Sancheong-gun, Friday 5 June
Today I am due to say farewell to Sancheong again, but before I leave there is a treat in store: a school visit. Mr Yoon’s wife happens to teach in a primary school in Dangye Village, and she thought it might be nice for her pupils to meet a foreigner. And from my side, I am delighted to have the opportunity to see a side of Korea you won’t get on the tourist trail.
We pull up in a small car park outside the school entrance – a traditional-style gate with calligraphy under the roof eaves. This particular sign proclaims: Flapping Wing Gate – a lovely image, setting out the school’s objective of giving wings to the young minds, imaginations and intellects which pass through that portal.
Inside the gate, I am amazed at the size of the exercise yard – it feels like at least the size of a football pitch, and it reminds me of so many Korean movies set inside a school: as you enter through the front gate, you come across the climbing frame and exercise bars from which children will swing to impress their peers – hanging upside down, maybe having an illicit cigarette (though not in this particular school), maybe challenging all comers to a fight.
On the opposite side of the exercise yard is the main school building: a long, thin two-storey structure that extends the full width of the yard.
For some reason we walk around the perimeter of the playground rather than taking the direct route across it to the front door of the main school building. It is starting to rain, and the extra distance means that we are slightly damp when we get inside.
The first thing that happens is that we are greeted by Mr Yoon’s wife and escorted down the corridor to the left to meet the headmaster, where we are given a cup of tea in his office. The headmaster is a genial man, and very cultivated. He hands me a gift: a collection of sijo poems that he has composed and had published.
I am then introduced to other members of the teaching staff who are in the staff room next door. We then walk to the end of the corridor and climb the two short flights of stairs to the second floor.
This is all feeling strangely familiar. Are all Korean schools built to the same model? The long corridor that runs the full length of the building, all the classrooms on one side of the corridor with windows so that you can peer into the rooms from the corridor: just like every Korean movie you have ever seen that is set in a Korean school, from Dasepo Naughty Girls to Whispering Corridors.
But fortunately this school feels slightly more wholesome than your typical movie school: no murders seem to have taken place recently, no ghosts haunt the classrooms. A feeling of happiness and innocence is in the air – none of the stress and competition that you might expect to find from reading the newspapers. Maybe that is what the children will face in the years to come, but at Flapping Wing school the emphasis is to nurture the young minds and encourage creativity. On the stairs is a lovely origami collage of a ganggangsullae, and everywhere else you look there are welcoming pictures on the wall.
I am next introduced to the class of Mr Yoon’s wife. I had already been warned what to expect and drilled in what to say. I am introduced to the class as the county’s goodwill ambassador (I’m not sure they know what that is, and to be honest I’m not sure that I fully understand either), and then I am expected to say a few words. My friend Kyung-sook had asked that I should try to make the children feel proud that they live in Sancheong: too many youngsters in the county want to move to the big city when they grow up, thus depriving the county of its younger generation.
In fact a recent statistical analysis suggests that, if current trends continue, by 2040 Sancheong will be in the top four oldest counties in the country, with between 80 and 90 percent of its population over the age of 65. Extrapolation of current trends is clearly an unreliable practice, but this is a worrying statistic.
I do my bit for the county’s demographics, enthusing about the quality of life in the county, and telling the children how fortunate they are to live in a place where the air is clean and the scenery beautiful (I didn’t mention that they are less likely to experience Hell Joseon in Sancheong than in Seoul – such a message would be far too depressing). I’m not sure that they took any of it in, but at least the grown-ups present seemed to be appreciative of my little speech.
Then there was Q&A. Who were the best English artists? (I think they meant pop stars, though initially, stupidly, I thought they meant visual artists). What was my favourite football team? What did I like most about Korea? And then I had to go from desk to desk introducing myself and finding out their names. They were all so charming and earnest that the whole experience was a delight.
I said my farewells to the class – after a team photo – and we left the school feeling contented.
What was to follow made me feel even more contented: back at Min Young-ki’s house his wife had been preparing a feast for me – undoubtedly some of the best Korean food I had ever tasted. An early lunch to prepare me for the bus trip back to Seoul.
An evening in Gwanghwamun and Hongdae
After an uneventful ride along the expressway I arrive at Seoul’s Express Bus Terminal in [-dong] and catch the subway back to Myeongdong. This is the first time I’ve adopted this cheaper and quicker mode of transport to the downtown area. Normally I’m laden with bags and so leap into a cab and end up sitting in a traffic jam for an hour. This time, I’m travelling light, and so in no time I’m back in my hotel in Myeongdong and getting ready to head out again.
For my first appointment, I’m meeting with a long standing Korea hand for drinks at the British Embassy basement bar – something of a Friday evening institution amongst expats at which Embassy staff take turns to serve behind the bar, and the punters down bottled beers and locally made sausages that give the taste of home.
On the way past City Hall I pass what seems to be a fairly low-key protest: a solitary ajosshi with a megaphone shouting about something or other. I walk past without expressing much interest, until my eye sees the slogan in bold letters: sodom mayor. I wonder briefly whether this is a charming mistranslation, a piece of random Konglish. But no. I gradually focus on the accompanying poster, which shows a rear view of a man wearing nothing apart from a thong. To avoid giving too much offence (or maybe excitement), most of the bum cleavage has been pixelated out. (There’s a photo of that particular poster halfway down this Buzzfeed article)
I realised that the protest was designed to contribute to the debate about the proposed Gay Pride march that was due to take place on 9 June, and to encourage the mayor to withdraw his support for the event. The evangelical Christians were definitely against such a horror, but on ironically on a separate occasion the anti gay-pride performance was just about the gayest thing many people had witnessed.
Not wishing to antagonise the angry ajosshi by taking a photo, I scurried past – but returned the next day when no-one was protesting, to take the above picture. The Washington Post has a fuller story here.
I meet up with my host outside the embassy, sign in, and start attacking the beers along with the other regulars. It’s a convivial way to end the week, and I get the feeling that it’s something of a routine for many of those present. We are due to have dinner a few blocks away with a couple of my friends so have to draw the line after the third beer which arrives from somewhere for free. The rendez-vous is at a Chinese restaurant with a former work colleague and a designer who I met at 100% Design London.
They are already there waiting for us, and my former colleague Insoon has some anti-MERS precautions for me: vitamin supplements and anti-bacterial handwash. I gratefully accept them, and do in fact use them for the remainder of my stay. And thus, or maybe otherwise, I have lived to tell the tale.
My third stop of the evening is Jebi Dabang, a coffee shop in the Hongdae area where the Sogyumo Acacia Band is performing downstairs. We manage to arrive just as the set is about to start: cute female vocals supported by two acoustic guitars: very laid back and pleasant to listen to, but I can sense that Insoon (who is a Big Bang fan) and Jaehyuk (who probably enjoys something more on the heavy rock end of the spectrum) aren’t enjoying it much, so after the first set we leave to find more refreshment.
We have a few more drinks at a nearby craft beer place before heading our respective ways back home.