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Today marks one month of being in Korea, and I suppose that’s as good a time as any to offer up what scant insights I’ve gained into the society. Especially since I don’t plan on sticking around for much longer.
Korean society operates under a rigid Conufcian system. There is a complex hierarchy defined by age, gender, profession and race. When a Korean enters a room he immediately evaluates everyone present to see where he fits in on the social ladder, and he treats the others accordingly. The amount of respect and deference shown to one’s superiors is staggering, and sometimes downright retarded. Example: until Korean Air instituted English as the cockpit language, it had the highest incident rate of any airline in the world. Why? Because the copilot would never tell the pilot if he was doing something wrong. It would be offensive and awkward. Never mind that you’re about to fly into a mountainside.
This hierarchy is instilled in Koreans from birth, and has been for hundred years. I now have a better understanding of how North Korea continues to function as a nation. Anywhere else in the world and Kim Jong-Il’s head would have been on a pike after the first dozen famines.
Another interesting thing about Korea is its fervent nationalism, coupled with an inferiority complex. (In other words it’s just like home!) Korea had it pretty rough for the first half of the 20th century, writhing under the Japanese colonial jackboot, so it’s no surprise that they now express their patriotism so aggressively. Much like Australia, Korea is a fairly minor nation the rest of the world doesn’t care about. And, much like Australia, this really grinds Korea’s gears. They are determined to prove to the rest of the world that they are the SPARKLING HUB OF ASIA. I don’t think it’s working very well. In Australia, at least, pretty much everyone associates Korea with a) North Korea, and b) M.A.S.H. A lot of people I spoke to thought it was still third world. Another observation someone made was “better than China, but not as good as Japan,” which pretty much sums up my own impressions.
Not that I’d ever say that to a Korean, since they hate Japan with a burning passion. Granted, half a century of atrocities is a bit of a sore point, but Koreans sure do hold a grudge. Case in point: Dokdo, a tiny handful of islets out in the Sea of Japan (sorry, “East Sea”) which are also claimed by Japan. Territorial disputes over seeimgly useless islands aren’t exactly uncommon, because owning the islands also grants one exclusive rights to the surrounding ocean and seabed, which may be rich in fishing and mineral resources. That’s why Ireland and the U.K. squabbled over Rockall, and why five separate nations are fighting over who owns the Spratlies. But in these cases it’s merely something the government takes care of, not an issue that is swept up into the beating, patriotic heart of each and every citizen. The idea of Japan claiming Korean territory sends Koreans into a hysterical frenzy – like a protest where a man set himself on fire and a woman cut off her fingers. Seriously. Over a couple of rocks you could toss a stone over. This anxiety is especially perplexing given that Korea isn’t about to lose Dokdo anytime soon; they have Coast Guard detachments there, and as we all know, possession is nine tenths of the law.
I like living in Seoul, but this is largely because I like living in any big city. I like dense urban buildup, subways, and the rush of millions and millions of people. As big cities go, however, Seoul is fairly bland. There’s a hell of a lot of cookie-cutter apartment blocks with huge numbers stamped on the sides, which makes you feel like you live in a Soviet ant colony, and not too many sights to take in. I can walk for hours without seeing anything worthy of a photograph, and any particular patch of the city is pretty much the same as any other patch. Basically Perth writ large.
Korea is also an alcohol-marinated culture. This is a side-effect of making a 50+ hour working week the status quo, because your country is still struggling to rise up from the ashes of a devastating war, and expects a lot of its workers. To release the stress of working so much, men go out drinking pretty much every night. And alcohol is cheap – I can pick up a bottle of beer or red wine for only 1000 won ($1 AUD). It’s not uncommon at all to see drunk men stumbling around the footpaths in the evening.
There is a very noticeable generational divide, which largely manifests itself through fashion. Koreans below the age of 35 or thereabouts all look like they just stepped out of a magazine. They are the most stylish young men and women I have ever seen. All of them. Above middle-age, however, Korean fashion becomes hilariously bad. Short-sleeved button-down shirt tucked into khaki pants with a visible singlet underneath is pretty much the national uniform if you’re a man. If you’re a woman, it is absolutely mandatory to wear a gigantic sun visor, often resembling a welding mask, at all times. Even after sunset. When I commented on this startlingly sharp divide, another teacher replied, “They lived through the war. You think they give a fuck about Gucci?”
Which I suppose is the core truth about Korea. Twenty-five years ago they were still a developing country under a dictatorship. They’ve improved a lot, in a very short amount of time, and they do have cause to be proud. Fifty years from now they should be a major economic power, especially given that the North Korean regime will probably have crumbled by then.
Not that I’ll be here to see it…
House Of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski (2000) 709 p.
This book is “different,” a description that can result in an experimental masterpiece or an ambitious failure. People have described it in various ways, but this is my take: House of Leaves is an onion. It has a lot of layers, stories wrapped up inside other stories. And it doesn’t taste very good (HARLEM GLOBETROTTER SLAM DUNK).
The core story is that of Will Navidson, a prize-winning photojournalist who moves into house in the Virginia countryside in an effort to strengthen his relationship with his girlfriend Karen and their two children. Their developing domestic happiness is shattered when the house begins to demonstrate bizarre characteristics: a passageway suddenly appears between two bedrooms where there was none before, close inspection reveals that the dimensions of the house are bigger on the inside than the outside, and – most terrifying of all – a hallway appears in the living room wall that leads into a vast, dark and constantly shifting labyrinth. Determined to investigate this labyrinth, Navidson recruits his brother Tom, his friend Billy and a trio of professional wilderness explorers. Multiple explorations have various effects on the characters, ranging from claustrophobia and paranoia, to insanity and murder. Navidson, being a photojournalist, records it all and later releases it as a film entitled “The Navidson Record.”
And the story itself – the book you are reading – is in the form of an academic treatise on the Navidson Record, complete with ridiculously extensive footnotes and laughably thin allusions and comparisons. You know the kind: verbose professors seizing on the tiniest pieces of dialogue and extrapolating entire useless theories from them, waffling on about symbolism and the self and darkness and meaning. I squandered three years of my life away on a university course entirely comprised of that kind of bullshit, and while Danielewski obviously intends to satirise it, the joke runs its course after about 100 pages and you’re left reading something that is, for all intents and purposes, exactly as frustrating as the pseudo-intellectual drivel he seeks to mock.
This fictional treatise was written by a man named Zampano, who dies at the beginning of the book. His notes are discovered and punished by California deadbeat Johnny Truant, who regularly interrupts the text with is own footnotes about his life of sex, drugs and a slow descent into insanity.
The problem with this novel is that only the first story is any good. The parts of the narrative that focus on Navidson’s exploration of his house are excellent. It’s an original, bizarre, unsettling and sometimes downright scary tale. But Zampano’s analysation is as tedious as one would expect, and Johnny Truant is little more than a Hunter S. Thompson wannabe regularly treating us to annoying, extensive ramblings as his obsession with the treatise sends him insane (in fact, I don’t think I’ve ever read a fictional account of paranoia and descent into madness that wasn’t repetitive and tedious.* The human mind is not an interesting landscape). By the time I reached the appendices and was reading letters JT’s mother sent him from her room in the mental asylum, I just didn’t care anymore.
This book is gimmicky. I’ve heard it described as the popcorn lit of post-modern literature, which seems about right (and is not exactly an insult – at least House of Leaves is somewhat entertaining, as opposed to anything written by DeLillo or Pynchon). There’s a good story here. Just be prepared to wade through plenty of junk to find it.
(*Actually, scratch that – The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins is quite good, maybe due to its brevity.)
…for a grand total of TEN DAYS. These poor kids. Not only do they only get less than two weeks summer vacation, they have to spend those days doing the enomous stacks of homework I spent all morning photocopying for them.
One of the higher-ups had the delightful idea that we should ring all the kindergarden students on Tuesday night to wish them a happy vacation. Never mind that we just spent all day with them, and that the last day of school was Wednesday, so a lot of conversations wrapped up like this: “Have a happy vacation – see you tomorrow!” Most of the time we didn’t even get through to the kids, though, since the list of phone numbers we were provided with were their emergency contact numbers. So we often called their parents’ mobiles in the middle of a business meeting. Not to mention the inefficient Korean phone system, which usually resulted in a failed call and an automated message. Of my 19 students, I only spoke to 5.
Oh! And we were doing all this at 7.00 pm.
I also had a parent complain recently about my weekly plans. Every week we write a lesson plan, and every week we have to photocopy it and send one home with each student. It usually consists of about two or three pages. The complaint was made to my Korean co-teacher, who then directed it to me:
“Ryan’s mother say weekly plan should be on one page.”
“What? It’s three pages.”
“Yes, she want on one page.”
(laughing) “I… I can’t do that. That’s physically impossible.”
(Co-teacher goes off and makes a phone call, returns half an hour later)
“She say if you can’t do one page, do photocopying… double sides.”
“What? No. She… why is she even complaining about this?”
“She not like.”
“Tough! I’ve got better things to do than dick around with the photocopier! Like, say, educate her son! Why the f… why is she even complaining about this? Why does it matter whether it’s on two pages or one?”
“She say is difficult.”
“Oh my God. If she thinks it’s difficult to use two bits of paper at once she needs to spend a day toiling in the fucking potato fields. Or, say, educating her son! Her rude, disruptive son!”
To be fair, my co-teacher found it as amusing as I did, and the other teachers agree that it’s the most pedantic parent request they’ve ever heard (runner up: “make sure you change my son’s shirt if he gets sweaty”). Nobody actually expects me to photocopy the weekly plan in accordance with parent’s demands, and I wouldn’t anyway. It just serves as a good example of how this school is completely and totally under the grip of the parents. Fucking private education, man.
So anyway, today was our last day of proper classes,and it was “activity day” for the kindergardners. I got assigned one of the lamer sports (arrow throwing, basically ring-toss). During the height of a solar eclipse, one of my kids wandered off into the eerily quiet hallways, the only noise the sound of the distant kids screaming and laughing in the gym. Following him into an empty classroom, I was shocked to see that the eclipse had triggered his metamorphosis into the Antichrist, and watched in dismay as he opened his eleven dark mouths to howl out a proclamation of the end of days.
At least that’s what should have happened, since fiction has conditioned me to expect that dramatic things should occur during eclipses. Instead it turned out he was just sulky because I’d accidentally overlooked him when handing out the second round of arrows.
So that’s it for classes for ten days. We still have to go in to work tomorrow for reasons that haven’t been clearly defined, but Tony and I are going into the city to apply for our alien cards. Our supervisor wasn’t too happy about that – she wanted us to go on Friday, our first proper vacation day – but we were firm. It’s not like we’re going into a government office to stand in line for hours for the fun of it. It’s a work-related venture. Which is also why they should fucking pay for it. They paid for Valerie’s. In fact, they did more than pay for it – they did it for her. She just had to give them her passport, and a week later she got her ARC card. Whereas I had to google the fucking process myself, find out what documents we have to take, figure out where the office is and, tomorrow, go there ourselves on the subway. We have been given absolutely NO help whatsoever, and it fucking irritates me. I’m in a foreign country, don’t speak the language, I have enough to be adjusting to as it is, and yet they expect me to chase up my own red tape. Which I need to do in order to TEACH AT THEIR SCHOOL.
Man, fuck this place.
Today was so shit it was pretty much bordering on hysterically funny. A crew from the Korean TV station EBS was shooting what I originally thought was footage for a kid’s TV show, but later found out was actually a commercial. We had to run through scripts of a lesson (which in no way resembled an actual lesson) and act it out with the kids. This took place during my “break” time, which I don’t get paid for to begin with, and which I’d been planning to use to prepare for the afternoon tests. And, you know, it’s funny, but I don’t recall ever consenting – or even being asked – to appear in Wonderland promotional material.
I then had to test all my elementary students in the afternoon. They test them every month but this was my first one, and it was pretty depressing, because a lot of the lower-level kids absolutely bombed out. I knew they would – they can barely string a sentence together, let alone recall and discuss a story we read several weeks ago – but I was hoping this would lead to the school acknowledging the kids were working on material too difficult for them, and adjust the syllabus accordingly. Nope. Less than an hour later I was sitting in the office (at 7.00 pm) writing next month’s lesson plan, which centred around an even more difficult textbook. The administration doesn’t give a shit about what level the students are actually at, and whether they’re learning or not – they only care about moving up to the next number in the line of textbooks, to show the parents that their child is “progressing.” (And this isn’t my opinion. This is what the head teacher said, grumpier and more exhausted than ever.) I’m not sure how they explain the 0/50 score the kids are getting on the monthly tests. Maybe they don’t show them.
Whatever. I’m not going to waste time tring to figure out how Korea’s rigid Confucianism further complicates the problems already present in private education. Today has only strengthened my resolve to get the fuck out of Wonderland. I came home to find that the washing machine was still broken and ALL my drains are blocked. On the bright side, the bathroom no longer smells like human shit – it’s the kitchen that does that now.
Again, I’m sure you will not judge me too harshly when I repeat my fervent desire to GET THE FUCK OUT OF HERE.
But to where? I’m sorely tempted to accept Georgie’s travel companion status and fly to the U.K. the second my first paycheck clears. But then I’d just be sitting around in London for five weeks until Mike arrives in early September. That’s too short a period of time to find a decent job, but plenty long enough to chew into my savings. Chris is also talking about flying up from Australia and meeting up with the three of us in Paris in early October. Few things make me happier than the prospect of getting drunk under the shadow of the Eiffel Tower
(Hemingway-style) with three of my favourite people in the world.
But then what? We can spend even more money tagging along with Mike’s itinerary around Europe (Germany, Italy, Switzerland, Spain and Egypt) and then return to London, probably flat broke already – and half a world away from home. Or me and Chris can let Mike do his thing, and go back to London with Georgie after Paris, mooch off her for a bit longer and maybe try to find jobs and save money in the U.K… which, correct me if I’m wrong, has been swallowed whole by the recession and is experiencing record unemployment and high cost of living – yet somehow still keeps the pound stronger than the Aussie dollar.
Ironically, this is the good time. This is the time when things are so bad that they can only get better, when everything is possible, when all paths branch off into the future and I can venture down any one I please. This is what Korea was like back in April – before I learned the hilarious truth that life is never so bad it can’t get worse!
Chris: let’s just go to London and see what happens. Maybe we’ll end up broke, maybe we won’t. Either way we’ll have a good time, see some interesting shit, and seize the only opportunity we may ever have to hang out with our friends in Europe. Afterwards we’ll become itinerant workers like George and Lennie or the lesbians from Dicebox, blowing wherever the cruel wind of a crippling financial meltdown blows us! LIVE THE DREAM!
Or we could come back to Perth and save a bit more and start planning our huge RTW trip. But that wouldn’t be quite as… impulsive,would it?
i’ve been drinking a lot of wine again – Australian wine, oddly enough, it eas the cheapest at E-mart which I guess should stir some kind of indignation inside me – so this may be a littledisjointed and rambling but if you don’tlike it tough shit.
hahah as if its not more entetaining this way.
Teaching is easier but again I’mot sure if that’s just a product of the upcoming holiday break. everything’s easier with a repeive in sight. last night we had a staff meeting from 7.00 pm to 9.00 pm. L:ast night was Friday night. Fucking hell.
GG has offered me her Qantas beneificary status of “travel companion” which basically gives me 10% price flightson Qantas and (maybe) oneworld. In other words i could fly from here, to London, to a few points around Europe and then back home for less than a thousand bucks. I don’t really want to be spending much money at the moment. want to be sacing money so I can travel with my BFF. But this is a fucking good opportunity and it would be a shame to pass it up, especially given that cris and I aren’t planning to see Europe at all. and shit he wants to go to japan anyway which would be a working holiday and if i do that with him ill actually be able to teach english so i’ll more or less have gauaranteed employment there. even if i still hate teaching i would bee a) in a moreinteresting country b) with my best friend.
Curent savings – 5,000
Tax return – 6,000
Airfare reimbursement – 7,000
firstpaycheck (aug 8) – 8,000 (minimum)
second paycheck (sep 8) – 9,000 (minimum)
mike fliesinto europe around september 13, which is also the first weekend after my second paycheck and would make an ideal time to flee. although i’m getting moreemotionally attached to mycoworkers, to the point where i wouldactually feelbad if i just upand abanoned them without the courtesy of giving them time to find a replacement. if i do so purely for financial reasons (i.e. i don’t want to give back the 1000 dollars of airfare) it becomes quite selfish, jerkish and indefensible. if i do so because i continue to find my joib unbearable, not so much. so i hope that after the break my working conditions return to being atrociously appaling.
in any case i’m aalready having a good travel experience because i’m drunk in seeeeeeeeoullllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllll
(which is in south korea)
Today was a pretty good day.
They got us bank accounts yesterday – apparently you don’t need an ARC after all. And they’re going to reimburse my airfare tomorrow. So that’s good.
I spent some time last night exploring the school’s rooftop as we tried to stretch an insanely long LAN cable from my apartment (where the routers are) to Tony’s apartment, which has thus far been without Internet. We live on the fifth floor of the building, which is a very cool jumbled collection of stairways, ladders, rooftops, hallways, balconies and catwalks. At one point we had to tie the cable to an empty laundry bottle and toss it across the sheer chasm of an alleyway. I also found a rooftop vegetable garden, which is apparently what we eat for lunch every day, and stood at the corner of the highest rooftop for a while, looking down at the busy intersection below like Batman sureying Gotham from his impregnable eyrie. (Yeah, I went there.) Down below were salarymen drinking soju on cheap plastic chairs outside convenience stores, motorcycles ducking through traffic and mounting the sidewalk, the heat of the traffic rising up past me; across from me I could see people watching TV or doing aerobics in their own high altitude domestic bubbles.
Seoul isn’t a fantastic city, but it’s still better than Perth. Pretty much any city that realises you can build in more than one dimension is better than Perth. Dig up, stupid!
And then today we had a birthday party for all the kids born in July, which chewed up a signifiicant amount of time I would otherwise be spending trying to get the little bastards to go through their workbooks. Plus one of the boys in my class brought lollipops in, and shared them out with everyone, which was impressive enough to begin with, but when he went round the circle and was one short, the girl who missed out was upset, so he gave her his own. I was really impressed by that, so I gave him ten stickers when I normally dole out maybe one per period. These kids don’t often display a lot of manners or basic courtesy, so to see selflessness like that is extremely rare, and it actually left me feeling pretty good.
And the tests and monthly plans I had to write didn’t take nearly as long as I thought they would, and I only teach six classes on Thursdays. So I’ve had a pretty good 24 hours.
If only every day could be like this, I’d be as content as a beautiful princess sighing happily as she rides her unicorn across a meadow full of buttercups! (My analogies are also fantastic today.)
Our medical results came back this week – the school sent us off during one of our “free” periods (in which we sit around in the office anyway) to walk up the hill to the hospital and retrieve them. After some haggling with the Korean-speaking desk nurses we managed to get them and returned to the school. “So, can we apply for our alien cards now?” I asked Sarah. (“So that I can then get a bank account, get my airfare reimbursed and get the fuck out of this wretched place?”)
After some vague half-answers and umming and erring (all of which is typical to Koreans) I ascertained that it would take maybe three hours to apply for my alien card – what with transit time and waiting in line and all that. So Sarah suggested that we go during the upcoming holiday break (starting on Friday the 24th).
This is the break I’m planning to flee during. Which will require my passport. Which I am supposed to turn over to the immigration office for however long it takes to get an alien registration card.
Tony chose this exact moment to stop being a pushy, assertive New Yorker, character traits I had found greatly useful in a colleague, as I myself am a doormat/pushover/yes-man when it comes to employers. He was totally cool with applying for it during the summer break. I tried to push my case a little more, but it was hard to do so, since I couldn’t really fault their reasoning. We operate on two different frames of mind. They are of the opinion that I will be here until June 2010; I am not. I can’t exactly say, “well, I’d really prefer for you to set me up a bank account NOW, so I can skip the country immediately rather than spend several more weeks trapped in a classroom with those evil little goblins.”
Let’s establish a timeframe here:
Friday, July 24: First day of summer break, first day I can conceivably apply for my ARC
Friday, July 31: (estimate) Day I will receive my ARC
Monday, August 2: School resumes. Immediately talk about establishing a bank account, school no longer has any excuses.
Saturday, August 8: First payday. If I’ve stuck around until the 2nd, I may as well hold out one week longer and pick up my first paycheck, which should be between $1000 and $2000, depending on how many advances I “need” between now and then.
But! Banks aren’t open on Saturday (or are they, in Korea?), so I may have to wait until Monday before the money shows up in my account. Because I live in the school building, I also need to flee on a weekend, when there’s less chance of people catching me in the act. So I’d have to serve another whole week here.
But! The next Saturday, August 15, is Korean Independence Day. I’m not sure how that will affect public transit and airlines.
The fact that I’m even looking at August 15 – a full month from now – as a viable departure date is quite upsetting.
I’m going to press them about my airfare this week as much as I can. Maybe they’ll pay it to me in cash. My reasoning is that I need it to live off, otherwise I’ll have to ask for paycheck advances every week.
The way they duck and weave every time I bring it up is typical Korean inscrutability that almost seems to be about ripping me off, but probably isn’t. It really isn’t unreasonable to wait for a bank account to transfer that much money ($967 AUD). It really isn’t unexpected for Sarah to be brushing me off, because she’s demonstrated several times now that she has no idea what she’s supposed to be doing.
But I hear enough horror stories about hagwons (and Wonderland in particular) to be wary. I guess I’ll have to be firm throughout the week: GIVE ME MY FUCKING MONEY.
It’s really just a race at this point to see which wins out: my avaricious nature, or my desperate desire to get the fuck out of here.
I’ve now been here two weeks. It’s slightly easier than it was at first, but teaching is still neither easy nor enjoyable.
I went to a chabad last night with Tony, who is Jewish. I’m not Jewish and I had no idea what a chabad was. Apparently it’s an international outreach thing for Jews in foreign lands. He assured me I would be welcome, and the impression I got from him was that it was a dinner in a community hall with maybe fifty or sixty people. It was actually a dinner in a small suburban home with about six middle-aged American businessmen/women, and at first it felt like we were intruding upon a private dinner party. They were really friendly and welcoming and it was an interesting experience. Never in a million years did I imagine I would sit down to a Jewish religious dinner in South Korea.
One of the men there taught English at a university, and winced when we told him we worked at a Wonderland. He’s the only person I’ve met thus far who has heard of the chain’s terrible reputation. He also said our working hours were shocking, which I’d actually figured out on my own! But it was nice to have someone agree. It’s endlessly frustrating to work with a bunch of people who think it’s the norm to work from 9 to 6.30. Every day. Oh! And we only get paid for half those hours. And it’s a very meagre salary. For stressful, exhausting work.
In fact, it’s not so much the working hours that bother me now – it’s the job itself. I’m not a good teacher. I’m a crabby, grouchy, irritable teacher who regularly snaps at his students and doesn’t want to be there any more than they do. I had plenty of teachers like that in school, and always held the opinion that if they didn’t enjoy their jobs they should quit. Anyone can be a teacher. But it takes a specal kind of person to be a good teacher, or even an adequate teacher. And teaching is not like any other job – it’s important. Teachers shape children more than anyone else they come into contact with except their parents.
This feels like a pretty rambling and disjointed entry, but that’s how my thought process is at the moment. I’m wavering between wanting to stick this out as long as I can to see if it gets any better, and wanting to pack my bags immediately. Sometimes I switch between the two in a matter of hours.
Wonderland has a holiday period between the 24th of July and the 2nd of August. If I want to leave surreptitiously, that would be a good time for it. But I’m still torn on whether I should do that or whether I should give notice. It’s not taking their money that makes me feel guilty – it’s abandoning my coworkers to cover my absence until a new foreign teacher can be found. It’s walking out on them in the dead of night without a word, when they’ve all been really friendly and welcoming. But a) I want that damn airfare money and b) I don’t want to endure the 20 days of notice I need to give them in my contract.
I should be getting an alien registration card next week, and a bank account. I almost hope they refuse to reimburse my airfare. That would at least give me some moral ground to stand on when I pack my bags and leave at 3.00 am.
Second week of teaching. Doesn’t get any easier. If anything I’m irritated by the kids even more. I have one kindy class full of absolute little shitheads. The girls are sweet as sugar, trying their hardest and hanging off my words, but the boys are all in an equal stakes running to become the Antichrist. I’ve become crabby and grouchy and am actively snapping at them, and sometimes swearing. DO YOUR WORK and DON’T CLIMB UP THE WALL and SIT DOWN and GET OUT FROM UNDER THE TABLE and NOW YOU’VE SPILT YOUR FUCKING MILK EVERYWHERE LOOK AT THIS MESS. I assumed I was good with kids, but there is a Grand Canyon of difference between playing with my little sister, and trying to maintain order in a classroom full of 10 kids who don’t speak the same language as me and spend 12 hours a day studying so they’re fidgety as fuck.
That’s the thing about Korea – the kids get pushed hard by their parents. I understand the reasoning behind it. Korea has very few natural resources, so it needs a well-educated workforce to succeed. That’s how Japan, Taiwan and to a lesser extent Singapore clawed their way up the HDI rankings. But seeing this concept put into practice is just awful. I feel so sorry for these kids. When I was in kindergarden I was playing with blocks and drawing pictures. These guys are sitting down, filling out workbooks and doing maths and learning Chinese. They’re six.
The other problem is that the emphasis on booklearning leaves no room to teach them life skills. A lot of them are rude and inconsiderate bullies because they don’t know any better. (And that’s another teacher’s observation, not mine.)
I’m not sure what the obsession with learning English is. Korea has very strong links with America, but I’d imagine that financially they’re tied more to China and Japan.
I had my medical yesterday, along with the new American teacher who arrived a week after me. The school made us pay for it ourselves. Tony was a lot more argumentative about that than me – I tend to be a doormat with regards to my employers – but they still refused to pay it. It cost eighty bucks. And talk about intensive: blood tests, urine tests, eyesight, hearing, cardiology, radiograms, the works. I get why they want to check fo STDs and drugs, but hearing and eyesight? Seriously?
They still haven’t paid my airfare back either. I thought they were just waiting for my bank account to be set up, but they paid me a $200 advance on my next paycheck (since I’m broke), in cash. Every time I bring it up with Sarah she’s suddenly not so fluent in English. I don’t think they’re trying to gyp me, I think she just has no fucking clue what she’s doing, having moved into her job only a few weeks ago. I suspect that’s a contributing factor to the utterly hopeless disorganisation of this place.
Chris said that when I return to Australia he might be able to get me some work up at Mornington – I even sent my resume to his boss. But that’s not looking too likely now, which really bums me out. I don’t want to return to Perth and Coles and the same old problems I was facing there. But I don’t want to stay here either.
Maybe I’ll face the same problems wherever I go.
Thank God it is finally the fucking weekend.
I have now been in Korea for a full week. An incredibly short period of time in some ways, agonisingly long period of time in others. I’m sure that for people back home it simply flew by; for me, it has been as though my consciousness was trapped in an alternate pocket dimension for 10,000 years like that Stephen King story I can’t remember.
Today I got to go exploring on my own, something I’ve been looking forward to since I arrived. The director was taking all the foreign teachers to Costco in the morning, which I managed to slip out of by saying that I have pretty much everything I need right now (in actual fact it’s because I don’t want to bulk-buy two months’ worth of supplies with them, because in less than two months time my ass will be on a plane back home).
So at around 10.00 am I left the apartment and took my first ride on the Seoul subway system. Very similar to Japan’s, though slightly harder to figure out – Koreans like to do the same thing Australians to do, and use signage displaying the track’s terminal station, rather than the next one down the line. This works fine in Perth, which has four rail lines radiating out in straight lines across the flat suburban plain, but when you have eight different rail lines tangling up with each other in a complex labyrinth of underground tunnels, it’s sort of disorienting. But the signs were in both Korean and English, which is really quite generous of them, so I suppose I can’t complain.
I disembarked at Dongnimmun station, which is just a stone’s throw from Inwangsan, an ancient shamanist temple perched on a mountainside. But I got completely lost and wandered through a complex of apartment buildings, before eventually stumbling across the Seoul Fortress Wall – presumably a relic of the Middle Ages – and followed it around to the temple complex. It was sort of cool, but temples never really do much for me. The mountain itself was beautiful, though, and I hiked up a lot of leafy trails to some granite slabs that afforded a great view of the smoggy, repetitive urban monster that is Seoul. I took a different route back down and ended up on a trail that petered out completely, so I had to force my way through some bushes and jump some fences when I got back down to civilisation. All good.
From Ingwansan I was planning to walk to Gyeonghuigung, a palace that supposedly lets you wander around on your own with no fee, but I got completely lost and gave up, so instead I took the subway down towards the Han River. On the way there I found a nice little park where two young guys were playing catch under the gaze of a huge statue of Confucius, which was pretty cool. After catching my breath on a bench for a while I again ended up wandering Seoul’s largely identical inner-city streets, which are a mix of South-East Asian slums and bland Soviet apartment blocks, trying to figure out where the fuck the river was. (Note: invest in a compass, invaluable for urban exploration in foreign lands.) After sheltering in a phone booth for about half an hour during a heavy downpour, I managed to find the river and ended up walking right over it on a large bridge.
There were plenty of dead fish floating by underneath. That’s fine – any river in a huge city will inevitably be polluted, and I doubt the Thames or the Hudson are particularly sparkling either. What threw me a little was when a speedboat powered by, with a bunch of kids biscuiting behind it. Gross. The Swan River is seedy enough, with its salt and murk and disgusting smell, but to go biscuiting or skiing in the Han? Probably an error in judgement.
Water-related sidenote: I’ve heard that Koreans can be very nationalistic and will be displeased at any negative comments about Korea, and so far this has manifested itself in my Korean supervisor’s attitude towards the drinking water. When I first got here I asked if you could drink tap water (I knew you couldn’t, just wanted to doublecheck) and Valerie said no. Sarah (my Korean supervisor; both teachers and students adopt English nicknames) then spouted something about a Korean government study saying that it was fine. And then last night at dinner the new American teacher Tony asked if it was okay to drink the water, and she simply said “Yes.” There was a pause, and then Valerie said “No… no, you can’t.” Quite amusing.
Anyway, I made it onto an island on the south side of the Han River, and walked through several kilometres of parkland full of kids playing. I get enough of kids during my working week, so I murdered all those I came across. When I reached the next bridge I crossed back over to the north side of the river, which featured a small patch of parkland my LP intriguingly described as “Foreigner’s Cemetery.” Most of the graves were missionaries from the 19th century, with a handful of American soldiers who had married Koreans and stayed in Seoul after the war. It was nice, but nothing to write home about.
And after that I came home, because I’d been walking for about seven hours straight and my feet were killing me. And as I walked back down the street to my school building and apartment, a sense of dread descended onto me. I passed the door to the school on the way up to my apartment, and I hated it. I hated the doorknob, I hated the frame, I hated the stupid Wonderland logo and I hated the disgusting mustard colour. Let’s take a moment to stop and picture this: a fully-grown and mentally sound man, staring in disgust and contempt at a door.
I haven’t hated inanimate objects since my days working in a government office for uni prac, when I came to loathe the shirts, the chairs, the keyboards, and even the very walls. Every molecule of every object in that vile place was, in my eyes, a dark and evil stain upon the Earth. And now, after a single week, I feel that way about Wonderland.
It strikes me as unhealthy. I need to get out of this place before I lose my mind and hurl myself out the window into the filthy streets below. Even when I was hiking around Ingwansan, I wasn’t quite enjoying myself, because I knew that in the back of my mind I eventually had to return to this wretched place.
Judging from my first impressions, Korea isn’t a fantastic country. It’s certainly no Japan. But compared to Perth it’s the most stimulating, fascinating location in the world. I could enjoy myself quite a bit here – if only I had a better job. If only I had a job that didn’t claw away at the integrity of my sanity, reducing me to a haggard wreck suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder when I climb the stairs to my apartment every night.
It would be easy to say that I just didn’t pick my hagwon carefully (though I didn’t), that I could have found a job with much less stress and much easier working hours. But I’m starting to realise that I’m probably not good with kids – at least not as a teacher. I don’t have the patience for it. Granted, there are a few classes I actually enjoy teaching, where the kids are moderately well behaved and almost fluent in English. But I doubt there’s a job anywhere on the peninsula that would be like that all the time, and it would be impossible to find anyway. In any case, it’s too late – my working visa is directly tied to Wonderland and I can’t change that.
On Monday, Tony and I are going to the hospital to get medical checks. After that we get our alien registration cards – but to do so we have to submit our passports to the immigration office. The thought of abandoning my passport in a foreign land when I’m already planning my departure doesn’t thrill me. But it’s necessary to obtain an alien registration card, which is in turn necessary to open a bank account, which I need to get my airfare reimbursed and my first paycheck. I think it only takes a few days to be processed, and I plan to stick around for a week or two anyway. If they try to screw me over and not give it back (which I doubt they will – when I asked for my diploma back the director ran to her office to retrieve it) then I will at least have a legit excuse for doing a midnight run… which will be hard without a passport. It’s times like these I wish I’d applied for Irish citizenship earlier, so I could already have two passports.
Guess that’s about all I got to say. After an entire day of walking around Seoul I’m exhausted and have a splitting headache.