I wrote this title without thinking much about it, and just now noticed how un-British it is. Yes, I say ‘movies’ now. I also say ‘damn’ to mean ‘wow, great’ and have celebrated thanksgiving twice. Not only are 80% of the foreign people I know here American, American English is pretty entrenched in Korea. It’s easier to roll with it than insist, every time, that soccer is actually football and fall is a silly word for such a lovely season…

Back to the subject – movies.

There is a DVD rental store down the bottom of my road which I at first had to muster courage to even go into. My film-watching decreased over summer, but as winter creeps up again I have started to return: to peruse the DVD cover pictures and make an ‘in-the-dark’ decision about what to watch on a dark school night.

These days the couple who run the store advise me on movie selections and waiver the fee for late returns. Yesterday they also helped me position the ‘Cat House’ I’d made (a rather clever construction made from cardboard, polystyrene and old jumpers) for the feral mumcat and her young kittens living in a rubbish-filled alley next to their shop. The cultural difference in attitudes towards animals has been the hardest for me to accept and deal with since being here, and I was touched warmly by their help in my crazy cat lady task.

Korean cinema, by the way, is excellent. Perhaps to balance a real-life cynicism, I have a penchant for Romances: my favourite Korean movies so far are ‘Architecture 101’ and ‘Always’, both well-crafted and satisfyingly emotional. Yet choosing from covers alone sets me up for surprises sometimes. I can select what appears to be an escapist romance, only to be haunted for weeks by the twisted plot of a bloody crime thriller. Luckily there is a cat living in my (actual) house who would scare off any evil intruders by glaring at them from underneath the bed… So, no worries there.

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It is one year ago that I flew to Korea, nervously practicing ‘thank you’ and ‘hello’ in my head and wondering how cold it would get. I now know how cold it gets (pretty chilly), have a slightly larger Korean vocabulary and I am not nervous anymore. 

This country has effected me in many ways. These days I brush my teeth after every meal, order extra kimchi like nobody’s business and have started asking people ‘where are you going ‘ as a casual greeting. I am addicted to avid skin scrubbing and dread the day when weekly spas are no longer in my life. I nod along to K-pop songs and answer ‘maybe’ at least twice as much as I used to. I am used to being surrounded by glorious, peaceful mountains with their many paths and colourful pagodas. My bowing anxiety has greatly diminished, making my daily photcopying trips to the communal teachers room a bit more relaxed: I now just bob away casually while watching the students on gate monitering duty chase the late girls for their name and class number. 

 
I re-signed my contract with this school which I know is the right move. The students and my co-teachers are wonderful and I love the freedom to plan my own lessons from scratch. Yet I can feel those year-long itchy feet tapping toes in my subconscious. For my life is good here – comfortable and rich and rewarding – but it is not new any longer, and it does not scare me. So I must delve into my own resources to find newness and challenge: writing, climbing, playing guitar; perhaps learning more Korean and teaching myself how to save save save for future adventures.

Last Saturday I awoke at 5am. The early morning was fresh and dewy and my spirits were surprisingly high after four hours sleep. I cycled through empty streets to the subway so as to meet friends at a bus terminal an hour down the line. 

We were off to Jirisan, the second highest peak in South Korea and apparently the hardest to climb.

 By 10am we were picking ripe persimmons and ascending slopes covered with orange, red, green, grey and rust-coloured trees. There is a Korean word ‘nampoon’ which means ‘the changing of the colours of the leaves’, a word that the English language is missing. Now is nampoon season.

The trail grew less gentle and we reached the shelter just before a cloud descended – not over us, but on us – and the air was filled with a wet mist. We joined another group of hikers in a small windowed room next to the sleeping area, sat on wooden blocks and shared the food we’d brought amongst ourselves – humous, crackers, carrots, rice, sausages, tofu, miso soup and fruit.

Before dark we settled down to sleep, armed with jumpers, coats, sleeping bags and a blanket hired from the shelter. The bunk beds were large communal wooden platforms, men on the bottom and women on the top. No mattresses – for me, in Korea they don’t seem as important for comfort as they did back home.

Sleeping decorum is also different here. We were woken a few times by people outright chatting away, without the slightest hint of a ‘people are sleeping’ whisper. It made me feel less guilty when the five of us exited at 2am to make sunrise at the peak, zipping bags and flashing headlights.

 Night hikes are a new passion – cool air and stars, feeling both in the wideness of the world and the containment of the darkness. We were generous in our estimation of timing, and ended up huddled in sleeping bags and all possible clothes 1900 metres high for over an hour before the sun arrived. I learnt afterwards that it’s possible to see sunrise from Jirisan summit about only 30 days a year, and that day was not one of them. Our early rise did mean we made it down by ten though, and back to Busan early to recover. I’ll confess, it took a few days for my legs to stop hurting like hell… But it was worth every wince.

ImageOver Chuseok, the Korean Thanksgiving festival, my friend Louis and I cycled from Busan (the Yangsan end) to Seoul in a week.  For those with a sketchy idea of Korean geography, Busan is the country’s second largest city on the South coast and Seoul is located firmly in the north. The total distance between the two is about 500k.

We followed the route mapped by avid cyclist Jan Boonstra, found at dontwastetheweekend.com.  It was a beautiful journey.  We cycled through mountain ranges on forgotten B-roads lined with thick greenery; farmland that smelt of sweet, ripe grapes and manure and garlic; green and golden fields in the most open space I’ve seen in this peak-filled country, and cycle lanes built along wide, calm rivers.

I crashed on the first day.  It was as good a crash as it gets – dramatic looking with only minor resulting injuries to both me and my trusty steed. Louis freed my bike from the ditch it was wedged into while I donned a heat patch and ate some chocolate, and then we were back on the road.

We stayed mostly in motels. Known in Korea as ‘love motels’, they are intended more for clandestine couples than weary cyclists, but the ajumma reception ladies usually seemed pleased to show helmet clad foreigners to a room – though not as pleased as we were. The necessities of life felt once again truly important – I was always so grateful to find a bed to sleep in, a shower, water and food, especially as sometimes it was dark when we reached the only motel for miles around.

I was struck by the great difference between rural and city life. Cities in Korea are so loud and light and populated – the countryside is, well, just the opposite. One night we found ourselves lost in the most rural and least populated land we’d been in. Walking our bikes up a mountain in the dark the only lights we could see were from the occasional firefly.  On eventually reaching the top and viewing the twinkle of a street-lit town below I felt like a sailor sighting shore after many moons away at sea. Arriving finally in Seoul was like arriving from another planet, and required a major costume change for our day of eating and luxurious meandering before our respective journeys home.

My memory of the trip now is a continuous collection of fragments: the smell of tractor fuel; the barking of dogs as we cycled past small clusters of dilapidated farmhouses; curved tiled roofs and red chillies drying from wooden rafters.  The farmers, nearly all over 60, going about their daily tasks –  lots of chopping and picking for the harvest; villages with brightly painted walls and coffee drinking grandparents; suicidal grasshoppers, green road signs and apple trees. And then there were the downhill, sky-filled rides at dusk – the kind that make you glad to be alive with every breath.

War has been raging. Cool air settles back into morning and evening and marks the final days of summer. Knowing their end is nigh, the evil forces have reunited for one last offensive against me. 

 Last night alternated between sleeplessness and strange dreams. I awoke with new bites. Too many new bites to be the work of just one blood sucking enemy – no, as if they had calculated their dead from the summer classroom battles and marked me for revenge, they came hunting. 

 But they don’t call me Doff the Destroyer for nothing, and like that film I haven’t seen yet, I’ve flipped the hunting game right over.  Three I’ve killed since arriving home. One I scared out from under the bed with a strobing torch and the last was a show down in the tiny kitchen – I saw it by the olive oil, whacked on the big light and closed the door.  “Just me and you sucker, and one of us is going to die.” Ten minutes later, die it did: on the black bowl of the washing machine with a smear of my own blood. A bittersweet victory.

 This war has left me weary, paranoid and taut, seeing drifting blackness out of eye corners and hearing that faint buzz round the edges of my ears. Yet there is one left, somewhere in here, I can sense it. I know you too well now. And I’ll get you, I will.  I’m going to brush my teeth, cover myself in tea tree oil, lay in bed and wait, like a blood-filled Trojan horse, to deliver the death that will lead, finally, to peace. 

Over the past three months I’ve spent a vast number of Saturdays carrying an increasingly heavy box of miaows while making the hour and a half journey to the Pet Care Animal Hospital in Dongnae, Busan. This has been for various kitten/cat-related reasons, the most fun being the week of all-night mate-quest yowling, closely followed by a few near-death sicknesses that had me wondering (through sobs) who I could borrow a spade from to dig a small cat grave in the woods… Luckily the ‘cats have nine lives’ law came through and made this unnecessary, but I was left with the debatable reassurance of my own practical morbidity.

 Now there are vets closer to home for sure, but Pet Care is run by Mina, a young and ever so kind veterinarian who caters especially for the pet-keeping expats around Busan. Although I admit there are other ways I prefer to spend my Saturdays, the place itself is great. It’s small and the waiting room reception area is light and warm and at most times of day populated with animals, trotting around each other or watching the goings on from the safety of a chair.

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 Two of these wandering beasts are the in-house rescue cats who live in the surgery: the grey fluffy one I call ‘Lady’ is always snoozing elegantly in the scales on the reception desk, and the other is a proper old street cat. He stalks the room looking at everything with his big grumpy face. His name is Darth Vader, and he is the coolest cat I’ve ever met. I include a photo for all to see.

This relaxed approach to a waiting area sits in pleasant contrast to the stark and slightly militant memories I have of vet waiting rooms back home, with their plastic chairs and those black and white signs saying ‘DOGS MUST BE ON LEADS’. I wonder if this is due partly to the size of pet dogs here being generally so much smaller (my friend has a poodle who strikes fear in the hearts of her neighbours for being ‘so big’). A chihuahua fight is easier to break up than a scrap between two dobermans, after all.

 There are a few other differences in approach to veterinary services. For example, when I came to pick Soul up after her spaying operation, Mina showed me pictures of the process. There was Soul with a tube down her throat, Soul lying on the operating table, a close up of her post-op stitched stomach and, finally, a picture of the removed womb. ‘Oh, erm, great’ I said in response, and felt very sorry for the poor creature who not only lost a body part but was also forced to don a plastic ‘cone of shame’ and spent the next week confusedly knocking into things.

 The concept of “service” (getting free stuff when you buy anything) even filters into the veterinary world, and every time I leave Mina gives me a little something – a toy, some catnip or a tin of fish. She also is rather nice about listening to my cat-related emotional problems – because somehow out of all the cats in Korea I managed to find the craziest one, and it’s bloody hard work sometimes. But even during Soul’s very insistent 6am Sunday wake-up call, I’m still glad I’ve not had to borrow that spade. Mostly.

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.

bikeandbridge1Summer has truly arrived and the air is thick with small birds, dragonflies and the high sawing call of locusts.  The students complain about the heat and I get cold in air conditioning.  It has been some time since I last wrote. Although not overtly ‘new’ anymore, the surprises this culture offers are even more enjoyable. Like the water fountain that sporadically spurts rhythmic jets to the tune of ‘Oh Micky you’re so fine’ and takeaway shops delivering to anywhere along the tree-covered riverside.

The strangest thing about the homesickness that weaves itself in and out of my life here, is realising that I don’t actually have a life to go back to in the U.K. Family and friends, of course – but a house, a job, my purpose and dreams don’t belong there anymore.  Ironically, actually going home might bring up greater feelings of displacement than ever before.  But this all belongs to the future, where I should leave it for now.

Perhaps the feeling of ‘missing’ that tugs at my heart sometimes is for my loved ones. Perhaps it is for a new adventure, or maybe it is for the writing I have neglected.  Probably it is for all three.

And it is interesting that the small ‘missing’ factor of my largely contented and happy life is where my introspective attention is drawn. But so it goes with many folk! Stories are not written about contented, happy people, after all.  Momentum comes from desire, desire from a lack, and our story-loving, time-travelling minds like to assess situations to predict what happens in the next chapter. For me, the next chapter will be here in Korea still, exploring ever more hobbies, putting up with my yowling cat and trying to be a better teacher. On melancholy missing days I remind myself that I am laying the foundations for future dreams.  For now it makes sense to follow the Korean proverb “한 우물을 파라” – ‘When digging a well, keep digging in one place.’

Half my lessons were cancelled last week so that the students could practice for Sports Day on Friday. A couple of students from each class would come to me, half an hour before their lesson was due to start, for permission to continue skipping practice instead. I’d pretend to think about it and then say ‘Ohhh, alright then’.  Their faces would light up, they’d thank me ardently before leaving, and I’d return to drinking tea and reading my book.  What can I say?  I choose to use my power for the good of all.

That situation lasted for a few days until I received a text from the captain of class 3:5, saying that I was to join their team for some sporting activities.  This scheme was initiated by my co-teacher who has taken it upon himself to offer me as many experiences of school life as possible. So it was that I swopped my teacher shoes for trainers, marked my book and went to learn dodge ball and a stick-jumping race.

Together each class had chosen their team outfit from an online site. Kitted out in a red t-shirt I scooted up to the big city gymnasium fearing a little that I would be the lone teacher participant in the sporting events. I was reassured by the sight of male teachers in their fifties sporting anything from silky pink, polka-dot trousers to Hawaiian skirts, while giving serious team pep-talks.

Along with these wonderful team costumes, what struck me most about the day was the absence of individual competitions. Arm wrestling was the only one on one game, and players were always surrounded by their own class cheering them on. All the others were team games – even the one running race was relay – everybody participated, and everyone seemed to be invested in the outcome.

At the end of the day my “Threeee – Fii-ive!” team were number one in the third grade, and won the 50 dollar first prize. I can safely say that this can in no way be credited to my dodge ball skills.

Thick grey clouds rolled in across the mountains like smoke, and this evening it is raining in Yangsan. The past two weeks have been full and busy in that ‘start of summer’ kind of way and home-based life occurrences, such as putting a wash on or writing this blog, were whirled into the side lines. So now the washing machine rumbles, the raindrops drum and I am back at the keys.

There have been national occasions since I last wrote. For the Buddha’s birthday (which here is bigger than Christmas) brightly coloured lanterns were lit in temples across the country, and we all celebrated with a three-day weekend.

Similar to Mother’s day in the UK, Korea has a ‘Teacher’s Day’ which this year fell on a Wednesday. I was given a pencil case, notebook, iced coffee, chocolate, nail polish, a giant fan, a Hello Kitty ice-cooler and some lovely cards. I decided that Teacher’s Day rocks.

Generally students and sunshine have been making my days bright. The relationship between teachers and students can be so warm here. Some girls come into my classroom on a break between lessons just for a chat. Cycling through town on Sunday I was spotted by a few different groups of students who hollered “TAMJIN TEACHER!”  and waved enthusiastically. Regardless of nationality, I think teaching at a public school and the comparatively smaller size of this city leads to a mini celebrity status for all teachers. And any day that starts with lampposts singing 80’s power ballads and people screaming your name can only be a good one.

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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