Tag Archives: food

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”.

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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!

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.

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.

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!

Teachers’ dinner in Ulsan

24 Apr

This week is kind of a cushy week for me. The kids have mid-term exams for three days, so Monday – Wednesday I desk warm in the morning (for the non-TEFL teachers, that means I sit at my desk and do whatever!) and then go home after lunch. I only have to teach Thursday and Friday, and because the other classes will be behind, I’m going to show a Wallace & Gromit short and give the kids worksheets based on that. It’s a light week.

Because of it being mid-term week, my faculty organised a teachers’ lunch this afternoon in Ulsan, a city about an hour east of Busan on the coast at the easternmost point of the South Korean peninsula. I haven’t had a chance to socialise with my co-workers yet, because my school hasn’t organised any social activities, or if they have it hasn’t been with the whole staff and I haven’t been invited. My immediate co-workers in the English department are mostly married or a bit older than many of my EPIK friends’ co-teachers, which I think explains why they haven’t invited me out socially.

I was naturally excited to spend some time with my fellow teachers outside of the office! I already knew that not many of them have a lot of English (other than the English department that is) and they seem quite nervous about using the English that they do have. I hoped that this little road trip would give them a chance to get more comfortable with me.

My main co-teacher and I got a lift out to Ulsan with another female teacher and two other colleagues. It was basically a car full of women, and it immediately had that relaxed, gossipy feel that a group of female friends together always has. It felt pretty good to be in that car, feeling kind of like one of the group even though I mostly had no idea what was being said. My co-teacher is very good about trying to include me, so a couple of times when something particularly funny and easy to explain happened she filled me in on the joke and I was able to contribute something, which was awesome.

We were the last car to arrive at our destination, which immediately caused some hilarity (women drivers, eh?) but also meant that we got to sit together. I was pleased to be able to build on the camaraderie that had started in the car, and rolled out my very basic Korean, saying “this is delicious!” when I started in on my barbecued beef. Again, my co-teacher and the others made efforts to include me when possible. Not everything is going to be translatable, but they actually asked me questions and tried to speak a little English, which I really appreciated. Also no one tried to make me drink any alcohol, which I was so relieved by! I’m not a big drinker and I really hate daytime drinking! I didn’t want to get embarrassingly drunk in the middle of the afternoon trying to be polite and not refuse drinks!

There was a nice ice-breaker early on in the meal when the kid serving us asked my Korean co-teacher where I was from. One of the Korean teachers with little to no English told him I was from England and he should practise his English on me! He obeyed this command first saying “Hi!” and then “I love you!” whilst my colleagues died laughing.

Koreans seem to really appreciate my eating skills, which I’ve often thought are undervalued back home. Often when I’m eating with Koreans they will prompt me to try foods and sauces and ask me how I like them. I thought that my willingness to try everything on offer in the lunch room at school had won me some brownie points, and today that was confirmed by my co-teacher. I was happily trying some traditional Korean soy bean stew and packing it away, as per usual, when I felt I was being watched… I looked up to see the somewhat surreal sight of the entire table of thirty-odd Koreans watching me intently!

Me: Err… did I do something wrong?

Co-teacher: No, they want to know if you like this? They think many foreigners don’t like soy bean stew, they say it’s stinky.

Me: No, it’s delicious! *thumbs up to table*

Entire table: Ahhhhhhhh!

Co-teacher: Koreans like people who eat well. You eat everything and try every food so everyone at Daeshin (my school) likes you!

I was pretty chuffed about that! Maybe that’s why I get some much food left on my desk?!

Some of the teachers I was sat with followed up their meal with “cold noodles”. When this arrived it was actually spicy wheat noodles with chipped ice! I couldn’t believe it – I’d never seen iced noodles before. Of course, this resulted in one of the teachers grabbing a bowl and spooning me out a generous helping to try! I was a bit nervous this was making me look like a rude fatty, but the teacher said (via my co-teacher) that Koreans love to share food so I shouldn’t worry.

After eating (and being grilled by the principal and other teachers on why I don’t hate the foods they’re convinced all foreigners hate!) we went out to the coast to stand at the point which is the easternmost point of South Korea (or rather, where the sun rises first on Korea and Eurasia). It’s not much to look at, although I’m still sad I forgot my camera because I realised that this is it! I’VE NEVER BEEN THIS FAR AWAY FROM HOME!

I got a lift back to Busan with a different group of teachers, including two of my co-teachers. On the way we chatted about my brother and his love of experimenting with strange foods, and brainstormed all the weird and, quite frankly, gross foods that we could get him to eat in Korea! Look forward to that, Tom!

Korea in Spring is Beautiful Even When I Am Not

18 Apr

Spring has arrived in South Korea and it’s beautiful. Arriving in February, everything in Korea seemed kind of grey. There were no leaves on the trees, and no colour on the mountains. At the time, the drizzle reminded me of home (that’s the British for you) but I’m a summer baby and I was looking forward to the changing of the seasons.

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Well, it hadn’t occurred to me that spring in Korea would be so beautiful! Thanks to the Japanese, who planted lots of cherry trees during their years of rule (er, thanks colonial oppressors!), spring in Busan means lots of cherry blossom. My neighbourhood was transformed! My school yard was no longer a cheerless, sandy, gateway to hell (I love my school really)! To really soak up the cherry blossom beauty, I headed to the nearby town of Jinhae for the Cherry Blossom Festival. Image

As you can see, it was busy, but beautiful.

Many Koreans seem to be expert posers. There was a lot of “Korean Vogue-ing” going on, which I attempted to join in on. Please excuse my face – I was also suffered from a bad head cold, hence the pallor.

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For some reason, Koreans seem to enjoy approaching and taking photos of me. I’m always happy to answer university students’ surveys, pose for photos with Korean couples, perform the running man on demand (the question is usually “can you shuffle?” – they love LMFAO here) and wave at small children. On the whole, I’ve found Koreans to be welcoming, friendly, and polite, so I try to return the favour!

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Street food at the festival was pretty special. I ate some spit-roasted pork, and a street waffle (so delicious, and made fresh!). I didn’t try some of the more… interesting-looking offerings though!

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These guys look like whole fried ducklings on a skewer?

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Apparently these guys are squid with the tentacles kind of tucked up.

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This is a vat of silkworm (I think) larvae being cooked up. People get these in a little cup and eat them like a tasty snack. The smell to me seems pretty vile so I haven’t been tempted to try them yet. They seem pretty popular though!

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God knows what this is, but I thought the fin poking out the top looked pretty cool!

I sadly didn’t get any photos of my neighbourhood in all it’s blossomy glory, because the cherry blossoms don’t last long here. One rainy day was enough to get rid of most of the blossoms near my school. I think the temporary nature of the blossoms makes them even more beautiful – they seem so delicate. It’s hard not to go all navel-gazing Lost In Translation-stylee when you’re walking under them. In a word: beautiful.

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