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So… This is South Korea.

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I know not all that may be coming, but be it what it will, I’ll go to it laughing.
-Herman Melville

On my first day, after a horrible flight, nearly not being picked up at 1:00 AM and very little sleep, I awoke a 4:00 AM, which gave me ample time to psych myself up for my first day teaching at 9:30 AM. I stretched fully, ironed my shirt, showered and spent the next hour and a half waiting for the sun to rise. As it was about to do so at around 7:00 AM and small boy aged about twelve opened my door half dazed and naked from the bottom down except for a pair of y-fronts. Upon realising I was occupying the room, his head dipped, jaw dropped and eyes widened to a cartoonish size and he immediately shut the door and ran back down to the corridor to his mother. It’s possible that nobody told him about my stay.

After breakfast, the director showed me his hobby room, which was packed to the brim among many other things a kayak with sails (don’t ask, I don’t know), a variety of musical instruments, an easel with an impressive oil painting on it and a lot of art paraphernalia surrounding it, two huge remote controlled helicopters, and some paragliding equipment. He then invited me to hear him practice on his upright piano in the dining area upon which he played a quaintly melancholic tune that sounded familiar from many of the peculiar East Asian movies I had seen in the past.

On the way to work, I counted the hours of sleep I had gotten since I left, having not slept on the plane due to the large gentleman next to me basically sleeping on top on me, and came to the conclusion that I’d had all of six hours in two days. Being as it was that I was now an indentured labourer and would spend the next year paying back my airfare through many hours of “hard work”, I had no right to ask for my first day off. Jetlag or no jetlag.

I was to spend the first day observing the various other teachers (two Korean and one English) and the type of pupils I would have. By the end of the day I pretty much mastered sleeping with my eyes open, but basically, the classes involve getting kids to read and correcting them where needs be, getting them to do worksheets and allowing them to colour in pictures. Easy, right? We’ll see…

From the get-go, I realised that small talk is something my Korean colleagues don’t engage in. I get this impression mostly from being casually ignored when I try and get their attention to ask anything but relevant-to-work questions. It could be down to other factors such as the fact that they are always on their phones to their boyfriends, or maybe the fact that as my English colleague tells me that they deem us to have nothing in common. This is, of course, a dynamic I look forward to changing.

After work the director took me to my apartment for the first time in his beaten-up old pseudo 4×4. Clarence Frogman Henry’s “(I Don’t Know Why) But I Do” played in the background as he asked me (with what seemed to be genuine interest) what England was like and explained how he would now only employ English people instead of Americans, because the latter are rude and not a good influence for the children. Perhaps after a year with me, he might feel the same about the English.

When we got to the outside of the apartment, I asked him about the neon crosses that seemed to light up the roads around town. This question was not answered directly, but brought about another: “You go church on Sunday?” to which I politely replied that although I was christened, I never practised and did not believe in god. He then made a noise that sounded like the drawing of phlegm, and muttered words to the effect of “Christians big nuisance in Korea”. I found his honest contempt to be refreshing.

I found my studio to be located in what is known as a villa. The villa has four floors, which has three studios on each level except the top floor, which is occupied by the ajima (old woman) landlady. My ajima greeted me by walking into and through the studio, skilfully slipping her shoes off before entering (as is customary in Korea and a sin not to) and explaining something to my director about the washing machine that he failed to communicate to me. This is one of the things I have noticed (mainly from work) about the Koreans around me, they either forget that a foreigner is about and might need certain things to be explained or just do not think it’s relevant to them.

The following day I spent going about with my English colleague and two of his Korean friends (both of whom studied in the States and spoke with the most charming Korean/American accent not dissimilar from a Filipino accent), we met up with fellow hagwon (private school) teachers from the area.

Following a fantastic dinner, feeling slightly euphoric from only three shot glasses of the bottled magic that is soju, we stumbled outside to make our way back to one of the girl’s apartments. Not far from the restaurant we passed a prize vending machine that among other things had watches, headphones and a vibrator. Of course the obvious choice a for a group dominated by slightly tipsy girls is the vibrator and at 1,000₩ (£0.57) a pop, there was no question about it. By the end we had only spent 9,000₩, had ten minutes fun trying to get it out of the machine and had gathered a crowd of about fifteen young Koreans loving the crazy Western idolisation of battery operated phalluses.

Back at the apartment the six of us sat and watched a terrible film with Ashton Kutcher, which as it happens I had forgotten that I had already seen (it was that good a film, that I took 45 minutes before I realised this). It reminded me of my first few weeks at university; having not much more in common with these people than those I had attached myself to back then, knowing full well that I would almost definitely feel mildly guilty at not hanging out with them later on, my first few weeks would probably consist of me feeling my way around to find the right people to be friends with. Of course, these are all nice people, but I know that I am unlikely to fit in with their crew. I can’t say this of all of them, however.

Half-way through the film, a sort of frumpy looking hoodied American girl walked into the apartment. She had a certain demeanour and expression about her that left me quietly judging her. It’s not unusual for me to keep quiet the first time I meet people to allow them a chance to prove themselves as I secretly assess them. This can work in their favour sometimes, but as a misanthrope, it’s more likely to not work in their favour. Yes, I am a bastard that way. Anyway, she made an entrance that I would remember for sure.

She stood there in front of everyone and went on and on about how she went to a templestay near Seoul, which meant she had to take a train to the capital, take a bus and then walk (as a fairly overweight girl, I am sure this was a struggle), take another bus, blah, blah, that all in all took over fifteen hours, which I’d say was exaggerated by at least ten hours. She continued to say how it was a totally not zen way to spend a weekend and how much of a pain it was and how she had to meditate for hours and blah, blah, blah. She didn’t really have anything positive to say about an experience that many people flock to Asia to get. People who have more interest in buddhism than just a raised eyebrow. People who actually hold the experience as sacred. Of course, she must have been looking for the bottled kind of enlightenment that can be found at any reasonable online buddhist shop at the click of a mouse. It’s definitely quicker than the weekend enlightenment, which totally requires like so much more effort. Confucius says: Everything has its beauty, but not everyone sees it.

For the first few days, walking down the street, ordering food, shopping, and engaging with the locals in Korea has been the most daunting experience I have had in years. Only now am I beginning to appreciate what it must be like for those poor Asian kids in London, as they start their first year at university, not only unable to understand the vast cultural differences, but also just looking at shit that just doesn’t make any sense at all. At this point venturing outside and finding my way about requires a certain amount of courage that I find myself having to force myself into. I’m sure the need to survive will drive my acquisition of the language and getting the most out of this experience.

Last night was a definite highlight. As I stepped out to get something to eat, it began to snow, which made the neon all the more beautiful. I wish I had taken my camera to share the moment with you, as my words greatly lack the depth to explain the beauty thereof.

As I made my way past the three 7-Eleven’s, two noraebangs (Karaoke rooms), the couple of video rental shops and the multitude of restaurants that are in my local area, I passed a couple of kids dressed in hapkido doboks emerging from a basement to look at the snow before class. I approached them and asked them in really slow English whilst using slightly ridiculous hand gestures about hapkido. The exchange pretty much went like this: I’d ask a question, which would get a very confused look, they’d look at each other and talk very fast in Korean and look back at me and say “oh”. I’d then try to make it simpler and get and slightly more confused look, longer Korean interval and even longer “oooh”. A few minutes went by before a plump and smiley Korean in puffer jacket and really flashy trainers showed up. He joined in without being asked, which I thought was a good thing until I realised he was just using a few well rehearsed sentences that didn’t really get us anywhere. After a few more minutes of back and forth, the boys ushered me down to the basement where I was greeted by a small crowd of hapkido students. As I struggled to take my high-top trainers off, they gathered around me as if I was an object of fascination. They would periodically do a backflip and return to the crowd. Papers were brought and the times were shown at which I should attend and generally I felt that would I choose to attend, I would be most welcome.

READ MORE KOREAN DISPATCHES: ONETWOTHREEFOURFIVESIXSEVEN

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