I revealed my answers. They enthusiastically nodded their heads as if to say ‘Don’t worry Michael, we can take it’.

So I did it. I rated them. I pointed to each one in turn and said ‘Number 1, Number 1, Number 1, Number 1. You are all equally beautiful’, or to use the Konglish phrase, what I actually said was ‘Same same’.

They screamed and shook their heads in frustration. They really wanted me to choose. But I didn’t have the heart, although in my personal opinion (which I didn’t reveal to them) the one who is missing a few teeth would not have come first.

856198_10200200173980959_896835102_oAfter lunch a serious bomb was dropped on me. It turns out that Lynn is not being replaced at all, which means that there will now only be me, Irene and Jennifer teaching English at this school.

It means that I will have to teach grade 6 completely alone for the entire semester, 8 classes a week out of my 22-hour contracted remit.

Technically this is illegal. My contract states that a Korean teacher must be in the room at all times. But, in Korea the principal has total power and can run the school like a dictatorship if he so wishes. So although I have expressed my displeasure at this to Jennifer, I’m not sure if there is anything I can do, except rise to the challenge.

I haven’t really ever had to ‘work’ in this role yet (except for camps) and Jennifer promises that she will be available in the break after every class to deal with any issues.

I am anticipating many issues. The students who from March will be grade 6 are the worst in the entire school. They are the lowest level and have the most behavioural problems. I have students with learning difficulties and with ADD/Tourette’s in those classes, who spend most of each class yelling out random words in English at the most inopportune moments.

So, put simply, it’s going to be challenging! I am going to have to prepare simple materials with Korean translations so that they stand a chance of having the faintest clue what I am talking about!

The principal was grinning at me in the meeting and now I know why. Last year it was work until 6pm, now it’s teaching alone. Jennifer said that he told her that he believes in my ability to teach them alone. I’m thinking not hiring a replacement for Lynn is in reality a cost-cutting exercise. But we will never know for sure I guess.

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Day 556 – Full Moon Day

IMG_5374Two days ago when I went for my regular walk down by the stream I saw a group of people collecting straw and making a tree by the side of the path, close to the stream. I thought it was interesting but I had no idea what they were doing and I didn’t really give it a second thought.

Now I know exactly what they were doing.

Yesterday was Full Moon Day, the day of the lunar calendar where the moon is at its biggest. And it was a very interesting day for me.

It began at 9:40 when my Korean friend So Young picked me up at my house and introduced me to her co-workers and boss, a group of four men whom she is currently teaching English at the office after work hours.

The boss, and our driver, Mr Jo, is a 60-year-old electrical engineer who has worked at the Hyundai Heavy Industries (HHI) plant in Dong-gu for 30 years.

Mr Jo had only basic English skills, but So Young translated from the back of the car. It turned out that they had organised a special tour of HHI for me, which was pretty amazing because usually foreigners and outsiders are not allowed access to the area. In fact, Japanese and Chinese people are strictly prohibited from being there in case they discover trade secrets and use them to their advantage in their homelands.

So I was grateful for this opportunity. To say that the HHI area is vast is an understatement. It took us about two hours to drive around it, and afterwards So Young explained that we had only seen half of it! Indeed all the employees on the site appeared to own motorbikes just so that they could get around and do their jobs.

The building of cars and ships, the production of petrochemicals, the refining of oil, these are only some of the industrial activities that occur at HHI.

It was interesting to be there, although a lot of the potential appreciation was lost on me, having no knowledge of engineering or scientific processes! I just saw a load of big cranes, pipes, girders, ships and other industrial machinery, their names of which escape me, all in glorious colours.

At the offshore section of the plant we got out of the car and had a walk around. There were signs everywhere warning of no photography allowed, so I kept my camera in my pocket. At one point a guard took my smartphone and stuck something over the lens so I couldn’t take photos with that either.

In spite of that, Mr Jo somehow managed to get a group photo of us using his own smartphone, so I’m not sure what happened there!

He explained that he was grateful to the UK for supplying a bank loan in 1970 which pretty much facilitated the building of the whole plant.

We then had lunch together in a restaurant close to Ilsan Beach, overlooking the sea. One of the workers picked up the cheque, despite my best efforts at insisting to contribute.

In the afternoon the other workers left our group and I was left with So Young and Mr Jo. Mr Jo proceeded to drive us around many different sites of interest. He explained that he loved driving, it was his hobby. He seemed to know the country roads between Ulsan and Gyeongju like the back of his hand.

Some of the sites we visited were areas I had been to before, and others were new places. Ilsan Beach was bustling with activity in expectation of the approaching evening and subsequent full moon celebrations.

IMG_5377We encountered two women dancing on the beach, dressed in white costumes. Behind them lay a tent erected for the celebration, with fruit on tables and a Buddhist monk seated cross-legged in the sand hitting a drum.

IMG_5384On Full Moon day Koreans traditionally make prayers for their ancestors, to ward off evil spirits and ensure that they have peace in the afterlife. They also make straw trees and set them alight (which is what those people were doing two days ago on my walk).

IMG_5385Some richer families even hire their own Buddhist monk or make private exorcism rites in small blue tents.

IMG_5398Thanks to Mr Jo’s explanation, I finally figured out what these curiously shaped rocks are for. I see them every time I come to Ilsan beach.

IMG_5392They are called tetrapods and their design is quite clever. They prevent flooding due to their unique shape. When large powerful waves hit them, the water seeps through the holes and gaps between these rocks and the power of the waves is disseminated so that the water cannot breach the barriers and reach the road.

IMG_5402These other rocks were formed by a long extinct volcano.

IMG_5408The next site that Mr Jo drove us to was Igyeondae, a pavilion on a hill overlooking Daewangam, the underwater tomb of King Munmu who reigned during the Silla Dynasty. After that we headed to Gyeongju to a small temple site before indulging in fish sticks, a common street food offering a tasty afternoon snack.

IMG_5412We then drove around Jujeon beach and Jeongja beach in Mr Jo’s 10-year-old white Kia Carens II hatchback, his pride and joy.

IMG_5420As early evening arrived the traffic on the roads began to get really bad. Mr Jo explained that many Koreans from other inland cities, such as Daegu and Daejeon, come to Ulsan for the Full Moon festival because the coastal city offers easy access to the beach and the sea.

IMG_5432It is prohibited for Koreans to burn the trees on the mountains, so it has to be the beach.

We wanted to head back to Ilsan Beach to catch the biggest Full Moon festival in Ulsan but Mr Jo explained that it simply wasn’t possible because of the traffic.

IMG_5424We chose a smaller beach in a smaller town in the Yangnam area and I met samulnori dancers as we headed towards the beach. Mr Jo said that they walk up and down the streets drumming to ward off evil spirits, and sometimes they will even try to enter people’s homes to do the same thing. I watched as they entered a restaurant.

IMG_5437On the beach people were setting up small tables with food offerings for their ancestors. I was quite taken aback to see this: a pig’s head with money stuffed inside its mouth.

IMG_5439On another table people had set up bottles of makeoli (rice wine).

IMG_5452As dusk arrived, people began to decorate the trees on the beach and wait patiently for the moon to come up. It was a cloudy evening but we could still see a hazy moon present itself.

IMG_5447On the beach, as people waited longer, they began to swing buckets of straw set alight.

IMG_5448This Chinese restaurant decided to advertise its services by graffiti! They have literally spray-painted their phone number on the wall close to the beach. Such desecration!

IMG_5462Finally the trees were set ablaze and fireworks set off on the beach. The samulnori dancers moved around the tree in a circle, drumming and chanting. By now it was 7pm and getting pretty cold on the beach.

IMG_5463We watched the trees burn for about fifteen minutes and then called it a day. We ate duck together for dinner in a restaurant in an area close to my home called Myeonchon.

IMG_5467I had never heard of this town before but it was right on my doorstep and it was packed with endless streets of restaurants lit up in glorious neon. this time Mr Jo paid for dinner and refused to accept my generous donation.

It has been an incredible day. I made some new Korean friends in the process, and I didn’t spend a penny all day! I am very grateful to So Young for the opportunity, and to Mr Jo for being a driver, tour guide and for paying for our meals during the day.

For the full set of photos from the day, please visit my Flickr page here.


I also made three videos today:

Video 1 – The initial ceremony on Ilsan Beach with female dancers.

Video 2 – At Yangnam beach, the build-up to the tree burning.

Video 3 – The main event – tree burning and fireworks on Yangnam beach.

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Day 553 – Graduation II

IMG_5359It’s that time of year again. The sixth graders have finished. Today was their graduation ceremony.

IMG_5360Before the ceremony a preliminary speech was given by the principal outside in the playground. A group of students congregated on the grass as he spoke. I believe that this was some kind of prize-giving announcement.

IMG_5362The ceremony itself began at 10am in the school gym. The hall was filled with parents holding bouquets of flowers. I was invited to take a seat at the side of the hall.

IMG_5363For one hour I sat and listened and watched, trying to make sense of what was happening. The principal gave a speech, then the vice principal offered a few words, the director standing at the side behind a lectern making announcements in the interim moments.

IMG_5364A video was played where a grey-haired man spoke at length. I later learned that he was the head of the Education Office. Then a fourth grade boy read from a blue book with a velvet cover (I remember this happening last year) and some students in the sixth grade were awarded prizes.

IMG_5369Finally the students and teachers stood, placed a hand on their hearts and sang the national anthem. I made a short video which you can view here. At 11 the occupants of the hall disbanded and I congratulated the students as they left the gym. Some of their parents gave me mildly amused or inquisitive glances, but nobody appeared curious or brave enough to want to engage me in some kind of conversation or goodwill gesture.

IMG_5371The teachers were then invited to go to lunch at a nearby restaurant. We ate ‘Duen Jang Jigae’, a very spicy beef and vegetable soup with green chilis that will instantly cure your cold (or in my case make me feel like I could breathe fire).

IMG_5372An amusing conversation arose in the library in the afternoon when I was overseeing two fourth grade girls play Scrabble and Irene was with me.

IMG_5373One of the girls had chosen Candy as her English name. I explained to Irene why this amused me. I explained that in the West (at least on US TV shows) Candy is a name usually given to a stripper (and I’m not talking about the wallpaper removal kind) and that it is a little tacky.

I then thought about it more and realised that most strippers (at least on TV shows) appear to use food items as their names – Ginger, Candy, Honey, Cherry.

Without giving any explanations to the student (which clearly would have been inappropriate) I picked Kate as an alternative English name for her. Usually when Korean girls choose their English names they try to pick one that sounds similar to their Korean name or starts with the same first letter. This particular student is called 가람 which is pronounced ‘Kar Ram’. Kate was the closest English name to this I could think of, and I explained that it is a nice, classy name with no bad connotations connected to it.

Irene and I then had another joke about her English name being approximately 60 years too old for her.

It will be strange not to see my favourite students (grade 6) roaming around the school anymore. I now have no more classes until March. A period of deskwarming now begins. Next week I will be in an empty school with Irene, and from 9-5 I will be expected to sit at my desk. Thank goodness for the Internet and my Kindle!

Last year I had to do this for two full weeks, but the Education Board have made the school year longer so spring vacation has been reduced to one week.

I use the word ‘vacation’ lightly because I suspect that most of the students won’t be doing what they should be doing on a vacation (relaxing, meeting their friends, playing video games, watching TV, riding their bikes etc). Their parents will probably be sending them to hagwans or other private classes. It’s such a shame that Korean kids don’t get a childhood.

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Day 550 – Plebeians and Patricians

picToday I taught the 3rd graders for the last time this semester. The next time I will teach them will be in March, when they will be 4th graders.

Jennifer and I finished off the last remaining set of activities in the text book and then we concluded each of the three classes by showing the students Pigeon Impossible. I have now seen it more than twenty times.

The animated movie appears to appeal to the youngest students the most. The 3rd graders were absolutely riveted to the screen for six minutes, and laughed out loud at the antics of the pigeon.

I would usually have had an afternoon class with one of my 5th grade groups this afternoon, however all afternoon classes have been cancelled in this final week of the semester before graduation on Thursday.

Today Jennifer revealed to me that she might not be teaching English next semester. The same applies to Lynn. Neither of them want to be English teachers anymore – both of them want to be homeroom teachers.

Homeroom teachers are given their own permanent set of students within a specific grade, and teach them several subjects – Maths, Korean, Social Studies, Science etc.

As I don’t come from a teaching background I have no idea how this works, however I get the distinct impression that in Korea English teachers are considered to be at the bottom of the pecking order, they are (to quote Ancient Rome) the Plebeians of the school. Homeroom teachers are like the middle classes, given much more credence within the school. They are the Patricians.

So Jennifer and Lynn have both specified alternative roles within the school.

However, in the end it’s entirely the Principal’s decision as to whether they can change their role or stay as English teachers. It definitely makes him the Emperor!

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Day 549 – The Wolfhound

IMG_5356Today I took a day trip to Haeundae in Busan with my American buddy Howard. It was really nice to get out of Ulsan for a change, and I had not been to Busan since last September for Chuseok.

The train ride took an hour and we had to stand. I noticed for the first time that Korean trains have arcade video games installed inside the standing compartments between the carriages. Quite incredible.

843904_10200146548640359_172552891_oWe arrived in Haeundae at lunch time and met up with one of my Korean friends after strolling along the beach and spotting two Korean women dressed in skimpy leopard skin outfits distributing promotional cards (they must have been freezing – I was wearing four sweaters under my coat).

The three of us ate lunch in The Wolfhound, an Irish pub offering distinctly British meals. I looked at the menu and I couldn’t believe my eyes. For a minute I thought I was back in the UK. The menu included fish and chips, shepherd’s pie, chili con carne and many other favourites. I opted for fish and chips.

861448_10200148963500729_936310865_oThe fish and chips were delicious. I even had apple crumble for dessert. This is the first time I have eaten food from home like this in Korea. I was quite astounded. Howard and I were able to get seats on the train ride back to Ulsan.

IMG_5355Trains in Korea are so cheap. Each one-hour journey today cost 3700 won, x 2 = 7400 won – a total of four pounds round trip. The trains are also modern and very comfortable.

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