Saturday, May 22, 2010

You'll Have to Excuse Me, I'm Not At My Best

Ack, I've fallen delinquent in posting again. I think it's because I've just been so tired lately. I've burned out my batteries. As Spirit of the West might say, "I need home for a rest. Take me home!" And I will be home, in a mere two weeks! The thought is exciting.

The school year is winding down, and so are school activities. A couple of weeks ago I went with one hundred high school students to a place called Sokrisan Youth Centre for our high school retreat, where much fun was had. There were many activities. For me, though, the highlight of this trip was a Korean game that the boys started playing. It just says so much about Korea. So much. I will let it speak for itself.

Peg the Horse from Laura Sanders on Vimeo.

What I love most about this is after all this elaborate discussion, planning, and effort of execution, none of it has any bearing on who the winner is. Rather, the winner is determined by a round of Rock Paper Scissors. (You can hear them playing at the end when they're yelling "Kye bye bo!")

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Coming to the Final Push

You know how sometimes, things seem to stay the same forever, and then all of a sudden everything turns upside down? I've sort of felt like this over the past week. It's not that any conditions of my life have changed, but rather, my perception of them has changed.

Ever since I arrived in Korea to do this job, I have buckled down to work. I've been working hard to save money go back to school, for my retirement fund, and to hit the travel destinations I have dreamed of since I was old enough to have a concept of geography. But oftentimes, I have just felt like I was working, working, working, and the fulfillment of those goals was just some hazy date in the future. That sentence makes it sound like a complaint, though I don't intend it that way. I like my life here, I like my work, I'm blessed to have good friends. But I am also aware that my current existence here is not indefinite. Someday it will's just that the ending has always seemed a long way off.

Over the past week, though, I've realized that it's not a long way off. In fact, I have just little over a year left. It's true that a year is not an insignificant amount of time, but it doesn't seem like that much when I've already been here three years to begin with. When I come back from summer vacation this fall, everything is going to be so different. Knowing that this is my last year here will make me appreciate all of the things I love about Korea, and will probably also make me more tolerant of the things I don't.

There have been moments too when I have thought, why am I leaving? Why not just stay another year? I can stay as long as I want. After all, Korea has been very good to me. It offered me one job that I wasn't technically qualified for, and when that all went sour, it turned around and offered me another (again, one I wasn't technically qualified for). As a result, I've experienced immense professional growth, have learned what I am capable of, and have become much more confident than ever before.

But I think that if I stayed, I would be at risk of getting into a rut. I still remember my TESOL teacher in Canada, who had lived in Korea for eight years. When I expressed my amazement to him at the length of time he'd lived here, he just shrugged and said, "If you can make it one year in Korea, you can make it eight." Now, at the end of Year Three, I am in complete agreement with him. The first year is the hardest. If you can endure it, you could live here the entire rest of your life, I think. But there comes a point when Korea is very, very comfortable and you have to make a decision. And honestly, I think I'm at a point where I need to be scared again. I need to be the newbie again. I need to do new things.

So in summer 2011 I am going to Europe, and then I am moving to Montreal. :D

Yesterday, just for fun, I sat down and started looking at the places where I want to go. Here was the sample itinerary that I came up with:

Seoul-Munich-Pisa: Spend the night in Pisa. See the Leaning Tower in the morning. Get the train to Cinque Terre and stay there for three or four days. Go back to Pisa.

Pisa-Paris: Catch the train, fly, or somehow get to Paris for the Conversation Corps Orientation. Spend the weekend in Paris and then on Monday go to my host family's home wherever it is in France I've been assigned.

France: Hang out in France for a month. After my stay with my host family ends, spend a week travelling to all of the places I want to see. Then...

France to England: Take the Channel Tunnel across to London, where hopefully I could stay with my friends Beckie and Dave? (I should contact them.) Go up to Devonshire and wherever else strikes my interest. Visit Margaret and Steven wherever they are in England by that point, and maybe my friend Lee as well. Then to:

Scotland. Spend a few days in Edinburgh, and other Scottish places of interest (like Leoch).

This itinerary is only the first draft. At first I thought it was still too early to start planning this venture, but it turns out that it's not, because Edinburgh has so many summer festivals that you often need to book accommodation over a year in advance. So it's time to start doing my research. I also need to consider if I want to take another detour through Southeast Asia on the way to Munich. It may be too expensive, but I am just not done with Southeast Asia yet.

Such good decisions to make. :)

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Doenjang Girl

Today on my weekly trip to the supermarket I was reminded of a Korean expression that I learned recently: "둰장 여", or "doenjang girl".

Doenjang chiggae is a fabulous Korean stew with tofu, mussels, onions, and soybeans. It is definitely my favourite Korean food. Not only for its taste (yum) but because it's cheap. The average doenjang chiggae usually runs about 4000 won, which works out to something like $3.50. For that, you get the stew itself, a bowl of rice, and an array of side dishes.

Unlike traditional Korean food, which is ridiculously cheap by Western standards, any kind of Western food or beverage is usually about the same price as it would be at home (dinner at the local Indian restaurant easily sets me back $30). Starbucks' prices are no exception.

So the expression "doenjang girl" has arisen to describe a Korean girl who wants to appear wealthier than she actually is. Instead of visiting an expensive foreign restaurant, Doenjang Girl will eat her $3.50 bowl of doenjang chiggae, then goes to Starbucks to purchase a six dollar latte.

It's interesting how things like this make you consider your own perspective. In the West I usually expect to pay at least $15 for a meal out. When my favourite Ethiopian restaurant in Ottawa charged me only $7.50 for my curry, I kept scanning the menu trying to figure out what the catch was. If you're used to that, spending $6 on a latte doesn't seem like a big deal. Considering it from a Korean perspective, however, it would be like me paying $25 for a latte after a $15 supper. Kind of nuts.

That thought was with me today when I was confronted by these beauties in the grocery store:

At first, I told myself they were way too expensive. I would never spend that kind of money on a few tiny pieces of fruit. Then I realized that I would have paid the same amount for an iced mocha frappucino without batting an eye. These were just as delicious and much better for me. I bought them, took them home, and promptly ate them all. They didn't taste like Canadian raspberries (I think they must actually be another kind of berry) but they were awesome all the same.

Friday, April 16, 2010

A Good Week

School was hectic this week due to the visit of a committee from the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC), whose accreditation we need if our students are to attend any American university with our diplomas. Although the visit went well and the members of the committee were lovely people, it's still a bit nerve-wracking to have people coming round to your classrooms and observing all you do.

Still, when they presented their initial findings, I thought they were dead on about the school's strengths and weaknesses (or, "areas of strength" and "areas of growth" in WASCese), and I hope to see their recommendations implemented.

I've been feeling quite nice lately. Work is manageable and I've been getting out on the town to have - dare I say it - a social life. On Wednesday I went out to dinner with Bonnie and Kim, two amazing women I don't get to spend enough time with. Some excellent conversations were had, which only cemented the feeling I've been having lately that my friendships here are now well-worn and comfortable.

On Thursday I went in pursuit of my new hobby. In a continuing effort to get away from the tyranny of the computer screen, I thought it might be fun to try social dancing. I was rather dubious about it. As a child, I sucked at physical activity. I was lousy at sports and dreaded gym class as much as I now dread invasive surgery. I took dance classes for many years, too, but I just never seemed to "get" it. Eventually, out of sheer frustration, I convinced my mom to let me quit.

For some reason that I still don't understand, my brain and my limbs connected after adolescence. I was suddenly able to do forms of exercise that had always eluded me as kid. I also took up yoga, an activity that seemed to rewire my brain to make me almost graceful at times. But I still thought of dancing as something other people did. The fact that most of my daydreams include me rocking out on the dance floor with my celebrity crush of the moment has done little to alter this attitude.

Still, my best friend Maria has been dancing for years, and she's been trying to get me to come. She often goes to Seoul to swing dance, but when she found a salsa club here in Suwon she decided to learn that too. So I went along with her.

Turn Salsa Club

The club works like this. There is a lesson first where you learn new moves and practice them. You don't need a partner to join in, as it's expected that everyone will dance with everyone else. (As Maria says, "You improve by dancing with people above your level.") The men stand in one line, the women in another line, and you rotate partners. The class goes for about an hour, and then the dance party begins where you get a chance to "apply your learning" (more WASCese). That's when the club really starts to fill up with all kinds of people, Koreans and foreigners alike.

My teacher was a lovely Thai man who conducted much of the lesson in English. I didn't think that I'd be able to do well, but to my amazement I felt all of my old dance knowledge coming back to me. It's been buried in my brain all along - only this time, my brain knows how to tell my limbs what to do with it. The result? I can't remember the last time I had more fun! Obviously, I made a lot of mistakes, but they're fixable. I know I will improve with practice.

I danced and danced all night, and even though I didn't get to bed until after midnight, I smiled all day Friday and was in a great mood. I'll be headed back to the salsa club next week for sure. I've even found a place in Ottawa where I can practice during the summer.

Yesterday an Indian restaurant opened in our neighbourhood. I've been eagerly awaiting its appearance. Lauren, Elias and I went to check it out. We are pleased to report that it is up to par! I'm psyched to have Indian food so close at hand. Their gulab jamun is particularly good; it has lots of cardamom. I was also pleased to see that the restaurant was doing a roaring business for opening night.


I always feel good about the world after a good meal.

Today I have no plans, but I am happy with that. It's good to have a chance just to sit and relax a bit. I went outside for a walk and saw that the cherry blossoms are blooming at last. This is my favourite time of year in Korea and a sure sign that the prolonged winter is ending.


All this has made me quite cheerful.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Jamie Cullum!

Last night I met up with some friends for a concert, somewhat enthusiastically entitled "Jamie Cullum the First Live in Seoul." I had some fun puzzling over whether they meant "Jamie Cullum the First" (as opposed to the yet unborn Jamie Cullum the Second, maybe?) or "Jamie Cullum's First Performance in Seoul" and decided that it was the latter.

I like going to shows in Seoul because an artist has to be fairly well known to come to Korea at all, but due to the language barrier they won't have as many fans as they would in English speaking countries. This means that the concerts are usually held in smaller, more intimate venues, which turned out to be the case last night.

Darrick, Krista, Leslie, Michael, Elias, Laura, me, and Lauren

Jamie was absolutely fabulous. I've never seen a performer with so much energy! He didn't just play the piano - he played every part of the piano, on it, in it, around it, and under it, turning it into his own alternative drum. Twice he climbed on top of it and jumped off. He also set up a beatbox track that just blew my mind. He and his fantastic band did two encores and we walked out well-satisfied with the state of the world and everything in it.

We did go around the back hoping that Jamie and his band would come out and hang with us for a while, but unfortunately they were whisked away in tinted vans only a few minutes after we got there. Even so, that didn't detract from the awesomeness of our evening or our post-concert euphoria.

On the subway

The best moment of the concert happened when I was watching Jamie and his band, listening to my friends sing along, and I realized that things have been shifting for me in a positive direction lately. I feel as though I know the direction my life is heading in, and that everything is progressing as it should. The "new" friends I made when I first started working here have suddenly been around long enough to count as old friends. I am grateful for them and for everything I have. All is well.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

A Weekend Out

Hey, fourth weekly post in a row! Is it possible that I am actually on my way to becoming a regular blogger? Huzzah!

Since most of my colleagues usually take the opportunity to travel to other Asian countries during school breaks, it's easy to forget how much fun it is to travel around Korea. So when this long weekend came up, my friends Elias, Lauren and I decided to visit Andong (the Cultural Capital of Korea), since it's reachable by train and bus. We were joined by Laura from Germany, a student teacher who's been doing an internship at the school for the last few months. We were pumped to spend some time in the countryside, where the "real Korea" is alive and well!

We got to Suwon Station at about 9AM. Though it was still cold out, I was pleased that it was a sunny day and that the yellow dust was lying low:

Elias, who used to live in Daegu, suggested that we stop off there on the way to Andong so that we could go to Mount Palgongsan, where the tallest statue of Buddha in the world is situated. Getting there was a bit of an adventure. We took a taxi up a remote hill to the gate, and as we were getting out the driver demanded that we give him an extra 6000 won because there was nobody waiting to go back down. At first we hemmed and hawed before Lauren told him in no uncertain terms that we would pay him based on the meter only. (Lauren is a useful travelling companion because she's got guts.) We all scurried out of the taxi and he cursed loudly and eloquently in Korean before taking off back down the mountain.

Fortunately, the experience of the Mount Palgongsan more than made up for the unpleasant cab ride. It was beautiful, scenic, and above all, clean, which you appreciate after months of breathing in smog and dust. It's a great place to hike and check out the natural sites.

These scary looking guys were guarding the gate to the park.

We hiked down to a bridge where an older Korean gentleman was kind enough to take a group shot:
Me, Laura from Germany, Lauren, and Elias

As it turned out, the mountain had extensive hiking trails that led to temples throughout. We didn't hike that far ourselves, but the first group of temples we found was beautiful. Inside, people were praying to Buddha. I went into two different temples that day, one where a monk was chanting, and it was a lovely experience.


After visiting the temples, we continued our hike down a long path over a bridge. The park was decorated with lanterns throughout in anticipation of Buddha's Birthday, which is coming soon.

The Buddha statue itself was disappointing at first, as the area around it was being repaved and we weren't allowed in. Fortunately, we went round the back way and wandered beneath him at our leisure (there are some advantages to being foreigners!).

After being so thoroughly rejuvenated by our hike, we were a bit concerned about how we were going to get back to the bus station. Fortunately, when we looped down the back way, we discovered a city bus that ran directly to the bus station. We jumped on and were off to Andong.

Unfortunately, we wasn't able to find the vegetarian restaurant that supposedly exists in Andong, but we found ourselves some good food nonetheless!
These are called banchan, or side dishes. The sweet black beans are my favourite.

We had hoped to visit a traditional sauna, but we ended up running out of time, which was unfortunate as there were so many of them around. This "25 hour" sauna was a particular favourite of ours:

The next morning, we were up and out the door to visit Hahoe (pronounced Hah-hway), a traditional folk village right in the midst of Confucian Korea. It was here, we were told (repeatedly) that Queen Elizabeth II visited when she came to Korea. We were allowed to go right up to the tree that she planted, but since it just looks like a regular tree I elected not to photograph it. However, I did photograph this house, built in Confucian style with separate living quarters for men and women.

Elias took the opportunity to check out the kimchi pots in the yard. Traditionally, kimchi is made and then left in these pots, which are sometimes buried for years. The result is healthy but potent stuff.

After the village, it was time to head back to Daegu so we could take our train back to Suwon. While we were on the bus, Elias thought that we should stop at a French restaurant in Daegu that he knows. I was dubious at first, as Korean attempts at Western food often have mixed results, but since Elias is a man who knows food, I thought I'd best go. The restaurant was fantastic! I had bruschetta and a smoked salmon salad while Elias and Lauren had steak and lamb respectively. Everyone was well satisfied.

The best part, of course, was the dessert. Homemade vanilla and mint ice cream! YUM! (You can also see Elias' chocolate mousse in the back.)

All in all, it was a great weekend! I hope that we can take another such excursion soon, although Laura is headed back to Germany next Sunday, so unfortunately she won't be able to join us.

Not much in the way of culturally Korean activities for next week, but I am excited because I am going to the Jamie Cullum concert in Seoul next Saturday! If you've not heard this man, listen now and love:

Friday, March 26, 2010

Yellow Dust

What time of day would you say this picture was taken?

yellow dust
View from my balcony window

If you said somewhere between 4-6PM, you are wrong. I took this photo at 1:15 in the afternoon, at which point I had my lights on. It's not actually a rainstorm. It's yellow dust, which Koreans call hwangsa (황사).

Yellow dust is a yearly phenomenon that I've had to endure since I came to Korea. Yellow sand blows in from deserts in Mongolia and Kazakhstan, affecting China, both Koreas, and Japan. Sometimes it's so bad that it even makes it to the US. It usually appears around mid-March and won't disappear until the end of June.

If it looks unhealthy, that's because it is.

As you might expect, yellow dust has always caused all kinds of respiratory problems such as asthma. But in recent years it's gotten worse due to all of the pollutants the dust now carries, such as mercury, lead, zinc, asbestos, synthetic hormones etc. The dust is also thicker now due to deforestation in China, which allows more of it to blow southward. Reforestation attempts have not been particularly successful.

I'm lucky in that so far the yellow dust hasn't caused me any health problems that I know of. It does mean I get more easily winded when I go outdoors, and last year it got so bad that I could taste metal pretty much all the time.

What bothers me most about it is that it looks pretty creepy and post-apocalyptic.

Other than the yellow haze through which I must conduct my daily affairs, I don't have much to report. I had the week off school, so I spent my time resting. Next week I should have more to report, since I have Parent/Teacher Interviews on Wednesday and Thursday. Then, on Friday, my friends Lauren, Elias and I are taking a long weekend's trip down to Andong, a tourist town in southeastern Korea. I've never been, but Elias says it's one of his favourite places, and it even has a VEGETARIAN RESTAURANT! Given that vegetarian options are hard to come by in this country, I'm excited to try it. I wonder what traditional Korean vegetarian cuisine is like. Pictures to follow.