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Yokohama, Japan

Japan is AWESOME.  Let me start off with that.  Walking around here feels like I’m walking around an American city.  Albeit a quirky American city with a lot of Asians.  Being here makes me realize not only how modern Japan is, but how blast-from-the-past Seoul (and specifically my neighborhood) is.

The flight over was awesome.  I picked a window seat and enjoyed the view above the Sea of Japan for the two-hour flight, which was delayed because the plane had to be de-iced before we took off.  When I first got on the plane, I thought I was in the wrong area, because I had a coach ticket, and my seat was anything but coach.  It reclined all the way back, which was perfect, considering the three hours of sleep I got the night before.

When I got in from the airport, I followed the directions Nadav gave me to get to Yokohama, where he would meet me.  The directions were fantastic, but took longer than either one of us expected, so I got to his station, Fujikaoka, about three hours after I left the airport.  Along the way, I grabbed a bite to eat at one of the subway stations.  The first thing I had was a chicken and potato salad sandwich.  Well, half was chicken, the other half potato salad.  Weird, yet delicious.  The second thing I ate was some sort of little pastry with a brown sugary mixture inside.  After that first bite, I realized I really, REALLY loved Japan.

So once I finally got to Fujikaoki, Nadav and I set off to Shibuya, where we walked around and I drank a Dr. Pepper (my first in four months).  We tried to visit a shrine, but it was closed by the time we got there.  We’re going to try going again today.

Nadav has been an awesome tour guide so far.  He’s got a break from school, so he’s showing me all the good stuff.

Speaking of which, we’re about to head out.  Will update soon!!

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Because I can do such things in Tokyo, Japan! That’s right, folks! A week from now, I’ll be in Japan. I land on Monday and get back to Korea Friday afternoon. While Tokyo won’t be as warm as the Philippines, where I had hoped to spend my mandatory week off from work, the weather is a bit more temperate, and after a few weeks of bone-chilling, sub-zero temperatures, I’m anxious to get out of here, if only for a few days.

I’ll be staying with my friend Nadav, who is studying in Japan for the year. To be honest, I’m just happy to get out of Seoul for a bit and see other things (and old friends). It will be nice to have a brief change of scenery, even if that means having my wallet beaten to a bloody pulp (needless to say, I am not looking forward to exchanging Korean won for yen).

So now you all can breathe a sigh of relief and know that I won’t be traipsing around Manila by myself. Not yet, at least…

Disclaimer 1: This post deals with areas of the female body that you might not necessarily want to read about.  Feel free to skip over this entry, but if you choose to read it, don’t say I didn’t warn you.  Also, Mom, please don’t print this one out for Grandma.

Disclaimer 2: I’m not kidding.  I didn’t leave that first disclaimer to entice you into reading this post.  If you don’t want to read about my lady parts, turn back now.  Seriously.

Now that I’ve taken care of that, I can comfortably tell the story of my laser hair removal procedure.  I promised myself I wasn’t going to blog about it, but I’m short on post ideas, and after all, there’s gotta be someone somewhere who is interested in this, right?  Some friends and I have been talking about going in for the procedure for a couple of months now, and after doing some research, we decided to get our bikini lines lasered.  In the States, something like this easily costs over a thousand dollars.  Here in Korea, it’s really cheap.  Well, really cheap without being unsanitary and dangerous (I hope).  Our thought was that it would be really nice to never have to deal with ingrown hairs or razor burn or scrambling to find a razor at the last minute on vacation again.  Besides, at less than $70 bucks a session (and only four or five are needed), I think it’s totally worth it.

So that’s the backstory.  Thursday morning, we went to a neighborhood clinic that performs the removal.  The receptionist/nurse didn’t speak much English, and the doctor with whom we met was only marginally better.  He did see all three of us at once.  The consultation lasted about 15 minutes, during which time he had the three of us drop our pants together.  Could have been very weird and awkward, but somehow was alright.

At the conclusion of the consultation, he said there was time for us each to have the first round of lasering (I know that’s not a word, but I’m not sure what else to say) done that morning.  We agreed to it, and within minutes, I was on my back on a medical table, holding two packs of ice on my nether region.  After about 20 minutes of this and a dry shave from the nurse (ow ow owwwww), the doctor came in.  He gave me protective eyewear to put on, so I missed the big show.  The machine he used simultaneously lasered and blew cold air on me, so as to continue the numbing.  I was done after about 10 minutes and had no redness or irritation, which was a real relief.

I don’t have a very high threshold for pain, but I found this procedure to be relatively painless.  It hurt more to ice my bikini line than to have a laser shooting into my body, murdering hair follicles.  A few times, I felt the laser doing its thang, but for the most part, I didn’t feel anything.  Afterwards, I bought some lotion that’s supposed to soothe the area, but I haven’t used it even once yet.

All in all, I haven’t seen any change, but that’s to be expected after only 24 hours.  In another four weeks, I’ll go in for the second round.  Friends I’ve talked to about it said that it gets more painful as the end result nears, but I think that’s a risk I’m willing to take.

So that’s it as far as telling the world about my foray into the world of cosmetic procedures.  Stay tuned next week to hear all about my reverse nosejob (to get a Jewish schnoz, not to file down the honker)!

Alas, I kid.  But seriously, Mom, do NOT let Grandma read this entry.  I am not kidding about that.

I’ve mentioned the nameless kids before. You know, the kids who arrive at SEV with no name. Recently, I’ve been on immigration a lot, so my chances to give names are few and far between. A couple weeks ago, I was in a Post mood and named four kids on one team Woodward, Bernstein, Katherine and Graham. I did manage to turn a class of orphans into a smaller, Asian Kennedy clan, but that’s really the extent of my name-gaming.

Fear not, because where I leave off is where other teachers come in. Enter Computer, an adorable little boy who wore the same green long-sleeved shirt for 10 days straight. He couldn’t have been more than eight Korean years old (age works differently over here, it’s weird and complicated and I’m 24 years old), so seven or so to the rest of us. He always wanted hugs and to hold teachers’ hands. We thought it was just a cute thing and that maybe he missed his mother.

Well, Computer stopped being cute at graduation Monday, when he copped a feel, then giggled and ran off before I had time to react. He did the same thing to Erin earlier in the session. Eventually, he’s got to stop groping westerners. It’s going to get him in trouble eventually.

Sometimes I forget what it’s like to be a preteen obsessed with a pop group. Then I go to work, and I am sorely, sorely reminded. The two big things here are Big Bang (like *NSYNC) and Wondergirls, the latter being a Making-the-Bandesque group of five underage and barely legal girls. The Wondergirls perform songs such as “So Hot,” which has a mix of Korean and English lyrics. Here’s a sampling:

“Why did my mom give birth to me like this?
My life is sooo tiring

I’m so hot
I’m hella pretty
I’m so fine
I’m too attractive
I’m so cool
I’m really charasmatic
I’m so so so hot hot”

Anyway, that’s the stuff Korean girls go ga-ga over.  Many of the girls who come here know not only all the lyrics, but the dance to every song.

I arrived a week after the Wondergirls released their latest hit, “Nobody.”  But it isn’t just the kids who are absolutely obsessed with this song.  Nearly four months after its release, “I want nobody, nobody but you” can be heard up and down the streets of Seoul, coming from the subway, cosmetic shops and cell phone stores alike.  The song is everywhere.

Well, if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.

That’s what Heather and I decided to do a couple weeks back.  After work one night, we went back to her apartment and searched Youtube for a good tutorial video.  We found the most flexible, rhythmic Asian man in the world and went straight to work.  We’ve now performed the dance on several occasions, most notably at SEV’s talent shows.  Since we have our winter camp kids here for 10 days instead of the usual five or six, the schedulers added in some extra evening activities for them, talent show being one of them.  Teachers are encouraged to perform, and I don’t have enough self-respect left not to make a fool of myself in front of 200 cheering kids, so it was a perfect fit.

What you are about to see is video from the most recent talent show.  We donned wigs (though mine was slowly falling off until I gave up with it and tossed it on the ground) and pumped up the crowd, so much so that during graduation the next day, when “Nobody” came on the loudspeakers, the kids all crowded around Heather and I as we again made fools of ourselves.

Some other clips from the talent show:

I don’t really know what was going on in this one.  The kid was drinking a lot of different things from the vending machine.  After last night’s sojufest, I remain unimpressed.

Here’s the second clip.  I apologize in advance because it’s a little jumpy, but that’s only because I had a cute little girl named Katie giving me a massage.  She somehow manages to find me at random points throughout the day to give me head, neck, shoulder and hand massages.

Can't I take her back to America with me?

Can't I take her back to America with me?

Actually looks really bad, but she was giving me a hand massage.  "Teacher, give hand!! Now!"

Actually looks really bad, but she was giving me a hand massage. "Teacher, give hand!! Now!"

Finally, I’d like to take a brief moment to apologize to my parents, who shelled out thousands of dollars over the course of the past 20 years to send me to dance lessons and performing arts camp.  As you can tell from my “Nobody” video, every last dime was wasted.

Albeit a week and a half later. Oops!

Despite growing up a mere 90 miles from New York City, I’ve never done the Times-Square-Ball-Drop rite of passage that so many of my friends have done and subsequently complained about. There are a million reasons why I think I could never handle it, but here are the top five:

5. It’s too cold!

4. I’m short and would probably be trampled.

3. All of my friends who would be game for it have already done it and sworn never to do it again.

2. All of my friends who haven’t done it yet simply won’t do it.

1. They don’t let you out to use the bathroom! Imagine me waiting 10 hours to use a toilet? Exactly. You know it would never happen. Ten minutes, maybe. Ten hours, yeah right.

I’ve read the blogs of some friends who have been sorely disappointed by their New Year’s Eve plans, year after year. I never go into the night expecting a whole lot, because I’ve learned that if you head into any situation with high hopes, you’re bound to be let down. So I set out on Dec. 31, 2008, just hoping to enjoy the night with some friends in the city.

The night started calmly enough–Bill, Nicky and I metroed into the city to meet up with Mark, Jeanette and Charlotte. As soon as we climbed the steps up to street level, we knew we were in for an exciting night. Policemen and army troops lined the sidewalks for blocks. The scene was chaotic, but at the same time, oddly calm. We were surrounded by men in fatigues and uniforms, but instead of feeling vulnerable (as I did in College Park post-Duke basketball games), I felt safe. Then again, it’s pretty easy to feel safe when the cops here don’t even carry guns.

After much lolly-gagging and cotton-candy buying (the Brits call it candy floss…adorable!), we headed over to Jonggak, where the main festivities were. We walked along the Cheonggyecheon, which was illuminated by dozens of light fixtures put up just for the holidays.

We walked around Jongno for a bit before heading over to the real party over by Bosingak. If I wasn’t a total failure at prompt blogging, my adoring fans would have been able to read a delightful entry about my friends and I being invited to ring the bell, one of Korea’s national treasures (insert joke about Nic Cage and my absurd love for him here) a few weeks back. Anyway, the bell is awesome. The pavilion it sits in is right in the middle of Jongno, which is a major hub in the city for tourists and Koreans alike.

Despite the sub-zero temperature, I was absolutely fine, as I had layered like a pro (or someone used to upstate New York weather), donning two pairs of Spandex, jeans, three pairs of socks, a scarf, gloves, a tank top, a t-shirt, a long-sleeved shirt, a sweater and the warmest winter coat I’ve ever owned.

When the countdown finally came, we were all ready with our cameras focused on the numbers flashing on one of Jongno’s ginormous buildings. My favorite building, although not the one used for the countdown, looks like a spaceship. No idea what the main part of the building is, but the top thing is a restaurant and, according to my friends, moves up and down. Crazy!

Take me to your leader?

Take me to your leader?

The countdown itself wasn’t all that exciting, but I attribute that to the fact that the crowd was counting down in Korean. Throw me English, Hebrew, French or Czech and I’d be fine, but I can’t get past the number three in Korean. I did get some solid video of the last moments of 2008 and the first of 2009. I apologize in advance for Jeanette and I sounding like stupid Westerners.

Within minutes, joy turned to protest as the crowd started to yell, scream and chant against the current president, Lee Myung-Bak. I’m not all that knowledgeable when it comes to Korean politics, but the Koreans I’ve spoken with all seem to agree that Lee has been a poor leader. Despite a background in economics, he has not been able to bring Korea out of its economic slump (you think it’s tough in the States…you seriously have no idea), upsetting many of the country’s citizens. I took the following photos and video with the thought that if it turned into anything significant, I could be an iReporter and give my footage to CNN or something. Then I realized two things. First of all, nothing exciting, certainly on the level that a major news outlet would aim for, ever happens in Korea. Secondly, I don’t quite know anything about photography. Nonetheless, I’m glad I snapped some of these pictures, if only to help myself remember the evening’s events.

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After making our way through thousands of revelers, we bought fireworks off a guy selling them in the street. Yep, fireworks. South Korea = North Carolina. The fireworks cost about a dollar apiece, so we bought a ton of them. Without any laws dictating where we could shoot the fireworks off from, we decided that the middle of the street was a prime location. Unfortunately, so did everyone else in Seoul. The fireworks were literally going off right above my head, which was both terrifying and exhilerating.

Video disclaimer: We were looking for a dude to buy fireworks from when I recorded this, which is why my annoying voice is in it. I just wanted to get some footage to show you how close the fireworks to us the fireworks were being shot off.

All fears melted away after I shot off my first firework and didn’t lose any fingers. I think more countries should allow civilians to shoot off fireworks for the hell of it.

After shooting off the last of our fireworks, we joined the throngs of people headed for the subway, and made it home around 1:30 a.m., just in time to wish our friends who had stayed at SEV a happy new year before we all hit the hay. After all, we all had to work on New Years Day.

I’ve now celebrated 23 Chanukahs (about 19 of which I can remember). Somehow, over the course of each year, I forget how much I love the holiday.  But then there it is, every year, like an old friend, jumping back into my life just as the snow starts to fall.

Some of my Christian friends here were having a tough time this holiday season.  It’s tough to be away from your family on a day that you generally spend with them doing whatever it is people do on Christmas.  I guess I feel fortunate in that aspect.  While Judaism is big on holidays, I’ve always found it to be more of a community-oriented religion than a family-oriented one (go ahead, kick my tush now, Talmudic scholars.  Prove me wrong or something.).  So in that aspect, things have always seemed to work out for me.  Recap of the last few Chanukahs:

2003: Was at USY’s International Convention in Toronto.  Don’t remember a whole lot about the week, but I was surrounded by 1000 other Jewish teenagers.  How’s that for community?

2004: First Chanukah in college, and it happened just before finals week kicked off.  I remember going to my friend Dave’s apartment, helping him finish dinner and then lighting the candles and sitting down to eat with everyone.  When we gathered around the menorah and lit the candles that night, I realized that I wanted that experience every year, that feeling of community.  Still fairly new to College Park, I didn’t really know most of the people I was with that night, but in that instant I felt a connection with them all.

2005: One of the best Chanukahs to date.  The first night of Chanukah coincided with my winter break trip to Israel with the Avi Chai Fellowship (coincidence, all three of my senior year roommates have since been a part of the fellowship.  Coincidence?  I think not.  I think I am a trendsetter.).  It also coincided with our flight.  That’s fine–leave it to Rabbi Hirsh to light a menorah in the El Al terminal, which is probably the second-worst place to light anything (lighting something on an actual El Al plane tops the list).  Seeing as how it was Chanukah and everyone in the boarding area was headed to Israel, dozens of people crowded around us to sing the blessings.  It was a truly fantastic experience.  At least until security came running down the hallway and we had to extinguish the flame.

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2006: Went by in a flash.  I was in Prague for the first few days and home for the end of it.  My only memory is drinking too much complimentary wine on my Lufthansa flight home and trading seats with an Orthodox man because I thought he wanted to pray.  Turns out he just wanted to sleep.  Lesson learned that year: Limit yourself to two glasses on wine on a plane.

2007: Back in Maryland for Chanukah.  This was one of my favorites.  It was the first time I had roommates who fit two criteria: Jewish and not creepy (not weird is another story…).  We would wait for everyone to come home at night to light the menorah in our living room together.  Two memorable events from that Chanukah: lighting the big Chabad menorah in Hornbake Mall on the first night and breaking a world record for dreidel spinning (I wrote a great feature on the event for a class I took that semester.  Still have a copy, in case anyone wants to read it and give me feedback–unlike my instructor.  Not bitter, I swear.). Here’s the only shot of me from the Hornbake lighting:

Rach, Michele and I with SGA President Andrew Friedson, who lit the menorah.  I wonder what's going to happen when the SGA doesn't have a Jewish president.  Well, we won't be finding out this year!

Rach, Michele and I with SGA President Andrew Friedson, who lit the menorah. I wonder what's going to happen when the SGA doesn't have a Jewish president. Well, we won't be finding out this year! Or next year, or the year after that...

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And all that excessive lead-up brings us to 2008.  I was lucky enough to come to Seoul at a very good time for the Jewish community here.  Rabbi and Rebbetzin Litzman are fairly new arrivals to Seoul and have done an incredible job connecting the Jewish residents of and visitors to Korea.  After hours of hard work, some of the toughest, strongest of us (myself obviously not included) constructed a gigantic menorah.  On the first night, we all gathered outside a hotel in Itaewon to light it.  I got some good shots of the lighting and a video of the crowd stumbling through “Maoz Tzur.”

Dozens of people showed up to the candle lighting and crowded the sidewalks on that frigid Sunday night.  I only knew a few people, but I had the same feeling that came four years earlier, in that apartment in College Park–a wonderful sense of community among strangers.

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After the lighting and some latke-eating, I went to a Bulgarian restaurant with some people I met at the Chanukah lighting before catching the last train home.

Did the festivities last one night?  Oh no, just like the oil in the ruined temple, they lasted for eight nights.  Inspired by the rebbetzin’s homemade latkes, I bought a ton of potatoes and onions from a street stall in the neighborhood and fried up dozens myself.  I’m a from-the-box girl, that is, I rely heavily on prepackaged anything to get me through life.  Up until this year, I had always made latkes from a box mix, and they never attained that “from scratch” taste we all strive for.  This year, after hours spent grating potatoes (and unfortunately, my knuckles) and narrowly avoiding creating a giant grease fire, I achieved culinary success.  I served up latkes to some of my coworkers, most of whom had never eaten them before.  OHHHH and it should be said that I made applesauce from scratch as well.  Eight hours + crock pot + fresh apples from the fruit vendor down the street=I’m really, truly awesome.

Cue the Debbie Friedman music...now!

Cue the Debbie Friedman music...now!

The latkes and applesauce were a great hit, and I think I’ll make this an annual tradition.  I have no idea where I’ll be next Chanukah, but I do know that there will be latkes and applesauce (and, geographically permitting, sour cream).

Candle-lighting and latkes.  That’s it, right?  That’s what you do on Chanukah, yeah?  Well, this was one of those glorious years where Chanukah and Christmas bump chests.  And the bosses here were hell-bent on not paying anyone overtime, so I had Christmas off.  I’m going to be completely honest, I was a little disappointed.  For years, I’ve eagerly awaited the Christmas where I would be scheduled to work.  This year, like all the others, was just not my year.  Some Christmases I’ve been in Israel or with Jewish friends, so it hasn’t been a problem, but others have totally sucked.  Have you got any idea what it’s like to be one of the few Jews in a place where virtually everyone celebrates Christmas?  It’s horrible and I have nobody to play with (Cue South Park’s “It’s Hard to Be a Jew on Christmas”).  This year, I got the word out to all the Jews in Korea (I’m not joking, there’s a Facebook group and everything) and ended up back in Itaewon, enjoying a fantastic Christmas lunch at Ho Lee Chow, a Chinese chain around Korea.

I know, I know.  Food pictures are supposed to be taken BEFORE a meal is eaten.  I forgot.  Plus, I was starving.

I know, I know. Food pictures are supposed to be taken BEFORE a meal is eaten. I forgot. Plus, I was starving.

After lunch, we attempted to see a movie, but the theaters were packed.  Apparently, Koreans don’t really celebrate Christmas.  No idea why the theaters were so busy, though.  That part was bizarre.  Highlight: our cab driver, Mr. Kim:

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Post-moviegoing attempt, we headed back to Itaewon for an evening full of good drinks and good friends.

The next night was Shabbat.  As soon as I got out of work, I hightailed it over to Itaewon again.  For the first time since coming here, I didn’t get lost when looking for something and made it to the rabbi’s house just as services were concluding.  It was a small, intimate group of seven, nothing like the 100+ people I’m used to seeing at UMD’s Chabad House, but it was wonderful.  I ate amazing food and played with a cute baby, and few things are better than that!

Last Sunday was the final night of Chanukah.  I watched a movie with some friends and didn’t get back until past midnight.  When I got home, I lit the menorah (even though you’re only supposed to do it if you can display it in a place for others to see), turned off my lights and curled up in bed, watching the candles melt down.  It was the perfect ending to a crazy, hectic week.

I’ve celebrated Chanukah all over the world, but 2008 might take the cake.  I spent the week with people from all over the world, who just happened to find themselves in Seoul for the holiday.  What truly amazes me about this religion is that you can take a Jew from Jerusalem, a Jew from Buenos Aires, a Jew from Moscow and a Jew from New York, stick them in front of a menorah, and they’ll all start singing “Rock of Ages” to the same tune.  It’s hard to feel a part of any community here, in a place where I am so clearly an outsider.  But the Jewish community here is made up of wonderful people who I am looking forward to getting to know much better.

This is the part of the blog where I’m supposed to say something cute and kitschy about a Chanukah miracle.  Truth be told, it’s 3 a.m. and I don’t really have it in me.  I guess there are a few miracles this year.  One: I didn’t burn down my building making latkes.  Two: The giant menorah in Itaewon didn’t get vandalized.  Three: I met some incredible people this Chanukah, people who proved to me that Seoul really, truly has soul (aw, corny, I know).

I didn’t set a world record this year, or almost get busted by security at JFK, but this Chanukah was exciting in its own right.  As we say at this time every year, “nes gadol haya sham”–“a great miracle happened there.”  I think that a great miracle has happened here in Seoul, and I look forward to watching the Jewish community here grow and strengthen over the next nine months.

Chanukah chag yafeh

Chanukah chag yafeh