Settling in

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Where I stayed
still at my house

Flag of Korea Rep.  , Gangwon,
Saturday, November 7, 2009

Having watched 3 ladies playing badminton on the pavement in Yeongwol today I thought it might be time for another entry.

I feel like I've settled into life in Hambaek, Korea. I now know what I'm doing, teaching-wise, and I know where I can travel to at weekends!

Most of the teachers who live at the school return home to their families every weekend because they live apart during the week. My lovely neighbour, Su Jin, has one of her sons living with her here in Hambaek and another son living in Seoul, with her mother. And at weekends she and her little boy travel for 3 hours to Seoul, to see her husband and other son. Strange situation to me, but fairly normal for a teacher working in a small village. 

The downside of this is that there is no-one around at the weekends, so there's no-one around to invite me for some food or just ask me where I'm off to, but the upside is that I don't have to feel guilty about seeking out my English-speaking friends living all over Gangwon-do because I wouldn't be hanging out with my Korean friends at the weekends anyway

I have been very lucky with my co-teachers. They are all fantastic people, and Sunny, Mrs Shin the secretary, and Su Jin the special needs teacher and my neighbour, in particular have all made me feel extremely welcome and they are true friends. I have got to know them well thanks to our weekly language exchange where we all speak English until someone remembers I need to learn some Korean too and I get a half hour lesson which I promptly forget as soon as I get home. As I think is normal with Koreans, sharing food is a big part of our friendship, and we all eat together during the language exchange, sometimes out, but more often fried chicken and grapes! Su Jin is a fried chicken addict. We had a chinese takeaway last night (it was Friday night but all the Korean teachers have to work every other Saturday so everyone was around) and there was far too much for us but Su Jin still got some chicken delivered! I've also eaten a chinese with her in the kindergarten classroom one night, and last weekend I decided to work at school on the Saturday morning and the two secretaries turned up with, guess what, fried chicken, and some plastic gloves to eat them with. We sat and stuffed ourselves in our classroom then got on with some work. Fantastic! 

Almost every weekend has been spent with some English friends. I went to Wonju after my first week here and finally experienced Noraebang which is like Lucky Voice but much much cheaper and no need to book! There are about 10 EPIK people I know in Wonju and we had great fun. And since then I've been to Gangneung to see Abid and Dorina, Carla has braved a very faffy trip to Hambaek to come and see me on the way to Gangneung, I've visited Sokcho to see Andy and Jo from Leeds and Yeongwol to see Nikki. There are always a lot of people who make the effort to all meet up every few weekends and it's great to catch up. I didn't think I'd be doing much hanging out with English friends because of where I live and because I naively thought I'd be hanging out with Koreans! Ha! 

But I've taken a bit of a break this weekend because I spend so much time traveling and wanted a bit of 'me-time'. So far that has just been spent shopping for a big winter coat (they didn't have the one I wanted one in my size! I'm not even that much taller than the Korean ladies really!) and coming back with a load of new clothes and finally, a 'yo' (that I need as a mattress pad because I no longer want to position myself between the springs of my mattress). It was a great trip - cycling down to the station this morning on my ladies bike in my 'city' coat I felt like I was in a WW2 film for some reason, then at the station a group of middle aged ladies befriended me in exchange for me carrying some of their stuff onto the train. I don't understand where they had been. It was first thing on a Saturday morning and they had bags and bags of fruit and veg with them. I hope they found some help on the other end too! I wonder what their respective men were doing. Then on the way back I stopped off in Yeongwol and saw three ladies engaging in a game of badminton on the pavement, and no-one complained about having to go into the road to get past. On a previous visit to Yeongwol I went into a shop and the shopkeeper was playing cello! And when I got to my bus stop to catch the bus home to Hambaek I met 3 of my Grade 6 students who were full of the chat. I'm not sure whether it was too clever of my to give one of them my number, but I doubt he'd have the guts to call me anyway! They were fab company on the bus and also tried to teach me some Korean. I'm really useless at retaining any of it! 

Journeys here have been long, but also beautiful and often interesting. With an exception of just two drunks on two separate occasions - once with Carla because she said 'he thinks we're Russian prostitutes' which woke him right up: "Russian?! Russian?!"; and another who saluted me, tried to sit next to me and stared at me so much that the train conductor had to intervene -  most of the people I meet are just really keen to practice their English. On the bus home from Seoul a high school boy politely asked if he could sit with me because he liked speaking English, his English was amazing! And I met a young Korean city gent who bought me coffee and biscuits and invited me to visit him in Seoul sometime (with his friends and I think he said girlfriend - he informed me I didn't need to worry about him anyway, whatever that meant) and today while I was waiting for the train in Jecheon a teenage girl struck up a conversation with me too. And then two little girls kept coming over on the train to say 'hello'. Another time a young girl came to sit with me to take a photo for her school homework which was to take a photo with a foreigner! So in some ways I'm experiencing the 'real Korea' as an intriguing foreigner anyway. 

I was worried that despite living in a village I wasn't having the 'Korean experience' I was hoping for. But then while I was eating takeaway with my friends last night it occurred to me that I'm just experiencing a different Korea to what I imagined. I have met modern Korean women my age and learned a lot about Korea from that experience alone. They all have the same concerns as us most women about jobs, families, relationships etc, yet so much is different. There are never any men invited to our get-togethers even though when there is a school outing everyone mixes. Last night we were in Su Jin's house and a group of the male teachers were drinking separately at the vice principal's house. Judging by the hushed voices and giggles, the ladies found something amusing or wrong about that, but on the face of it all is perfectly civilised and cheery. They find my own situation (travelling here alone without Brendan and being 31 and not married) bizarre but they are also totally accepting of it. And it's great fun that Sunny manages to bring the fact that she is looking for a handsome rich man into every language exchange topic! The serious side to this is that she is of course completely serious about wanting to find a man. She's 26 so needs to marry soon as far as Korean culture is concerned. Unluckily for her she's 'ended up' at this village school too and there are no eligible single men here. 

I've managed to do some walking too, but only once with Koreans, on a school teachers hiking outing which was great fun. I finally made it up to the Observatory with my friend Nikki. I've never walked such a steep route for such a long time, but it was well worth it for the amazing views! We were too scared to walk the same way down so we got a taxi! And a big group of us went to Seoraksan National Park for some hiking, we all split off into separate groups which was probably for the best but we had great fun weaving our way up the mountain along with around 100,000 other hikers! (Everyone here goes crazy for the autumn colours. At first I wondered what the big deal was, but it's very different to in the UK, a) because there are so many more trees, and it's so mountainous that there's just more of it and b) because it's the change is a bit slower. In the UK the leaves go orange, then brown, then fall off, here it lasts longer and there are more trees with red leaves too, so there is a beautiful mix). We also tried ginseng-soju which made fire in our bellies and gave us a great kick on the way down! We all met up afterwards for delicious food (having had a very tough time trying to find our way back to the motel) and shared stories from the hike. We all agreed to do it again sometime soon.


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Gemma Wood on

Great blog Erika - I can't wait to read more. x

Aagje on

Good one erika! x

Jo Finlay on

Hey Erika, nice blog. Nice to hear from you. x

tante Marijke on

Tjongejonge! wat een avontuur.
Fijn dat je je niet verveelt daar en prachtige trips kan maken.
Mooie foto's, sommige om van te ijzen, zó hoog.
Liefs van mij en oom Bas

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