Sunday, 15 January 2017

Winter Update


Hello all! Time for another overdue update. Speaking of things overdue, I'm currently sitting in London Heathrow waiting for my flight back to Korea after a long overdue visit to see family. But more on that later. Here are a few highlights from the past few months.

After a couple of successful evaluations in November, I can now announce that I've signed on for another year of teaching here. I've learnt so much over the past year, particularly in terms of teaching. I've also gotten to know the students really well. This year, I will continue to teach as best I can, and help the students to be more confident speakers. I'll keep working on my Korean, and I'll keep being a part of the amazingly vibrant, faithful community at Namwon Church.

In September, one of the two Korean English teachers at school left on maternity leave. Her replacement was a hugely supportive, experienced teacher who I got along with really well. I learnt a lot from her firm but encouraging teaching style.

I had a few memorable trips towards the end of the year. The first was to Seoul, where I experienced the gathering of over one million people protesting against the country's president, Park Geun-Hye. She's since been impeached. It was quite an experience to be in such a massive crowd without any fear of violence - I have Korea's ingrained culture of respect to thank for that.

The second trip was to the beautiful, seaside city of Mokpo. I enjoyed hiking up craggy hills and visiting museums. It's definitely worth a return trip.

Also in November was the school festival and the Namwon marathon. The former featured some of the school's talented actors, singers and musicians. It was a fun day, and the next day was the Elementary School Festival, which was also great fun. The latter (a half marathon in Namwon) was a bit of a miserable experience - it was freezing cold (literally), with the average temperature at one degree. However, it seemed to help my running, as I bet last year's time by three minutes at 1:25. I caught up with friends for lunch after the race, forgot that I had lunch plans with other friends, and had a second lunch. All in all, not a bad day!

In mid-December, I travelled to Busan with teachers from school. Despite the three-hour driving time to get there, we made the most of the day. A highlight was eating pufferfish soup. The pufferfish is highly toxic, and has to be very carefully prepared in order to be edible. I hadn't twigged as to what exactly what I eating until after the first bite, but I've survived to tell the tale!

For the students in their final year at high school, the nationwide university entrance exams in mid-November caused a huge amount of stress. It's a pretty big deal - people are strongly urged not to travel in the morning in order to ease traffic congestion, and flights are even stalled for the listening part of the English exam! In the days following the exams, the students sill had to attend school, even though they had no formal classes, So I made the most of having some extra time with them, and we did some cooking together and played some traditional 
ori games.

As for my other classes, we did some more hands-on activities in the lead-up to Christmas, such as cooking and making Christmas crackers. One Wednesday morning, I did pikelet and cookie decorating with my four elementary classes - you can imagine the mess they made!

The school exams happened at the beginning of December. After lunch on the final day of exams, most of the teachers (including me) went on an overnight trip. Of all places we could have visited, we went to...(wait for it...) Namwon, On the way, we went for a great walk in Gurye, but it was a bit weird staying in a hotel just around the corner from home!

Christmas in Korea is a bit of a let-down. The shops and cafés all join in on the hype, but for most Koreans, it's not a special day at all. It's not a public holiday either, but that didn't matter too much, as it was a Sunday anyway. On Christmas Eve, I went to Namwon Church. After a shared dinner, the young people performed a number of skits and songs, then we all joined in on some well-known carols (in Korean, of course), before going home.

The next day, I joined the South African family down the road (who have become good friends since my early days here), and we settled down to a huge meal together, eating and talking until late into the evening.

The final week at school for the year was fairly chilled, and we spent class time wrapping up the year.

Now, to stop waffling on about incidental events. Here's the important part.

Finally, on the morning of New Year's Eve, I made my way - via two buses and two flights (with a fourteen hour stop in Shanghai for the New Year) - to England. Coming out of immigration at Heathrow airport, I straight away saw the beaming faces of my auntie and uncle, who'd come up from Berkshire to collect me. It had been seven years since I'd last stepped foot on British turf, so I was pretty stoked (to say the least) to see my rellies again.

After 24 hours of (almost) non-stop chat, eating, tea-drinking, and catching-up, my Dutch cousins came and picked me up. As it happened, they arrived at a fortunate moment. I was out on a muddy run with cousins, and distracted by the cousinly catch-up, we lost our way. Standing at a junction, who should pull up but our uncle, auntie and two cousins from the Netherlands!

Destination number two was the charming market town of Marlborough, to see my (our) grandparents. It was great to see them as lively as ever, even if physically they're wearing down a tad. It was also good to settle in to the traditional British daily routine of dog walk - breakfast - tea and chat - dog walk - lunch - tea and chat - tea and chat - tea and chat - dinner (- pub...). It was great to catch up with the (wise and 'young at heart') oldies.

Then, onwards to the quiet wee village of Newnham, to see my not-so-quiet rellies. This was probably the most strenuous visit, as I was made to drink copious amounts of tea, eat huge amounts of excessively delicious food, walk the dogs for hundreds of kilometres, try (and fail) to keep up with my cousin's incomparable snooker skills and keep up with my uncle's never-ending wit. Haha... In all seriousness now, it really was a great visit.

Unfortunately, only two out of three of the cousins were at home in Newnham, so we drove up to Guildford to visit cousin no. 3, who was in the middle of her university exams. After a pub dinner (of pheasant - yum!), we dropped her off home, and were saying 'see ya' when we thought 'actually, why don't you take a day off from study and come with us?' So on we went to Marlborough together to stay with the grandparents. It was great to have more time to catch up!

The last stage of the journey was spent in Wales, for a day and a bit to see my wee cousin. They've phased out dragons as the common mode of transport in the country, so I was picked up in an ordinary, non fire-breathing car with four wheels. Lots of meaningful chat ensued and I was just as excited as my cousin to visit her school the next day. Check it out at ('Special Guest'). I was sad to leave Wales so soon, but the time I spent there - as with all of my family - was really valued. I only missed out one cousin (at the first stop), who is currently in India. To my family in the UK: I'll be back soon!

Anyway, here I am on the plane back to Korea (via Shanghai). And, as sometimes happens in this big-but-small world, the guy next to me is a Wellingtonian who studied at Otago for a few years. Out of all the seats on the plane, I'm next to a Kiwi. He's a good fella though.

Back at school tomorrow. Keep well everyone!

P.S. I only took a few photos from my UK visit. The best pictures are memories.

A trip with teachers to Sunchang to see the autumn foliage.

Face-painting at the School Festival.

Marathon training.

Protest in Seoul.

Teachers' trip to Palsongsa.


Pufferfish soup! 

Sunny Busan.

Futuristic Busan.

Teachers' trip to Gurye.

Christmas lunch.

Koreans, and especially teachers, like snacks. With thanks to cooking classes and generous teachers.

The first (real) snow.

In Shanghai at midnight - happy New Year!

Leeds Castle.

Faversham market - it's been held in the stilted Guildhall since medieval times.

Come on, Lilly!

Monday, 17 October 2016

Autumn update

Hi reader!

Thanks for visiting my blog.

If you’ve been following me, apologies for the overdue post. Cheers for the commitment though.

In typical kiwi fashion, I’ll start with a note about the weather. About a month ago now, summer’s overbearing heat ended abruptly and autumn began. And it began dramatically, with heavy rain and strong wind. Hi eHiNow, the typhoon season is behind us, although the rain has lingered, but I don’t mind (except for when it defeats my outdoor plans). Anyway, seasons keep life interesting, and everything and everyone seems to change and adapt around them.

     The start of the new semester was met with a few challenges, such as textbook changes, and a new Korean English teacher to cover for my usual co-teacher’s maternity leave. Both have worked out really well – the textbooks giving me more freedom with the curriculum, and the teacher’s support and helpfulness has been great.

     Overall, I feel much more comfortable, involved and connected with life here at school. It takes a shift in perspective and understanding when communicating and negotiating with Korean culture, and I still make assumptions that I’ll be understood without fully considering the cultural shift. A few weeks ago, for example, I showed my middle one class (of three students) a picture of the Mona Lisa holding a cat, to elicit the language we were learning. The first thing they commented on, however, was not the cat, but the fact that her ‘eyebrows are strange!’ Facial features are very important in Korean society.

     Older bro Sam came to visit a couple of weeks into the semester. The weather was a mixed bag, but we were able to get out and about a fair bit over his short stopover here. We visited the home of a doctor friend of mine, whose clinic is in Sanseo, near the school. I’ve got to know him and his family well since my first day at the school, and it was great to introduce Sam (also a doctor) for a medical chinwag. It was great to catch up with Sam and show him my slice of life here in Korea.

     In early September, I started attending the English worship service at Jungbu church in Jeonju. I’m now used to the hour-long bus ride each week, and I always bring my Korean textbook on the bus to pass the time. I feel a strong sense of belonging to the community there, and the services and fellowship are great. Because the congregation is made up almost entirely of fellow expats, and because there are always new faces, the church has a strong sense of transformation and moving forward.

     In mid-September, the entire country braced itself for Chuseok – Korean Thanksgiving. Chuseok is a time for families to come together, but it couldn’t be more different from the relaxed family traditions of a Kiwi Christmas. Korean families have a number of formalities that they have to undertake, which causes quite a lot of stress, and greatly increases the traffic on the roads. On Chuseok, families visit ancestral graves and home towns, which are often way out in the countryside. I was very fortunate to be invited to another teacher’s home, and as fascinating and enjoyable as it was (and as good as the food was), it was slightly overwhelming to meet so many extended family members, who would arrive in family groups, sit down for an hour for a quick meal, and then continue on their way for further Chuseok events. Phew!

     A couple of weeks later, I visited the town of Gochang with my teacher’s class at school to see the extensive fortress wall used for hundreds of years to repel Japanese invasions. We feasted our eyes on the fields of red spider lilies, and feasted our bellies on grilled eel. Yum!

     One rainy day at the very end of September, I reunited, for the first time since February, with my fellow English teachers from orientation who’d also been assigned across Jeollabuk-do province. We piled into a bus bound for the southern coastal city of Suncheon. It rained heavily all day, but I didn’t mind, as there was a lot of catching up to do! Hopefully we’ll all meet again soon. We’ve all come so far! Unfortunately, I left my credit card in a café in the Suncheon Bay National Garden (which, by the way, was spectacular, with showcases from around the world – but no NZ section!), so I returned the next day for Suncheon, round two!

     The following weekend, I journeyed to Seoul for the second time since my arrival in Korea. Along with another teacher from school, we visited Yanghwajin cemetery, in which are buried many of the earliest protestant missionaries to Korea. I learnt so much about the dedication and sacrifice of the missionaries, and their role in transforming Korea. Their names live on in the hospitals, schools, and universities they left behind, some of which we visited.

     Teaching-wise, the following couple of weeks were very fulfilling, but stress and tiredness soon crept back into school as the mid-term exam week loomed ever closer. This has been a particularly difficult time for the final-year high school students, where every point matters for university entrance. The exams happened last week, and regardless of how they went, the students were well and truly glad to be done. As a reward, some of the teachers and the students went on a trip to Jeongeup, where we visited the Gujeolcho (Siberian Chrysanthemum) gardens. The scenery was spectacular, and the day concluded by a general overstuffing of Jajang noodles, rice and Jjamppong.

     And that bring me to now. I’m in the midst of another full-on week at school, but it’s great to be back in the swing of things after exams. Just as a couple of English teachers, and good friends, left Namwon, so have two more arrived, and so it’s always nice to meet other foreigners (Kiwis are a bit thin on the ground, though!). All in all, I feel like I’m becoming more and more connected here – growing, learning, and strengthening. I’ve certainly come a long way since day one!

     Sorry for waffling on. I could’ve spun a few more yarns, like the time I was shown around Gwangju by a total stranger (a Korean guy), but I can sense you’re starting to fall asleep now…



Goodbye, teacher! After Summer camp.

A visit to Gwangju 5.18 Memorial Park, which commemorates the Gwangju Democratisation Movement (or Gwangju Uprising), which started on the 18th of May, 1980. About 600 people, mostly students, were killed in the movement. Today, May 18th is a national holiday, and Gwangju is still proudly, and staunchly, a democratic city.

In late August, I went to watch the Sanseo school orchestra perform in a regional concert in Jeonju. While our school has little over 70 students in total, the other schools represented at the event have 800 and over. Two weeks later, they went to the national competition in Busan. I'm so proud of our students from a little wee country school!

The county in which I work - Jangsu - is famous for apples and beef.

At the Asia Culture Centre in Gwangju. It was very cool to see this exhibit from ST PAUL St Gallery in Auckland. They also had Avalanche City playing in another part of the centre - odd!

Very nice painting of Gould.

Teacher's trip to Gochang (Gochangeupseong/Gochang fortress)

Red spider lilies in Gochang.

The homestead of Horace Underwood on the campus of Yonsei University, Seoul. Underwood was one of the most important protestant missionaries, and his grave is at Yanghwajin.

The fellow himself.

Seodaemun prison, opened after the collapse of the Joseon dynasty as Japan took control of the country in the early 20th century. Countless Koreans who threatened the Japanese rule were sent here. Of those imprisoned, most were severely tortured, and many died. 

Yoo Gwansoon was the youngest prisoner in Seodaemun. She was still a high school student when she was arrested, and was severely tortured and eventually died in the prison. She is remembered as a hero during the independence movement. 

Seoul at night, from Namsan tower.

A trip with Namwon Church, which I attend for the monthly English service, to Yeosu. Spot the white guy at the back!

Jeongeup Gujeolcho theme park.

Sunday, 7 August 2016

Summer update

Hi friends, family, and everyone else.

Life since my last blog post has been full of challenges and discoveries.

June was the calm before the storm. Then, as the end of the first semester approached in July, the stress levels were palpable as students prepared to sit their final exams.

However, it was a quiet time for me. Due to the extra teaching and classes which focus on memorisation and rote learning of concepts, my classes, which focus on speaking and listening practice, were pushed aside, and I had more free time than usual. During this time, I studied more Korean, and completed some online teacher training. 

The extra time also allowed me to start up another teachers' class, this time at the elementary school. I enjoy the conversations and occasional hiking trip with the one teacher who attends the class, and it's great to spend more time at the elementary school.

When the last day of school arrived, the teachers were far more excited than the students about the end of semester. After a short wrap-up with the students, all of the teachers piled into a bus bound for the seaside city of Yeosu (which I also mentioned in my last update). We ate interesting seafood, including crabs and raw fish, took a cable car across the city, and visited an aquarium. By the time we were on the bus back home, several of the teachers were in a state of alcohol-induced cheer, and this prompted the bus to turn into a karaoke room, complete with flashing lights and TV. 

Following this, I had a few days off, which I spent tramping with a teacher from school. We slept in a shelter in Jirisan national park after a day of climbing, and then left early the next morning to summit Cheonwangbong (전왕봉), the highest peak on the South Korean mainland (at 1,915m). 

I spent the following week at school to teach a Summer English camp to a small group of high school students. Many of my students are going away for a few days during their holiday time, but really the teachers have more of a break than the students. Summer vacation just means 'free time to study,' especially for the final-year students, who are under enormous pressure to pass their university entrance exams. 

So I'm trying to make my camp as enjoyable and as varied as possible. Our theme is 'The Olympic Games,' and the students are divided into two teams for the camp - China and America (they were given the choice of any country). I'm teaching another week of the camp from tomorrow.

This last week, I splurged on an overseas trip to Japan. I had an awesome time. Before jetting out of the country, I spent an afternoon looking around Seoul, with a friend who lives there. 

After finding my way to central Tokyo, I met up with a friend (also an English teacher in Namwon), and we visited temples, parks and coffee shops/restaurants together. I was very pleasantly surprised by the politeness and quiet warmth of Japanese people, as well as the efficiency with which everything happens -

from buying a bottle of water, to crossing the at the lights (you'll have to go there to see what I mean). However, it was a relief to be back amongst the bustle of life in Korea: watching and hearing people singing, laughing on the subway, shouting... As overwhelming as Korea can be, coming back made me realise how familiar Korean life has become.

Following this introduction to Japan, I flew (I have superpowers) to Kumamoto, on the island of Kyushu, to visit a good friend from school days back in NZ. We visited sites around the city and shared coffee and meals with other teachers and locals. Borrowing a car, we drove west to Nagasaki, where we stayed a night. We visited the peace memorial, which commemorates the tens of thousands of people killed from the atomic bomb dropped on the city on August the 9th, 1945. Another highlight was Iojima Island, which has great beaches, and great water for swimming, but strictly no camping (much to our disappointment). 

Unfortunately, I missed my flight back to Korea, so my departure from Japan was by ferry. Overall, Japan was heaps of fun, and an interesting experience. I also missed the last bus back to Namwon when I arrived back in Korea, so I called in on some friendly Kiwis in Gwangju to stay the night. The familiarity of spending time with Kiwis was really, really good.

A true Kiwi always mentions the weather, usually before anything else. But here it is as a final remark: too hot, too humid, too long. While I'm waiting for autumn, feel free to get in touch.

Happy Matariki! My students gave out some star cookies to the teachers to celebrate the Māori new year.

So many yolks!

Iojima island

Martyrs' memorial to the 26 Christian missionaries crucified here
New Zealand's sculpture at the Nagasaki peace park - a korowai symbolising peace and coming together. 'Anu anu te takurua, ngaora marire te koanga' - 'remember winter, spring's welcome consolation.'

Kumamoto castle. Severely damaged in the recent earthquake.


A sign on the subway in Tokyo - showing how to show various expressions. Japan likes uniformity.

Coffee gallery, Kumamoto. The best and freshest place for a brew.

Ueno park, Tokyo

Approaching thunderstorm, Tokyo.

Gyeongbukgung palace, Seoul.

A trip in June to Jeonju, with my Middle/High school teachers' class

Tramping in Jirisan n.p.

Pyeongyang naeng myeon (cold noodles from North Korea), Seoul

Wearing a hanbok (trad. Korean clothes) during my teachers' class trip to Jeonju

Tramping in Jirisan n.p.

Tramping in Jirisan n.p.

Lunch before the start of the tramp!

Floods during monsoon season in Namwon


Bushbashing up a random peak in Jirisan n.p.

Teachers' trip to Yeosu