Chuseok

15/09/2011

I’ve never really known what Thanksgiving is. So when I found myself sat at a bar with a group of North Americans discussing their version of the holiday, I asked about it. Apparently, hundreds of years ago, some pilgrims crossed the Atlantic Ocean (from Plymouth, UK to somewhere in the USA; or from somewhere in the UK to Plymouth, USA – I forget).  The pilgrims presented warm blankets to the indigenous American Indians they encountered, but these blankets carried smallpox and so the Indians all died. I still don’t know what the real origins of the holiday are, but what I do know is that the Korean version – Chuseok – is a harvest celebration; and that it means three days off work. These three days off work (Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday just gone) were the reasons I found myself sat at a bar with a group of North Americans in the first place, but I’ll get to that shortly.

Firstly, I recall writing something in this blog about the good behaviour of Korean schoolchildren. I take that back. Maybe the novelty of a big white man teacher is wearing off or maybe I just wasn’t ready for them after my five-day weekend, but today taught me a bit more about 6th grade kids. My first week of teaching consisted mainly of me introducing myself, my family and my hobbies for the first half of a lesson and playing a simple English game for the second. Since then, I’ve been able to properly observe the students for a whole lesson without the distractions of trying to come up with five fruits that begin with ‘P’ before a 12 year old Korean does it before me (peach, pear, pineapple, passionfruit, papaya), whilst my co-teacher struggles along. Today alone I confiscated paper aeroplanes, an origami bowl of ice cream, a scalpel (!), a cardboard drumstick, and literally thousands of ‘erasers’. Oh, those erasers. There’s a school-wide obsession with breaking erasers up into millions of tiny pieces and throwing them at the teachers, at each other, on the floor, at the blackboard – anywhere. At first I found myself silently applauding everytime someone got a piece to stick in another student’s hair, but ever since I remembered I’m a teacher now and not a big kid I’ve been collecting those pieces of eraser like Harry Potter collecting horcruxes: in other words – nonstop. Some students have been laughing at my big nose; others have been telling me who in the class is ‘gay’; and one guy refused to sit in a chair for the whole lesson, and when we confiscated the paintbrush he was banging against the wall, he started to use his head. Literally.

Like I say though, maybe the three days off Chuseok gave me threw me off my guard. I didn’t really get round to doing anything for the first few days as I ran out of cash, Saturday meant walking around in a typhoon sent from Japan, going from ATM to ATM trying to withdraw money with my English card to no avail. I also had to make a very long trip on foot (in flip-flops) through the rain to the city hall, and as I couldn’t muster together enough for a taxi or even a bus home, I spent the journey home glaring at anyone who stared at me (everyone who saw me) and muttering to myself about how this whole Korea idea was the biggest piece of crap I’d ever come up with. Sunday onwards was fun though. I borrowed some money from Eliz and we took a train to Busan, a city about an hour away that was actually our first choice to live in when we were applying for jobs here. It’s famous for its beaches and for being infinitely more foreigner-friendly than Ulsan. This latter point that was reinforced by the sheer number of white (and even one or two black!) faces we saw over the weekend, but made arguable by the number of restaurants we were rejected from on our last night.

Anyway, on Sunday we checked into a hostel, had a mooch around the area we were staying in and a walk on the beach, and then took the underground (if only, Ulsan) to Jagalchi fish market. I wanted to have a bit more of a look around than we did (I was so excited I thought a stall covered in a red sheet was some kind of huge skinned dolphin), but still got to see a huge variety of seafood – sea urchin, MASSIVE octopus and Korean penis fish (Google it) being a few favourites. Had a nice tea of fried fish then went for another mooch around the central Busan area, where we ate pineapple on a stick and deep-fried fish-shaped somethings. Again I got overexcited when I saw a second-floor bar decorated on the outside by life-size superheroes. We then came back to the famous Haeundae beach area (‘lots of foreigners go there so lots of Korean girls go there so I like it’ – Korean male co-teacher) where our hostel was, where I found myself sat at a bar with a group of North Americans. The atmosphere here seemed a lot more laid-back than that of Ulsan, despite being three times its size, and I constantly caught myself wondering which of the two cities, in retrospect, I’d rather have been placed in. Someone made the point that if we were actually living in Busan we might not appreciate it as much as we should – something I can definitely agree with having lived in London for nearly 10 years without ever going on the London Eye.

Monday morning we were up bright and early for a swim in the sea and a game of beach volleyball. The sea was the perfect temperature and really refreshing after diving around in the sand for what seemed like HOURS trying to get to 20 whacks of the beach ball without it touching the floor. Eliz and I then went off to Haedong Yeonggungsa Buddhist Temple with some friends.

We saw this woman completely unashamedely stealing people’s offerings to the Chinese Zodiac statues.

This was a view of part of the temple next to the East Sea.

Many hundreds of Korean Won were spent trying to land a coin in that bowl from a bridge that connected two parts of the temple.

This photo was an attempt at highlighting the size of this statue of Buddha compared to myself, but I think it only succeeded at highlighting the size of myself compared to some locals. Again, the rest of the photos should appear on Facebook at some point, but I’m terrible with that sort of thing. These are Elizabeth’s so they’ve got a better chance though.

This photo obviously speaks for itself.

I can’t finish this entry without mentioning what happened on Monday night back at the hostel. Eliz and I had been out for an amazing Korean BBQ and another walk on the beach, but we came back earlyish as we spent all our money on horrible Korean wine that we couldn’t drink. When we got back we found one of the hostel proprietors (Nicole, nice gal) sitting round a table with a few guests and a huge bowl of punch, with bottles of red wine, port and whisky next to it. Many drinking games later a core group remained. Someone (probably Eliz) suggested we play blind man’s bluff, half-jokingly. The response was surprisingly and overwhelmingly positive. We found an empty hostel room and played for hours – Eliz and I, Nicole and her Korean friends, ‘gay Ali’ and a very drunk girl from New York, who made us all feel like bullies when she was wearing the blindfold as she could hardly stand up and kept crashing into things, but it was too funny to stop her. It was one of the most surreal experiences of my life. Next day we went swimming again and to a rubbish theme park (so rubbish we didn’t even go on any of the rides) before catching a train back to Ulsan. It was a nice little trip and we definitely appreciate Busan being so accessible (there are beaches in Ulsan too, but they’d probably take longer to get to!). My mind keeps returning to a conversation we had with a couple on the beach who asked us if it was worth visiting Ulsan, and we struggled to give one reason why, but coming back to Ulsan is starting to feel something like home. Especially when you go back into school everyone shouts ‘teacher, sunburn!’, and you have to confiscate those bloody pieces of eraser over and over again.

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