Happy Holi Hai!

Celebrate an Indian festival with a bunch of other westerners on a South Korean beach? Hell yeah! Sunday morning was dedicated to joining the Holi festival at Haeundae Beach in Busan. Holi is the celebration of the arrival of spring. It emphasises the return of colour with the blossoms and buds, so colour is an important part of the festival. The return of spring is a joyous event in most places and it was certainly no different here.

We got to the beach a little after 10:00 having checked out of our hostel and put our bags in lockers at the subway station nearest the beach, and immediately lined up to get registered and to receive our holi hats and colour bags.  We met a bunch of our friends from Gwangju and settled in to wait for the real festivities to start.  The idea was that everyone at the beach was supposed to start throwing/smearing colours at the same time.

The calm before the storm.

The calm before the storm.

Holi Hat!

Holi Hat!

Until then we danced to keep warm and gobbled the samosas that were served as snacks.  These were accompanied by cans of Hite beer which certainly set the party mood early.

"Snacks" before the festivities really kicked off

“Snacks” before the festivities really kicked off

Shortly after 11:00 they stopped the music and gave a very short explanation of the festival.  Then the games were on! All opened our colour packets and started tossing the powdery paints in the air and at one another’s faces and white clothing (specified for the event).

Twenty minutes later the wet paints were dispensed and organisers, volunteers, or just random people moved through the crowd with bottles of paint, smearing or splashing colour everywhere!  Soon everyone was covered in rainbow hues with hand prints, fingerprints, and spatters of colour everywhere.  Dancing increased and what had started as a somewhat chilly day on the beach blossomed into a full on party to welcome spring.

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Also of note, was the fact that this spectacle was almost exclusively a foreigner affair.  It was organised by the Indian community in Busan and attended largely by English teachers from across the country.  Along the beach was a walkway and it was soon lined with Koreans watching the crazy Waygooks cover each other in paint and dance up a storm.

Note the Korean spectators lining the walkway in the background

Note the Korean spectators lining the walkway in the background

We started to prepare to leave as it approached 1:00.  We had an hour on the subway followed by a three and a half hour bus trip to get home and we needed to get cleaned up.   As it turned out there were coin operated showers on the beach, but we did not see them until we had collected all our kit and were headed out.  Instead, we cleaned ourselves as best we could in the sinks of the public bathrooms.  We certainly received some very odd looks as we walked the ten minutes back to the subway station.  The Koreans were clearly confused about why they kept seeing paint-covered foreigners heading away from the beach.  We changed our clothes at the station but our hair, ears, and even parts of our faces were still covered in paint so we continued to received double takes all the way through until we reached home in Gwangju and were able to shower off completely.

There were some crazy dance moves

There were some crazy dance moves

By the time we left the crowd was thinning, but it was still a decent turnout considering the chill.

By the time we left the crowd was thinning, but it was still a decent turnout considering the chill.

The festival was an amazing time!  The group with whom we were there are a lot of fun and the entire weekend was well worth the journey.

 

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Etiquette Lessons: Dinner with the New Teachers

Last Thursday I was invited out for dinner and drinks with some of the other teachers that are new to Shinchang Middle School.  I was a little nervous, the invitation came in very halting English, until I learned that one of the other English teachers would to be going as well.  I would be able to understand some of what was going on! Yes!  Before we left the school I spoke with Yeonju and asked her if we could try and sit near one another so she could help me out.  Thankfully, she is a very kind and accommodating person who agreed to take pity on the very confused waygook.

Dinner was awesome!  Everyone was really friendly and helped me to understand the many faux pas that I was making.  We had a type of smoked pork accompanied by the usual battery of Korean side dishes before changing restaurants and heading out to a Korean bar for a few drinks to cap off the evening.  Here are some of the things that I learned:

  1. When an older person joins you late for dinner you may or may not have to jump up (you’re sitting on the floor) and bow.  It depends not on your age, but on the age of the oldest person already at dinner.  One slightly older teacher (say about 55-60) joined us late so we all got up and bowed as soon as the door slid open.  Now a second older teacher joined us afterwards, but they were only 45-50.  The oldest person was now with us.  Don’t stand up and bow.
  2. You can pour your own water, but never your own drinks.  It is the responsibility of the people sitting around you to ensure that your glass does not remain empty.  If you drain it, you are asking for more.  You are equally responsible to keep the glasses of those around you full.
  3. Receive your drink with two hands and then DON’T just set it down.  That would be very rude.  You must at least take a sip first.
  4. Many people turn their heads away from the oldest person at the table when they take a drink – especially after a toast or cheers among everyone.

There were a few other things that I found interesting.  The men have a tendency to mix soju with beer to make it stronger.  Before we really got into it they were kind enough to ask me how much I drink and not ply me with too much soju.  Incidentally, by itself soju is terrible.  However, it is extremely dangerous because as soon as you put it in anything you can’t taste it at all.

Everyone very patient with me and many made an effort to speak some English and engage me in conversation.  There was a lot of laughter around my attempts at Korean and my efforts to learn the different customs.  Whether they spoke English or not they were very curious about me and Canada and asked many questions through Yeonju.  Several of the older male teachers asked that I call them hyeong, older brother from now on.  It was pretty nice to be accepted by some of my colleagues.  At the end of the day, it was a great evening with a bunch of friendly people

Geoje Island

This weekend we joined a small local tour guide, Pedro Kim, for a trip to Geoje (pronounced kojay) Island.  Geoje Island is off the southern tip of South Korea, near Busan, and is a truly beautiful place.  It is also famous for its massive shipbuilding industry and as the location for a major POW camp during the Korean War.  Because it is a major tourist destination, Pedro planned the trip early in the year before the hordes descended.  One of the things we are still struggling with is that no matter where you go or what you do in this country you are going to be surrounded by Koreans doing the same thing.  Having said that, this was an excellent trip and there were few enough tourists that we were able to see what we wanted without having to pull up the elbows (a common Korean tourist tactic).

Saturday morning we met at the U-Square bus terminal and boarded the charter bus by 9:00.  We were fortunate that many people we know also went on this trip, so we were in good company. We stopped to pick up more people in Yeosu and took a couple breaks at rest stops, so we rolled onto Geoje about 13:00.  By this time we were ravenous and the stop in Gohyeon for lunch at the New Delhi Indian Restaurant was very welcome.  Pedro had taken pre-orders on the bus so service was fast, the food was good, and there was a lot of it!

Lunch!

Lunch!

Immediately after lunch we went to the Historic Park of Geoje POW Camp.  Historically, over 250,000 POWs were housed on this island during the Korean War.  The museum itself was interesting, although only some of the signs were translated.  The dioramas depicting the lives of the prisoners were well done and there were a few ruins of original buildings that were pretty neat. We both learned something new as well. Evidently,as the Korean war wound down, there were several violent riots between pro and anti-communist prisoners resulting in several thousand deaths.  Overall, however, the displays left something to be desired due to the lack of English descriptions.  If we were fluent in Hanguel it would be a different story!

Beginning of POW Historic Site

Beginning of POW Historic Site

A Diorama within the Museum

A Diorama within the Museum

Blake in the Ruins of the PX

Blake in the Ruins of the PX

From the museum we were back on a bus and headed to the fishing village Dojangpo where we would stay the night.  Here we would like to pause and comment on the bus transport and the roads on Geoje.  Bus drivers in Korea drive as if they are in a mid-sized car. They cut people off, honk if anyone gets in their way, and generally behave as if they own the road.  Drivers apparently expect their vehicles to corner like sports cars and deem slowing down for switchbacks an unnecessary waste of time. A quick honk to let people know they are coming should suffice, yes?  This was all fine on the mainland.  However, Geoje is mountainous and has a rocky coastline, which means narrow roads, with tons of corners, along cliffs.  As we careened through the island’s interior and along the coast there were several times when we were convinced we were up on two wheels.  At one point we met another bus on a switchback (showdown time!!) and the mirror passed inches from the side of our bus (neither drier slowed down of course).  All-in-all it made for an interesting ride.

We arrived at Dojangpo and went straight to a viewpoint where we could look over the bay and see the beaches and cliffs.  It really is a gorgeous area.

View over Sinseondae

View over Sinseondae

B&T Overlooking Dojangp

B&T Overlooking Dojangp0

After checking into Gashbush, our pension (similar to hostels but a bit more expensive), we were free to check out the area.  We were sharing a room with Hendrik and Caitlyn, our South African friends, which was a nice bonus.

View from Pension Room

View from Pension Room

Room mates on the balcony

Room mates on the balcony

A group of our friends from Gwangju (new and old) headed back towards the main village where there was an area called Wind Hill, featuring a windmill, and a walkway out to some pretty nice rock lookouts over the ocean called Sinseondae.  Unfortunately, Geoje is not particularly interested in promoting walking tourism.  At least that is the conclusion reached after attempting to reach the village one bay over.  The shoulders of the road are extremely narrow, there are no footpaths, and the drivers are insane!  No problem, we’ll walk in the runoff channel.  As one of our group mates said “we must be scaring the hell out of the Koreans.  A bunch of Waygooks cut off at the waist gliding along the road!”

The Walk into Town

The Walk into Town

We did eventually reach our destination and it was well worth the effort, especially Sinseondae where we took a few great group shots.  Like most of our trips in Korea, the landmark destinations were pretty busy.  It was still nice to explore around a bit.

T Attacking?? on Sinseondae

T Attacking?? on Sinseondae

Wind Point

Wind Point

We arrived back in time to catch the end of the BBQ. Later, it was the same group who gathered around the grill and had ourselves an awesome little marshmallow roast.

Marshmallows!

Marshmallows!

The remainder of the evening was spent playing cards (with Catilyn beating us like rented mules) and the rock-paper-scissors showdown to see who go the one bed in our room.  The floor was comfortable enough for the Bouchards that night!  Actually, it was really comfortable, except we could not turn the heat down.  All four of us were slow roasted by the time we got up the next morning.

We were up a bit after 7:00 and braved the Ocean for a quick swim.  March and still spring?  The first saltwater and beach we have seen in over a year?  Hell yeah we are going swimming!  Actually, once you were in (and numb) it was pretty comfortable.

Tamara makes it in for the second time.

Tamara makes it in for the second time.

Blake comes up from an early morning plunge.

Blake comes up from an early morning plunge.

OK, it was a little cold.

OK, it was a little cold.

Following a quick breakfast and packing we got back on the bus for a quick trip to the ferry terminal.  We did a tour around Geoje Haegeumgang, which is a rocky island considered one of the most scenic places in Korea due to the amazing rock formations caused by erosion.

Morning from the Pension

Morning from the Pension

Tamara in the Bow around Haegeumgang

Tamara in the Bow around Haegeumgang

After a quick tour around Haegeumgang which was gorgeous before heading over to Oedo Island. Oedo is pretty much covered in a botanical garden.  There is really not much to say. The place combined beautiful ocean and cliff views with fantastic garden layouts and planting.  We were a bit early, but it was still pretty nice.

 

From there it was over to the black pebble beach in Hakdong. By this time it was after 13:00 and we were famished!  We managed to hunt down some food and then hit up the beach.  Pebble is a bit optimistic.  Black, smooth rock beach might be a bit more accurate.  What was interesting was how smooth the stones were (from the saltwater and waves?) and that they were actually pretty comfortable to sit on.

Hakdong Pebble Beach

Hakdong Pebble Beach

Tamara on the Hakdong Pebble Beach

Tamara on the Hakdong Pebble Beach

After a brief time on the beach it was back on the bus and homeward.  We managed to hit Gwangju before 20:00 and caught the city bus out to Shinchang-dong and home.

Overall, an amazing weekend on a gorgeous island, with great friends.  Can’t wait for the next adventure!

An Interesting Start to the Week

Just a quick update.  I have had a bit of an odd start to my week.  Last Thursday I was informed that Monday afternoon would be open classes (parents can come in and observe).  I had to prepare extra-detailed lesson plans and be prepared to answer questions at the end of class.  I had two classes Monday morning and they both tanked.  I mean students bouncing off the walls or being completely non-responsive tanked! Then I bailed walking up the stairs (I am not used to wandering around in sandals during work) and ended up bleeding everywhere from a gash in my finger.   The day was not going well.  Needless to say by lunch I was pretty nervous!  Aaaannnnd, no parents showed up for either of my afternoon classes.  Which, incidentally, went like clockwork.  I mean these things could go in a teaching manual.

Today I was informed that I must hold an open class for teachers, the principal, and vice-principal.  Later in the discussion it was mentioned that there may be someone from the GMOE (equivalent of the school district office) there and teachers/administrators from other schools as well.  There was a ton of confusion around this — is it an evaluation?; who is it for: myself or my co-teacher who is also new?; what do we have to provide ahead of time; when is the deadline for submitting lesson plans etc?  Most of these remain unanswered which pretty much means my co-teachers don’t know either.  I am going to play the waiting game.

Probably the most interesting part of the last few days was my run this evening.  After I got home I headed out to run in this park/garden/possibly cemetery on a hill near our place.  Tamara and I had located it on an evening walk last week.  I ran along a bunch of trails, ridges, around garden plots and past exercise equipment.  It was fantastic!! I had told Tamara I would be 30-45 minutes and when I popped out the far end I was 30 minutes in.  No problem, I will cut through the city along the side of the forested hills to shave off time and I will only be a few minutes late.  I was jogging through the streets (nearly unheard of in Korea) and getting my share of funny looks when all of a sudden a little girl, about five years old, pops out in front of me.  I nearly run right over her!  One minute she is on her side of the side walk, next she is two feet ahead right in my path!  I crash to a halt and pop out a headphone.  She is smiling up at me, holding her little sister’s hand and says, “Hello.”  We stand out here in Korea, and this is not an uncommon occurrence — kids are fascinated by us.  As I always do I say, “Hello, how are you?”  She wrinkles her nose, “You sshmeell!”  Thanks kid, I really appreciate it!.  Then she waves, “Byyyeeee” and scampers off.  I think she used up 90% of her English vocabulary, but it was pretty hilarious.

I trundle on taking lefts and rights as streets suddenly end or change direction.  By the time I am 45 minutes into my run I am thoroughly lost.  (At some point I ran around Nambu University near our friends’ place a ten minute bus ride from home)  No problem I think, I will just get to high ground.  Up the hill I go.  Not the same hill.  Shit.  OK, but there’s a trail and I need to head in that direction, cool.  An hour and fifteen in I admit defeat and stop a Korean man walking along the path to ask “Shinchang Dong?  Su Moon Cho Hakeyo?”  He speaks no English but whips out his phone and types it in.  I stand there for five minutes while he scrolls through options.  He’s found it!  He points back the way I came and says Nambu University, then points left.  Run to Nambu then turn left.  Got it.  “Thank you” and I retrace my steps for ten minutes.  When I come off the trail at Nambu I can’t turn left.  WTF!?  Fence ahead and on my left.  Go right, up another bloody hill.  By the time I end up in someone’s garden it is getting dark.  The hell with it.  I skirt the garden running on the verge.  Tear my legs up on some thorn bushes and get ambushed by a vine around the ankles that sends me ass over tip into the bamboo.  Sort my self out and hit the fence at the top of the hill.  Ran all the way around the hill; no way through the fence.  Back down the hill.  One hour thirty-five gone in my forty-five minute run.  But, I recognize a land mark. I retrace my original steps into the maze of old buildings and streets where I originally emerged of the first hill.  As I round a corner I nearly crash into three Korean nuns.  No church in sight, just nuns who, incidentally, are hard to see in the dark.  Finally, I locate the original trail and, after many missed turns, make it back home.  My thirty to forty-five minute run finished just over one hour forty-five.  Despite my fears, Tamara did not kill me for worrying her.  She wasn’t even mad.  I can’t decide if I am happy or terrified!

 

Geumseung Fortress Hike Near Damyang

Saturday was a day out of Gwangju.  One of our friends who has lived in the area for a while organised a group of us to head out to Damyang and up to the nearby Geumseung mountain fortress for a hike.  It was only a 40 minute bus ride form the Gwangju Usquare bus terminal and we were clear of the city and standing in downtown Damyang.  From there we caught a set of taxis to the Damyang resort and started up the mountain.

Geumseung Fortress was built sometime in the early 13th century and encompasses a valley surrounded by several mountain peaks.  The fortress walls are a little over 7 KM and run over the surrounding mountain tops.  Dry stone walls blend into the natural cliffs present a very impressive front as you approach the first gate.  We walked the wall clockwise around the map.

This map was just inside the second (Chungyongmun) gate.  At that point we had already climbed a part of the mountain from the start point.

This map was just inside the second (Chungyongmun) gate. At that point we had already climbed a part of the mountain from the start.

The initial ascent was through a gorgeous bamboo forest and the approach to the first gate was up a rocky trail. Totally different from the Mudeung hike last weekend: less people, well out of the city, gorgeous valley views, more real trail with fewer staircases, and amazing historic architecture. The first gate (Bogukum) is on a mountain spur and controls the best approach to the mountain.  This opens into a second enclosure that is further guarded by the Chungyongmun gate.

Tamara in front of Bogukum GateView up from Bogukum Gate Leaving the fortress through the Bogukum Gate View of Chungyongmun Gate through and arrowslit at Bogukum GateAt Bogkum Gate looking up to Chungyongmun Gate

After a break in this enclosure, we headed up through the Chungyongmun gate and left along the walls to Nojeokbong peak.  The views were amazing!  Walking along the wall we had a sweeping view of the valley and a green reservoir, and on the right there were tree covered slopes going down into the valley. Nojeokbong Peak was less than twenty minutes.  Our group was a bit spread out, so Blake was there with the first group and Tamara managed to get this photo of him on the peak.

Looking along the wall from Chungyongmun Gate towards Chealmabong PeakBlake on Nojeokbong Peak

Can you imagine being a medieval warrior attempting to approach from the down-slope side of this?! Once the group had re-constituted itself we carried on to Chealmabong peak.  This is one of the highest points on the south side of the loop and it was where we had originally planned to turn back and go see the bamboo groves in the valley.

On top of Chealmabong Peak

We did not turn back.  After a discussion, part of the group returned and the rest of us began the descent along the wall heading along the west side of the fortress.  Here the wall drops down into a creek valley before lunging skyward again towards the north gate.  These two points are the greatest elevation changes within the loop and we took them in a couple stages.  We stopped to take a few pictures at the creek and then had a brief pause at the west gate in the valley bottom before attempting the climb to the highest point in the whole loop.

The West Gate Bastion overlooks the break in the wall where the creek exits the protected valley.

The West Gate Bastion overlooks the break in the wall where the creek exits the protected valley.

Taken from the West Gate bastion looking back

Taken from the West Gate bastion looking back

We certainly needed the breather!  Parts of it were straight up rock faces steep enough that you needed the help of a rope to ascend.  The rest was rock stairs or steep slopes until we reached the north gate where we stopped for a snack and to admire the amazing view.  At this point we had turned the corner around the mountains and were looking in a new direction with new scenery.

Rope ascent North Gate rest point

A brief rest at the north gate and we headed around the bend and up Undaebong Peak (the highest point on the hike) then descended slightly to the east gate.  This is the area of the hike where you can really get the best views of the trail along the wall and get some idea of the surrounding terrain.

The vast majority of the trail was on or beside the wall.

The vast majority of the trail was on or beside the wall.

Wall trail and mountains along the north-east side Heading towards the East Gate

In the end we skirted Naesong Fortress to drop down into the valley and visit Dongjaam Hermitage.  It is this little cluster of buildings where a martial arts master lives with his family.  While we were there he turned on a generator and showed us a video of a demonstration done by himself and his students.  We did not find out what the martial art is called, but it is weapon-based with swords, staffs, and some sort of blade on a staff featuring heavily.  The hermitage itself highlights how defensible this fort would have been. It is nestled into a valley and takes its water from a natural spring that wells up a few hundred meters away. If you are looking for the definition of “sheltered valley” I don’t know that you could do better than an area with gardens, clean water, in a valley between five mountain peaks that are joined by a high rock wall with layered defenses!

The Gate to Skirt Naesong Fortress

Dongjaam Hermitage

We finally descended back through the first two gates and down the other side of the mountain spur to the main spa at Damyang resort.  Once the group had gathered we caught cabs back into Damyang and found a great place for dinner.  And boy were we hungry!  It was dinner time and, thinking we would be back in Damyang for lunch, we had only packed a few snacks for the day.  Fortunately Chris had spare apples he had been willing to share.  By the time we tucked into dinner a little after seven we were famished.  But, this was what was served for just the two of us

We were so hungry by this point!

We were so hungry by this point!

All the side dishes (everything except the meat in the middle) would be refilled at request.  The meat is tteok galbi (tender cuts of meat in something like a hamburger pattie and served still sizzling on a hot plate) and the rice is daetongbap (rice slow steamed in bamboo to give it a unique flavour).  These two dishes are considered the local specialities and both were certainly delicious.

We caught the bus back into Gwangju and made it home a little after 10:00pm.  It was an amazing day and we were super fortunate to share it with a great group of people.  Thanks to all, especially our organiser Chris!

White Day in Korea

So today is White Day in Korea.  Don’t worry, I’d never heard of it either.  I walked into my school and was immediately confronted by a teenage girl presenting me with a lollipop.  Cool.  Thanks miss.  She smiled, said something in Korean, and skipped off.  I made it the ten more steps to my slipper locker (Teachers have little boxes in the entrance way where we exchange our shoes for our in school slippers) and as I was balanced on one foot three more giggling girls dash up holding out candy.  Thick as I am, even I realized something was going on at this point.  By the time I made my office I had half a dozen assorted sweets and a very bemused look on my face.   My staff room was its typical pre-class madness and I received no explanation until the end of my first class when several of my students rushed up to hand me candy as the bell rang.  My co-teacher immediately started laughing.  As the students left she kindly explained.  Apparently, white day is the payback for valentines day.  I guess it started that this is the day men are supposed to give chocolate or sweets to the women who spoiled them on valentines day.  In middle school it is basically a day when boys and girls give candy to the people they like.

As the day progressed I got more and more candy.  Great, except that I don’t really like candy.  I did get two or three chocolate things that were immediately devoured, but by lunch I was giving it away to my (very amused) colleagues.  I gave away most of what I received throughout the day. This is what is left and represents the amount I received up to the end of my first class.  Before I realized the scope of what was going on I was putting it in my desk under the delusion that I may at some point actually consume what I assumed would be a small amount of candy.

Image

You gotta love a country that has a payback day for valentines.  And it sure made me smile to think of all the little kids that went out of their way to bring me candy today.  It’s pretty nice to be well liked!

Karaoke dance party with the principal? I think yes!

I should note that as I write this, I am sitting at the kitchen table smothering a banana in crunchy peanut butter (shhh… Blake doesn’t know yet), waiting for the washing machine (which is in the kitchen) to finish its cycle so that I can hang the clothes up to dry. All this in the hope that I will have dry socks for school in the morning. Since we have no dryer, and going barefoot is evidently taboo, I will otherwise be stuck wearing damp socks for the day. The banana and peanut butter have less to do with my socks and more to do with the fact that no matter how much Korean food I eat, I am always hungry again within a few hours.

But I digress.

I am just over half-way through my first week of teaching at the five-story, 1500-student elementary school located just around the corner from our apartment. For those of you who don’t know, I spent my elementary days at a lovely one-story school that never had any more than 380 students. Given my complete lack of spatial ability (Blake will attest to this), the fact that I have only been a little lost and only a few times is nothing short of a miracle.

At any rate, I spent most of last week lesson-planning and preparing for the coming year. Last Thursday also brought the annual staff welcoming dinner. This year’s dinner was held at a traditional-style (ie. sitting on the floor) Korean barbecue restaurant across town. After confusing the heck out of a taxi driver with my attempts at mixed English and minimal Korean, I made it safely to the venue about five minutes late (also known as right on time). Upon arrival, I was whisked away, arm-in-arm, by my school’s head teacher (who also happens to be one of my co-teachers). With a sly smile on her face, she told me that I would be sitting with all of the other new teachers. Oh, and with the principal.

The dinner, which was opened with a few short speeches, was lovely (and delicious). It was also interlaced with the comings and goings of the principal, vice principal, and a woman who works with the principal, but whose job I still can’t quite figure out. Anyways, I’m told the tradition is for the principal to circulate amongst the new teachers, sharing a shot of soju (some kind of rice wine) with each. Thank heavens I’d thought to tell my co-teacher earlier in the week that I don’t drink, as they passed this on to the principal and he poured me some sprite. We shared our drinks and a laugh (he speaks probably no more than 10 or 20 words of English) and he moved on. I suppose now would be a good time to note that this year boasts about 25 new teachers at said elementary school. I might also add that other teachers took turns visiting our table to share shots with the principal, VP and the woman with the confusing job.

What happened next, after some bizarre dessert of rice and cream (NOT ice cream) and the closing speeches, I can only describe as a post-dinner karaoke dance party with my slightly inebriated principal and an assortment of other co-workers. Evidently, it was agreed that the new teachers, the head teacher, principal, VP, other office lady, and an assortment of other school staff (eg. some of the ladies from the cafeteria) agreed to meet up at a No-rae-bang (singing room). I hopped in a car with the first four of the aforementioned individuals (cue one slightly confusing conversation about my “religion” as well as the Rocky Mountains and my favourite music) and we made our way to the venue. At the No-rae-bang, the singing was initiated by the head-teacher, followed shortly thereafter by the principal, myself (with a HORRIBLE rendition of Love Me Do by the Beatles – I’m sorry Paul, I ruined your song), the VP, and others. Many people also got up and danced, including the principal. Although I had fun, I was EXHAUSTED by 8:30pm. Thankfully, the head teacher wanted desperately to go home early, so she helped me to duck out and dropped me off at our apartment on her way.

True story.

School in Korea: Some Oddities

The more time we spend in our schools, the more obvious it becomes that there is a very different approach to education and to teacher-student relations in Korea.  In Canada, at least in the schools we attended, the teachers knew you and were friendly, but there were some very distinct boundaries that simply were not crossed.

In Korea, the teachers are much closer to the students.  The idea of the teacher’s room/staff room being a student-free sanctuary? Not true here.  Actually, it’s a place where the students know they can find you.  Blake has spent several lunch hours and after school periods with a cluster of students around his desk speaking broken English trying to assuage their curiosity about him.

There is not the same stigma around contact with your students in Korea.  It is completely acceptable to put your hand on a student’s shoulder or give them a hug if you know them well.  Interestingly, there is still a significant amount of respect on the part of the students.  You can follow the progress of teachers in the hall by the rows of students bowing.  Not deep, but certainly respectful.  Foreign teachers are a different, and apparently confusing, story.  Some students bow, some wave frantically and scream “Hi Teacher” at the top of their lungs, and some just stare wide-eyed.  The funniest thing is when you walk around a corner with another teacher and there is a group of students.  Some are bowing, some are waving and yelling, and some are trying to do both!

The flip side of this is that discipline also has a different face.  In Blake’s first class, a student chirped something in Korean and the co-teacher, who was standing right behind said student, clipped him one across the back of the head.  Walking through the hall on the way to his third class that same day, Blake saw a teacher whacking away at a student with what appeared to be a stiff rolled up sheet of paper (and he almost got caught in the back-swing!).  As the student scurried back, the teacher followed, laying into him.  Different world!!

Teachers and students all eat together in the cafeteria.  There is a designated teacher-table, but the benches are so packed that the students are essentially right beside you.

Teacher-principal relations are very formal here.   When the principal enters the room, all the teachers stop what they are doing, stand up, and bow.  Then everyone stands around nervously until the principle leaves.  Apparently principals carry a bubble of awkwardness with them.  Tamara’s principal is much more active around the school so her encounters with him are quite frequent.  Never an easy experience.

Cleaning the school is another aspect that is very, very different.  There are no janitors at Blake’s school and there appears to be only one at Tamara’s.  At the end of each day there is a 10-20 minute block of time when the students clean the school.  The results are about what you would expect from kids under the age of 15, but it is an interesting concept nonetheless.  I suspect that it significantly reduces the amount of mess the kids make.  That said, it was a shock to have students showing up in the staff room armed with mops and brooms to start working around the teachers as we sat planning!

 

 

A New Perspective: Mount Mudeung

After having been cooped up in cities larger than either of us are used to, this weekend we attempted to break free of the crowds and noise to hit up a mountain with our friends.  In the end we escaped the city but not the crowds.  One of our friend’s birthday is on Monday and as her birthday event she wanted to hike up the local mountain, Mount Mudeung. 

The beginning

Mudeung Mountain is an important area in local lore and is one of the main reasons that the city of Gwangju was established here in the first place.  Our understanding of this is certainly fragmentary, but it appears that, due in part to its height and size, the mountain was/is an important spiritual area.  Indeed, there are still at least two active temples on its slopes today.

Miraculously, nobody got lost in the maze of a bus system so we were actually able to start at a decent hour. As we waited for our group to gather, we watched literally hundreds of Koreans head up the mountain in front of us.  So much for escaping the crowds!  Clearly we are going to have to adjust our expectations for hiking in Korea.  From a Korean perspective, hiking, it appears, is very much a social event and you simply accept the crowds are part of the experience.

Hiking is not a solo activity here Among the crowds

The hike itself was amazing and provided some great views out over Gwangju and the surrounding area.  It was a bit of a surprise how steep the trail actually was.  The trail is clearly well travelled and is lined with rock steps, sections of stairs, and rope handrails for much of its length.  The rock steps actually made the descent much more difficult, but I assume they are mostly there to prevent erosion.

Some Areas Were Rather Steep

From this perspective it became clear just how mountainous the area is.  Gwangju occupies the only flat area we could see from any of the viewpoints.  From high up you can see how it fills the flat and has started to creep up the surrounding river valleys.

Gwnagu from above

We reached the second peak after several hours of trekking.  The wind was insane! Once you broke onto the summit it would nearly push you over (Tamara nearly took a tumble down the mountain).  This was the first time one of our friends has summited a mountain which was pretty exciting.

Second peak of Mudeung B&T on the Second Peak of Mt. Mudeung

It was clearly spring on the mountain with greenery and flowers starting to poke through the brown. Tamara happened to spot one tiny remnant of snow deep down in the rocks, which was a bit of a surprise to everyone. Despite a haze it was HOT and both of us ended up sunburned by the end.

Snow Still Hanging OnSpring is Starting!

On the descent, we met up with a pair of Buddhist monks ascending the mountain, and had a very brief conversation with them in mixed Korean and English. They were very sweet and full of smiles, as were we at the chance encounter.

After the hike we all went to a Buddhist vegetarian buffet for a late lunch and then scattered to our respective corners of the city.  This trip gave us some perspective on the nature of the country, the physical size of the city (huge), and the Korean perception of hiking and countryside.  Not what we are used to but an amazing time nonetheless and shared with great friends.

Teaching: Early Days (a.k.a. What’s Going On Here?!)

Just as our first days at school were very different, our first full week was also very different.  As promised by her co-teachers, Tamara has no classes this week.  I, on the other hand, have taught six different classes so far and have six more tomorrow.  I will be teaching all three middle school grades with eight different co-teachers with whom I will have to coordinate throughout the year.

My first day was a bit of a whirlwind.  As had been requested on Thursday, I arrived fully prepared to give a lesson on asking permission to my third grade classes and an introduction to the first and second graders.  I walked into utter chaos in my office and my head co-teacher stopped me and said “only introductions today” before hurrying off.  OK, cool.  Got a schedule for me?  I tracked her down and got my agenda.  Thinking I finally had some clarity I headed back to my desk to peruse it.  No times.  Back to my co-teacher I go.  I felt pretty bad as the poor woman is clearly harassed.  I obtained a bell schedule and settled in to do a bit of ??? as I had no classes for the first three blocks.

My first class was right before lunch.  Ten minutes early I got all my things ready, and waited for the first bell so I could go find my classroom somewhere in the depths of the five story school.  No bell at the appointed time.  About the time I should have been teaching there had still been no bell.  I flagged another teacher in the office.  No English.  How do you mime out schedule questions?  Communication was eventually achieved and she showed me her schedule.  Day one has a special schedule of shorter classes to allow for more homeroom time.  Thankfully, homeroom was first thing so classes were starting later not earlier!  My first three classes were a bit tough.  Unresponsive students combined with my nerves and hugely exaggerated expectations.  By the end of the day it was clear I needed to adjust my language level and find a way to get more response from the students.  After all, I am supposedly here to teach listening and SPEAKING, not sleeping.

Day one was a bit rough, but it taught me a lot of important lessons straight away:

1)  Scheduling/planning is not the same in Korea as it is in North America.  Flexibility is going to be essential.

2)  We were led to believe (or perhaps I naively assumed) that the classes would speak enough English to follow our directions.  Not so.  Simplicity, and I mean bare bones, smallest words you can possibly use simplicity, is the only way to be understood.

3) These kids are not that interested in English and are only interested in you in passing.

4)  If you don’t make them move physically, they will sleep.  They plan for it.  One kid had a blanket in class.

5)  My co-teachers are really nice and insanely busy.  They are happy to help but have their own problems.  Sort it yourself.

Fortunately, I adjusted my lessons, expectations, and attitude for day two and things were much better.  I think some of the shock value is wearing off as well.  Students (boys and girls) would come up to me and say “teacher, you very handsome” or “I love you teacher!”  Half of them I have not taught yet.   Also, my co-teachers and I were able to actually talk to one another a couple times today.  Wow, did that help things run much more smoothly!  Overall, things are looking up and I am pretty interested to see what happens when we start real lessons next week.