Archive for category Culture



Right, your 12 months as a teacher in the Republic of South Korea are nearly up. Enjoy yourself?

I’ve loved it. The way of life for an English teacher here, provided you’ve got a modicum of open-mindedness, adaptability and enthusiasm, is unbelievable. Essentially, after the initial settling-in period, my daily routine consisted of talking to cute children who see you as some kind of celebrity; while at night I would eat cheap and delicious food and meet friends I’ll remember for life. I know it’s supposed to be a small world but it’s gonna be sad to be on the other side of it from so many amazing people.

Aw! So what’ll you miss?

The people I’ve met. The students. The food. The culture of eating together with friends over a couple of hours, sharing different dishes – and the prices in restaurants that facilitate this. Being famous, and a novelty. Korean hospitality (read: free food and drinks from strangers). The opportunity to practise another language daily (I should have made more of this). Having a job. Nights out when it seems like 75% of the foreign population attend. Melon ice lollies. Cheap public transport. Soju. Noraebangs. Girls thinking I’m handsome. Ajummas and their fashion sense. Harmless illogical behaviour, like the ajumma fashion sense. Being so close to the beach. Never having to worry about stuff being stolen. Couples and families dressing the same. Not wearing shoes at work. Underfloor heating. I’ll miss the city, Ulsan too. I don’t think you can live in a place you’ve had such a good time in and not miss your surroundings when you leave.

So why are you leaving? You must have something pretty decent lined up back home!

Nothing, actually. Having spent a year in a completely new place, in hindsight you can paint almost whatever picture you like of the experiences you’ve had, depending on whether you focus on the positives (see above) or the negatives. However, the reality of day-to-day living can be pretty different from this. For example, I’ve had enough of the job here. That’s not to say I’ve had enough of teaching, or these particular students, or even teaching in Korea – but I’ve spent too much time standing at the front of classrooms saying things like “oh! We wear our shoes in the house” or “at the drugstore, go straight three blocks”. When applying for the job a year ago, I’d often reassure myself that I’d be fine as there would be a Korean co-teacher with me at all times, but in fact I’ve enjoyed the times when I’ve been alone – when I can actually teach – the most. Maybe it’s misplaced youthful ambition, but I feel like I’ve got more to offer the world than being a puppet.

There’s also the small matter of Elizabeth leaving, and my friends and family back home.

Right. So after a year of teaching, you’ve concluded that you like it, but don’t get to do enough of it. Apart from listen and repeat exercises then, what won’t you miss?

Being scared to ride my bike on roads. People spitting everywhere. Adults giggling after every sentence spoken to me. Not being able to buy clothes or shoes. Strangers making zero effort to understand my attempts at speaking their language. The haircuts. The bureaucracy and hierarchy. The weather! C0-workers ignoring me at lunchtime and having to fight for every conversation. K-Pop.

K-Pop! Really? C’mon, you must have a favourite song.

You got me…

Favourite Korean food?

찜닭 (jjim dak) – chicken, veg and noodles in a spicy, soy-y sauce.

This is fun! Favourite student?

I can’t do that! Can I? Perhaps one from my after-school class, who would write me messages on all her worksheets, teaching me Korean – “teacher, Korea say apple 사과!”. Or the 6th grade boy who greets me every time with “Joseph! Long time no see!” and then proceeds to tell me everything he’s done in the last few days. Or the the student who wrote me this:

I want one of those! I wanna move to Korea! Would you recommend it?

Definitely, and especially if you like to challenge yourself. I was pretty nervous about whether I was cut from the right cloth to be able to teach, but I wanted to push myself to do it. I’m still far from being the perfect teacher (in my opinion, that’s impossible, but that’s another conversation) but I’ve learned that common sense, enthusiasm and giving a damn about your students form a pretty strong basis for doing the job more than adequately.

The challenge also comes from adapting to a new country and way of life. Korea does things differently to the UK – from obvious things like the language to those you might not automatically think of, like forcing me to come to school today, where I’m writing this, when there’s not a single other teacher in the building – and it would take a whole year to think of and explain them all. But that’s part of the fun, learning while you live and work. I just hope my students have learned as much as I have!

Any regrets?

No matter how far I got with it, I’d always think I could have got further with learning Korean. As it is  I didn’t even get particularly far, and I regret not putting a bit more effort in. I’m also pretty jealous of all my Western friends who have taekwondo belts now too. Nothing serious though!


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The past 10 days or so have been spent in the company of Elizabeth’s parents, visiting Korea (and Asia) for the very first time, from England. When they touched down at Incheon International Airport a week ago last Thursday the number of people in Korea with Elizabeth’s accent skyrocketed from one to three. Aside from how nice it is to be reacquainted, if only briefly, with someone from home – to hear stories firsthand about little English goings-on – the visit forced Eliz and I, in an effort to give them a proper taste of the place, to keep busy – there were a few ‘firsts’ for us, too.

The first few days were a whirlwind: in between meeting the Korean class crew, two consecutive nights at a noraebang (and the subsequent necessary recoveries), a visit to Bulguksa temple, a delicious Indian lunch at our friends’ apartment, a trip to the beach and first experiences of Korean BBQ, kimchi, jjigae, bibimbap, soju, makgeolli and my Korean cooking there was little time to catch our breath. Bulguksa is probably my favourite temple I’ve seen so far. It’s not too dissimilar aesthetically from most of the others, but its location – deep in the hills surrounded by nice-looking vegetation – and its layout – vaguely pyramidal with ascending levels having decreasing areas – appealed to me. We also travelled to nearby Seokguram Grotto, where I learned that you can use the word ‘grotto’ after words that aren’t ‘Santa’s’, and we saw a giant holy Buddha.

You were supposed to make a wish and add a single rock to a pile; but we obviously just tried to stack them as high as possible.

Weeknights were spent trying to work out which were the cheapest and tastiest restaurants that would cater to all tastes while offering the most authentic insights into Korean cuisine. This was not easy, and in fact one night “the girls” went for chip butties. Meanwhile, “the boys” ate at one of those ubiquitous street vendors – but instead of dining outside stood up, we went inside, something I’ve never done before. I was only able to vaguely translate about half of the menu, and our options were narrowed further when we were told there were no bibimbaps or soups available, but we settled on sundaewith kimbap and a rice dish to accompany. Sundae is animal intestine filled with blood that I think I’ve had before; and this time it came with liver and other entrails. I won’t be orderding it again. After eating, Eliz and I would try to keep up with her parents at a bar or a cafe serving makgeolli, but mindful of the fact that we were working while they were on holiday, we often abandoned them early with garbled instructions on how to get home in Korean.

Plains of Sinbulsan

The following weekend we went hiking in the Yeongnam Alps – a series of (ten?) peaks exceeding 1000m in height. Knowing that the plains atop Sinbulsan are one of Ulsan’s famous 12 scenic sites, we decided to attempt to scale that one. Having learned from our culinary mistakes the last time we went up into the mountains, we equipped ourselves with sandwiches and snacks galore; but set off pretty late into the day, meaning we had to quick march all the way to the top. The first half hour was tough and sweaty – there were steep climbs up rocky steps and slippy slopes – but the subsequent 90 minutes or so were trekked on a windy road, which occasionally afforded us impressive views of Eonyang (in West Ulsan) down below. At the end of this was a sort of giant natural crossroads, with paths leading directly up to two peaks as well as indirectly to the rest of the Alps. The natural beauty of the place (and the plains) was spolit slightly by the huge wooden veranda and convenience store that had been built there – but otherwise how would we have got ourselves a well-deserved melon ice lolly?

I tried to eat said lolly whilst hiking the remaining kilmoetre or so to the top of the shorter peak (fading daylight and our legs would only allow us to go this far) and learned that you can’t eat while walking uphill. So, Elizabeth and I lost her Dad and spent half an hour looking worriedly for him only to be reacquainted at the benches outside the shop with taunts of how he made it all the way but we didn’t. The following day was spent resting our weary thighs at the beach in Busan and then it was over as quickly as it had begun and we were bidding farewell once more to a reminder of home, and a reminder of just how different the life we lead here is. I hope they had a good time!


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It is going to be boiling in August. It’s going to be sick. Long ago I confined my warm workwear to a dark corner of my wardrobe and already I’m starting to get jealous of the students who dress in shorts and sleeveless tops for school. I’ve been to hot places before but none that have ever required me to stand up and do stuff for most of the day; this morning it took me until lunchtime when I returned to my desk in front of an open window to stop sweating. Luckily children are pretty smelly themselves, so as long as I can conceal any damp sweat patches that materialise I shouldn’t get ruthlessly bullied by them – it’s just all my co-workers I’ll have to avoid for the next 3 months.

Meanwhile, at the weekends when I’m able to wear slightly airier clothing we’ve been managing to enjoy the sunshine by spending the last couple at the beach in Busan. Last weekend Elizabeth and I were sitting on a bedsheet on the sand playing cards and eating grapes we were accosted by a group of probably 25 middle-aged Koreans. They conducted the most efficient whirlwind of a picnic I’ve ever seen: in literally 10 minutes they all arrived, unpacked dozens of trays of food, summoned us over to forcefeed roe and soju to us (laterally for photographs in a variety of poses), took some snaps of each other rolling around in the sand, packed up and then left. This generosity and conviviality shown to foreigners is characteristic of groups of picnicking locals  and one of my favourite things about living here.

It doesn’t seem too long ago when the dry, biting winter here threatened to cut into any enjoyment of time spent outside but it’s amazing the difference a few short weeks can make – and they have been very short, whizzing by now. It’s almost as though I wake up on Monday mornings, robotic and bleary-eyed, and then the next time I take a minute to reflect it’s Thursday. Incredibly, I occasionally feel a bit panicky that I won’t have time before I leave Korea to eat my lifetime’s fill of kimchi. This particular week has whizzed by with a very, very polite Korean man lurking behind me for many of my lessons, whispering apologies in my ear. Every morning he knocks the softest of knocks on the English office door before it opens to reveal legs and the hairy crown of a head, and as they retreat I realise it’s a human form bent double, muttering honorific salutations. This is how this man greets his co-workers, the principal, the dinner ladies, the students – if he’s married I bet this is how he greets his wife, children and pet pink chihuahua too. He looks to me in lessons for permission to speak, to press play on interactive English CD ROMs and to pick his nose too. One co-teacher has been absent from work all week and this is the guy they found to replace him – as if to say “look Joe, you’ve been getting complacent. You appear to be adapting too well and too quickly to the quirks of Korea, here’s a little something to throw you off a bit. Good luck”. Well Korea, you’ll have to do better than that.

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Ulsan Whale Festival


This Saturday just gone was the main event of this year’s annual Whale Festival in Ulsan, and it was a really excellent day. Of course in the preceding weeks all the buzz and the build-up had centred around the dragon boating tournament – especially as training sessions had started in earnest – and with 15 or so teams of 18 foreigners signed up, bragging rights were well and truly at stake. Each team was named after a different whale and the Narwhals – having had one semi-successful practise under a monsoon a week prior, and having been given just the one day to prepare suitable matching outfits in the style of a “post-apocalyptic, Mad Max, barbarian, viking, neon, glitter bandit” – assembled in dribs and drabs, collectively a hotchpotch mishmash mess, shortly before 9 in the morning. Someone suggestively pulled a couple of six-packs of lager from a rucksack, everyone eyed everyone else with silent, superficial “should-we-shouldn’t-we?” stares, then someone else cracked one open and our preparations began.

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Bucket List


Yesterday was my 8-month Korea teaching contract anniversary; I’m two-thirds of the way through it and with just four months to go and plently still to see here I thought it would be a good idea to write a bucket list of sorts. I’ll include things I’ve already done, as the memories of them will bring a great big cheesy grin to my face as I write. If anyone can think of any more that would be fantastic!

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A Funeral


I had another interesting insight into the Korean way of life yesterday when I attended a funeral. My school’s principal’s father had passed away the previous evening aged 86, and as is customary here the male family members began a three-day grieving period by the body’s side the following morning. All the teachers at school made staggered visits throughout yesterday afternoon to the funeral department of a hospital to pay their respects. Read the rest of this entry »

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Food in Korea III: Supermarkets and Cooking


Occasionally I am asked what kinds of food I cook after work, and I receive a response of surprise and delight in equal measure when I say “oh, mostly Korean actually. I do samgyetang a lot, and just the other night I made dak galbi for the first time”. But the truth is that here it’s difficult to make any home comforts. That’s not to say that samgyetang – whole chicken stuffed with rice and boiled in a soup infused with garlic, ginger, cinnamon, chestnuts and jujube – isn’t delicious, it’s just that quite often I crave a proper roast dinner. Or real sausages. Real bacon, for that matter. Pork pie. Crusty, unsweetened bread, too. Lasagne. Shepherd’s pie. Anything that goes in the oven… Read the rest of this entry »

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Why I Like Ulsan


The river

Perhaps a strange first choice, but I love the Taehwagang, the river that meanders east down from the mountainous surroundings of the city and opens out into the East Sea. With it forming a direct route between my flat and Elizabeth’s (and coupled with her inability to do anything other than lie in bed after a day at work) I spend a lot of my time cycling up and down it, and so I’ve had plenty of opportunities to bask in lots of what it has to offer. The stretch I use most often is long and straight, and seen from above would resemble a set of coloured pencils: blue river; green walkway; red cycle path; brown grass and vegetation; and then grey road. My favourite thing about it is the people you see there. Read the rest of this entry »

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New Years Resolutions


They say you’re more likely to achieve your goals if you tell people about them, and what better way to do that than post them on the Internet? Perhaps one of mine should be to improve my sense of timing as we’re already over 3% of the way through the year and most people have given up their resolutions by now – but I’m going to try to stick with the Korean theme of this blog and there’ll be no “become more organised” or “lose 3kg by the beginning of summer” here. Not that I need to anyway, seeing as though I’m still known as ‘Teacha Six-Pack’ by many of my students. Perhaps another should be “write blog more often”, but they also say that absence makes the heart grow fonder and so you regular readers out there (all three of you) should… well, have pretty fond hearts by now. Anyway, my goals. Here are three:

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Weekend Cultural Trips


Over the last few weeks and months Elizabeth and I have heard about a number of “cultural” excursions that are run in and around Ulsan by the council. These being free, we decided to see what a couple of them were like. At Korean class we were handed information sheets in English, we received text messages in English confirming our registration, and these trips were generally said to be fairly foreigner-friendly –  and with us being as into free stuff as we are, naturally our interest was piqued.

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