Tuesday, February 26, 2008

SLP Graduation Coming Soon to Broadway!

Graduation - a time of reflection, of accomplishment, and a chance to look forward to the future and what it holds now that you have knowledge. Right? SLP went balls to the wall this year with graduation (as I guess is the tradition). But what an odd thing it is to see a Korean preschool graduation that's as big a production as something you'd see on Broadway - and takes just as much work.

Last Thursday we went over to the church for a rehearsal and it was a special kind of hell. Seriously - three days before the actual graduation - and it couldn't have gone worse. There was yelling, and finger pointing, and miserable children and teachers everywhere. So, because of the disaster that was the dress rehearsal, Friday and Monday became non-stop graduation fun time at school.

What were we rehearsing you ask? Well the 3 seven-year old classes each had a 20 minute play to do, my 3 six-year old classes had 4 songs and 2 stories to do, and the 5 year old class had a little story/song they had to do. Some of the kids gave speeches, and there's the logistics of the whole thing, and props - in my opinion it was a bit too much for all of them to handle and I even took some of the songs out of my group's performance.

However I suppose all the hardwork paid off today, as the kids all did a really great job and they have never looked cuter in their little costumes.

I got to meet all of the parents too, and see some of the ones I've met a few times before. The only classes that actually graduated were the 7 year old classes and I'm happy to say that all of my 6 year olds are coming back for another year, so I'll get to teach most of them when the new session starts next week. However, even though they didn't have to, the parents of my Hippo Preschool Class gave me a $50 gift certificate to the Shinsaegae (mall) here as a thank you for the year. It was really nice of them actually. I bought all of the kids candy and pencils and balloons that I'll give them on Friday at our little "end of the year" party, even though they start back up again on Monday.

We operate under the premise that this is not technically a school as much as it is a business and that was never more apparent in the past few days. Graduation isn't necessarily about the kids completing a year of school and going onto the next step in their lives. What all of these hagwons value is saving face, prestige, and grandeur. Graduation is just another day where they are put to the test by performing what they've learned in front of their families. These kids are in for a lifetime of competition and education much more so than the majority of American children back home, and I almost feel bad for them.

It was a pretty entertaining day though, and now that it's over it's time to switch from missiles to guns and prepare for their upcoming year in their new classes.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Dance Monkey, Dance! Or Speak English...

Saturday February 23rd will forever go down as one of the most surreal experiences of my life. First off all, let me just start off the story by saying I left my apartment at 4:30pm Saturday with no real expectations for the night other than one or two plans and wound up returning to my place at 10am on Sunday without sleeping.

Maybe I'll piece this story together by going backwards. I will say that I have seen many an 7/8am night, or coming home after the sun has come up, and its something that just kind of happens here. There aren't any last calls, or any closing times for the most part, and when you're inside of a place you can never tell what time it is. Even if you're not drinking (which I tend to do) you just get caught up in music or conversation or the thrill of meeting strangers from distant lands.

Coming home at 10am happened after an hour subway ride which followed a breakfast at 730am at the first Burger King I've eaten at in about a year. Before breakfast we partook in the "Luxury Noraebang" (Korean Karaoke) in Hongdae for an hour and a half starting at 6am. This place had FREE ice cream that was phenomenal:

We wound up at the Noraebang only after spending a bit of time in the hookah bar called Nabi which is semi-hard to find, but was WELL worth the search at 5am:
(The lattern in the pool in the middle of the room)

We had met people there after spending a couple hours dancing the night away to excellent indie rock music at Club FF (Funky Funky) starting around 330am. This was downstairs from the bar GoGo's that we had spent the previous few hours watching music videos and socializing with most of the people I have come to know in this fair land. We had randomly picked Gogos at 11pm only after what had made this night get off to a bang for me.

Last week a friend had mentioned he knew of a Korean party that wanted some foreigners to come and attend. I assumed it would be a milling about mixer type party, but we walked in and it was apparently some sort of English club that meets for a party once a month for the Koreans to practice their English. When we got there we were told to sit at random tables and thats when the oddness started. Some were fluent, some were ok, and others definitely needed their cheat sheets - but you sit down and were immediately bombarded with questions and given beer and they just wanted to hear you talk. And they were so interested in everything that I had to say it felt like I was performing a show that they had paid to see (which they technically did).

In the middle of the evening there's a speed game where the Koreans have to give clues and the foreigners have to guess which word they're talking about. Well, I rigged it that since our group's category was fruit they just had to give me color combinations or specific words like 'Korean' for pear since they have a different kind here.

We tied for first b/c one of my friends also played the same dirty game. Since there was a 4 way tie they turned the tables and the foreigners now had to guess the word that the Koreans were acting out. I came in 2nd after that same friend had beat me to the punch and we received even more food for the table including a gigantic full squid (which was actually very tasty) and a dish of cold spicy noodles that had river snails (?) in them which were also very good. Hey, I'll try anything once.

Overall it was very odd to sit at the head of a table and be treated with such immense respect and adoration just for speaking my native tongue. It was difficult at first because I wasn't sure of what in the world I had just gotten myself into, but it got much easier. They were fascinated by American culture and the work I do and have done and my interest in Korea. This was the first real chance I've had to interact with a group of English speaking Koreans completely on my own that have had nothing to do with my school. I made some friends out of it and had a lot of free beer (which set up the rest of the night very nicely). The newfound friends have been sending me nice text messages all day. One girl was even an NYU grad and going back to NYU next year for grad school so we will have the chance to hang out there.

It just felt good to go out there and do something very different and rewarding even if it started out as being used for a service. In the end, I think that's a pretty common theme in life, but just as long as everyone's happy it all works. I imagine I'll even go back next month too because it was a hell of a lot of fun.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

The Great Couch Theft of 2008!

Before I came to Korea I scoured the interwebs looking for videos about foreigners in Korea. Looking for those comedic souls that put videos up of their apartments, or their travels, and sometimes I'd get lucky and find something. I specifically remember a video of a man who video'ed what his apartment looked like and his detailed account of everything within the place had been stolen from the street. I was inspired by this man and made it my goal that I would too, steal things from the street.

Up until now I really haven't had the chance or the real need. My apartment came equipped with everything I would need and its one of the nicest apartments I've seen in Korea actually so I can't complain. Although I did have limited seating upon arriving and I am a big fan of entertaining. A few weeks ago I managed to steal an everyday table chair off the street but there was nothing really fun or interesting about that - it was just kind of sitting there asking to be taken. Koreans really do leave a ton of furniture out on the street as they are obsessed with the proverbial "Keeping up with the Joneses" and making sure they have the latest everything.

The Great Couch Theft of 2008 was one of the funniest nights I've had in this country. Thursday night after leaving work at 6pm we discovered a pile of seemingly new-ish couches and chairs on the corner with stickers on them that we assumed were billing information for trash collectors. Well, we saved this company some money because after phoning two friends, we came back at 11pm and took what we wanted.

First trip was carrying a full leather couch down 5 blocks to a friend's place. We stopped every so often and of course documented the whole thing cuz it was heavy.

The second trip was to take a really nice leather chair into my apartment only 3 blocks away BUT up my 4 flights of stairs. I now have a nice little nook of my apartment where I can curl up and read a book or watch a movie. And lastly, the third trip was to take a two parter couch 6 blocks - which might have been the most entertaining because we quite literally carried the things on our backs since we were all pretty tired and sore by this point.

Lets take a look at the clip:

At nearly 1am after a quite a bit of lifting we all went back to our respective places and enjoyed the fruits of our labors. I feel I have gone through a rite of passage by stealing street furniture and now I have an even more comfortable apartment! The decision to eventually leave Korea is getting harder and harder...

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Swimming in Chocolate on Valentine's Day

Holidays are fascinating in this country, and every time one rolls around I cannot wait to see how the Koreans celebrate it. Valentine's Day was no different.

At home I could careless about this stupid holiday - and this is NOT coming from a bitter single girl place. I'd say this in a relationship or not. Sure, its cute, and a great excuse to get a flower or some candy or something, but overall Hallmark invented it and there's nothing else to it. The only thing I like about this day is that in 1929 there's some pretty interesting history that happened in Chicago featuring Bugs Moran and Al Capone.

But I digress. Koreans don't have Hallmark, but they sure as hell have a buttload of chocolate. My preschool class informed me yesterday that girls bring chocolate on Valentine's Day and the boys will bring chocolate on White Day in March. White Day being the Singles Awareness Day, apparently. So this morning when I walked into class they had huge bags of chocolate, and my other preschool class kept coming in to give me chocolate as well. Basically by the end of the day I had an entire purse full of various chocolates, cookies, candy, and even a bag of chips. If nothing else, Koreans are an extremely generous people.

Basically I "celebrated" the day like I would any other year - sending out a lot of sarcastic cards from www.someecards.com and going to watch a movie with a friend. Tonight's feature was Jumper featuring Hayden Christenson and Samuel L. Jackson - I highly recommend it. ;)

Sunday, February 10, 2008

She's Getting Ink Done

Well... I'm knocking down my goals here left and right as I head into my 7th month in this country. I finally did one of the things I wanted to do while I was here - get a Tattoo. My grandfather got some when he was here during the Korean Conflict, and I've already got two, and figured, why not get one more to commemorate my time here?

We attempted to go on Wednesday, but being Lunar New Year, everything was closed. We went back on Saturday to a place called 2nd Childhood in Itaewon that a half Korean friend of ours knew about. It is off the beaten path, and down a very crooked old alleyway:

There are only a few places to actually get this done in Korea, as the laws are somewhat fuzzy. Going in, we expected our tattoos to be upwards of $150-$200 because it's a somewhat unpracticed custom and that was what we were told to expect. However, when we got to the tattoo parlor we learned that it is actually OK to tat up foreigners but there could be massive fees involved if the guy was found to be tattooing Koreans. It isn't entirely against the law, but it is frowned upon for the locals.

I went first as there were three of us and the guy was as professional as the artists back home - used brand new needles, had an autoclave, showed us his portfolio when I asked to see his previous work, wrapped everything in plastic that he was using, etc. It took about an hour and twenty for mine, and wound up costing only 60,000 won - which was incredible to hear. My friend went next and his was about 2 hours and was just about as cheap. Our third friend unfortunately couldn't get his as it needed a bit more preparation so he'll go back. Overall it was a pretty fun day - my friends hung out and played Go.Stop. (Korean Card Game that we've picked up) and we listened to music - can't really complain. It was an experience to say the least.

(it didn't really hurt)

Oh, and what did I get? Well in keeping with my tradition it's something small and colorful, and of course tasteful and meaningful. The only difference is this time its a bit more prominently placed. The first one I have represents a childhood love, the second one I have represents a constant love for the ocean and music, and now this one adds to my collection and represents my overall desire for balance in life and my time in Korea:

I have contact information if anyone is in this country now and is looking to do the same... I recommend it ;)

Friday, February 08, 2008

Lunar New Year... meh

Most of Asia got February 6-10 off this year for the Lunar New Year, although the rest of the world will know this holiday as Chinese New Year. And while my counterparts are tearing it up in China, Korea does things a little differently. Its a very low key, quiet holiday here. The Koreans all go home or back to their hometowns and eat traditional foods and pray. China apparently has parades and fireworks. Not fair.

I decided not to go anywhere this week, which is probably a good thing considering I'm injured and on the DL, but that doesn't mean I can't come up with my own ways of entertaining myself. Basically, the week was full of rest, relaxation, drinking, and movies. I kinda feel like I wasted 5 days, but sometimes rest is important too.

IF you're thinking of coming to Korea though - keep this holiday in mind when considering traveling - definitely go elsewhere.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Korean Taxation...is awesome!

Well, only for foreigners, although I believe its not so bad for the Koreans either. As this may be part of a couple of posts about taxes, I am reminded of a quote I have seen a couple of times during tax season in America:

"It's income tax time again, Americans: time to gather up those receipts, get out those tax forms, sharpen up that pencil, and stab yourself in the aorta."
-- Dave Barry

As an American, there is no worse time than income tax time. Sure, there's the possibility of getting a nice tax refund, but there's also the looming possibility that somehow you could owe the government even more of your hard earned pennies. Some people just pay through the nose to find themselves an amazing accountant that might do some creative accounting and find you the most tax breaks. Some might take it to an online program and just hope they get the basics done. Others, those poor souls that might find this fun, might actually try and do it themselves. I myself, went the online route the past few years.

However, none of that is an issue in Korea. As an employee in the fine country, I do pay Korean taxes every month of about 3-4% of my paycheck. In January the country goes to work and figures out who should get what back. In February everyone receives their refund in their first paycheck. It is just that simple. Foreigners generally receive about 40% of the taxes they've paid so far back, and Koreans, while they don't receive much, don't generally owe either. Apparently I paid about $360 in taxes in the three months that I got paid in 2007, and received about $120 today. Can't really complain about those numbers, now can ya?

Monday, February 04, 2008

What's up, Doc? Healthcare in Korea

So we know what kind of crap the American health care system is, right? I mean, you're probably gonna get the top treatment, but its gonna cost you top dollar, and that's even if you have insurance half the time. BUT, you generally will pay for top of the line equipment, and the most sterile environments anywhere (as you'd expect).

Well... none of that is really true here in South Korea. I finally got around to going to the doctor today, as I somehow hurt myself while running at the gym over a week ago. I of course didn't make it any better when I decided to go skiing last weekend or dancing this weekend. ANYWAY, I of course made it worse, and could barely stand without it hurting on Sunday - still walked around a bit that day I might add, so I went to the doctor today.

It was kind of a sketchy looking office. My head teacher was nice enough to escort me to the Orthopedic Surgeon's office and it looked like something that could only make me think of what an elementary school lobby would look like in 1972 - brown panelled walls, linoleum floor, uncomfortable orange seats, big wooden doors and I swore I smelled formaldehyde.

But while it wasn't aesthetically pleasing or comforting in any way, it was incredibly easy. I didn't make an appointment either, I might add. Just showed up and signed my name on the ol' sign in sheet, handed the receptionist my health card, and waited 10 minutes to see the doc. He kind of spoke English, he felt around my foot for a bit, spoke korean to my teacher and I knew enough of what she was saying to realize that she was telling him my stupidity of hurting myself and then going skiing and other various activities.

So he said that because I could have made what started as a bruise a lot worse with my idiot-like approach to these situations, he wanted some x-rays. We walked across the hall to this room that I swore should have housed old files and not an x-ray machine and took some pictures of my foot. There was no lead vest, no one had to leave the room, and I didn't have to take anything but my sock off. If this were home, it would have taken 2 hours to get this done, it would have been a gigantic room with a huge white machine, somewhere in the bowels of a hospital, and I would have been completely alone and wearing one of those gowns that makes you lose all of your dignity.

With all of that being said, I was in and out within an hour, including x-rays and picking up a prescription downstairs at the pharmacy. The whole thing - doctor visit, x-ray, medicine, and the doctor wrapping the ace bandage around my foot cost me 8,000 won. $8. Eight... Dollars. 8. 8!!! I still can't wrap my head around it. I almost wanted to ask him if I could keep my x-rays as souvenirs. If I didn't have insurance? It MIGHT have only cost $20. That would NEVER happen at home.

The medicine was simple too. The doctor visit/x-rays cost $5, and the meds cost $3. They come in this envelope, and individually wrapped packages for each dosage. Korea LOVES to individually wrap things I've noticed:

Overall, not a bad experience. I didn't break my foot, only tore a tendon or a ligament (communication barrier there), so we'll see if this all did the trick when I go back on Saturday for a check up. If you're scared about seeing a doctor in Korea - you really shouldn't be. I mean, doesn't this look like quality healthcare to you: