Saturday, September 26, 2009

Staring Down the Enemy

Ever since I knew I was coming to South Korea, and I think for most of my friends here as well, there was always this voice in the back of our minds saying “North Korea”. Currently from my apartment, I am about a 45-minute drive away from the most heavily guarded and fortified border in the world. Yesterday I went with 6 other friends of mine to the DMZ through the USO (United Service Organization). We all signed up for a tour, and luckily they had spots available for this weekend – we wanted to go before it was too cold since much of the tour takes place outside.

Quick blurb about this for those of you who don’t know (or just didn’t read my first blog entry): The DMZ stands for the Demilitarized Zone and is at roughly the 38th parallel. It is the dividing line between North and South Korea, who are technically still at war. The Korean War ended after 3 years and 1 month (1950-1953) in an armistice, which is basically just a loose cease-fire. The DMZ is 4 km wide, and spans from coast to coast of the Korean peninsula. Directly in the center of the DMZ with 2km to the north and the south, is the MDL or Military Demarcation Line. This is the official line that separates North and South Korea. The 2km on either side of it belongs to the respective countries, but the territory is considered neutral. There is not much to see as far as “lines” goes. Fences delineate the DMZ, but the MDL is really just a bunch of white posts every few meters, and are about 1 meter high. In some of the taller grass they’re difficult to see, and you can really only see them from up close.

Once we arrived at the USO office in Seoul (felt like home…American signs, newspapers, and the Yankees vs Red Socks game on ESPN) we checked in, showed our passports, paid for the tour, and boarded the bus.

The drive took about one hour, and as we headed further north, it was obvious that there was more barbed wire and more watchtowers. It felt like we were heading into no-man’s-land. Soon enough, we were at the DMZ...

Our first stop (after going through a security checkpoint on the bus) was Dora Mountain lookout point. The drive to get there was up a winding mountain, with yellow steel barriers with spikes on them standing out against the grey concrete. Trees lined the road on either side, with ropes strung along the trees nearest to the road. Hanging on the trees were signs warning “MINE”. Definitely no hiking allowed through that forest. Like I said, it’s the most heavily fortified border in the world, and landmines are plentiful.

Here we were given a quick rundown of what we were about to look at, and rules to follow. We were allowed to take pictures only from a secured area behind the yellow line. Binoculars were available if we wanted a closer look, but no pictures hanging over the edge of the lookout point. Once the group cleared, I was able to get my first real look at North Korea. I was surprised. I had expected to see something different on the other side, but it was just a city and some scattered buildings. Mainly what I was seeing was a propaganda village. Its basically just a shell of a city to give the impression of wealth and vibrant life, but it really doesn’t have anybody fooled.

That's North Korea RIGHT THERE!

North Korea also has the tallest flagpole and the biggest flag in the world. They built it to compete with South Korea’s flagpole just across the MDL. They hated that the south had a big flagpole, so they built a bigger one. Our tour guide told us that the average monthly income in North Korea is around $20. The people make about $60-80/month, but most of it is taken by the government. We talked with a South Korean soldier for a little bit. Turns out, he had lived in Iowa most of his life so he spoke perfect English, but he had chosen to serve out his military service for his country. In Korea all men serve a mandatory 2-year service to the army. Located near this lookout point is Dorasan Station, which is a brand new fully operational train station (the last stop before North Korea) that literally just sits empty. The intention is that the line will connect Seoul to North Korea's capital, Pyeongyang. It was built at a time of greater hope for unification as a symbolic gesture towards the north by South Korea. Until that day comes though the station sits there just waiting…

After lunch (bibimbap!), we went to the 3rd Infiltration Tunnel. We watched a short video on the DMZ, which to me felt more like propaganda than accurate information, but was still interesting. It briefed us on the Korean War, and then explained how the DMZ has been positive in some ways other than just to prevent another devastating war. It acts as sort of a nature preserve, being home to wildlife and plants. With tensions rising, it was clear that the video was made at a time when things were better in Korea. I thought the positive message of the video was about the furthest thing from the current reality, but I think it’s a message that many hope will return soon.

Group at the DMZ. Nothing says "peace and love" like a military helmet and a flower connected by barbed wire...right?

The plaque in front of this statue reads: "Unifying Earth: This piece of artwork expresses the people's hope to realize peace and the reunification of the Korean peninsula. The arches over the two hemispheres represent the Seoul-Sinuiju railway that will extend into Europe. The divided sphere symbolizes a lasting Cold War vestige - the divided Korean peninsula. Statues surrounding the leaning halves are elements that work together to reunite the Korean peninsula."

After that, we were led to the entrance to the 3rd Infiltration Tunnel. There are 4 known tunnels that were dug by the North Koreans after the Korean War ended, in order to launch a sneak attack on Seoul. More are suspected but have yet to be discovered. The first one was discovered in the early 1970s, and the last one was discovered as recently as 1990. The 3rd tunnel was considered one of the most dangerous because it is the closest to Seoul.

The tunnel is only about 2m high, and so we had to wear hard hats and crouch down. We walked down into the ground in a cramped dripping cave-like tunnel. It was pretty uncomfortable (although I didn’t have to crouch as much as some people) and an example of what war can make people do. Cameras weren’t allowed here, but I snuck mine in and was able to get a few grainy pictures without the flash.

"Here I gooooo"

And towards the end, I snuck in a few with the flash, just for good measure.

Sara, Rebecca, and me in the tunnel

When this tunnel was discovered in 1978, the North went to great lengths to paint the tunnel black to make it appear to be coal, in order to convince the south that the tunnels were part of a coal mining operation. This defense fails however, because the rocks underground here are almost entirely granite, and there is no coal in this region. It seems to me that the north goes to such great lengths to cover things up, wouldn’t it be easier to just play by the rules? I don’t get it. We were stopped about 150 meters from the actual MDL (so technically we were within the boundaries of the 4km of the DMZ) by the first of 3 blockades that cut the tunnel off. Just on the other side of this steel barrier is a minefield. I was dying to get a picture of it, but there was video surveillance on us at this point, and I wasn’t about to risk anything. So if you want to see it…guess you’ll just have to crawl down into that dark drippy tunnel in the DMZ yourself.

Once we were out of the tunnel, we boarded the bus, and head for what was, in my opinion, the highlight of the day. We were driven to the Joint Security Area (JSA) or Panmunjeom as it is called in Korean.

The JSA is at Camp Bonifas, which is named after an American soldier who was murdered in 1976 along with another soldier by the North Koreans. There was a poplar tree blocking the view of North Korea, and when they went to chop it down to free up the view, they were ambushed and murdered…with axes. Incredibly gruesome, and also part of the grim reality of this divided country. The JSA is guarded primarily by the ROK soldiers (that’s Republic of Korea…aka South Korea), U.S. Military, and UNC (United Nations Command) soldiers. Guarding the other side? You guessed it, North Korean soldiers, and Chinese volunteer soldiers.

The bus was boarded by an American soldier, who checked our passports, upon our arrival to Camp Bonifas. South Koreans are not allowed into this area. We were driven to the JSA building where we had to fill out a declaration form. The first line? “The visit to the Joint Security Area at Panmunjom will entail entry into a hostile area and possibility of injury or death as a direct result of enemy action.” Um ok…where do I sign?

We also had to wear a UNCMAC Guest badge, that we were instructed to keep visible at all times.

Another American soldier gave us a quick presentation and explained how hostile this environment is. They literally stand face-to-face with their enemy every single day. Next we had to board a secured UN bus, to take us….to the border. The actual MDL border. We arrived and were made to get into 2 single file lines behind the officer giving the tour. No bags were allowed. We could bring our cameras, but couldn’t even have them in a small case. We were given strict instructions not to wave, talk to, provoke, or interfere with in any way any of the North Korean soldiers that we may encounter. We were led through a building called the Freedom House. Just on the other side of that was the MDL.

The scene before me on the other side of the Freedom House was the eeriest moment of my life.

The previously chatty and light-hearted tour group I was in, was suddenly completely silent. I don’t even know if any of us were breathing for those first few seconds. Facing the Freedom House was the “welcome center” to North Korea, literally just a few meters away from where we were standing. Welcome Center is quite deceiving though, because I felt the complete opposite of welcome in this place. Staring at us through (completely unnecessary) binoculars was a North Korean soldier.

Several small buildings separated the Freedom House and the North Korean building. The blue buildings belong to the UN/South Korea, and silver buildings are the property of North Korea. The concrete slab you can see running through the center of the buildings, where the ground changes colors, is the MDL.

We were literally just feet away from North Korea. The grey building on the right is the “recreation” center for North Korean soldiers…which is ironic because apparently there is no recreational equipment in that building at all. North Korean soldiers like to look out the window and make vulgar gestures to US, UN, and ROK soldiers and especially like to try to provoke people like us who come as tourists. They will flip you the middle finger, or make slashing motions across their throats as if to say “we’ll kill you”. Completely terrifying.

Surveillance cameras on top of Freedom House

We were led into one of the blue buildings where we were allowed to cross the MDL…INTO NORTH KOREA. I did it. I went to North Korea and lived to tell the tale.

Behind enemy lines

3 ROK soldiers, who apparently are hand selected to work at the JSA, guarded the room. I can see why. Its not every day you see a 6’1” nearly 200lb Korean man. These guys were huge. Extremely intimidating, but it was also somewhat comforting to know that they were the “good guys”. They were on our side.

Rebecca and me hanging out in North big deal or anything.

On the wall in this room are several small flags in a glass case. These flags used to be out on the tables, but when North Korean soldiers went into that very same room when former President Bush was visiting several years ago, they used the U.S. and South Korean flags to shine their shoes and blow their noses.

So the flags were placed in a glass case in order to prevent any unnecessary conflicts. After we walked out of the building and turned to look at the Welcome Center of North Korea again, we were surprised to see that the front of the Welcome Center was now crowded with North Korean soldiers all staring at us.

That was pretty much our cue to get out of there ASAP.

The tour was basically over from there and after a quick stop in the gift shop, we peaced out and went back to Seoul.

On the ride home, I had a sort of overwhelming sense of gratefulness towards the U.S. and the fact that I have been lucky enough to have never had to experience such horrible conditions. I had stepped into a Communist country, a country with egregious human rights violations, where propaganda is part of everyday life. Families are torn apart by this division, though the division is not between the people, but rather the people in power. This isn’t what the people want. They want to be unified. I’m not sure I’ll see it in my lifetime. Things have been this way for close to 60 years. The hope of unification is strong…but until then, we’ll just have to wait.

I’m sorry this entry 1) is so incredibly long and 2) reads like a depressing history report. But the reality of this divided country is sad and seeing some of the things I saw didn’t give me much hope, especially understanding the politics and history as I think I do.

On the bright side, however, only Monday classes this week! Then on to Osan City for 3 days for “orientation” aka go to yet another strange Korean town and drink with a bunch of other English teachers. No school Friday or the following Monday in observance of Chuseok (sort of the Korean Thanksgiving). It’s a pretty big deal here, so we all plan to make the most of it by continuing to be as touristy as possible because the holiday really has no significance to us. So we’re going to hit up the Korean Folk Village hopefully, and do some other things we might not have time for otherwise. Say hello to my 2nd week of paid vacation since my arrival...

“The use of traveling is to regulate imagination by reality, and instead of thinking of how things may be, to see them as they are.” –Samuel Johnson.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

K-Pop Revolution

Hello everyone! I'm really sorry about the lack of blog updating lately, and I promise I will try to be better about it. I've just been so busy raging til the sun comes up and planning trips to the DMZ :) So much has happened since my last update, but I'll try to fill in just the highlights.

I'm now an official part of Korea, having my Alien Registration Card (ARC), and a cell phone, and the internet. I've even had to pay bills already. Not any more exciting here than it is anywhere else. Got my first big girl paycheck, which was exciting, but is being quickly spent. My camera died awhile back, and so my first big investment here was a beautiful shiny pink touch screen camera that I am totally in love with. It was kind of expensive, but definitely worth it. It came with a matching pink case, and a decent size memory card. 

School is the same old stuff, but the kids literally say something that makes me say "who taught you English?" every single day. Some examples would asking the students to name some states in the U.S. and one girl replying "Sunflower....?". Another one was me showing a picture of Obama, and the kids remembering my crush on David Beckham. One smartass kid couldn't forget my Beckham obsession, and said "Sexy man. David Beckham, Obama. Same same". In Korea, "same same" means...well, exactly that. Its what Jin calls Konglish which I think explains itself as well.  The kids as well as my fellow teachers have been keeping me in the Korean pop culture loop by making sure I always have the latest K-Pop (that's Korean Pop) songs on my iPod at all times. The babe of the moment goes by G-Dragon, who is from the group Big Bang. Yeah, I don't know. Click here to check out his latest hit, "Heartbreaker". No lie...the only lyrics that are in English are "heartbreaker" and "no way". But the song is catchy, and the girls go nuts for him. And when his songs come on in the clubs in Seoul? Its just over. Everyone freaks out and hits the dance floor. Not going to lie, I'm starting to think he's pretty cute myself. Must be all that makeup he wears. I'll post some more K-Pop songs soon, just so you can all be in the loop.

This past weekend I went with Anna and several other people from UW to 도봉산 (that's Dobongsan for those of you who still haven't learned how to read Korean). San=mountain. Its in Bukhansan national park. Buk=northern area. Han=han river(the big one that runs through Seoul). Therefore, Bukhansan translates to mountains north of the Han river. Cool huh? Sooo this mountain is a 2,426 ft monster that my friends and I decided to take on. Most of them came from south of Seoul, and took over an hour to get there. Luckily for me, this mountain is 4 short subway stops away from my apartment, and it took me about 15 minutes. Suckers. After mapping out our route...
...we were on our way up the mountain. And boy was it a trip. About 15 minutes in, we met a very friendly semi-English speaking Korean woman. She took all 10 of us on as her personal mission to lead us to the top.  She turned out to be some crazy expert hiker, and when I simply asked her to take a picture of the group, she grabbed my shiny new pink camera, and took off in what I can only assume was the direction of North Korea. She literally just sprinted up the mountain ahead of us pausing every few meters to snap pictures of us laughing like crazy/struggling to get up this brutal mountain.

Eventually though, we were able to catch up to her, and the shiny new pink camera was recovered. Lesson learned: don't give your camera to strangers on a mountain. Shortly after my camera rescue, we came across a temple on the mountain. There are several apparently, but this was the only one we saw. Before the temple were tons of Buddha statues in different positions. I'm told each positions symbolizes something, but no one has been able to communicate clearly enough to me what exactly they symbolize.

Here's a few pics of the temple. Really, it was one of the coolest things I've seen here thus far. 

Even though there was so many people, it was sort of peaceful to see and hear the prayers at this Buddhist temple. Eventually we made our way to a decent resting point and were able to enjoy the view. 

I'm sure that anyone who was with me on this hike will agree, however, that these picture simply cannot do justice to the amazing views we had all day. The view of all of Seoul from the top of a mountain was so incredible, and I definitely plan on taking anyone who comes to visit me on this hike. So...if you plan on visiting me, please start working out now. Rock climb, run, do whatever you have to do to get in shape. Because come Sunday, I was hardly able to walk. We stopped on some rocks to have the lunches we packed for ourselves. 

And was straight to the top! The climb after lunch was by far the most difficult. We just had to pull ourselves over rocks, and we were being passed by retired folks who do this pretty much every weekend. We were rock climber roadkill. As we were clutching onto rocks for dear life, these senior citizens were skipping up and down the mountain like they were children. Not embarrassing at all. Towards the very end, the climb is so steep and there's such little sturdy footing that you have to hang onto a rope to pull yourself up, and the only thing keeping  you from flying off the edge of the mountain are two little metal bars that are set in place to act as guardrails, but really didn't make me feel any safer. After struggling to make it, we reached the peak, and ohhhhh my goooddddddd was the view worth the past 2 1/2 hours of sweating and struggling and climbing.  It was indescribable, and I got pictures, but really, you can't even image how cool it was. 

After the hike down, which in some ways was more difficult than the hike up...we stopped at the bottom of the mountain for dinner and drinks. Restaurants are plentiful at the bottom of the mountain, as is the Cass, Hite, and Soju...which was perfect for us. After dinner, we went our separate ways to get ready for the night. Then we met up in Seoul, and raged until the wee hours of the morning. This time, however, we were smart, and booked a "love motel" in advance However, there were 8 of us, and only 2 rooms so it was pretty crowded, but after such a long day/night no one really seemed to mind.

This weekend...the trip I've been waiting for, and most of you have been terrified of me taking. I'm doing it. I'm going to the DMZ!!! I really could not be more excited. I'm going with the USO, which is supposed to be one of the best tours. I'm pretty sure there's a part in the tour where I can jump over the line and snap a picture in North Korea before they blow us all up...or something. If anything goes wrong, or you don't hear from me for awhile, please send in Bill. 

And finally, some shameless advertising on behalf of my other world-traveling friends. My friend Adam here in South Korea has a blog, although he has asked me to ask all of you who choose to read it to take it with a grain of salt. But you can find a link for his blog here .  Another girl from UW has a blog here as can read Catie's blog by clicking on her name.  Maya has moved to Sydney officially, and she has a blog as well. Visit Maya's blog please! Also, her roommate Kelsey has a blog, and you can read that by clicking here.  They're all worth your time, and each has an interesting perspective on their own situation. You know you don't actually do anything at work anyway, so please just take the time to visit their pages and see what they've been up to! 

Hope all is well back home everyone!

"All journeys have secret destinations of which the traveler is unaware." --Martin Buber

Friday, September 11, 2009

Seoul Train

Hello again! This is another long one everyone. If you want the Cliffnotes version, scroll down to the last paragraph. You may want to read all of this after you see it.

So the first week of school progressed rather well. Once the kids got over their initial fear of me, they became a little more open to attempting to speak with me. Some of them had some very interesting questions, like if I had a boyfriend, how many I’ve had and how long I’ve dated each of them. They also want to know which of their male classmates I find “most handsome” and which teacher is “most handsome”. Um? Haha not sure how to answer any of those questions appropriately but oh well, if it gets them hearing, speaking, and understanding English I’ll answer their questions. Naturally my answer was that all of the boys are handsome and same with the teachers. They saw through that though and had no trouble remembering the English for “you lie!”. Haha well. What am I supposed to say? They also have the basic questions like what is my favorite sport, and what do I like to eat (cheeseburgers! I’m going to live up to the American stereotype and I don’t care). Some of the male students are much more outspoken, and like to blow me kisses and tell me they love me. Another has offered to teach me Korean himself (said with the flirtiest English he could manage). When I politely turned him down all the girls in the class broke into applause. I guess we know how they feel about him. Some of the more shy students like to come into the teachers’ office where I have my desk and sit next to another English teacher who is able to translate for me/them when they can’t understand me or they can’t find the right English word. One girl made me a bookmark with the Chinese character for love. She asked for my favorite color in English and was so proud of herself when she realized that I could actually understand her. The next day, I had my blue bookmark! Also, all students learn 1500-2000 basic Chinese characters, which is why its in Chinese. Another girl stopped me after a class that I sat in on, and gave me candy and thanked me for coming to this school.

Favorite thing out of a kid’s mouth so far: “Hello. I am English very well”. Thankfully Jin was in the room with me and was able to laugh at it. I think he meant that he speaks English very well, which is ironic, but also hilarious.

The way it works here is that the kids are basically in the same classroom the entire day, and it’s the teachers who switch classes. So there is nothing in the classroom specific to a subject. No science posters, no history timelines, etc. The kids all have little cubbies in the back of their room, and each teacher is assigned a homeroom, but then throughout the day the teachers spend their time in the office to make their lessons plans, and then move to the classes accordingly. I am special however, and have my very own English classroom. This means that the school has bought me not one but two very nice Samsung computers, and my new classroom (which is still getting some of the electronics worked out) is complete with a new white board AND a huge touch screen that is hooked up to my computer, so that I can click and move around on the screen without having to actually be at the computer. Eventually I’m having a sort of virtual reality system built in a corner of the classroom so I can do crazy stuff with that. So high tech. I’m still learning how to use it, but its so great.

The schools in Gyeonggi-do province are ranked from best to worst. My school is one of the worst. Maybe some of the other teachers from UW are in a similar situation but I don’t know. At my school a lot of the kids come from a family situation or home life that isn’t so good. Not all of them, but Jin told me at least half. She said that the students have no incentive to do well in school because they can graduate just on attendance. They don’t have plans to go to college and Jin explained to me that most of them don’t have anyone at home who really cares either way if they go to college or do anything valuable with their lives. Actually, she put it this way: “They have no dreams”. Um. If that’s not depressing I don’t know what is. I almost started crying. A school full of kids with no dreams?! In addition to this – and I’m finding a general consensus on this from the other UW high school teachers – there is little in the classroom or in the school to offer encouragement otherwise. The walls in the schools are bare, hallways classrooms, everything. I plan to decorate my English room with things that are visually appealing to kids, and sort of force them to understand what is said. For the classes that I’ve sat in on, the students literally just sit there, they read a paragraph or so, and the teacher basically just translates it for them. There is no speaking really – which I assume is why the kids are so hesitant to speak to me. Its obvious that my job is to engage the kids in conversation, but the challenge is getting them to actually do it. My obvious incentive is candy, because I mean who doesn’t like candy? But I think eventually that will get old and I’m going to have to get more creative. Its just strange to me that there is no real push for these kids to actually learn the information, they just memorize it enough to pass the test if they sort of care about their grades, or, since most of them just don’t care, they just sleep. Maybe its because its English and everyone learns it? I mean if everyone in the U.S. had to learn Spanish I feel like it would get annoying, but since we get to choose what to learn, its more enjoyable? I don’t really know. I mean when I was learning Italian, I had big plans to go to Italy – which as we all know I followed through with – so I had an incentive to learn the language. If these kids have no desire to travel there may not be that drive. English really is important though, and I know I’m extremely biased, but I’ve noticed in my travels that if two people speak a different language, they tend to communicate in English. Example: while waiting in line to buy a boat ticket to Capri in Italy, there was a German couple ahead of me in line. They couldn’t speak Italian, the man at the ticket window couldn’t speak German, but they managed to communicate through English. See? It really is important!

But also, the teachers of foreign languages in the U.S. seem much more fluent than foreign language teachers here. I don’t mean to undermine them, or make an unfair comparison – the U.S. does have more resources – but sometimes the teachers don’t say things properly, grammatically, in the class. Maybe it happens in high school Spanish classes all across America too and I was just never proficient enough to notice? I don’t know. I really was expecting the kids to know more than they do, but I’m literally going to be doing the very basics with them: colors, numbers, animals, articles of clothing, and all those lessons that we all remember from our high school days of flashcards and jeopardy. That makes it easy on me, but how do you make something visually appealing to kids (I have to use visuals since I can’t speak their language to equate it with a word they know in Korean), while at the same time making it fun but conducive to learning without being too childish. Meh. I hope it doesn’t sound like I’m complaining. I’m not. I signed up for this, and I’m still excited about it, and I hope that I will be a change of pace from their boring translating grammar lessons everyday. Its just going to take a lot more encouragement and creativity than I had anticipated. But no worries, I have lots of time during the week to come up with creative things and plenty of encouragement to give. I am the youngest teacher here (except maybe the student teacher who is still in college), so it’s not that long ago that I was in high school and I remember what it was like. Hopefully my age will be an advantage and if they think I’m “cool” they’ll be more inclined to participate and actually learn.

Went to immigration the other day, so I could get my foreign registration card that would allow me to get all the essentials like a cell phone and the internet. A girl who was about my age at the immigration office was there working as a translator. For Mongolian, Vietnamese, English and Korean. Um? I’ve never felt more inadequate. Seriously? When did this kid learn all these languages?

On a not-work-related note, I went shopping the other day with Jin in Myeong-dong (a neighborhood in Seoul). Boy, was I missing out by not going here. As much as I loved the COEX mall, Myeong-dong was even better. COEX will be saved for when its cold out and I don’t feel like walking around outside. But Myeong-dong is an awesome shopping area with tons of little streets, shops, food vendors, and A FOREVER 21 AND ZARA! Right. Next. To. Each. Other. I was in heaven.

Myeong-dong, Seoul

Jin and I shopped around for a long time, grabbing random things to try on. Cue the crazy movie montage of us trying on some of the most ridiculous outfits and accessories we could find. We looked absolutely crazy but it was so much fun and of course a great girl-bonding experience. Guys sit around, watch sports, and drink beer. Girls shop. We also made a dinner out of the yummy food vendors on the streets. We ate some sort of sausage (they call it bulgogi) with pressed rice cakes stuffed inside (tteok = rice cakes). There was some dried octopus tentacles available but I passed on that. She also took me to some cute shops where I was able to buy things to make my apartment more homey, like an adorable alarm clock, little magnets, coffee mugs, etc. And most importantly she took me down some of the smaller side streets I wouldn’t have thought to go down with bargains on shoes. Woo!!

Jin and me in Myeong-dong.

Met up with Anna finally last Thursday. We went with another guy from our program and walked around Myeong-dong and Insadong. Friday I went to Suwon, which is the biggest city in Gyeonggi-do province. It should be about 2 hours on the subway but that was not that case. The subway ride there was terrible. It was way overcrowded, and my train didn’t come for 30 minutes at my transfer station, which made me 30 minutes late to meet Anna. And we didn’t have cell phones so that was a problem. One of the people I was going to meet up with happened to have a cell phone and was with Anna, so as soon as I got off the subway in Suwon, I called him from a pay phone and while I was standing in the phone booth freaking out that I had lost my friends, I serendipitously ran into Catie and Rebecca who are also from UW. I don’t even know how they found me, I was huddled in a phone booth in front of a massive multi-level subway station on one of the busiest roads in Suwon. But I was so relieved. We all found each other eventually and had a great night. I did, however, have to do a sort of “walk-of-shame” back home from Anna’s; literally end to end across the 2nd largest metropolitan area in the world. No big deal. Anna also cooked breakfast on Saturday morning, consisting of scrambled eggs and toast. Since forks are hard to come by in these parts of the world, I was forced to eat my eggs and toast with chopsticks. And I did it. Without too much effort.

Anna and me out in Suwon

Scrambled eggs, toast, and chopsticks. The epitome of blending cultures.

Saturday Anna and I met up with some friends in Seoul that are doing a non-UW teaching program, and went clubbing until 5:30am. Why so late? Because the subways closes at midnight and doesn’t open again until 5:30 or 6am depending on the station. And its probably a 40000-50000 won (so like $40-50) cab ride to my apartment. When we all left the club at 5:30, people were still raging pretty hard. Once the subway opened up, we hopped on a train and slept the entire way home. We probably looked crazy – like we don’t get enough stares as it is. By the time Anna and I made it to my apartment, it was 7am and the sun was shining and people were starting their day. But we slept until 3:30. Not sure I can handle partying til the sun comes up every weekend. I think in the future we’ll just get a love motel – a really cheap hotel where Korean businessmen take their mistresses. But they’re usually full of foreigners who just need a cheap place to stay in Seoul. At least I can check partying until the sun comes up off my list of things to do here. Sure it won’t be the last time.

Went to Home Plus with my neighbor Sang-Eun. Thought I was going to fly out the open window on the bus that I was standing next to because the bus was so crowded and the driver drove like he was on drugs. I was hanging on for dear life. Dropped another 100000 won trying to get my life together in this country at Home Plus. I usually buy western food at the grocery store, because I can’t really cook and some of the preparations for Korean food are sort of more than I can handle and more than I have time for. Sang-Eun is all about teaching me the names of food though, which is great. So I learned some basic words, which I’m really struggling to remember already but she’s really helpful. She cracked me up though when it was my turn to teach her. I was picking out some rice wine (so good and cheap!) and there was a “mountain berry” flavored one. I think we would just call it mixed berry – the pictures were of raspberries and blackberries. And when trying to say that the berries are grown on the mountains, she could only come up with “the berries live in the mountain”. So cute. The supermarket part of Home Plus is full of samples at practically every aisle. Sang-Eun made me try something that…I don’t even remember the Korean name because I was trying to get over what it was in English. Noodles and pig’s blood cooked up and stuffed in a sort of sausage casing. Oh. My. God. I told her I didn’t think I could handle eating it, but she dragged me over to the sample cart and made me do it. To be honest, it wasn’t totally disgusting as far as taste goes. But it sure wasn’t good. Maybe it was a case of mind-over-matter. But my mind won and I had a hard time getting it down. She let me stop at the yogurt sample cart so I could have something I actually liked. Ahhhh I can’t even believe I ate that. She also tried getting me to buy bugs in a can. To eat. Her reasoning was that the bugs are smaller in the Korea so they’re easier to eat than the ones in China. But I drew the line at eating pigs blood. After buying our goods we went to the food court in the Home Plus. Lunch was not so good that day, there was straight up crab legs in my soup for the second time in two weeks. I couldn’t bring myself to deal with pulling crab meat out with chopsticks and a spoon. Or eat soup that had legs of a sea creature floating in it. So at the food court I got fried pork with a sort of sweet and sour sauce, and a big bowl of spaghetti. It was Korean style spaghetti, which was a little different, but still so good. And I ate every last bite. I don’t even want to discuss the irony of me eating pork immediately after freaking out about pig’s blood. All the other dishes had rice, and I’m so sick of rice because I eat it every single day at school. So if I can avoid it, I will.

I am enjoying squid jerky though!

Me and my squid jerky. Yeah I'm really eating it. And YES I actually like it.

Finally got my cell phone. Signed a one year contract with LG, and got a free phone. Usually I’m picky about my phone, but I got a cute baby pink cell phone for free. Not the best phone in the world but definitely not the worst. Has video calling, a Korean-English dictionary, texting, music downloads, and all the other good stuff. I had to wait for 30 minutes while some paperwork went through, so Jin and I decided to get some food. She suggested chicken and beer. Did Ludacris circa 2003 pop into anyone else’s mind when I said that? So fried chicken and a beer for 30 minutes turned into another beer. Which turned into Jin making a few phone calls and inviting some more teachers (luckily at my school there’s quite a few teachers that are in their late 20s, so I have people somewhat my age to hang out with), which turned into more beers, and before I knew it I was belting out the Backstreet Boys in a noraebang. I scored 100% singing Backstreets Back, which I am both extremely proud and ashamed of. You really never know when all that useless pop knowledge will come in handy. Amazing too, how my brain can pull up those ancient lyrics but can’t remember some of the stuff I learned my last semester of college.

Learned that the word for "station" (역) pronounced "yeok" and the word for "f*** you" (욕) pronounced "yok" are extremely similar looking and sounding. And I live near Ganeung Station (or Ganeung Yeok), which means that I need to be very careful when telling somebody where to go to find my apartment or where I live. I could be kicked out of a cab in the middle of who knows where, real quick.

So in short: Korea so far has meant that I can now successfully party til the sun comes up, make it home in last night’s clothes across a city of 20 million people, avoid unintentionally offending a cab driver by mispronouncing a simple word, find my friends in a massive subway station even though the odds are against us and we have no real means of communication with each other, eat scrambled eggs with chopsticks, sing the Backstreet Boys error-free while in a Korean karaoke room, and eat pigs blood noodle-y stuff and squid jerky. Beat that resume. These skills will be applicable at some point later on in life right?

"Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn't do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover." --Mark Twain

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Soju Think You Can Dance?

Hello again! This is a long one and it may be awhile before I write again so enjoy this while it lasts. Since my last post I’ve spent my week of “quarantine” in Seoul mostly. I visited the Seoul Museum of Art where the works in the main gallery focused on dissonance and the human capacity for brutality as well as the impact of globalization on the natural world. Some of the art was a little creepy and sometimes almost grotesque but showed an interesting way of looking at our current situation in the world. Pictures weren’t allowed so all I got was a picture of this in the main entryway.

Entryway of the Seoul Museum of Art (10 colors of Seoul)

Seoul Museum of Art

After that I walked around some new areas of Seoul and visited Gyeonghuigung Palace, which was built in 1623. It was destroyed during the Japanese annexation (1910-1945) and a Japanese school was established. Only the main “audience hall” has been restored as well as a few of the inner courtyards.

Gyeonghuigung Palace

The entrance gate (Heunghwamun) has moved around Seoul but has been at its current place since 1988.

Entrance to Gyeonghuigung (Heunghwamun)

Following the palace I walked down the street to the statue of the Hammering Man. It’s 5 or 6 stories tall and made out of 50 tons of steel. American artist, Jonathon Borofsky, created it. This blacksmith has been hammering away silently since 2002.

“Is work just a meaningless ritual that we allow to dominate our lives?”

Finally, I visited the bronze statue of Yi Sun Shin. He was a general who...did something important in the 1500s? I sort of forget. I think he built some sort of warships that helped defeat Japan when they attacked Korea. All I wrote down on my notepad was “geobukseon = turtle boats” so maybe he invented those. Clearly I need to improve my note taking skills. This is also one of my favorite places I have seen in Seoul so far. The area surrounding the statue is a bunch of fountains that kids splash around in, and further behind the statue is an elaborate design of flowers. My camera is at the end of the road, however, and died before I could take pictures of it. Once I get my first paycheck (!!!) I’ll hopefully be able to afford a shiny new camera. They have some baller technology over here so I’m looking forward to taking part. Won’t be for a few more weeks though, so pictures may be few and far between until then.

Kids playing in the fountain in front of the statue of Yi Sun Shin

I also visited the COEX Mall during my week off here. It’s located under the World Trade Center here and is huge. I had a map of the mall and I still got lost. It has nightclubs, bars, restaurants, an aquarium, a 17 screen movie theatre, several arcades, a kimchi museum (the only museum dedicated to pickled cabbage and its health benefits), a karaoke room, and more. I definitely want to go back here when I’m not poor to do some quality shopping.

Jin has been a huge help in getting me settled in here. I still don’t have internet or a cell phone because I’m still waiting for my foreigner registration paperwork to go through, but hopefully will have those things very soon. Jin showed up at my apartment the other night with a box of pizza and miller lite and 4 bags of stuff from Home Plus for my apartment. Um. Yes. She rocks. She told me she was Santa Claus. Precious. She also cooked for me one night. She told me she was going to cook “Korean noodle” for me, so I thought it was some fancy Korean dish. Turned out to just be the Korean version of Ramen. It tastes about the same, but 20x more spicy. I went through a quarter of a gallon of milk just trying to finish it and was sweating by the end.

Friday was my first meeting with all the teachers at my school and I met the principal. I had to speak a few words in front of all of them, just where I was from and all that jazz. 95% of the teachers at my school can’t speak English so Jin had to translate for me, but I think she got the point across. My school is really big. Especially considering it only has 300 students, I was shocked at how much space there was for so few kids. Sam Soong High School was just built in 2008 so its brand spankin new and all shiny. The city its in, Yangju, is a newer city, just north of where I live in Uijeongbu. All of the buildings are new and the area is extremely nice. I wouldn’t have minded living there actually, but its sort of far from the subway which is my only way into Seoul unless I wanted to sit on a bus forever, so living in Uijeongbu actually works out better. After I met everyone and sat through a faculty meeting of which I understood absolutely nothing, it was time to eat!! Jin drove me and 3 other teachers to the restaurant. Jin and driving. Wow. Jin is 28, and has had a driver’s license for 10 years, but has actually been driving for a shorter amount of time than my 17 year old sister. She told me she’s only been driving for 6 months, and seems to think that traffic signs/rules/etc don’t matter. She either flies over the speed bumps in the road or drives off the road to avoid them. Her erratic driving has to stand out in a place where traffic laws are more or less followed pretty closely. She would fit in better in Italy with the way she drives. Also, I’m pretty sure its legal to turn left on red here, because I’ve seen so many cars do it. Either that, or people just don’t care as long as no one else is coming. Anyhow, after she got us lost even with her GPS, we made it to the restaurant which was in Dobongsan, just south of where I live, bordering Seoul. There was probably 30-40 of us in a private room with a karaoke machine. Karaoke (noraebang or 노래방 – which means singing room) is very popular here and is taken very seriously. I tried explaining to Jin that karaoke is something that only really drunk people do in America but she didn’t care, and made me sing anyway. I dragged her up with me and we did a little duet to a Counting Crows song (Accidentally in Love, from the Shrek soundtrack) – it was one of the few English songs on the list that Jin knew the words to. She knew it better than I did though! Dinner was amazing, and I finally got my first taste of Soju. It’s a type of Korean alcohol that’s most comparable to vodka, but not quite as strong. It’s also common in Korea to pour drinks for each other, and when someone offers you a drink you must drink it. I was seated next to the principal (big deal!) and he made sure my glass was never empty. I returned the favor for him as well. Soju is usually paired with beer, so after my 5th shot of soju I switched over to Hite (sort of the miller lite of korea). Everyone kept offering me drinks, since I was the newbie. Halfway through dinner everyone was quite drunk and dinner turned into a drunken karaoke dance party with people running back to their seats in between songs to take bites of their food. Watching my 60-year-old principal sing and dance to a Korean boy band was one of the highlights of the night. Absolutely hilarious. I think the only American song that played was the one Jin and I sang together, but the Korean music was upbeat and we raged for a few hours before the party finally broke up. I also learned that “cha bang cha bang” (자방자방) means “bling bling”. Bahaha I didn’t realize “bling blingwasn’t a universal phrase and could be translated.

After dinner, I went back to Uijeongbu with 3 of the other teachers who live near me, my neighbor Sang-Eun included. Jin told me when I first got here that Sang-Eun can’t speak English, but I think she was just nervous about speaking or something because her English not only exists but its not bad at all! She struggled with some translating and her vocabulary is limited, but overall I could understand her just fine. The 4 of us stopped at a bar near my and Sang-Eun’s apartment for another round of drinks and then went home. It was a great night overall. Everyone was very curious about me and Jin told me that a lot of them had so many questions for me but couldn’t speak English and so everyone was really hesitant to ask. I told her to let people know that if they have questions they can ask away as long as she doesn’t mind translating.

First day of school was interesting. All the kids stared me at, and they kept peeking into the office to look at me and giggled every time I smiled or looked at them. Some of the “brave” kids would say “HI!!!” to me, but when I asked them how they were, they giggled and didn’t know what to say. Guess we’ll have to work on that phrase… I also helped to show some kids on a map of the U.S. where I was from. And another girl wanted to say hello and ask a few questions but didn’t know how, so one of the other English teachers wrote out a few sentences and the girl just read them off the paper to me. I knew she had no idea what she was saying when “I am excited for your class” came out of her mouth, and when I asked the teacher she confirmed that the girl did not have a clue what she had said. Once again, most of the teachers don’t speak English, but at lunch I sat next to a teacher who had clearly memorized a phrase so he could say something to me before I ate: “Have a good lunch”. Absolutely adorable. I think a lot of people here are really hesitant to speak English, especially to me since its my first (and sort of only) language. They learn English throughout their schooling, but have no real application of it, and so I think a lot of people question their own ability and therefore become really shy when the time comes to speak.

I got to leave early to get the results from my drug test (mandatory for all of us English teachers) and had planned to head straight to the immigration office to apply for my foreigner registration card but um...they lost my pee at the hospital. So I had to retake that test and can’t pick up the results for a few more days. Jin was disappointed because it meant she had to go back to school sooner than she had planned (I was allowed to take the rest of the day off), but she put it off by ditching with me to get ice cream. I helped a teacher ditch school on my first day. Already bringing the American way to Korea.

Today was my 2nd day of school and the kids still seemed scared of me. I also had to get up in front of the entire school at their school assembly and speak/introduce myself to everyone. I thought it was kind of pointless since no one could understand me, but I stopped after every sentence so Jin could translate. I had a few more "HI!'s" today, as well some "i love you"-s and a "will you marry me" from some of the boys. If it weren't so funny it would probably be illegal. I just can't help laughing at them though, its really quite adorable. School lunch, on the other hand, is not so adorable. You just sort of get what you're given at school, no choices really, and no one ever brings their own lunch. Today, was fish. And I'm not a big seafood person to begin with. But then, it was literally like a chunk of fish had been cut off and cooked. And I had to pull the bones out of my fish with chopsticks and a spoon. All I wanted was a fork and knife. And maybe a cheeseburger. So I ate the rice, the veggies, and tried to tolerate the unbelievably spicy kimchi. I sort of picked at the fish, but really couldn't bring myself to eat it.

Anna has arrived in Korea safely for those of you who read this that haven’t heard from her yet. Hopefully we’ll get a chance to meet up this weekend and I can show her what soju and 노래방 are all about.

And just to make you all jealous, here is the view of the sunset over the mountains that I get to see out my apartment window every night.

"To my mind, the greatest reward and luxury of travel is to be able to experience everyday things as if for the first time, to be in a position in which almost nothing is so familiar it is taken for granted." - Bill Bryson