Teachers’ Party and Andong – Friday November 17th 2000 (Korean Accounts 2001-2001)
Today, I called into the taekwondo school to give Mr Park, one of the instructors, an English lesson. In classes he often ends up instructing me as he is the only one who can speak a little English. I’ve been beginning to think he might find this task tedious and so I offered to teach him. He’s a very good martial artist, very fast and agile but then he only weighs about two stone. I guess he is aged about 22—24 but it is hard to tell as Korean men have little facial hair and have very boyish looks. His pronunciation is actually very good and he doesn’t have the problems with ‘p’s’ and ‘f’s’ like most Koreans do. They all pronounce ‘sofa’ as ‘sopa’ and find it hard to pronounce the ‘v’ in ‘video’. It also makes me laugh when they say ‘fish’ as they pronounce it ‘pish.’ You can imagine how the pronounce ‘vacuum?’ In one class a boy of about 8 said ‘vacuum’ but pronounced it ‘fak-uum,’ but to make it funnier he held up his middle finger. Obviously he had learnt it from American movies.
Most of the Korean kids all have western names which is confusing as when you talk to a Korean teacher about pupils, and you use the pupils western names, they have no idea about whom you are talking. Lots of the names are outdated and some examples include: Mabel, Ted, and Cindy. However, some are very bizarre and these include: Sonic, Carrot, Purple and Sky.
On Friday, evening Mr Jo organised a party for the teachers of which there are about forty across all subject areas. Nana and I were the only foreign teachers. I wasn’t particularly keen on going as I didn’t finish training until 10pm and knew I would be tired and aching. Nana and I met outside the school which is on the main road through the Song-so district and took one of the school buses to the nearby restaurant. All private schools have their own fleet of minibuses as do the taekwondo schools. Korean restaurants are all restricted in what they serve and special in one or two items. This restaurant served pork which you barbecued at your table. Like most restaurants it was a sit on the ground affair and from there the waiters delivered plates of sliced pork which you barbecued on the grill nearest to you. There were side dishes of dried shrimp, chillies, anchovy, mussels, garlic and the usual kimchies and leaves. My favourite leaf is called gaenip and is a wild sesame leaf unlike any leaf I have eaten in the west. Mr Jo paid for the whole meal and kept us supplied in soju. Jo got pissed very quickly and moved around talking to everybody. The school’s vice principal is Mr Lee who looks like a stereotypical image of a Chinese person with thick-set black rimmed glasses and goofy teeth. At work he is always very serious. He made some speeches and welcomed Nana and I to the school. Apparently, Nana has only recently arrived from a school in Andong. When people began to drift home, Mr Lee positioned himself at the front door and turned those leaving back into the restaurant.
Though soju is only 23%, I got fairly tipsy, enough to impress the Koreans. Mr Jo however, became so pissed Mr Lee and a teacher called Young-seop (영섭) had to help him up. I was hoping we were all now able to go home but Mr Jo ordered everyone to the nearest noraebang. However, the soju had taken effect.
A noraebang consist of a series of varying size rooms which you hire and all of which contain a large video screen in front of which is a large table surrounded by a sofas. Several folders sit on the table which contain an alphabetical list of songs and their number which you then fed into the remote control. Also on the table are a number of microphones and some percussion instruments such as tambourines or castanets. Everyone was shouting for Nana to sing but the first song was sung by Mr Lee. Mr Lee suddenly transformed and if you’d seen him you would have thought him a professional singer. Next Nana and I sang ‘My Way’ which I actually enjoyed doing. Everyone took turns to sing and joined in the choruses. I have since discovered there is a noraebang just a few doors away from my flat (and is still there 16 years later – which in Korea is amazing)
Nana was away again at the weekend as he goes to teach in Andong. Feeling like a bit of lard, I visited KFC, which Koreans pronounce ‘k-peep-shee.’ Here I met a man who wanted English lessons and said he would take me sightseeing to temples in return. Then a boy of about 11 came and talked to me and introduced me to his little brother. Later, yet another stranger came up and asked if I would read stories in his kindergarten and I said I would ring him on Monday (this is interesting because in the last five years I’ve only been asked if I would teach privates on 2 occasions). I spent Sunday in the school writing my e-mails.
Sunday lunchtime Young-seop (영섭), one of the younger teachers, bought me lunch which was bibimbap (비빔밥), this consists of rice and vegetables in a bowl served with red pepper paste. This meal appears in a hot and cold version.
On Tuesday I didn’t have to teach until the afternoon so I accompanied Nana on a visit to Andong. Since I’ve been here all I have really seen is the area immediately around where I live and I still haven’t discovered all this area has to offer. However, Andong would be an interesting excursion. We left at 9 am and took the taxi to one of the city bus terminals – this was a twenty-minute journey which cost a couple of pounds. The buses are very punctual and ours left at exactly 9.30 am and I had more leg room on it than I am accustomed to on any British bus. Within ten minutes I had my first glimpse of Korea beyond city life. The road, a highway didn’t meander through any mountains but simply passed straight through them by a continual series of tunnels. In between the tunnels, in small valleys, were farms and rice fields. The mountains aren’t huge but they are bigger than hills and grander than anything I’ve seen in England. Nana talked incessantly which irritated me as I wanted to look at passing scenery. The forests are loosing their leaves and the view was very colourful.
Andong is a fairly big town but is much smaller than Daegu. There were a couple of beggars around the bus terminal and these were to be almost the only beggars I was ever to see in Korea. This was certainly less beggars than you were likely to see in Colchester at this time. Nana has taught in Andong for three years and was most likely the only black man the town has ever seen and so lots of people knew him. We visited the principal of a language school and then had lunch with a couple of Nana’s friends. There is a village on the edge of Andong where the Queen visited to watched masked dancing for which Andong is world-famous.
I missed taekwondo on Monday as my leg was sore but I made myself go on Tuesday. On the Wednesday the class did a Korean form of tai-chi during which floaty Korean pipe music was played. I missed the energetic training but it gave my muscles time to relax. The Thursday class was back to normal with plenty of press-up, sit-ups and leg techniques. Half of this class consisted of sparring during which everyone sat in an enormous circle while two people fought in the middle of it. I thought they were going to leave me out but then Mr Lee asked if I wanted to spar one of the green belts – a broad lad of about 20. I got up and quite impressed myself. Trundling up and down the gym kicking at a break neck speed I look like a lard arse but the moment I was confronted with an opponent all my old skills seemed to drift back. I was all over him and really only toyed with him. I used only basic kicks and didn’t use my hands. I have noticed that while most Korean students look pretty doing their kicks, moving fast and with agility, and even though many can do the splits, they are fairly crap at making a technique connect. And of course, many of them lack power. Even though I’d only been back in training for a little less than a month. I was able to place gentle kicks on his chest, kidney and stomach. Of course, he was only a green belt and I have many years experience, which is something I sometimes forget. No doubt I would have found it harder fighting a senior belt. Nonetheless, I felt good about myself and suddenly, when we had finished, I sensed a changed attitude towards me. I felt I would no longer be viewed as a spaker foreigner wanting to learn a bit of their art.
There is the third dan black belt lad of about 15. He is always very serious and so far he is the only person in the school who has failed to bow at me when I enter the dojang – I should add they are not bowing because I am a martial artist but because I am an adult. In the class, I don’t stand alongside other beginners but at the back of the class alongside senior belts. This is partly because I am foreign, a teacher and partly because I am probably the eldest in the class – apart from Master Bae, the ‘Captain.’ To put me anywhere else except with the black belts would probably be an insult. Anyway, this boy ignores me. After my fight with the green belt we were called to the front of the class and presented a stick on gold star each – I think our fight had been the most entertaining of the evening. When I was about to leave the class, after changing, the 3rd degree black belt boy came up to me, pulled himself to attention and proceeded to bow deeply.
On Friday I gave Mr Park, whose first name is Dong-soo, an English lesson. Tonight I am meeting a New Zealander called Roger, whom I met on the street where we talked for a while. Though there are few foreigners here, most talk to you.