Saturday, March 27, 2010

My Own Signspotting

Have you ever seen the book "Signspotting" that Lonely Planet puts out? It is all photos from around the world of funny signs, either with a strange graphic or bad translations into English. My friend Will shares my love for this simple humor, so this post is dedicated to him. Here are a few of the funnier signs I've spotted in Korea so far.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Out and About in Gunsan

I would not call Gunsan a glamorous city.

Vibrant, livable, gritty, bustling, varied, and industrious would all be more accurate descriptions. I like Gunsan so far, though I have barely gotten acquainted with it. I have spent the last 2 weekends walking around the city orienting myself, since the only map I have is a cartoon map not to scale. The population is almost 300,000... and I can't quite decide if it feels bigger or smaller. It's big enough to have most of the things I could want or need, with a few exceptions: for English books or ethnic food (other than Chinese or Japanese) I would have to go to Seoul.

I'm on the outskirts of downtown in a more residential area, luckily not in a colony of 13-story mega apartments. Gunsan is on the coast, which was a huge draw for me, though the waterfront here is very developed. As far as I can tell, there aren't exactly parks on the water, or nice places to swim in the immediate vicinity. I think there are some beaches just a short bus ride to the north and south though. Not that I should be thinking about swimming right now, because it is still FREEZING here. The wind is ICY. It is supposed to snow again this weekend. I wish I had brought my down jacket. But spring should be on its way, and with it more outside exploration and cultural festivals. The City of Gunsan website is informative, has a promotional video, and is in English. The slogan of the city is "Dream Hub"... which sounds like a slightly awkward translation from something originally very succinct in Korean. On the website, they proclaim, "Gunsan, a City filled with Relaxation of Warm Sunshine and Hopeful Dream of Future." Sounds pretty good, right? If you ever want to find out more about the city, remember it is also spelled Kunsan, because in Korean, the G and K are essentially the same letter, pronounced as a cross between the two. Sort of like the B and V in Spanish. In linguistics they are called minimal pairs. But I digress.

One thing I love about the city is that there is a lot of green space. There is a huge park called Wolmeong which is actually several connected, wooded hills running like a spine through the middle of the city. There are miles and miles of trails, and you can access the park from innumerable trail heads in residential neighborhoods. From my apartment, I can jog to the park in about 5 minutes, and then pick one of many routes to run. Some of the paths are paved, some have a rubber track surface, and some are dirt trail. They are usually all pretty well-used, with masses of Korean speed-walkers in matching black warm-up workout suits passing me constantly if I'm walking. If I'm running it's a whole other matter, because almost no one else is running. I think I have seen 2 Korean runners in the last 2 weeks. So the park makes for an interesting juxtaposition of nature with the very urban. I took this photo below from the top of one of the hills, and it really shows this contrast.

There is one big lake in the park, probably about the size of Greenlake in Seattle. Despite all the people, it is a beautiful and tranquil place to go, and I'm grateful that it is so close by. The other day, I took a long walk across the city and found a nice picture frame in a recycle heap on the side of the road. I need wall decoration for my apartment so I took it... then ended up walking home through Wolmeong park. So there I was hiking up and down these hills with my 18"X18" ornate picture frame. It was ridiculous. I was getting fairly cold and tired as the sun went down behind the trees. Sometimes there are food vendors in the corner of the park and I saw people holding small paper cups. "Ooh, something warm to drink would be nice right now," I thought, walking up to one of the vendors. A man next to me was holding a cup and had just purchased the goods. I looked but it wasn't liquid.... I didn't know what it was. It looked like if a raisin and a beetle had a baby. He offered one to me to try, and I didn't want to be rude, so I ate it off the toothpick. It tasted like if mud and guts had a baby. Though I wanted to gag, I somehow remembered to ask in the only Korean I know "Igo muyayo?" which means "What is this?" and he responded "Pondigi!" The next day at work I asked my coworker what pondigi is, and she wrinkled her nose: "Silk-worm larva". Awesome. I vow to never again be adventurous when it comes to food. If it makes you think of a weird-looking baby, it probably is.

In good food news, last weekend I went out for dinner with some new English-speaking friends. Besides me, there were 3 Canadians teachers and one other American who lives here on the Kunsan Air Force Base. We had Samgyeopsol, probably my favorite Korean food. I've had it here before, but never with so much explanation and ceremony. My friend Kenton has been teaching in Korea for about 4 years, and knows the culture and language very well. His wife stayed home with their baby that night but she had made him promise to not do any teaching on his night off. He is such a wealth of knowledge though, I told him I wouldn't hold it against him if he taught me some stuff. Anyway, samgyeopsol is basically slices of grilled pork belly (we ordered a less fatty cut though) which you then cut into small pieces and place in lettuce leaf with chili/soybean paste, kimchee, grilled garlic, sesame bean sprouts, etc, then wrap into a bite-size ball and pop in your mouth. Part of the fun is that you cook it yourself at your own table. Sometimes they use real coals and sometimes it is an electric grill, but there is always a grease drain.

Traditionally, the youngest female at the table serves, so she is in charge of the meat. She has the tongs for flipping and scissors for cutting. Knowing the age of every one in your company is very important because it determines who serves who. And as in any major Korean meal, there are many side dishes, such as fish soup, miso soup, salad, pickled daikon, onion, hot peppers, rice. It's fun to eat because it's a whole process, and you are eating a lot of variety but small portions and slowly. They have a little paper ticket like at a sushi restaurant which stays on the table, and the server just puts a tick mark if you order more. Essentially, you are only ordering and paying for the number of pieces of meat you get- everything else comes with that meat. We also ordered bamboo wine and soju, the quintessentially Korean booze. It is a 20% alcohol fire-water originally made from sweet potato (I think?) and it is clear and mild like vodka. It was a Saturday night and we talked and ate and drank for hours. The waitstaff leaves the customers alone in their merriment unless you call them over. We needed more water and Kenton told me I had yell across the room for service. "I can't! I would feel so rude," I protested. He assured me it was normal, and I should say yogi-yo (polite form of "come here") loudly. So I did, and instantly 3 heads snapped over to see what we needed. Miraculous. Finally we decided to leave, and after this feast, the bill came to $45. For 5 of us. It is so nice to know you can have a great meal on a teacher's salary.

Then it was onto my first experience in a noraebang! "Bang" just means "room", so noraebang is a room where you sing, or a karaoke place. And not karaoke at a bar, for strangers to hear, like in the U.S. These are all private rooms for your group of friends only, and no alcohol is served. They had hundreds of English songs to rival any karaoke selection back home. We busted out everything from Nirvana to Will Smith to to 4 Non Blondes to Bon Jovi. Oddly enough, most of the music videos are tropical paradise scenes, or random boat races. I don't know why hula girls and palm trees would be fitting for a Queen song, but apparently here in Korea they are. I think Kenton and I both equally surprised each other when we found out the other person knew all the words to Origin of Love from Hedwig and the Angry Inch. We did a lovely duet. And why the animal ears... I couldn't tell you. Apparently that's how Canadians in Korea roll.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Can't Escape the Crepe

Besides eating some delicious crepes on the street in Montmartre, Paris in 2001, I hadn't had much crepe experience until last year. I was working at the cafe on Orcas, and in the summer we started doing sweet and savory crepes, so I became crepe-maker extraordinaire. I liked it, but the snobby barista in me would have rather been making coffee. Fast forward to 2010, in Asia, with children, and somehow... I'm still making crepes! I have been assigned the cooking class, and actually they are the perfect food for the kids- similar but different from food they know, inexpensive, hard to mess up, and a real cooking element that quesadillas or sandwiches would lack. It's pretty satisfying too, when you flip the first one and all the students gasp in delight. We wait until all the teams have made theirs before any one starts eating. Then even when they can eat, many students will first run over to the teachers to feed us a piece before eating it themselves. In general here it is more customary for younger people to wait until the oldest starts eating. Sometimes it's after lunch and I'm not hungry, or I'd prefer to avoid the wheat and sugar, but it is so thoughtful of them that I can't say no.

While we're talking about food, I have to say that Korean food suits me very nicely. I feel really healthy eating it. There is a company that the staff can order lunch from, and they bring it in little tupperwares for every one. It's only 3000 won, less than $3, and you get rice, soup, and about 5 little side dishes. These always include kimchi, plus possibly marinated bean sprouts, sauteed greens, dried fish, little sausages, hard-boiled egg, fish cakes, fried octopus, smoked fish, shrimp, battered ham, thin cooked beef, seaweed, or sweet bean sticky rice cake. Probably the most unusual thing I've seen was at lunch yesterday: tempura-battered mug wort.

One of my coworkers (Canadian) who has lived in South Korea for about 7 years, was kind enough to take me grocery shopping the other day. I can grocery shop by myself, but there are a few things I can't recognize yet. A lot of labels are in both Korean and English, but not all of them. As far as cheese, you can mostly only get a super-processed, white American cheese. There is a little European cheese, but it's really expensive. My coworker said, "For how much Koreans pickle and ferment everything, they sure do have a mild taste in cheese!" She also said that there are far more international products available now than when she first came here. Imported beer, olive oil, dried basil, other spices. Anyway, I am now fairly set up in my kitchen as far as basic cookware and ingredients. It's sort of funny to be in my own space making my own food, but have all the labels be in another language.

Last night a big group of the native teachers from the school and a couple other foreign teachers went out to dinner. We met at an Italian restaurant as a meeting spot, then decided it would just be easiest to eat there. I would prefer to wait on eating foreign food until I start to actually miss it, but it was still Italian with a Korean twist. They had pumpkin soup, garnished with an almond cornflake-like cereal. Also, the menu had some funny translations, for example, about a mushroom and ham calzone: "Derived form Italian, trousers, topped with ham and like a dumping"

Trousers?? I was laughing about "like a dumping" the whole way home. It was a nice walk, a little long, and very cold. I'm about 40 minutes from downtown, and snow flurries started en route. I could have easily jumped in a cab at any point, but I was feeling a serious need to walk after so much pasta and cream sauce.

And it's really, really refreshing to be able to walk safely by myself at night. I almost never did that anywhere in Latin America. Besides maybe a few incidents in Seoul, you never hear of foreigners, or locals for that matter, being harrassed or hurt in public. It was nearly 9pm, and there were still many people out, young and old. In fact, some hagwons (private afternoon schools) where just getting out and there were a lot of school kids on their way home. It's pretty unintimidating when most people walking around you are 12 year-olds.

People seemed to have two main concerns about me coming to Korea. The first was my safety. So besides feeling safe in public, I'd like be reassuring that my apartment is also very secure. You have to enter a key code to get in the front door, as well as my apartment. I'm on the 3rd floor so there is no way any one can come in a window. There are fire alarms and motion sensor lights in the stairwell. The other concern was how I would be able to teach English to Korean students when I don't speak Korean. For one thing, they already speak some English and understand even more. Also, it is required by law that foreign teachers have a Korean teacher in class with them. This is safer for the students in case of any incident or emergency. Of course, this is not always the case, but luckily at my school it is.

So basically, I'm teaching words like whisk, eating kimchee, tromping in the snow, hunting for stinky cheese, trying to decipher vinegar labels, and eating higher than normal quantities of crepes. Life is good.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Now Arriving Korea!

By plane Seoul is about 12 hours, 5100 miles, and one world away. I left Seattle at 1pm and it never got dark during the whole flight. Flying Air Asiana was nice between the 15 channels on my own screen, good Korean food, and the ever-vigilant flight attendants who came around offering beverages literally 15 times. I happened to sit next to a Korean-American man who lives in Shoreline. His daughter goes to Shorewood and we discussed the pros and cons of her going to the UW vs. WWU.

When I got out of customs, two young women were holding a big sign that said "Amber". They were teachers from the school, who were in Seoul for a workshop that day so it was arranged that they would just take me back to Gunsan on the bus with them. They were so sweet, extremely friendly and speak really good English. It was a fairly chilly night, and as we drove out of the city there were patches of melting snow on the ground. It was about a 3.5 hour bus ride, and we stopped at a rest area for a late dinner, where we ate spicy ramen and udon and kimchee out of the same bowls like old friends. We arrived in Gunsan around 10:30, and I briefly met the Headmaster of the school before they took me to my hotel. It was a really sweet spot, with a computer in the room, flat screen TV, and ultra-violet ray sanitized drinking glasses. Whoa.

It's funny, I knew almost nothing about the school before I got here. It's called the Gunsan English Learning Center, and it is a public school. I originally thought I would be teaching at a hagwon, which is an afternoon/evening private school that most student attend after their public school. So the GELC is like an intensive English class extension for public middle schools in the city. Students will leave their regular school for one week at a time, and come to our school all day for that week. Essentially we have a new student body of 65 every week. The upside is that this is a new and exciting experience for the students, and the downside is that we don't get to create a long-term relationship with them. The school itself is really nice- big, clean, modern. All the classes are set up to be experiential, "real-world" settings to not only teach English, but to teach it in cultural contexts. So there is an immigration counter, a doctors office, a post office, library, bank, an airplane, a kitchen/cooking class, art room, travel agency, etc. It's really cool. Right now there are no students since it is a vacation time, but the new term starts on Monday. There will be 12 teachers at the school, 6 Korean and 6 native speakers, and we will always be paired together to co-teach classes. The Korean teachers are already here, all women and all young. Only 3 of us foreigners are here though, the other 3 arriving next week. So far the other two native teachers are a Korean-American from LA who has been teaching here for 2 years, and a former Spanish teacher from Tennessee who has been here 6 months. They are both super nice and have been helpful in answering my questions and helping me get settled.

Friday was errand and orientation day for me. Jina, the senior teacher who had picked me up at the airport, took me to the hospital for my health evaluation. I got the standard height, weight, vision, hearing, and medical history check, as well as a urine test, blood test (AIDS), and chest X-ray, all for a whopping $30. Back at the school, the Korean teachers were cooking lunch for the staff, a Korean dish of thin strips of pork belly, which are cut into small pieces, then you dip in sesame oil and chili paste before wrapping in lettuce with garlic, dried fish, and/or kimchee. It was delicious. They were impressed with my use of the chopsticks and the fact that I like kimchee. Then I got a tour of the school, got shown my desk, played mini-pool, and headed out to check out an apartment.

Aparently there had been some complaints from past teachers about the condition of the employee housing. The teacher from Tennessee said that when he arrived, his apartment was old, dirty, a lot of things didn't work, and eventually he had to move. In an effort to make sure teachers are happy from the beginning, the school was looking into leasing rooms in a totally new building that they have never used before. They wanted me to approve it before they decided to pick this one. I never saw any other housing options so I have nothing to compare it to, but I really like my apartment. I said yes right away, and even got to pick between 3 different rooms and get the lighter, bigger, and quieter of them. It is a small studio apartment, but new, clean, just has a good feel. There one main room, then the kitchen and laundry room are partioned off by sliding glass doors with frosted glass so the light still gets through. I have a new washer with drying racks hanging above. My door is locked via electronic keypad. And get this: instead of having the 10 digits fixed like on a telephone, the numbers scramble every time so that some one watching over your shoulder couldn't follow the pattern of your PIN, nor see your finger prints on the numbers you may have pressed. There is a TV, a built-in closet, and the school brought a bed, a microwave/confection oven, and will bring a table and chairs next week. There is also free wireless(!) which was working great last night but for some reason today the signal is too weak to connect to. There are restaurants, convenience stores, and an internet place on my block, and I'm within walking distance to school. I was able to get blankets and dishes left at the school by old teachers, and yesterday Jina took me to the dollar store for basic housewares. Today I got groceries and next week Jina will take me to a bigger store for more house shopping.

Every one from the school has been so kind and helpful in me getting settled. The school gives a settlance allowance, plus they have taken me out for meals and given me their home phone numbers. I am so grateful to be so well taken care of.

Not speaking Korean is a frusting and exciting experience. So far I can really only say Hello and Thank You. I'm stoked to learn, but I sort of just wish I could download it instantly into my brain. At least the currency conversion is easy- it's approximately 1,000 won to the dollar, so you just have to subtract three zeros.

One thing that strikes me though is the juxtaposition between the rundown/underdeveloped, and the advanced technology. There are shabby building, dilapidated houses, yards of rubble and scrap material, yet there are also fancy technological gadgets. For instance, every one has cell phones... there are seat-warmers on the toilets at school... electronically-dispensed hand sanitizers... most cars with GPS... and in Jina's car when she puts it in reverse, a camera on the back of the car turns on so you can see EXACTLY where you are backing.

I already feel pretty adjusted to the time difference and am glad I have this weekend to rest up and relax before starting classes. Overall I feel happy, thankful, and excited to dive in to the job, the culture, and the language. More soon, Kom Sam Ni Da for reading!

Friday, March 5, 2010

The Journey

It's 5 days before I leave for Korea, and just today I got my work visa and plane ticket. I was supposed to have left a week ago but have been waiting on some documents from the school, delaying the whole process. Well, better late than never! I'm pretty jazzed, and taking this extra time to really get myself organized. You know how when you move, you want to clean through things thoroughly and par down to the essentials, but eventually you just end up throwing all your random stuff in random boxes? Yeah, I'm trying to avoid that.

I have a confession of sorts. For as much traveling as I have done, I have never really been somewhere where I didn't speak the language. Spain and Latin America= Spanish. Belize, the UK, the Netherlands= English. In Germany and France I was with other friends who spoke the language. Even in those countries, with their Germanic and Latin roots, I could decipher some words and signs. But Korean is of course, a whole other ball game. When I called the Consulate I felt a little anxious hearing the recording in Korean and waited impatiently to press a number for English.

I have never been to Asia and don't know exactly what to expect. I have traveled, but never lived for more than a few months in a foreign country. I have never had a full-time teaching job. In many ways it feel as if I'm about to step off a cliff, where I will fall into a void and wake up totally disoriented and gleeful in Seoul. For now I listen to my Korean tapes, try to memorize the alphabet, and slide into journey mode. Incidentally, two of my favorite poets wrote a poem on the topic, both different but both beautiful.

The Journey
by David Whyte

Above the mountains
the geese turn into
the light again

Painting their
black silhouettes
on an open sky.

Sometimes everything
has to be
inscribed across
the heavens

so you can find
the one line
already written
inside you.

Sometimes it takes
a great sky
to find that

small, bright
and indescribable
wedge of freedom
in your own heart.

Sometimes with
the bones of the black
sticks left when the fire
has gone out

someone has written
something new
in the ashes of your life.

You are not leaving
you are arriving.

The Journey
by Mary Oliver

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice --
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
"Mend my life!"
each voice cried.
But you didn't stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do --
determined to save
the only life you could save.