In my second week at being a teacher at Jong-Chul (my first proper full one, since we'd had the Thursday off the week before) I've found myself settling into the routine and system of teaching and living in South Korea quite comfortably.
In my head the 18 classes that I teach have already started separating themselves into groups and orders; I've already more or less separated that classes that I like from the ones that I don't (thankfully there are more of the former than the latter), the ones with higher ability from lower, and the talkative from the quiet. In most classes I now know the names of the students without having to surreptitiously take a look down at my register every few minutes to remind myself - aside from some of the bigger, less talkative classes where some students have still managed to remain anonymous in my mind, but hopefully for not much longer. As for the students' reaction towards me, they seem to have accepted my presence as just another teacher of the many that they see each day (this week saw the end of their summer holiday and return to normal school days, to almost universal displeasure from those to whom I spoke about it). When I enter the classroom I'll get a smile and a 'hello' from the friendlier students, or a disinterested glance from those who'll be watching the clock from first to last, but across the board the students seem to know that being in one of my lessons means that they'll be working, for at least most of the lesson, which I see as my having successfully instituted myself as an authoritative teacher in my first couple of weeks. Outside of the classroom I've already garnered my first free coffee at my preferred local coffee place, which was a tangible milestone marker for me, and relationships with the other teachers in the office seem to have settled in with ease too.
On Tuesday night the whole staff of the school was taken out for dinner by the school's director Mr. Lee as a sort of 'welcome to Korea' celebration for me. We were taken to another barbecue place a short walk from school, but a bit more traditional than the ones Jamie and I have been frequenting. On this occasion we were made to remove our shoes and we sat cross-legged around low tables to eat. This better suited a party the size of ours (totalling eleven with all the teachers, Mr. Lee and the receptionist) since we could pull the small tables together to create a big one around which we could all sit. For James and myself this is a less natural way to sit, so I ensured that I was sat on the side of the table against the wall, so that whenever pins and needles took root in my legs I could lean back against it and stretch it out.
The sitting style was not the only more traditional element of the meal, but also the food on offer too. I was encouraged to try the makchang, which is grilled pork intestine. The Koreans insist that it's flavourless, and I suppose it is, which is why they dip it in a sauce of beans, red pepper and scallions, but the texture is certainly quite unlike most meats. It is fatty and chewy and quite tough to eat, but after a few tastes I started to like it - but moreso without the recommended sauce, which had a rather strange aftertaste. Aside from the intestine there were also some regular cuts of pork and the usual array of sides including vegetables, rice and more, so I was more than satisfied by the end. Of course it being a traditional meal, several shots of soju were imbibed, which made the normally difficult metal chopsticks even more of a problem, with several pieces of meat landing in my lap. I also tried to emulate the Koreans' technique of laying a leaf of lettuce in the palm of your hand, piling it with meat and scoffing it, but this more often than not ended with my having sauce or more dribble out of my loosely wrapped leaf.
During the meal I sat next to the youngest of the Korean teachers Celine, who is also the most recent addition to the staff (aside from myself). I was interested to learn that she studied English in university and had read texts such as Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream and Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest. It was also a little comforting to discover that even at university level the native English speaking professors did not speak any Korean, although this is only perpetuating my own laziness towards learning the language, something that I know I really should try to do.
After dinner I got my first taste of monsoon season; rain was plunging from the sky as if Heaven's eternal reservoir had collapsed upon us. Luckily my house is only a couple of doors down from where we had eaten dinner so Jamie and I managed to scramble there without getting too wet and grab an umbrella. We decided we'd call on Craig and Eric to see if they were up for some cards, so huddled close under the umbrella we made the ten minute walk to their place only to find that they were already tucked up in bed, so we had to turn home. Jamie and I split up, leaving him to scamper home with no protection from the elements (luckily he lives near to Craig and Eric) and even though I had the umbrella as cover, I was still mostly soaked through by the time I made it back through my own door.
Since it was still early I decided to watch a film, and since I'd already had a few drinks I didn't want anything too taxing I settled on the soppy comedy Celeste and Jesse Forever, since it features and was written by a bunch of people that I like. Within ten minutes of watching it I decided that I was definitely going to need some more beers and decided to brave the downpour once more, throwing my sodden clothes back on again to head around the corner to the 24 hour store. When I got to the crossing leading to the store I was confronted by a river that now covered the road separating myself from the store. I had no choice but to step ankle-deep into it on both crossings to get the beer and on the return journey. But it was worth it and after rinsing myself off in the warm shower upon my return I settled in for a rather enjoyable drinking and viewing experience.
The next morning I was to meet Mr. Lee at school early so that he could take me to the foreign office to get my Foreign ID number, which was one of the most baffling experiences so far in my time here. At the foreign office we were first made to wait with our numbered ticket until we were called. When our time came Mr. Lee led me to a desk where he exchanged some words with the woman behind it, I was made to hand over my passport and passport photos, sign a number of pages, some money changed hands and we were sent over to another desk where more papers were signed and more money was handed over before we were sent back to the first desk to retrieve my passport and more forms. All the talking took place in Korean, which Mr. Lee handled. Unfortunately, he doesn't really speak English so couldn't easily translate for me what was going on and I just had to trust his smiling and pointing to where I was ordered to sign. After retrieving my passport things became even more Kafkaesque as I followed Mr. Lee up some stairs to the next floor, though we were stopped halfway by a man whose desk was right in the middle of the landing between the two staircases to the next floor, where Mr. Lee had to tell him what our business was (I believe). Once we had him convinced we continued our ascent and I was then led into a room full of Koreans in army-like uniforms behind computers where I was once more sat down and made to sign more papers. We were then taken into the anteroom to wait a while longer. Just when I thought this mysterious labyrinthine process would never end a man appeared with a form for me which had my foreigner number on it and it was time to leave.
As confused as I was by this excursion, I only became more bamboozled on the trip home. Halfway back to school air raid sirens started to sound on the radio. At first I thought it was part of a program or a song, but it continued for an extended time and shortly after I realised that there were sirens sounding outside of the vehicle as well, coming from some unseen horns all around the streets. Cars started pulling off to the side of the road, and Mr. Lee followed suit, though tentatively. Earlier in the week I'd been woken up on a couple of days by the unmistakable sound of fighter planes flying low overhead, and the thought had occurred to me then that it might be the start of a war with North Korea, but when the explosions never came I managed to settle back to sleep. But now with the sound these air raid sirens the impending attack seemed inevitable in my mind. Except Mr. Lee was not panicking at all, moreover he seemed annoyed that we were going to be late back to school.
Rather than pull over like most other cars were doing on the roads he instead took a turn off and headed down some empty back streets. He explained to me in broken English that this was a fairly common occurrence using the term "war games" which I took to mean that this was practice for when a war might eventually break out. This was comforting, though only a little. We continued our winding path through the smaller streets of Daegu, all the while the sirens were still sounding and Mr. Lee contined to avoid the streets where we saw cars all stopped, obeying the wail of the sirens. Now able to relax a bit more I was enjoying some parts of Daegu which remained hidden to me in my usual routes, while Mr. Lee continue to wind right and left. I was unsure whether he actually knew where he was going, especially when he turned into a large bus depot filled with dormant vehicles, but when we came out at the other end of it we were somehow miraculously back in Gaksan, just down the street from school and only a little late for the start of the work day.
The rest of the work week passed by fairly unspectacularly after that. On Wednesday night I got my first taste of what it's going to be like trying to maintain my undying support for Arsenal FC as I stayed up to watch their Champions League qualifier against Fenerbahce, which kicked off at 3.45am my time. Fortunately they won 3-0 so by the time I was finally going to bed as the sun was coming up at 6am I was pretty satisfied.
That wasn't the only time I saw the sunrise this week either. On Friday night Jamie and I headed over to Craig and Eric's to play cards with them and Suzie. We played our usual games of Hearts and drank beer and soju until 3am when Suzie decided to call it a night since she had to teach the next day. It was then that someone said that we should play poker some time, and then somehow we decided that "some time" should be right then and there. Craig and I headed out into the rain to the 24 hour store to get some snacks and more alcohol while Eric and Jamie dished out the chips.
We each put 5000 Won into the pot and I was the first to lose out, which left me to sit and finish the remaining soju, slipping deeper into my drunkenness while I watched the rest of the game unfold. Jamie was next to go, and Eric and Craig played a little longer but decided to split the winnings at 5.30am.
The rain had almost stopped by the time I was walking home, but the greyness of the early morning air and the vision of clouds hanging low over the distant hilltops made me feel like I was walking though Middle Earth, and when I reminded myself that I was not actually in a Tolkien novel but in South Korea, my drunken mind still seemed to find this fact just as incredible. And it still does, in fact.
Upon rising later that day, I met up with James and Craig once more to head downtown to see a film, since the weather was still drizzly outside. Before the film we visited the arcade, where we got a routine beating on Tekken from the local kids who know all the moves and were quite clearly toying with us. They seemed to appreciate our presence though, and Jamie and Craig even had a bit of an audience for their heated game of air hockey, in which Craig eventually came out on top.
As for the film, we opted to see R.I.P.D. starring Jeff Bridges, Ryan Reynolds and Kevin Bacon. The film hasn't fared well in America critically nor financially, so we weren't expecting much, but having now seen it, all I can assume is that the critics and punters didn't see it in 4D like we did.
That's right, 4D. Not only did we get the usual 3D (which, as usual, I completely forgot about after 5 minutes of viewing) but we had a much more immersive experience. Our chairs rose and fell with the camera as we followed people chasing each other down hallways, we were tipped forwards and backwards as our heroes jumped out of skyscrapers, our seats rumbled whenever there was a car scene so we felt like we were sitting right next to The Dude as we watched him cruising through Boston, whenever there was a gunfight we felt the bullets fly right past our ears as jets of air puffed violently from both in front and behind us, and in each on-screen physical beating we felt jabs in our backs from the chairs. I can see how this might be annoying for some films, but for a rip-roaring action film like R.I.P.D., in which our heroes are policemen who have come back from the dead and now inhabit indestructible bodies so that they can gallivant all over the city to capture escaped souls, it was perfect.
Following that moviegoing experience we headed to a Japanese place downtown called Todomaru that I'd heard plenty about from Jamie and Craig, and it lived up to all expectations. Firstly, it had a nice interior, decked out in stately wooden furniture, which made it feel like a true Japanese dwelling, and over the house speakers was flowing some smooth and warming jazz, which was a stark and extremely welcome contrast from the gaudy pop that's played everywhere else (both K-Pop and Western pop).
We ordered a bottle of sake, which was decanted into a cleverly and beautifully designed vessel that featured an egg-like opening in its bulbous lower portion, into which was stuffed ice to cool the sake that was all around it. This was also then put into an ice bucket so that the alcohol was supremely chilled. Having drunk only beer and the fairly tasteless soju by way of alcohol in the last couple of weeks it was a delight to actually have something flavoursome to consume on this occasion, and although I've never much like sake in the past, I found myself instantly taking to it this time around.
The true star of the meal though was of course the food. You'd think that since we were in a Japanese place we'd have ordered sushi, but Craig and Jamie showed me that there was much more on offer at this particular restaurant. The food was still in bite-side portions but we had mushrooms, nice cuts of lamb and chicken, and I ate a ton of edimame. But the absolute highlights were the bacon-wrapped asparagus and the bacon-wrapped quail eggs, of each we ordered and promptly devoured multiple portions.
Now truly sated we headed home to watch Arsenal overcome Fulham with a comfortable 3-1 win. It was lucky that Arsenal had the early kickoff since by the time the full time whistle blew I was ready to go to sleep. I bid farewell to the others and headed home.
Which brings me to today, which is undoubtedly the nicest day weather-wise since I arrived. The rain has stopped and the sun is out, but there is still a latent coolness to the air, which is inviting. In fact, I'm going to go take a walk in it right now, since the weather is supposed to be back to scorching tomorrow.
Until next time.
Currently reading: The Essential Chomsky - Over dinner midweek with Jamie we were discussing books we like to read. He leans more towards non-fiction while I read almost nothing but fiction. But, I wanted to change this so I asked him who I should read and he recommeded Noam Chomsky, so I promptly whipped out my Kindle and downloaded this collection of his work. I'm going to skip around to the topics that sound interesting, starting with a chapter called 'The Responsibility of Intellectuals'. I'm not sure how I'm going to take to it, so don't be surprised if I'm back to reading fiction next time.
Currently listening to:
Okkervil River - The Silver Gymnasium - One of my favourite bands ever, their new album found their way onto the internet this week and I've been listening pretty keenly since. Still too early for me to judge it fully, but I can say it is certainly better than their last album I Am Very Far which is one of the most disappointing albums ever.
King Krule - 6 Feet Beneath The Moon - An interesting album that hasn't entirely grabbed me yet; nothing on here seems quite as immediate as his brilliant couple of feature appearances on Mount Kimbie's album from earlier this year. I need more time with it.
Julia Holter - Loud City Song - Probably my favourite album of the year, it finally had its official release this week and I'm trying to piece together my review of it. Hopefully it will be up on Beats Per Minute some time this week.
A song for this blog post:
Julia Holter - "In The Green Wild"