Friday, December 04, 2009

The Adventures are Coming to An End.

I suppose this has been a long time coming. When you sign on to come to Korea, you know you have an expiration date because you're only signing a one year contract. It seems like it will be a forever amount of time, but in reality it's only one year. When you get here, within a few months, you know of know if you're going to finish after the one year time frame, or possibly extend. For me, going to Korea seemed like a seamless transition and the most right decision I've ever made - going home was the farthest thought from my brain. I drank in all the adventures I could.

Settling into Suji was of course, a bit of a shock, as you'd expect. I got there after the longest flight I had ever taken and dumped into a spare bedroom of a guy's apartment with no air conditioning in the middle of a heat wave in the dead of August across the street from a dump. Within 6 days I had gone from working with A List Rappers to working with 100 6 year old Asian children, and within the first two days I had 20 new friends that quite a few of them are still some of the best people I know to date. To say it's the weirdest situation is an understatement. It goes without saying that the question, "WHAT HAVE I DONE?!" repeatedly went through my brain the first week.

With all of that being said, there is nothing more liberating and mind opening than being abroad for any amount of time. I got addicted to it and kept pushing my leave date back time and time again. I love who I am when I'm living here. I'm an ex-patriate. I'm unique. I use my passport, I'm seeing the world. Everything is new and shiny because it's nothing you've really seen before. I meet other travelers who share the same opinions I do, and all have that same lust for life and love of the open road. Sure - you meet a lot of directionless people, or weird vagabonds, but mostly you just meet people that are inspiring. You're living the dream and are not just able to say that.

The next few weeks are going to be insanely difficult. It'll be weird because I really am looking forward to going home, so I'm not sad, and after the year that I've had it'll be nice to catch my breath a bit, hear and speak English again, be a part of the majority. But in a lot of ways, I love not understanding everything perfectly around me, I have made some amazing friends that I know I won't get to ever see again, I will miss the food that I have come to crave daily, and all of the benefits of the lifestyle here. The new friendships, the healthcare, the work sometimes, the freedom, the lack of a closing time in most places, outdoor markets, bartering, the impeccable transportation system, the cities I get to visit, the reasonable pricing of everything, the lack of taxes and tipping, no open container law, the challenge in the little things, the bars/clubs, the randomness, the events, the sports, all of it will be sorely, sorely missed. On the other hand, there are things I am looking forward to not having to deal with such as the basic questions "What is your name, where are you from, do you have a boyfriend, what are your hobbies" over and over, not being able to find simple food I want, living in a state perpetual college life, the temporaryness of everything, and the constant saying goodbye to great friends.

December 19 I fly out of Korea, most likely for good. Crazyness all around.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

The Art of Drinking in Excess in Korea

I am convinced, that there is no other drinking culture in the world quite like the drinking culture in Korea. There hasn't been a day yet where I haven't seen someone passed out in the street, or slumped over in a bar indefinitely. It's fascinating to watch, really.

Basically people work 6 days a week, sometimes 12-14 hours a day. And the business culture here is to take your clients out to dinner and show them a good time. That good time generally means going to a BBQ place and pounding Soju and beer for hours on end, parting ways, and stumbling home. I can't even count how many times I've seen a dressed up businessman just peeing on the side of the road, on a sidewalk, or in the bushes. Once a guy even saw me, turned while peeing, and waved at me.

What's really brought this into focus for me though, is a new website called It is an epic website of pictures of Koreans passed out all over the place. Sure, it might be an invasion of privacy, BUT if you're that stupid to pass out in the worst positions and places publicly then you should really suffer the consequences.

Drinking in Korea is perhaps a bit out of control, but if you're a person with any kind of self restraint it can be a lot of healthy fun. There's no closing time, no last call at most places, an age restriction for 19 and under, and you can buy Soju for a buck and wander the streets with their lack of open container laws. It really is a fantastic playground for alcoholics.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Lost in Translation...Still

You always hear these stories about people going abroad, and learning the language over time. They don't seem to study, they just kind of pick it up via osmosis or something. Or maybe they just really focus on trying to learn new words and sentences each day, practice in conversation, and then over time it all just kind of ... happens.

That has not been my experience here.

Firstly, Koreans speak English pretty well, and if they don't their skills at charades are impeccable. Secondly, 90% of foreigners are here to teach English. The Koreans have such a lust for learning English that it's almost impossible to try out Korean on them without them responding in English and turning the conversation around. You're a one trick pony, and if that pony starts improvising they lose all interest.

That being said, one should take it upon themselves to learn some things on their own. I can read the language (luckily it's phonetic, and this can be done in a matter of days), write it if necessary, and I can say basic phrases and directions. One of my biggest regrets is not making a better attempt at learning the language though. Time just... got away from me. The first 6 months here are spent getting the lay of the land, and then the last 6 months you're preparing to go home. For me, I stayed 3 months longer. Then 4 months longer, then 5 months, and finally 3 months and didn't take one Korean class and money was an issue. This hasn't entirely bothered me until today. A regret for sure, but bothered? Not so much, until now.

I go to this little shop 3-5 times a week, easily, to get Galbi Mandu (meat dumplings) and tteokboki (spicy thick rice noodles). The staff changes there fairly often, every couple of months. And lately, there are these two people - a man and a woman, who don't speak a lick of English. They get a kick out of the fact that I come there so often, order the EXACT same thing, and go off on my way. It's also on my way to and from home a lot, so they're really friendly, wave, and say anyong every time I walk by. But tonight, they were just rapid fire Korean speaking at me, and I didn't pick up one word. Usually I can figure out the subject of a conversation, but this was tough. I finally heard the words "hagwon" and "Eolmayo" - "Academy" and "How much?" and then they started rattling offer numbers like 30, 40, 50. I assume they were asking how much money I was making working for a hagwon. I tried saying I don't work for a hagwon, and we all laughed at how hard it was to communicate. Then some random customer decided to offer his translation services, and turns out, they just wanted to know my age, but I didn't realize this, and kept telling them that I was 50. Slightly embarrassing that I never bothered to learn the phrase, "How old are you?" in a country where age is of the utmost importance.

This obviously, isn't an isolated instance. A few weeks ago, a man stopped me on the street and asked me for directions, and it took me about 10 minutes to figure out what he wanted and how to tell him. He was so excited that I did it that he gave me a fist bump and yelled "MIGUK!!" (America!!). I believe he was just testing me, since there were dozens of other Koreans around.

So while I'm not the only one who didn't learn, and in some cases I'm better than most, I still should have made a better effort. If anyone reads this who is coming to Korea, its VERY easy to get by without knowing the language. A word of advice though, it's much more fun to learn to read it, and it would have been really helpful to have attempted to learn to speak it.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Efficiency of Dating & Weddings in Korea

Korean dating practices and weddings are in stark contrast to western ways. A friend forwarded me an interesting article about Korean Weddings in the NY Times and the unique practices that go along with them. Which got me to thinking about what I've witnessed in my time here, and I think by mapping out the whole process, you'll be entertained (of course, this is an overall generalization, but I'd say it represents 90% of what I've seen):

First, dating here is amusing. I really do think that sometimes this country is what America must have been like in the 1940s and 50s. Most people (especially the majority of women) live at home with their parents until they get married. The ideal marrying age here is probably sometime between 26 and 32 for women, and maybe 28-35 for men. After that you're considered too old to get married. Oh, and of course these are in Korean ages, which means western age is probably 24-30 and 26-33, respectively. So, dating is pretty much of the utmost importance to almost everyone because they have to meet that target. Occasionally you will find the random forward thinker who's focused on their career, is looking for love, or who just isn't focused on marriage.

Anyway, being that everyone lives at home for the most part, there are hundreds of places called "Love Motels" all around this country. And they're just that... a safe haven for those who need it for, uh, "activities" that can't take place in the home out of courtesy and respect for parents and rules. You'd think with a moniker like Love Motel they'd be the seediest places on earth, but I can assure you, they're actually quite clean, and very nice if you can get past the fact that there's free porn in every room, and that they hand you a toothbrush, soap, and maybe a condom when you check in. I have stayed in quite a few (sometimes while traveling in this country they really are your only option) and they're just basic motels...with character.

As for me personally, I had an American boyfriend the majority of the time I lived in Korea, but once that ended I did attempt to date Korean men of curiosity and slight interest. And what I found was kind of laughable. A first date cannot be just the boy and the girl. It must be the boy and his guy friends, and the girl and her girl friends. Right there I was kind of at a disadvantage because I'm not the type to have a bunch of girl friends hanging around. Subsequent dates can and will be alone if the first goes well, but it's very cutesy and there's a lot of texting involved. And it's not the sweet single text of, "Had a great time" or "Thinking of you" or whatever, it's the Asian cartoon type text of "kekeke <3 <3 <3 Fun!!! ;) :) ㅋㅋㅋㅋㅋ ㅎㅎㅎ" all the time. Not cute. My experiment was very short lived.

Here is a classic example of Korean Dating Efficiency of someone I know:
A 32 yo Korean guy wants to meet a girl. He has his friends set him up on dozens of blind dates. Nothing really interests him over the course of a couple of months. He goes to his bank, which also has a matchmaking service. The bank system is kind of like and asks for your personal profile, information, likes/dislikes, etc. The interesting part of this, is that it also asks you for your assets and income. Then it cross references everything and finds you the perfect partner. So, the man does this, and bam, it sets him up with a 30 year old woman who happens to also live in his same apartment building. They actually have a lot in common - both educated in the States, both have advanced degrees from prestigious American universities, and have a multitude of interests. They met in August, two weeks before she went back to the States to finish her Masters degree. They keep in touch, and she visits once, and they discuss marriage. He tells me her sole purpose in returning to Korea when she finishes school in December is to get married because she can't wait as she's considered too old. The guy has a choice to make, marry her or not marry her. He also wants to get married, because he is also considered to be getting too old. And literally, they are perfect on paper. He told me he will probably propose in late December/early January (by just asking, not doing anything romantic, and will be married by the end of summer next year.

No where in there do you hear him tell me of love. In fact, when he showed me a picture of her and I said she was beautiful he told me she wasn't (trust me, she was). It's kind of nothing short of being a business transaction.

Ok Ok, so this is a BIT on the extreme side, but it's not too far from the norm. In fact, once Koreans do get married, another sad fact happens a little later on down the road. What happens is that children usually come VERY fast after a marriage. The idea could come from the woman or the man, or even both, but it happens fast because that's the point. The women stay home and tend to every single thing in the home. More often than not they also quit their jobs to do this. In order to provide for the new family the men now will work from early morning until well into midnight. The sad part comes in here... since dad is spending so much time in Seoul working sometimes he will go to one of the many "massage" places here, or, even frequent one of the many love motels while the wife turns a blind eye or worse, really just doesn't know. I had a student tell me once, "I don't see dad often because he spends some nights in Seoul. My mom says his company pays for a hotel." Doubtful. I even knew a guy once who actually went all the way to divorce his wife, but still stay in the same apt for the sake of the kids because they didn't know, even though he was oftentimes out with other women.

Now this clearly isn't all Koreans, as family really is very important. Many go off to be very very happy. And their weddings are big, lavish affairs to start off their happy lives. In fact, a wedding is one of the best times to show off everything you can. Korean weddings are kind of great in the fact that they take at most 3 hours and they combine the ceremony with the reception. You say hello to the bride and groom as you enter the reception hall, and there's a giant alter in the middle of tables set up for probably 500 people. EVERYONE is invited to the wedding - business partners, every relative, colleagues, every friend, anyone the entire family has ever come in contact with. The ceremony starts up, and a few minutes in, dinner is served. The ceremony ends, and you're probably into course #2. Then the married couple and the parents of each side make their rounds to each table. That's it. There are some traditions afterwards for the smaller family, but the wedding does not take up the whole day. It will end up costing you a pretty penny though. I attended one high class wedding this year that was about $150 per plate. Luckily I did not have to pay that, as to have a foreigner at your wedding ups your status by about 50 cool points. Each guest is supposed to bring an envelope of cash as their present to help offset the cost of the wedding. Which this is the very subject of the NY Times article, as this has been considered a means for bribery to happen amongst elected officials during times of weddings and funerals.

It has been an absolute pleasure to really get to know how truly different another culture can be in the arena of love. In so many ways its better than what I know, and in so many other ways its worse and limiting and holds women back. I gotta tell ya though - and this is purely personal preference - I'll be holding out for love and happiness, and be pretty happy for a chance at a wedding with all the bells and whistles (as long as its small, and a destination wedding, ha).

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Sonicbooms, Speed Thunders, Land Elephants, Oh My! Korean Basketball Edition

I have never been more mad at myself for not doing something earlier. I've been here for two solid basketball seasons and I've foolishly spent all my time worrying and paying attention to games back home (as an AVID Syracuse fan, not that silly NBA stuff). What I should have been doing here is being a fan of the Korean team, the Samsung Speed Thunders!

What's a 'Speed Thunder' you ask? I have absolutely no idea. My guess is that it has something to do with lightning as their very effeminate mascot has a lightning bolt on his stomach, but I can't entirely explain it. Taking a further look into it, it seems the whole organization doesn't know what its doing as we have teams that are the Sonicbooms and the Land Elephants. A 'Land' Elephant? Is there a 'Water' Elephant I'm unaware of?

The arena is next to Olympic Park at the Sports Complex stop on the green line. The tickets are 7, 10, or 14,000 won and there really isn't a bad seat in the house. The only downside is that you cannot purchase beer INSIDE the stadium. This seems VERY counterproductive and against normal Korean operating procedures - but don't worry. You are of course, allowed to bring in all the beer your heart desires and drink it inside. It is just a matter of thinking ahead and stopping off at the GS Mart or Burger King near the subway station.

The quality of play is hilarious. Each team is allowed to have only 2 foreigners on the team and they are only able to play 3 of the 4 quarters, so they have to choose them wisely. But as everyone can guess - any self respecting basketball player worth anything would obviously go to a European league if he had any chance of maybe someday making it to the NBA. Playing over here in Korea kind of means you're not going to be Michael Jordan at any point in your life, or even hope to be. But you are going to provide people like me with hilarious entertainment with how fast you rack up fouls, or with how much time you spend lying on the floor clawing after a loose ball.

I now have been to baseball games, soccer games, world cup games, and finished my collection with basketball games and 100% wish I could go back and get season tickets. I hope that I can get to at least one more before heading home, but to all of those out there who enjoy sporting events - its so cheap and fun that there's no time like the present.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Foreigners Bring Halloween to the Korean Masses

Halloween is a funny tradition. I believe it started in Mexico as All Hallows Eve where they honor the memory of the dead and worship spirits and have a dinner to commemorate the occasion. There are variations of it all over, and as an American, I can say we're just in for the candy. It has become less of a "scary" day and more of a costume party for adults to dress up in ridiculous things of any nature.

However, being in Asia for a few Halloweens now, Korea at least tries. Any child who's enrolled at an English Hagwon (academy) gets to celebrate the day with candy and costumes, and maybe even a party if the school really gets into it. My school the first two years completely turned a common room into a really scary haunted house (where I will say the goal was to see how many kids we could make cry). This year I was temping at a school, and during the 5 minute breaks between classes, the kids were able to run up to a different floor and solicit candy from the teachers. It was all pretty fun and it gives the chance to the kids to do something, well, childish, and they so deserve it.

But with anything, when you're away from home on a holiday you just want some kind of connection to it. The foreigners here go all out in full force to the usual areas of Itaewon and Hongdae and just party even harder than normal (which is pretty hard to do in a place of cheap soju and no closing times). This year, I decided to stay away from the masses primarily and just went to a friend's house party in Haebongchan (the neighborhood behind Itaewon). We wandered over to the bars afterward and of course, costumes and drunkeness aplenty.

Not sure how its done in other Asian countries, but if Halloween is your favorite holiday you can at least get a taste of it here.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Hiking at Bulamsan - Northeast Seoul

One of the greatest things about living in the city of Seoul is that it is the perfect combination of old and new. Tradition and Modernism. Nature and Urban. I don't know how they did it, but these krazy koreans have figured out how to have it all in one place. In this case, I'm sure they just picked a place, built a bunch of stuff, and decided to work around the mountains as this city has grown overtime, but that's neither here nor there. In the center of the city is Namsan (which actually means South Mountain) and its not too big. It's where the tower is, and it's hard to miss. A little more north there is the national park of Bukhansan which is about 700m tall, and on the northeast part of the city is Suraksan (Not to be confused with Seoraksan in Gangwan-do) and Bulamsan. Due to my timing issues of needing to be down in Bundang (south of the city) to teach a class in the evening, we went with the smallest of the 3 northern mountains and did Bulamsan standing at 508m.

Bulamsan in October is absolutely gorgeous. Truth be told, everywhere in Korea is absolutely gorgeous in the fall. The amount of colors and trees everywhere is breathtaking at times even if you're in the dead of the city. We took the subway up to Dangoggae on the light blue line, followed some ajumahs (little old ladies) who looked like they were about to get their hike on, and eventually found a map of the area. There is no shortage of trails to follow, and we just decide to walk until we got onto one after we passed a few apartment buildings. Probably about 2 km in total all the way up, it was pretty easy. The only real difficult part was when we got towards the top and there were actual vertical inclines where the koreans had installed ropes in order to help people get to the very top. Difficult, but very worth it.

All in all, we left our apt around 11, took the subway about an hour, got up the mountain and down, had dinner, and I was at my class by 7pm. Definitely unlike anything at home, for sure.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Birthday Booze Cruise! Han River/Banpo Bridge

Well, no one is more surprised than me that I've somehow managed to spend not one, not two, but three birthdays abroad. Planning any kind of activity is time consuming no matter where the location is. Inviting people, picking a place, coordination all equals work. BUT true to form, everyone had a good time. This year's party included a 1 hour booze cruise down the Han River in Seoul under Banpo Bridge, followed by a club outing at The Hive to see a local electro-rock band, Swingset Committee.

The bridge is really sweet, if I do say so myself. As we all know I'm a gigantic nerd for everything and anything Gizmodo posts, and when I read about it from them a year ago, it was just something I had to see. The bridge is akin to the fountain at the Bellagio in Las Vegas with 10,000 nozzles drawing water up out of the river and putting on a very colorful waterworks show. Take the boat from Yeouido Island (close to Yeounaru Station), one hour round trip for 11,000w, bring a couple of beers and some snacks on board with ya and enjoy the sights. I recommend it at night, of course.

Afterwards we headed over to Itaewon and went to one of the newest hot spots, The Hive. This place is pretty sweet looking, good location, but truth be told its not worth the cover unless there's some kind of event there. In this case, Swingset Committee was playing and they're a band from California, but they've been doin their thing over here in Korea and will be taking their show on the road to Japan, or so I hear. Either way, if you have the chance, check 'em out.

I'm pretty sure that this will be the last of my birthday's in Korea, but I suppose one never can say never...

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Camping at Seoul Grand Park for Chuseok

You remember camping at home as a child, right? Pack up the car to the tilt, sleeping bags, tents, food enough to last months for a small village. One of the things you don't really imagine doing while you're abroad because of all the equipment you would need and probably don't own. Well, yet again Korea has taken care of all of that.

Chuseok is Korea's version of Thanksgiving. It's a harvest celebration based on the lunar calendar, so the dates change every year. When I got here in 2007 it was 5 days, last year was 4 days and this year, 3 days because it fell on a weekend. Chuseok travel is unlike anything I have ever seen, and as someone who once got caught on a bus for 13 hours here for a trip that should have been 4, I vowed to never travel outside of Seoul again unless it was fleeing the country (like last year's Philippines trip). This year, 18 foreigners decided to pack it all up and go camping at Seoul Grand Park.

There are two sites directly in Seoul. Grand park and Nanji campground. Nanji is a newer facility near the World Cup Stadium in a much more urban area, whereas Seoul Grand Park is in a much more appropriate area surrounded by forests and mountains with access to Museums, the Zoo, and the Seoul Land Amusement park. It also has more camplike facilities including a campfire area, basketball courts, streams, common areas, and hiking trails. The sites come already set up with tents that sleep 4 people very comfortably for 15,000w a night and you can rent sleepings bags and mats to go in them for 1500 and 1000w each. We also got a special deal where we got cheap discount tickets for 13,000w for the day to Seoul Land so for two days/nights and an amusement park, the whole total was 45,000w (~$39) for the weekend + food. It was incredible. My only complaint? The fact that it got down to near freezing temperatures and I had a sleeping back that was about an inch thick.

There are a few main differences in Korean camping, however. At 11pm it is lights out and basically a zero noise policy. Also, campfires really are frowned upon if you light them using the 15,000w grill you've rented from them and now have a raging fire and half the forest in it as firewood. Also, Korea doesn't believe in graham crackers so it was really difficult finding stuff to make s'mores. Also, the campsites are of course, so close they're basically piled on top of each other. If you can get past all of this, your experience will be a ton of fun. A great way to spend a weekend though, that is for sure. Again, pictures speak for themselves (including being stuck in a bubble for the best amusement park ride I have EVER been on/in):

Monday, September 28, 2009

Corfu, Greece & The Best Destination Wedding of All Time

Why more people don't do destination weddings I'll never know. They tend to be cheaper, a more manageable number of attendees, and everyone has an amazing time. Whilst being in Korea, I was lucky enough to meet a couple worth flying halfway around the world for to be in their wedding, and they definitely picked one of the best places on Earth to get married: Corfu, Greece.

After 26 hours of travel (Seoul -> Dubai -> Athens -> Corfu) we landed at the tiny airport in Corfu Town on Saturday September 12, and took a 35 Euro cab ride over to the Pink Palace in Adios Gordis on the Western side of the island. Corfu Island is the northern most island in Greece, about 1 km away from Albania, and just utterly beautiful. The Pink Palace is rated as one of the best hostels in Europe for 25 Euro per person, per night, for the top level room with a view. It is also a place full of sin and debauchery, and I am extremely happy that I was not there during peak season. There was a hot tub there that the Australian bartender told me, "Don't go in there unless you want to come out pregnant, fathered by 10 different nationalities." It all turned out really well though - spent a day drinking with the staff, rented ATVs and drove around, and then rented kayaks and found a small private beach on the last day before heading up to the main event.

Going from Adios Gordis up to Paleokastritsa was like night and day. It's the richest part of the island with the most resorts, we settled into a really nice apartment and then went to find the bride and groom. We got there on Tuesday, and ran into people as we went along in this one street town. With only about 4 bars in the area, we frequented all of them for the nights, and then we did beaches and stuff during the day. One of the days we rented scooters to go back around the island and as I'm returning to the apt, I ended up crashing it and had to 100 Euro to fix it. They wanted 200 but 100 is all they got and that was the end of it. Not entirely fun, but a story nonetheless...

The wedding was absolutely gorgeous and just stress free, simple, and fun. The reverend was an old college friend of the groom's who got himself ordained on the ol' internet (much like yours truly did a few years back) who said some really nice things, married the two in a short ceremony overlooking the ocean at La Grotta Bar, and the next 8 hours we spent eating and drinking and swimming. About 45 people made it out both family and friends, and overall, I have never seen a more perfect wedding in a more perfect location. I'll let the pictures speak for themselves:

Thursday, September 24, 2009

A Travel Blog Worth Reading

Travel Stories Suck

A couple of weeks ago, my best friend shared two of this guy's posts with me, and while I trust said friend's opinions probably more so than anyone else, they stay tabbed on my browser for weeks - unread. Reading travel stories usually bores me - they're either boring, pretentious, poorly written, or of places and things that I have no interest in and might have no ability to afford doing. However - this guy is different. If you read the link above, he talks about the same thing. His posts are usually interesting and about the nitty gritty of traveling. The quirky anecdote, the tip on a place, things people should do at certain times, etc. etc.

I've traveled a fair amount this year, and have hopes and dreams to keep it up (assuming my bank account continues to approve such expenditures), but would like to give the ol' blog a face lift. So you may notice a new layout, and with only 2.5 months left in Korea - I plan to end this thing with a bang.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Two Years+ in the Making

I don't entirely recommend uprooting your life to come to Korea and do what I'm doing - and while it has its fair share of ups and downs, I've found myself in a pretty sweet deal for the moment (with an expiration date).

When you make the decision to quit everything and travel abroad [to teach English] you have to know that you'll be in for a world of the different and unexpected, and of course it'll be life changing hopefully for the better. I celebrated my two year anniversary August 21, and as of today have been here for 25 months with only a brief 2 week vacation back to the States somewhere in the middle. The plan is to head back to the homelands at the end of December and stay there, but I'm not entirely sure my feet have stopped itching yet.

If you've kept up with my inconsistent blog posts, you'll know that the job situation has been interesting this year and right now I'm currently freelance teaching and living in Seoul. I'm a tourist and have to leave Korea and reset the ol' visa every 90 days - and that has allowed me to see Canada, the U.S., China, Hong Kong, Japan, and Greece all in one year. Right now I determine how many hours I work, where, when, and for who and how much. Generally I teach 1-3 hours a day (yes, even weekends) and make enough to pay rent, pay bills, travel, and save a small amount. I work on referrals, setups from friends, and by researching sites on the interwebs. Will this last forever? No. In fact, the end date is tentatively set for December 20th. This gig is a very inconsistent way to make money, and sometimes a lonely existence without coworkers to spend time with and company politics to talk about. It has to end sometime.

The next few months will be interesting. I'm enjoying this position of technically being a small business, and the ability to come and go as I please - but there's more to life than teaching English and I'm determined to find it. ;)

Friday, July 31, 2009

An Article to Describe Korea Better Than I Ever Could

Koreans very much live in a competitive, "I want what my neighbor has and more" society. This is very evident by the simple fact that I am here with thousands of my western comrades who are getting paid handsomely for doing something that comes naturally.

However, today in the Washington Post there happens to be an article that talks about South Koreans and their atrocious savings abilities. While I'm not entirely interested in financial matters, it does get at the heart of how and why Koreans do what they do.

Take a second to read it... I absolutely love living here, and I think that education IS the most important thing in any culture, but does this kind of thinking actually lead to something catastrophic?

Sunday, July 19, 2009

RIP Passport. Feb 2007 - July 2009

Born in New York City, February 2007 - Died in Tokyo, Japan July 2009.
4 visas for Korea and China, multiple stamps for Korea, 2 for China, 2
for Hong Kong, 2 for Japan, 1 for Canada, 1 for the Philippines....
You were full of life and color and will be missed.

There's never a dull moment around here that's for sure. I had this
plan of Tokyo for 2 days, visiting a friend who would be working on the Simon
& Garfunkel tour. I'd fly in with my roommate Dan, crash for a night
at the Ritz, and get a room somewhere for the next night and be home
in time to not miss a beat.

Then a traveler's worst nightmare happened. On the subway between the
airport and the hotel I somehow managed to lose my traveler's folder
which had my passport and 100,000w. I guess it just happened to fall
out of my bag, but of all the things to happen this was not what I was
expecting. I got off at Roponggi station and then the very helpful
staff tried contacting stations but to no avail. Luckily the little
notebook I always keep in there with my friend's number was in another
pocket so I was able to call him. After that and talking with the
embassy there really was nothing else I could do but wait and go out
and enjoy Tokyo.

We headed to the Tokyo Dome and enjoyed an amazing Simon &
Garfunkel show. I sat next to a guy who writes for Billboard magazine and
just seemed to be such an uber fan that it was great. After the show
we headed backstage to meet up with Craig*** (one of my bestest
friends and savior this week) and then headed back to the hotel. I
gotta tell ya, of all the places to be stuck for a week the Ritz
Carlton Tokyo is not the worst place one can be. This hotel is better
than most houses I've seen. Craig's room was on the 50th floor over
looking Tokyo Tower and the view was breathtaking.

We spent our night just hanging out drinking vodka in the hotel. James
Garfunkel, Art's son, came in and our little group had some amazing
conversations and laughs. We left for a bit to go out in Roponggi to
get some Ramen and man, do the Japanese know how to do ramen. Of
course you'll pay around $10 for it but it's worth it - absolutely
delicious. Afterwards we just moseyed back to the hotel and after a
long day called it quits.

The next day Craig and the tour headed out to Osaka and Dan and I
headed to Shinjuku to get a hotel. We visited Shibuya and Harajuku
which are two of the most famous areas of Tokyo and notoriously the
most crowded in the world. The people there are just otherworldly. The
style of clothing and hair is just so fantastic. The men have hair
that is laughable and closely related to Bon Jovi circa 1988. We
walked around Shinjuku just getting the lay of the land and people
watching. We ate at a tiny little noodle shop and were back to the
hotel fairly early. Shibuya:

Monday at 6am we parted ways - Dan back to Korea and me to the Tokyo
police station and U.S. embassy. Three hours and $100 later all of the
paperwork was finished and I'd get my emergency temporary passport the
following day. I wish I could say that I went off to do amazing things
with my newfound time in Tokyo, but I was so tired, stressed, and sick
(btw, I had some sort of allergic reaction to something, so my skin
was all messed up the whole time) that I just went back to my hotel
and watched movies all day. Pathetic I know, but I had all week and
very little money in one of the world's most expensive cities.

As luck would have it another friend who performs every summer in
Japan with a touring group called Blast just happened to be landing
that afternoon for one night in Tokyo. We met up for dinner and he
took me to this amazing little shop in Ginza and then showed me all
around the area. Randomly the hotel he was put up in also happened to
be in Shinjuku so we went back there and got some drinks at a Family
Mart and sat in a small park catching up (gotta love that no open
container law). The drinks we were consuming were called Chuhi and
they came in tall boy cans and tasted like a wine cooler or a hard
cider but were 8% alcohol. After 2 I was quite hammered. Since we had
no idea how to navigate him back to his hotel and mine was a block
away we made our way back there. Along the way we found batting cages,
so somewhere circa 1am we were drunkenly knocking them out of the
park, as ya do. Shinjuku:

Tuesday and Wednesday were easy going days. Got my new passport and
headed back to the Ritz to meet back up with Craig. We got some wine
and that night hung with one of the guys from the tour and Wednesday
just got some food at this great little place they had found for
lunch. I also decided to take in another Simon & Garfunkel show (why
not right?) at the Budokan. The venue was significantly smaller than
the Tokyo Dome (45,000 vs. 14,000). Not surprisingly the show seemed
more intimate, but was just as good as the Saturday performance.
Tokyo Dome:

Thursday was Craig's day off so we were off to Ginza with Michael, the
tour accountant, for lunch. Ironically after I couldn't find the place
I ate at a few nights before, we stumbled across a Korean restaurant
that wasn't amazing but did the job. We headed to Asakusa which is old
Tokyo and home to a nice little market and Buddhist temple. We
wandered around for a few hours and shopped and then headed to Shibuya
to see the crosswalk and get some coffee then over to Shinjuku, got
some beers and sit outside.

When all is said and done this has been an amazingly ridiculous and
seriously lucky experience. How do I wind up losing my most valuable
possession and being forced to stay in a country, seeing two of my
closest friends thousands of miles from home, seeing a legendary music
group twice for free, and staying at the Ritz Carlton for a week? Oh
and on Thursday I learned that the ceiling in my Korean apt collapsed
which, maybe my being in Tokyo saved my life since it would have definitely
landed on me? This all has my mind sufficiently blown on almost every level. Just goes to show how important friendships are; this whole thing could have been much
worse if it wasn't for my old (and new) friends. As far as Japan vs.
Korea... It's been tough. I loved Japan, but I think Seoul might just
have it over Tokyo. Yep, I said it. It has more going for it, and at a MUCH better price.

One last thing before I sign off... there is nothing funnier than
being known around the whole Simon & Garfunkel operation as the girl
who lost her passport. Almost any time Craig introduced me to a tour
staff person or band member the first thing was, "oh so you're the
one..." ha.

Ahhh only me.... (and I guess I wouldn't have it any other way). ;)

***If he reads this or not, a gigantic thank you goes out to Craig for
making it all possible and being my hero :)

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Busy Little Unemployed Bee

Well, I've been quiet this month... and its time to break the silence. Sure, losing your job, your apartment, money, visa, another job possibility, boyfriend, and living in a country with the constant threat of World War III from the neighbor to the north, hasn't been easy. Best part about it all is that whole work business and then being offered a job by the same boss that let you go. Ridiculous. BUT when you hit rock bottom you can do nothing but try and crawl your way out of it.

It's actually been pretty good - moved into Seoul and living with a friend of mine, Garak Market to be exact in the Songpa-gu Region. I'm so close to so many things, its great - only 10 minutes from Jamsil on the bus. And this area is above and beyond Seongnam, and even in some cases better than Suji (even though Suji will always be my first home in Korea). I joined a gym here and that's made a big difference. Nice to have a goal to work on. I've been temping at a school for the past 2 months and the money has been excellent. Actually ended up making more money in May and June than I did in any month I've been here. Korea's amazing for that actually. I finish up this week with the school and will be piling on private lessons hoping to save as much as I can before heading home in the fall.

As a tourist now, I have to leave the country every 90 days to reset the tourist visa. In two weeks I will be heading to Tokyo for 2 days to see one of my most favorite people from home, who's hooking me up with some tickets to see Simon & Garfunkel. It is going to be nothing short of a blast. After that there's the annual Boryeong Mud Festival with Matthew's Club, and then the Jisan Valley Music Festival. SO it'll be busy summer, but a fun one. If all works out I may even have a visitor! I'll also be helping out Syracuse University's Study Abroad Program, when the Hong Kong Director comes to Seoul in July for some meetings. All I'm looking forward to now, is Greece in September, and home sometime after that. Life's funny sometimes... unexplainable, but funny. I'm looking for jobs at home, and also into doing some free lance writing MAYBE. Just trying to keep moving... and watching a lot of TV ;)

One of the things I've been working on is creating some advertisement for Matthew's Club. A language group I've been apart of almost the whole time I've been in Korea. If you're reading this, and curious, check out the Matthew's Club Group on Facebook. Always a good time.

And since these are the last few months, I'll attempt to blog a bit more when something comes up. Sad to think I might not be an ex-pat for much longer... OR even scarier to think that I could maybe wind up an ex-pat somewhere else. The world is full of delicious possibilities...

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Hong Kong - The One True Love of My Life.

Oh Hong Kong, How I Love You, Let me Count the Ways...

In all seriousness, when you're going through some serious junk in life, there is no better city in the world to be in than Hong Kong. You can't help but get caught up in its vibrancy, bright lights, gorgeous islands, and excitement and forget everything else. This was trip #2 for me to this vivacious city and it was just as good, if not better than the first.

We had just about 5 days to spend in this city, and we didn't waste a minute. First, after checking into the Marriott Courtyard on Hong Kong Island, we went down to Central via the trolleys, which are just so fun. We walked around a bit, gazed at the skyscrapers, as ya do, and then walked over the land bridge and watched all the construction of the land reclamation. Amazing that they can just build something out of nothing - and make the harbor smaller at the same time.

Took the star ferry over to Kowloon and had a few pints at Delaney's Irish Pub, before heading out to have dinner with some Hong Konger friends. We had an amazing night of Chinese family, Chinese food & beer, and catching up with friends (and a new baby!).

Ferry away from HK Island

New Baby! Good Friends!

Day two found us getting up early and heading out to the islands. Do yourself a favor - if you ever get to Hong Kong, don't stay in the concrete jungle the whole time. While HK & Kowloon are amazing, HK's real fun lies elsewhere. We took the ferry out to Cheung Chau and walked around the whole island (takes about an hour and a half or so) where we met a man in his 60s from England who told us about living in various countries during his life in the army, and being the author of a few books, his his crazy life, then and had lunch by the water. Next, we took another ferry to Peng Chau, which is much smaller, and has less to offer, but still beautiful and has some good hiking trails. To end our night we ferried over to Discovery Bay, which is where the richest of the rich live and play. Five star restaurants and Irish pubs in an area along the beach, where we stopped to have dinner. The owner of this steakhouse we went to, ended up giving us free liquor all night and after having my first go with Grappa, we were all pretty smashed and ferried back, drunkenly, to HK Island. Let me just say that this ferry was so amazing - high speed hydrofoil - completely set up with free wi fi. THAT'S how you know you've just spent time on the richest island... most ferries don't come with such luxuries.
View atop Cheung Chau's highest point:

Cheung Chau's Main Street/Fat Guy Little Bike:

A long walk off a short pier in Peng Chau:

Anyway, Day 3 we had brunch with the Director of the Syracuse Study Abroad program near HK University, and then we ventured to try out the new Crystal Cable Cars on Lantau Island to head up to the Giant Buddha. While I saw this last year, its such a cool area that it's worth seeing twice. We took one of the world's craziest bus rides down the island and headed over to Tai Wo, a village completely on stilts. We had lunch in one of the shops, walked around a bit, and then got on one of the boats to go on a Dolphin Watch. Hong Kong is home to pink dolphins that are actually the color of bubble gum. They're unique to the area and their color is unexplained. We were unlucky in seeing them though. Tai Wo was one of the coolest places I've seen though - the tide comes down so low that its a trickle of water, but comes up so high that the houses must be built on stilts many meters high just to keep the villagers dry. We came back that night to Central Hong Kong and went out in Lan Kwai Fong to some swank clubs and bars with some local girls that my friend had met previously... but being exhausted from all the hiking we had a few beers and headed back to the hotel.

Cable Car & Buddha:

Tai Wo:

Our last full day, we headed out to have some delicious Mexican Food at Taco Loco in the Mid-Levels, play some cards at the diner in Lan Kwai Fong, and then headed out to the New Territories to have dinner at a local seafood place where you pick the catch out yourself, bring it to the restaurant, and they make it in any style you want. First we had tea with an SU professor, who before dinner drove us out to the HK Wetlands. UNbelievable that an area as small as HK has one of the largest most important wetlands in the world.

We enjoyed a night out playing Chinese card games with our friends, and drinking in Kowloon. The next morning was our last, and we woke up for massages in Central HK, and then had Dim Sum with our friends before heading to the airport to return to our various places.

Oh Hong Kong, you steal my heart every time... I'll be back soon enough.

Friday, May 29, 2009

The Adventure Continues On: CHINA!

It was nice to get away from all the drama of the past couple months. In April I spent nearly two weeks in Southwestern China & Hong Kong. Flew into Chengdu, met up with friends a day later, and then we overnight trained it to Kunming. Afterwards, we flew to Shenzen and walked over that beautiful, beautiful border to Hong Kong.

Chengdu was an unexpected delight. I got in a day before my two friends did due to their lack of understanding numbers and dates, but it worked out really well. I stayed at the Sim's Cozy Garden Hostel, and it might have been the best hostel experience I have personally ever had. First, I booked a 3 person suite because I assumed there would be 3 of us, and since there wasn't was just going to eat the cost. However, since the hostel was not full, the staff was so sweet that they just put me in a single room for the night which was much cheaper. And having a huge double bed with my own bathroom was a nice way to start my trip. Woke up bright and early and decided to walk around the city. Just took a map and asked them to point me in the direction of town. Now, if I had been smarter I would have done the Panda preserve this day as I learned it was definitely an early morning activity, but instead I had a wonderful day of walking and sight seeing. I stopped by the WoLin Monastery, one of the 4 largest buddhist temples in China and had tea for a few hours while reading my book in their tea garden. Beautiful weather, incredibly nice Chinese people... couldn't have asked for a better day.

Sim's Cozy Garden as seen from my room ^^
WoLin Monastery Grounds vv

My friends showed up that night and we walked around and drank a bit (gotta love that Tsing Tao) on some street corners and set off the next day to wander around town a bit more. We spent the next night at the Sichuan Opera at the recommendation of Sim (the Hostel owner) and he swore by it so much that he said if we hated it, he would refund our ticket price. Well, the man from Singapore did not lie. The Sichuan Opera was incredible, and perhaps the word Opera is a bit strong. It's more reminiscent of a 1920's vaudeville act with Chinese flair than a boring ol' Opera. There were fire breathers, and puppeteers, and bands. Excellent experience in an outside theater with tea & peanuts at your seat, and offers of ear cleaning and massages while you waited for the start. We spent our last day renting bikes and biking out to one of the people's parks in the main area of town and finding food. My counterparts might not agree with me, but Sichuan food is some of the best food I have had in the world. The spices they use are just otherworldly and delicious. I had these cold noodles in a red spiced glaze twice in my 3 days, and still crave it. They were just at street food stands, and super cheap.

No Trip to China is complete without a viewing of Mao^^

The Sichuan Opera ^^

Funny Grass Signs are the Park vv

We booked an overnight train from Chengdu to Kunming that totaled 22 hours. We chose the soft sleeper cabin, and in my mind there is no better way to travel in China. The three of us had our own 4 person cabin, and enjoyed the unbelievably surprisingly gorgeous countryside views of China. The only thing that ruins it is the sporadic factory dotting the hills and fields, but eh, such is China.

Kunming is almost tropical. It's fairly close to the border of Laos and has red dirt and palm trees everywhere. It's a small city, but has been rated the most liveable in China (Chengdu being #2). We stayed at the Cloudland Youth Hostel, and while no where near as incredible as Sim's Cozy Garden Hostel, it did offer clean rooms, free wi-fi, a convenient location, and a decent restaurant. We stayed in a dorm since their private rooms were all booked, but it wasn't a terrible experience.

We did a tour of a number of Kunming's parks and did some hiking in the 3 days that we were there. Kunming is vastly green and mountainous and is truly beautiful. We even went up to the tomb of the man who wrote China's national anthem, and it was much more lavish than the tomb of the man who wrote the Star Spangled Banner, I can tell you that (his grave being in Rome, NY and has very little fanfare surrounding it).

After spending a significant amount of time in these two cities, I would never again recommend Beijing or Shanghai to anyone. Those cities are great don't get me wrong; they're worldly, beautiful, and the epitome of China's future & history. However, if you want something that's distinctly Chinese, a place where English is around, but not enough to be used, cleaner air, natural beauty, and has an abundance of traditional culture, head to another part of China. I mean - this guy looks relaxed doesn't he?