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.

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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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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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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3 pitchers and 2 shots later

In the spirit of re-living our drunken university days – or post-18 Fridays in general – Danny and I ventured to Itaewon for some much craved Japanese style ramen at Menya Sadaime and a pitcher or three of beer at Geckos. Firstly, I can’t recommend that ramen place enough: it’s tiny, cheap, and tasty, a blink and you’d miss it kind of place. There’s an abundance of ramen here in Korea, or ramyun as it’s known, but authentic Japanese style ramen with the broth and soft meat and the gooey egg seems to be hard to come by, as is everything authentically un-Korean. I do want to thank Fat Girl for the heads up on this place; it was my second visit and it was even better than the first, even in the midst of a Friday night rush. We ended up sitting right at the counter, too, which was better than being wedged elbow to elbow on the tables. Because of this, people were actually eating alone, which is something you don’t see often here. Anyway, the whole meal came to 17,000 won, including gyoza, which is around £10. Insane.

We spent the rest of the evening in Geckos just talking and drinking an absurd amount of alcohol before calling it a night around 11:30pm and getting the subway back to Gangdong station, which is where we had the bright idea to walk to the nearest McDonalds. It wasn’t that far to be fair and the streets were heaving even past midnight, especially considering it wasn’t Seoul. So many 24 hour restaurants! I hadn’t been to McDonalds since being here, so it’s killed that craving.

Today, as a result, has been lazy. We woke up early enough, and Danny went out to a Twosome Place for much needed americanos, and since then we’ve walked into Old Hanam for a barbecue lunch and then generally not left the apartment. I don’t know the plan for the rest of the day – movies, Pokemon, browsing the internets. Tomorrow is not sounding productive, either. Blissful. However, next Friday is Elena’s birthday and the whole group is going out to an Indian place in Itaewon to celebrate. Plus on Saturday there’s a Pokemon event going on in Dongdaemun which of course I’m going to.

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Giant duck Anyone?

I love Thursdays. It might be a random day to gush over, but I have this day off every week and Danny and I usually spend it wandering around a new area, eating lunch, grabbing coffee, that kind of thing. Today we ventured to Hongdae, which wasn’t a new place to us, but we walked around it unimpeded by the weekend crowds. I took him to Isaac’s Toast, which he loved. It’s a sandwich like you’ve never had before, trust me. I can’t even explain it. But I’ll try. Firstly, it’s dirt cheap. Secondly, it’s sweetened bread. Thirdly, I’m eighty percent sure that whatever meat substance they use isn’t quite right, but it’s so damn delicious that I would spend that hour of travelling whatever day of the week. For lunch it was between that and a mandu place we wanted to try, but since we were having the worst caffeine withdrawal headache I think we’ve ever experienced, we figured it best to head to a place I knew how to get to. Honestly, I don’t know what happened. We’re clearly addicted to our morning coffee and can’t venture outside without it.

After that, we had a leisurely stroll around the area. I do love it there. I think I’m a student at heart, always. Since a big part of our motivation for Hongdae was the You Are Here (which I wrote about previously on its opening day), we settled there, ordered a couple of americanos, and sat upstairs on the balcony. It was all very autumnal.

We did have tentative plans to visit the Hard Rock Cafe which just opened at the new Jamsil shopping centre, and we did head there to see the giant duck floating in Seokchon lake, but we ended up in a ramen place instead and then going to Gong Cha.

It was nice to get out of the apartment for a while and see something else. Hermitting away for most of winter is an inevitability, so these adventures must be cherished.

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Considering the likes of Itaewon and Hongdae were supposed to be crazy busy last night, I’m rather happy we decided to attend a local house party. Danny spent the whole day assembling our costumes – original Team Rocket – and I spent a ridiculous amount of time crafting Pokeballs to stick on our belts. It was like walking into Cinderella’s workshop. He really did an amazing job stitching the ‘R’ template onto various pieces of clothing . Sadly our outfits were lost on most of the people at the party, but we definitely put the most effort in. Our intentions were to head out to Seoul tonight to make the most of it all but to be honest we’re feeling lazy and under the weather so we’re staying inside. The most we’ve ventured thus far is to E-mart’s food court for bibimbap and to Wicked Snow – the dessert cafe whose progression I’ve been keeping a beady eye on for weeks – for an oreo bingsu. It’s a cheat day. Or a cheat weekend. Anyway, we met a lot of new people at the party, and it was a really fun time. Me, Danny, Alison, Taylor, and another couple (with the cutest baby I’ve ever seen in my life) left at about 2pm. The only plans we have for the rest of this weekend is to watch movies, possibly re-watch the whole of Korra, and play the others’ Pokemon on the 3DS. Then we’ll eat chicken tonight because TGIS.

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KFC’s Zinger Double Down. Only in Korea.

AKA the burger inside a burger inside a burger. It’s two pieces of chicken with a beef burger in the middle, accompanied by bacon (or whatever Korea uses for bacon) and some sauce. It’s a glorious insult to mankind. Here is a pic-spam of Danny enjoying said monstrosity. Just for the record, it doesn’t look quite so put together as the advertisement, but what else is new?

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