Friday, June 19, 2015

Eat. Play. Teach. Blog entry #9: The Butterfly effect by Georgina Selander

The Butterfly Effect - by Georgina Selander

When I left for South Korea, I was under the mistaken impression that I would naturally lose weight. The extra kilos that I’d gained during my varsity years – and sustained thereafter – would miraculously drop off, and I’d return to my boep-less existence. I pictured plates piled high with kimchi, bland broths and loads of steamed greens. I woke sweaty from dreams where I’d transformed from crusty pupa to velvety butterfly.

But let’s get one thing straight – the sum-total of my ‘steamed’ experience has been from watching Korean girly-boys with earrings and pink hair dance to K-pop music. Sigh. (Suga if you’re reading this, I’m single. Super single).

And when it comes to kimchi, most school days 3-4 mouthfuls is all I can stomach (depending on who’s serving it, kimchi swings between delicious and off-the-charts revolting).

So, in an effort to rectify this situation, I joined the local gym.

School lunch: fried rice, soup, kimchi, tomatoes, almond cake and a 'rice juice'. 

The gym in my area is less than spectacular. There are three rickety treadmills and a smattering of muscle-toning machines that I’m definitely not going to use.

It’s mostly frequented by two types of Koreans:

a) Skinny Korean girls with swishy ponytails. Why are you here if you’re skinny? You’re done.
b) Older men doing bendy floor work. I can’t look. It’s just so…anatomical.

But on the upside, there is a table of sweat towels, t-shirts and shorts at the disposal of the members. It’s nothing more than a pleasure to scrounge the pile for a large tee and ponder, “I wonder who sweated in this last?” But the draw card that really sealed the sign-up-deal: they offer yoga classes on Monday, Tuesday and Thursdays. This, I can do. A sequence of heaving breathing disguised as exercise? Definitely my kind of workout.

But boy oh effing boy was I wrong. In fact, the tri-weekly ‘yogarobics’ is two sit-ups short of torture. Okay so I’m obviously exaggerating. But still, if you were there you’d also be sweating out your body weight. The class is full of ajummas. I am the only foreigner. I’m the only one under 50. The lady leading the class has a svelte little body. I can see her thong through her spangly tights. She doesn’t speak any English.

Each class begins innocently enough: some dancing progresses into bicep curls, (haha bicep curls! I feel smart for saying that but I have absolutely no idea what it means) into squatting, then situps…

But guaranteed there’s a point that it gets weird.

Georgina Selander 
On my first trip (where I was still expecting yoga), the instructor produced a bag of golf balls mid-way. Cupping the balls in the palm of our hand, we rubbed them vigorously across our backs, necks, shoulders and face. Unable to understand the language, I had no idea why we were doing this.

On my second trip, we were given teethed Pilates balls and had to contort ourselves around them. A most painful experience. And when I asked for the smooth ball instead, the teacher looked at me and said, “massage ball?”. No. Definitely not a massage ball.

Halfway through each class, there’s that point when I think I’ve reached my limit. I start to get really angry. With the teacher? With myself and my own limitations? I don’t know. But I do know that by the end of the hour and a half, I’ve worked through some of it. Or at least the rice I ate for lunch.

So, maybe I’m not a butterfly. Yet. Maybe my transformation is taking its time. Maybe I can’t see it.

But I can feel it.

Friday, June 5, 2015

Eat. Play. Teach. Blog entry #8: Coming up for air by Georgina Selander

Coming up for air by Georgina Selander

At first I don’t notice the sound because I have my earphones in. But there’s a lull in the music and I realise that the thud thud yelp that follow aren’t meant to be backing up Kurt Cobain.

I turn in my swivel chair and, unexpectedly, there’s a student being beaten.
One of the teachers, armed with a wooden rod, is hitting the calves of a third-grade boy.
Another teacher is filming the scene and stifling a giggle.  I cast the student a sympathetic glance and wait until, head bowed, he leaves the teacher’s room.

Then I turn to the teacher wielding the weapon and say, in my best attempt to be assertive, “I find that upsetting. Do you realise that this is illegal in my country?” “It’s illegal here too,” the teacher responds with a slight chuckle. Unimpressed by the remark I wait for some further explanation.  “This student ran away from home and so his father requested that we beat him. It’s to teach him a lesson.”

I turn my grimace back to my desk. I’m not a parent – nor am I in any position to question the authority of a senior teacher; I am both younger and, shockingly, a woman.
It wasn’t until my baby cousin was born that I began to develop maternal feelings. I always swore that I’d remain unwed and childless – revenge against divorced parents who had me questioning whether love really existed.

But in Korea, more than ever, the maternal instinct grows stronger. My students are like my babies – and when I see them choking back tears from the stress of a 12-hour school day, I feel for them. And when one runs away from home because he’d rather play video games than do his homework, I tend to side with the student.

Cheonan streets at night 
There are times like these when I question my role – and limits – as a teacherIn need of a break from these kinds of ruminations, I boarded an early-morning train to Cheonan last Saturday. (Cheonan is a neighbouring city and, as the second-largest in Chugnam province, promises the kinds of luxuries – MacDonalds, Emart, manicurists – that lowly Yesan does not).

I’d decided on the solo adventure a few days before – and in my excitement I made myself a colour-coded itinerary (I’m no ditzy Clueless character, but I find anticipation brings 60% of the enjoyment in most cases).

On arrival at Cheonan station, I heaved my heavy backpack and took the East exit. I needed to find a nearby place – the Landmark Tower. After walking up and down the main street several times, I realized, given my garb and pack, that I looked homeless. So I asked one of the safari shirt-donning attendants for help.

After some broken Korean and rudimentary sign language, I located the building and took the elevator up to the 9th floor. After a moment’s hesitation, I found the room I was looking for: Thai Healing House. The heady smell of incense and dimmed lights set the scene: this massage was going to be legit.

And it was. For just 50000Won, I was rubbed, oiled, twisted and clicked for close on two hours.  With a new lease on life, I left in search of a second-hand English bookshop I’d seen online. Conveniently it was just across the road and manned by two chatty, but friendly, Canadians who’d just sat down to lunch. Given my insatiable reading habits, the place was a gem, and I left with my pack significantly heavier.

Next stop: Shinsegae Department Store. The place where shopping dreams are made of. After an unsuccessful stint at H&M, I reasoned that the ultra-small sizes were only going to depress me, and so did what any reasonable girl would do: eat.

On the fourth floor, I stumbled upon a wine-serving Italian restaurant. What a treat! That first sip of Chardonnay was life-changing. And the steak and mushroom pasta that followed even more so.

An enormous Korean flag near the entrace of the Independence Hall
Skip a few hours and it was time for something cultural. So I took a taxi to the outskirts of town to visit the Independence Hall – an architectural marvel beautifully showcasing Korean culture from the country’s early origins, (Korean civilization is 5000 years old) to the torturous decades spent under Japanese imperialism, to the incredible advancement in the last 50 years (just a few decades ago, Korea was one of the world’s poorest countries. 

Today, the country’s economy ranks number 10 in the world).

Alone and comforted by the fact that I’d didn’t have to make small talk, or worry about a two-day hangover, I roamed the halls for over three hours. And afterwards, I walked into the sunlight, and stood watching the tourists.

That evening, returning to my hotel room, I took a long and leisurely bath and reflected on just how lucky I am to be here. To be young and free and possessed by a heart yearning for adventure