A Korean Aussie adoptee goes back home for the first time. Hilarity ensues?
You may have noticed that I haven’t blogged for a few weeks. Well cut me some slack, okay! I’ve just finished up the TaLK Orientation on Jeju Island. My spare time has been sucked up by preparing lesson plans for practical assessment, night Korean language classes, long bus rides back from [exciting destination] or collapsing from exhaustion.
Let’s go back three weeks ago, when I left Seoul for Jeju Island…
After a strange but fun night in Jongno (ajeoshi party neighbourhood, it seems) and shopping in the Dongdaemun Markets at 2am, I threw my crap into my huge suitcases and dragged them through Seoul to Gimpo Airport to fly to Jeju for TaLK Orientation.
Back to School
When I heard that the TALK scholar orientation was on Jeju Island, I envisioned a hotel in the heart of town. I thought about wandering to the beach after classes and visiting different restaurants and shops every night.
So as the shuttle bus from the airport meandered deep into the Jeju countryside past cows and mountains, my heart sank. My map said we were quite far away from Jeju City and near… well… not much.
[I don’t have an accompanying photo for this. I took a few but they were so boring that I deleted them off my phone]
We arrived at a foreign language, British-style boarding school for young Koreans. Not a hotel. Yes, it’s exactly how it sounds. I’m not sure how else to explain it. We were shown the gymnasium and a cafeteria. We were given nametags, classes and blankets to take to our small student dorm rooms. There were curfews, class schedules and permission slips to leave the campus.
It’s been (cough cough) years since I’ve been to university. I suddenly felt old and weird. Especially as I talked to people in their early 20s who were still students themselves.
So, I uncomfortably resettled myself back into being a student role and learned how to be a teacher.
The lectures that ran all day weren’t as dreary as I feared. A subject called English Magic was not someone’s Dad telling me that adjectives are totes radical like I thought, but in fact a Korean English teacher with a knack for magic tricks. We read childrens’ storybooks, made up little songs and chants to get the kids to pay attention, learned how to design awesome Powerpoint presentations and make up games. The lecturers – a mix of native English teachers like us and Korean English teachers – put us into groups, made us play the games and do the activities. I saw songs, rhymes, games and stories that I remembered from when I was a kid. I tried to remember what worked for me and what it was that helped me learn words and ideas at such a young age.
I’ve taught classes before, but for adults – not kids. The trick is to keep things simple, fun and interesting.
I felt pretty confident when I got up in front of the class to present my demo lesson plan on food to the rest of my class. I was going to go through phonics! Mime how to eat things! Make up the best chant and songs!
But when I stood up in front of my peers, my mind went blank and I said, “ummm. Hi.”
At least my flash cards were cute.
A few days later, we had the privilege to teach real Korean kids for a day – an adorable Grade 4 class from Daejeong Elementary School.
After days of lectures on children were hammered into my brain, it was interesting watching them in a classroom setting. Ours were very smart, shouting out the ends of sentences before the teacher could finish asking the question. They were a bit shy, but competitive and playful.
My lesson was last after 5. By then, the kids were restless and counting down the minutes til the lunch bell. The game I designed for them turned into a chaotic mess. The moment I mentioned “it’s a race!”, the kids resorted to shouting in Korean so they would win. But at least they had fun.
Global Ghost Education City
Between our dorms and the classrooms are a long walk through Jeju Global Education City. It’s a small village of sorts with several foreign language schools and education institutes with housing for students and staff.
It’s still being built. We dodge collapsed pathways, weeds and construction workers on our walk. So there’s no one actually living there yet. With buildings that look like spaceships, boats or bioengineering facilities, unused playgrounds and impeccably-designed water features, the Education City currently feels like an creepy, futuristic ghost town. It reminded me of Ordos, a ghost city in Inner Mongolia.
A typhoon hit on the first weekend, leaving behind a thick, eerie mist. There’s nothing creepier than being unable to see a few feet in front of you in an almost-empty futuristic education village in the middle of nowhere.
I think language education is great and our society can really benefit from being multilingual. My big life regret is not learning another language (Korean, preferably) at a young age. But I’m not sure how I feel about Korea investing millions of dollars in building an entire village out in the middle of nowhere on a godforsaken island, purely just to train Korean students to speak English. I wonder what it would be like in a Western country. The whole concept is utterly bizarre to me. But hey, I guess those kids are going to be ace at speaking English by the time they graduate.
Escape from the Compound
It’s not all classes and dystopian future cities.
We’re granted field trips and some kind of freedom on the weekends. Some of the bilingual gyopos have taken it upon themselves to be tour guides and taken little groups of us around the island.
Near our compound is a bus stop where you can take an hour long bus ride into Jeju City, the capital.
The city itself is pleasant enough, but it ain’t Seoul. Apart from a few unique sights, it feels like any old small city in the world. But I have a theory. If you’re with good people, you can make any old dump seem fun. So a raucous lunch in Black Pork Street – Korean BBQ with Jeju’s famous pork cut from black pigs – and silly dressups in a preserved hanok village made for a great outing.
Jeju Island is a popular tourist spot, rich with natural beauty like non-active volcanoes, waterfalls and beaches.
On Saturday, we hiked up the picturesque Seongsan Ilchulbong – “Sunrise Peak”.
It overlooks a small black sand beach, where we climbed a rock.
The jagged rock was covered in weird crawling bugs, dangerously perched on the edge of a cliff with a short drop into the ocean. I kept remarkably calm while climbing up and down this thing while envisioning my death, caused by a bug crawling on my hand and me flailing and falling into the crashing waves below.
Then we explored the Manjanggul Lava tube cave, formed by lava flowing under the island.
The next day we visited the Cheonjiyeon waterfall and swam at Jungmun beach.
The beach was hilarious. I waded a few metres in with the water up to my shins… to a roped-off barrier guarded by stern lifeguards with whistles. Koreans and Asian tourists shrieked every time these tiny waves broke just under my knees. I sat in the crystal blue water and bobbed around on my own butt. Completely far removed from the Australian beach experience where waves as tall as I am can bowl you over onto the shore.
After the beach, our little group proceeded to get very, very lost. At least the scenery was nice.
Tourism in Jeju – or Korea in general – seems very different to Australia. Whenever I visit nice natural spots around Australia, there aren’t many people around. Perhaps a few small groups milling about, but usually not enough to disrupt you.
Seongsan Ilchulbong and the Mangjanggul Lava Cave were packed with tourists. It seems odd to push through a crowd halfway up a mountain or in the middle of a dark cave. When I reached the peak of Seongsan Ilculbong, I had to dodge photos and selfies from all angles every few seconds. The tranquility of Cheonyijeon Falls was marred by a woman next to me scrubbing her child’s dirty clothes in the lake.
Still, it’s not every day that I hike up an archetypal tuff cone and peer into a huge grassy crater, or wander through caves formed by lava and rocks under the surface.
I’m not a particularly social person. But after a few days of awkwardness, the some-200 TaLK scholars quickly made friends with each other, making plans to go on adventures around Jeju or just hang out and eat Korean pizza.
Someone remarked, “I think they picked us for this program because we’re all cool.”
My fellow English teachers-in-training were a diverse group of ethnicities from all over the world – including gyopos (overseas Koreans) and half-Koreans. I’m one of about 5 Australians here in a sea of mostly Americans and Canadians. My accent is a novelty. I’m asked lots of questions about killer spiders, killer sharks and killer crocodiles. I’ve never felt so popular before. In turn, I’ve asked a lot of questions about food, snow and slang. I guess being social is more exciting when you’re around completely different people to the ones you see every day. It’s pretty nice, this human interaction thing.
Today is our last day of orientation before we go live in the towns where we’ve been placed. I’m going to Jeonju, which apparently has the best food in Korea.
I apologise for my lack of blog updates. Hopefully I will have time to catch up on more things I want to tell you about. Last weekend I visited Geojedo to spend some quality time with the family for Umma’s birthday. And I think Korean pizza and snacks needs its own blog post. Stay tuned!