Today marks the end of my second month in Korea. Here are a few short stories about my time here so far, that I haven’t been able to fit into other blogs:
A new nickname
One particular grade 5 class are by far the most energetic, talkative and lively in the school. It seems as though – whether by design or accident – all the sportiest boys and chattiest girls are in it. Only today I had one little fella sliding down the length of the corridor towards me on his knees, mimicking Steven Gerrard’s celebration after he scored against United on Saturday (this kid knows I’m a Liverpool fan and often tries to win favour by talking to me about their matches). Anyway, a couple of weeks ago I got to their lesson early and a group of the boys ambushed me, wanting to play-fight. One wanted to know if I had a 6-pack, and this set all the others off trying to punch me in the stomach to find out. From somewhere they got the idea that I do have a 6-pack, and now whenever I see any of them around school I hear ‘Teacher 6-pack, Teacher 6-pack’ echoing through the hallways.
A lot of people in Korea are obsessed with taking photos. Elizabeth went on a school trip a while ago to a zoo, and apparently all the kids were taking picture after picture of all the animals on their mobile phones, only without even looking at the live animals themselves. I think I mentioned once that I was to start visiting classrooms in the mornings before lessons begin to talk with the students. This has begun. Yesterday Charles accompanied me to a grade 1 classroom, told me to ‘teach animals’. When this was an obvious failure – the kids had no way of making the connection between the name and the concept – he put on a You Are My Sunshine video on YouTube and left. Luckily, as soon as he did, the homeroom teacher turned off the computer, whipped out her camera and got me to pose with the kids for a series of photos. I have no idea whether or not these were for her own personal collection, but I don’t think there’s any way of finding out.
That’s not the first time Charles has put me in front of a class and just expected me to come up with something. Last week my grade 3 co-teacher had to teach an open class elsewhere, and Charles was her replacement. I wasn’t told this, and I wasn’t told that the venue had changed, so I arrived late with nothing prepared. Charles was sat in front of the class with You Are My Sunshine playing for the students. The first thing I had to do was to give a speech about the Beatles. I would say something and he would translate. After every sentence I would give Charles a look that was supposed to be ‘are we done yet? I don’t know that much about this band!’, but he wanted me to go on, and on, and on. By the end I was talking about Paul McCartney’s recent third wedding and the range of quorn sausages that his first wife, Linda, introduced in the UK. No idea what the kids made of that. I then had to spend the next 20 minutes singing Yellow Submarine in an enthusiastic a voice as I could muster. It’s a good job they’re enthusiastic (today one guy grabbed my hand as I walked to the lesson, lead me to the front of the class, turned me around and then went to his seat!).
Sweets: opiates for children?
I walked into my after-school class the other day to find one of the kids with a tube of sweets that looked strangely like pills. Usually quiet and reserved, she would eat one sweet, giggle, and repeat. She did this until all the sweets were gone. For the first 10 minutes she was jumping around the class, putting her hand up and then shouting out answers before I picked her to and generally acting like an idiot – giggling all the while. Then, she crashed. She spent the next 40 minutes with her head on her hands on the desk, struggling to keep her eyes open, as if she’d been administered some strong sedative. Is this normal?
When I hated Korea
This was a few weeks ago now. I was out of food so I headed to the nearest E-Mart – on my bike, naturally. The cars parked on the pavements didn’t bother me on the way there. They did on the way back. I got to E-Mart, and spent at least an hour in there for what was supposed to only be a quick shop for the fundamentals. I found myself muttering to myself on more than one occasion about the lack of washing up liquid; the price of bananas and other general, normal foods; and other pretty mundane things. I ordered a slice of pizza from a deli to ease my shopping pain, and this is when I started to hate Korea. The pizza was cold. It was covered in olives, even though I tried to order the mozzarella to be safe. It had chips on it. After I picked off the olives, which removed all the decent toppings with them, I finished my slice of cold-chips-on-plain-base. Why can’t they sell normal food in Korean supermarkets? How do they even manage to mess up pizza? I balanced one paper bag on each of my handlebars and unlocked my bike. I set off, a little fed up but looking forward to a decent tea. I crossed the first little road I had to cross and out of nowhere a maniac Korean driver almost knocked me off my bike – my instinctive swerved may have saved me but it did little for my paper bags, and one of them fell crashing to the floor, handles bisected. The maniac in the car honked loudly at me and drove on as I picked up my groceries – it was your fault, you idiot – and tried to work out how to get all my stuff home.
“Teachaaa, hello teachaaa!”
I looked up.
It was a couple of students from my school.
“Teachaaa, E-Mart shopping, teacha cycling!”
“Yeah”. At this point I was trying to balance my bike with my bumcheeks while picking up an overflowing paper bag off the floor. I knew that by 9am the next day, the whole of grade 5 would know about this.
“No, I’m okay. Bye”.
I cycled off with one bag still on the handle bars, the other tucked under one arm. The badly-built pavements threw me and my shopping in about 25 different directions at once, but I managed to get back to my street. The cars I’d passed on the way to E-Mart were there in front of me on the pavement, almost taunting me. Christ, what idiot parks on the pavement? I might crash on purpose to make a point. I couldn’t brake properly but I managed to navigate the cars semi-successfully, only smashing my handlebar-bag once, hard, against one of the cars. I stopped in front of the first door to my apartment, and tried to work out how to get off my bike. While I was doing this, the other bag’s handles broke. At least it made getting off the bike easier. I picked up my stuff for a second time, realised I couldn’t get it through the door with my bike so put it down again, took my bike inside, locked it up, brought my stuff inside, put it down again, shut the door behind me, went upstairs to door number two, put my stuff down, opened the door, put my stuff down again, closed door number two, opened door number three, picked up my stuff and brought it inside, put it down and then closed door number three. I was very tempted to flop on the bed and unpack later, but I resisted and reached into my bag. 14 of my 15 eggs had broken, leaked all over half of the shopping, and then started to leak through the bottom of the paper bag. I wanted to leave Korea and never return.
Happily, I don’t hate Korea anymore. I’ve started Korean lessons and teaching’s becoming slightly more natural, although with our crazy principal in charge, who knows what’s round the corner? I guess I won’t find out until 5 minutes before I’m due to go round the corner, but I guess in Korea that’s half the fun of it. Right?