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Close encounters with rats and Asian toilets
Teachers wanted for new international school in Korea
Teaching during the day and working night shift at a dementia care unit just to make ends meet, was wearing me out. When I saw an ex-boss of mine advertising for teachers at a new international school in Korea, I thought sweet. Six years in New Zealand and I was ready for a change. One can only take miserable wet weather and mould and leaky houses for so long. The director offered me the job straight away and I got started packing up my house and getting my kids into temporary accommodation with my eldest daughter until they could join me. What follows, is an account of a group of westerners' first three months in a strange country with a strange language. Sit back, get yourself a drink and be ready to be entertained.
Okay, Air Korea does not have games consoles on the back of every chair or individual TV's. This meant, that we had to watch movies in Korean. Finally settling down to sleep, careful not to accidentally put my head on the shoulder of the teacher sitting next to me as I didn't know him well enough yet, I suddenly had the urge to pee. Badly. I unbuckled myself and managed to walk like Big Squaw Crossed Legs to the toilet. On my return, the teacher next to me had stolen my pillow. He was snoring softly with his head resting on two pillows. To make matters worse, when he stood up when we arrived, I saw that he had a third pillow nestled in the small of his back. This did not bode well for our time together starting this new school.
Our arrival at IncheonAirport, Seoul, South Korea was without incident. We walked off the plane, collected our luggage and walked straight through customs without even realizing we had gone through customs. Everything was completely painless, we managed to exchange money without incident and as the heat hit us, we all rushed off to buy bottles of water. We caught a bus from the airport to Jeonju. We stopped off at some sort of Food Court/Market along the way and had our first taste of Korean chicken burgers or that 's what we thought it was. It could very well have been something else. The Food Court place was clean and organized, toilets were lovely, and we thought Korea would be a breeze!
As our bus pulled into Jeonju, we saw hundreds of little streets and alley ways, a veritable maze and realized that the prospect of finding our way around the city would be a challenge for even the most brave-hearted. Our first view of our school, nestling in the hills like a fairy castle, was impressive. We never realized how big and grandiose the building would be. Many of us had heard or read about horror accommodation stories of other expat teachers in Seoul.
I got some satisfaction, when the pillow-stealer decided to relax on his bed in his room. He propped his head up on some pillows, while reading The Listener, then "KAPOW! " He found his head down and his feet up in the air! His bed had collapsed, and further investigation found that the legs for the bed had inadvertently been screwed into the wrong places. That' ll teach him for stealing fellow teacher' s pillows on long flights!
Rats in the kitchen and everywhere else!
Just as we were getting used to eating Korean food in the dining hall,demolition crews moved in to take the kitchen out and remodel the whole room. The pounding of the jack-hammers woke up the rats who'd been living in the walls and every nook and cranny in the building. They started trying out for the Rat Olympics whenever we tried to eat in the dining room, by hurtling across the floor and jumping from table to table. Some teachers were scared and complained about eating the food that was being cooked there with so many rats around. The owner of the school graciously paid for us to dine in a restaurant in an old container next to pools of stagnant water and open sewage canals, which was a short walk from the school. Some teachers decided to rather stay in their rooms and eat only oranges until the remodelling of the kitchen was over and the rats could return to their homes in peace. Then a rat bolted through the teachers' lounge area.
We had been eating breakfast in the teacghers' lounge, and there were a few panic-stricken moments when we all met for breakfast and there was nothing there! Then, luckily, someone discovered that all our breakfast things had been moved downstairs to the little kitchen area next to the teachers ' common room because it was no longer safe to eat there because of the rats. We were slowly discovering that this is the Korean way. Things often tend to happen without warning.
A rat jumped off the reception desk in the foyer as some prospective parents were visiting the school. Still, the penny-pinching owner did nothing. One of the teachers walked naked out of his shower as his door to his bedroom was closed. Imagine his surprise when not one but TWO female painters were at work painting in his room. He moved faster than one of the rats to quickly get one of the postage stamp towels we'd been provided with to cover up his privates. The day just got better after that, with rats squeaking and running everywhere. During another admin meeting, the crew dismantling the kitchen started using a giant jackhammer, much bigger than those used previously, which caused the teachers ' lounge floor to vibrate. The vibrations disturbed the rats even further and they started getting braver and braver and running everywhere. It became a case of the meeting being punctuated with, "I just saw a rat!" " Where?" as someone nearly jumped on their chair, "There 's another! "
Rats were in the sink, our wash basins in our rooms, jumping out from under the couches we were sitting on. Some of the male teachers decided that enough was enough and went on a rat hunt, but the rats were far too quick for them. Deciding to escape the rats, I decided to go for a walk around the school soccer field. Imagine my surprise when I spotted a Korean man in a ditch – dressed only in a soccer shirt and nothing else – naked from the waist down. Making a concentrated effort to prevent my eyes from popping out of my head, I pretended that I hadn 't seen the man displaying his wares, but it didn 't seem to worry the semi-naked man at all.
More rats in the sink and running under the table we were preparing our breakfast on, and all the teachers spontaneously broke out in a rendition of UB40 's 'Rat in my kitchen.' Finally, the owner got the message that we didn't like living with rats and called in a rat catcher. However, the excitement with pests wasn't quite ove yet. The day after the rat catcher had been, a large green frog jumping out from under the green tablecloth hanging over our 'breakfast-cooking' table, and frightened the wits out of some of the staff. It took them a while to recover, jumping and yelping at any sound or sudden movement. But, no more rats were ever seen again.
Introduction to an Asian Squatter Toilet
Toilets in Korea go from one extreme to the other. Our first night out to a traditional Hof (Korean bar) near the university, most of us had a certain image in our minds of what a traditional Hof would look like, but what we encountered was furtherest from our minds. The bar was very sophisticated and trendy. Although the barman did manage to accidentally bring me a tall glass of ice water, instead of a tall glass of iced green tea and still charge me for the green tea. One can forgive a simple mistake, but when the barman tasted it for himself and then wanted me to take it back after he'd tasted it, I flatly refused. The highlight of the evening had to be a visit to the ladies' toilet in the Hof. It was a large room with a computer permanently hooked up to the internet, 2 television sets mounted to the wall, a bank of hairdryers and other beauty-making things. The door had no handle, you placed your hand on the door and some sensors automatically slid the door across. The toilet door had clear glass and I had a few moments of panic when I realized that if I went…anybody walking into the bathroom would see me through the clear glass door. However, as soon as you went into the toilet cubicle and slid the lock on the door, the door misted up with some stuff inside the glass to give it a frosted look, and nobody could see in. The delights of the toilet were not to end there. Mounted on the wall next to the toilet, was another small tv – like the ones you get on the back of the seat in front of you on the plane. The toilet seat had a control panel attached to it with a button for a bidet, blowdryer and other things we weren't too sure about! Definitely not something any of us had ever seen before!
Our next sorty was to find the expat bar called the Deep Inn. Great place to watch rugby with a crowd of expats teaching at other hagwons (language schools). By now, we'd all found out we'd been diddled and we were going to be teaching an international school programe in a Hagwon. The poor Korean kids had to attend full Korean school in the day, then come to us for another full and challenging IB school program from 4pm to 9pm! Anyway, that's a whole new other story. After watching the rugby, consuming many pints of beer and playing rugby in the street afterwards and narrowly getting hit by cars, we decided to go to a Norebang - which is a Korean Karaoke Bar. We spent 2 hours singing, and discovered that you can any sweet love song into a screaming head banging metal number.
The ladies toilet proved to be an interesting experience. Very, very different from the toilet at the hof that we'd previously encountered. Full of many pints of beer and soju (Korean rice wine - very lethal stuff) I desperately needed to pee and headed off to do my thing, only to discover it was one of those porcelain hole in the ground type thingies. My very first encounter with an Asian squatter toilet! Having had a knee operation lthe previous year, squatting over a hole iwas not the easiest for me to do at the best of times. The fact that I wasn't too sure which way you had to face, made it even more of an adventure. However, that decision was taken from me as I dropped my pants to my ankles and fell into the toilet. Not sure whether to laugh or scream for help, I spent a good few minutes trying to negotiate my way out of the toilet, hamstrung by my pants still around my ankles restricting movement. Eventually, I managed to crawl out of the toilet and used the nearby wash basin as leverage to stand upright again.
The moral of the story is, don't drink and try an Asian squatter toilet for the first time. Since then, I have become pretty proficient in using squatters, having been in Asia now for four years. I can do it with my eyes closed and hit the target every time and don't splash at all.