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Tamjin teacherThe cherry blossoms are blooming. There are many trees in this southern province as they were planted by the Japanese during their last attempt at colonisation. They line the road up to my house and a student brought a sprig to my desk this morning. She told me their Korean name, ‘Sakura’, which I repeated back to her. ‘Ooo, doc doc’ says she – ‘clever’. It’s a good thing I’m irrefutably modest and humble or my ego would be planet sized, stuffed full of pride at my ‘small face’ and ability to repeat a Korean word.

The spring finds me well, if late at writing. Although it’s still a little cold in the mornings I have started cycling to school – a breaks-on whizz down the very long, very steep hill, then along the river to whichever tune the lampposts are cracking out. Today ‘Eye of the Tiger’ made me smile.

The start of spring term has been busy and bustling. After a long and quiet winter break it is rather nice to be greeted with ‘hello teacher’ when I leave my classroom. With the surge in student population I have also regained my comedian status. Sometimes I’m so funny in Korea all I need to say is ‘hi’ and students are in stiches. It’s made me think seriously about a career move, but I don’t know if I’d find as appreciative an audience anywhere else.

I have rarely been accused of fervent nationalism, but living in Asia has made a few things apparent.  The first is that these days I identify as being ‘European’.  Such is the island mind-set of my native land, this is not something that has really struck me before.   Now I occasionally get a little pang, not only for green fields and cider, but for crumbling, yellow brick walls, old alleyways and wine.

The second is that, few and far between as we are here, I rather like British people.  For one, social interaction is just so easy. Quickly and simply a mutual understanding about the basics of life can be gained, allowing the conversation move to irreverent joking about everything and anything, and hearty chuckles about how it’s still snowing back home.

The Saturday hike I went on last week finished with a Busan club football game.  A couple of stands were filled, and gathered there was the largest collection of foreigners I’ve seen in one place since coming to Korea.  I was sat behind the regular group of foreigners who apparently attend all matches…  As they chanted to the tune of ‘coming round the mountain’, blew horns and banged a very large drum, I leaned across to a Brighton lad who’d been hiking with me and said ‘What do you reckon to most of them being British?’ He grinned and answered ‘I’m pretty sure they are.’

The funny thing is, I never went to a football match back in the U.K.  Yet surrounded by avid football fans who had obviously packed their passion to come to Korea, I felt a sense of curiously displaced comfortable familiarity.  Though not quite of the horn-blowing fan variety, my hiking/British comrade and I shared amused glances when the group got particularly enthused, and I still sometimes find myself singing: “Oh I’d rather live in BUSAN than GWANGJU…”

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A well-travelled, softly-spoken colleague told me he considered the increase in individualism to be one of the most negative impacts of Western culture on Korea.  Before coming East I’d never heard individualism spoken of as a bad thing…  This has struck me as the most interesting and fundamental of cultural differences, and one I am just scraping the surface of understanding.

In Korea, an individual is considered within the context of family, community and society.  Very early on in a conversation a Korean person may ask your age and marital status so they can place you and speak to you in the appropriate way.  Addressing people directly by their name is uncommon (and mostly rude), and there’s an extensive range of alternative forms of address depending on the intricate web of all possible age and gender-based relationships. Sometimes a familial term of address is used: I call one of my friends ‘Unni’ which translates as ‘big sister’, and everyone can call older women, ‘Auntie’.

Perhaps this ingrained sense of family-like connection and community focus leads to the kind of intimacy I find in schools, when walking, bathing and eating which far exceeds that found in Britain.

This kind of ‘family’ thinking might explain an incident that happened yesterday on the train, while I was sat next to a young teenage boy with bad acne.  A woman in her 40’s entered, sat on the other side of me and proceeded to advise the boy at great length on the best way to treat his skin (aloe vera was all I gathered).  Aware of everybody else on the train and the insecurities of teenagehood I found this whole advice sandwich situation a bit uncomfortable, and felt sorry for the boy who listened and nodded politely.  But he didn’t seem to mind too much.

It might also explain, perhaps, why old women in supermarket queues feel no qualms about cupping my face, squeezing my cheek and remarking on my appearance… That’s what Grandmas do, after all.

Before I came to my job I was a little intimidated at the idea of teaching teenagers.  Succumbing to the adage ‘teenagers are difficult’, I was uncertain about what lay in store. Jumping up and down in a Norebang, shouting down a microphone with one student “Don’t Stop Me NOW” while two other girls dance and whoop beneath rotating, coloured disco lights, was not what I expected.  Yet this was where Thursday afternoon found me, and it was damn good fun.

At some point I worried about breaking teacher / student protocol.  Then I realised that I don’t even know what that is here.  The students have respect for teachers – they bow and generally do what they’re told far more than their western counterparts.  However, paradoxically there seems to be less boundaries in some ways.  Students come in and out the teachers room without knocking, there’s not the same strict ‘safety rules’ about hugging and being in a one to one situation, and sometimes students invite you to the singing rooms.

One hypothesis for this difference is that, as Korean students get older and spend more and more time in school, it’s impossible for boundaries to exist in the same way as they do in British schools.  They spend so much time studying in high school – 14 hours is not unusual  – that teachers necessarily come to take on a parental role.  According to this thinking I guess I’m more like a big waygook (foreign) sister teacher.  By changing the chorus of R. Kelly’s not-quite-number-one hit to ‘We believe we can fly’ I like to think I was assuming both an educational and inspirational approach to this role…

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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