Sunday, September 30, 2007

Chusok Pt III: Backpacking-ish

For a 3 day trip I sure did have a lot to say. Getting out of Suji made me appreciate it much more than I had been and the first significant trip definitely deserves some attention.

Once we got there we tried a few motels & a hostel we knew about, but we got two rooms at the 3rd motel, and wound up playing cards all night on Sunday and 4 of us crashed in one room and 1 of us in the other room. Eh, it's all part of the fun. The second night we stayed at a Hostel which is run by an awesome guy who's fluent in Korean (obviously), English, & Japanese. We paid 50,000 Won to have his master guest room, which had 3 rooms, 4 big beds, and a common room. It was really spacious, very clean, had a big bathroom, free coffee, and for 5 of us to pay 10,000W each? I won't complain. We called him Willie because he only has one eye (a little insensitive on our parts, but we didn't disrepect him). If anyone sees this and is interested in going, it's the Seo-Cheon Guest House and his email address is if you'd like to tell him you're coming. We just walked in and he said to come back the next day and all was well. I have his card and phone number, so if you'd like more information, just email me.

The nice thing about the hostel the second night was the random people we met. Hostels are the poor man's way to travel, but they provide the most entertainment, and a certain amount of ease. Four of us sat around the table in the common area late monday night and two guys knocked on our door wanting to know if they could have a cup of coffee with us. So we invited them in - they taught directly in Seoul and were from Florida & Montreal if I can remember correctly... had excellent conversation about teaching in general, and we suggested some places for them to see. About an hour after they left, one of my crew was having a smoke out back and I heard an extra voice. So we invite the extra voice in, and play a round of cards, but more importantly talked about his bike trip that day fro Seoul to Gyeongu (keep in mind it took us 4 hours on a bus), and about his years of experience teaching in Korea & Hong Kong, and we all talked a bit about our experiences, and just had a really sweet night. In fact, I have added his blog to the right side of my blog, so make sure you check it out - he had some kind words to say about his occurence with us!

Due to the rain I feel we didn't get to do as much as I had hoped, but I enjoyed it all nonetheless. We took a bus out to the Sea of Japan when we got there on Sunday to see the Underwater Tomb of King Munmu. After an hour and fifteen minutes on the bus through the windy mountains we finally saw the ocean - the angry angry ocean. The sky was dark, the sea was loud, and full of deep blues and greens, and waves taller than me. However, we weren't sure of the stop and once the ocean became a distant memory we got off in a random rural town. Everything kind of looked run down and there was no sign of anything really. A korean man with decent english walked over and asked of us if he could help, but he pointed to an area on the map and said that we were there, but we all knew we weren't. So we thanked him anyway, walked on to show him we appreciated his help, but once we were out of sight we took the map back out. That's when another korean guy about our age got out of his car and asked us if he could help. He then told us in really good english that this was his home town, and we stuck out like sore thumbs. He even walked us to our bus stop and told us what time it would come by, and I was seriously impressed by his generosity. So awhile later, we got to where we were going... to see some rocks:

I expected this tomb to be much more grandiose, as it is billed as the world's only underwater tomb. King Munmu in the 1300's believe that he would come back as a dragon to protect Korea against invasions from the Japanese if he were to be buried in the sea. So his ashes are placed in the center of that rock formation in a pool underneath rocks. It was still a cool place to see though, and the waves were pretty intense.

Monday wasn't any drier... we went to the Korean Folk Village which was primarily closed due to Chusok & the rain:

And then we moved onto the Bulguksa Temple, which was the highlight of the trip for me. A temple that had been burnt down by the japanese was rebuilt 50 or so years ago, and has a number of pagodas housing shrines to various types of Buddha's. I managed to take a few illegal pictures:

Overall an excellent trip, and a very beautiful part of the country. I recommend it :)

(mounds that are traditional korean tombs for royals)

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Chusok Pt II: Gyeongu To & From

Spending 3 days away from Suji was exactly what the Doctor ordered. However, the doctor did not order more rain, and insane traffic but we got it anyway.

Five of us trekked out of Suji at 5am on a grey Sunday morning. The bus systems start here at 5am so we waited to take the 1550 bus to Yangdae for the subway, and then the subway to the bus stop. Well, we got a little scared about waiting for and maybe missing the bus, so we hopped in some cabs and were at the bus station in central city Seoul by 6am for a 715am bus. We bought our tickets on line at & paid extra for the tickets on the "Excellent" bus... a steep 26,000W and within four hours we were in Gyeongu, on the South Eastern side of the country, pretty close to Busan. The trip itself was great on the way down... we had four seats directly across the back, the windows on the bus open unlike at home so there was a nice breeze, and the view was incredible:

Nothing but farms and mountains as far as the eye could see.

We stopped at a rest top halfway through, and it was along side a rather large mountain and a river:

It was all wood, like a pier, and restaurants, and of course bathrooms, and it put rest stops at home to shame. Not just McDonalds, Pizza Hut, and Subway like on the thruway, but you could get full on meals here. There was even carnival food all along the outside and I found something I never thought I would find here - Syracuse Salt Potatoes. Syracuse hasn't cornered the market on these, but very very few people know what these are even though the name says it all. Tiny boiled potatoes drenched in salt and butter. The koreans put their little spin on it though... they added sugar... and it was heavenly.

We had only bought our tickets one way. We were testing out the bus since many people told us it wouldn't be a good way to go, and the that train would be better. Well, since the trip down had been so nice and we realized everyone was completely wrong, the second we got to the station we bought our return tickets. It was 17,500W on the "Normal" bus, and we were scheduled to leave on Tuesday.

It rained constantly on Sunday & Monday and of course, on Tuesday it was beautiful. We kept close to the station and got on our bus at 1:40pm. Our bus had an indian theme to it, and was no where near as spacious and nice as the "Excellent" bus we had on the way down but it worked.

Unfortunately we were not home at 6pm like we thought, but rather 2am. We all went a little stir crazy around hour 8 and we had to coax each other back on the bus when we made rest stop #3. Apparently traveling on Chusock Day is 10x as bad as traveling in the US on the Tues/Wed before Thanksgiving. The rest stops which I had thought were beautiful on the way down were hell holes on the way back - swarming with thousands of people, dirty, & everyone was angry - and rightfully so. There was a TV on the bus which was cute in the beginning but 13 hours straight of korean television would be enough to make anyone go mad. You ever try watching a gameshow in another language where they have to learn Old MacDonald for an hour? I didn't think so. Also, we watched an inflight movie where a teenage Korean boy comes to terms with himself and his desire to be a woman by becoming a pro wrestler. He wins the championship, and everyone loves him at the end when he dressed up like madonna and sings Like a Virgin in drag. I kid you not. Well, 13 hours later we were at Seoul and had cabs back to Suji. I love traveling.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Chusok Part I: Presents for everyone!

This may be a 2 or 3 part series - not sure yet, but the first part will be an explanation of Chusok - the Korean version of Thanksgiving and the events I've partaken in so far...

Tuesday, Septemeber 25th is this year's Chusok. It's basically a Harvest Festival celebrating Korean ancestors that supposedly goes by the lunar calendar. I've seen where it is supposed to be in August, however I guess it has been in September most years. I assume its counterpart for scheduling would be our Easter, but it is more traditionally related to our Thanksgiving. Chusok starts the night before and ends the night after, so most Koreans will take 3 days off of work which means that as an English Teacher we also get 3 children free days and no obligation to celebrate the way they do. What do most of us do? Well a few guys went to Thailand, another that went to Taiwan, another to Japan, some choose to just stick around here and do day trips, and some have their relatives come visit (there are a few moms roaming around the streets of Suji and its quite cute). Myself? I'm going to take a 3 day trip to Gyeongu, a city about 4 hours away on the South Eastern coast of Korea to visit Buddhist Temples, and see old traditional Korea, with four others. Should be pretty exciting.

However, before the actual holiday, Chusok is a much talked about event and there is much excitement leading up to it in a school. Starting this past Thursday the moms started bringing in tons of presents. Here's an example of some of what I got:

I received a big box of bath stuff (seen above closed & open) from a mom who bought it at an extremely nice body shop. Other moms brought in food for all of the teachers. Then on Friday it was stuff galore... I received a gigantic box of various teas, gourmet brownies individually wrapped in bows, a really nice passport holder, a Lotte Mart gift certificate from our boss, juices, cookies, and just various cakes and whatnot were around the office. Some of the other teachers received various forms of gifts as well - one girl received socks, and another received high end procured meats. Very random, but very very good & extremely generous. Also, all of the kids dressed up in their various Hanboks (traditional Korean clothing) not too unlike the Kimono. Check out how friggin cute my kids are!

They come in dressed up and we spent the morning making Songpyon - VERY tasty rice cakes that look like little dumplings, filled with sugar, cinnamon, & sesame seeds, & black soy beans if you wish (which I didn't). We ate them for the kids' snack time and then they brought home whatever extras they had. I of course had no idea what I was doing, so I spent my time taking pictures of the kids:

Overall it was a pretty enjoyable day - and getting presents is always a fun thing. My presents to all of my kids? Mostly classtime spent playing games (educational ones of course - scrabble, hangman, guess who) and no homework. Hey, that'd make me happy - and its the gift that keeps on giving b/c that means I don't have to grade anything when we get bacK!

Thursday, September 20, 2007

One Month Anniversary

As of this moment I have been in South Korea for one month and its amazing how exactly the same I feel, and yet I know already everything's different.

I haven't done as much as I wanted to in my first month, BUT that is just because I'm overly ambitious, poor, and I've adjusted my time schedule here a bit. The first month really is spent settling in, and getting acquainted with your surroundings and meeting new people. Also for me, its getting used to the weather. The first week and a half was more humid than I care to think about and the last three weeks, or 21 days, Im pretty sure that it has rained a solid 15 of them - hells its raining right now. Really all I wanted my first month to include was seeing as much as possible, and taking a hike or two. The hiking hasn't happened yet, but I don't really like the idea of sliding up & down a mountain. Eventually though...

But for this post there are two separate lists I can think of (Things I've done, and Things I Wish I Had Known) that will better sum up my thoughts.

Things I have done so far:
-Start teaching a full schedule
-Witness & survive a fully capable foreign teacher get fired on my fourth day
-Learn to lesson plan & create time filling activities for kids (harder than you think)
-Go on a field trip to KBS
-Spend a night in a noreabang (korean karoake) and think of it as a special type of place
-Meet dozens of people from all over the world and call them friends
-Seen more 6am nights than I have in years
-Drink a fair amount of asian beer and korean soju, but successfully decline it as well
-Go into Seoul
-See the Monet Exhibit at the Seoul Museum of Art
-See Itaewon in all its glory and declare it Americatown: A place that never needs be visited again
-Spend hours walking around Hongdae and realize its a cool counter culture area of Korea/Seoul
-Plan my first vacation (During Chusock, and it remains to be seen how successful this will be)
-Ride the Seoul Subways/Buses

Things that I wish I had known:
-That I would have been living in a spare bedroom of a basement apartment with no air conditioning across the street from a dump for my first week
-That Suji wasn't in Seoul (its 45 min away)
-That I'd be teaching little kids for half my day
-That I'd have to pay my first months bills ahead of time for my apt things
-That Koreans are generally some of the most generous people I've ever met
-That time would go this fast.

Not for any particular reason tonight, a couple of us went to have Korean BBQ at this patio outdoor place, and then have a few beers outside over at the Family Mart. True to Family Mart's nature more people showed up, great life conversation was had, and then a Korean man came to our table. We learned about his life, his family, he told us that we were all ugly, and then as the conversation went on he selectively told us who was beautiful and ended up buying us a round of beer. Couldn't have really asked for a better night to immerse myself in the life of a Korean.

Basically I've settled in pretty well... and I'm learning more things about myself and Korea as time goes on, and that's really what matters right? Growing up in this place that's made me regress a bit. Also, this starts a new tagging of my posts... there was In the Beginning for my trials & tribulations of finding a job, then right before I went with Preparing to Go, and then Finally in Korea and the first few posts I had here... now, Young Korea is born since everything's still so new to me.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Laundry: A Whole New Adventure

I tell ya, the one thing that Korea has over New York is the fact that I have laundry facilities IN my actual apartment, as opposed to schlepping 3 loads a block and a half away in most of the elements. AND one thing it has over my college apartment is that it isn't coin operated. I feel like an actual adult being able to just stay in and clean my dirty laundry and ya know, just watch tv or something.

However, there is a catch (there's always a catch). While I do have laundry capabilties here, it is not as most of you know it. You'd think you'd wash your clothes in a washing machine and then once done you would then proceed to dry them in dryer, correct? Wrong. Koreans don't necessarily believe that you should waste the energy/electricity in doing something nature will do for you over time. Therefore, I have a gigantic washer, BUT no dryer. Instead, I have this handy dandy little drying rack. And its not some cheap stand up wooden thing, its this straight up, huge elongated metal rack that has different areas for different things, and can be folded into various positions for say things like Blankets & Sheets.

Most Koreans I've noticed have their apartments set up in such a way that the front of their living space isn't a living room overlooking something, or even bedrooms with windows, but a separate laundry room specifically for hanging and drying clothes. It's a rather large walk in closet with very big windows overlooking the streets where you hang all of your unmentionables for everyone to see as they walk by outside. I unfortunately (or fortunately) do not have one of these. I have a balcony that is about a foot deep and six feet wide, so I must use the rack inside my apartment.

Nothing was more interesting that the first time I actually went to do laundry and it was all in Hangul (korean script). It is all digital, and the pictures KIND OF make sense, but everytime I throw my clothes in the machine, I sit and wonder what the outcome is gonna be. Makes it exciting, to say the least. OH, and my washer is bigger than my refrigerator - that's amusing too (you can kind of see it on the right:).

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Transportation Ups & Downs, Ins & Outs

I've been on various transportation systems all over the place - The NYC Subways, the Metro in Washington DC, the T in Boston, the LA Subways, NJ Transit, etc etc. I find them fascinating and I'm not entirely sure why. Maybe its because I grew up in small town america where public transportation just wasn't really prevalent or something anyone ever did... and if you did use it there was a stigma that you were of a poorer background (that being said, I did use it when needed).

But I have never been more impressed and confused by a subway system than the subways in Seoul. A few of us went into Seoul last night via bus and got dropped off in Insadong. We walked around a bit, and got into the subway station to find a payphone to figure out the plans for the evening. We then needed to go from Insadong to Itaewan which is foreigner central (which will have its own blogpost at some other time, that is for sure). But there's no inbound/outbound, or uptown/downtown cues to help you navigate where you're going. Not even so much as a N,S,E,W, directional guide really... so you just kind of have to know where you need to go. Luckily its written in Hangul & English:

There are multiple ways to get yourself onto the subway. First off the subway stops are virtually underground malls. Obviously some are bigger than others, and I have only now just seen a couple of them, but when you walk into them everything is very large, and very high ceilings, and windows where you can buy tickets for the subway. I was fortunate enough to have a T-Money Card left for me by the girl that I replaced at my school, which is basically a debit card. They can apparently be bought at 7-11s & possibly even the subway stop (I'm not sure) for like 2000 Won, and then it will act as a declining balance. I put 5000 Won on my card and then as you pass through the turnstiles you tap it as if it were a PayPass (they're currently testing a version of this out in the NYC Subways). The great thing about this card is that if you have it, you basically get a discount on the price of your trip. Seoul operates on a zone system (a la DC) so if you go from point A to point B and it costs 1000 Won then by using this card it might cost you 900 instead. You can also just go to the windows and buy a ticket individually, but the T Money card eliminates a need for lines, and you wind up saving money on something that can be used on the buses, subways, and various other convenient stores.

Overall, the subways were extremely clean, very spacious, and looked as if they were a week old:

The stations AND the tracks were free of grime and vermin and semi easy to navigate.

And I can't wait until I do it again... the only downside is that almost all public transportation virtually shuts down at midnight so getting home when you live 45 minutes away is NOT fun nor cheap.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Field Trip: KBS (Korean Broadcasting Station)

This morning myself, one other foreign teacher, a handful of Korean teachers, and about 30 korean preschool children went to the Korean Broadcasting System on a field trip. And I have to tell you, field trips are just as much fun when you're an adult as they were when you were a kid. The only difference is that you have to pay attention as an adult so you don't LOSE your children (which no one did today). Also, since I do not speak Korean it was almost a license to do what I wanted.

KBS is comparable to NPR in America. Now, I don't know much about NPR's complete set up to speak on it, but I do know that KBS is pretty big here. We went to its operation located in Suwon, which was about a 30 minute drive from Suji on a very hazy day. Both of my preschool classes were in attendance and today definitely helped me find my inner child. Believe it or not, even though I always thought myself to be a big kid (I like toys, cartoons, and generally don't ever want to act like an adult) I've had a hard time being creative and thinking child-like when it comes to these kids.

Anyway, we got the kids on the bus... got to KBS, wandered through the museum part and then onto the actual tv sets. The best part was when we got outside and walked through this old tyme Korean Western Village:

The day overall was pretty great. The kids were really well behaved and enjoying themselves, and there was so much korean spoken that I really have no idea what was going on, but it was some place I never expected to go, and that in and of itself is cool.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Lego Buildings & Construction

Construction in this country occurs at an alarming rate. I've been here for only a few weeks and already I have seen dozens of countruction sites all over place using equipment I have never seen anywhere else.

When I first came here I learned that the Koreans have hundreds of gorgeous mountains everywhere throughout the country that are not allowed to be built on. I believed this to be for conservation reasons and the idea that Koreans want to keep the things that make this country beautiful around. That they were continuing to build these gigantic sprawling metropolises around the mountains to preserve something unique.

Well that couldn't be further from the truth. What they do is use these mountains as natural resources. They will bulldoze a mountain to make granite, sand, and rock to be used for their construction materials. The exact opposite of the conservation efforts I had envisioned and respected.

Oh well.

What is kind of crazy is what they build. The city I live in, Suji, is roughly 8 years old, has 200,000 people, is nearly impossible to find on any map due to its newness, and almost completely made up of apartment buildings. The Koreans will build apartment building clusters and the only way to tell them apart is by the rather large numbers they put on each building:

^Random Apartment City

These clusters are built very quickly because they are built the exact same way, at the exact same time, using some of the cheapest materials around. The idea behind it is basically they don't need to pay some design company to make something modern and trendy, and if you can make one of something that someone will buy, why not make 5 more just like it?

However from a distance they can be quite pretty in a way because this just isn't something you see at home:

Suji is a suburb of Seoul but supposedly within the next 10 years or so it is expected to be another rather large city directly next to Seoul, a la Incheon. Maybe these apartment buildings are just the start of getting ready for the city that will grow up around them.

The Sun Will Never Shine Again

*This was originally posted on Thursday September 6, 2007. Immediately following this post, the sun did in fact finally show itself on Friday, Saturday AND Sunday. It's amazing how a little sun can make a place seem 10x better. **See Picture Below

Well I officially hit week two in South Korea, and the sun has yet to show itself.

It was last seen in North America, at roughly 7:30am, with a brief sighting again somewhere over the international dateline before my brief stopover in Toyko. Ya know, I vaguely remember in my traveling haze noticing that while it was 5pm at the Toyko airport two Thursdays ago, it looked very cloudly and serene, as if the sun were rising but not just quite there yet. Maybe because my body thought it was really 4am, but I really thought that everything looked like very early morning, especially because there were no people around.

Regardless of all of that, my first 4-5 days here weather wise were odd. It was a different type of humidity than I had ever experienced. For anyone that is from or ever been to New York, imagine what the middle of August feels like when you're standing on the subway platform at rush hour waiting endlessly for a train to come. It was THAT kind of humidity, only so thick that I almost felt like I was taking a sip from a glass of water everytime I took a breath. It was so humid and hot that I was falling asleep standing up b/c I couldn't really function properly. We were easily reaching temperatures in the 90s, with around 85-95% humidity, and most places have minimal air conditioning.

However all of that feels like it was ages ago, because this week it has done nothing but rain. It became an immediate fall, but instead of really pretty color changing trees & leaves, its just grey. Everything is grey. And this is in no way me saying that things are depressing or not, just merely observing the color of the place. One of the korean teachers on my staff assured me that at some point soon we should be seeing blue skies, but I believe this to be a complete fabrication as the Korean Sky is most surely continuously grey. They were giving me false hope.

Not only do I need to see the sun for my own happiness, I need it to happy purely at an educational standpoint. When I walk into my class in the morning, and ask my students to tell me what the weather is like, I need to be able to teach them more phrases other than "cloudy" "rainy" "cold".

^A grey cloudy sky on the way back from Seoul to Suji

^The view from my balcony on a sunny, blue sky day

Sunday, September 02, 2007

My First Trip to Seoul

My first thought... "Now this is where I wanted to be"

Now in all fairness, I do like Suji, and in the long run this little ghetto-fabulous area of the world will do me a lot of good. BUT compared to how amazing Seoul was, it was a bit to swallow on the first trip in.

First off, I was going to get out of Suji today if it killed me. There's only so many places you can really go here, and wherever you do wind up going I guarantee all you'll really see is neon signs or apartment (lego) buildings. My favorite part of Suji so far is the Lotte Mart, and it is just a gigantic piece of property with a very huge target/walmart/sam's club/bj's type place all mixed into one.

However, like any big city, Seoul is where the culture is. There are museums, and markets, and squares, and shopping districts, and architecture and restaurants and everything. Sure it'll cost you, but you at least have variety and options. I was lucky enough to go into Seoul with a couple of the girls on my staff to see the Monet Exhibit at the Seoul Museum of Art. For 10,000 Won (~$10) we went into a Museum with 3 floors and perused some of the most famous paintings in the world. After two hours or so we just happened to walk around Seoul a bit, find some food at a place called, "The Place" which happened to cater primarily towards american food (sandwiches, pasta, salads) and was pretty cheap all things considered and hopped back on the bus. I gotta tell ya... salad has never tasted so good.

The interesting thing about Seoul is that there's a gigantic Mountain in the middle of it, as well as the Han River. There's a walking path along the river that if it ever stops raining here, I will definitely walk on. I also cannot wait to do Seoul Tower (one of the largest buildings in Asia) and the Zoo, and anything else it has to offer.

I imagine I will be spending most of my weekend time enjoying Seoul....

Saturday, September 01, 2007

Eating is Pretty Much a Guessing Game

I'm really new to this SoKo stuff, but a girl does have to eat in order to sustain life, so this is definitely something that deserves some attention.

I'm finding that there's a fair amount of english going on here. At least most people know enough to communicate on a basic level, and when all else fails, I've definitely used pointing or sign language to get the jist across. I've learned various words... Hello (anyeonghaseyo), Thank you (Kamsanida), tired (anja***), and bottle opener (peontage), but the words for food just are not sticking in my head for whatever reason. I've learned that bap is rice, galbi is beef, bulgogi is beef soup, Chuseyo is 'for me please' and that's basically about it.

We go to a place called Sharon's everyday for lunch at work. We call it sharon's because the little korean woman who runs the place is named Sharon, after Sharon Stone. And i've had various things... Tuna Rice, Mahndu (kimchi filled, or beef filled), ramyan (spicy ramen soup), mahndu ramyan, pork cutlet in some weird bbq sauce, some sort of crispy rice thing with a ton of vegetables, and that's about it. Luckily I've had my fair share of pizza here too (pizza hut, and a place called pizza school make really good pizza).

But the best thing I've had so far is Korean BBQ. There's some cheap stuff for like $3, and then there's some great stuff for like $12. The sides are all basically the same at these places - lettuce, salt, ginger, bean curd, sprouts, kimchi, etc etc. But the grades of meat are basically where the money comes into place. You can tell the difference, but the bad meat is definitely still good. They marinate the meat for 3-4 days before serving it, bring it out on a plate when you order it, and then slab the uncooked raw stuff onto a huge grill of some kind. They bring out tongs and scissors, and you wait to cook it. You can throw some garlic cloves on there, or grill some kimchi, and basically just wait. The meat is then cut by someone at your table, and then people just have it with their metal flat chopsticks (which is an art form, let me tell you).

You can eat just piece by piece, or make yourself a little sandwich like I do by putting a piece or two in a big piece of lettuce, adding some rice, and some random side, closing it up and then consuming. It's really really good.

Anyway, it's about dinner time now. SO when I figure out what more stuff is, then you will as well.

***All words in here are basically my interpretation of how to spell something.