Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Yangpyeong, South Korea

Squid, Spam and Swastikas

Above are some of the things that give and edge to the comparative dullness of Korea. Dried squid is considered a most tasty snack and a good companion to beer. Spam is advertised heavily and often sold in gift boxes. This could be a legacy of the Korean War but then again it could just be a fondness for mystery meats. Finally, like a lot of Asian countries, there are the occasional swastikas popping up on buildings and windows. As I am in a small town I don't have the joy of seeing ignorant newcomers (from the land of the free, of course) get all riled up about them. Should one of my readers be amongst the educationally challenged, the swastikas are the original cutesy Hindu/Buddhist deal not the inverted Hackenkreuz made popular by Adolf Schicklegruber.

There are other subtle differences that make me smile. Boozing is done in places called “hofs”Maybe as an homage to the Western nation where beer is the most revered. You order drinks by their size , sort of. What you ask for is a number of cc. At some point, millilitres got confused with cubic centimetres so when you ask for a 3000cc jug you get 3 litres instead of something the size of an oil drum. That being said at 10000 won ($10) a pop, it's hard to whine too much. Fruit and squid are the commonly ordered snacks but cheap buggers like me are quite happy with the freebie curried popcorn. The décor of most hofs seem to be based on business class waiting lounges and to drink in the sun ,you have to go to a convenience store, buy your beer and sit on the tables provided.

Other customary activities can get a raised eyebrow. It's worth taking your time when flicking through the TV channels in the hunt for English language programmes. You will see the ultimate in geek TV which consists of live games of someone else playing Starcraft or Counterstrike with added sports commentary. There is also a couple of strangely egalitarian religious channels. By that I mean that at any given time you have an equal chance of landing on a catholic mass, a happy clappy ceremony, some lardy american evangelist redneck spewing simplistic poison or a bunch of Buddhist monks being wise These I would despise as much as the former 2 groups except that they remind me of the Shaolin which sort of makes them look cool.

The usual technique to see weird shit is to go for a pointless gander. It hasn't worked here but I don't really care as I get to see nice scenery. Yangpyeong is a bit strange as they have decided to put a 100, 000 people in what looks like 3 square kilometers (not sure as maps are bloody impossible to find). From the town centre you could believe you are in a big city as you can see high rises and large busy avenues. However, walk for 10 minutes in any direction and you get to fields , rice paddies (the terraced kind which have an aesthetic quality), streams, woods and hills.

Though Yangpyeong itself is ugly, the location is superb. I thought it weird that the town planners seemed to believe they were in central Tokyo but maybe they knew that it would end up being fugly so they decided to minimise the damage. Good chaps. This makes me a happily pleased bunny. After spending more than a year in a Manchurian city where a 45 minute drive will finally get you to a wondrous expanse of flat browness , I enjoy being able to soothe my shakra with nature's visual gifts.

The job is also going well. I might have given the impression that Korean schools are a uniform away from boot camp. The truth is that the kids have got a good deal at my school. The equipment is great. I am writing this on the laptop given to me by the school and I, should I get the urge, I can proofread it on a huge fecking screen. The kids also get to do some cool stuff in school hours like camping trips o going to the local stream for a dip. It's not very harsh either. My disciplinary standards are ridiculously low on the basis that I can deal with rowdiness and channel the energy into learning but I loathe passive, bored silence. Yet even a slack git like me is slowly getting a rep as a hardcase.

What fucks up kids in Korea is not the public schools but the insane amount of extra curricular learning their parents inflict on them. People who yak away on the Asian love of education has not spent any time with sleep deprived 10 year olds. Teaching about time related activities is fucking depressing. Outside of meals and public school the answer to “what do you do at xx o'clock?” will inevitably be a look of resignation and the word “hagwon” (the Korean word for a cram school).

In a way the public schools and myself are complicit. A lot of school boards have decided that if you can't beat them you should join them. I make extra dosh by teaching for a public school programme for gifted sprogs. There are no remedial classes for dunces in Korea but the clever ones get extra teaching. I have also finished a month long “summer camp” where only the smartest got to join. This sounds like a perverse incentive to me. I suspect that if someone told kids back home that good results would mean extra classes it would go seriously wrong. I know for sure that in that situation I would be spend my time trying to eat my ear, drooling, putting pencils in my nose and generally trying to look as retarded as possible.

I have tried to alleviate their suffering in my personal holiday stalag. It is usually up to the foreign teacher to create the programme for these gigs. Inexperience, laziness and , unfortunately, custom ensure that a lot of teachers just go forth, get the school to buy some exercise book in a library and make the sprogs plow their way through it for a month. On the basis that I wasn't going to spend my summer working hard or being bored, my students weren't either.

My younger students got a programme based around water. There's loads to teach on that topic and you get the school to by shitloads of water balloons as educational supplies. An added hbons is that you eventually work in pirates into the course. English is learnt even if it's in a comedy pirate accent. My older sprogs got to share my interest with things foreign and weird. Therefore my kids now think that cheese rolling is a popular activity in the UK, French people get around parkour style, an average day in Spain is spent throwing tomatoes or dodging bulls in narrow streets and that Germans are required to have elaborate beards and do the slapdance when they meet each other.

What discipline is imposed I heartily approve of. Pathetic as this might seem, I do enjoy it when sprogs instinctively bow when they cross my path. The kids here also have to clean their classroom and the stretch of corridor in front of it. I like that for I reckon it teaches them an important lesson in taking responsibility for their environment and that teamwork reduces burdens. That or they are learning that it's good to get into positions of authority as that will mean they will be the ones faffing around on the web while the lesser beings skivvy away.

Another bonus here is that you can impose semi-corporal punishment. You can't smack them around or cane the little blighters but it's standard practice to make them adopt stress positions. They get moany after 5 minutes or so of this treatment and usually won't fuck up again for a couple of weeks. I introduced the red dot punishment as I believe kids should learn from their punishment and being placed 2 inches away from the whiteboard and having nothing to look at but a little red dot tends to focus listening skills wonderfully.

It's not all fun and games and being the on the right side of the fence at Guantanamo. Occasionally, our tranquility is interrupted by an incredibly annoying PA system. As we are close to some Korean festival we are treated to sudden tests using traditional songs. The genius in charge also switches this on midway through the fucking songs so as to maximise the surprise and disruption.

Another disturbing thing are the strange proverbs on the stairs going up to my office. These are in Korean and English and are there to exhort students towards self-improvement. The English is good but just because you can translate something doesn't mean you should. We have the:

-Predictable but outdated: “A sound mind in a sound body”

-Slightly off but nothing serious: “He who laughs last laughs best”

-More off and a bit worrying: “Knowledge is power”

-Weird and creepy: “Walls have ears”

-Sexist: “Boys! Be ambitious!”

That's it for my school. All in all I am quite happy with it as I am with the rest of my lot in Korea. I have a lot of doss time at school that I pass by getting around the piss poor censorware of my school. When I can't be bothered I peruse sites by expats in Korea. Expat forums are often a whingefest and I think a good rant is great literature. The difference here is that I cannot relate to it. Within a month in China, I could go to a forum, read someone's tale of woe in the Middle Kingdom at the hands of the heathen Chinese and sympathise. I had by then experienced enough to know that it probably the truth.

In Korea, the rants make me giggle but they don't connect. I have not had any truly annoying problems and any hiccup coming from my inability to speak Korean often results in Koreans working bloody hard to make me a happy weiguk. I once had a woman outside a supermarket chase after me to give me an ice-cream as I looked sweaty. As it is I have a very high regards for Koreans. Maybe I am simply in the honeymoon period. With any luck, things should go pear shaped and I'll have something interesting to write about.

Take care,