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Better Busy Than Bored March 20, 2011

I haven’t written in a good long while because I have been one busy little beaver.

In February I spent a week in Bangkok and fell in love with Thailand. The food, the architecture, the hospitality, the weather. I loved it all. For every dog that isn’t in Seoul there are five running feral on the streets on Bangkok. There must have been a table tennis tournament in town, because people kept asking if we wanted to see a ping pong show. My life flashed before my eyes every time I sat in a tuk tuk.

I took a zip line tour through the rain forest which is the single most fun thing I have ever done in my life. Flight of the Gibbon picks you up in Bangkok, drives you out to the forest, you get to see some of the wildlife in a small and very up close and personal zoo, and then you zip line from tree top to tree top.

Just... Hanging Out!

Zip lining through the Thai rain forest

On a bike tour through the Thai country side with Absolute Explorer, I got to see shrimp, fish, and rice farms, even more wildlife, experience authentic Thai culture and have lunch at the mayor’s house.

Biking through the Thai country side

Taking a bike ride between rice patties

I met my parent’s foreign exchange student. Irene and her father showed us around for a whole day. We got to see Bangkok with Bangkokians, the Grand Palace, Emerald Buddha, an elephant show, the restaurant inspired by the world-famous Siamese Twins, Chang and Eng Bunker. It was a tornado of hospitality.

The week in Thailand is the happiest I’ve ever seen Doug in our 10 years together. I fell so deeply in love with the Land of Smiles that we are now planning to move there this fall.

Kin, our friend who has been at the Hopyeong branch as long as we have, has finished his contract. After spending a few weeks traveling, he will go back to Colorado on Tuesday. It’s a pretty big bummer.

The crew one last time

Saying goodbye to Kin

The teacher who was hired to replace Kin bailed on us leaving us one teacher short at the very last-minute. This means that we’ve all had to pick up the slack. At the same time, our school opened a new kindergarten. So in addition to teaching 40 hours a week (to those of you who don’t teach, that’s a lot of classroom hours) I’m also teaching 3 and 4 year olds who don’t speak a word of English how to stand in a line, how to sit still, and how to sneeze into a tissue.

The good news is this, I prefer being over worked to under-worked. I like just a little stress in my life. It keeps me on my toes, makes me feel accomplished. I’m making good money. I’ve worked 60 hour weeks back home and still only brought home about $600 for that week. Not the case here. I’m working hard and getting paid what I’m worth. That’s a really good feeling. I’m so busy, I don’t have any time to spend any of that money. I only have one more week of this run ragged schedule before a new teacher arrives and takes a few classes off of my hands.

Rabbits

Also, when I do extend myself too far, get sick and miss a class, my students concern is adorable. I received the following note, “to teacher Hellow teacher!! I’m a Jenny. How are you? Are your sick? I’m very worry for you. I’m very sad. Teacher thank you! Beacause you teach me. good bey!” Worth it!

I’ve learned by working with the kindergarten students that while I enjoy and plan to get a degree in early childhood education, I don’t want to teach kindergarten as a career. I don’t want to be the one who has to break them in. I’m also learning that I’m ready to go back to school. I’m on the hunt for programs that will allow me to take some classes on-line, so when my schedule opens up, I can start chipping away at my goal of becoming a really honest to goodness teacher.

If that wasn’t enough to keep a girl’s head spinning, I’ve also joined the Republic of Korea Derby. We practice all the way south in Dague, which means I’m getting a chance to see more of this country that I’m living in. The girls are great and diverse from all over the United States and the U.K. with different reasons for coming to Korea and share a common love of derby. Most of the girls have never skated before but always wanted to join a league back home. My skates are ordered and I am anxiously waiting for them to arrive. I’ll be once again skating as Pippi Longshocking due to the Korean’s insistence that I look an awful lot like “Bibbi.”

My darling husband, who is working really hard to get the most he can out of his own Korea experience, has joined a band in Seoul. He practices every Sunday and is a much happier camper now that he’s a rock star writer once again.

I’m packing as much life as I can into the time that I have. I only get one chance at this and I want to make it a good one.

 

What to pack when you are moving to South Korea January 15, 2011

1) Home stuff

Little things to fight the inevitable homesickness you are bound to face. Make room for pictures of family, holiday decorations, your favorite cup, anything that makes your little slice of ROK feel like home.

2) Pants

Pack pants that fit you now and pants that are one size smaller than you currently wear. You are going to loose weight, but not so much that you’ll be able to fit into impossibly small Korean sizes.

3) Underwear and bras

If you’re anything like me, you are already packing your own biological stadium cushion. Unless you’re prepared to get your delicates from the ajumma section of E-Mart, then best stock up on your unmentionables state side.

4) A gift for the new boss and a yummy local treat for the staff

A nice gift makes a good first impression, which is important everywhere, but is year long contract defining in Korea. We brought our boss a gold ornament in the shape of the Wright B Flyer since we are from Dayton, Ohio. A nice, non-political local history gift. For the staff we brought a box of Esther Price chocolates, a Daytonian delicacy. You don’t have to spend a heap of cash. Something local and edible will do just fine.

5) Two sets of sheets

Chances are you will have a washer in your Korean apartment, but no dryer. You can buy sheets here but they either won’t be what you’re used to or very expensive. They don’t take up much room in the brand new suitcase your mom bought for you. Toss in the extra set. When you aren’t sleeping on dry enough sheets, you’ll be glad you did.

6) Over the counter medications

Cold and headache remedies aren’t universal. I could sell NyQuil tablets for $20 a pop on the street in Ieteawon to red nosed, sleep deprived Americans. When you get sick, and your students will get you sick, you will crave nothing as much as a NyQuil endused unconscious state. If you need a little extra help dozing off at night or need to sleep off a headache the extra large bottle of Tylenol PM you brought will come in quite handy. Go over board here. If you end up with extra at the end of the year, you can always pass the extra along to your co-workers who weren’t smart enough to take my sage like advice.

7) Prizes

Bring some goodies for the kids. Some holiday or American flag themed pencils, stickers or erasers will do. The students are aware of the mass marketed American holidays but they are still exotic and new. Pencils topped with erasers in the shape of ghosts, hearts, or snowmen will be a big hit come flash card game time.

8.) Shoes, but only if you have big feet

If your walking on an average size 8 like I am, then don’t over pack shoes. You can buy them here. There’s a Converse store on every corner in Seoul and there’s even a Doc Martin’s store at the Coex Mall. The high heel selections are endless. However, if you are above a women’s size 9, pack shoes. You will be able to find shoes that fit if you look, but you’ll have to look and the selection won’t be stellar. Remember, your shoes should be easy to kick on and off. I highly recommend packing a pair of winter boots that zip up and go with everything.

9) Money

You need enough cash to float you until your first paycheck. Clearly this varies from person to person depending on lifestyle, region, and the generosity of your school. You can get by on $1000. Even if your in a couple, you’ll never spend more than $3000 unless you go wild in one of the foreigner only casinos.

10) DVD’s

While you can watch Hulu and Netflix with the use of a proxy server, they may not have the selection that you wish they did. Stock up on TV shows you haven’t seen but have been meaning to get around to, movies that you haven’t seen yet or could watch again and again. Don’t bring the boxes. Just put them in a CD folder. Nothing will ease the soul of a homesick American quite like an episode of King of the Hill.

What not to pack:

1) Toiletries

Believe it or not, people bathe in Korea. You don’t need to pack shampoo, conditioner, soap or hair spray. There are two things you may want to consider packing though they aren’t totally necessary: toothpaste and deodorant. The toothpaste here is slightly different. If you have picky dental needs, stock up. Aside from finding a taste you can stand you won’t be able to read the box to learn it the tube will whiten or protect. I’ve been using Korean toothpaste and have no complaints, but it took a couple of thrown out tubes to get there. I packed my deodorant, because, dainty flower that I am, I needed a particular brand, which it turns out you can buy here. It’s more expensive, but not ungodly so.

2) Half the clothes you think you need

You don’t know what to pack so you’ve packed everything just in case. Don’t do that. They have clothes here that you can buy. You’ll find out what your school expects you to wear and you can pull together work wear here. Remember, it will be hard to find pants that fit, but I haven’t had a problem finding dresses, tops or shoes. Do bring at least one weeks worth of business appropriate attire to make a good first impression. You’ll be making enough money that you can fill in the wardrobe gaps with your first paycheck via a shopping trip to Seoul.

3) Electronics

If you need a camera or a laptop. You don’t necessarily need to stock up before you leave the states. You can get electronics cheaply here. I’ve bought a laptop and a camera for myself. It just means that I’ll need to buy adjusters when I head home and I can type in Hangul. On the other hand, Korean men don’t grow beards, but expats notoriously do. Bring a beard trimmer.

4) More than one or two books for the plane

You can find English books here, especially if you are close to Soul. I’ve always found everything my literary heart could desire at What the Book in Ietaewon. If you are too far from Seoul to make the trip, What the Book will ship to you. Not to mention the fact that foreign teachers have come before you. Most likely, the teacher whom you replace, you’ll also fill their empty apartment and inherit all the crap they’re left behind, including their books. If you are such a book-worm that you won’t be able to survive without constant access to your very own Barnes and Noble, then make the investment in a Nook or Kindle.

5) Socks and tights

Trust me. Korean women love their stockings. There will be enough knee highs, ankle socks, and funky tights to even keep a retired roller girl happy. Make room for more underwear and bras by leaving the socks at home.

Happy packing. Enjoy that last southern style sweet tea and get ready. You’re going to love it here.

 

ROK around the Christmas Tree December 26, 2010

The American Christmas spirit is a mesmerizing, blinding thing of festivities and unchecked greed rolled together in a heart stopping cheese ball of cheer. We are incapable of quietly enjoying a cold time of year, indoors with friends and family and good food. We need to kill each other as the doors open at Walmart on Black Friday and then stress eat our way through the quest for every little gift that we want but don’t need and probably can’t pay for and if we make other people feel like shit in our wake, so be it. It’s all in the name of the quest to provide each and every American family with the perfect Christmas. To this I say, bah humbug.

I don’t like Christmas. You have to force pleasant family interactions and then feel bad if they don’t come out looking like a Norman Rockwell. I don’t like buying the affection of people I care about with gifts that don’t really speak to them but say I cared enough to spend. I don’t like the mall or the people who shop there. And more than anything on this planet, I hate Kay Jewelry commercials and everything they represent, but that’s a blog for another day. You see, I spent and uneventful, stress-free Christmas in the mountains of South Korea far far away from American malls and American commercials and American parking lots and American greed and American lack of thought for the rest of humanity.

Friday, December 24th came as uneventfully as another work day. My coworkers and I went out for kimchichegae (spicy, red soup with kimchi and pork) and topped off the evening with hour upon hour of noraebang (a room where you and your friends sit and drink beer and sing karaoke). Fun was had and one Christmas song (Feliz Navidad) and a lot of 80’s hair metal was sung.

After Santa flew past and left us the boxes that our families had sent and we had laid to waste days ago, we woke up at an early 10:30 am. Until 4:30pm we sat around consuming nothing except Esther Price chocolates and a free slice of cake from our favorite coffee shop in Hopyeong, Park Avenue. For you see, dear reader, we were saving the precious space in our digestive systems for the most glorious of meals that awaited in Ietaewon. Doug, Kyle, our coworker Kin and I all bundled up and road on the brand new train that as of Tuesday stops in our sleepy little town and trekked for hours to get to Copacabana. We each ate the weight of a 7 month old baby in an assortment of Brazilian meats prepared on swords for a mere 29,000 won per person at an all you can eat steak house whose name brings Barry Manilow to mind. What could say Christmas more? Why topping off the gastric disaster with eggnog at Sam Ryan’s in a room brimming with waygooks (foreigners) who were also away from Christmas, happy and drinking.

Sunday brought a more traditional aspect of Korean Christmas, the eating of an ugly Christmas ice cream cake. Ours was topped with what was, after significant testing, deemed to be an inedible Santa and edible frozen cranberries.

All and all the lack of Christmas was refreshing. After nearly a decade of retail Christmases, I thought that a year or two away from the greed and thoughtlessness would have me ready to join back in the celebration. What it has done is made me aware that, without Christmas the world still spins. You don’t need to celebrate this holiday to be happy. In fact it’s been packaged in such a way that if you feel you must, you can eat a candy cane, go to a party, and be done with the whole mess. Leaving Christmas to the malls of America has made me a happier person. I don’t think I’ll ever feel the need to return. Not when there is so much joy in simply enjoying December, giving to those who need it, and reveling in the presence of those you think quite highly of.

 

Shots Fired and the Sun Still Shines November 24, 2010

Yesterday, about an hour before my classes started, while I was in a workshop to get ready for fall term, North Korea fired shots into a village on Yeonpyeong Island. Is this unsettling? Sure. Is it worth writing an e-mail home to worried parents? You bet. Is it worth changing my daily routine over? Absolutely not.

The first thing you should know is that while I am just northeast of Seoul, mere miles from the DMZ, Yeonpyeong is smack in the middle of the disputed border in the Yellow Sea. The island itself rests firmly above the 38th parallel, while I am snugly below at the 37th parallel.

Please keep in mind as you watch the news that every time North Korea shoots something or sinks something or bombs something the press claims it is the most aggression they’ve shown since 1953.

The chances of North and South Korea going to war with each other are exactly the same as the chances of the U.S. and China going to war with one another. With 30,000 U.S. troops enjoying the services in Ieteawon, there simply isn’t a way for America to not be involved in a war. North Korea knows it. If they don’t want to become a parking lot for the next E-Mart, they would need to be pretty sure about China’s readiness to pour across the Yalu once again. A fresh Cold War does not a thing for the Chinese economy. Communist they may be, but the Soviet Union they ain’t.

For you worry warts out there, worst case scenario: If a “foreign government” invades the Republic of Korea my contract is automatically null and I use the money I have tucked away to buy airfare home. Then, in a short 24 hours, I will enjoy a french dip sub from Tanks with hand cut fries and a cup of drip coffee.

As of this moment it is another sunny, fall day in Namyangju, South Korea. The kids are still playing at the elementary school across the street. Family Mart is still selling Pepero. The squids are still swimming in tanks outside restaurants oblivious to their imminent demise. And I still have a meeting to go get ready for.

 

And They Called It Zombie Love: Seoul Zombie Walk 2010 November 5, 2010

After missing out on a traditionally wonderful Midwestern Halloween season, I made up for all the spooky goodness in one glorious night. About 50 foreigners met in Seoul Forest dressed as zombies with the purpose of terrorizing the locals. After a week of searching and on-line homemade tips, I realized that I am a product of the only culture on Earth that has a demand for fake blood. Luckily expats are friendly people who are happy to share their painfully scored blood with one another. We then shuffled to Line 2 but made a few stops in convenance stores along the way. One Line 2 we walked from car to car, the entire length of the train moaning and laughing all the way. We got off the train in Hongdae, which is where Hongik University is located. This is my favorite area of Seoul because it reminds me of my time at Columbia College in Chicago. Artsy fartsy goodness everywhere. If there is any 10 block area that would appreciate our shenanigans, Hongdae would be it.

Koreans not only do not like to get involved, but they can be bound and determined to ignore. Even if you are the walking dead and demanding, “Brains chuseyo (I want you to give brains to me)”, they will text with persistence. When the inevitable zombie apocalypse does strike, South Korea is not where you want to be. Personal space in Korea is very different from in the States. We have plenty of room to roam. We all have our own cars to surround ourselves with. We live in houses with yards. South Korea has 48 million people crammed into a country the size of Indiana and a lot of that space is taken up with mountains. Walking is different here. You buckle down and get out-of-the-way. If someone dresses as a zombie and walks up-stream, well there is no response for such a thing. They would continue to walk straight ahead linked arm in arm (as friends often do here). This only inspired me to aim in between couples to force them to split up and giving me roller derby flash backs. “I don’t see you. You can’t bother me, if I don’t see you. Moan all you want, but clearly I am sending a text message so how can I be bothered that you are the hungry dead?”

Other, more awesome Koreans, were adorably afraid. Girls would put their hands to their faces and say, “So scary. So scary. I am scared,” while they giggled and backed away for safety behind an even more terrified boyfriend. The men would try to put on a brave face but then would run a few feet away. Many people seemed to have a really good time. I made three grown women run away by standing quietly in close proximity. When Koreans are afraid they feel cold. That’s why their horror season is in the summer. I scared one man who backed away, laughing and saying, “Cheu ey yo. Cheu ey yo. (I’m cold. I’m cold)” There are most certainly a lot of pictures of me on Daum Cafe, the Korean Facebook via cellphone updates with a caption reading, “I was on my way home from work on Saturday night and I saw 50 or so foreigners at once and they were all dead. Don’t believe me? I took a picture.” The comment will read, “Chinga?” The response will be, “Chinga!”

There are a lot of things you can get away with in Korea, public intoxication to the point of vomiting on the sidewalk, public intoxication to the point of bar fighting, public intoxication to the point of throwing a chair through a window. The one thing that is 100% not OK is speaking in English loudly on the subway. Needless to say, the cops were called. What to tell you about Korean police? They are… polite, very polite. They are the least threatening police force ever. Most are very young and in this Confucian society can’t really be authoritative with anyone older or in the military, which is pretty much the entire population. They also don’t carry guns. Americans feel very entitled to their guns. Other countries have gun control so strict that not even the cops have guns. So Grumpy McCrankyPants called the cops to complain about the noise. They told us to keep it down or for real or they were going to be really mad at us like for real. The best part was when one of the zombies was so terrifying that one of the police officers turned on his heel and ran away.

There are three kinds of Americans living in Korea: military, English teacher, and other. The military boys, let’s just say, have different priorities in their Korea experiences than English teachers typically do. Of the English teachers there are two kinds: the ones who came to Korea and the ones who left North America, G.B. or the land down under. By this I mean, there are people who signed up for this job because they wanted the adventure, they enjoy working with children and/or the English language, they soak up cultures, and they thought it would be fun. Then, there are people who signed up for this job because the job market at home was shit, they hated their job, they wanted to get away from their family, and they aren’t fans of their culture or any other. In short, they are complainers. No matter where they go or what opportunities are put into their hands, they will complain. They spend their time here teaching, sulking in their apartment, and sulking over beer at the Hof.

The later type of teacher does not leave their apartment, tear up their clothes, cover themselves in blood and terrorize locals. Lucky me ūüôā This left me with a group of silly, adventurous, smart people. My advice to anyone starting this experience, get to know as many people as you can. The people who do this share some pretty important things in common. They are the kind of people you will want to stay in touch with. Walking through the streets and trains of Seoul dressed as the undead being silly and scary with people who are doing the same is one of the best things I’ve ever done. Sometimes I feel like my body is just a little too small to cram all the happiness inside and when there’s no more room in here, the happy shall walk the Earth.

 

6 Months October 25, 2010

Yesterday, Sunday October 24th, was the six month mark. As with anything in life, when you look forward, time crawls. I miss my family and friends back home. I miss driving and eating at Blind Bob’s and eating crepes at 2nd Street Market with my mom on Saturday mornings. But when you look backward, the time goes¬†by far too fast. I still haven’t done a temple stay or been to the DMZ or seen the World Heritage sites that are right here in Seoul or made the trip to Busan.

Yesterday, on my trip back from Muuido¬†Island, I took a detour to Coex¬†to get some dinner at On the Border. I didn’t realize that the trip from Muuido¬†to Coex¬†would be the exact same trip as the one I took 6 months earlier from Incheon Airport to City Air Terminal. It got me all sentimental, which if you know me, I don’t care for, but I’m learning to enjoy the feeling.

The time has come to start planning for next year, to start cramming in all the things I feel must be experienced, to plan for my vacation. I love Korea, very much. I miss home, very much (especially since my sister insisted upon making my very first niece this weekend. I can’t wait to love you Emma).

Here are eleven things I know for sure at six months in:
1) I am really good with young children. They love me and I love them.
2) I don’t care for the age when kids get to be too cool for school.
3) I could be a good teacher. I could be a good social worker.
4) I love to travel. No matter what financial future is in store for me, I should never forego travel again.
5) People like me. I don’t have to try to make them do it. If they don’t like me, that’s OK. I like me. Doug really likes me. Being happy is more important than being liked. When you stop worrying about people liking you, they like you more.
6) America is pretty great, for a lot of reasons. America is worth investing in because I am an American and other people are not. Infighting is a waste of time and effort. Your petty fights back home seem pretty childish from the other side of the ocean.
7) Even if you try something while open to a new culture, doesn’t mean you have to¬†like it. There is nothing wrong with simply not liking octopus. I can still appreciate the culture of a country and not enjoy the texture of octopus.
8 ) I don’t have to settle.
9) I really love and am good at and miss cooking.
10) American food, while delicious, is gross and unhealthy. We are eating ourselves to death.
11) I am a genuinely happy person and I consider this to be my greatest achievement to date.

 

How to get to Muuido Island from Seoul October 24, 2010

I spent a second weekend on Muuido¬†Island. This time to enjoy the fall colors and smores. I’ll let you in on the secret of entry to Muuido.

Step #1: Get yourself to Incheon Airport

Step #2: Go to the third floor and stand outside at bus stop number 5

Step #3: Get on the 222 bus. Note: There are two 222 buses. They both take you to Muuido. One will drop you off right at the ferry. The other will drop you off a very short walk from the ferry. Either is fine. They stop running at 8:20pm.

Step #4: Get to the ferry. If you happened to get on the better of the two buses you just need to walk into the white building that is the last thing before water. If you got on the other bus, you need to walk past the seafood restaurant and over a long winding bridge that looks like a good place to fall off and die as there is no room for pedestrians. Just walk behind a Korean couple that is all decked out in hiking gear and you’ll be fine.

Step #5: Buy a ferry ticket for 3,000 won. The woman speaks very good English. You will give them your yellow paper ticket when you get on the ferry. There is no return ticket. They assume that if you are on the island and taking the ferry back that it’s because you took the ferry in the first place. The ferry stops running at 8pm on weekends.

Step #6: Get off the ferry and walk under the arch that says “Welcome to Muuido” and past the stand selling corn and bundaenge and get on the green number 1 bus. It’s easy, it’s the only bus on the island.

Step #7: Take the bus to its last stop, Hanagae Beach.

Step #8: Get off the bus and walk past the big fan-shaped sign on your right to the stand on your left below the arch and by a ticket for 2,000 won to get to the beach.

Step #9: At the top of that little hill, the first building on your right, you can rent your hut. There is a big yellow sign with the rules like “Don’t campfire” You may need to shout in a quick “eugeo.” During the busy summer months it is 60,000 won¬†plus a refundable 10,000 won¬†key deposit. During the off-season¬†it is 30,000 won plus the same key deposit. Check in is at 2pm. They have pillows and blankets available. If they aren’t in your hut, go back and ask for them. There is a limit on people they will allow in a hut. Ignore that rule and cram everyone in one hut. They’re your friends, get cozy.

Step #10: Dump your stuff in your hut and enjoy Muuido. Don’t worry about locking your stuff up. They’re Koreans. They don’t steal.

This is what you need to bring with you.

1) a change of clothes if you feel like you need it.
2) a bathing suit
3) Do not bring drinks. You can buy them when you get there.
4) You can’t “campfire” but you can grill. Bring one and some charcoal¬†that comes presoaked¬†in lighter fluid and any hotdog, bun, eat stuff you want. If you time it right, you can get smore¬†stuff in Ieteawon or at Costco.
5) A blanket for the sand and a blanket to sleep under. You’ll sleep on the provided blankets.
6) There aren’t any showers, so just get ready to go without. There are bathrooms with toilet paper, but there isn’t any soap. Either bring hand soap or sanitizer.
7) Sunscreen
8) Something for breakfast, like donuts or whatever. There are some restaurants, but they are all Korean. You won’t see other choices until you get back to Incheon.
9)¬†¬†A cooler with ice to keep your food fresh. They don’t have it there.

I hope that helps weary travelers. Enjoy Muuido. Most importantly, it is a great place to meet people. Introduce yourself to your fellow foreigners. You can bother everyone with your nighttime volume together.

 

 
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