Update, and Some Highlights

November 7, 2011 by

This is long overdue on my part, as it has been several months since my last post. I have been in Korea for 9 months now, which means I have 4 months left (no, not 3). Two months ago the opportunity came up to leave KidsApple, and go to a different school. So, now I am at a job that I not only like a lot better, but one I think I am much better suited for. Instead of teaching math to 3 year olds, and US social studies to Korean 4th graders, I teach speaking and debate to middle schoolers. The classes are longer (one hour instead of 35 minutes) but I teach way less of them a week, and have a lot more time to prepare. Also, the school is just better run in general. It’s part of a big chain, but run independently. There’s around 25 teachers instead of 8, and I get things told in advance, instead of last minute. I also have my own classroom, with a flat screen to hook up to my computer for all sorts of educational fun. Most importantly, my new boss is not a tool, and actually seems to know what she’s doing. I was 7 months into my old contract and signed a 6 month contract, hence the one month extension of my stay.

As far as what we’ve been up to, I’ll stick to some of my favorites. We’ve done a bit more traveling, but nothing too extensive as there is a constant struggle between the desire to save, the desire to travel, and the lack of drive to plan far enough ahead for things to be well organized and cheap. We have hit two spots that we really wanted to: Busan, Korea’s 2nd biggest city, and Jeju, Korea’s biggest island. The trip to Busan was only one night, much too short to really take in a city of 3 and a half million. But what we saw was lovely. We went with a friend and his friend, and met one of our coworkers there, who went to college in Busan. We stayed at this place on a hill, about a block from the beach, with a fantastic view of the ocean. The whole vibe of the city was very relaxed, and easy. Definitely a place I would like to return to.

Jeju was a group trip made during the Korean harvest festival, which was a long weekend. It was a trip organized basically for foreigners who weren’t going to see their families during the very family oriented holiday. So, with a bunch of friends we spent four lovely days in Jeju. One very nice part about the trip was that someone from BC 2010, who I knew in passing, is teaching in Jeju, and we got to hang out, and have hung out several times in Seoul since. A couple of times there’s been 5 of us from our graduating class, hanging out together, which has been really great.

Other than those two places, most of our travels take us to Seoul, a city which I have really grown to love. It’s a very interesting mix of very modern-often well ahead of what I’ve seen in the US-and very traditional. Huge chain stores and restaurants mix with tiny traditional Korean restaurants. It’s a huge city. As if when people said they spent time in NYC they didn’t mean just Manhattan around 90% of the time. The whole place is a very urbanized. It’s 20 million people of metropolis. Always some crazy new spot in a neighborhood we’ve been to, or a great new neighborhood we didn’t know at all. You could spend thousands on a weekend there, or have a great time for about $25, including lodging and all. For such a homogenous country, its capital offers quite a spectrum of enjoyments.

We also climbed Korea’s tallest mountain, on a sometimes fun, sometimes not at all enjoyable, ten-hour hike. We’ve gotten more familiar with Korean food, and the more we do, the more we seem to like it. Otherwise, it’s been a pretty easy time. They country is safe, the work is enjoyable (although not always enjoyed) and the conveniences of a Korean city can hardly be overstated. Nothing I need is ever more than a few minutes away. Of all the things that can be said about being in Korea, challenging is hardly one of them.

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Jeju-do for Chuseok

September 16, 2011 by

Last weekend was Chuseok, which is the big harvest festival here in Korea. We had a four-day weekend, and the celebration started at work on Friday with a party for our kindergarten students. When I got to work first thing in the morning, I had a surprise; my co-worker, Stella,  had brought an old hanbok of hers and was excited about me trying it on. So I went into a classroom and another co-worker, Ellie, helped me put on all the different pieces and braided my hair.

Then I went in the room where the kindergarten students were. They were all dressed up too, which was adorable, and were definitely shocked to see me in traditional Korean clothing. I felt like wearing the hanboks impacted their behavior; they knew they were wearing special clothing, and they seemed to be on their best behavior. They sang traditional Korean songs, got their pictures taken, ate some rice cake, and then we took them to the playground.

Ellie helping me with the hanbok

Sara, Soya & Jewel

On Friday night Pedro & I took a train up to Seoul. We went on an organized trip with some friends and about 80 other foreigners to Korea’s biggest island, Jeju. The trip to Jeju took a while: 2:30 AM bus from Seoul, 9 AM ferry from Mokpo, arrival in Jeju at 3 PM, arrival at the hotel at 4 PM… We slept a lot throughout the day and had a good time.

Our first full day was jam-packed with a trip to the Manjuggal Lava Tubes, to a Trick Art Museum, and finally to Udo Island which was definitely the best part of the trip for me. We rented scooters and rode around the island for a few hours. I don’t know who remembers, but I used to day-dream pretty hardcore about having a Vespa during my junior year off campus. So this was pretty much a dream come true. And I was embarrassingly bad at starting the scooter, but once I was moving I had a blast.

Nate, Alma, Pedro & Sofia on the ferry

Our Korean-style room..you sleep on the floor

Manjuggal Lava Tube Caves

At the Trick Art museum

Trick Art

Scooter on Udo Island

We had originally agreed to hike Halla Mountain with our friends on the second day. Then we found out it takes between 7-12 hours to do, since it’s a 19 km hike. Sooo I backed out of that plan. But then after a couple drinks the night before, our friend Alma convinced me that it would be worth it, and that we’d have good time. And she was totally right. Hallasan is the tallest mountain in Korea, but the slope is really gradual so it’s not an impossible hike for amateurs (like me.) At certain points it was definitely tedious, but we took a lot of breaks and overall I’m really glad I went. I felt pretty accomplished when we finally made it to ground-level, and the views (especially on the way down) were really incredible.

7:30 AM starting the hike

Almost to the top

Group shot at the peak

Kimchi Elevator

September 5, 2011 by

Back from the blog hiatus. I’ll ease into re-posting with this little anecdote:

I was in the elevator of my building after yoga today. This one Korean lady had a huge Tupperware of kimchi, and opened it to share some with this young couple. No big deal, I figured they all knew each other. But then the couple left and it was just me and the kimchi lady. She opened the bin and offered me some too. I’ve never seen her before, but having been here for 8 months I didn’t think twice about taking food from strangers. So she picked up some kimchi & eggplant with her hands. And I tried to take it, but she wouldn’t hand it to me, and she went to feed it to me instead. So I just went with it. And that’s how I got hand-fed kimchi by some ajumma in the elevator.

Oh and then when we got to the top floor where I live, she didn’t even get out. She just stayed in the elevator. I don’t understand why this woman was riding the elevator and giving out kimchi samples with her bare hands. My best guess is it was an advertisement for a nearby restaurant, but there were no fliers or anything. I don’t know, but it was delicious. Also it’s been 2 hours and so far I don’t appear to be poisoned in case you’re worried, Mom. Love you!

Everyday Life & Culture Shock

June 20, 2011 by

In just a couple weeks, summer weather really crept up on me here. It’s been in the 80’s all week. The warm weather has been making me a little homesick. I miss my friends and all our summer activities: drive-in movies, costume pool parties, Salem Park, day trips to Philly, and visits to Boston & New York.. I miss going down the shore with my family, and especially did when everyone was there for Memorial Weekend.

I’m definitely out of the honeymoon period of moving to a new country; the novelty & excitement has worn off a lot. Now life here feels comfortable & even slightly boring: work/relax/study/sleep/repeat. Nothing too exciting has been going on lately. Just teaching, making lesson plans, thinking the kids are adorable, thinking the kids are obnoxious, etc. We haven’t done much traveling- just to the beach a few hours away. It’s been nice to laze around & hang out with friends in Daejeon. After four months of putting it off, Pedro & I finally signed up for a gym. We went to yoga class in Korean this week. I also registered to take the GREs in August, so I’ve been studying a lot. Overall I’m content here, but every once in a while something unique to being an ex-pat happens that really annoys me, and here’s the latest:

Last week I needed a doctor’s appointment. The only appointment I could get without waiting weeks required me to miss one 35-minute class. (I teach 8-9 a day.) This was reading class for 5-year-olds, and there were other teachers who could cover it for me. But when I asked to miss it, the school owner said no. I explained that I really couldn’t wait. And that led the head teacher (translating for our owner, who barely knows English) to ask what the appointment was for. I’m pretty sure an employer can’t ask that in the States. But anytime people do talk about medical issues in the States, it’s always in private. Which was not the case here; the other teacher casually shouted her question across the teacher’s room, which had a few other teachers in it. That made me really annoyed an uncomfortable.

Now I’d bet a few man-won that my medical issue is not in either of these women’s vocabularies. Which means I’d have to resort to the English baby-talk I’m so accustomed to using. And usually when you distill a medical term down what’s really happening with your body, it’s rarely something you want to shout across a room full of people. So I opted for a blushing “I can tell you in private?” And then, the cherry on top, they jokingly asked if it was for my cholesterol. Which a) I had mentioned in private before, and b) isn’t funny.

I’ve heard from other foreigners and read online that Koreans don’t address medical conditions with as much privacy as we do in the U.S. I’ve heard rumors of medical professionals shouting specific medical information about a patient, standing right beside them, for all the people in the waiting room to hear. Plus I don’t think the high cholesterol is very common here, especially not in young people, so I get why it may have seemed silly that I’d want that tested. I recognize these are cultural norms at play, and that they didn’t intend to be rude. But it was Friday and I was grumpy and physically uncomfortable, and so I went home on my lunch break and started this little rant to get over it. And now I am.

Behind as usual.. Muuido Island

June 10, 2011 by

Two weekends ago we went to Muuido Island. The island is off the coast of Incheon (a large city an hour from Seoul.) We found out about Muuido through a random expat’s amazing blog, which documents all her trips and how to recreate them: http://www.thevagablond.com/2010/04/21/camping-in-korea-beach-huts-on-muuido-island/

On Saturday afternoon, we met our friends at the Incheon airport. We took a public bus a few stops, got off, and walked for a good 20 mins to get to the ferry.

Couldn't believe how low the tide was

Ferry. That green hill on the right is where the ferry dropped us off-it barely had enough space to turn itself around. Ride took about 5 mins.

On the island, we took another bus to Hongdae Beach. We reserved some adorable huts on the beach for the night.  Then we ventured out into the endless wet sand in search of the ocean. I’d never seen such a low tide; the ocean was nowhere to be seen. Apparently the beaches in this part of Korea have a really really slight incline. So the point where water meets sand at high tide & low tide are at least a mile apart. (This also means that the tide comes in quickly, which was incredible to watch later in the day.)

Huts: Just a room filled with blankets. They had the traditional heated floors, which was fantastic. Sleeps 4.

Our friend Sofia (from BC) in the hut

In search of the sea

Found it! (Sofia, her friend Rob, our friend Sunny from work, & Pedro)

A few hours later and the water all filled in

Later more of Sofia’s foreign teacher friends arrived. We had fun hanging out on the beach & playing frisbee. Later the boys worked hard to get a campfire going, even though it had rained on and off all day.

Campfire. Not allowed, but not enforced.

The next day was warmer & sunny. We climbed some of the rocks on the beach before heading home. Overall it was a really great trip. There’s so many places I haven’t seen here that I feel bad revisiting a place. But I feel like I can make an exception for this – it’d be awesome to go again once it’s actually bathing suit / beach weather.

From the rocks. Low tide again.

Up

Higher

Group

Pictures from Seoul

May 23, 2011 by

Feeling lazy and Pedro doesn’t want to write, but here’s some pictures from our time in Seoul a few weeks ago.  We went to the Seoul Open Arts Festival at COEX on Saturday. Pedro’s mom read that a Venezuelan political cartoonist, Eduardo Santabria, had some work in the festival. So we went to check it out, and ended up meeting and speaking with him. Also please note the Korean lady in the lime green sequin outfit, complete with shiny emerald heels which ended up in my dream that night.

On Sunday we went to a Buddhist Lotus Festival in Seoul. There were all kinds of stands and crafts to do and the bright colored lanterns were beautiful. As it got dark, there was a parade. There were tiny boys dressed as monks, don’t know what that’s about.

Children’s Day Off

May 18, 2011 by

Last Thursday was Children’s Day, so we had off work. There are a lot of hiking and lake areas outside of Daejeon, so we took advantage of the day off to go exploring. We caught a bus from one of the many bus terminals in Daejeon. There is no centralized bus station, and I’ve found no comprehensive English website explaining which ones go where. Thankfully our Korean co-workers are super helpful and are happy to search the web/make calls for us when we need travel help.

Our destination, Daedunsan Mountain,  definitely exceeded my expectations. In a mere 40 minutes, we managed to go from a city of 2 million to the middle of nowhere. I don’t know what happened, I was playing video games the whole ride. From the top of the mountain it was all sprawling hills, greenhouses, and some tiny civilization in the distance that may or may not have been our city.

Bus

"A Path up a Mountain"

At Daedunsan, there’s a cable car to take you up the base of the mountain, past what I guess would be the more boring part of the hike. Upon exiting the cable car, I might have actually gasped. There were all these red bridges and curvy paths and giant rocks to climb…I immediately felt like a 10-year-old at Discovery Zone.

The first thing we did was cross the suspension bridge. Compared to the one we crossed in Costa Rica, this was pretty short and so it didn’t shake (or scare me) nearly as much. The real thrill was a long, steep staircase/bridge combination further up the mountain. That was kind of terrifying.

Hanging Bridge

Bridge/staircase contraption

On the stair-bridge

I expected dirt paths, but there weren’t many of those. Most of the hike was vertical, up either staggered rocks (so fun!) and or meshed metal staircases (painfully, thigh-burningly steep.) And while our legs were burning, we couldn’t get over how many senior citizens there were walking up the same steps like it was no big deal. Like this was a casual thing for them, because for me this was serious exercise.

Rock steps

View from the top

After a solid four hours of hiking, we were exhausted. I felt pretty accomplished for being active and resisting the urge to sleep all morning on my day off. And then I conked out on the bus home.

The next day (Friday) we had to work, but just in the morning.  I taught two kindergarten classes, and Pedro was one 35-minute class away from having a three-day weekend. It was pretty ridiculous.  Here in Korea, apparently they don’t purposefully observe holidays on Mondays or Fridays  to ensure a long weekend. (The following Tuesday we also had off, but not Monday. So frustrating. Especially since the school owners took the opportunity to go to Hawaii for a week. I’m only a little bitter..)

Anyway since we only taught morning classes, we caught an early bus to Seoul. There we had a great weekend complete with craft beer, an art show and a paper lantern festival. But this entry is getting long enough so I’ll let Pedro take over about that in another post.

PS: I hope you appreciate my leggings/jean shorts hiking look. I found a place where this ensemble is not only acceptable, but fashionable, and I’m going all out. You can’t stop me.

Birthday Week

May 2, 2011 by

This week was full of birthday celebrations.  On Wednesday we went to a surprise party for our friend Melissa. She was surprised. That night at midnight it became my birthday (at least in Korea.) So maybe I should have waited 13 hours until it was my real birthday, but I’d been dying to open the package I got from my family last week. So I did, at about 12:05. Of course when it became April 29th here, I still considered it my birthday for another 13 hours..

The next day I had happy birthday sung to me twice at work: by my co-workers and by a room full of kindergartners during snack time. But the best song of the day happened during lunch break. While I was Skyping my sister, Pedro came in with a cake and the two of them (unplanned) tried their best to sing together, across the world and in spite of all the Skype glitches & delays. It was very memorable.

On Friday night we went out to dinner and noraebang with friends to celebrate, because noraebang is fantastic and my new obsession. It’s a super-cheap private karaoke room that you rent by the hour with friends. It’s way more low-key and low-pressure than what the movies tell me karaoke is like in the States. Some places sell alcohol, and all the ones I’ve gone to so far have a surprisingly good selection of songs in English. (But unfortunately not Torn by Natalie Imbruglia.)

Saturday we went to a First Birthday party for our co-worker’s daughter. First birthdays are important events in Korea. The tradition started back when infant mortality was high, and turning one year old was a milestone that marked survival.  People have them at nice restaurants and dress up. One tradition is to put a few symbolic objects in front of the baby and see what he/she chooses. This little munchkin grabbed the pink & white stethoscope and put it in her mouth, suggesting that she will go into the medical profession. The other options were a mallet (lawyer/judge), a long string (for long life,) a pencil (for intelligence,) and money (self-explanatory.) Our co-worker said she doesn’t take the prediction seriously, and that her own mother doesn’t even remember what objects her children chose. I don’t know if that’s the typical Korean attitude or not.

Along with the birthday theme, we also found out that one of our student’s mothers throws a birthday party for her son every month. For her three-year-old son, who she is apparently trying to turn into a monster. Tim, the child who is being trained to think he is the center of the universe, cried at the party for students with March birthdays. Because he didn’t understand why it wasn’t his birthday, for obvious reasons. In April, when again it wasn’t his birthday, our co-teacher popped a party hat on his head and that was enough to prevent him from crying. Tim’s mother assured a Korean teacher that she’ll stop this tradition once he turns five. At which point I’m guessing he will throw the temper tantrum of a lifetime. I want to point out that this is not a Korean thing, and all the Korean teachers think it’s super strange.  We teach at one of the more expensive schools, and some of the families are very wealthy. From what I can tell, this is a mother with too much time and money thing. Or an evil social experiment. One or the other.

Stereotypes?

March 22, 2011 by

The kindergarteners say all kinds of things in Korean to, and presumably about me, that I can’t understand. Last week, a Korean teacher happened to be in the room when one of the five-year-olds said something along the lines of: Jacqui Teacher doesn’t wear underwear, because foreigners don’t wear underwear.

Don’t really know how a child came to think that, or if this is a common stereotype here, but I found it pretty amusing. And as Elle Teacher assured the class, I and other foreigners in Korea do in fact wear underwear. Just in case you thought otherwise.

Understanding all the other things these kids say is my new motivation to work on my Korean.

An untimely trip to Japan

March 15, 2011 by

This past weekend I went to Tokyo to visit family. My aunt, uncle and cousins lived there for a few years and returned for a visit. Kids Apple was nice enough to give me Friday off so that I had a long weekend. Thursday night I took the high speed train to Seoul and crashed with Phil, my friend from BC. His girlfriend Sophie kept me entertained while we waited for him to get home. She was a great host, offering me tea and sweet potato cake. She’s needlessly self-conscious about her English like a lot of Koreans I’ve met, and I had a nice time chatting with her.

On Friday morning I took a cab to Gimpo airport. I landed in Tokyo at 11 AM,  less than 4 hours before the earthquake hit Japan. Aunt Molly and Uncle Mike met me at the airport and brought me back to their apartment on Tokyo’s amazing train system. We dropped my bag off, and left with my cousin Julia to have lunch and meet up with friends of theirs. By 2:30 were at a market downtown.

As we walked through the market, the ground suddenly started shaking and the high rises surrounding us began swaying back and forth. The sound of the buildings shaking got increasingly louder as time went on, and so did the ground movement. Everyone was holding onto their friends/family trying to keep their balance, and some people starting filming. (I kind of wish I did. I was too alarmed at the time to document the moment.) It lasted 4 minutes, which felt like forever. By three minutes in I was really afraid things would start falling, because the earthquake didn’t seem to be subsiding at all. And then as suddenly as it began it slowed to a stop, and I’ve never been more grateful. I felt like I had been on a rocky boat, and all I wanted was to reach solid ground.

Taken about 5 mins before the earthquake

The market right after

My aunt’s friends, a Japanese couple in their 50s, said it was the worst earthquake they’d ever experienced. (This was before we learned it was the 5th biggest quake ever recorded.) They got a call from their son at home that all their plates etc. had broken, so they headed home. We tried to swallow our anxiety and  resume being tourists. Julia and I coped by eating high-chews. We had wandered into a nearby Buddhist temple when the first aftershock hit 10 minutes later. (This I did get on video. I’ll put it on FB.) It wasn’t nearly as tumultuous, and was much less scary since we knew what was coming. But it was still disconcerting.

Given all the excitement, we decided to cut the day short and head back to the apartment. But the subway was closed, the buses were stopped, it was impossible to catch a free cab, and we were 10 miles away. We ended up walking the whole way back, which took 5 hours (not including breaks) due to all the human traffic and stopping at traffic lights. People flooded the convenience stores to stock up on food and water. Some pedestrians had hardhats on. And the streets were so gridlocked that by the time we found a free cab, it wasn’t worth taking. So I got a pretty crazy walking tour of the city on Day 1. But at least we made it back that night, unlike the many people from the suburbs of Tokyo who were stuck sleeping in hotels, office buildings and cars until the subway reopened.

The tremors continued for the duration of my trip, a few per hour. They were so small and frequent that people seemed to stop noticing. Except for me and Julia, who kept a log of what time we felt them and the suspected magnitude. We made a game out of it, writing down our guesses and checking them online. Julia got pretty damn good at it. Day 2 was much more relaxed. The public transportation resumed and we went to a nearby park. We had a great lunch: I had an Indonesian dessert with chocolate cake, avocado, coconut ice cream, and friend bananas. Amazing. Then we walked around some shopping areas. By nightfall the city was pretty deserted, I guess in the wake of the partial nuclear meltdown in the news. We were one of two parties at a popular downtown restaurant on Saturday night. My family found it especially eerie, since they know normally that area is super busy on weekend nights.

My lunch

On Day 3 we met up with more of my aunt’s friends. I had sushi from a conveyor belt for the first time, and it was fantastic. Other highlights of the day include my avocado wasabi burger at the airport, as well as the amazing airport bathrooms complete with a bidet and post-bidet butt-dryer. I got in to Seoul late on Sunday night, and missed the last bus to Daejeon. I just made the last train home from Seoul Station with a couple minutes to spare. Actually, I didn’t have time to pay for a ticket, so I just kind of hopped on. I noticed last time that no one checks tickets, and this one was pretty empty so I didn’t end up picking someone else’s assigned seat. Now I feel pretty guilty about it, taking advantage of Korean propriety. Maybe I’ll buy a ticket this week to even things out.

With the family after sushi

 

 

In spite of the chaos, I had a nice time with my family. But it’s definitely a relief to be back in Korea, where there are no tremors and no threats of a nuclear meltdown. I’d like to return and see typical Tokyo some day, but it was definitely an unforgettable experience to see Tokyo in crisis mode.