Friday, May 28, 2010

On North Korea

You've probably heard about the recent tensions between North and South Korea. About two months ago, a South Korean warship the Cheonan was sunk in disputed border waters, leaving 46 people dead. I was here when it happened, and was surprised that North Korea was not instantly blamed. South Koreans seemed more sad than angry, holding a huge funeral for the missing sailors. The wreckage was uncovered and finally it was declared that the Cheonan was hit by a North Korean torpedo.

Now suddenly it's an international crisis, with Secretary of State Hilary Clinton visiting China and presenting the evidence against NK, and recently visiting Seoul as well. Most news coverage would make it seem that war is imminent. Well, technically the Koreas are still at war, so I guess active war would be more accurate. I wish I had more insight to add, but as I've said before, I came here with very little historical and political background knowledge. I've done a lot more studying of Latin America could tell you way more about Vicente Fox, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, Michelle Bachelet, Evo Morales or Hugo Chavez than I could about Lee Myung-bak or Kim Jong-il. I've been trying to do a lot of reading up about the situation and of course there is a wide range of analysis. A recent opinion piece from the New York Times says South Korea's ambivalence and lack of action on the situation is dangerous and outdated. Then on the other hand, in this interview on Democracy Now the professor/author says every one is over-reacting and these military skirmishes are nothing new. There have been several other ship-sinkings on both sides in the last few decades that didn't lead to any more aggession.

I will admit I have had a few moments of fear and imagining the worst, wondering 'What if?' What if Seoul were attacked, how would I leave the country? A Canadian teacher friend here is going home almost a month early because her parents were very concerned about the conflict and felt more comfortable having her back ASAP. It's an uneasy situation both for foreigners and for Koreans who are still incredibly tied together ethnically and linguistically on both sides of the border. But on the upside of all of this- EVERY SINGLE Korean that I ask about it doesn't seem worried in the least. And remember, 2 years of military service is mandatory for all Korean men, so every Korean male I have asked was in the service at some point. They say it is just part of the historical North/South pattern of tension, and that it will pass and there will be no fighting. So that reassures me for the most part.

And for those of you still worried, my last word in the way of self-preservation is to tell you that I live fairly far from the border, and there is a huge US Air Force base right next to Gunsan.

I did recently crash into a pedestrian while on my bike, and also got some tomato starts stolen from garden... and I'm praying that that will be the extent of danger for me in Korea.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Gyeongju for Buddha's Birthday

If you don't live in a country that is 23% Buddhist, then you might not know that Friday was Buddha's birthday. It made a 3-day weekend, good timing for this American girl who is used to Memorial Day at the end of May. Unfortunately, all my Gunsan friends were busy, sick, or going to Seoul, and I wanted to go somewhere quieter. I have heard a lot about the city of Gyeongju, which was the old capital of the Shilla dynasty and full of history. So I headed out alone!

Sorry this map is so small, but I think you can make out the green placemarker where I live and the yellow one directly across the country where Gyeongju is.

Any holiday weekend in any country is not the easiest time to travel. The bus was packed, the traffic was heavy, the sun was blazing, and I finally stumbled off the bus 6 hours later in Gyeongju. But I was immediately glad I made the trip. Everywhere I had called to book a room was full, yet when I showed up at the hostel, the owner slid me into my own room at one of their hotel satellite locations. I walked to a nearby park of grassy hills, which are actually burial mounds of Shilla royalty.

There is only one tomb that is excavated and open to the public. I waited in line to see it, eating ice cream in the pleasant evening heat. I ended up talking to the Korean family in front of me- a couple and their 8-year-old son- and we walked through the tomb together. They seemed concerned that I was traveling alone, and asked me if I wanted to hang out. So we headed to the oldest observatory in east Asia, then to a pond that was a royal Shilla recreational area. We were hoping to catch a traditional musical performance there but it wasn't until the next night.

They were a really sweet family, and shared some of their Gyeongju bread with me. Gyeongju bread is a regional, traditional bread made with barley flour and filled with red bean paste. We said goodbye, and I walked toward the hotel to find something for dinner. I ran into a group of foreigners on the street that I had seen earlier, and joined them in their hunt for a dinner spot as well. They were a friendly bunch of teachers working near Daejeon (not too far from me in the center of the country) from Canada, New Zealand, and England.

There was rain forecasted for Saturday evening, but heavy rains had already commenced by morning. Undeterred, I put on my jacket and bought an umbrella and took a city bus to Bulguksa Temple. It is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and called the crowing glory of Shilla temple architecture. It features a couple 8th century stone pagodas, miraculously not destroyed by the Japanese.

Lo and behold I ran into my foreign friends from dinner at the temple, and joined them for the day. We headed up the mountain behind Bulgoksa to the Seokguram Grotto, a royal pilgrimage spot with a huge stone Buddha. We definitely felt the discomforts of wet holiday travel- long bus waits, traffic, long lines, wet feet, cold hands, relentless wind, hungry stomachs- but still it was really enjoyable and the jolly bunch remained equanimous through it all. Back in town, we found a great mushroom restaurant and ordered a mushroom and beef Shabu-shabu with extra mandu- the perfect hot and healthy meal for our chilly day.

On Sunday it was- surprise!- still raining. I had been hoping to make it to the east coast and see the Sea of Japan, but given the weather and the short time, an hour to the beach was out of the question. Instead I went hiking on Namsan Mountain, just outside of the city. It is a huge swath of land littered with Shilla relics in the myriad of trails. Gyeongju is called the "museum without walls" and Namsan exemplified this. You are just hiking and stumble upon tombs, carvings, sculptures, altars. Some of the bigger ones have signs, but some don't. The main trail winded and crossed over a river a couple times, and I had to search to find the best (driest) way to cross. I was able to cross hopping on rocks, but on the way back I would have had to jump too far, and ended up just walking through the river. You can see the trail here.

This Buddha was probably my favorite, totally unexpected above me when I came out of the trees, sitting there gracefully since the 7th century. By the time I got back to the bus stop, I was pretty wet. I met a nice Korean college geography student, and she gave me a banana and helped me get off on the right stop for the National History Museum. It was free admission and I warmed up with some coffee before taking on the wealth of exhibits. Just as I was leaving the museum to catch the bus home, I happened to run into my Daejeon teacher friends and we said goodbye. I took my soaking wet shoes and socks off on the bus ride back, and felt bad for the guy sitting next to me, because Who wants to be stuck next to soggy-feet-girl? But he gave me beef jerky, so apparently he didn't hate me too much. Despite the rain, it really was a lovely and serendipitous weekend.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

More Like a Resident

Sure, sure, I have a job, an apartment, and a bank account here in Korea, but that doesn't necessarily mean I'm a real resident. But recently a few key things have made me feel like I'm digging my heels in a little more.

1. Commuting by bike

I love love love riding a bicycle in this city. I was a little scared by sharing the road with Korean drivers at first, but my worries have proved unfounded. There actually is some order to the chaos. I've gotten good at watching out in every direction and knowing when I can go or when I should wait. Gunsan is fairly flat, and in some places even has bike trails. It's sooo nice to not have to take a taxi everywhere, or walk 45 minutes into town. Two of my coworkers went bike shopping at the same place, and now we all have matching bikes.

2. Running a race

Since I arrived, I have been training for the SaeManGeum (SeaWall) half marathon. It gave my days more rhythm, and gave me a reason to quickly explore the urban trails here. The SaeManGeum is the longest Sea Wall in the world... Gunsan's claim-to-fame. It's 33 kilometers long. The thing is built, but there is a still a lot more development to be done on it, and it's been a controversial project from the start because of cost and environmental impact. I think it's a PR move that they hold Gunsan's biggest race on the Sea Wall- marathon, half, 10K, and 5K in a 14,000-participant event which just happened this past Sunday. It does provide a flat course with a waterfront view the whole way, and besides being a little monotonous in the straight out-and-back run, it was nice.

There were quite a few other foreigners running, both English teachers and US military from the nearby Air Force base. It was a festive atmosphere with drums and onlookers and hot sun and the pre-race buzz. I ran with a friend Andrew who I had just met, and he kept me thoroughly entertained. He's a hilarious man. I had to ask him to not make me laugh so hard so I wouldn't get too out of breath. He ended up going ahead of me at the halfway point and I finished the race pretty tired, but managed to shave a few minutes off my last half-marathon time. At the end they give you water, sports drink, a medal, beer, tofu and soup, and a bag of rice. Here we are with our hard-earned kilo of rice.

Then, if you want to feel even more authentic, you should follow up the race with...

3. Going to a Jimjilbang

Jimjilbang means "steam room", and is basically a Korean spa. I've been meaning to go to one since I got here, and it finally happened. It might seem counter-intuitive to sweat more after running a long race, but it felt really good to soak and stretch. And nothing makes you feel more part of place than getting naked there. There are locker rooms with separate shower/body scrub/hot tubs for men and women. There were 6 different tubs of varying temperatures. They give you cotton shorts and a t-shirt to wear in the co-ed saunas. There was one big sauna room, then 4 other smaller, rounded saunas of different temps and humidity, plus a cold sauna. Massage chairs. Massages. Restaurant. Weight-room. Oxygen room with pillows. PC Bang or internet cafe, in case you can't live a few hours without a video game or checking your email. This is the symbol for jimjilbang, and you see them all over the city. It was so relaxing, and I can't wait to go back.

4. Getting a library card

My coworker Bryony was kind enough to go to the public library with me to help me get my card. The librarian spoke some English and was very helpful, even taking us to a staff lounge and for coffee and tea. He gave us a tour of the libray, including the DVD room where you can watch movies on big flat screen TVs with wireless headphones. There is a moderate and random collection of English books as well.

5. Starting a garden

Koreans are amazing guerrilla gardeners. Because the living is high density, and no one has yards, people have to garden in any available spot. This may be container gardens on the sidewalk, abandoned lots, sunny alleys, any unclaimed plot of land. I see gardens all over the city, and it makes me really want my own. So I finally asked the headmaster if there was any extra room at the school, and he directed me to the hidden side of the building. It's a great spot! It has a fence from the road, is out of the way, and gets a good amount of Southwest sun exposure. The soil is really clay-y and rocky, but that hasn't stopped any one else here from growing beautiful crops. So this is what it looks like. It's not much now, but just you wait! I've been digging, buying seeds, and got some tomato and pepper starts from a shop down the road. It feels soooo good to get my hands dirty.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Getting Serious

Two months here, AAHHH! I would have very little judgement about this arbitrary passing of time, except that I feel like I should have learned more Korean by now.

Instead of dedicating myself to learning new words, I have gotten really good at charades and keeping a pen on me to draw pictures or write numbers. I still don't even know my Korean numbers, pathetic! To my defense though, they have two counting systems- one Korean and one Sino-Chinese- and you use a certain one depending on whether you are talking about money, age, objects, floors of a building, etc. Also, I think it's important to have time to let one's brain listen to a language before trying to speak. Consider how a child learns her native language: she has almost two years of non-stop listening before she is expected to produce any substantial words! On the other hand, when adults learn a foreign language they are expected to just start speaking immediately.

Korea has one of the highest literacy rates in the world. For a country where 99% of people can read, they sure do love their graphics. Every restaurant has big pictures of the food or the animal the food come from. Why do I need to learn to read "beef" when restaurants look like this? I already know what's on the menu.

So I have given my brain time to be a sponge. I have picked up small things without trying, just because I hear them a lot. For instance, I only know how to count to 3 because when people are taking pictures, they say, "hana, dul, set!" or when my students need to settle any dispute, they play rock-paper-scissors, "gawi-bawi-bo!" Then there are the completely random words I've learned, like "batter" because of the cooking class, and "want to fight?" because one of my coworkers is always jokingly saying it to students.

But aside from that, it's hard to know how to start tackling a foreign language. I've finally decided that there is no perfect approach, and that any studying is better than none. It's time to get serious.

So as of today, I have decided to start a new 100 DAY PRACTICE of studying Korean for at least 20 minutes a day. I can study anything as long as it is a daily regiment. In the past I have only done one intentional 50-day practice, of keeping a dream journal. It was a great experience, and a good way to formulate some self-imposed adult education.

One step is to just make some solid Korean friends. On Sunday I went hiking with a new friend, a Korean English teacher, in a National Park about an hour from Gunsan. There is an old Buddhist temple there, with extra lanterns hanging for Buddha's birthday which is this Friday. He was an English literature major in college (my friend, not Buddha), so his English is good, and he was an enthusiastic tour guide.

It was an absolutely perfect day for hiking, warm but not too hot. It was strenuous with major elevation gain and loss, but really fun and we got some view of the coastline and a waterfall.

This week I started doing an English-Korea language trade with another friend. We get together over coffee and spend half the time on English, half on Korean. I've also been practicing reading menus. Most full-service dinner places specialize in a few entrees so there is not much to read, but the more casual kimbap places have big menus. "Kim" is seaweed and "bap" is cooked rice, so kimbab is basically a nori roll with different fillings. The also serve mandu (potstickers), pork cutlets, fried rice, noodle dishes, soups, and of course kimchi on the side, all with similar variations. Here is a sample menu, only half of it though:

In other news, I have conquered my foreign convection oven! As predicted, my first batch of banana bread was sacrificial. I didn't realize just how hot and rapidly convection ovens cook, so by the time I checked on the loaf (15 minutes early) it was already dry and overdone. I brought it to work to share with coworkers anyway, and they were still sufficiently impressed just by the novelty of a home-baked good. My headmaster who lived in the US though, was another story. He made a face when he took a bite, and said, "What, you're giving me your leftovers? How old is this bread?" Uh, I had just made it the night before. So, note to self, don't pawn off my mediocre experiments on the headmaster. Anyway, I made another batch and it turned out beautifully.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Seonyudo Island

This week we had no classes, so I thought it would be a week of just hanging out in the office. But I was wrong! The school organized a staff overnight trip to Seonyudo Island, off the coast from Gunsan. There were 14 of us altogether- 6 native teachers, 5 Korean teachers, the intern, the office manager, and the Headmaster. It's was a one-hour ride to the island on a beautiful, if slightly foggy morning.

Seonyudo is one island in a small cluster which also includes Munyeodo and Jangjado. Some of the islands are connected by bridges, with a total population of about 500.

We went to volunteer at the local elementary school teaching English classes. On this small rural island, the students never have a chance to interact with native English speakers. With all the elementary and middle school kids from 2 islands converged, we had about 22 students. We brought a bunch of materials and did art, science, culture, music, and PE classes.

After school we took a hike around the island. There are trails all over, and with our local guide we made a huge loop of two islands over hills and along the water. It was gorgeous, and I felt right at home being on a quiet island. It was so nice to be out of a city. (Last weekend I went to Seoul and had a great time, but almost pulled my hair out trying to navigate the huge concrete jungle.)

Fishing is of course a dietary and economic staple for the island, and we came across locals drying fish. I've eaten plenty of these small dried fish since I've been here, but there's nothing like meeting the purveyors, knowing the food's origin, and eating out of a wheelbarrow.

Dinner was a large and festive affair with all of us, as well as the staff from the island schools. You can probably guess what was on the menu... yes, seafood, and more types than I have ever had in one meal. The side dishes included sea urchin, sea snails, sea cucumber, oysters, seaweed, steamed mussels, and little softshell crabs that you eat whole, with a surprisingly nice *crunch*. The main course was raw fish, called hoe in Korean (pronounced hway) spelled 회 . It was good, though not quite as soft as sashimi I'm used to in the States.

And what staff night out would be complete without a trip to the noraebang? It was a hunt to find karaoke in this small town, and it was actually more of some one's converted shed, but we had a lot of fun. We hadn't all been out since our newest teacher Bryony from England arrived, so this was the official welcome for her. That meant we had to give speeches... yes, all 14 of us. Finally we got to singing, switching off between English and Korean songs. At the end the Headmaster did a solo, then summoned me for a duet of Unchained Melody, which we have sung together before. Apparently now it's "our" song. Which is both sweet and a little awkward.

The next day we were busy with morning classes and then said goodbye to the school. After a clam udon lunch, we had some extra time before we had to catch the ferry home, and it was a sunny day and there was a beach... So of course I wanted to go swimming! I hadn't been swimming outside since New Year's day in Greenlake, and now it's May so I was eager to get in the water. You can't really swim in the industrial, polluted shoreline of Gunsan, plus it's been so cold still, so this was a golden opportunity. Bryony, being a woman after my own heart, was not only up for it, but she also had brought 2 swimsuits! We made a mad dash for the cold water of the Yellow Sea.

We started to walk back to the hotel, my hair matted with salt water, skin bright pink. We passed a group of middle-aged Korean tourists having their lunch on the rocks, and they motioned for us to join them. They had quite the picnic spread, typical Korean-style with many small tupperware containters and about 12 different dishes. We tried to say we just ate, but they insisted we try some pork, mushroom frittata, green onion kimchee, and a sweet fruity dessert wine. Then they poured me a shot of soju... and really, who am I to be rude and resist their hospitality?! We couldn't really talk much, but we managed to find out that they were all on vacation from Seoul. Finally we made it down to the dock just in time to catch the boat home, warm and exhilarated.