Bits and Pieces From our First Week

Hello from Gwangju! It’s currently 10.12 on Saturday morning and as of right now we have officially been in our new city for a whole week. It’s been absolutely packed with moving in, starting school, hospital visits and more but sitting here now in our little apartment at a proper table with a nice cup of coffee, I feel pretty chilled out and really chuffed to be here. I’ve taken what feels like 8 thousand photos over the last few days, so rather than going through everything chronologically, I thought I would group stuff together to give a general picture of the past seven days.

Our School – Songwon Elementary

We were picked up on Wednesday morning by one of our fellow English teachers (Sujin) and an administator from the school. They were both super nice and have been invaluable in helping us figure out how everything works, taking us to hospital for our medical checks, getting us lunch, translating what happens during faculty meetings and pretty much everything else. We were both really nervous about going to school for the first time but we needen’t have worried as everyone has been really warm and welcoming, and so far we’ve been given enough space and time to get to grips with lesson planning for our morning clasess too. We each have our own classroom and although we don’t have a full schedule or all of our books yet, we don’t actually start teaching until Friday so hopefully everything will be sorted out before then!

There are a lot of differences between schools in Korea compared to the UK, which I’m sure will become even more aparent when the kids are back from winter vacation! Hospitals are different too; everything is so efficient and orderly. We visited the biggest/busiest hospital in Gwangju without a prior appointment in order to get our medical checks for our Alien Registration Cards and were in and out in less than an hour. Less than 60 minutes to have an eye test, hearing test, blood pressure, BMI, body measurements, chest X-Ray, EKG, urine test and blood test! It did come at a pretty hefty cost though, 160,000KRW/£106 for each of us, sad times. We picked up our results yesterday and to celebrate being in peak physical fitness (at least healthy enough to stay in the country) we punished our livers with copious amounts of soju and crisps.

Delicious (and not so delicious) Food

We’ve been trying to strike a balance between cooking healthy food at home and eating cheap but delicious food out.  It’s expensive to buy meat in supermarkets so we’ve been eating a lot of veggie stirfries, cereal, eggs, fruit and pasta but we did also make a really nice chicken kimchi fried rice and chicken salad one night. We’ve also found a great toasted sandwich place downtown that serves two thick slices of buttered bread surrounding an omelette, ham, cheese, cabbage and a duo of spicy sauces for 2,000KRW/£1.30. Not healthy at all but completely yummy.

We’re entitled to school lunches every day at work and have had two so far. The first had(clockwise from top left) fish cakes and tofu; vegetable pancake; a yoghurt drink; kimchi; toasted rice and squid soup and kimchi fried rice. I looooved everything in this lunch and cleared my tray but Jod wasn’t so keen on all the seafood.

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The second lunch had some kind of eel (we think) stew; tofu; rice cakes and hotdogs on a stick in a curry sauce; kimchi; pork bone and potato soup and steamed white rice. I tripped up on the bones in the eel with this one and had to delicatley remove them without drawing attention to myself in the crowded lunch room… that was fun. Jod enjoyed this lunch more but it was such a random combination of flavours that I ended up leaving quite a bit and then eating an orange back in our classroom!

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We’re definitely really lucky to be able to eat school lunches as it gives us the opportunity to try so many new foods at once, including things that we would probably never order. Sitting with the other English teachers means that we can ask them what things are and observe how to eat them, too!

After our medical checks I think Sujin felt sorry for us having to spend all that money to be prodded and poked, so she very kindly took us out for lunch. We went to a traditional Korean restaurant where you take your shoes off at the door and sit on the heated floor at low tables. We both got pins and needles but hopefully practice will make us better at sitting cross legged for extended periods of time!

The food was amazing. We started out with galbi (ribs) cooked in a bubbling both that reduced to a rich and sticky sauce. This is cooked at the table and served alongside a variety of leaves and garnishes (thinly sliced raw onions in wasabi-vinegar, garlic cloves, chilli and spicy red pepper paste) to make completely individualised parcels of deliciousness. Served alongside were tons of side dishes including rolled omelette, soybean paste and tofu soup, kimchi, radish kimchi, sesame beansprouts, quails eggs in soy sauce and probably more that I’m forgetting. The side dishes were replenished as soon as we had finished one, it was a pretty epic amount of food for three people!

Just when we were completely stuffed and wondering if it would be acceptable to take a nap on the warm, cosy floor, Sujin announced “Now it’s time for dessert!”. Rather than anything sweet,  the server brought over three portions of white rice and a whole selection of vegetables and seaweed as well as a raw egg yolk which were all fried together in the pan along with the remaining galbi to create a kind of fried bibimbap which was so good we had to eat it despite being full already.

Our Apartment

Our apartment is about 20 minutes walk from school, in a quiet neighbourhood. There is a small entryway with shoe cupboard, a traditional korean-style “wetroom” bathroom, a central dining room, kitchen/utility room, master bedroom and second bedroom. The previous teachers used the second bedroom as a living room  but we’ve decided to just stick everything in there that we don’t want for the time being (excess furniture, suitcases etc) and decide what to do with it in a couple of weeks once we’ve lived in the space for a while.

We’re really lucky to have a decent sized apartment here in Gwangju as foreign teachers often end up in tiny studios without enough room to swing a cat. The downside of a bigger place, however, means that we’re in a walk-up which is quite dark and could perhaps be described as a little bit old fashioned. We know that we want to stay here for at least two years so had decided before we arrived that we were happy to spend a little bit of money to freshen up the place. We’ve already put up some framed prints on the walls, dressed up the table and moved the furniture around, and later today I’m going to attempt to recover the kitchen cupboard doors using sticky-back plastic which is really popular over here.

It’s definitely a work in progress but hopefully as we try out more DIY projects the place will start to feel more like home. Still feels weird to have the laundry drying from the kitchen ceiling though, not going to lie.

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