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IMG_20140413_170613It is a rain-filled Thursday and my last day of teaching at this school. We are doing a K-Pop quiz – the students have to guess which K-Pop song the English lyrics are from, and then I play part of the song. They get nearly ALL of them right, and then sing and dance along. Where they find the time to memorise so much I don’t know. But then, after three days I am humming and nodding along, so maybe it’s not too surprising… It’s not bad this K-Pop stuff.

I will miss these girls – their grins and shrieks, their uniqueness and the long black hair that sheds daily all over the floor. Their giggled hellos; their thoughtfulness and sense of duty. It has been wonderful to be part of their lives for a while.

I have started saying goodbye, to people and also to places. Goodbye to this town, this little neighborhood of mine – the flat green roofs and hidden temples, painted brightly in browns and reds and turquoise. The looming, mist-covered mountain and the narrow back streets that night time fills with the hum of cicadas and distant dogs barking their territory.

The homesickness that grabbed me a few weeks back has passed. Now I am too busy to be anything other than busy. The days that are not wet are hot, and the mountain paths grow with leafy abundance. The cascades of small rocks, dry all winter, have become streams again, and as you trek along damp earth, underneath a green ceiling, you can hear water trickle somewhere in the undergrowth. Dragonflies are back in full force, playing dodge the humans back and forth over the red river-side paths. People carry umbrellas in sunshine and collect herbs from grassy banks.

It is very kind this country. Kind and peaceful. I didn’t expect to love it here, but I do, very much. And I’m sure a new kind of homesickness is coming – the kind that sends me to London’s Korea town in search of Bibimbap, the background murmur of Korean conversation and maybe someone who has heard of Yangsan, or singing lampposts, or both.

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Sorting through the piles of papers I always manage to accumulate, I came across some scribbles about Korea, written maybe a year ago:

 

Korea is old men with pink umbrellas and serious-faced peace signs. Korean is stray cats and service goods. It’s gifts and glances. It’s being naked in bathhouses and covering shoulders outside. It’s rain and dragon flies, snow and clear skies, smart phones and square glasses. It’s an endless photo shoot. It’s unwillingness to offend. It’s enjoyable weekends and days by myself. It’s time off school for holidays or exams and panic about open lessons. It is self-work, missing people, having hobbies. It’s making next-step plans. It’s passing through and staying for years. It’s learning Korean and being stared at. It’s not smiling at strangers but sharing fruit on mountains. It’s rice rice rice. It’s ‘good for health’. It is K-pop and maybes and lovely, giggling girls.

I said the first of my goodbyes today. As the end of my time here is approaching I took my beloved bike to the shop I bought it from, Imagemany moons ago. The shop is owned by a kind and friendly middle-aged couple who have sorted me and bikey out a few times since we began our adventures together. They have also thrown many “service” items – water bottles, head scarves and lights – my way. As well as being generous people, I think they were pleased by my Seoul trip last year.

I told them (in my broken Korean) that as I’m leaving Korea soon and selling my bike on, I wanted it looked over. Telling Korean people that you are planning to leave Korea incites a very common reaction. It is like they have just heard that not only are you going off to fight in a war, but also that their winning lottery ticket has just expired… A delightful mixture of genuine disappointment and deep concern. My bike-shop friends were no exception. After a few saddened shakes of the head, Mr Bike Man said “don’t forget us”, asserted that I “must come back” and when I do I must be sure to come and visit them. It was sad. I nearly cried. God knows how I’m going to say goodbye to the people whose names I actually know. But then, in a way, it is these connections that I will miss the most. I can stay in touch with my good friends here, but these day to day interactions that make me feel like an honorary local – there is no way of recreating them. And so I said simply that no, of course I won’t forget them. And yes of course I’ll come back, one day.

Half way through teaching a lesson, I am interrupted by my co-teacher. She had been scheduled to teach with me but was called away for ‘school promotion affairs.’

 So I am solo teaching in her absence, which is fine. Then, with twenty-five minutes left of class I am called out to join her, a photographer and some well-uniformed students for an impromptu photo shoot on the small lawn at the back of school. The girls are seated around me, with knees neatly folded to the same side, and we are instructed to ‘talk’ – or pretend to. Hohum. I think ‘it would be nice if this actually happened.’ I’d far rather teach outside than in my eternally cold classroom.  The sheer volume of bug dramas would ensure none of us ever actually had to do any work.    

We move over to some trellis-covered benches for more interesting “conversation”, then get a few shots of me crouched in a flower bush. 

 I am back to my class just before the bell rings. Oddly enough, they don’t seem to have missed me.

Last Sunday the first friend I made in Korea, Heeran, got married. Having become complacent in my comfortableness here, I didn’t realise Korea still held the opportunity for me to feel uncertain and out of place.

It took place, as nearly all Korean weddings do, in a hall designed for that purpose. Heeran had asked her Aunt to look out for me (as the only westerner I wasn’t too hard to spot) and I was kindly greeted and ushered in to the right room. The weddings are quick. Everybody arrives and donates money to the bride and groom – usually about $50, more if they’re close family – at a designated donation desk, and are given a lunch token in return. Then people watch the ceremony while milling about, chatting, greeting friends and checking their phones.

Photos are prime, of course. Sometimes I wonder at the rate with which proof of an experience has become the experience itself, particularly in Korea. Two of the staff at the hall were in charge of adjusting Heeran’s fairytale dress around her as she moved into various elegant positions for the cameras.
I was involved in the friend photo, girls on the bride’s side and boys with the groom. Cross gender friendships aren’t the norm, and certainly not for wedding photos.Aside from the talking, the style of ceremony was pretty westernised – a walk down the aisle, an exchanging of rings. But there were some differences. At the end of the ceremony the couple bowed deeply, first to the bride’s family and then to the groom’s. This order is deliberate I believe, representing the new allegiance of the woman to the man’s household – an old tradition but still present in Korean social structure today.

 

After the ceremony everybody ate, buffet style, at a restaurant on the floor below the hall. An extensive array of foods and drinks, endlessly refillable. I ate with the parents of one of my favourite students, grateful for the familiar faces amidst the vast sea of strangers.

I saw Heeran once more before she left for her honeymoon to Jejudo, and she thanked me for coming. I wanted to say so much –  how happy I was to witness such a huge step in her life, how privileged I felt to be there, and how proud I was of how serene and graceful and beautiful she’d been.  But it was the time just to squeeze her hand and smile.

A few weeks ago cherry blossoms fell from the trees in gentle flurries of pink rain, and now the sun shines warmly upon us. It seems the seasons in Korea arrive as quickly as they leave.

 I am so grateful for the emergence of summer, yet still my classroom would let ice cubes keep their shape and so I defy our money-conscious vice-principal with sneaky blasts of the heating.

 School has absorbed me for the past few months. I am, as it should be, a better teacher than last year. At this point in the middle of the term I am also struggling to quash my own inner teenager yelling ‘I don’t want to go to school anymore!’

 Yet the it is the small things in school that remind me of how golden life is – late girls doing squats in the morning, piano music drifting from an open window, impromptu student water fights at the fountain. My days are often brightened by a cup of tea with Jeong Sook – the school nurse and my wonderful, laughter-filled friend. ImageThe widespread Korean fashion of moustaches has spread to students’ pencil cases and many of the girls wear large-pupil contact lenses that make them look like soft, surreal anime characters.

 The other day I was napping at lunchtime (head down on a cat pillow at my desk) when the head student of my next class arrived, a good half hour early. She told me to carry on sleeping and lay her head down on another table. We napped companionably at opposite ends of the classroom until the bell rang.

 I love that sleep is so normal here. Perhaps because it’s so precious, everybody understands the need to get it whenever possible.

‘What did you do at the weekend?’ I ask each Monday.

‘Sleep… Study’ is the chorus, ‘study, sleep’.

So I arrived back in Korea after three weeks in Bali. I’m going to refrain from a Bali ramble and just say that it was wonderful and you should go. That’s probably all anyone wants to hear about any holiday, anyway.

 Seoul was familiar and cold. I had nine refills of kimchi in my first meal and am starting to suspect they lace the stuff with drugs.  Back in Yangsan, life this past week has consisted of no teaching and lots of goodbyes. I fear both the re-donning of the teacher’s mantle (five days) and the new phase of life that comes after friends have left. Soul the cat is also settled into her new home and knowing rationally that this is for the best has still left my heart to adjust and my apartment feeling empty.

 People’s post-Korea plans are often exciting, usually involving new locations to travel and work. My mouth waters just talking about it, and I am at the stage now where my own future plans are in sight.

 But weeks like this, I wonder at these lifestyles we are lucky enough to be able to choose. It seems that we set ourselves up for a life of goodbyes and heartache. 

 The more I explore this world the more it opens up and entices me to explore new places. I want to open a guesthouse, somewhere tropical, and make theatre in Buenos Aires. I want to study in Colombia, write in France, dance in Brazil, climb in Oman, build houses and chase cats and live in a tree. Right now teaching seems like a pretty good means to doing those things. I want to travel, yes, but I want to live places for longer too – learn the language and buy curtains. But as that list is only scraping the surface of all I want to do, how long will I ever be able to stay in one land? And sometimes a lifetime of making homes and friends only to uproot and move to the next country seems crazy, even to me.

But as a friend pointed out, a lifetime of goodbyes is also one of hellos, and I do like hellos. So for now I think I’ll just expand my concept of ‘home’ with that pesky ‘s’ I’m always reminding my students about.

As is tradition, I stay up far too late. After a busy day of goodbyes and printing things and dropping Soul off to her new owner/catsitter (depending how things turn out) I put on tunes and start packing around 11pm.

I eat the remains of the fridge, even cracking into the cabbage kimchi I was given a month or more ago. It’s been sitting there for a little while because for me, unlike many Korean’s that I know, one kimchi dose a day is usually enough, and breakfast and dinner I can suffice without it.

The absence of my four-legged friend is eerie, and noises outside the window at 3am send me into an almost paralytic state of fear. I realise I haven’t really lived alone for ten months now. It’s not that Soul the scardy cat was ever going to be much protection from any actual murderers who managed to break into my well-defended, ground-floor apartment, but she was, it seems, a good antidote for the imaginary ones.

It crosses my mind that I could phone Mr Ha, my kind and fatherly landlord who I’m sure would come sleepily running to scope the perimeter of my house. I decide not to be ridiculous and lay the last of my holiday clothes on the ondol-heated floor to dry.

I remind myself of how crazily safe this country is, drink a final cup of tea and write a list of things to remember tomorrow, starting with ‘phone charger’.  Then I check for people under the bed and sleep with a knife next to my pillow.

A week-long English camp at Gijang Cultural Centre. We arrived to the soundtrack from ‘Spirited Away’ tinkling out from bronze lampposts. They were more ornate than the ones lining Yangsan river and the music had been chosen with more soothing deliberation, but I felt at home nonetheless.

This city camp is funded by Yangsan Education Office. Twice a year they pick five foreigners from the pool of public school teachers to attend a residential camp for one hundred middle school students from across Yangsan. Although the method of selection can feel a little like foreign teacher hunger games, most people survive and get some extra pay to make up for it.

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Plus, the camp is supposed to be fun, and even manages to be sometimes. My lessons were game-themed: Battleships, Scattergories, Apples to Apples and a World Quiz. One teacher taught fairytales, and another did science experiments making wish I was in his class, dissolving eggshells and exploding bags.

Gijang is a rural seaside town recently tagged on to Busan city, and during our three-hour midday break I would walk along the coast. These winter days are clear and bright and you can be warmed by the sun even while the wind whips red into your nose and ears.

Now as far as I can tell, everywhere in Korea is “famous” for something. Not wanting to be an exception, Gijang is famous for seaweed, and on these afternoon walks I would pause to watch the women divers, black and flippered, free dive into the winter ocean and return with green handfuls to their bobbing net baskets.

Once, at dusk, I saw an orange robed monk and a couple stood on a rock over the ocean. The monk chanted while the couple threw food and drink into the waves. A ceremony for the ancestors I was told.

My next door neighbour is the landlord’s mother. Like most Korean ladies in their senior years she doesn’t like cats and I was told a few months ago not to let Soul out of my groundfloor window. Instead I take her for an hour each day to the mountainside next to my house. She is scared of strangers and so we go to the quiet grassy patch that is home to two buddhist style mound graves and overlooks the city. From there we can scramble up the wooded slope behind us. In earlier months it was a red world of dappled sunlight and raining leaves. These days even the big rocks have a carpet of thick white and brown which Soul sinks into as she gallops past my legs.

 For a little while it seemed as though we had these slopes to ourselves. I’d take up a flask of tea and my guitar and sing a very liberal interpretation of Folsom Prison Blues to the last of the dragonflies. This past month however, the slope has grown more popular.

 First I noticed an empty birdcage, tied to a tree in the middle of the woods. Then an ‘off the path’ hiker came meandering down into our territory, much to Soul’s miaow-filled distress. One afternoon I saw that, not far from the unofficial ‘entrance’ to the slope, some of the sticks and leaves that cover the earth had been disturbed, in a rough two metre circle. It wasn’t defined enough a shape to have an obvious purpose, but clearly either a human or another large animal had moved the surface of the forest floor. In the same place as this clearing there then appeared an empty hamster cage, also tied to a tree. 

 One day, as Soul played around the tombs, I looked up to see that we were being watched, by another black and white cat sitting on a rock up where Soul and I walk. It felt like a mirror themed déjà vu. She was gone by the time we climbed up to where she’d been sat, watching us instead from the undergrowth far away.

 The next find was a pig’s head. Again near the ‘circle clearing’, it was positioned snout up, and coming out of an orange plastic bag. And for some reason I wasn’t even very surprised. I read a little about Korean Shamanism when I first arrived here and found out that pig heads are often used in ‘good fortune’ ceremonies. I concluded then, pretty logically, that some modern shamans had chosen the same hidden yet accessible woodland for their night time magical rituals as I had our walks. 

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 It was a few days later that I discovered a message written in sticks on the grassy patch near the tombs… I took a photo and showed a Korean friend who couldn’t decipher it, and I think the sticks had already been muddled.

I wasn’t too perturbed by the stick message or the pigs head (the empty bird and hamster cages stuck me as more sinister), but when there was a loud rustling in the same area not long afterwards I stood, heart beating and still, until out of a pile of leaves jumped a black and white kitten. Realising their size difference Soul took chase after it, over branches and leaves and, not trusting her intentions, I chased after Soul. I got there first and took Soul to a different part of the mountain that day.

We’ve been watched by black and white kittens since, from a distance, the head has disappeared (I don’t miss it), and there hasn’t been anymore indecipherable messages yet. A friend suggested that perhaps I could go to a different place to walk the cat. I answered, true or not, that ‘we were there first’. But I realised that actually I just quite like being part of this motley collection of oddities, all drawn to the same small fragment of a big mountain. 

Belén Lobos

Out of the ordinary stories in images and words 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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