Last week in Ireland, first week in Korea.

‘”Where’s that?” was the first reaction I got from almost everyone when I told them I was going to Korea. Most, at first, thought I said Croatia. In my area, very few people went to life abroad and those who did went to English-speaking countries. So for me to announce that I was heading off to a country that was technically still at war was a big deal.  At the time I was 22, I had a great job, great friends, great family, a car and great prospects and there I was choosing to spend a year teaching abroad. A long way abroad.

If you had asked me in college where I would be in 5 years, I would never have said Korea. I would never even have said Asia. But as my college course moved on, I got more and more involved with the International students and organised trips around Ireland for them. This shared time lead to the exchange of great stories on how life is on the other side and how differently we do things in Ireland. As luck would have it, in the semester of my final year, I awarded a place on the International Summer Program at Chung Ang University in Seoul.  

I spent three amazing weeks learning about the culture, the food, religion, people but it was during our free time I got to experience first hand, life as it could be.  Shopkeepers were encouraging us to stay in Korea to teach and upon return to Ireland, a little research proved this correct. So, I saved up, did my TEFL and applied for a job.

I got one and before I knew it, it was time to leave.  The whole last week was a blur of parties and preparation. I laugh when I think of the effort that went into packing. It took me days and it was the worst packing EVER! I had a years supply of toothpaste, contact lenses, deodorant, shampoo for a small country. USELESS!( I clearly hadn’t paid attention to the fact that all these items were readily available in Korea!) This epic packing effort was halted by visits from neighbours wishing me best of luck and questioning if “you really know what you’re doing”. The final week, the only source of annoyance were the questions. “Shauna, it’s an awfully long way, what if something happens?” Shauna, do you know how close Paju is to North Korea?” “Shauna, what are ya at?” Shauna, what is it all goes wrong?” I knew it was a big deal but I could have done without the interrogations. My goodbye party was truly amazing. I still have most of the gifts that people gave me because they were really thoughtful and, surprisingly, practical.

All too soon, it was airport time and my Dad left me with great advice “Shauna, if North Korea attack, RUN! “. Mum, having more of a sense of adventure gave me the usual pep talk and saw me off with an” if I think you’re going to stay there for a long time, I’ll go to visit you”.

Fourteen hours later I arrived in Incheon. It was so clean. It was so big.  A train just to go collect your bags. Wait, is that efficiency I see in action? A stamp? On my passport! Thanks!  But that was the end of greatness. Reality set in when I saw my agent holding a card with my name. Then it  all became real. The journey to Paju took an hour and he was driving on the wrong side of the road!!!!!

My first week was a complete disaster. There’s no way, even I could put a positive spin on it. I had to be escorted to and from school every day by my co teacher Michelle. I was like her leech for the first week or so. Everywhere she went, I went. Everyone looked the same, all the buildings looked the same. It was hot. I got bitten by mosquitos but didn’t know about the magic medicine. I didn’t have one word of Korean and could barely identify foods in the supermarket.I had a phone but couldn’t just call Mum if I got in trouble. I worried about EVERYTHING. Was my apartment safe? Was it safe to leave that much cash lying around? When will I get a bank account? Should I really be walking alone? Is it normal for Koreans to be so interested in the colour of your skin?  I didn’t have a clue. How to teach, where to start, nothing. I’m so glad Michelle was kind enough and experienced enough to share her hints and tips.

Everytime I sent an email, I tried to be really positive because I so desperately didn’t want to fail. I knew I had to stick it out for the year to prove that I could. 

LIke all great adventures, eventually everything started to click. I was able to navigate my own way around Geumchon. I got into a routine in school. I made friends. I started socializing and I’ve never looked back. The greatest skill I learned in that first week was the ability to listen. When people gave me advice, I took it. Some of the songs I use in my classroom today, I learned from other teachers, in those first few weeks.  

These days, I still count Michelle amongst my closest friends here in Korea and yes, we are both still here. I’m pretty good in the classroom but learn new things every day. I still get lost, go the wrong way on the subway, get out at the wrong stops and exits but whatever, it’s still an adventure. At least now I can read Korean and I’m fluent Konglish.

 Better than all that, I’ve finally reached ” a long time”.  My Mum is coming with my sister next month to see me for the first time in two years. (I’ve been here for four years and have only made it home once.) It’ll be their first time in Asia and I’m super excited to see how the take to Korea.  Stay tuned because you know there will be a blog!

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A day in the life of Shauna.

The alarm rings and I turn it off. The next alarm rings and I do the same. Five alarms later, I decide to get up. It’s 7.30am and the start of a whole new day. I’m up and ready, eating my breakfast by 8ish. I spend the next 30 minutes watching whatever English programme happens to be on tv at that time of the morning.  These days it’s usually Poirot or Miss. Marple. At what is supposed to be 8.30am but in reality is 8.40am , I leave my apartment and head to school. The journey takes just 20 minutes in my car, Spuddy.

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Classes start at 10.10am but the teachers are all there for 9am. I use this time to prep for the day but mostly I use it to think of little games we can play at the beginning of class.  Classes in my school are only 25 minutes long so I try to play one game with each class before doing book work. The curriculum is made for me so I know what I have to do in each class.   It’s also a good time to say hello to the children and since there’s always a drama at school, I can hear all about it during this time. I teach children from Korean age 4 to Korean age 7.  Let me describe to you the sounds you hear from the staff room in the morning.  Imagine a child still using their outdoor voice and multiply this by 50. Then throw in a crying child and two fighting children and you have a good idea of the chaos here in the morning time. To be fair, once we get over the initial “I’m at school again” shock and excitement, they calm down.

The day goes from 10.10am first class to 2.30pm all classes over. Then there’s a special 40 minute class from 2.40pm to 3.20pm and then desk warming until 5pm. My school isn’t an English kindergarten it’s a Korean one so the children all speak Korean except to me where I make them speak English. If there’s ever a way to improve your Korean, it’s work at a school like this.  I’ll never forget the first few months I worked here. My Korean was pretty basic so when a child asked me to go to the bathroom, I would have no idea what they said and would spend a long while looking them up and down trying to decide from their general posture what the matter was! Like all things in Korea, it was a learning experience.  They learned to use hand signals and I learned how to speak better Korean. With the exception of 3 teachers, the majority of teachers here don’t speak English so if I want to report an incident in the classroom or talk about a student, it’s done in Korean or Konglish.

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Since this is a day in the life, lets take my Monday. Class schedule looks like this; 7yr, Free, 6yr, 6yr, Lunch, 5yr, 4yr, Free, Special Class.

The seven-year olds are a great class to start with. We talk about the weekend, we do some book work and then they play a quiz game similar to hangman where they have to guess the letters. These days they’re actually getting really good at guessing the words. I’ve had to turn those words into sentences and today they got the sentence ‘ I had a banana and bread for breakfast” before their lives ran out.  The class is brilliant. They make up their own English and speak to each other in this unique language “Robin, this eat no don’t do that not so good” Great effort and great use of all the key sentences I use.  The class leader also disciplines them and I love to watch how the whole thing works.

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Sixes are a different story. Some of them have never learned English and some of them have not only been learning English since they were 4 but they have home tutors.  This makes for an interesting class, every class.  The dynamic is often fragile as the faster students pick on the slower ones. I start all their classes with a game that involves easy vocabulary like colours or animals to level the playing field but sometimes that doesn’t work. Today we’re talking colours and one (there’s always one) says dinosaur.  The game is over. Book time and yes there is one for everyone in the audience ( I really do say that). Best thing about sixes is that they aren’t afraid to give themselves praise.  They spend the class pointing to their work going “teacher, good job, good job”(not a question, a statement)

Lunch on a Monday is the calm before the storm. The five and four-year old classes on a Monday are the worst. The fives are so unpredictable. I never know what they’ll be like. I try singing and they look at me like I’m crazy. I try a game but they don’t get it so I go straight to book and they don’t want to do that either. So it’s a terrible waste of a class.

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Awful, shocking and now to finish the day on a low note is the four-year olds. Of the three 4-year-old classes in my school, these are the worst. The first 6 weeks, they spent every English class crying hysterically when I entered the room. I didn’t even say anything. Now it’s May and only one of them hysterically cries. He gets so upset that he’s not only crying but sobbing uncontrollably to the point of almost vomiting.  These days he’s taken out before I arrive which calms things somewhat. The other students have been bribed to not cry by the homeroom teacher. So finally the class begins. By this time it’s 1.30pm and these poor little children are so tired. We sing a song and they don’t react in any way. So we sing it again, with a little more enthusiasm and only one joins in. Enough with that, I take out the book we’re supposed to be “reading”. Except by reading , I mean looking at the pictures and learning single words and making appropriate noises. So, the frog goes rweeebbuddd and I jump up and down, which also gets no reaction. The same goes for the elephant, the cat, the snake and the fish. One child has fallen asleep. One is engrossed in the contents of her nose and the other is just staring into space.

Snack time followed by special class.  Special class today is for the 7 year olds and I only have two. We turn on the computer and the material we’re using have a special programme of interactive activities. That’s how they spend the first 15 minutes. Then t’s book time.  The book is pretty difficult for students who don’t learn English all day so it’s a slow process. Today, I want to jump out the window. The activity is a comparison of the two stories and they have to tell me the differences. Except they don’t see any so I try to hold back the frustration. Eventually, we find 3 differences and manage to write them down correctly so it’s not a completely wasted effort after all.

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The final hour of the day is spent chillaxing in the English room (above).  The children have all gone home so I take in the rare moment of silence.  This is when the weekly report gets done or any preparation is completed. But usually I catch up on whats happening around the world.

For your entertainment, this is what happens on the first day of term when no students show up to class…..https://www.facebook.com/540988015/timeline/2013#!/photo.php?v=10151324946708016

This blog is dedicated to Brian Healy and Edel Feely. The coolest followers I have. Thanks guys and keep the suggestions coming!

The Subway- Always an adventure.

The subway is a great place, filled with great people, great potential and a nice mix of stories that will keep you talking over lunch. Most of the time you think the journey will be great craic, but sometimes it turns out to something a little different.  Here are some things that can go wrong on your beloved subway ride;

1. The machine eats your money; You try to top up your T Money card and the machine just eats your 10,000w. Then you press the help button, to talk to a Korean adjussi who totally has no idea what you’re saying and now you have hope of getting you 10,000w back. You look around asking for help with your eyes and everyone pretends they can’t see you.   And you haven’t even gotten on the subway.

2. You get the subway in the wrong direction;  You’re in downtown Seoul and you hop on the subway you think is your subway.  You find a seat, pull out your Kindle and settle into your book. After about oh 10 stops or so you begin to wonder why you haven’t reached yours. So you look for the next station name on your Jihachul to realise that you’re not even going in the wrong direction. So now, not only did you waste the last 15 minutes going in the wrong direction but you’re going to have to get out, swap over, wait for the correct subway, waste 15 more minutes going back and then start going in the right direction.

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3. You miss your stop; In the situation that you  get the subway in the right direction, there is always a possibility that you will miss your stop. Sometimes this is because the subway is overcrowded and exiting would mean certain death. Sometimes it’s because you aren’t paying attention to which stop you’re at because you’re reading, tweeting, Facebooking, Instagramming etc

4. You sit beside a drunk; It’s ok to have enjoyed a few drinks and to responsible enough to take public transport home but don’t bring your new-found enthusiasm near me. Sleeping on my shoulder, trying to mutter something, spitting next to me, vomiting next to me, taking off your clothes is totally not ok. Go home, you’re drunk!

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5. You’re surrounded by the church people; Being a foreigner on the subway makes you a magnet for the church people. No amount of listening to music and not speaking Korean can get you out of having to spend your subway ride watching the latest version of the Testament Part 2 on DVD.

6. You leave your bag on the subway; Although Korea is a safe country, leaving your bag on the subway is never a good idea. I’ve known people to get their bags back after leaving them on the subway but I know more who didn’t. And think about the people on that subway.  There they are all sitting around, wondering who left their bag unattended.  They wait a while and eventually everyone is getting a little nervous when nobody comes to claim it. Actually, that’s just me. Koreans on the subway rarely notice these things so while I’m fleeing for the carriage furthest away, everyone else is like 왜?

7. You fall asleep; Possibly the worst thing that can go wrong. Imagine this. You live in say…..Paju. It’s 6am on a Sunday morning. You’ve spent the entire night partying and you’re now ready to go home. You hop on the near deserted subway. You take off your shoes and lie across the seats for a little nap. Except this nap turns into a long sleep and when you wake up you are;

1. Surrounded by Koreans in their Sunday best who have to stand because they don’t want to wake the foreigner who’s taking over the entire row.

2. On your way back to Seoul. You have no idea how many time you did the round trip, but you’re on your way back to Seoul.

3. Hungover.

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Imagine if all the above happened in one journey.  Never a dull moment. Leave your subway adventure stories below!

It’s a drill! Or is it?

Alarms. They are everywhere. Our cars, houses, they wake us up in the morning, they warn us that something bad might be about to happen. The following is the story of what happened yesterday.

It was just another regular day at school. Screaming children, crying children, children who have generally no idea where they are, let alone what they’re doing. Fighting children, playing children and me. The foreigner. The teacher that the others forget. The one who never goes to the meetings and who is generally the last person to find out about everything.

There I was, sitting by the window, enjoying the few minutes away from the chaos when something unexpected happened. The sirens went off.  This being Korea, the sirens themselves are not unusual. I’ve been here long enough to have experienced the civil defense drills before. The fact that I didn’t know about it meant one of two things, 1. I didn’t get the memo 2. This was actually a real emergency.  I figured the chances was 80-20. So my first step was a completely logical one, I continued doing what I was doing.  For about five minutes the sirens continued and nobody came to tell me anything so I figured it was all good. Then, to my horror, I realised that not only was the staffroom empty, but the school was deathly quiet. Since this never happens, I figured I should make a greater effort to find out what was going on.  So, I took the next step and looked out the window. 

 The office faces a main road and upon close observation the cars were still driving, walkers walking, birds flying and the library staff across the street didn’t seem to be fleeing for their lives, so I took it to be a clear indication that all was well.  Never the less, the idea that the school was quiet scared me. However, since I get left behind on a regular basis in this school, I figured that because the children were going home at 2.30pm, if they had left, they’d probably have to come back to catch the bus.   Unless it was a real emergency, in which case, I was on my own.

Just as I was settling in to my chair, the unthinkable happened. Sirens, other than the big sirens became audible. Now, things were swaying towards the 20% and I immediately regretted not getting up off my chair ten minutes previously.  However, since I could hear the secondary sirens outside the window, I returned to my former look out post. Two cars zipped by with sirens on the top. Only two though, so I came to the conclusion that these were the people who actually go the memo. Once they were out of sight the only sound was the sound of the big siren, so life returned to normal.

Before I had a chance to firmly conclude that it was a drill, my floor manager came rushing in. Although me Korean isn’t perfect, I’m pretty sure she was saying something along the lines of “what’s all that racket about outside” followed by “do you think we should be doing something?”. She too looked out the window and seeing nothing unusual returned to her position as primary care giver to the 120 tiny students we have.

By this time I was almost on the point of panicking. If I didn’t get the memo and the Korean teachers didn’t get the memo then maybe there was no memo and this was for real. In which case we had all just wasted 20 minutes convincing ourselves that this was a drill and hence knocking 20 minutes off our life expectancy. If we were supposed to head to a shelter, the good spaces would surely be gone by time we arrived.

 In desperation, floating between the 80 and the 20, I took the action I could think of. I logged on to Facebook and twitter, simultaneously. And there it was. Confirmation that in other parts of Korea, sirens were also being heard and that these had been confirmed drills. So ours too, was a drill.

Finally, the sirens went off and for many things returned to normal. For us, things just continued. From this amazing experience, I concluded that;

1. Should there be a real emergency, the teachers and students at my school are screwed.

2. If that had actually been a real emergency, the window was the last place I should have been standing. Refer to point number one.

3. Social media might be one day safe my life.

4. If there was a real emergency, my teachers probably wouldn’t tell me anyway so it’s every man for himself.

5. Perhaps, we, as teachers should put a little more effort into teaching our students what to do in the case of an emergency.

6. It’s a shame there was no other English speakers in the school at the time because the conversation in my head during the drill was riveting.

Thanks to all those on Facebook and twitter for sorting it out. Rest assured it really was an air raid drill after all. That will be all. As you were.  You know where to leave your comments.