Makgeolli and crisps: my first Christmas in Korea

I am a youngest child, and will be the first to admit that we can be a very privileged and annoying species. This is more true at Christmastime than ever: we get esteemed jobs like putting the star on the Christmas tree, and picking the first present from under the tree on Christmas morning. But we wreck everyone’s heads by doing things like eating all the Christmas cheese well in advance of Christmas day, or plonking ourselves under the tree to feel the outline of the gifts and announce our guesses. I’ve also been known to hang the tacky cardboard decorations prominently on the tree just to get a rise out of everyone, and take upwards of 15 minutes on my Scrabble turn before asking ‘Is quzbayve a word’?

But this year I celebrated Christmas in Korea, and I didn’t have a chance to revert to my role as the annoying youngest child. 

As you can probably imagine, it was a very different Christmas. There were few decorations and little Christmas music in the shops, no throngs of people laden down with shopping bags. Nobody stocking up in the supermarket, as if for the apocalypse. Elsa and Anna dolls were abundant. Only the Nampo area, with its Christmas Tree Festival, was a worthy Grafton Street substitute (save for the obstacle course of selfie sticks). Honourable mentions also go to the massive tree in Shinsegae and the lights outside the Lotte Department Store in Seomyeon. 

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Top L-R: The lights outside the Lotte Department Store, and the Nampo area. Bottom L-R: The Christmas tree in Nampo, a busker in Nampo, and the big tree in Shinsegae

Throughout December I frequently came home from work to cards, letters and packages from friends and family back home, giving me that that warm and fuzzy Christmas feeling. I stuffed my face with delicious things from home, got a ‘Christmas tree’ (some kind of green mystery plant) and decked out my apartment.

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So much pooossshhhtt!

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(Mostly) homemade decorations in my apartment

When I talked about Christmas with my students, they would sigh and tell me they were ‘solo’, as if the festive season means nothing without an all important boyfriend to share it with. Aside from the 29% who are Christians, most Koreans see Christmas as celebration for couples. This is a bit mad because there is a day for couples every single month in Korea so hijacking Christmas seems a bit unnecessary.

I tried to generate some Christmas spirit at school, to show my students that you don’t need a boyfriend to enjoy it. With very limited supplies (namely paper, scissors and glue), they did a pretty good job turning the classroom into a Christmas zone. They made paper snowflakes, Christmas cards, paper chains, paper angels, angel tree decorations and a paper ‘Christmas tree’. I also used games and made activities around songs and video clips to fill up those last few weeks. With the godforsaken textbook finished (I never knew teachers hated that thing as much as students), the mood lifted and keeping students engaged was no longer a herculean task. Another endless source of enjoyment for the students was provided by a singing and dancing Santa hat that my friend Eoghan sent. 

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Christmas decorating at school

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The students’ paper angels

I only had Christmas day off school, which was perhaps just as well, as there was no time to hang around moping about being away from my family.

On Christmas Eve I headed out to my friend GaYoung in Gimhae. Her her neighbours were having a party so we joined in the fun for a while. We showed up wrapped in tinsel and wearing Santa hats, to discover it was more of a ‘We have no work tomorrow’ party than a Christmas party. They welcomed me warmly and with food, drink and questions about Ireland, as Koreans always do. So we drank some beer and ate some sponge cake, a Korean favourite at Christmastime. And what is any Korean celebration (or cinema trip) without the obligatory dried squid? I will eat almost anything to be polite, but I just couldn’t bring myself to eat dried squid on Christmas. On that particular test of my adaptability, I failed. There were some kids there too, and the parents were delighted with the opportunity to show off their children’s English talents. Never before have the words “I am seven years old” garnered as many “Oooh”s and “Ahhh”s.

Young and I then stayed up until 3am drinking delicious Korean rice wine called Makgeolli, eating King crisps and watching Elf.

On Christmas day we went on a trip to the nearby city of Changwon. On the bus an old lady asked Young which country I was from, even though I could understand her question. I was struck by how normal this day felt. In Changwon we strolled around from barbecue restaurant to lake to cafe. Couples and groups of friends were everywhere, enjoying the day off. The cinemas were booked out, the arcades were full of people and the noreabangs (Karaoke rooms) had queues waiting outside.

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Christmas in Gimhae and Changwon

When I got back to Busan I got on the wrong bus home and ended up in the hills behind my house, another pretty normal day in the life of a blundering foreigner in Korea. When I finally made it home I bought myself the most expensive and fancy coffee there ever was and drank it in front of my computer, chatting to my family as they ate their breakfast. Then we opened our presents together, only not really together. I ate the little Christmas pudding my mother had sent and reluctantly said goodnight, feeling aggrieved about having to sleep through most of Christmas in Ireland, real Christmas. When I woke up to go to work it was still Christmas day there, and we Skyped once more. My brother joked that we still managed to have the Christmas argument thousands of miles apart, as I complained that everyone was ignoring while they played ‘stupid Scrabble’ (obviously I said that in the heat of the moment and there is nothing stupid about Scrabble). 

So Christmas 2014 is over, but it feels like it didn’t really happen. I didn’t get to read shite cracker jokes or help my mother make bread sauce from a battered and food stained Darina Allen cookbook. I didn’t get to share in the marvel of my brother asking for seconds while everyone else is still helping themselves to gravy, or succumb to a food coma on the couch in front of the fire. But I will be in Korea next Christmas too, so I just have to get over it and add a few more items to my list of ‘Things That Are Christmas’. I’ll start with Makgeolli, barbecue restaurants and auld ones talking to me through my Korean friends. 

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A ‘monster’ and me

It’s not that late, there’s still plenty of people around. I’ve done it loads of times before and never had any hassle. I need to walk off all the chips.

Those were my thoughts before deciding to walk home alone after a Friday evening out. It was 12.40 and the others were getting pumped to sing their hearts out at the Noraebang (karaoke room), but I was feeling exhausted after a hard week at work so I decided to call it a night.

Outside the Lotte Department Store I saw a stall selling hot Bungeoppang, small fish-shaped pastries filled with sweet red beans. I always find it hard to walk past a Bungeoppang stall and that night was no exception. I asked the vendor for three. ‘Not two, or four, but three!’ he said, and I laughed.

I walked down the stairs of  Seomyeon underground shopping centre to cross to the other side of the road. Outside the Lotte food hall, during the day filled with people buying expensive foods from far away places, homeless people were lying on benches with coats draped over them. Nobody said anything to me or asked me for money.

I thought about easy it must be to become destitute in South Korea, a country where the family, rather than the state, is seen as the main unit responsible for taking care of people. Despite a plethora of social problems and a lot of poverty, South Korea is extremely safe. I had never had any reason to fear for my personal safety or property here. It’s not that I was naive enough to believe there are no criminals here, but I thought they were so few and far between that I was statistically unlikely to encounter any.

A little later I was scolding myself for not thinking of offering the homeless people some of my Bungeoppang when a very small and skinny man of around 19 or 20 walked past me in the opposite direction. He looked at me and said ‘Wow’ as he passed. I avoided his eyes and walked on. A little later I turned my head. The man had stopped and was standing there, looking at me. He looked like he was thinking, pondering a decision. I walked faster, then turned my head again. Now he had changed direction and was following me.

I desperately looked out for a taxi with a light on, but all of them were dark. I felt jealous of the people inside them. Soon he was walking beside me, spitting on the ground and saying things in Korean that I couldn’t understand. But I did understand when he called me ‘noona’ (older sister), and asked me where I live. I knew then that I had to lose him somehow. I picked up my pace, and so did he. I told him to go away, but he didn’t.

I ran through the options in my mind. I was afraid to take out my phone in case he grabbed it. There were other people walking nearby, maybe I could ask one of them for help. But how could I explain what was happening, and what could they do? I could go into the police station near my apartment, but what if he tried something when he realised where I was going? I could kick him in the nuts and run away, but how could I justify that when he hadn’t actually touched me, and what if that provoked him to chase after and attack me?

Then I saw a 24 hour GS25 convenience store and my decision was made. I said ‘Annyonghegasayo’ (goodbye) and bolted inside. But the man stayed there, waiting for me to come out. I started trying to explain the situation to the shop assistant, in a mixture of broken Korean and English, but felt so overwhelmed and so frustrated with my inability to communicate that I burst into tears. The shop assistant went outside and told the man to go away, but he refused. So he locked up the shop and walked me home, the man lurking behind us for most of the way, but at a distance. We chatted a little and he told me his name and that he was an accounting student at one of the nearby universities. I thanked him and said good night.

When I told my friends what happened, most of them asked if the shop assistant walked me all the way to my apartment building. I told them no, I told him he could go when we got to the corner because I couldn’t see the other man anymore. They were relieved that neither man found out where I live. I realised then that this is a world where many women feel compelled to treat every man they don’t know, even a random student working at a convenience store, as a potential predator.

I used to have a different attitude: I didn’t really give a shit. Like all women, I have been exposed to plenty of victim-centric police statements, inventions made to profit from women’s fear of men, and preachy advice from well-meaning people. But I still never felt obliged to watch by back. I’ve never owned pepper spray or learned any self defence techniques and, yes, I have walked home alone at night many times as long as it wasn’t too late. I thought that telling women to spend money or alter their behaviour to avoid hassle or worse from men comes from the perspective of victim blaming. Every time I was lectured about what I should and shouldn’t do I thought ‘I’m only a woman trying to go about my life, why are you talking to me instead of all the men who think it’s okay to do those things to women?’

But my experience that night challenged what I had always felt. I encountered a man who thought that he had a had a right to follow and harass me, regardless of how it made me feel. I don’t know what else he felt entitled to do, fortunately I didn’t have to find out – but only because I asked another man for help. I berated myself for never having devoted any time to thinking about or preparing for this kind of situation. I realised that I had been making decisions based on what I should be free to do, rather than the reality.

But what exactly is the reality? Some say there will always be violent men who prey on women, and focusing on perpetrators rather than victims won’t change a thing. I can’t agree with this because it assumes that violent men are anomalous monsters, when the reality is that most are normal guys living in a misogynistic society. And most victims are their girlfriends and wives – not women walking alone on city streets at night. Tom Meagher, whose wife Jill Meagher was murdered in Australia two years ago, summed it up well in his blog post  The Danger of the Monster Myth:

…violent men are socialised by the ingrained sexism and entrenched masculinity that permeates everything from our daily interactions all the way up to our highest institutions.

Meagher is an ambassador for The White Ribbon Campaign, a global organisation devoted to ensuring men take responsibility for reducing violence against women. The organisations aims to ‘… change the attitudes and behaviours that lead to and perpetuate men’s violence against women, by engaging boys and men to lead social change, and to achieve gender equality.’

This makes so much more sense than telling women what to do. But that’s not to say that safety advice for women is wrong, at least in principle. The problem is that it usually takes the form of imposing codes of behaviour and dress on women, while ignoring important facts:

  1. Usually violence against women is perpetrated by the ‘ordinary’ men in our families, peer groups and places of work. We need to work to unravel the misogyny that can legitimise violent behaviour in the eyes of some men. This will make women safer at home with their partners, and everywhere else they go.
  2. Women are not obliged to do anything just because someone tells us it’s for our own benefit. We are free to make our own decisions about how to live our lives. Regardless of how we dress, what we say, where we go and what we do, we are never to blame for a man’s violence.
  3. Even though societal factors influence the way men think about women, violence is still a choice and anybody who makes that choice deserves to be punished.

Lately in public discourse, it seems everybody is advocating for either of two approaches: Help women to protect themselves from violent men, or educate men so they don’t become violent. I used to think these ideas were so conflicted that they had to be mutually exclusive.  But that changed when I was minding my own business and became the target of a man who thought my will was less than his just because I’m a woman.

Of course men need to call each other out when they see disrespectful attitudes and behaviour towards women, and to contest the notion that to be a man is to exert power over women. That’s the proper way to make the world a safer place for women. But in the meantime, I will be watching my back a little bit more than I did before.

***

The day after my ordeal I bought some nice chocolates, the kind you can’t buy at GS25, and a card. I brought them to the same shop, intending to say thank you to the assistant who helped me. His shift hadn’t yet started, but I gave them to his colleague to pass on. Most men are kind and will do the right thing by women. Recognising those men is another way to encourage a culture of respect for women.

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***

Lastly, I would encourage everyone to make The White Ribbon Pledge, and to donate  €4 by texting WHITE RIBBON to 50300, if you can. You can also donate through Paypal.

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Soju think the Irish are all drunks?

Image source: Reddit

Just like many other Irish people living in Korea, I woke up yesterday morning to a barrage of social media notifications from folks back home. It turned out that an Irish woman named Katie Mulrennan applied for a teaching position in Korea and was denied ‘due to the alcoholism nature of your kind’.

I wasn’t at all surprised that an individual encountered discrimination while searching for teaching work in South Korea, as it’s rife here.

I was surprised, however, that the employer knew about our reputation for indulging in a few too many. Korean people are far more likely to think I’m from Iceland, or tell me how much they love ‘Once’, than to mention drink.

Pot, Kettle, Black

Many online commenters reacted to this story with quips like ‘At least my dinner isn’t at the end of a leash’. First, I almost choked on my breakfast from laughing. Then I realised that reacting against this sleight on the Irish with the most obvious Korean stereotype is very telling. If you’ve ever lived in South Korea, your reaction probably wasn’t ‘Yeah, well, they eat dogs and that’s more messed up than our drinking problems’. It’s far more likely that you thought ‘This employer thinks our drinking problems are worse than South Korea’s?!’

People in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones. South Korea’s metaphorical glass house would be green, as it would be made entirely from recycled Soju bottles. Soju is a Korean liqueur that usually has an alcohol content of around 20%. It’s cheap (the equivalent of a little over €1 for a 360ml bottle), and it flows 24/7.

In terms of hard liquor consumption, South Korea is number one in the world. Reminders of drink are everywhere. Impossibly beautiful, barely dressed women wink at you from Soju advertisements in just about every public place. On week nights, men in business attire sit in barbecue restaurants eating pork and shouting ‘One Shot!’ as empty Soju bottles pile up around them. Those without the wherewithal to make it home pass out in the street, as documented on websites like Black Out Korea. The pavements are punctuated with puddles of puke, usually containing the red speckles of Kimchee, a fermented cabbage that Koreans eat with almost every meal.

In South Korea, drinking isn’t just something you do with your friends on the weekend – drinking with colleagues after work is seen as an important way to relax and bond with colleagues. People are, in fact, more likely to feel ostracised at work if they don’t drink.

Due in no small part to the popularity of hangover prevention drinks, Koreans always seem to make it to work the next day. It is the definition of a work hard, play hard culture.

Overt discrimination

In Korea, there are many reasons why an employer might reject you – you could be too ugly, too fat, too short, too black, too gay, too transgender, too man, too woman, too disabled, too young, too old… I could go on forever. Katie Mulrennan knows she wasn’t given a chance because the employer believes she’s likely to be an alcoholic because she’s Irish. It’s there in black and white on the email. Usually, though, discrimination is at least a little more covert and a person only has a suspicion about why they weren’t chosen.

Requiters and employers in Korea frequently state a preference for people of a certain nationality and gender, without garnering more than a few raised eyebrows. It’s very common to see advertisements for private academies, known as Hagwons, containing the line ‘North American female preferred’.

In addition, it’s standard to be asked to supply a passport photograph with your job application form, as well as your height, weight and a multitude of other personal details. If you don’t fit the ideal of a hetero-normative, conventionally attractive person, or you’re the wrong gender or race, you might not even get an interview. But you can’t call it discrimination because the advertisement didn’t tell you not to apply. The employer can simply say you didn’t have the right experience or qualifications (factors that can sometimes seem incidental in Korean recruitment processes).

When a group is so clearly excluded, as Katie Mulrennan was, it is rarer and therefore more newsworthy. However, her rejection took place in a private correspondence which the recruiter probably never imagined would be seen by so many. Sometimes groups are excluded right there in a publicly listed job advertisement. Just yesterday, The Korea Observer and many other outlets reported that a Christian University posted a job advertisement with the line ‘drinking, smoking and homosexuality are not allowed’.

To understand all of this, it’s important to note that while Korea’s economic development was rapid, certain attitudes still lag about 30 years behind other developed counties. This is compounded by the fact that Korea is still an extremely homogenous country, so some people can be a little insensitive about foreigners. ‘I want a beautiful American one like they have in the movies’ is an obvious case-in-point. There are plenty of good people working very hard to provoke positive social change both for foreigners and Koreans, but change is slow.

South Korea doesn’t hate us!

I’m just one of many Irish people who have been welcomed here with kindness, generosity and a healthy dose of curiosity.

I really love Korea. I love the creative and funny students at the girls’ middle school where I teach. I love the weird and wonderful food. I love Saturday nights at the ‘Noraebang’, private karaoke rooms which are pretty much a national past-time here. I love when little children say ‘Hello’ to me on the street, and how they’re delighted with themselves when I say ‘Hello’ back. I love the chaotic neon lights of Busan, and I love leaving the city to relax on a sandy beach, or at a Buddhist temple in the mountains. I love the public transport system that brings me to all of those places quickly and cheaply. There are problems, yes, but overall it’s a brilliant place to live and teach English.

If you do some research, you will find that South Korea has excellent music that goes far beyond manufactured K-Pop bands, and a wealth of wonderful books, films and art. And if you come here you will find lovely people who are interested in our culture, evidenced at the recent Seoul Ceilidh hosted by the Irish Association of Korea.

If you’re thinking coming to South Korea, whether for a holiday or to work, don’t let this incident change your mind. Honestly, you’ll have the best craic here!

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You can’t go home again

I recently learned a new word, ‘hiraeth’. This is a Welsh word with no direct English translation. It describes a yearning to return home, when ‘home’ no longer exists and perhaps never did. It’s the worst type of yearning because, just like a death, there is no way to satiate it.

When my application to teach English in Korea was accepted, I had unexpected bout of hiraeth. I suddenly wanted to go back to West Cork, where I lived from the age of five to 15. A visit had been comfortably on my long finger for about eight years, but knowing I wouldn’t have the chance to go there for at least another year made me feel uneasy.

I passed the long journey looking at the past through a figurative Instagram filter. My childhood was far from easy, but all I could think about was the good stuff. I thought about walks with my family when we’d stop to take in the view from the top of the Twelve Arch Bridge, a beautiful structure that used to carry trains connecting the people of Ballydehob to the rest of the world, until motor cars made the whole thing economically nonviable. I remembered chats with the nice elderly American couple in O’Carroll’s who always believed you when you said you had 50p worth of penny sweets, so naturally you’d nick just a few extra cola bottles for good luck. I remembered paddle boats on the estuary in summer, going hell for leather on the swings till you thought you might go flying all the way to Bantry if you let go, picking blackberries in September and eating them in a bowl with some milk and a teaspoon of sugar.

I didn’t expect to see the Ballydehob of my childhood, but neither was I prepared for reality’s wallop in the face. A quote from Thomas Wolfe in You Can’t go Home Again seems to fit:

‘You can’t go back home to your family, back home to your childhood, … back home to a young man’s dreams of glory and of fame … back home to places in the country, back home to the old forms and systems of things which once seemed everlasting but which are changing all the time-back home to the escapes of Time and Memory.’

Ballydehob used to have three places where you could buy a pint of milk and eleven where you could buy a pint of beer. But now many of the shops and pubs I remembered from my childhood were either closed or unrecognisable, having been taken over by new owners. Other people were living in our house, my school had weird animal sculptures outside, which I’m sure my (now retired) teacher would have found ridiculous. I didn’t see anyone I knew. In fact, I barely saw anyone at all. When I met a friend for dinner in Schull, she told me that most people our age are gone from the area; to Cork and other cities, as well as abroad.

But even though the place I remember is gone forever, I will always have the memory of the people who made it what it was. One blog post isn’t enough to talk about all of the brilliant characters I encountered during my childhood, so I will just focus on two.

There was an old man called Billy used to sit on a bench outside a pub all day. Every day we would wave to him from our school bus, and Billy would always wave back. One day he wasn’t there and we asked our bus driver what happened to him. She said he was in hospital because he broke his leg. We all got together and made him a get well soon card ‘from the kids who wave from the bus’, and gave it to our bus driver to pass on to him. Later, my family moved into the village so we walked to school. We had to walk across the junction where billy sat, and he would always tell us when it was safe for us to cross the road. We didn’t need a lollipop lady because he was always there. Occasionally he would go to the next town to sit outside a different pub there for the day. On those days you’d walk past his bench and see a big shiny bum groove, worn in from years of watching the world go by, waving at school buses and helping kids to cross the road.

Then there was a Bus Eireann driver called Willie. My siblings and I would get on his bus every second Friday evening to see our dad in Cork City for the weekend. We were three kids on our own and it was a long journey, stopping in what felt like every town and village in West Cork. But Willie made those journeys a lot easier by giving us chocolate bars and cartons of orange juice, and even playing our cassettes on the bus tape player. Sometimes my tiny bladder wouldn’t hold out for the whole journey, no matter how many ‘last wee’s I’d had before leaving. On those occasions I’d ask Willie if he’d wait for me to go into a pub for a wee at the next stop, and he always obliged.

I heard that Billy is now living in Skibbereen, and sits on a bench all day there now. But Willie passed away a couple of years ago. Part of his obituary in The Southern Star read:

‘Babies who were helped on board yesteryear became secondary school pupils who were waited for on icy winter mornings when they were late for school; proceeded to college and were never refused a seat even when their fare had been spent elsewhere; were now adults who needed help boarding with their shopping and their babies – the full cycle of life and Willie was there, no rush, no panic but a helping hand and knowing smile.’

It’s true, you can’t go home again. Economic peaks and troughs change landscapes and people, until the place you remember is just a shadow of what it was. But it’s people’s generosity that you take with you through the rest of your life. So even when those people have turned to dust, as we all do, you remember them as you drink coffee on a Sunday morning in your tiny Korean apartment, or wherever your life takes you. And you try to pass it on, to show kindness to those who need it and those who might need it, because you how do you really know what’s going on behind a face that looks happy? You try to live up to their fine example in your classroom or office or wherever you go every day. And that’s the real legacy of those people in West Cork and every other corner of the world, and the kind souls before them, and all of those who will come after them.

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How I try not to lose my shit as a middle school teacher in Korea

It was late March of this year. I had been a teacher for just under a month and I had no idea what to do. I was becoming more red faced as the seconds wore on, sweating despite the classroom’s baltic temperature. The tension rose through my body, creating a throbbing headache and the feeling that I wanted to lie down and have a cry.

My new teacher novelty was wearing off. The wide eyed, shy little girls sitting in neat rows during their first lesson were gone. They had been replaced by a shower of rude little wagons, chatting in what could only be described as outdoor voices. Last nights’ episode of whatever Korean drama they watched. Who would marry which member of Exo. I didn’t know because they were speaking in tongues, otherwise known as Korean. They weren’t like the Korean teenagers you see on documentaries.

My co-teacher, who was apparently supposed to bear most of the responsibility for handling discipline problems, was sitting in the back row. Occasionally she lifted her head up from her phone to tell the students to ‘joyong’ (be quiet), but they just ignored her.

I tried out my teacher’s glare, long honed in the mirror on the advice of a more experienced teacher. I stared the room down. As a student, teachers doing this had always freaked me out and made me shut up. But they barely noticed, and I felt like their incessant babble would haunt me long after 4.30.

I had seen it done before, this teaching thing. More than eighteen years of my life were spent with my body oriented toward some desk or lecture stand. The people behind them were all different – there was the teacher in my two room school in deepest West Cork who would keep us quiet with penny sweets, and another who once roared ‘Will you all just shut up!’ in a moment of desperation. There was a secondary school art teacher who cared to ask if everything was okay in my life, when she noticed that my work was becoming ever more half arsed. A science teacher who I can only remember for his spectacular moustache and the way he said ‘sperm’ with two syllables. Spe-rim. There was also a college lecturer who spent most of every class regaling us with his stories, and he listened to our stories too.

Throughout primary school, two secondary schools, a diploma, a degree, a masters and a part-time job transcribing lectures, I have watched at least a hundred people doing this. Now I could empathise with the ones who weren’t very good at it, and felt jealous of the ones who were.

It was me versus them and the students had a landslide victory that day. I knew it couldn’t go on like this, but I had everything going against me. I was young, I was temporary and I was a foreigner. I couldn’t even give out to them in their own language. I wondered how the Korean teachers managed to keep their students in check, but when I discovered I felt even more hopeless.

I walked past other classrooms in the school and saw students standing at the back of the room with their arms in the air, or kneeling on the ground. A page from a Busan Office of Education book of sample speaking test questions, issued in 2012, details some other physical punishments: standing in the motorbike position, doing squats, or holding yourself in the push-up position.

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A sample question and answers on school punishment from a Busan Metropolitan Office of Education speaking test guide.

In Ireland corporal punishment was banned in 1982 and made a criminal offence in 1996. Older generations of Irish people could tell you about physical punishment in school, including my own mother who still remembers getting a wallop in Home Economics class for the crime of taking a knob of butter off with a bit of the wrapper instead of a knife. Of course I can’t say that corporal punishment has been eradicated in Ireland, but I’m fortunate enough to have never experienced it. That is, unless you count a primary school teacher who would come up behind you, Biro clenched horizontally between her lips, grab your shoulders and throttle you like a rag doll.

On the other hand, corporal punishment was lawful in South Korea until 2010. But it doesn’t take a person long to realise that the law and what actually happens in Korea are often two very different things. I don’t know what goes on behind classroom doors up and down the country, but I know that the punishments used at my school cause children physical pain even when teachers don’t touch them. Pain is pain – whether you inflict it with your hand or by forcing a student to do something that hurts. Corporal punishment is still alive and well in Korea; it just wears different clothes.

I don’t want to suggest that Irish punishment styles are more evolved than Korean ones. I remember being forced to write ‘I will not talk during class’ 20 times in my copy book, writing each word all the way down the page to make it go faster. Spewing in detention for my first incidence of having no history homework in over two years. Like Korean students, I suffered through punishments that made me not want to screw up again, but didn’t make me think about why.

Now I was teaching over 600 excitable young teenaged girls every week and I knew I needed to figure something out. I could send them to Punishment Guy, a stern man who had informed me, like a Korean Tony Soprano, that he could take care of the bold students. ‘You have any problem with naughty student, you give me name,’ he said to me on my second day. But I decided not to send students to him because he’s scary and I wouldn’t like to be sent to him. Even when he says ‘Good morning’ or asks me if I like Bibimbap, he’s scary. Besides, I didn’t want my students to see me as a coward, someone who gets the Punishment Guy on their case without dealing with them myself.

So I began with the naïve idea that I wouldn’t need to punish students if I could offer them incentives to behave well. I used a points race where I gave students rewards, like playing a game or watching a music video, for different milestones. For the classes where the majority of students were fairly well behaved anyway, it was great. If you’re acting the maggot and everyone turns around and tells you to shut up or you’re going to cost the class points and therefore rewards, you will promptly shut up. Peer pressure is more powerful than the most piercing teacher’s glare.

But there are a small number of classes where the students who don’t give a rat’s ass are in the majority. For them, it isn’t cool to care about points or rewards. I realised that I needed some sanctions, so I made the ‘Thinking Seat’ at the back of the room, where students are sent to write about their behaviour. The thinking seat isn’t for every every student who comes to class without a book or pen and sits there with a face like a slapped arse for 45 minutes. Neither is it for the ones who use my class as snooze time. They’re not bothering anyone or preventing me from teaching, so it’s not worth the fight. The Thinking Seat is for kids who talk incessantly, tease other students, throw rubbish around and so on. It gets rid of them so others can learn, and it’s better than robotic line writing.

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One student’s reflection sheet

I also made a system where sanctions, like staying back after class and having a discussion about behaviour, are accrued when classes have too many negative points.

Sometimes I wonder if I’m a soft touch. I think, ‘When I was their age I never got to play games and watch music videos just for behaving myself, but I was still good most of the time. I did my homework and answered when the teacher called on me. But why did I behave? Because I enjoyed my classes and could see how they would benefit me? That only happened in the classes I loved, like English and art. But I’m lucky if the students who love learning English make up 5 out of 35 of my students. The rest can’t see past their next godforsaken test, let alone to the long term benefits of learning English. When I was their age, sitting in classes I hated, I would shut up and put up because the threat of punishment hung in the air like an Easter egg festering in June. I behaved because I was afraid.

I don’t want to be an angry teacher. My students would be scared of me, and you don’t learn anything when you’re scared. My job would also be miserable. So they tell each other to ‘joyong’ so they can have a game of bingo or watch the new B1A4 video next week. Nobody is ever called on or forced to say anything. If they’re bold they write and talk about their boldness, and then go with their day. They might be bold again next week because Clare Teacher never sends them to the Punishment Guy. But that’s okay because teenagers will rebel and there’s no need to make everyone’s time shitty because of it.

I won’t pretend to have managing behaviour – or any other aspect of teaching – figured out. All I can do is keep trying to work it out as I go along.

If you have any views on any of this, please feel free to leave a comment!

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Ireland vs. Korea: Where we come home to

A lot of my friends back home have asked me what my apartment in Korea is like and how it differs from Irish homes. I can understand this curiosity – before I moved to Korea I tried to picture myself sitting in my apartment, just doing the things I do. How big would it be? What furniture would it have? What colour would the walls be?

The main difference is that in Korea it’s very unusual to live in a house, unless you’re G-Dragon or something. Due to the population density, space is at a premium and most people live in apartments. Driveways, sheds, gardens and attics are just some of the things people do without here. Another difference is that before people get married they usually live with their parents, for cultural and economic reasons that are too complicated to get into here. And those who do live independently usually have a small studio apartment, known as a ‘One Room’. Unlike in Ireland, sharing an apartment with your friends is very uncommon. I had never lived alone before, so I had visions of coming home to my cold, empty apartment, rocking backwards and forwards and crying. But it’s not like that at all – there are always events on and people to hang out with, so you can be as social as you like – you just have to get of your arse and leave your apartment.

I can still remember, crystal clear, the day I moved into my very own ‘One Room’. I was happy to see coffee shops, convenience stores and many types of restaurants on my doorstep. The happy feeling rose as I laid eyes on the brand new seven story apartment building which was to be my new home, and entered the sparking clean lift. My co-teacher pressed ‘4’, which I found surprising. Four is considered an unlucky number in Korea because it is a homonym for death. Many buildings don’t have a fourth floor, and instead skip straight from 3 to 5.

‘Ooh, a fancy dial pad!’ I thought, as my co-teacher typed in the door code on apartment 401, and turned the handle. But then my heart dropped. I knew apartments in Korea were small, but this one wasn’t a whole lot bigger than my bedroom back home.

After recovering from the small size, I remembered to take off my shoes before stepping inside. While in Ireland it’s normal to walk around the house with shoes on, this is a sure way to make a Korean person gasp in horror, and then retrace your steps with a floor cloth. This is because in Korean homes, a lot of daily living takes place on the floor – eating, relaxing and often even sleeping. And because people spit a lot on the streets here, walking into someone’s house with shoes on is like bringing the phlegm of hundreds of people onto their bed, sofa and kitchen table. Never do it.

I looked around my new home and saw that it was sparkling new and very clean, with inoffensive wallpaper, a sizable fridge and a lovely wooden floor. It was quite sparse at the the time, but I’ve slowly made it my own.

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Left alone, I quickly discovered what was to become the bane of my existence. I went to the toilet and then turned on the tap to wash my hands. Imagine my horror when my head was instead drenched in cold water. While I know a couple of people in Korea with a separate shower (and one girl who has a bath, the wagon), most bathrooms in Korea are of the wet-room variety, with the shower head connected to the sink taps. You have to turn a knob to switch between two, which is grand if you’re the type of person who remembers to do such things. Many of my mornings have taken the same form – shower, dress,dry and style hair, go to the toilet, try to wash hands but instead drench head and ruin hairstyle. Say ‘feck it’ and do a pony tail.

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Later on that first night, my Korean friend GaYoung came over to help me settle in. We went nuts in the nearby Tesco (or Home Plus, as it’s known in Korea), buying a clothes horse and cleaning products and all the other things you have to buy when you move into a new place. We came home and sat on the floor eating ramen, because I had no table. I woke up after the first night in my new bed, to find Young quietly writing English translations and sticking them all my appliances, making the use of my heating system, rice cooker and washing machine a lot easier. 

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I quickly got over the small size of my new home. Cleaning and hoovering only takes a few minutes, my electricity bill is delightfully low (less than the equivalent of €10 every month), and I still have enough space for all my things. I’ve also learned to do without the things I took for granted back home – I have no television so I catch up on shows on my laptop, I have no oven so microwave mug cakes have to satisfy my baking urges, and I have no table and chairs so I break out the floor table and cushions when I have guests.

The only thing I struggle a little with is a lack of a couch. Non-Korean guests aren’t comfortable sitting on the floor for too long, so I have to let them to sit on my bed. I prop some pillows up so it’s like an extra wide couch with no arm wrests. This takes me back to my teenage years, when I would hang out with friends in my room when other family members were using the sitting room. And my Korean friends actually talk about visiting my ‘room’ rather than my apartment. (I call it my ‘house’ for some reason).

It’s not that couches don’t exist in Korea. I’ve been to a few Korean family homes, and most of them have had couches, which they seem to use about 10% of the time. They just end up sitting on the floor in front of the couch, especially while eating. The same goes for beds – I once stayed at a friends’ apartment where everyone had their own bedroom and bed, but the whole family still slept on mats in the living room. This might have as much to do with importance of the family and sharing in Korean society, as only having to put the heating or air conditioner on in one part of the house.

Bigger family apartments in Korea often have a balcony to dry clothes, but this can be difficult in my One Room. In winter, though, there is a novel solution. I can still remember an occasion when my mother Skyped me few weeks into my time in Korea. ‘Is that clothes I see all over the floor?’ she asked me, spying my jeans and jumpers spread out behind me. ‘Some things never feckin change’ was implicit in her tone. I told her I was actually drying them, and explained ‘ondol’, the efficient and brilliant Korean heating system where hot water pipes run under the floor. Ondol is undoubtedly my favourite thing about living in a Korean apartment. There’s no cumbersome radiators, and there’s nothing quite like coming home after hard day and lying down on a nice warm spot directly over a pipe. I don’t know why this type of heating isn’t used to nearly the same extent in other parts of the world, because it truly is wonderful.

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Drying clothes

I hope you’ve enjoyed this post, and remember: This is just the perspective of one foreigner living in Korea. To get a better idea of how Korean people live, come to Korea and visit some!

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Ireland vs. Korea: One Shot!

For the third installment of ‘Ireland vs. Korea’, I will look at the role of drinking in both countries. ‘One Shot’ is a Konglish expression, which can be equated with ‘bottoms up’ or ‘down it’. Obviously drinking too much alcohol is a bad for your mental and physical health, but that’s not the focus of this post.

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The Soju selection at my local shop

When my classes collect enough points for good behaviour, I let them watch a music video of their choice in class. Last week a student asked me to play ‘Hangover’ by Snoop Dogg and Psy. I had been waiting for it to happen ever since the video’s YouTube debut last month, so I was prepared. ‘I can’t play Hangover for you. Do you understand why?’ I said to her. ‘Because of drink Soju and get sick,’ she responded, with an undertone of ‘I was only chancing my arm anyway’. Here’s the hangover video, in case you haven’t seen it yet:

 

It often comes as a shock to Irish people when I tell them about Korea’s drinking culture. ‘They wouldn’t have struck me as big drinkers at all’, is the normal response, followed by ‘Surely they can’t be as bad as us!’ While the Irish are notorious worldwide for our fondness for drink, according to World Health Organisation (WHO) statistics, Korea is 4 places higher than us in terms of pure alcohol consumption.

Reminders of drink are everywhere in Korea. They are on advertisements in the subway, in the puddles of kimchi-speckled puke I have to dodge as I walk to school, and the men in business suits passed out on benches and surrounded by green glass bottles.

Some of my English teacher friends from countries like Canada and the USA have told me how strange they find it when Koreans ask questions like ‘Can you drink alcohol well?’ and ‘How much Soju can you drink?’ But as an Irish person, I’m not really phased by it. I usually respond by saying ‘I could drink you under the table’, and then explaining what it means to drink somebody under the table. (Obviously this is only banter and I don’t actually engage in any liver-destroying drinking contests with Korean people).

The Irish and Koreans don’t just share a love for drink – we also share a love for a good tune. In Ireland we have live music and sing-songs, while the Koreans book into private karaoke rooms known as norae bang (노래방), when they reach ‘drunk enough to sing’ levels. While I do love hitting up the norae bang at the end of a hard week, I do often miss Dublin’s excellent live music scene.

And what’s this ‘Soju’ I keep barking on about? Soju (소주) is a Korean spirit traditionally made with rice, although cheaper modern versions are made with sweet potato and tapioca. ‘Hangover’ is pretty much one long advertisement for Jamisul Soju, as well as a Korean beer called Hite. Soju is not only the best selling spirit in Korea, taking up 97% of the alcohol market, it’s also the best selling spirit in the world. Jinro Soju outsells Smirnoff vodka by a ratio of 3:1. So how does it taste? Pretty rank is the answer, but people drink it to get locked, not for the taste.

Soju has been embedded in Korea since the 14th century, and has its own complex etiquette. It should be poured with two hands, while the receiver should hold their cup with the right hand, with the wrist of the right hand held lightly with the left hand. It is also polite to turn your head away from an older person while drinking.  Many other elements of Korea’s drinking culture can be seen in the Hangover video, for example the hangover prevention drinks that Koreans consume before a big night out, karaoke rooms and ramen. I won’t go into any detail here, because Eat Your Kimchi has already done a really good explanation:

You might say that Soju is to Korean identity, what Guinness is to Irish identity. But unlike Guinesss, Soju is very cheap and gets you messed up very quickly. In this sense, it’s more like drinking vodka. It’s no secret that I’m terrible at maths, but I did a little calculation to compare the cost of drinking vodka in Ireland, to drinking Soju in Korea. According to the Tesco Ireland website, a 360ml bottle of Smirnoff vodka with 37.5% alcohol costs €14.29. A 350ml bottle of 19% alcohol Soju usually costs 1,500 (€1.09). Adjusted for alcohol content*, vodka in Ireland is 6.5 times more expensive than Soju in Korea.

Of course wages in Korea, and the cost of living in general, are lower. But coming from a country where a big night out always took a massive chunk of my weekly income, to one where it barely dents it at all, is quite a change. Even more stark is the very different policy responses between both countries. In Ireland alcohol is very heavily taxed, off licenses close at 10pm, and most bars have to close at 2.30am. In Korea, on the other hand, ridiculously cheap drink flows 24/7.

The result is that a big night out in Ireland is very different to a big night out in Korea. Because drinking at bars and restaurants is so expensive in Ireland, most young people pre-drink at home and then hit a bar at about 10pm. In Korea, on the other hand, eating and drinking out is very cheap so the night usually starts early with dinner and drinks at a restaurant. And while we usually go to one or two bars in Ireland, followed sometimes by a night-club, a night out in Korea involves stopping off at several bars until you forget you’re tone deaf and book into a Noraebang to belt out every Westlife song in the catalogue. There’s no limit to how late you can stay out drinking in Korea, and it’s a very night centric place. One of my most surreal experiences so far has been drinking Somek (soju and beer cocktails) and eating chicken skewers at a barbeque restaurant at 5am.

In Ireland, drinking is mainly considered an activity to do with friends, but in Korea drinking on week nights with co-workers is seen as an essential team building exercise, as this article documents. Working hours are extremely long, and a night on the tear is generally considered the most effective way to unwind and bond with colleagues. You can imagine the pressure this creates for anyone with care responsibilities outside of work – women, in most cases. Things can also be uncomfortable for those who just don’t want to drink. I’ve heard it’s very hard for Koreans to refuse a drink, but foreigners are more easily excused.

Finally, if you’re in Dublin and curious about this ‘Soju’ I speak of, you can try it at The Hop House on Parnell Street. Or if you’re not into the hard stuff, other good Korean alcohol options include plum wine and makkoli, a type of rice wine. I believe The Hop House also has a popular Korean beer called Cass, but I don’t suggest drinking it unless you’ve never had any other beer before, and therefore have nothing to compare it to.

*I got this calculation by pretending 19% is half of 37.5% and 350ml is the same as 360ml. I did say I wasn’t good at maths!

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