It's been one week since I arrived in Korea, but such is the nature of being thrown into a completely new life and lifestyle that so much has happened that I feel like I've been here twice as long already.
Upon emerging through security and out into the main lobby of Seoul International airport last Saturday, I'm not sure whether I was disappointed or comforted to see familiar western chains like Dunkin Donuts. At least they serviced my desperate need for caffeine having come off an 11 hour flight and with a 4 hour bus journey to my final destination of Daegu still to come.
I was expecting the bus to be a Greyhound-style affair, so I was pleasantly surprised to find the rather small bus was fitted with wide and padded chairs, complete with their own recliners and foot rests. After being squeezed like a sardine in an Asiana Airways economy seat for half a day, these felt like a veritable La-Z-Boy. I sat in the back row which was raised above the rest of the seats and allowed me to see out of the windows all the way down both sides of the bus. Having just arrived in a non-English speaking country I didn't want to immediately delve into some lyric heavy music, so I pumped Forest Swords' ambient Engravings, which is awash in Eastern-sounding guitars and matched nicely with my new surroundings. Although my eyes were screaming to be closed, my mind was switched on and lapping up the rolling green scenery that was bathed in early evening sunlight (although my mind kept fooling me into thinking that it was morning, having not yet adjusted to the 8 hour jump ahead in time). I'm not sure I would have been able to sleep anyway, since the driver's erratic swerving and lane-hopping would have continually stirred me to wake.
It was dark by the time we were ditched in central Daegu, and all the other passengers quickly scuttled off to wherever they lived, while I remained in the bus station. I was to be met by the director of Jung-Chul Institute, where I am working. I was a little perturbed that nobody was there upon my arrival, but decided not to fret too much since we had arrived a little early. I sat down on the floor by a power outlet and continued to watch Breaking Bad on my Kindle. Half an hour later when they still hadn't arrived I perhaps should have started panicking, but I was too weary to work myself up into any kind of state. Thankfully ten minutes later the school's head teacher Christine and the Director Mr. Lee came through the door and found me, apologising profusely. Apparently they had been waiting just around the corner, where the bus usually drops off, and they had been just as worried about my whereabouts.
Having now united with my hosts they took me out of central Daegu to Gaksan, where the school and my accommodation is located. We stopped off at an Italian restaurant for some food. I would have preferred to be thrown straight into some Korean cuisine, but tired as I was it was just nice to eat something familiar. We were met at the restaurant by the other native English teacher at Jung-Chul, James. Jamie hails from the Manchester area and has been out in Daegu already for nearly 11 months. He filled me in on some basic details about the way things work, life in Daegu and Korean customs like never filling your own drink and never having an empty glass at the dinner table if possible.
After dinner Christine, Mr. Lee and Jamie showed me to my flat, which was a short walk down the street from where we had eaten. I was impressed by the accommodation, since it was bigger than I was expecting, complete with a sizeable bedroom, kitchen and even a laundry area. The internet was already set up, there's remote controlled air conditioning, and the previous occupants had left behind more or less everything I needed for cooking and eating including a microwave, kettle and toaster. Although there were no knives, and I've found that, strangely, there seems to be a real aversion to table knives in this country; no restaurants have any and when I went out to buy one for my own place yesterday I could only find a single one for 5000 Won (£3). Even forks are fairly rare, with Koreans seemingly content to use chopsticks and spoons for everything.
Once all my luggage was in place I bid goodnight to Jamie, Christine and Mr. Lee. Jamie agreed to come and pick me up the next afternoon and show me around. After they left I succumbed to some much needed sleep.
Jamie called for me in the early afternoon the next day. Fortunately I arrived on a weekend so I had a day off before having to head straight into work on the Monday. Upon stepping outside my building we were instantly confronted by bright sun, instantly-moistening humidity and a barrage of loud buzzing. The source of this buzzing, it turns out, were the cicadas that are rife in this area at this time of year - not that you'll ever see them, but if you're in an area with enough vegetation like near my apartment or in a park, their din can reach volumes that can completely blanket the conversation you're having with the person right next to you, and I can hear them outside my window when I wake up each morning - at first it's a little fascinating but quickly it becomes frustrating. Jamie and I escaped away from the greener area and to the more central area of Gaksan where he proceeded to show me where the school is and what's what.
Gaksan is quite far to the north east of the center of Daegu, and across the river. Between us and the centre there's not all that much, but Gaksan itself has a nice little built up area with shops, restaurants and cafes, as well as businesses. The tall blocks of buildings are all plastered with Korean writing signifying what's contained within, but for someone who doesn't speak a lick of the language, it's not very informative. This can mean that trying to find your way around can sometimes become confusing, since all the buildings look the same. It can be difficult to pick a landmark to use to get your bearings, as variation is not a strong suit here. In downtown Daegu I would estimate that 10-20% of the businesses are coffee places (some with as many as three floors, always packed), including one place where I've seen a string of 5 different ones all next door to each other (surprisingly, none were Starbucks, though, to be sure, there are enough Starbucks around that you can be sure you're on planet Earth). On the street that hosts our school there are a handful of restaurants that all essentially serve the same menu. On both the left and the right side of the door that leads into the building in which Jung-Chul is situated there is a pharmacy. I've been working at the school for a week now, and I've been in and out of the building multiple times, but I still more often than not walk straight past the door on first attempt because it blends in with all that's around it.
Once Jamie helped me get my bearing in Gaksan (there's essentially just one or two blocks where everything I need to know is situated) we headed into downtown Daegu on the subway. The subway system here is very clean and simple, with only two lines, and only one point at which they cross - the centre station, which is the centre of the city. (You can check out a map here - Gaksan is in the top right.)
On the subway I noted that pretty much everybody had their phones out. Korea seems to be a very tech-savvy place, with nearly everywhere I've been having wifi, from coffee shops to pizza parlours. And apparently a monastery that Jamie's been to has it too. The subway also has internet - but only if you're on a Korean phone service provider. Also, strangely, everyone's phones here are HUGE. It seems they don't like having phones that are smaller than the size of their face. To me, they're seriously stretching the limit of what can be called a mobile phone. I think it's because they're good for gaming and streaming videos, but it's quite strange.
Dowtown Daegu is a huge and bustling commercial zone with endless streets and alleyways lined with shops, restaurants and, as I mentioned, a shit ton of coffee places. We walked around for a while before getting some lunch. I badgered Jamie about the workings of the school, the difficulties, social life and things like that, which he was more than obliged to help me become more comfortable with. Post-lunch we didn't really feel like walking around much more in the botheringly humid streets, so we headed into the very plush and cool Hyundai department store to explore a little. The most fascinating was the basement food court which was exquisitely designed and catered to all sorts of interesting cuisines.
After this little exploration we decided to head over to the humongous CGV Theater to see a film. We got tickets for a screening of Snowpiercer, a Korean-made English language film that's causing quite a stir here. We had an hour to kill before watching so spent some time in the arcade playing Tekken, House of the Dead and such for a fraction of the price they charge you in similar places in the West.
The film itself was utterly ridiculous but somewhat fun. It's set in the future when the whole Earth has frozen over and the only surviving humans live on a giant train that never stops moving. The people in the back of the train are treated like peasants and decide to cause an uprising to try and fight their way to the front of the train, where the well-off people live, in an attempt to take over and instill equality aboard the train. The film stars some well-known English actors such as John Hurt, Tilda Swinton, Jamie Bell and Americans Chris Evans, Alison Pill and Ed Harris - as well as Korean bad boy Kang-Ho Sang. Despite this, I'm not sure if it will get a theatrical release in America or the UK. And, to be honest, you're not missing much. There are some nice ideas and some good action, but there are also some preposterous scenes and plot holes the size of a moon crater which frustrated me immensely. More satisfying were the popcorn and grape Fanta, which were much more reasonably priced than their equivalent at your local Odeon or Cineworld.
It was night after we left the cinema so we headed back to Gaksan for dinner at a galbi place - or Korean BBQ as I'd come to know it in Los Angeles. Essentially it's a place where they bring you plates of raw meat and you cook it yourself on a stove in the centre of the table. While I'd done this many times in LA, I felt that this was much more authentic and had a nicer taste since we were cooking over coals rather than on a gas stove. I also had my first taste of Soju, an extremely popular Korean spirit that's sold, cheap, everywhere, that's extremely easy to drink.
Post-dinner I was knackered. I thanked Jamie for showing me around and decided I'd better head home for some sleep before my first day of school the next day.
Jung Chul Institute is what's known as a Hagwan, which is a school that children are sent to outside of their main school for additional lessons that their parents pay for. They range from your standard subjects like maths and English to (apparently) jump-rope. The kids' parents make them go, even at this time of year when they're on summer holidays from their normal school.
Because we operate outside of the normal hours of a school day I don't have to be in work until 2pm, and classes don't begin until 3.30, but then they run until 9.30. I spend the first hour and a half in the office with the other teachers preparing my lessons for the day. I have 17 or 18 different classes that I teach in the week, and each is also taught by a native Korean teacher, of which there are 6 in the school.
On my first day each of the Korean teachers stopped to chat to me to fill me in on where we are up to in the text book with each class. The previous native English teacher, Ben, also left me notes on each class to tell me how they behave and which pupils to look out for etc. Our job as the native English teachers is to teach the reading and speaking parts of the text books, which is fairly simple. Even still, I thought that on my first day I'd receive a bit more support than I did, but when 3.30 rolled around I was thrown straight into my first class on my own, to muddle things through.
Earlier in the day we have the younger and less experienced students, so attempting to have any kind of real conversation with them in English doesn't go down particularly well as I quickly found out. Thankfully the classes are small, and this group of five smiling 8 year olds couldn't really be that scary. I resorted to having them read after me in the story book that they're currently working on about underwater animals. The first class was only 30 minutes (classes are either short, 30 minutes, or long, 60 minutes), and it was over soon enough, but I had to bounce straight into my next one. Usually in the after classes have started at 3.30 I'll only get one break of either 30 or 60 minutes, and on Thursdays I have to teach from 3.30 to 9.30 without any break. This doesn't bother me too much as the lessons go quickly as long as the students don't seem too bored.
I found that there's a certain formula to teaching the classes, with each class having a textbook that has a corresponding story book. I have them read out loud a page from the story book then flip over to the textbook where there are questions about what they've just read, which I help them to answer. The stories I've come across so far vary quite wildly, from one about tiger poachers, to an adventure in the Louvre, to a Greek-food loving criminal in The Tzatziki Thief. Once the reading section of the lesson is over we flip to the talking segment of the textbook and discuss the topics suggested there, which have included emotions in the lower classes, food groups in the middle classes and dating in the higher classes. If we run out of steam on discussing these topics and we still have time to kill in the lesson then I'll attempt to engage the classes in conversation about their plans for the weekend or something like that. With some classes with lower ability this goes down like a lead balloon so I fall back on playing games of Pictionary or Hangman on the board, which they seem much happier to do than learn. The younger children in particular get extremely excited about Pictionary, and it can be hilarious to see how excited they get trying to remember the English word for something like "giraffe" or "pasta."
On my first day of teaching I remained steadfastly behind the pew at the front of the class, standing up and quite stiff, trying not to look at the clock and see how slow time was going. But by the second or third day I was feeling much more comfortable in the classroom, coming out from behind the lectern to walk around the class, going over to individual children to hear them read, or sitting on the desks, much closer and more approachable. It didn't take me long to become quite comfortable in the classroom, and so far I haven't had too much trouble with behaviour - although they might just be feeling me out. I get the feeling that with the system of each class having one English teacher and one Korean teacher, we get to be the 'good cop' while the Koreans instigate a much stricter rule over their class as the 'bad cop' - I'm often hearing loud Korean admonishments coming from neighbouring classrooms and Jamie has told me that he's witnessed the Korean teachers physically hitting some students with books or fans at times.
The Korean teachers are nice to us though, and have made me feel very welcome in the teacher's room, willing to help me out with textbooks or photocopies that I need, warning me about certain students and just generally asking me what I've been up to. The students are mostly very friendly outside of class too, saying "Hello" (but not much more) when they see me in the hall or the elevator. I even got some compliments on my new haircut from some, which was also nice.
So far there aren't really any specifically interesting stories to relate from class, but I can tell that there are some characters who are going to make for interesting teaching soon enough, and I'll be relating those stories here when they crop up.
After work each day Jamie and I usually hang out with a couple of Americans called Craig and Eric that teach in a nearby school and live near to us too. They share a flat, so we usually head over to their place. Eric's girlfriend Suzie is usually over too - she's also teaching English but in a completely different part of Daegu. We drink some beers and soju, play cards, trade stories from class or about things we miss from back home (something green and fragrant chief among them), then head back home around 1-1.30am.
Wednesday night, however, was a completely different story. Thursday was what is called a 'red day' aka a day off from school, because it was Korean Independence Day. On top of this, it was also Suzie's birthday, so we agreed to have a big night out on Wednesday night, with all the other American teachers from her school also coming along.
After work Jamie and I went around to meet Craig at his place and swiftly headed out to catch the subway into downtown, drinking a beer each and sharing a bottle of soju on the the ride, so we already had a fairly good buzz by the time we met the rest of the party. We headed for a galbi place where we met a big group of Americans that we joined for dinner. Over the next couple of hours we ate more meat than I care to remember and I lost count of how many more shots of soju and glasses of beer we drank. We talked about all manner of things including two of my favourite subjects, music and Adventure Time, getting to know those sitting around me quite well.
By the time we stumbled out of the restaurant around midnight we were already quite drunk, but the night was only getting started.
All of the Western-friendly bars are in one rather small area of downtown so we only had a short walk down the street to get to our next destination, Gogo Vinyl, where they serve the extremely popular cocktail in a bag. Their selection of cocktails is vast and they'll mix it as strong as you want without adding any cost on to the already extremely reasonable price of 5000 Won (about £3). The bar itself was too small to fit us all in, but the temperature outside was still warm so we stood around out there chatting and drinking some more, while the bar blasted out Western pop classics like Britney Spears and TLC, which, while by no means my favourites, are still far superior to the ubiquitous and insipid K-Pop that is constantly flooding out of most places.
At this point my memory - understandably - starts to get a little fuzzy. Despite the already quite large amounts we had already ingested we were all on a high, feeling good and throwing caution to the wind since we didn't have to go into work the next day.
We headed into a nearby sports bar called Champs - or maybe Julius, I'm not sure - where they had dartboards, a pool table, and of course more alcohol. I was invited to play some darts, which I'm terrible at even in my more sober moments, but I was encouraged to find that they didn't have sharp darts but plastic ones with blunted ends that fitted into the specially-made boards. I was also concerned about how we were going to keep score in our current states, but evidently the creators of dartboards in this country are well aware of how drunk people get when they go out here, so have created boards that will automatically calculate and display your scores for you, which makes things a lot easier. This was my first experience of them, but I've seen them in more or less every bar I've passed since. I don't remember clearly, but I'm pretty sure I didn't win any games, but I think I managed to hit the board with most of my throws, which is some kind of miracle.
Of course we also patronised the bar, with Jamie insisting that he and I try out their Agwa Bombs, which they were advertising around the bar. The big selling point of the Agwa Bomb is that it contains coca leaves - the same thing that they use to make cocaine, though I don't think that drinking it gives the same effect as snorting it. Although, after drinking two of these shots I was feeling unreasonably energetic, so who knows. They also come in a rather odd, christmas tree shaped shot glass (pictured right), which makes it go down in two glugs, which perhaps makes it easier to drink, or might just me another marketing ploy, I'm not sure.
Pretty shortly after we'd finished our Agwa Bombs we realised that there was nobody left of the group that had started the night apart from the core five of us - myself, Jamie, Eric, Suzie and Craig. I'm not really sure what happened to the rest of them, I'm sure some were a bit too drunk, and I know some had work the next day (not all schools get the red days off) but we definitely lost track of a lot of them. The five of us played a couple of games of pool, and argued about American rules vs. English rules, but continued having a good time. Eric and Suzie decided to call it a night after that, but Craig, Jamie and I were determined to keep going.
We next found ourselves heading into an underground club/bar where a god awful DJ was playing and we quickly found ourselves heading back out again and into another, more relaxed underground bar called Who's Bob? where they were playing Radiohead as walked in the door - much more my style. I opted not to drink any more at this point but the other two powered on. I'm not sure what time it was but I would say around 4am. In Who's Bob? we ran into an Irish guy named Mickey that Jamie had met several times before.
Mickey has been out in Daegu for two years now, and is sort of like an Elder Statesman of the Western scene here, knowing all the spots and pretty much all the Westerners in town. After a couple of drinks in Who's Bob we headed back up on to the street to see what we felt like doing next. We sat on the side of the road for a little while, feeling worse for wear and talking to people passing by that Mickey knew.
I'm not sure exactly where the idea came from, but soon it was decided that we were going to find our way to the pink light district (the same as the red light district, but for some reason they all have pink lights in the windows). Mickey felt pretty sure that he knew how to get us there, and we felt a lot more comfortable trying to find it with him in our group.
We hailed a taxi and left Mickey to try to tell the driver where to go. What he actually did to tell the driver what we wanted was bang his right fist down onto his left palm quickly and repeatedly while saying "bang, bang, bang." This seemed completely ludicrous to me, but the driver seemed to get the idea of what we wanted so we hopped in and off we went.
Fifteen or twenty minutes later of driving into nondescript areas of Daegu, it was pretty obvious that the driver didn't really know where he was going. He spotted an old woman loitering on the edge of the empty pavement and pulled over to ask her if she knew where to go. I can't honestly tell you what the conversation they had consisted of, but the driver told us to alight there, so we decided to pay him and take our chances. The old lady led us over to a random building and pointed up some stairs, which looked most uninviting. Without much thought, we opted not to enter. Jamie had been to the pink light district before so knew what he was looking for, and this was not it.
We decided to wander around the area to see if we could find any women standing in windows, but we had no luck. By this time the sun was coming up, but the temperature was what could be called 'pleasant' for the first time in the day, and we felt like we were on a mission now and weren't ready to give up. We tried asking a guy in a 24 hour 7-Eleven, put the poor young boy seemed utterly scandalised at the suggestion that he might know.
We decided to hop into another taxi, this time Jamie trying his luck at telling the driver where we wanted to go by using the same "bang, bang, bang," fist slamming motion. Once again we were whisked away, but when the driver stopped and told us to get out we found that we were right back where we had started in downtown Daegu.
At this point you'd have thought we'd have given up, but something spurred us on, whether drunken determination, stupidity or just plain excitement, we weren't ready to give up yet. For a third time we got into a taxi, and for the third time the "bang, bang, bang" technique was used (this time Craig doing the honours) and once more we piled in for a ride.
To our equal surprise and delight, this time we were actually delivered to the right place. Despite the sun being more or less fully up by the time we arrived, the pink lights still stood out and the long street with big glass windows could be nothing else. We decided to take a lap around the block at first before deciding our next move, and at the far end of the street we immediately came upon a fight, in which one guy on the floor looked badly bruised and had a swollen face. Perhaps we shouldn't have been surprised at such a scene in a location like this at 7.30am, but it was still quite shocking. It seemed to be calming down when we got there and Jamie jumped in to break it up, telling the beaten guy to jump in a taxi and get out of there. Only a minute or so later the police descended upon the scene and the four of us hung around on the corner trying to look inconspicuous.
Once they'd departed the vicinity we took another stroll around the area, talking with the old women outside the various businesses to see how much they wanted for their clients' services. Mickey knew some basic phrases, which got us by, but there was a lot of miming involved. There were a lot of attractive women available (unsurprisingly - Korea must have the highest rate of beautiful women walking the streets that I've seen since Sydney) and some less attractive. Some places wouldn't do business with foreigners, while some were demanding much higher prices than other places. But eventually we came upon something agreeable.
I won't say who paid for what and whatnot, but I will say that at least one of our party solicited some services and emerged a little while later with a sheepish grin and a complimentary carton of grape juice.
Now satisfied, it was definitely time to be heading home. We bid goodbye to Mickey, who lived in a different direction to the three of us, but told him we'd see him at a pool party that was happening later that afternoon. Even as we said it, Craig and I knew that there was no chance we'd be making it, though Jamie seemed quite determined.
The three of us got in a taxi and shortly our hangovers started to kick in demonically. My brain felt like it was being rapidly picked while the sun shining in my eyes felt like a fork trying to pry its way in and pick it out. I didn't have my sunglasses with me as I hadn't anticipated being out until the sun came up. Once the taxi dropped me off, I stumbled home, audibly groaning the whole way, and fell into bed just after 8.30am.
Jamie had said he'd call around 12.30-1pm to wake me up to go to the pool party, but I was fairly certain that that was never going to happen. Nevertheless, I still woke up right around that time feeling a familiar nausea in my stomach and I just about made it over to the toilet in time to throw up. Once my guts were clear - and there still hadn't been a call - I managed to get back to sleep again for another 4 hours.
Jamie did eventually call at around 4.30pm, long after any hope of going to the pool party had passed. Instead he invited me to Golfzon, which is just in Gaksan, to play some virtual golf with him and Craig. Virtual golf is essentially where you stand in a big room and smack golf balls at a giant sheet that has a golf course projected on it, and sensors sense how high and far it would go, and show the corresponding shot on the screen. After hitting balls on the driving range for a little while to get our eye in, we decided to get in a quick 9 holes on the virtual Mount Fuji course. At least, I thought it would be quick, but in total we were in the golf place for two and a half hours. This is mostly my fault as I am absolutely horrendous at golf. I'd estimate that only about 1 in 3 of my swings actually connected with the ball and I didn't manage to sink the ball on a single hole. Thankfully the game fouls you out of the hole when you've reached double par (so after 6 shots on a 3 par hole - most were par 4 or 5). I think I only made it on to the green once. Jamie fared a little better than me, managing to sink the ball on one or two holes, while Craig, by far the most competent golf player of the three, thrashed us.
The hospitality at Golfzon was quite good. At the back of the room was a long and nicely padded bench on which I laid between shots, nursing my aching body and dosing off for short intervals. They allow you to bring your own alcohol if you wish (which we certainly didn't on this occasion) and smoke. (In fact most places allow you to smoke inside, or have a smoking area, while smoking outside is frowned upon - almost like the opposite of England.) They also brought us a free snack, which was one of the oddest things I've seen. The other two told me that usually they bring in something egg-related, but this time we each got a bowl of ice chips topped with red berries and a Special K-like cereal. It wasn't disgusting, but it wasn't exactly appetising either and we each left them along after just a couple of tastes. I've now also seen this odd 'treat' on sale in a couple of coffee shops around, and I just don't get it.
Once golf was finally completed I bought a pizza to take home to eat, bid goodbye to the other two and went home to catch up on some much needed sleep.
In the last couple of days not much of note has happened. Friday was another teaching day, which went smoothly. On saturday Craig and I went downtown in the early evening to stroll around and try to learn more about the place. He's only been here a couple of weeks longer than I have and was equally interested to try to learn his way around. We wandered the streets for hours in no particular order, ate some Mexican, played some pool, ogled all the adorable little dogs in the windows on one particular street that seemed to be nothing but pet stores and eventually found ourselves a bar that was showing football to watch a couple of Premier League games, including Arsenal's dismal 3-1 loss to Aston Villa. By the time that was over it was 1am and time to head home.
That more or less brings you up to speed with what's happened with me in the first week of my new life in South Korea. Only 51 more to go! Thanks for reading. Please leave a question or comment below if you have any. Also, if you hadn't noticed, you can click on all the pictures in the post to make them bigger.
Currently reading: The Amazing Adventure of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon - Still on this one as it's rather long and I haven't had as much time to devote to reading as I did back home. I'm also enjoying savouring it. It's still absolutely my favourite book. Chabon writes with such detail and vividness, it really sucks you in. It really takes you into the zeitgeist of WWII New York by including stories about Jews being shipped into the harbour from Europe, the general attitudes of the people in the city, the inclusion of famous people from the time like Salvador Dali, and much more.
Currently listening to:
Delorean - Apar - This Spanish indie pop band's new album is coming out just at the tail end of summer, which is the perfect time for it. Just like their last effort, Subiza, it's packed with catchy and bouncy songs.
Volcano Choir - Repave - This is another band from Justin Vernon of Bon Iver. It would be lazy to call it Bon Iver 2, but I'm feeling lazy having just written all that above, so you'll have to deal with it. If you like Bon Iver, you'll like this.
Vampire Weekend - Modern Vampires of the City - The biggest and nicest surprise of the year for me is how much I've enjoyed Vampire Weekend's third album after finding their second somewhat mediocre. Improbably, months on from first hearing it I'm still returning to it. I've woken up with different songs from it ("Don't Lie", "Hannah Hunt", "Unbelievers") stuck in my head each morning.
A song for this blog post:
Forest Swords - "The Weight Of Gold"