Tag Archives: korea

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!

Another Year Over

31 Dec

January 2011 I decided I wanted to spend a year working abroad before I had too many commitments in the UK to want to leave. In February 2012I left for South Korea. Now 2013 is arriving and it will be the year I return home. How can 2013 measure up to the year I decided to leave, or the year I actually left? I don’t know what I’m going to do when I get home, not really. A lot of things have changed whilst I’ve been away, but the one thing I really have learned from spending this year living and working on the other side of the world is that who you are doesn’t change. I haven’t changed. I’ve probably learned a lot (a smattering of Korean, how to swim rather than sink in a classroom of teenagers, to smile in the face of confusion, to drink through culture clashes, to correctly identify stealth tentacles at least 80% of the time) but I am not going to be fundamentally altered by a change of scenery.

What did I want when I came to Korea? I wanted to experience another culture in the way you really only can when you make your living as part of it. Teaching has been the perfect way to do that, I think, and I have had a great time doing so. I don’t have the intrepid backpacker mentality (the very idea exhausts me) so the teacher’s lifestyle has also allowed for me to take my exploring as slow as I like. My generous and inquisitive students have also given me a wonderful inroad into the culture and mindset of South Koreans, and in turn given me a chance to reflect on my own culture and how it has affected my thinking.

Some aspects of living abroad for a year (and it will be nearly 13 months since I left, when I finally return in March) have been difficult. I’ve experienced homesickness, and more recently the strange feeling that my home as I left it no longer exists – things that changed whilst I was away feel unreal to some extent, and I imagine confronting those changes on my return is going to, ultimately, be quite upsetting.

I am looking forward to going home though, and seeing all the people I have sorely missed in the last year. I’m also looking forward to eating all the food I’ve missed – it’s amazing how prominent things like roast potatoes, pies, and cider have become in my dreams.

During the next year I’m hoping to move into a new home with wonderful new housemates (and, it seems, a inevitable menagerie of pets), start my own business, and find some kind of gainful employment (fingers crossed). Before that I’ll also teach winter camp, show my brother the wonders of South Korea when he arrives in a couple of weeks, and visit Japan.

Who knows what will happen after that?

Happy new year, everyone. x

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.

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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: http://www.weebleknits.net/twocirculars.html). 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.

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