Monday, August 30, 2010

Ajumma Hair

An ajumma (아줌마) is a Korean woman of a certain age. Your stereotypical ajumma is a ~feisty~ older woman with aggressively permed hair, purple pants and other questionable sartorial choices, a giant sun visor and a willingness to elbow you in the sternum to get in front of you in line. I read an awesome (and sadly no longer online) article awhile back about an ajumma living in Chicago. Her dry-cleaners was robbed and the old woman chased the robber down, caught him and held him until the police arrived. This didn't surprise me at all since, true story, I was once choked by an ajumma on the subway. I know better than to mess with an ajumma.

Anyway, a few weeks ago I got my hair cut and my hair went from being wavy to genuinely curly. This was right after summer break started, so this week was the first time most of my students have seen me since I got my hair cut. You can imagine how thrilled I was when my first class of 5th graders walked into the classroom today and one boy shouted, "Hey Teacher! You ajumma perm!"

"No!" I told him. "It's not a perm. I have curly hair. Natural."

"Right," the kid, who has no concept of non-permed curly hair, said. "You perm, very good."

This scene was repeated in every single 5th grade class. *facepalm*

Speaking of my 5th graders, one of my 5-2 boys has started addressing me as you girl. As in "Hey you girl, come here." I let it slide the first time, but the second time I corrected him.

"Who am I?" I asked. "Not girl."

"Right Teacher," he said. "Sorry. Hey you woman, come here."

... I cannot fault that logic.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

China, Day 1: The Olympic Park

We left Seoul and flew into Beijing on August 2nd. We were meeting up with my friend Sarah and leaving Beijing that night, so the first few hours in China were a bit crazy. We needed to go the train station to store our luggage, we needed to have our tickets to store our luggage, we needed to find Sarah who had our tickets, we were at the wrong train station, etc. etc. Around and around we went, and it was 2:00 by the time our luggage was safely stowed and we made it to the restaurant for lunch. In addition to Sarah, two other friends from high school were also visiting Beijing at the same time (it's a small world after all), and we all met for lunch at a pizza place near Wendy and John's hotel. It was great to see them again, and so strange that we should all happen to be in Beijing of all places.

After lunch, Wendy and John left to see the Temple of Heaven and Mom, Leah, Sarah and I went to the Olympic Stadium. My brother is a huge fan of the Olympics, and Mom wanted to visit so she could tell him about it. Leah and I wanted to visit because we knew it would kill him just a little to know that we had been and he hadn't. (We're sisters, not saints.) Sarah came, I think, because the Water Cube has air conditioning.

I moved in the middle of the 2008 Olympics and missed pretty much the whole thing, but even I know what the Bird's Nest looks like. It was cool to see in person, all post-modern and grandiose. We spend twenty or so minutes walking around the stadium, dodging groups of Chinese tourists. I was surprised that almost two years to the day of the Opening Ceremonies, there were still hundred of tourists at the Bird's Nest. Of course, I would quickly learn that this is China and there would be hundred, if not thousands, of Chinese people milling about everywhere I went. Wikipedia tells that the Chinese government plans to turn the Bird's Nest into a shopping mall and hotel, but for now it's just a tourist destination.

Bird's Nest

Next to the Bird's Nest is the Water Cube. Part of the complex has been turned into a water park (which officially opened a few days after we visited) and much of the upper levels has been devoted to gift shops selling official Water Cube merchandise, but we eventually found the pool where Michael Phelps won all the gold medals ever. The pool was delightfully air conditioned, there was a video showing the highlights of the 2008 Olympics and we had an hour to kill before we left for the train station, so we camped out by the pool for the rest of the afternoon. Not a bad start to the trip!

Pool @ Water Cube

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Back To School

Today was the first day of the fall semester. Technically the students came back yesterday, but it was a half day and mostly consisted of the kids cleaning the school. Today was my first day of class - the first regular class in almost two months and the first class period in a month. As boring as desk warming was, there was still a part of me that went noooooooooo as my first class filed in. September is going to be a crazy busy month; after school classes start next week and the English broadcasting club has a presentation on September 16th that I found out about today.

It was good to see my kids again though, and they're still super cute. I overheard a boy in 4-2 bragging to his friends about how he met Teacher's Mother and Teacher's Sister at English camp. Apparently, they are tall which, I can't fault the kid's observational skill. I come from tall people. Also, I found out I'll get a full week off for Chuseok (Korean Thanksgiving) at the end of September so, you know, I'll live.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010


When I mentioned to people back home that I now live in Korea, the most common response is something along the lines of "OMG, North Korea!!!!1" This is because North Korea is the only thing most Americans know about the Korean Peninsula. (In fact, many Americans seem a bit unsure as to how many Koreas there are. Here's a hint. There are two of them.) I live less than 50 miles from the most heavily militarized border in the world, but the truth is that the possible threat of Communist invasion isn't something I spend time worrying about. There are the occasional air raid sirens, soldiers on the subway and the annual war games, and every so often North Korea threatens to end 1953 ceasefire (technically North and South Korea are still at war) or sinks a South Korean Pohang-class corvette killing 46 seamen and I get a flurry of emails asking me when I'm coming home, but if you're going to live in South Korea, you learn to adopt a blasé attitude towards North Korea or you'll go insane.

MAC Conference Room @ the JSA
Guards in the Mac Conference Room at the JSA

The point of all this is that I do live very close to the border, and while Mom and Leah were here, we took a trip north to the DMZ. (I had been to the DMZ once before when Sarah visited last summer, but we happened to visit the same Bill Clinton went to North Korea to free the two captured journalists, and halfway through the tour, we were packed into a bus and evacuated due to security concerns.) Our tour started at Camp Bonifas, the United Nations Command military post located a couple hundred meters south of the DMZ. We signed disclaimers telling us that the visit to the Joint Security Area at Panmunjom will entail entry into a hostile area and the possibility of injury or death as a direct result of enemy action, boarded a bus, drove past the most dangerous hole in golf and entered the DMZ. Most people assume that the DMZ is completely isolated, which isn't actually true. The Joint Security Area (JSA) lies within the DMZ, as well as the South Korean town of Daeseong-dong and the North Korean town of Kijong-dong.

Joint Security Area @ Panmunjom
Looking across Conference Row towards North Korea

The first part of the tour visited the JSA. The JSA, with its iconic blue buildings and soldiers staring each other down with clenched fists, is the only official crossing point along the DMZ and the only part of the Korean Peninsula where representatives from the two Koreas meet. We were allowed into the MAC Conference Building, used for talks between North Korea, South Korea and the United Nations Command. The Military Demarcation Line (MDL) runs through the center of the conference building. We were allowed to walk freely through the conference building, meaning I crossed the border into North Korea, if only on a technicality. (The MDL is the actual border between North and South Korea; the DMZ is the 2 km buffer on either side of the MDL.) The next stop was Observation Post #5 for a view of Kijong-dong, the North Korean town located within the DMZ. Kijong-dong is a Potemkin village; it was built by the North Korean in the 1950s for propaganda purposes and the site was never occupied. It is, however, home to the largest flagpole in the world. In the 1970s, the South Korean village of Daeseong-dong, also located within the DMZ, built a new 100m flagpole that was taller than the flagpole in Kijong-dong. The North Koreans responded by erecting a 160 m tall flagpole flying a 600 lb flag at Kijong-dong. The Cold War: two countries getting into a pissing contest over the size of their giant phallic objects.

Flagpole at Kijong-dong
Flagpole at Kijong-dong. Also seen, pollution!

We continued on to the site of the Axe Murder Incident and the Bridge of No Return. On August 18, 1976, North Korean troops attacked a United Nations Command security team guarding a tree trimming detail and axed two American soldiers to death. The UN Command responded with Operation Paul Bunyan, the most expensive tree trimming operation in military history. Arriving in a convoy of twenty three vehicles guarded by two 30-man security platoons from the Joint Security Force and a 64-man ROK special forces company and supported by Cobra attack helicopters, B-52 bombers, F-4 fighters jets, F-5 fighter jets, F-111 fighter jets and the US aircraft carrier Midway, sixteen military engineers chopped the offending poplar tree down with EXTREME PREJUDICE. They trimmed the hell out of that tree. Nearby is the ominous sounding Bridge of No Return, built in 1953 to exchange prisoners at the end of the Korean War.

The Bridge of No Return
The Cold War blessed the world with both nuclear proliferation and some very dramatic names. Here's the Bridge of No Return.

From there we left the JSA (with a brief stop at the Camp Bonifas gift shop; this might be one of the last outposts of the Cold War, but it's still Korea and I'm just surprised there's not a theme park nearby) and drove to the Third Tunnel of Aggression. The Third Tunnel is the third of four tunnels under the DMZ discovered by South Korea since 1974. The North Koreans have treated the DMZ a little like the obstacles in the children's book We're Going On a Bear Hunt. Uh-uh! A demilitarized zone! A heavily fortified demilitarized zone. We can't go through it. We can't go over it. Oh no! We've got to go under it! Discovered in 1978, the Third Tunnel runs from North Korea into South Korea, is only twenty-seven miles from Seoul and can accommodate 30,000 men per hour along with light weaponry. Now it is a tourist attraction and visitors can don hard hats, descend into the tunnel and walk the two km from the edge of the DMZ to the MDL. The tunnel is low and small and I pity the soldier who has to carry his gear on his back through that tunnel.

The last two stops were the Dora Observatory where, on a clear day (what, we sometimes have clear days in Korea) you can see the North Korean city of Kaesong, and Dorasan Station, the northernmost station on the South Korean side of the Gyeongui Line. One of the oldest railway lines in Korea, the Gyeongui Line originally ran the length of the Korean Peninsula, but has been closed since 1945. It opened briefly from 2007-2008, with freight trains carrying materials to the Kaesong Industrial Region, but closed again after only a year of operation. Dorasan Station, whose motto is "Not the last station from the south, but the first station towards the North," isn't currently serving any trains, but there are signs listing both Seoul and Pyeongyang as destinations.

The trip to the DMZ is a stark reminder of the tension between North and South Korea. The road north from Seoul is lined with barbed wire, guard posts and trenches and during the tour, we were told about the long lists of incidents along the DMZ. Over 500 South Koreans and 50 American soldiers have been killed in skirmishes along the border since the armistice was signed in 1953. It was also a stark reminder of things I don't like to think about. The Seoul area, with a population of twenty-five million people, is just a stone's throw from the North Korean border. Kim Jong-il doesn't need the long-range missiles his country is developing to attack Seoul: short-range missiles from along the DMZ could easily hit the capital, and the sinking of the Cheonan is a clear sign that the dangers aren't all in the past. Something has to give on this peninsula. It's not something I worry about, or even really think about, but every time I hear the air raid sirens or get an email from home, asking what is happening with North Korea, I'm reminded, just for a second, that I live in a country with an emergency evacuation plan.

The Norks Are Watching You
Just remember: the Norks are always watching.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

A Door Story or, Let's Start This Trip Out Right

Alright, finally, travelogue time! Mom and Leah arrived on Thursday afternoon. Since my apartment is tiny and Mom's best friend from when we lived in Dallas happens to live in the same suburb of Seoul as me (small world, right?), while we were in Korea, Mom stayed with Shaunna and Leah stayed with me. The first night, we ate dinner in Shaunna's neighborhood, then Leah and I headed back to my apartment for the night. I let her have the first shower, because I'm a gracious host like that, and also I had a suitcase of goodies to paw through.

Now, because of the sink-shower contraption, my bathroom door repeatedly gets wet and over time has warped so it no longer fits properly in the door frame. You can mostly shut the door, but it doesn't latch. I normally just leave the door cracked and don't worry about it, but Leah pulled it all the way shut, and then, after her shower, couldn't get the door open. We yanked and shoved and attempted to remove the door hinges to no avail. After a good fifteen minutes of trying, we figured out the problem was that the deadlatch (the medal rod that actually keeps the door shut) had separated from rest of the doorknob. Shoving and pushing wasn't going to work; short of dismantling the doorknob, Leah wasn't getting out of my bathroom.

Leah: Moooooooooommy!
Cait: I've had you in my care for an hour and already I've gotten you locked in a bathroom. HOW IS THIS MY LIFE?! I AM NOT ACTUALLY A TERRIBLE BIG SISTER, I SWEAR!

I ran downstairs to get the security guard/adjoshi-who-is-always-hanging-out-with-the-building-manager-and-does-maintenance. While my Korean has improved a lot in the past months, at no point in my studies have I learned the phrase "Help, my younger sister is trapped naked in my bathroom. Can you get her out?" (An additional complication of the sink-shower is that you can't bring clothes or a towel into the bathroom with you lest they get soaked.) I did, however, manage to say "Help me, sister in bathroom door no" and beckoned for the guard to follow me upstairs. He fiddled around unsuccessfully with the doorknob for a bit while I hovered behind him, poised to throw Leah a towel should he manage to open the door. After ten or so minutes, he left in search of someone with a bigger toolbox, telling me he would be back shortly.

While we waited, I sat outside the bathroom, chatting with Leah (who was punch-drunk with adrenaline and exhaustion) and worrying about how many old Korean dudes were going to see my underage sister naked, when I noticed the slit at the bottom of the door. Mayhaps, I though, it would be big enough to slip a towel through, or at least some underwear. Turns out, it WAS big enough and by the time the second maintenance man was fetched, Leah was fully dressed and had even fixed her hair. Aided by several large and impressive looking tools, the maintenance guys were able to rip apart my door knob and after nearly an hour of her being stuck in the bathroom, I got my sister back. THANK GOD!

An annotated after shot of my bathroom door.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

영어 캠프 - Week Two

(I promise this is the last post about English camp until I start to plan for the winter camps in December.)

5th & 6th Grade Advanced - 7.30.2010
6th graders posing on the last day of camp.

During week two, the 3rd & 4th graders studied body parts and animals. Both units were covered in the regular lessons, but review is always good, and I used the opportunity to teach extra vocabulary and grammar. During the body parts unit, I put the students into pairs and had one student trace their partner's body on a sheet of butcher paper. Once they were done, they drew in additional features (such as the face) and labeled the body parts. Their favorite part about the activity was how they didn't have to sit at their desks. My favorite part was how few students actually sat on the ground when tracing their friends; half of them chose to Asian squat and do a funny squatting waddle as they made their way around their partner's body.

3rd & 4th Grade Basic - 7.27.2010

During the animal unit we read Brown Bear Brown Bear, What Do You See?. Well, I read Brown Bear Brown Bear, What Do You See? and the students listened to me and looked at the pictures. The first time, they just listened to the story. The second time, they made their own copy of the book. I gave the kids pictures of the different animals (bear, bird, duck, cat, etc.) and as we read the story, they colored the pictures the appropriate colors and wrote descriptions of the animals (brown bear, red bird, yellow duck, purple cat, etc.) Or at least they tried too. One boy had some trouble.

3rd & 4th Grade Basic - 7.30.2010

On Wednesday afternoon, 안 수빈 and 신 다해, two 4th graders who aren't in English camp, saw me in the hallway and followed me back to my classroom to play. We colored the animal flashcards from camp and they entertained themselves for a while by writing things like cat and ice cream and I love you Teacher on the whiteboard. Then they gave themselves eye tests. 다해 wrote an eye chart on the board and 수빈 sat on a desk a couple of rows back, covered one eye with a fuzzy plush ball and called out the letters. Apparently this was fun, although they did get into an argument when 다해 told 수빈 her eyesight wasn't very good. The eye chart reminded me of the eye test I had during a medical exam my first year in Korea. I had only been in the country for a few days, the only Korean I knew was hello, kimchi and I love you very much, and all the eye charts at the hospital were entirely in Korean letters. Eventually, the nurse found an eye chart used for very young children that had pictures instead of letters, and I had to identify the pictures in English while my co-teacher translated my answers into Korean.

Crazy Korean Robot Children
They also wrote out the Korean alphabet and, with some help, transliterated it into the Latin alphabet.

My mom and sister arrived in Korea on Thursday and I brought them to school with me on Friday. They made quite an impression on my students. Fourth Grade, Chapter 7 is titled Who Is She? and it was a gratifying moment when every single one of my 4th graders looked at my family and asked, "Teacher, who are they?" Yes, retention! My students were also the only people we met during Mom and Leah's trip who accepted that my sister, who was adopted from Korea as an infant, was American without question. I guess I'm so firmly linked with America in their minds that despite looking like a Korea person, my sister must be American. While they didn't question her nationality, they did seem a bit fuzzy on her age. My 5th & 6th grade class objected to me calling Leah my 여동생 (Korean for younger sister, as opposed to 언니, older sister), so I asked them how old they thought Leah was. "Is she 30?" one girl asked. For the record, my sister is fifteen. I'm twenty-five. While I'm routinely mistaken as my 21-year-old brother's younger sister, this is the first time someone has ever asked if I'm younger than Leah.

5th & 6th Grade Advanced - 7.30.2010
Leah is on the left. Does that child look 30?!?

At the beginning of camp, I divided the 3rd and 4th grade classes into three teams and told the students that group with the most points at the end of camp would get a special prize from America. Teams could get points for winning a game, volunteering to speak in class or having the first person to finish an activity. On the last day of camp, I brought in Silly Bandz my mother had brought me from the US and gave them to the winning teams. Despite the fact that I guarantee you that none of my students have ever seen a Silly Bandz in their life, they loved them. I gave the older students Reese's Peanut Butter Cups (also from America) and my kids, who have only ever had Korean candy, were throughly impressed. "Teacher," they told me, "VERY GOOD CANDY!" I know kids, I know.

All the photos from English Camp are here. I'm so glad it's over!

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Deskwarming With Hitler

The subject line (and my gchat status) comes from this video, which actually made me cry with laughter the first time I saw it. Summer vacation for Korean public schools is six weeks long. There are various activities during the summer (in addition to the English camps, my school had a computer class, a math camp and art camp), but unless they're actively teaching a class, the Korean teachers aren't required to be at school. However, the contracts are written differently for the Native Teachers and I'm required to come into school, even if I'm not teaching. This summer, I have two weeks of camp, two weeks of vacation and two weeks of sitting in my office.

I'm not even pretending to work this week. Yesterday I brought my computer and edit the Hello Kitty Cafe photos. Today I meant to blog about English camp and instead booked a flight to Costa Rica.* Tomorrow I plan on bringing in a downloaded copy of Inception and watching it on giant computer screen in my classroom.** I don't mind working when there's work to be done, but I don't like having my time wasted. There are no classes, no students, no one at all on this entire floor, and there's nothing I'm doing here that I couldn't just as easily do at home. And at home, I don't have to wear pants.***

* I'm going to visit Sarah in Costa Rica next April! I figure I'm more likely to exercise fiscal responsibility and save for the trip if the tickets are already booked.
** Shhh, don't tell anyone. I've seen Inception twice in the theaters already and love it!
*** Of course, I'm at work now and I'm not wearing pants.**** I'm just not a fan of waking up and getting dressed in the morning.
**** What? I'm wearing a skirt.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Hello Kitty Cafe in Sinchon

Hello Kitty Cafe in Sinchon

Siobhain's birthday was Saturday, and we celebrated with shopping at Dongdaemun, dinner at Mr. Pizza and an evening at the Hello Kitty Cafe in Sinchon. Look, I never had even the slightest interest in Hello Kitty before I moved to Asia. I was never into Hello Kitty as a kid,* and despite the Hello Kitty cellphone charm I bought last night,** I'm still not. However, if you get a high enough concentration of any sort of paraphernalia in one place, it stops being weird and starts being hilarious. The Hello Kitty Cafe, which is pink and cutesy and other adjectives that would normally make me roll my eyes, is the perfect example. It stops being about the anthropomorphic kitty and starts being about the lolz.***

We bought Siobhain a Hello Kitty birthday cake and sat around and knit for a few hours. Caroline and I explored the cafe, taking pictures and boggling at the breadth of the Hello Kitty paraphernalia. We all laughed at the long-suffering boyfriends who had been drug to the cafe by their girlfriends and emasculated by being forced to drink a latte decorated with Kitty's face in cinnamon on the foam. We also laughed at the WiFi password kiten - a misspelling of kitten.

Dear Asia, please never change.

Hello Kitty Cafe in Sinchon
For all your Hello Kitty teapot needs.

Hello Kitty Cafe in Sinchon
And who doesn't need a Hello Kitty wicker basket set?

Hello Kitty Cafe in Sinchon<
Even the stairs are decorated with Hello Kitty!

More photos are here.

* Baby!Cait was not a girly child. Baby!Cait was really into books and playing make-believe and, before she knew how to read, playing make-believe that she already knew how to read books.
** Which is fitting, since cell phone charms are another thing I wasn't even remotely interested in before I moved to Asia.
*** My motto: Doing it for the lolz since 1985.

Directions: Go to Sinchon Station (신촌역) on Line Two and take Exit 3. Walk straight for about a block until you reach a major intersection; Nature Republic will be on your right. Turn right (without crossing the street) and walk straight for two blocks. Just past Macos (the building with the faux-stain glass storefront) there is a small side street. On one side of the alley is 몬된고양이 (Naughty Cat - a store selling cat related charms and trinkets) and on the other side is a Happy Table and a Baskin-Robbins. Turn right up the side street. The Hello Kitty Cafe is just a few yards in on the right. A quick Google search turns up a location in Hongdae as well.

Friday, August 13, 2010


I'm back from China! I flew into Seoul on Wednesday night with over a thousand photos, quite a lot of new jewelry and an impressive array of bruises.*  I knew I was home when I saw two giant advertisements featuring Kim Yu-na before I even made it out of the airport. I went back to the airport yesterday morning to drop my family off and managed to get stuck on the Incheon Bridge for over an hour when my bus broke on the way home. Because of course it did. I've spent the past two days holed up in my apartment, trying to go through vacation photos (the terracotta soldier photos just won't end) and discovering that post vacation/house guest laundry is easier to accomplish when you have a dryer.

My plan is write a travelogue about the trip and upload my pictures to Flickr, but I have never successfully finished a travelogue for any vacation longer than four days, so we'll see. (I always start one, but I usually get bored and quit after day four or five.) I do have a solid week of desk-warming to work on it though, so hopefully I'll at least get to the part where my little sister got locked in my bathroom for an hour or my mother was briefly detained in a Beijing train station. FUN TIMES!

*I might have fallen down a flight of stairs.**
**And by "might have fallen down a flight of stairs," I mean I totally fell down a flight of stairs. Face first. Sometimes I'm not so good at walking.