Monthly Archives: January 2013

“I do not own a fork”

Is the statement I made out-loud to myself today as I was standing next to my kitchenette, still wearing my work clothes, still speaking like an English teacher: slowly, deliberately, “I do not own a fork.”

I have lived in Korea for almost a month and only today am I realizing that I do not own a fork. Actually, I don’t have a knife either. I assessed my inventory: one set of chopsticks, one spoon, a pair of scissors and, oh look, a spatula in the bottom of a drawer. The oddest thing is, I haven’t needed a fork or a knife. I’m pretty awesome at using chopsticks (or at least as good as the five years olds that I dine with at lunch) and I’ve adapted the Korean way of using scissors to cut everything– including slicing up the Costco pizza the school ordered for us yesterday.

Pondering my lack of cutlery inspired me to think about some other cultural adjustments. Like, my shower or, my lack of shower. It definitely didn’t take me a month to notice this one-in fact- it was the one thing I paid attention to when my landlord showed me my flat on my first night. On first look into the bathroom, it appears as though there is only a toilet and a sink-but wait!- attached to the sink is a hose with a showerhead: turn the faucet to the right and you can brush your teeth, turn it to the left and you can take a shower! Unfortunately, this shift is taking some getting used to-especially when I forget to switch the faucet back and I am just about to head out the door, all dressed up for work, and I stop to brush my teeth right before I go and- lovely- an extra shower before heading out into the literally freezing weather.

One more- in the Korean language there is no word for after someone sneezes. There is no version of “bless you” or “health” (like “gesundheit”, “salud” or my favorite, “prosit”) they just say nothing. They don’t even acknowledge that someone has sneezed. I guess it is a bit silly to go about in our modern world, blessing everyone who has a slight irritant in their nasal cavity, but still. Call me old-school but, I appreciate the acknowledgement. And, not being much of a religious person, I prefer to say ‘gesundheit’ which-especially when said during the middle of a lecture- has the added benefit of confusing the heck out of some already very confused little kids.

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Tombstone Hill

Quite tired from staying out too late again, but here is another attempt to recap some events and get this thing caught up to present time.

January 19-20

Second weekend here was pretty similar to the first- on Saturday we went out to Eva’s and then the Blue Monkey- but this time I actually knew people’s names (and some of them remembered mine) and we still stayed out until the wee hours of the morning.

For some reason, the next morning (Sunday) I felt awesome and I decided to hike up the hill that I could see from my house. I still don’t know the name of this hill- but I have unofficially titled it “Tombstone Hill” because at the bottom of it are the Yeonsanong Ancient Tombs- which I only figured out using google maps and a poorly translated sign nearby. What’s really awesome about this hill is that it’s just across the street from me and it’s a short, steep jaunt up to the 256 meter peak. The beginning starts off mellow, next to a playground, with randomly placed tombstones popping up along the path. Then it gets steep. I recently found out that there are about 5 ways to get to the top but I think the best, fastest and steepest way is by using a set of winding stairs. I took this way the first time and I could feel my late night catching up to me real quick- my legs were so tired and the air was so cold it hurt my lungs. But, I was not alone in my endeavor. Oh no. Sunday afternoon is a popular time to go for a hike and there were lots of families out- walking in a line with me up to the top.  Somehow, I kept up a fast clip and was able to break away from the people and hike alone to the peak.  Unfortunately, I chose the cloudiest day to hike so the views were nil (but I have since been back and got some good pics- check out http://www.flickr.com/photos/awkwardanne/)

Heading down, I decided to go down the other side of the hill and get myself lost a little bit so I could wind around and see more of the city. As I descended, I stumble into several little “fitness parks”- cleared out areas where there are all kinds of exercise machines including different weight lifting machines, elliptical type things, and occasionally a hula hoop and a jump rope. What’s more- there were lots of people seriously working out! I felt so awkward because I felt like I was disturbing their gym session- and yet here we all were randomly on this “mountain” together- getting our fitness on, on a Sunday afternoon! It’s sad to think that these kind of parks could never exist back in the states- they would surely get vandalized and graffitied within a week. I guess this serves as a positive example to living in a communal minded society like Korea (as opposed to America’s die hard individualism) in that- because people make decisions based on what’s good for society rather than their individual needs, they can trust each other to share things- such as public hula hoops- in a city of 4 million people.

Finally made it to the base of the hill and- after several dead ends and u-turns- made it to a busier street so I could figure out how to get back. I realized I was right next to the school where I work! Lucky me! So I knew exactly how to get home and I took my time, zigzagging through the streets and alleys and made it home in time to get another Hotteok before the sun went down.

Street Food

Week 2

The amount of paperwork it takes to work in Korea is mind numbing. I thought I was in the clear but then my manager told me that I still needed to get my Alien Registration Card in order to do anything such as: get a bank account, get a phone, take language courses, etc. She tells me that I will need to leave work early at 4:30, take a bus, then the subway, then walk to the old immigration office to pick up some documents, then take those documents down the street to the new immigration office and file the right forms before the office closes at 6. Even better- she explains how to get to these offices using a combination of hand drawn maps, subway maps, and printed out google images (when you see this building, turn left) AND she tells me all of this in short blurbs between classes- sitting at a table amongst the kiddos so they are crawling all over the place and yelling while she is giving me directions of how to now get lost in downtown Busan. As I left I could see the worry in her face but I felt utter calm knowing that if I get lost that means I probably don’t have to come to work the next day.

Surprisingly, I did not get lost- the subway system is actually very easy to understand. There were a few language barrier problems (at the old immigration office I told the guard “I am going upstairs now” while he tried to tell me I was in the wrong place bc he thought I needed the new office)-and I had to run for several blocks in order to make it on time- but I made it. I was so proud of myself! Afterwards I took my time figuring out how to get home and I happened upon a street lined with little food carts. As I walked by I tried to casually see what they were eating and one vendor lady called me out and beckoned for me to buy some. So I pointed at the first thing I saw, she pointed at the price and then, there I was- nestled under an orange tarp with 5 little Korean business men, eating some kind of seafood-hotdog on a stick. It was so good and so filling! And it only cost about 75 cents US.

Since then, I have been more courageous to try other street food varieties. On that Friday, I was riding the bus home after work and I spontaneously got off early so I could walk and look around a bit. I happened upon a side alley where there were a group of people huddled around one little street cart. I decided to try the Hotteok (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hotteok) a sweet, fried pancake that South Koreans eat in the winter. Words cannot describe how delicious it was. And only 500 Won (that’s less than 50 cents US). And the little lady that makes them gave me the nicest smile! I went back to her cart again the next week and tried Ddeokbokki (Do-bo-ki) (http://koreabridge.net/post/korea%E2%80%99s-favorite-snack-teymarieastudillo) which is like a rice cake in a hot dog shape covered in spicy spicy red chili sauce. I ate it quickly and then had to run around the corner to get some water!

Just up the alley from this kind woman’s cart is a whole market (I think it is called Yeondong market) where people are selling all kinds of food- fresh seafood, meat, vegetables, side dishes, pastries, soups, etc. So far I’ve bought some soup from one lady (one was liver= regrets, the other=seaweed, not bad) and rice cakes and side dishes from others. I had previously been buying all my food from Homeplus- a giant department store across the street from my flat- but it was so expensive! I am going to try and shop at this market, but I definitely need to brush up on my Korean and stop looking so repulsed when a little old woman reaches her hand into a bucket of live, swimming fish, pulls one out as it writhes around, chops its head off, guts it right there on the table and throws all the squiggly bits into a giant bucket in the alley. She’s going to throw all that away right? Or am I gonna end up buying that as soup next week? Shudder. 

Week 1

The weekend- Jan 11 and 12

My first week teaching was all kinds of confusing. I had no time to appreciate the fact that I was living in Busan until my second Friday when I finally go to “go out”. I went to dinner with two of the female foreign teachers I work with, Karen and Elaine (both from Ireland). We went to Gwangalli beach-where the famous bridge is and supposedly where lots of foreigners hang out (although we were the only ones I saw). Then we went to a New Zealand themed bar called “Beached” and I felt like such a d-bag when I started talking about kiwi culture :/ haha. We met up with another girl we work with, Anni from South Africa, and we paid 2 dollars to light some Roman candle fire works on the beach. We decided to get a hot chocolate before heading home and while we were in the café we saw the MOST attractive male foreigner (attractive by any standards, let alone Busan) and of course, we all literally stopped talking and stared at him, jaws ajar. He definitely noticed, and left. Whoops. Later we were talking about something random and suddenly Anni, whose back was towards the door, stopped talking. Karen, who was seated next to Anni, says “whats wrong? Is your boy back?” Elaine and I were facing the door and notice, “um, yea, actually he is”-everyone does a blatant 180 turn and stares AGAIN and he notices AGAIN. Omygoodness I haven’t laughed that hard in ages!

The next night (Saturday) we really “went out” to KSU. KSU is the university area and it is where ALL the foreigners go on Saturday nights (well, at least all the ones I have met so far). We went to a place called Eva’s and I was introduced to 20+ already intoxicated foreigners: Irish, Canadian, American, British, South African, Australian….and I met Eva herself (nice lady). One major culture shock about Korea is that the bars don’t close at 2 am like back home. In fact, I don’t think they close at all. So kids end up staying out so late that they can go get a McMuffin and then take the morning bus back home. At 5 am we left our coats at Eva’s and ran across the alleyway to dance at the Blue Monkey. While Eva’s has the brick wall, homely, pub like feeling, the Blue Monkey is more like a poorly lit, Psy-inspired techno rave club whose smoke machine is broken and stuck on full blast. And whereas Eva’s is only full of foreign English teachers, in the Blue Monkey it’s mostly Korean or non-English speaking foreign boys who (very politely, actually) keep trying to dance with you when you’re like “Can’t you see I’m doing the running man? This is a solo thing, DUDE”. Basically, awkward hilarity at its best. Finally, I was so tired, we decided to get a cab back. Made it home just as the sun was coming up.

Arrival

A little back track-

 I’m feeling weird that I haven’t yet shared my story of when I first arrived here and now it’s already been 3 weeks (what?!). So before any more time slips away, here it is:

Arriving

The flight from San Francisco to Seoul was 13 hours long but it really wasn’t too bad. As soon as we left SF (bout 12pm, Tuesday Jan 1st) the crew said, “Ok, time to switch to Seoul time!” (5am, Wednesday Jan 2nd) “Go to sleep, and when you wake up, we’ll serve you breakfast!”   

Unfortunately, I made the decision to sit next to the window which meant that every time I had to get up (a lot) I had to politely ask the mother (sitting in the aisle) and her 5yr old son (middle) to move- instead the mom would get up and let me awkwardly straddle her son to shimmy my way out. I still haven’t figured out which way is better: to face the kid as I tower over him in my awkward, “only-foreigner-on-this-plane” kinda way or to just put my butt in his face. Either way- the mom did not look too happy. But later, when the food came, I was glad to be sitting next to the kid because I got to watch how his mom prepared his food (basically rice, veggies and different spices) so that I didn’t have to look like a total gnar and read the instructions (yes, it came with instructions) to figure out how to eat mine.

Once in Seoul, I had to switch airports. I was pretty nervous about this because I only had one hour between flights and um..I don’t speak Korean! But the ladies at the info desk spoke enough English to tell me where to get an airport shuttle- which I did- and would have been all good except I got off the shuttle just a wee bit early so I had to take another shuttle which was more like a city bus and the driver ended up idling the bus in the middle of the street to help me drag my giant suitcase aboard. I kept saying “Please be careful, it’s very heavy, don’t hurt yourself” and I’m sure he thought I was worried about the bag and not him : / oh well

Somehow I got to the domestic airport early enough that they decided to put me on an earlier flight- which was fine- except that then I arrived an hour early in Busan and wait-who is supposed to meet me again? My recruiter had said “someone from the school will be there to meet you”. Unfortunately all I know about my school is that it is in Busan, it is part of the “Kids Club” franchise and I think the director’s name is Kelli. But I am not worried at ALL that they will have trouble spotting me- not only am I the only foreigner but I am the only one standing there with nowhere to go. Taxi drivers kept coming up to me and asking me questions like “Where you want go?” and I would meekly reply, “Kids club? Are you from Kids club?” and they would grow tired of the language barrier and leave. Finally, after waiting an hour (till when my flight was SUPOSSED to arrive) I saw a very worried little man questioning the lady at the info desk and holding a sign with my name on it. He spoke NO English but he seemed very nice so I followed him out to his taxi van and we drive into the city.

By this time it’s about 10:30pm, the sky is dark and all the hundreds of thousands of buildings are lit up. It was so pretty! On my left the streets were full of bright yellow and red lights and flashing billboards everywhere and on my right the hills were covered with apartment complexes- so one hill would be all blue lights and the next- all purple! Then someone calls the driver and he hands me the phone- a lady with a thick accent starts talking to me “hello I’m —, how are you —-words—something—..” Somehow, I decipher that “the driver” is going to take me to my apartment and “the landlord” is going to let me in and that I should be at the school to start work at 9:30am the next morning. “Awesome.”

Then the driver seems confused-he keeps making u-turns and fiddling with his GPS (at the same time btw) and then he stops in front of a run-down looking used-appliance store. Oh great. We’re lost. He parks and gets out-motioning me to stay. And now he’s going to ask someone in this ghetto used refrigerator shop where we are. Great. Then he comes back and starts unloading my bags. Oh! Even better- we are not lost in the ghetto- this is where I live! The landlord comes out to say hello- again, absolutely no English but very sweet anyways (lots of head bowing) and he helps me drag my stuff down a very steep, skinny little alleyway to the building.

We drag my bags into the room and I am so tired I could pass out. But then the landlord starts giving me a tour of the tiny as apartment and showing me how to work EVERY single appliance. Ok thanks! Now get out so I can sleep please! Finally he leaves and even though the room is LITERALLY freezing- I put on every warm thing I brought and am asleep in seconds.  

The next day- my first day of school- was such a blur. I watched my manager teach “my classes” for most of the day and then, towards the end, she said “your turn!” and she “let me” teach one of the classes. Afterward, she tried to provide some constructive criticism on my teaching- and I tried not to laugh- thinking, “Lady, I am proud of myself for making it through the first day without falling asleep or accidently drooling on myself-by my American standards today was a huge success!”

Busan

Busan

Of course I choose the day with the worst weather to go for a hike- but heres a nibble of my new city- more photos to be found at http://www.flickr.com/photos/awkwardanne/ and hopefully many more to come…more words later too…

Tagged ,

Well, here I am.

It happened again.

After bumming around all morning I decided to go out for a bit and get myself a motivational cappuccino. However, as soon as I left my flat, I felt my legs yearning to go in the opposite direction, towards the park. So I thought, ‘what the heck’, I might as well go for a walk and get some blood flowing to my brain. The best thing that could happen would be to get lost for hours and then have a legitimate reason for why I don’t have a lesson plan on Monday.

So, I begin to walk down the narrow, winding street towards the water and then- it happens again- a sudden shock of consciousness, a wave of reality passes over me- I’M IN KOREA. What?

Let’s back up- I graduated University in 2011, spent a summer working, then spent all my money in Europe, then suffered a herniated disk and spent several months sitting on my butt and trying to figure out how to get fixed, get money and get out of my home town again. I stumbled across a TEFL program with the intention of going to Spain or Peru, but then I heard so many awesome, wonderful things about Korea. Within the same week I graduated the TEFL program and got back surgery. Within a month I was applying to jobs abroad, with the intention of leaving in February. Then, in a rush I was offered a job in Busan to immediately replace a teacher who had quit. I spent New Year’s Eve in San Francisco with my friends and by 1pm the next day I was on a plane headed over the Pacific Ocean to Korea.

So now I am here, speed walking along the water park, people watching and enjoying the fresh scent of seawater mixed with that sweet sewagey smell. I have been here for one week and I feel so…comfortable.

It is a strange thing that I am still trying to understand- before coming hear it seemed like everyone I talked to knew a friend or a friend of a friend who had taught in Korea and absolutely loved it. What is it about Korea that people are so enamored with?

As I look around me, I am surrounded by massive skyscrapers in every direction with the occasionally pointed mountain jutting up here and there throughout the skyline. Although its near freezing outside (lately an average high of 34 F), Koreans are an active bunch and with nearly 4 million people living in Busan there’s no surprise that on Sunday afternoon the walking paths are crowded with people. There are couples strolling, women gossiping, men playing majong, people speed walking with their arms moving faster than their legs, parents chasing after their kids, bicyclists, teenagers playing basketball, people doing fitness exercises…and then there’s me. I’m sure I stick out like a sore thumb, but when people stare (which they do, all the time, blatantly and even when you look them in the eyes they don’t look away) I usually smile or nod my head to some degree which I’m sure makes me look like an even bigger idiot anyway. At least I have stopped waving at kids because I realized that, even though I hang out with only kids all day- that doesn’t mean I’ve developed some kind of innate companionship with every Korean child- and all my waving and smiling makes me look like a big creep.

Ugh. Speaking of kids- I have to start making my lesson plans for the next week. This seemingly simple task would be oh-so-much easier if a) I had EVER taught before 2) I had any idea what I’m doing or what I’m supposed to be doing 3) I hadn’t stayed out till 5am last night with a bunch of rowdy Irish folk. Le sigh. Time to get crackin’- but first, the cappuccino.

Stay tuned…