Tag Archives: meeting koreans

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.


Anti-foreigner feeling in Korea

15 Jul

This weekend provided two very different run-ins with Korean strangers.

First, my friend and I encountered an aggressive Korean woman in a bar in Busan. We were in the bathroom, and she came in and started hammering loudly on the stall doors. When my friend came out of the stall, this woman confronted her angrily and demanded to know if we could speak Korean. She eventually stormed off after yelling at us in Korean some more. Essentially, this woman was angry because we were talking to each other in English in the bathroom.

A certain number of Koreans seem to genuinely hate foreigners. They get extremely angry at our audacity – hanging around places in Korea, being all foreign, speaking out foreign languages and being, you know, foreign-looking. There are some bars and restaurants that refuse to serve us. Sometimes people will shoot us evil glances, sometimes they’ll yell at us, and even push us around a little, and try to intimidate us.

Well, it’s pretty intimidating anyway, being a foreigner in one of the most homogeneous cultures on earth. We stand out, and we get stared at, and for the most part I don’t mind. I know I look different, and that people are curious about me, and often the extra attention is as harmless as that. Sometimes an old man will be staring at me on the subway, only to eventually come out with “I welcome you with all my heart” in broken English. I’m different, but not everyone hates me for it.

Then there are the people who get angry if they hear English being spoken. Another old man on the subway once punched the train wall in fury at the (quiet!) English conversation I was having with a friend. The woman in the bathroom on Friday night wanted us to shut the hell up or speak Korean. Feeling despised in the country you currently live and work is a horrible way to end an otherwise lovely evening.

Then on Saturday at a coffee shop in the BEXCO centre, a young Korean couple with an enormous cake decided they had way too much to eat alone, and offered a massive portion to my friends who were sitting next to them. Together we did our best to demolish the (delicious) dessert, whilst chatting as best we could in their limited English and our limited Korean. It was sweet. They were curious, and generous, and reminded us that most Koreans are extremely kind people who are interested in foreigners, but not hateful. Those two kids, university students from Daegu, had excellent timing.

Busan Comic World

6 May

I’m a geek, so when I heard there was a bi-monthly comic convention in Busan, I had to go. The BEXCO centre in Centum City was packed full of manga-style comics, cosplaying Korean kids, and adorable merchandise. It was amazing. Behold a selection of the excellent outfits on display:

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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!

Ajumas for a Friday

20 Apr

It’s Friday! My Fridays are actually one of my busiest days. I have three lessons back to back in the morning, which is no fun. Especially as it’s grade 2 then grade 3, then grade 2 again! I get so confused…

Anyway, I get a little break around lunch time, but it isn’t long enough for me to get stuck into my lesson planning (and it’s a light load next week anyway) but it’s too much time to be able to waste on Facebook, so I’m going to post about ajumas.

Ajumas are a phenomenon that every waygook (that’s foreigner) who comes to Korea will become very familiar with. The term basically means older married woman, but it becomes synonymous with Korean old ladies.

Korean old ladies all have the same spiral perm, and the same uniform of outdoor wear (usually North Face hiking gear from head to toe, sometimes in multiple clashing colours) and a visor. They’re little, and adorable, and also the bossiest, rudest, pushiest people on the planet!

In Korea, being elderly means everyone has to respect you, and no one can tell you off, so you can get away with anything. Mostly this manifests as pushing people about, especially on public transport. I mean this literally – if I’m trying to get off a packed subway train and there’s an ajuma behind me, most often she’ll wedge her forearm across my lower back and use me like a snow plough to barge her way through the press of people. I’ve come to expect it, and I now know exactly how much resistance to put up to make sure I stay on my feet, but get out of the way!

The ajumas of Dongdaesin-dong (my local area) seem to be a friendly bunch. One day whilst I was waiting for a subway train, an ajuma decided to chat to me. Undeterred by the fact that I didn’t understand a word she was saying, she babbled away at me in Korean until the train arrived, when she gave me a handful of hard-boiled sweets and a a huge grin for my trouble.

Recently in my local pharmacy, I was set upon by a gaggle of older ladies telling me (in Korean, but with miming) how beautiful and tall and thin I am (Koreans seem fascinated by my height as I’m about 10cm taller than the national average). When I said thank you in Korean (“gamsa hapnida”) they burst out laughing, repeating me and nodding and smacking me on the back. When I smiled and bowed they were even more pleased, and started patting me all over like a dog who’d mastered a particularly impressive trick. It was completely adorable.

So there you go! I’m sure I’m likely to have even more run-ins with Korean ajumas during my time here. Personally I enjoy their cantankerous old lady shtick, so I’ll continue to accept my sweets, pats, shoves, and tellings-off with a smile.

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