Sunday, September 27, 2009

Goodbyes, Part 3

I leave for the airport in just a few hours and if I tried to actually sum up this past year, I would end up being disgustingly sentimental and Sunrise, Sutset-esque, so instead, just for the lolz, I'm going to post two of my favorite videos that I think do a pretty good job of explaining what life is like for a waegook in the Land of the Morning Calm.

(Probably not safe for work, what with the multiple multiple swear words.)

Bye, Korea! See you in December.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Goodbyes, Part 2

I spent the last few day signing the backs of worksheets and blank pages in textbooks and notebooks. Every time I sat down in between class, a line of students wanting my signature instantly appeared. Students have been coming by my office all week with presents; there were a few material items, but it was mostly letters. Wonderful, precious letters full of broken English that they wrote themselves, letters they couldn't have written when I arrived a year ago. I've been torn between wanting to spend the week behind the lens of a camera, capturing every last detail of my school and my kids for posterity, or just enjoying these last few days.

Today was my last day of school and oh, it was hard. I knew I was going to cry when I left and I did. After I untangled myself from students wanting one last hug, one last reassurance that I wouldn't forget them, I sat down on my bus and silently cried, tears running down my cheeks while I watched my school and the town disappear. What I wasn't prepared for was walking into my classroom for the last time, one last quick trip to throw away the last of the trash from my office, and starting to sob. Great, noisy, undignified sobs because despite all the frustrations, I've been so happy here.

The boys were a bit rambunctious and the boy to my right was being crushed. He kept shouting, "Help me, please! Help me, please!" It's a fitting end of my year here: we started studying Chapter 12: Will You Help Me, Please? today.

After school, I went out for samgyeopsal with friends. We ate at an outdoors galbi restaurant along a pedestrian road near our apartments that is overrun every night with dinners. We had beer and pork and kimchi and a metric ton of cooked garlic (that might have just been me) while we talked and toasted Korea and watched squids bob for freedom in the tanks at the restaurant next door. A good way to celebrate the end of a good year.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Ansan Asia Town, Redux

One of my favorite things about living in Asia are the bizare and amazing electronics you find here. For example, the machine where you can text your camera phone pictures and have them printed out as Polaroids on the spot or the claw vending machine where you attempt to fish out live lobsters. Only in Asia!

Last night, I went down to Ansan Asia Town for some amazing Vietnamese with friends. (To get there, take Line 4 south to Ansan Station. Exit 1, cross under the street, turn left and walk along the main road until you get to the restaurant with the Vietnamese flag. Order the pho, you won't regret it.) Marie, Greg and I walked around for a bit afterwards and we found Sea World, a claw vending machine with live lobsters as the prize. Greg gave it a try while I took the video. We didn't manage to win a lobster, which was probably for the best, because what the hell would we have done with the thing if we had won. I have this mental image of me trying to shove a live lobster into my purse, along side my bus pass and knitting, as I hop on the subway home. It's not a mental picture that ends well.


I bought my plane ticket home this week! Actually, after much fanfare and hair pulling, my school bought my plane ticket home, as per my contract. I leave Korea on Monday, September 28th, which is only ten days away. I was originally planning traveling around SE Asia after my contract was up and making it home in time for Christmas, but abandoned those plans at the last minute for fiscal responsibility. Instead, I'm heading straight home for two months, visiting with family and food, then heading back to Korea in December for another year.

I've started telling my students I'm leaving, which has sucked about as much as I thought it would. On Wednesday, the day my ticket was bought, 긴원 and 다니, two of my favorite sixth graders, came by my office at lunch. We've been playing with Scrabble tiles during lunch recently. The kids pour the tiles out of my table and spell out the names of their favorite singers: FT Island, G Dragon, Shinee. The girls poured the tiles out onto the table and asked if I was leaving Korea. I told them I was going back to America in a few weeks, and instead of getting into their usual argument of 2PM vs. Big Bang, they wrote this:

No Go America

Ow, my heartstrings. They asked why I was leaving and I explained that I missed my family and needed to go home. 긴원 gave this some though and suggested that I just call my family and tell them come live in Korea with me. That way, I can see my family and can stay in Korea. (Also, it gets around that pesky confusion of me living alone while unmarried, a rarity in Korea.) Then she grabbed my hand and said, "Teacher, promise remember me," and my heart just broke. I solemnly took her hand in mine and promised that I would never ever forget her. Yesterday, I was sitting outside by the playground after school, watching my students play. As the students ran past they shouted, "Hello Teacher!" A few stopped to show me things and joke with me (Kids: Teacher, it's raining and snowy. Day: *remains sunny and warm* Me: Oh no! Raining?! Snowing?! Kids: *laugh uproariously at the gullible foreigner*) and my little 4th grade girls run up for a hug. Damn, I thought to myself as I left, I'm really going to miss this place.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Gyeongju, Day 2

Sunday, August 2nd: Splish Splash, I Was Taking A Bath
Lotus Blossoms @ Anapji Pond

The original plan was to wake up early and go see a temple. That lasted right up until the alarm went off and Sarah and I promptly decided no thanks, we would rather sleep for another two hours. Story of her visit. We finally made it out of the hotel by eleven and set off to explore Gyeongju. Our first stop was Tumuli Park.

Tumuli Park

Tumuli are tombs from the Silla dynasty, which lasted from 57 BC to 935 AD. Tumuli Park has twenty three tombs of Silla royalty. The tumuli look like large grassy mounts and they're all over Gyeongju. Many of the tombs have been excavated and the largest tomb is open to visitors, with reproductions of the burial and some of the treasures, but mostly all you see are the grassy hillocks. They're immaculately maintained and there were flowering trees surrounding the tombs, but there wasn't much to actually see.

Our next stop was the 7-11, where we scrounged together a breakfast of Denish pastries (not a typo), some sort of blueberry cream cheese sandwich thing and nuts. Eating was a bit of an adventure in Gyeongju. While Sarah was here, we ate mostly western food. Korea is not an easy place to eat if you're vegetarian and since Tonga doesn't really have restaurants, Sarah was understandable more interested western food that wasn't normally available to her than trying to figure out what Korean food she could eat. That's all fine and dandy when we were in Seoul, but western food (at least, non Korean/western fusion food [*shudder*]) was far more difficult to find once we left the capital. A lot of our meals were pretty hit or miss.

Lotus Blossoms @ Anapji Pond
Lotus Blossoms @ Anapji Pond
Lotus Blossoms @ Anapji Pond
Lotus Blossoms @ Anapji Pond

After breakfast we went to Anapji Pond. Anapji Pond was built as a pleasure garden by King Manmu in 674. The buildings have been destroyed, but the pond is full of lotus blossoms. It's a really lovely spot, if very crowded. Sarah and I spend another hour wandering around, taking pictures of lotus blossoms.

Anapji Pond: Before

We also did the whole "posing in front of cultural monument so we could take a self portrait and sent it home to our parents in an attempt to convince them we're not dead yet" thing and, well, it ended poorly. We posed crouching down on some stepping stones making a path through the pond and as we were standing up, I overbalanced and toppled backwards into the pond. Luckily my purse didn't get (too) wet and I didn't loose my shoes scrambling out of the pond, but I did end up looking like this:

Anapji Pond: After

We (well, I) squelched back to our hotel, stopping briefly at Wolseong Park to see Cheomseongdae, the the oldest astrological observatory in the Far East.


Once back at the hotel I tried to wash the worst of the mud and pond scum out of my clothes in the shower and while my stuff tried, Sarah and I hung out at the hotel for a few hours. The owner of the hotel told us about a free traditional music performance held at a nearby resort that we decided to check out. It was, to say the least interesting. There were a few good acts in the first half, but the second half was a Korean/western fusion band playing western songs on traditional Korean instruments. In theory that sounds interesting, but in practice it sounds like this:

Halfway through the song Sarah and I looked at each other and incredulously asked, "Is that ABBA?" There was also a visible drunk man in the audience who kept running onto the stage to try and dance with the performers. It was an unique take of traditional Korean music. On the way home, we stopped by the train station to buy our tickets for trip home well in advance. (That was a bit of an adventure. The ticket seller kept saying there was no train to Seoul that night and I kept repeating Tuesday over and over again, but we finally understood each other and got our tickets.)

The train station was across the town from where we were staying and as we got off the bus we heard a flurry of whispers from a large group of western tourists staying at the same hostel as us. "Wait, is this our stop? Why are they getting off? Should we get off?" The strangest thing about the trip was the tourists. They were everywhere! I don't normally see that many tourists in Korea, since I don't live in a touristy area or spend much time at tourist spots, but they were everywhere in Gyeonju and I kept being mistaken for one. They were loud and complained about how no one spoke English and kept obviously disregarding Korean culture and for a person who travels as much as I do, it turns out I'm an awful snob about people traveling in the country where I live.

The rest of the photos from the day are here.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Gyeongju, Day 1

Map of Korea Another vacation post. (For the record, they're all being tagged I got Seoul after the chorus from the Killers song "All These Things That I've Done" because a) Seoul/Soul puns are even funnier now that I know the correct way to pronounce Seoul and b) I unapologetically love Hot Fuss, even though I know that makes me an emo hipster.) After a week in Seoul, Sarah and I decided to ventured out into the countryside and on Friday (08/01), we left for Gyeongju. If you look at the map, Ansan (where I live) is the blue pen and Gyeongju is the green pen. Gyeongju was the capital of the Silla Empire, which lasted for nearly a thousand years (from 57 BC - 935 AD). At its height, Gyeongju had nearly a million inhabitants and was the capital of the entire Korean peninsula for 300 years. It's full of tombs and temples and pagodas and lotus ponds. That last one will be important later.

The quick and dirty highlights version is we went to a lotus pond full of beautiful, delicate blossoms...

Anapji Pond

and I fell in. OF COURSE I DID! Was there any other way for that setup to end? If I were a stick figure drawn on the back of an Hello Kitty envelope, it would have looked something like this:

Anapji Pond: The Aftermath

I Twittered about it that night (I'm in ur social network, connectin' with mah peepz), saying Today I fell in a lotus pond. Some days I feel like I really shouldn't be allowed out of the house without proper supervision. Several people responded, saying things like Doesn't Sarah count as proper supervision?, and the answer is no, no she doesn't. Trust me, it's more fun that way.

I originally planned to write about the entire trip to Gyeongju in one post, but that was taking too long to finish, so I'm going to do it day by day. (And also, Step by Step.)

Saturday, August 1st: Sorry, No Train, But How About This Dragon Trolley?
Dongbuk Gangnu @ Hwaseong Fortress

Sarah and I left my apartment around ten and took a bus to Suwon, with plans of catching a train to Gyeongju from there. Suwon, the capital of the province I live in, is only twenty minutes away from me by bus and, as one of the primary suburbs of Seoul, a major transportation hub. We got to the train station by eleven, only to be told there were no tickets to Gyeongju until eleven that night. We decided to try our luck at the bus terminal and got tickets on a bus leaving at 4:40, leaving us five hours to kill in Suwon. We decided to check out the Hwaseong Fortress. Quick history lesson: Hwaswong Fortress, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, was built between 1794 and 1796 by King Jeongjo to honor his father. The fortress is primarily a wall that surrounds the inner city of Suwon with various gates and outposts along the perimeter.

Hwaseong Trolley

We had a bit of an adventure actually finding the fortress and due to poor directions (we were told to get off HERE, with here being no where near where we wanted to be) and ended up wandering a couple of miles through Suwon, hoping to stumble upon some sort of fortification. We eventually found Paldalmun, the South Gate, and then located the rest of the fortress wall, up a very steep hill. By the time we made it to the top of the fortress, we were hot, sweaty and a bit cross, which is probably why we opted to ride the Dragon Trolley with a bunch of children instead of walking along the fortress. I'm pleased to report that the Dragon Trolley is just as awesome as it looks and I a met a very nice Korean boy who told me all about his favorite comic after a bit of prompting from his dad.

Hwahongmun @ Hwaseong Fortress
Hwahongmun @ Hwaseong Fortress

After the trolley ride, we doubled back to get a closer look at the northern stretch of the fortress. I hiked along the southern stretch when I first moved to Korea, but I didn't make it this far around. The Suwoncheon (Suwon River) runs through the middle of the city. The Hwahongmun is one of the two floodgates that lets the river through. The whole area was very picturesque, with the traditional eves painting and the walls and parapets and children splashing in the river. Less picturesque was this sign:

Korean Street Signs

Careful, drivers. Don't drive off this very obvious embankment into the river. (I laugh, but given how Koreans drive [hint: craaazy], it's a pretty reasonable warning to give.) Given our difficulties finding the fortress and the subsequent trolley ride, we left for the bus station well in advance, only to decide to catch a taxi (screw you, bus!) and arrived at the bus terminal with time to spare. We sampled the different bakeries for an early dinner and left Suwon by 5:00. The bus ride was long. The only two adjacent seats were in the middle of the very back row, which means no arm rests, air vents or seat lights. Not even a window to lean against and gaze out. We spent the first hour of the trip stuck in Seoul traffic and two hours into the trip, the overhead lights on the bus were turned off, meaning we couldn't read. (I may have exclaimed, "Hey!" angrily when the lights went out, earning me several dirty looks from my fellow passengers trying to sleep.) Without an air vent the heat was stifling and the teenage girl I was sitting next to (who did have an air vent) kept pushing her fleece blanket onto my lap.

We arrived in Gyeongju late and found small, curly black hairs all over the floor of our room, but the hostel had held our reservation and after a quick trip to the local grocery store for a mini-broom, we cleaned our room and went to bed. The rest of the photos from Suwon can be found at the bottom of here.

Thursday, September 3, 2009


So, I've been studying Korean in earnest (albeit on and off) for a couple of months now and, well, it's slow going. Korean is so different from English or any other language I've studied that I barely even know where to begin. I have a textbook that I haul around with me and pull out when I have a spare moment, and I've spent hours writing the same words and sentences and grammatical concepts over and over again:

가다 - to go, 가다 - to go, 가다 - to go, 가다 - to go
나는 서울에 가요. - I go to Seoul. 나는 학교에 가요. - I go to school.
는/은 - object markers, 는 - if the previous syllable ends with vowel, 은 - if the previous syllable ends with a consonant
너 - you, 너 - you, 너 - you, 그 - he, 그 - he, 그 - he, 그녀 - she, 그녀 - she,그녀 - she

And really, I'm no closer to being able to understand what people are saying around me than I was a few months ago. I understand the idea behind immersion learning, but without a basic understanding of how the language works, you don't get far. Once I learned how to count, I was able to figure out the basics of number classifiers just by listening to how other people ordered things, but only once I knew the numbers. And other examples are few and far between. I get by okay by speaking phrases and nodding a lot while not really understanding the answer, but sometimes I despair about actually being able to use Korean on any sort of a functional level.

My fifth graders are working on possessives and on Monday my co-teacher gave them a worksheet that included, among other things, six Korean sentences to translate into English. I was walking around, helping the kids with the other sections when I realized I didn't know the translations for those sentences. Crap, I thought to myself, as I turned to find my co-teacher and ask for a translation. Then I paused and really looked at the sentences:
이것은 너의 연필이다. // 이것은 너의 것이다.
이것은 그의 컴퓨터이다. // 이것은 그의 것이다.
이것은 그녀의 가방이다. // 이것은 그녀의 것이다.

And I realized - dude! - I got this. I know what those sentences mean. I'm not just inferring based on being able to read a word or two, but I *know* what those *sentences* *mean* and I understand the underlying grammatical components. In a perfect combination of acquired knowledge and sheer exposure to Korean, something clicked.

이것은 너의 연필이다. 이것 = This. I know that from the phrase how much is this. 은 = means the word this is the object of the sentence. I learned that out of a textbook. 너 = you. I ought to know that one; it's one of the hundreds of words I've written over and over again while studying. 의 = possessive marker. I knew the lesson was about possessives, which means that something has to turn the you into your and 의 was the only unknown in the sentence. 연필 = pencil. My students like to teach my Korean, usually by pointing to an object on my desk and telling me the Korean and English word. I've have dozens of different students teach me the word for pencil. 이다 = is. My students shout BINGO이다! whenever they see the Bingo boards on my desk. "Hurray," they're saying, "it's BINGO!"

이것은 너의 연필이다 = This is your pencil.

I'm no closer to being able to understand Korean than I was last week, but I feel like at least I'm making some progress.