Longer Ways To Go

IMG_20140413_170613It is a rain-filled Thursday and my last day of teaching at this school. We are doing a K-Pop quiz – the students have to guess which K-Pop song the English lyrics are from, and then I play part of the song. They get nearly ALL of them right, and then sing and dance along. Where they find the time to memorise so much I don’t know. But then, after three days I am humming and nodding along, so maybe it’s not too surprising… It’s not bad this K-Pop stuff.

I will miss these girls – their grins and shrieks, their uniqueness and the long black hair that sheds daily all over the floor. Their giggled hellos; their thoughtfulness and sense of duty. It has been wonderful to be part of their lives for a while.

I have started saying goodbye, to people and also to places. Goodbye to this town, this little neighborhood of mine – the flat green roofs and hidden temples, painted brightly in browns and reds and turquoise. The looming, mist-covered mountain and the narrow back streets that night time fills with the hum of cicadas and distant dogs barking their territory.

The homesickness that grabbed me a few weeks back has passed. Now I am too busy to be anything other than busy. The days that are not wet are hot, and the mountain paths grow with leafy abundance. The cascades of small rocks, dry all winter, have become streams again, and as you trek along damp earth, underneath a green ceiling, you can hear water trickle somewhere in the undergrowth. Dragonflies are back in full force, playing dodge the humans back and forth over the red river-side paths. People carry umbrellas in sunshine and collect herbs from grassy banks.

It is very kind this country. Kind and peaceful. I didn’t expect to love it here, but I do, very much. And I’m sure a new kind of homesickness is coming – the kind that sends me to London’s Korea town in search of Bibimbap, the background murmur of Korean conversation and maybe someone who has heard of Yangsan, or singing lampposts, or both.


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Old Papers

Sorting through the piles of papers I always manage to accumulate, I came across some scribbles about Korea, written maybe a year ago:


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Beginning of the End

I said the first of my goodbyes today. As the end of my time here is approaching I took my beloved bike to the shop I bought it from, Imagemany moons ago. The shop is owned by a kind and friendly middle-aged couple who have sorted me and bikey out a few times since we began our adventures together. They have also thrown many “service” items – water bottles, head scarves and lights – my way. As well as being generous people, I think they were pleased by my Seoul trip last year.

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Another Photo Shoot

Half way through teaching a lesson, I am interrupted by my co-teacher. She had been scheduled to teach with me but was called away for ‘school promotion affairs.’

 So I am solo teaching in her absence, which is fine. Then, with twenty-five minutes left of class I am called out to join her, a photographer and some well-uniformed students for an impromptu photo shoot on the small lawn at the back of school. The girls are seated around me, with knees neatly folded to the same side, and we are instructed to ‘talk’ – or pretend to. Hohum. I think ‘it would be nice if this actually happened.’ I’d far rather teach outside than in my eternally cold classroom.  The sheer volume of bug dramas would ensure none of us ever actually had to do any work.    

We move over to some trellis-covered benches for more interesting “conversation”, then get a few shots of me crouched in a flower bush. 

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Last Sunday the first friend I made in Korea, Heeran, got married. Having become complacent in my comfortableness here, I didn’t realise Korea still held the opportunity for me to feel uncertain and out of place.  

It took place, as nearly all Korean weddings do, in a hall designed for that purpose. Heeran had asked her Aunt to look out for me (as the only westerner I wasn’t too hard to spot) and I was kindly greeted and ushered in to the right room. The weddings are quick. Everybody arrives and donates money to the bride and groom – usually about $50, more if they’re close family – at a designated donation desk, and are given a lunch token in return. Then people watch the ceremony while milling about, chatting, greeting friends and checking their phones. 

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Small Things

A few weeks ago cherry blossoms fell from the trees in gentle flurries of pink rain, and now the sun shines warmly upon us. It seems the seasons in Korea arrive as quickly as they leave.

 I am so grateful for the emergence of summer, yet still my classroom would let ice cubes keep their shape and so I defy our money-conscious vice-principal with sneaky blasts of the heating.

 School has absorbed me for the past few months. I am, as it should be, a better teacher than last year. At this point in the middle of the term I am also struggling to quash my own inner teenager yelling ‘I don’t want to go to school anymore!’

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So I arrived back in Korea after three weeks in Bali. I’m going to refrain from a Bali ramble and just say that it was wonderful and you should go. That’s probably all anyone wants to hear about any holiday, anyway.

 Seoul was familiar and cold. I had nine refills of kimchi in my first meal and am starting to suspect they lace the stuff with drugs.  Back in Yangsan, life this past week has consisted of no teaching and lots of goodbyes. I fear both the re-donning of the teacher’s mantle (five days) and the new phase of life that comes after friends have left. Soul the cat is also settled into her new home and knowing rationally that this is for the best has still left my heart to adjust and my apartment feeling empty.

 People’s post-Korea plans are often exciting, usually involving new locations to travel and work. My mouth waters just talking about it, and I am at the stage now where my own future plans are in sight.

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The Night Before a Trip

As is tradition, I stay up far too late. After a busy day of goodbyes and printing things and dropping Soul off to her new owner/catsitter (depending how things turn out) I put on tunes and start packing around 11pm.

 I eat the remains of the fridge, even cracking into the cabbage kimchi I was given a month or more ago. It’s been sitting there for a little while because for me, unlike many Korean’s that I know, one kimchi dose a day is usually enough, and breakfast and dinner I can suffice without it.

The absence of my four-legged friend is eerie, and noises outside the window at 3am send me into an almost paralytic state of fear. I realise I haven’t really lived alone for ten months now. It’s not that Soul the scardy cat was ever going to be much protection from any actual murderers who managed to break into my well-defended, ground-floor apartment, but she was, it seems, a good antidote for the imaginary ones.

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Winter Camp

A week-long English camp at Gijang Cultural Centre. We arrived to the soundtrack from ‘Spirited Away’ tinkling out from bronze lampposts. They were more ornate than the ones lining Yangsan river and the music had been chosen with more soothing deliberation, but I felt at home nonetheless.

This city camp is funded by Yangsan Education Office. Twice a year they pick five foreigners from the pool of public school teachers to attend a residential camp for one hundred middle school students from across Yangsan. Although the method of selection can feel a little like foreign teacher hunger games, most people survive and get some extra pay to make up for it.


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Walking the Cat

My next door neighbour is the landlord’s mother. Like most Korean ladies in their senior years she doesn’t like cats and I was told a few months ago not to let Soul out of my groundfloor window. Instead I take her for an hour each day to the mountainside next to my house. She is scared of strangers and so we go to the quiet grassy patch that is home to two buddhist style mound graves and overlooks the city. From there we can scramble up the wooded slope behind us. In earlier months it was a red world of dappled sunlight and raining leaves. These days even the big rocks have a carpet of thick white and brown which Soul sinks into as she gallops past my legs.

 For a little while it seemed as though we had these slopes to ourselves. I’d take up a flask of tea and my guitar and sing a very liberal interpretation of Folsom Prison Blues to the last of the dragonflies. This past month however, the slope has grown more popular.

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