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plantChristmas in Korea is not a big deal.  It’s considered a kind of second Valentines Day, an excuse for couples to buy each other underwear and for single people to bemoan the lack of occasion for showing off their new underwear.

I clung to my ingrained cultural perspective in the week prior to the not-so-big day: in my classroom listening to classic Christmas songs was compulsory and the making of paper chains enforced.   I wrote the word ‘Jingle’ 96 times on separate pieces of coloured paper.  I sang along to ‘All I Want For Christmas.’  I spent several days making Christmas Bingo cards and bought chocolate and tangerines to throw at students if they won.  All in all, it was a good week.

Tuesday itself was calm and quiet.  I opened a Christmas bag of biscuits, socks and cards from four of the sweetest students ever to have shouted ‘teacher – finishee!’ at me, and the ‘IQ84’ novels by Haruki Murakami which absorbed me completely.  I read a lot, walked a little and ate food.  It was pleasant and relaxing, and actually devoid of the homesick pangs I’d thought might surge in.

Yet still, it felt a little special somehow – more than any of the other public holidays so far – and I wondered why.  Was it just an inbuilt memory of excitement derived from 24 years of such importance being placed on this particular day?  Perhaps a programmed emotional behaviour pattern, a fictional fizz self-created by drawing on memories of Christmas past?  Or am I somehow connected to the consciousness of those who were celebrating the day in the way that I’m used to?   I mused on this as I ate a very un-traditional tofu dinner.  It was perhaps the most peaceful Christmas day I have ever had.

True to his kind and diligent approach to introducing me to Korean culture, after learning about my love of heat, Sunny took me to the most traditional of this country’s saunas.  Made from a series of round cob huts, an end hut is the furnace, and the connected sauna huts vary in heat according to their proximity to it. Only oak is burnt, and the heat is said to be endowed with the properties of that tree, fighting illness and giving strength.

These particular huts were situated in a covered courtyard of open fires and benches to rest on. While I was there they began to clear the furnace hut of the burning embers with a very long shovel: a day after it is  cleared completely it provides the brave with an extreme heat experience, while the hut at the other end of the row becomes the new furnace.

Similar to other ‘jimjilbangs’, people often go to this kind of sauna for the day. They take sweet potatoes to roast on the outside fires and a bag of satsumers to keep vitamin C levels high, and offer to strange, ‘high-nosed’ western girls who look bemused when asked simple questions. Around the furnace hut people face towards the opening, sat on small wooden stalls or stood behind those sitting, gazing hypnotically into the golden red world.  Inside the sauna huts people sit close together in a circle, all sporting the compulsory orange pyjamas and looking a little like a gang of Guantamano Bay escapees hiding in a cave.

It was this detail that helped me reach a definition of what a jimjilbang actually is… You see, the word is bandied around rather a lot, and what with bathhouses, various kinds of saunas (including the male-orientated “sex saunas”), and the post-bath relaxation areas, exact definition eluded me for a while.  It also fell under that category of question that evokes only the vaguest of answers from Korean friends.  For now I have reached the conclusion that, in translation, ‘jimjilbang’ means: ‘the location of an enjoyably mellow, pyjama-themed gathering for people of all ages, usually involving heat and food.’

121124122333Stereotypically British in my desire to be polite, this past month I’ve been trying to gage the system of social customs I am now amidst.  So, bows are in and shoes are off.  Pointing at people is rude, leaving chopsticks in rice means impending death (symbolically not literally) and a public blowing of the nose is far ruder than spitting everywhere.

Due to the uncertainty of exact bowing protocol I have adopted a frequent fervid nod for anyone my age and above.  I make my way through the teacher’s room like a head-bobbing toy dog someone tapped absentmindedly.  I have to remind myself not to bow back to students.  This is especially important as, due to catching the bus in the morning, sporting a rucksack and measuring the same height, I sometimes I feel like one of them:  I fear returning nods with a big grin might not do wonders to maintain an authoritative teacher / student distinction.  And then there is the residing anxiety that I will not recognize the vice principal and therefore not bow accordingly – though who knows how low to go?

Perhaps most interestingly for me, smiles are not big here. Traditionally, someone who smiles a lot is considered light or superficial, and a somber expression communicates that you are a serious person to be taken seriously.  I don’t do very well on this point and I’m kind of okay with that.  I suppose things have always worked best when I don’t take myself too seriously.

Despite this minimalistic approach to bearing teeth in Korea, there is a deeply ingrained cultural kindness.  Walking is a great example.  I walk the mountain in front of my house often.  Yesterday I relayed with a middle-aged couple a few times, who unsmilingly and silently looked at me.  On the third passing the man backtracked, not to shout at me in Korean about defiling the native woodland with my foreign presence, but to hand me a satsuma.  This is the third walk in a row I have been given (unpoisoned) fruit by a stranger.  It seems that fruit, not smiles, are the national currency of friendliness.

As I said, I can’t always help the smiling. I’m sure I’ll bow my way into many more socially questionable situations and someone walked into my classroom the other day while I was having a good nose blow. However, I have started carrying satsumas around with me, just in case the opportunities arise to give them away.

Entering an eastern bathhouse for the first time is an experience I’ll take with me into old age. Large, sunken square baths; scattered pouring bowls of various sizes; glass doors leading into heat and steam-filled rooms; flat showers the size of drink trays; a corner screened off for massage and rows and rows of low stools in front of mirrors.  Everywhere is wet.  Everywhere is allowed to be wet, covered in non–slip tiles with rivets in between them running into drains.  Imagine this setting if you can, then fill it with hundreds of naked Korean women, sitting in baths or on the floor, scrubbing at their feet or at small garments in a plastic tub, scooping and pouring water purposefully over their bodies.  Everybody absorbed in her own cleaning ritual.

I headed firstly to the giant showers to scope it out.  Is there a special washing technique? Was I really allowed in all the baths?   Following the proverbial advice ‘when in Rome’, I began my foray into water world with the timeless survival method of imitation.  Experimentation led to the discovery that the baths vary in temperature – the smallest are the very hot, and the very cold, respectively painted green and gold on the inside. The hottest was bloody hot even for me: following the instructions of a hand waving old lady I sank down into the water to find that, once there, it was best to stay very still.

This particular bathhouse is built around hot springs, and the water is believed to have special healing properties. I was told that older Korean houses don’t have showers attached to the sink (the normal washing means in modern houses) and generally public bathhouses are still the place to go to get properly clean.

I also hear rumours of ‘jimjilbangs’, a land not only comprising of baths but of numerous aromatherapy-esque steamings, spa treatments and giant TV screens to watch movies in post-bath ‘relaxation rooms’. In both bathhouse and jimjilbang there are sleeping areas, with heated floors and small pillows.  My neighbour told me that when she was at Busan university, she used to sometimes go to the baths to sleep at night time.  I think that sounds wonderful.

Ahhh Emart, the consumer’s paradise: an L.E.D. lit heaven crammed with possible purchases.  Today I took a deep breath and delved into the Labyrinth, in search of baked beans and the holiest of grails – good bread.  Disregarding my recent penchant for oily, sugar-coated donuts from the shop next to school (today the lady put two in a bag on my entry, establishing a newfound ‘regular’ status) I still like my bread sugar free.  And brown.  And baked in a beautiful whole loaf.  All of which I discovered this afternoon, and although the man behind the counter probably didn’t understand ‘hurray’, he got the gist of my jubilation.

Despite the overwhelming amount of rice in circulation, for some reason it often eludes me in Korean supermarkets. For hours I can trawl isles of seaweed and cling-filmed vegetables looking for the gleaming pile of rice which logic tells me must exist, only to be eventually directed to a special rice vortex, inside which even the sales people are made of rice, and people dive into pools of the stuff from huge rice towers.

What else can one find in Emart?  Everything. Or at least, that’s the idea.  It has however, so far failed to produce a coat that I like.  There is an overwhelming predilection here for the puffer jackets that bumpered their way into British fashion during the nineties.  As they make me feel about ten, I have thus far not succumbed to real consideration of such an acquisition. Yet as the water taps outside my classroom start growing icicles, the North Face clones are looking less like human/slug hybrids and more like warm people with sense.

Teacher PhotoIt is snowing today in Yangsan, making this world beautiful and cold.  The students are excited and lunchtime produced several pictures containing my head amidst groups of peace-inclined teenagers.  Although I have joined the international ‘thank god it’s Friday’ club, today I am glad to be here and full of affection for this school and these girls. Last lesson I had my favourite class: they are so sweet and nice I feel as though I am taking advantage of their nature for my own evil teaching means.

As teachers around the globe have known for centuries, I am discovering that teaching different classes is like munching on a big bag of mixed fruit.  Along with the chocolate-coated raisins, in which students sporadically shout ‘teacher I love you’ and give an (unprompted) round of applause at the end of class, there’s always the chewy brown banana lessons to keep the old ego under wraps.

I am friends with the school nurse who, in school world, lives opposite my classroom. I call on her some afternoons to drink ‘caw-pee’. She is warm and, unlike many Korean people, unabashed by her minimal English language ability. I in turn feel free to bumble my way through any Korean phrases I am repeatedly taught. We laugh throughout our communication attempts, and in that way understand each other.

My landlady called round last week, to tell me many things about the compost bin situation. I understood ‘leave the bucket outside the gate’ due to explicit pointing and something about ‘five days’ due to the intrinsic usefulness of fingers.  Said compost bin has therefore been sitting outside the gate for three days in a row and is still full. Yet she talked at me nonetheless, and again I appreciated it. These persistent attempts at communication, continued despite my incomprehension, are comforting somehow. Perhaps they speak of the security of infancy and the loving repetition that gave me my first words.

The students in the final year are about to graduate.  Although I have never taught them, a few days ago I was ushered to a photographer who took my photo for their leaving book. Afterwards my co-teacher Sunny and I were told to write our full names down on a piece of paper. In English? I asked, and Sunny told me yes. The photographer laughed scornfully and said to his assistant something like ‘As if she could write it in Korean.’ My feelings were hurt because I can write in Hangul, my name at least. After leaving I wished I had told him so.

This incident stood out because mostly people are encouraging. Sometimes my miniscule language gestures are met with claps and Ooooing. I hope my open practice of random Korean words encourages the students to feel less shy about practicing their English in class, in an ‘I can’t sound more stoopid than her’ kind of way. And I realise more than ever that, for me, the key learning a language is to do just that – sound stupid, say the wrong the thing and hopefully make someone laugh.

121125140055A week in Korea feels like so much longer.  To account for this I have fashioned the coarse and common theory that we measure the wonderfully relative concept of time by experience, of which my life has been full.  Comparatively, I have written little.

And so, for a start, idioms are wonderful.  Wonderful and easy and nonsensical and not really part of my life anymore. Rather typically, I have come to live up a hill and in front of a mountain in the quiet part of this ‘small city’ working at a public school with no other Westerners. Earlier this evening I spoke to an Australian at a bus stop in the centre of Yangsan, the first native English speaker I’ve been in physical contact with this week passed.  I crammed colloquial patter into our bus ride conversation like a bank robber with a swag bag and a safe.

My co-teacher and his wife are as kind as can be.  Yesterday they gave me a bag of persimmons (a sweet orange fruit, the forbidden love child of a melon and a pear) and today a big bag of oranges and a sweet cake made from rice.  They are anxious I know the best places to shop, and have offered me Korean cooking lessons.

In the city centre high-rise tower blocks and neon shop signs reign supreme, but round my neighbourhood there are big flowers painted on the wall and the colour scheme is more pale green and deep red and cream, with shop signs like forgotten manuscripts and houses built like you might expect from a small country sandwiched between China and Japan.

What else? The girls I teach are lovely, a normal bunch of 16 year olds in many ways – maybe more giggly and more tired than Western teenagers, and keen on me for the simple fact that I am foreign.  And I feel foreign, I really do.  In school I am like a novelty pet mascot, spinning on my wheelie chair in my very own ‘foreign teacher classroom’ or enthusiastically greeting the gangs of students who chorus hello whenever they see me.

Since being here, when running through memories in my head, I sometimes get confused between dreams and reality.  Both are so strange and vivid these days.  This afternoon consisted of very literal poo sticks at my medical exam and melodic accompaniment from the lampposts along the river, as I walked home from school.  I liked the lampposts.

Belén Lobos

Photojournalist- Periodista independiente

Sophia Sheridan

en-route to something, somewhere, it began...

another side of the world

Teaching in Yangsan, South Korea. Travelling where the wind blows.

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