Wednesday, March 30, 2011

10 Things I Hate (and Love) About You

I have been living in Korea for 7 months. By now, I feel comfortable and well adjusted. Though far from achieving "local" status, I think I have been able to obtain a pretty clear picture of the assets and liabilities of Korean life, culture and society. I've been mulling it over in my mind quite a bit the last few weeks, so I have decided to record my top ten favorite and least favorite things about Korea to date. Here they are:

Likes: (I'll start with the positive, because I fancy myself an optimist.)

1. The Public Transportation System- It is incredibly efficient and affordable. Between buses, subways and the KTX bullet train, many people live car free here and are perfectly mobile. It's fantastic.

2. Cooking at your table-There are several styles of restaurant dining here that involve grilling, boiling and barbequing your food right at the table. It is a really fun, hands-on group dining experience.

3. Fall leaves- The colors are simply stunning.

4. Promptness- Often times, if you need something fixed/installed/etc. it can be achieved either that day or the next. When I signed up for my internet at 8:45pm, the sales representative apologized that they would be unable to install it that night. I suppressed a giggle as I assured him that next-day installation would be perfectly alright.

5. Cozy Tights- They look sleek on the outside, but are warm and fuzzy on the inside. SO comfortable!

6. The Kids- Just so adorable.

7. Jimjil bangs- Public bathhouse/Spas where one can soak in hot tubs, get a massage, sit in a sauna, take a nap, watch TV and so much more for the equivalent of 5 USD. I don't know what I will do without them when I get home.

8. Environmental Conscience- Koreans are very adamant and meticulous about recycling.

9. Respect for Elders- As a result of their Confucius heritage, Koreans place a lot of importance on filial piety and deference to the older generations. I think it's really nice (within reason).

10. The Welcome- In general, Koreans really want foreigners to enjoy their country. They will go out of their way to make sure you feel comfortable, don't get lost and never feel hungry. Without their generosity, my time here would have been a far less pleasant experience.


1. Winter- It is just so bitterly cold. Sometimes there is no way to feel warm no matter what you are wearing.

2. Lack of veggies- There is not a large variety of produce available here, especially vegetables. One of the first things I realized in Thailand was how much I had missed fresh salads and the like.

3. Lack of conversation about current events- I don't know if they are oblivious or just unwilling to talk about potentially unpleasant things. But, none of my co-teachers approached me about either the shelling by North Korea or the Earthquake/Tsunami in Japan. Perhaps they discuss these things amongst themselves, I don't know. But the apparent lack of conversation strikes me as odd and a bit eerie.

4. Collective Mentality- While I admire some facets of the Confucian philosophy, the herd mentality it creates in some Koreans is a bit annoying. The homogeny here is practically a law.

5. K-pop Music- It is repetitive and obnoxious (I acknowledge that Western Pop is too, but I find it easier to escape).

6. Bleak color pallet- Especially in the winter when all the plants are dormant, Korean cities look rather bleak. There is not much variety in the concrete architecture and, without many evergreen trees to break up the gray, it begins to wear at your soul.

7. Residual Chauvinism- Korea is still a very patriarchal society. I have had some harrowing reports from my co-teachers about their marriages. And it is a well-known fact that Korean men are rarely faithful. In fact, it is not uncommon for business meetings to be conducted in whorehouses. I am so glad that I was born an American girl.

8. Overall Inefficiency- Korea was recently ranked the hardest working but least efficient country in the industrialized world. This is evident in Public School system in many ways and it can be quite frustrating sometimes.

9. Crazy Drivers- They're just terrible. I've witnessed more accidents here in 7 months than I had previously in my whole life.

10. Mispronunciation- Many Koreans add an "E" sound at the end of English(ey) words where it does not exist. This is the month of "Marchey". After dinner, I "washey" the dishes. No, no, NO!!!

So, there is my rant and rave about Korea. Because of all these things, I'm having one of the most memorable years of my young existence.

Monday, February 28, 2011

Open Lesson, OH MY!

     Any new Native English Teacher in Korea quickly learns to anticipate and dread the term, "Open Lesson." This means one must prepare the swankiest lesson one can imagine that incorporates all the available technology in the English classroom. Mind you, this technology is extensive. The Korean government recently dropped billions of Won updating English classrooms around the country with touch screen blackboards, sound systems, document cameras, microphones, the whole nine yards. It's incredible. But when asked to show it all off, it's intimidating. Some teachers avoid this blight, but for most it is inevitable.
     My lotto number was called in October and November 11th, after several weeks of preparation, we gave our lesson in front of teachers from nearby schools, the principle, vice principle and other people from the Metropolitan Office of Education. I'll spare you the description of the last few weeks of planning, revisions, cutting, laminating, dry runs, critiques from our consultant (yes, the MOE sent in a consultant) and skip to the big day. 
My Classroom and Co-teacher, Mrs. Park

      In the morning, my co-teacher and I ran through the whole lesson together one last time to rehearse our parts. All our materials were set up, the powerpoint files were open and ready, the CDrom was in the drive. Ok. What now? 10 people descended on our classroom bringing a few dozen folding chairs, a banner, a carved podium inlaid with mother of pearl, a velvetine flag and several potted plants. Pimp my classroom? Yes, please. Out in the hall, a table was covered with a real table cloth and spread out with 5 different kinds of cookies, tangerines, tea and coffee. Then more people arrived with wads of rainbow ribbons, which they festuned between two posts in front of the main door of the classroom. I couldn't believe the amount of swag. But I had been forewarned: Koreans love to put on a show.

Ribbon Cutting

The Suits. Not intimidating at all, right?

     Around 1:30pm people started making their way into the classroom. This was the time to schmooze and mingle: easier said than done with the language barrier. When in doubt, smile and bow. I did a LOT of smiling and bowing. After a ribbon cutting ceremony, everyone took a seat and the Principle gave a speech. Then two more men in suits gave speeches, I didn't understand a word. Smile and bow. Then the children marched into the room in a perfect, single file line, sat and bowed. Yeah right, you little fakers. I surpressed an eye roll.

  The lesson went off without a hitch. The children answered questions perfectly and followed directions to a T. Afterward, my co-teacher and I sat down with the other teachers and the MOE officials and received feedback about our lesson. They had only good things to say about it to my ENORMOUS relief.
I wouldn't call the experience "fun", but it certainly was memorable and, in the end, positive. The attention to detail and the effort that went into this elaborate production was a sharp contrast to the American public education system. This country really does think education is of the utmost importance and it shows. I might not agree with all of their methods, but I respect their attitude and think our country could learn something from them.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Thinglish: Reflections on Thailand

I haven't posted on this blog for a few months now and I'm feeling a little bit rusty. Ergo, I decided to write this post in an itemized format so I could make brief comments on some of my scattered thoughts concerning Thailand.

Getting Religion- We visited several Buddhist temples in Bangkok. These places of worship are so vibrant yet posess a serenity that even hordes of tourists can't quite shake. Their traditions and rituals seem to have a richness to them that most Western religions lack. Not to mention, they built a 7 story tall Buddha. Honestly, it left me feelling a little bit envious.

Bathrooms- My perception of what constitutes a "nice bathroom" has drastically changed since leaving the US. I once fancied myself an amateur bathroom critic. Decor, ambiance and environment enhancers such as candles, potpuri, etc. used to factor into my ratings. Sometimes I would actually go to the bathrooms of nice restaurants, hotels, theaters and department stores just to evaluate their aesthetics. Now, if a bathroom has toilet paper and hand soap it earns a full 5 stars from me. Two thumbs up. From there it is all down hill. In Thailand most of the toilets didn't flush, they were accompanied by a bucket of water with some sort of bowl or ladel next to them. When you finished your business, you dumped water into the toilet. Archaic but effective. At one rest stop somewhere in Cambodia I came upon a toilet completely covered in flies. Lovely. In yet another Bankok bathroom I discovered a used condom on the floor. I miss the Downtown Macy's 3rd floor ladies lounge. But these experiences have been character building... and my travel sized bottle of Purelle is one of my new best friends.

Is this Cancun or Thailand?- Thailand has exploded in the last few years as one of the world's top tourist destinations.Resorts, restaurants, souvenire stalls and bars slinging kitchy drinks have sprouted like dandylions. As a result, parts of Bangkok and many of the islands have that "MTV Spring Break" feel. We couldn't count the number of people wandering around with fake dreadlocks, tiedye t-shirts and harem pants. Who do they think they're fooling? By trying to look free-spirited and hippie-esque they wind up looking more common and ridiculous than droves of Valley Girls in Ugg boots and mini-skirts.This is not to say that Thailand isn't enjoyable. It is. The food is fantastic and many of the people are incredibly nice. The authentic culture is there beneath the glossy surface. I just hope that the Thai people get fed up and revive it sooner or later.

Scorpions- I don't recommend eating them. Just a friendly piece of advice.

Monday, November 1, 2010

If wishes were fishes, we'd all have a fry.

Festivals seem to guarantee adventure. The first weekend of October, we decided to head down to a town called Jinju, near the southern coast for a lantern festival. My friend Missy and I took the 2 hour bus ride together and arrived mid-afternoon. At the bus terminal, we purchased tickets for our return trip with the help of a friendly Korean man who offered to assist us. We had a lot of fun exploring the vendors' stalls that lined the shores of the river, playing balloon darts and going on the pirate ship ride.

 On the water, there must have been a hundred floating lantern statues towering about 10 feet tall. These depicted traditional Korean dances, dragons, animals and even whimsical characters like Tom and Jerry. The lanterns were constructed by creating metal mesh frames, then stretching strips of nylon fabric over them. It was hard to fathom the time and meticulous detail that must have gone into creating these giant works of art.

As we were wandering through the festival, I was just expressing to Missy that I really wanted to have my picture taken wearing Hanbok, the traditional Korean costume. As we rounded a corner, lo and behold, there was a stall that had Hanbok and warrior outfits that festival goers could try on for free. Instant wish fulfillment!

In another pavilion we found a silk exibit. Various silk wares and crafts were on display and for sale. There was also a little Ajima boiling silk cocoons and extracting the silk to spin into thread. I was so cool to watch!

The ominous rain cloud that had been hovering over us for hours finally broke open and poured for a good half hour. Though, I had an umbrella, I did not wear proper shoes for this type of adventure. The downpour created a sea of sticky mud we had to wade through. At one point, my foot and my little ballet flat were completely submerged in gunk. Awesome.
When the rain subsided, we met up with our friends Andrea and Deborah from South Africa and dined on a feast of "Cheese Oven Baked Spagheet". The perfect remedy for being cold and wet. After dinner, we headed back to the bus terminal. Andrea and Deborah intended to buy tickets for the bus that Missy and I would be on. We found the terminal absolutely packed with people and learned that all the buses for the rest of the night were sold out and accommodations were all full in town "100,000" people had descended for the festival. With sad hearts we deposited Andrea and Deb in a warm cafe where they would plan what to do for the rest of the night.
Missy and I returned to the bus station feeling very proud of ourselves for our foresight in buying tickets early. However, as we waited on the platform and 10pm approached with no sign of our bus or other passengers, we came to the sinking realization that the tickets we held were actually for the 8pm bus. The time on the tickets was in military time and neither of us had really bothered to check that the man had ordered us the right tickets. Ironically, we discovered that Missy had been wishing to spend more time with the South African girls because she so enjoys their accents and I had been wishing we had more time to explore the festival.

We found the SA girls camped out at a PC Bang (internet cafe) and considered our options. We decided we could bunker ourselves in at a Norebang (Karaoke bar), but first we should return to the festival. So, as we wandered through a tunnel of wishing lanterns, I wished for the ability to tell military time at a glance.
On the other bank, we found a bamboo garden with smaller lantern statues depicting everything from Sylvester Stalone to mating grasshoppers. I kid you not.

 Also in the bamboo garden, we encountered some acquaintances of Andrea's who informed us of a Jinjilbang nearby that had a few available spaces left. So, yet again, I found myself in a public bathhouse in the wee hours of the morning. But the hot water baths felt really good after a long day on our feet. And lets face it, there's nothing like getting naked with new friends to speed up the bonding process.
Unfortunately, this jimjilbang was not as nice and far more crowded than the last one. We were unable to find places together and I wound up sleeping in practically an L shape around a column. However, it was a cheap, dry and safe place to get a few hours of sleep. Pulling on our jeans now stiff with caked mud, we headed back to the bus terminal and caught the 6am bus home.
Korea, I still love you.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Gongju or BUST!

Saturday afternoon, my friend Lissette, her friend Dale (from New Zealand) and I intended to meet up with our friends Missy and Clint Shaw to explore a "World Festival". I was under the impression that the festival was taking place at the Expo Park here in Daejeon. We arrived to find Expo Park nearly deserted, so I called Missy to get the coordinates. She informed us that it was actually taking place in a town called Gongju, 20 minutes outside of town. Since we don't know the area well and are unfamiliar with the buses, we decided to take a taxi there. 40 minutes and 60,000 won later, the taxi driver dropped us off at a Baekje Cultural Village. There were World Festival signs all around, so we bought tickets and headed in. The complex was really cool, featuring a museum that told the story of the area and the Baekje dynasty, a real palace and several villages showing the living conditions at different times in the area's history. Missy and Clint were with a larger group of co-workers, so it was difficult to coordinate with them. No worries, we had lunch and sipped on some Makoli in a little restaurant in one of the model villages. We climbed up to a cupola atop a hill that provided sweeping views of the gorgeous landscape and palace complex. After goofing off in the villages for a few hours, we heard an announcement that the cultural center would be closing soon. We still had yet to see our other friends.

A text from Missy informed us that they were planning to attend a performance at Gongsanseong Fortress at 7:30pm. "Where is this place?", we wondered. After wandering around bewildered for awhile, we encountered some friendly looking paramedics who were hanging out beside their ambulance. I showed them the text message and asked if they knew where it was. "About 45 km from here in Gongju," they said. We thought we were already in Gonju. "Can we take a bus there?" we asked. After conferring amongst themselves for a bit, one of them opened the back doors of the ambulance and motioned us to get in. So there we were, in the back of a Korean ambulance riding from Who-Knew-Where to somewhere else we were unsure of. But hey, the sunset was gorgeous and it was really fun to wave out the window at other people on the highway and see the looks on their faces. The ambulance pulled up in front of a bus station and when the EMTs came to let us out, they had their camera ready and wanted to take a picture with us! We took one with one of our cameras too, of course. Then, one of them walked us inside, took us to the ticket counter, ordered our tickets for us and showed us which platform to use. I really can't believe how nice and obliging these people were.

Approaching the town, we saw the fortress Missy spoke of. We were finally in the right place. After disembarking from the bus, we made our way to the festival grounds and across a bridge covered with intricate phosphorescent archways and paper lanterns that changed colors. It was absolutely beautiful. Upon seeing the multitude of people and the labyrinthine design of the fortress, we gave up on finding Missy and Clint and settled down in an outdoor cafe to feast upon a heaping plate of Sangyupsal (bbq pork).

Then we made our way up the battlements of the fortress and found ourselves in a lantern garden. There, we met a Buddhist monk and the man who designed all the lantern statues. These two escorted us through the garden, explaining the symbolism and creative process behind each lantern. The garden culminated in and arbor with hundreds of small lanterns hanging from it. From the lanterns hung strips of paper. The monk explained that these were people's prayers and wishes. They took us to a table and gave us strips of paper to inscribe our own wishes on. We watched as our strips were hung on lanterns and began blowing in the breeze, our wishes being released to the world.

The drop off that battlement was pretty steep.

The Ride of Death

 From the top of the battlements, we could see a floating bridge that appeared to have life-sized figures of mounted warriors on it. We asked how to get down to it and were informed that it was closed after sunset. Thus, we gave it up and began the treacherous descent down the battlements. Back on the other side of the river, we found some carnival rides. We decided to ride one of those centripetal force, spinning saucer rides. What looked benign turned out to be one of the most terrifying rides I have ever been on. The operator turned the saucer so that we were at the top and began to jolt the ride so much that, at one point, I was actually dangling form the railing completely off my seat, screaming bloody murder. In the background we could hear the man cackling into the microphone saying something about America and being scared. Mission accomplished, buddy.

After that, we needed some more Soju to soothe our aching bodies. In our cups, we had a long discussion about New Zealand and American history, imperialism, slavery, and Darfur. To cheer ourselves up, we decided to try accessing the forbidden floating bridge from that side of the shore. We walked down the bank only to discover that the final 15 feet of the bridge were actually a separate barge/raft that had been detached and was tethered out. My rebellious side was in rare form, so I started tugging on the line, guiding the raft toward us so we could float across to the bridge. Dale and Lissette ventured out onto the raft while I held it steady, only to find that it still wasn't quite long enough. We talked of jumping and swimming, but the distant sound of sirens brought us back to reality so we aborted to mission. We stood on the shore looking wistfully at the warriors. It would have been great to see them up close, but swimming inebriated in dark waters wouldn't have been a good choice.

We headed back toward the bus station where we had seen some cheap Love Motels earlier. Alas there was no room at the inn. At any of the three motels we went to actually. By now it was 2 am and we were very tired. We hailed a cab and headed to a Jinjilbang (a public bathhouse where, for 6,000 you can spend the night). So at 3am I found myself sleeping in large cotton pajamas on a mat on the floor in a room with my friends and 30 unfamiliar Koreans. I was out like a light.

The next morning we had coffee, wafflles and gelatto for breakfast before heading to the bus station. Smelling of BO and river water, we returned to Daejeon. We never did find Missy and Clint and I'm sore and very tired, but I wouldn't trade a moment of it. I'm sticking with my "just say yes" policy.