Tag Archives: culture shock

A less than triumphant homecoming.

7 May

It turns out that reverse culture shock is a very real thing.

This will probably come as no surprise to many seasoned travellers, but it was a surprise to me. I didn’t really feel culture shock hit me when I moved to Korea. Things were obviously very different and I was constantly dealing with that, but I was expecting that to be the case, so I didn’t really worry when I experienced the frustration that sometimes comes along with trying to settle into a new country. I assumed, however, that returning to the UK would be easy. Everything would be familiar. Everything would work for me. I would understand it all.

Picture the scene: I’ve been back in the UK for a few days, a few days of chronic jet lag adding a layer of fog over everything. I can’t function. I’m lethargic. I can’t concentrate. I decide to go to the supermarket. Morrisons is full of people shopping, people who aren’t Korean, who are all speaking English, but aren’t talking to me. I can understand everything being said around me, I can read every sign, I recognise every product. I stand in the biscuit aisle staring down five or six shelves of biscuit options. There’s so much choice. It’s completely overwhelming. My brain is not only jet lagged, it’s forgotten how to filter information. For a year I learned to hone in like a hawk on English signage, on English words on products, on English being spoken around me. Now my brain is trying to consume EVERYTHING.

Yes, I basically had a breakdown in Morrisons. Over biscuits. Never fear though, dear reader; I eventually managed to buy Jaffa Cakes and booze and went home to hide and recover.

I’ve now been in the UK for just over a month. I’ve mostly stopped bowing and handing over my debit card with both hands instead of shoving it in the chip and pin reader. I’ve almost purged all the Americanisms from my vocabulary. I still look around when I hear people speaking English until I remember they really aren’t talking to me.

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6 Trivial Ways Korea Has Changed Me

1 Mar

1- I talk to myself all the time.

I’ve always done this to a certain extent because I really am that nutter you cross the street to avoid. In Korea a combination of living alone and not speaking the same language as 99% of people on the street has resulted in a rapid escalation where I have even separated my personality into “sensible” and “impulsive” so as to have better conversations with myself. I vary from running commentary: “oh so THAT was the bus I wanted! Oh no, it’s okay small child, you just hang onto my leg, that’s not inconvenient..” to arguments: “we should cross the road here and take the bus. Oooh, no, if we take the subway we can get a coffee on the way! Yeah, but coffee is expensive, do we need it?” I am a crazy person.

 

Hodduk!

Hodduk!

 

2- I got fatter, and I’m obsessed with food.

I was running three times a week before I came to Korea. This may shock some people who know me, because I hate to exercise, but I was. I have run zero times in Korea. In my defence, the pavements in my neighbourhood are very uneven and often being driven on by cars and scooters. The local running track opens at 6pm, and I get home from work at 5pm, so that’s just enough time for me to sit down and lose all motivation.

Dak Galbi

Dak Galbi

I also LOVE Korean food. And the Korean attitude to food and eating (it’s a huge obsession and a massive part of Korean culture) has rubbed off on me, so that I’ve become kind of fixated on food in a way I never was at home. This combined with a lack of exercise means I’ve put on half a stone. Which isn’t too bad, but it’s all in an unhealthy, bulgy tummy, getting tired when I run up stairs kind of way. 

My favourite Korean restaurant.

My favourite Korean restaurant.

3- My attitude to modesty is warped.

I have become so used to Korean standards of modesty that tiny shorts or skirts that probably don’t cover your vagina when you sit down don’t seem obscene, but collarbone or cleavage is horrifying. I saw an old photo of myself wearing a strap top and was appalled at the amount of chest – not boob, but chest and shoulder – I was exposing.

 

Check out those guinea pigs.

Check out those guinea pigs.

4- I shout at waiters in restaurants.

This one is going to be hard to shake when I get home. In Korea, most tables in bars or restaurants have bells to summon the staff. If they don’t, it’s perfectly acceptable to shout at them to get their attention. How will I ever readjust to the British way of subtly catching someone’s eye and wiggling your eyebrows, or perhaps raising a finger if you’re really in a hurry?

 

5- I speak with a weird semi-American accent.

Most Koreans learn American English and speak it with American accents. To help Koreans (especially my younger students) understand what I’m saying, and also to help them learn the pronunciation that they will need to speak American English in the future, I often speak with a slight accent. Unfortunately over time this has begun to erase my natural Southern British accent and replace my British vocabulary. I regularly say “soda”, “trash”, “eraser”, “sidewalk”, “apartment” and “store”. I pronounce the number 4 with two syllables.

I must be stopped. 

Even my students noticed my British accent slipping!

Even my students noticed my British accent slipping!

6- I love posing for photographs

Koreans do seem to love taking selfies, or otherwise posing using a bunch of stock “I’m so cute” hand gestures. It’s sort of rubbed off… although sometimes the photo opportunities provided by Korea are just amazing. The Trick Eye museum was basically the Take Cute Photos Museum, but boy was it fun.

I've always wanted to kick someone off a cliff face. Ever since I saw "Cliffhanger".

I’ve always wanted to kick someone off a cliff face. Ever since I saw “Cliffhanger”.

What should I pack for Korea?

31 Jan

When I arrived in Korea I was nervous, but excited. The EPIK program tends to starve you of information – you don’t find out until the last minute where you will be placed. You don’t know the area, you don’t know the age of students you will be teaching, you essentially know nothing. For someone who likes to research and plan, that’s pretty daunting. I was lucky then, to have a lot of support waiting for me when I arrived in the form of the previous NET at my school, who left me tonnes of notes and information, maps and activities, and even met me to show me around a little and answer my questions.

I hope in a month’s time to have the opportunity to pay-it-forward, but for now it has got me thinking about one of my most burning questions when I was planning my trip – what should I bring? It’s a very subjective thing, but since most of the lists I read were written by Americans, or men, I thought I’d add my own suggestions so you can learn from my mistakes. In three parts…

1) Things I wish I’d brought to Korea:

– Toothpaste

I read this on so many blogs and every time I went “psssht! Like I’m THAT attached to my Western toothpaste!” How wrong I was. Colgate is a fiercely guarded and much valued commodity amongst expats in Korea. Korean toothpaste is… weird. A lot of it isn’t even mint flavoured and the consistency is strange. The closest thing to Western toothpaste I was able to buy here was some Arm & Hammer (which is gross in its own special way). To illustrate how much I missed toothpaste – I asked my mum to send me some for my birthday. Seriously. Pack it.

– Deodorant

This is another one of those things I didn’t believe, and indeed I bought a small roll-on deodorant here and wondered what everyone was banging on about. However, it’s rubbish. I smell way more here than I did at home, and I can’t wait to get back to my fearsome Mitchum deodorant when I return home.

– Blu-Tack

An actual conversation before I left the UK:

Me: I need to get some Blu-Tack before I leave.

My friend: Oh, come on! They’ll have Blu-Tack in Korea!

They do not have Blu-Tack in Korea.

It’s invaluable for both household decoration and as a teaching aid. BRING BLU-TACK.

– Sunscreen

Sunscreen here is expensive and mostly comes in small bottles. I stocked up when I found Nivea spray in HomePlus, but it isn’t easy to come by.

– Personal bug spray

Spray for the home was easy to find, but for the body not so much. The mosquitoes are killer in the summer here (especially for the Brits, it seemed) so bring a bottle of deet with you.

 2) Things I was glad I’d brought to Korea:

– Beach towel

Korean beach towels are hard to track down, and then when you do they’re often really small. If you’re moving to a coastal area like Busan, throw in a beach towel. If you can’t survive without large bath towels, then I’d suggest bringing one of those too. I got one from EPIK when I arrived at orientation, but most of my Korean towels are hand towel sized.

– Chocolate

Specifically Cadburys. Korean chocolate bars are pretty good if you like nuts and nougat (I do) but the solid stuff is not so good. Lots of it is Hersheys which is also pretty poor. The only chocolate bars I recognise from the UK available in Korea are Twix and Snickers, and the odd bar of Galaxy (branded here as Dove). Care packages of my favourites (Crunchies and After Eights mostly – hey, I’m dairy intolerant so I have weird tastes) kept me going.

– Silicone earplugs

I slept with earplugs in when I lived in London because otherwise the constant bustle from outside (and yelling from my neighbours) would affect my sleep. I use them sporadically in Korea to block out loud traffic noise, snoring roommates in hostels, and yelling from my neighbours (different city, same problems). In Korea you can find the orange foam earplugs in stationers as study aids (in small quantities usually), but for a good night’s sleep I find these can hurt my ears. I stocked up on silicone earplugs before I left.

– Marmite

I’m British. I love it. I brought two massive jars (and still ran out). I also made Marmite sandwiches for my kids for summer camp and they were really excited to try this British food. Most of them absolutely hated it, but they were still excited to try! The same went for American friends I made in Korea.

– Clothes and shoes

I’m taller than the average Korean woman and with bigger feet. Feet so big, in fact, that I cannot buy shoes here (unless they’re unisex or mens). I also struggle to buy trousers outside of Western stores like H&M and Uniqlo (I’m luckily thin enough to shop at Uniqlo here which have a smaller size range in Korea than they do at home – size 12 and over may struggle). I also stocked up on tights, and high-neck long sleeved t-shirts to help me conform to Korea’s standards for female modesty.

 

 

 

 

3) Things I wish I hadn’t bothered bringing to Korea:

– Tampons

Information about tampons in Korea was vague – the first rule of Menstrual Club, of course, being “don’t talk about Menstrual Club” (the second rule is “no smoking”, and if you got that reference we can officially be friends) and suggested that since Korean women seemed to prefer sanitary towels (pads), finding tampons would be difficult and they’d be expensive. I don’t use tampons that often, but have managed to find them in most places that sell pads, and if buying off-brand in a shop like Olive Young or Watsons, found them to be reasonably priced. There isn’t however a lot of choice (usually two types in most stores, both applicator and “normal” flow, usually one is the Playtex brand) and so I suspect if you prefer to use tampons and you like non-applicator ones, or need ones for heavier flow, you’d be better to bring them with you. If any of my expat readers have contradictory evidence, please let me know in the comments.

– Smart clothes

My school is not that dressy, and I looked out of place in my shirts and dress trousers. My trousers were wide-legged (as is the most common office fashion in the UK) and in the land of the skinny trouser I was roundly mocked by my students. I would have done better to bring some smart-ish skirts instead – indeed I bought some jersey skirts in Korea and wore those with smart-ish tops and jumpers to school most of the time. I’ve lately resorted to smart jeans and chinos. I suggest dressing smarter at first, but fairly feminine for women to make the best first impression. I hate to admit it, but I think a pencil skirt, blouse and a cardigan would have won me more instant brownie points than my shirt and trousers did.

– Cosmetics

Generally speaking, Korea is amazing for cosmetics. I love trawling the different shops for skin products and make-up and nail varnish and all sorts of things. I didn’t need most of the stuff I brought, for the most part. The exception is perhaps foundation as some people will find it hard to match their skin colour to the products available here. If you have something you can’t live without, bring it. Otherwise have fun experimenting with the cheap and plentiful cosmetics available here (my favourites include Etude House nail varnish and Tony Moly lip stains – totally addictive).

There you go – it’s by no means exhaustive and is completely subjective, but hopefully will give you a few pointers when it comes to the daunting task of packing for a year in South Korea!

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: http://www.teamliquid.net/blogs/viewblog.php?topic_id=321767

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.

Ten Tips on How to Survive Korean School Lunches

27 Jun

I love school lunch at my public school in Busan, South Korea. I stuff my face with pretty much everything on offer, much to the amusement of my Korean colleagues who I’m told “like someone who eats well, so they like you”. The self-serve buffet of steaming deliciousness is not without its pitfalls, though. Luckily for you, I’m here to give you the benefit of my wisdom. Bear this advice mind, should you ever find yourself working as an English teacher in a Korean public school. Complete with unnecessary footnotes.

 

1) Beware of unfamiliar foodstuffs.

It may sound obvious, but it’s an important thing to remember. When you’re starving and all around you children are stampeding* to get to wherever it is they eat like the herd of Gallimimus that nearly take out Sam Neill in Jurassic Park**, it’s tempting to get over-excited. You want to load up your tray with generous helpings of everything. This is a mistake.

Some of the unfamiliar items I’ve enjoyed at lunch include acorn jelly in soy sauce, some kind of fragrant leaves in red pepper paste, dried anchovies (more on these later) and some kind of root vegetable that looks like coral crossed with a slice of brain. These now rank as the most delicious things on the menu, but they taste unlike anything else I’ve ever eaten***. In the early days, you need to become accustomed to new tastes, and show your colleagues that you enjoy Korean food. The latter is especially important if they don’t speak much English, as food, and your enjoyment of it, will become your main form of communication with them. It’s best to take a little of everything, and clear your plate. This way you’ll look appreciative, and know what you enjoy and what you don’t when these things appear another day. 

Acorn jelly is actually quite nice. Photo from http://www.maangchi.com

2) Beware of familiar foodstuffs.

Every GET here has a horror story about a food item that looked friendly, but turned out to be something completely different. The obvious example to be cautious of is anything bread-crumbed and in nugget form. It might be delicious chicken. It might be prawn. It might be a fish-cake. It might be squid. It might be something totally unidentifiable. Don’t relax and load up your tray just yet, my friend. Especially if any of those items sound like something you don’t want to eat. Leaving a few leftovers is usually fine, but turning your nose up at an extra large helping you served yourself? Bad plan.

This rule applies to Korean items you think you recognise. Allow me to give an example. I hate squid and octopus (a big problem in Busan, whose streets are literally swimming with seafood) but I love vegetables. There is a dish composed of strips of a pale item in sticky orange sauce. This is variously cabbage, squid, or reconstituted fish. I can genuinely only tell which I have on my plate by the texture. It’s the Russian Roulette of food.

 

3) Beware the stealth tentacles.

As I previously mentioned, I don’t like cephalopods. Something about the texture of a tentacle upsets me. The idea of popping a whole baby octopus into my mouth makes me shudder. I’m not a fussy eater, and I enjoy fish, but these guys just squick me out. Since arriving in Busan I have discovered that people are actively hiding tentacles in my food. Often they appear in pajeon, a delicious Korean pancake filled with vegetables, sometimes prawns, and the occasional waving squid arm. Soup is another excellent tentacle hiding place. If you dare to stir up the sleeping miniature krakens at the bottom of your soup bowl, don’t say I didn’t warn you. 

The terrifying waving tentacles of doom. Picture by etheralmoor on deviantART.

4) Kimchi is your friend.

Kimchi, the ubiquitous fermented cabbage**** smothered in red pepper paste, is an acquired taste, present at every meal. Literally every meal. I’ve recently learned to appreciate its angry red presence at school lunches, because nothing will hide or alter the taste of something gross better than kimchi. Soup a little bland and salty today? Throw in your kimchi, stir it up, and you instantly have a tasty chilli pepper soup to dip your rice in. Reconstituted meat patty complete with grisly bits got you down? Load it on your spoon with some rice and kimchi and you’re good to go. Nothing at lunch except waving purple tentacles, taunting you with their creepy little rubbery suckers? Rice and kimchi, kimchi, kimchi.

 

5) I hope you like rice.

Rice is the other thing, alongside kimchi, that comes with every meal. Rice stops the spicy chilli that often appears in Korean dishes from blowing my head off every lunch time. It’s a Korean lunch flak jacket, that protects you from all the fearsome foodstuffs aiming to tear apart your innards. Please excuse that metaphor, but as an IBS sufferer, sometimes that’s exactly what eating feels like to me. Getting used to a new style of cooking is difficult for everyone, not just those with already grumpy guts. Rice is a good way of easing yourself into Korean food. If you’re fussy, it’s your safe option. If it’s too bland, try dipping spoonfuls in your soup. Don’t worry about eating it with chopsticks – the Korean sticky rice is difficult to get OFF your chopsticks, so you’ll have no problem shovelling it down.

Oh yes, soup. That’s the other thing that comes with every meal. I love soup, even if it’s just as a flavouring for my rice. Keep your eyes peeled for the kimchi soup options – these are generally delicious.

 

6) I hope you like chilli paste.

Korean food is quite spicy. That’s not to say it’s always spicy – some days there’s nothing spicy on my tray but the kimchi. You do get used to it, and there is always a non-spicy option, even if it is just plain rice. Be warned though, if you hate spicy food you’ll be missing out on the best of Korean cooking.

If like me you don’t mind spicy food, then you can relax. Koreans will generally wave you away from anything they consider too spicy, or at least warn you before you shovel a great, heaped spoonful into your mouth. For many foreigners in Korea this can get pretty frustrating, especially when every time you eat anything spicy your Korean colleagues coo in amazement, or restaurant owners try to stop you ordering your favourite dish. Just shrug it off. Koreans are proud of their food, and they will be proud of you for enjoying it. The only thing to watch out for is the runny nose – blowing at the table is a no-no (in fact any indiscreet public nose blowing is frowned on) but wiping with a tissue is completely fine. Be warned that Koreans don’t tend to drink water whilst they eat, so if you have a spice overload, chomping some plain rice is the only fast relief available. With that in mind, always save some rice until you’ve tried everything on your tray. Trust me, it’s safer this way. 

Kimchi is your friend. Photo by Nagyman on flickr.

7) Try everything, no matter how disgusting it looks.*****

This was some of the best advice I received before I came to Korea to teach, and now I’m passing it on to you. I think Korean food is, for the most part, completely delicious. Sometimes it doesn’t look delicious. Sometimes it looks revolting. I suspect this is a trait of school dinners the world over. Try it. Try everything. You never know when some mulchy grey-brown goop is going to turn out to be completely heavenly. It happens. I recently discovered that pork feet are wonderfully tasty and tender, for example. The dried anchovies in particular seem to put off a lot of Westerners, who are not used to eating their food whilst their food is eye-balling them reproachfully. This is a mistake, as these sweet, crunchy, fishy little guys are really quite nice.

 

8) Don’t ask what something is until you’ve finished it.

On the same theme, if you’re eating something and you’re not really sure what it is, don’t ask. Whether you’re enjoying it or not, if you’re determined to finish everything on your tray, ignorance is bliss. My co-teacher has a tendency to lean forward with a smile when she sees me swallowing down something obscure-looking and saying with glee “do you know what that is?”. Chicken necks, pig intestines, the ever-present cephalopod threat. These things are all easier to eat when you don’t know what they are.

 

9) If you have allergies, you should probably ask what everything is.

I’m completely contradicting myself, I know, but this is important. A lot of Korean dishes seem to include some kind of seafood or nut. If you have an allergy to either of these things, you are probably better off opting out of the school lunches and bringing in your own lunch. Try it out for the first couple of days to show willing, but be prepared to eat nothing much more than plain rice.

On the other hand, I’m dairy intolerant (part of the aforementioned IBS) and I’ve found avoiding dairy remarkably easy. Following my rules about taking small portions of unidentifiable items has certainly helped, but there also isn’t the same cheese obsession here as there is back home in the UK. It used to be stealth cheese I worried about turning up in an omelette, instead of tentacles. Those were simpler times.

 

10) Monkey see, monkey do.

If in doubt about how exactly to eat something, copy your Korean colleagues. Careful observation will show how to de-bone a fish with chopsticks, or get a slab of tofu into your mouth in bite-size chunks without any ending up on your lap. Sometimes when I get particularly stuck trying to eat something, a Korean colleague will pitch in with her chopsticks and, sometimes, feed me like a baby bird. You might think this sounds demeaning, but as long as I’m eating, I’m happy to be babied.

Much of the meat served at my school is still attached to some kind of bone. This seems to be very common – for example, a lot of fried chicken pieces are just whole fried chickens hacked up. You’re likely to come across some unfamiliar bones whilst navigating your lunch. If you’re one of those people who is grossed out by bones, you’re really out of luck. Most of the time it’s impossible to prise the meat off, and you’ll see a lot of Koreans just popping the pieces in their mouths whole, and then pulling the bones out afterwards.

Your colleagues are your guide as to what is appropriate, and what the hell you’re supposed to do with these weird leaves or flimsy pastel-coloured pancakes. Smile, say “ma shee say yo” (this is delicious) and whatever you do, don’t ask what it is you’re eating.

 

Enjoy!******

 

 

Footnotes:

*I don’t use the term “stampede” lightly. I once saw my kids knock over and trample an older Korean teacher who my co-teacher had to rescue by wading in, screaming, through the tidal wave of hungry students. I clung to the wall, terrified of being flung down the stairs. Another reason why teenage girls are not to be trifled with.

**Yes, I am this much of a geek.

***Except perhaps when I was a kid and I actually ate an acorn on a dare.

****Usually, although it can be a variety of different vegetables. Radish and cucumber are the two I come across most often.

*****This doesn’t apply to steamed silkworm larvae. If it smells that bad, and some Koreans think it’s disgusting, don’t eat it. Luckily this is unlikely to show up in the school cafeteria.

******I should probably say that these are just my experiences, in my Busan public middle school. The quality of school lunches seems to vary wildly, as does the helpfulness of your co-teachers when it comes to navigating them!

My first week and a bit in Busan

6 Mar

Oh. My. God. What have I done?

This is the question I ask myself, sometimes several times a day, but definitely repeatedly over the last week. There have been some definite holy crap moments as it dawns on me what I’m letting myself in for, moving to live and work in a country where I don’t speak the language, minimal English is spoken, and I have little grasp of the customs and culture.

As I’ve been lax and not posted for ages, I will try to summarise some of these holy crap moments for you below:

– I arrived last Monday in Busan and was collected by a teacher from my school, who informed me that she was going on sabbatical for six months and wouldn’t see me until September, and couldn’t really help me with anything. She dropped me off at my flat, stayed to get the heating working and answer some of my questions (rather impatiently) and then left me alone with the parting advice of “ask (the English teacher I’m replacing, who was popping by for lunch) tomorrow” and “the kids are terrible. They have mental health problems. See you in September!”

– She MAY have just hated me because I scratched her car trying to get my suitcase out of her boot. Oops.

– I went to school on Friday and was given some more information about teaching, but no school calendar, and a vague “maybe next week” on getting my compulsory Alien Registration Card.

– I went to a restaurant with some friends, where no one spoke much English, and none of the menus had pictures. We pointed to the table next to us and said “joo sey yo” (give me that, please). We ended up with barbequed pork fat. I’m not kidding, it was not fatty pork. No hyperbole here. It was JUST fat and skin, cut up and cooked in front of us. We were so embarrassed about ordering something we couldn’t force down (we tried, it wasn’t even tasty crunchy type stuff) that we hid the pork fat in a napkin, which I then slipped into my pocket.

– Korea doesn’t have a lot of public bins, like hardly any. You have to pay for rubbish here so that makes sense. BUT it meant I spent a good hour walking around with pork fat in my pocket before I found somewhere to ditch it.

– I have no clue how the rubbish works in my apartment. The security/maintenance guy (a little old Korean man who was apparently very rude to the woman who dropped me off) came up to do a demo for me with lots of different bags and some rubbish for me to practice with (adorable) so I know how to separate it… I think. But I have no clue what to do with it now! My flat is just full of rubbish waiting for me to get brave enough to try and throw it out.

– School is terrifying. Finding out any information is a weird game of interrogating determinedly, but smiling and trying to give off an air of patience and good humour. Those of you who know me in person will know how difficult I find it to sound polite and genuine even when I am feeling polite and good humoured. When I’ve just asked someone for some information and I’m getting the same thing repeated at me with increasingly exaggerated gestures, it gets even harder. My tactic is asking a couple of times and if I don’t think I’ve been understood, I smile and say thank you, and then ask a different way later. Saves embarrassment all round.

– I haven’t applied for my ARC (Alien Registration Card) yet. I need it. I need it if I get sick, or if I want to leave the country, and it’s going to take WEEKS (at least 3) to get to me after I apply for it. I can’t open a bank account (which I need so I can be paid on time) until I’ve applied for it. On Friday my co-teacher said “you’ll go with (another co-teacher) maybe next week.” This week I asked him, and he said “I’ll go with you. Next week maybe?” And I was like “yes, but tell me WHEN.” He agreed to next Tuesday. We’ll see. I asked if I could go alone, but that was a no go. I need some info from the school, and it will be much easier with a translator. Which is lovely, because it’s going to be dull as ditchwater, but I still wish we could go sooner!

– Seafood comes with everything. And by seafood I mostly mean tentacles (since it’s tentacles that I don’t like!). At home I complained about “stealth cheese” because I can’t eat dairy and even when it isn’t on the menu, it appears in your food. Here it’s stealth cephalopods. We ordered a “green onion pancake” in a restaurant and when it arrived… prawns and tentacles!

Can't see the tentacles and whole baby octopus in this? Trust me, they're in there.

– Teaching children itself is a rather steep learning curve. Holy crap moments abound, like when one of my tasks fell totally flat and I had to ad lib an alternative… which mostly involved me returning to the board and going through some common errors and drilling the corrections. Stalling until the bell, basically!

Despite the hundreds of “what am I doing?” moments, there have been some really good moments too, that make me excited for my year here. In the interest of balance, here are a few of my best moments in South Korea so far:

– The Korean maintenance man for my building LOVES ME. Since I asked him how to do the rubbish (and he was rude to the teacher who dropped me off) he’s been grinning and waving like a maniac at me every time he sees me. I don’t think Korean’s wave as a rule, so I suspect he’s developed the wave for the westerners in the building. It’s pretty adorable. He also keeps packages for me so I don’t have to have things sent to my school and then carry them down the steep hill home. He’s awesome.

– I met the English teacher who taught at my school and lived in my flat before me, and she was really helpful. She showed me where the school actually was and how to get there (yeah, no one from the school bothered to do that!) and answered tons of questions. She helped me get my Mybi (Busan version of an Oyster card) and showed me a great place to eat Korean food in Nampo-dong. Made me feel a lot less stressed out about my arrival in Korea!

– I like my area. Dongdaesin isn’t far from some fun areas of town, but is also far enough away that it’s pretty quiet. I like that. I’m exploring some good places to go out locally, and my school is only a ten minute walk (admittedly up a very steep hill) away. Plus the shopping in Nampo is insanely good. I know where my wages are going. If I get to the end of my year, and I don’t have to ship a massive box of adorable Korean clothes and tat home, I have FAILED, people.

– In Nampo station I had a lovely encounter with some young guys who were running a shop selling cute accessories. I bought some very Korean headbands, and they took photos with me and my friend, and then stuck them on the wall of the shop. Totally adorable, and extremely welcoming. Yay for lovely Koreans!

– I quite like a lot of Korean food. The soups and stews especially are brilliant for the tail end of winter. I’m also a fan of the pancakes… I seem to be coping well with the spice now too (although I try and keep it to a minimum and let my body build up to it, otherwise I might have an IBS fail) which is good. Fruit is super pricey, but I’ve never been much of a fruit fan. My general tactic is to try anything, especially if I have no clue what it is. It seems to be working so far.

– Eating out here is also super cheap, did I mention that? Cheap AND yummy.

– I met a dog at the beach. He was wearing shoes with bells on. See, Busan has beaches AND dogs in shoes!

Photo by Desmond Poon

– Generally speaking my co-teachers in the English department at school are brilliant. I’ve not taught with them all yet… and unlike some places, they take a back seat in my lessons and let me teach. HOWEVER that’s not to say they aren’t involved in the lesson – they do a great job keeping the class in control, helping monitor and encourage kids with tasks, and assist with translations when the kids just aren’t getting my instructions… some translate more than others, but they are all very positive, enthusiastic co-teachers and the kids really like them, which is so helpful!

– I found a couple of bars I really like. As a Brit abroad, I was really looking for places that suited my love of pub culture. There are a lot of what I think of as American-style bars – loud music, etc, not really designed for slow drinking and chatting. I have found two places I like, one of which is a chain called Beer Mart. At Beer Mart you buy beers and snacks at the front, like a convenience store, and then after you pay you can sit at a booth in the back. It was surprisingly nice and trendy, and populated by the coolest-looking Korean kids. You can even buy popcorn and they microwave it for you! Heaven. The second place is basically a tiny pub-style place which plays a lot of classic rock. A nice break from the onslaught of Kpop, and as a classic rock fan I was pretty excited.

– My flat is lovely! It’s super roomy, and I actually have separate rooms, which a lot of people here don’t have. I have a sofa which pulls out into a double bed, too, so come on you visitors! You can see a video tour of my new place here.

– One of the best things here has to be the support network. I’ve met so many fellow Guest English Teachers (GETs) out here, both new and old, and everyone is so friendly and helpful it’s unbelievable. We come from all over the English-speaking world, and  everyone is so generous with sharing their knowledge and experience. Even if that sometimes just means a rant over a beer. It feels good to have some like-minded people to explore South Korea with whilst I’m here.

There is so much more that I could say, but this post is getting freakishly long! Congratulations if you made it to the end! I promise to try and update more frequently so I don’t have to do these kinds of crammed catch-ups.

Oh, and friends/family from home… if there’s something you want to know about my first couple of weeks, or you saw on Facebook maybe and want me to elaborate, let me know!

Now I’m off to try some pineapple Fanta… I’ll let you know how that goes later…

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