Friday, July 18, 2008

Yangpyeong, South Korea

Hello from the beautiful province of Gyeonggi. Official English motto: Global Inspiration.

That’s just the start of the subtle weirdness of this country. In China, the strange and the bewildering would jump out at you every day, spit on the floor, call you laowai and make bloody sure you knew you were very, very far from home. From what I have seen in Korea so far, there is a subtlety of strangeness at work.

I haven’t yet stopped in my tracks, gawped and muttered “what the fuck?”. What I have done is glimpsed something, ignored it and then have it bounce around my head until a little voice goes: “ Hang on a bit”.

It started upon arrival. There is nothing extraordinary about Incheon airport. It’s your standard, made to impress, modern Asian airport. Customs are not particularly arsey and I was out of it in a jiffy to be greeted by a placard with my name on it and a guy whose mission in life was to put me in a pre-paid taxi to where I am now. The motorway skirts Seoul but I didn’t get to see much at 10 pm through the gangster tinted windows that Korean taxis deem mandatory. The only thing I saw was god.

More precisely I got to see shitloads of red neon crosses. To my joy and delight, the evangelical Christians have gained a strong foothold in this peninsula and they like to show off. They build more churches than necessary and then top them with a big red neon cross. Christianity meets standard Asian marketing. JC, like anything else, just isn’t real if he isn’t in flashy and visible for fecking miles

I got to the village of Yungmon (my workplace) around midnight and was met by my Korean co-teacher. She is not to be mistaken for the ever-sufferingTeaching Assistants I was blessed with in China. The classrooms here are shared domains and the Korean person is usually senior.

On this one I have lucked out. A quick chat with other foreign teachers have revealed that speaking English is rarely a requirement for Korean teachers even if what they teach is, well, English. My co-teacher not only speaks English reasonably well she is also young and pretty to look at during office hours. I had expected to start a war with her over control of the classroom but it seems that she goes against all stereotypes of the face-saving, obstinate and excessively status conscious Asian bureaucrat. Let me explain.

I had geared myself up for a long battle as my predecessor had been relegated to classroom spectator who occasionally read dialogues from the book. This worried me a bit. I think teachers should be possessive of their students as it links the student’s progress with job satisfaction. If you see them as your students then you want them to do well in only as a reflection of your skill. This might be petty but it gives decent results.

I was not willing to play second fiddle and thought I was going to be yet another classroom soldier fighting the evils of Confucianist educational methods. I would hammer on about how I want to give the children communication tools and develop new ways of conceptualising and my co teacher would try to impose the absolutist, learn by rote methods that have ensured that, from Beijing to Tokyo via Seoul, 9 year olds could ace a Western math test in half the time allowed yet will become Uni graduates who will freeze like a deer in headlights if asked to order a meal in English.

However, my co-teacher has decided to shatter my arrogant stereotype and we get along in a rather professional manner whereas I cook up lesson plans and she is generally complimentary though she does point out the odd area where she knows the students will struggle. I get to do a lot of teaching which satisfies me. The previous foreign teacher was a Korean American whose utter cluelessness made my co-teacher take the wise decision to limit the amount of damage he could inflict on her charges.

All in all I am quite lucky even if the “newbie in Korea” paranoia (mainly induced by too many horror stories on ESL teacher forums) is not quite gone yet. I have got the flat I wanted in the location I wanted, the teaching is doing fine and the teachers’ social organisation at my school is quite good and inclusive. This is not necessarily the case in Korea and social events with the foreign teacher often consists of a restaurant outing where soju (20% rice plonk) is forced on the poor soul who doesn’t get to come to the more fun stuff as the Korean teachers don’t know how to deal with wayguks (short for waygukin which is the Korean word for foreigner/barbarian/alien and is incidentally the origin for the American racist term “gook”).

My first social outing was an overnight trip to the province of Gangwon for some rafting fun. It wasn’t the most exciting trip as the river was at a record low and the rafts, along with the safety gear, seemed a bit of overkill as we could have done the thing in swan shaped pedalos without any risk. BBQ and booze in the evening followed the next day by a trip to some cave. The only prob was that we were in a typical Korean "pension" which means sleeping on the floor atop a blanket. I am not really used to that and neither are my colleagues so backaches all around.

I want to conclude by a quick clarification over my Israel posts. It looks like I have beef with the Chosen People mainly because I related happy fun times with the IDF. I am actually quite fond of Israelis and was staying with some whilst in Jerusalem. I just think they become dicks when they are in khaki.

I also don't want to venture in the blame game of the Israeli-Arab pagga that pollutes the internet and I won't presume to have some sort of solution when nearly every statesman has given it a crack and failed miserably. Some things do seem fucking stupid though. The territories are an open prison where the inmates have committed no crime. The Israelis I met know that doing their military service there fucks them up badly, more so than those who went fighting in Lebanon. It's also common sense that if you treat people like animals some of them will start to behave that way. I won’t even go over the stupidity of suicide bombings.

Long story short, I liked Israel for all its aspects. Not mentioned before in the blog is a trip to Masada for stupid-nihilistic-symbol sightseeing followed by a dip in the Dead Sea and some floating (it’s much more fun than it sounds). All this in a small car where I tried to prove that there are more aggressive drivers than Israelis; namely me in a rented car when it’s not my credit card print left behind. One final visit worth mentioning and recommending is the Jerusalem Police museum (at least I think it was)) where the Brits used to hold all the nicked Jewish insurgents of the pre-independence days. I named it the Museum of Unintended Irony after seeing the cell where 2 of these guys blew themselves up for the cause, with a grenade smuggled in an orange, and a badly made video celebrating this glorious action.

Anyhoo, I am now in my new flat celebrating being connected to the interweb by this post. I also have Korean cable now so I can watch Starcraft channels. Hopefully I will inject enough posts in my time here to keep the blog alive but no promises. I am quite content at the moment and feeling lucky that I have had none of the mishaps and fuckups that make South Korea famous in the EFL world.

Then again luck might not have much to do with it. In my last afternoon in my old bedsit near my school I heard repeated screaming and shouting. It had a pattern so I assumed this was a Taekwondo thing and ignored it. The next day I saw a huge pentacle drawn in the sand of the school's yard.

What's Korean for wickerman?

Take care,