Tuesday, 5 November 2013

떡 (ddeok) (A.K.A. How I still don't speak Korean, but I've gotten better at fooling people that I do)

I'm in a cafe working hard on drawing.  The man next to me (business man of some sort, middle aged in a suit) accidentally pulls out my laptop charger when he's leaving, and offers me some rice cake that he'd been given at an event as compensation. For all that Korea is full of discrimination against white people, it seems that each individual person is super friendly to strangers (especially if you bother trying to speak Korean instead of expecting them to speak English).  I think that's one of my favourite things about the country.

"Is this the same ddeok as in ddeokbokki?" I say after thanking him, proud of myself for making such a complicated sentence on the spot.

He assumes from this that I speak Korean, and starts rattling off what goes in the cake and how it's different from deokbokki and I just smile and nod and in the end I say the same "sorry, I don't speak much Korean yet" that I say every day to everyone I meet.

ddeokbokki ddeok

Sunday, 27 October 2013

Private tutoring, part 1, and the Suwon Language Exchange (A.K.A. How to pick up Korean men)

Settling in.  So we've been together in Korea for two weeks now.  Wes has started teaching, and has settled into his routine.  He teaches children in elementary and middle school, and every day he comes home and tells me how cute and talented the girls in middle school 2 are, how disruptive the boy in elementary 5 is, and how this one kid who is going to England to go to grammar school can't figure out how to talk about fractions.

I mostly stay in the flat.  It's a tiny studio flat, meant only for one person, so I'm feeling a little claustrophobic... but as Wes hasn't gotten paid yet we've basically broke, and although living in Korea is in general very cheap (we can both eat out for about a fiver altogether!) coffee is the same price as back home (two cups of mediocre coffee is also a fiver).  So I study in cafes sometimes, but mostly I stay home.

Private tutoring, part 1.  When I was in a cafe one day last week, just minding my own business, studying Korean, this Korean woman walks up to me and sits down opposite me.

"I'm really sorry to disturb you," she says in accented English.  "But can I ask you a few questions?"

"Sure," I say, unsuspecting.  The woman is called Keun Hae, she's pregnant, and she wants an English tutor.  I looked like a likely target, so she gathered her courage and approached me to ask for lessons.  At first I'm really surprised -- surely there is more effort involved in finding students than this? -- but when I get over my initial shock I readily agree.  We set up a time for the first lesson for the following Monday, and that, ladies and gents, is the story of how I got my first student in Korea.

Suwon Language Exchange.  That same evening, I'm set to go to Suwon to partake in a Korean-English language exchange.  Basically, a bunch of Koreans wishing to practice their English, and a bunch of foreigners wishing to practice Korean show up to a western bar in Suwon.  Here, the hosts pair us up, and we have free talk for one hour in English, and one hour in Korean.  Everyone I speak to in Korean commends me on my Korean.  This is due to two things: 1) Koreans don't expect foreigners to speak to Korean, and are super encouraging as a result, and 2) I know loads of grammar, so what little I can actually say is normally correct, so it sounds like I can speak a lot of Korean... when in reality I have maybe ten or twenty things I can say ("I am from Sweden", "I went to university in the UK", "we came to Korea together", "the weather is cold today", "I like Korean food", and "how do I get to X place?").

At the language exchange I could buy western drinks at western prices... oh, how cheated I feel, buying a £4 cocktail, after buying a bottle of soju (19%, and tasty to boot) for 50p!  I was told my cocktail (called 'Electric Banana') was pretty strong, and asked if that was okay.  I was surprised, because surely in a country where the  go-to drink is 19%, people wouldn't normally be concerned about how strong a cocktail is? Was this drink going to be explosively burn-my-insides-with-hellish-fire strong?

"That's okay," I said.  I'd ordered the drink, I wasn't about to wuss out.

"You're from Sweden, right?" said the person next to me.  "I hear people in cold places like strong drinks."

"Sure.  Yes." I said, even though I normally like my cocktails on the fruity, girly side of the spectrum.  I'm a tough Swedish woman, and I have to represent!  I just hope my large body mass and constitution will somehow allow me to make up for the fact that actually... I'm a lightweight.

Yoon Do Hyun Band.  So in the end, I receive my Electric Banana and take it to the table where I'm chillaxing with three Korean computer science students. Only one of them actually speak English, so he ended up spending the majority of the night translating between our attempts at communication.  Oh well... among these attempts were the question "Do you like K-pop?  Which singer do you like?"

"Ah... Super Junior?" I begin.  Super Junior should be safe.  I'm blanking on what songs they've made right at this second, but I've been told all of Korea adores them, so it should be safe.  Then I compose myself and continue with a couple of bands that I actually know and like.  "I also like Yoon Do Hyun Band and Buga Kingz."

"Yoon Do Hyun Band!" exclaims the guy who speaks the least English.  Turns out that's one of his favorite bands, and he proceeds to quiz me excitedly on which is my favourite song.  I inform him that it is naneun nabi ("I am a butterfly"), because it is my favourite... and also the only song I can remember the title of at this precise moment.  I'm such a Korea fail, haha.

 "You should sing it," I prompted him.  He was a vocalist for a band, but apparently too shy to sing at the language exchange.  He could sing it in a noraebang, but not in a bar, not even when the guy who did speak English tried to prompt him with drinks.  

"I have never been to a noraebang," I offered.  Noraebang (노래방) just means "song room", or karaoke.  "We should go next time!"

The boys seemed receptive to this idea, so I think I shall pursue it further.  Oh yeah, maybe soon I'll get to go out and sing and drink with men I barely know whose language I can't speak! 

Sunday, 13 October 2013

Paris Baguette (A.K.A how I nearly became homeless)

Last Thursday was the day of Wes' arrival.  He was going to get shown around by his school director, so we decided that we'd meet in a cafe near his school when he was done. We saw on the map that there was a Paris Baguette nearby, so we said "let's go there, and whoever gets there first just waits for the other".

Well, I went early to the Paris Baguette I thought it was, one in Dongsin-ri near a school, a half-hour bus ride away from my motel.  I waited for three hours, getting increasingly worried that Wes couldn't find the place, had fallen asleep in his flat, had had his flight cancelled, or that his plane had crashed... well, after three hours I was sure I must just be in the wrong place, so I spoke to the cashier in broken Korean, explaining that I was meant to meet someone here much earlier, and if by chance he showed up later, could she give him this note?  And then I dragged my luggage back to Cheonan (I might mention that it was roasting, and I was dressed up nicely in a dress, and it was nearly an hour's walk).  Eventually I found a place with unsecured wifi that I hacked into to check google maps.

There was a Paris Baguette further towards Asan.  "That must be the one," I thought, "but the buses have stopped going, and it's like a three hour walk.  Do I go now, or do I find another motel for the night?"

In the end, the idea of postponing finding Wes until the next day seemed like too much, and I thought if I could just bear with the three-hour walk then I would find him and it would all be over.  So I set out, with my luggage, my backpack and my handbag, in my best dress and with a hoppang (steamed bun with filling) in my hand. 

I reached an intersection and had to ask for directions.  I had the address written down.  "갈산리 이쪽 이에요?" The petrol station attendant and the customer he was serving looked at the address and said, yes, it's that way... but it's very far.  "Are you walking?" they asked.  The customer said it's too far to walk, I should take a taxi, and he gave me 10,000 KRW (~£5) to take it, and told the attendant to flag a taxi for me.  I did my best deep bow and thanked him.   Once he was gone, the petrol station attendant just said, "you can flag a taxi here," and walked off to attend to his duties.  Well, although I'd watched westerners be refused by taxi drivers just two days prior, I managed to flag a taxi and showed him the address.

Now, during my stay in Korea, I've heard "you speak Korean so well" more times than I can count.  People are instantly twice as helpful when they see you attempt to speak in their language.  Some people will try to grade their language, or even say just the key word (sometimes followed by the same word in English, if they know it).  Some people think that I should be able to understand anything they say, and just keep talking at a million miles an hour while I smile and nod awkwardly.  The taxi driver unfortunately belonged to the latter, and our conversations consisted of me outright guessing what he said ("Oh, I heard the word for phone!  He must be asking if I can call someone!") and replying to what I thought he said. 

Although I had the address clearly written down, and he had a fancy gps, he didn't seem to understand where I wanted to go.  We eventually found a Paris Baguette in Tangjeongmyeon-dong... but it was unfortunately the wrong one.  Of course, because I had no idea where we were, I didn't know that.  I had received a Facebook message from Wes (who'd logged into a school computer) saying that he had a meeting at 7, but he would come there right afterwards.

So I waited in that Paris Baguette from 7 PM until past midnight, when the staff eventually (about half an hour past closing time) apologetically kicked me out.  "It seems like he can't find this place," I said, all choked up, because I didn't know what I was going to do all on my own at half past midnight in a place I didn't know, where I didn't really speak the language.  "Do you know of a motel near here?"

"Yes, if you go past Mun University, there's one right there," he said and brought up Google maps on his smartphone.  "We're here," he started, "and if you go down this road it's right here--"

"Wait, wait," I said, and snatched the phone from him.  "Where here?  Isn't there also a Paris Baguette over here?"  I scrolled the map and showed him.

"Yes, I think there's one there," he said, and looked at me sympathetically.  "I guess that's where you were meant to meet?"

"I must be an idiot," I said.  They told me that that Paris Baguette would also be closed by now, but I insisted that they write down the address for me.  The man wrote it down, and called a cab for me, and when it arrived, he told the driver where to take me, and I got bundled into another cab.

When I arrived, I ran up to the cafe, and found it closed (obviously).  It was almost 1 AM at this point.

This Paris Baguette was located inside a mall, and the mall building was still open.  There was a chicken house opposite the cafe that was still open.  I looked through the mall and didn't find Wes.  Well, I hadn't expected him to wait past closing time.  I found a corner with a power socket and nestled in on top of my luggage.  I had nowhere to go and no way of getting there.  Even if I managed to find a motel, who was to say it would be accepting customers at this time of night?  This was indoors, and there was internet, and if I knew Wes, he would come back to the Paris Baguette first thing in the morning, since this was where we had arranged to meet.

Of course... this wasn't the right Paris Baguette, either.   It was only a five-minute walk from the one we'd arranged to meet at though, so it was close.

At about 2 in the morning, Wes somehow managed to fool his Xbox into letting him online even though he couldn't remember the password for his account.  He'd just come home from the Paris Baguette near his school, where'd he'd waited for seven hours since he got out of his meeting.  We somehow figured out that he was actually in Cheonan, and not in Tangjeongmyeon at all, and that I was at the wrong one still as well, meaning that we'd spent nearly 20 hours between us waiting at four different wrong Paris Baguette cafes. 

Before Wes could make clear where he was and how I should get there, though, his XBox realized that he shouldn't be connected to the internet after all.  I knew he was in Cheonan, but I didn't have enough money to take the taxi there, and besides, Cheonan is a large place.  So I resigned myself to being homeless for a night (at least I was indoors and I had internet) and tried to go to sleep on my bag.

Just past 4 in the morning, before I've gone to sleep (I never could sleep in strange places -- I don't think I'm well-suited to being homeless) I'm startled out of my slumber by a crazy man pounding on the glass doors demanding to be let in.  After a moment I realize it's Wes, who somehow found me, at 4 in the morning in a deserted mall in the middle of nowhere.  Turns out he'd chatted up a seven-eleven cashier for directions, who'd given him taxi money.

The moral of the story is: Korean people are super friendly and will even give you money to take the taxi if you seem distressed enough, and help in any way they can.  The taxi drivers don't know where anything is though and will consistently take you to the wrong place (our taxi back to Cheonan didn't get us where we wanted either), and they speak even less English than everyone else.

Friday, 4 October 2013

The Adventure Begins (A.K.A. Staying at a Love Hotel)

Alone in a foreign country.  So the Korean consulate in London is taking awhile to approve Wes' visa, and he won't be arriving for several days after I've arrived.  So for now I am staying in a hotel in Cheonan that my dad helped me book.

Nervous times.  I couldn't sleep the night before flying, and it's not just because packing always takes longer than you expect.  My flight was originally booked for the 14th of September, and until my flight was booked and my visa had arrived, I was sure I wasn't going.  And then all of a sudden, I was!

And then Wes' school went bankrupt, and although he got a new job quickly, we had to postpone our arrival.  The 14th came and went and I was still in my folks' house.  I was in some kind of parallel dimension where I wasn't going to Korea, where I was just an unemployed bum lounging about in my parents' house playing video games (sans the video games).  I slept all day and browsed the web and did some work on my drawing but not on my Korean (after all, I wasn't going anymore).  This is something I have spent almost two years planning for, yet I felt the fact that I was able to go was due more to chance than anything else.  And when I wasn't able to go, that was also due to chance, and there was nothing I could do to stop it.  I don't remember when I last felt so frustrated and so helpless as I have while preparing to go.

Then, of course, the day that my flight had been rebooked to arrived, and all of a sudden I was going again!

I spent half the flight feeling like I was kissed for the first time, and half of it feeling like I was about to walk into an examination hall where my degree would be decided.  Sometimes I couldn't stop smiling to myself thinking "I'm finally going!", and sometimes I had to bang my chest to stop from hyperventilating.  Sometimes both at the same time.  This is simultaneously one of the most exciting things and one of the scariest things I have done in my life, so I think my wires got a little crossed.

Arriving.  I arrived to Incheon International Airport, which is located on a small island.  I took the express train into Seoul (₩8000) and the commuter train from there to Cheonan (₩6000, after a long discussion with the ticket booth person, half in Korean and half in English).

On the train station in Cheonan I was faced with the monumental task of dragging my luggage up the stairs and then down the stairs to get outside.  A middleaged woman who spoke passable English saw my plight and helped me find the elevator, and once we were outside, she decided she should help me all the way to my hotel. Which was a stroke of luck, because Cheonan turned out to be this labyrinthine place with tall buildings, narrow streets and every building plastered with signs and posters.  The streets don't have sidewalks and appear to be of variable width as the houses are not all similar to one another.  I eventually found that street signs do exist, but they're on poles way high up in the air; presumably, so that cars can see them.  With all the other, bigger signs with Korean writing on them, it took me awhile to find the actual street signs...

Bins along streets do not exist.  I'm not sure what to do with my rubbish but for now I'm collecting it in my hotel room.

Love hotel.  The hotel is called K. S. Hotel.  It was called Sweet Hotel online... I'm not sure what the deal with the different names is, but they accepted my reservation voucher, so I assume they must be the same hotel.  At any rate, when I arrive to the hotel, I'm given a dressing gown in shiny fabric and a small toiletry bag.  "Sweet," I think, "It's like flying business class!"

When I get to my room I open the toiletry bag to see what's in it, and in addition to the expected tooth brush, I find some packets which I assume must be skin lotion, some which after googling turn out to be some sort of tooth paste or mouth wash or liquid breath mint, and one which (even without writing in English) is immediately identifiable as a packet of condoms.

A 'love hotel' or 'love motel' is a common practice in Korea, or so I understand, as people often live with their parents until they are married, and therefore need someplace discreet to, erm, be affectionate with each other.  And the hotel my dad booked me into is apparently one of these love hotels.  "Do they charge by the hour?" Wes joked, and added:  "Those condoms better still be there when I arrive!"

Toiletry bag with condoms
At least I'm not the only one... there is a Japanese family staying in one of the adjacent rooms.

Thursday, 3 October 2013

팥빙수 (patbingsu)

I'm in a cafe right now, and I just finished eating my bibimbap. For dessert I'm having patbingsu for the first time... it appears to be beans and fruit served on crushed ice. I had something similar in Singapore before, but this is far tastier. =)

팥빙수 (patbingsu)

Wednesday, 2 October 2013

Where are we going?

Welcome. Welcome to Charmingly Chungnam! It's my second day in South Korea, and it's already an adventure, in all the ways you might and might not expect.  Before I move on to the adventure, let's have a rant about where in Korea I'm going.

Daegu. This blog was originally called "Daffily Daegu". This is why the header image is a picture of Daegu. Maybe someday I will change it... but probably not. Man, I was so proud of the name, it had that certain ring to it, it had alliteration, it had an old word people don't much use (daffy) which means one of my favourite things (silly). The subtitle was the dictionary entry for daffy. I was super excited about this master piece of a blog name, and had a post about my visa half typed up, when my partner Wes gets an email from his agency.

Cheonan."We're very sorry," they say, "but the school in Daegu we've placed you with is going bankrupt. We'll try to place you with a new one, in Cheonan." It's not even Daejeon. Daffily would have worked with Daejeon too. It's Cheonan. Oh well. Forget about the blog post. Who cares about blogs, anyway?

Eventually I rename the blog to "Charmingly Cheonan" and move on with my life, after this immense tragedy, this crushing blow. I find it on the map, and am pleased to see that at least Cheonan is close to Seoul. Close enough for commuting, even, if I should find something interesting to do in Seoul.

Asan. Wes inquires and gets to know that the school is located at Tangjeong-myeon, Asan. Asan? Asan is a smaller city, just west of Cheonan. It turns out that Wes' school is located inbetween Cheonan and Asan -- officially in Asan, but in practice slightly closer to Cheonan. It will thus be a commute to get into either city, Seoul has become a day-trip, and the two of us are likely to be the only white people (in addition to whatever other English teacher might be there) in that neighbourhood. Oh, Daegu!

Chungnam.  The school is officially in Asan, close to Cheonan, and not really in either. Asan and Cheonan are both in South Chungcheong province, or Chungcheongnam-do -- Chungnam for short. Chungnam it is, I think, and here I am now, in Chungnam. Chungnam province has 8 cities, ranging from Cheonan, which is the biggest with a population of nearly 600,000, to Gyeryong with only 40,000. I imagine I shall have to visit them all during my 11 months in Korea. =)