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.