Jeju Adventure, Part 1 

I’ve been living in Korea for over two years now, and one place that I knew I just had to visit before I eventually leave was Jeju Island. Located to the south of the mainland, about an hour’s flight from Busan Airport, it has been nicknamed “the Hawaii of Korea”. For Chuseok, Korean Thanksgiving, I had a 5-day weekend, so I thought this would be ideal for exploring Jeju. On Wednesday afternoon I touched down in the airport, and my first impression was of a place that was wet, warm and tropical. I saw lush greenery and palm trees everywhere. My hostel was in Jeju-si, which was a handy 15-minute bus ride away from the airport, but had the distinct disadvantage of being as far as possible from Seogwipo, which is the most scenic town on the island. On my first day I had a little wander around and familiarized myself with my hostel and local area. I also visited the Jeju Natural History and Folk Museum, which I really enjoyed. I only had an hour before it closed, but I still managed to see pretty much everything, unless they had a whole other section that I completely missed, which is totally possible. The Museum had lots of information about the formation of Jeju Island, which has been nicknamed the “Museum of Volcanoes” because there are so many different examples of volcanic activity on the island. I also learnt a bit about the fauna and flora of Jeju, including the literally hundreds of citrus varieties; at least 250 I believe. That’s a lot of oranges.
After I finished up at the Museum I walked back in the direction of my hostel. I was hoping to try some of the famed black-skinned pork barbeque, but the restaurant I asked only served groups of two or more people, so I had a sad meal of a convenience store kimbab and some local Jeju orange juice before heading back to read my book. At the hostel I got chatting to some of my dorm mates, who turned out to be quite nice, and definitely not serial killers, which is always a plus when you’re travelling.

The next day I went down to Seogwipo, to check out a couple of waterfalls there. The first one is called Jeongbang, it is apparently the only waterfall in Asia to fall directly into the sea (although some dispute this as it technically falls into a “sheltered cove” as opposed to directly into the sea; depends how pedantic you want to about it.). There is also a legend about this area- it states that Emperor Jin of China (259 BC – 210 BC) sent a servant, Seobul, to fetch the magical herbs of eternal youth from Mount Halla. Though he failed to find the herb, he encountered Jeongbang Falls on the way and he left his autographSeobul Gwaji (which literally means “Seobul was here”]), on the cliff wall, although it no longer remains, apparently. An inscription on the wall of the waterfall saying “Seobulgwacha”, refers to Seobul’s journey. After that I had some lunch at a place that, thankfully, served single diners, and went on my way. At the bus stop I got chatting to an older South African man who had been living in Jeju for a couple of years; not just Jeju in fact but Udo island, which is a small ferry trip away from Jeju. So it’s an island off an island, off the Korean mainland. Personally I can’t imagine living in a place so far and remote, but he seemed to really enjoy it. At this point I was hoping to go to Cheonjiyeon Falls and the Jusangjeolli sea cliffs, both of which are stunning- but it had started to rain, so I got off my bus and decided to potter around Ripley’s Believe It Or Not Museum until it cleared up. I wasn’t really sure what to expect, not being at all familiar with the franchise. It was an interesting enough place to spend an hour. There were lots of unusual things from other countries, like shrunken heads from South America (which reminded me of a terrifying show, called “Chico the Rain-Maker”, I saw a couple of times as a child) and people with unusual talents, like the man who could pop his eyes out of his sockets, or another whose trick was surviving extremely high temperatures.

After I finished this I hung out in a nearby Starbucks for a while, reading my book, until eventually I couldn’t avoid the rain any longer. At this point it was dark and I decided to leave the waterfall and cliffs for another day. Long story short, getting back to Jeju city was a bit of a nightmare. I didn’t have a clue which buses went from where, and because my phone had died I only had a vague idea of where I was. When I went to a convenience store and asked the man behind the counter to call me a taxi, he said all the taxis were booked up, presumably because of the weather, and my best bet was to go outside and try to hail one, or go to a nearby bus stop. Eventually I found a taxi and managed to get back to my hostel, where I went to bed after having dinner with one of my dorm mates.

Before dinner, though, I had a very interesting encounter with one of the other hostel guests. He was a middle-aged man from Singapore I’d met on my way out exploring the previous day, and he seemed quite friendly, so I was happy enough to see him when I was chilling in the hostel dining area. I soon regretted that I had. He talked on and on about what he had gotten up to, and I quickly got the vibe that I would be here all night hearing him talk at me, instead of a pleasant five-minute chat. Don’t get me wrong, he was interesting, but at the same time I don’t have much energy for people who dominate the conversation to that extent, and I was already tired and just wanted to read my book. Admittedly I asked him a couple of questions, mostly out of curiosity and a little out of politeness. He more or less gave me a mini history lesson on Singapore, condensing the city’s recent past into a few minutes. He also gave me his life story, and at one point actually broke into song to illustrate an epiphany he had about his work-life balance, and general life’s purpose. For interested readers, the song was “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” from The Sound of Music. That’s right- an extremely talkative, middle- aged Singaporean man sang “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” in the middle of a (thankfully empty) hostel dining area, with its red plastic chairs and cute thank you notes pinned to the wall, while I sat there awkwardly trying to smile politely. He’s really doing it, I thought. He’s actually singing. Should I clap when he’s finished? I didn’t applaud his performance, just gave a kind of encouraging nod, and wondering if my smile still seemed natural or if he had picked up on how forced it was. He hadn’t, of course. Eventually I managed to get away. I probably sound like a right unsociable grump, but I have very little time for people who have no interest at all in the person they’re talking to, except as a willing audience that they can talk at. Don’t get me wrong, we all can get carried away with a topic when we’re excited, or drunk- but behaviour that’s acceptable in close friends and family can be obnoxious in strangers, even if they are well-meaning. And besides, it’s not like he was entitled to my time- it was my holiday too!

Stay tuned for Part 2 of my Jeju holiday in the next few days!

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Teaching ESL in Korea- Part II

My last blog was an introduction to my job, and what a regular day looks like for a public school teacher here. Now I want to write in a little more depth about teaching ESL in Korea, the level of my students and the Korean education system.

I teach kids aged 9-12, or Grade 3 to Grade 6. My favourite students are the older kids, they are just very sweet and actually listen in class when I ask them to. I also like the younger kids, they make me laugh and have so much enthusiasm.

For my youngest, I’m really trying to get them all speaking, get them familiar and comfortable with English, take it slow and steady, and especially get them comfortable with the alphabet. I don’t actually like the way the alphabet is presented in the textbooks we use; instead of having the first couple of chapters dedicated to the alphabet, letters are randomly scattered throughout each chapter, so students might learn F and V whilst also learning how to say “Do you like curry?” “Yes, I do”. This is far from ideal in my opinion, but I try to work around it. I make printouts of the letters that the kids can colour in, and also get them to play games where they make letter shapes with their bodies (think YMCA song). It’s pretty fun, and between that and role play activities and games I manage to keep the lesson quite varied and fun. There are five periods for each lesson for the younger kids, so they have just over a month to become familiar with it before they have to be assessed on it. My students have midterms this week, and it’s a combination of written tests, listening tests and speaking tests.

Like my 3rd Graders, my 4th Grade have five periods for each lesson. The lessons build upon what they’ve (hopefully) learnt in 3rd Grade and the lessons are a little more complicated. For example, they learn the present continuous and past simple tenses.

5th grade and 6th grade both have seven periods per lesson. Personally, I find it really difficult to find enough activities to fill the full seven periods and keep it interesting. One period towards the end is devoted to a hand-puppet show. I divide the students into groups and they have to use the key phrases they’ve learnt for that lesson to write the dialogue for their mini-play. They they perform in front of their class. I also play lots of games, and give them worksheets and word-searches.

If I could change one thing about my work schedule, it would be to spend more time with individual classes and build up their speaking ability- but of course, if I did that then students in other classes would miss out. There is definitely a gap, or variation in English level, between students within the same grade, and unfortunately this gap seems to only widen the older they get. I wish I could make more of a difference as a public school teacher- and I’m aware that for some of them, the 40 minutes they spend with me every week is the only contact with a native teacher they’ll have, so I take it very seriously. However, the ones who really excel in English tend to be the students whose parents have both the means and inclination to send them to hagwons after they have finished school for the day. Overall, however, I am quite concerned about the ability of many of my students.

Besides the fact that some of them only have contact with me once a week, I take issue with the Korean education system in general, and believe it isn’t conducive to learning a foreign language. Many Koreans have quite a bit of English, but they are afraid to speak in case they make mistakes. While I’m not arguing this fear is unique to Korea, I feel the shame and fear around making mistakes is especially strong, and this obviously hinders their development in English, which requires them to make, and learn from, mistakes.

Along with this, the Korean education system really focuses on memorization and rote learning- again, not useful when trying to gain confidence and fluency in a language, although it probably helps with vocabulary and grammar. And while I know education systems in other countries are guilty of this, I feel that Korea is still quite an extreme example. The education system definitely has its good points- the level of literacy here is one of the highest in the world, and my 3rd graders are solving mathematical problems that intimidate me. But I wish it allowed flexibility and encouraged creativity a little more, and wasn’t such an intensive and pressurised environment for the kids.

A Wee Spiel on Life as an English Teacher in South Korea

Whoops it’s been a VERY long time since I last blogged. I guess you could say I took my summer holidays from blogging for a bit. If you read my last blog, you can probably guess I was over the moon at the referendum result, where “Yes” won by a landslide. So proud of the people of Ireland right now.

Anyway, I realise that I haven’t written very much about my actual job, the place where I spend most of my time in South Korea and my reason for being here in the first place. Recent events in my personal life have made me realise just how much happiness my jobs brings me. So without further ado, here is a little bit about my working life.

I get up in the morning and have to be in work by 8:30. This is pretty standard for public schools. Hagwons, or after school/private tuition centres, usually start later. For me, classes run from 9-2:40 with an hour’s lunch break, but I’m usually finished by lunchtime at 1. I have anywhere between 3-5 classes a day, each lasting 40 minutes and there is a 10 minute break between every class. I think having that little breathing room between classes makes a world of difference, for both kids and teachers. I teach in an elementary school, where kids start learning English at age 9 (third grade). I teach third, fourth, fifth and sixth grades, and my favourite are the oldest kids by a mile. For some reason it just happens to be a year full of lovely kids.

Whenever I’m not teaching, I’m usually sitting in the English office planning lessons, or procrastinating on Buzzfeed Food. I finish work at 4:30 every day.

Something I really appreciate are the school lunches- they’re so good! It’s generally kimchi, rice and soup plus something else, but they always manage to mix it up and keep it from getting boring (I guess it doesn’t hurt that there are 200 different varieties of kimchi!) I’ve met some people who are vegetarian or who can’t adjust to the kind of food their school serves, and that sounds awful. For me food plays such a big part of my enjoyment of life. I actually found Korean food was a little bit of an acquired taste, but after a couple of months I couldn’t imagine not eating kimchi every day.

One thing I’m pretty lucky with is that I plan one lesson each week for each of my four different grades, and then I teach that lesson five or six times. This is because my school is quite big, so each grade is divided into five or six different classes. It’s great because by the time I’m teaching my last class I’ve ironed out all the kinks that came up in my first class, and it’s much more exhausting planning four or five lessons a day and teaching them only once (which is what many teachers in hagwons and smaller schools have to do).

So, to sum up, the perks of my job are-

The hours. Yes, I do have to get up early- but I’m out the door at 4:30. I’m able to go to bed and get up at normal hours and can enjoy doing things like zumba and meeting my friends in the evening.

The food. I’m so lucky with my school’s cafeteria!

The type of work. I plan one lesson and can reuse that lesson five or six times, and have much more free time at work than I’m used to.

The kids. At first I thought this would be a fairly obvious point- but anyone who has worked with kids knows that they can be little shits. They really absolutely can. I’m lucky to work with kids under 12 (I’m a huge dork so I feel my personality works with that age) and the vast majority of them are wonderful. There’s always someone who makes me laugh every day, and this job is the reason why I’m considering with kids in the future.

Protection. Because my job is a government one, my contract has been written by the regional Office of Education, and as such offers me a higher level of protection than a typical hagwon, which is basically a business venture. Most of the horror stories I’ve heard about mistreatment of native English teachers in Korea comes from these hagwons. However, if my boss ever tried to break contract and screw me over, I could ring up the Education Office straight away.

Last but not least, my 5-10-minute commute. On foot.

And the downsides? For me personally there are very few- but I am the only native English speaker in my school. There are many lovely staff members working there, but if it weren’t for one particular Korean English teacher with whom I’ve become very good friends, I would be quite lonely. This is especially true when I go to teacher events, like staff dinners. It usually involves me sitting listening to Korean being spoken for a long time, and my Korean is okay, but not good enough yet to fully follow the conversation or contribute much to it. There are other things I dislike in work, but these I’ll address properly in another blog.

Why It Matters

It’s taken me a long time to write about this, because I really wanted to get my thoughts in order and do it justice. I don’t have much to say that hasn’t already been said, but my voice isn’t less important than other people’s, and this is something I care about so much. If we vote yes, we will be the first country in the world where gay marriage was passed by a popular vote, and I will be so proud. But if we vote no, I’ll be ashamed and it’ll be just another reason I’m glad I’m living in Korea, and not at home.

What really bothers me about the discussion around the referendum is how muddied the waters have been thanks to the ‘no’ campaigners. This is not about children, surrogacy or adoption, yet the ‘no’ side keep bringing in children to play on people’s emotions. This referendum is purely about whether two men, or two women, can get married. That’s it. And it’s very hard to rationally and reasonably argue against that without sounding bigoted, because there is no reason why gay people can’t marry. To be able to marry, and to choose who you marry, is a basic human right. And denying that to someone based on their sexual orientation is discrimination. If people today tried to apply the same rules to people based on their skin colour, there would be uproar- but in the United States interracial marriages weren’t fully legal until 1967. And, just like the children of gay parents today, children of mixed-race marriages were once considered to be at a huge disadvantage because of their heritage. As we know today, the only disadvantage that comes to mixed-race children is any discrimination they experience from racist adults around them. In every other way they are perfectly fine. This is very much the case with children of gay parents. A list of scholarly articles on children’s wellbeing families headed by gay parents has been put together here.

    http://whatweknow.law.columbia.edu/topics/lgbt-equality/what-does-the-scholarly-research-say-about-the-wellbeing-of-children-with-gay-or-lesbian-parents/   

Of the 75 studies chosen, 71 conclude that children of gay parents fare no better or worse than children in straight families. There are 4 studies which conclude that children of gay parents are worse off; however they have been criticised for choosing children from broken families for their samples.

So that’s the children argument taken care of. Without that, the ‘no’ campaign doesn’t have much to stand on. The whole “it’s unnatural” argument is a thinly veiled way of saying you find gay sex icky. Personally I find the idea of sex with a bigot nauseating, but hey, you don’t find me campaigning against their rights! Also homosexuality is found in nature in 1500 of species, so it’s clearly pretty natural. You can read more about homosexuality in nature here.
http://www.news-medical.net/news/2006/10/23/1500-animal-species-practice-homosexuality.aspx

http://pactiss.org/2011/11/17/1500-animal-species-practice-homosexuality/

The “we’re redefining marriage” argument that canvassers love to parrot isn’t actually true, we’re just extending marriage to more people who want it. No-one will be forced to marry anyone they don’t want to. Also, marriage is a human institution, so it’s been constantly changing. People have married for practical and financial reasons, not just for financial reasons. Of course people married to have children, but as a society we’ve moved past that now. Some couples don’t want kids. And personally, I think marriage between two loving, committed and consenting adults is far better than a man and a young girl, a man and a prisoner of war, a rapist and victim, a widow and her brother-in-law, and basically every other kind of marriage found in the Bible.

If you’re against marriage for religious reasons, and you’re a Christian, then you’re wrong. I’m a Christian too, and if I could vote, I would whole-heartedly vote yes. We are called to follow Christ, and live guided by compassion and love. Do you really think it’s Christian to deny basic human rights to your fellow humans? To allow society to continue to make them feel that they are somehow inferior? That they are disgusting? That they would make bad parents? All because of whom they love? Because these are the messages sent out constantly, and gay people in Ireland have said that the ‘no’ campaign has made them feel like shit. As a Christian, I know that’s not ok. As a Christian, I believe in equality, and I really wish more Christians did too. Jesus hung out with sex workers and tax collectors, who were looked down on; he was originally meant to be a source of strength for the poor and disenfranchised, and if he was around today I’d be surprised if he were to vote ‘no’.

Also, that whole Leviticus argument? I know for a fact no-one follows everything in Leviticus to the letter- it bans eating shellfish, pork and having messy hair, plus a lot of other things that make literally no sense.

So that’s my two cents on the referendum this Friday. Here’s hoping Ireland does the right thing.

Vote yes.

#DearMe- Advice for My Younger Self

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Dear Teenage Lizzy,

I’m taking a little break from housework to write this for International Women’s Day, because housework will always be there! I’ve been thinking for a while about what I would say here- I’m really sorry that you feel so crappy sometimes and feel so negatively about yourself- but when you get older you’ll realise that it genuinely was mostly down to hormones and the enormous changes that went on between the ages of 13 and 17. You’ll also learn to handle that horrible inner critic, even if you never silence her completely. In a lot of ways, you’ll miss the simplicity of your life, especially the first three years of secondary school- you just had your friends, your piano and your PS3, and were perfectly content.

As you get older, you’ll learn what your more sensible friends already know, and wish you would learn now- that boys are completely overrated. Maybe it’s the lack of having male friends around at a younger age, but you’ll eventually learn that guys are basically just human beings too, and nothing special. In fact you’ll grow pretty tired of a lot of things about them.

Teeange Lizzy, you don’t have the smoothest journey ahead of you. But it will be made so much easier and happier by your best friends now. You knew pretty early on how special Ciara and Una were, and they will continue to inspire you. Your sister will play a massive role in who you grow to be- she was probably the first person who made you think criticially, and your life would be a lot worse off without her. College will be quite hard in a lot of ways, especially being away from your parents. Yes, having freedom to come home at any hour, or not come home at all, is liberating; but being away from their care and, I hate to write it but, their protection- it wasn’t always easy. But again, your closest friends will make everything easier. In college you’ll discover that you were always a feminist, and the things you read and learn daily in the name of true feminism will inspire you and change your life.

Teenage Lizzy and College Lizzy, I promise you, it gets better. You will learn so many things. You will become better at spotting other people’s bullshit- you just need to trust your intuition more. You will become stronger and more resilient. The most valuable lesson that you will learn is that you really only need yourself to be happy. Yes, you need the company of others, but the decisions that you make for your happiness, and to put yourself first, will not be things you regret. You will learn that the ability and the responsibility to turn your dreams into reality rests with you, and you alone. You will learn to really figure out what you want. You will move to the other side of the world, not knowing a soul, and absolutely thrive. You will learn that people either complain about not having the things they want, or work hard everyday to achieve it, and you will figure out quickly which camp you’d rather fit into.

Dear Teenage/College Lizzy, if I could give you any advice, this would be it. Be nicer to yourself. It all starts with you, so don’t indulge your inner critic. Trust that it’ll all get easier. Make time for your girlfriends; always put them before boyfriends. Be nicer and less of a teenage drama-queen with your parents; they’re trying their best. Write to your Granny more, she won’t always be around. And, like always, make the most of every day, enjoy the little things and live in the present.

By the way, I know you’d absolutely jump at the chance to visit Japan. Well that hasn’t changed in over 10 years and Future Lizzy is taking care of it.
Love,
2015 Lizzy

Adventure in Thailand Part Two: Half-Moon Madness

A couple of hours after leaving Koh Tao I landed in Koh Phangan. I only spent a few days here, and it doesn’t have the same place in my heart as Koh Tao, but it was certainly a lot of fun and I would like to go back someday. Two events worth mentioning took place here. The first was a day trip, which began in the morning as we boarded a boat which brought us out to a small island a couple of hours away from Koh Phangan. Here we went snorkeling for a while- I was just happy to be back in the water again. What made it even better was that Fadzai had her GoPro which captured some videos of fish feeding and underwater selfies. I think it was during this very happy period that I got dreadful sunburn, as I noticed it soon afterwards when we went back to the boat for lunch. The sun in Koh Phangan was the strongest I’ve ever experienced in my life, and I used to live in India. After lunch we went sea-kayaking around Ang Thon, an island where we disembarked and climbed for a while to see the lake from the film ‘The Beach’. Finally, after a mid-afternoon snack, we went on a short hike to see a cave. That day was a combination of gorgeous views, fun, and horrendous sunburn.

The following evening was the night of the half-moon party. It is a quieter, but still fun version of the more (in)famous full-moon party. The half-moon party takes place in the jungle, instead of on the beach. To be completely honest I was very drunk by the time we arrived, but I remember the ticket was 1000 baht and included a couple of free drinks. One of the things I loved about Koh Phangan was that, while you could get ordinary drinks and cocktails, you could also get a BUCKET. That’s right, a whole bucket, of mojito or rum and coke, to yourself- or share, if you want to be a little bit sensible, even though you already have a face full of fluorescent paint and a belly full of vodka. Well, the bucket seemed like a great idea at the time and, to be totally honest, it still seems like a great idea. And when you’ve finished, it’s a great vomit receptacle- talk about your double-duty! And on that note I must conclude my blog about my adventures in Thailand. The morning after, which was already bad enough, I said goodbye to my friends and, to be honest, my holiday felt like it was finished at that point. I still met some characters on my way home, including a guy who was shoeless for religious reasons, and a vegetable-allergic Israeli, and a Jewish version of Buster from ‘Arrested Development’, but for the next few days I was basically constantly travelling. I felt my holiday was just the right combination of adventure and relaxation, but what made it truly wonderful was the company I had.

Holiday favourites and recommendations-

To stay- Big Fish resort in Chalok Baan Koh Tao. I had a lovely room for only 600 baht/night, but if you can view your room before you book, try to, as I think there might be some variety in quality.

Thai Dee Garden Resort in Koh Phangan, run by a Korean man who seemed really chilled. Again, I was really happy with my room. I had air con and a hot shower for 700 baht/night.

A’n’A Guesthouse on Rambuttri St, Bangkok. I can’t actually remember how much I paid for this place, but I think it was pretty cheap- what really struck me was how good the internet was here. It was just a basic guesthouse but the internet only cut out a couple of times, compared to the last time I was in Bangkok, when I checked in at a ‘fancy’ hotel and the wifi barely worked at all.

To do: Diving! Alvaro Diving was the name of my dive school, located at the end of the concrete walkway at the end of the beach at Chalok. Very chilled, relaxed atmosphere; however their attitude to safety is not at all cavalier and they take it seriously. Basically, I met lots of lovely people here who wanted to share their love of diving. Note- I booked accommodation elsewhere before I began diving, so I can’t comment on the accommodation Alvaro provide for their courses.

Ocean Sound Diving was where my two friends did their courses, and they both seemed very happy with it, and with the accommodation provided. One of my friends actually did a 2-day advanced course with the same school as soon as he’d finished the first one.

When I was in Koh Phangan I did a tour to the Ang Thon National Marine Park. There are several tour companies offering packages to this park; try to do your homework and go with a reputable one bearing the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) License.

Thai massage: If you visit Thailand you will dozens of places offering these- the best way to get a good Thai massage is by simply asking one of the locals to recommend a place. I did this in Koh Tao and ended up at a little hut sticking out from Carabao Diving on Chalok Beach. It feels a bit weird at first because, compared with other places, there isn’t that much privacy, but I would still happily go back. In Bangkok I got an oil massage at Baan Thai Massage and Beauty on Rambuttri Street- I think this place was a little bit more expensive than many places, like maybe 100 or 200 baht more, but well worth it. I actually fell asleep a couple of times during my message, something which probably won’t happen during a Thai massage!

Safety note: While I am recommending diving, and massage, make sure you don’t have any kind of massage for at least a few hours after diving. I can’t remember all the details exactly, but it’s one of the things you shouldn’t do very soon after diving due to residual nitrogen in your system.

Transport: If you’re in Bangkok, avoid taxis and buses because you’ll be stuck there all day. Instead, take motorbike taxis, auto rickshaws, the subway or the skytrain. The last two are especially excellent, clean and reliable.

Overnight buses/trains: Cheaper than flying and can be a nice way of seeing the countryside. Obvious downside is that it takes much longer, and trains can be delayed.

Eating and drinking: Mango and sticky rice, Pad Thai, fresh fruit, coconut water and lassis. There’s an amazing sandwich/breakfast food stall across the road from Ocean Sound on the main street in Chalok, the food there is really cheap and delicious.

Stuff to avoid

Any form of accommodation which looks like a crime scene.

Overpriced food and drink.

Scams: Bangkok is full of people who want to take you on spontaneous ‘tours’, or to buy gemstones, or who will tell you the museum/temple you want to visit is closed- don’t listen to them, they will rip you off. Be polite but don’t actually go anywhere with anyone you don’t know. As with everything, do your research before you go.

Giving offence: Whatever you do, do not insult any member of the royal family- not only is it incredibly rude, it could get you into a lot of trouble. Do not cover any pictures of the King or Queen, and when using money, which has the King’s face printed, unravel it properly before handing it over.

Feet are considered dirty, so when sitting down, don’t have your feet pointing in the direction of a person, or a picture/statue of Buddha or of the King/Queen. If you accidentally drop money don’t step on it. In a lot of places you will have to remove shoes before stepping inside, so if feel anxious about other people’s feet you could always bring a spare pair of socks.

Holiday in Thailand

For my long-awaited and badly needed winter vacation I found myself planning a visit to Koh Tao with two of my friends, Fadzai and Adrian, who were travelling from Ireland. Actually I knew there would be other islands after Koh Tao but wasn’t planning everything down to the last detail, which was nice. Very late on Saturday night I arrived in hot Bangkok airport, having befriended a very pleasant and chatty fellow English teacher, an American working in the Jeolla province, during the plane journey. My first night in Bangkok was spent in a dorm at the Saihaipae Hostel, which, from the little time I spent there, seemed quite nice (I will include a more detailed review of places in another post).

I (finally!) got to see my friends at breakfast on Sunday morning and after breakfast we decided to visit Chatachuk, ie Asia’s largest market. I’d already visited this market in August but as it’s so big I was happy to return (plus, visiting it is an experience in itself even if you buy nothing). Well, the trip there took an unpleasant term. Oh it all began harmlessly enough, buying Kardashian-esq sunglasses and adorable anklets that, combined with the sun, sang of summer- even in January. It began as any shopping trip would until we turned into a number of shops that we affectionately nicknamed ‘Fish District’ due to, you guessed it, the fish on sale. Most fish were happily swimming about large tanks but we noticed some smaller ones in plastic bags on the ground, which I was terrified of stepping on. It didn’t look like they had much room in there. Soon we noticed the creatures were getting less fish-like. We had left Fish District and had wandered into Pet City. Fluffy, tiny puppies (where are their mommies?) didn’t have enough room to run around it, there were birds of all sorts and I think I spied a few squirrels. Funnily enough I don’t remember any cats or kittens but there might have been the odd lizard or turtle. To be honest after a while it just became overwhelming. Then I noticed some live worms slithering around in a box, which made my skin crawl. Then a horrible thought struck me- what if this place sells ALL kinds of animals? What if they sell enormous spiders? I was already a little stressed, it was hot, the walkway between stores was narrow, and a little panic rose to the surface. If I’m in a new environment, or I’m stressed or just having a bad day, seeing a big spider is much worse than seeing it on a good day when I’m on top of the world. Or sometimes, if I’m stressed, the idea of it being somewhere nearby pops into my head, like my brain is playing a horrible trick on me just to push me that little more. We eventually made it out alive (there were no spiders there by the way) and even found a place that served really nice fruit shakes, so all was right with the world. After this little adventure we decided to head back to the hostel, where our post-check-out luggage was, and make our way to Khao San Road for our overnight bus.

After a long and bumpy journey, first on the overnight bus, then the speedboat, we landed on Koh Tao, or Turtle Island. After we’d checked in we wasted no time in getting to the beach, where it felt like years of yearning after photos of palm trees and boats in travel catalogues had finally come to fruition. Dipping in the sea under the blue sky after hours of being stuck on a bus and boat was heaven, and the view when one looked around was stunning. After chilling in the sea for a while we decided to get some food, and I couldn’t help but think how low my stress levels were compared to only a few days earlier.

Arrival in paradise

Arrival in paradise

The next couple of days involved lazing by the beach, reading, naps, eating, mani-pedis… you get the idea. However, while it was really nice at first, I have to admit that after a couple of days of being lazy, I started to get really bored. I only saw my friends in the evening, as during the day they were busy with their diving courses, and I began to wonder if I’d made a huge mistake by not signing up to one as well. On Wednesday, I spent a couple of hours snorkeling with the folks at a local dive school. I’ll never forget the moment I put my head under the water and saw the fish and coral so clearly. One moment I was looking at the surface of the ocean; the next this completely new world was visible to me. I’m aware of how cheesy and clichéd that sounds, but diving has been such a revelation to me that I’m still struggling to find the right words to really describe it. Having already enjoyed snorkeling, I did my first fun dive on Friday morning. Following a brief safety video, we went out to the boat and my instructor explained the basics- how to assemble gear, how to equalize my ears, hand signals, etc. While I didn’t panic exactly, it took me a couple of attempts to actually descend properly on my first dive. All I could think was ‘hell no, I’m going back up!’ But soon I adjusted and really enjoyed it. What I have learnt so far is I have a lot of work to do in terms of my buoyancy and controlling my underwater movement- I basically have to work at not crashing into other people or coral. I was amazed at how close I can get to most fish without scaring them- they just don’t really seem to care about divers. I finished my first dive and very quickly realized I would be miserable if I left Koh Tao without finishing a three-day course; the fun dive being, conveniently, day one of three. Over the five dives I did in total, I saw iridescent parrot fish, a moray eel and a triggerfish, plus countless others and plenty of coral. I often find myself reminiscing about the moment I was a few metres under the water, maybe 8 or 10, and I looked up to the surface to watch the dappled sunlight in the water. I was genuinely sad to leave Koh Tao, something which hasn’t happened for quite a while in travelling, but I believe that learning to dive and meeting some of the people I did there was a big part of that.

EPIK Orientation 2014 in Seoul

So it is now two weeks since I came home from my EPIK orientation in Seoul. For those of you who don’t know, EPIK stands for English Programme in Korea and is basically the government programme for public schools (as opposed to private schools, or hagwons). If you’re working in a public school there’s a good chance you’re part of EPIK or GEPIK, but that’s not always necessarily the case. When I first heard I had orientation and training, I felt a combination of ‘Yay, Seoul! But… Do I really need orientation 4 months into a contract? Seems a bit silly really…. Holy shit, look at our timetable! I have more free time than THAT when I’m working!’ Looking back though, I absolutely would not change anything about the week, and here’s why.

I learnt lots. Our introductory lectures included Korean history and culture, which was really interesting, and we also had lectures on classroom techniques, lesson planning, after-school classes and camps, etc. Some of the topics I’d already covered in my TEFL certificate, but I picked up plenty of new tips and tricks, and I think that if you want to be a really great teacher you need to keep learning. Also, the quality of the speakers chosen by EPIK was outstanding. Really, they were excellent. I did notice that the speakers were mostly Western guys and Korean ladies and the men tended to outshine the women a little bit, but personally I think that’s just a culture thing, and good speakers from a culture very different to ours will be a little wasted on us compared to good speakers from a culture we are much more familiar with. But I’m getting off the point here- I really did enjoy the lectures even after six hours of them everyday!

I was able to experience Korean culture. Like I mentioned already, this took the form of a lecture, but we experienced taegwondo (which was a highlight for me personally) Korean language lessons (in my case, badly needed) and a trip to the theatre to see a highly entertaining Korean musical. You didn’t even need to understand Korean to see it, as the few speaking/singing parts and narration had an English translation on a screen to the side. My favourite scene was when these horses started dancing around this high-end prostitute, I guess they were meant to be entranced by her beauty? Anyway, I loved all these different experiences which helped me learn just a little more of the wonderful country that is to be my home for the foreseeable future. Also, all of this was paid for by the Korean government. Nice one lads.

Last but most certainly not least, I met some really amazing people. It was great to meet other teachers from all over the world who are in exactly the same boat as I am, and yet in our different stories and backgrounds, there’s so much variety, that it’s really interesting to hear how other people ended up here. I was lucky enough to meet another Irish girl (about feckin’ time!) who lives in Gangwon and another girl who shares my faith in the Jeolla province. My only real complaint about the week is that I wish I’d had more time to socialise and bond with everyone, and a little more freedom to do so (we had a 12pm curfew. We did not like this curfew). But we had some great laughs over the week and it reminded me why I came here in the first place, and why I love my job so much.

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A photo of us all at taegwondo. English teachers fighting!

Life in Korea- The Heat is On!

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I’ve decided that any Korea blogs should come under the title Life in Korea which can then be shortened to the acronym LIK. Ya know, pronounced like ‘lick’. Hehehe. Simple things please simple minds guys….

As the title would suggest, it is HOT in Korea right now. It’s very muggy and humid and I honestly can’t remember a time I wasn’t sweating without AC (and sometimes even with AC, as some smarty pants at our school decided that 26 degrees is such a comfortable temperature that the whole school’s AC system should be stuck at that. Without the option of lowering it.) This morning I was running around at school trying to sort something out for summer camp, and my LEG was sweating. When do you ever get sweat droplets on your leg?! However, I will point out that the heat here is bearable for me, maybe because I endured Indian summer heat without AC two years ago. Character-building stuff that is. Also I think Geoje Island is fairly temperate for Korea so yay for that.

Besides the weather, what’s been overwhelmingly on my mind lately is how very happy, content and free I feel here. I don’t think I’ve ever really felt this kind of freedom. Some people talk about the freedom of college, but I always had to be careful with money. I guess I felt a certain freedom in India, but again with the money thing.
Right now I have a great job that I really enjoy, with really fantastic coworkers. I finish every day at 4:30. I get a good salary and a rent-free apartment. It’s not that those things though, it’s the little things about Korea.

I love the way shops and cafes don’t close at stupid o’clock and actually stay open until 8, 9, 10 at night. I love the way my AC unit and washing-machine play little songs when I turn them on or off. I love the ice-coffee vending machines (this should be a thing everywhere). I love Etude House and Skinfood beauty shops. I love Daiso, a super-cute household store nearby. Has absolutely everything you need with cute smiley faces for between 75c and 3.60. I LOVE the food here, kimchi is too spicy but everything else is basically amazing. Koreans do amazing dessert cafes, my favourite one is just down the road from me, closes at 10 every night and serves amazing cheesecake and coffees. I like going in there because when my internet was down the lady who owns it was such a good sport about me staying in there for ages using her wifi and skyping. Koreans also have this massive dessert called patbingsu, massive as in you definitely need to share it. It’s basically a huge bowl of shaved ice, sweetened red bean, ice-cream and rice balls.

I think my favourite thing about life here, besides the sheer convenience of everything, is that I don’t feel obligated to anything or anyone. As long as I do a good job at work, that’s it. I have the freedom to say ‘What do I feel like doing this evening/weekend? Maybe I’ll stay in, watch a movie or read a book. Maybe I’ll exercise. Maybe I’ll look into planning my next holiday. Maybe I’ll meet my friends for a drink. Maybe I’ll go hiking’. Obviously there are some limitations on my time and money, and there are some things I feel I should do. As in, I should go to Korean lessons (and I want to, too! But I get tired) and I should exercise. And I should make an effort to socialise so I don’t go completely batshit.

I guess on the topic of this newfound freedom, I should mention a weird internal dilemma I’ve been having. Part of me wants to just do whatever I want, live for the moment, enjoy everything and not think past tomorrow. And why not? Worrying and planning for the future just seems like a huge waste of energy. I spent so much time looking forward to Korea and doing stuff to get myself here that now I actually am finally here I want to just enjoy it. The other side of me, the annoying, practical part of my brain I can’t switch off, actually can’t stop trying to forward plan after my contract finishes in May. What will I do when my contract finishes? Will I extend it and stay on for an extra year? Will I go home? If I go back to Ireland, what am I going back to? Unemployment? What if I can’t find a job and have to move back in with my parents (please God no….) So it is a difficulty trying to balance this freedom with practicality. I’m trying to save money, which isn’t too difficult, so at least that’s something very practical taken care of. Other than that I’m trying not to listen to unhelpful thoughts (seriously though, our brains are the worst sometimes). Hopefully it’ll all work itself out, because I won’t let negative thoughts ruin my time in Korea. I’m determined about that.

Aplogies this ended up being such a long blog post, if you’ve read this far then you’re a trooper! As a reward here’s a picture of some lovely plastic flowers I bought at Daiso to cheer up my apartment, the bunch plus the pail only cost like a tenner or less 🙂

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Chat

My First Month in Korea

A new blog feels very overdue, and this one especially. I arrived in Korea just over a month ago and have been teaching since then. It would be an understatement to say it has been an emotional rollercoaster; the highs feel high but the lows feel very low. To be honest though most of the time has been spent muddling along trying to make sense of everything and get used to it. I have felt terribly homesick; Skype is an amazing cure for that. That and Netflix (although you have to get VPN to watch it here, and my VPN cuts out my internet every 20 minutes. Errgh). But I feel as though I have absolutely no right to complain about anything. Koreans are so friendly! And the teachers at my school are just fun, they are definitely a motivation to learn Korean. Today, two of the teachers in my school drove me around a couple of local gyms in my area for me to check out, just because I asked one of them for advice on joining one!

At the moment I love teaching, especially 9 and 10 year olds (which would be my youdisnger kids)- I feel as though their enthusiasm gives me energy. I’m also lucky to teach at a public school (as opposed to hagwon) and have lunch provided to me for a very low fee. And on our little gym-hunt today, the guys showed me a very small gym in our school that I can use for free! It’s just a small room but it has everything I need, sorted!

To be honest, even I have to admit that the only thing that’s been an obstacle to settling in is the sense of what I’ve left behind. From an emotional/sentimental point of view, I feel I was wealthy in Ireland. But that’s basically it. From a financial and employability point of view, I have nothing. In Korea I have a good salary considering I don’t have to pay rent and am free after 4:30 every week day. True my free apartment gets damp in the winter, is already pretty mouldy and has very fimsy, thin walls- but you could get that for 80euros a week in Ireland.

I’m glad though that in only a month I have learnt one fairly important thing about myself- if I want something enough I’ll make it happen. And I guess it seems fairly obvious (because, I mean, who wouldn’t make their dream happen?) but over the past couple of years I was starting to really doubt myself. I got lazy and let important things slide. I didn’t get a fantastic degree and deep down I think I could have done better. And I’m not saying those things are ok- underachieving isn’t ok, and of course leads to regret. but it’s nice to realise if something matters enough to me, I’ll make it happen. I guess now is just a question of figuring out what really matters, career-wise.

A couple of things I’ve learnt from being in Korea, because I love lists:

Yes, everything really is super-kawaii and cute- although I recently discovered, to my mild horror, that my favourite cutesy store is in fact Japanese… controversial!
Like every other country, Korea has its contradictions. I will probably blog about this at a later date.
Korea’s meant to be one of the safest countries in…. maybe the world? Anyway it’s super-safe! But I’ll be so happy if I make it all through my contract without being involved in a traffic accident.
Elevator doors close super-fast here. Like, you really need to be fast so you don’t get crushed.
Skincare here is just as amazing as you’d think and fairly cheap for the quality. And the men get on board with it too (I wish Irish men would do that! Although I’m reminded of that episode of South Park with the metrosexual crab people. So maybe not).
Also, people are very well-dressed here, an I could totally get on board with the cute dresses/skirts, light cardigan and strappy sandals/wedges combination which is very popular here.