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.

Advertisements

The Extremes of the Seoul

By the end of January, I was ready for a holiday. I’d had a terrible week, dealing with out dated education practices and a black dog that insisted on following me around – constantly reminding me that I had left my loved ones and forgotten my teddy bear in a warmer hemisphere. Luckily, my cold hemisphere position celebrates two New Year’s holidays and I was due to set off on an adventure up North.

No, no, not that North. I was going Seoul Searching!

As soon as I clocked off, I boarded the Seoul Train – a mildly insane idea considering that this meant I was to arrive in Seoul at 4am. The internet had assured me that 4am was a perfectly reasonable time to arrive in one of the world’s largest metropolises, leaving no surprises when I arrived in a barren wasteland of closed coffee shops and quiet streets. This was New Year after all, most Koreans were running home at half speed (traffic jams) to complain to their elders that the kimchi refrigerator had finally broken.

Seoul train

Waiting for the Seoul train to arrive

After fending off an overly friendly touting “taxi” I jumped into the most legitimate vehicle I could find and gasped “coffee”. The man turned, looked me up and down, snorted, said something about a waegookin, and drove me to Itaewon, the foreigner section of Seoul, filled with 24 hour cafes, brunch spots, western sized shoes, baking supplies and kebabs; most importantly kebabs.

I didn’t have a kebab. That’s really not the point. Kebabs existing, meant that people who needed kebabs also existed; loud, sleazy, raucous, completely drunk and distasteful people – everywhere. Never has disgust been more satisfying.

I was in the antithesis of Disney. An ‘old familiar point of view’ had taken over.  My Never-Wonder-land. The… ah… I could keep going but I’ll spare you some pain.

A friend of mine claimed, on our 4 hour trip in Macau, once upon a time, that if Las Vegas was the most fake place in the world, then, as Macau is a fake Vegas, it must be the most fake place in the Universe. The same could be said of Lotte World and Disney World.

Macau is to Vegas as Lotte is to Disney. From antithesis to hyper-reality, I was sure to make this a trip of extremes. Lotte World, is the largest indoor theme park in the world, and also has an outdoor section with it’s very… own… Cinderella’s Castle. I didn’t feel any pressure to go on the rides, I just wanted to soak the place in.

For anyone who has been to a Disney Land and ridden the “Small World”, you would know that it is best compared with Gene Wilder’s face and that terrifying tunnel in the original Willy Wonka movie. For anyone who is yet to experience either, well:

Round and round and round you go.

Everything is bright. Just a little too bright.

Everything is coloured. Just a little too coloured.

Everything is happy. Just a little too happy.

If you took that one ride, and made it a park, you would have Lotte World – An Architect’s Impression of Mania.

I’ve thought for a long time about what to tell you about Lotte World. I’ve been trying to decide on a fun story or particularly odd encounter. Yet, I don’t really have any I want to tell. My trip to Lotte World was an entirely cynical one. I intended to laugh derisively at the delirium – matching couples, overly happy staff and the wide eyed smiles of the Lotte characters – and I did. Yet it was an entirely personal endeavor. I went to wander, and have time to myself and I got a lot of that, yet less than I expected.

When I had finally decided that I had had enough, serendipity stepped in, in time for the parade, and I found myself completely barricaded from getting out. Suddenly, I felt a little poke in my back. Turning around, a little knight stared up at me, sword in hand, ready to take on the evil giant that stared back at him. As I bent down, he whispered “hello”, I pulled out the pen in my pocket, and we proceeded to duel. More kids joined in and the high pitched Korean lady performing silly dance moves to keep the children “occupied” while we waited for the parade stared daggers in my direction. With the little boy refusing to let go of my hand, I watched the show. The parade was a fascinating march of unacceptable racial stereotypes and sea animals. It was pretentiously hilarious, unpretentiously fun and I completely adored it!

That little boy really helped renew my enthusiasm for all things Korean, and reminded me to appreciate rather than laugh at what is innocent and kind. Seoul had done for me what my job had failed to do in the weeks previous. It reminded me why I want to be here. I want to educate beyond a university environment, and work with kids. I want to live in a culture that is so old and yet so young; having pushed so far ahead, in such a short space of time, that it is difficult to find anything below or above an extreme.

I love South Korea, it never stops amazing me and it never will. I have so much more to tell you about my Seoul adventure, yet for now I will leave you with this little face that I’m sure will haunt your nightmares just as it haunts my apartment. Here is my first Korean souvenir, a comforting slice of depression found within the coloured halls of the most manic place on earth:

Reginald the Cat

His name is Reginald

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

Shock in a Box – The Christmas Post

I hate the lead up to Christmas. Throughout December, I rant non-stop at my friends and family.

I am a pre-Christmas Grinch.

Christmas lights – The attention seeking brat of neighbourly cheer.

Christmas Shopping – Phobic.

Myer’s Windows – Not lovely enough to hold attention, resulting in a rousing children’s chorus of the ‘Bourke Street Scream’.

Fake Christmas Trees –  Worse than the smell of Pine-O-Clean.

I hate pre-Christmas because it is nothing like Christmas. Pre-Christmas is that joyful time of year when I start to wonder whether love really is measured by material possessions and a horrendous electricity bill. I become bitter and twisted, counting my pennies; meticulously planning a Christmas Dinner that could headline Food Porn Weekly.

I love Christmas.

I love that I get to see my ridiculously large extended family. I love that getting a gift is more exciting than the gift itself. I love that I get to eat like I have the metabolism of an eight year old.  I give up on the fancy dinner and hoe into a non-glazed ham thrown unceremoniously on the table next to the yo-yo’s, gravy and mince tarts.  Gravy-laced-brandy-custard is delicious.

This year was different.

This December has proven truly remarkable.

I wrote Christmas Cards and letters (that have no hope of arriving before January). I decorated using the kitsch-est ornaments I could find. I bought a 10cm Christmas Tree that is entirely fake and yet I think it’s wonderful.  I created another tree out of green masking tape on my front door. I own a headband with reindeer antlers and my TV is wrapped in fairy lights.

I’ve planned lessons around Christmas and given the gift of Freddo to all of my students.

I’ve eaten Christmas [sponge] cake out of a cup with chopsticks and guzzled a towering mess of soju.

I have loved every moment of my Hallmark-Scented Korean Christmas Adventure.

On Christmas Day, I joined other expats for a delicious feast of turkey, mash, Yorkshire puddings, cakes, truffles… The list goes on! It was so refreshing to eat hot food at Christmas without feeling like I had melted into a substitute for the gravy. I felt like I was having that oft dreamed of “White Christmas” – in a country that views Christmas as an excuse for an extra Valentine’s Day.

None of it was like home, yet I felt so… at home. So welcome.

Before I sign off I want to mention how grateful I am that I have such kind, wonderful family and friends back home.

Thank you for skyping me into my favourite family gathering and for making sure I had a KK gift to open Christmas night.

Thank you for skyping me into the carols.

Thank you for making sure I knew I was loved.

Thank you for the letters and parcels.

Thank you for the photos and stories.

Thank you for my post title… Shock-in-a-Box… A box full of cards, chocolate, a chupa chup, vegemite, books and a choral t-shirt.

Thank you.

Pipes.

Every morning,

as I jump out of bed, all I want to do is lie down. Not on my bed. On the floor.

Every morning,

I set two alarms, the first one is a gentle nudge telling me to turn the heater on for half an hour.

The second, is your average “get out of bed now or you will ruin everything for everyone” screech. This, is when I want to collapse on the floor.

The reason for this madness has nothing to do with my distaste for sunrises or love of uncomfortable snooze-button sleep. The reason, is that I have floor heating. Heated floors…

My floors are heated!!!!

Pipes… running underneath the floor.

It’s marvelous.

I also have a rug. It’s all piley and shaggy.  It warms with the floor.

Prostrating myself on the floor in the mornings is like floating face down in a carpet spa.

The wallpaper is kitsch. I’ve embraced it. The floor is warm. I’ve embraced it. The hot water is the cold water. I’ve gotten used to it.

My apartment is probably better than yours.

I thought you might like to know all of that.

warm ruggy goodness

warm ruggy goodness

I never miss anyone – and yet, I already do.

I feel it is only fitting to start this blog with an ending. It was after all, an ending that brought me here.

“Here” being the South of South Korea – Suncheon-si, Jeollanam-do, South Korea – where, as of last week, I am employed as an ESL teacher.

Sunchron-si

My new city, Suncheon, from the top of “Bamboo Mountain”

“…an ending that brought me here” refers to the end of a budding career as a Computational Chemist.

That story, is not the story I wish to tell.

It’s a rather contrived, boring tale of a girl who lost her way, kept going anyway, came to her senses and became, not lost, but free, ready for an adventure, and a god damned job! However, I must acknowledge, that it is the story that catalysed today’s tale. That, were it not for the experience and maturity I have gained over the past few years as a scientist, partner, and friend, I would never have seized the courage required to admit that I was not ready to settle.

In the true spirit of adventure, I’m sitting in my new home, already missing someone. Her name is Ashleigh. My replace-ee. A South African girl, ready to move back home to study after 18 months in Suncheon. I was lucky enough to spend my first week here eagerly following her tail. The kindness she has given, the laughter she has taken, and the memories she has created, have left me wanting so much more.

We have eaten our weight in Korean cuisine; taught the same “scary story” almost twice everyday yet still giggled when our students jump at us turning out the lights; we have let ourselves be blinged at a nail salon; exchanged possessions (by which I mean I bought all her stuff and am very grateful for it); shopped till we dropped; and partied like it was December 31, 1999.

#firstsoju

Ashleigh and I at her (academy) going away party.

I am not one to miss people. I keep myself busy and I converse with my closest friends and family using the wonder that is technology fairly regularly when I am away. Or at least that’s my excuse. I think the real reason I struggle to miss others, is that I know that I will see them again. It isn’t really goodbye. There is no point wasting the time and energy it takes to miss someone, when you could be living a tale to tell later.

Yet, with Ashleigh leaving, there is an odd element of shock hanging over me. Her kindness has eased the burden of culture shock, only to create a new brand of surprise. I’m sure I will see her again, yet it may not be for a very long time when many of my stories are forgotten (maybe not, now that I’ve dived into the blogging world, hehe). I know it’s crazy, but I can’t help but have this odd pain in my chest when I realise that I can’t just knock on the door across from mine to ask for a spoon; I have to go to my own drawer for that one now.  It’s a shock I’m going to have to get used to. I will also be leaving eventually, and many more will leave before me. It’s a reality check I knew was coming, I just wasn’t expecting it so soon. For now, I will let myself soak it all in, with a promise that I will buck up in the morning.

I hope this isn’t giving all of you back home the impression that I am struggling, because the reality is absolutely the opposite. I’ve settled in tremendously! My students are ridiculously intelligent, and even more so, ridiculously cute. The staff carefully balance fun and hard work. I’m eating well and sleeping well. My apartment is ideally sized and could definitely fit an extra mattress (*wink wink nudge nudge*). I’ve met expats and will be going out with them again this Saturday. Autumn is still pretending to exist, even though the first snow of the season has already swept by. ‘Nough said really! (I’ll expand in the next few days)

I’m having a blast!

It may now be the end of this brilliant adventure,

with a dear friend I certainly will treasure (sorry, couldn’t help it)…

but what an ending to have, at the start of something SO NEW!

#blingbling

Getting our nails done – Korea Style!