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Archive for November, 2011

I’m nearly two months into my new job and it’s going OK. Sleep and getting up in the morning hasn’t been too much of a problem. I usually try to sleep a little on the express bus down to Bundang, but it’s not easy. The drivers often have the radio on, sometimes at annoying high volumes. They also often have a beep that sounds when the engine revs too high – presumably to let them know when to change gear (unlike the UK, where people drive real cars, the vast majority of Korean cars are automatics (not that I’ve ever driven a car, manual or automatic)).

The main problem, though, is the buses themselves. They’re coaches, really, but living in such an American-oriented society I inevitably think of them as buses. Korea has a great public transport (not transportation) system – there are lots of bus routes and buses, subway lines and trains. The buses are all pretty rickety, though: they jolt and judder and jump up and down every time the driver changes gear or applies the brakes. The drivers also don’t drive too well: they tend to accelerate as fast as possible and then brake as hard as possible.

I’m back into reading as a result. If I can’t sleep on the bus in the morning, I might as well make a little more progess on The Three Musketeers (a novel about four soldiers who rarely use muskets). I can only manage a couple of pages in the evening, though, before exhaustion overtakes me.

My roleplaying game system continues to progress. I’ve been working on a new version that is taking longer than the first version to complete – I don’t have any full days to dedicate to it, now, though. From a high point of six players, the group has shunk a little to three regulars. The campaign that I’m running has taken a lot longer than I imagined to get to the point it’s currently at. The players are at a turning point, however, and I think I need to change my approach for the coming episodes – cutting out extraneous combat, maybe dealing with longer periods in condensed form. We have fun, though, which is the important thing.

Habiba and I are planning our trip to Europe, which will start early in the spring. I learnt from the internet that all international train services in Greece were cancelled earlier this year because of the financial crisis there, also it’s a very chancy business getting inter-island ferries at that time of year. This changes some of our plans – we’ll have to bus it (that word again) from Istanbul to Athens, or maybe Thessaloniki. The next stop will be Albania – transport links there and in the former Yugoslavia also look a bit ad hoc, so that’ll be interesting times.

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After having my coffee and snack at the Ueno Starbucks yesterday, I took the subway to Tokyo Station, close to the Imperial Palace. Navigating the system wasn’t too difficult. The ticket machines have English, but not much route information. In order to figure out how much you need to pay you need to look at one of the maps that has English, compare that to the map that shows prices to stations from your current location and then press the appropriate button on and insert the appropriate cash into the ticket machine. Alternatively, you could just buy the cheapest ticket – as I did for Tokyo station – and either look for a fare adjustment machine or – as I did – hand your ticket in at a desk and pay the difference.

The weather yesterday, as well as being overcast, was quite hazy. Visibility wasn’t great, but it lent a certain mysterious, atmospheric quality to the cityscape. The Imperial Palace is, I suppose, Japan’s Buckingham palace, but its ground are much more fortified. It’s surrounded by extensive grounds and large moats with steep slopes or stone walls on the inner edges. Much of the grounds that I saw had close-cropped lawns with an orderly forest of manicured evergreen trees.

I walked around part of the Palace grounds and then headed to a pair of gardens – western and Japanese; of which, the latter was quite pleasant, the former quite dull – which were adjacent to the National Diet Building – ‘Diet’ as in legislative body. Not a terribly interesting sight. I walked around the nearby government buildings. It was very quiet – there were probably more police officers than pedestrians – and not that many of those. It’s not a patch on Whitehall, frankly – it’s all mid to late twentieth century buildings.

Then I headed to Shinjuku, a big train/subway station and shopping area. The narrow side streets reminded me a little of Myeongdong in Seoul (although they weren’t pedestrianised), while the main roads were reminiscent of Oxford Street in London. I had a pretty lame but cheap coffee and did some game work, then took the subway back up to Asakusa.

There, I had a nice noodle soup and some fried dumplings at a restaurant and went back to the hostel. I had a long conversation with my friend Alex via Skype – something we don’t do often enough. Habiba was probably out, and she hadn’t left me any replies to my message during the day. Now, the following day (Sunday), I’m waiting for her to get on Skype, but she’s either fallen fast asleep or she’s gone out.

I don’t really have any plans for the day – I’m just going to head to the airport early. I’ve already bought some snacks for Habiba and me (maybe this time she’ll let me have some) and some chocolate biscuit sticks for my homeroom children. The Japanese brand of these sticks is Pocky, but in Korea they’re called Pepero – and 11th November is Pepero Day. I now have enough money for the train to the airport with a bit left over.

See you in Seoul.

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My flight to Tokyo went without hitch. I sat next to a German woman, Jana, at the back of the plane. We talked a lot on the way over. It turned out that we were staying in the same area of the city, so we got a train together, too, and made vague plans to meet – haven’t heard from her so far. I’ll see her on Sunday, anyway, as we’re on the same flight back to Incheon.

I had planned to couchsurf while I was here, but left it very late to find a host. As a back-up I printed out maps and addresses for a couple of hostels. One of them was in Asakusa, near to where Jana and her friend were staying. I got off the train at Asakusa Station and found the place readily enough. Only then it turned out to be more expensive than I was expecting – ¥3,500 (£28) for one night in a capsule (the hostels website said they had cheaper dorm beds, but it didn’t seem that way when I got there).

The receptionist gave me directions to an internet place, where I had to become a member in order to use the internet. I found another hostel not far away and went there instead. The Khaosan Tokyo Annex is cheap (¥2,000 – £16 – per bed per night), friendly and has reasonable facilities – free wifi, kitchens with free tea and coffee; the beds are quite well sized, too, although the pillows are just a big piece of foam in a slip.

Last night I spent some time walking around the area near Asakusa Station, taking some photos of the Buddhist and Shinto temples, Senso-ji and Asakusa-jinja. Then I had dinner at a quick and cheap curry place. You can design your meal to suit your needs: you can choose the amount of rice and the spiciness of the sauce. I got an egg salad and a chicken curry with 400 grammes of rice and level 3 spiciness (out of 10). It was pretty simple, but quite tasty, and the spice level was pleasantly hot (I wonder what the higher levels are like).

This morning, I got up at nine o’clock, ate my trail mix and hard tack for breakfast along with some of the aforementioned free coffee. Then I headed out to hire a bicycle for the day. The bike rental place was pointed out to me by the nice Japanese guy who was working in the hostel last night when I checked in. It’s in a tunnel running parallel to the river at Asakusa Station. However, when I got there, the old man at the counter turned a Japanese sign on the counter round to show the English side – no bikes available. He put his hands together in apology.

I decided to walk to Ueno Park – two or three kilometres away. The weather has been strange compared to Korea. It’s been quite warm and today the sky is veiled in pale overcast. I’m walking around in a T-shirt (and possibly some other items of clothing) and still sweating a lot. Ueno Park was quite pleasant, but nothing special. There is a lake divided into three or more parts by causeways and at the centre is Benten-do, a temple dedicated to a Buddhist goddess of the arts (not to a boy with an alien wristwatch). Part of the lake is full of aquatic plants with big umbrella leaves, part is clear and has pedalos. There are lots of ducks, seagulls and carp. At one point I, and a bunch of other people, watched as a terrapin fought in vain to drag itself on to a platform; people threw bread to the ducks and the fish.

As I write this I’m having a coffee and a bite to eat in a Starbucks, listening to Rammstein’s magnificent Liebe Ist Für Alle Da. I’m trying not to spend too much, but the familiarity of the coffee shop is quite comforting. I plan to take the subway down to central Tokyo to check out the Imperial Palace and gardens.

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I started a new job at the beginning of October. I now work at a church kindergarten in Bundang. As an atheist and humanist this is not my ideal environment, but the opportunity came along just as I was finishing my previous job – as a part-time temporary replacement at a couple of hagwons in western Seoul – and, with no other offers on the horizon, I felt I couldn’t turn it down.

There are various pros and cons to this. Earlier this year, I collected the requisite documents for getting an E-2 visa, the 12-month visa for English teachers in Korea; this school, for some reason connected to its church status, cannot sponsor visas, so getting these documents was a waste of time. I’m being paid ₩2,200,000 (£1,230) along with a ₩400,000 (£224) housing allowance – in full, in cash – no tax or insurance deductions. The lack of insurance is a bit annoying, as I have ongoing medication for my colitis to buy.

The job is also a fair distance from where Habiba and I live – it’s in an area to the south of Seoul. It takes me about an hour each way, taking an express bus from Seoul (about 35 minutes) and a local bus in Bundang (about 5 minutes). If I’m lucky and both buses come along quickly I can get to work in under 50 minutes. Actually the trip back home takes longer due to traffic. A little while ago I fell asleep on the express bus and missed my stop, which made me about 50 minutes late.

I work nine to five. At nine-thirty I have ‘circle time’ with my ‘homeroom class’ (these terms seem very American to me, but it’s been a long time since I attended primary school, so I wouldn’t know for sure). In this half-hour period, the kids – I have nine ‘seven-year-olds’ (this is in scare quotes because Korea convention means that people’s age can be a year or two higher than the number of years since they were born) – the kids have a snack and I’m supposed to play them a piece of classical music, show them a work of art, talk to them about some bible topic (I’ve managed to avoid doing this one so far) or practise the sentence of the week.

Then there are five periods for classes throughout the day. I’m the science teacher and I teacher three or four classes a day. After the kindergarteners finish at 2:30 or so, I have to clean the classroom and, three days a week, teach an after-school class for a small number of elementary school children. There are five classes of kindergarteners, fourteen ‘five-year-olds’, two classes of six-year-olds (eight who studied here last year and 12 newer ones), and two classes of seven-year-olds (ten returnees and nine new kids (my class). There are three classes of older children, of two to six students each.

The first few weeks were pretty hectic, confusing and generally stressful, but now I seem to have settled into the job more. There was a period where we had lots of stuff to do all at the same time – preparing for a father’s night demonstration class, writing student reports, writing and carrying out tests of all the students, and writing and giving out the fortnightly homework.

The job was not made easier by the complexity of the timetable. There are two official timetables: one showing what subjects the five classes have each period every day, and one showing what topic each group has for each subject. I made my own timetables: one with a general overview that doesn’t need to be updated, one that I update every week to show me what to teach.

Additionally, the scheduling of each of my science classes – scheduling that I inherited from the previous teacher – seemed very random; some classes would have a certain topic, and others wouldn’t, or some would have it one week, and others would have it the following week. Once-monthly field trips, occasional mini-field trips and special occasions like the monthly birthday party and Halloween confuse things even further.

The November timetable that I made (more work that I had to complete during the busy week) is more regular – all the children do the same thing each week (at least, that’s my goal), although I need to adjust the topics for the different ages and abilities.

The school gets a monthly box of little science kits for the kids to do. They come in three varieties, ‘Step 1’, ‘Step 2’ and ‘Step 3’, but they’re all fairly similar in difficulty. They’re OK – some can be pretty good – extinguishing a little candle by creating carbon dioxide – or pretty mediocre – pressing a leaf in a piece of paper then pouring a solution on the paper to highlight starch or something (this one didn’t work very well, and, as the instructions are all in Korean, I didn’t really know what was going on).

The people I work with are generally pretty nice. I have a Korean co-teacher/assistant, whose job is to look after the homeroom class, rather than teach. She’s sweet-natured and reasonably competent. There’s a Canadian woman who started at the same as me, three Korean teachers (who teach actual subjects; one of whom – an opera singer in her spare time – also started along with me and the Canadian at the beginning of October), other assistants for the other classes, the principal; in addition, there are a couple of teachers who come in to do ballet and violin classes.

The religious aspect of the schooling is only evident in a couple of areas: the children are supposed to pray before their morning snack and before lunch (if I try to eat something before they’ve done this in the mornings they all say, ‘Teacher, why no play?’); there’s also a weekly mini-sermon that the teachers are supposed to attend, but we don’t have to do anything for it. Oh, and there’s also the fact that the kindergarten is in a huge church building that contains guest rooms, conference halls and I don’t know what.

So far things are going OK. Getting up at about 7:15 every morning has been a challenge, but it hasn’t been as bad as I feared. If I can get to bed at about 11 o’clock the night before, it’s not too bad – unfortunately, this is the real challenge, and one that I don’t do as well with.

As Habiba and I are planning to leave the country at the end of February, I’ll only be working there for five months in total – which I’m sure will be more than enough. With a following wind, I should be able to save enough money to pay for my share of our trip.

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It doesn’t seem all that long since I took the bullet train to Busan and a ferry to the Japanese island of Tsushima for the purposes of getting a new visa, but here I am again. Except I’m taking a different route. In about two hours, I’ll be on a flight to Tokyo for a long weekend. Then it’s back to Korea for another three months before repeating the whole process in (or before) January.

I don’t have too many firm plans for Tokyo yet. I want to visit the Imperial Palace. I’m hoping to couchsurf with someone, but I left it very late organising that (like yesterday) and I may end up at a hostel. Even if I just do one touristy thing, a bit of walking and the rest of the time hanging out reading, writing and watching TV or films I’ll be happy. I don’t want to spend too much money – Habiba and I have a grand tour of Europe planned for next year and we both need to conserve our pennies.

The weekend will – hopefully – give me a chance to put some finishing touches to version 6.1 of my roleplaying game system, and to blog in more detail (or any detail at all) about my new job.

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