Asia | Korea, Republic of – Arrival and introduction
Well, I’m in Korea! There’s a lot to say so please be patient – this may go on a bit. The flight was uneventful save for a lovely sunrise over China. On arrival in Korea I disovered that some dodgy Dutch or Korean baggage handler had seen fit to steal my alarm clock, woolly hat and gloves from the side pocket of my pack. This wouldn’t have been so irritating were it not for the fact that it is about -7 degrees here! Anyway, Joseph (the guy who recruited me) met me at the airport and drove me through Seoul to Uijeongbu. He’s excellent fun, really friendly and incredibly helpful. First we went to the institute where I’ll be teaching. He wasn’t exaggerating when he said it was new – it wasn’t even finished! The Director (who incidentally has now been promoted to The President) showed us round, and we had to step over builders, under exposed power cables and round piles of builder’s rubble! I asked the Director when it would be finished and he said, ‘Today’ – (HA!). Anyway, it means that classes won’t start until the 23rd, so I’ve got some time off. I’m still being paid as well, so it’s easy money for a week. After the institute we went to my apartment. It’s lovely! It to is brand new, and comes complete with Ondol, Korea’s greatest acheivement. Ondol is basically a central heating system which turns your entire floor into one giant radiator. I can’t describe the pleasure of waking up on a winter morning and putting your feet on a toasty floor. I have a TV (with cable – more on that later) a VCR, a washing machine and am soon to have a phone put in. Greg, my fellow teacher arrived later, and is in the room next door to mine. On Tuesday I went into Seoul for a little firkle about – it was very funky, weird markets selling predominantly outdoor gear and gardening implements, 16th century city gates still standing in the mddle of heaving intersections, and only two westerners all day. Aside from greg I haven’t seen a single one in Uijeongbu. On that note, it’s a very odd experience to wander round a place and have absolutely no understanding of the language, such that any given shop front could be proclaiming a supermarket, a massage parlour or a Ukranian basket weaving franchise for all I know! Today we went to the institute (which has come on remarkably in the last two days) in order to attend the open day for parents of prospective pupils. We met our fellow teachers, two Korean women, Shanna and Audrey (because she likes Audrey Hepburn) both of whom are very nice indeed (in all senses of the phrase!) Shanna has already invited me to Seoul to meet her husband and get drunk with him, and go to a Buddhist temple (she’s Buddhist). Also, the guy who drives us too and from the institute (because it blatantly isn’t 15 minutes walk from home!) who is called Elder Brother Hung (!) has expressed his commitment to the idea of taking me out on a Soju bender. Soju is apparently some kind of hideously potent alcohol. During the meeting we were all asked to say a few words to the assembled parents (with no warning whatsoever I might add). Greg managed to speak very eloquently about personal development and the importance of language learning. I restricted myself to a simple greeting on account of the fact that no-one could understand a word I was saying anyway. Afterwards we were taken to a restaurant, where we had a slap up Korean lunch. It was a cultural awakening in every way. We had to take our shoes off before entering, and then sat on floor cushions. To start off we had Gimchi, which was basically cabbage that has spent three days stewing in very, very hot chilli and garlic sauce. It was really nice if a bit fiery. This was followed by rice, and vast quantities of noodle soup (from which the management kindly removed the seafood especially for me) Shanna is also vegetarian, so I had a bit of solidarity and I think she campaigned on my behalf. Later in the afternoon Shanna and Audrey also took us to the local video shop and signed us up there. Prior to this I had one video in my possession, which was in my apartment for some reason. It appeared to be a home video of some kind of Korean OAP’s coach tour, complete with terrible camera work, mind numbingly awful direction, and indesribably appalling background music. Oh yeah, the cable..I have 33 channels, 32 of which are in Korean. The only one that isn’t is AFN (American Forces Network) As you might expect it’s a US military channel. It shows general US progs, but the best thing is that it doesn’t allow commercials, so the add breaks are full of military infomercials on subjects like ‘The history of the F-15’, ‘How to keep an efficient filing system’, ‘What you need to know about satelite decoders’ and ‘Don’t forget to keep in touch with the folks back home’. It’s too surreal to be true.
All the Korean’s I’ve met so far have been incredibly friendly just as the book said they would be, although it wasn’t quite so accurate about some other things. It said that blowing your nose in public is considered rude. This may or may not be true, but i think it unlikely, since clearing your throat and gobbing huge amounts of phlegm onto the pavement clearly isn’t!
It’s a major relief to meet some Koreans who can speak English. Shanna has promised to teach me Korean if I’ll give her some further instruction in English. At the moment just buying food is a major exercise in mime and frustration. Anyway, until later,be well and happy,