Mar 25, 2009

Chapter Five: Seoul Coughing

I don't mean to walk around in circles, walk around in circles.

I don't mean to make a habit of listing semi-obscure 90's bands and then the only part of their lyrics I can remember, but this time it's quite relevant.

This week I had my first urban escape and went into the mountains. It was awesome; my new favorite part of Korea.

Planning a hike was as easy as googling "hikes in seoul" and picking the first one on what was supposed to be a wet, rainy day.

Or was it?

The website (which it turns out had been lifted verbatim from Lonely Planet) read:
"Take subway line 5 to Gwanghwamun station, take exit number 1. Walk around to the front of Sejong Cultural center and get on bus 156. Tell the driver ‘Bukhansan’. The trip takes about 35 minutes and puts you at the western edge of the park. Usually there will be other hikers. Follow them as they walk to the end of the little village, turn right and walk to the ticket booth. Admission is 1300W and the ticket booths sell maps"

Technically that was close to entirely wrong. The directions got the subway number and stop right. But not only is there no exit number 1, there is no bus 156. (Also there were neither admission fees nor maps.) The truth of the matter is that if you take exit 2 and get on bus 0212, then about 15 minutes later you'd be in the village.

However, being rather naive and trusting, I did not suspect the blatant myths and lies in the directions. Not having any way to learn the truth other than by walking around and around in circles, that's what happened. For just over an hour. But I learned that Gwanghwamun is renovating and making a square of some sort, and there is a big museum there that looks like the acropylis, and we found a huge bookstore that I've always wondered where it was. So it wasn't a loss.

I'll mostly let the pictures speak for themselves. Remember that this is actually within the city limits of one of the largest cities in the world.

Koreans call hiking "mountain climbing." This is not entirely bragging as they don't believe in switchbacks and their paths are more rock than trail.

Good views of the area.

The views of the mountain were amazing. Some of the old ruins were several hundred years old. The King lived up here during a japanese invasion and brought hundreds of concubines. He left his wife and family and duties behind; the story goes that even after it was safe, he refused to leave.

The hike, about 12K, featured several natural walkways.

Thousands of Koreans hike the mountain every weekend. Many really appreciate seeing foreigners who choose to hike with them.

One of the many interesting rock formations.

A view from the temple.

And a view of the temple.

A super nice house in the mountain village. The village felt different than other parts of Seoul I've seen, with outdoor shops, open air restaurants, and a vibe more reminscent of a resort town than Seoul.

One of many large ravens flying around the mountains. I spotted a chipmunk with a big nut in its mouth as well.

This picture just makes me laugh.

Other than that, everything has been going well. I'm getting used to my classes, I should be getting a phone, a bank account, and my alien card soon. Best of all, my birthday is coming up so it's a safe bet that there will be fun times in Hongdae.

Mar 16, 2009

Chapter Four: De La Seoul

I had my first staff dinner recently. Unbeknownst to me, it was a night of impending hedonism. All three foreign teachers, three of the four Korean teachers, both of the administrators, and the Director and her husband went to a meat restaurant. You can grill your own meat (or in my case mushrooms) and this being Korea there were numerous sidedishes. A lot of food was eaten. I repeat: A lot of food. Was eaten.

Three tables and still more food than room.

This being Korea, there was numerous beer and soju right off the bat as well. Soju isn't that strong, but it smells like really cheap vodka. I have had bad experiences with cheap vodka the world over, from Subway West End in Edinburgh to Doc's Pad in Eugene. So I find it a little rough, but it's not that bad.

We were at the restaurant for a few hours before most of us mosied over to a nearby hof. I think I've mentioned hofs before, but they are basically pubs. The major difference is that you need to order food when you're here. Even if you've just come from a three-hour dinner. We went through a couple massive pitchers of beer. I think we figured out that they were 4 liters each, and we went through 4 of them.

Katie's brain is boggled by the bigness of the beer.

Chloe shows the proper pouring skills...

... and how buffed she's gotten from pouring said large pitchers of beer.

After a few hours at the hof, a few of us made our way over to a noribang (Korean Karaoke place). I had been to one before just last weekend, but this one was much nicer. It had a large drum, maracas, a stage for dancing, and a great view of the city from the 5th floor. After drinking for something like 6 hours straight even I was ready for singing and we all had a good time. Highlights included Hotel California, Sex Bomb, and some sad Korean ballads.

Everything I know about drumming comes from watching the Muppets.

These song books have hundreds of pages.

Singing AND drumming takes real dedication.

So does maracka-ing and drumming.

That same weekend, I went out and explored the city. I spent most of my time at Gyeongbokgung, an amazing, sprawling palace. It had rivers, ponds, pagodas, statues and so much more. All for only 3000 won (under 2.00 USD). Also, in 2009 all museums are free in Korea so in the palace area there were two big museums I checked out as well.

The mountain looms in the distance.

The queen's pagoda.

The King's Pagoda.

The snobbiest statue I've ever seen. He's apparently from Apgujeong.

Some art in a museum.

I ended up meeting with fellow blogger Brandy of Life is A Highway fame for dinner at my favorite Indian/Nepalese/Tibetan Restaurant. I had a delicious rice dish with cashews and coconuts.

All this, and I haven't even gotten to the best part of my weekend yet. I was aimlessly wandering around, trying to find how to walk from Hongik University to Sinchon when I ran across the first book store I've ever seen here. They had one book in English in the bargain books outside the store. It was a book that I had to buy. At only 2000 won (maybe 1.50 USD) it wasn't even a choice. I've read it cover to cover twice now.

Recently I witnessed something strange. While walking to the bank, I realized something very unusual was going on. Not a single car was moving. This would be weird anywhere, but in Seoul, where red lights are generally considered an optional suggestion, it was like seeing a green sun in the sky. An alarm was blowing in the distance. And there was a small army of middle aged Korean people dressed in yellow on the sidewalks and in the streets.

What was going on?

Was Japan trying to reconquer Korea?

Where the North Koreans invading?

Had aliens made their first contact with the human race?

As you've probably guessed by the fact that I lived to type this, it was a drill. Of the "prepare for invasion from North Korea" variety. I'm not sure the exact defensive worth of stopping traffic and having people in yellow jackets run around and stand in the street...but it was very efficiently done. And for Korea, that's nearly a victory in itself.

Mar 10, 2009

Chapter Three: Seoul Asylum*

Runaway Train never coming back...wrong way on a one way track.

Now that I have a week of teaching under my belt, I have a few observations and stories.

First, these kids are very funny. They're not very disciplined (ie: not at all) but that's for two reasons. One they are very young (more on that later). And two the school I work at is apparently known as a fun school so kids who "can't cut it" at a stricter school end up coming here. It is chaos even with relatively small classes. Our biggest classes are 10 kids, which compared to some teachers I know who have 30 or 40 seems nice. But ten 6 year-olds bouncing off the walls can be a lot to handle.

It sounds almost condescending, but I'm surprised that they have such strong personalities. It's funny to think that, for the most part, the outgoing ones will be extroverts their whole lives and the shy ones will remain shy. Maybe there is something to the nature part of the whole nature vs nurture debate. Or maybe the first three years really are the most important.

I teach 7 classes a day, everything from phonics to library time to worksheets. Mostly it's just getting them to sing or memorize stuff but with most classes I find the sillier I am the better they learn it.

I have one class with two 7 year olds in it. Sounds like a breeze, right? Well these two kids' personalities are a violiatile mix. One kid is like a Korean version of Nelson from the Simpsons. He's the oldest kindergartner, kind of a bully, and he swears nonstop (the korean equivalent of poop poop poop is his every other word). He cries if he loses a game though he mocks other kids if he wins.

He is a cute little guy though.

It would be tough for any kid to be in a class with him, but the other kid is, in his own way, more of a challenge. He is sometimes brilliant; he has already outsmarted me a couple of times. But his social development is lacking and he hits other kids several times a day for either making fun of him or doing something wrong in his view of the world. Today, for instance, he dropped a toy and when one kid went to pick it up and give it back to him, the kid grabbed and punched him and fell to tears. He thought he wouldn't get the toy back, I think. He also has severe OCD and if I write a letter on the board slightly wrong, I can't move on until he has gotten up and fixed it. As I said, he is very smart but it's a challenge getting him to do the day's lesson plan and not, as he did today, write 1-100 over and over again for 40 minutes.

Here is a snapshot of the two of them at play.

I mentioned age before. It's calculated differently here. You are considered one year old when you're born. And everyone is considered one year older every January 1st. If, like one of my students, you are born on December 31st, this means the next day you are considered 2 years old. This makes for a large variety of ability even amongst a group of so-called "seven year-olds." My morning kindergartners were born in 2003! Seriously? That wasn't so long ago, was it?

Another strange element that takes some getting used to is that school is a business here. Without kids, there is no money and with no money that means no foreign teachers (aka us). This creates an asylum run by the inmates, where the smallest amount of discipline (giving a troublemaker less stars than the good students) can result in an hour long call from a parent or grandparent. We have to keep them happy but it's a fine line. They still have to pass the progress tests and some parents get angry if their kids don't get homework every night.

My Seattle class hard at work. Like any kids, they like the tickle monster way too much and think that being grabbed into the air and turned upside down is a major treat.

In miscellaneous other news, I don't have a phone yet, but had to take this picture when I saw it. What do the emergency services for phones do in your home country? I assume call 911 or 999 or whatever your number is. As in so many other areas, Korea is different.

While I'm a big fan of being able to request a mountain or a sea rescue, nothing beats the double-edged sword of using your mobile phone to either Spy (option 7) or Report a Spy (option 10).

And a picture of my bathroom. While it's not too terribly small, I basically have to fill my sink and (ironically) wash my washer every time I take a shower.

Oh, I have a Korean name! I don't know what it is in Hangul, but in English it's Typhoon Park. Typhoon because, well I guess that should be obvious, and Park as my family name because it seems to be the name of just about everyone over here.

*Will the Seoul puns ever get old? Gosh, I sure hope not.

Mar 1, 2009

Chapter Two: Rubber Seoul

Welcome to chapter two. I started to think that maybe my last blog might have focused too much on the initial culture shock and I've been having a great time so far here. Plus this time I'm going to try and incorporate more pictures.

So here are some assorted things about Korea that I really like so far. Or at least that are different enough to comment on.

I know what you're thinking. "Ew, why is there a picture of trash here?" Well this and many other larger piles like it are where you have to put your trash. From what I can tell you can really put it anywhere on the street and eventually it's collected. Kind of gross, and sometimes the smell is almost overwhelming. In the summer it's apparently worse. But that's the way they do it here.

For all those times when you have had to choose between wine OR waffles...well now there is wine AND waffles. Finally!

A guard at Deoksugung, which roughly translates as "Virtuous Longevity." Though it dates to the 15th century, like everything else in Seoul it was obliverated in the Korean War and rebuilt Its kind of sparse but there are some cool things in there.

One of many pagodas inside the palace.

Um, Standy-upy-things? (Maybe I should have taken the tour).

Also in Deoksugung. A statue of King Sejoing , who ruled in the 15th century and invented the Korean alphabet. According to my Lonely Planet, he also developed rain gauges, sundials, new music, and innovations in farming. His face is on the 10,000 won note, which currently is the largest denomination here.


People have asked me what my favorite thing about Korea is. Right now, that is a very difficult question as I feel too immersed to quantify experiences. But my favorite thing, on a broad level, is just that I still have no idea what I'll run into on a given day.

Case in point: last night, in an area I'd already been to twice (Hongdae, it's sort of like a combination of Hawthorne in Portland and Garnett in Pacific Beach--tons of cafes, clubs, and bars). I saw a korean rock band playing covers of eric clapton and jason mraz. They had three drummers and an official dancer who at first was just kind of sashaying around but then did a 3 minute tap solo! Awesome. And then I ended up at a korean version of a german biergarten. So three places or things I'd never heard of but all that were awesome and just part of the unique experience here.

A German pub, they had yard glasses and chilled recesses (see below) built in to the table that not only cooled your beer but also had lights that changed the way your beer looked.

A chilled receptacle thing, in EXTREME CLOSEUP! Wayne's World! Party On!

A view of the city from a pub in Hongdae.

When the night started, I was pretty sure that I wouldn't be hanging out with this guy.

And I was nearly positive I would't get a chance to meet one of my heroes. But you just never know what to expect whilst in Korea.