Sunday, October 24, 2010

The Little Mermaid and an International Fireworks Festival.

Ever since I began researching life in Korea (about a year ago), I knew I wanted to be a part of the annual International Fireworks Festival in Busan. How lucky was I that this year I got the chance to dive into the chaos of a human wall, eat chicken on the beach, and experience the best fireworks display I have ever seen at this festival.

Currently, I write this entry from the comfort of my bed, where I have been all day. I like to think of this weekend as one really long day, because I had to spend all of Sunday sleeping and eating pizza to recover.

The day started early with a bus ride out of Ulsan. The train into Busan is supposedly prettier (and less insane than the public bus) but keep in mind that there were about 2 million people filtering into Busan that day to watch the fireworks, so everything we did this weekend was kind of the long way. After our bus ride, the subway was the next stop. The fireworks show was at Gwangli Beach, but we decided to spend a portion of the afternoon in Haeundae first; this beach has a warm place in our hearts from last month when we visited there on vacation.

Hello, carnival games, Fuzzy Navel burritos, and the chilled October tide.

I'll be honest, from here on out things got a little harried. We started walking towards the beach with the assumption that we could catch a taxi at any point. Wrong. Because of all the chaos, virtually every taxi was in use. We searched for an alternate route to the festival for about 30 minutes before (luckily) catching a cab and heading towards Gwangli.

The festival itself was incredible. Here's what the Koreans have on us Westerners:

1. The organization was astounding and very well thought-out. The beach was mapped out so that an aisle of space was clear for people to enter and exit. And when the beach got too full (because it really really did), volunteers stamped our hands so we could enter and exit the beach.

By this point, the only thing keeping people from entering the beach was a human wall of police officers. I have never stood behind a human chain of government officials, let alone been allowed to pass through a wall of them! It felt pretty amazing.

2. Nobody left trash on the beach. And for 2-3 million people, that's miraculous. Could it have been the trash bags they gave us for free to use? I think so. But all things considered, this feat is pretty unheard of. Maybe the US government should start spending public funds on trash bags and less on the oil-using machines it takes to clean up loose garbage.

Oh wait. This is not a political blog. My bad.

3. Instead of selling french fries or cotton candy, vendors sold kim bap, rice cakes, and brightly-colored fuzzy blankets. Again, it's always healthier to be in Korea.

4. There are no open-container laws in Korea. Just sayin'.

5. Lastly, the fireworks themselves. There's not really too much to say; I don't know if any words I use could possibly describe the beauty of this show. Because this was an international display, the music timed with the show was from around the world. In the 50 minute display, there was a section of 3-4 songs from the US. By far, this one got us the most excited:

Singing 'Under the Sea' in a crowd of Koreans was almost too much fun... especially when I realized just how few of us there actually were who could sing along.

It's interesting to identify so wholly with something, like a song, and feel like nobody relates. The Little Mermaid is a defining part of my childhood (uh... Halloween costume circa 1992!), and I was in such a daze of ecstasy that I was shocked to see strangers staring curiously at me. I may be over-simplifying, but it's a prime example of how I see my life: your home is inside of you. It's unique to you. And you can be in a crowd of strangers and still be at home. But you may never understand what home is to someone else, and just how much it means to them. Even if they're 8 inches away, screaming in your ear.

I won't go into too much detail about the rest of our night, because it involved staying out until the sun rose, sleeping in a doorway, and getting soaked to the bone. I just try to remember that anything can happen here, and it usually does.

What great stories you can have when you take the opportunity to make them.
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Friday, October 22, 2010

the 'comfort' of being a waygook.

It's amazing the way we limit ourselves when we are in our comfort zone. This is a pretty obvious statement, and those of you reading may be wondering why I consider this something to ponder... but it's amazing just how limited we really can be without even realizing it.

A few times a week, I go for a run around my neighborhood after school. My favorite place to run is this track at Mur-yong Elementary School; normally, I think tracks are nothing more than a torturing device coaches and teachers use on their students, but this is the perfect place for me to center my thoughts and play with the students as they kick the soccer ball around. Between listening for my breathing, my music, and stray soccer balls to the head, it's a really good way to wind down after a day of teaching.

This sounds great, right?

One thing I've realized after a couple weeks of this routine is that there is basically nobody else running. In fact, aside from a few old Korean men (who admit they can do whatever they want because they've earned their place on the social hierarchy), the only people who I know of that run out in the open are foreigners. I may be making an assumption, but it seems to me that the only place people exercise here is in the gym. Is this because outer image is so important? Because, believe me, I know passerby Koreans judge my unkempt appearance while I'm returning home from a run.

The important question is, "Do you care?"

It's so easy for me to say no. But is this because I know that this is not my culture? Is it because I know that no matter what the circumstances, I know I am outside my comfort zone here? And if that is all true, how many times did I limit myself at home by simply sticking with the social norms of my culture, as opposed to doing the taboo because it made me happy? The scary thing is that most times I never realized it simply because I was comfortable maintaining the standard.

When I am in the role of the foreigner, I am free. Within the realm of cultural sensitivity, I can do what makes me happy an healthy without a concern for what others think. As long as I know I'm not offending anyone, putting myself in a position where everyone feels a little awkward is not the worst thing. In fact, it's inevitable. It's addicting.

I may never know if it is awkward for Koreans to see me walking home drenched in sweat. But even if I do, I'm not going to stop running outside.

Also, thank you Jen Capponi for this amazing quote. It fell perfectly into my week and gave me lots to think about!
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Thursday, October 21, 2010

Is this like that 'deserted island' question?

All the sentiments about family, friends, and the Pacific Northwest aside (which tends to get rather-- well, sentimental) there is only a short list of things I miss about home. In fact, if I had to, I could sum up what I miss most about the United States in one simple word:


And thanks to some amazing parents, approximately 6 boxes of tea arrived at my door today. In fact, they even used the rogue bags instead of packaging materials. Way to go green and send me some lovin', you guys.

More to come, probably tomorrow. It's my students' midterm testing day. Deskwarming, ahoy!
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Tuesday, October 12, 2010


Now that I've been here almost 2 months and feel rather settled (well, as settled as you can be in the middle of Korea after 2 months), I thought it would be fun to share a few assessments I've made. This entry comes with a small disclaimer, because as you'll see, there are no direct quotes from co-teachers, students, or anyone else to support what I'm saying.

But this is my blog, so let's just roll with it. Just remember this is all from the mouth of a waygook (or 'foreigner', for all you Westerners).

What I think of the food.

I still love Korean food. In fact, most blog ideas pour from my brain after a long day at work as I sit in this one little kim bap shop across the street from my apartment. It's adorable, family-run I think, and has a huge menu with really inexpensive food. The owners know me and my favorites now, which I'm really happy about. Big breakthrough today: they offered me more soup for free. I think they like me.

Also, for those who have been curious about how my vegetarian status was holding up: I have made the decision to eat chicken meat on occasion, mostly for the sake of my school dinners and evenings out with foreigner friends. In my close group of friends, we had a seafood allergy, a lactose-free diet, and me playing the part of vegetarian. This ruled out basically any dining options... what a nightmare. So me eating chicken here and there has helped us all immensely. Besides, after the tripe incident, I figured it would be safer to know I was eating chicken than not know I was eating cow stomach.

What my co-teachers think of me.

Firstly, they recognize I'm very young and remind me on a daily basis. This has not stopped them from continuing to point out every available male teacher, despite their age.

They think that the students like me because I have blue eyes. Like I mesmerize them with my 'special' eyes. What I fail to tell them is that if I actually had this power, I may not have left the US to begin with.

My left-handedness is becoming a new topic of interest. Today at lunch, my Korean father actually looked a little concerned that I was left-handed. He asked me if I was actually right-handed like I use my left hand just for fun. Then everyone wanted to know how I became left-handed. When I said it was my choice (slash genetics, I pointed out), I got some strangely amused looks. The weird looks only got weirder when I got up the nerve to ask if anyone in Korea is left-handed. Guess not. Now, I already knew the left hand was 'bad' in Korea, but it is getting a little frustrating for people to tell me that I do things well "even though she uses her left hand."

Today, my Human Services self remembered an essay I wrote last fall for a class on Diversity and Social Justice. We wrote about our privileges and disadvantages in society. I talked about my left-handedness as a disAbility at the most mild level. Well, here in Korea, it's seen as more of a handicap than anywhere I've ever been. Once again, I'm so thankful for my major.

Okay, I can't help it; I worked so hard to get this degree. Here is a small excerpt from my essay:

I am proud to be left-handed, and the fact that I am a minority in this area makes me feel unique. Being left-handed does not make me feel like a minority, and society does not make me feel excluded outright for being left-handed (although historically, organized religion used to consider left-handed people ‘evil’). However, US culture is generally built for right-handed people. Scissors, desks, and many instructions for skills such as knitting create a divide between people who are right-dominated versus left-dominated. Sometimes, I am frustrated with people’s shock at my left-handed quality, or their assumptions that my handwriting is not as competent as a right-hander’s. These stereotypes are a concise analogy for the hierarchy between majorities and minorities in society; the minority is viewed as different (and therefore less functional) than the majority.

One last interesting comment I heard this week was about my "S line." I don't think they knew that I understood what they were saying, but I learned from my friend Angela (who basically paved the way for me in Korean culture) that the "S line" is a term used to describe an ideal body type in Korea. If you look at the shape of the S, perhaps you'll understand: something of a chest, small waist, and ample hips. Needless to say, it's not too difficult to have an "S line" when you're being compared to Korean body types, but it was pretty hilarious to hear it from my lady co-teachers.

What my students think of me.

All smiles.

Well, mostly.

Nah, they've been pretty good, actually. I'm getting to know several of them on more than a name-basis (and believe me, when they don't have an English name, the name-basis alone is pretty difficult!). Some kids come in for tutoring in the afternoon, so usually they are deferred to me. I really like it. It's natural and more personal. It's why I came here.

They think I'm silly. I sing in class, dance, and am probably a good mental health break from their insanely stressful lives. On the first day of my lessons, I did an introduction slideshow with pictures of my family. One of them had a picture of my mom and I making a funny face. Apparently this image really stuck in their heads because two girls came up to me this weekend and wanted to know how to make 'the face.'

This was it.
We had an English Festival this weekend (pictured above) and it felt good to work with my kids outside of class... we had fun, despite the fact that our booth was a Jenga Spell game and I still cringe when I think about the sound of those wooden blocks crashing (as you can see, it was a pretty crazy, loud booth!).

Again, my co-teachers claim that our booth was popular because of my eyes, not the bags of candy we were giving away.

What I think about learning Korean.

It's a slow process but I'm still working at it everyday. I feel like my comprehension is definitely getting better, but my speech is lacking. It's incredibly difficult to muster up the energy to learn a language when I'm already teaching a different one all day.

I'm self-teaching with the help of my co-teachers, students,, and cell phone Korean-to-English dictionary.

By the way, I tried to think about Spanish today, the other language I used to know moderately. I couldn't even get my mind around it. I really admire anyone who is multi-lingual.

What I think of Korea (everyone asks me this so I'm just going to answer it).

I absolutely love it here. I miss you all, sometimes a lot, but this is a great experience for me. If you would ever like to send mail or packages, I can definitely return the favor with something special from Korea.
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Wednesday, October 6, 2010


There are many trade-offs Westerners face when they come to Korea:

  • Instead of dryers for our clothes, there are nice hanging racks in every laundry room.

  • Instead of karaoke bars, there are noraebangs, literally translated as singing rooms, where you can bust a move in the company of your closest friends and co-workers instead of total strangers. Although which groups is more likely to boo you off the stage is kind of a toss up.
  • Instead of a basket of bread with every meal, there's kimchi (well, until recently).
  • But for me, one of the biggest trade-offs is the entertainment drama. Considering the small but loyal group of followers to this blog, I will confess to my television vice at home: namely General Hospital, a long-standing and respectable soap opera (damn it).

Because of copyright laws, I am unable to stream basically any American television from Korea, including my beloved GH. However, the alternative has been right in front of me for weeks.

The lesson-to-lesson drama of our English curriculum's zany characters.

In every unit, there are video clips featuring several cartoon and real-life characters, who demonstrate the target language to students in the most over-reactive, unimaginative ways possible. So it's nothing short of inevitable that by the time class number 4 of the day rolls around, my mind is concocting some lavish background to the stories these characters are enacting.

At first, I thought I was nuts. But after speaking with other foreign teachers, I found out that they too were creating stories for their video clips.

Please meet Minsu (overzealous lookin' kid with the green tee) and friends, as depicted by a computer graphic circa 1946.

These characters teach students all about English through 1-minute anecdotes.

Most recently, I was startled by a lesson where Tony (blondie with the glasses and questionable overalls) meets Santa. Aside from the fact that it's the first week of October, this video (which I tried desperately to find online to no avail) disturbed me because Santa appears to be inebriated, waking Tony up from his sugar-plumb dreams when he mysteriously falls with a sickening thud on the floor of the living room in front of the tree.

In another video, Santa also suddenly appears on Julie's bed, sitting next to her to give her a doll. Can you say creepy?

The lesson, of course, is to get students to express what they want. But how can students concentrate on this lesson when they are scared for their lives that Santa is going to appear like a Christmas Eve ninja at the foot of their bed?

Here are one of the video clips featuring some real-life characters, Ann and Kevin:

Just to prove I'm not the only one convinced there's more going on in these videos: an account of the crazy drama between Kevin, Ann and Eujin, as told by my middle school teacher friend (who shall remain nameless to protect their identity)-
Eujin got a cellphone. Kevin did not answer when Eujin called, so Ann took a message. Later, Eujin called Kevin and told him she needed help fixing her computer, which Kevin agreed to. Kevin got tired of Eujin's constant calls and began screening them after she got her new cell phone. He hooks up with Ann, who does not know Eujin stalks Kevin, and she picks up the phone. She plays it off like she belongs there and takes a message.

Kevin is a serious jerk and never gives Ann his number after the best night of her life, so it turns out the only phone number Kevin seems to possess is Eujin's. He seriously cannot call anyone else. Kevin realizes how sad and lonely his little blond life is, and finally answers Eujin's call. A stalker is better than no company. He agrees to fix her computer in hopes of getting some, as he has also realized after his time with Ann that he is a hopeless sex addict.
Kevin and Eujin have been messed up ever since Eujin ran for class president she spent all her time campaigning, and then she got arrogant it was all a downward psychological spiral from there now look at them.

The lesson being taught, of course, is about who called who in the video. But how can students even concentrate when there is so much obvious tension between these characters? It's boggling.

Either way, I guess my daily dose of television drama is still available. No complaints here.

PS: Don't ask what that yellow guy is, but his name is Zeeto.
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