Korea, Mountains, Random Rambles
Comments 12

Gazing out the Window at Independence Mountain

Seeing much, suffering much and studying much are the three pillars of learning ~ from the Day 1 class notes of my Korean co-teacher

Thursday was Independence Movement Day, commemorating the first mass resistance to Japanese occupation on March 1st, 1919. When my vice principal told me about it, I recalled climbing a small mountain/big hill not far from home, half an hour downstream along the Dirty River:

I’d scooted up this small but steep prominence…

..whose name I didn’t know and still don’t, and found that most of its summit was occupied by badminton courts…

..and some dormant exercise equipment:

Koreans love to top off a nice brisk walk with an outdoor workout. You see these things everywhere: in the forest and on hills and even at bus stops.

The other end of the summit was dominated by a monument to a local eruption of tensions against the Japanese in April 1919, a month after that first uprising :

A plaque depicted the bloody insurrection…

..and an information board explained:

So, Thursday. Another paid holiday. In Japan I worked every public holiday and even endured three Christmas Days in the language farms, so GO, KOREA! I had a great day in Busan, among the creepy-crawlies and their purveyors in Jagalchi, and scurrying between the massive hulls and cranes and paint-splattered workers in the docks of Yeong-Do.

Yesterday I slid open the door of the teachers’ room at 8:30 and stepped into chaos. It was the first day of semester (yes, on a Friday) and a meeting was in progress, preparing for the inevitable ceremonies and speeches. The principal was speaking; frantic notes were being scribbled. I fought through the bodies to my seat, sat down and prepared to smugly ignore it all at my computer, when suddenly a worried Mrs Kim appeared, handing me a Post-It Note.

Why aren’t you at N______ school?

“Shit!” Thursdays and Fridays, starting this very day, I teach at a different school. I’d completely forgotten.

“I’ll catch a bus,” I whispered, turning off the computer.

“You will be late. Please wait. I will drive you.”

I waited outside for 20 tense minutes, pacing nervously. Five years of private school have left me with a phobia of lateness. But Mrs Kim did not appear; I’d been forgotten, apparently, and a co-teacher called a taxi and gave instructions to the driver. Great first impression I’m going to make, I thought, increasingly miserable, as we approached the school.

I needn’t have worried. Their ceremony was well underway, and I was swiftly squeezed into five-sizes-too-small slippers, and guided into the gymnasium, jammed with several hundred manic students standing in rows, while a teacher addressed them from the stage. I became aware that many, many pairs of eyes were…eyeing me. It was like being back among the tanks of doomed eels and fish and crustaceans at the fish markets.

An English teacher said to me, “The new teachers will meet the students soon.”


“Yes, you are a new teacher, I suppose. Do you mind introducing yourself to the students?”

“From up…there?”



Suddenly I was prodded towards the stage with 10 or 12 others. The crowd convulsed in a communal electric shock. Somebody needed to remind these kids that their vacation was over and they were supposed to be miserable, not ecstatic. Was I the only miserable bastard in the whole room?

The guy with the microphone began introducing the teachers, who stepped forward and bowed deeply one by one, to rapturous applause. I tried to look nonchalant. Then he ran out of Kims and Parks and Lees, paused uncertainly, squinting at his list, turned and handed me the microphone.

I stepped forward, a thousand eyeballs…eyeballing me. The room went quiet.

“Er…hi, everyone.”

The room erupted in cheers and applause. The floor was shuddering.

“My name is Ian, I’m from Australia, and I’m your new English Teacher!”

The girls were screaming. The boys were screaming. Finally, 50 years too late, Beatlemania had hit Gimhae, Korea.

“Er…yes. On Thursdays and Fridays. Nice to meet you!”

I thought a bow might misfire, so I waved my fist like Cassius Clay. The crowd loved it; the noise was deafening. I’d entered that stage a mere mortal. I exited it a god.

Ten minutes later I was led into the “English Room”…

..by a Mr Huang.

“Please call me Mr Huang,” he said, smiling nervously.

“OK…” — but he was already gone, and I didn’t see anyone again for about two hours. Fame can be so fleeting.

There was nothing to do, and the computer wouldn’t work, so I killed time admiring the graffiti, finding mistakes in the textbook, and laughing at the slogans:

This one embodies in one breathtaking hit everything that’s wrong about the way English is taught in Asia:

It was very cold. Korean schools are multi-storey morgues. I turned on the heat and settled down with my Kindle and Daniel Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Years. Warm and content, I began to doze off, roused myself, opened the double-layer of windows, and stuck my head out.

There it was: Independence Mountain.

I gulped down the air of freedom. At last a co-teacher appeared. I was to meet two classes that afternoon. “Just introduce yourself,” she said.

The first class was 3rd-year boys. I held their attention for 10 minutes, and finished the lesson hoarse.

Then came the girls — they separate the genders here. Same age and level but about five years more mature. “Just introduce yourself,” the second co-teacher said. I held their attention, responding stoically to the standard Do you like kimchi?, Are you married? and How old are you? questions.

At the end they clapped, thanked me, and one handed me a note. “This is for you. Present,” she said, giggling.


“Now it’s home room,” my co-teacher explained. “So…you are free!”

But I’d seen, suffered and studied enough for one day. I was already gone.

Elliott Smith, ‘Independence Day’:

~ And that’s all the Goat wrote


  1. This really was most entertaining, Goat. I laughed out loud. Fifteen minutes of idolatry! Wow!

    They have those odd keep-fit areas in Germany, too — often in forest clearings. Curious to see such outdoor gyms in the heart of sylvan wildness.

    ‘Are you married’ ‘How old are you?’, huh? Goat, just remember the golden rule about never dating your students…

  2. Ah, the dear old questions that must not be asked of those who are one of us, but foreign-types are fair game. They joys of teaching English in East Asia.

    • Oh yes, can you imagine the reaction when we were at school if we’d asked a teacher on his/her first day “How old are you?”?!

  3. Good post and fame is fleeting isn’t it?!

    Random exercise gear? What’s the point of the barbell? Climb a hill and then pump out some arm curls at the top? Looks pretty bizarre…

    One more thing. What’s the reasoning behind the incessant age questions? Why is it so important? The only thing I need to know the age of is the milk that’s in my fridge!

    • You know what, I’d rather have a few extra trees than a bloody set of gym equipment in the forest, but it’s not my forest. And maybe it works: you don’t see too many fat Koreans. If they tried this in Australia there’d be heart attacks daily in every park and at every bus stop!

      The age thing: they can be disarmingly direct here and Japan for people so damnably indirect most other times! Another curiosity is that I am actually one year older in this country. Koreans measure age from conception, so add a year. They always say, “My Korean age is…”. Just what I needed!

  4. Robert says

    All those gigs back in the early 80’s – the refec, op shop, sensoria, tube club, etc – was it ever like that?!

    Great post, Ivan – its like I was there

    • The audiences are a little bigger here, Robert! But all that time on stage back then has certainly made it easier to cope with this kind of job.

  5. What an up-and-down day… and being thrust into the limelight like that!
    I can think of similar experiences I’ve had. I suppose they just go with the territory of teaching.

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