Teaching in South Korea is full of surprises
Why I love living in... Busan, South Korea
It’s Monday morning in Busan, South Korea. I’m sitting at my desk in the staff office of Gaya Girls’ Middle School, preparing the day’s lessons. Suddenly, another teacher jabs me on the shoulder. She wordlessly ushers me into the broadcasting room, where the morning assembly is being transmitted to television screens in every classroom. I’m handed a piece of paper, on which is a long winded question about smoking. Suddenly I’m in front of the camera reading the question and doing my best to read the answer, which is written in a barely legible scrawl. Only an hour ago I was still asleep.
What happened that morning is a phenomenon known as the “Korean surprise”, where things come together at the very last moment and the foreigners are the last to know. It’s just one of the reasons Korea is a difficult place to live, but never dull.
Life here is challenging, but it is also full of small triumphs. They come every time I manage to successfully teach students who are not only under immense pressure from a highly competitive education system, but also suffering the torment of puberty. Every time I manage to order food or tell a hairdresser what style I want, using combinations of charades and broken Korean. Every time I remember to use Korean etiquette, like bowing deeply to those more senior than me.
Fortunately, this overwhelming life also has ample opportunities for unwinding.
One of my favourite ways is with a good meal. Food is an intrinsic part of Korean culture, and Koreans will often ask “Have you eaten?” in the same way that Irish people ask “How are you?” Eating out is very cheap, so it’s the norm rather than the exception. And because food is always shared, there are no pangs of regret when you see your friend’s food.
A great way to spend Friday night is to gather some friends for samgyupsal, pork belly cooked on a grill at your table. Afterwards there’s always room for hotteok, pancakes filled with honey and sunflower seeds, sold by street vendors.
Just like the Irish, Koreans love a good sing-song. Noraebang, or private singing rooms, are everywhere. They have extensive song catalogues, instruments like tambourines and maracas, and disco lights. Best of all, only your close friends or colleagues are subjected to your bawling rendition of Zombie by The Cranberries.
Perhaps the ultimate Korean experience is the jimjilbang, or public bath house. There are kiln saunas, hot tubs and massages. Many also have rooms for watching DVDs, exercising, playing computer games, singing, and even sleeping overnight.
Escaping to the countryside is very easy with Korea’s excellent public transport network. Korea has sandy beaches, rolling green tea plantations, thickets of towering bamboo, bright yellow canola fields, and countless towering peaks and deep troughs. The terrain is perfect for hiking , and intricately decorated Buddhist temples are scattered around the mountains.
Every season is marked by an abundance of free festivals. These include cherry blossom festivals in spring, lotus lantern festivals coinciding with Buddha’s Birthday in May, a masked dance festival in the historic Anndong region in autumn, and Christmas tree festivals in December.
It’s almost a year and a half since I came to Korea, and I still feel compelled to stand back and take stock of how lucky I am. I have an interesting job, time to explore a beautiful country, and I am, for the most part, treated with kindness and curiosity.
I won’t pretend to understand everything about Korea. I can only relax and embrace every Korean surprise. Even when it’s tomatoes on a birthday cake.