6 Things I Learned From My First Korean Class

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Last Saturday I finally decided that I’d had enough smiling and nodding, and decided to sign up to a beginner’s Korean class in Gwangju.

Having not been on the other side of the teacher’s desk for quite some time, I was a little nervous about what to expect. But I needn’t have been. The teacher was great, I met a few new people, and I pretty much sailed through everything fairly easily.

The first lesson was all about the hangul characters (these: 안녕하세요) and, as I already know how to read them, I didn’t learn any new Korean per se.

did, however, learn some other interesting things:

1) I’m blind

I already kind of knew this anyway because I’ve been short-sighted since I was 14 but, as someone who doesn’t wear contacts and very rarely bothers to put her glasses on, I didn’t realise just how bad my eyesight had gotten until I sat in the front row and saw nothing but blurs all over the board.

I really need to get over my ‘I don’t wear my glasses’ thing and just stick them to my face.

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2) I miss a classroom setting

I might not have learned as much as some of the other students in my class but I really did enjoy the feeling of being back in a classroom and actually getting ready to learn. When my teacher called for a 10 minute break, I was eager to continue and when the class finally came to an end, I was sad. Who knew I was such a nerd? (All of you did.)

3) My writing sucks

Considering I’ve been calling myself a writer for the last 7-8 years and have never had a problem with the written word (in English), you’d think this would also be my strength in every language.

NOPE.

When it came to learning Spanish, my ability to read it, listen and understand, and speak it was okay. I had problems with my grammar that could have been worked out with proper lessons. And my writing? Non-existent.

I didn’t have a clue how to spell or write anything.

And I have a feeling Korean’s going to be the same. I have no problem reading hangul and sounding it out enough to speak it now. But actually writing it? Eesh. I’ll hold my hand up and predict I’m going to be bottom of the class for that one.

4) No-one knows where Wales is

This conversation happened:

Teacher: Let’s have an example. Ceri, where are you from?
Me: Wales
Teacher: Ah, but that’s in London, isn’t it?
Me: I’m sorry?
Teacher: Just the country name, please.
Me: That IS the country name.

I’m actually kind of used to this by now.

We're the one with the world's most badass flag. Yes, that's a friggin' DRAGON on it.

We’re the one with the world’s most badass flag. Yes, that’s a friggin’ DRAGON on it.

5) People can’t just stop

Yes, I know, I really do, I honestly really really do know that my accent is butchered.

Let me tell you a little thing about being a Welsh ESL teacher: It doesn’t work.

If you’re an American with a strong East coast or Southern accent, you better neutralise that shit. And the same goes for any Brit with a strong Scottish, Irish, Welsh or Northern English (think Scouser/Geordie/Manc) accent.

Most schools are all over American English. It’s what their students know (thanks to American cinema) and it’s what they’re more likely to recognise coming out of your mouth. And they’ll happily hire a Brit that has a nice clear (London/RP/whatever) accent so that students can hear and understand what you’re saying. As a result, you do have to chill out on the way you say “by yur” or any other colloquialisms that’re ingrained into your brain – especially when you’re teaching low levels.

You find yourself neutralising certain words and even adding sharp little syllables (like overpronouncing the “r” in “door”) the way Americans say it to make things easier in class.

This happens a lot to avoid wasting 10 minutes on every single word in a sentence that students are struggling to understand and, after a while, you just do it automatically. Your accent changes and hanging out with other expats doesn’t help it either.

I’m well aware of this. I mean, I am a language teacher. And every other white person I meet here just loves to point out how “non British/German/Australian/American/crazy” my accent sounds.

I’ve been living away from where I grew up for nearly 10 years now. I know it’s different.

6) English guys have the weirdest Welsh girl fetishes

We can blame Gavin and Stacey for this.

(For those of you who never saw that series, it’s essentially about an English man (Gavin) who falls in love with a Welsh girl (Stacey).)

About 90% of the English men I meet outside of the UK who find out I’m from Wales always feels the need to reference this show. None of them realise that the show is a ridiculous exaggeration of what people from Wales and Essex are like even though they can’t help telling me how much they “love Stacey and her accent soooo much” because “the Welsh accent is just so gorgeous, it’s one of [their] favourites”.

I never sounded like Stacey (Does anyone?) and, like England, accents sound different in Wales depending on where you are in the country.

The projected Welsh girl fetish that’s closely followed by a look of disappointment when I lay my butchered accent on the table for these English guys is just gross.

No, I can’t be your sweet, ditzy Wesh girl who hates everything outside of her coastal town.

I’m probably more like Doris.

And that is why I’m single.

 

Bucket List Item #18 – Visit North Korea

This item is now null and void.

I pretty much decided after writing my Korean bucket list out that I could never support a government like the one up North by giving them money to wander around up there on a strictly guided tour for a few days.

Living in the Republic has only cemented my decision. No-one here really talks about the war but there are consistent reminders that the two areas of land are still not at peace.

If you’d ever need any more convincing, you’ve only got to look at the footage that comes through from DPRK media.

Remember this from nearly 4 years ago?

How the citizens of the North wept in hysterics “over the death of King Jong-il”? (Translation: For fear of execution if seen to be less than grief-stricken)

How could anyone contribute to the reign of terror that engulfs that country?

My Friend Asked Me Why I Stopped Writing. So I Told Her …

In short, I don’t feel like writing.

Writing about travel is boring me. Unless I find myself plonked in the middle of the Amazon or living under the sea in King Triton’s kingdom, the majority of my travel experiences aren’t unique or mind-blowing to readers.

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You can find just the same information on everyone else’s travel blog; There is no off-the-beaten path. My unique, personal experience with whatever I visit or wander through is exactly that – personal - and who really cares about hearing that?

I’m also pretty settled into life as an expat here too. I know how to get around, my apartment feels like home, and I’m confident when it comes to attempting to communicate with someone in Korean. (Even though my Korean’s still practically non-existent.) I’m not making as many mistakes with, y’know, trying to live here.

But I still have a lot of issues with this country that I’ve never seen written about on expat blogs before.

Whether I’m noticing them more because I’m living in quite a poor area right at the bottom of the country, away from the modernisation of Seoul, or if other bloggers just choose to remain ignorant and in their own expat bubble, I don’t know.

But I don’t want to turn this blog into a bitchfest. Especially about a place that pays me well, takes care of me, and has helped me meet some pretty cool people. So I don’t write about it.

Korea has given me something I’ve never experienced in my life until now: Financial stability.

At the age of 27, I can pay all my bills, pay my debt off, buy more than enough food to live on, have occasional nights out, make a trip across the country, and still have some money left in my back pocket at the end of each month.

This has never happened to me before.

Every job I’ve ever had has always brought about some kind of financial worry. I’ve either had to claim additional government benefits, move in with my parents, or had debt collectors knocking on my door.

Suddenly everything is stable and I can’t complain about anything. I’m grateful for every opportunity I’m given here and suddenly I see how privileged my life has become. I don’t worry as much about my own life which gives me the freedom to look out even more and see what else is going on.

In the last few months: Ferguson; Ukraine; Israel; Palestine; ISIS; Ebola; The suicide of the funnyman of our childhoods. And that’s just what the media chose to bring attention to.

I don’t know how to write about myself in such an indulgent way when the world is still falling apart. I live amongst Korea’s homophobia, racism, and sexism – Issues that are grand and vicious and rampant in this country that most expats overlook because of soju and noraebang and stationary that’s just too cute.

I want to write about it. But I don’t want to blog about it.

I considered shutting the blog down once and for all. I’m sick of writing just for me. I have a million thoughts to get down but I’m just sick of the sound of my own voice.

Maybe I’m not a writer anymore after all.

 

Unexpected Homesickness

Whenever a friend from home asks when I’ll be back – even for a visit – , I don’t have the heart to tell them that it won’t be for a while. Maybe a year. Maybe two. Maybe longer.

I don’t have any immediate plans to make the UK my permanent home and, as my parents are coming to visit in March, I’ve pushed back a potential visit to my homeland even further.

But something strange happened this evening. For the first time since moving to Korea, I felt homesick.

I’ve felt this way about Mexico City before but not about the UK.

That was until I watched the music video above. The song’s called ÜBerlin and it’s by an American band, but the video itself really grabbed my attention. Whether it was the streets of London and its graffiti, Johnson’s trackie bottoms or consciously unselfconscious dancing, the beautiful way it’s shot or the poignance of the lyrics, something struck me tonight and actually made me kind of miss home.

Huh … Well, that’s interesting …

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So, by now you all probably know about my love for Mexico City, that gigantic, smoggy mess of a place that I called home for over a year.

Anyone who asks me about what travelling and living in Mexico is like always ends up getting an earful as I can’t recommend the place enough. In fact, when I talk about being back ‘home’, it isn’t the UK that I mean. It’s being back with my friends and everything I love in D.F.

And I always imagined that it was my passion for Latin American culture that made my move to Eastern Asia so difficult. I’ve said on more than one occasion that there’s something missing here; I just don’t feel any deep-rooted connection to Korea the way a lot of expats do.

However, earlier this week I was traipsing through my archives, looking at old posts I’d written about the places I’ve visited over the last 2 and a half years, when I came across my post for San Francisco and saw something very interesting. This was how I’d written about D.F.  after 4 months of living there:

Every piece of research I did for Mexico all seemed to center on this big, smoggy city…

The more I read about (it), the more I was determined to settle there and teach English for a few years. I’ve always loved big cities and I knew I’d love D.F. I’d find inspiration and excitement from the craziness of one of the biggest cities in the world and get the chance to live amongst a different culture and speak a different language at the same time.

But I was wrong.

I arrived in late December 2011 but never felt that spark, that inspiration, that joy, excitement or happiness I was expecting. Instead, I was faced with smog, chest infections, another robbery, stern faces and dangerous traffic. The city was cold, grey and had some of the ugliest parts of the Western world.

There were some parts I loved – the whole of Condesa, Frida Kahlo’s house, the beautiful Ángel de la Independencia. But I didn’t feel any connection. I expected my heart to feel something towards this city; Something that would tell me I was in the right place, doing the right thing. But nothing ever came.

It was actually a disappointment.

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Well, shit.

Doesn’t that sound familiar?

I do remember second guessing my move to D.F. after having some of the best times of my life further south. But I had no idea how disconnected I’d felt.

I mean, I always felt that connection to LatAm culture but, wow, did I really feel that way about Mexico City? I can’t even begin to imagine that now.

Of course, we also have to bear in mind one important detail that I did keep hidden at the time:

I wrote this after returning from California, where I’d undergone an 8-day roadtrip with a guy who ignored me for most of it (yup, if you want to talk about awkwardness, try sitting in a car with a dude who’s in his man cave while driving 7 hours from Santa Cruz to Los Angeles) and then proceeded to break up with me while I was staying with his whole family over Easter weekend.

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By the time I got back to D.F., I was devastated and heartbroken and desperately wanted to be back in San Francisco – a place full of smiley, positive people that were close to him. Ugh.

eyerollBut I’m not going to put the whole blame on that. Like I said, I remember that moving to that city was an adjustment. And the funny thing is that now all my memories of D.F. and the places I visited in Mexico are full of positivity. I loved the people, the language, the culture, the food, the cities, the towns, the villages, the music, everything.

And this gives me hope that one day I might end up feeling the same way about Korea.

You never know.

Scenes from the Gwangju National Museum

SAMSUNG DIGITAL CAMERAYou all know by now that I’m a bit of a nerd when it comes to visiting museums.

I actually got to wander around this one for a bit when I was killing time one weekend, waiting to meet up with my co-teacher for lunch.

It was my first experience of how friendly the city people of Gwangju can be in comparison to how wary the locals from my neighbourhood are.

The security guards both struck up conversations with me when I first came through the entrance and, later outside, while I was waiting for my ride, I got into a conversation with a man who was curious about where I was from and what brought me to these parts of the world.

People’s curiosity tends to increase when you get to the larger cities and it’s definitely a constant reminder of how kind strangers can be.

I didn’t get to wander around the whole museum but what I did see definitely sparked my interest in Korean history (pre-20th century) – Something I genuinely know very little about.

As always, the photos didn’t come out terrific thanks to the ‘no flash’ rule but I did manage to salvage a few:

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