Elwood 5566

Memory Lane

Posted in 'Westernization' of Korea, bathhouse Ballads, Comparative, Diary notes, Westerners by 노강호 on November 1, 2010

Kimpo Airport

I often mention how rapidly Korea is changing. I have only lived here four and a half years, spread across ten years, so in comparison to friends who have over twelve years experience, I’m somewhat of an infant. I would love to have been here fifteen or twenty years ago, when Korea was truly a country where other than American soldiers, few ventured. ‘Fat ‘has arrived in Korea, an observation I often point out in my posts on bathhouses, and EPIK has brought an army of teachers into schools to such an extent our uniqueness has been lost. And no doubt those who first came to Korea in the 90’s will have noticed even greater changes.

Kimpo in 2000

When I arrived in Korea in September 2000, Inch’on International Airport was still being built and looking back, it is quite incredible to think that the piddly sized Kimpo was the country’s major airport. Kimpo was basically one big room through which people arrived and departed and I’m sure it’s bigger today than it was ten years ago. Few restaurants had English menus and on every street corner were  ‘video shops’ renting the latest videos. The internet contained little information on Korea in terms of cooking, culture or history, zilch on hanja and very little on Korean. Few teachers had air-conditioning and for those in English academies, split schedules, a common practice, meant the 6 hours you’d been led to believe you’d end up teaching in Korea, were probably closer to 8 or 9. Maybe it is still the same in some language academies, but  class sizes  were big, sometimes twenty students packed in small classes and often with no air-conditioning. There were fewer academies and my school, the largest in the area, occupied three floors of a large building. There were few resources, wall sockets often didn’t work and only a couple of tape players if they did and if you complained you were simply told to read to the kids. Most of the westerners I remembered meeting at the time seemed to work  under similar conditions.  Back then, university posts really were the cream of jobs with significantly more pay than other types of teaching and before the recent changes in bureaucracy, transferring from one town to another or one school to another, was easy.

If you had a pair of shoes like this in 2000, you were 'sexy.'

Big shoes were the fashion on young lads. By ‘big’  I mean long and so long that I thought I easily find a pair of English size 13’s. Indeed, they were so long, a little like the old ‘winkle-pickers,’ that they turned up and gave them a medieval appearance. On younger boys, even very young ones, a long forelock on the side of the head was tinted gold meanwhile their teeth were black. While older children seemed to have good dental hygiene, milk teeth were seen as unimportant and many of my younger students had black baby teeth. Today, this is something I rarely see.

Coffee beans or ground beans were hard to buy and I remember a coffee filter machine in supermarkets attracted small audiences and if you wanted a bottle of wine, if you could afford it and could find it, they were stored in a glass cabinet and the choice very limited. It seemed everyone wanted English lessons and were willing to pay for the privilege and being stopped and asked if you would teach privately, was an almost daily occurrence. In my diary for Saturday 18th of November, 2000, I wrote:

Here (KFC in Song-So) I met a man who wanted English lessons and said he would take me sightseeing to temples in return for lessons. 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.

The KFC near Han-song Plaza has closed and is now a stationary store in which the glass stairs are still embossed with Colonel Saunders’ face, but in the last two years I haven’t once been asked to teach privately by strangers in restaurants or on the street.  I used to teach a few privates on a Sunday and would earn around a 100 000 Won an hour for teaching a small class of 3 or 4 students.

at one time were were as novel as coffee-filter machines and wine

Your presence, especially with children, was often enough for people to stop, gasp and gawk at you in awe.  Only yesterday, a boy of 14 told me how he remembers seeing westerners when he was four years old and how he would be filled with excitement. Few schools had resident foreign English teachers and what foreigners existed were a novelty. Many of the children, and some adults, you met ten years ago had never spoken to a foreigner. Then there was the starring… I remember times when the constant starring stressed me to such an extent, I’d occasionally step into a recess or doorway for a break. Unlike today, when a solitary passenger stares lazily from a busy bus, a westerner on the street would turned every head. I imagine it was even more intense in the early 90’s and 80’s and probably not much different to an experience I once had on a station platform in Delhi, in 1984, when a crowd so large gathered to stare at my friend as he opened a map, that after a few minutes you couldn’t see him. In the Korea of today, you are noticed and not much else and it rarely causes excitement or stops people in their tracks.

A few weeks ago I was up Warayong Mountain in Song-So, Daegu; I’d stopped for a coffee at a small stall almost at the summit and was attempting a conversation with a woman sat on the next bench along.  I noticed a couple of small children coming down into the clearing where we sat and around which were various communal exercise machines. Suddenly, their faces broke into excitement and they started running and skipping towards my seat. For a moment, it was the kind of reaction I remember on my first visit when kids would run up and then stand and stare, or might bravely attempt to say hello or stroke the hairs on a bared arm. However, ten years later and the focus of their attention isn’t me but the dog sat beside the woman with whom I am talking.  The children skip up to it and lavish it with as much excitement and attention as they’d once have given a foreigner. It isn’t even a real dog but one of those ‘handbag pooches’ which look more  like a wisp of cotton-wool on straw legs. I could have understood if it had been a real dog, a labrador or sheep dog, but this pathetic specimen! I realised in that instant that this is what it has come to; a miniature poodle now commands more attention, is more interesting and exotic than a foreigner. I am not exaggerating when I add that despite my height and size, and sitting right next to them, they didn’t even notice me.

a puff of wind and it's dead

Amongst all these changes however, one convenient constant; unlike the rest of the world prices have changed little. I bought a hanja dictionary in 2000 at a cost of 15.000 Won and in exactly the same store, nine years later, the same book cost 15.500 Won. That’s an increase of 25 pence in UK sterling! Quite amazing!

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© 林東哲 2010 Creative Commons Licence.

My Birthday – December 27th – 31st 2000 (Korean Accounts 2000-2001)

Posted in esl, Korean Accounts Part 1 by 노강호 on December 27, 2000

Not being happy certainly curtails writing a diary, as well as other things in my life. However, after several confrontations with Jo, in which we all threatened to resign, things have cheered up a little. Jo has promised that I won’t be teaching in the Yon San Dong school much more than a month when I will go back to teaching in Song So. However, I don’t really trust him.

Chi-u, a young Einstein

The new school is hard work and we each have around 7.5 contact time a day with classes. The first four hours are purely kindergarten classes for kids of very rich parents. Their parents fork out around 800.000KW for the first month then pay subsequent monthly tuition fees of 450.000KW. These amounts work out at something like 500 and 250 UK pounds. I have never seen kids so well dressed and Koreans spend a lot of time and effort presenting their children. One of my favourite pupils is a three-year old boy called Lee Chi-Woo (이치우) who is in effect two years old. In Korea, a child is one the day they are born so you always have to minus one from their age to make them comparable with westerners. I am told this habit arose because when Korea was poor, many children died before their first birthday. Second birthdays here, especially for boys, are a very important affair. I have yet to see Chi-Woo (이치우) in the same little outfit twice. He can already speak a fair amount of English and every morning, when he sits next to me on the hagwon bus, he asks how I am and will then proceed to ask ‘What’s this?’ and ‘What’s that?’ His memory is quite amazing as next day he will have remembered all the previous morning’s words.

Jo’s School, ‘Letter and Sound,’ is a kindergarten in the morning and a hagwon in the afternoon when the middle schools  finish. We don’t have the equivalent of hagwons  in the UK; they are private schools which teach a range of subjects outside normal school hours and to which most children go in addition to state schooling. Normal schools are known as hakkyos (학교). There are hagwons on probably every street in a Korean town and many don’t close until 10 or 11 pm. Like the Taekwondo schools, piano academies, ballet schools and art schools, hagwons always have their own fleet of brightly coloured minibuses which ferry students between designated pick up points and their respective establishments. The ‘Letter and Sound’ bus picks me up every morning from near my apartment.

Jong Hoon – a great kid but a total nutter!

I think the kindy will do quite well financially as it is really about keeping the kids out of the parents way as much as it is about them learning. My class has only four five-year old kids; two boys, Dong-seop (동섭) and Jeong-hoon (중훈) and three girls. Jeong-hoon (중훈) is a total nutter who throws himself about without any concern for his safety. This week he arrived at school with a cut chin and bashed nose. He speaks the best English of the four kids and is very bright. Then there is Dong-seop (동섭) who has no spatial skills and cannot decide whether he is left or right-handed. I try to help him draw a letter but when I leave his side he just scrawls on the paper. I have nicknamed him ‘Picasso.’  My two girls are fucking brain-dead. It’s quite disgusting how there seems to be a universal trend in encouraging girls to be wriggly little pathetic things that must whimper and second themselves to the brashness of boys. This trend seems particularly more acute in Korea than in the west, though maybe I am being too critical. On of the girls is Da-hae (다해), slips off her chair onto the floor every time I speak to her and when she does utter a sound it is in a revolting girly manner. The other girl is Ji-soo (치수) and to get her to respond I have to call her name about twenty times and then poke her.

What does Annie Apple say?’ I chant, and then someone shouts out a long ‘A’ as in father. I say, ‘No, Annie says ‘A,’ as in cat.’ The kids are sick and fed up of Annie Apple and Bouncy Ben alphabet songs. The accompanying videos have characters with regional British accents and of course the kids find this confusing. Annie Apple talks like a Somerset cider slob and Clever Cat has a frightfully posh Oxford accent. Then there are the story books with phrases like ‘skiddly doo doo’ which is a nightmare trying to explain to small children. Even when there are cassettes with Korean interpretations on them the pronunciations are bad. Bouncy Ben, for example, is always pronounced ‘Bounshey Ben’ and this has become a bit of a joke between Pauline and I.

In class I call myself Bilbo Baggins and have written this, in Korean, on my wall.  I have decided I don’t want any of the kids knowing my real name. In the short space of a couple of weeks I have become adept at totally degrading myself in the singing of kiddy songs all accompanied with mad facial expressions or hand actions. Suddenly I am like a character out of Play School. I can even degrade myself in front of parents. I take kids out to piss, wipe their noses and comfort them when upset. None of this was in my contract and I definitely stipulated that I wanted to teach middle, or high school kids.

Nana moved out of the apartment this week and Matt, a new teacher from New Zealand has moved in with me. Matt seems a good laugh. On Thursday another teacher, Angela, arrived from New Zealand. She is a friend of Matt’s.

My Birthday, Dec 30th, 2000. Pak Jun-ee and Sun-hee (left) and Pauline (far right)

Taekwondo is off the cards until after the winter vacation finishes which is  in a week or so. I don’t finish my classes in time to go training and besides I’m too tired.

On a Wednesday evening I teach Pak Ji-won (박지원) English in the restaurant besides the Shin-woo supermarket in Song So. I spent my birthday here and the family have sort of adopted me. Ji-won is very attractive but he’s only 18 and like so many Korean boys, androgynous. I suspect if anyone touched the front of his pants he wouldn’t have a clue what they were doing. This is no criticism, I love the innocence that seems to typify so many Korean teenagers and which is so different to many of the promiscuous male and female whores I’ve taught in the West.

I taught Ji-won every Saturday for most of 2001. He is now one of my closest Korean friends.

On Friday I had to go to U-chun’s and teach her daughter and niece English. I really like her and if I had to leave Korea now I would be sad because she is such a fun person. She was supposed to be giving me Korean lessons in exchange for English lessons but this seems to have been forgotten but her company is payment enough.

On Saturday it snowed really heavily but the temperature has risen and it is no longer minus 15. The snow has set and Matt and I met up with U-chun at the local E Mart. This is the local supermarket. Then we got a taxi to the local Baskin Robbins which was amusing as I asked for three big pots of ice-cream and of course, Koreans are never so greedy and generally share a pot – and probably a smaller pot too! After that we walked down the main road, through busy and around the university campus. From a high spot on the campus we add a view straight down the wide main road that leads all the way back down to Song-So and beyond which must at least be a few miles. Though it was afternoon, a cold mist hung over the entire city.

I telephoned my sister on my birthday and the call, which lasted an hour, cost a staggering £80. (note – today I can call unlimited for next to nothing).

 

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©Bathhouse Ballads –  努江虎 – 노강호 2011 Creative Commons Licence.