Tuesday, April 28, 2009

[with a flair for old romantic // to the Orient he flew]

Hey, remember back in February when I went to China. And then said nothing about if for month and month and months and waited like three weeks to even take the pictures off my camera. Yeah, here's my extremely belated China recap, complete with pictures. (Just a warning, but this comes in at 2,500 words, which is ridiculously tl;dr. If you just want pictures, they're here.)

I arrived in Beijing on Monday morning after a short flight. My guide book mentioned that there are public busses from the airport to Beijing, and since the airport is way outside of town and I have this "thing" about being cheep "independent" in foreign countries (I would say it's a side effect of living in one, but I was this way long before I moved to Korea, so I think the most accurate term is "stupid"), I decided "what the hey?", showed my hotel reservation to the woman at the ticket counter and jumped on a bus, with the idea of taking the bus to near my hotel and catching a cab the rest of the way. I was the ONLY white person on the bus, which earned me some very strange looks, but I did make it to the correct stop. I hailed a cab and showed them my hotel reservation, only to have the cabbie point to a building across the street and drive off. I assumed he meant that was my hotel, so I cross the street. It wasn't, so I hailed another cab, only to repeat the process. In the end, I went to eight different cabs before I found one who knew where my hotel was and was willing to take me to my hotel. It was only the start of my adventures with cabs in Beijing. (I never did figure out what they were pointing at. My hotel was close, but in the opposite direction.)

Tiananmen Square
PLA soldier on guard at Tiananmen Square. Groups of PLA soldiers were probably the most common site at Tiananmen Square. I felt sorry for the poor guy. He had to be freezing.

Once I checked into my hotel, I went to Tiananmen Square. I know next to nothing about Beijing, but in 8th grade I read a book called Forbidden City about the Tiananmen Square Massacre and, of course, I've seen pictures of the giant portrait of Mao. Tiananmen Square is HUGE. No really, huge. It took me a good fifteen minutes to walk across it and once you see it, it's not hard to believe that 100,000 protesters could gather there. I wanted to visit the National Museum of China, which borders Tiananmen Square, but turns out it was closed this year. My guide book snarkily commented that it was often closed while the curators redefined history according to party line, but Wikipedia tells me that it's being enlarged. Either way, it was a disappointment.

Qianmen Gate
Qianmen Gate forms the northern border of Tiananmen Square.

I walked around Tiananmen Square for half an hour or so. Especially during my first day, Beijing strongly reminded me of Seoul. They are both large East Asian cities with too many taxis and not enough trashcans. There's a huge amount of cultural influence between the two countries in terms of fashion and etiquette, and as ethnic groups the Chinese and Koreans look very similar to my untrained western eye. Both cities were extensively renovated during the 20th century and share certain historical architectural similarities as well. Take the Qianmen Gate, which looks an awful lot like Namdaemun and Dongdaemun in Seoul or Paldalmun in Suwon. Of course, the illusion came crashing down whenever I tried to read a sign, hail a taxi or figure out what was going on. I'd forgotten how disorienting being illiterate is.

Tiananmen Gate
A stone lion stands guard in front of Tiananmen Gate. This is an attempt at an artsy shot. I'm trying to be more creative with my framing.

My plan was to visit the Forbidden City my first day, but it closes at 4:00 during the winter and I spent too much time trying to hail a taxi to my hotel and walking around Tiananmen Square. By the time I made it to the Forbidden City, they were no longer selling tickets. Instead, I spent an hour or so browsing the shops near the Qianshi Hutong. A lot of people I met in China told me they came specifically for the shopping, but I wasn't a big fan of shopping there. Being yelled at by an old Chinese woman because I don't want to be ripped off buying a knock off Louis Vuitton that I don't even want in the first place, Jesus Christ I was just walking past, leave me alone isn't my idea of a good time. I decided to make it an early night and headed by to my hotel around five. I had no problems taking the subway back to the general area, but oh my GOD did I get lost trying to walk from the subway to my hotel. I walked around the area for close to an hour trying to find the damn building. At one point I ended up at a different subway stop and had to hop back on the subway to get back to the right general area. I finally caved and tried to hail a cab, but I could not get a cab. All the cabs were either full, wouldn't stop or the driver shouted at me in Chinese when I showed him the card for my hotel. After an hour of getting more and more lost, I finally ran out into traffic, hopped in a cab and refused to get out until the driver took me to my hotel, which is what I should have done in the first place, but that's now how you catch a cab in Korea and there AREN'T cabs in rural North Carolina, so I was a bit out of my element. I ended up being lost for nearly two hours and it made me a bit gun shy about relying on cabs for the rest of my trip.

The Hall of Supreme Harmony at the Forbidden City
The Hall of Supreme Harmony at the Forbidden City

Forbidden City
Each of the great halls had giant copper pots in front. They would have been filled with water in case of a fire. This is the handle of one of those pots.

Nine Dragon Screen
The center dragon of the Nine Dragon Screen. There were gilded screens decorating a lot of the buildings and walls. This one was near the entrance to one of the private gardens.

On Tuesday I headed back to the Forbidden City. The Forbidden City was the imperial Chinese palace for nearly five centuries. Construction of the current complex began in 1406 during the Ming Dynasty, but there has been an imperial palace on that site since Beijing was a Mongol city known as Khanbalikh and Marco Polo visited. The Forbidden City is HUGE. It's the world's largest surviving palace complex, and has 980 buildings covering 720,000 square meters. I ended up spending over five hours there. The first part is the public part of the palace. It's all grand architecture and halls and gates. Then there is the private section. It's where the emperor and his family and the court actually lived. There's a whole set of rooms dedicated to the lives of the emperor’s concubines. It's mazelike; I got lost several times while I was there. The Forbidden City was quite cool, even if I had lost all feeling in my toes by the time I left.

Tiananmen Square
Taxis at Tiananmen Square. They DID NOT want to stop for us. I really missed the Korean idea of taxi stops.

On Wednesday, I went to the Great Wall of China with my friend Tony and Christine. Tony and Christine are from Korea. Well, they're from Canada and America, respectively, but they live in Korea, which is how I know them. Tony teaches at the elementary school closest to mine and we met on the bus. They were in Beijing the same time I was (we booked our tours through the same company) and we all thought it would be cheaper and easier to visit the Great Wall of China as a group. Christine called me Tuesday night and after several hours of playing a completely unnecessary game of phone tag, we decided to meet at 7:00 Wednesday morning by the flagpole in Tiananmen Square. I was late, as usual, but I still ended up waiting nearly thirty minutes for them to arrive. Arrive they did, however, and we started our quest to the Great Wall of China. I'm glad I waited, though. The trip would have been much more difficult without them.

There are three main sections of Great Wall near Beijing: Badaling, Mutianyu, Simatai. Badaling is the section most people visit since it's the closest to Beijing, but it's also heavily reconstructed (only the base is original; the rest of the wall was built in the 1950s). The Mutianyu and Simatai sections are older, less visited and more authentic. I'm a snooty purist when it comes to my crumbly ruins (I wanted them crumblier, dammit!) and Tony's friend had visited and raved about the Simatai section of the Great Wall, so we decided to go there. My guide book said it was possible to take a bus from Dongzhimen station in Beijing to Simatai. Since it was previously established I'm adventurous when it comes to transportation in foreign countries, Tony speaks pidgin Chinese and we were running low on money, we decided to take the bus. We took a taxi to Dongzhimen (and ha! trying to catch a taxi at Tiananmen Square was a nightmare), but couldn't find the bus terminal. We finally flagged an expat on his way to work and explained that we wanted to catch the bus to Simatai. He told us he'd lived in Beijing for four years and had never heard of someone taking a bus to Simatai. Then he pointed a collection of buses parked along the side of the road (with no terminal or building in sight) and told us that was the Dongzhimen bus station, but maybe we'd be better off hiring a taxi for the day. We considered the likelihood of us getting horrible lost in the Chinese countryside, decided we just weren't that adventurous and headed back to Tony and Christine's hotel.

Chinese Countryside
The Chinese countryside as seen from close to, but not quite there yet, the Great Wall of China. That was one steep climb up.

The concierge also suggested hiring a taxi for a trip to the Great Wall and quoted us the ridiculous price of 1000 yuan. 1000 yuan is about 146 USD, which is about right for hiring a private taxi for the day in the US, but we weren't in the US. (Quick aside, a bunch of the westerners I met raved about how cheep Beijing was, but since I was spending won that had been converted to yuan, not dollars converted to yuan and the won to yuan rate isn't nearly as good as the dollar to yuan rate, I didn't really find China that cheep.) Plus, we didn't have 1000 yuan. My debit card was stolen in Bangkok and my replacement one hadn't arrive before I left, so I just converted what I thought was a sufficient about of won at the airport. It would have been a sufficient amount if my hotel hadn't taken half of it as a deposit, and while I had extra won with me in case of an emergency, it was back at my hotel. Tony had blown through most of the money he had converted and was also suffering from a SE Asia debit card robbery, and Christine was just flat broke until her paycheck was deposited in her Korean bank account that afternoon. We ended up combining all our money and bargaining with the concierge until he accepted that price. We still ended up getting ripped off, but not quite as much and hey, I got to go to the Great Wall of China.

Great Wall of China
[all along the watchtower // princes kept the view]

We ended up not going to Simatai. Large portions of that section were closed off due to a recent snow and we decided to Mutianyu instead. The Mutianyu section is one of the best-preserved parts of the Great Wall of China. It was first built in the 6th century during the Northern Qi Dynasty, but was rebuilt in 1569 during the Ming Dynasty. It was AMAZING!

Great Wall of China
Taken once I finally - finally - stepped onto the Great Wall of China.

It was a long hike up to the Great Wall, and we made it worse by accidentally going to longest and steepest way. It, in all seriousness, took almost an hour to make the hike and only part of that is because I'm out of shape. I would have made a terrible barbarian invader. Seriously, I would have taken on look at the Great Wall of China and said, "No seriously, you expected to climb that mountain AND deal with angry Chinese soldiers towering above me. Screw this; let's go drink some fermented yak milk." And then Ghengis Khan would have killed me, so it's a good thing I'm not in a Mongolian horde. We were greeted at the top by an old Chinese woman selling beer, and we toasted making it to the top.

Great Wall of China
[we could have gone all the way to the Great Wall of China // if you'd only had a little more faith in me]

We spent an hour or so hiking along the Great Wall. It was largely deserted, but we did run into a few people. There were two guys from Victoria who were CONVINCED that on one side of the Great Wall was China and on the other side was Mongolia. Christine asked me if that was true and I shook my head no. The guys assured me that yes, it was in fact Mongolia on the other side. They know this because they watch South Park. You read that right: someone just fact checked with South Park. Christine and Tony were looking confused (and I'm a pretentious little know-it-all and I really hate it when I hear people being wrong), so I pulled out my guide book, flipped to the map and showed them the Great Wall of China and Mongolia and how they weren't actually close. I came very close to giving a little speech about how the current borders of China are a modern (and contested) invention and when people talk about "China" in a historical context, they are referring to people who identified as Chinese, not people who lived within the current borders, so when you talk about historic Mongolians and historic Chinese, it has very little to do with the modern countries of China and Mongolia. And then I shut my mouth, which is a sure sign that I'm GROWING as a PERSON.

Great Wall of China
[we could have gone all the way to the Great Wall of China // now all you're going to be is history]

In addition to spreading scurrilous lies about geography, the two Canadians told us about a toboggan ride down from the wall. That's right: instead of walking down the mountain, we could take a wheeled toboggan on a winding metal track from the GREAT WALL OF CHINA to the parking lot. Dude, that's awesome. Of course we decided to, and it was actually loads of fun, even if it is a desecration of a historic monument. We stopped at Houhai, a lake in Beijing known for its nightlife, for dinner and some shopping before heading back to our hotels. I left the next morning and was home by mid afternoon.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

An Introduction to Korean Barbecue

I've been meaning to do this since I got here, but haven't had an opportunity to take the photos. The main place I eat Korean food is my school and I would be uncomfortable taking pictures there. Because I don't have a homeroom, I eat in the teachers' lounge with the vice principal and the principal and all the administration staff, and they already think I'm a queer bird, what with the whole not being Korean thing. I try not to add to that impression. Also, I rarely know what exactly I'm eating. HOWEVER, I went out for 삼겹살 last night and I remembered to bring my camera with me, so:

Korean Barbecue

I went out for barbecue (technically called gui [구이]) with Tony and Christine. Korean barbecue is some of the more western friendly Korean food. Traditionally, the meat is cooked at the center of the table over a charcoal grill. Like all Korean meals, it comes with banchan (반찬), or side dishes. The number of banchan at your average Korean meal is truly insane. Barbecue only comes with a few banchan (I can see four in the picture), but I've been to more formal meals where we ate side dishes for an hour and by the time the actual meal came, I was too full to eat it.

Samgyeopsal Samgyeopsal

There are many types of Korean barbecue, but we went out for samgyeopsal (삼겹살). Samgyeopsal is unmarinated thick, fatty slices of pork belly. It's like really thick bacon or, as Tony puts it, super bacon! First you cook the meat in strips. Once the strips are sizzling and brown, you cut them into bite sized pieces and let them cook some more. (You cut the meat with scissors. It's fairly common to be given scissors with your meal. Knives aren't a common utensil, and while the Koreans are very adapt at cutting pretty much anything with chopsticks, sometimes a little extra help is needed.) We're cooking garlic and kimchi along with the pork.


Once everything is cooked, you pile your pork, garlic, kimchi and ssamjang (not pictured, but it's a red paste consisting of red chili paste and fermented soybean paste) onto a lettuce leaf and chow down. Om nom nom nom! It's also tasty to eat the pieces separately.


In addition to the samgyeopsal, we ordered gyeranjjim. Gyeranjjim is a steamed egg dish with green onions and carrots that is oh so tasty. I found a recipe here.

Samgyeopsal & Rice Kimchi

Of course, no Korean meal is complete without rice (left) and kimchi (right). Both are staples of the Korean diet. A bowl of plain white rice (sticky rice) is traditionally served with each meal. Then there is kimchi. Kimchi (김치) is probably the most quintessential Korean object there is. It is certainly the most quintessential Korean food. (It is so common that the KARI [Korea Aerospace Research Institute] developed space kimchi for the first Korean astronaut to take with him to space. Which, ahahahahahaha! Of course they did. Here, let me quote the New York Times: "Three top government research institutes spent millions of dollars and several years perfecting a version of kimchi that would not turn dangerous when exposed to cosmic rays or other forms of radiation and would not put off non-Korean astronauts with its pungency." That pretty much sums up kimchi.) Kimchi is spicy pickled vegetables, the most common being picked cabbage, that Koreans eat it at every meal. According to Koreans, it is basically magic. It will prevent anything that needs preventing and cure anything that needs curing. (I have honest to God been told that the reason there are no gay people in Korea is that kimchi cures homosexuality, although I have on good authority that this is not actually true.) It's not actually as gross as it sounds. I like it in its more diluted forms, such as in soups (although not kimchi soup) or cooked with samgyeopsal. I still won't eat it on its own, though.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Cherry Blossoms @ Children's Grand Park

Cherry Blossoms @ Children's Grand Park

After a long cold winter, it's finally SPRING! And in Asia, spring means cherry blossoms. Siobhain and I went to Children's Grand Park on Saturday to obsessively photograph see the cherry blossoms, people watch and knit in the sunshine. The park was packed with families and couples and children carrying giant dolphin balloons. And of course, carnival food (or the Korean equivalent). There were a few western staples such as cotton candy, but it was mostly dried squid and beondegi (steamed or boiled silkworm pupae and, no seriously, they are the nastiest thing I've ever eaten. I've only tried it once, will never try it again and the smell of it still makes my stomach queasy). I might not be in Japan, but I'm still surrounded by cherry blossoms.

Cherry Blossoms @ Children's Grand Park

Cherry Blossoms @ Children's Grand Park

Cherry Blossoms @ Children's Grand Park

Cherry Blossoms @ Children's Grand Park

Cherry Blossoms @ Children's Grand Park

Cherry Blossoms Festival @ Children's Grand Park

The full set of photos is here.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Urban Garden

Urban Garden

The balcony of my building is lined with planters, and my neighbors have started planting things. The edge of the balcony of lined with brilliant yellow flowers. Whenever I glace out my window, I catch a glimpse of the bright yellow buds between the blinds.

Urban Garden

If you get closer, you can see the bright green buds waiting to open. It's still cold (currently 10°, but it's windy and at night it still drops to close to 0°), but spring is finally coming.

Urban Garden

There is also a row of planters right in front of the apartments. (It's quite a large balcony. One row of planters is next to the edge, the other is about two feet away from the front of my apartment.) My neighbor is taking advantage of it and growing some form of plant life. It's almost enough to make me wish I knew where I buy seeds or seedlings. Almost.

Friday, April 3, 2009

[as I was walking through a life one morning]

As I was walking home from the bus stop this afternoon, I got a call from Tina. "Stop walking," she told me. After a brief pause she added, "I hope you didn't stop walking in the middle of the street." I assured her I was safety on the sidewalk and she asked if I had any plans for the evening. Nope, I told her. "Well," she said as she walked up behind me, "do you want to get dinner with me and my co-teacher." We went to the pasta place near the train station (nom nom nom pumpkin cream pasta) and then to Baskin-Robbins, where we sat on the garish orange couches, talked and had desert.

When I first moved here, my social life revolved around Seoul. Through Stitch'n'Bitch, I made friend, but they mostly lived in Seoul. I also met people through the training conference, but they lived throughout Gyeonggi-do and when we meet up, we do it in Seoul. And that's okay. I love Seoul and my Seoul people are great, but sometimes a girl doesn't want to spend two hours on the subway to see her friends. Sometimes I want to go out to dinner after work, something spontaneous and uncomplicated. The past few weeks I've been spending more time in Ansan, meeting more of the Ansan expat community and exploring more of the city, and it's been fun.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Here Come the 123s

I usually start class by showing a video clip (normally a song) that is related to the lesson. It helps the kids transition from class change to class, and it gives them something to look forwards to, meaning they're more likely to be on time to class. For example, when the 6th graders were studying countries (Lesson 1: Where Are You From?), we watched Yakko's World. The kids adored it, would coming running into class to so they won't miss the first part and cheered like mad when he mentioned Korea.

For the past two weeks, the fifth graders have been studying a unit called What Day Is It Today and I've been showing them "Never Go To Work" by They Might Be Giants. The students called it the 123 song, since at the beginning, the puppets shout, "1 2 3!" and they loved it. (Plus, it's a good song. The sort that doesn't make you want to stab forks in your ears after a day of showing it to all the fifth grade classes.) However, they finished that lesson on Monday, which meant that today, I showed them Schoolhouse Rock's Preposition Song.

You'd have thought I had gotten up in front of the class and kicked a puppy from their reaction.

"Teacher!" they wailed. "123 song! We want 123 song!"

"No," I told them. "New lesson, new song."

A little boy came running into class late. "123 song?" he asked hopefully.

"No," his classmates told him mournfully.

"But Teacher," he said, turning to me, "we love 123 song. Please, 123 song!"

"Turn to page 24," I responded.

I would have let them watch it, but we were already running a few minutes late. Next time there is time left at the end of class, I'll show it again, but for now, I'm the mean teacher who makes them study.