Tuesday, March 06, 2007

The Missing Year - Excerpts from my year in The Land of Morning Calm


"Hello Teacher!" is what I hear wherever I go in Gongju.


In the beginning.....

I arrived in Korea just after the first snowfall which was a bit of a shock after leaving the southern summer behind. None of my clothes were warm enough and hardly anything in the shops fitted me. Luckily, the flat was warm and cosy and my bosses gave me a warm leather coat and a thick woolly jumper.

Gongju turned out to be a rather pretty town - not too many high rises, population ca.150,000, about one and a half hours south of Seoul, set among forested hills on the beautiful Geumgang (Ribbon of Silk) River. It has three universities and an ancient history, having been a royal capital in the Two Kingdoms period from 475 AD to 538. During this time, Gongju was renown as a centre of arts and culture. Relics of this period include the hill fortress with its great gates and pavillions and the recently discovered tomb of King Muryeong which shows that the Paeke Kingdom had wide trading links with both China and Japan.

View of the Hill Fortress in snow. It looks much more beautiful in spring.

After the first snowfall

The first thing that you notice, is that Koreans are extraordinarily proud of their heritage, not the least because the Japanese did their best to wipe it out, so even the humblest flagmast supports are preserved and listed in the catalogue of National Cultural Assets. The Gongsanseong Fortress rates as National Cultural Treasure # 12. Namdaemum Gate in Seoul is #1. Natural Cultural Treasures such as the nearby Gyeryong (Dragon Mountain with a Chicken's Comb) National Park are also included, as are Living Cultural Treasures such as fine Hanbuk makers and the annual arrival of migratory cranes.



What's a hanbuk? It's Korea's beautiful National Costume. You do occasionally see people wear their hanbuk in the street, but mostly they are reserved for weddings and special days, particularly on Solnal (Lunar New Year) and Chusok (Thanksgiving) when children pay their respects to their ancestors and grandparents.


The second thing you notice, is the high value placed on education. Ask any schoolchild who the most important person in history is, and ninety- eight* per cent of them will say King Sejong, who commissioned the Hangul phonetic Alphabet in 1446 and thus enabled ordinary folk to read and write. There is still a special Hangul Day celebrated on October 9th each year and a special Teacher's Day Holiday on May 15. Students bow when you enter the classroom and teachers are treated very deferentially by society outside.
Korean parents go to extraordinary lengths to ensure that their children receive the best possible education and spend the majority of their disposable income on it. This is why there are so many little private institutes (Hakwons or 'cram' schools) such as the academy where I am. Besides English, it also teaches Maths and Korean.
The children work very hard too. This academy runs from 3.30 when the student finish normal classes until 8.30 in the evening. Quite a few children fall asleep in class because they then go on to study in the library.They also have school on Saturdays.

First glimpse of the school


*The remaining students, probably boys, will say Yi Sun Shin, the inventor of the Turtle ships in the C16th. and who, though heavily out -numbered, delivered a series of stunning defeats to the invading Japanese. Another, more recent favourite son, is international baseball star, Park Chan Ho, who was born in Gongju.

Mrs Shin, co - director of the Academy

This is Miss Jean, the Centre's lovely but shy receptionist. I did catch her later when she wasn't looking.


Judy, one of my first and best students who went on to win the speaking contest.

Mrs Shin with some of the students
Sadly, most of my early photos of the students didn't turn out too well as I had some problems with my camera. How young and shy they all were then.

The next few weeks passed in a blur while I learned the job and found my feet. The outside of the flat wasn't much to look at, but inside it had a western style bathroom, table and bed. (Koreans usually sleep on the floor and sit at low tables) The Ondol floor heating system is another invention of which Koreans are justifiably proud. It also had big French doors that let in plenty of light and there was a huge TV with 68 Channels, quite a few of which were in English.


The Kitchen

The study

My first voyage of discovery was to the traditional market so full of interesting smells and strange food, especially all kinds of fish, seaweeds and rice dishes - noodles, rice cakes and of course kimchi, Korea's national dish. As the weather improved and I discovered how cheap the local buses were, I began to venture forth to explore the many temples, spas and National Parks.

View from the Balcony


Icicles on my windowEntrance to the Traditional Market, Gongju. Inside it is a veritable warren of foodstalls, kitchenwear, hardware, clothes and manchester

Garlic and Chilli in abundance
Gapsa was the first temple I visited

Not a great shot, but you do get a glimpse of the exquiste paintwork, carving and brickwork found all over Korea. Like Korea itself, many of the temples have suffered from fire and destruction, but always manage to bounce back, looking serene and beautiful


These ancient and intricately carved totems were at Magoksa, where there is also a popular hot spring. You can almost hear these old warriors laughing. The Harley Davidson Korea Chapter were in session when I came.


This lovely man at Sinwonsa introduced me to Royal Han Tea when I wasn't feeling the best. I have been searching for it ever since, but never found one as good.

Golden Buddhas at Seongoksa Temple. There are some other surprises here too, but I won't tell you about them yet, in case you come to visit.

South Korea is not a place we hear much about in Australia, so when I was offered the chance to teach there late in 2005, I couldn't resist, even though I couldn't even find the place where I was to teach on the map. I can't possibly write about this experience all at once, but will be adding to it from time to time as I do with the other pages. There are a couple of new pictures of Jaxi on the New Year page for example, so do check back now and then.

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