Leaving Korea

Okay, where to begin? A lot has happened these past few weeks, so I’m going to tackle it one post at a time, starting with leaving Korea.

I’ll start with school: saying goodbye was a little emotional. Sometimes I saw my kids and would get blown away by how much they’d grown, psychically and mentally. My seven year olds were all graduating. Ellie, Irene, Amalie, Vivian, Tony, Jamie, Caleb, Louis; I’m going to miss most of them, of course I am. My W1 class were my babies. The whole school actually performed an end of year concert – I’d been hearing rehearsals for weeks – and all the parents turned up and it was a big deal with a booked venue and and evening slot, so I turned up to help behind-the-scenes. I’m glad I went; it was closure. At school we had a graduation ceremony: all the classes stood up to have pictures, their respective teachers said some stuff. I actually got passed the mic and I had the whole school looking at me so I babbled some stuff in English, then said ‘I love you’ in Korean, to which all of the kids replied ‘I love you’. I cried. I said goodbye to most of the teachers, too. I gave Sue a hug. I brought in coffee for everyone as a goodbye thing, and I gave candy to all the kids.

It was hectic getting the apartment and my finances all sorted. Cancelling my phone contract was easy. Sue and Jacob are lovely people, but business incompetent, so I didn’t get paid the money I thought I would on the day they told me, which derailed my plans. I ended up transferring my money once I was back from Japan in that one hour time slot we had during the day. Talk about last-minute. Anyway, my finances ended up sorted, the apartment all packed up. A and T let us store all of our stuff at their place while we went to Japan for the week. It was all relatively smooth from there on out.

We came back from Japan in the morning hours, sorted my bank stuff out at the airport, travelled to Hanam to sort out our stuff, which took all day, said goodbye to A + T, travel back to the airport, spend the whole night there, catch our flight in the morning, spent 11 hours travelling to London, have a layover, fly to Manchester, and spend a couple of hours on the drive home. I didn’t sleep for three days. I was borderline delusional. But I’m home now, which will be another post.

Wine Train

Valentine’s Day 2015 entailed a big train and unlimited amounts of wine. Really. I experienced being blind-drunk before the first pm and then a hangover, all in the same twelve hours. It was really fun, though! A and T asked us whether we were interested a couple of weeks ago, so of course we said yes, and it just so happened to fall on V-day. We got up at the actual crack of dawn and took intermittent taxis to Seoul station because we were running late.

The train itself was faux-Parisien in style. On board there was a small wine presentation – all in Korean – and a couple of stupid games for the passengers, then a small taste-test of the four wines, and then we had the liberty of calling over the wine we preferred. Trust me, that level of power is dangerous – I don’t even know how many glasses we all had. The first three hours disappeared in a flash. I think we were the only waygookin on the whole trip. Danny got a kiss on the lips from a drunk ajumma after he handed her a tangerine and we all couldn’t stop laughing.

We got to the wine place itself and had a big buffet style lunch (with more wine) until time for the following activities: learning how to use a Korean drum, watching an orchestral performance, seeing the world’s biggest drum, walking around a small wine museum, and dipping our feet in a wine foot spa. Oh, and we stopped off to see an icy waterfall. By the time we got back to the train, we were knackered. I was sleep-walking most of it. Fortunately we were in the cinema carriage on the way back, so I popped in some headphones and dozed the whole way.

And that was Valentine’s Day!

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February: the final month

In a lot of ways, or maybe all the ways, I’ll never have a job quite as suited to me as this again. Comparatively speaking, I have little responsibility. I don’t speak Korean, so I’m not expected to answer the phone, speak with parents, or understand the inner workings of the school at all; honestly, I turn up, sort out my schedule, plan lessons, and teach. After lessons have ended I sit at the computer and listen to various podcasts on my phone while I plan the next day. One week out of every two I clean the classroom. On Fridays I take a student for after-school class.

I’m left to my own devices. Even though I follow lesson guidelines, I’m able to deviate as little or as much as I’d like, considering the books get read and the workbooks completed. The other teachers are nice; the principal and director have been nothing but good to me; the students, for the most part, are good kids.

It wasn’t always this simple. When I first got here, I had no idea what I was doing. There were lots of kids in my after-school class, and I didn’t know what was expected of me in, well, any class. I didn’t know how to plan lessons, or how to get the most out of my students. Even now I know there’s more that I could be doing, and I’m never satisfied with myself, but on the other hand I’ve gotten this far with little complaint – the parents have praised me – so I’ve developed the attitude of ‘if it isn’t broken, don’t fix it.’ But maybe I’m better at this than I think. Perhaps it’s my own expectations I’m failing to meet. In other people’s eyes, maybe I’m doing okay.

After hearing horror stories from other hagwons, I really do have a blessed situation. I realise this. I remind myself of this. After eleven months, I’m okay, I’m adjusted, I feel comfortable, and if my circumstances were different, maybe I would stay. I can’t, though. I’ve reached the end of my time here. I know that more than I know the rest, so even if I’m faltering in my decisiveness, I have this resolution, or fixation, with all that England offers: a lifestyle unlike the one I lead here. The grass is always greener …

This is not to say I won’t leave Korea with my heart bleeding. Its bloody remnants will be over this country. My way of thinking, of living, has forever been altered by the time I’ve spent here. In a lot of ways, I even prefer Korea: less crime, less thugs, better transport, nicer people, cheaper food, seasonal weather, an expat community. When I put it like that, you’re probably thinking why I’d ever want to leave.

There’s a feeling I can’t shake, though. Maybe it’s homesickness. Maybe it’s a different kind of wanderlust; a desire to embark upon the next stage of life. Whatever the case, I’m ready. The streets, though, will be paved with my tears. On the other side of this, back home, I’ll be inconsolable, at least for a while. Real life has been on hold here, which might be why I’ve fallen into it so readily, so heavily, but that’s also the reason why I know I have to leave: it was always temporary.

There are things about Korea I don’t like, namely the lack of variety and health awareness with foods. The smog has been making my chest hurt for close to a year. My apartment is small and constantly needs cleaning; I can’t decorate, or be materialistic. Sometimes I miss the ease of communication, of knowing how things work and how I can go about getting things done. That whole thing is a double-edged sword, though, because I simultaneously love the safety the not-understanding provides me: I don’t have to be ashamed or embarrassed (ironically enough) by my lack of knowledge when dealing with cashiers, waiters, etc. In fact, I’m able to go about my everyday life feeling less pressure. If I make a fool of myself here, so what? I’m a waygookin. It’s probably expected. Perhaps strangely, not speaking the language gives me a freedom I’ve never known.

But this is where I’m at right now. I’m excited to go home. I’m really, truly ready for a veggie burger and a paella. Maybe I’ll be vegetarian for a while – my cholesterol levels are probably through the roof, and I’m more than likely on the brink of diabetes.

At the very least, I know England is where my real life is, so once I’m home, I can plan my future accordingly.

Mandu, Dog Cafe, Magpies and Pizza

Talk about productive! To start the day, Danny and I grabbed a coffee at A Twosome Place – getting a free macaroon in the process – and then ventured to Hongdae, getting a mixed mandu (dumplings) platter for lunch at a place that’s been on our bucket list. Shortly after we found Bau House, the dog cafe. Because we wanted to grab a beer at Magpies, the brewing company, and it wasn’t open until 5, we had a drink at Zombie Coffee, another place on our bucket list. We ended up sitting in Magpies for a couple of hours, sampling a majority of the menu. By this time it was past dinner time so we called into Monster Pizza, then had a hotteok before calling it quits. We knocked off so many places!

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Gwangjang Market, Namsan, Linus’ Barbeque

Considering I’ve been in Korea for close to eleven months, it was a bit of a travesty that I hadn’t been to Namsan Tower, so on Saturday Danny and I had a day of bucket-list adventuring.

First stop was Gwangjang Market for a bindaetteok pancake, which was as tasty as I’d hoped. The market itself, which was far bigger and more convoluted than I’d imagined, was incredibly crowded, so we got our jeon to go and ended up sitting by the nearby stream to eat it. For 4, 000 won it was the cheapest lunch for two I’ve ever known.

After that we hit Myeongdong, stopping for an obligatory Starbucks, then found the cable car for Namsan Tower. Unfortunately it was a smoggy day, but it was nice all the same. We’d grabbed a couple of Nutella packs (5,000 well spent!!), and subsequently perched ourselves on a bench  and scoffed them. To be honest, there isn’t much to tell aside from that: the view was nice enough, there was some kind of Japenese inspired performance art happening, and there were an awul lot of people there. So, onwards.

We hit Itaewon for dinner and decided upon Linus’ Barbecue. It was so good! Very southern. We were going to do a bit of a bar crawl after but decided to call it quits, instead apartment-drinking and watching a terrible movie. Mission accomplished!

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Jisan Forest Resort

Fueled by a desire to escape the monotony of Hanam life, and also to not have any regrets about not going, Danny and I accepted T and A’s invitation to go skiing this weekend, so we all – S included – met for dinner at the local BBQ and rushed to Gangnam to catch the free shutte bus that would take us to the resort. Forty-five minutes later, we were there. We all stayed in a pension on the backstreets of nowhere behind the place (which basically entails sleeping on the heated floor). Because we wanted the early pass the escape the crowds, we set out alarm for 5am and were out of there by half past, trying to find breakfast. Sadly the main food court wasn’t open because Koreans are notorious late-risers, so we ended up scraping together a convenience store lunch, then killing enough time to buy tickets. A and I decided to do the 7am-11:30am pass, whilst everyone else opted to finish at 1:30. Honeastly, thank god we decided to go early because the slopes were much emptier, thus must less people to witness the hilarity of us learning to ski.

To be fair, though, Danny and I did eventually get the hang of it, which was surprising. I really did think I would spend a majority of the time on my ass. Taylor taught us the basics (PIZZA SLICE!) and A and S were snowboarding, so it was a leap of faith going down that first hill. Also the baby slope wasn’t even open at that point so we had to use the ext level.

I can see why people get really into the whole thing. Once you go down the slope without doing yourself any damage, and with the basic ability to turn and stop and whatnot, it becomes quite exhilarating. For the first time I can see the appeal of a skiing holiday. By the end Danny and I were on the intermediate slope. We all regrouped for coffee at 9:30, then A and I left them to it at 11:30 and we went for lunch. Once everyone had found one another, we still had a few hours to kill before the bus, so we moved from place to place trying to get warm, finally settling down with a beer (smart) to play a wipe-out drinking game, before it turned 17:30.

The ride back was fine. We were all exhausted. We ended up all having dinner at a cheap buffet in Cheonho and the rest of the evening is history. When all is said and done, and even though I ache today like I’ve never ached before, I had a wonderful experience and I’m really glad I went. Sometimes it’s about getting out of your comfort zone and actually saying yes to something, even when it would be much simpler to say no. So, yeah, I can knock skiing off my bucket list!

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New Year’s Resolutions

It’s that time of year and there are a lot of unrealistic aspirations to set up for the upcoming 2015. Inevitably a majority are doomed to fail, so I’m going to highlight a number of smaller goals that I would consider plausible and capable of achieving longevity. Plus I love to make lists.

  •  Read 30 books. This isn’t a big feat I wouldn’t think, especially considering I love to read, but sometimes I go through dry spells (which is not to say I don’t read enough content online to surpass 200 novels) and I get into a book-funk. The stipend with this, though, is that 5 of those must be regarded as classics, and I must read as an either/ or some autobiographies or biographies. Broaden those horizons!
  • Watch 100 movies. 10 must be classics, made before a date I haven’t yet settled on. 5 must be documentaries. I would throw a foreign film category in there but that’s not a challenge because I love to watch foreign films. I like to be current with films, especially when it’s awards season, so I’d like to continue that and be involved with the conversation, even when the festivals start.
  • Something to do with health. This is a goal every year. However, this time it’s just tiny goals, like eating less meat, exercising a little more, trying to portion control and eat less bad snacks. It’s a little difficult to do those things here in Korea, but there’s nothing like a new year to get you motivated.
  • Travel. I suppose it’s not a goal if you’re already going to be doing it, but oh well. I have Japan and Europe to look forward to, and I’m going to see Taylor Swift play Hyde Park. It’s so strange having so many plans lined up already.
  • Start a new blog, website, or tumblr and record everything I’m reading, watching, or playing. Why not? I enjoy recording such things.

Secondary, cliche, blah blah blah resolutions.

  • Say yes. Basically put myself out there more, regardless of my introverted proclivities and how much of a challenge that can be. I suppose I just want to force myself to get out there. This is a reminder more than a goal, but it’s worth noting. As a side note, I’d like to try something I never have before, like rock climbing.

Itaewon Bar Crawl and The End of Korra

Last night Danny, Emma and I embarked upon a bar crawl in Itaewon. First we lined our stomachs at Left Coast Burger – which was a refreshing change from last-resort Lotteria – and promptly ventured to The Wolfhound for sangria. It had the atmosphere of a British pub, moreso than anywhere else I’ve been thus far, so I’ll definitely be returning for the mulled wine and general Christmassy ambience. Next was Geckos, which Emma likened to a Korean Weatherspoons. Yes, I see it now. We ordered a pitcher (practically a barrel) of beer for the table. Just as we left it started to snow. We did try and pop upstairs to Bulldogs but they were having a salsa night so we scarpered away from there rather quickly. Cold and adventurous, we then found JR’s pub on the main street, where we ordered cocktails, sat at the bar, and played a terrible, semi-drunken game of pool. After that we wandered around aimlessly, then ended up in another British pub – Rose & Crown – but left shortly after to taxi home while we still had our wits about us. Overall it was a fun evening. Itaewon done right is a fantastic experience.

Now, Saturday afternoon, Danny and I have just watched the last ever episode of The Legend of Korra, which I can’t stop grinning and grimacing over (grinning because it was a perfect ending, grimacing because it’s actually finished). I could talk about that show indefinitely. It’s a lazy day. We were going over to a friend’s for a gift-swap party, but we’re tired and unmotivated, so screw it.

I don’t quite remember what I have and haven’t talked about lately, so I’ll do an overview for my own memory’s sake: On Wednesday night Danny and I invited Taylor and Alison to Zoo Zoos for a drink. They were super happy with the chocolate Danny had brought them. On Thursday we bumped into Connie in A Twosome Place, which was nice because we hadn’t seen her in ages. Last Friday I met with Emma and we went for pancakes at Butterfingers in Gangnam, then Bulldogs, scoring a free shot of tequila. On Saturday I met with Elena and we went out for pizza and then back to hers for a bit of nerd time.

It’s mainly been a routine of school and my apartment lately. I’ve started reading the latest Murakami, started playing Super Smash Brothers, and started making my way through all the awards show films.

Dance, Pikachus, Dance

November is slowly becoming December, and autumn is slowly turning into winter. The leaves, which are a beautiful amalgamation of red and orange, will soon disappear and the trees will be as skeletal as the buildings. The neon lights of Seoul will make it look less lonely, but out here in the edges of Hanam, even in my moderately populated, semi-cosmopolitan suburb, the waters outside my window are stilling, the streets are emptying, and the darkness is looming. Families no longer sit outside the line of chicken and hof places by the E-mart. The kids still drive those remote control cars, and some parents are braving the weather for the sake of leaving their cramped apartments, but only in the afternoon, and only on the weekend. Coffee shops  are even more tempting than before. Connie told me that Chenon is closing at the end of the month as the sisters who run it after moving to Busan to be with their parents and open a coffee shop there, which has saddened me greatly. It was the place to go in Hanam for us waygookin: they had the nicest coffee, the best atmosphere, and they were lovely, lovely people.

When the air isn’t filled with smog, it’s crisp and clear, the kind of air that chills you to the bone. It’s time for coats, beanies and aegyo mittens, and street vendors are now selling long-roasting sweet potatoes, red bean fish breads, and sweet, syrupy hotteoks. It’s goodbye to bingsu and naengmyeon and hello to jiggaes and guks.

On Thursday, Danny and i went to watch Interstellar at the Lotte Cinema in Cheonho, which was unusually crowded until we realised all of the seniors were sitting their college entrance exams and it’s such a big deal here that they give the rest of the school the day off. After a customary post-film Starbucks, we braved Insadong because he hadn’t been and there we had a lovely kimchi jiggae, but it was that cold and we were that underprepared we left early, forgetting the lanterns, and huddled up in our apartment and played The Sims 4. On Friday, we went out for Elena’s birthday at an Indian restaurant called Ganges in Itaewon. It was nice, even if the portions were small and overpriced. Strangely, they didn’t have at least half the menu: out of a long list of drinks they could only make rum and coke. I don’t miss or crave Indian food so I won’t be going back. Myself, Danny, Connie and Reza split the bill as a birthday gift. Naturally we headed to Geckos and taxied it home by 2am.

On Saturday, Danny and I headed to Dongdaemun to see the Pikachu parade. It was crowded, over-hyped, and we only had a birds-eye view of about five of them. The inside event was even more crowded; the line for the store was out of the building, so we left rather quickly and stopped off for lunch at Cheonho. That evening Taylor, Alison and Stephen invited us to local bar for a couple of drinks, so we stopped by. Now it’s Sunday and I’ve never felt lazier.

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