Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Christmas in Korea

When I decided to move to Korea, I realized there would be many cultural adjustments and even sacrifices I would make over the year. Halloween came without the myriad Jack-o-Lantern-ladened porches, piles of orange and black wrapped candy, and haunted houses. October 31st did, however, see many a waygook classroom bedecked in makeshift spooky decor (my classroom features bats, streamers, and pumpkins) and plenty more waygooks traipsing about the streets of downtown Daegu in an array of Halloween costumes. Needless to say, besides the pub crawl, Halloween wasn't quite the week-long show as it usually is in the US.

Then Thanksgiving rolled in. The grocery stores seemed entirely unaware of the need for freezerfuls of whopper turkeys, bins overflowing with stuffing mix, and bakeries churning out turkey- and pilgrim-encrusted confections. However, Costco seemed more than happy to provide us American expats (and our non-miguk friends) with pumpkin pies galore. And even better, the expat community publication (Daegu Pockets) made Thanksgiving meal packages available for purchase. These bundles features a large cooked turkey, stuffing, a can of cranberry sauce (we need that cylinder!), and gravy mix (all of this was lovely, by the way). And all friends American and otherwise joined together their strengths (think Captain Planet) to provide an excellent meal worthy of any American family's table at the end of November. And of course, Thanksgiving lessons were dished out to many a salivating class of students across town. (My third and fourth grade afterschool class was particularly irritated with my pictorial display of juicy turkey and flaky biscuits around 4pm.)

December cropped up more quickly than I had expected. In the US, I am so used the warning that "December is nigh!" when the Christmas decor seeps its way into stores as the Halloween clearance sales begin. But this year, Thanksgiving came and went without a trace of mall Santas, Starbucks Christmas cups holding Gingerbread Lattes, and those eager neighbors with the crazy light display to put up the very second the leftovers are packed away. I reluctantly accepted that Christmas would not smell of gingerbread and spices nor would feature twinkle lights on every unsuspecting tree and bush about town; I guessed that this would be Christmas in Korea - like any other day in Korea, just in December.

Just when I began to accept that Christmas may be bah-humbuggy, I saw the first lights of the season. And then it seemed as if a sea of lights grew overnight across Daegu. It was as if the Grinch had brought back all of the lights and trees and bamboozlers and wambunckles and Christmas was restored, and with it, my Christmas spirit. There are lights all around Daegu - adorning the Donga department store, covering Junangro Memorial Park, twinkling across various stores and coffee shops. It just seems right and I am so happy that Korea has adopted these Christmas traditions, commercial as they may be. And then I began to notice the Christmas cups - Holly's, Da Vinci, Angel-in-us all provided their customers with cheery red and green Christmas-themed cups.

A few days later, I decided I needed a Christmas tree, so I hurried to Homeplus and purchased a 5-foot-tall artificial tree and ornaments. That night, I put up my tree in my tiny studio apartment and all seemed right with the world. As I saw the lights on my tree twinkle and admired the star on top, I could finally accept and appreciate that it was Christmas. And even though I will be spending my actual Christmas in Kyoto, Japan with my mom, I know that back home in Daegu there is a Christmas tree waiting for me and a stocking hung on my dresser with care.

Merry Christmas everyone. May your holidays be filled with joy and all that you wish for this holiday season. And please, be safe out there.

Love and Happiest of Holidays to all,


Sunday, December 5, 2010

YG Family!!!!!

I've been waiting months for yesterday to happen. Around October, a few friends and I purchased tickets to the much-anticipated YG Family Concert 2010. The YG Family is an entertainment empire here in South Korea. They essentially hold an enormous share of the pop/hip-hop market here on the peninsula. Among their bigger names are Big Bang, 2NE1, SE7EN, Gummy, and PSY (video links). All of these guys performed at the concert.

Sunday started out pretty rough, as Shannon and I decided to hop the more economical bus up to Seoul. This was sort of a mistake. After going to every single bus terminal at Dongdaegu, we finally find the Seoul-bound bus. The bus takes roughly 4 hours, double that of my preferred KTX form of transit. But whatever, slight hitch in plans. We arrive in a heavily overcast Seoul and make our way to Olympic Park, which takes roughly an eon on the subway. We were feeling fairly exhausted and uncomfortable from our long trip up, and began to develop second thoughts on our decision to head to a super poppy Korean (i.e. - lots of lights and glitter) concert with a bazillion screaming girls. But we persevered. Arriving at Olympic Park, we were greeted by numerous stands peddling 2NE1/BigBang glow sticks, key chains, mouse pads, pillows - everything. Then we finally made it to the venue and head in to the show. I was right; lights and glitter were in no short supply and the screaming girls were a bit more screamy than I expected but it is a pop concert. We settle into our pretty fantastic seats (thanks Bethany!) and wait to wowed.

Since we arrived a bit late, we missed a couple 2NE1 songs (oh well) and came into a Se7en song. Pretty slow start until Gummy rolls out with a brilliant piano solo number. Her voice is beautiful but the real surprise came when the stage began to move. The stage was probably the second star of this show, after BigBang, of course. Never have I seen so many lights, fireworks, fire(!), confetti cannons, moving parts, elevator lifts (like 8 or 9), and length on a stage before! These guys really know how to put on a show. At one point there were at least 10 confetti canons running for a solid 4 minutes. SO MUCH GLITTER! Anyhow, here a few highlights from the show:

1) Se7en comes out to sing and sits on a circular table in the middle of the stage. The stage lifts up and out of the stage and he continues to melt our hearts from about 20 feet above the stage. When he comes back down to the stage, he changes into the sparkliest sneakers I've ever seen. But these aren't just any sneakers - they are roller skates. He skates all around the stage and it's just adorable.

2) This song. I know, it doesn't seem like anything special but increasing the popularity of the phrase "What's up?" is a goal shared by every single English teacher in Korea. No one understands this phrase. Thank you guys for furthering our cause!

3) BigBang's entire wardrobe, including: the sparkliest jackets I've ever seen (G-Dragon's green one was the best), giant fur coats word by T.O.P. and G-Dragon, ginormous chains, and the sparkly gloves.

4) T.O.P.'s new platinum/white hair.

5) My realization that PSY looks like a Korean Wayne Newton. No lies, this guy is old and a little creepy. And his only dance move is jumping.

6) The encore (or in-core, as Koreans say) of the concert. All acts came out and performed a couple number together, including their rendition of We Are The World (this is actually from the concert I attended, sorry about the poor quality, cameras weren't allowed - sneaky sneaky person!).

Overall, it was a great experience (minus the girl screaming bloody murder behind us). We also got a decent amount of camera time grooving to the beats. I now have a much greater appreciation for BigBang (Shinee used to be my #1 KPop band but after last night's show they've been ousted) and Korean showmanship. If you like KPop, I absolutely recommend heading to a concert - you will never look at glitter the same way again.

(Apologies for the lack of my own pictures but as I said, no pictures were allowed. I tried to snag a few with my phone but the event staff was insanely vigilant.)

Thursday, November 25, 2010

I Really, Really Hate Running

But I'm doing it anyhow. For no particular reason, I committed to running 2 races in the next few months. The first race is a Santa 5K in Seoul on December 11th. The gist is everyone dresses in Santa outfits and runs a race (among other competitions like Tug of War, a 10k, and a walk). I'm hoping to run it in less than 30 minutes. I am not a fast runner nor an efficient runner. I just pray my teammates don't leave me in the dust. After sprinting through the South Korean capital decked in red and white my team will like engage in heavy merry-making around the city whilst still decked in our tacky Christmas garb. Tis the season!

Despite the fun to follow, this is my first race ever. As many of you know, I'm not exactly athletic and I am anything but a runner. I love yoga and kayaking and will on occasion go on a gym kick, but running? Oh heck no. However, somehow I have forced myself into buying a new pair of running kicks and sticking to a training schedule that my friend Bridgette was so lovely to put together. I am on week three now and have only missed a couple runs - I have a really busy life here! I just hope I can stick to it until April.
My new kicks! Asics 2150s
My second race is a 10k. I will run it in mid-April as part of the Daegu Marathon. At first I entertained the idea of running the full marathon. That conviction didn't last too long as I realized how long a marathon really is - 26.2 miles is quite a ways to run. I could do it in maybe a day or so, but under 4 hours? I think not. So the 10k was a safe bet for me, a truly attainable goal. My friend Shannon and I will run the 10k and wait at the finish line as Bridgette completes the full marathon. *cue cliched cheer* You go girl!

So through April, I will need all the positive thoughts I can get. Running isn't an easy habit for me to pick up (your knees hurt, your ankles hurt, your shins hurt, it's boring, etc etc). But I feel fantastic when I complete each run; I'm committing to something good for me and can share my trials and successes with 2 others in the same boat. I'm determined to finish these races, even if my times aren't exactly world class. I'm a complete neophyte in the running and racing world, still unsure if it will become a "thing" for me, but for now it's giving me a goal to strive for and hey, how cool is it to run a couple races in South Korea? Wish me luck!

That day, for no particular reason, I decided to go for a little run. So I ran to the end of the road. And when I got there, I thought maybe I'd run to the end of town. And when I got there, I thought maybe I'd just run across Greenbow County. And I figured, since I run this far, maybe I'd just run across the great state of Alabama. And that's what I did. I ran clear across Alabama. For no particular reason I just kept on going. I ran clear to the ocean. And when I got there, I figured, since I'd gone this far, I might as well turn around, just keep on going. When I got to another ocean, I figured, since I'd gone this far, I might as well just turn back, keep right on going. - Forrest Gump

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The Slump

It's official. The honeymoon is over. I've hit the Negotiation Phase. Culture Shock is a fascinating phenomenon, and one I've experienced plenty of times in my 23 years. I knew moving to Korea would prove challenging and would require extreme adjustments. Here I walk down the street and can barely understand what people say. Although I've finally mastered the Korean Hangul alphabet, street signs and menus still prove difficult.

I love the friends I've made here, am comfortable in my tiny apartment, embrace my options for travel, enjoy my new job and coworkers, and generally like my new life. But it was bound to happen. As I rode the crest of the honeymoon through September and October I hoped I could power through to 2011 unscathed by cultural anxiety but now I find myself frustrated and wounded in the trough. The week hasn't been the best one. I recently agreed to take on an extra class (6 more hours of teaching per week), lured by the prospect of some supplementary won to finance my upcoming winter excursions.

The students today were abysmally behaved: throwing things everywhere, full of blatant defiance, and refusing to focus. Today was the first time I ever punished a student. Granted the punishment wasn't exactly severe but it was still a new frontier for me. (I made him copy the sentence "I will behave." 10 times. I am pretty sure he has no idea what it means.) Then my fourth class was over and I assumed the rest of the day would be fine. But I was wrong.

My fall from grace occurred today at lunch. I've struggled with the midday menu at school all year - it isn't exactly what I am used to at home. But today as I glanced through the offerings held by the prison-like serving dishes in the cafeteria, my heart (and my appetite) sunk further and further. Kimchi: I hate kimchi. I am not afraid of the repercussions of this affirmation. Although every Korean enjoys this pungent side dish with every meal every day, I frankly can't stand it. One option bypassed. The second tray held what looked like a cold, floppy omelet in water. I spooned a small helping onto my penitentiary tray and hoped for the best. The third bin held tiny dried fish - loathsome dried fish! The fourth bowl cradled the dreaded topoki (a squishy white tubular item made of glutinous rice). Needless to say I didn't help myself to any. And then the rice. The rice which has always been my lunchtime saviour when all else seemed lost. But today it just didn't seem right. Didn't feel right. And finally, the soup. Really the "soup," usually a mixture of brown water and some sort of flaccid vegetable stirred in. I passed on it, as I always do.

I sat down at the end table in the cafeteria along with the other teachers. Then I just stared into my half-empty lunch plate. My appetite flitted away. I tried to force a few bites of rice down but I felt like my body was rejecting it. It kept saying to me, "Erin! No more rice! Seriously! This is getting ridiculous." And then it happened. I had to literally fight back the tears. I became so irrationally irate at the white lump of rice on my tray. I told my fellow teachers I had a stomachache and was going to return to my desk. I sulked up the stairs and back to my desk. And then I just sat there, staring at my computer in my dark English classroom. Then I realized what had happened. My honeymoon was over.

I know it will get better, as my friends here have already assured me. They are a major reason I keep going here. And my co-teacher is also fantastic. After lunch she came back to see if I was OK (I think she knew I didn't care for the offering today) and placed a meal replacement-like drink on my desk in case I was hungry. I'm lucky to be where I am, know who I do, and work at my school. I've already heard of people leaving. But I'm going to finish this, and I'm going to love it again. Maybe not today, maybe not even next week but soon. I'll be back to the Erin who love kimbap and mandu, who enjoys being out in downtown Daegu, and who gets excited every time she successfully orders in Korean at a restaurant. But for tonight, I am looking for solace in a cheeseburger and french fries, one of the most Western meals I can think of, a good run (ugh this marathon training - more on that later), a cold Hite, and some commiseration with good friends. It should do the trick.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Beam Me Up, Daegu!

Apologies for the hiatus, October tends to be the busiest month for me - birthday and Halloween. So as I sit here at my desk in the Daesung English Village, rocking out to early 2000s pop songs (yes, the Backstreet Boys are still cool) I thought a good use of my time would be to toss up another post on my blog.

As many have likely seen on Facebook, I underwent a bit of a change for my Halloween costume this year. Except for a few months in 2007, I've been a blonde my entire life. And considering the wealth of wig shops here I decided it was time for an experiment. So my coteacher and I headed down to an alley near Daegu Station to pick out my new locks. After pursuing each shop's selection, I picked a hairstyle that I could base an easy Halloween costume around. They called it, a "Cleopatra" (although I am sure the former Queen of the Nile would beg to differ). I sat down on a pink, plastic stool and placed myself into the able hands of the shopkeeper. She placed a black net around my hair, put a few clips in, and tada! my blonde hair was nowhere to be seen. Then the black hair descended and I stared into the mirror in shock. I believe the initial horror came from the blinding light emanating from my skin - extreme paleness combined with the dark black strands framing my face produced an extremely pallid coloration. But then I started to dig it. It was new and different.

Considering a professional placed the wig on my head, I left it on for the rest of the day (I was uncertain if I could replicate such skill application of a hair net and clips). And of course, 2 minutes after leaving the shop I ran into a few of my students. They started chatting with my coteacher, completely ignoring me - they had no idea! I finally spoke up and they nearly died of fright/surprise/horror. I received many of those reactions as Halloween night ticked on - I would wave excitedly or say hi to friends who just stared at me with the, "I don't think I know you but I don't want to be rude" face. Then came the realization that they did know the person under the plastic hair.

Then we continued on to find the remained of my costume. I settled on Nyota Uhura from Star Trek TOS for my Halloween costume - I had the wig, the boots, and all I needed was a red shirt and a homemade communicator. In the United States, most people would recognize my costume as being something from Star Trek but here in Korea, NO ONE knows of Star Trek! It's horrifying! I may need to adopt its introduction as a personal mission.

Long story short, Halloween was a success and never have I seen so many people out in Daegu. The only downfall to my Halloween costume choice is the aftermath of the wig: on occasion, I find black hairs in my apartment and begin to freak out (because those definitely aren't mine). Then I remember that oh yes, there is a wig in my apartment that is the culprit. I'm considering taking the old black do out for a spin again - maybe in a month or so, just to see reactions. At times, I felt as if I got more stares in the wig than as a blonde. Or perhaps that was me in disbelief that I was wearing a wig in public. Either way, Daegu hasn't seen the last of Erin the brunette.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Confession: I am hopelessly addicted to KPop

Eh eh eh eh eh eh eh eh 2NE1
With my 23rd birthday (woo!) fast approaching, I decided to plan a shindig with a theme. Now, I hardly ever do anything that is themed outside of Halloween and Ugly Christmas Sweater parties, but this year required an exception. So I made an executive decision and made my 23rd birthday a day dedicated to 2PM/KPop. As always, there needed to be a dance party, and the local club JEEEP serendipitously is hosting a Boogie Nights dance party on the Saturday before my birthday (i.e. - celebration night). That fit perfectly with the plan but something else was needed...the theme.

Since coming to Korea, especially to an elementary school, I have not been able to avoid the spectre of 2PM, SHINee, Big Bang, and the other myriad poppy bands belonging to the genre KPop (Korean Pop). Example, this week I had my 6th graders create a "Bucket List" for the chapter on "What do you want to do?" Needless to say, 98% of the girls mentioned something about meeting/being/seeing/marrying 2NE1, 2PM, Big Bang, Girl's Generation, Beast, 4 minutes, Miss A, Wonder Girls, 2 AM, and MBLAQ. So it only made sense to dedicate my 23rd year with such an ubiquitous phenomenon, but I had really never listened to KPop, merely admired their ridiculous fashion sense from afar. This all changed this morning.

In preparation for my shopping trip this evening to acquire my proper KPop costume for Saturday, I began to listen to the bands which cause every Korean girl to scream and generally freak out. It began with 2PM's "Again & Again." Warning: 2PM is a gateway drug, people. Then it went to "RingDingDong" by SHINee. Then "Fire" by 2NE1. Then I couldn't stop myself. So now, I have spent every free minute of my day at work listening to KPop songs. Good news is that they really bring up my energy and place me in a fantastic mood. My students keep looking at me strangely as I rock out at my desk to, little do they know, their favorite bands.

Tonight will require many important decisions: fingerless gloves or fishnet? fake eyelashes or excessive glitter? gold or red tights? Girl's Generation or 2NE1???

All I know is that Saturday will be a great night. Shake it! Shake shake it!

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Dynamic != Last Minute!

Dynamic Korea: the new maxim of South Korea. I always consider dynamism to be collaborative, productive, and, though in constant flux, generally organized. Well, dynamism in Korea veers rather far from my accepted definition. I grant that South Korea has experienced substantial growth between 1960 and 1980, climbing from a GDP similar to that of Afghanistan to 15th place where it is now. Korea also enjoys a fair amount of superlatives and notable accomplishments, such as home to the world's largest shipbuilding industry (they currently hold almost half of the world market), one of the world's largest manufacturers of automobiles (i.e. - Hyundai Kia), and a member of the Asian Tiger economies (Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, and South Korea). Needless to say, Korea did an excellent job of raising itself from relative industrial and economic obscurity to the booming money-maker it is today. However, I honestly cannot see how things get done here sometimes.

Dynamic Korea in Korea means that things are constantly susceptible to change - this includes rules, laws, timetables, expectations, fashion, culture, really anything, especially things you expect to fluctuate less often (like conceptions of punctuality). Here's an example of Dynamic Korea: You are told by your boss to finish a particular project in 2 weeks. You think this is ample time to perform quality work. Two days later, after you have drawn up elaborate plans for this project, your boss says the project is now due in an hour. This, my friends, is Dynamic Korea. There is no arguing with it, there is no changing it, because that is the culture that has taken hold in South Korea and has apparently worked for them. They aren't going to budge. For me, experiences with Dynamic Korea have proved vexing to say the least. Yesterday, I was told at the end of the day that tomorrow we are all going to leave school early and climb a mountain. This was actually decent lead time, since I had the opportunity to tailor my wardrobe decision to the activity. I usually am not so lucky.

Many NETs (Native English Teachers) in Daegu received an email from the Ministry of Education here. This email indicated that a required online training program which we were told needed to be completed by January is now due in 2 weeks. Hmph. I am lucky that I spent most of my 5 hour layover in the Detroit airport in August going through these videos. Most others are not as fortunate as I and must now spend countless hours cramming in online tutorials on child psychology and classroom management. (Note: We have all been teaching for some time now, not sure how these sessions will really augment our ability to conduct a class properly.)

Another source of frustration from Dynamic Korea came with my orientation schedule. As a late-comer to the EPIK program, I unfortunately missed the first, big orientation and was required to attend another in Seoul. Since I was eager to head to Seoul and explore, I planned to head up for my Chuseok vacation. KTX purchased and I was ready to go. Then a few days before school ended for Chuseok, us late-comers got an email that orientation would begin the Saturday of Chuseok! Well, it's fortunate I didn't plan a trip to Japan which would render me unable to join the required orientation. Once again, I managed to avoid disaster somehow but I know that one of these days my luck will run out.

I also do not know when my winter vacation is so my Mom can book a trip to visit (and expecting to know summer vacation is nigh laughable). As a final source of anxiety, I am keeping close tabs on the release date of the first installment of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. There is a website which constantly updates international release dates (because it is imperative I see it directly when it comes out). However, one of the only countries lacking a release date (which is supposed to be sometime next month) is.....KOREA! TBD TBD TBD is all I see! It is driving me bonkers and I really need enough time to pull together a quality Ravenclaw getup.

As an addendum: I just checked the website again and the release date was FINALLY posted! Perhaps whining about it IS a viable strategy. December 16 can't get here soon enough!

Sunday, October 10, 2010

To the DMZ we go!

Yes, they have Popeye's at the DMZ. Yes, the serve "remonade."

Pro tip: Do not go on a DMZ tour hungover.

For years, I have dreamed of going to the DMZ. As an international affairs nerd, how could I not? Even though the constant, and rather annoying, claims that Korea is the "only divided country in the world" are entirely wrong (um, Cyprus and Ireland to name a few), the allure of being so close to North Korea gave me little chills. Anyhow, the schedule worked out and we were headed to the DMZ on Friday morning with a pick-up of 7:15am. I generally think this is a heinous hour but especially if you are out until 5am the night before. Needless to say, I slept a lot on the bus.

After the hourish bus ride up to the DMZ area, we hop off the bus into a large parking lot. From here, we are to climb a small hill to view "The Bridge of No Return," some large bell, and apparently, a Popeye's Louisiana Kitchen. Yes, ladies and gents, you can quench you appetite for gumbo and fried chicken at the DMZ. To be quite honest, the scenery was fairly stark, as the North Koreans have cleared all trees from their side of the line. There was a broken-down train from the Korean War, an area where people (I think) wrote messages to family/friends in the North, and a memorial laden with empty soju bottles. I guess pouring one out for your homies is an international phenomenon.
Pouring many out for the homies.
Next stop: the DMZ museum and the dun dun dun....THIRD TUNNEL! The museum was fine, chock full of wax figures and scale models. These models included a sampling of the burgeoning flora and fauna of the actual DMZ area. Apparently when humans aren't allowed in an area it becomes a place perfect for natural life to flourish. Who knew!? Anyhow, I found myself spacing out during this part of the tour, as these types of museums remind me terribly of It's A Small World at Disney World. (NB: I really dislike dioramas, unless it's like the one of the cavemen at the Smithsonian. And if they are singing, everything is worse.) Anyhow, we are then shuffled into a theatre where we watch a dreaded video. I also found myself nodding off during this section. I was there to see North Korea!!! Not videos of trees in North Korea. Ehem.

So it's off to the tunnel. I can dig a good tunnel every now and then, plus we were technically walking into North Korea (well, really in that general direction). The tunnels were dug by the North Koreans some odd years ago for a surprise attack on Seoul. As the story goes, an NK defector tipped on the SKs that the tunnels were there. The SKs, of course, didn't believe him until some SK troops were digging a hole for something and popped into one the tunnels. Then they found 3 more (the NK said there were about 20 in total...ruh roh!). After putting our stuff up in lockers (of course, you aren't allowed to take anything down), we make the descent into the....Third Tunnel of Aggression!!! We don required hardhats (which I didn't understand the purpose of until later) and begin the roughly 500 meter trek downwards. The way down was fine, as all walks downhill are. Then we hit the actual tunnel. Oh, I thought we were already in a tunnel. Yes and no. Turns out the first part was made by the SKs to gain access to the actual tunnel. Surrounded by dripping ceilings and scaffolding, we make our way into the actual third tunnel. Then I realize what the hard hats are for, as I slam my head directly into a low-rigged scaffold. Hunching my way to the end, the roughly 250 meters toward North Korea seemed like a damp, craggy eternity. Then we made it to the end. The end is a big wall in the middle of the tunnel. On the other side of the wall are 2 more severely reinforced walls to hold the NKs at bay for as long as possible. Peering through the tiny window in the first wall I couldn't help but get a little giggly, "Oh! North Korea is on the other side of the other side of that door!! Eeee!!!"

The trip back through the actual tunnel was fine, although I managed to smack my head a couple more times (thank the gods for the hardhats). And then it came. The base of the SK tunnel toward the ground. I couldn't see the exit from there but I knew it was up there; 500 meters up there. I was cursing myself at this point for being so foolish and staying til dawn the night before. I really could have used that energy. And so the ascent began. I was rather proud of myself, as I did not take advantage of the various benches placed on either side of the tunnel about every 75 meters. And then I saw the light of day and sprinted to the finish line. Phew. And then I visited the gift shop and bought a DMZ travel mug. And so was my adventure into the Third Tunnel of Aggression!!!!

Onto the observation deck (I'm really not sure what the official word for this is, so observation deck will have to do for now.) This is really what I was looking forward to. Not that being far down in the ground pretty darn close to NK wasn't super cool, this was actually seeing the inside of NK. So here's the deal. You aren't allowed to take pictures past a certain line, so tall people really have an advantage here (me, I had to resort to standing on my tip-toes trying in vain to snap pics of the propaganda village). I did it! Sort of. Then we made our way over to the binoculars. You pop in a 500\ coin and bingo! Front row viewing of NK "industry", the two big flag poles, and the propaganda village. A PROPAGANDA VILLAGE! I was in heaven, to say the least. So cool! Now, from what I could see of actual NK, not much was going on. It was in the middle of the day on Friday, so in any normal place there should be people hustin' and bustlin' about, but not in NK. After about 20 minutes taking in the sites of the industrially dead NK, we head back to the bus for our final stop of the day: Dorasan Station.

Dorasan Station was built fairly recently in preparation of the impending reunification of the two Koreas. This station hopes to become the hub for Pyeonyang-Seoul train travel whenever this reunification thing actually happens. People may enjoy the newly christened DMZ Natural Wildlife Park (which will eventually become overrun and the only wildlife it can support are the heartiest, and usually scariest, of squirrels) then hop a train back to the NK capital of Pyeongyang. Some day... And after touring around the station (by touring around I mean going to the bathroom then waiting outside), we settled back into the bus and headed back to Seoul. Despite the day being entirely devoid of war games and military parades, I enjoyed my experience on the DMZ, maybe one day I will actually be able to make it past the line and into the country. I hear it's the best way to meet a president!

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Chuseok in Seoul

After a rather decent hiatus, I've resolved to hop back on the hyperwebs and share my thoughts with all of you lovely people (whoever you may be). In the time since my last post, much has happened in my life here in South Korea. Among them was Chuseok holiday in Seoul, EPIK late-comer orientation also in Seoul, the Foreign Service Exam once again in Seoul, a birthday party or two, and my first outing with my school. This recap may need to be executed in installments, as some of these events are rather noteworthy. But let's take it one step at a time.

Here goes:

Chuseok. It's the Korean equivalent to Thanksgiving where families gather, eat liberally, and pay respect to their loved ones who have passed on. Chuseok also means a 4 day vacation for Erin Teacher. When I found out my move to Korea was set, my friend Alex mentioned that he would have 2 opportunities to stop by Seoul for a visit. The stars aligned and the first window of opportunity fell during Chuseok. So within the first month of my stay in Korea, I got to enjoy the company of a friend from home. And then, another friend from Kentucky who is also teaching with EPIK headed down to Seoul to enjoy the sights with us.

I left for Dongdaegu Station on a lovely Tuesday morning, excited to finally have the chance to explore the vibrant capital city of Seoul. The almost 2 hour bullet train ride from Daegu was smooth and I enjoyed a brilliant nap. When I awoke at Seoul Station, however, I saw, to my dismay, that it was raining. Great. But I brought an umbrella so I assumed it would be manageable. WRONG. I descended the subway, laden with luggage carrying clothing for the next 10 days. After frantically searching for a subway map in English (at the point, I couldn't read Hangul - not anymore!), I boarded the train to Hongik Uni to drop my luggage at the hostel, meet my friend Sean, and wait for Alex to arrive in Seoul that evening. As the train pulled into the Hongik Uni station, I popped out of my seat and headed toward the door to exit, only to be met with the sight of a yellow-poncho-clad man waving his hands furiously that I go to the next car to disembark. This was due to the deluge pouring through the roof of the metro station. The water was half a foot high on the metro platform. Odd event, maybe the plumbing burst. Also, WRONG.

Lugging my bags up the many stairs to the upper platform and exits, I see people running around as if Godzilla had just turned up in Korea. I think I would have preferred Godzilla to the actual reason for the absolute havoc: the second flood. Every exit was blocked off due to water up to my shins. I finally found my friend and we boldly exited, hoping to survive the disaster. Well, of course I survived, but never have I been so miserable in my life. Of course I left my rain coat in Daegu and the only other shoe option I had were my shower shoes, which I eagerly changed into. Note: never wear shower shoes in a flood unless you have to, because you will inevitably almost lose one and have Korean men running after them for you. Slogging, truly slogging, through a foot of water in the streets of Seoul, I deposited my luggage into a dry location and headed back out to find further shelter.

The epitome of style!
Apparently Seoul receives about 1200mm of rain per year. The day I arrived, 300mm fell. ONE FOURTH OF ANNUAL RAINFALL. And of course, I had to be there that day. Cars and buses had no idea what to do. I can't even count the number of taxis I saw drive straight into the water only to flick their emergency lights on directly after. Buses were barely making it. Korean women, dressed in their usual high heels and posh outfits, were struggling to walk through the currents in their 3 inch suede wedges. And then there was me, covered in a 1500won yellow plastic poncho (to keep my purse dry, everything else was a lost cause), blue sparkly shower shoes, and hair like a wet dog fighting the currents to get to a coffee shop or anywhere that would prove drier and less windy than the outside.

And after surviving such peril I believe, like after any terrible event, I need a tshirt saying, "I Survived the Great Seoul Flood of 2010." Or something.

I really did enjoy my time in Seoul. Great seeing friends from the US again. Brilliant seeing all of the sites (like a real tourist!) and enjoying the free admission to all historical places on Chuseok. Granted, all of the palaces and temples in Seoul look exactly alike, but this is probably due to the fact that the Japanese bombed the bageezus out of them and they all had to be recreated...they still look like something direct from Epcot (minus the terrifying lifesize Disney characters and overpriced tiaras). Insadong market is a lot of fun, Itaewon (the foreigner area) I could have done without, Hyewa is a nice area to just chill and grab a bite, and Hongdae is amazing for nightlife. Especially if you know the right park to head make it short, I spent that Friday night with a few friends and random Koreans drinking soju, singing, and dancing in a park near the big bar area. Probably one of the best nights I've enjoyed yet in Korea. Plus, there were also delicious corn dogs involved.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

These people are serious about their karaoke.

Last night marked my first foray into the world of the norebang, or music room. These ubiquitous entertainment centers are a brilliant way to spend a Saturday night with friends, colleagues, family - really anyone willing to have a bit of fun. So when a group of us decided to give the norebang a go last night, we stopped at the closest Family Mart before heading down to do some serious singing.

See, at a norebang, you bring your own liquor! Unlike the karaoke bars in the United States, norebangs are private rooms, instead of a crowded bar sloppily equipped with a small stage, some dude claiming to be the "DJ", so many country songs you want to run away, and a lot of inappropriately drunk people. In Korea, karaoke is performed in the safe company of your friends (not the ENTIRE bar) and you can enjoy your drink of choice (on the cheap!). So we grabbed a couple bottles of soju and a few Hites and mozied on down to the music room.

You descend stairs into a lobby room where payment is tendered by a guy at a desk. He then escorts you to your private room. We were met with a large, U-shaped, fairly comfy couch (along with 2 pillows, one with a scene of a cat and pumpkin - still trying to flesh that one out), a large glass table, a fan, 2 song books, 2 remotes to enter the song selections, 2 microphones (complete with 2 hairnet-like covers, for hygiene), and 3 TV screens. Bottle caps were popped off and the soju began to flow.

The night witnessed renditions of old standards like "Baby Got Back" and "Birthday Sex," as well as new hits like "Baby" (yes, we sang Justin Bieber, it happened) and "Bad Romance." Fortunately for us, our karaoke prowess was idolized by the scoring mechanism built into the song software. You get points just like Rock Band! The first 100 of the night was the Toto hit "Africa." There were more, of course, but I am hard-pressed to think of which ones. Such glory.

After the first hour in the norebang dwindled to seconds, we were faced with the decision: do we suck it up and toss another 2000\ each into the pot for another hour or relocate. Needless to say, the decision was a swift one and we scrounged up enough change to book the room for another hour of sheer brilliance.

As the second hour came to a close, my eyes did, too. No, seriously, I pretty much fell asleep in the norebang room. After the 2 hour marathon of singing and dancing and rallying, I decided the best idea for me was to seek out a cab and head back to my studio apartment. Awaking on Sunday morning to sun rays peeking through my window (I can't close the tinted one all the way because of where the A/C pipe is - not complaining), I groggily got up, made some coffee, and flipped on the Discovery channel. Then I considered Skyping my mom and a friend at home. This plan was immediately scratched when I realized this feat would be entirely impossible: the norebang was a great decision, but my voice would beg to differ.

Ice Cream In a Tube

This past Thursday, I was sitting at my desk at school, lesson planning and surfing the Internet. Then it dawned on me: ice cream after school would be delicious! So I decided after 4:30pm rolled around I would pay a quick visit to my local convenience store and pick up an ice cream. I continued tweaking my powerpoint for Monday's lesson when one of the students from an afterschool class held in the English room came up to me and placed an ice cream on my desk! What brilliance! It was as if the student read my mind.

The packet seemed like a normal ice cream pack you would pick out of a case at a 7-11. But when I tore open the packaging I was greeted by something that looked like one of those Squeeze-its from my childhood. Unsure how to begin to eat this strange new frozen treat, I glanced over to see what the other kids were doing. Apparently, you just rip off the top and squeeze away! (Demonstration in the youtube video, which is both helpful and mildly disturbing.)

The flavor was chocolate almond - I think - and was quit tasty, really. Very much like very cold chocolate milk with a nutty twist. All in all a good experience. No mess, a delicious frozen snack - that's what a Papico is! I hope the US gets these soon, as they are both tasty AND highly efficient.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010


Behold the glory!

Today marks a great day in Daegu, South Korea!


It works and it has a remote and it is cold. And it is good. So I am now planning on spending the evening ogling my shiny new AirCon unit. And then probably go out and do something.

Monday, September 6, 2010

The List: Couples Underwear and $10 waffles

I love making lists. To do lists, inventories, bullet points, talking points, shopping lists, etc. You get the point. So as I was sitting in Holly's Coffee in downtown Daegu on Sunday, I made a list. My iPhone was dead, I brought no reading material, and I needed some caffeine to revitalize me before I continued my exploratory trek about the city.

Now, this list may not be anthropologically sound but my interest in cultural differences drove its creation. This is a list of things I find amusing/different/notable/nuts about Korean culture. I hope to make this a regular type post, as the length of the list is continually growing. So, let's take a look at what made the list this week:

* Couples Matching Underwear/Polos/Everything: Korea seems to be a huge couples culture. On many occassions, I've witnessed a boy and a girl strolling down the street, hands locked, and um, yeah, wearing the same shirt. No, not like, "Oh! We both decided to wear red today. How funny." more like, "Hey hunny, let's wear those blue and striped polos with the turtle on the pocket downtown today." It is the exact same shirt. I've been warned that there is also couples underwear. Leave that to the imagination (or at least until I find a good picture!)-This point also references another point I made: no one ever goes out alone, it seems (more later).

*$10 Waffles: Waffles are delcious. They are really an international sensation. From the breakfast haven of the Waffle House to the surprise "goffre" stands in the Madrid metro, waffles are available pretty much everywhere, including South Korea. However, the waffles I've seen here (adorned as many places do - fruit, whipped cream, chocolate sauce, ice cream, etc) are expensive. You say, "How can a waffle be expensive? It's a waffle." My point exactly. These aren't laced with truffle oil nor sprinkled with beluga caviar. They are waffles with ice cream. And they will run you $8-12. I haven't tried one yet but I hope they're worth it!

*The Mini Pizza Lady: Downtown Daegu is rife with drinking foreigners, whether they are English teachers, army guys (and gals), or just expats in general. This market has been seized by a very special entreprenuer: the mini pizza lady. Her set-up looks much like an over-sized Easy Bake oven on a cart. Her pizzas look pretty quality, too and are cheap. I've been told it's a must try and will be sure to add it to the "To Do in Daegu" list.

*2 Sets of Toothbrushes: I have 2 sets of toothbrushes here in Korea: one for home, one for school. The first week I was at Daesung, I noticed all of the teachers brushing their teeth after lunch. Obviously, I felt left out. And I happen to just love dental hygeiene so I seized the opportunity to fit in and bought another toothbrush and tube of toothpaste. Now, every day after lunch, I brush my teeth. It feels great.

*Indoor Shoes: Although I have not invested in a pair, many other EPIK teachers mentioned they were highly encouraged by their colleagues to bring a pair of "indoor school shoes" to leave in their office. It's a good idea, preventing the tracking of mud, rain, poop, etc into the school building. However, there is one fatal flaw: many schools here in Korea have multiple buildings in which you are required to travel outside to get to. Mine is such a school. So now, that pair of "indoor" shoes becomes a pair of "indoor/sometimes outdoor" shoes. I may grab a pair at some point but that depends if I can find a store that carries a 270 in women's shoes (As I was told by a shoe store clerk on Sunday, "270! That is man size!" - Thanks).

I'm gonna be a Real Alien!

In order to actually count as a person here in South Korea, one must obtain an Alien Registration Card (ARC). One needs this to get a cell phone, internet, bank account, health insurance, yadda yadda. Fortunately I already have internet and a bank account but am lacking in the cell phone department, which severely hinders contact with the outside, English-speaking world. In order to remedy my feeling of helplessness, I made the sojourn across the city with my co-teacher to apply for my ARC and finally count here.

Thankfully the office is open until 6, so I did not need to sign out of school (yet again) to run errands. The application was easy enough (about the same info as applying for a credit card) and the cost, I thought, was 10,000 won. False. As the weekend excursions of merrymaking and shopping cleaned out my cash supply of won, I scrounged through my wallet in search of a meager 10,000 for the fee. I found it! One 5,000 note, 3 1,000 notes, 3 500 coins, and 5 100 coins. Bingo. Exactly 10,000. Of course with any sort of official/government anything, there are other costs involved. Notably, the extra 50,000 won stamp in my passport to allow me multiple re-entries into the country (I plan to go to Japan, Malaysia, Indonesia, among others) and the 4,000 won fee to mail it back. Normally I would have just opted to return and pick the card up, but that would take quite some time. The mail option allows you to receive your card a day or so after it is finished. The earlier I am a real alien the better. And because they do not have an ATM handy at the Daegu Immigration Office, I had to borrow the 54,000 won from my co-teacher (which reminds me, I need to give that back...)

The biggest stressor with the ARC, though, is that once again I had to surrender my passport (to have the re-entry stamp put in it) and it will be mailed back to me. So this means all I have as ID right now is my Kentucky driver's license, which everyone thinks is fake, and my UK ID, which has the face of a rabid cat on it. Hooray.

I will be sure to post what my Alien registration looks like. And no, Mom, the picture doesn't have antennas on it. :)

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Live from the DaeSung Elementary News Room!

Hello, hairy fish, scary fish!
As a Guest English Teacher (GET), it is common to be asked to perform a wide-variety of tasks as part of your contract to fulfill the 22 weekly required teaching hours. In the classroom, I teach 5th and 6th graders 4 classes twice a week each. Then I hold a teacher's training in English language twice weekly (2 hours). And as my final duty, I perform a live weekly English broadcast on school TV every Friday morning. This week's top story: Goldilocks and the Three Bears.

As 8:35am rolls around on this steamy Friday morning in Daegu city, my co-teacher, Jin, and I head upstairs for the Broadcasting Room. Storybooks in hand, we pass by the impressive array of electronic video and editing equipment (remember, this is an elementary school, someone must have some deep pockets). As we head into the news room, a set-up that would trump that of any small-town network studio, I see a 5th or 6th grade girl adjusting the settings of a small digital video camera (I half expected to see a camera crew, mini booms, and lapel mics). I take my seat at the middle of the table with the main anchor on my left (who expertly rehearses her intro lines) and Jin to my right.

8:40am and we are LIVE from DaeSung Elementary Broadcasting Room, ready and eager to bring you an English experience you will never forget! A short introduction is given, then I bumble slightly as I introduce myself and where I am from (no, it's Kentucky, not Kenturkey). Then the real magic begins. I begin to read the tale of Goldilocks and the Three Bears, complete with varied voices for each character (somehow I managed to make Mama Bear sound like she was from Savannah, it seemed fitting). I selected the story from the extensive library of the DaeSung English Village because of it's ability to teach contrast English words. As I read the English, Jin followed with the Korean translation. Following the story, we reviewed key words from the book: big, small, hot, cold, hard, soft. I stumbled about for examples at first but then found my legs.

8:50am brought the end of our allotted time on air and it seemed the broadcast went off without a hitch. I yielded my chair to the Vice Principal who discussed the upcoming 2nd period school elections (on my way into campus today, I was met with chants and slogans being shouted out by the perspective candidates). I don't believe there is a broadcast next week but I am sure to be hopping back on the air fairly soon, perhaps with a stunning rendition of "Goodnight Moon" or "The Musicians of Bremen." We shall see.

Until next time, signing off from the English Village classroom at DaeSung Elementary School, Seo-gu, Bisan-4dong, Daegu, this is Erin Teacher.

Daily Highlights

High point of my day: I am going to have Air Conditioning finally. It is in my contract and after many, "oh I don't know, we got you a fan"s and "the owner of the building says no"s I will por fin have some ventilation in my tiny apartment. So now I can breathe easier, sleep better, and maybe get my hair to dry for once.

Low point of my day: The sweet Hello Kitty! hair straightener I bought at Home Plus on sale for 20,000 won (because it was the last one) doesn't work. I was really excited for that.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

"I wished for a yellow-haired teacher!"

Needless to say, I kind of stick out here. From the bit of exploring I've done in Daegu, I've yet to run into another foreigner. Seriously. There is apparently a large foreign/expat population in Daegu but where they are hiding is beyond me. Hopefully I will successfully meet some fellow EPIK English teachers this evening (read: if I can find my way to the meeting place). I received my contract and placement a bit later than many EPIK teachers, which means I missed the big 10-day she-bang orientation in Seoul where friendships were made, hearts broken, enemies forged, etc. I did not enjoy this luxury and instead (per my previous post) headed straight from Seoul to Daegu. My co-teacher, Jin, said yesterday in the car, "I am worried you are lonely," (because I know no one here). Though this would probably hold true in a week or so, I am so consumed with applying for my alien registration card (I AM AN ALIEN, What a win!), medical exams, opening bank accounts, buying furniture, and taking care of all the little things, that I don't have time for social interaction. Yeah, I know, I said that. Who knew?

My first day at school (Monday), I walked onto the DaeSung Elementary School campus and was met with gaping stares. Little girls and boys ran up to me eagerly "hello"-ing and "teacha"-ing me. As I was introduced to each new class of the day, I received the expected questions, "You have boyfriend?" "How old are you?" (which when I said 22 caused quited a stir, I still don't know why), and then the stranger questions like, "How tall are you?" and "You like kimchi?" During the lessons, I would consistently catch a child or two looking back at me, wondering what I was doing. I was probably writing in my journal/on facebook. We have these small whiteboard paddle boards for answering questions in class. One girl drew a smiley face on it and flashed it back to me. These kids are great, I think I am really going to enjoy it here.

However, the crowning achievement of my objectification occurred while waiting outside the DaeSung English Village (yeah, I teach in an English Village, more on that later) for my co-teacher to unlock the classroom. I was standing under a ceiling fan trying earnestly to cool down from 90-degree heat and horrible humidity (my hair is just never going to dry, I've come to terms with this) and was approached by a gaggle of 5th grade girls. "I wished for a yellow-haired teacher!" I smiled and said, "Well, now you've got one!" They all giggled and tried to ask me questions I couldn't understand, oggled at my yellow-hair, and one girl even commented on the unusual size of my chest. Shameless? I say honest.

Well, this yellow-haired teacher must return to reviewing the English textbooks for next week's lessons. It's quite a throw-back to my 7th grade Spanish class with the funky photos, outdated hairstyles, and really awkward songs. Up next: Lesson 10, I'm Stronger than You!

It's Hite Time!

Well it is Hite time for me right now (Hite is one of the very common Korean beers, enjoying a few before to bed in an attempt to regulate my jet lag, but I am certain it will do nothing for my dehydration). So I made it to Daegu to begin my year-long venture of teaching Korean children English. Hopping across the Pacific with EPIK (English Program in Korea), I found myself really not having a clue what I was getting myself into (yes, mom, you were right).

The paperwork to apply for the E-2 visa was nothing short of a Sisyphean hell: diploma certified but not notarized by the right person, not enough shiny Hague convention stamps plastered across this background check, and so on and so on into what seemed an eternity. With that load finally sent off, I eagerly awaited my placement, which came back with an, "oh! you missed the deadline for final placement by ONE day, you'll have to be wait-listed." Oh frak. All for nought. Time rolled on, I hung out in Kentucky, and one day in mid-August I got the call: Erin! I have great news for you! You have been placed in Daegu and your contract is coming tomorrow! Hot damn, I'm going to Korea! As the reality sank in a bit further, I decided packing would nudge that reality a bit too much in the present. So of course, I procrastinated.

My contract came and the next day I sent off to have my actual visa placed in my passport. After a fiasco many of you have reluctantly listened to roughly 40 times (including the postal workers in Fort Dearborn Chicago, Bluegrass Station Branch Lexington, 1-800-ASK-USPS, and the highly irritated lady at the Chicago consulate), I got my visa. The elation I felt as I grasped that tiny brown "We missed you!" slip from the Express Mail carrier is comparable only to my college acceptance letters: this is real, I am going, this will change my life. With my passport handy, 150 lbs of luggage in tow (yeah I know, I overpacked, but it's for a year and size 10 shoes aren't readily available), I said farewell to Mom and Brie and headed into the Bluegrass Airport at 5:15am Saturday morning to begin my journey across the world.

Upon arrival in Seoul, I hopped a bus to the KTX (Korean bullet train) stop at Seoul station. 1 hour down. Then another 2.5 hours on the KTX til Daegu. Lugging all 150 lbs of luggage out of the Daegu station, I must have been the worst part of this unfortunate cabbie's day - he stared at my luggage and just looked up in dismay. Whatever, he charged me extra. It is so not 5000 won from Daegu station to the Grand Hotel. It just can't be. I was elated to finally have the opportunity to shower and sleep. After enjoying the air conditioning, shower you don't have to hold to use, and free bathrobes, I headed to the Ministry of Education, which apparently was the wrong place, so the head of the EPIK program in Daegu, Mr. Lee, drove me to the EPIK center where I met my co-teacher. Or so I thought. She looks at me and says, "I thought she was British." Well, that made me feel great but my real co-teacher finally showed and she is just brilliant. Her name is Jin and she has been my entire support system these few days, showing me a great amount of patience for my foreign ignorance. I love my school so far, I am teaching 5th and 6th grade. More on school, life, and my apartment later but felt like this blog needed a bit of a kick-off. Until next time!