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Was planning to post about a friend’s wedding this past weekend, but recent world events that hit close to (my Korean) home have sidelined that plan.

By now, everyone is aware of the election earlier this month in Iran and the ongoing protests around the world. Last week, I went to another World Cup qualifying match, this time between South Korea and Iran. (I know, I have a thing for “axis of evil” sporting events.) A friend warned me that because South Korea had already qualified for the games in South Africa and Iran just needed a draw (and also something other than a draw between the North Korea-Saudi Arabia game held the same night) to advance, the match might be a bit dull. Most of the game was indeed pretty low-key (we weren’t even standing up), even after Korea accidently scored a goal against itself in the 51st minute, bumping Iran to a 1-0 lead. The crowd finally amped up toward the end of the match, when Manchester United midfielder and Korean soccer superstar (and national team captain) Park Ji-sung scored in the 81st minute, bringing the score to a 1-1 draw. Park is huge here, especially to the boys who come to SEV. Merely saying, “Park Ji-sung, good!” with a thumbs-up sign is a guaranteed in with some kids.

It turns out that the most interesting parts of the game didn’t happen until days after fans left the stadium. I didn’t think to take out my camera until the game had already ended, which I’m kicking myself for now, because if I had, I might have captured on film six Iranian players donning green armbands in protest of the election held earlier this month. The armbands were removed after the half, but not before garnering international attention.

CNN is now reporting that four of the six players have been “retired” from the national team, “the equivalent of a life ban.” One can only imagine what other repercussions these players will face at the hands of Ahmadinejad and his corrupt government. It’s too soon to know what will happen as a result of these elections, but these days, where there is international media attention, there is hope. I only hope the media keeps this in the spotlight for as long as it takes for justice to be served.

This is it, the home stretch, the last 100 days. I’ve been in Korea for 265 days. It’s been one hell of an adventure, and it’s not over yet. I don’t know what I was thinking, signing my life away for a year to a school I had never heard of in a country I didn’t know a single thing about. But now, three-quarters of the way in, I couldn’t imagine not doing this.

After nearly nine months here, I still miss things I can only get in America, but I’ve come to terms with living without them (with the help of the United States Parcel Service, of course). But now I know when I come back home, I’ll miss things that are easily accessible in Korea. Soju (and its subsequent brutal hangovers), kimbap and Konglish shirts will be half a world away. For all the crap I’ve given Korea over the past nine months, I have become quite fond of the place.

My plan last summer was to put off reality for a year and explore a part of the world I never imagined I’d spend time in. Truth be told, East Asia was the one place in the world I had no desire to ever travel to. Now that the days are winding down, I’m facing the same question I faced when I graduated from university a year ago: What am I going to do with my life now? I’ve got plenty of ideas, but they’re my secrets at the moment. When my contract ends on September 30, I am finished teaching–for good. It is an awesome gig, but it’s not for me, at least not in the long run.

In my time here, I’ve met all different kinds of people, types I’ve never encountered before. I’ve met the ones who will be teaching abroad their entire lives, bouncing from one job to the next, maybe settling for a few years with a good university contract, but then up again to the next locale. I’ve met the ones who come to Korea when their funds dry up and they need some quick cash for the next jaunt. I’ve met plenty of people like myself, fresh out of college and looking for an adventure or a quick way to pay off student loans before settling down in the real world. Korea is an awesome escape from reality, SEV even more so. I just hope that when the time comes to re-enter, I’ll be ready. 

There’s plenty I have to do in the remaining 100 days. The curse of living somewhere is that you never do the touristy things. With that in mind, I hope to visit the palaces I haven’t yet seen, as well as several museums and exhibits in and around Seoul. I would like to visit Jejudo, the closest thing to a tropical island in Korea. Unfortunately, summer camp starts in a few weeks, and that is both a blessing and a curse. Sad as it is to have my Korea sightseeing plans halted for a month and a half, it will be good to see several good friends from winter camp who have decided to come back to SEV for the summer. 

Somehow, over the past nine months, Seoul has become home to me. I’m not sure how or when it happened, but what was once scary and unfamiliar has become home.

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On another note, my name is appearing in The Diamondback for what I swear is the last time. Have been brainstorming this column for months, finally got around to writing it.

SEV let us know several weeks ago that we wouldn’t have any students this weekend, so all teachers had both Saturday and Sunday off. Some of us planned to go to Busan to do some shark-diving, but those plans fell through when we found out the aquarium wasn’t offering diving this weekend. One of the Korean teachers sent out an e-mail asking if any of us were interested in going whitewater rafting over the weekend. Having never gone rafting before (and having played the Oregon Trail computer game for many years), I was game for the day trip.

And so, at 6 a.m. Saturday morning, a dozen of us made our way through rainy Seoul to Jonggak Station, where we met the bus that took us to the site. We arrived three hours later and were immediately overwhelmed by the throngs of American military personnel. Increased threats from North Korea? No, the troops were just there on a rafting trip, same as us. We helped ourselves to a lunch buffet before putting on the gear (vest, helmet, see-through jelly shoes that hearken back to my kindergarten days).

The course itself wasn’t too difficult. Only Erin and Jeanette had been rafting before, but we all picked up on the rowing thing fairly quickly. We followed the orders from our barking guide (“Forward! Row! 1, 2! Now backwards!”). When she wasn’t shouting at us, she was flirting with James and Oliver. We hadn’t been in the raft for more than two minutes before she said, “Boys, very handsome. You have girlfriend?” Oliver told her that he had not one, but three girlfriends, and she responded, “Ohhhh, flayboy!” Yes, sometimes (read: often), Koreans mix up “f” and “p.” Whenever we maneuvered our way through a particularly difficult section, our guide would exclaim, “Oh, handsome men very powerful!” while completely ignoring the four girls on the raft. Such is life in Korea. (Story for another entry: how one of my coworkers gets free stuff all the time because he’s not only male, but of Indian descent. Talk about being a minority in Korea.)

Guide aside, the rafting experience was incredible. It’s easy to forget how beautiful Korea is when you live in Seoul. Especially now with the start of monsoon season, all of the trees and brush are full and lush and green. We kept remarking that someone should have brought a waterproof camera to capture everything we rowed past. We finished the course in about two hours, and even managed to get in some swimming in one of the calmer areas of the river.

Minimal photos (and by minimal, I mean one) because of the wet weather and my sleepiness. Erin risked it and had her camera out most of the day, so her blog is worth checking out, especially for the pictures. (My favorite picture is of our coworker Shelly, who was ready to row in purple heels and goggles.) I did manage to whip the pink digicam out for one shot of some of us when we got back to the site.

Fresh off the boat?

Fresh off the boat?

We got back to Seoul around six and, since we were a. with Erin and b. in the Jongno area, we made a stop at Tomatillo for dinner. For a girl with a Chipotle craving, Tomatillo hits the spot. The owner is kyopo (ethnically Korean but has lived outside of Korea for many years) and the restaurant is a near-carbon copy of Chipotle, down to the font on the menu posted above the counter.

I woke up this morning feeling pretty crappy. I attributed it to standing/rowing in the rain for several hours, but everyone who went rafting seems to be in perfect health. Perhaps this is swine flu?

Also, a happy Father’s Day to my father, who told me NOT to do a post similar to the one I did for Mother’s Day, even though he figured I’d do it anyway. Well, he was wrong and I suck. But happy Father’s Day, Dad!!!! I hope my surprise phone call this morning was a good enough supplement! I love you ❤

It’s Monday night here in Korea, and I’m thankful to be starting a new week. Last week, we had about 150 orphans from the same place that sends us kids once a month or so. I’ve blogged about the orphans several times, and each time I think my voice has been different. I can’t count the number of times they’ve been here, but I know that my feelings toward them each time are varied. In the fall, when they first came, there was a lot of anger on the part of the teachers. We were upset that we had no training or special lesson plans for the classes. But over time, the classes became less about damage control and more about finding creative ways to get to these kids. I had five classes with them last week–three Art and two Culture. All of the classes went well, because the lessons are less vocabulary-focused and allow for more creativity. In Culture, I had kids make cards for their friends. Apparently, “friends” means Barack Obama, because half the class wrote to him.

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I like that this kid wrote "oh ba ma"

I like that this kid wrote "oh ba ma"

 

 

During Art class, there isn’t much to do except for walk around the room and look at what the kids are working on. As I was walking around one class last Thursday, I focused on one boy, who was diligently sketching a robot. I must have stared at him for a good minute or two. If he wasn’t wearing the tell-tale Aloysius clothes (donated by some goodwill organization), I would never have known that he was different from the kids we usually get. There’s very little on the surface that makes him different from your average Korean kid. My mind wandered even further, and I began to wonder what he would be like if he had what most of us take for granted: just one person who loved him. We take love in so many of its forms for granted–the love of a friend, parent, significant other–while these kids don’t have anything. All they need–all anyone needs–is someone who truly loves them, and they don’t have that.

After class, I talked to Jeanette about what I was thinking. She had been to Aloysius a couple of times and had met the nun who runs the orphanage. She said that the woman seemed to genuinely love all of the kids there. That was a slight comfort to me, but I couldn’t help but wonder: If a woman’s love is split among hundreds of children, how is it possible for any of them to feel loved at all?

Summer camp starts in another month, so it’s unlikely we’ll see the Aloysius kids until at least September, which means I may never teach them again. Working with them over the past eight months has been a mix of things–awful, inspiring, sad, hopeful–and it’s rarely been easy. But in the end, I know that those kids being here has been a good thing, not only for the them, but for the teachers as well.

A hearty congratulations to Seoul’s Incheon International Airport, voted best in the world. I can see why travelers are so taken by Incheon. It really is a nice airport with excellent food and shopping. As I noted when I called Erin a few weeks ago from my terminal waiting area, there’s even a Korean restaurant that claims to give customers a “traditional experience.” And what is more traditional, and not to mention authentic, than a woman in a hanbok strumming on a wooden instrument on an elevated platform in the restaurant while gawking foreigners snap photos and record video of her?

CNN reports that Incheon “boasts a golf course, spa, private sleeping rooms, a casino, and indoor gardens.” The sleeping rooms I knew about, and they’re absolutely brilliant. But a golf course? And a spa? I think I’ll be getting there extra early for my next flight…

Props go out to Britain-based Skytrax for conducting the survey and Teaneck, New Jersey-based Benjy Spiro for sending the story my way.

Sorry, I meant the Great Wall of China. It’s pretty much impossible to visit Beijing and not visit the wall. I mean, come on. Since I wasn’t staying at a hostel and Megha wasn’t running her own private tour to the wall, I needed to find a group to hook up with for the day. Leo Youth Hostel runs a fantastic tour. The hostel had been recommended to me by some coworkers who spent our March break in China, and for good reason. Leo is located in Qianmen, behind Tiananmen Square on a main shopping street. The decor was awesome and the bathrooms clean, but that’s about all that I had time to see before we left for the Great Wall. Ten of us squeezed into a van that drove us the couple hours out of Beijing.

After awhile, unable to sleep because the driver constantly pounded on his horn to let everyone within a 5km radius know he was passing another car, I gave up and just looked out the window. Much to my surprise, I saw the wall, snaking through the mountains like a long, thick rope. Words fail to describe how I felt in those first few minutes. The Great Wall is just that–great, immense, awesome–and seeing it in pictures and books is nothing compared to driving under it, next to it. Occasionally it would disappear or trail off, only to reappear again a few minutes later. It blows my mind to think that what I saw of the wall was only a fraction of the 4,000 miles it spans.

Now, there are many different areas of the Great Wall open to visitors. Many have been restored and are in prime condition for the millions of tourists who come every year. A couple hours into the drive, I started to see signs for Badaling and my heart sank. Badaling is the most popular section among tourists because it is easy to access and fully restored. However, my own faith was restored when our driver continued past the Badaling parking area and drove a few kilometers more down the highway and off onto a dirt road.

The van came to a complete stop down the road, in front of a siheyuan, a traiditional courtyard surrounded by buildings. The driver beeped his horn a few times, and a few moments later, an old man ambled down a hill and hopped into the van with us. Another kilometer down the road and the van stopped again and the driver motioned for us all to get out. The old man, who I’d finally gathered was our tour guide, started to walk up a dirt path and we followed. It turns out that one of the guys on our hike, an English teacher in southern China, spoke a bit of Mandarin and could communicate the basics with him, which helped all of us out a great deal.

The hike wasn’t terribly long; at the highest point we were only at 888 meters (less than half a mile), but the terrain was a bit rocky at points. It was nowhere near as strenuous as 2005’s Avi Chai hike up Har Yishai, I’ll concede that much. Every so often, our guide, who we figured out was 73 years olds, would give us a break so he could have a cigarette.

 

Our guide told us that he often hikes up to the wall with his buddies and gets drunk. Oh, China...

Our guide told us that he often hikes up to the wall with his buddies and gets drunk. Oh, China...

 

After about an hour, we reached the wall. It wasn’t at all like the refurbished parts you see in calendars. The part of the wall we stood on was falling apart, weathered by centuries of wear and tear. Dilapidated watchtowers sat every few hundreds yard, topping of the peaks of the hills. You’d think that the hike up to the wall would have been the most difficult, but no, that was reserved for the steepest parts of the wall. Broken brick and stone stairs spanned from watchtower to watchtower and we had to navigate up and down to get from one watchtower to the next.

 

On the first part of the wall, before climbing up to the watchtower

On the first part of the wall, before climbing up to the watchtower

 

 

Watchtower remnants

Watchtower remnants

 

 

Graffiti on the wall...who defaces the GREAT WALL OF CHINA!?

Graffiti on the wall...who defaces the GREAT WALL OF CHINA!?

 

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The highest point on our tour

The highest point on our tour

 

After navigating our way back down, we were treated to a large Chinese lunch (well, not really treated, since it was included in the tour fee) in a siheyuan in the village. We stuffed ourselves with bowls of rice, noodles, zucchini, beans and chicken.

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After lunch, we piled back into the van and headed back to Beijing. Too exhausted to deal with the subway, I grabbed a cab back to Megha’s apartment, where everyone decided we should eat Mongolian hot pot for dinner. Sadly, I didn’t take any pictures of this, but it’s fairly easy to explain. Mongolian hot pot is basically Chinese fondue. You order meats and veggies and then cook it all in boiling sauces. This was undoubtedly one of the most satisfying meals I had in China.

Next up in the China series: FOOD!! Because I love to blog about it.

In case you didn’t get the reference, this post title is in homage to a childhood favorite, Big Bird in China. While the China of today is much different than 1983, it was hard not to feel hit with an immediate time warp/culture shock mashup. Hit with stifling humidity (at least as much as I’m used to, thanks to Korean springs) the moment I stepped out of the airport, I made a mad dash for the taxi station and hopped into the first one I saw. The cab was an older one, with crank windows and a shoddy aircon, but it was blasting Sean Kingston as we drove down the highway, a mix of old apartments and futuristic Olympic buildings on either side. Being in Beijing was a crazy time warp. On one hand, you’ve got thousands (millions?) of bicycles and old buildings. Yet you also have the crazy, modern architecture that sprung up in the years prior to the 2008 Olympics. Getting those two things to coexist in my head was enough to make me dizzy.

Anyhow, once I made it to Woudaokou, Megha met me at the station and we walked back to the apartment she shares with her boyfriend, Charles and her roommate, Mike. Having not seen her in a year, we spent a few hours catching up before going out for a few drinks with Charles and Mike. Got back after a couple bars and some food to get a decent night’s sleep.

The next day, Megha, who is studying Mandarin in an intensive program in Beijing, had the day off, so she joined me in my sightseeing endeavors. First stop was Tiananamen Square, site of riots, protests and iconic photographs. The square itself was, for the most part, a large, open space with little in it, save for a few statues, tourists and vendors hawking cold bottled water. Once I got my head past the tourist element of the place, it was truly stunning, especially when I considered the great history of the square. In the middle of the square is the Monument to the People’s Heroes, which looked small in pictures but is grandiose in person.

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Mao's body is on display inside this building on the square

Mao's body is on display inside this building on the square

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You may notice the dreary, gray sky in the background. No, it wasn’t about to downpour. That’s how the sky looked every day in Beijing. Megha said she’s so used to it at this point that she barely notices the lack of blue sky. Xinhua is reporting that last month was the clearest May in nine years. I’m ready to call bullshit on that one, but then again, I haven’t experienced another Beijing spring aside from this one. This could very well be the cleanest one in nine years, which is scary to think about. Though according to this article, the picture above was taken on a “blue sky day,” and on that, I will be calling bullshit.

After Tiananmen, we crossed the street and entered the Forbidden City, which once was home to 10,000 eunuchs and concubines. Now it welcomes thousands of tourists a day. You could spend days in the Forbidden City and still not see it all because it’s so massive.

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That night, I went with Megha’s roommate Mike to a beer garden to meet some of their friends. They were a really nice bunch, and it was good to meet some new people. The only downside to the evening was that mosquitoes were feasting on my bare legs. Friends can attest to the awful reaction I get from mosquito bites, but these took the cake. They’re only now starting to go away, nearly two weeks after I was bitten.

That about does it for this installment of Melissa in China. Stay tuned for the next post, when Melissa takes you to the Great Wall of China!

Yes, I’m back. Will update about China later. A more pressing post awaits. I went into the office and grabbed my schedule for the week. Check it out:

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That’s right, not teaching a single class. Koreans are incredibly concerned about swine flu, especially from foreign teachers. According to the boards on eslcafe.com, several dozen foreigners have been quarantined in recent weeks. When I got off the plane yesterday, men in masks forced all disembarking passengers into orderly lines to pass by inspectors, who took our medical forms. I happened to get a tickle in my throat while waiting in line, and let me tell you, that is probably the worst place in the world to have a coughing fit. Yet somehow, I passed through.

So now I’m back at SEV, working from home all week, save for this afternoon, when I have to go to the hospital for a medical exam. It’s fine by me; I’m perfectly content to be paid not to teach. And the week of programming is infinitely better than diving right back into classes.