Long overdue

*This post has been a long time coming and I’m full of excuses but I won’t bore you with them.*

After being chewed up and spat back out by London Robert and I recouped in the mercifully cheap and cheerful Budapest, in a rental apartment called Little Panther – so named for a reason that continues to elude us to this day.

Orientation passed mostly without issue, although the daily drudge up and down the five or six flights of stairs to the hostel was an unwelcome reminder of how unfit we’d become over summer. There was a mini production in which a fellow teacher was suddenly and dramatically expelled from our ranks, after revealing a decidedly rotten core and an uncanny resemblance to Steve Jobs, which Robert at least found suspect. Another event worthy of note: I experienced a sense of bamboozlement tantamount to discovering that Dumbledore was dead, then alive sort-of, then decidedly dead again – but also still hanging out in a painting, while watching my new favourite Cornish person manipulate a deck of cards.

Firmly-oriented we were packed off to our new home, which could also be mistaken for Burt Reynold’s Hungarian holiday home. Apart from a minor incident in which we suspect that we released the ashes (and possibly the ghost) of the long-dead previous tenant of our apartment and/or her cat via the ancient vacuum, there have been no domestic disasters.

Shag-rug and teak aside, the place is a vast improvement on last years’ digs, which resembled Hagrid’s cabin. We have an upstairs and a spare room and a double bed (sort of), and I will post photos at some point so that you can marvel at how much it looks like the set of Boogie Nights.

As for Székesfehérvár itself, well, it was major in the Middle Ages. Nowadays though there’s not so many royals passing through and the pace of life is decidedly slower. Still, there are nocturnal open-air euro-trance spinning classes, and, surely one of the greatest vanity projects of all time, Bory Castle.

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Erected in the 1950s by a decidedly eccentric gentleman who gave the structure its name, Bory sits slap bang in the middle of Hungarian suburbia (it is on a residential street, literally sandwiched between two middle-class homes). It is made entirely from concrete and features a number of different styles that aren’t traditionally featured in the same structure. It’s chockablock with Bory’s own sculptures and paintings, which range from ‘quite good’ to ‘exceedingly poor’.

Other things worth mentioning, in no particular order:

  1. My 12th graders look like Russian shot putters and speak better English than me
  2. Robert’s 1st graders look like Borrowers
  3. Hungary has made me realize my secret hated for unkempt grass
  4. In Hungarian the word ‘cookie’ = baby penis
  5. There is not an agreed sound for emergency vehicles here
  6. Hungarian mosquitos have loved me
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Leaving the D Team

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One of two things happened yesterday:

  1. I added a seventh D in Maths to the total amassed by Laura, Bianca and myself over the last decade. If this is confirmed I will likely disappear to live out the rest of my existence in some snowy waste, where I can be alone with my ineptitude forever more

Or

  1. I officially became as accomplished as a (mediocre) sixteen-year-old. The irony being that ultimately the reason I’m putting myself through all of this is so that I can spend more time with the descendants of the sneery-faced, teenage boy who sniggered when I dropped my protractor during the exam

As much as I like the number seven and have enjoyed the comrade of the D Team over the years, I’m actually hoping for the latter outcome.

My fate lies in the hands of the maths gods now. Pray they be kind.

 

On being cold

My second, and final, school semester in Korea is coming to an end and I think it’s only fitting that I end it as I did the first – in true British style – complaining about the weather. The sultry days of frantic fanning and saturated blotting paper feel like a lifetime ago. It is now very, very cold.

These days there are two manners in which I wake up – either I’m stiff and aching from sleeping balled up in the foetal position for warmth all night long, or dying of dehydration because I cranked the ondol (underfloor heating)  up to the max again. Each morning I conduct the sniff test to determine whether or not it is absolutely necessary to expose my body to the elements for the 30 agonising seconds that it takes to undress and dive into the shower. Sadly for my students and colleagues nine times out of ten the conclusion I come to is, no.

The walk to school can be described, at best, as ‘bracing’. Until recently I didn’t realise that one’s entire face, and not just their lips, are susceptible to chapping. It’s been a painful and unattractive realisation and I’m now seriously considering purchasing a Korean balaclava.

It’s absolutely critical that every acre of flesh is swaddled. Last week I neglected to wear sensible socks one morning and so exposed a slither of skin on each ankle. As penance for my folly I spent the rest of the morning squatting beneath my desk miserably applying heat packs, willing feeling to return.

In respect of my school I think I’m more fortunate than some – the teachers’ office is reliably warm each morning when I arrive, meaning only a single coat and blanket are required to ward off frostbite. In the classrooms I can remove my coat even, due to the 40 bodies crammed into each one. Sadly there is a flipside – unable to escape out of the windows, the dubious odours steadily issuing from my teenage human heaters are amplified tenfold. So while my resemblance to the abominable snowman is temporarily reduced I will die if I breath through my nose.

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My own stench and the kids’ combined could probably be utilised in warfare

The school corridors are another story. Here the windows are flung wide open to welcome winter’s wrath inside. I imagine that emerging from the warmth of the teachers’ office into the grey, icy wastes of the corridor feels something like being born. I want to cry every time.

The only place more miserable than the corridors is the toilet. Some days I feel like I would rather rupture my bladder than voluntarily make contact with those ice blocks that are toilet seats.

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It is basically like dunking your derriere in liquid nitrogen

I will never complain about British weather again (that is lie).

Autumn in Korea

I’ve got terrible writers’ block but want you all to know I’m still alive so here are some photos of autumn in Korea to tide you over until inspiration strikes.

There have been many birthdays

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Foliage

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Thanksgiving and related food comas

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Arts & crafts

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Simon Cowell expressed through rice, seaweed and human hair

Dressing up

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And a tiny bit of culture

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Educating the Grinch

A fortnight ago one of my afterschoolers approached me at my desk. He was very solemn faced and I thought something was wrong when he requested a private meeting with me. His troubled face played on my mind all morning and at lunch I bolted down my kimchi and hurried back to my office to find him waiting for me, looking even more anxious than before. Bracing myself for the worst I asked him what was wrong. He told me he had something to ask me…”Teacher, will you…sing with me in the talent show?”

Singing?! This was not at all what I had expected to hear. I was so surprised that without considering the implications of my answer (and without registering the appropriate level of dread) I said: “Yes! Of course!!”

To be honest I was very touched to be asked. Even if it was a bit of a strategic move to guarantee him a place in the final, I think there was an emotional factor involved too. Once I’d committed, the boy – lets called him GD Junior (he’s a big fan of G-Dragon) – was all business. I was given a lyric sheet and a file of the music video to study, as well as a ppt presentation depicting ‘Gangster Style’ so that I could put together a suitable ‘costume’. That’s right. GDJ’s music genre of choice was Korean ‘hip-hop’.

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I ended up looking like a member of Blazin’ Squad

Self-promotion is something that the British have always felt to be deeply unsavory. Take our televised talent shows for example; It’s no surprise that the X-factor’s viewing figures begin to plummet after the audition stages because its true purpose isn’t to discover talent, but to provide subjects for mockery. In the live stages the acts and the judges start taking themselves ‘too seriously’, so we switch off in disgust.

Although the attitude in UK schools towards publicly exhibiting yourself has since progressed, when I was in secondary school taking yourself ‘too seriously’ – especially in a public manner – was a crime. Despite attending a secondary school that specialized in the performing arts, it was only acceptable to take part in a production if you made it abundantly clear that it was simply for want of something better to do, and that it was all ‘just a bit of fun’. The productions themselves were suitably low key and were attended by very modest numbers.

In contrast at my Korean school the build up to the talent show was tantamount with the royal wedding. There were posters and flyers plastering every available surface and boys singing and dancing absolutely EVERYWHERE AT ALL TIMES. Basically it was like being on the set of Glee for a solid week. As one teacher told me earnestly, Koreans are passionate about two things: Kimchi and singing.

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On the day of my big debut there was drama a-plenty. In true Lauren style I left part of my costume at home (gangster footwear) and GDJ was adamant (understandably I suppose) that our credibility might be undermined if I went on stage wearing my school slippers. Then our place in the running order got changed last minute, and the PE teacher insisted on force-feeding me 20 pounds of cold pizza and a gallon of coke right before the show began. But finally the show did begin, and it was a million miles away from my secondary school productions. There were lights, there were pyrotechnics, a deafening sound-system, a huge audience and the vice-principal wearing a comedy-size sequined bow tie.

Every act – the good and the bad – was met with rapturous applause, and – try as I might – I could detect NO IRONY WHATSOEVER. Well, my British sensibilities bristled at such unapologetic displays of enthusiasm and commendation, and after a particularly exuberant reception to the school heartthrob’s rendition of ‘You raise me up’ ON THE KAZOO I desperately tried to catch the eye of some fellow sane individual. But there were none to be found, every eye was transfixed by the sight of a boy playing his heart out on a kazoo.

And it was at that point that I realised that it was time to stop resisting and to embrace the madness. So when the boy put down his kazoo I whooped along with the rest of them, and when I got on stage I raised my hands in the air like I just didn’t care and willingly high-fived the line of clamouring colleagues as I exited the stage. Yes, I can never un-watch the imported high school girls’ creepily sexy dance recital, and I still smell faintly of smoke, but when I emerged from that gymnasium my cold British heart had grown three sizes.

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ExamiNation

When I was 16 I sat my GCSEs. In the month leading up to the exams I seem to recall studying sporadically and half-heartedly on a friend’s bedroom floor with multiple and increasingly lengthy ‘study breaks’, in which we ate many custard creams and quested on the N64. My mum did hire a Maths tutor for me (in vain) but I was more committed to ‘discovering’ the far-flung corners of my town on my bicycle than solving maths equations.

When it came to taking the exams I imagine I felt a degree of anxiety and afterwards I probably celebrated with more biscuits and the Legend of Zelda. If you were to ask a Korean about their memories of taking the CSAT exams (the equivalent of GCSEs) I suspect they would be somewhat less vague.

The CSATs are a national obsession here in Korea. To say that today (Nov 7th) will be the most pivotal day in the current high-school seniors’ lives is not an overstatement. Unlike in the UK, where test results are just one of many considerations in university admissions decisions, here in Korea a student’s CSAT score alone will determine the university they enter, and as a consequence, the course of the rest of their lives.

This video shows the extreme and unusual measures Korean society goes to, to try and ensure students’ exam success.

Thank heaven for little girls

Think back to the first semester. You know, those halcyon days when seeing a traditional temple was still a novelty and the mention of an organised trip didn’t send a shiver of revulsion down your spine. Back in first semester we were still busy trying to navigate our ‘flexible’ timetables, how to order in restaurants, and the seeming neon maze of downtown. All that adjusting and gallivanting didn’t leave time for much else, so extra-curricular activities extended to loitering on the street outside Gogos with a cocktail in a bag.

This semester we’ve got our shit together (to a greater or lesser degree) and we’re all making a conscious effort to be more proactive. One of my own efforts was joining a local non-profit, cultural exchange/mentoring programme that pairs native English speakers with Korean teenagers. The programme has provided me with a reason not to fester in my apartment watching old episodes of Made in Chelsea, plus  the novel opportunity to interact with that alien species: the Korean teenage girl.

Working at an all-boys school has its perks and I’m pretty fond of the little toads. That being said, it can get a little Mad Men around here at times, which is down to the prevailing Confucianism philosophy that governs Korean society.

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Despite evidence to the contrary (which I routinely plaster across the TV screen and wave beneath their noses in the form of handouts) a lot of the boys I teach would have me believe that their female counterparts aren’t in possession of brains or courage or strength, and that their passions are aesthetic only.

Despite admonishing my boys on a regular basis I realise now that I too was beginning to form my own uneducated ideas about Korean teenage girls. I’m ashamed to admit this but after eight months adrift in a sea of testosterone I crashed into the rocks of lazy ignorance. Based on a toxic blend of the boys’ warped depictions, fleeting glimpses of Korean teenage girls out in public, anecdotal stories from other NETs and the back catalogue of Girls Generation  I constructed my notion of a Typical Korean Teenage Girl.

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So meeting my mentee was something of a revelation.

For our first date I took her to the Cat & Dog Cafe, imagining that the chance to manhandle adorable balls of fluff over a cup of hot chocolate would send her into shrieks of delight. Well, the only person shrieking was me. Somewhat confused that she hadn’t been compelled to join me in cooing over the fantastically obese siamese cat darting in out of our legs, I presented her with my trump card: a hot-pink, be-stickered scrap book. Surely this girlish confection would inspire a TKTG reaction. In fact, her eyes did not moisten, and she refrained from clapping her hands together like a cartoon seal. Rather, she calmly accepted the gift and thanked me sincerely.

Since our first meeting she has  continued to resist the role I was trying to force on her, going on to cooly discredit each and every one of my students’, and my own, silly assumptions, and remind me that people – especially teenagers! – are too complex to be typical.