Baek-il Reflections

25/11/2011

Traditionally, a baby reaching the age of 100 days here in Korea is cause for celebration. The celebration is called baek-il and involves, according to Wikipedia, worshipping someone called Samshin as a means of thanking her for looking after mother and her young through a difficult period in both their lives. Today is my 100th day in Korea. So far there has been no enjoying of rice cakes and wine, as is customary; and I haven’t prayed to Samshin as I don’t feel as though I’ve received a huge amount of help from her. But today is Friday, and it is payday, which somehow feels just as good. Here are a few things I’ve learnt in my time here.

  • School socials can be… interesting. There’s a pretty clear divide between two groups of teachers at my school, and both seem to be attempting to recruit me exclusively into their circles. Aside from one principal-welcoming meal to which attendance was compulsory, I’ve never seen members from the separate parties together socially. This Monday I went for a meal with the other English teachers, all of whom are older than me and female.  I listened to them swap stories about ex-boyfriends – “when I was younger I had boyfriend but when I find out he has small pennis (phoenetic) I split. Because you know that if a boy is fat when he is young his pennis does not grow, but I didn’t know this my boyfriend used to be fat, and when I find out I split him” – and marriages – “the three important things of marriage are sex, money and relationship with husband’s parents”. I recalled my Mum telling me before I left that the Koreans she’d known had tended to be quite shy until they get to know and trust you, when they “open up”. I wondered if this was what she meant.
  • When a Korean asks if you drink and how much, he wants you to say “yes” and “a lot”. I’ve been asked this several times now by colleagues, including my principal and direct superiors, as it seems to be a topic of great interest to everyone at school. When I once mentioned that I prefer beer to soju, for the next few days I had teachers grinning at me – “I heard you like beer, Josep”. If asked by an employer in the UK I would regard the question with suspicion and my answer would be full of trepidation – “well, you know, I like a beer with my food after work once a week on a Friday night occasionally”, and I gave similar kinds of answers in my first few weeks here, only to receive crestfallen looks in return. To say Koreans like to drink is an understatement. I’ve never been out with anyone from school the night before a day off work, and I’ve never been out with anyone from school who hasn’t drunk, and drunk copiously. I sometimes get asked how many bottles of soju I can drink when after more than 3 or 4 shots of it I want to have a long lie down. As a foreigner and a guest at these events, everyone takes it upon themselves to ensure I have a full glass of the stuff at all times – whether I want to or not. In my experience, Korean drinking culture allows no one to drink alone. If I want to have a quiet swig of beer to wash down a bite of food, my glass is taken from me before it touches my lips and a toast is made and glasses are refilled and clinked together before I can drink any. I’ve also had my principal shout “one shot! One shot!” at me as I sipped a glass of soju instead of finishing it in one go. It’s definitely cool to drink in Korea.
  • Appearances are everything. There are a thousand examples I could give to illustrate this, but this recent instance is one of my faves. I was asked to judge an English drama competition this week, and I had to give about five or six different plays ratings in different categories to make total scores out of 100. Firstly, the lowest score a play received from anyone that wasn’t me was in the eighties, and some of them were a load of crap, and secondly, after handing in my ratings, I got asked why I’d placed certain performances higher than others, and then my scores were decided for me! I guess I was just there to make the whole thing seem more authentic and ‘English’.
  • Kids are as kids do. There are some pretty smart little guys at school and a lot of them like to act far more grown up than they actually are, which sometimes results in them seeming even more like children. One example of this was at the drama competition, when one girl tried to single-handedly act out Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. She would sit at a piano and simultaenously narrate the story and play music to fit the mood, and then she’d shoot up off her chair to position the actors onstage and whisper their lines at them. It was funny to watch, and this attitude is one of my favourite things about some of the students here – that no matter how they act, they’re still just children. This same girl’s by far the best in her class at English and also an aspiring artist, so she sits at the back in lessons, doodling, bored by the standard being taught. However, at a single mention of stickers or sweets to be won in a game, she’s as alert and obedient as a dog waiting for a treat. I was wary of comparing a student to a dog there, but I couldn’t think of another comparison.
  • I am a celebrity. It’s gonna be crushing for my ego when I get back to the UK and no one cares about me. I wrote above about how I can make one casual, offhand remark here and it will be transmitted around the school within a day or two. Students still greet me with “woahh, handsome Joseppy” even though I’ve taught them for three months now. I get recognised in local supermarkets (and in Baskin-Robins, where yesterday one guy was showing off in front of his girlfriend by saying “have a nice day” to me). I went to the bank to pay some bills last week, and the next time I played football one of the Korean guys – JK – asked me what I was doing there – apparently his friend who works at the bank had mentioned serving a “tall, blonde, handsome Englishman” and JK had said he might know who it had been. I know I get this much attention just because I’m massive and white, but it’s hard not to get carried away with it, and besides, it’s pretty fun.
  • Ulsan’s not so bad. Myself and many of my contemporaries applied first to live in Busan, a city about 35 miles away with a population of about three times that of Ulsan, and a much bigger waegook influence. However, after having spent some time here and having visited Busan, I’m pretty happy with where I’m living. One definite perk is the existence of a CostCo in Busan, where you can buy vaguley Western food: I spend about £10 on a giant tub of pesto that tastes nothing like it should. There was a night out at a pub in Ulsan a few weekends ago at which a friend and fellow native teacher was DJing, and it seemed like every white person in the city was in attendance. The nice thing about it was that everywhere you turned you’d see someone you knew – from the football team; from Korean class; from orientation; or just from being good friends with them. There’s a pretty good community here, and although Ulsan’s still massive, it feels slightly more homely than I imagine Busan might. And of course there’s the added bonus that I can cycle here to most of the places I need to get to.

I’ve learned a lot so far, and there’s plenty more to come I’m sure. Here’s to another good 100 days, eh?

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