Public Service Announcement

It’s the first week of summer vacation  in Korea but vacation doesn’t have quite the same meaning here as it does in the rest of the world. The precise translation is business as usual. With a few exceptions, all of the staff and pupils are here in school teaching and studying as normal for the best part of the day, five days a week under the guise of ‘extra-curricular lessons’. Only my role has really changed. This week is English Summer Camp (as proclaimed by the daunting banner plastered across the school gates). So from 8 – 3 I desk warm and from 3 – 6 I lead 20 students in camp activities.

I’ll admit I was pretty anxious in the run up. Having been studying solidly for around 6 hours I wasn’t optimistic about the students’ motivation levels, and on my first day I gloomily awaited the arrival of my listless charges. Instead I was greeted by 20 bright-eyed and bushy-tailed boys whose energy and enthusiasm has only seemed to rise and rise. Four days in I’m having a great time. My only gripe is this desk warming malarky. I’ve tried to use the time as productively as possible but frankly there’s only so much future lesson planning a person can do. And so I’ve decided to take 10 minutes this afternoon to issue what I think is a public service announcement.

It turns out South Korea has been quietly sitting on the eighth Wonder of the World.

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Let me introduce the unfamiliar among you to patbingsu (팥빙수). Otherwise known as HEAVEN IN A BOWL. I can sense some of you turning your noses up – I was one of you once. Are those…BEANS?! Yes, yes they are but they are in fact magic beans (more commonly know as sweetened azuki).

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There are so many possible combinations available but generally the key components are ice shavings, milk/cream, beans and fruit. Don’t ask me how the seemingly nonsensical addition of a bean elevates this otherwise pedestrian combination to the sublime. I don’t question perfection.  

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Notable extras include ice cream, syrup, cereal flakes, jelly and tteok (rice cake). Yes people have been known to come across a rogue tomato from time to time (it is technically a fruit afterall), but this is a rarity and certainly shouldn’t deter you from pursuing the Path of Patbingsu.

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It’s a long, hot summer here in Korea and I intend to sample as many varieties as I can, safe in the knowledge that the resultant fillings will only cost me the equivalent of a UK cinema ticket.

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Re-integration

Just lately I’ve been feeling homesick. I’m coming up to the 5 month mark now and the honeymoon period has inevitably made way for the next phase in the traditional culture-shock model, known as re-integration. 

At this stage nothing feels new any more and the initial excitement of being immersed in a different culture has worn away. Nowadays I find myself getting frustrated with the cultural differences and increasingly hostile towards the locals. I often feel anxious or agitated and can be overly-sensitive about relatively trivial issues at work and outside. 

Progressively I’ve felt less inclined to socialise in favour of withdrawing into the chaotic little sanctuary I’ve established in my apartment, to daydream about a romanticised fantasy version of the country I left behind. 

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I know this reaction to culture-shock falls firmly under ‘EXACTLY WHAT NOT TO DO WHEN YOU’RE EXPERIENCING CULTURE SHOCK!!!’ so in a bid to snap myself out of it I’ve made a list of the things I like about South Korea. To remind myself that for all of the ways that SK is inferior to the heavily-embroidered England in my head, it also has its good points that I’ve conveniently forgotten about while I’ve been moping.

– Jolly Ajummas – the two old ladies who now regularly have the delight of scrubbing me and my friend down at my local jimjilbang. They speak zero English and we might as well speak zero Korean. Zero problem 

– Mystery Mega-Watt Smile Lady – who comes into the office in the morning to deliver the mail (?) while the rest of the teachers are in their homerooms. I’ve tried really hard to maintain my tortured brooding in the presence of The Smile. Not possible

– Handsome Bank Man – his handsomeness never fails to cheer me up. As helpful as he is handsome, I’ve found it difficult to add him to my REASONS I’VE SUDDENLY DECIDED KOREA IS CRAP list
 
– End Of My Street Shop Guy – loves to give me random edible freebies and chat about his love for British football and the stoicism of Queen Liz
 
– Studes – however would definitely feature on my other list too
– I’ve also got a great bunch of friends, probably the best going actually
– Duryu Park
– Aelia Coffee Shop and the infinite number of equally cute alternatives anywhere you go
– The various, readily accessible mountain ranges
– My local jimjilbang – is like someone’s bathroom compared to others but its packing character
– The traditional market by my apartment and the little family-run open-air cafe there where I can get my dinner for all of £1.20
– The botanical gardens
– Kieran’s floor
– DVD-bangs
– Norebangs
– Pap bin su, ddukbokkie, dakjuk, hoeddeok, yangnyeom tongdak and beanpaste filled batter fish things for eats
– Unintentionally poetic stationary
– The bromance culture

Blue Mondays be gone

Monday is the day when new lessons get their first test run and they can be a little unsteady on their feet. But usually any issues are easy to recognise and resolve, and by the third or fourth class you’re rolling. 

Then there are times when that initial pilot totally and utterly bombs. And I go to pieces.

Mid-week I can handle the odd dodgy lesson. By then the lessons are well-oiled, I’m firmly back in the swing of things and the weekend is on the horizon. On a Wednesday I’m the John McClane of the classroom. Not on Mondays. On Mondays I am the Cowardly Lion.

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Please be kind children

Last Monday both of my new lessons crashed and burned in a truly spectacular fashion and by the end of the day I was questioning my ability to teach and my emotional stability. Cue phonecall to Dad.

While I’m unquestionably driven by my emotions my father is the most logically-minded person I’ve ever known. He may be part-Vulcan. I knew when I went and had a little pity cry in the park before my after school class that I was in desperate need of a dose of reason and big C delivered the goods.

He reminded me that while I might flatter myself that I am the centre of the students’ world, I am not. In actual fact, on their list of Important Stuff I probably rank around #157 after ‘level up on LOL’ and ‘learn how to turn my eyelids inside out’.

He suggested I think back to my own school days and consider whether or not ‘find a chink in my teacher’s armour and bring her down’ was on my agenda. Strangely it wasn’t. I was kind of preoccupied with my friends, my love/hate relationship with the male species and my treacherous body.

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And my struggle to see myself as an authority figure? The only person struggling with this identity crisis is me. As par reminded me, students don’t generally consider that teachers have lives, let alone thoughts in the time before and after class. Hence why they look like they’ve just seen a person with two heads whenever you run into them outside of school.

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At school I definitely didn’t have time to decide that my teachers were frauds because I needed to get my ears pierced again and find a way to have naturally straight hair, and my students are no different. In other words they just don’t care. Not in a horrible way, just in a I’m-15-years-old-I’ve-got-other-shit-on-my-mind-so-I’m-oblivious-to-your-inner-turmoil way.

I may be overstating it just a tad but I think I’ve had an epiphany.