Getting crafty in Korea

11 Dec

So, winter is here and I’m sad about it. I hate the cold and the dark with a passion that goes well beyond the occasional annoyances of summer. Thanks to the weather, I spend my evenings bundled up on the sofa with a hot water bottle and an electric heater watching TV and dozing. It’s not the best.

One thing that winter is better than summer for, though, is knitting. Staying home and knitting is a bitch in the summer, when sweaty fingers make needles sticky and yarn squeaky. In the winter, I want to make warm hats, and gloves, and the extra layer of wool on my lap is a blessing. Plus it’s a great way to spend a weekend mostly snuggled under a blanket with the TV on and still feel like you did something productive with your time.


Some wrist-warmers I knocked up which are getting a lot of use in my classroom right now.

Before I came to Korea, I worried that I would find knitting supplies hard to find. I tried googling “knitting in Korea” and came up with little outside of Seoul. I packed a suitcase full of yarn and needles, just in case. You see, knitting keeps me sane. I mean that quite sincerely. Whenever I notice that I’m feeling very stressed (you know that terrible, increasingly anxious feeling that no amount of to do lists or rationalisation seems to cure?) I also realise that I haven’t got any projects on the needles. Once I cast on, and knit a few rounds, I notice the anxiety just drop away. I can’t relax properly unless there are needles in my hands. Or unless I’m on a beach somewhere tropical with a good book. But often knitting is easier to achieve.

Totall relaxed and snug with my knitted bunting and ear-warmer/headband thingy.

Totall relaxed and snug with my knitted bunting and ear-warmer/headband thingy.

Busan is actually great for knitters, as it turns out. I can’t speak to the rest of the country, but for knitting fanatics heading to South Korea, I can reassure you that Busan will cater to your needs. Here are some tips about knitting in Busan (and by extension, quite possibly South Korea in general):

1) Circular needles are your new best friends.

I’d knit on circular needles before I came to Korea, but I also used double-pointed needles and straight needles a lot too. Koreans seem to knit exclusively on circular needles, which at first I found a little annoying when trying to buy needles for new projects, but now I’m a convert. Circular needles are longer for knitting big projects flat, they make it easier to transport your knitting, and you can use them to knit smaller projects in the round using the magic loop method (or the two needle method outlined here: Needles are also ridiculously cheap – about 500 won (or 30p) each.

Circular needles also allow you to try on your work as you go for a better fit.

Circular needles also allow you to try on your work as you go for a better fit.

2) Hunt down yarn in subways and markets.

I find most of my knitting supplies in shops in the underground shopping malls attached to the subway stations, or in the markets. In Busan, there are a good selection of shops in the mall connected to Bujeon subway station, and there’s one that I buy needles from near Nampo subway station (walk up past exit 7 and keep going into the subway – the shop is on the left and closed on weekends as far as I can tell).

When it comes to buying yarn, the best place I’ve been is Gukje Market (close to Nampo or Jagalchi subway stations). The stall holders have a pretty good selection at reasonable prices and are happy to get balls out of bags for you to poke at. If you’re a knitting novice you may want to bring a more experienced yarnaholic with you because the labelling can be a little lacking and I have had to guess weights and fibres sometimes.

3) Craft seasonally.

I noticed over the summer that heavy yarn was hard to get hold of, and the Koreans I ran into everywhere seemed to be crocheting with lightweight cottons. That’s not so useful for a girl trying to get a jump-start on her winter knitting. Plan ahead and stash-up is my advice.

4) Stationers are great for notions.

I’ve found the best notions (especially cute buttons) in stationers. My local stationer in Dongdaesin-dong is more like a craft and games warehouse – the guy has a floor dedicated to paint – and they stock a great range of cute crafting bits and bobs including some colourful acrylic yarn. I picked up some lovely buttons in a cute stationers attached to the bookshop in the Shinsegae department store. Keep your eyes peeled.

5) Daiso

Daiso is a Japanese chain of cheap shops that sell almost everything, kind of like Wilkinsons back home (fellow Brits should get that reference). They also sell a lot of basic craft equipment like material scissors, needles and thread, felt, and craft glue, plus some adorable craft kits.


Winter is Coming

12 Nov

It’s getting cold in Korea, and I’m not happy about it. I loved the summer, even when it was excruciatingly hot and humid and I got heatstroke and threw up for four days. That’s how much I love summer. Winter is cold, and dark, and windy. You wrap up warm, and then you get on a boiling hot subway train and sweat to death. Hat hair. Getting up on cold mornings. Showering in a freezing bathroom. Wearing your coat in the classroom. Catching colds. Paying a fortune for your gas bill. It all sucks.

I’ve taken the following steps to winter-proof my life:

1) The Korean underfloor heating system (the ondol) is great, but it’s expensive. So that I can keep it off as long as possible, I’m using a plug in electric heater and just move it from room to room with me. That and blankets. A lot of blankets.

2) My apartment is drafty. It’s like an actual barn. In order to latch the windows, you have to pull them back slightly and then the inner shutters don’t seal properly. To combat the cold I packed the space between the outer window and the inner shutters with cardboard. It’s a great insulator, and has the added bonus of making my flat look like a squat. Is that taking shabby chic too far?

3) My bedroom window has curtains, but they’re thin so I’ve hung a blanket on trouser clip hangers from the curtain rail to add some extra insulation. It makes a huge difference, but it does mean my room is almost pitch dark in the mornings, which makes getting out of bed a little harder.

4) I shelled out for a nice fluffy rug for my living room. No more cold laminate floors for me. Hell yeah.

5) I got a flu jab. A couple of winters back I got swine flu and it was horrible. I was sick for three weeks (as in feverish, bed-ridden sick) and felt pretty terrible for another couple of weeks after that. It was literally the worst. The next winter, I got my first flu jab! In Korea, the jab cost me 25,000 won. My co-teacher suggested a doctor’s surgery close to my flat, and wrote down what I wanted for me to show the receptionist. I had to wait for ten minutes or so and then a nurse gave me my injection. It protects against swine flu and some other common strains of flu for this year, and now whenever anyone coughs on the subway I can imagine the germs bouncing off the invisible force-field protecting me like a future evolution of humanity. YEAH!

6) I finished this glorious jumper:

Knit fast, die warm.

7) I should probably join a gym. Getting some exercise is great for beating the winter blues but I’m also really, really lazy. Ugh.

Any more suggestions for ways to prepare for a winter in Korea? Let me know if you have any tips!

Teacher’s Dinner 2 – The Return

6 Nov

Teacher’s dinners are always an interesting experience. At my school only a few teachers can speak any English, and of those only a few want to speak to me. Usually I end up with one co-teacher who will occasionally speak to me, and then I just kind of eat and nod and smile and get accidentally kind of insulted (“she’s very quiet” one teacher accused me, in Korean, via my co-teacher, frowning at me) and often very confused (“would you like a drink? How about a coke?”  *co-teacher says something in Korean behind her hand whilst pointing at me* *everyone laughs*). It’s also a good opportunity to bond with the staff – I usually make a few jokes and eat my way through the meal valiantly enough to make a decent impression.

Tonight my teacher’s dinner involved two things that surprised me:

1) We were eating at a shabu shabu restaurant. This is a type of meal where a boiling pot of water is put in the middle of the table, and a lot of raw food is brought out for you to throw in. Like fondue without the cheese. Our shabu shabu had beef and a massive platter of interesting-looking seafood. I’m not a huge seafood fan – I like fish and prawns but that’s pretty much where I stop. Our platter incorporated a whole octopus. An octopus I’d assumed was dead. Oh no. My co-teacher dumped the motionless octopus into the water, and it immediately started writhing around whilst she used the tongs to push it’s tentacles under water. I wasn’t expecting this, and must have made an obviously shocked/confused/terrified expression because one by one, my colleagues began to laugh.

Maybe it was the effect of the accumulative laughter (there are always so many awkward “I know you’re talking about me” moments at these things that seem to involve Koreans laughing at me) but something in me said you have to eat this octopus. You may remember my feelings on the be-tentacled sea creatures that make their way onto my plate. If you don’t, check out my previous post “Ten Tips on How to Survive Korean School Lunches“. Regardless of the horror, I severed some barely-boiled tentacles with the scissors at our table (in Korea you get scissors not knives) and chowed down. Afterwards I felt a kind of weird, manic glee. I felt like Ozzy Osbourne post-bat. I had WON the dinner!

No one else cared.

2) The second surprising occurrence happened in the car as one of my co-teachers was giving me a lift home. He was chatting to me about missing my previous co-teacher and friend (who left for another school) and lamenting that he felt bad for not finding more time to talk to me at work. He asked me if I would be staying another year, and I said that I wanted to go home. He expressed the usual surprise at this answer (although on a one year contract I’m sure many teachers don’t intend to stay long-term) but then said “I’m sorry you’re leaving. You are a good teacher. I like your lessons a lot. I hope you will teach in your country because you will be a great teacher, I’m sure.”

I nearly had a heart attack. Feedback! Positive feedback! Feedback is like gold dust in Korea – it’s not in the culture, seemingly, to make a big deal about commenting on work performance. I know one of the things I’ve struggled with is a lack of performance reviews and support about the actual teaching aspect of my job. If I ask for feedback I often get a smile and something evasive. I learned not to take this too personally, but it can be demoralising when the only feedback you get is negative comments from your Vice Principal (which is what I usually get) about things that have nothing to do with your teaching. It reinforces to me the idea that I’m really only set dressing for the school – I’m here to make them look good, but not to do any actual teaching. It’s a little frustrating. So to actually hear that one of my co-teachers is happy with the way I teach his classes? Made me ridiculously happy.

Procrastination is a swamp, social media sites are the R.O.U.S

31 Oct

Wow, I’ve been really bad at updating this bad boy, huh? Hardly surprising, given that I am the Queen of Procrastination. I’m so lazy that if there was a competition for procrastinating, I would probably have a nap and then forget about it.

Actually, terrible jokes aside, motivation is something that I really struggle with. When I was at university I used to write quite close to my deadlines, although when it came to my dissertation I actually managed to hand it in early – printing it out at the library and stepping over piles of huddled, crying students as I left. Then post university my motivation has been slowly draining away, until I find it hard to do work without an imminent deadline. I often leave my lesson planning until the last minute to finish – spending ages making minor changes to a power-point and then finally doing the majority of the work the Friday before I have to teach it. I sometimes plan after school classes the same day as I teach them in an attempt to motivate myself with a rapidly approaching deadline.

At this job, my procrastination is made all the more obvious by the amount of free time I have. I teach four 45 minute lessons a day and run a lunchtime “English cafe” (i.e. open classroom) for half an hour. I have three free periods every day to plan, prepare my materials, and generally sit at my desk. That’s nearly 2 ½ hours a day. I barely manage to finish my lesson planning in that time, and rarely manage to do much else constructive. I usually fritter away the hours on various blogs and social media sites. When I get home, I do more of the same until 6ish, when I generally eat dinner (or go out in search of food) and then I put on the TV. And that’s it until bed! 

I need to recondition myself into making better use of my free time. Maybe the reason I’ve not been able to do it since I left university, is that university was the last time I was spending all my time and energy on something I wanted to do, and enjoyed – studying literature. I want to start my own business when I go home to England, and only work part-time to pay the rent, but this is going to require a lot of self-motivation. I’m sick of feeling so lazy all the time, and I’m sick of losing hours to Facebook.

To this end, I’ve decided to do NaNoWriMo this year. For the next month I’m going to try to cut out (or at least down on!) my internet-based procrastination, and my TV watching, and write 50,000 words instead. I’m hoping that the idea of failing, the tight deadline, and the powerful motivator of shame, will help me get some of my old energy back. I used to write for fun when I was a student, in between reading for fun, reading for university, and writing essays. And working part time! If 21-year-old-me could do it, then 27 year-old-me can do it to.

Wish me luck. As the Koreans would say- fighting!

Oh, and congratulations if you got the reference in the title. I’m officially crushing on you a little bit right now.

Tents, Fires, and Cherry Coke.

25 Sep

I have some free time at work this week, as my students have midterm exams, and then we all have Chuseok (Korean Thanksgiving). Bad for them, great for me, as it means I have nothing to do but teach some review lessons and prepare for the next lesson I have to teach in two weeks time. Which means YOU get a blog update! Exciting, right?

Essentially I’m a woman who enjoys quiet, simple pleasures. I’m never happier than when I’m knitting with a feline friend, or curled up with a book and some Cadbury’s (oh Cadbury’s, how it pains me to be so far from your sweet delights), or lying in the sun listening to the wind or the waves.

It was with a fervent desire to unwind and cut myself off from my computer and the time-suck that is the internet, that I took myself and two friends off to Goeje island for a camping trip last weekend.

Gojura beach in August

Goeje is a smallish island, about an hour by bus from Busan (catch the bus in Sinpyeong, across the road from exit 1. Buy tickets from the woman in the hut for 5,700 won). Shipyards and rock formations seem to be the major selling point of this place, where Koreans seem to speak less English than you generally experience in Busan. This was our second trip to the island, and our first time staying the night.

We stopped in at our local Kimbap Chonguk to devour a hearty lunch and clear them out of kimbap before jumping in a taxi to Gojura beach – a pleasant stretch of sand and rocks with a lovely, empty view and a relaxed attitude to campers.

Kimbap dinner – om nom nom! Photo by Jayna Brede.

Our borrowed four man tent. Successfully pitched thanks to a combination of experience, lateral thinking and teamwork. Note the expertly tied knots – thanks Dad for all that sailing training!

The worst tent EVER, but in weather this fine, who cares?

After teaching the gang how to tie a bowline, we chilled out on the beach for a bit in the sunshine. Now, Busan is full of beaches. I only have to spend 20 minutes on a bus to be sprawled out on Songdo beach, listening to the waves and devouring kimbap. What’s extra special about Gojura beach is how quiet it is – even during high season there was no blaring K-pop music, or lifeguards on jet skis patrolling the roped off swimming area. It’s a laid back kind of beach, and it feels wonderful.

Alex and I get busy chilling. Photo by Jayna Brede.

Alex and I had just watched Resident Evil 4 the night before (in preparation for seeing Resident Evil 5 on Sunday) so we had survival after the inevitable zombie apocalypse on the brain. Clearly, even without electricity, we had to survive the apocalypse in style. Who wants warm Cherry Coke?

There, chilled by the sea and safely anchored by a big stick. Ray Mears would be so proud.

As the sun went down, we decided it was time to collect some firewood and start building our fire. This was my first time building a fire in the open like this, but thankfully fire expert and pyromaniac Jayna was on hand to give instruction and approve my use of the pokey stick.

Jayna – Queen of the Fire.

It was kind of a high, and it wasn’t long before I was yelling about “The Monarchy of Fire”, and cackling as I stoked the flames. Oh dear. Later we heated up some beef kimbap in the embers, which was a stroke of genius as it turns out that barbequed kimbap is completely delicious. All we were missing was marshmallows to toast!

Trainee fire starters. Photo by Jayna Brede.

The best part about camping on a beach, is waking up to a stunning sea view and a morning paddle/beach-comb.

Alex and I admire the view. Photo by Jayna Brede

We lingered on the beach in the morning just long enough for my poor nose to burn, and then we headed off back to the main bus terminal, and back to Busan for a shower and a nap before more zombies.

Relaxing weekend – accomplished.

Top 5 Confusing Korean Compliments

27 Aug

I was going to update you on my summer, but I actually don’t know where to start. I’ve left it a little bit too long and I have so much I want to say that I think that, actually, I’m not going to say anything at all. I’ll leave the summer for now, and come back to that once my friends upload their photos (I am a terrible photographer – I mostly just forget to take photos, or am too lazy or embarrassed to get my camera out. Especially when everyone else is snapping away!)

It’s the first week of the new semester and I’m sadly not filled with the renewed sense of purpose and enthusiasm that I had secretly been hoping for. Instead, I just feel a little bit homesick and a little bit tired. I’ve been in Korea six months as of August (man, that’s flown by!) and I really miss my friends and family. I also miss being able to make decisions about my future, long-term. Living in another country temporarily means I am always thinking about things that I want to do, or make, or own when I get back because there’s no way of doing those things now. Does that make sense? I miss making plans, and starting on projects, and a feeling of stability.

I’m sure these feelings will pass, though, once I get really stuck in to the new semester. I still have plenty of things I want to do and experience here in Korea, and a load of wonderful friends to spend my time with. It really makes a huge difference to know so many people who are incredibly easy to be around. It also makes a huge difference that it’s now raining! If anything could make me feel happily at home again it’s rain. Ah, England. I miss your grey skies, wet days, and cool winds now that I’ve endured endless weeks of heat and humidity. A typhoon is due to hit Korea (only glancing Busan, I’m told by my students, who are mostly upset that this means school won’t be cancelled) this week, so that should bring a little change. Hopefully it won’t do too much damage as it passes over.

My students seem to feel much the same as I about the new semester. They’re unhappy about the shorter summer vacation (shortened from last year to make up for the loss of Saturday classes) and seem tired, but they also seem to be seeing me with a renewed fascination leading to a barrage of observations that resembles their curiosity from the very start of the year.

Let me give you my top 5 confusing “compliments” from my Korean students (I say “compliments” because I’m not sure if some of these aren’t just descriptions!):

5) “Teacher! Small face!”

My small face. Photo by Maddie Lamb

This is something most Westerners hear from their students and hairdressers, and something that confuses us all no end. What does it mean? Well, students often couple it with a raised fist, or a circle made from hands that they squeeze down around their own faces. Does that help? They think the typical Korean face is quite round with small features and they strive to make their faces look smaller as a result. With my middle school kids this mostly means big blunt fringes. Personally I can’t really see what they’re talking about most of the time, but I am repeatedly told that my face is small and that this is a good thing.

4) “Teacher, so tall. Good ratio.”

Ratio is another thing that confuses Westerners. My kids like to pinch my head from a distance and try to work out how many heads they can fit into my body length. Apparently being tall with a relatively small head (giving you a high ratio of head to body height) is a good thing, and something that Koreans strive to achieve through the use of high heels for women and lifts (a sort of wedge inside the shoe that acts like a high heel – usually seen in high top trainers and boots) for both women and men. It’s basically like worrying that you’re too short, but with added maths. You can read some things about ratios and other aspects of the Korean beauty ideal here:

3) “Turn and let me take a picture of your nose.”

My students like my nose. There’s a lot of plastic surgery in Korea, and getting a bridge built up on your nose (so it resembles my Western nose rather than the generally low-bridge of the typical Korean nose) is a popular surgery here. I guess that’s not surprising – I think nose jobs are pretty popular back home too!

I was once sitting in my classroom at lunch time chatting to some of my students when a girl tried to get me to turn sideways, holding her camera phone up at my face. I didn’t understand, so in exasperation she asked her friend to distract me. The second girl ran in front of me and started jumping about going “Teacher! Teacher!” to get me to turn my head, and when I did the first girl took a photo of my nose in profile. “Very good nose, teacher. I will buy,” she told me, very seriously, afterwards.

2) “Your hair, teacher. Original?”

Korean middle schoolers have to obey strict school rules about their appearance. The one that seems to upset the girls the most is the hair rule, which states their hair must be less than 10cm below the ear and straight. Some girls cut their hair shorter with special dispensation (presumably their parents have to argue their case) but most sport a shoulder length bob, with or without a fringe. Their hair is uniformly dark brown or black, and they cannot dye it. I have naturally wavy hair which I dye unnatural colours, and let grow as long as I can. My students are very jealous, and every alteration or new hairstyle is scrutinised in great detail. They were convinced I must have a perm for a very long time. They even seem enchanted by the frizz I’ve been sporting in this heat – apparently it makes me look like Hermione.

1) “You look like…”

I hear the name “Emma Watson” at least three times a day.

What do these women have in common? Anne Hathaway, Keira Knightly, Emma Watson, Kristen Stewart, a young Catherine Denevue? They’re young, they’re white, they’re skinny, and they look like me, according to my students and fellow teachers. Emma Watson is the one I get the most, although I’ve been told that from drunk Brits at times (I blame it on the frizzy Hermione hair). Sometimes a particular hairstyle will lead to an accusation of “Bella Swan, teacher!”. When a Korean teacher told me I looked like a young Catherine Denevue, however, my Korean friend considered this and then said “I think all Westerners look the same to some Koreans.” Hopes dashed.

I promise I’m still here

8 Aug

Summer is raging in South Korea and I have been so busy that I haven’t found the time to blog. Terrible, I know. Here is a taster of what I’ve been up to:

– planning and then delivering English Summer Camp

– going to the beach

– getting heatstroke

– playing Mario Kart

– attending the free Busan International Rock Festival

– celebrating my birthday with 3 dozen Krispy Kreme doughnuts (no really)

– eating delicious Korean food

– cuddling dogs at the dog cafe (I went back because it really is the best place on Earth)

– drunk-Skyping my family and friends


This is just a flying visit because I’m now off to Seoul for 3 days. Phew! I’ll update properly when I’m back, but in the mean time I instruct you all to watch this, the most amazing music video ever made:

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