Last Wednesday I got back from spending a little over a month in South Korea teaching English with around forty other Oxbridge students and two hundred Korean students. I had a fantastically enriching time. In this post I’ll write about some of it. I’m sorry that the photos are only ones of people, mainly of myself—I haven’t got my own camera film developed yet, and at some point I will go around downloading other people’s untagged photos from Facebook. I also have a photo album from my students that I plan to scan in. BREAK

Teaching work

Perhaps the easiest way to start is by outlining a typical day at Jinju Health College Summer English Camp. We got up in time for breakfast at 8am, and then lessons ran 9–11:50, 1–3:50 with ten minute breaks every hour. The professors[1] thought that British people required an extended tea-drinking session in the afternoon (I’m not joking here, that was their actual rationale) so we then had a weird forty minutes of eating fruit, after which we had “class activities” until 5:50pm when it was time for dinner.

We then had the deathly dull “DTM” or Daily Tutor’s Meeting. Once this was over there were three main things to be getting on with: lesson planning for the next day, library duty, or heading out into Jinju (진주), though we had to be back for the 10:30pm rollcall and 11pm curfew. And that was each day, except for the weekends, which I’ll discuss later.

We had a grand total of about four hours of non-interactive teaching on how to teach, and then we were assigned opposite sex teaching partners, and each pair was assigned a class of ten students and that was that, we were off for the month. This means that I do not feel in much of a position to judge the quality of the teaching of me and my partner, a natural science student from Cambridge. Korean students work hard, so whatever you do lay out for them clearly they will have learnt by the next day, and in any case one of the main factors holding their English back is lack of native speakers to practice on, so spending eight hours a day with my partner and I talking to them will have had a positive effect regardless of how good our teaching was.

There were some examples of positive feedback, though. As I said above, my students would learn anything you laid out clearly enough for them, but this is the limit: aside from rote-learning masses of vocabulary and grammar, they don’t have much in the way of self-study skills, especially compared with us Oxbridge students who are used to basically teaching everything to ourselves. So it was possible to gauge how successful grammar lessons were based on how well they used that grammar the next day. And so I was quite pleased with myself that I managed to get across the usage of the present perfect tense,[2] which is tricky because there is no equivalent in Korean, so while they could all churn out sentences, they had no idea when to use it. After a few lessons though they all got 90% of a huge gap-fill exercise where they had to choose between simple past and present perfect. My partner had similar success in teaching the six kinds of conditional (real, unreal × past, present, future).

Without much idea of how to improve, then, actually teaching lessons was, in general, really easy, and a lot of fun: armed with a lesson plan, which after reaching the lesson boiled down to a list of activities, I generally just went for it and almost always had a good time and got a good response from the class. Lesson planning was much harder because we found it very difficult to be imaginative when coming up with production activities: these are extended speaking and/or writing activities which were supposed to form the backbone of lessons, after the presentation and practice of grammar and vocabulary. We found ourselves to be completely useless at judging what the students would find interesting and engaging, so it was essentially random whether something went down well and whether the students learnt anything from these parts of lessons.

In contrast to this, library duty at the end of the day was an intellectual activity that I felt I could make better sense of. After dinner the students had two hours of private study in a purpose-built room of booths; it was quite distinct from the college library so I’m not sure why we called it “library duty”. For the first hour we had DTM but after their break halfway through four tutors each day would come in for the second hour to answer questions.

Library study was a strange affair. Classes were numbered according to ability and they were seated in this order down the room. Our class lists and registers were supposedly in ability order, based on the students’ scores in TOEIC, an international English competency test, but fortunately library seats within classes seemed to be alphabetically assigned: it would have been too much to think that the person to your left was better than you, the person to your right worse. Of course all of this numbering and listing wouldn’t be seen as acceptable in the UK.

We were supposed to set homework for library study but we only did this after being told sternly to do so in the last week of the month. After some revision of the day’s work, then, most students were studying for the second month of the two month English Camp, going on as I write, during which hardcore TOEIC tutors are drilling five classes of forty students on doing well on the exam. Others were writing love letters to tutors (more on that later), practising cursive handwriting or just sitting on Facebook. Then halfway through they got interrupted by a bunch of celebrities (again more later), essentially, sauntering into the library and taking questions. This provided many opportunities for undercover photography and filming of e.g. my face when thinking how to answer a question.

Due to some admin not worth explaining I didn’t do library duty for the first two weeks, then I took someone else’s duty at the beginning of the third week and after that did library duty every night until the end of the month. I think I enjoyed it so much mainly because it was an intellectual challenge that I could make sense of, unlike teaching, which I loved but always felt slightly uneasy that I had no idea if I was doing it correctly. Library duty consisted of explaining something that to a native speaker is totally intuitive, in simple terms so that someone who is trying to understand your explanation in their second language can make sense of you. This is, of course, pretty similar to what I do in my philosophy degree: take some intuitions and try to attach them to a intellectual structure, and then explain this as clearly and as succinctly as possible.

So all together I was working about ten hours a day. Some people went out into Jinju almost every night (we weren’t allowed out of the campus at all during the first week, but after that), but I went further than the convenience store for ice cream only once, so aside from meal times and class activities I wasn’t having any leisure time at all, just working and working, and this was absolutely fantastic. I now know that I can just work and work if I want to, admittedly on something rather less intellectually intense than my university work. It doesn’t mean that I’ve suddenly discovered some new reserve of energy that means I’ll never procrastinate again; far from it. But I am now able to banish the ever-present thought that “maybe I’m pushing myself too hard, maybe I can’t handle this” that sits alongside all the other reasons why I’m not getting on with something.

My students

My very favourite part of the month was spending time talking to my ten students and going out into Jinju with them, something we did for a few hours on four afternoons during the month. I had class four of twenty, so they were quite high ability, and it was very rare that we found ourselves unable to communicate with each other about something, though they did fall back on their phone dictionaries a lot (strictly not allowed during class!). It was great to share in a quite different life and culture with people of my own age bracket: that’s what made it the best part of the month, I think.

Jinju Health College started as a nursing college so around 50% of its students are nurses, so my class was 100% girls, with eight nurses and two “dental hygienists” which is as far as I can tell a role pretty similar to what we would call a dental nurse. Eight students worked hard, one either struggled a lot or didn’t work so hard, I’m not sure, and one didn’t work so hard. At the beginning one was on a diet, by the end four were, which consisted of giving away food at meals (which were compulsory—missing breakfast meant penalty points—more below) and drinking powdered diet drink instead. In the UK probably about six or seven of them would have been drop-dead gorgeous or at least very attractive, though they assured me that by Korean standards only about three of them were good-looking. There was no stand-out best student: there was one who was quite clearly the most advanced at reading and writing, but others were better than her at speaking.

One of the main aims of the course was improving pronunciation and intonation. I realised a couple of weeks in that the problem is that Korean syllables are just not the same as English syllables, so you can’t rely on Koreans successfully sounding out words. For example to know whether to add -er or to put a ‘more’ in front of comparatives, as in “cuter” and “more expensive”, you need to be able to count the syllables. Yet something like “nice” has three syllables if you try to say it using the sounds in the Korean alphabet, so our students would sometimes come across as complete amateurs when speaking, despite having been learning English for ten years. They generally did themselves justice in writing, but in speaking essentially had their own dialect of English: someone would say a piece of vocabulary out loud that I was trying to get the class to give me, and my partner and I wouldn’t understand, though all the other students would understand and would know what the word was.

To try to deal with this we did a lot of repeat-after-mes where we would try to make the difference between what we were saying and what they were saying as explicit as possible. But I don’t feel we did as much of this as we could. They really enjoyed chanting at us, and learning how to say things properly, and we could see improvements over the month.

Intonation refers to which words in a sentence are stressed, another thing they would always get wrong, saying the ‘said’ after a piece of direct speech in a text, for example, with way too much emphasis. The point is that if you fix either your pronunciation or your intonation, even if the other is lacking, you are much, much easier to comprehend for a native speaker, and so I think I should have spent more lesson time on it rather than on grammar and writing practice.

Our students were very keen to look after us, and very keen to discuss differences between the UK and Korea, and to learn about our lives. We were equally keen to learn about theirs. This did mean that we ended up talking to the four less shy ones much more than the others, who were generally just as keen to be kind but much less willing to speak. We should have put more effort into talking to the others. On the other hand, though, it was these students who were putting the effort in to form relationships with us. I learnt a great deal about their lives and they picked up a fair bit about ours.

If you imagine an equivalent of Jinju Health College in the UK, you are going to end up with a polytechnic of some sort that many people look down upon. I do not know any nursing students in the UK but the stereotype would be those who didn’t try hard at school and who, for the most part, view nursing as a second option rather than something they really want to do.

Whether or not this is true in the UK, it is certainly not true in Korea. Our students were politically aware and generally came across as very well educated, kind of what you might expect from Oxbridge students in the UK really, though with huge gaps that you wouldn’t expect, such as having tiny historical knowledge. Though of course on the other hand they are all much more numerate than the kind of student you would find studying nursing in the UK. I remember thinking at various points both “their worlds are so small” when they put our Western lives up on pedastals, and when they behaved like ten-year-old girls, and then “their worlds are so large” when I realised that really they are quite aware behind all that and anyway, we all have our heroes and ideals and idols.

It was great to be in the unique position of being teachers who were also supposed to be their friends. It wasn’t just that we could be friends with them, as there existed external authorities to deal with discipline etc., but also that we were supposed to: the programme was all about getting them to speak as much as possible, after all. I hope to keep in good contact with my students.

Other classes had some serious problems with discipline but we never did, aside from struggling to stop them from speaking Korean and messing about on their mobile phones more and more towards the end of the programme.

Etiquette was surprisingly difficult to get right. I thought I had things sorted with giving things to people, for example, after I read online that you must always give and receive with two hands in Korea. But then my students found it offensive that I would go round and hand out a worksheet to each desk, just putting it on the desk, rather than to the student’s hands. Koreans are quite physical with their friends, pushing and shoving and poking etc., but it turns out they found it extremely annoying when I tapped them with objects I was carrying in greeting, something I very often do. And hugs between males and females are seen as sexual, so even though they were crying, only five of them managed to bring themselves to hug me when we left each other on the last day.

Other students

There were many students from other classes who wanted to engage in conversation with different tutors and I got to know maybe four or five students from outside my class quite well, and many others to a lesser degree. In addition to genuine attempts like this there was an awful lot of fangirlism. Of the twenty male tutors, my fan club was probably competing for fourth or fifth place in terms of size. I would be constantly stopped for photos by Korean I’d never spoken to before, and there was plenty of filming and screaming and running about. We’d hear the Korean word for cute, “kyee-ah-waaaa” spoken longingly as we moved about. There would be a scream when I greeted the security guard at the dormitory gates in Korean. Other classes would use our names as examples in their work. At one point a class made a poster of me. A male tutor would be working on a laptop or something, doing nothing out of the ordinary, and a Korean would be sitting and filming this. They all had massive tablet-like smartphones and very good 3G so there was a lot of circulation and trading of photos and videos going on.

I’ll retell a couple of the more memorable incidents. Tim was one of the two most popular tutors and on one Sunday evening when he returned from his stay with a Korean family which we all did that weekend, he was greeted by a girl called Rachel who had been waiting out there for him to return for over an hour. She gave him a box of cakes and other sweet things and said, “now I’m your Korean girlfriend!” and Tim, not thinking, replied with “yay!” or something and she took it to heart. Another girl from Rachel’s class, who thought she was Tim’s Korean girlfriend too, heard of this, and there followed a stand off between Tim, Rachel and the other girl, with our co-ordinator Hye Soo (리헤수 I think) translating, or something. It was made more comical by the other girl standing about 10m away from us, refusing to come closer because she wasn’t wearing makeup. The interesting thing was that, despite speaking both languages and being herself a Korean girl, Hye Soo just couldn’t tell how serious the Koreans were taking it: she just couldn’t be sure whether they realised that the whole thing only made sense as bit of play-acting. It was even less clear for those incidents involving Korean girls who definitely had steady boyfriends.

On the last day I went to my room to collect some British food, that I’d brought with me and didn’t want to cart home, to give away to my class. On the way two girls met me and wanted photos and one of them gave me a gift and goodbye letter, so I said thanks and then left the pile of food I was carrying outside to return to my room to put the gift and letter away to read later. When I returned I found half of the pile of food missing and noticed a camera peaking out from behind the other building, recording my reaction to this. I confronted them and they made me speak the few phrases of Korean I know in order to get the food back.

The college

50% of JHC’s students are nurses, and the rest do a variety of courses. There is Tourism, which seems to be mainly about training to be air cabin crew. There is a fake plane on one floor of the college that became somewhat of a landmark for giving directions (”pass the aeroplane on your right then take the stairs…”). Then there is the mysterious “Mr. Pizza” degree which seems to be a sponsored qualification to train you to work in Mr. Pizza restaurants, a Korean fast food brand. And then there are courses in things like dental hygiene, as noted earlier, and other supporting medical roles.

The college is on the top of a hill and there are about three buildings, which aside from the dormitory are connected together in very confusing ways, since the floors don’t connect up in the way you might expect them to. There are eight floors in the main building, and only one lift, and since we had business on at least the bottom and top floors and for most of us at least one in between, there was a lot of marching up and down stairs. Add this to the extremely steep hill leading into the college and we found that our legs got quite the workout.

It is difficult to reconcile the extremely warm and friendly professors with the strict and often downright unfair rules and regulations imposed by them on the students, and the milder ones imposed on us. It was reasonable that we should be restricted since the students were and we were so close to them as described above, so I never really felt as if I was being treated unfairly, but certainly that the students were.

Each student could get penalty points for breaking rules, and 10 points over the two month camp would mean getting kicked out and forced to pay for the otherwise free camp. It amounted to £1000 but since the cost of living is so much less in Korea, that is similar asking a family here to pay £2000. And it was far from difficult to get points. Return to your dormitories during the day, during the 40 minute break for example, and you get some. Leave the campus at any point before Saturday morning, or return after 10pm Sunday evening, and you get more. Leave your room, never mind the dormitory building, after 10:30pm, and you’re in trouble. Around thirty students missed breakfast on the first morning,[3] and the professors vowed to hunt them down and apply more penalty points.

Other things would get you kicked out immediately: enter the room of someone of the opposite gender, for example, and that’s it. Bring alcohol into the grounds and you’re out. On the last night they were so paranoid about this happening that they made things worse. Each class had a class representative (ours was brilliant) who was supposed to both pass information down the smartphone-based chain of command and to report bad behaviour upwards (the idea being that students wouldn’t get away with anything just because their Western tutors weren’t willing to let them get penalty points). On the last night if anyone was caught with alcohol on the grounds, then their class representative would be kicked out and forced to pay the £1000 penalty. Deeply unfair.

The 11pm curfew for us wasn’t so much because we needed to be kept in, but more because there was no-one to open the door after that time. The dormitory security guard went home at 11 and locked the gate, and that was that: we were all locked inside until morning. The dormitory manager, one woman who lived in the dorms and presumably had a key, was there in case of emergency, and I think that the gate had an emergency alarm to get it open from the inside if necessary, but the whole idea of just locking everyone inside for the night was a little difficult to deal with.

It was difficult to know what to make of the restrictions on tutors that weren’t justifiable on grounds of security guards wanting to go home for the night and the like. For example we weren’t allowed out of the campus in the evenings during the first week, and while we did, we weren’t really supposed to go out in the morning for runs and shopping and such. In previous years of the camp, apparently, there had been a lot of trouble with people sneaking out after the roll-call at 10:30, and just staying out all night after the curfew at 11. Since this is the Far East this resulted in group punishments and the tutors being shouted at as a group—supposedly because shame plays the role that guilt does in the West. I’m not sure what these punishments amounted to, but really the only thing the college could have done to us was withdraw the weekend outings, as far as I can tell. They could send people home, of course, but they’d be the main losers of that so were only likely to do it if someone really was out of control, and there was no chance of that. In the end nothing happened.

With all this it was very hard to know where to draw the line between differing cultural expectations, and unacceptably outdated thinking. Korea is very different to the UK, but it’s not China: this is a free country which has imported most of the West’s liberalism, with notable exceptions around sexual matters. One thing I try to remind myself of is that the UK and the US, supposedly bastions of liberty, have their clear exceptions (freedom of speech being curtailed in recent years; the treatment of protesters e.g. kettling; and of course the treatment of people with severe mental health issues; extraordinary rendition for torture) and all Korea has is a different set of barbaric and outdated practices, no different in severity from home.

As far as teaching was concerned we were left alone to do whatever we wanted in lessons, but we did have to set daily and weekly tests, because Korean education is obsessed with tests. Initially we had weekly tests set for the whole camp (with the exception of the four most advanced classes), set by a different group each week, so that the scores were then somewhat comparable. But there was a threat: if a student got less than 60% without good cause then they’d get penalty points. So in general we made the tests extremely easy as we didn’t think anyone deserved this. We soon realised that this wasn’t really going to work because classes differed in ability so much and we had no syllabus other than the textbook, which wasn’t very good.[4] So everyone made their own weekly tests aside from the four advanced groups; we assigned two people out of the eight tutors to make the test for all four classes each week. But then the scores became meaningless taken out of the context of an individual class, yet we still had to hand them in each week, and they were to be sent off to the government.

A lot of tutors got ill in the first couple of weeks, through being in another country, not knowing that you shouldn’t drink Korean tap water, and just being tired through doing a lot of hours of work per day while being jetlagged etc. Korean medicine is very good, similar to the NHS, though they have some interesting ideas. A speedy recovery is their watchword: you aren’t allowed to be ill for long. So if you go to hospital (not as dramatic as it sounds since unlike the UK, no GPs and doctor’s surgeries) or even just to the college nurse (being in a health college had its advantages) you’d immediately get put on a drip and given a massive booster shot of vitamins and minerals etc. in your behind (so it gets to work faster). Yes, one co-ordinator worked too hard and had to take a few days off, and so they put her on a drip for six hours. There was literally nothing wrong with her aside from being a bit worn down. We learnt to keep our illnesses secret to avoid going through all this.

The tutors

There were many nice fellow tutors on the trip. Several I really liked, and am looking forward to seeing back in Oxford and, with less optimism about it actually happening, from Cambridge. In general we got on well as a group though there were a few incidents of disagreement. For example one divide was between whether teaching was ‘work’ or not. This came up when we had been asked to decide whether to bring any students along with us when we went to stay in the Buddhist temple for one of our weekend trips. A lot of us said yes, this would be nice, and it would be nice to see more of students from outside our own classes. But there was a substantial camp saying no, I am sick and tired of speaking simple English all day and want some time with Westerners, and if they came it would feel like work. I think this reflected a general divide in whether people took to English teaching or not. I count myself very lucky that I did, as strongly as I did.

Unfortunately my relationship with my teaching partner wasn’t as good as I would have liked. We always managed to work together, but I didn’t feel as if we ever really warmed to each other. Every initial suggestion of mine would be shot down; I felt as though I couldn’t do anything right. And we both did things that each thought completely reasonable, that the other wasn’t comfortable with. We agreed early on that we would plan and lead lessons individually, setting up an overall plan for each day together before breaking off. This worked well, but my partner would do her detailed planning for later lessons in the day during the lessons I was teaching, so I often had zero support as she wasn’t paying any attention. Conversely, I listened to every single word she said to the class, but then she would get flustered when I tried to add to the things she was saying with extra vocab or whatever.

This was a little difficult for me because I am used to being able to work with anyone and get along with anyone, but I don’t mean to overstate the issue because we still managed to teach effectively together for the four weeks. It was interesting to learn both that there are people who are going to find me as off-putting as my partner seemed to, and also that the prospect of working very closely with someone you don’t really get on with does not at all guarantee that your time will be miserable and/or unsuccessful, as of course, ours wasn’t.

There were times when I got annoyed with Oxbridge students unable to spend time around each other without speaking. We were seeing amazing things and they just wanted to chat about the Rad Cam, or something! Be brave and don’t talk.

Other activities

We had four weekends of activities, and I’ll write a few things about each in turn. The first weekend was all about the history of Korea; we visited the national museum and some ancient burial mounds, and then we headed to a hotel in a Korean holiday resort, which included a water park. The main attraction of the hotel for most people was that they could spend the night drinking, something they hadn’t been able to do for a week. In general I found this weekend quite boring. This is because while a lot of what we saw was very beautiful, without context such as e.g. having read up on Korean history before we came, we were just walking around looking at largely unconnected things.

On the second weekend we formed single-gender pairs and went off to stay with host Korean families. It was nice to meet some much younger Korean children and to chat to ordinary people, but ‘chat’ is probably a bit strong because they had very very little English. So while this was a nice weekend, it didn’t compare to seeing things with our students, and talking to them about it and drawing comparisons with the West.

On the third weekend we headed to a Buddhist temple where we changed into the monks’ outfits and proceeded to have a very strange two days. The whole stay was very badly organised (on the part of the monk’s) and felt very inauthentic. Following last year’s camp, it had been made much more comfortable because previous tutor’s had complained, but we all thought it would have been better either more comfortable than it was, or more authentic: what we got was pretty pathetic. I got up at 4:30am and took a icy cold shower and then went and did 108 full-body bows[5] but it wasn’t really worth it: there was only one monk with us bowing and it wasn’t any good because it wasn’t in Korean; we got a very cheesy American recording telling us what each bow represented, accompanied by a sad film score-like piece of music. Then the rest of the trip consisted of people going to sleep over and over again between random tea ceremonies and things the monks wanted to show us. A few of us went for a hike instead of sleeping. I don’t think it’s worth the effort of explaining more of the problems we had with the weekend but in general everyone was very dissatisfied.

One thing I really enjoyed, though, was the meal ceremony on the first evening. It was the best meal I’d had in Korea (partly because it was vegan I imagine). The whole point of the long ceremony, I believe, is to get you to appreciate the food more i.e. live in the moment more, and it worked. Most other people really disliked the meal, though, I think partly because of the lack of meat which automatically turns a lot of people off, something I never really understand about non-vegetarians.

We had a Q&A session with a monk at one point which was interesting, being translated as it was by a philosophy student, but one who’s Korean and English are, at times, both quite dodgy. Almost everyone thought the monk was stupid as he didn’t give particularly good answers to the usual eristic Oxbridge-humanities-student we’re-cleverer-than-you questions. I was one of the few who thought that what he described sounded good but I now think that that was because I was painting my own conception of Buddhism from other things I have read on top of the monk’s strange account. People couldn’t understand how I thought this after laying into the monk with my own attempt at elenchus; of course, this is just what philosophy students do when we want to understand things, I said.

The final weekend was the few days that we had in Seoul[6] before flying back to the UK. We stayed in a very comfortable, yet very cheap, guest house, and had two full days and two half days in which to do things. Seoul is an exciting city, but I think I made a mistake in not really researching the place before we arrived. I followed others in going to the must-see tourist destinations, but these didn’t really interest me, and I had a better time when, for example, a few of us just wandered over to a fifteen-floored department store with a rooftop garden, where it was fascinating just to look at how shiny the place was compared with a department store in the UK, or when we went for a hike up the military-controlled mountain where you have to show your passport; Koreans aren’t allowed up after an assassination attempt from the North.[7] In the future I should try not to be afraid to just wander around cities rather than rushing to the places one is supposed to visit as a tourist.

One strange thing in Seoul was this duck, which just sat on this small section of gravel on a street corner near the guest house, right in the middle of a bustling metropolis. Sometimes it disappeared, then it reappeared, so presumably it belonged to someone nearby. This picture doesn’t show its surroundings so it doesn’t really get across how oddly isolated it was.

I really wanted to go to a Korean nightclub at some point but that never happened. There are plenty that are just like the UK but apparently there are also K-pop clubs where they play music for 15 minutes and people do dance routines, and then there’s 5 minutes of calm music for rest, and on it goes, which sounded like something worth seeing. I was with a group going for a crawl around the bars in the university district one night, though, and this was nice though most of the places we went to felt just like being back in the West. In Korea alcohol is pretty cheap and they have a drinking culture as strong as in the UK, but from what I saw—admittedly limited—people are better behaved and less likely to get stupidly drunk. There are some interesting differences with how bars are run, though. In the bar bars, you always get free food with your drinks, such as crisps or popcorn or something, and they give you more if you run out. In some other places, the etiquette is that you must buy food; it’s the opposite of the UK, where a restaurant earns its money on the drinks rather than the food.

One thing that I did want to do in the evening that we did manage to go to was a visit to a 찜질방, “jjim-jil-bang”, a 24-hour sauna/spa/food/entertainment centre. We went to Dragon Hill Spa; some pictures can be found here though since it was 11pm when we arrived the treatment stuff and the outdoor pool shown in that post weren’t available. At a 찜질방 you pay around £6–8 to enter and then you have the run of the place for fifteen hours or something. At its heart is a (gender-segregated) naked spa, sauna and steam room complex, with various things to try out, something I was fine with but which my fellow westerners found a big deal. Then outside, dressed in clothes not unlike those we wore in the temple, there were various saunas of different temperatures and kinds of air, and there was entertainment such as a traditional Korean Internet cafe, a 피시방, “PC-Bang”. A lot of people went home at 1:30 or something, and we were left with me, my Balliol friend Chan (really 송찬영) who was one of the two co-ordinators, and a Korean friend of one of the other tutors who lived in Seoul, 제호, “Jay-Ho”, and we played some StarCraft II and then the two Koreans played some Brood War. 제호 left shortly after but Chan and I decided to stay the night. You can basically sleep anywhere in the 찜질방, but we found an actual sleeping room. We woke up at 10ish to get the subway back to the guest house to pack and head for the airport. The 찜질방 was one of my favourite things about Korea: a super-cheap fun place to go where you can spend the night if you want to.

There were a lot of couples distributed across the floor sleeping. Chan said that he was surprised this was happening in very conservative Korea; he expected the older people there to be telling them off. Of course Chan hasn’t lived in Korea for a good number of years now. It was interesting to see the ways in which he was out-of-date, so, the ways in which the country is changing.

A lot of what we did with our students when we were allowed out into Jinju with them was mundane, though as I say, I enjoyed it most because we were constantly talking and comparing as we went around and saw things. We went bowling, and went shopping in various different shops, and spent a while walking round the traditional market. This was like a market anywhere in the world, though since it was run almost entirely by old people, you felt like you could have been in the third world in certain parts of it. But then five minutes later you could be inside a huge shiny department store or massive supermarket (larger than any supermarket in the UK I’ve been in, yet my students insisted that it was “small”). And we ate a lot of food. One thing worth mentioning is 팥빙수, “paht-bing-soo”, which is a mixture of ice and ice-cream and what have you and also these sweet red beans, which take some getting used to.

Two things we did that were a little more unusual were our visit to Disco Pang Pang and our trip to the photographers. Korea does not have health and safety like we do in the UK—I guess no country does—and we were sure that this would not be legal in the UK. Everyone piles into a large round enclosure with seats around the edge and tries to secure themselves on the railing around the edge. Then a DJ spins and bounces the enclosure, and (in Korean) tries to convince people to let go and fall into the middle. You find yourself bouncing a foot or so into the air, and this is all underground and so you feel constantly worried that you’re going to hit the ceiling. You get 15–20 minutes of this for about £2.50. At one point they ask people to stand up and see if they can manage to stand in the middle while it spins. Inevitably they fall, and the guy doing this when we went, a student from another class, landed on my lap when this happened. He didn’t try to move so for the next five minutes of spinning I was supporting the weight of two people rather than one; my fingers were dead. Lots of fun. Here’s a YouTube video though this looks a lot tamer than the one we went to, and it’s American. Edit 13/viii/2012: here is a better video.

On the last outing we went to a photographers to get a group photo taken; fine, this was nice, but the twenty minutes of photoshopping that went on after we took it made me quite sad. I’m okay with people changing skin tone and removing blemishes as that is something that varies from day-to-day, but the photographer (working with typical Korean speed; a high APM) was making eyes bigger, editing the line of cheeks and necks, moving noses etc.etc.. My hair was a bit of a mess in the photo and my students asked if I wanted it to be filled in, I said no, that wouldn’t be me. They asked my teaching partner, not realising what it sounded like in English, “do you want him to fix your face?” which was quite funny.

Korea & Korean

In the end there was almost nothing I didn’t like about Korea. I got really good with chopsticks. I found the humidity no problem at all. I liked sitting on the floor and sleeping on thin mats with small pillows rather than on huge kingly beds. I loved Korean food. I really liked the small part of the language I know (more below), and most of all I love Koreans! All this taught me that going to another country very far away and working very hard is not actually that difficult—no matter how worked up my parents and grandparents got about things like the heat. A lot of people got quite ill, and a lot of people found the humidity and the food and the sitting on the floor quite frequently difficult to handle, but I was never really uncomfortable in any of these respects. In fact in my classroom it was a battle between me and everyone else. My teaching partner and my students always wanted the air conditioning on; I preferred just opening the windows and maybe turning the fans on. The constant air con was always giving me headaches.

The Korean language sounds really really nice, and I enjoyed learning some phrases. We had several Japanese students with us, and since the two languages are so similar, they actually managed to pick up some grammar, though that was a bit too difficult for most of us since it’s completely different to European languages. But best of all is the Korean writing system, 한걸, “han-gul”. It was invented in the 1400s or something and was an incredible academic feat to have been made back then, since it is perfectly designed for the Korean language, to be 100% phonetic. And it’s very easy: in a month of only messing about with it for five minutes at a time every few days, I learnt enough to be able to write out all the Korean words I’ve used in this post from only knowing what they sound like (some of them may be quite wrong since my pronunciation is very bad). My month made me really want to learn languages again, something I haven’t done since GCSE. It was great to try and figure things out with the five or six fellow tutors who were interested in learning. It was useful to be able to read place names while in Seoul, too, though of course with almost zero vocabulary this was about all I could do.

A lot of Korean culture is built into the language, much more so, it felt, than is built into English. Koreans are completely obsessed with age, which apparently flows from Confucianism. If you don’t know whether someone is older or younger than you, you can’t speak to them properly: it’s analogous to finding yourself unable to conjugate verbs if you don’t know whether someone is male or female in a European language. Within my class we had 20 and 21 year olds[8] and so they were required to speak to each other differently. So in Korea you find out someone’s age along with finding out their name, and it’s never impolite to ask someone how old they are.

My students explained that the linguistic differences based on age is not really anything to do with showing respect to those older than you, as clearly this would be silly among 20 and 21 year olds; it’s just a custom. However showing respect to those older than you is also very important, and comes with changing into a more formal language, just like we have in Europe. But over here it tends to be a matter only of familiarity. If you don’t know someone, you use Mr/Mrs/Ms, and politer language, essentially regardless of age.[9]

Now the big cultural difference about respect is that it only works in one direction. In the UK if I speak politely to someone unfamiliar and much older than me, I will expect to get exactly the same amount of respect back: if I say “good morning” to someone I pass, I will get “good morning” back. But in Korea the whole point is that the older person isn’t supposed to be respectful back. If you give them one of the three or four different levels of polite greeting, you will get the very lowest, equivalent to saying “hi” or “hey” to a friend, in return. You will even use different words for “yes” and “no” to each other. The only time we have anything like this in the UK is in schools, where Sir/Miss goes in one direction and first names go in the other, but other than this teachers don’t exactly get much respect over here. In Korea, they have a saying, “king, parents, teacher”: all these people always get very formal greetings and unconditional respect no matter what.[10] This means you can never say “hi” to your parents.

I thought that such a differing notion of respect would be unbridgeable with my students: I thought that my Western notion of these things being fine, but that they need to go in both directions, would always be alien to them as their notion of respect as one-way seems alien to me. But I was pleased to find that my students didn’t like the one-way notion of respect either, the suggestion that someone is better than you just because they are older. They drew a firm distinction between the language changing based on age—just custom—and very deliberate polite speech.

The future

I’ve been back for a week now and I have been feeling quite demotivated. I have achieved almost nothing and have been playing video games I don’t even like, just to fill time. This is okay: I’ve just done finals and done a month of hard work so it’s reasonable to take some time out before getting back to work.

One thing I have done is research going back to Korea to teach English in my gap year that is coming up between my undergraduate degree and (hopefully) my graduate study. I really like the country, as described above, and I would love an excuse to try to learn the language, which I don’t otherwise have. It seems that I can definitely do this. I have very relevant experience now and I’ll have an Oxford master’s degree, and I plan to do an English teaching qualification at Sheffield University next summer while applying, so I think I’ll be fine. It won’t be the same as JHC; the teaching probably won’t be as fun from what I gather. But on the other hand I will be free to explore the country by myself which will be nice. The cost of living and of transport around the country is so much less than in the UK. Most things are the same price, but with the exception of fruit and vegetables which can be quite expensive, food and accommodation and travel are much cheaper.

I’ve bought a book on learning Korean so I’ll see how that goes. I’m well aware that I could fall flat on my face and learn nothing here; it’s very hard to learn a language from so far away in the world, especially when I haven’t done anything like this for about five years. Since I’m living with Chan in Oxford next year, though, there will be plenty of opportunities to practise speaking and for writing, I have plenty of Korean friends on Facebook now.

For the first time I really understand the desire some people have not to be tied down by relationships, jobs, a career. I understand what people mean when they say “I wish a was young and could just pick up and head off to teach English in a country very far away” or something like that. Essentially the only thing I am tied to is the fact that analytic philosophy is only practised in the UK, the US, New Zealand, Australia and a few other places, so I’ve got to end up in one of these countries in the end. Other than that, I am not tied down by anything else right now which is nice, and I’d kind of like to remain like that.

The thing for me is that I don’t really want a career in itself. I want to become an academic because I want to develop the philosophical understanding that I believe my tutors have. It is their ability to analyse things and see what’s important in life and in study that I value analytic philosophy for, and so while I enjoy writing essays etc., the whole “academic career” thing and getting into “publish or perish” is very much a means to an end for me. It worked for my tutors, so hopefully it will work for me. It is still very important to me, because I see it as the route by which I want to develop as a person. But getting fancy titles in universities and going to dinners and the like puts me off. I would rather be more free than that.

Not something I need to worry about for now. I have a solid year of study ahead of me, then plans to do something completely different, then plans to embark on something very serious, but there’s no reason to think any more into the future than that.

감사함니다, 안녀히가세요~~

[1] like the US, all teachers at colleges and universities are called professors in Korea

[2] “I have had dinner” is present perfect, as opposed to the simple past tense, “I had dinner earlier”. “I had had dinner” is past perfect.

[3] The number of trays was known, so they could tell how many attended.

[4] We had two textbooks. Most classes used World English Intro and World English 1, and the advanced classes used W.E. 1 and W.E. 2. But as we realised when we got into the second half of the programme, the second textbook was basically a repeat of the first—both W.E. 1 and W.E. 2.

[5] I did fewer than this because I arrived a little late, and because I wasn’t comfortable with a couple of the bows.

[6] I’ve learnt that it’s a bit of a cop-out that we pronounce this as “soul”. In Korean it is two syllables, 서울, “soh-ull”.

[7] Unfortunately we couldn’t get to the exciting bit because lots of things in Korea are closed on Mondays. We did an alternative walk and still really enjoyed it, especially the fact that there was a shop selling ice cream at the top.

[8] That’s in Korean ages. My Korean age is 23. It’s just counted differently.

[9] I can think of an exception, though: someone older could get away talking to a child using just their first name, but otherwise it’s just familiarity.

[10] Though there hasn’t been a royal family in Korea for a very long time!