Moving on from my previous post, now I can talk about my first stop on my travels- Hong Kong!
I must admit last Thursday felt super odd. Leaving Korea was a weird sensation, probably because it didn’t feel particularly real. (And it still doesn’t). My co-teacher and her boyfriend picked me up from my apartment early in the morning and I was able to catch the 8am Airport Bus. This was faaar too early and meant I did a lot of hanging around at Gimhae.
My journey to Hong Kong was fine- my transfer at Shanghai was much, much simpler than my transfers at Beijing early last year which calmed my stress levels a lot. I had no desire to run in to any North Koreans again!
Arriving in HK was simple too and I made it to my hostel at around 10pm. The first part went pretty well, huzzah! I was rather surprised by just how cramped it was but it was nice and clean and the staff were friendly. (Here’s a link). It was also located right in the heart of Tsim Sha Tsui which was awesome- the entrance to the MTR (subway) was just downstairs.
On my first morning I headed out for breakfast and to get my bearings. I had forgotten just how busy Hong Kong was and I did feel a bit overwhelmed at first! I also discovered that my camera had zero battery so I had to go back to the Hostel for an hour and wait for it to charge!
But after that it was all systems go. I ended up walking along the Avenue of Stars which is one of the nicest places to view Victoria Harbour from (I think the view of Hong Kong Island is more attractive than of the mainland). After that I headed north to Wong Tai Shin where there was a Taoist Temple. It was incredibly beautiful and much more interesting than some of the Korean temples I have been to. There were statues of all the animals of the chinese zodiac- people were rubbing their zodiac statue, I presume for good luck. Since the Year of the Snake was just last year, it was me and all these Mum’s putting their babies hands on the snake!
I was also overcome with a sudden urge of ‘You Only Live Once’ when I saw some English speaking fortune tellers. Over I went and spoke to a guy- I gave him my date of birth and my hour of birth. He told me that I was in poor health and that I needed to ensure that I went to bed early. He then told me that I would meet my future husband this summer and that I’d get married in 2016! I’d have two children, a boy and a girl, I’d be happy in my job and I’d live until I was 75! (Please remember all this it is fairly important for later on in my story!).
After heading back to my hostel and a nap, I went downstairs to meet Catherine! Catherine is my best friend’s little sister (and I guess my friend in her own right too!!) and she’s teaching in Hong Kong right now. I met up with her and boyfriend Phil who took me to the world’s cheapest Michelin Starred Restaurant called ‘One Dim Sum’. The food was delicious and it was insanely cheap, costing us maybe around 15GBP for a full dinner!
The next morning was also a time for meeting other people- this time my errant cousin Tom! He’s not teaching English, he’s a Pilot with Cathay Pacific and I had brunch with him and his girlfriend which was very nice. It’s kind of weird to see people from home in a foreign setting, it feels a little out of place, but it’s also really nice. We had a lovely time and a nice catch-up!
After that I headed to Hong Kong Botanical and Zoological Gardens. There were really beautiful and had some lovely views. I’m not 100% sure that I approved of the way they kept the animals but it was cool to see them. After that I had a wander through SoHo and found a British Pub where I could get FISH AND CHIPS. It’d been actual years since I’d had any so I treated myself and it was love.y
After this I had a wander around the IFC mall, which is pretty cool even if it is aimed at high class shoppers. After that it was a quick trip across the Harbour on the Star Ferry. I decided to head to the History Museum even though I was feeling pretty worn out by then. This was a mistake- I was exhausted and the strange new bed was giving me some bad back pain so back to the hostel I headed!
After a little rest, I headed out to Temple Street Night Market. I went to a Night Market in Taipei and was super impressed but this left me a little cold if I’m honest. In Taipei it was half-market, half-street food which was what I was kind of looking for again. Temple Street seemed more focused on catering to big groups and there were less options for the budget traveller. I did pick up a few bits though which was nice!
The next morning I woke up relatively early and met up with Catherine again. This time we headed out to Lantau Island to see Tian Tian Buddha which I believe it one of the largest outdoor Buddha’s in the world. You have to take a cable car up which was fine except it was super foggy. Some things were indistinct but eventually it reached a point that we were just floating through cloud which was quite errie! The cable car itself took about half an hour which was really cool.
Once we got to Buddha, we couldn’t even see him. He was right up the top of a couple of hundred steps and he was totally hidden by the fog. We did climb and eventually find him but still- it was a bit disappointing on the weather front!
We had a wander in the general vicinity, walking along the Wisdom Path (I feel very enlightened now) which was cool if also also creepy owing to the fog. Back in TST, we had delicious pizza for lunch and then Catherine headed home.. I spent the evening researching Vietnam and heading to the local Marks & Spencer Food Hall for some dinner. (They had cheese!!). I also made friends with a girl in my dorm which was really nice- her name was Seloni (I think that might be the correct spelling!)
Monday morning, I was feeling pretty tired. I tried my hand at some handwashing which is absolutely not my favourite thing and decided to visit a local H&M. I did have some clothes already but I picked up a couple of long sleeved shirts and some long skirts. Yay shopping!
In the afternoon I decided to head back to the History Museum to finish it off. It was well worth it- I was there for 2 hours and had a great time wandering around soaking up the information. Yay knowledge. I also saw Seloni again- I told her about the temple and the fortune teller and off she went… only to be given the EXACT SAME FORTUNE. Not even a bit different. The exact same one. Nuts. Ah well, it was a fun experience!
In the evening I met up with Catherine and Phil again and they took me for Hot pot- I’d had it in Taiwan but the one in Hong Kong was much nicer, though I was pleased that it was still all you can eat! It was extremely delicious and a nice-round off to my trip. And after a quick wander through The Ladie’s Market it was time to head back to the hostel and pack my bag!
Yesterday morning I headed to the airport and here I am in Hanoi, thus far not having the most amazing time. I’m just a bit freaked out really. I’m going to try and find a new hostel and hopefully that’ll make me feel better about the city, since it does seem pretty cool otherwise. Anyway, I’ll keep you posted!
P.S. Pictures are on my facebook, this PC is so ancient, I’m pretty sure that loading pictures will be a bit too much for it!
I’ve arrived in Hanoi and my hostel is being fairly sketchy, to say the least.I booked a bed in a dorm and when I arrived I was told two guys in the dorm were sick and that I should stay in a single room for one night. Fine, whatever. Now I’m being told that their ‘sickness’ could last 3-4 days and my single room is no longer available so I should go to their ‘friend’s hostel’.
I’m looking for a hostel with a dorm, that’s clean, not too expensive and not one of those party places. Any recommendations for hostels in Hanoi?
The Last Post (Sort of)
So, I think can safely be called my last blog post in Korea. I’m still going to be using this blog to write about my travels and maybe a little afterwards, to address what it feels like to be going home after being away for so long. I’m probably going to start a new blog in the Autumn too, though I have yet to decide on what topic.
I’m still open to answering questions about Korea. Feel free to email me, send me an ask or to send me a message on facebook.
I also have another tumblr for stuff I’m interested in: It’s thedamehannah if you are interested in following me elsewhere.
I never imagined when I started this little blog that I’d end up with almost 400 followers! Thank you everyone, I hope you’ve enjoyed it!
Today marks 2 years, 6 months and 7 days since I arrived. Or 922 days to be precise. When I stepped on that plane on the 17th August 2011 I had zero idea that I’d only leave after 2 and a half years and that I’d leave feeling like such a different person.
2010 and to some extent 2011 too, were not particularly amazing years for me. A lot of negative things happened in my personal life that I found really hard to deal with but almost 3 years (!) later, I’ve come through the other side of that and I feel much stronger, more confident and sure of my self. I don’t know if I’d be in as good a place if I hadn’t come here.
There are things I know I’ll never understand about this crazy, contrary country. There are some things I am looking forward to no longer experiencing. But there’s no doubt that even the negative aspects of living here have made me more relaxed, more tolerant and more open-minded. That dealing with things that I find frustrating has taught me a lot.
And there’s so much I’m going to miss. I feel like a small piece of myself will always belong to Dong-gu, to Ulsan, to the friends I’ve made here. I can’t deny that living here has been one of the most formative experiences of my life and I’m pretty sure will continue to shape me as a person for some time to come.
And I’m scared. I’m scared to leave you. I remember walking down the street one day almost a year in and having the sudden realisation that I live here. That it was my home. And now I keep realising that next week I won’t. My apartment, my school, my home- they’re all going to become part of someone else’s journey.
And I’m okay with that. I’m ready to move on, to take the lessons I’ve learned here and take them forward to another stage of my life. To go on another adventure.
And all I can really say is Thank You. For everything Korea. You’re amazing and annoying and wonderful. I’ll be seeing you.
Things I am Going to Miss
It’s now a week and two days until I leave Korea. It still doesn’t feel quite real. I’ve got one weekend left and then I’m gone. Anyway, now is certainly the time to write about the things I will miss about living here.
1) My apartment
I love, love, love, love, love my apartment. I really lucked out when it came to where I live. In Korea, studio flats are referred to as ‘One Rooms’ and my little one room has been perfect for me. It’s cosy, it’s in a great location and really… it’s been the perfect home.
I do tend to get very attached to the place where I live and since I haven’t lived anywhere longer, other than my parents house, I’m pretty gutted to be leaving. I’ve also enjoyed living by myself and I’ll probably have to have house-mates when I move to Edinburgh because of finances. Having a lot of my own space will be missed.
Also, my bed is queen sized and like sleeping on a cloud. If I could pack anything, it’d be the bed.
2) My neighbourhood
When I first moved here I was kind of annoyed at being so far from the city centre. However, as time has gone by it’s shown itself to be a blessing in disguise.
Dong-gu is a friendly part of town. Most people I meet are welcoming and kind, if curious. I have people I say Hello to every day- an engineer across the road, an elementary school student waiting for his bus- and being by the beach has been amazing. And since I’ve arrived the facilities have improved immensely- there’s lots of restaurants and bars now that weren’t here before and a wider variety of food too.
Everything has been within walking distance and I’ve just loved the neighbourhood feel. I’m sure wherever I live in Edinburgh will be lovely too but there’s no denying that Dong-gu in Ulsan will always have a place in my heart.
3) My friends
Of course this goes without saying, but I’m going to really miss all the incredible friends I’ve made here. Some of them have already gone and I miss them already but it’s going to be harder to leave people behind, particularly my Korean friends. My foreign friends and I are pretty big travellers so I can see us crossing paths again but I can’t see myself returning to Korea in the near future- maybe a few years down the line but not soon. So I really worry about maintaining my friendships with the people here.
But with facebook and skype it should be doable! I’m going to miss my little group here though.
4) The weather
I’m British so the weather is of prime concern to me! In particular this is because British weather is super changeable- there’s no real set pattern to the weather at home. In Korea, it’s different. Summer is humid and hot and there’s a significant period of rain. Winter is dry and cold with a very small amount of rain. Typhoons happen in the late summer and early Autumn. There’s been a cold snap and a heatwave that I can think of but otherwise the weather does what it’s expected to do.
The UK has spent the past Winter being battered by storms and all sorts of terrible weather. I’m not looking forward to facing such inclement weather so regularly and not really having an idea what the weather will do. I like Korean weather for it’s predictability and pattern. It’s definitely got the edge over home on that score.
5) Delicious restaurants
Samgyupsal! Galbi! Duck Barbeque! Bokumbap! Shabu-Shabu! Donkatsu! Kimbap! Mandu… all these are foods that I am going to miss. Unlike countries such as the US, Korean food has a very limited presence in the UK. So much so that I’d never tried Korean food before coming here. Finding good Korean food after I leave is going to be really difficult and whilst my school lunches sucked, a lot of the food didn’t and I’m going to miss it a lot!
Even when I went home last winter I was craving Tuna Kimbap so I can imagine all the Korean food I’ve taken for granted I’m suddenly going to crave as soon as I step on the plane!
6) (Most of) My Students
Some of my students have been true terrors to teach. Some of them have been amazing and helped me realise how much I’ve enjoyed teaching. Most of my students are funny, interesting and entertaining and I’m really going to miss them. In fact, out of everything at my school I know it’ll be my kids that I’ll miss the most.
They’ve made me laugh and we’ve had fun together and I hope I’ve taught them something to. To be a cliché, they’ve definitely taught me a lot of really important things. I only hope the best for them- really even the annoying ones. I just hope their new teacher is good for them.
7) Cheap and Efficient Public Transport
Travelling on the buses and taxis might feel like a brush with death, but it’s also really, really cheap. And efficient. And regular. And pretty awesome.
Korea craps all over the UK when it comes to Public Transport. It’s clean, it’s modern, it’s (usually) on time, it works well and it’s affordable. For the price of a return ticket to London, I can get to Seoul on back on a train that travels at almost 200mph! It’s crazy. Back home, part of the main train route to my home town has just been destroyed by the sea during a storm and it’s expensive! Buses come past my apartment at least 10 time an hour. I don’t think buses run 10 time a day through my home village and it’s 5 times the price of what it is here! Taxis are plentiful and cheap and generally simple to use whereas at home they are expensive and you usually have to order them.
Home could really stand to learn some lessons from the way Korea operates it’s public transport. It’s successful and it works- we’re doing something wrong.
8) Best Internet In The World
Korea has the world’s best internet. Seriously, google it. It’s fast, pretty cheap and did I mention fast? It’s also everywhere- you can even get WiFi on the bus (If you’re not too busy trying to stay alive). I’ve been a pretty heavy internet user what with calling home and downloading all my television and I’m going to miss good download speeds and generally have access to the internet wherever I go!
9) Cost of living
Korea is cheap. With the exception of certain foods, living here is incredibly affordable. I can live on half my salary with relative easy and still enjoy a very nice quality of life. I suspect that moving home may be a bit of a shock at that score- I’ll be paying rent, bills and buying food for myself. I’d imagine my salary will be similar to Korea’s but the cost of living is so high at home I doubt I’ll be able to save much, particularly if I want to have a nice life and do things.
Hopefully, my saving here will help me out in the next couple of years as I seek to financially re-establish myself at home. But I’m going to miss being able to justify eating out several times a week just because it’s so affordable.
10) Korean Cosmetics
Along with everything else that is cheap, Korean cosmetics are also very, very cheap! And I’m a bit addicted. Some of the make-up doesn’t quite work with my skin tone- but I love the nail varnishes! And some of the lipsticks! And the mascara.
I don’t generally wear a lot of make-up but I do wear a lot of nail varnish and I love buying lots in different colours and experimenting. It’s more than double the price for a similar product at home so I think I’ll have to curb my enthusiasm for cosmetics but still, it’s been fun. Even if the lady at the Nail Polish stand thinks I’m nuts because of how many I buy!
11) Convenience Stores Everywhere!
Run out of an essential at home? It’s at least a 15 minute walk to the nearest store. Here. I have 3 within a 2 minute walk of my apartment.
In fact, if Korea can be accused of anything it can only be of possessing too many convenience stores. There really are that many! And they’re great for grabbing snacks and random essentials you didn’t even realise you needed! But it really does make life easier and I’m kind of sad that being able to pop out to a shop is going to be more difficult. But perhaps better for my wallet!
12) Easy Travelling in Asia
Since living in Hong Kong when I was a baby, I had never been to Asia. Europe is so cheap and so near and there’s so much to do, it’s almost a bit silly to head this way unless you’re planning a big trip. But coming to Korea has enabled me and will enable me to visit places I never even thought I’d visit! I never dreamed I’d visit Taiwan or Japan or even Cambodia. I’ve been to the first two and I’m going to so many new places this year… it’s incredible. And I never would have done this without Korea.
So whilst I’m excited to travel in Europe again, I’ll be sad that Asia isn’t on my doorstep. I suppose I’ll have to make the most of my 2 months in SE Asia!
13) Korean Springs and Autumns
The UK definitely has four seasons but they’re nowhere near as beautiful or distinct as Korean seasons and in particular, Spring and Autumn are beautiful.
With Spring comes the blooming of the Cherry Blossom which is stunning. Seriously, there are pale pink trees everywhere and it’s beautiful. It reminds you that summer is coming and has such a beautiful ambience.
Korea’s Autumn is also beautiful. Obviously at home, trees change colour but they lack the vividness, the sheer beauty of the colour of the trees here. I’m sad that I’ve finished my final Autumn and Spring here. Whilst those times of year are my favourite at home they’re just not as visually appealling.
14) No Worries
Despite my complaining about work, my life here has been fairly worry free. I’ve had a job that I’ve finished at 4.30 every day. I’ve had mostly empty weekends. My life has really lacked commitment and responsibility for the past two years. And it’s been great. I think after University and the stress of my job in retail, this little brain break has been just what I’ve needed to help me focus.
And whilst I’m extremely excited to move home and start studying again, I am sad at the prospect of my free-time dwindling. Since I’ll be working and studying I’m going to have to be extremely self-motivated to be able to meet all my commitments and to do my best in my professional and academic life. And I suspect after being so relaxed here that’s going to be a fairly hard change to deal with.
15) Living An Adventure
Pure and simple, I’m going to miss the experience of living abroad. I’m going to miss the sensation of everything being strange and familar all at once. I’m going to miss ‘simple’ experiences being a venture into the unknown. I’m going to miss my life being a story.
Obviously I’ll be doing new and exciting things at home but it’s not going to be quite as interesting. All I know is that if someone offered me the chance to live abroad again at some point, I’d definitely take it.
Things I Won’t Miss
Time is inching by and I now have only 3 weeks until I finish school and leave! As a result, I thought I might write a little about the things that I will and won’t miss about Korea. This isn’t intended to be a Korea-bashing or praising session, but an honest appraisal about aspects of my experience here as I prepare to leave because I do have very, very mixed feelings. There’s so much I am going to miss and so much I can’t wait to get away from!
I’ll start with the things I won’t miss because it’s always nicer to end on a positive.
So first up, things I will definitely not miss.
One thing I have never gotten used to is how acceptable it is to spit in public here, particularly for old men. People still do it at home but far less often. I’ll be standing at the bus stop and won’t realise until afterwards that I was stood in someone else’s saliva. It’s not pretty. It also appears to be okay to be indiscreet about any spitting you might do, making a properly loud noise which also makes my stomach turn.
On the plus side, when you have a cold and have all the nasty gunk in your nose and chest, spitting it out doesn’t attract a second look if you find yourself without tissue, but well… I think I’ll much prefer a silent, mostly spit free world.
2) Korean Comments on Appearance
This was one of the hardest things I found to get used to do- I suspect that this is because I’m quite sensitive about appearance and Koreans have no problem with telling you exactly what they think about your appearance that day. I’ve been greeted with ‘You look terrible’, and ‘You look tired’. One of my friends from home was a bit put out on my behalf when a Korean friend of mine commented on my current facebook profile picture to say I should wear make-up every day! I also won’t miss comments about my size!
Whilst I’ve gotten used to it but I’m looking forward to being back in a culture where there is much less candour about certain things!
3) School Lunches
I spent my first year in Korea thinking I didn’t like Korean food when really I simply didn’t like my school lunch. The Korean teachers assure me that it’s a bad school lunch all round but I will not miss stodgy rice, cold vegetables, kimchi and a watery soup five days a week! Just yesterday it was a fish day (which is always a sad time. Getting the bones out with chopsticks is really difficult for me!) and today is tofu day. (I brought a sandwich).
As a foreigner, if you don’t eat the lunch it’s kind of seen by some as a sign that you don’t like Korea so not eating it was never really an option. However, as of next Wednesday I’ll be school lunch free! Huzzah :D
4) Never Knowing Anything Ever
Seriously. The language barrier is a big part of this but also being last-minute with everything is normal here, so I’m mostly wandering around my school with a somewhat perturbed look on my face. I had one situation when on a Monday I was told my classes on Thursday would be cancelled only be told FIVE MINUTES BEFORE class that my classes were in fact on. It was worse in my first semester because I didn’t know how to find out anything- I did get much smarter, using the school calendar and stuff but I still think I’m probably aware of maybe 30% of what is actually happening at this school.
I’m looking forward to being able to be more engaged with my work environment and contributing more.
5) Western Food Being The Holy Grail
I want bacon, I want cheese and I want it to be in a shop around the corner and not cost me half a month’s wages! (Slight exaggeration, obviously)
Finding western food you like in Korea can involve treks to other cities and ordering online. I think if you’re American it’s easier to get brands you’re familiar with but as a Brit, it’s been nigh-on-impossible to find brands I like. I can’t wait for things that have been difficult to find to become easy again. I think it’ll take a few months for the novelty to wear off.
6) Being stared at
Whilst I no longer tend to notice the attention I attract, I’m still aware of it often enough that I’m looking forward to not noticing it! I understand that I’m much taller and bigger than Korean women but I’m not really comfortable with being the centre of attention and the repeated staring and shock at my existence has become a bit boring. So I’m looking forward to fading in to the background once again and my appearance being unremarkable! Unless I’m all dressed up. Then everyone should notice!
7) Being unable to buy clothes or shoes
I can.not.wait to be able to go clothes shopping and shoe shopping and to be able to buy all the things and look cute and have nice dresses and not have to order things online that arrive and don’t fit. Yay shopping. (In all seriousness, family and friends, all I’d like for my birthday is money so I can go shopping.)
8) Staff Dinners
Since my Korean is pretty poor and most of the Korean teachers are afraid of talking to me, any social situation involving them and me is pretty awkward. My co-teachers might attempt to engage me a little but mostly they talk in Korean, which I understand and appreciate, but kind of leaves me sitting in a corner on my own, fairly bored.
Not only that, but at staff dinners, we can’t leave until the Principal says we can. I’m fairly lucky that as a female teacher I’m not expected to hang around and get drunk with the senior teachers! In Western Culture, spending time with your work colleagues isn’t as important as here so I kind of find it a drag to have to do this. I don’t think it’s bad, it’s just not for me. I thought I’d have one more left but in excellent news, we’re having a lunch rather than a dinner together- these are much briefer affairs usually since we have to go back to work at some point! But enforced recreation time with my co-workers is something I’ll happily say Goodbye to!
9) (Some of) My Students
There are some students who I will not miss. They are a mixed bunch but mainly involve some slightly snide, high level second graders who need to fix their attitude and learn some manners. They give the other teachers hassle too so it’s not just me. Their absence from my life will not bother me and I suspect the feeling is mutual.
10) Freezing Cold/ Boiling Hot Work Conditions
So unfortunately I’ve been living in Korea whilst there has been a national energy crisis, which means Government organisations including schools have to save electricity. What does this mean exactly? Well, firstly no air-conditioning in the summer. Secondly, no heating in the winter.
This makes working and teaching incredibly uncomfortable. In the summer, the heat definitely affects the students’ performance and the teachers! The cold isn’t so bad as it doesn’t make you sleepy but teaching whilst wearing full-outdoor wear is not my idea of fun! Schools are also really poorly insulated here so it’s freezing in schools in the winter- buildings are built in a different way back home (since it’s never really hot!) and we’re not having a national energy crisis so it should be better!
11) Crazy Bus and Taxi Drivers
The problem with Korean Public Transport is that each trip leaves you with the feeling that death is imminent. As I’ve discussed here before Korean traffic laws are definitely more like guidelines and it means red lights, speed limits, pedestrian crossings etc. all becoming meaningless. It also doesn’t help that Bus and Taxi drivers here are some of the meanest, toughest drivers around. They really don’t care. Whilst I definitely appreciate how good the public transport is here, I won’t mis feeling like I’m about to die.
12) Internet Explorer
There’s something you’ve got to get over and that is your love of Internet Explorer. It really is not the best browser around and the fact that you optimise your websites for it is really problematic. Not to mention all the software required to access Korean websites via internet explorer (Looking at you Nonghyup Bank) just clogs up your computer and is rubbish.
You need to move on. The time of IE is over.
13) Funky Smell in Summer
In Korea’s defence, it has a fairly old sewage system but it does mean that in the summer you’ll regularly pass random sections of smelliness. It’s not pleasant for anyone and whilst I know it’s no one’s fault and no one place ever smells perfect, I won’t be sad to no longer pass random pockets of stinkiness as I walk everywhere. Also, to live in a country where it rarely gets that warm in summer- I’m not too sad about that!
14) Korean Work Culture
Korean Work Culture… man, it’s tough. And funny. And frustrating. Often during one day.
The thing no one seemed to mention when I was moving here was how hard adjusting to culture in the work place would be. Small things at home you take for granted are so different here, like how to approach your boss and how to suggest ideas. It’s a very top-down culture with your boss making all the decisions and you having to accept them and I’ve found that hard. The lack of initiative has been surprising- Korean work places generally like to do things the way they’ve always been done- and it’s been hard to adapt to. In fact, I don’t think I’ve really adapted to it. I’ve accepted it, out of necessity, but I am looking forward to being able to have a dialogue with my superiors and being able to innovate a little more. I’m looking forward for information sharing to hopefully be easier and generally feeling like it’s the quality of your work that matters, not the amount of time you spent doing it.
I don’t think Korean work culture is bad and I’ve had very few issues really, but I think being back where I understand how things work will make my employment experiences smoother.
15) Being so far away from friends and family
Being away from my family and friends has been hard- the Christmas period in particular is difficult to adjust to. I feel like I’ve missed out on so much- birthdays, engagements, babies, hell even just dinners. I miss those things and I do feel very out of the home loop. I can’t wait to be able to spend time with my friends regularly and to be able to call and text them easily rather than a pre-arranged time limited skype. It’s small things you take for granted. I can’t wait for Christmas at home and not just Christmas- the whole Christmas season! I can’t wait to watch Downton Abbey with my Mum and go to the cinema with my friends. It’s going to be awesome.
Korea has been an amazing, life-changing, learning experience and I wouldn’t change any of it for the world. The knowing nothing, the being stared at, the rude students- it’s all been worth it because I’e learned so much. But the time is definitely right for me to go home, reconnect with the people who mean the most to me and really… it’s time for me to get back to real life.
COMING SOON: The Things I Will Miss
Piece by Piece
4 weeks, 1 day to go. Time has the queer feeling of both rushing past and crawling by. I’m still feeling fairly emotional about the whole leaving thing- it’s difficult to try and reconcile the parts of you that are excited and ready for the future with the parts that are sad about letting go of the past.
'I'm leaving home to go home' is a quote I read about expat living the other day and it feels true. Korea has become my home- I know how to do things here how things work and I'm comfortable. I feel oddly unsettled at the thought of being back home permanently, like I'm starting from scratch again, which I suppose I am. And it's terrifying.
Slowly but surely, my life is being eroded here. I’ve sent home one box of belongings, thrown out a lot, sold a bit and generally you can see that my apartment is changing, bit-by-bit, from my home into just a soulless box.
But a part of me is really proud of that- I remember my first night in Ulsan, the sheer alien-ness of everything affecting me and feeling like these four tiny rooms would never mean anything to me. But I worked hard and I made them into my home. Gradually, I imprinted myself upon them. I’m going to miss this little apartment. I’m going to miss my home. It’s good that it hurts to be doing this. It’s a testament to the fact that I came here and built a life and that it meant something.
A lot happened in these four walls. Christmas, birthdays, conversations, building things, so many experiences happened here in this little apartment.
Taking apart the pieces of my life in Korea is hard. But doing so helps me to know that I can put them back together again anywhere.
Discoveries and Rediscoveries
Apologies for the quietness lately guys. It’s not been for a lack of anything happening- in fact, I’ve been fairly busy!
I’m almost finished with my very last ‘Camp’ in Korea! I actually have very mixed feelings about this because after months of feeling flat and uninspired by my job, I’ve finally discovered my enthusiasm for teaching again. I’ve been mostly teaching the youngest children- they’re 7 or 8 years old in western age and it’s been awesome. I went in a lot stronger with the discipline at the beginning and it’s really worked. The kids were well-behaved and enthusiastic about learning English. They’ve been the perfect antidote to my apathetic Middle Schoolers. Even though I’m really fond of the vast majority of my students, sometimes trying to engage them seems very much like an uphill battle!
Not only that, but seeing the same kids daily means that we’ve had a real rapport and I know the kids really like me because everywhere I go I am greeted with a chorus of ‘Hannah Teacher!!!’. When I walk into the classroom every day I am greeted by hugs and on days when I haven’t taught those particular children, at break time I’ve been accosted for hand-holding and group cuddles (which turned more into a bundle when Hannah Teacher ended up on the floor). I’m realising more and more that sometimes teaching is just the luck of the draw- it can depend on the mix of students you have in your class. Obviously, your teaching skills should help draw out more difficult classes but it’s far more enjoyable when you just happen to end up with a bunch of really good kids.
Tomorrow is the final day but rather than any teaching, we’ll be going to the cinema to see Frozen! Being a bit of a Disney nut (and an Idina Menzel fan), I’m a bit over-excited for a children’s movie. We’ll also probably have a staff lunch together and then I’m officially on vacation for 2 weeks!
My vacation plans are fairly relaxed- I’m going to Busan for the day on Saturday, and then I’m off to Seoul for a couple of days on Monday evening. After that, I’ll mainly be spending time with Suzanne who now leaves in under 2 weeks. I’m sad about this, because obviously we’ll never live close to each other again, but the knowledge that I’m leaving only four weeks after her does soften the blow a little.
Things are full steam ahead with my preparations for leaving. I have a leaving sale in full swing and I’ve packed one box ready to ship home. I’ve applied for my Vietnamese Visa letter and sorted out travel insurance. Vaccinations wise, it seems I might need a top up on my Hepatitis A and I’ve even started packing my backpack. It does feel weird to know that in 6 short weeks I’ll be leaving Korea forever. It’s been my home for such a long time, I know it’s going to take a while to get my head around the fact that I don’t live here anymore.
I’ve been making the most of the time I have left though. Last weekend, I went with Suzanne and our Korean friend Helena to see some of Ulsan’s sights! We headed out to the west of the city to see some Petroglyphs (Prehistoric Carvings). I actually went on a school trip over two years ago to see them so it was nice to visit them again prior to leaving. They’ve updated the Museum there since I went last time and there was a lot more English which was great! Going on a walk on a sunny winter’s day was awesome too.
We then had lunch at a traditional Korean restaurant and had Bulgogi- in Korean this literally means fire meat and it’s delicious. This restaurant was recommended to us (by a lady at the museum no less) and it was phenomenal. One of the best Korean lunches I’ve had in a very long time!
After that we then headed to Shinwha Art Village. This is basically a neighbourhood between Downtown Ulsan and a Petro-Chemical Industrial plant. It was fairly run down so as a community, everyone got together and invited local artists to come and decorate their homes. And the effect is outstanding. Some of the murals are simply phenomenal. I think some of the art was better that some of the rubbish I saw at Madrid’s Modern Art Gallery a few years ago. I was definitely, definitely impressed and kind of cross with myself that I hadn’t been before!
And that’s about everything with me. I’m hoping to update a little more now I’m basically free for the next couple of weeks.
A picture explaining how I feel about 2014! Happy New Year Readers!
2 Months Today
Today is the last day of my last full semester! I’ve got 3 weeks of winter camp to go and then 2 weeks of Vacation. School is then back in session for 2 weeks in February to finish administration for the year and for the 3rd Graders to graduate and then I’ll have about 10 days of desk-warming! And then, woosh, out of here.
Handing in my resignation this week has made things feel considerably more ‘real’ and immediate and it’s suddenly occured to me that I have a lot of things to do! I have to sort out all my belongings, pack for leaving, see friends before I go, cancel things, pay things and find some time to chill out and get my head around the fact that I’m giving myself another big life over-haul only 2 and a half years since the last time I did that.
Everyone at school is now aware- the English teachers seem genuinely sad, my Vice-Principal and Department Head don’t seem to care and the Principal… ah. Well, my Principal thinks foreign teachers are a waste of money and has already asked my Co-Teacher if they school really needs one! Nice to know my contribution has been noted and appreciated! He gave me a little lecture on how he was upset and how he felt me breaking my contract was wrong but hey…don’t care.
My Co has submitted my letters of resignation to the MOE and really there doesn’t seem to be much more for me to do now. I just have to get ready to leave. I do feel better now everyone knows and I can just get on with the process of actually leaving!
I got Christmas Day off and had a very lovely time. I was able to leave early on Christmas Eve so I went home and made a Roast Dinner for myself and my friend Keflyn which was delicious (but nowhere near as good as my Mum’s!). We then watched the films ‘Nativity’ and ‘Love Actually’ which made me feel Christmassy!
Christmas Day was lovely- I opened my presents and got lots of lovely stuff for travelling as well as lots of snacks from my friends! Then around lunchtime my friends Suzanne, Corey, Marty and Helena came over to join Keflyn and I and we spent all day eating, playing games, watching films and having a good time. It wasn’t the same as a Christmas at home but it was a lovely substitute. I’m very grateful for the good friends I have made here in Korea.
That being said, I’ve been more homesick over Christmas than I have been in a long, long time. It’s been a reminder that heading home is the right thing for me; I miss my family and friends. Living abroad requires a lot of sacrifice- so many life events happen that you can’t be involved with and I want to be involved. I want to go to Birthday and engagement parties, attend weddings, spend Christmas and New Year with people back home and I want a sense of ‘staying’ in my life.
That being said, I love living in Korea. It’s a great country to live in but professionally and personally, it stopped challenging me long ago. (Except my paitence. It’s constantly challenging that).
So the New Year is coming and with it a whole host of experiences. Let the countdown commence.
Letter of resignation handed in. I still have to speak to my Principal but everyone else knows now.
I’ve booked my flights for Hong Kong and Hanoi. I’m scared and excited and lots of confusing things all at once.
But facts are facts people: I live Korea in 9 weeks and 3 days.
Holidays are coming, Holidays are coming…
Christmas is approaching at a rapid fire pace here in Korea and it’s strange to think that a whole year has passed since my big visit home. I must admit I’m find the season kind of strange this year. After going home last year, the idea of missing another Christmas with my family didn’t seem like a big deal but now it’s approaching, it really does. I think one reason Christmas is a big part of people’s lives in that it’s a reminder to touch base with our friends and family- which is somewhat difficult for me to do when all of mine are several thousand miles away.
But I’m trying to make the best of it, as I am sure thousands of expats around the world are going to do too. My friends and family have been undeniably generous in sending me cards and gifts and I’ll be spending the day with 5 friends; despite being away from home I feel undeniably blessed in lots of other ways.
Finals have now finished at school and so has any ‘real’ teaching. I must admit, my enthusiasm has dwindled rapidly and I’m struggling to get out of bed in the morning. There’s just next week to go and then I’ll be starting Winter Camp at the Elementary School. I’m looking forward to doing something substantial for a few weeks and working with some of my friends. I also think a change of pace is just what I need.
The strange fact has also arisen: I only have 10 weeks until I leave. This is both scary and exhilarating. Trying to describe how I feel about moving on is fairly difficult because on the one hand I feel very sad and nervous and concerned about leaving and on the other I’m itching to leave and I’m deeply excited and looking forward to it. I think one reason I’m so conflicted is because the chances of my returning any time soon are… slim. If I wish to do my PhD, then I need to stay in the UK for three full years again before I become eligible for funding. And since most of my friends are moving on too, I doubt I’ll have many reasons to return. This makes me sad. And aside from being definitely ready to change jobs, I really love my life here. My apartment, the people, the neighbourhood, my social life- it’s all be brilliant. Giving that up, moving to a brand new city where I don’t know anyone… it’s going to be difficult.
I am however, trying to comfort myself with all the glorious things I have planned for 2014. I’m going to visit some amazing places, be back in a country with my friends and family, move somewhere new, start studying something I love, get a new job. It’s all going to be awesome and a real adventure which I know I need.
But a part of me is scared to leave my Korean bubble. Well there’s still 10 weeks… lots of things to enjoy.
I’m going to miss this.
I thought November was going to be a bit of a nothing month but it turns out it’s been quite the opposite! I’ve actually been fairly busy! School has been chugging along nicely, all things considered. I finished Speaking Tests with my first graders last week and we’re preparing Second Grade for finals now. It’s a bit strange- I actually only have a couple of weeks of ‘serious teaching’ left. After finals it’s movies and games and then Winter Camp and then my last two weeks. I’m rather pleased about this though- I’m ready for a slightly more relaxed pace. I am feeling a little bit less ansty about leaving though, which is good. I think the end being closer in sight in helping with that!
I’ve also been busy being a social butterfly! My friend Keflyn came to visit on the 8th. He went to the Pub Quiz I regularly attend with me, which was lots of fun. He also gave me a Nintendo DS so I can play Pokemon. There’s no denying how super cool I am. We ate delicious food and had lots of fun together. It’s really strange though- we flew out to Korea together and we’re both planning on leaving at roughly the same time. It’s amazing how much we’ve both experienced since getting here.
The following weekend I had my very last session of the Reading Program I’ve been doing 2 weeks a month September-November. I had to get my kids to perform a song which went about as well as expected- 9 year olds really aren’t loud singers! I’m kind of sad about finishing actually because I get on really well with the other teachers I worked with! Here’s a picture of us on the last day as we escaped to go and get some Ice Cream at Lunch Time!
That day was also pretty long because I went straight from work to my friend Suzanne’s birthday party! We went to my favourite Italian Restaurant and had an awesome time, drinking wine, eating and chatting.
After this we headed to a bar- Ulsan finally got it’s open branch of Thursday Party, which is a bar chain I quite like- and we had a lot of fun there before heading to a noraebang. I love noraebang so it was quite odd to realise that I hadn’t been to one in over a year! It was a very odd experience though because the owner tried to negotiate with us about the amount of beer we were going to drink! (We had one!) I had a really awesome time and it was probably the best night out I have had in ages. Lots of fun with the people I like the best! I followed this with a very chilled Sunday which was most appreciated!
Last weekend marked my very, very final Saturday shift! This time it was ‘Conversation Classes’ in Old Downtown, where my partner and I stood by an ATM and taught nine year olds the words ‘deposit’ and ‘withdrawal’. Hugely useful, I’m sure you’ll agree. I was really good to finish and to know that I have my weekends (mostly) back to myself. That being said, I am still chasing up payment for the Reading Program. Stupid MOE.
To celebrate us finishing, our friend Corey joined Suzanne and I myself in watching The Hunger Games: Catching Fire which I really, really enjoyed! Much better than the first movie. We followed this with delicious Thai food and talking for hours. Pretty much a perfect way to spend an evening with your friends! I’m really going to miss my friends when I leave- probably more than anything else.
On Sunday, I watched the Doctor Who 50th Anniversary Special and went Christmas shopping! I’ve got most of my friends sorted and am planning to send out all my cards and packages this week! That being said, I’m still feeling rather sad about being away from home for Christmas this year. Most of the time I can think about all the fun things I’m doing instead but around this time of year, I just remember all the things I miss about home. My friends, my family, the food. I think I’d be far more sad about it though if it wasn’t so close to the end.
And that’s about everything with me. December is shaping up to be busy and exciting and I really need to start organising things more efficently for leaving. I have a deep feeling January is going to hit and I’m going to be all ‘CRAP! There’s so much to do’. But everything is good and groovy mostly. Enjoying my last few months in the ROK!
Is Education in Korea really that good?
South Korea routinely comes very high in the tables of Education around the world, alongside counties such as China, Singapore and Finland. A lot of my friends and family back home have been interested to hear about what makes Korean education so successful and the international reputation of the education here is such that countries such as the USA want to emulate certain things about Korean education in order to improve their educational systems. A friend even posted a link on facebook the other day about how Sweden is looking to Korean education for guidance. Before I came to teach in Korea, I was swayed by stories of hard-working studious students who respected their teachers implicitly.
Almost 2 and a half years later, I can tell you that this is not the case. Almost any of the myths you’ve heard about how wonderful Korean education is are not true. With the end of my time here approaching, I thought it might be nice to explain some of the realities of education here. Obviously all of this is based off of my own experience and what I’ve gathered from friends.
Why does Korea come so high in international rankings?
Reason 1: Testing
The main reason Korea ranks so highly in World Educational rankings is because Koreans are trained from a young age to succeed in testing. These children are good at taking tests. For example, the school tests run from 0-100 as a score. The children in my Intermediate class still have scores in the 80s because so many students get scores in the 90s!
Korean Education seems heavily focused on memorisation. My Second Grade students will take a speaking test next week- in which they will have to regurgitate a small passage about 7 lines long. Remember it perfectly and you pass! Because that’s how the test Oral Ability here.
So, Koreans are always going to score well in International Rankings because they’re trained to test in a way that’s very different from western education
Reason 2: Academies
For the vast majority of Korean students, school doesn’t end at 4.30. After school they will head to a variety of academies to continue studying in the evening, sometimes until as late as 10.30.
Popular subjects are Maths and English but younger students in particular study Art and the Piano. Studying tends to get more serious the older the students becomes.
This means that in comparison to a lot of other countries, Korean children study more for longer. This is going to affect their test rankings because extra studying will give you an edge.
Reason 3: Koreans Take Education seriously
One big difference, I feel, is that Koreans take education very seriously. It’s incredible, the way Korea transformed from a third world nation into an economic powerhouse in such a short space of time and Education is seen as a big part of that success.
Koreans parents also believe that unless a child does not succeed in their schooling, that they will fail to secure a good job and thus a good life. A lot of parents push their children to succeed and to study hard. Parents are willing to pay a lot of money to make sure their child does well.
With a whole culture taking education seriously, that is going to translate into results.
So, what’s the problem?
There are several problems with the things I’ve described above. Obviously studying to tests isn’t itself bad and neither is allowing your kids to have extra tutoring and obviously making education a priorty is great. BUT… BUT…
Testing isn’t always useful
I did all of my schooling in the UK and whilst I was definitely prepared to take exams and get good grades, I’m also able to confidently say that my schooling gave me skills which I’ve been able to use in my life. (Except Algebra). Whilst I think tests can be an important Educational tools, I also think it’s the responsibility of educators to help children learn in such a way that it readies them for life. I mean, that’s what I want as an English teacher. I want my students to use the skill of English outside of a classroom environment and to feel confident doing so, regardless of their ability. From what I have seen of Korean education, this is not the case. I’m not saying that Korean teachers don’t want their students to do well in life, but furnishing them with life skills is not their main priority because education is so heavily geared towards tests.
And the sad fact is, these tests aren’t really helping students. We’ve all been there- we study very hard for an exam and afterwards we give ourselves permission to forget everything. This is why testing should be put together with skills based education so despite the fact that students might forget information, they still have the ability to use that information in a certain way when they come across it.
I also find some of my students struggle creatively- I’ve worked with Elementary Students and they’re happy doing creative endeavours and projects. However, my Middle School students seem almost… bad at it? Even when I give them free reign to write what they like or to make something students seem confused without explicit guidelines. This isn’t true in all cases and students do get to do creative stuff in art class but I remember my schooling be FULL of projects. Time-lines, reports, maps… I did lots of that in every class. I can’t speak for every subject but I see very little of that here because education is so focused on pumping them full of information when they then pour out for one test.
Extra Studying isn’t always helpful
Sure extra tutoring is a nice idea but the students here do it for HOURS. They basically have an extra half a school day after school. I’m not remotely convinced that this is good for them. These are children- they need time to play and develop in other ways. I think play is an important part of being a child.
Also, it renders a lot of schooling pointless, particularly for English. Most students have encountered a lot of what they are being taught now if they have been to an academy.
Also, lower level students do not tend to go to Academy. Academies give students from wealthier families a significant advantage. And they’re so expensive…
I’m just not personally convinced academies help that much. The benefits don’t seem to outweigh the negatives. They cost families so much money and I just wish children here had more time to be just that.
Educational Pressure is Ridiculous
The number one cause of death among Korean teenagers is suicide. And the huge amount of pressure they are put under in regards to education is seen a huge part of that.
Recognising that education is important is not a bad thing. Allowing children to think that if they don’t succeed that they have failed is wrong. Your schooling makes up such a small part of your life- what you do afterwards is just as important.
Parents, in particular, need to strike a fan balance between support and encouragement vs pressure. There’s a big difference. I have students who are told by their parents that they should be the top students in Ulsan. Students who are asked ‘Why did you not get full marks in every test?’ by their parents. I have a student with depression because his Mother was convinced he was gifted and he knew he wasn’t. Children shouldn’t have to shoulder the burden of their parents expectations and Korean parents do seem to have very high expectations about their children’s academic achievement.
But your students are really respectful and well-behaved, right?
Ha. Ha ha ha ha.
The big thing I noticed is how similar Korean teenagers are to British teenagers. Some of them are very respectful but you also get mouthy kids who drive you crazy and you have to remove from class. You have students who don’t care, students who try to answer every question. There’s a wide variety of students.
Korean students do have a different relationship with their teachers though- it seems closer. And I definitely feel that the discipline issues I experience here aren’t as serious as some of the issues I saw teachers facing when I was at school. But Korean students are fairly normal- their culture hasn’t imbued them with a magic respect. And as a foreigner, I certainly feel less respected by some students.
So, what’s good?
As I said, valuing education is important. Teachers are more valued here too and that’s great. Encouraging students to succeed is good. In fact, the common denominator between countries with good education is that teachers and education have a greater cultural significance. That’s what countries who want to improve their education should take away from Korea.
But the testing and the stress should be taken away. It’s so unproductive and just hurts students.
And well, that’s it folks. Just remember- the rankings you see don’t reflect the reality of an education system. Korea has some things right, but there are some things about working in this environment that I will not be sad to leave behind.