Thursday, September 22, 2011

Seoul again

The last post got delayed because of school business. To quickly recap, within the past week I've received my Alien Registration Card, set up the cell phone, and have set up the bank account.

I'm in Seoul now for Orientation until Monday. It's about 7:10am local time and 30 minutes until breakfast. A quick recap of yesterday and Tuesday:

Tuesday: Rode the 5:40 bus in from Seoul to Wasu and had to hold on to the rails the entire way. The driver must've taxed the hell out of that engine, for he raced through the shifts and weaved in and out of traffic like the cops were after us. It felt exciting to ride as though you're in a Nissan 350Z and know you're in a coach bus. Basically, anything Chicago drivers do, this driver did. Weaves, three lane changes at a time, you name it. We hit Seoul's satellite cities around rush hour, so maybe that contributed to the frantic ride. Seoul's freeways and roads looked like anything in LA or New York, or for that matter, Milwaukee. Traffic everywhere.

The ride took 1:45 and I went straight to the subway station. About an hour and a train transfer later I stepped onto the platform at Oryu-dong station on the southeast side. Alyson met me there and we took a tour of her neighborhood in search of food and drink. We didn't find too much of either, though we did find decent home supply and grocery stores. Her neighborhood seems quiet for Seoul. A decent time all around.


Alyson showed me her school, Deogil Electronic Technical High School, before I left to catch the subway to the Orientation. Again, more easy subway action. It felt good to recognize some of the sights from last month when I arrived in the city. That and seeing/meeting new friends from around the English-speaking world.

Orientation commenced at 2:30.


Yesterday I hit the one month mark.

The Week In Review: Week 3, Chuncheon, Seoul, and more

Before I begin, I'll post a more complete post on the Chuncheon excursion at a later much happens here that I'll have 239545 things to write one day and another 234585 things to say the next day. Maybe once I get Internet at the apartment I've have more time for this stuff. It probably sounds silly to worry about not writing enough on here but the writing itself eases the homesickness and provides a nice outlet for relaxing.

By now I've passed the 3 week mark and the non-stop whirlwind has slowed down somewhat as life here has gotten more familiar with each passing day.

Here's the highlights of the week:

  • The aforementioned Chuncheon rendezvous with Paula and eating our first Korean pizza.
  • Buying a guitar in Seoul. On Wednesday I picked up the bus to Seoul and took a day trip there to get a guitar and meet Alyson, another EPIK teacher, for dinner in her neighborhood. About a week before, one of my co-teachers had told me Seoul has a giant market called the Nagwon Arcade where vendors gather to sell musical instruments and equipment. He explained how to take the subway there and which station to stop at. It seemed simple enough so I went out and did it. At the Arcade I had the great fortune of running into my EPIK buddy Kurt and his wonderful Korean wife, Elise, who provided invaluable help with talking to the clerks. While Kurt and I tried out various guitars, she wheeled and dealed with the clerks. Damn can the Koreans bargain! In the end I bought an acoustic/electric with a stand, case, strap, strings, capo, cable, and picks for less than the guitar itself cost.

  • Meeting Alyson for a pizza. Elise again provided help with the subway directions. They were note-perfect. It felt good catching up and comparing notes on the first few weeks in our respective cities. The pineapple pizza tasted great and I got back to Dongseoul in time to catch the last bus back here...I can now say I've ridden the Seoul subways during rush hour and you know what, as packed as those trains get, they still get you there on time.

  • The simplicity and organization of Seoul's subway network knocks me out, for as byzantine as the network looks on a map, getting from place practically defines straightforward. All of the signs and directions (including the intercom systems on the trains) come written or spoken in English.

  • School's continuing to go well. It makes me happy as hell to be there.
  • The food's wonderful, if spicy as hell. At meal times I drink my weight in water.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Alone in Wasu-ri, The Chuncheon Shopping Excursion, Mountain Roads, and K-Pop, Pt. 1

This post will go in two parts because I'm too tired to do it all in one go. The Chuseok (추석) holiday has kept rolling on and I'm off school until Thursday. Today saw a break from the easy-breezy days of Sunday and Monday because I took the bus to 춘천 to meet with an EPIK teacher, Paula, and do some shopping at the E-Mart. It felt good to get out of town and do something with someone else because I've outside of seeing my neighbors on Saturday, I've been largely alone in town on Saturday and Sunday. By largely, I mean that I saw some of my students in town and said hello to them, but I was otherwise alone. It certainly got lonely when I considered that I was the only foreigner in town and in a foreign country 6000+ miles away from family and friends in the States, but the time passed by quickly. There'll be a post on that soon enough, as I had my first successfully bought a Korean flag at a PX store by negotiating the language barrier with the shop owner. But anyway...

춘천 and the ride there: Holy hell was that road twisty. If you've ever played The Need For Speed, you'll know what I'm talking about: winding curves, rollercoaster hills, hairpin s-bends, and narrow roadways along an endlessly beautiful forest. Parts of the route wound along a man made lake. See below for an idea of what I'm talking about. I took these pics from the bus window:

Actually, I didn't get any pics of the best part--the water here's just a river. The bus moved too quickly through the hills for any decent shots of the lake to get taken...but hell, the greenery defines the world expansive. If any of us remember The Land Before Time with all those bucolic shots of the valleys and the forests, THAT is what Highway 56 from Wasu to Chuncheon looks like. You know how some people of a certain disposition look at parts of the USA and say, "this here's God's country"? This looked better.

Those hills, those hills...they're everywhere. And did mention that we took the crazily twisty road in a coach bus? Yes. A 5-speed manual bus, actually. The whole time going there I sat staring out the window thinking if only I had a car. If only Drew could get out here. We could tear this road up! For another movie reference, cue up the scene early in GoldenEye where Bond and Moneypenny get into a chase with that girl in a red Lotus. The road looked like that, only with forest everywhere. Not to belabor the point, but I've never seen such beauty before.

That's all for now...but I can't go home without getting this up here: The E-Mart excursion rocked and I brought home a load of goodies, including 3 K-Pop CDs from Girls' Generation, 2PM, and this band, 2NE1:

  Once I opened up the casing I knew I had to post a picture of what came with the CD. Look at this above...20 separate holographic postcards, a fan club card, and a mini booklet came with the CD. Who throws this much stuff in with a 6 song EP? The Rolling Stones packed postcards inside their Exile on Main St. LP, but even so, they weren't holographic. And Exile was a double LP. Double LPs were made for having extra stuff inside since they were supposed to comprise grand artistic statements. But an EP, well, 2NE1 clearly went the extra mile here.

 I've never seen CD packaging like this outside of Tool and Radiohead albums.

And the music? Pretty decent girl-group pop. The singing alternates between Korean and English and the girls throw in some good hooks in every song.

Good night!

More Misty Mountain Hopping

I wake up to this view almost every morning.

Even on the cloudy days I can't help but marvel at this landscape.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

The cross town shuffle, 9/11, Chuseok, and buying stuff

This first picture goes out to my friend Andrew's lovely wife, Kara. We do indeed have shoe stores here!

Next up's a shot of the countryside. Taken on the bus from Dongsong to Sincheorwon:

The cross town county, Cheorwon-gun (gun=county in Korean) has three major towns; Dongsong, Sincheorwon, and Wasu-ri. If you look at them on a map, they resemble an inverted triangle. Wasu-ri sits at the northernmost edge of the triangle, Dongsong has the western edge, and Sincheorwon has the southern edge. Two bus lines connect the towns because they both pass through the town of Munhye-ri. The yellow line runs from Sincheorwon to Dongsong and the green line runs from Sincheorwon to Wasu-ri.

Today I thought I'd do some exploring and hit all three towns in one swoop. My objective was to reach the international ATM in Dongsong to withdraw some cash, but Sincheorwon seemed appealing enough to wander around in for a bit, so I went there too.

Mission accomplished. After catching the 2:00pm bus to ??? village by mistake and returning within 20 minutes (it was only a short jaunt outside of Wasu), I caught the 2:20pm bus to Sincheorwon and began the journey. It went down well. Scott (who lives in Dongsong) had given me directions last night about how to get to the ATM and they were pitch perfect. The ATM worked perfectly as well.

I didn't hang around Dongsong too long, but I did buy a navy blue fishing vest at an outdoors store...think Kylie the opossum in Fantastic Mr. Fox or John Goodman in The Big Lebowski and you get the idea.

When I got home I did some more shopping for the apartment and bought rugs, picture frames, and computer speakers. The speakers turned out to have a buzzy subwoofer, but I've already gotten used it to it, 8-) It felt nice to have some louder music for a change. More work still needs to happen for the apartment to feel more like home, but it'll get there soon enough. For now, it seems like the shopping list consists of another rug or two, a couple of reading lights, some posters, and another clock. Having bare walls does not sit well with me.


Tomorrow marks the 10 year anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York City. The International Herald Tribune has run some editorials about it and they got me thinking of how 9/11 links up with the Korean holiday of Chuseok (추선? I think), which is like the Korean equivalent of Thanksgiving. In other words, over here we've got a festive time of family gatherings and food and back home there's bitter memories. Maybe some fear and loathing's in there, too. This blog isn't here for politics, but I can't help but wonder what people have on their minds in the US now. As I write this my cousin Brian (Mark's younger brother) has been deployed to Afghanistan. That war began 10 years ago too. I hope all goes well over there and he can come home safely as soon as possible. 


Wasu-ri, my sweet home pt. 2

...I didn't get to this last night since I cut out of the PC room around 11:30pm local time and was feeling tired after a long day.

Two days ago Mr. Park helped me acquire a cell phone, so now I can communicate with the EPIK crew in the area. Yesterday saw me making my first phone call in over two weeks. Boy, did that feel strange...

Just a 30 minutes ago I talked to my mom and dad on the cell phone. It felt good to hear their voices. Dad had been researching how to figure out the international calls and he did it! Thanks! We didn't talk long because I've no idea how much time my 30,000 won of minutes gets me. I wish I didn't have to say that. It sounds inconsiderate to talk about money and charges to my parents when they're 6500 miles away and we haven't spoken to each other since I left. Nonetheless, we had a good time.

I should receive my Alien Registration Card within two weeks. Once I receive that I can get Internet access in the apartment and get the hell on Skype already. Can't wait for that one.

Also, I've Orientation in Seoul from 21 to 26 Sept. While there I'll be getting the bank account set up with all the others 8-)

Some good things will be happening soon.

Now I think it's time to let the pictures do the talking:
Cheorwon welcome BBQ in Dongsong:

We Americans brought beer pong to Korea! From left to right: Jerusha's legs, Esther, Jason (?), Matt, Mr. Chai (Matt's co-teacher). Jason's a Korean firefighter.
Mr. Chai had never experienced beer pong before but I had a great time with it.

The girls play wine pong and pose Korean style for the picture. Left to right: Janette (England), Claire (England), Esther, Gabe, Kirsten (Scotland)

1.6L bottles of Korean beer. In Korea you pay for beer by the can, so buying a 6 pack or case can run you anywhere from 6500 to 40000 won (~$6 to $40), so most economical way to get beer is to buy it in these soda-style bottles. They cost about 3800 won (~$3.50). Bottling the beer like this does work well, I've noticed. Even after 3 days the Cass does still taste fresh. As a side note, the Cass Lemon tasted a bit like the lemon version of Miller Chill.

Another side note: Since we're on the metric system, no 40ozs exist here. But fear not, liter bottles of Cass and the like are readily available.

More of the crew, from left to right: Gabe, Scott, Kirsten, Nina, Jerusha, and Esther.

View of the hills and mountains from the apartment building. I simply can't get over how beautiful the land looks here. Here's another picture:

The Sincheorwon Welcome Dinner
This happened a short time ago after Gabe, Peter, and I got into Wasu.

Matt, Scott, Gabe, Johanna, Carrie (England), Jerusha, Claire, Esther.
We are bulgogi (beef) and had a great time. Korean food features one main dish and endless side dishes.
Some other stuff:

Just to show how safe life is here, here's DMZ bottled water that I bought at Lotte Mart in Yangju. When I saw it, I had to have it.

In a window of a soldier's store in Sincheorwon. All of the graphics for the Korean army look like this. More to come on that later.


Friday, September 9, 2011

Wasu-ri, my sweet home near the DMZ

10pm local time, Friday, 9 Sept 2011

Here's a delayed update on the life and the times. I meant to write much of this sooner but I got delayed because of business at the schools.

Life is good here. Every day I think, I'm here and I'm teaching. As tough as it is, I will learn. I often think of my cousin Mark. A short time ago, he'd served in the National Guard and had been done a tour of duty in Iraq. About a month ago at a family gathering, he told me about how he'd felt on the way to Iraq on the troop plane. He felt nervous and apprehensive and everything else one would feel on the way to a combat zone. When the plane touched down and he stepped off of it, he said to himself, I'm here. I will do this. I'm here. He willed himself to keep a positive attitude about his tour in Iraq. All through the plane to Korea I thought about that story and how I'd say the same thing once I landed in Incheon. And I did. I got off the plane and said, I'm here. I made it. I'm here. [For Mark, if you're reading this: I love you, buddy. Thank you for the advice. Your positive attitude is inspiring.]

What follows are some notes on the life and the times here:

  • The compactness of the town made it easier to figure out. See below for some random factoids about it.
  • It has only one bar, but almost every restaurant serves drinks and beer's available whenever stores are open.
  • We're three norabangs (no-ray-baang), or karaoke rooms here. Norabang literally means "singing room." Karaoke happens in separate rooms and 1000s of Korean and English language songs are available.
  • It has three cell phone stores. They're all the same company. Seriously.
  • Everyone and their sister has a cell phone and most all the students have smart phones.
    • We have two chain French bakeries, Tous Les Jours and Paris Baguette. Tous also has a coffee shop where you can get real espresso.
    • The soldiers run the economy here.
    • There are more restaurants than I can count.
  • It has a cross country bus terminal. You can get on a bus here and get to Seoul in less than 2 hours.
  • Bus lines connect Wasu to Sincheorwon, Dongsong, and probably several other towns, but I haven't figured them out yet. Buses run every day from around ~7am to ~9pm and they're always punctual. From here to Sincheorwon takes ~30 minutes and costs 2100 won ($2) each way. To transfer to go to Dongsong takes 45-60 minutes, depending on the transfer delay, and costs 4200 won (2100 x 2) each way.
  • Bus drivers drive like mad and take turns like their racing in a 350Z. It makes getting across town quite the time.

Gimhwa High School and Gimhwa Girls Middle School:

  • Today marked the end of my second week of teaching here and it went quite well. Despite the language and the cultural barriers teaching the middle school and high school classes has gone wonderfully. Korean students have had English classes since early elementary school, so most students have at least a rudimentary understanding of English. Before coming here, I'd been aware of how I had to vary my word choices to suit various grades, but being here has made me all the more conscious of it since I'm speaking a foreign language and I must cut any excess verbiage from what I say in class. What I say does get through, especially for classroom management strategies. All of the kids know that if I hold raise my hand and count down from 5 it means it's time to quiet down and focus. (Doing this works even better when I count down in Korean). Or if I say, "If you can hear my clap once <clap>," the kids--especially the middle school girls--will clap and snap to. And yes, they will snap to. The Korean kids revere their elders (esp. parents and teachers) more than their American counterparts.
  •  I should note that I have co-teachers who are in the room with me, so I am not teaching alone. I've six co-teachers all together and they're all fun to teach with. They all have their varying styles of teaching (and amount of translation of my English), but they have all more than supportive of sharing their classes with me. I'm closer to some of the co-teachers than the others, but that's due to sharing office space and nothing more.
  • The students are wonderful. All day, every day, they wave and say "hello" in the hallway. Here the students are trained to bow to their teachers and so many of them bow to me as I walk by. I tell ya, it's really something to have that kind of respect. It gets even better with the middle school students. They treat me like a celebrity at times, what with the "Teacher, teacher!" and "HI!!!!"s. Maybe that's the schoolgirl crush coming out; I don't know. Usually I end up walking half of the way home surrounded by a pack of girls asking about where I'm from and if I have a girlfriend. What lovely kids they are. Even with not knowing 90% of what they're saying to each other I can tell you the middle school girls are more affectionate and doting on each other than their American counterparts. They're always holding each others' hands or folding their arms around each other or doing each other's hair. Some of the hugging and handholding brings young clingy couples to mind, but I imagine all the stuff they do's platonic. When I get a chance I'll snap a picture to illustrate my point.
  • The students love it when I speak Korean and attempt to speak Korean. It feels better and better to learn new words and use them in class. In every class I strive to get the Korean equivalent of 1 to 5 words and have people write them on the boards. Sometimes I make fumbling attempts to write them Korean's coming along. Learning it feels exhilirating. By now the once-alien shapes have morphed into English letters or words. Sometimes I just hear the sound of them of them, but it's coming along.
  • Teaching and being at the schools helps with the homesickness and culture shock, even if there've been plenty of times were the school shocks me with enough culture by itself.

My English Conversation students.

Some more high school students. In the back stands co-teacher Mr. Lee. I call remember him as "Young Lee" since Lee's such a common name here and I've another co-teacher named Lee too. 

I show this picture for two reasons. First, platform Chuck Taylor knockoffs! Dig it! 

Second, and more importantly, a bit of school culture: what you see here is one of shoe racks outside every classroom. The students ( plus teachers and staff) all have "indoor" and "outdoor" shoes. When people come to school they switch from their outdoor shoes to their indoor shoes. The indoor shoes range from Chucks (popular here!) to sandals. It took me a week to pic up on this, but I joined in. Now I wear sandals to class like all the other teachers.

Another view. Also, the mops: every day the students mop the floors and clean the schools. Many students do this with aplomb.

A view of Wasu-ri from across the entrance to the high school and middle school. You can see the small stream (which is actually bigger outside of town) running alongside the roadway and can see the temple in the distance.

One of the middle school classes. I'm ashamed to say I haven't learned too many names yet, but I'll get them.

As you can see, the kids all wear uniforms and they look the same as their Western counterparts.


Stayed tuned for more to come. I'll be heading home now and will post more tomorrow.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Wasu-ri's Landscape

Cue up Led Zeppelin's "Misty Mountain Hop." More or less every morning here looks like this. Stunning!

Two weeks ago today

Two weeks ago today I left General Mitchell Airport in Milwaukee and connected to my plane out of Chicago to fly here. It feels as though I've lived a lifetime in these two weeks, all cliches aside. I do mean it. With each day the language and culture becomes easier to adjust to. The homesickness comes and goes like the ocean tides. My new friends and emails to family and old friends has also helped. Being at school and teaching provides the bridge between life in the US and life in Korea since it has as many similarities as it does differences. The teachers and staff here at Gimhwa High School and Gimwha Girls Middle School have been welcoming. I daresay the teachers, staff, and students are nicer here than back home. Nice doesn't begin to describe it.

Despite the smallness (~3,000 give or take the soldiers coming and going) of the town, life's been, well, active here. It feels like a rollercoaster ride, like all I can do is simply hang on. Each day brings more words and phrases learned and more food sampled in this beautiful and strange landscape. By now I've learned to read most or all of the Korean alphabet and have begun sounding out words. The teachers here say they're impressed. I'm glad. I came here to learn. Learning to read has eased the frustration.

That and the dinners with the school staff. Between yesterday and last week I've gone to dinner with the middle school and the high school staff, plus a few teachers (and other EPIK friends) here and there. The dinner and drinking culture's quite different here. At the high school dinner for example, we took a shot with all three of the toasts before we started eating. I've done shots of soju with my principal. He's apparently told other teachers that I drink like a Korean. Over here, that's a high compliment. Where else would this happen? Where else can you drink with your co-workers at dinner and then sing karaoke with them (whilst drinking more beer)?

I meant to show these pictures earlier, so here they are. These are pics of the schools:

Outside of Gimhwa High School. The right-hand building houses my English classroom, another English classroom, and a math classroom.

My desk inside the high school.

Office space at the middle school

The middle school English classroom. Spacious.

The back wall of the middle school English classroom.

The high school English classroom. Behind the partition lies my desk as well as Mr. Kim's desk.

The back wall of the high school English classroom. One of the blinds has a Shakespearean sonnet on them.

As you can see, each classroom has a Smartboard and top-notch equipment.