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My school term started a week late ‘because of the heat’. It’s been pretty hot, but I’m too British to understand cancelling things because of weather. Still, no complaints! I spent the Tuesday I thought would be my second day teaching at a big water park with my friend Jeong Sook and her daughter, sporting the compulsory cap and lifejacket ensemble and learning that the made-up girls wearing no shirts over their bikinis were ‘nalari’ – meaning ‘ne’er do well play-girls’, or something to that effect. I played spot the nalari while we queued, and the whole day was good old-fashioned, tube-clutching, water-in-face fun.

So this past week has been my real first week back. And after the joy and relief I’d felt at extended vacation, I was surprised to rediscover how much I actually like most of the students. Some of them are amazing. And there’s so many! I teach around 600 girls and although I’m far from learning all their names, in every class I recognise each face and group and character. On my way to the toilet at break time I’m usually greeted foamily by a gaggle of girls brushing their teeth at the long sink near my classroom. This avid all-day teeth-brushing is an aspect of Korean life I’ve become so used to that it doesn’t seem strange anymore. Like free ‘service items’ when I buy things (my smart phone purchase came with a box of complimentary washing powder, softener and kitchen roll) and the occasional thumping of badly behaved students… The latter I actually find slightly amusing now. I know – shock, horror, scandal. The best way I can think of to explain how it feels okay, is with the ‘one big family theory’ I’ve mentioned before. Like say if my ten year old sister stole my last piece of chocolate, I might hunt her down and hang her upside down for a while, or sit on her until she promised to make me cups of tea all day. And (probably) no one would accuse me of physical abuse. There is a similar feeling to what I see in my school… Helped maybe by the customary giggling of the student being punished.

Along these lines, about a month ago some girls from our school got busted for drinking underage in a bar and using fake IDs. Usually this would just mean a warning from the police, but the report had come from a rather malicious ex-boyfriend of one of theirs and he, along with the bar owner were putting on pressure that something else be done. So the police came into school to talk to teachers and parents. It was decided finally that the solution to the situation was for the girls to go camping for the weekend with the police officers involved in the case. This would, my co-teacher explained, give them a chance to ‘think about what they did’ and, erm, be in nature. Now as far as punishment goes, this seems pretty sweet to me, and I laughed a lot when I first heard about it. For various reasons, this just wouldn’t happen in the UK. It’s goes against the cultural (and, I think, legal) grain to send a group of seventeen year old girls into the wilderness with a group of grown ‘stranger’ men, police people or no. Plus, the punishment and educational factors depend on the girls having a respect for the police officers that I think would be generally lacking back home. But that’s just it, after my initial surprise and amusement I realised that this solution has a real sense and logic to it – a logic based on the intrinsic sense of community infused throughout Korean society. And the more I think about this approach the more sense it makes, and the more functional and healthy it seems. Funny thing, perspective.


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