St Patrick’s Day Ten Years On


I was in Ireland for Saint Patrick’s Day for the first time in 11 years. That I was not excited about this lends a lot to my own feelings about Saint Patrick’s Day as a day of Irish celebration, which probably isn’t helped by the whole institution of Saint Patrick’s Day around the world. But having been away from Ireland for such a length of time, I think my understanding of my own Irish identity and Irish identity in general have changed.

When I first went to Korea I was 23. I arrived on March 16, 2005, the last time I was in Ireland for Saint Patrick’s Day I was 22. I suppose I just missed the day, and at the time I knew that this was probably for the best. I was no fan of Saint Patrick’s Day back then.

While before I had never really considered its relevance or its connection to me or my Irish identity, something of a sucker punch came when I went into an alehouse I used to frequent. Shrouded in a darkness, the sunlight streamed through the permanent smokiness and silhouetted the pirouettes of stumbling celebrants enthused by A Nation Once Again shaking the very fibres of much strained PA system. It was two o’clock in the afternoon. It was a dubious WTF moment, and one I always remember and attest to an urgent desire to leave the country, and Korea is where I ended up.

My own story in Korea is one littered with its own confusion, in terms of Irish identity. I stumbled upon an Irish party on the days surrounding March 17, and wasn’t too enthusiastic about celebrating my identity then. I settled in to living and found a group of friends who saw a novelty in my Irishness which I tried not to embellish but soon got it into my head that I was the only Irishman in South Korea.

I used to spend a lot of time in Seoul expressing my distaste at my nationality, its failings, and why I was a better person not to be living there any longer. I knew several friends shared similar feelings back in Ireland, so it wasn’t something I was attempting to appear aloof about, at least not on my own anyway.

I wonder though that the longer you spend away, the longer you feel that you to try to find yourself, as opposed to the idea that you’re missing out on something. Mixing with people from around the world from many different backgrounds who proudly exclaim their nationality while you shyly question what is it that makes you stand out from others would have this effect.

Ireland was a very unfamiliar place in Korea, so there was very little to talk up. As much as I would try to offers faint words of praise towards Ireland, I’d spend an equal amount of time explaining where in fact Ireland was and that, despite its proximity to the United Kingdom it was not in fact a territory of the Queen, or attempting to talk down the hype of Irish drinking habits and love of Riverdancing to the tune of IRA marching songs. It was hard to find a middle ground.

I don’t imagine that this image of Irishness has disappeared, and while there are plenty who shun the whole idea of the image of an Irishman, they will feel the necessity to indulge in the inebriating elements of the celebration. Not that I have a problem with this, I suppose. It’s often a mid-week day off, and what better way to beat the hump than to have few drinks. For your sins, like.

There is a strong trend in Ireland which now sees over-drinking on St Patrick’s Day as something the national image could do without. Doing so robed in green and bedecked in shmarockery in the name of a saint in a increasingly secular society just doesn’t rock the boat seven days of the week. I’d fall into this category of Irish person, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t want to celebrate the day any longer.

Like it or not, Ireland’s national day is St Patrick’s Day. I often felt that we needed some kind of an independence day or a day that at least allows us to recognise the achievements of those who saw about Ireland’s independence from England. Ireland being Ireland though, some would never see us truly independent seeing as we still have the six counties in the north as part of the UK, while there are plenty of elements who could never stand for approving of the actions of De Valera or Collins camp.

I think that Paddy’s Day has allowed us, more and more in recent years, to celebrate ourselves a little more than any other kind of national celebration would allow. While the parades and bedecking in green seem to be embellished habits from abroad, they certainly have allowed for the new identity of St Patrick’s Day to shine through. The parade in Dublin and the hundreds of thousands of revellers are far removed from the local parades which town after town celebrates in as much fashion as the community can muster.

When I helped out with the St Patrick’s Day festival in Seoul, we saw about doing the same thing, but in a slightly different way. You would always do your best with what you had, and we would regularly muster together as much Irish cultural talent as possible. This would include Irish dancers, US army bands playing Irish ballads and songs, a Korean U2 tribute band, some class of an Irish-Canadian folk rock six piece, and a guitar wielding human juke box from Bray performing across the afternoon, while in the background all forces of paddywhackery were out in force encouraging and inviting new participants into the madness that is Irishness in Korea.

Community was the essential element, even if it meant participating in a field of plastic Paddy inspired mayhem. The more bodies the better was the philosophy of choice, because let’s not forget this was a party we having. It was so much fun and such a success that we didn’t mind the moans from locals and the endless tidy-up come six o’clock.

In Blanchardstown in Dublin where I now live, and in Dunboyne were I spent my formative years there are now community parades. They don’t appear to have much resembling the hype of our Seoul shenanigans, and they pale in comparison to the big one in Dublin. Regardless, the faces throughout are smiling as big as any other parade, and they are faces you could recognise, maybe not now but in a couple of weeks when you’re in the local Supervalu or Spar.

As a parent though, I found it encouraging to see so many kids at the centre of the parade, marching, kicking, dancing, whistling, and chanting. These little things, small as they are and as insignificant as they seem mean a lot to these families who get to see each other having their own little moment as the centre of attention.

This far from a bad thing, because regardless of who we are we always need to feel a little bit important, and to have a sense of place in our community. This community can be a small village in the west of Ireland, a suburb or Dublin, or a shower of foreigners clattered together in one of the largest cities on the planet a mere 8,000 kilometres away from home.

 

Advertisements

Back in Ireland, Back in Line


It is November now, and after almost five months back in Ireland I am beginning to see what drives people to be so committed and set such high expectations. A new sense of value has permeated everyone, not just in their commercial sense, but in every sense. It’s is no longer what will you do, more what can you not do and how is it going to affect me? As a person who is returning to Ireland it seems that I have left out this consideration, and have become wrapped up in wide eyed notions of what’d I’d like to do if it’s possible, please. Somewhere along the line this will have to change.

Since September my triumphant return to little old Ireland has been suffering a series of, how do I put it without sounding too alarmist, hiccups. In fairness, myself and Herself knew it would be far from perfect, and we knew we’d have to struggle through this period, and it is well that I had the foresight to recognise this in advance of our arrival. Still, it has been increasingly disappointing.

Besides everything else all I really want now is a full time job. When I came back from Korea I was fortunate enough to land right in the middle of the high season for ESL teaching in Dublin. This is a period in the summer when literally thousands of language students converge on the capital and start to study English. They range from the age of 12 and up, and by up I mean into people’s sixties and beyond. Unfortunately the majority of these people have to go back to work or school come the end of August, and so the work dries up.

It’s not all doom and gloom as there are occasional jobs here and there, but because the teaching work in ESL in Ireland is strictly based on demand it does mean that at this time of year there are a lot more teachers seeking hours than there are classes available. It’s a feature of the business I wasn’t so aware of when I returned to Ireland, but it’s not something I can complain about as I should have expected it. Long story short: this is the rut I’m stuck in.

Rut softened by nice walks along the canal

I’ve been very fortunate since getting back to Ireland to have my fair share of support and advice from friends and former colleagues, but at the same time it still does not seem to be enough. I can’t begrudge anyone as it is me who is the person that must meet the standard, not come here expecting some standard to be available for me.

I was pretty confident though that my work in Korea over the past four and a half years would carry some weight in Ireland. And by this I mean some weight outside of the classroom. While I suppose that you could argue that the economy has seen a change for the better and there are more jobs available, there is still a huge amount of competition out there. This is especially the case when you see that there is one particular job every week fitting the particularly criteria I’m setting myself. It’s times like this I wish I worked in IT.

As I bury my head in my computer screen worrying over the state of my application, I know that there is someone with more relevant experience than me. Sure I can type out my skills and explain how I utilised them for blah blah blah but in the back of my mind I know that there is someone who did exactly the same thing or exactly what the job is looking for. Tell me to have confidence all you want, but this is certainly something every job seeker struggles with.

For one thing I want to stay in education. However another part of me says to forget about it and go and do something else, something that pays better, and something that won’t have you crucifying yourself waiting for one new posting a week. I could easily do this. Just take a step down from what I expect of myself, which is probably too high in the first place, and then in a few years take the step up to a better paying position.

The rewards of education.

This would be the cheap way out. I’ve worked in education for over eight years, admittedly most of this is in Korea which is on the other side of the planet. But it’s my job, and it is where my skills and knowledge lie. I know how students and teachers think and work, and I know that I can apply this to a role here beyond satisfactorily. As well as that I have all these other personality traits which seem to come as part of every job position advertised.

If anything, I have hoped that I could start from where I left off in Korea. I mean this in terms of salary at least. When you do a currency exchange you’ll find it’s not that huge a salary in terms of Ireland, and Korea it has to be said, but it is somewhere to start from. I believe I’m worth this much at least, and I hope that I can return to this level. As I said, I hope.

Last February I was accepted into a Doctor of Education course in the University of Glasgow. When I found out this news I was ecstatic. I had worked hard to be accepted into what I believed was beyond my retention. The thing is, I deferred the course until next year because I knew I was moving back here and I knew that it would be hard to settle into work here and to study at the same time. I wanted to settle in with work comfortably, or at least be comfortable with the work situation here before I dived into doctoral study. I believe this was the right decision.

This is another significant reason why I want to stay in education. I’m making a commitment which I believe could be significant to my future, so I need to stay involved. I can’t work in a call centre and try and get an EdD. What’s the point? It’s a complete waste of my time, regardless of whether or not I hope to return to education in the future.

One way of looking at the classroom.

All this being said, I’m looking to get beyond the classroom. I think that this may be where my problems lie, in that I have circumstantial evidence of an appropriate level of skill for an actual educational leadership or management position. There just isn’t enough stability, or indeed pay, to support a growing family as an English language teacher in Ireland. Couple to this that I’m not qualified to teach in secondary or primary schools in Ireland, that’s considering that I even want to do this.

That’s one side of me. There is another perspective, and one which I am equally torn against. I want to write. I want to write so that I get paid. If I could write enough so that the pay could afford me and my family a living then that would be equally fantastic. I have known for years that the best way to go out and find writing work is to go out and ask. It’s that simple (although the format that ask in is a little bit more complicated). What is less complicated though is my reason for not trying. That reason is I’m absolutely terrified.

Regular readers and friends will assert that this is nonsense and that I have nothing to fear but fear itself. I wish it was ever so easy. I don’t think of myself as competitive, nor do I think of myself as someone or something marketable. I just think of myself as who I am, an early thirties former Korea-based ESL teacher from Ireland. When I say it to myself like that I suppose I can expect little else but the just dessert I’m lauding.

I will argue to myself and myself only that it is perfectly natural to be afraid of fear and rejection. It is, trust me, but at what point does this attitude become ridiculous to the point that you start letting yourself down? And what about when I start letting other people down?

Tomorrow is another day.

I sit now and look back over the eight years I spent in Korea, and of all the things I claimed to have achieved. I look to how I can translate my experience into something worthwhile which communicates the character I wish to put myself across as. I look at the same time and can’t help but feel the effects of karma rubbing off me after fleeing Ireland in 2010 when the dole queues were at their longest. I think of what a great job I had but of how completely untranslatable it all feels now because of distance, because of situation, and because of the fact that I am no longer a one-of-a-kind, the way I used to think of myself.

Letter to Korea, August 2014


Dublin, Ireland
August 2014

Dear Korea,

I may not make a habit of this, but I thought considering our long affair together the least you deserve is an update on life without you. You know, it has been almost two months since I arrived back ‘home’ in Ireland and you seem further away than ever before. This is not the first time we have been separated for a long period, but always I had that return flight date lingering in the back of my mind. Such a comfort does not exist now.

Perhaps it is significant that I write this today, me who has kind of gone off writing this kind of thing, because it is the day when I receive my last pay cheque from my old work in Korea. In some respects I can look at it as the ending of what was another era for me, although I would laud it with such praise very reluctantly. The period of time for such an era to exist has merely concluded but all who existed beforehand continue on living in Korea regardless of whether or not I am there. Ireland is equally unperturbed by my return.

I was expecting more culture shock but have been lucky so far. The benefits have balanced pleasantly against the expected problems. Having a garden and a job to arrive to have made things much easier on me and my family. Family are nearby, as are friends, and there is a seemingly never ending quantity of tasty cake supplying cafes in the city centre which I seem to find myself in frequently on the way home from work. We discover new things daily and look forward as optimistically as possible to each new challenge the rest of the week brings us.

It may well be the honeymoon period, as arguably I’m still on my summer holidays. Today it rained like December and there was a bus strike. We went to the supermarket and again scratched our heads as to why raw prawns were so hard to find. They aren’t really hard to find obviously, they’re just playing second fiddle to cooked ones. A bit like the sunshine does with the rain, and in terms of fiddling about with transport I can’t fail to mention how much I miss my kyotung card, or transfer card. The so-called leap card is more a stumble along moderately well provided you don’t ask too much of it card.

Today as I taught a class I asked the students to write ten things about themselves, be it physical or emotional, and from here they had to let fellow classmates guess what each thing meant and then they would explain. The idea was to enable them to become confident talking about themselves and their emotions, I think. I gave myself as an example, which is something I probably do too often.

One thing that I wrote I wrote on the board as is ‘old is new’. I had been pacing the classroom trying to come up with things to include as part of my list. I looked out onto South William Street and up Clarendon Street from my classroom and in the distance I could make out the heads bobbing back and forth. There was the great debris of Grafton Streets midday traffic. It was in this part of town where I had worked just before I left for Korea nine years previously, and it was around here that I had spent many days and indeed nights. I don’t think I had spent as much as others but I remembered the streets fondly, almost nostalgically.

It got me thinking about each morning when I walked to the school where I teach. As I walked from Ormond Quay up to South William Street I was having this new feeling of being  new to a city, of being here for the first time. I had that blinkered feeling that ignored the normality brought about by familiarity, the same kind of bland taste you get from the same journey to work every day for a year. I was making a subconscious effort not to recognise what essentially looked exactly the same as before I left the city when I was only 23.

It’s not that everything is new. Perhaps it is seeing everything renewed. The old familiarity I had with Dublin hasn’t gone. I walk around and drive around the city and find my way with relative ease. I know where places and, for the most part, the quickest way to get to them. I stare a little longer in wonder than I used to, and I still hope that sooner or later myself and Herself can finally get a chance to regular sample all the delights our new home has to offer.

But that can’t be everything about living. Those grey walls will lose their lustre soon. The chance to be human will be removed and we will feel like more numbers but on a different chart. Herself waits for me through the long mornings to come home from work. It can’t be easy. I worry that what work I have will not be enough to live on. So much has depended on generousity to date. Consider it a metaphor that the tomatoes planted in our greenhouse will soon be dead and we shall be left to find fresh fruit elsewhere.

We sit and we wait for the ruthless nature of what is clearly a beast that only welcomes those working. The safety net that my teaching job in Korea provided and which we ridiculed for its unrealistic nature has finally been removed at our request. Now as we tumble as gracefully as our naive frames will allow us to fold in positions for safety expecting the thump of landing, I wonder will this next year be as challenging as we are expecting? Or will it be something else?

 

 

 

 

Letter from Korea, June 2014.


Jumunjin, Korea
June  23, 2014

Dear Ireland,

If you’re not already aware I’ll be leaving in about a week. I know I’m going on about it a fair bit, but it is what I’ve been building up to for quite a while and it feels appropriate to me to talk about it a lot. Right now, in terms of being in Korea, it doesn’t feel like there is much else I should be talking about. One thing though that I’d like to make clear though is my intentions.

Never at any point have I turned around and said I have to get out of Korea for some abhorrent reason, like the usual tripe you hear about the inadequacies of Korea, Koreans, or indeed the inadequacies of those who cannot accept that this is a very different country to the one which they were raised in. I could go on here, but I won’t.

Over the past four and a half years Korea has presented me unlimited opportunities to not only excel professionally, but also personally. What matters to me most now is that I did my best to respond to each opportunity. Master Yoda’s message has always been in the back of my mind ringing strong, ‘do, or do no, there is no try’.

As an adult I think it’s important to know what you want to do in life. Even if this is the wrong decision, knowing your direction makes developing a lot easier. In Korea I have been granted many opportunities, including business, education, journalism, and I have tried to see them through to realise their potential, or has more often been the case, their suitability to me. I’ve worked on the plans, built my image, and connected with important decision makers in all of those fields. In the long run however, I did not have the heart for whatever it was that I was doing. For me this was an incentive to seek different paths.

It may be that success was not immediate and I just needed to try harder. Passion, however, was lacking and the incentives in the long run were even hard to assess. I could not even tell the length of the run I was expecting to undertake. It is important to know the disntance of any race, or indeed the height of the hill you are attempting to climb.

I’m not without my commitment to other areas in my life. I believe it is important to be prepared for everything that life presents to you, but it is equally important to know as many clichés as possible when you choose to back down from a challenge, and I will let you devise them here. You can draw comparisons if the clichés aren’t strong enough for you to understand my point, all I will say for now on this is that some things were not meant to be.

Korea has changed my mentality on so many fronts, not just how I approach challenges but also how I prepare myself. To take every opportunity we are presented is not possible, and to rely on the patience brought about by previous failures is something that probably doesn’t sound too encouraging when you set out. Again, I look to another master for guidance, this time an Irish one:

“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.”*

 
(*I am sorry, I’ve seen several versions of this, but never once have I seen it accredited its exact location in the canon. Regardless the message rings true. And of course, this is Samuel Beckett)

This July I shall be reacting to another failure of mine. The change from Ireland to Korea was always with an open mind and an aspiration to change again in the future. The future has now arrived and while life has been good in Korea, the ladder upward has been flimsy and without a top in sight. Maybe ladders of life do not need tops, but they should at least have milestones, and by milestones I suppose I mean realisable goals.

Since I began teaching in Korea I have always progressed a step at a time. I can realistically chart my progress contract by contract, while always looking to the next stage, but now there appear to be no more rungs. There are options of course, and the position I had teaching academic English language skills in a leading Korean university had many options, many at the grace and mercy of the almost five months of holidays a year, and the limited class contact hours. Perhaps some have always wondered why I managed to maintain such an active online lifestyle, well now you know.

There is plenty to be done with this time of course, and I know many who use this position or one like it as a base for them to find more work teaching office workers or in homes and the likes. I’ve done all this, and I believe I was a good teacher with a decent reputation. Yet the lack of security and the reliance, invariably, on apathetic and often clueless recruiters on temp contracts charged with the responsibility of placing teachers is an experience I can do without in my work life. Added to this, at the best of times work is only available from 7am to 9am, or from 6pm until 7pm or sometimes 8pm. Students, are tired, bored, and overworked. The dynamic in the classroom is as you might expect, tiring, boring, and far too much work for the teacher.

I think that I’m coming across as scathing here, but I’d like to reassure you that for many these options are fine, and I can see why. What helps is a strong commitment, and also close access to the positions which offer these times. Yeongtong, where I lived for the majority of that time, was limited to the occasional vacancy in one of the several colossal Samsung plants that are close, and a scattering of other jobs. Quality positions were few and far between.

So this is the work life I am leaving. I will say little of the future I am traveling towards. Maybe I’ll save that for a later letter. What I can say is I’m leaving it for uncertainty and a smaller pay cheque. I worry a lot that my shrinking of income and free time will make me regret my decision to leave Korea. As a family we are committed, and I don’t doubt the summer will be fantastic, but as the winter settles in I worry. I think more and more now over the coming days how much I’m going to miss Korea. At this point I will also say I’m a little scared.

I know that we will be back to Korea to visit, but I hope that it does not turn out that we return with our tails between our legs again in a few years time. My attitude will have to change of course if I want to come back with my head held high. I hope that I am prepared for this challenge.

Of Suwon No More


I am no longer a resident is Suwon. It’s a sad day, I suppose, but one myself and Herself talked about for a while. It may be a new idea to you but it’s one thing we’ve known about for some time.

Over the past week boxes were filled, as we’re plenty of those 100 litre rubbish bags. The bags went to the dumpster down below, the boxes to the post office. Thankfully there’s surface post from Korea to Ireland.

20140619-120839.jpg

On Tuesday we sent our good bits of furniture to a new home and life in Ansan. They looked happy there, being put to good use at the hands of newlyweds. We’ll miss that fridge I could fit into, and the bed too. It was as comfortable as they get, with a memory or two attached as well.

20140619-115254.jpg

In the morning we packed and watched Korea’s draw against Russia. It was already hot and I was hungover from farewell drinks with colleagues the night before. It looked like we’d never come near to leaving that evening, but sleeves were rolled up and sweat was wiped from brows and not a thought was given to what might be, only to what must be.

By five o’clock we had the house cleared and we dined at a plastic storage box. The apartment was bright with evening light, and our words amplified in the echo of our now empty walls. It looked bigger than ever, but it was as still as tiny as it always seemed with all our acquired accoutrements cluttering corners to abandon.

20140619-115240.jpg

20140619-115224.jpg

20140619-115157.jpg

Eventually everything was gone. We dumped our leftover furniture for disposal and jammed the final bags we meant to pack more sensibly into the back of the car. We panicked again when we saw another pile of something we’d neglected to economise space for, but found a solution through the good will of a generous neighbour.

Before we pulled away we checked the apartment once more, went to the toilet, and I managed to get one last picture of that skyline which looked across at us for three and a half years.

20140619-115130.jpg

20140619-115116.jpg

When I say it like that, the whole adventure probably doesn’t come across as anything nearly as dramatic as it should. Yet, it was where myself and Herself both finally got a chance to settle a little for the first time after we married some six years previously. We are grateful for this opportunity, and none more so than the chance to start a family, itself as new a chapter as any.

Now though, the three of us are starting another phase of life. We are moving country. This is not myself and Herself’s first venture, but for +1 it is. Although I really can’t tell if she knows what’s happening; throughout the past weeks he has just been really good and allowed whatever to happen as it has.

20140619-115055.jpg

For now we are in a humid and overcast Gangnueng for a little over ten days, spending time with Herself’s parents and relaxing before we finally fly to Ireland and start settling into the onslaught of reverse culture shock we are expecting on arrival.