Saturday, July 23, 2011

South Korea: the Finale.

On a long hike today, I had some time to disconnect and think about what I need/want to do to bring this amazing year in Korea to its bittersweet but necessary close. And like any Human Services graduate, I came to the obvious conclusion that I wanted to write about what I had ultimately learned. You know. Bring out the highlights. Put the monsters to rest. Call out the stuff I said that, after living here longer, I disagree with now.

Anyone who had the opportunity to ask me about my Korea trip one year ago would get psyched-out, pumped up answers from my plastered-on-smile face as I listed off all the reasons why I needed to go abroad (and even a few reasons as to why I wanted to). If any of those people got the opportunity to talk at length about my trip, they might see my mask come down and they might even get the impression (correctly) that I was scared shitless to go on this year adventure basically alone.

I can sum up the first 3 months of my trip in one story.

Sitting on the plane to Korea, awaiting take-off, I was in a state of shock. Everything was blurry and moving too fast, and although I was running on less then 3 hours of sleep in 2 days, the cause of my symptoms was not sleep deprivation, but utter fear. Until I left, it was easy to pretend I was just going on a vacation. As soon as the plane took off the ground, I began to sob. Do you know how silent take-offs are? It's like an unspoken agreement everyone has, lest the plane goes plummeting mid-ascent. The worst part about my particular circumstance was the seating arrangement itself. Sitting in the emergency exit row, I happened to be face-to-face with a Korean flight attendant. Strapped into my seat, I had nowhere to hide this incredibly vulnerable moment, and found it difficult to avoid eye contact with the young woman less than 3 feet away from me.

Hours later, after my episode came to its end and [I desperately hoped] everyone had forgotten about it, I needed my reading glasses. Because of our emergency exit row seating, my bag had been moved to the overhead compartment of the section in front of us, which happened to be Business Class (where none of us Economy Class dare tread). I asked a flight attendant if I could retrieve my bag and she offered to help. While we were one section up, me rifling through my things, she asked me a question that made me realize who I was standing next to.

"So, is this your first time away from home?"

It was the flight attendant from the take-off. Oh God. Fortunately, she was the nicest and most caring person who could've seen me filling enough clear little plastic cups with tears to serve my entire row. Although her sweetness and curiousity did ultimately reduce me to tears again, it was a really touching lesson in common culture and humanity. And an even bigger lesson in humility.

My first experiences here were of discomfort. I had no bed for almost a week's worth of time my first month. I didn't feel competent at my job because, with everything in Korean, I couldn't even use the computer. I accidentally ordered disgusting food I had to eat, and didn't know which way to place my chopsticks on the table when I was done eating it. I bought aviator shades because I didn't like people looking at my blue eyes. I continued to cry.

Fortunately, the feelings of 'home' started to seep in slowly as I taught myself to become literate, found some favorite restaurants, and learned to accept the workplace as a wild atmosphere where anything was possible. I was scared to say it to myself, but I actually felt confident. By the time the holidays came around, I was able to hold in tears when teachers asked me if I missed my family (by the way, asking that question to foreigners abroad should be considered a form of torture and banned globally).

Then the Christmas package came from my family and I realized how I truly feel about gifts: they're only worth receiving if you have someone to watch the joy they've brought you as you open them. Sitting alone in my apartment, I opened my Christmas presents and vowed to never be by myself for the holidays again.

Meanwhile, being a foreigner means accumulating about 1,095,807 friends you will meet for God-knows-how-long and then promptly never see again. This was becoming a recognizable pattern in my life and on a New Years' trip in Seoul, it finally clicked that we have to truly make the most of the moments life offers us and not ask for more. I can honestly say that learning this and encouraging myself to live it (because it is definitely not second nature to me) has made me a happier person.

The rest of the year was less about keeping my head above water and more about what I wanted to give myself with the time I had left here (and no, I'm not talking about a new haircut or a wardrobe of Korean clothing). I decided to take full responsibility for that happiness I knew I could now cultivate. I picked up a new instrument. I took a semester of college classes on Korean language. I saw the friends I wanted to. And most importantly, when something was wrong, I did something about it. I was suddenly starting to feel protective over myself and this 'lonely' life I was leading, and I wasn't about to let someone come in and make me unhappy unless I let them. The funny thing about all the time I spent alone is how 'not alone' I usually felt. This is not to say that we don't all have bouts of the Lonelies sometimes. But for as much time as I had to myself, I was actually enjoying it. For the first time, I was enough.

Now that I am getting ready to leave (which was not the easiest decision ever, to say the least), that nervous, anxious feeling is beginning to creep its way back into my life. I know from experience that can only mean one thing: I consider Korea to be a home. I can't even call it a second home, because it has a different schema of home to me than the place I grew up in. Korea is not only a land I love, but it's the place where I learned to be at home in myself. For that reason and many, many more, Korea will always be especially treasured.

As for being a foreigner, the clock is ticking down to 6 weeks: 3 in Korea, and 3 in South East Asia. As much as I am ready to assimilate at home with the culture I know best, I will miss my role as a foreigner, too. It was a lovely experiment. Sometimes, I was right on-- like diving head-first into a plate of live octopus my 2nd week in Korea. Other times, the lesson was more difficult: it took me a while to realize that, although it's fun to be strange, sometimes there are logical reasons to go with the grain.


For my own sanity, I am ending my South Korean adventures with this post. A little pre-mature, I know, but that's kind of my style. Not to mention, I earlier promised to post about my upcoming trip and prefer to focus on the details of that at the moment instead of prolonging the end of something so magical.

I want to extend a reallllllly big thank you to everyone who has been such a huge support of my travels this year. Please believe me when I say you have helped me get through some of the biggest personal challenges I've ever had, and from the other side of the world! From those who read my blog for fun, to my Skype and snail mail buddies, to the people who took the time to travel to Korea this year for little ol' me: thank you. Thank you readers, thank you friends, thank you family. My perspective on life has been enriched by you all this year.

As for Playing With Elephants, it is not going anywhere. Please follow me through the cities, jungles and beaches of SE Asia, and wherever life takes Cheengu and I afterward. When I'm not on the move internationally, the blog will take a rest as well. But never fear-- I'm always looking for the next adventure.

From the girl who conquered Korea (and her little elephant, too)--
Laura and Cheengu
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Sunday, July 17, 2011

"See you next time, bye bye!"

The title of this post is dedicated to the scripted close of every English Broadcast I have (airing Wednesday mornings at 9am through my whole school). I love and hate this greeting because often students will use it in a caricature-ish fashion to say goodbye to me. However, when I found myself faced with my last week of regular classes, I found I couldn't say "goodbye" and opted for this cliche'd expression instead, much to the delight of my students.

 My lucky penny idea went off without a hitch. In fact, many teachers also wanted their own 'lucky penny'. It's a full-blown fad over here at Yaksa Elementary! I also found the whole venture to be somewhat lucrative:

Fortunately the only person to openly cry my last week was me (hidden in my office of course!... crying is for wimps and losers!*), although I did have a lot of dejected-looking kids come up to me, or, with furrowed brow, ask me if they would see me next week. No matter how much I explained I still have a few weeks at Yaksa, the 'last class' thing really got to them.

The great thing about being a kid is that what seems sad now will be forgotten in a matter of minutes or days. Sure, they will remember me, but once the buzz of summer vacation hits (and then shortly after, the new foreign teacher comes), they won't be sad anymore.

Some of my students asked for my email. I gave it to them and have already received two in my inbox.

This one made me particularly happy that I didn't give all my students an email address to contact. I want to be able to respond properly to these kids if they get in touch, instead of feeling overwhelmed with a short burst of 'fan mail' I never reply to.

Lastly, one thing I worked really hard to do was have some Yaksa students sign a t-shirt for me. I started this process about 3 weeks ago, bringing in a plain white tee and asking kids to write whatever they wanted, or draw pictures, too. Signing t-shirts is not common in Korea (unless you are a celebrity autographing one), so my students found this to be really fun and special, and I felt the same knowing secretly that it was a parting gift they were making for me. By the end things got pretty detailed:

I still have 4 weeks left in Korea: 1 devoted to deskwarming (creative posts sure to follow this week!); 1 for Yaksa camp; 2 for low-level classes. However, with regular classes out of the way, things are definitely starting to wrap up.

So as they (and by 'they' I mean 'I') say, "See you next time... bye bye!"

-Laura Teacher

*This is just what I told myself while holding a fan to my face so I can get to the next class without tearing up. I'm my own emotion ninja.
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"Boryeong's magical mud cures the everyday case of dry skin, sanity and sobriety", says random foreigner.

This weekend, another first I wanted to experience before my departure from South Korea: getting slicked-up at the Boryeong Mud Festival.

According to my Wiki-ing, this is the 14th annual celebration of Boryeong's healthy, clay-based mud to advertise beauty products made from a local, organic company. What better way to sell something than with free samples? Better yet, what better way to sell something than with mud slides, beach access, and loads of alcohol at the ready? I don't know of many.

We left with a small group of foreigners very early Saturday morning for the 5-hour bus ride from Ulsan to Boryeong. After checking into the pension nearby, we were ready for action and made our way to the beach!

I never experienced a traditional frat-style 'Spring Break', but after this weekend I'm pretty sure any potential desires to join in on one in the future were prematurely fulfilled. People really didn't hold anything back. In fact, for as excited as I was all month to attend this festival, as soon as I stepped off the bus I felt immediately uncomfortable. To be greeted by a sight like this when you are completely clean is really awkward.

Thankfully, the weather soon changed into an all-out monsoon and we were able to get messy enough to talk ourselves into getting muddy. After that, we fit right in!

We also found plenty of time to lay on the beach and go swimming. Cheen-gu also liked hanging out with us.

So what does one bring to a mud festival?

1. Camera (waterproof if possible; if not, wrapped in plastic or inside a ziploc)
2. Money
3. Phone
4. Optional but useful: towel and extra plastic bags for wet/muddy clothes
5. Sunglasses
6. Sunscreen

One extra item we found almost necessary by the end of the weekend were 'wet bags', designed specifically to hold small personal items (see numbers 1-3) in a completely water-proof bag with attachable lanyard for around your neck.

Oh, and you might want to bring some courage too... of the liquid and/or mental variety. This crowd demands it.
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Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Don't be afraid.

Living in a crowded city, you're bound to hear all kinds of noises at night. Traffic. Cats fighting. Drunken serenades. I myself have suspicions of the world's largest copier/washing machine/wave-making bed/ iron lung that resides in the apartment above me and makes a strange yet monotonous sound all night long. These things we put up with because we live in a city of millions.

However, there are some things we should not put up with.

Tonight I heard some men yelling outside my bathroom window, which faces an alley. Normally I wouldn't think much of it, but after about 15 minutes it was more than noticable, and I realized that other neighbors were stepping outside to tell the two men to pipe down. As I tried to peer through the incredibly tall window, a third voice came on the scene-- a woman's-- and that's when things started to get really ugly. I couldn't understand everything, but she was yelling "Stop it! Stop it! Don't do that!" in Korean, and the men's voices only seemed to be escalating.

I was a little more than disturbed, and a little more than a LOT bothered by the fact that I felt powerless to call for help.

I was encouraged by another rad traveler (whom I happened to be talking to at the time) to call the police anyway. 112 is the number for the Ulsan Police, and although there weren't any people on staff at the time for English, we made it work. By the time the police got to the area, the scene had calmed down (which homefully is evidence that the fight also ended, but I'm not sure).

My main point, to whoever is involved or wherever you are, is to not be afraid to call. Even though the officer only knew how to say "policeman" to me, we worked with what we could and I was really impressed to see them respond so well, and so fast (and so patiently as I stumbled over myself in broken Korean).

You can do this, too. And although we know it's the 'right' thing to do, it's often overlooked at how it's not the 'easy' thing to do. When it comes down to it, no matter our reasoning for adhering to the Bystander's Effect, the bottom line is this: if you don't do it, who will?
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Tuesday, July 12, 2011

The Business Trip.

I made this on last night to summarize the typical 'Oh, so you want to leave school during your working hours?' conversation.

You can find other xtranormal videos about teaching in Korea on youtube as well, made by many a perplexed Guest English Teacher just trying to cope with humor.
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Friday, July 8, 2011

Bucket List: South Korea

When I first came to Korea, there were an overwhelming amount of things I wanted to experience, but they were all pretty vague. Things like, "try the food" or are inevitable, but what kinds and where and how are all another story. So now I'm making it that much easier for you, should you ever find yourself in the good ol' ROK.

In the year I've lived here, I can safely say that I have done (or considered, or wanted to, or have heard great things about) all the items on this list. Some are tourism-based, and some are made for the average day out. Try them all if you dare, and you just might know what the real Korea is like.

Go to an outdoor market.
My one constant I try to do in every new country is visit an outdoor market. This is where the people are. This is where their food is coming from. This is what makes the smells, sounds and tastes of their community. This experience also shows just how different our cultures are because the way animal rights and food safety are viewed can be a whole different concept in another country. Look for a 시장 (shi-jang) and allow yourself to be impressed, surprised and even a little grossed out at what you see (remembering, of course, that it's not better or worse-- only different).

I've seen many an outdoor market in Korea, but my favorite was the Jicalgchi Fish Market in Busan. Both a great representation of culture and traditional commerce as well as an intense market-ing experience.

Use a squatter toilet.
Because all the Koreans (and the majority of the non-Western world) do it.

Noraebang the night away.
Also known as a "singing room", 노래방 (norae-bang) is a pretty unique experience, and a really fun one at that! You can buy snacks and drinks inside, so pile in with your friends and belt out a few tunes (English and Korean songs are available in every norae-bang so no worries about not knowing Korean, either!).

Go to a traditional Korean restaurant.
They're cheaper AND generally taste better. If you want to try something pretty basic, go with 비빔밥 (bi-bim-bap). If you're more daring, go for some 낙지 (nak-ji). Either way, a traditional meal will bring you a million little flavors in tiny bowls, so you can try a plethora of dishes without wasting a ton of food. Anything you don't like, wash down with 소주 (soju) and you'll forget all about it in no time.

Listen to k-pop.
Listen to it live if you can. If not, go a night club and see it implemented in the middle of a drunken crowd well past midnight.

Watch a live sports game.
If not for the actual sport, then to see and hear the Koreans chanting fight songs. It's amazing.

See some lanterns.
If you are in Korea during the spring, there are celebrations all over the country for Buddha's birthday. In Seoul, annual festivals are held where lanterns of all kinds line the streets, and temples are decorated in colored paper, looking realllly magical at night.

Get dirty.
Another festival Korea is famous for is the mud festival, occuring in early to mid-July. Because who doesn't love to get a little muddy? Want to see the foreigner scene during this event? Check out the beaches in 볼영 (Boryeong) the second weekend of July.

Fireworks festival.
In Busan every October, the International Fireworks Festival rules the beach for a weekend.

Visit Jeju.
USA: Honolulu :: Korea: Jeju Island.

In other words, Jeju is not only a honeymooner's perfect love nest, but also a tropical paradise. Catch it if you can.

Stand atop a tall tower.
There's almost one in every major city: Seoul, Busan, Daegu... the list goes on. You can see almost the whole city from up high. How's that for getting the lay of the land?

Ride the bus.
The organization and chaos go so hand-in-hand that it's just as easy to get where you're going as it is to be completely lost. Take an easy route and hold on tight.

Let yourself bump into an old person on the street.
... if they don't bump into you first.

Go to a Korean wedding.
If you really want to see some cultural differences, say "YES" when a Korean friend asks you to go to a wedding.

Visit an amusement park.
Not only are rollercoaster awesome, but there are a few rides you definitely won't find anywhere else in the world sitting inside South Korea. Don't expect Disneyland quality, but don't expect Disneyland prices, either (or Disneyland lines).

Watch the sunrise in 젼동진 (Jeondongjin).
It's the first place the sun hits Korea in the morning, and supposedly the most beautiful sunrises you will see in the ROK.

Watch the sunset in 볼영 (Boryeong).
Or any other west-coast city of Korea, really. Or from your 5-story roof. It's all the same; sunsets can be pretty beautiful here.

Ride the KTX.
Because bullet trains are one method of transportation the Westernized world has just not got its hands on yet, and it's miraculous.

Buy some outrageous Korean fashion item and wear it in public. See how nobody cares.
This could be a really short skirt, a top with a ruffled collar, a silly headband, a plush animal hat, or matching couples attire. You'll be surprised how you actually fit right in.

Snap some shots in a photo booth.
You'll be happy you did.

Visit the DMZ.
This is definitely a tour-group-type-thing, but if you go with the USO you will have an excellent and safe tour. History buffs will love it. Photographers will love it. Little kids will not love it, so if you're a family hire a sitter to take the tikes to Everland while you trod to the border.

Any additions to the South Korea Bucket List?
Please comment in the space below!
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Sunday, July 3, 2011

DIY: Self-confidence for students.

I know that being a good teacher isn't about giving things to your students; being a good teacher is about getting students to think for themselves so they can lead a capable and sustainable life. We can't just give them answers, or ideas, or things. They have to cultivate their own learning from the seeds we plant.

But I'm also the kind of teacher who, now that there are only 2 weeks left in public school, wants to bribe her students into remembering her. Or at least leave them with something special.

However, calculating it out, I have 22 classes weekly with about 30-32 students each.

22 classes x 30 to 32 kids = OVER 660 STUDENTS.

Soooo getting them all Rolex wristwatches certainly isn't an option.

What's cheap, cultural to the US, and not candy, which will be eaten within a day and quickly forgotten about? What's something they will want to keep, without breaking my budget?

And then I had an idea.

With the concept of 'lucky pennies' being foreign to Koreans, I thought this was a really good opportunity to give them all a little US money. After making a template, printing them on colored paper, and cutting them all out, I glued these pieces of paper to pennies sent over by my mom (thanks again, Mom!).

Cheap. Cultural. Fun.
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Saturday, July 2, 2011

Colored lights, bubbles, and a plastic cake: A Korean Wedding Story.

This weekend I finally got the opportunity to attend a modern Korean wedding. Although I was told many times this year by co-teachers and other Korean natives that this celebration pales in comparison to a traditional Korean wedding, I was still really curious to see what it would be like.

Thanks to my friend, Christy, who invited me to a wedding a teacher at her school was having, my curiousity was definitely satisfied, although this event has left me in a slight state of confusion and shock.

We arrived at the hotel where the wedding and reception were to take place. The first thing we were prompted to do was meet the bride. We turned the corner down a crowded hallway to see this tiny yet utterly lavished room designed specifically for the bride to sit and have photos taken with visiting guests. She looked like a Korean princess who just happened to have been placed in the middle of all the chaos: people running around, bringing in flowers, exchanging envelopes, getting meal tickets. We [awkwardly] snapped a couple of photos with her and waited for the wedding to start.

When I walked into the venue where the ceremony would take place, I was pretty amazed. Music bumping, people chatting, and the officiator was getting ready at the front, atop a huge platform-esque pulpit. Not to mention an adorable photo slideshow of the couple and the moving-and-color-changing rainbow lights, which added a certain Korea-ness that is wholly unique. Finally, the main feature-- the aisle-- which looked more like a model runway than anything I've ever seen at a wedding in the States. Lined by lights and raised about 6 inches off the ground, I suddenly became really excited for the wedding to begin. Fashion show! Fashion show!... I mean... wedding?

When the wedding party (no brides and groomsmen at this wedding) came out, there was one person designated to be the official 'toucher-upper' of hair, jackets, and the bride's dress, of course. This upped her 'princess' status quite a bit in my eyes.

For all the pomp, there didn't seem to be much reciprocation from the audience... I mean, er... the guests. Korean culture, even after living here for almost a year, still shocks me quite a bit. During the ceremony, there were full-fledged discussions being held by those in attendance. People answered their phones. And once the officiator began talking, many people (including our small group) left the ceremony room in favor of going somewhere else to sit down and wait until the next portion.

Um.... what?

Usually when I observe another culture, it's just that: an observation. As in, from far away, where I can feel removed from the scenario. Today tested my cultural competency in a way it's not usually tested because I was a true part of the schenenagains going on. And as much as Chsirty and I giggled to one another and wondered what the heck was going on, we also tried to keep a poker face about it and pretend that leaving a wedding ceremony in the middle because it got 'boring' is perfectly normal.

We were beckoned back to the service by the alluring sound of this man's voice as he sang to the newlyweds about getting married:

And later, after cutting the cake (which seemed to be only symbolic; not only did we not eat wedding cake at the wedding, but the bottom two layers of the 'cake' were actually plastic!), bowing to the parents and offering a 'thanks' to all the guests, the bride and groom proceeded back down the aisle as husband and wife. Their first challenge as a married couple: making it through the haze of bubbles, fake snow, and fire-crackers aimed at their faces... and coming out alive.

The final blow to rock all my paradigms about marriage ceremonies was that in Korea there is no dancing at the reception. None at all. And that's all I'm going to say about that.

Congratulations to the lovely young couple! It was a beautiful wedding, and it definitely shook up my world a little. All in all, I do love Korea, but I'm glad that getting married here isn't in the cards for me. Some cultural ideas we just can't give up.
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