Sunday, September 19, 2010

First post and all that jazz

My aim in this blog is just to account for what I get up to week by week, what happens to me and what I happen upon. I will attempt to give details about my job, what I do in my spare time and other things I think might be interesting.

I would, however, like to give some sort of introduction to what I hope will be the most prominent subjects I'll write about, those in the blog's title. 

Teaching in Korea

I teach at a high school just outside of Mokpo in the south Jeolla province of the Republic of South Korea. If that sounds like a mouthful, it's because it is. It's at the end of the line for the high speed train, the highway and numerous other trappings of civilization. I teach, putatively, a farcically lightweight 17 hours a week, though often these are reduced by the need for exams, 'university days,' sports days, blood tests, fire service demonstrations, in fact just about any excuse you can think of, and many you can't, means cancelled classes. The job is easy, low-pressure and pleasant, if slightly unrewarding and dull. My co-workers are, by and large, a nice bunch of folks, who, like folks anywhere, are just trying to get along with the world around them.

It is an academic, as opposed to a technical school, and one which has plenty of kids from well-adjusted and more wealthy backgrounds, but inevitably has its share of lunatics as well. Korean students have their studies immovably focused on their college entrance exam. This is amplified at my place due to its proximity to the end of their time at the school, so English speaking classes are really seen by everyone except me as just an admixture of down-time, games and a chance for students to air their more bizarre and/or xenophobic views to a foreigner. No grades are awarded for my class,  so my students are devoid of any extrinsic motivation. I'm too much of a miserable old git to give them chocolate, candy or stickers. They're teenagers: I would respect them a lot more if they didn't beg for these things, though the innocence behind such pleas is endearing, when I consider the monstrous adolescents back home.  

If you have lived for more than a month in Korea it will not surprise you that there is no formal, standardized assessment of English speaking ability in Korean school education. Half the English teachers at my school (there are six) struggle with speaking English themselves. One of them is unilaterally incoherent. Her scatter-gun approach to sentence composition - I am sure in her mind she is thinking along the lines of 'I'll just throw in an "however" or perhaps a "maybe"' - leaves me continually baffled. I do feel sorry for her though: there are kids at the school who have had the opportunity to participate in home-stays in English-speaking countries (New Zealand seems to be a popular choice) whose English is much better than hers. And at least she tries. 

This is part of the conundrum of teaching in a government school here. While so many things in Korea change at the drop of a hat - like my contract of employment last Christmas time - changes in English language learning advance at a regal pace, and often share the hollow, pompous and insistent bombast associated with monarchies. Speaking skills, as well as writing, are beginning to be taken more seriously, and English learning may well become more holistic in the future. It hasn't really happened yet though. So instead, for the time being, the curriculum concentrates on grammatical nuance which, for the rather large portion of kids who are not going to become philologists, has all the utility of an ashtray on a motorcycle. It makes them resent English, one of the most inventive and creative languages in the world. Sadly, they are not only not given any impression that this is the case, but also provided with such scanty linguistic tools as to think it improbable. 

Each entry I post will have something, hopefully, to do with life at school, even if it's just a lesson plan from that week. After all, I spend forty hours a week there so I should, hopefully have something to report.


Obviously, I like to travel: I left home to teach abroad, and don't see Korea as a place to settle down. Paul Theroux has, I think, a pithily good take on travel, as opposed to tourism: 'tourists don't know where they've been, travelers don't know where they're going.'  I don't know where I'll go next.

Conversely, at least according to Theroux's definition, I may also be a tourist. I'll write about the trips I take and let anyone who reads this blog decide which camp I fall into.


By 'trek,' really I suppose I mean 'hike,' but couldn't resist the alliterative title, no matter how cheapening it is. Trekking, of course, requires more than one day on the trail at a time, something not possible too often for me. So most of this part of the blog will be concerned with the day hikes I do around the Korean peninsula and anywhere else I get to go.

Hiking in Korea is good, but has its drawbacks. While Tae kwon do is officially Korea's national sport, hiking, I would guess, seems to be the most popular leisure activity. It is common to see multiple, large coach loads of (generally middle-aged and older) Koreans descending upon their country's mountains every weekend. Consequently, if you're looking for a wilderness experience, then look elsewhere: Korea is just too crowded and hiking just too popular for this to be possible. In addition, this brings with it other problems. Littering by some inconsiderate folks and a predilection some have for making excessive noise - shouting at the summit (brilliant) or, even more appealing, bringing a stereo and blasting your music everywhere you go on the trail -  sometimes lead to a miserable and frustrating day out. 

It's not all bad news however. Trails are, more often than not, pretty steep, so you get a good workout. If you get up early and miss the crowds, or go during more inclement weather you can have the trail to yourself, or at least almost to yourself. The scenery is gorgeous and at times unique. There is potable water along a lot of trails, or a temple nearby which will have drinkable, free water. What's more, due to hiking's popularity amongst the natives it's a great country for novice hikers. It's almost impossible to get lost for more than half an hour, particularly in Korea's national parks, whose enduring popularity means well-maintained and signed trails. Even the 'lesser' mountains, of which there are many, are similarly hiker friendly. When you hike in Korea, a map an compass are often superfluous.

In the blog I'll try to give details of where I've hiked, links to maps and any other information I think might be useful. I'll also try to create an archive of the hikes I've already been on, though this will be a gradual process.

First real entry next Monday, hopefully.     

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