Monday, 4 May 2009
Hope to see you there (via google analytics of course!)
Thursday, 30 April 2009
“Teacher is stupid and me is kill Teacher”
Typical, he thought, and was just about to score out the “is” when he remembered the most recent communiqué from the Ministry of Education; “Is,” it said, was now an acceptable marker for either past, present or future tense, (“I” had surrendered a long time ago.) Jake blithely wondered whether this particular entry was a confession or a threat but left the sentence untouched. Looking out the window onto the greying expanse of Jangsan Old Town, Jake allowed himself a rare moment’s contemplation. Where, he thought, did it all go wrong?
There’d been struggles in the past, but Jake had always thought the Foreigners had won. None of these were clearer in Jake’s mind than the push for citizenship that had galvanised the foreign community in the 20s and resulted in the Universal Franchise Act of 2028. Since then his stake in society had grown while his pay packet had shrunk; the “price of dignity” he’d once convinced a room full of foreigners in the run up to the Bill. Looking around the sparse studio apartment he’d rented for the past decade, he wondered now whether they’d gotten their moneys worth.
When he had arrived in Korea things had been different. In those days people still stared at you when you walked down the street, now Jake reckoned they just looked through you. Work back then had been a joke too. Before ME centralised Hagwon curriculum and management, foreign teachers could almost get away with murder. Gone were the days when a teacher could slump into class still reeking of the night before and fling a worksheet at the students. Now that everything was rigorously standardised, monitored and evaluated, it had gotten so you couldn’t blow your nose in a Hagwon without someone reporting it.
Oh but how he had ranted and raved back then! The pointing, the misunderstandings, the disorganisation – the slightest thing would set him off! Many times he felt like packing it all in and heading home to some sort of normality. But still Jake remained. The truth was, back then Jake felt like he was a pioneer with the world at his feet, a renegade who’d had had enough of society and checked out. He’d found a place where he could live like a king and under his own set of rules. Looking back, Jake realised he’d been something of an idealist.
“Use this place before it uses you” someone had once told him. At the time he’d dismissed it as cynical, but now the words kept coming back more and more. He’d spent the last four decades with his shoulder to a wheel that had been spinning in the opposite direction and his fire was gone. He was beginning to think he might just have wasted it on the wrong thing.
Jake’s eyes wandered over the smoggy Busan skyline. Since the time he’d lived there that same skyline had danced up and down like the bars on an old fashioned graphic equaliser, and still showed no signs of reaching any state of permanence. It was like the city itself was mocking his own entrenchment and Jake wasn’t sure he could live through another reinvention. Although he occasionally thought about going home, there was no guarantee he would get a job and it seemed pointless to return at a time when people were clambering over each other to get away. If the East was the “new West,” where did that leave someone like him?
Perhaps, Jake thought, it was time to teach somewhere new. Africa was opening up in ways he never could have imagined in his youth and seemed like the perfect place to recapture some of the frontier spirit. Sure, it might be a little hard at first but he had moved before and made it work, why shouldn’t he be able to do it again?
So, as he had done every couple of years for the last decade or so, Jake opened up a clean page in his notepad, swapped the reports for the heavy book on top of the wardrobe and opened it up at the first page.
Now, he thought, if I can only get my Chinese up to scratch.
Monday, 2 March 2009
On Saturday however, the planets were definitely aligned as a few friends and I ventured into the mountains at the back of our apartment building, ostensibly to get some exercise, but really to do a little good old-fashioned Saturday afternoon eating and drinking. With this in mind our real goal for the day was a goat restaurant by one nestled by one of the old gates that used to guard a fortress from the Japanese, but now serve as a focal point for some of the many hiking trails that criss-cross the hills like ancient pig runs.
As anyone who has ever done any hiking in Korea will attest, it can be a somewhat different experience to the activity we have gotten used to in the West. Instead, hiking in Korea generally involves a lot of Soju, some food and plenty of good cheer, often accompanied by a soundtrack of jangly Korean pseudo-folk music from a backpack-mounted Ghetto Blaster. This colourful tribe of Teflon-suited hikies can get overexcited at the sight of a foreigner, making any hiking experience more like a visit to a geriatric nightclub than a quiet walk in the woods.
Our journey took us upwards through conifer and deciduous forest until Busan was only a distant hum below us, exposing a cityscape framed by the white sails of Gwangli bridge to the South and the sprawling tributaries and flatland of the _ river f to the North. As expected the hiking fraternity was out in force, by and large good natured and friendly, with the exception of one gentleman who saw fit to admonish a female member of our party for smoking a cigarette in public!
We forged ahead nevertheless and it was with creeping hunger and dwindling Soju that we finally arrived at the goat restaurant, a modest collection of bungalow-sized buildings housing a number of sparsely decorated private rooms. We settled into one of these and waited for our food to arrive.
This being Korea it didn’t take long and the table was soon crowded with several enticing banchan and accompanying condiments. Among these a salad of fresh crisp lettuce leaf dressed in a spicy chilli and garlic oil made rich pickings and a bowl of al-dente sweet potato also stood out. On this occasion the ubiquitous Kimchi was a touch too fermented for my taste, but was highly appreciated by a few of my companions. Elsewhere on the table a paejon (seafood pancake) was light and eggy, concealing springy pieces of octopus tentacle and reedy spring onions – the type of dish soy sauce was made for.
Before long however, the goat arrived and things began to get serious. Still smoking from the grill outside, the meat retained all the aroma and appearance of having just been seared to perfection, betraying just enough of the heat of the grill to be blackening and smoky in parts whilst remaining tender in all the right places. Cut up into bite-sized pieces it was excellent wrapped in sesame leaf and smeared with Samjung, (red chilli paste) but more often than not I found myself returning to eat it just as it was: musky, flavoursome, glorious and goaty. For refreshment a few bowls of mountain Dong Dong Ju, (a type of home brewed rice wine with a dry, almost savory taste) proved more than adequate and the perfect accompaniment.
By the time we’d finished it was dark and our hostess kindly called us a taxi. As we snaked our way back down the mountain towards the bright lights of Busan, I looked up at the stars and gave thanks to the Gods of good food, company and happiness. For it doesn’t get much better than this.
Wednesday, 28 January 2009
For the uninitiated, Kimchi is pickled cabbage made with chili and garlic that comes as part of the banchan or side dishes that complement every Korean meal. Around 1.5 million tones of the stuff is consumed here each year, and it forms an unavoidable part of the Korean diet.
Kimchi is more than a side dish however, it is the focus of some of the most bizarre national pride I’ve ever witnessed. I’m currently involved in a running argument with one of my classes who claim that Kimchi is a need as opposed to a want. When I counter that I managed to survive 25 years before I came to Korea they argue that that is because hey are Korean and I am Australian. At the more extreme end of the spectrum, when a girl posted a video on you tube in mentioning that she didn’t like Kimchi, she became the subject of a hate campaign that even a few nation newspapers weren’t above weighing in on.
So what’s the fuss all about? Pungent and fiery, Kimchi seems to leave most newcomers (including me) gagging for water and swearing away from the stuff. That said, there is something about it that creeps up on you. This might have to do with its omnipresence in virtually every eating establishment you care to visit – it's never further than a chopstick away and if your hungry the temptation is there to pick away at it - but the more Korean food I eat the more I become aware of its value as an ingredient: It adds fire to a bowl of soup and livens up a plate of fried rice to no end, and there are so many different varieties the chances are (as I did in Gwanju) sooner or later you’ll hit on one you like.
When I leave Korea for good I doubt I’ll miss Kimchi that much, but while I’m here I I can now at least enjoy the ride.
Monday, 5 January 2009
Straddling the seafront like a Neptunian colossus, the Ambassador does a fine trade as Haeundae’s premier Hotel complex and rocking up in my donkey jacket and trainers, I couldn’t help but feel the ominous onset of the Bums Rush. If being a foreigner in Korea means anything however, it’s your innate inapproachability - I probably could have set fire to the curtains and got away with nothing more than a tight grin and a bow. Luckily though, I was here to eat, and for 49 chun a pop (roughly 25 quid) including wine you can really get your moneys worth.
Meaty king crab legs, mussels, prawns, crayfish and a considerable array of raw fish and sushi made for an excellent appetiser, followed soon after by an attack on the mains counter. A number of home favorites were represented here, including beef stew, baked fish, and cauliflower cheese. Needless to say each item had a welcome place at my table and as if there wasn’t enough on our plates, we had a few lamb chops, steaks, and Bay Lobsters cooked to order.
The shellfish was excellent. Served cold (with the exception of the Bay Lobster) it was plain, fresh and delicious. The mains displayed a similar degree of competence, and although the cauliflower was a little overdone and some of the dishes could have been a degree or two warmer, they made for an outstanding midpoint nonetheless. It was in the cooked-to-order selection, however, that the chef’s skill was most obvious. The Bay Lobsters were plump and sweet, giving up a surprising amount of flesh from their squat tails. The lamb and steak meanwhile, were cooked with the kind of care and precision deserving of a quality piece of meat; slightly charred on the outside, yielding to a medium rare pink in the middle.
The only problem we experienced was with timing. We only managed to get a table at 8pm, two hours before closing, and while a more relaxed meal might have involved more of an eat – rest – eat regime, time constraints meant that a quicker pace was required and i unfortunately didn't manage dessert, preferring instead to go for another pass at the savories.
Korean food is great, but when you need an injection of western flavour, you can do a lot worse than the Ambassador.
Monday, 8 December 2008
On Saturday Sarah and I took advantage of a spectacular clear and crisp (and cold) afternoon to go explore a side of
Gupo market lies a short walk from Deokcheon subway station, the other side of the hill from our neighbourhood in an area we’ve up until recently left largely unexplored. This side of the mountain things seem to get a little less polished than the downtown and beachside areas, with the city gradually giving way to rice paddies and other agricultural land the further north you go. The market itself is a sprawling maze of alleyways and backstreets where everything from live frogs to house slippers fill the buckets, tanks and tables of the work-beaten market ajummas.
While our original plan had been to find something to eat before hitting the dog market, after only a few minutes walking the cawing of chickens heralded the onset of the livestock section and with it a heavy dose of culture shock. Rabbits, chickens, ducks, geese and black goats were all on offer but while the array of live animals was astounding, as we’d expected it was the dogs themselves that proved the most striking.
They were large, reasonably young looking animals, confined seven or eight to a cage and resembling a cross between a wolf and a labrador. They looked surprisingly domestic, and for the entire time we were there remained eerily silent. Behind the cages, dog carcasses lay either splayed and ready to be butchered or (more unrecognisably) hanging from hooks and laid out on meat counters.
Sarah and I were unsure about whether we’d actually eat dog soup, but after seeing the dogs we decided to pass. I don’t have any qualms per se about the practice, providing everything is done humanely (though by the looks of it this may not be the case,) but the truth is I like them too much to eat them myself. There is something dopey, faithful and reassuring about dogs and to turn on them like that would just seem like a betrayal
Wednesday, 3 December 2008
First off, Korea is the most ethnically homogenous place I’ve ever been in my life. Apart from a handful of Indians, some Filipinos and of course the English teaching contingent, there are literally no non-Koreans here. This ethnic homogeneity (along with centuries getting bounced between China and Japan) as such has also engendered a fierce nationalism (and occasional racism) that seems to become apparent from about age seven upwards. My first experience of this was during the Summer Olympics, many of my students found it impossible that I could be supporting Ireland and Korea, preferring things to be more racially defined.
Japan is not in favour. One sure way of pissing off a bunch of Koreans is by telling them that Dodko is Japanese. This is a small group of rocks between Korea and Japan that the Japanese recently claimed was disputed territory in one of their school text books. While the rest of the world didn’t register, almost every man, woman and child in Korea became instantly incensed. This of course goes back to Japan’s raping of the peninsula over many years but the depth of feeling is pretty scary. Teenagers who should be lurking around ally ways smoking are instead pounding the street convincing the 0.0001% of Koreans who aren’t bothered. I was assailed in Seomyeon by one such youth and it’s not an exaggeration to say she was literally foaming at the mouth!
There is virtually no crime here (unless you count corruption) and Busan in particular is incredibly safe. This is why it is not uncommon to see power tools lying outside building sites that have been closed for the night and why Sarah and I recently saw a policeman sitting in another’s lap. As such, I fear some of my kindergarteners are going to take this place apart when they come of age but by that stage I’ll be long gone (from Korea.)
Appearance trumps everything. This is perhaps the strongest impression I have gathered in the last four months here and is the reason why the Hagwon system we are currently labouring under is so broken. Education is important, but the appearance of an education is more so. Korean kids spend the vast majority of their time in some educational establishment or other, often until late at night and during the weekend, but seem no more intelligent than the average British, Irish or North American. It is also the reason why in a few weeks time Sarah and I are set to grace the stage (again) to perform a “Christmas Dance” for the new mothers and children. This is not only demeaning, but is also apparently the benchmark by which all parents will judge our suitability to teach their little darlings. Throw in the fact that later in the year we are due to spend an entire month rehearsing a single class for the benefit of the parents and its not hard to feel like we are part of some gigantic propaganda machine. Goebbals would have been impressed.
Work is often a case of Quantity over Quality. Aside from 10 public holidays a year, the Koreans (in our school at least) can’t take any holidays. Hagwons are petrified that if they shut their doors for a full week the parents will send their kids elsewhere and for this reason school holidays are strictly restricted. Neither can they take personal holidays as no-one seems to have realised that with a little downtime productivity might just increase and even getting sick comes close to a fireable offence. Some of the Kindergarten teachers in our school stay long after we leave at 6:30, despite the fact that most of the under sevens leave at 2:30pm (what they actually do in these intervening hours is not immediately apparent.)
For all the reasons mentioned above, workers rights are non-existent and Confuscus has a lot to answer for. He may have scored a goal by advocating the use of chopsticks but the deference to authority here is frightening. I’m all in favour of giving up my seat to and old person on the subway but more often than not this “respect” seems to lead to downright exploitation. Old over young and rich over poor but I’m not trying to rewrite the Communist Manifesto or anything so I’ll leave it at that.
Koreans’ are by and large a warm and generous bunch. Often if standing on the bus with a few bags of shopping someone will wordlessly unburden your load, and the other day when I went to pick up my trousers from the tailors he refused payment, claiming it was only a small repair and I could pay next time. Things like this tend to brighten my day and the same behaviour in the UK would probably warrant a smack on the head.
That does it for my observations for now – I may very well return to this topic in another four months time and recant everything I’ve said but such is the nature of experience.