Sunday, August 23, 2009

Korea's Got Seoul

So my first day in Uijeongbu was interesting. I wandered around my neighborhood, careful about which turns I was taking so I didn’t get lost.

Main road through Uijeongbu, about a block from my house.

My neighborhood is really cute and I’ve noticed that a lot of the clothing stores are golf themed. There must be a big boom in golf here, and it will probably get bigger since the Korean golfer beat Tiger Woods. I passed a golf course or two on my way here from the airport, and another driving range type of place. So Dad, when you come visit, you can get some practice in and maybe be the next to beat Tiger!

After walking around my neighborhood I was still bored and had some time to spare so I thought I would try to go into Seoul. There’s a train stop only a few blocks from my apartment, so I figured it would be easy. HA. I got to the station, and self-service kiosks are entirely in Korean. I tried clicking the American flag on the screen that I assumed would change everything into English but no such luck. Nothing happened when I clicked the flag, and I stood there for probably 10 minutes trying to figure it out and I could not. So I gave up and went home L There’s a big red button next to it that says “call for personnel” and so I figured next time I would try pushing that. It has to be directed at Americans because it was only in English, not Korean. I also managed to buy a hairdryer. The little old lady at the shop only spoke 2 words of English and one of them was “English” so that didn’t help me much. But through sign language and lots of pointing and nodding I completed my purchase. I really do feel bad that I can’t even attempt to speak Korean. I can barely say “thank you”. Most people seem to understand that I don’t speak Korean and so they usually just point out the price to me and it works out ok.

So Sunday I attempted yet again to go into Seoul. I went kind of early because I’m still jet lagged, and woke up at 5am. I managed to wait til 10 to leave the house though. English still wasn’t working so I pushed the call for help button, and just said “English please!” into the speaker. The guy sounded angry on the other end, but a few seconds later someone was there to help me. All he could manage to say was “English out of order”. I told him which stop I wanted to go to in Seoul and he just pushed all the buttons for me. I can sort of sound out Hangul (that’s Korean writing), so I’ll have to remember to do that next time. Go figure, of all the stops, the one by my apartment doesn’t have English on the ticket kiosk. Now that I've gotten my "t-money" card I should be able to avoid all that mess. The metro ride there was hysterical. I wish someone else had been there to laugh with me. There’s me, literally the only white person on the train with all the Koreans laughing and talking, and then out of nowhere come these people selling what is absolutely the most random and useless shit I could ever imagine. One man is selling water bottle cozies…and not for nice Nalgene-type water bottles. No, this is a cozy for your plastic water bottle. Mmmk. And then came some lady with these crazy sleeves and gloves you could buy. Mostly in pastels but then there was this really ugly camo sleeve with purple hands. I mean really…do people actually buy this stuff? And finally was a man selling these weird fuzzy fringy cleaning mitts…or something. Why don’t they sell useful things on the subway? Like actual water, or popsicles, or gum? I was trying to keep from laughing but nobody else seemed very fazed by it. I guess it won’t faze me either soon enough, but I honestly thought it was hilarious.

But finally after all that commotion, I made it to my stop. Turns out that Lonely Planet Seoul book I bought was useful after all! It led me right to Bandi and Luni’s Bookstore. Basically a Barnes and Noble. The majority of the books are in Korean of course, but there’s an English section with mostly the best sellers, but also some basic fiction, history, computers, etc. There’s also a small section with flashcards and beginner books for teaching…I might have to hit that up again. So I bought a few books to keep me occupied until I get my TV from my school, and cable, and internet, and phone. The bookstore was underground, so after I left, I went out of the subway and had my first look at Seoul!! And I must say, I am unconditionally in love with this place.

Luckily there was a really tall Samsung tower just outside my stop that I used as my landmark so I could wander without needing to keep track too closely of where I was going.

I mosied around, stopped at a 7-Eleven (yep they have those here!) to buy some water, and then made my way to Cheonggyecheon Stream. Its this little stream in the middle of Seoul and its so cute. There’s a few vendors down by it, but mostly just people. Kids sort of splash around in the little waterfall and its just really peaceful even in the heart of such a big city.

Cheonggyecheon stream

Standing in the middle of the stream!

I picked a great stop because there are tons of restaurants (even some random American ones, like Outback Steakhouse).

I really want to see Seoul at night, because there were so many signs and I’m sure it would be awesome all lit up. Then, I found a great shopping area. There was a whole street that they had blocked off..and finally I found it. What has become my Mecca for shopping that I seem to run into no matter where I am. Zara!

I fell in love with this store in Italy, mostly because I love the European style of fashion. More stores are going up in the U.S. now, so soon it will be popular and not as cool to run into, but man was I happy to see it in Seoul. It also means that I will be doing some serious damage to my bank account in the future, but I managed to control myself and only bought one shirt. On sale. So there. I thought it was funny though because it was playing American music from like 12 years ago. Old Wyclef Jean and even the Spice Girls! Another store I found had to have been targeted to Americans because it blaring "Blame It" by Jamie Foxx and a Keri Hilson song simultaneously...haha can you say overload? Starbucks is about as common as it is in the U.S…basically on every other block. Dunkin Donuts is unbelievably popular here too. I thought maybe it was just coincidence that there happened to be one near my apartment, but man, they’re as common as Starbucks! After all that shopping I was hungry, so I stopped at a little stand on the street and wasn’t exactly sure what exactly I was looking at, so I purchased what I knew would be a nice safe skewer of ttoekbokki (finally figured out the spelling on that one…its those pressed rice cakes with spicy sauce from my first night, but the way they pronounce it the k's are really soft and you almost can't hear it. Weird huh?). So I followed what everyone else was doing and had a seat on a bench just outside a big department store. I felt so Korean. Then I went back to the subway where luckily the English was working at the kiosk, and made my way home. Overall successful first day in Seoul!

Bosingak Bell Tower - 1396

Cheonggyecheon Plaza

"Once in a while I sit back and think about the planet and most of the time I trip on it. To kick back and think about how massive it all is...well how many other are on it?" - No Doubt

Friday, August 21, 2009

Home Plus is a Must!

Hey everyone! So I’ve made it to South Korea in one piece. The flight over was very long (13 ½ hours), but overall uneventful. Watched a few movies, slept a few hours, ate a few meals. The usual. We basically flew straight north out of Chicago and then around the Arctic Circle (sort of). At first it looked like we were on track to fly straight over North Korea, but planes aren’t allowed to fly over their airspace, so we had to detour around North Korea.

We landed at Incheon Int’l Airport, which is the main airport servicing Seoul. It was 28 degrees (that’s Celsius) out and soooo humid. We were herded into the Swine Flu check where they ask a quick health history of the past 7 days, and then take your temperature. Easy stuff. Then we claimed our luggage and got through customs and waiting on the other side for me was my good friend Jane! She knew I was coming and met me at the airport to say hello. It was great to see a friendly face after 13 hours of sitting on a plane. She had a little gift for me and a big poster she made for my wall and made me cry…but it was so good to see her! Also waiting for me was my co-teacher Sang-Jin Kim (but I just call her Jin). She was so friendly and helpful, and I’m really excited to work with her this year. She’s younger, maybe 26-28ish and incredibly nice. She helped me wheel my two huge oversize bags of luggage through the masses outside Incheon. The cart I had wasn’t working very well and we had trouble controlling it. Jin and I are about the same size (so not very big at all), we must’ve looked crazy giggling and spiraling out of control with my luggage. From the airport it was about an hour bus ride to my apartment.

Speaking of my apartment…remember everything I said in the last entry about how I was going to live in Dongducheon and Anna would be living in Uijeongbu and we were close together and everything was going to be great? I take all of that back. None of it is true. Something I’m going to have to learn is to be extremely flexible because these people make changes last minute and don’t seem to mention it to anyone. I’m not sure if there was a mix-up somehow or what, but now I’m living in Uijeongbu, which I think has a population of about 400,000 and is just outside of Seoul. Anna’s school made an error and already has an English teacher, so now she is south of Seoul teaching in Yongin. So we’re probably 2-2 ½ hours away from each other by public transportation now.

So far Uijeongbu is great. It’s seems pretty crowded and literally nothing is in English except for the occasional street sign which is going to be a huge challenge. I'm not sure how prevalent English is here so watching me try to communicate is going to be hilarious. I live in a loft apartment and have a great view of the mountains. There’s a Dominoes, Pizza Hut, Dunkin Donuts, and Baskin Robbins all within 2 blocks of my apartment – although based on the dinner I had with Jin I won’t be needing that American stuff for a long time. After we struggled with my luggage to my apartment, Jin and I went out for dinner. She chose the place and did a fantastic job of explaining to me exactly what I was eating. We got kimbap – a sort of sushi tuna roll which was excellent, and something called to-po-i (at least that's how its said phoenetically). It was these weird sort of “rice cakes” which actually looked like oversize pieces of penne pasta, covered in vegetables and a really spicy sauce. It also had, um, a kraft single thrown on top with sesame seeds over it. I thought it was strange but I went with it. Jin failed to mention to me that it was spicy and it wasn’t until my eyes started watering that she offered up a polite “oh sorry…its spicy”. Yep. I got that. Thanks. But honestly it was very good and I’m sort of craving it again now. Dinner was extremely cheap – only about 5000 won total for the two of us, so I offered to pay for all of it to thank Jin for her help.

After dinner we made a list of all the things I needed to buy and then Jin introduced me to Home Plus. It’s this huge 6 floor complex that is basically a super super SUPER Target and its awesome. I would live in there if I could. Remember that movie where Natalie Portman has a baby and lives in the WalMart? Definitely could be done here. You could probably keep an army happy in this place. So Jin helped me find my way around and we bought some of the basic stuff, dishes, sheets, food, etc. for my apartment. I attempted to pick out shampoo and conditioner, but I couldn't read it since it was all in Korean and Jin seemed to be struggling with the translation so I'm pretty sure I just bought two bottles of shampoo, but at least I'll be clean. I think I'm going to need her help every time I go there because almost nothing is in English so its impossible for me to know what I'm buying. She also took me to the Korean version of a dollar store – except here its 1000 won store. She helped me back to my apartment and then left me to unpack and go to sleep. I’m still incredibly jet-lagged…I’ve been up since about 6:30am. I'm also eating some sort of Korean version of Frosted Flakes. They aren't that bad actually. I tried to sleep but I literally can’t so I’m going to try to hack into some more illegal internet (which I'm pretty sure I'm connected to) and then work on unpacking since I passed out immediately last night.

I’m in between the place that I’m from and the place that I’m in…a city I've never been. - The Fray

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Moving to Korea aka 한국 (Hanguk)

Hi everyone! This is my first entry in here, so it will mostly be intro stuff. It might get kind of long, but hopefully you'll stick it out. I haven't officially moved to Korea yet (although I joined the South Korea network on Facebook, which for me is pretty official). I've spent the summer doing absolutely nothing with all of my friends, and its been great. I've been to pretty much every concert I could hope to see before I'm forced to listen to Korean Heavy Metal (the city I'm moving to is host to Korea's biggest rock festival). Visited friends from Minneapolis to Chicago to New York City and have already begun saying goodbye to people. I have about a week and a half left in Madison, then staying at my parents' for a few days, and then I will officially be living in South Korea. I'm trying to "learn" Korean with my roommate, and we have signs taped all over our apartment with the most useful phrases my Lonely Planet Phrasebook has to offer. Some of my favorites include "Where can I find the bar?", "This man will pay", and "He's a babe". I think if I can remember these three things, life in Korea will be a breeze.

Before I get started, let me go through this history lesson really quick. North and South Korea are not the same thing. It seems obvious, but you'd be surprised how many people I've talked to aren't aware of this. North Korea is formally called the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) and South Korea is the Republic of Korea (ROK). Koreans dislike the Japanese. U.S. fought a war in Korea from 1950-1953. The war ended in an armistice (which North Korea recently withdrew from) so technically the two countries are still at war in terms of treaties. They are separated by the DMZ (demilitarized zone) at the 38th parallel, which cuts the Korean peninsula in half. The DMZ is about 155 miles long and 2.5 miles wide and is the most heavily militarized border in the world.

I have gotten so many questions from everyone about where am I living and what am I doing, and why did I choose to go to South Korea, and when am I leaving, and am I going alone, and does everyone wear kimonos and eat dogs? So, let me take some time to answer all these questions.

How did this all come about? For those of you who don't know (hard to believe), I have my degree in both Political Science and International Studies (Int'l Political Economy and Policy) from UW. I'm sort of obsessed/addicted to traveling and decided that I wouldn't settle for anything less than moving abroad after graduation. In fact, my roommate and I would spend time blowing off studying the night before a final to plan out our futures and decided no matter what we'd live somewhere overseas. I don't think either of us saw Korea coming, but here it is. I received an email back in February from my academic advisor about this program, and decided to look into it. This program is called GEPIK (Gyeonggi English Program In Korea) and I am being assisted by the ESL department at UW. It's a pretty sweet deal. They reimburse me for the cost of the flight, and pay for my housing the entire time, in addition to my salary. It was by far the best situation of all the other teaching English abroad programs I looked into. I'm sure my parents would be much happier if I were going back to Italy or maybe somewhere in South America, but Asia is so in this year and I'm going with it. Going with me will be about 30 other UW graduates, including my roommate Anna. On August 19th, I'll be going with everyone to Chicago. They put us up in a hotel for the night and we meet the other teachers from UW-Madison going, and have some meetings. On August 20th, the plane takes off and I say goodbye to America. We arrive on August 21st, and I have about 2 days to get over 14 hours of jet lag, and I start teaching on August 24th. I recently received my placement and grade level that I'll be teaching. I will be teaching at Samsung High School in Dongducheon City (동 두 전 시) in Gyeonggi-do Province. I haven't been assigned a specific grade level, all I know is that its high school. My position is to be an Assistant Teacher. My only job is to teach these kids English. I've read a lot about the education system here, and the kids work extremely hard, so if anything, my job is simply to make learning English fun for them. I will be working with a co-teacher. This person helps me get my life together over there, phone, cable, internet, bank account, etc. in a matter of days. Thank God for them, because it would probably take me months on my own.

Quick bit about Dongducheon. Ok honestly I don't know anything about this place. Here's what I do know, but most of it is straight off Wikipedia. My college professors would be ashamed. Its about 40 miles (65 km) Northeast of Seoul and has a population of about 85,000 (from the latest population data I can find). It hosts the "largest" rock music festival - tho I checked out the lineup for this year, which I'll miss, and I'm not sure how i feel about Baekdoosan (heavy metal) or Mun Huijun (thrashcore). It seems like the kind of festival where they don't really accept money, you have to pay for souvenirs and alcohol with drugs or articles of clothing. That scares me more than my proximity to North Korea and I may be keeping my distance. On the other hand, maybe it will be great, and Anna and I will give up our cozy teaching jobs and become Korean rock star groupies. I also recently read that it used to be a pretty crazy place to party. In fact, it allegedly made Playboy's top ten list of greatest party towns in the world. At one point, it was number ONE. I guess its calmed down now, so I'm a few years too late for the wild party scene, but just think, I could've been the next Playboy bunny. (Relax Dad, I'm joking). It's home to the main camps of the US Second Infantry Division. That means there will be lots of English speaking American soldiers for me to befriend. Camp Casey is the base. The division command is down the road (which is also where Anna happens to be living!) in Uijeongbu City. No clue on the pronunciation on that one. So to answer another question, no I can't speak Korean. I've been working on the alphabet and its taking months. Way different than Spanish or Italian were to learn. Compared to this, those are easy. I have managed to get my computer to switch from English to Korean with the click of a button, so once I get good, I can type random words and stuff. Dream big.

Now, I want to clear up some things that people seem to be misinformed about regarding South Korea. First: they don't wear kimonos. No one does. In fact, if you think people in Korea wear kimonos, you're in the wrong country entirely. Kimonos are from Japan and they're a traditional garment and I'm going to guess no one there wears them either. Second: they don't eat dogs. I got so fed up with this question that I finally did some research on it. It's been illegal since 1984 to sell dog meat, and its a social taboo to eat any animal that is considered a pet. That doesn't mean that it doesn't happen, but its illegal to do drugs pretty much everywhere and that doesn't stop people so what are you going to do. And finally, North Korea. Ahh good ol' North Korea. They're acting up again and everyone is concerned. If you're worried about a war between the two countries again, I don't think its going to happen. I took a Nuclear Weapons and World Politics class my last semester in college, and my final paper was on why a war or large-scale conflict would be unlikely to occur in this region (primarily because of U.S. deterrence). People seem to think I have this desire to visit North Korea. Which, if it were possible, I probably would. But its not. Actually physically impossible for me to go there. Unless I survive the thousands of landmines alone the DMZ (again, the most heavily fortified border in the world), the thousands of military personnel from all sides, or sneak past what would have to be the most oblivious customs officials of all time, I'm not getting in. Its illegal. It's like trying to go to Cuba. It just can't be done. So, I appreciate the concern, but I get it. I'm not going there.

Hopefully this answers some questions some people have. Please comment, question, whatever you want, all over this blog. I love feedback. Join skype ( and add me, my username is amy.lanza and we can message, call, videochat, whatever. I'll write back in a few weeks once I make it to Korea :) Hope you all stick with me as I explore Korea and as much of Southeast Asia as I have time for. Enjoy.

"Oh you know what they say about the young...send me on my way" - Rusted Root