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Hey all! Erin is guestblogging for me to let you all know that I am indeed alive and kicking. China has been awesome–I’m currently at Megha’s apartment and her roommate is making us all breakfast. Tonight I leave for Shanghai and will be there until Sunday, when I return to Korea. My return to Korea has the potential to be very interesting. A nasty rumor at school has led me to believe that, because of swine flu, I might not be allowed to work for a week or so after arriving back in Korea, though I exhibit none of the symptoms and definitely do not have it. I’m waiting for confirmation from my boss, but hopefully it’s just a rumor that has spun out of control. Will keep you updated (through Erin) for the rest of my time in China. Thanks for sending well-wishes, and I’ll have a more complete post when I get back to Korea.

And I have only begun to pack. Anyway, this post is just to say that I probably won’t be making it back alive. I have a feeling I’m going to accidentally slip up and say something I shouldn’t while I’m there, as I have a tendency to do that sort of thing. My father asked me yesterday if I’d ever been to a communist country, and I replied that I hadn’t. Here’s hoping Megha will set me straight and keep me from causing any international crises.

Unsure when I’ll blog again, but I’ll keep you posted re: whether or not I’m alive via Twitter and Facebook. And if nobody has heard from me by June, assume the worst.

Was planning to blog about my trip to the DMZ today, but didn’t feel right for some reason. Expect it (maybe) before I go to China.

It’s been a weird day for a few reasons. Had to go to the U.S. embassy in Jongno today to get my signature notarized for my grandfather’s will. As cool as it was to go to the embassy (where there was cheap Dr. Pepper), it was under truly shitty circumstances. That weighing on my mind all day, coupled with a TMI work-related e-mail this evening, has really gotten me down. I’m beyond anxious for Saturday. I need to get out of Seoul, if only for a week. After the trip, it’s only another month until July, and everything good happens then–namely Mudfest, summer camp and the return of some close winter camp friends. Also, the pool will open, and I’ll be damned if I don’t get a solid tan this summer.

That’s not to say there haven’t been bright spots this week. Some of this week’s kids come from a school in Gangnam, one of the wealthier areas of the city. Many of these kids have really well-developed English skills and are actually enjoyable to talk with. In Grocery class yesterday, one kid, Brian, said, “Vicky teacher has a bee phobia. I have a corn phobia!” I was just shocked that he not only knew what “phobia” meant, but could pronounce it correctly. Reading my “mail” from Post Office class put a smile on my face, as well. Here are some of the best letters:

Dear Melissa,
Hello? My name is Stella/Hang-He-Young
You are so pretty (very very)
You are cooking class very pretty
Cooking is very fun!
I LOVE You ~ ❤
and I’ll tell you….
Kim-gyu-tae teacher
is love you~
It’s secret! Ok?
Bye~
I’ll be back
Suyu-English village
Oh! Stamp (so) thank YOU~really bye~


Hello, My name is Vicky. You are so pretty! You are very good! I love you. I want a look for you. My drom room is Africa 204. You are so kind.
You are very good for cook.
b2~b2~


Dear Melissa,
Hello, Melissa teacher. I am Kate.
At first team 16 wasn’t behaving well, but because of you, we were behaving well. Also, you looked like a police! I was really fun at your class and you were the nice teacher.
Thank you for all your help and we (team 16) will always remember you!!! Today is teacher’s day in Korea, so have a good time celebrating!
Also, I guess you are the best teacher in the world.
Bye, I will maybe come back and meet you and remember you.
Thank you for all! Love, Your last student Kate


Hello, Melissa teacher?
You’re the coolest teacher I’d ever seen. I’m very pleased to meet you. I like you because of your characteristics. You have same characteristics as mind.
I’m fine in Seoul English Village!
Teacher’s are nice.
Except foods are disgusting.
I hate them.
Also, staff teachers always yells at us.
Anyway, you’re my best teacher.
See you later! Bye!
Sincerely, AMY

That’s it for tonight. Chin up, China in four days!

I think the Post is reading my mind. Is there any other way to explain its travel feature on Shanghai less than a week before I head to China?

Oh, that’s right. By the way, I’m going to China this Saturday. I refrained from blogging about it because I hadn’t gotten my visa yet and wasn’t completely sure everything was going to work out. But a few days ago, my passport came back from the Chinese consulate, complete with super-expensive visa. (An American tourist visa costs 145,000 won, about $120, which is more expensive than any other country. Why couldn’t I be from Canada? Canadians pay like, 40 bucks.) Anyway, I’ve rationalized the pricey visa by telling myself that between my super cheap flight (around $100 American) and the visa, I’m still getting a pretty solid deal.

My flight lands in Beijing on Saturday afternoon, and I fly out of Shanghai eight days later. I have no plans as of yet, and the only thing I know for sure is where I’m sleeping at night (holler, $8 hostels). I want to do some major shopping, and even held off on buying some sweet jewelry in Insadong this weekend, telling myself I could get it cheaper and cooler in China. Friends Gabe (who studied in Shanghai last year) and Megha (currently living in Beijing) have been very helpful in recent weeks, providing lots of information and answering all my pre-trip questions. Looking forward to catching up with Megha, as well. I haven’t seen a Terp, aside from Erin, since Simone was here in December, and haven’t seen a fellow Diamondbacker in nearly a year.

I’m stoked for this trip. I desperately need out of Seoul, if only for a bit, and a week-long jaunt to China should help. I’ve been told that SEV will be getting students from the orphanage the week I’m gone, so if nothing else, that’s excellent timing. I get back to Korea on May 31, my eight monthiversary, which means I’ll only have four months to go before my contract finishes. Also, I figure that if I can handle a week completely on my own in a foreign country, then I should be alright when I do the post-Korea backpacking thing this fall. Now just counting down…T-minus five days…

Two years after seeing the film Once, starring Oscar winners Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, I had missed a handful of opportunities to see them in concert. Tickets to their Washington shows were too pricey, and tickets sold out too fast when they came to Korea in January. So imagine my shock and glee when Monica, one of the Korean teachers at SEV, said the duo, who goes by The Swell Season, was returning to Seoul as part of the city’s annual Jazz Festival. Really enjoyed the film, but loved the soundtrack. Was I reduced to tears watching them perform at last year’s Oscars? Yes, and Erin can vouch for that one.

I’d say my eyes stayed dried this past Friday night, but that would be a lie. This concert, held at the massive Sejong Center near City Hall. was one of the best I’ve been to. Hansard and Irglova were funny and real and were true to their original songs (a bit of a “screw you” to Bon Jovi, who did an absolutely horrid version of “Livin’ on a Prayer” a couple of years back at the MCI Center). They had a few special guests come up to perform, including Sungha Jung, a little kid who lives a few hours outside of Seoul and whose video Hansard and Irglova saw on YouTube. (We thought he’d play “Falling Slowly,” but no, he played Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean.”)

One of the highlights of the show came when everyone unplugged their instruments and stood on the edge of the stage, feet away from the audience. Everyone in the theater, all 2,000 of us, fell silent and, from three stories up, we could hear everything–Marketa’s quiet voice, Glen strumming on his guitar. I found a video of them doing the same thing when they were here in January. Not amazing quality, but you get the idea.

Also of mention was the opening act, Liam O’Maonlai. He came out to perform shoeless and in a suit a few sizes too big and amped everyone up with both Irish and African music. I’d never heard of him before this weekend, but he’s been on the music scene for years now. Check him out here.

The ushers were pretty strict (with foreigners) about camera use during the show, but I managed to sneak a few shots. The rest are up on Erin’s blog.

Sejong Center in the rain

Sejong Center in the rain

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The only somewhat decent shot I got. And Marketa isn't even in it. Forbidden photo fail.

The only somewhat decent shot I got. And Marketa isn't even in it. Forbidden photo fail.

I even sneaked out the camera and got seven seconds of video. Didn’t think the quality would come out as good as it did, but was I ever surprised:

Despite growing up at the base of the Catskill Mountains, I hated hiking as a child. I climbed Mohonk a few times with the Girl Scouts and my family, but that was really the extent of my hiking. I think I was just too grossed out by nature and sweat and humidity (none of those are unreasonable). So yes, I hated hiking. That is, until I moved to Seoul. Well, technically seven months after I moved to Seoul.

My friends James and Jeanette are two of the most outdoorsy people I know. If James has a couple spare periods, he’ll go for a quick hike just because he can. I don’t have that determination, but I really admire it. A couple weeks ago, the two of them led a group of us up the mountain in SEV’s backyard. (There is literally a mountain in my backyard that you can see on any day it’s not obscured by yellow dust. Oh, Asia.) I felt as though I was going to die on that damn hike. Since coming to Seoul, I’d given up on virtually any form of exercise, save for dodgeball, so I was incredibly out of shape on that climb. However, while that stupid hike kicked my ass, it also made me more determined to get back in shape. I’ve tried to go up every other day or so, though I’ve missed a few days due to weather, other plans, sheer laziness, etc. Climbing up to this viewing spot, high above Suyu, continues to a pain in the ass. But once I collapse on the rock in sheer exhaustion, I’m left with a stunning view of Suyu and Mia. The only sounds are the birds chirping and the rustling of other climbers.  It is very rare to have a few hours uninterrupted by car horns, bus screeches or the blaring megaphone of some street vendor.

It’s been raining non-stop since I woke up this morning, but part of me is desperately hoping the weather clears up by tomorrow. I need the view and the moments of clarity that come with it.

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Monastery near the beginning of the trail

Monastery near the beginning of the trail

Line of lotus lanterns at the monastery

Line of lotus lanterns at the monastery

A very special post for a very special lady! Anyone who carries me in the womb for nine months has got to special. Also, I know that my glasses are crooked and my hair is crazy and out of place. Gimme a break, people. I just worked six days in a row.

Also, as seen on PostSecret:

ass

Actual conversation in Culture class last week:

Boy 1: Teacher, do you have a boyfriend?
Me: No. Do you have a girlfriend?
Boy 1: No.
Me: Why not?
Boy 1, obviously flustered: I don’t know!
Boy 2: Mom is my girlfriend.
Me: That’s, um, nice? And a little weird…
Boy 3 (throwing his arms around the boy next to him): Brian is my girlfriend.
Boy 4: Gay gay gay gay.

While the boys probably didn’t fully grasp what they were saying (considering I was the only native English speaker in the room, and they were all about eleven years old), they touched upon something very hush-hush in Korean culture. Homosexuality is extremely looked down upon in this society, mostly because of Confucianism and the importance placed on continuing family lines. Religion aside, Korean culture in general is very conservative and restrictive. In 2000, well-known actor Hong Seok-chun came out publicly and immediately began losing work. Several other actors have committed suicide after coming out in recent years. “Self-confessed lesbian” Choi Hyun-sook became the first openly gay candidate to seek public office when she ran for, and subsequently lost, a seat in the legislature.

Even President Lee Myung-bak has stated that he believes homosexuality to be “abnormal.” Though military service is compulsory for men, if a soldier is gay, then he is listed as having a “personality disorder” and can be discharged or even institutionalized.

What many foreigners find ironic is that Korean men and women seem to have no problem being playfully affectionate with members of the same sex, yet actual homosexuality is so offensive. Teenage boys will hold hands and girls will stroll down the street arm in arm, but all will recoil in disgust when the topic of being gay comes up.

I have a lot of issues with Korean culture (definitely a post for another time), but I think this one takes the cake. Korea wants the world to consider it a forward-thinking nation. But in a society in which the national mindset resembles 1950s America, Koreans are a long way from that goal. I don’t know that the national mindset will ever completely change, but I hope that for their own sakes, Koreans will begin to open their minds and their hearts to all of the people, both Korean and foreign, who call this place home.

Post title stolen from my friend Melisa. In all seriousness, though, this is the text of an e-mail all of the teachers received from our head teacher on Friday:

“Also, the Hana Bank system is not working and will not be working until Monday.”

That’s right. Our bank, the one place we trust with our hard-earned won, has made our money absolutely inaccessible for four days. The teachers were given no advance notice about the “outage.” I was only made aware of the situation after another foreign teacher attempted to withdraw money on Friday morning, only to find that his card didn’t work at any ATM in the Suyu area.

I’m fairly certain that if this were to happen in America, lawsuits would be thrown every which way. But of course, Korea being Korea, there is no explanation and certainly no apology from the bank. As the New York Post‘s Cindy Adams would say, “Only in Korea, kids. Only in Korea.”

A couple weeks ago, needing to escape Seoul and in search of some warm weather, I headed to Busan with my friend Lisa. Lisa lives in Daejeon, an hour away by KTX (Korea’s high-speed railway system). I spent the first night in Daejeon, catching up with Lisa and meeting some of her friends. The next morning, we headed to the train station and, several hours later, made it to Busan, Korea’s second-largest city.

The city itself was reminiscent of Miami. Busan, located on the southeastern tip of the country, is far more modern than Seoul. All of the same restaurants and chains that exist in Seoul are also in Busan, but the buildings and streets take on more of a western style. Additionally, most people spoke a decent amount of English, especially when compared to their counterparts in the capital.

We arrived early Saturday afternoon and set off in search of our hostel. After several hours of searching (with some heavy shopping thrown in there), we gave up. After all, when the directions on Hostelworld instruct travelers to “jog five meters,” how serious can the place be taken? We decided to get a hostel near Haeundae, about a 15-minute taxi from the beach. Some guys working at a PC-bang even called the hostel for us to see if there were rooms available, then walked us outside and hailed a cab. Once we got settled at the hostel, we decided to grab some dinner back near the beach. We ran into some of Lisa’s friends from Daejeon at the restaurant and hung out with them for the rest of the night. Despite the night’s chilly air, we spent a couple of hours on beach lighting sparklers before heading to a different part of town. Nobody really knew where we were going, but the area we ended up going to was directly across from the Gwangan Bridge.

Lisa and I with the bridge in the background

Lisa and I with the bridge in the background

The next day, we hit up the Busan Aquarium, which I’ve officially decided is a must-see for anyone visiting Busan. The aquarium features all the regular sea life, but also has a tank where visitors, for a fee, can swim with sharks. Yeah, swim with sharks! Though I did not partake (this time), you can still read Alex’s account, as she went to Busan a few weeks before I did and coughed up the won for the shark swim.

The aquarium was a definite highlight, mostly because it was a fairly interactive place. Also, there were plenty of good photo ops:

The aquarium has fishified versions of some of history's great works of art. This was the only one I got a picture with.

The aquarium has fishified versions of some of history's great works of art. This was the only one I got a picture with.

PENGUIN!!

PENGUIN!!

We got to hold starfish!

We got to hold starfish!

Shark attack!

Shark attack!

Melissaquarium!

Melissaquarium!

After the aquarium, we met up with Lisa’s friends on the beach for an afternoon of relaxation. The beach, with its waterfront shops and massive hotels, reminded me of Tel Aviv. However, hundreds of Asians enjoying the nice day reminded me that I was in Korea, not Israel.

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Mountains in the distance

Mountains in the distance

Of note: the thong-wearing, jet-skiing Korean man who zoomed back and forth down the length of the beach for several hours. He never stayed still long enough for me to snap a picture, but the mental images will never, ever go away.

Another beach highlight was the small, shrieking girl chasing birds nearby. The video speaks for itself, I think. Also, take note of the fully clothed people walking on the sand in 70-degree weather. I’ve noticed that Koreans tend to visit the beach in dressy attire, but I haven’t got the slightest idea why.

With a few more hours to kill before our train departed, we headed to the U.N. Memorial Park. The cemetery honors all those from around the world who died during the Korean War, with remains of soldiers from nearly a dozen countries.

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Following the memorial, we posed for pictures on the massive sculptures just outside the cemetery before heading off to our last stop, the Jalgachi fish market. Lisa and I had been craving chobap (the Korean word for sushi) all weekend, and figured the best would be found around the fish market, one of the most well-known in Korea. The market seemed to be just as massive as the Noryangjin Market in Seoul. The only notable difference was that the Jalgachi vendors spoke much better English than their counterparts in Seoul.

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After an hour of wandering around the market and not finding anything that caught our attention, we came across a newly opened restaurant with western food. So did I eat fish in Busan? No, but I did eat some chicken and pasta, and even drank a complimentary glass of white wine.

Busan had one last surprise for me before I left. Actually, it had several surprises. And by surprises, I mean cool things to buy. One was an earring holder in the shape of a wine glasses. Another was a nice pair of earrings. Yet another was a fitted t-shirt with Le Petit Prince on it. And lastly, and most tastily, candy strawberries. You’ve had candy apples at the county fair (or at least you have if you’re from upstate New York and go to county fairs every year). I must say, candy strawberries surpass candy apples by every degree of measurement imaginable.

That is pure glee, my friends. Pure glee.

That is pure glee, my friends. Pure glee.

All in all, the trip to Busan was a good reminder that life not only exists outside of Seoul, but that it thrives, too. Busan was lively and exciting and provided a great change of pace, if only for a weekend. I don’t think I could stay in Korea another year, but if somehow I wind up here again, I would definitely find work in Busan.

So totally Asia
Lotus lanterns outside the train station

Lotus lanterns outside the train station