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.