The Seoul Fireworks Festival is an international competition, this year featuring China, Canada, Japan, and Korea. My co-teacher directed me to the event, and informed me that we should go early. Being entirely naïve, I assumed she meant, say, an hour to an hour-and-a-half ahead of time, giving us an ample window to settle down in Hangang Park, somewhere near the river. As we discovered, she probably meant something like, “Camp out there the night before, and also the night of, otherwise you will experience dehumanizing, untold horrors.”
We arrived at Yeouinaru station at 6:00 p.m., and were confronted with a meat wall. People were everywhere, and the crowd ascending from subway level was slow and shambling, our own zombie apocalypse, sans, you know, the dead. We joined the queue, and behind us we were instantly closed in. I suddenly began to feel the body heat of thousands of other people. We somehow managed to grab Kin, who was to meet us at the station, and continued climbing. The staircase was like a personified ocean, a huge, bobbing wave of people. Seoul subway stations are generally about 7-8 floors underground, so every flight you climb, you assume it will be the last, only to see the horde once more at the foot of another ascent.
It took half an hour to exit the subway station. We entered the park and saw the crowd, and eventually wound down to the beach. While the arrival (and also the departure, which required an hour’s walk to another subway station) was traumatizing, the fireworks were worth it. Huge explosions claimed unseemly amounts of sky, an approximation of the stars that people in Seoul don’t usually get to see. Each performance topped the last. At one point, a bridge across the Han was lit with fireworks, spraying down in a kilometre long waterfall of sparks. The finale featured a massive, continuous stream of fireworks, spiderwebbing into a greater cloud of fire, until it looked like the sun was out at night.
– The other night, my friends and I went out to try sannakji, live baby octopus. Live is a slightly relative term of course: they essentially chop the octopi up in the kitchen and run the plate to your table, but because of the diffuseness of their nervous systems, the tentacles continue to writhe and squirm for purchase, minutes after being severed from one another and the head. Thus you have a horrific, Eldritch Abomination of a meal in front of you.
I was the first to wrest a tentacle from the plate (the suckers, being still active, cling to whatever is nearby) and popped the thing in my mouth. I was told by my Korean friend not to chew yet, rather to let the tentacle do its thing. It rocked from side to side, clutching to my tongue and my palate, until eventually I forced it to my molars and began to chew. Apparently, 6 people die annually from eating sannakji, because if you swallow and suckers are still active, they can latch in your throat and choke you to death. We cleaned the whole plate, and I don’t believe any of us died. Take that, baby octopus.
-Canadian Thanksgiving is October 11th this year, and so far away from family, we set up a meal with friends. We erected a mini-table, raided the nearest grocery store for approximations of traditional fare (a duck is like a turkey, right?), and gorged ourselves on food and humorously cheap Korean red wine. Oceans apart from our actual families, it is amazing how quickly you adopt surrogates.
-I ask my classes, “How are you?” as part of our opening routine. One student replies, “I am terrible!” Behind him, another boy quietly adds, “He is terrorist!”
-Students read the word “microwave.” Because of the r/l difficulties, several read it as “Michaelwave.” I reluctantly clear up the misunderstanding.
-Koreans are quite obsessed with appearance. We were warned both before and after arrival that Koreans tend to dress up, and that looking slovenly out in public would bring waves of shame upon us, apparently. The most hilarious manifestation of the obsession is that Koreans will check themselves out in ANY reflective surface. Sunglasses, mirrored walls in elevators, minor reflections on windows. One girl in my class stood in front of our projector screen and used her cast shadow in order to fix her hair.
-Due to the Korean standard operating procedure of doing everything at the last second (more on that another time), I often have no idea what is going on until the instant before it will occur. I prepare my lessons as far ahead as possible, so I’m usually not upturned in terms of lessons being sprung upon me, but everything else is usually brought to my attention just before I am to start my involvement.
We have several grades’ worth of listening tests to do, and thus, I am regularly summoned from my English cave to wander off to the recording room and enunciate in my flat, unflourished Canadian accent. Other times, I am called upon to sit in with other teachers while they have coffee from across the hall. Co-teachers flag me down as I pass, as they suddenly recall that we should plan. When we begin planning, two other teachers rush in, informing me that the school must put together a clip show featuring footage of all the teachers in action. Could I record, at this instant, a round of pretend teaching? Why not! I could be annoyed, but the tasks are usually so inane or weird that I can’t bring myself to be frustrated or offended by the late notice, rather I am left fascinated as to why they want me to mime towards a bunch of invisible students with no sound for a clipshow.