Wednesday, 13 March 2013

Kindy Teachers - The OTHER Rock Stars

I'm coming to the end of my deskwarming stint here in kindergarten before starting the new year classes next Monday, so for the last two weeks, the students have only caught fleeting glimpses of me as I coast down the hallways or as they pass by my office.

Today I encountered one class of seven year olds as they were on their way to play in the yard. Chaos erupted in the stairwell as they realised here was Kate Teacher - in the flesh!  
They poured down the stairs in a flood which nearly washed me off my feet, all eager to hug and high five me, bellowing my name and then theirs, as if I would somehow have forgotten who they were in the last fortnight!

Whenever they see me during the day, there are whispered and surprised exclamations of 'Kate Teacher 있다!"  (Kate Teacher is here!)  
The students whom I taught last year will point me out to the new kids with a delightfully worldly air of 'See that foreigner over there? That's MY foreigner! Watch and learn rookie, as I converse with her in her strange, barbaric tongue!'

Seven year olds can be so condescending!

So on Monday I will once again have the heady experience of entering a classroom to universal delight and leaving the classroom with at least one child clinging to my leg and entreating '가지마!' (Don't go!).
For two more weeks I'll get to live it up as a Kindergarten Rock Star, then my contract ends and I will head off for some travelling before returning to Korea and a different school.

I won't be teaching kindergarten though, so I better milk the celebrity status while it lasts.

Sunday, 10 March 2013

A nice cup of tea and a sit down.

I have three more weeks in Korea before I begin a nice, meandering trip home via Australia, Amsterdam and the UK, and as the departure date draws closer I find myself remembering my last trip home.
There was a single activity which highlighted more clearly than anything else, just how long and how far I had been from home.
It was the humble cup of tea.

Irish people take our tea very seriously.  We are very fussy about the tea itself  and while the ritual of making the tea may lack the aesthetics of, say, a Japenese Tea Ceremony, make no mistake - it IS a ritual.

Irish people drink more tea per capita than any other country in the world. Think about that for a minute.  We drink more tea than the Chinese, the Japanese, even more than the English for crying out loud!
Though now that I am living in Asia, I think this is explained by the fact that in the British Isles when we say tea, what we really mean is black tea, whereas here in Asia you can make tea out of anything even vaguely botanical. So while we beat them out drinking black tea, they have the market cornered in consumption of say, Chrysanthemum or Quince teas.
The blends we drink in Ireland are mostly Indian and Kenyan teas which are very high in tannins. This makes for a very strong tea to which we add milk and often, sugar. A notion that would have most Asians turning green at the gills.

The ritual comes into the making of the tea itself. Now, most households in the British Isles know how to make a decent cup of tea, but my parents elevated it to an art form. A precise dance of intricate and measured steps.

First, boil the kettle and choose a teapot of a size appropriate for your party. My Dad, the Science teacher, drilled us that  while making tea the kettle should only be boiled once - as each successive boiling reduces the oxygen content of the water and oxygen is necessary to draw the tannins from the tea leaves. ( I DID say that my parents take tea seriously, right?!)

The very second the kettle boils, pour some of the water into your teapot and swirl it around - thus 'scalding the pot'. This must be done quickly and deftly (it's all in the wrist). You want to heat the pot while not taking so long that the water has gone fully off the boil.

Put one or two scoops of tea leaves into the pot. In our house, tea bags are for sad losers who drink alone.
Fill the teapot, place it on the potstand, cover with the tea cosy and leave to 'brew'.

While the tea is brewing, gather the rest of the required paraphenelia; the cups, milk, sugar and of course something to eat.

In the words of my grandfather, "You can't ate tay without bread!"

To have a cup of tea in one hand and no cut of cake, no bit of brack, not  even a fig roll biscuit in the other hand..... well! That's simply unthinkable! Barbarous, even!

By now the tea is well brewed to the color of aged amber. The next step in the ritual is serving it up just how everyone likes it.
This is done with knowledge which has accreted though the thousands of tea ceremonies which have gone before.
Who likes the first cup out of the pot? Who insists on having the last and therefore strongest cup?
Who likes the milk to be poured in the cup first and who likes no milk at all - though I hestitate to even type that last option, as it happens so rarely.
We brew our tea so strong that drinking it without milk is hardly feasible.

Once that mysterious alchemy has been performed the cups must be handed around according to a subtle hierarchy. This might explain why the Irish, when we actually bother ourselves, are quite good at diplomacy. Years of figuring out who gets the good china cup and the first serving without starting a family feud makes more overt forms of negotiation a cake walk.

Once the tea has been dispensed, it's back to refill the kettle for round two: The Hot Sup.  Good hospitality dictates that when the cup is down to the last quarter, it must be refilled with fresh, hot tea, because in Ireland, no one ever drinks just one cup!

Unfortunately for me, after two years of drinking delicate infusions of hibiscus blossom or chrysanthemum tea and various other blooms - whom I had previously only encountered in the titles of the more artsy kind of martial arts films - my ability to appreciate (i.e cope with) tannins in all their glory, has been almost entirely eroded.
One Lyons teabag, which for any other Irish person will make one cup of tea, will do me for four!

Last Sunday I was at my sisters place and when she offered me a cup of Irish tea I asked her to simply dip the bag in my cup and then use it to make her own cup.
She physically recoiled in horror and the look of revulsion on her face was priceless - her nose wrinkles so adorably!

And this is why, for the three weeks I am home in Ireland, I will be making every pot of tea in EVERY house I set foot in - all the better to avoid lengthly explanations and the look of uncomprehending horror at my drinking tea which my Grandmother would delicately dismiss as 'maiden's water'!
Or as my father would say, "It's too weak to climb out of the pot!".

Or maybe I'll just stick to coffee!

Sunday, 3 March 2013

Fear Factor

Fear. It's a curious beast. 
An action which may seem mundane and positively ho hum to one person will give the next person a serious case of the heebie jeebies.

Take my friend Martha* for example.  Martha is intelligent, vivacious and awesomely confindent.
When she finishes her time in Korea she will return home to set up TWO new businesses.
And yet, this powerful, independent go-getter would rather gnaw off her own foot than speak in public.

For myself, speaking in public is no problem at all. At school, on stage, in church, anywhere at all - I'll start declaming at the drop of a hat.
(if that hat could have small denominations dropped into it, well, so much the better!)
On the other hand, ask me to approach a stranger on the street to ask for directions in a foreign language, and you'll find me in the corner with Martha.....gnawing on my own foot.

For years I dreamed of moving to France, particularly to the south east, the Langue D'Oc region. 
It is a country where I speak the language (functionally), where I know the food and the history, the legends and the customs. It is a simple two hour flight from home - and yet, I kept back pedalling and postponing, telling myself, "Next year in Carcassone!"
I was afraid that my french wasn't good enough, that I wouldn't, simply couldn't, make it on my own.
"What?! Stand in front of a classroom and teach english?! And demand payment for these paltry services?! Are you mad??" 
"Rent an apartment and pay bills in another country!" That is something that grown ups can do.
I am not a grown up!  My fraud would be discovered in no time.

So I dickered about the British Isles for a few years instead, doing nonsense jobs that I wasn't particularly interested in, because I was too scared to risk following my dream and failing.

Time passed, plans fell apart, and this contrary pilgrim who is too scared to move to France, where does she end up?


A country where I didn't read the alphabet, much less speak the language. 
I didn't know the food or the history, the legends or the customs. And this patch of ground is a two DAY flight from home. 
In fact, so vast was my ignorance of this country that I can tell you precisely what I knew about it before coming here.
Four things.
That's it.
I knew four things about a country the size of the United Kingdom and with a history spanning thousands of years.  (hangs head in shame)
"And which four gems were these?" I hear you ask. Which four nuggets of wisdom had I garnerd on my way?
  1. Korea is a country divided by war into North and South.
  2. Korea hosted the 1988 Olympics in Seoul.
  3. Korean high school students place very high in mathematics in international league tables. (Honestly, the flotsam and jetsom that sticks in your head from talk radio!)
  4. My Dad's Korean student told him that the Koreans were the Irish of Asia - but didn't explain why.  (Then I got here and discovered, oh boy! Was she ever on the money!)
How on earth I found the courage to do this, when I spent years bottling out of the easier option, is a mystery I am still trying to unravel.
Though I suspect it has a lot to do with the fact that when I my original plans fell apart and I found myself applying for jobs absolutely everywhere in the world, I was simply too worn down to be scared.

When I tell people how I ended up in Korea, and that I could never have guessed in a million years how I would fall head over heels in love with the place, I often finish by remarking how much I relish that life can surprise me like this.

Perhaps though, what I really mean is that I love that I can surprise myself.

For here I am, on the other side of the world.

Without fear.


* names have been changed to protect the innocent.

Wednesday, 27 February 2013

Reasons to learn Korean # 46 - Preventing 'The Look'

Last week I was fighting a valiant rearguard action against yet another cold, so I popped into a nearby pharmacy for lunch to stock up on Theraflu, the Korean equivalent of Lemsip.
When I asked for it however, the pharmacist apologised but said that they were out of stock and wouldn't have it for a day or so.
It was at this point that 'The Look' crossed his face.

'The Look' says - oh how clearly it declares: "I can't say this in your language! How the hell do I mime this!"
It is a facial expression with which I am initimately familiar, because during my average week there may be several occasions where I am either recieving 'The Look', or making it myself.

And bless Mr.Pharmacist for even trying to figure out a mime. Quite a few people, myself included, would have contented themselves with the simple, yet efficient, "Theraflu. No." and made this gesture:

So when I replied in Korean, "Oh, that's alright, give me Tylenol instead please.", the look of relief which dawned across his face was a joy to behold.  He complimented me on my Korean, whereupon I did what any self-respecting Irish (and indeed, Korean) person does when they get a compliment - the old 'Demurral Two Step'.
"Oh no, it isn't good. I'm only slowly learning it." etc, etc back pedal, back pedal.

The funny thing is, I'm not being falsely modest here. I really DON'T speak that much Korean and I AM learning it quite slowly.
That being said, there are whole phrases which I use all the time and therefore they trip effortlessly off the tongue.
Ironically, one of those phrases is "Oh no, I only speak a little Korean. I'm just learning it slowly."
It's a fair mouthful and I have to own up to a childish glee whenever I trot it out and see them processing the fact that I've just "I don't speak Korean.", in flawless Korean! heh heh.

So I skipped out of the pharmacy that day clutching my Tylenol and a warm glow of satisfaction that for once I had been able to disarm 'The Look'.

I could get used to this feeling.

Not the copious and arduous amounts of study it requires though.  Sigh.

Sunday, 24 February 2013

You know when..... List Mania #1

To lighten to mood after my previous maudlin offering, allow me to attempt something more entertaining.

Here is a list of occurrances which cause an ex pat to pause and exclaim, "Wow! I have been here waaaay too long!"
  • You don't even realise you've bowed until you are on the way back UP!
  • You and your friend belatedly realise that ye've spent the last five minutes eating your french fries with chopsticks.
  • You drink Brown Rice Tea.   Deliberately.
  • I see a picture like this :

and think "Yum!!" rather thank "Eeeewwww!"

  • We're watching a K drama where the hero dashes into the apartment to rescue his fair heroine  and we all sigh happily and exclaim, "Look! He's really worried about her! He didn't stop to take off his shoes!!"
  • All the coffee shops within a two block radius of my school (and trust me, that's a lot more than you'd think!) they all know that I take my  Cafe Mocha with no whipping cream.
  • I find myself in a taxi cab which DOESN'T have Wi-Fi and this is such a rare occurrance that I'm more than a little discombobulated. "What? You mean I CAN'T watch YouTube on my mobile phone right now?  I don't understand!"
  • I can bellow 'Chug i oh!" across a restuarant to get the waiters attention with only the smallest twinge of embarrassment.
  • All my exclamations of surprise, shock, frustration etc are now in deliciously onomotopoeic Korean.
  • You see a news announcement about an actor coming out of his two year military service and realise that you were around to see him go IN!  (Hyun Bin Ah! I'm gazing at you!!)

  • You know and recognise the specific sound of the wind soughing through a bamboo thicket (and I wonder if I'll ever be here long enough to not immediately think of 'Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon')
  • After two years of drinking light and delicate green tea, rice tea, chrysanthemum tea and the like, the robust and boisterous Irish tea is to be approached with extreme caution.
  • Triple parking barely even registers with you.
  • You handle the commute on Korean buses with all the balance and grace of a seasoned snowboarder.
  • You find yourself going to Indian and Vietnamese restuarants in the forlorn hope of encountering a pea.
  • You find yourself going to Indian and Moroccan restaurants for a taste of 'Home'.

Feckin February! - The Long Goodbye

I'm looking down the barrel of the last week of what has been a real bitch of a month.
As an english teacher in Korea, February and August are the months you brace yourself for.  These are the two months when contracts end and newly minted friends strike out for distant shores.

I got off lightly last February as the vast majority of my friends signed up for a second year.  On the flip side however, this has left me a little more vulnerable this time around, as the same friends have had an extra year to burrow further into my heart and so the seperation will cut that much deeper.

Here's where being an ex pat gives farewells an extra bit of a kick.  In a nutshell, for the most part our relationships here in Korea are a bit like ships passing in the night.

It just happens to be a reeeeeaally long night!

We both come from different places and will part to move on to new and still more different places.
Saying goodbye to my friends back home is difficult, yes,....but in a way that I can't express at all well, it is difficult only because I miss them.

What I mean is, my 'Home' friends are tried and tested. We have already survived seperations and reunions.  Emotionally speaking, they will stay where I 'put them'.
With my 'Korea' friends I don't always have that security blanket.  The intentions are there, God knows! But are our foundations deep enough? Will it survive the distance, the new, unshared experiences and, let's face it, my abysmal track record at correspondence?

Last weekend I said farewell to two of my friends, next weekend I shall be seeing off one more. Now add to this emotional cocktail the foreshadowing of six more departures in August, including my sister!  Eeeep! and you get an idea of how bruised my myocardial muscle is feeling these days.

This feckin February I have had the highs of :
  • staying with a friends family for Lunar New Year
  • having the best First Date Ever!
  • really sweet affirmations of my teaching, my baking, my general ranking as a decent human being and friend
I have also had the lows of :
  • best First Date ever turning into a idiot at the end of the night
  • saying goodbye to three friends in one month
  • having my father on the other side of the planet become incredibly sick (though thankfully is now on the mend)
  • and I have bid farewell to 75 of my Kindergarten students as they graduated into elementary. I have taught these snot nosed cherubs every day for two years - that's almost a third of their lives people! It hurt like a vicious kick to the shins.
So roll on March. February, I've had my fill of you.

Wednesday, 20 February 2013

Worthless Witterings

When last I posted, I was gearing up to spending Lunar New Year with my friend and her extended family.  I had been warned that only two members of the clan spoke english and so had been preparing accordingly.
I started meeting a language exchange partner, initially once a week and then amping it up to twice a week in January.
I even learned a Trot song in case we had a session!
(More on the weirdness of Trot music in a later post.)

I practised whole chunks of imaginary conversations, trying to squirrel away snippets of dialogue for every possible scenario.
It was like being back in school and cramming for my final French Orals! (whole body shudder)
Despite all the prep and study, the k dramas and k pop, I was still feeling deeply inadequate for the task ahead.

This was largely because at some level I am still comparing my language aquisition in Korea to what it would have been had I moved anywhere in Western Europe.
This is a ridiculously unfair comparison, like asking someone who has spent ten years playing drums why they can't master the piano in eighteen months.
Yet it's a comparison I still have to consciously shake off.

Happily, while I was comparing myself to a mythical might~have~been, my host family were busy comparing ME to the only other foreigner to have spent time with them.
Sunny's brother had done his military service with the 'US Forces in Korea' and had brought one of his American friends home for the holiday a few years ago.
On Saturday afternoon during a lull in the cookathon, Sunny and I were in the sitting room when she suddenly burst out laughing. She told me she had just overheard her uncle exclaim in the kitchen, "Well this foreigner is much better than the last one. Her Korean is great, she can take a joke and she even uses chopsticks! That other one just sat there, blinking."

I did feel sorry for the Unknown Soldier, it must have been a very strange two days for him, but I must admit that what I primarily felt was relief.
I was a hit!
All my worrying was for nothing.

Which begs the question: Will I learn from this experience and worry less before trying new things?


Probably not.

Wednesday, 30 January 2013

Atta girl!!

Today, due to random flucuations in the Space/Time Continuum, I ate my lunch at the same time as the school bus drivers for the first time in well over a year.

I was sitting by Mr. Park, the Director's husband and I had asked him to write in hangeul the name of my new favourite dish: dried radish leaves refried in dwenjang sauce.

시레기 조림   (Shiraegi joreom) This stuff is my new crack heroin.

I had returned to mindlessly stuffing my face with this nectar of the Gods, happily letting the bus driver's thick saturi (dialect) waft over my head, when the words 'waygookin' (foreigner) and 'Ireland-uh' snagged my attention.
It seems they had noticed my appetite and started to ask Mr.Park about me:

"Where is she from?"
"Ireland. The one beside the UK."  (Not to be confused with the 'other' Ireland, which is further north, has a volcano and is known to the rest of us as 'Iceland'.)
"She seems to be eating Korean food well."
To this, Mr. Park beamed and announced in the tones of a proud parent:
"Oh yes! She eats Korean food well every day! She is almost a Korean!"

I felt like a five year old in a sandbox whose mum is announcing to all the other mums, "Well MY daughter eats ALL her vegetables!"

And all the while I ate my Shiraegi joreom and tried to look like I didn't understand.