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Flag of Korea Rep.  , Gangwon,
Thursday, March 18, 2010

Wow - it's been so long that I just kept putting it off because there is too much to write about. But it's time to make a start. We'll see how far I get.

When I got back from the amazing holiday in China I resolved to spend pretty much all my free time snowboarding. It's not often you get to live 40 minutes away from a ski-resort with free accommodation, snowboard rental and tuition. And since February two good friends, Carla and Nikki also joined us regularly, it was good to have some female, fluent-English-speaking company! And as well as the snowboarding, there was much general hanging out, we met more friends of friends, and we also took turns to cook non-Korean food. I tried (and failed miserably) to cook an English breakfast, Nikki did hamburgers which were delicious, I did nasi-goreng with a bit more success, and Carla did chili con carne. Mmmm. 

The children came to school for one week after the winter holiday, then the following week there was a closing ceremony to send the 6th Grade students off to Middle School. Phew. Their teacher actually said to me he was glad to see them go! Then there was a holiday of 2 weeks where all the Korean teachers found out at the last minute whether they got a transfer or not. Luckily for me Sunny and Su Jin didn't get their requests accepted. Sunny is still a fairly new teacher and requested Wonju, which is very popular so ended up placed about 100th on the list. And Su Jin is a special needs teacher so there are not many positions available in the first place, and especially not in Chuncheon. I felt very sorry for her though. She lives here in the week with her little 6 year old, Konbin (who comes to all the teachers' dinners and is also a member of the language exchange!), and every single weekend they travel all the way to Seoul to see her husband and other son, who lives with Su Jin's mother. Konbin often speaks to his little brother on the phone, but once his little brother didn't know who he was. Su Jin thought it was funny but I thought it was so sad. I hope they will all get to live together soon. 

We have 5 new members of staff now. There is a new principal who is much nicer than the previous one. Quiet and a little shy but he comes to the teacher's room every morning to drink coffee and have a catch up. A new Grade 2 teacher who is a first-time teacher, speaks fairly good English, doesn't drink (extremely rare for a Korean man!) and is good fun. I had high hopes that he could get together with Sunny, but she's too old for him. The search continues... And there is a new Grade 6 teacher who seems very nice to us but is mean to his class even though they are lovely kids. He came from a big city school and maybe hasn't noticed the difference between how to manage a class of 30-40 kids and a class of 13. We now have a nurse too. And a new administrator who seems nice but I only ever see him at the bank and the post office at lunchtimes. Our previous administrator was told one day in advance that she was moving next door, to the Girls Middle School. So we had to have a very hurried goodbye dinner for her. Sadly I found out a day in advance of going to teach there that I was no longer required to teach at Yemi School because they 'maybe' were getting a full-time English teacher. Of course you'll remember that 'maybe' means 'yes' and so Viki arrived a few days later. It's nice to have another English person (she's from Lincoln/London) so nearby, but it's all psychological because she's still an hour's walk away. I miss the Yemi kids a lot. As I mentioned previously, their English is good enough for humour, but the big problem for me now is that Hambaek had to find all sorts of extra classes for me to teach so I have ended up with much more work than last semester. But that's what it's like teaching in a small school, Sunny keeps telling me. And she has at least 25 classes to plan herself. And although she taught here last year she can't re-use plans because last year she was the Grade 3 teacher and this year she's the Grade 5 teacher!

It amazes me how many members of staff we have actually. There are 97 children at the school and we have: a principal, a vice principal, a head-teacher, 6 form teachers (1 for each grade), a kindergarten teacher, 2 secretaries, a special needs teacher, a nutrition teacher, a nurse, a school driver (who collects the kids in the morning and drops them home in the afternoons, and in between hangs out in the stationary storage room), an administrator, an accountant, a technician, an archery coach and me. 21 members of staff. Maybe the archery coach could do the driver's job, and I'm sure the secretaries, administrator and accountant could be reduced to 3 positions (I know this because Mrs Shin spends most of her time studying English or shopping online, and has Wednesday afternoons officially as free time but must stay in school anyway), but what is great is that there is no 'that's not in my job description' - the archery coach, driver and school technician/caretaker all helped clear paths through the snow (I had one all the way to my front door!) and I noticed that the two secretaries and the head-teacher were all marking exam papers recently.

There was a lovely opening ceremony where the children found out who their new teachers would be (once all the teachers had found out where they would be teaching, a few days in advance). The kindergarten children transferring to 1st Grade were given a special welcome: they sat on chairs close to the stage in the school gym while all the teachers were called up onto the stage to bow to them. They themselves, and not their parents, were made to feel very important. And it makes me think again of how great it must be to be a primary school child here. There is such a feeling of fun around the school - I have only ever witnessed 3 serious tellings-off (apart from last year's Grade 6!), which have involved Sunny speaking very sternly at children and in one case making them stand outside the classroom looking unbelievably ashamed about it. Especially when I came past. 

Something else I enjoy about the school atmosphere is that there is even among children an emphasis on the group rather than the individual. They all wait for the rest of their class to sit down to eat before they start (presided over by their form teacher, to be fair), and when we do a quiz in class the whole team confers even though I have asked an individual to simply choose a letter to get to the next question. 

I've also noticed that when the more advanced children finish a task before the rest of the class they will happily sit and wait without messing about, so I don't have to prepare additional materials to 'keep them busy and out of trouble'. It's amazing how patient they are and how easily they are amused. For 10 minutes before class today a group of 6 or so Grade 3 children crowded round my desk to look at my pens and pencils and to read out the animals on a set of stickers (in English!) And the Grade 1 children are happy to colour in letters of the alphabet before their after school class starts. 

Children are so well respected. Recently I bumped into some children at Yemi station and I asked where they were going. They said they weren't going anywhere, they were just playing at the station for a while. It's warm, there's a TV, and the staff don't mind. And it's not just in rural locations. Nikki, Byeong Gyu and I went to the Andy Warhol exhibition in Seoul a few weeks ago. It was packed and people had to queue past the paintings. This left a big space in the middle of the gallery and there were two children running around excitedly. In England we would say 'it'll all end in tears' (or in Holland the phrase is 'Jantje lacht Jantje huilt') but here their Dad scooped them up in his arms, a huge grin on his face, and swung them round and round. No 'shut up or I won't buy you any treats' and no-one else in there so much as tutted!
I must at this point mention one of my favourite students (although of course I don't have any favourites...). He is in Grade 3 so he's about 8 or 9 and his name is An Su Min. He is absolutely amazed by me. I think he is fascinated by the idea that I speak a completely different language and don't understand what he says to me. He is one of the few children who doesn't make fun out of the way I pronounce his name, but whenever I go to his class or he comes to my classroom he makes me bow and say 'annyeonghaseyo' (Hello in Korean) - and again, doesn't laugh but just smiles a huge smile! He seems to like how different I sound! And recently I saw him while I was waiting for the bus and he pointed at all the things around us to teach me the Korean words. Then he went to his Grandma's house for some money, bought some biscuits and shared them with me. Fabulous! 

The winter has been brutal. I knew it would snow, but it really snowed a lot. From November until just two weeks ago there was regular snowfall. The snowball fights were fun though! And no problem because there is no risk that a parent would sue the school if a child got hit by a snowball. It was so so cold too. I'm sorry if I already mentioned this, but Deokhwan, Mr Cheong and I snowboarded in -22 degrees C! I stayed in another one of Deokhwan's accommodations one time, because the rental shop had actual paying customers staying there, and the pipes had frozen. So he put a fan heater on full blast in the toilet to defrost the cistern; and because most Korean heating is underfloor heating had to put that on full blast to keep the place warm enough. But of course Koreans sleep on the floor, so I had a thin mat and had to keep turning, to use Nikki's words, like a rotisserie chicken, to keep me from burning! It's like sleeping on a radiator. When the pipes in Nikki's flat froze a man turned up with a 'jet engine' and just put it in the middle of the room and kept it on full blast. 

I had a cold at one point in the winter and experienced acupuncture for the first time. It only cost 2.50 for 20 minutes. It really hurts when they stick those pins in, which I didn't expect, but then you just lie under a heat lamp and it's very relaxing. I don't know whether it was that or an even more unusual treatment at the rental shop that did the trick. Deokhwan turned up with a strange crockery item shaped like something between a gravy boat and a genie bottle, and some contact lense fluid. The liquid was heated to body temperature then I had to squat in the bathroom with the end of the implement stuck up one nostril and pour it through so that it dribbled out of my other nostril onto the floor (and my jeans). Nice. But it did clear my nose out and I felt much better. 

I've also had a hernia! It is highly likely it was from snowboarding and I only mention this because the reaction from the school is interesting. In the end I had to have an operation at an amazing hospital in Gangneung where I could book in for an operation whenever was convenient for me and where I was very well looked after. I was also lucky enough to have two fantastic friends, Abid and Dorina (who I met on the flight to Korea, remember?) advise me about the hospital, come and see me every day I was there, collect me when I was discharged and let me stay at their beautiful apartment while I recuperated for a few days. And I got a week off teaching (but had to come in in the afternoons to plan) to boot!

When I told Sunny I'd found a lump she asked me to teach my five lessons and go to hospital afterwards. When I said that wasn't really possible she re-scheduled all my classes for the afternoon. In Korea you really just get on with work, whatever might be wrong with you. Sunny recently had a really bad stomach so just went to the doctor for an injection and came back 30mins later feeling better. In my case I came back with a hernia diagnosis and luckily the vice-principal sent me home. A hernia isn't serious, but I was quite shocked. And in true Korean style I continued teaching for the following two weeks because the only treatment the doctor suggested was to eat only rice porridge, wear a bandage round my waist and sleep with a hot water bottle until it went away.

So I had to go to the pharmacy for a hot water bottle and the local barman saw me the following day and asked why I'd been to the pharmacy yesterday. And the school nurse was worried about all the rice porridge and asked Mrs Shin to ask me, over lunch, whether I was constipated! Brilliant! 
Finally, I just want to make a quick mention of something that happened in Chuncheon. A group of us went out to celebrate Carla's birthday, which was great fun by the way. On Sunday morning Nikki and I wanted to go to E-Mart (I always go there when I'm in a big city, but then I'm never sure what to buy when I'm in there. Imagine always doing your shopping at the Londis in Far Forest and then facing Asda-Wallmart? It's overwhelming and I forget what I'm actually missing. But it becomes clear when I get home - choice in general, and non-processed cheese!). Anyway, Deokhwan offered to drive us there but didn't know the way so he pulled into a bus stop to for directions and two 'ajumas' (middle-aged married women who always have permed hair - an 'ajuma perm') hopped in and directed us. They were going to a marriage match meeting (which you will now have to do a google search for) near E-Mart. 

That's all for now. Next time I want to write about food. I know that when I'm back in the UK I will miss some of the dishes, but other ones really leave me a little bit bewildered. 

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Sexy on

Is it safe to put contact lense fluid up your nose?

Anne-Marie on

Mij is ooit verteld dat als de acupunctuutnaalden geen pijn doen het niet goed werkt. Dus...
Weer genoten van je avonturen.

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