Thursday, December 9, 2010

Week 8: North Korea Attacks


SINCE ARRIVING in Korea, there has been an inner voice constantly chanting to me, needling me with its persuasive: "When is the next time you're going to be in this part of the world? You need to travel! Go! Go! Go!"

And that is how my friend and I ended up going to Busan in late November.

Let's just say we learned a lot about what to do next time. For starters, Busan is a lovely place. It's sometimes nicknamed "the San Fransisco of South Korea." It has the famous Haeundae Beach. The UN Cemetery. The Jalgachi Fish Market, where you pick out your seafood from vendors, and then take it upstairs to the restaurants where they cook it front of you. But in November? We'd missed the last of October's summer warmth, and a biting cold had swept the country. When we left Seoul in the morning, a white blanket of snow frosted the ground.

The express train could get us to Busan in 2 hours, but it cost 44,000 won. One way. The express bus was advertised as double the traveling time, but half the cost. So we hopped aboard your standard bus with standard leg room (but a nice TV) and drove. And drove. Fourish hours later, still driving. The express buses do make rest stops at these neat little pit stops filled with hot fish-on-a-stick, cream-filled doughnuts, and ddeokbokki. Finally, after five hours, we rolled into Busan.

We stayed at a blue hostel appropriately named Blue Backpackers. A nice, clean place. Breakfast included. However, there was a weird odor that permeated the place. Couldn't quite place it, and didn't want to.

On the subway, I got ambushed by a group of elderly Korean hikers. I had fought for a seat at the back of the subway, but for some reason, this pair kept clucking at me. Annoyed, I scooted over a seat so they could sit together. They still kept clucking. I didn't understand, and was trying to set up a meeting with a friend by phone, so I waved them off. At the next stop, a drunk old man got on the subway.

"I old man!" he announced to me.

"Okay...There's a seat right there." I didn't get why everyone seemed concerned that I was sitting at the back of the subway. I'd had a long journey, had been lugging around my luggage, and not under any circumstance was I going to stand.

When we finally met up with my Korean friend, we jumped onboard the subway again to go to Busan Tower. The seats in the back were open again. I headed over, but she stopped me.

"No! Those seats are for old people. Handicapped. Pregnant."

I looked at my other friend. "I should have just said I was pregnant then."

Peomeosa Temple

My favorite part of Busan was Peomeosa Temple. We hopped in a taxi  that plowed straight up the middle of a one-way road, through the barren trees, to an open courtyard. The parking lot was full. Mothers helped children slip out of their shoes as they entered the temple for worship. I caught a glimpse inside and saw many candles flickering, illuminated unfamiliar painted faces.

The temple was laid out in several tiers. Branching out in all directions were hiking trails, one, to a sacred spring, another to the crest of the peak. The air was sweet and light, and we enjoyed bounding up the temple's staircases like mountain goats. Scratch that, we were still burdened down by luggage. But lovely orange persimmons hung over the temple porches, upon which visitors yawned and stretched after their overnight temple stay, and wild cats darted through the bushes.

The most amazing sight to me was the roof of multi-colored lanterns, wishes sketched upon their hexagonal surfaces. Oranges, reds, greens, and pinks all swayed together like a canopy of flowers, causing their shadows to rustle upon the ground. I grinned up at them, feeling as delighted as a child.

Then I saw my first monk. An exciting sight! He was bald, wore gray wool, and clasped a staff in his hand. Maybe a walking stick, or perhaps a fighting staff- who knew? All I knew was that these monks were extremely difficult to get pictures of. They ducked their faces away at just the right times.

Suddenly I remembered the girls back at Gyeongbok Gung Palace, trying so hard to get a picture of us foreigners without our awareness. I smiled.

North Korea Attacks

The other day I was waiting by the subway tracks. A freight train rumbled past. I glanced up, frustrated that the subway was taking its sweet time. And I saw the tanks.

I've never seen tanks in real life. Smaller than I imagined, these ones at least. Yet train car after train car clattered by carrying their ivy-green cargo. Headed west towards Seoul. Towards the border.

I confess, watching the television footage of North Korea's attack on Yeonpyeong Island was an eerie recall to 9-11. It's something you watch over and over again, praying for some definitive answer to come across that never does. What does the attack mean? Will there be an escalation in the conflict? The long-withstanding struggle between North and South is a sleeping war, which simmers and then cools down. But now it's boiling. Tempers run high. Citizens were killed, the first time since the Korean War. North Korea is at a tense leadership turnover, with Kim Jong Il's health teetering. When I returned to my school the next day, I expected public outrage.

Yet my English ears couldn't hear it. School ran normally, and at lunchtime, the teachers chatted about housewarming parties and skin wrinkles. What was there to talk about? We were all waiting.

My co-teacher and I left to go observe an open lesson at a different school. We chatted casually. How expensive coffee was. What was her little boy's favorite TV show. I asked if he'd seen "The Lion King," and she responded with, "What? That's so old!"

I was offended. "The Lion King can never get old! It's a classic!" It was so odd to think of a new generation of children growing up these days, without Simba and Aladdin. Things aren't the same now as they were before. It's a funny feeling.

Finally, I asked her point blank, what she thought about the North Korean attack. Sometimes my co-teacher takes a while to ease into answers, to dance carefully around the subject. Today there was none of that.

"I am so angry!" she exclaimed, and then stopped, abruptly. More flashed behind her eyes, but she lacked the words, in either Korean or English, to express it.

Disclaimer: The above information is presented as opinion, not fact.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Week 7: Flashback Advice

Since I should write something for Week 7:


IT'S BEEN almost two months now that I've been in Korea. I vividly remember that first week I arrived, back when I was scared to enter a grocery store. My tongue fumbled at the thought of speaking Korean to the cashier, and it was uncomfortable constantly being gawked at and whispered about. I remember the first day I entered my elementary school, and saw the sea of black-haired kids scampering around like wildly screaming banshees. Not just the language barrier, but being a new teacher, was challenging.

But I can't live without challenges. It's like when you're waiting backstage for a play. Behind the curtain, you're nervous, but once you get out there, it's your show. Sometimes in the grocery store, I fail speaking Korean and feel like a complete idiot. It's okay. I've grown used to feeling like an idiot. I've grown used to feeling like a baby, who has to relearn everything all over again. How to eat with chopsticks, how to cut food with chopsticks, cultural mannerisms- don't write names in red ink; it means you wish them death, how to pay bills, how to charge bus cards.

Yet the thing is, no one leaves you hanging. People jump in when they see you having trouble (and sometimes prematurely assume there'll be a problem). In the classroom, the co-teachers have my back. They constantly teach me new tricks. The kids make my job easy. I've only had to give the "I'm disappointed in you," talk to one class for acting up. I think 5th grade is my favorite. 4th and 5th are just at that level where their English is starting to take off, and they're still really enthusiastic to learn. The 3rd graders have the enthusiasm, but their English vocabulary is limited, and most of them can't read. The 6th graders (who graduate this semester) are settling into their pre-middle school "I'm too cool for studying" attitudes. I'm only assisting in that class (I'm not the main teacher) and from what I've seen, teaching by the book doesn't reach them. The interactive tasks do. The co-teacher lets me take over more of the lesson, as I learn his plans and routines, so I'm positive we can get a good balance of both.

Advice to Future Teachers

To anyone considering Korea for the future: there are tons of free Korean language classes available. The one I'm currently going to is an hour and a half on Saturdays. It costs 1,000 won (1 dollar) a day for printing costs, but besides that, you pay nada. They give you the packets, so you don't have to pay for a book. There are also so many hiking/adventure groups to meet up with. I'd advise Adventure Korea. They have an upcoming ski trip that costs 100,000 won (100 dollars) for the transportation, lift ticket, all rental equipment, and insurance. Not bad.

When considering jobs in Korea, think carefully before you accept a position at a hagwon. These after school programs are paid for by parents, and they definitely except results. There is a lot of pressure put on foreign teachers. From stories I've heard, the first month they treat you decently, but in the next they turn into harpies. Also, paychecks can be an issue. At public schools, you never worried about not being paid on time; the school's run by the state, so you know the state has the money to pay you. Hagwons can't pay you until the parents pay up. I'm sure there's good experiences along with the bad, but definitely know what you're getting into!

Also, to all new teachers in the Korean public school system: use It's a website where all the public school teachers share their lesson plans, presentations, and materials for the book. It makes the job a hell of a lot easier. You'll be amazed at the games these people create in power point! Thank you to all you waygookers!

Phones: these can be a hassle because of the language barrier. I can't tell you about any of these hassles, though. My recruiting agency, Adventure Teaching, offers what's called the Arrival Store. It has all sorts of goodies you might need upon landing, as well as a cell phone contract. They offer you a slider cell phone with a buy now, pay later option. You rent the phone. This means you must follow the phone contract for 6 months, but after that, you can end your contract and return the phone at any time. So keep it in good condition! You receive free incoming calls and texts. Outgoing they charge. Due to international fluctuations in price, you have to buy an international calling card to make international calls. I just use Skype for all that jazz (free!). Best thing: all your bills and transactions with the Arrival Store are in English. Service has been good so far, and your phone has a Korean-English dictionary and a Subway map.

Last thing: when you're getting documents together for your visa, do not neglect the Residence Certificate. This is needed to prove you're a United States citizen, so you do not have to pay taxes in Korea and in the USA. Fill out form 8802 on the IRS website to only pay taxes in the USA. Thing is, the IRS can take their sweet time getting the Residence Certificate to you, and you'll need to present it to your school before your first paycheck. So plan at least 2 months for it!

Good luck, miss you all, and have a Happy Thanksgiving!

Disclaimer: the above is presented as opinion, not fact.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Week 6: Epic Escape from Costco

The Palace

GUARDS TWIRLED and stomped beneath a sea of brightly-colored flags. One raised a conch shell horn to his hand and blew, the low, velvety tone striking steady and sure. A guard standing beneath an archway struck a drum, which was twice as tall as he was. Its deep bass-voice rang out across the square, up the tri-path walkway, and pushed through the mouth of the first Gate. Tourists delightedly snapped photos and surreptitiously sidled in front of one another. Every few hours, Gyeongbok Gung Palace hosted a changing of the guard, to simulate how it was back in the dynasty days.

Our English-speaking tour group entered the interweaving courtyards. A group of girls from the Philippines had showed up wearing hanboks, the ceremonial Korean dress, and our guide was thrilled. So were the other tourists. They kept snapping photos of them.

A dark face peered down at me from above. Little ebony statues, the Buddha foremost, a monkey behind, and a dragon at the far back, perched upon a roof curved like a crescent moon. These miniature guardians were the equivalent of benevolent gargoyles, warding off evil spirits. They watched as the tourists chose which path on the stone walkway to carry them. There were three paths. The King walked the raised center route. Flanking him on either side were two thinner paths; one was for the military guard, and the other for the civil guard. Our guide told me that before the war, the civil guard was the most distinguished position to earn. Then the wars broke out, and the military path became the superior.

My mind distracted easily, I found myself wandering off from the group to ease through threadbare passages that led to the Crown Prince's quarters, the Princess's sleeping chamber, and an old well I mistook for a sun dial. The insides of these chambers were cold and barren, a few chairs or a lacquered painting half-heartily sat up. The original palace was destroyed during the Japanese invasions and colonial rule in the later century, but great care has been given to restore the largest palace in all of Seoul to its former splendor.  A seven-clawed golden dragon watched enigmatically from the throne hall ceiling. Five claws represent a king, but seven claws designate the Emperor. Engraved in stone outside was the everlasting phoenix, the ruby-red bird that represents the queen.

"Phoenix! Like in Harry Potter!" our guide gushed, hoping to elicit a smile. As far as tourist groups go, she had quite a stern-faced crowd.

Golden-leafed trees flanked the gateways, as vigilant as any guard. Their garland-bright boughs ushered us to the banquet hall upon a koi pond. The waters were murky; the koi stone-hued. Our guide gestured to the pillar-decked house upon the lake. "That's where the parties happen," she said with a wink.

Tucked away in the back were the concubine quarters, the dwellings that swallowed the women those women whole and never let them out again. No concubines were allowed to leave the palace. They never came to the King's chamber; he always visited them.

I snapped away pictures contentedly, overcome by fall's beauty. The gardens grew in a wild tangle, in which jackdaws twittered and a stooped tree offered plump persimmons, like a faded grandmother who still never fails to delight a child with sweets. The crown of autumn circled a tiny shrine islanded on a lake, the trees a fierce halo of fire. And off in the distance, Bukhan San reared above the palace like a ghost in the mist, the original throne.

Little did my friend and I know, we were part of the show. Several boys approached, asking to take pictures with the "Americans." Three girls actually pursued us, determined to snap a photo of the foreigners in their natural state. They seemed convinced that their efforts to photograph us were unnoticed; one girl actually kept a running pace with us: sprinting to get ahead, and then toddling backward in her high heels to try and take a shot with us in it. Keeping with the game of pretending not to notice, we ducked our heads away each time. At last, we quickened our stride, leaving the protesting clack-clack of the high heels behind.

Escape from Costco

Costco's not as old as Gyeongbok Gung Palace, but it's just as vast. The elevator let us off on a basement level floor, and we stood rubbing our hands gleefully as we surveyed the aisles decked to the ceiling with food. Sweet, familiar, home food. Kraft Macaroni and Cheese. Blocks of orange cheddar cheese. Half-gallons of milk. Okay, I missed my dairy.

I can go through the juice and milk cartons from my grocery store within two days. That was the first thing to stock up on. After that came boxes of cereal, (my co-teachers hate the stuff) salad dressing, soy sauce, and Hunt's diced tomatoes. We noticed how full our cart was getting, but there was still just one more aisle to go through. And then another. Finally, we pulled our stash of treasure through the checkout line, and realized the problem.

Stretched out from the elevator, like a line of people waiting to cross the Red Sea, was the exit line. Noisy families, whining babies, shopping carts wedged wheel-to-wheel-- Yep, an army of customers was waiting for one small, dinky elevator to carry them and their goods back up to the parking level. The elevator took one or two carts at a time.

"We can just take the stairs," I told my friend, flexing my non-existent arm muscles. There were free boxes for customers to pack their food into, so we selected the sturdiest-looking ones and filled them to the brim. At the very top of mine was the large can of Hunt's diced tomatoes. Right away, I knew me and Hunt were gonna have problems.

Our noses in the air, we strutted around the line of people and headed for the stairs: me clutching my box in white-knuckled hands; my friend with her box balanced on her head. Hunt rolled against my chest.

The one flight of stairs killed me. When I saw the long hallway stretching to the exit, I felt ready to cry. Beyond that lay the quarter of a mile back to the subway station. The subway station meant more stairs. The subways were often very crowded, and sitting wasn't an option.

Two men spotted the damsels in distress and carried our burdens over to a shopping cart. My friend and I looked at each other. Then we were pushing the shopping cart out of the exit and into the parking lot. When we got to the street, we just kept going. The shopping cart rattled and bumped over the choppy sidewalk. The path began to grow narrower. Threads of people were beginning to stare at the foreigners bull-dozing their way through the crowd with a Costco shopping cart. I began to fear we'd taken it as far as we could.

Then out of the gloom blazed my familiar 88 bus, my favored one to go to work, to get me back home.
"Let's just wait at the bus stop," I suggested. We dumped the shopping cart in a bike rack.

The people on the bus stared in amusement at the red-faced girls heaving up the steps with their two big boxes. I slumped into the first seat, next to an extremely talkative man. He poked at my boxes and the two full bags of bagels.

"No, one is for her," I tried explaining, pointing toward my friend. The man continued to jabber on. He patted the box, jabbered, shook his head. I nodded and agreed with whatever he said. "Yeah. Yeah. It sucks not having a car."

Disembarking from the bus proved to be the greatest challenge of the night. When you stand up on a bus, you're not surfing a smooth wave. The floor rocks and lurches beneath your feet like a spatter of miniature earthquakes. Next to that, I somehow had to reach into my pocket and retrieve my bus pass. One swipe on, one swipe off. I balanced the box against a pole and made a grab for my pocket, as there seemed to be no jostles ahead. I barely made it. The Hunt's tomato slices had bent one of the box's walls out of shape.

The bus flew to a stop as if testing breaks in midflight. I swung about, barely keeping my balance against the pole. Swipe. There. Bus card done. The box wall was slowly crumbling, and the food was the water piled up behind the dam, eager to give way. I lumbered down the steps, and then--that damned Hunt's tomato slices--tipped off the edge like the pebble that precedes an avalanche.

The man in front of me whirled around with an alarmed horror in his eyes, a slow-motion, "NOOOOOO!" As the food went lurching toward his head, he caught that Hunt's tomato slices and balanced the box edge. My food was saved.

"Kamsa hamnida!" I thanked him. He chuckled nervously, handing the box back. The last thing I needed was to be the waygook who clobbered an innocent man from behind. People gapped at us from all around. You could really hear them thinking, "Those crazy foreigners. The things they come up with. Boxes on theirs heads. And that girl. Hobbling under all that weight. She'll sprain something." Indeed, even as the bus pulled away, faces were still crammed against the window, not wanting to miss one second of the foreigners toddling away into the night.

Alone at the bus stop, we'd only gone a few paces before we set down our boxes. My apartment was still a few blocks away. We set down our boxes, and laughed and laughed.

Disclaimer: The above is presented as opinion, not fact. 

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Week 5: Three Dollar Halloween Costume

Soju: Water or Vodka?

ONE OF THE most common things you hear about teaching abroad, is that your co-teachers can make or break your experience. Each day I'm learning how important communication between us is, even if the communication is a guessing game, a constant struggle to get past the language barrier. Conversations will be held, and then five minutes later, "So did you mean you will make the lesson tomorrow or I will?"

However, it's three weeks into the game and I can vouch for a positive co-teacher experience. They always step in if I need them, and during lunch it's always Teach-Heather-Korean-For-What's-On-The-Menu time. And while the honeymoon period's still going on with my elementary kids, I have to say what a delightful bunch they all are. They're respectful and curious; some are talkative and others shy-- I really want to target the shyer ones to help them build confidence speaking English.

There was a recent hike and faculty dinner at a Korean BBQ restaurant. I was really disappointed I couldn't go on the hike, but I'd come down with a horrific case of sinusitis. Winter chill had settled upon the city overnight; although everything was bright and sunny, the sunlight was like shards of ice, bitter and cold. Co-teacher Lynn and I hid from the cold in our toasty classroom. The school hallways are never heated, so venturing out of the room is like stepping into the drafty passages of an old castle.

We did attend the faculty dinner, however. I noticed the sea-green glass bottles on the table: soju. Just the other weekend, a friend and I had ordered two bottles of soju, straight. Our Korean friend later told us people only usually ordered it that way if they were going through a break-up, or looking for a good time. The evening went along. I sampled everything with the oblivious smile on my face, an expression I'd gotten used to wearing while everyone around jabbered away in Korean. The man next to me was an older fellow. Our non-verbal conversation consisted of him nudging side dishes toward me: salty crab soup, water noodles, peppers, and me: "Choseumnida!" However, one of the others cracked the first soju bottle, and everyone clamored to pour the foreign teacher a shot.

I drained it, aware that the vice principal's eyes were also on me. "Wow," I said. "Tastes like vodka."

Immediately, there was a hubbub, although I couldn't figure out why. Finally I caught some English: "She thinks it tastes like water! Pour her another!"

"No!" I protested. "Vodka! You know, Russia? Vodka!"


I blame it on the sinusitis. It made the two words sound alike. Before I knew it, the vice principal himself was pouring me a shot. I had no choice but to cheers him "Konbae!" and drink. Lynn watched me with a raised eyebrow. "It's good thing you are not driving, hmmm?"

I may have finally convinced the English-speaking teachers of the miscommunication, but as far as I know, the majority of my co-workers may think I'm some iron-bellied alcoholic.


I searched Guri high and low for a Halloween costume.
After two hours of searching, it turned out to be a crinkled scarlet phantom mask tucked away in a Claire's-esque accessories boutique. However, the two hours gave me much-needed time with my new home. Streets unfolded; the blend of familiarity and new alleys made Guri simultaneously smaller and bigger than before. 

There are still the walls of blinking neon lights and the maze of flowing Hangeul script. I can pick out norae-bongs (karaoke) and restaurant names now, although to do so I have to pause on the sidewalk and risk being swept away by the throngs of purposeful people. There is no wait here, only go. Cars shoot out from alley ways as if the crosswalks are starting lines, and don't get me started about the motorcyclists. They seem to be under the illusion that they're riding bicycles. I enter the emerald archway that leads to tiny side streets filled with market vendors, hot, steaming dukkbokki, and rows of fish and crab laid out on ice. Yet my ears are constantly turned for that telltale roar of the motorcycle, before it veers a corner and sends people scattering to the edges. Packages and boxes often bounce behind it.

For Halloween, our destination was Itaewon. My friend and I sat on the subway in our glitzy attire, trying not to look at the old man who kept chuckling at us. However, once the elevator delivered us upon to Itaewon's main drag, we blended in. Foreigners from all over caroused about in costumes; some were cheap, like mine-- a backwards baseball cap here, a pair of funky shades there-- and some had gone all out- Fiona from Shrek, the King of Persia, the alien from Predator. We spent our time between the Wolfhound Pub (packed to the max) and a snazzy decked-out club Latina America. To my surprise, this club played salsa music, and the people were pretty damn good at doing the salsa. However, they were also friendly to beginners, and showed me the steps. We met a Spanish-speaking band who often played gigs, and we had so much fun that we stayed out past the subway running period. The subway stops running at midnight here, and doesn't start until 5:30 am. We'd heard humorous stories of people who'd spent the night in DVD bongs, but we decided to catch a taxi. Once back in Guri, we gorged on McDonalds and stumbled back to the apartment; content, sore, our high heels long ago traded in for flip-flops--we fell asleep.

Disclaimer: the above is presented as opinion, not fact

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Week 4: What the Book?

Nothing like some good ol' bbq chicken feet. 

Work, Work, Work

ON THURSDAY, the internet was down at the school. While technology help was called in to fix the problem, I sat scrambling for ideas on what to do for class. My beautifully detailed power point on Halloween was virtual miles away on my email. My older co-teacher grinned at me. "We teachers are always prepared in case the internet does not work," she said.

So my lucky classes got to sing. The tune for one of the house song videos was pretty memorable, so I jotted it out for them, and then we rehearsed a cappella. A singing competition soon followed. Hey, they've got to get good at karaoke somehow.  As one of my co-teachers told me, the kids always love competitions.

This week I've been able to sit back  and pick up many simple, quick games from the more experienced teachers. I also have more of an idea of where my students stand, English level-wise. Walking back to the bus after work, I chat with the kids, one of whom has a familiar, high-pitched voice  ringtone.

"Justin Bieber?" I ask.

"Ooh! Ooh! You know!" he exclaims, and gives me a high-five.

By Friday, I was feeling a cold creeping up my throat. I'd heard I'd most likely get sick my first few weeks in the country, being unused to the viruses, water, and air. My co-teachers were immediately concerned, and gave me 쌍화탕 (ssang hwa tang). This earthy brown brew is heated up in the microwave, and then served with two pills. Very strong flavor, and the only scent my clogged nose could pick up was something like molasses.

Itaewon Strip

I woke on a warm Saturday morning and smiled. Yes, my nose still felt like a dripping faucet, but it was the weekend!

Last weekend, some friends and I set out to conquer Seoul. It's taken three days so far. The first day, we rode the subway for so long that we finally decided to just get off in Dongdaemun Market. It was a good choice, very vibrant with sky-high towers overlooking the threads of people. We shopped, enjoyed coffee (an easy keo-pi in Korean), dined on a fried seafood basket, and ordered soju straight. If you want to get drunk for cheap, then soju's definitely got Monarch vodka beat. It comes in innocent-looking green bottles at 3,000 won (3 dollars) a pop, and in just 2 1/2 shots, I was feeling cheery (and brave) enough to spout off Korean phrases as to where a noraebong was (karaoke). They're all over the place.

The next day we met up with one of my friends from Korea, who showed us around Myeong-dong, Seoul's esteemed shopping district. We spent significant time at Insa-Dong, a long street with traditional Korean wares flanking it on all sides, offering pottery, masks, hanboks, and stringy candy. There I enjoyed my new favorite (sorry, jja jang myeon), the spicy
Tteokbokki rice cakes in hot sauce, and washed it down with a gray fruit smoothie. Our Korean friend showed us the correct way to drink soju: as a fusion drink.

This has been two full days in Seoul, but we still have yet to see the palaces or the nightlife (the subways and buses stop running around midnight). Today, we explore Itaewon.

You immediately know you're in different territory when you step out of the subway, and a McDonalds, Taco Bell, and Calvin Klein greet you. I saw more foreigners in five minutes than I saw in my entire week in Guri. Itaewon is an international street, with everything from falafel restaurants to cafes playing Spanish music to a high proximity of English-speaking shopkeepers.

During the foreign military occupations, Itaewon was center stage for bars and brothels. Many women, willingly or unwillingly, served as "comfort women," and both they and their children were shunned by the rest of the country. Nowadays there have been numerous prostitution crack-downs, but its presence remains visible.

My friend and I made our way to the foreign food mart, where we found many spices from home and yes, Macaroni and Cheese! There were also big blocks of pepperjack and cheddar cheese (non-existent in most groceries), tortillas, curries, and an aisle of Reeses and Hersheys from home. The vendors on the streets were vocal, but not overly-aggressive about selling. If you said no, they looked disappointed, but didn't pursue the matter. Many shops boasted names such as, "Big and Tall," "The Hulk," and "All Sizes," hinting that they catered to Western sizes. We spent some time with a man who identified himself as "The Jokeman" in his tailor shop, where he showed us the different peat coats he'd designed for foreigners, and chatted in English. True to his word, he gave us a free joke: "Judge Judy asks the prisoner, 'I don't understand. Why do you break into the same store three times?' The man replies, 'I was getting a dress for my wife. She didn't like the first two.' "

My friend and I didn't hear the word "break into" the first two times, so there was a lot of creative guessing at the punch line before we got it.

Another great place tucked away in a loft is called: What the Book? It is a new/used English bookshop with a great variety of titles. You could find everything from Obama's biography to a steamy romance. I scoped out their Korean language section, and bought a book with 2 Cds for only 9,300 won ($9.30). Since it's so interactive, maybe I'll sit down and study it. Maybe. There's a lot riding on this, after all. I have a diner at a co-teacher's house next week, and I want to be able to say more than "kamsahamnida" (Thank you). A fellow teacher in the building is also taking a free Korean class in Seoul on Saturdays, and that'll definitely be something to check into once I'm settled into the routine.

Escape from the Mall: Yeongdungpo Market

At this point, our bellies were rattling. Shops were closing down, and we had a while to go before bars would start opening.  The Changgyeonggung Palace I'd wanted to see had closed for the day, but my friend mentioned that there was a huge mall nearby. So we hitched a ride on the subway and got off in Yeongdungpo Market. People swarmed through bottleneck-wide sidewalks, and I began to feel pretty suffocated and woozy from my cold. I needed food.

We ducked into a Korean BBQ, away from all the hustle and bustle. This was the first restaurant I'd been to with absolutely no pictures on the menu, so we squinted at the characters ferociously for any familiar words. Soju. Well, that wasn't what I wanted at the moment. Our waitress arrived, and we began a little charades game. She would point to an item and mime; we would guess.

The first one I felt confident about. Beef. Ok. The next one appeared to be some type of fish. I glanced over at our neighbors' table. Alive on the grill, thrashing, was a pile of eels, all paddling madly away from the heat. The diner calmly clamped them with the tongs, and tossed them back on the hearth. The eel began to wriggle frantically again. It was both pitiable and mesmerizing. I couldn't look away. I knew how good eel tasted…

I looked back at my waitress and shook my head. She pointed at the next item and made a wing motion.


"Neh! Chicken!" She clenched my arm excitedly, and made a clawing motion with her hand. Now my friend and I were both laughing.

"Yes! Chicken! Hana!"

She made the clawing motion again. I wondered why she kept doing that. Then she shrugged, marked the menu, and brought us our side dishes. We grinned at the savory marinated beef. Then she brought out the chicken feet.

We stared at the crooked claws dripping in red sauce for a second. Then I made the scratching motion with my hand. "Chicken...feet… Ohhhh." Nevertheless, it was barbecued along with the beef. The tendons popped rather unpleasantly in my mouth, and a bone pricked my gum, like when you bite into fish and the little white bones are left in. However, it didn't taste bad. Perhaps it was because I had a cold, but the feet didn't really taste like anything. It was more of the texture, and popping tendons, which required vigorous chewing.

It was good we had the food in our belly, because the subway route that had seemed so simple and clear to get there suddenly became complex  and subject to much more walking. We trekked back and forth through the underground shopping center about three times trying to find the right exit. First we ended up at the train station by following the signs for "tracks," and when we tried to back-track to our original subway station, it had mysterious vanished (or our aching feet refused to go any further). We kept seeing exit signs, but no subway signs. Finally, a vendor attempting to sell us something decided we could benefit from his travel guidance instead, and directed us to the subway line: the area we were originally in. Not caring where the subway was going at this point, we clambered on, glad to escape from the mall.

Excited to be celebrating a far-from-home Halloween next weekend; have fun in the States, everyone!

The above is presented as opinion, not fact.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Week 3: White Girl Far From Home

Namyangju. Picture courtesy of:

Day 1: Lost

THE DRIVER dropped me off in front of a sky-rise apartment building. Off one alleyway, the road dipped down into a vibrant marketplace. The streets swarmed with cars, people moved with the purposefulness of stalking lions, and drug stores and cafes competed with glowing advertisements for wall space. The strange characters flashed like rapidly blinking eyes in violet and green neon lights.   I wasn't even sure what my apartment was called.  I would be lying if I didn't say my mind wasn't one, big, what-the-fuck.

Coming to my rescue was my welcoming Korean co-teacher, who for the sake of privacy I will call Lynn. She showed me the apartment, which is actually quite cozy. It has a loft for a bedroom, and the rest is like a studio. The view from the 11th floor is great. Again, I was in shock, because I have never lived in a city before. Namyangju isn't a tourist-catering city. If you see another foreigner there, they're here to work. Lynn gave me a whirlwind tour of the surrounding shops, for it was getting late. School was the next day, and I was to report at 8:30 sharp. I toddled behind her feeling ridiculously like a chicken: I took my steps cautiously and my head bobbed about as if my life depended on cramming everything into it.

That night, I stared out at the shroud of smog enclosing the city. I felt like I had wandered into an otherworldly island, dream-like, cut off from the way of life I had known. The smog hid the city from the rest of the world.

Day 2: The Devil is in the Details

I woke up ravenously hungry. The prior occupant, also the previous teacher at the school, had left me some tuna, noodles, and rice in the cupboards. I lumped it together, heated it, and drenched it in soy sauce. So I had my first meal in Korea, and it tasted damned good.

Shopping for laundry detergent and putting money on a bus pass are suddenly challenges that require a brave heart. I squint at the characters on my thermostat and microwave, sounding out the words, but not knowing the meaning. It is very lonely being trapped in such a bubble of silence: unable to communicate with the people around you. However, I feel very welcome here. I've never felt unsafe on the streets alone (knock on wood). When I was attempting to put money on my card for the bus, three people crowded around trying to help.

The previous night, Lynn had told me she was worried about me taking the 20 min bus ride by myself to school. Immediately, I felt the need to rise to the challenge. It was with great triumph that I arrived at the elementary school without getting lost. Other foreign teachers had told me their first day was just introductions, and then they went home to recover from jet lag. Lucky me, my school decided I could start work immediately instead. While lamenting the fact that I had arrived Monday instead of a Friday, I met my first batch of kids.

They're really great. Extremely curious, talkative, and will turn into screaming devils if you turn your back on them too long. But isn't that the same with kids everywhere? I was the newest animal at the zoo. The most common questions were, "Is that your real eye color? Is that your real hair color? Do you have a boyfriend?" When I said yes, they shrieked their excitement and demanded I bring in a picture.

The question I always dreaded was, "Do you speak Korean?" I spoke a couple phrases, and they applauded my attempts. The driver on the way over told me something I hadn't though about: for English speakers, we are used to people of all nationalities speaking English in a variety of accents. We can still understand what is said. In Korea, they are not used to a strange accent speaking their language, so it seems very funny. This only makes me motivated to study Korean more, because it's frustrating not to be able to speak with the kids when they really want to get to know you!

8 hours at the school, and my day was only just beginning. Next I had the medical exam, and then passport photos taken, and then a welcome/goodbye party. I was arriving; the prior teacher- we'll call her Katy- was leaving. I met many of the first grade teachers and we had a yummy Korean dinner. Korean food is reaaallly good. I had no idea I would like it so much. The pork and marinated beef was turned over on the fryer at our table, grilled with mushrooms, garlic, and onions dipped in soy, and then wrapped in a lettuce leaf like a sandwich ball. And the beer! Again, another pleasant surprise.

After dinner, the night was only just beginning. We went to a karaoke house and sang and danced our hearts out. My coworkers would sing slow Korean ballads, then fast-paced ones, and Katy and I would add our American numbers (Backstreet boys and Journey, hell yeah). I got dropped off at my apartment, but didn't recognize that it was the back way in. It's amazing how hard it is for me to distinguish buildings and streets- the Beer Factory on the corner is the landmark I use to know I should get off at the next bus stop.

Day 3: Lesson Plans on the Fly

I put the rice cooker on, and glanced at the clock. 4:30 am. I had two lesson plans to write: one for my first third grade class, and the other for the after-school fifth and sixth graders. I thought of my 2.1 million won salary, and smiled satisfactorily at the thought that yes, in this lifetime, I will be a millionaire. Then I cranked out those lesson plans and was on the bus by 7:50. My clothes suitcases were still unpacked.

Katy had told me that it took her about three months before she began feeling settled in here, but even then, there were moments of loneliness when she looked out at the laughing friends on the playground, or met another teacher in the hallway and could only smile with an awkward "annyeong haseyo." However, I am very lucky. My co-teachers always make sure to include me at their lunch tables, and Lynn has been a godsend getting me settled in. Her English is very good. The classes are challenging, but there are those moments when the kids are so engaged, voluntarily taking the information one step further without prompting, that you feel this thrill, this, "Yes, this is what it should all be about."

I get off the bus around 5 pm, practically running to my apartment in my excitement to take a nap. However, an older American guy falls into step beside me. Whenever we foreigners see one another  in Korea, we go dashing into each other's arms as if we're family. Once linked arm-in-arm, we feel more confident in exploring the wonders of the exciting, new cityscape around us.

"You're a teacher, aren't you?" this man asks me.


"I could tell. You look as green as they come."

It turns out, this man, we'll say Paul, has been in Korea for two years. With the friendly air of an older brother taking pity on a shy sibling, he shows me around the train station, good places to buy groceries, and where the movie theater is. I'll never get tired of gawking at open market fare: fried shrimp sticks, deep red peppers, dukbokki (hot and spicy rice cake), crawling octopus tentacles, Belgian waffles topped with pillars of whipped cream and berries, and my favorite: jja jang myun (black bean noodles). He also tells me where to pick up packages from home and tells me a bank is actually on the third story of our building. Shows how much I've explored the apartment. 

Jja jang myun. Myun = Noodles. Picture courtesy of:

Taking great pride in his impromptu tour guide ability, he next informs me that he used to be in the stripper business. I ask what exactly he means by that- like Chippendales? "Yes!" he exclaims, and then lists off all the girls he knows in the building. At this point, I feel a little weirded out. However, Paul does earn the spot as first apartment friend.

You meet one, and then they all come out of nowhere. The next day I would meet a man from Canada on the bus, who knew Katy before me. He tells me he can introduce me to the other foreigners in the apartment, and I feel like it's college move-in day all over again. Then the teacher I met at the airport hits me up to go to Seoul on the weekend, and I immediately say yes. I have a social life!

So in between culture shock, becoming coffee buddies with Lynn at the school, meeting all my students, and missing all my family and friends on a daily basis, I realize I can do this. And I'm ready to travel outside that veil enclosing the city. The sun broke through it today, and I saw hills carpeted with trees. I wonder where they lead.

I promise I'll start taking pictures soon!

Disclaimer: The above is opinion, not fact.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Week 2: Stretching My Wings for Flight

Mt. Hallasan, Jeju Island in South Korea. Photo courtesy of:

10 DAYS until take-off.

How do you prepare for something so intangible? In less than two weeks, I'll be thrust into a world where there's new sights and smells, strangers everywhere, no time to think, only constant go, go, go, but right now--thinking time is all I have.

So I've gone shopping. Costco, baby. Neat fact about South Korea: if you have a Costco card, you can use it over there. In my case, it's a family card, but it's been a big help in buying supplies that could be tricky to find in a foreign language country: medicines, favorite shampoos and body washes, eye contact solution (you get the picture). Particular spices, sheets, and towels are a good idea, too, since South Korean towels come in smaller sizes. (Smaller sizes goes for jeans and shoes as well.) And I'm bringing Kraft Macaroni and Cheese--the three cheese shells kind. Mmmmmph. 

I've been in contact with the teacher I'll be replacing at the elementary school. Wonderful girl. She's been a big help keeping me updated on where the kids will be in their English studies, and she's directed me to some great sites for lesson plan sharing. I feel quite grateful;  the teacher before her didn't give her any heads up about what she was going to get into, so there was a lot that caught her off guard and made her rely solely on the book for the first weeks of teaching. I know some of you are thinking about South Korea for a teaching destination, and I would highly encourage getting in contact with the current English teacher you'll be replacing. Usually you take over their apartment, and you can negotiate on what to bring and what will already be there waiting for you, such as pots, pans, utensils, pillows, and the like. (Depending on the school, your apartment will be partially furnished with items ranging from refrigerators and washing machines to toasters.) There's also an overlap time with the current teacher, so they can orient you at your new school. Haha, so that means a love motel for me the first week before I move into the apartment--bring it. And earplugs.

How else I have been preparing: Korean dramas. I watched a few PBS videos on South Korea, but the drama "My Name is Kim Sam Soon," with its hilarious cast, had me bawling, shouting, and laughing throughout the entire sixteen episodes. I'm actually kind of frightened to start watching another show because these dramas are highly addicting. I could pick out a few Korean words here and there, and the romantic scene featuring Mt. Hallasan on volcanic Jeju Island made me pumped up to go there. It might have been a downpour during the episode, but I looked up pictures afterward;  Mt. Hallasan's knife-edge ridges and the fierce pink azaleas carpeting its slopes during springtime make it a breathtakingly unique place.

Another interesting part in the show was when the ex-girlfriend Hee-Jin plays a joke on her American friend. She tells him to go catch her a special fish from a public pond, saying that it is quite legal to do so in Korea. Oblivious that a prank's being played on him, the American ambles off to try and catch the fish with his bare hands, and I was cracking up until I realized that will probably be me in another few weeks, haha. But at least I won't fall for a fish pond one!

This job is really putting things in perspective. I snap at people, before realizing I probably won't seem them again for another year. I lie awake at night, and try to think how it's going to be staring at a different ceiling, listening to city buses and bustling streets instead of--well, trees. So many of you know how important traveling is to me, but I want you to know that it is the relationships we've created that I'll truly miss the most--not having that certain friend there to snicker at something only we'd find funny, or share our rants with, our smiles. So y'all better get Skype :)

Last packing tip for skiers: bring your ski boots.

Disclaimer: The above is presented as opinion, not fact.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Week 1: The Decision to Teach Abroad

Seoul, South Korea. Photo courtesy of Topic Photo Agency/Getty Images

"SO," they say, wiggling in their seats to get more comfortable, "what will you do if North Korea invades?"

Second most popular question, I swear. After, Why teach English in South Korea? 

I'll answer the most common wondering first, as it really is two questions that need to be split up. The first part of it is, why do you want to teach abroad? The second part is, why in South Korea in particular? The answer's well thought-out; it was brought up many times in the interviews, after all.

It was at a lunch table back in college, dominated by education majors, when I first discovered the Teaching English to Students of Other Languages (TESOL). I really owe it to that girl who brought it up. Within six classes, I would have a crash course on how to teach English, the crazy, non-nonsensical language that's borrowed rules and words from all over the place. I would also have experience in the classroom; the minor culminated in a teaching practicum. I was immediately drawn to the program, as are many others who experience the Traveling Bug.

Have you ever had that one teacher who really, truly, inspired you? Who challenged you to think about something differently, or who made you feel that with hard work, you could be the next president? Of course you have. Have you ever had that one teacher who put you down, dismissed you as a failure, and you were surprised how much it hurt? Yep, that kind is out there, too. The point is, teachers are in the greatest position of power. The influence they have over people is incredible. They are the nurturers of confidence, the builders of tomorrow's leaders. My fourth grade teacher was the one who noticed my imagination and love of writing. She bought me a personal journal to write my stories in. The gesture was touching, the impact resounded over decades. I'm still writing today, with that childlike delight in creation and sharing my stories with others. But who writers are is another discussion. Back to Korea. Ahem.

After all the teachers that have inspired me, I would be greatly honored to do the same for next generation's kids. And yes, they happen to be in South Korea. I am jealous, wildly jealous of children who grow up bilingual, or trilingual. That is such a unique gift to have, and they will definitely use it to help them succeed. There's something magical about learning other languages that you don't appreciate until you're older- well, in my case, at least. Learning French in high school, I ignored it and focused on using it as little as possible. Only a few years later in college, I was lamenting the fact as I eagerly took a French review course. Now I'm teaching myself Korean- a process that deserves a whole post to itself. Research shows time and time again that childhood is the best time to learn different languages. Children pick it up the fastest, absorbing the crisscrossing layers at an unprecedented rate, while adults furrow their brows and fret about grammar rules.

So that answers the first question. On to the second: why South Korea? There are the practical reasons, of course, which is a new one for me. I'm usually a whirlwind of passion and emotion that gives little thought to sensibility. However, South Korea, which is rapidly blooming in technology, and takes great pride in its educational system, has opened itself up to foreign English teachers, seeking to boost itself up the ladder of Asian countries who speak the "language of business." They hire many foreign English teachers, pay a very generous salary, and most schools reimburse airfare, as well as arrange and pay for housing rent. Damn. Okay, I'm on board. But what of the people themselves?

I find myself drawn to South Korea because I do admire them; they have been through many tragic years of occupation, not to mention the current plight with North Korea (the two countries are technically still at war). When the Demilitarized Zone was drawn up after World War II, (the Soviets occupied the North, and the US, the South) many Korean families would be split apart. Some of them didn't see each other again until the late 90s, when visits were finally arranged. There have been Japanese occupations during the world war times and military occupations.

During one of my job interviews, I spoke of how horrible the military government of the 1960s must have been to South Korea; the Korean interviewer responded that she had supported that occupation! Goes to show that a foreigner should wisely keep their mouth shut about matters they don't understand; in my mind, military government = nasty. The main thing is, these are a people who have been through much, seen too much, and I greatly admire their spirit to persevere. I am interested in the North-South conflict. As I write this, things are heating up with who will succeed Kim Jong-il as dictator? of the North, and South Korean President Lee Myung-bak is proposing a reunification tax, which could be seen as a hostile gesture by the North. Many people in the South want reunification, but they don't want to pay for it. Much of the North is starving, and what their economy is seems to be the equivalent of a black hole that will consume them, if China ever steps away. This will be no East Germany, West Germany reunification, that is for sure.

But let's talk of brighter things now, and leave the newspaper horror stories behind us. Let's talk of the ski area that will be right near the city of Namyangju, where I will be teaching. Let's talk about the annual Lotus Lantern Festival, a beautiful celebration with light-up floats and parades in honor of Buddha. Let's talk about the lovely islands off the coast in the south, the monastery ruins in the wilderness, and the intriguing tae-kwon-do martial art forms- might I take a class? And of course, how can I forget the food, the proud staple of any country. Soups and kimchi, teas and seafood; they don't have Korean BBQ places popping up all over the USA for nothing. In short, Korea, although a small country, has more than enough to keep me running for a year. I cherish challenges. I live for them. Teaching English there will be an honor. And to all my family and friends, please take advantage of my position; come visit!!! 

Oh yeah, there was that other question: What will you do if North Korea invades? Well, my list includes run and hide underground... feel free to offer other suggestions.  

Disclaimer: The above is presented as opinion, not fact.