Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Mothering or mithering?

I feel it can be a very fine line, whilst a person may intend to be mothering (caring/maternal) they can actually be received as rather mithering.

So far I've been rather fortunate with my co-teachers. I feel I generally have a pretty accepting and patient nature. However, I have a new 5th grade co-teacher, and I'm trying to believe this one means well. But, I feel this could be an ongoing saga with various twists and turns.

My new co-teacher Mrs. Oh (not her real name) is older than me, she is in her 50's (ajumma). "In Korean society, this automatically places me in the position of lower status and importance. A person of lower status is expected to respect and obey, and the person of higher status is supposed to look after and protect. It's part of the Confucian social system, and sometimes it's a bit like taking the parent-child relationship and applying it to the whole of society". Teaching English in Korea.

I'm already finding Mrs. Oh's manner quite, well I'm feeling rather mithered. Unfortunately, this serves to magnify trivial things so they also seem more irritating, such as some of the personal questions the lack of personal space, and the petting. I am tending to hope that we don't cross paths on our way to/from school. On one occasion when did walk and chat, Mrs. Oh asked me about my plans for Chuseok. I told her about all of the things I planned to do with my friends (male and female, she asked me to clarify). 
Mrs. Oh said "Oh, I think you like to live a joyful life".
I smiled and said "I try."
Now this might seem innocuous, but I'm wary that Mrs. Oh processes information differently, Korean's focus on diligence, and her generally judgemental manner concerns me. Something I might say innocently, could be processed very differently in her mind. Sometimes, I actually feel it might be better to reduce our interactions to maintain a pleasant professional working relationship. I do tend to analyse the dynamics of our relationship, including how I might be contributing to it's present state. I believe I'm generally pretty patient and open-minded, and I try to be considerate of our differences. Some days it's easier than others...

I realised our working relationship was going to be slightly fraught, when she was telling me about how Korean students suffer from 'loneliness'. She said "It's a big problem in Korea", (Mental health in Korea). I often don't quite agree with everything she says, usually I just listen while smiling and nodding appropriately. But, I actually found myself wanting to say something like, 'Oh, what you mean is depression'. Simply to observe her reaction to my statement. This is not a good sign. I'm struggling with her blinkered and seemingly judgemental nature. 

Another day, we were sat in the teacher's room, and a younger teacher entered wearing a t-shirt and short denim skirt. Mrs Oh turned to me with a cupped hand over her mouth and said in not so much as a whisper "Look, I don't understand what she's wearing". I looked, and shrugged. I wanted to reason and say that maybe she's doing art and crafts today or something similar, but I refrained from sustaining this uncomfortable conversation. The other teacher was still in the room, and most likely heard Mrs. Oh Although, I'm guessing that was the point.

I'm not sure Mrs. Oh approves of my school attire either. In Korea, you can be viewed as 'racy and unprofessional' if you wear clothing that exposes your shoulders. You also need to be pretty careful with scooped necklines. My school seems to be a little more relaxed than others. I have seen teachers wearing very short skirts, dresses, and denim skirts. I have also seen them wearing vest tops (not thin straps) and sleeveless dresses. They tend to keep a cardigan to hand, but they don't always wear it. And who can blame them when our school limits air-con and fan usage. Having witnessed their attire, I also adopted a slightly more relaxed approach. Over the Summer, I tended to wear sleeveless dresses (not strappy ones). I feel the Korean teachers are generally a little more forgiving towards me because they can visibly see me suffering. One teacher said in a surprised and concerned manner "Oh, sweat come out". Sadly true and not pretty, just humidity sweaty...  A few weeks ago, I wore a cardigan with my dress, but it was too soon and I soon found myself over-heating. Mrs. Oh saw me and said "Oh, you are wearing a cardigan today". I explained that I was too hot and proceeded to remove my cardigan. Later in class, she moved the fan so it blew air directly on me. At the time, I thought she was being nice. In hindsight, I suspect she hoped I'd cool down and put my cardigan back on. Why do I suspect this? Other incidents followed... 

On another day, I wore a sleeveless dress again. This time whilst I was teaching in front of the class, she walked behind me and proceeded to tuck my bra straps under the material. I was rather mortified, and I felt pretty undermined being re-dressed in front of my students. I did not say this, I actually found myself muttering "oh sorry, and thank you". Yes, I apologised (how inherently British?), mostly to avoid further fussing. 

The most recent cardigan related incident, Mrs. Oh saw me walking to school and she approached me. She said "you look very pretty today". I was wearing a cardigan, because it had finally cooled down, and I wasn't a sweaty mess. Later as I approached our first class, I noticed Mrs. Oh wasn't waiting for me outside. She usually lets me enter the classroom first, I find this strange considering that I'm of lower importance and status than her. Anyway, she was already in the classroom. As I entered a little boy bolted up out of his seat, and said "teacher you look very pretty today". I immediately looked at Mrs. Oh who was positively beaming, she gestured back towards the boy and then said something in Korean (probably thanked him). I thanked the student as well, then swiftly proceeded with class. I have to say, I actually found this latter incident quite funny. I was amused she would resort to such subterfuge just to encourage me to wear a cardigan. And even more amused  that she seems to believe I wouldn't cotton on.  

Other Mrs. Oh quotable gems:

"You know the more I look at you, the more I think that you are pretty". 
I politely refuted this statement. Seriously, if you have to think about it, stop looking.

"Your skin is white". 
I proceeded to tell her I'm disappointed my summer tan is fading. She kind of looked at me quizzically and disapprovingly. I opted to start talking about my recent trips abroad to change the subject. In Korea, and other Asian cultures it's more desirable to have light skin. Ajumma's often go to extreme measures to keep the sun rays at bay.

Tip: If you want to get a  sun kissed glow, do not buy Korean sun lotion. You will find that it tends to contain skin whiteners, something I experienced first hand. 

I would like to add that I don't believe mithering middle-aged women are a phenomena found solely in Korea. Unfortunately, I have plenty of previous experience of working with them in my home country. I hope I never become one! I'm not like that now, and thankfully nor is my mum, all of which bodes pretty well for my future.

Silver lining ~ my current 5th and 6th grade students are much nicer, compared to last years 6th grade. Swings and roundabouts. 

Wednesday, September 4, 2013


My second year has begun, I've been in Korea for one year and two weeks now. Daily life is well daily life really, things are not nearly as challenging and intriguing as there were this time last year. I'm missing England, but for all those quaint rose tinted reasons, such as green rolling hills, lakes and streams, daffodils, bluebells, cobbled streets, Victorian houses, little cottages with thatched roofs,, etc.

I've recently experienced an emotional high from two fantastic weeks travelling around SE Asia (I will back-blog about this later, I plan to do some catch up posts and use blogging to fill my time during the bleak winter.) to a crashing low when I had to say goodbye to several of my close friends, there were hugs and tears. It's also been a tough couple of weeks back in Korea, particularly with regards to numerous incidents involving various adjumma's and adjoshi's. I have been pushed, barged out of the way, stared at, body checked, leered at, publicly shunned, and shouted at by a rather unpleasant elderly intoxicated man. There's nothing like being kicked when you're down. I'm not saying that these things didn't happen on occasion. I mean I'd heard other people talk about them, they'd just very rarely happened to me before. I am aware I'm probably feeling more sensitive and less tolerant than usual. I had a particularly unsettling experience with an elderly Korean gentleman before the Summer holidays. I thought he was being friendly and nice, and he was but it transpired this was because he thought I was a prostitute. This incident creeped me out quite a bit, and it's made me more wary of Korean's being friendly towards me. Plus I'm tired, I've grown weary of some things as we do overtime, and I'm missing home. Generally, I find it quite difficult to write about some of the negative things I've experienced in Korea. There is a very strong sense of national pride here, they really want you to love Korea as much as they do. I feel they can be rather defensive and take some comments quite personally. I have met some lovely people. I have some adorable students (note 'some') and I've been very fortunate to have some fantastic experiences over the last year, but isn't Korea perfect, no where is.

When Sirena left, she told me to try not to compare this year and last year. Sound advice, but I'm as you've read I'm comparing already. I find myself slipping into the odd thought about what I was doing this time last year, and how I felt. I've also begun thinking about the future. So, I'm presently flitting between the past and how I probably won't be here this time next year...

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Things I see....

Lately I've been busy with Summer Camp, the odd weekend trip, and just daily general life really. I've taken plenty of pictures, but failed to blog about recent events. Hopefully I'll manage to find time to catch up at some point. I've also successfully renewed my contract, so I'll be staying another year. In some ways, I'm feeling slightly apprehensive about the future. Although, now is still better than where I was stuck before. As usual I'm generally just trying to make the most of the present.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Sunday, June 23, 2013

I like to ride my bicycle

I went with a friend and bought it yesterday. It's a hybrid (I didn't know what that was before, but I do now). It's a beautiful turquoise and white colour. I have seven gears, a bell, lights (with three different flashing sequences), a basket, and a bicycle lock. 

I had been thinking about getting a bike, but I live on the third floor and there's no lift (elevator) in my building. Still, the man who sold the bike to me was really friendly and helpful. I wanted a bike, so I figured I'd tackle the logistics of the stairs one way or another. My friend was going to get a bike, too. She wanted to get the same one as me, we joked about having couple bikes. Sadly, the shop only had one, so this wasn't to be. 

When I got home, I found pushing my bike up the three flights of stairs trickier than anticipated. I figured there must be an easier way, so I searched Google. I came across this informative blog post by Sarah Wilson. I learnt my seven gears make my bike heavier, perhaps I didn't really need so many. Anyway, last night I practised picking it up and putting it down several times. Today I carried it down the stairs on my shoulder. The handlebars were a little wayward at first, thankfully I mastered it without suffering any facial bruising.

Next, I went for a dummy cycle ride to school, and then along the river by my house. I wanted to see how long it would take me to get to school (how much time I would save). I cycled slowly, navigating my way around pedestrians, cars, motorcycles in a 'zen' like fashion. I found it only really saved me about eight minutes. Whilst I was cycling towards the railway crossing, a woman cycling at speed overtook me. As she did, she noticed a pedestrian ahead. He was in her direct path. She rang her bell, but unfortunately he side-stepped in the wrong direction, she totally floored them both. As she clambered to her feet, she began shouting at the young man in Korean. Personally I felt she was going to fast, if he'd turned to look she'd still have hit him. He didn't really have time to see her coming, or move out of her way. This nasty little collision made me take the roads, and pavements more tentatively. The commute to school in the mornings will be even busier than a Sunday evening, with many more obstacles to navigate. Consequently, I think I'll continue to walk to/from school.

The cycle path along the river is safer, more scenic, and fun. Along the river it's generally pretty flat. Cyclists there tend to observe the path markings, etiquette and rules a lot better than Korean motorists and motorcyclists do (red light, what red light? pavement? you get the idea). 

Previously, I found that cycling in the humidity is actually quite pleasant, the movement creates a cooling breeze. So, I plan to cycle down to the Han river, and along there during the evenings and at weekends. Also, next bike party, I'm ready. Plus, earlier today my friend messaged to tell me that she's now bought a bike, too. So, we can go on bike rides together.   

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Bike Party Seoul 8: Rainbow ride

Afraid I've become a little blog lazy, so I need to do a little catching up again.  What have I been doing with my time? Applying to renew my contract, researching what I might do when I go home, looking at applications and starting to apply (practice for the future), realising how many of my friends will only be here for a few more months, planning what I might do for the summer holidays, and playing candy crush. A mixture of productive and non-productive activities.

I have been wanting to attend Bike party in Seoul for a couple of months now, this hadn't happened for a couple of reasons. My friends were too hungover from the night before, or the weather had been dreadful. Today, a lot of people planned to go and see the new Star Trek movie. So, I assumed I was going to miss another Bike party Seoul. Then at short notice, Father Dougal messaged me to tell me that he was going and invited me along. As I went to get the subway towards Gangnam (the starting point) I realised that I would possibly be late. I studied the invitation to determine where the party stops would be en-route. 

"We are going to start in style near busy Gang-nam station (~6pm) this month working our way up to Sinsa’s fashionable Ga-ru-suk-gil and on to Han-Gang Park for the first party stop under Han-nam bridge (~7pm). The second party stop is near Han-gang bridge (~8pm) and the final party stop with have the spectacular back drop of the new Nam-dae-mun gate (숭례문 ~9pm) See you all there for BPS #8 it should be a good one!"

I noticed a couple of them were along the Han river. This was when I had the bright idea that I could hire a bike near the river and cycle with them for part of the route. I had previously seen a Bike hire place by Oksu station, which was near the first party stop at Han-nam Bridge. So, I headed to Oksu to hire a bike. The gentleman who served me didn't speak any English, but with my mime and my limited Korean he managed to show me how to lower/raise my seat, lock my bike, and I understood that I had to return it in two hours time. Success! The theme for this month's Bike Party was Rainbow ride. I was quite pleased with my bike because I felt it suited this rather well. 

Pink panther
I cycled towards the first party stop to wait for Bike Party. I messaged Father Dougal for an update, he confirmed they were near, and should be there soon. I sat and waited. There were lots of people cycling, but none looked in party mode. I waited, and I waited. Father Dougal messaged to tell me he was at the Han-nam bridge, he even sent me a picture of his location. I told him I thought I was as well, but I couldn't see anyone. I guessed I was in the wrong place. I told him not to worry, and have good one. I started cycling along the river, having my own bike party with the pink panther before it had to be returned. Only then it dawned on me, they started in Gangnam, so they were probably cycling along the South side of the river. However, I hired my bike from Oksu which is on the North side of the river. So we both had been at the Han-nam bridge, just on opposite sides! 

This is what I was looking for, and what Bike party looked like on the South side of the river. 
Father Dougal, had a good time! In a way, so did I. I think I might buy a bike after my trip to Jeju. Now, what kind of bike should I get?

When I returned the pink panther, I discovered I'd managed to use one of the free rental locations. Bonus! This was why I'd had to leave my ARC card with them (as a deposit). 

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Contemporary Korean Literature

I attended another 'Taste of K-culture' session today. This involved a guided tour of the National museum of Korean Contemporary History, followed by a lecture on Contemporary Korean Literature. 

Krys Lee who delivered the lecture explained that she's a writer, editor and translator (she translates Korean novels and literary works into English). She told us Korean-English literary translation is currently a booming and lucrative industry (Perhaps it's a shame I've given up on Korean classes after all). She explained Korean literature is translated by fellow writers to help retain some of the clarity and beauty, as well as open them up to rest of the world.  

I didn't know the lecture was actually going to be on literature, it was a nice surprise. Krys Lee told us Korea is the only country where writers are predominantly female. She talked about Korea's rapid and dramatic modernization over the last fifty years, and she mentioned the growth of individualism. She described how the sense of individualism has developed over the last 10-15 years. I found this interesting, because I have definitely witnessed more individualism in Korea than I'd expected, or been led to believe I would. Hongdae is a area of Seoul is positively buzzing with expressive individualism. Also, on the subway ride to this particular lecture, I'd noticed two (twenty-something) young men on the train. They both had dyed hair. They also had tattoo's twisting around their lower arms. Their overall appearance had an alternative vibe. The tattoo's were written in English, I couldn't read them properly but I noticed one mentioned 'love'. These young men might not have been Korean, but they both looked and spoke Korean so I assumed they were.

Krys Lee told us contemporary Korean literature explores loneliness, alienation, and more sexual themes than traditional literature. She also talked about Korean's notion of 'stateless beings'. She explained the younger generation sometimes feel less connected to their own society, because they spend a number of years studying or living in other countries, like America. She drew comparisons between people who live outside/or on the margins of society as characterized in 50s and 60s American literature. This reminded me of the Korean film I went to watch in January, called 'stateless things'. The director told us he had been attempting to tackle and document this very same theme. Krys Lee told us 'stateless beings'  is a prevalent theme found in contemporary Korean literature. 

We were given a handout with excerpts from a selection of Korean writers and poets. 
Here is couple I liked. 

"Bare Mountain" - Kim Sun-Woo (translated by Krys Lee).

The thing the world calls making a name for yourself
that I'd thought a false grave,
the bare mountain in Gangwondo that I climbed already knew this.
There I lifted up my top, well, because the wind was refreshing.
At the mountain's peak, there are no verticals,
only hills upon hills covered with pampas grass.
In the wind fluttering from heaven and earth and all sides,
like a soul that's escaped the body,
my collarbone was freed after an eternity of dreaming of nomdic nakedness.
Some kids come down from a tribe of clouds
above my brightening areolas
and jut their young, friendly lips,
and inside the chill of early winter's dry pampa field
unknown to man, I hurl off my last lower garments,
embrace the children of the cloud tribe with to arms
and walked the pampa field's garden of air. Recurring lives 
passed while driving the wind ahead. How light it is, the pampa,
its glittering, scaly flesh fell
into my body like the season's first snow.
The wind's tongue passes below my dizzy hips, 
licks the deep valley , and lifts
the pampas' spores with it's lips
into my body.
That it's possible to have relations with the wind!
Lying down, each has relations with 
another in different postures, the winter grass,
the cocoon and the sunlight that made
the nest hanging on the stems
and the naked bodies of everything having
relations with each other brightening the wind.
Because the wind blew that sometimes ushers in injury, 
the sun's labor pains, like a thousand years ago,
had its legs spread open toward the shade.
I realized the unknown something that had relations
with god from primaeval times, like the sunlight across my hips, 
was naked. While pushing through the dense papa stems
and following the bare mountain's backbone, it flutters over.
Receiving it , my body becomes a shrine.

"The man who sold his shadow" - Kim Young-ha (translated by Dafna Zur).
Here's a question we all ask ourselves at least once when we're young: Where does that starlight come from? It's been there before I was born, and before my grandmother, and her grandmother were born. So just how far is that star from earth? The curiosity of children is insatiable. They'll grab a flash light and aim it at the stars and think. This will get there someday won't it? When I'm dead and my grandchildren are gone, and their grandchildren as well. Whimsical thoughts, of course. Not a chance that light so faint will still be sparkling thousands of light years from now. That's our universe: a place where light much stronger than this vanishes without a trace.

And another childish question: Does a bird in mid-flight have a shadow? How can such a small light thing be burdened by something as clumsy as a shadow? But birds most certainly do have a shadow. Sometimes, just sometimes, when I watch a flock fly by I have a feeling that something dark and black is flitting past. It's subtle enough that you'll miss it if you're not fully concentrating on it. When the moon covers the sun, we have a solar eclipse. What do you call it when birds do that? As usual I haven't the faintest idea. Just wanted to make the point that bird shadows can cover the sun.

Look down from a helicopter and you see for yourself that flying objects have shadows. The shadow surges and swells under you; it's like a black carpet and it doesn't go away. Shadows latch onto that space between you and the source of light and they never go away. Block out the light, and you end up with a shadow. And I'm always standing between the two.

That timid child, so scared of his own shadow, grew up to become a writer. I write for a living. I get up in the morning, read the paper, prepare breakfast for me, open the window to freshen up the room, play some oldies music. Recently, the old man who moved in next door showed me how to eat green tea over rice. Just pour the boiled tea over a bowl of white rice and eat it with pickled cucumbers or some other mild side-dishes. For spring days when you have no appetite and you're alone, it's the perfect meal. Once I'm done with this simple meal, I pour some hot water into the tea bowl and have another cup. A clean, neat meal, like the offerings of Zen monks to the Buddha. But even on such mornings, things can unsettle me. Like when my college girlfriend was quoted in the paper as saying her college years were lonely and depressing.


I dropped Migyong off and was heading home when it occurred to me that it might not be such a bad idea to try and live with her. After all, living together is no big deal. Grab breakfast together in the morning, send her off to work, drink some green tea, write, listen to music, have dinner together when she gets home from work. She'll ask, did you write much today? And I'd show her what I'd done. The two of us might be able to pull it off, live in a stable life, undisturbed and unshaken. Who knows? Who knows? Maybe if I try that kind of nitty-gritty, in your face living, I might develop a shadow of my own. And once I get a dignified shadow, I'll run over to presbytery, smack the back of repulsively handsome Paulo's head, and ask him to baptize our child. Give us a good name, will you? I'll say. Not like "Paulo." And of course I'll pay my respects to Chongshik every year on the anniversary of his death. He did pass away childless. At that very moment, a large bird-shadow passed over my head. I looked up. Strange - a bird's shadow on a moonless night? I flinched again. Thanks to you, my fanciful daydreaming has come to an end.

Listlessly, I peeled off my clothes and crawled into bed. 

Krys Lee told us that we could also find literature from North Korea, written by recent defectors on the  'words without borders' website.

If you would like to meet Krys Lee, she will be doing a book reading/signing at the 'What the Book Bookstore' in Itaewon, on June 16, at 6pm.