I am doing this! Just not publicly

Hi all,

I just wanted to update to say that I have been blogging everyday. Just privately. I have a private blog that I write things that don’t really fit my Korean experience per se. I publish poetry, opinions, and I explore my thoughts. There’s no buffer there, and with a challenge like this I feel like I need that freedom. I’m not really a writer, I keep most of my thoughts in my head or in lists rather than semi-eloquently on the page. Anyway, I told Anna that I was privately blogging and she remarked that I should probably mention that here. So yep. That’s done

Ahhhh 30 minutes to go!

And I haven’t written anything! Ahhhhhhhhhhh! And now I’m being distracted by food blogs! Ahhhhh!

This is a problem. I woke up early this morning. I then decided that there was nothing pressing to do and promptly went back to sleep until just before work (I start work at 1pm). My sleep brain is a manipulative lier. I needed to write a blog post, advertise the cabaret, cut the backing tracks for the cabaret, catch up with friends and family, write letters to my students, write letters home, pack my lunch, study Korean, maybe even do my makeup. But no. Today, sleep took priority, and instead of waking once more feeling as though I had gotten the sleep I needed so badly… I had a pounding headache.

Operation be a better person is not going well. Tomorrow is another day.

That’s Day 3. I’ve written something and calling it a success. Luncheon in Suncheon will wait. AHHHHHHHHHHHH!

Adventures in Choral Gwangju

Those of you who know me well, know that it doesn’t take long  for me to find a project, or five, related to the arts. So it was, that I found myself becoming a “Player” (committee member) of the Gwangju Performance Project and starting a choir under that umbrella with a girl Caitlin, who has become a dear friend. This all happened rather fast, I had been planning to start a choir once play rehearsals were up and running, yet after Caitlin posted on Facebook asking whether a choir existed, I knew I had to get the ball running fast.

Approximately a month ago we had our first rehearsal. I’d planned a bunch of fun, easy pieces to get our new members excited and ready to create the relaxed Saturday afternoon activity we wanted. Of course, this is Korea. “Easing into it” is not a well known concept.

It didn’t start well. Stepping into a taxi I slipped and sprained my ankle worse than I had since my dancing days, and I ended up being late for the rehearsal! About 5 minutes after I finally arrived, Dr Shin of the Gwangju International Center walked in holding an ominous looking score. He asked us whether we would be interested in performing with the Hoshin Choir (a semi-professional choir in Gwangju) for the May Concert. My face fell; everyone else’s lit up. I was terrified; they were excited. Dr Shin gave me a 35 page score of Korean patriotic songs I had never heard and told me to conduct. I… stumbled through it. For a month we practiced these pieces, not really knowing if we were doing the right thing because we wouldn’t meet the Hoshin conductor until about a week before the concert.

I became an invigorated, stressed out, sleepless being. I was determined that we would get these pieces down. Terrified that we would fail; confident that we wouldn’t.

A week before the concert we discovered that we were to sing almost the entire score in Korean rather than the provided translation! I was also told that I was to sing the opening solo – in Korean!

After a month of pushing these poor choristers to their limits, the concert day arrived. It was an incredible event. A host of classically trained musicians performed throughout the evening and we were to close the concert. I must say, I’m not sure I’ve ever been prouder of myself or others. If anyone would like to see a video of the performance, just send me a message and I’ll send it along.

On Friday, for the first time in a month, I managed to clean, hang out the laundry, wash the dishes and prepare a meal at home. I was even able to test my ankle out with a short jog after work. I’ve been going non-stop. Even on my recent holiday to the East Coast of Korea, I had itchy feet and felt the need to keep moving. It may sound tiresome to some, and it is, but I’m happier than I’ve been in a long time.

I’m starting to think I’ve landed on my feet.

It's all a farce.

It’s all a farce.

I asked my students two questions

I was nervous going in to class today. The topic in the textbook was “Problems in the World” and well… given the current climate… I wasn’t too sure what would happen. I started with the obvious question: “What do you think is a major problem in the world today?” followed by “how would you fix this problem?”. The answers to the first question, were incredibly aware. These kids read the newspaper. Nothing goes unnoticed to them and once I convinced the murderous little sh**s that they could neither assassinate nor force anyone to eat “bin rice”, I was given solutions to these issues, that sometimes amused me, but mainly just blew me away:

  1. Children use smart phones too much – Break them. Change them to a 2G phone. Don’t have a smart phone, this is the best way! 
  2. Children use swear words – Teach children better words. You shouldn’t scold them, it doesn’t help. 
  3. Chinese Yellow Dust is coming to Korea – Plant many trees in China. Break the factories. Make the population smaller – One child!
  4. People are missing from the Sewol Disaster. The Sewol Captain was negligent. – Lift the boat. Rescue earlier. Teach workers everywhere about emergencies.  
  5. People are poor and hungry – Donate money. Give rice. 
  6. Smoking is making people sick – Quit smoking. Don’t sell cigarettes. 
  7. The Japanese Prime Minister spoke rudely – Persuade him to learn history. 
  8. Too much CO2 is creating Global Warming and hurting the environment – Ride a bike. Plant many trees
  9. North Korea is developing nuclear weapons – Become ready for unification. 
  10. Putin is trying to steal Ukraine land – Have a fair vote. 
  11. Bullying in schools – Everyone has home schooling. 
  12. The Fukushima Earthquake has made radioactive trash – Use tax money to rebuild Fukushima.

These answers got me thinking about perspective because many of these answers, could only be given by students in Korea. Teenagers in Australia wouldn’t necessarily know what “unification” or “yellow dust” is, or how the Japanese prime minister was offensive. Yet these words represent issues that hinder our lives on a global scale. As an Australian teenager, I can remember giving answers about immigration and mental health – issues that would never occur to my Korean students. I’m not sure what my point is, it’s just interesting that “World Problem” is such a subjective term.

Stay tuned for a couple more blog posts in the next week about a recent holiday, and the performing arts in Korea. 🙂 

Korean Ferry Disaster

To the people of South Korea,

I am writing this using the most personal and public medium I know.

I am a bystander to your grief. I see your tears at the bus terminal; your shock as more negligence unfolds. I cannot tell you that it’s alright, because it isn’t. I cannot promise that everything will get better with time, because I’m not convinced of the translation.

For the most fleeting of moments, I am living in your country. I am teaching your children. Children who bring laughter to my day. Children who went on field trips last week, and are now home and back to the daily grind of exam preparation, solemnly aware of their good fortune.

Last night, in Gwangju, I had dinner with a large group of expatriates. We were celebrating the success of an event we had organised; attempting, in part, to bridge the gap between the Korean and Foreign community through a mutual love of the arts. We were high on success and relief. Yet with time, we began to take advantage of the present company, discussing the tragedy that has befallen this nation. Many, myself included, were hesitant to take part in the conversation – unsure of anything useful to say. However, sometimes vocalising your grief, your confusion, even your anger, or your blind hope for a miracle, is use enough.

And so it is, that I write to you. Hoping to express my condolences to the loved ones of the deceased or missing; passing on the words that were once passed to me:

All is well
by Canon H. Scott Holland

Death is just an open door,

I have only slipped away
into the next room

I am I, and you are you.
Whatever we were to each other,
that we still are.

Call me by my old familiar name,
speak to me in the easy way
which you always used.

Put no difference in your tone,
wear no forced air of solemnity or sorrow.

Laugh as we always laughed
at the little jokes we enjoyed together.

Let my home be ever the household word
that it always was,
let it be spoken without effect,
without the trace of a shadow on it.

Life means all that it ever meant.
It is the same as it ever was;
there is unbroken continuity.
Why should I be out of mind
because I am out of sight?

I am waiting for you, for an interval,
somewhere very near,
Safe and Secure,

All is well.

May you find comfort and strength in this dark time. 

On Two’s and 2048

This has very little to do with Korea. Rather, its a response to my friends who have asked whether I play 2048… There is no short answer to that question.  

Call it synesthesia, if you will.

Call it congenital psychosis.

It’s unimportant.

The fact of the matter is… Well… I hate 2’s.

I always have. I have nightmares of being locked in a room with walls covered in 2’s. I wake up, drenched in sweat, with my ears buzzing, skin crawling, and everything I see is the colour of grey vomit. It’s dreadful. I sit there writing 5’s and counting primes in my diary trying to calm down and eventually the world comes back into focus.

So when friends started suggesting I play 2048, I was suitably disgusted. You want me to match powers of 2 until I get to 2^11? Ah no, that is not an acceptable form of procrastination. What is wrong with all of you? Don’t you know that 2’s were forged in the fires of hell by Sauron, Satan and Santa Claus whilst drinking soju and injecting ketamine in a cat cafe? Clearly not.

However, when you are on a bus for around 3 hours every weekend, travelling to and from Gwangju, to direct a choir and assist the directing of a play, occasionally your novel seems boring, and “The Room 2″* infuriating. Thus, I found myself giving into curiosity and downloading… the game.

The first move was okay:

The 2’s went away,

a 4 took it’s place,

and another 4 turned up.

What my friends had failed to mention, was that there were more 2’s to come. That I had a 50% chance of getting another 2 in a potentially indestructible position. The rules of the game had to change; I became addicted to eliminating 2’s. If I managed to get none on the board I gave myself 5 points. For all you 2048 addictees, you might be interested to know that this method is a surprisingly (or not so surprisingly) effective way of getting to the 2048 tile.

For me, 2048, has become something akin to a first person shooter for “2” haters.

It’s awesome!

*For Mum: The Room 2 is a phone game by the Myst people that you should probably buy. 2048 is a phone game not by the Myst people that you would also enjoy.

Seoul Food – The Daily Eats Edition

If there is one question people ask me to no end, it’s “what have you been eating?”. I’ve been thinking about how to answer this question for a little while and I’m still not sure I can answer to the satisfaction of those who have asked, nor can I answer it with much entertainment factor, but here is my best shot:

When I first came to Korea my school offered to give me dinner every night. The food is mostly delicious, and presented in a 3 container “dinner box” – rice in one container, kimchi and some other banchan (side dishes) in the second container and protein in the last container. Banchans would range from radishes, to lotus roots in a sweet sauce, to spinach (my favourite), perilla leaf kimchi, bean sprouts, or other greenery. The protein was often an egg, black soy beans or stewed meat. My favourite, however, is fried tofu in chilli sauce – oh my gosh … melt in your mouth… delicious.

Side Dishes

A bunch of banchan at a restaurant

As my sleeping schedule was all out of whack at the start of my stay here, I tended to just have lunch and skip breakfast at home – usually I would eat rice and greens with an egg, or if in a rush I’d have a bowl of ramen. If I felt like something super tasty I would pick up some kimbap or make my own. Kimbap is  a little like sushi rolls except with more fillings. Usually you get spinach, egg, radish, carrots and cucumber and whatever extras you ask for – tuna is a popular choice – all wrapped up in rice and seaweed, and brushed with sesame oil. Delicious!

Whilst incredibly healthy, unfortunately, something in this diet didn’t suit me. About two months in I started to have serious stomach problems, to the point of feeling too nauseous and dizzy to climb the stairs at work and I headed to the doctor. After poking me until I screamed, he made a diagnosis of gastritis and sent me on my way with a prescription for what felt like 20 pills. Without exaggerating, it was probably closer to 10. He suggested that I stop drinking (I’d actually already done this) and cut out spicy and fermented foods like kimchi.

I went back to the school and explained my predicament. The foreign teacher before me had had similar issues with some of the food so luckily(?), they had a pre-made plan. The school would give me a small sum each week and I could bring my own food for dinner.

At first, I would just buy kimbap everyday, as it is free of the aforementioned banned foods and exceptionally quick and cheap to pick up on the way, however it really wasn’t filling enough and I would find myself ravenous by the end of the working day; meaning I would want to eat something before bed (my working hours were 2-10pm), thus not helping the gastritis in the least! The drugs were making me tired and motion sick, and I just wasn’t satisfied. To add fuel to the fire, I hate mega marts!

All those options make me ridiculously anxious. I don’t need 10 choices for plain(always sweetened) yoghurt, it’s bad enough that I have 5 in a supermarket back home. Nor do I need to buy anything but rice in bulk! And I certainly don’t need to buy a pillow or wardrobe with my chicken. Gah!

Supermarkets always fascinate me when I go to a new country, they are markedly different wherever you go, and I’m sure it has made or will one day make a great anthropology/sociology study. Yet, megamarts are simply overwhelming and I hate them. I could go on further, discussing the effect of such shopping monstrosities on the local economy, but for now I will spare you my imperfectly informed rant.

Not only are these shopping factories terrifying, they don’t really have what I want, or if they do, they have it at an unreasonable price. Luckily I have found a way of eliminating this terror.

First and foremost are the small marts, a little like IGA or smaller. They sell the basics and although they are slightly more expensive than the megamarts, I like the people who run them and they don’t seem to be too bothered by me.

My second resource is iherb.com . This American online store is marketed as a health food store, but it has become an institution among the expat community as a place to find ingredients unavailable in Korea (at all or at a reasonable price), like baking supplies, spices and canned tomatoes. Back home, I like to eat a lot of lentil and bean dishes. I’m  not a vegetarian, I’m just good at cooking filling, healthy vegetarian food on a budget. Meat is expensive in Korea, yet so are beans and lentils – if you can find them! Luckily iHerb has free/$4 flat fare shipping – depending on the offer at the time.

FOOD

My first iHerb order. Beans, lentils, spices, oats, honey, stock cubes and polenta! The polenta was a delicious impulse decision.

Lastly, I’ve joined a program that sends fruit, eggs, veggies and bread (that tastes like real bread!) each week to my apartment. It’s a collaboration between the WWOOFing and CSA networks in Korea. The produce is delicious and it means that I am directly supporting Korean farmers, whose industry is dwindling in the face of competition from near-by China. I also like that I get some uniquely Korean produce like perilla leaves and certain other greens, adding challenge and excitement to my meals.

My first WWOOF and CSA delivery.

My first WWOOF/CSA delivery. It arrived within an hour of the iHerb package.

Since my hours have been changed to 1-9pm and I’ve been off the gastritis drugs, my sleeping habits have been much better and I’ve started having breakfast again. This is another thing I have turned to iHerb for – oats just aren’t available here! I could just eat rice but as it doesn’t cost me any more, I’ll stick with my old staple.

So after all that, I would say that, besides breakfast, I eat a combination of Korean food and cumin, with the occasional carb load of spaghetti or a cheeky pizza.

Oh and I’ve also discovered that it ridiculously easy to make your own yoghurt and ricotta cheese. See Mum? I am using those Chemistry degrees!

Eating out is a whole other institution and deserving of it’s own post, so stay tuned for more!

Names and Other Words

Happy Lunar New Year! Calling it “Chinese New Year” would probably result in the reneging of my visa. If there is one thing Koreans hate, it is a suggestion that their culture is not their own. You could say the same for all cultures I’m sure, however, for historic reasons, Koreans seem to have a particularly impassioned response to the insult.

I spent my New Year’s holiday in Seoul, and I can’t wait to tell you about it! However, whilst I’m letting myself process that adventure, I thought I’d pass on some cute teaching stories. It’s been a hard couple of weeks dealing with bureaucracy, yet everyday, all is forgotten, as soon as I step into the classroom. So much so, that I’m starting to wonder whether I might want to become a primary school teacher in Australia – we’ll see how I feel in 9 months time.

On Names: 

I never thought they could bring so much joy. My wild imagination had always hoped there was a secret naming dictionary that those born without an “English name” used to determine something phonetically similar; like how Heather becomes ヘザー (Hezaa) in Japanese and 해더 (Haedeo) in Korean – or sometimes 해인 (Haein) or 해진 (Haejin), depending on the student.

Alas! This wonder does not exist.

Hazaah! The responsibility falls to me – the crazy foreigner.

Not wanting to cause too much grief to my students in their older years, I usually choose the bland names of my friends – there are now Cams, Claires, Charleses, Brians, Andys, Amys, Aimees, Jasons, Tims, Chrises, Bens, Elanors, Alexes (both male and female), Lynnes, Lexes and Rexes (or is that the same student?) all running around the same school. I really hope some of them are housemates one day. They will never know how odd it is, yet I am left smiling thinking of an apartment full of a conglomeration of names from my past.

I’ve been fortunate enough to not always have to rewrite my students’ birth certificates. When students take the initiative to name themselves, well… it is constant source of entertainment. There’s:

Jelly – who isn’t sure where  her name originated.

Cena – after the wrestler, because he too is unusually large.

Hook and Peter – who are best friends and claim to have never seen Peter Pan.

Peter has since changed his name to Hawk.

Oh and Lucy. Who isn’t happy with Lucy and changes her name every week. For admin purposes I’ve stuck with Lucy, however I think her last suggestion was Prairie. As in, “Little House on the Prairie”.

There is a running joke going around the academy about my own name. Heather – they’ve got that one down. Mary – marry? merry? eh… same thing. Aitken, is a little harder, even in the western world. At home I can get Atkin, Atkins, Aytoken. In Korea, I am known as …

Heather Ate Chicken.

Needless to say, I’m terrified of them finding the evidence:

Whitken

We Ate Chicken (Whitken?)

On Grammar:

I’ve had the “good fortune” to correct my students workbooks of late, which has lead to some private chuckles and subsequently odd stares from my students. My favourite came about when reading about a dog’s visit to the vet and subsequent need for pharmaceutical attention. The question “What did the dog get?” … The answer should have been something along the lines of “The dog got a shot” or “The dog got an injection” or “The dog got some medicine”. To my  joy, my students used their lack of grammatical knowledge to become murderous psychopaths:

“The dog got shot”

“The vet shot the dog”

“The vet was shot”

“The vet was shot of the dog”

“Doctor gets shot”

“The vet [is] shooting the dog”

“The dog is shot getting [an] injection”

On Vocabulary:

I discovered a new gem today. Better than “hand phone”, “cider” (which is actually just lemonade) or “glamorous” (a voluptuous woman). This, my friends, is Konglish gone wild!  In a fantastic game of inter-cultural Chinese whispers (or whatever the politically correct term is) my students have come to believe that the word for a “toilet” is a “bathroom”. Not the room in which one uses the facilities, just the facility itself. My students were quite shocked when I dismantled this falsity and some refused to changed their sentences, later gasping in disbelief once they had looked it up themselves.

A part of me worries I’m being racist… that I’m rude laughing at Konglish. However, my student’s  get their own back quite often, and have managed to get me to pronounce Korean words incorrectly for days on end, just for their own amusement. So really, when it comes down to it, language is hilarious, and my concerns are quite unnecessary.

I will leave you today with this wonderful question, that I am yet to answer:

“Teacher, what is poetry? Why is there poetry?”

Oh students, how simple you try to be, and yet, how deep you are.

Happiness Tip: Face backwards the first time you ski!

Just a quick note: Sorry that I am late posting this. Having just completed my first week of teaching elementary students on top of my regular classes – around 6 hours extra teaching time – writing home was the last thing on my mind. This has meant that for over a week the first post you see on this website has been a fairly depressing, brutally honest piece about the trials of living in a new country, so foreign to your own. By the end of today’s post if I haven’t made you smile, I give you full permission to force a grin on my face – Joker style. And so: 

Unfortunately,

I was a scientist these past few years – I research any new project so thoroughly that every moment feels like déjà vu.

Fortunately,

I was a scientist these past few years – I read everything objectively and with a grain of salt.

When I first started learning about coming to South Korea, as an ESL teacher, I inevitably found my way to websites and blogs that were far from positive. After reading some of these accounts I couldn’t help but wonder if it was all a scam; that I would get to Incheon airport, be thrown into a black car and sold to a very strange man with a fetish for slightly odd looking, mildly voluptuous, messy haired, 174cm, blue eyed, Caucasian women. It was a very small worry, given that the previous foreign teacher had added me on Facebook and was definitely short.

No, I am not usually this paranoid.

(That last sentence was probably a lie.)

Thankfully, my paranoia has so far proven unwarranted, and I was right to ignore the mindless drivel of cyber pessimism.

Over the New Year’s break I had the good fortune to be invited to attend a company workshop at Muju Ski Resort. When I first heard the term “Company Workshop” I was terrified. It sounded like I was about to spend the New Year sitting in a room, trying to concentrate on lectures whilst staring longingly out my window as skiers rushed past. How wrong I was! “Company workshop” was actually code for let’s go skiing together, eat amazing food and drink copious amounts of soju! I had a marvelous time and had a chance to build my relationships with my co-workers.

(I’m starting to feel that “copious amounts” is a redundant term when it comes to soju.)

On the other hand, I am less convinced of my relationship with skis. I think it is more likely skiing resorts that I am unsure of.  I just don’t really understand the appeal of repeating a carnival ride over and over again, and that is exactly what I felt I was doing:

Step 1: Waddle over to the chair lift.

Step 2: Sit in the chair lift

Step 3:  Admire the view (skip this if it is your 10th time (or 2nd) and just close your eyes to escape the glare)

Step 4: Ski down the slope

Step 5: Repeat

For me, skiing was maddeningly monotonous. I’d much rather go hiking.

Yet have no fear, my rant ends here! There was plenty of hilarity to break up the monotony.

As this was my first time skiing, I was sure that I was going to fall over countless times. In the end, I really should have had more faith in myself. Twenty years of dance training should not be discounted; I proudly stayed on my feet.

This is not to say that I was graceful off the slopes – my clumsiness outside of sport is unrivalled! The first time I went up the slope a coworker tried to pass me my phone and I slipped. Not a “slip and quickly gain balance” kind of slip, oh no, I slipped all the way down the slope…

Backwards!

Somehow, I stayed on my feet until the very end when I finally stopped screaming and realized that I had no idea how to stop! I was forced to skid onto my side to break. People came rushing towards me checking that I was okay; mistaking my maniacal laughter for a cry of pain.

Skiing backwards; watching our instructor try to have a conversation with us until he skied into a fence; watching a male friend ski straight into the gap of a woman’s legs, locked in a never ending hug down the slope; those are the moments I will treasure… not the wish washy, upy downy, time wasty nonsense, that was going up and down a hill for eight hours.


I’m glad that I got to do something with the company so soon after the norebang nightmare. It meant that I went in prepared for the worst, and was pleasantly surprised when, most of the time, I was free to be myself and speak my mind (politely of course).

Rest stop Muju

Not a bad place to take a rest