‘Hands up if you know the answer’.
As far as phrases go I’ve always found this one fairly effective at rendering a classroom silent. As a teacher I’ve grown used to waiting uncomfortably as every student stares desperately at the desk in front of them as if it contains some piece of information crucial to their existence (rather than a crudely drawn penis).
This is why I stared, open-mouthed with wonder, at the class of seven-year-olds whose hands were stretched to the ceiling as if they were about to take off.
‘I know teacher, I know!’ And they did! Question after question answered effortlessly and with an enthusiasm that defied belief. By the end of the lesson I was confident I could press these pint-sized scholars with the deepest of philosophical conundrums and still their chubby little hands would shoot up accompanied by a chorus of ‘pick me teacher, I know!’
Jet into the future
Flash back 24 hours: my plane is smoothly taxiing into Incheon International Airport, Seoul, South Korea. At the time my knowledge of the country that was about to become home for a year was patchy at best: there had been a war that left them divided as Germany had once been, it had produced Park Chan-wook of ‘Old Boy’ fame, and it lay unsettlingly close to that petulant pantomime villain – North Korea. Oh, and Psy, who had triumphantly galloped, Gangnam Style, into the UK charts just weeks before my departure. Somehow that was comforting.
Inexplicably, it seems to be the least friendly and patient Koreans who are employed to direct you to the airport bus service. They greet you with the indignation of a hermit disturbed from silent contemplation and bombard your vulnerable foreign ears with an indecipherable verbal onslaught. Or maybe I was just feeling delicate after roughly 30 hours in transit.
Still, a bad-tempered tirade led me to the bus, aptly named the ‘airport limousine’. Those worries melted away. I have never travelled in such padded, air-conditioned luxury before, and it hardly cost more than a cup of coffee back in the UK.
The journey to Bundang, a satellite city south of Seoul, was an impressive one. We cruised through expansive rural stretches punctuated with dense clusters of modern highrises. As dusk fell these cities burst into life, pulsing with neon like some strange futuristic flora from a sci-fi flick.
Upon reaching my destination, a hostel that would provide temporary lodgings, I was no less amazed. The streets buzzed with activity as locals made their way from A to B unaware of the beautiful madness that surrounded them.
Shops towered over me, adorned with gaudy advertisements vying for my attention. Bakeries sat side-by-side with plastic surgeons, snooker halls next to PC rooms, a Korean barbeque restaurant below the suggestively named ‘Foxy Massage’. Strange aromas wafted across my path from the countless vendors hawking their worryingly unidentifiable snacks; one, I later discovered, was nothing more harmless than sliced potato on a stick; another was boiled pig intestines.
Predictably I soon became one of the ‘locals’, blissfully unaware of the strange chaos of my surroundings. I cruised after work for my weekly barbeque and wolfed down kimchi by the bucket-load. I became accustomed to the eerie silence while riding the efficient Seoul subway and even learnt to keep balance as the driver of my bus slammed his foot down on the accelerator as though he’d just robbed a bank.
In a way things became ‘normal’, but still that sense of wonder never really wore off. I don’t mean that my face was permanently transfixed with the gawping expression of a medieval peasant transported to the 21st century – at least I hope it wasn’t. Still, there was some quality about Korea that managed to stop me in my tracks on a semi-regular basis.
Perhaps it was that old cliché of technology meeting tradition. South Korea is one of the Four Asian Tigers and has one of the fastest growing economies in the world. Most Koreans will point to the Miracle on the Han River – massive post-war economic growth – as the cause of this unparalleled progress, but I think it may also have something to do with work ethic. I taught eight year olds whose cram-packed schedules didn’t finish until 8:00 PM and teenagers who clocked out much later than that.
City of tiny lights
Whatever the reason, this blend of old and new has created a country with a diverse range of attractions. You can spend the morning soaking up the peaceful serenity of Gyeongbokgung, a royal palace dating back to the 14th century, before a frantic shopping trip through the overflowing walkways of Myeongdong. Follow this with a jaunt to the vast, slippery and ever-pungent Noryangjin Fish Market where you can sample the freshest fish you’ll ever eat and puzzle over how there is still anything living left in the sea.
Next, make your way to Hongdae to experience the creative atmosphere which flows through the streets surrounding one of the country’s top art schools. As the twilight hours approach catch a cable car up to Namsan Tower and marvel at the panoramic luminosity of Seoul refusing to call it a day while the sun sets.
Despite all these wonders, nothing impressed me more than my young classes, every single student desperate to be the one to give me the right answer. Little can be more satisfying as a teacher, and while other cities in Asia have the reputation of providing a glamorous glimpse of the future, in their enthusiastic faces I realised that Seoul is the city for me.