Sunday, September 26, 2010

China, Day 3 & 4: The Summer Palace

The Tower of Buddhist Incense & Kunming Lake @ Summer Palace
The Tower of Buddhist Incense, Longevity Hill and Kunming Lake

I went to the Summer Palace twice. The first time, I went with Sarah on Wednesday, the day we got back from Xi'an. It was cloudy and overcast all morning, started to drizzle on the ride and then began to pour as our taxi arrived at the gates to the Summer Palace. We bought tickets anyways, hoping the storm would blow over, but were forced to abandon that idea once it started lightening. Sarah and I tried to wait out the worst of the storm under a covered walkway, but after half an hour, we decided to just go get lunch.

The first taxi we saw was black, not the normal color for a Beijing taxi, but the driver assured us he had a meter, the puddle we were standing in was lapping at our ankles and there were no other taxis in sight. It wasn't the time to be picky. We got in, made sure our drive flipped on the meter and then, maybe ten minutes into the drive, I noticed that the meter was already at 100¥, more than double what the much longer taxi ride from our hostel had cost. We demanded the driver pull over. He refused and said this was the normal price. We pointed out that we had taken a taxi TO the Summer Palace, so we knew how much it actually cost and also, PULL OVER. He ended up turning off the meter and driving us to the nearest subway stop, which was decent of him, considering it was still pouring rain.

We ate lunch at a Middle Eastern restaurant and ordered an obscene amount of food, including four different dishes of hummus. Mmm, hummus. Then I bought Korean World Cup stickers at an Art Box. In China.

I drug Mom and Leah back to the Summer Palace the next afternoon, once Sarah had left for the airport. Our first stop, after we walked past some halls of various beatitudes, was a name calligraphy booth. Artists would write western names using different Asian-esque pictures to represent each letter. (There's a video [not mine] of the Summer Palace calligraphy here.) Leah had her name written and I lamented that none of the letters in my name are depicted with a dragon.

Our next stop was Kunming Lake. Kunming Lake covers two thirds of the park and is surrounded by bridges, pagodas, pavilions, temples and gardens. It's absolutely gorgeous. When I was at the lake the day before, I could barely see through the rain, but on Thursday the storm had temporarily driven away the smog and haze, and there were brilliant blue skies. We rented a paddle boat and went out on the lake. Mom, who had a broken foot, sat in the front of the boat while Leah and I did the heavy lifting in the back. The lake was full of boats and the paddle boats don't exactly have a sophisticated steering systems, so we kept running into other boats. Luckily, paddle boats also don't go very fast and most of the collisions were avoided by Mom leaning forwards and pushing the other boats away.

The Tower of Buddhist Incense, perched on Longevity Hill overlooking Kunming Lake, is the highest point in the Summer Palace. We climbed to the top of the tower to get a view of the lake and the park. The Summer Palace is big enough that by the lake, the trees and hills hide the sprawl of Beijing surrounding the park, but from the top of the tower we could see the city spread out in front of us. It was definitely worth going back a second time.

Kunming Lake @ Summer Palace
Lotus blossoms at Kunming Lake

The Tower of Buddhist Incense @ Summer Palace
The Tower of Buddhist Incense

The Tower of Buddhist Incense @ Summer Palace
Decorated eaves on the Tower of Buddhist Incense

The rest of the pictures are here.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Sports Day

Last Thursday was Sports Day, that magical day when I neither have to teach nor sit bored in my office. Preparations for Sports Day began at the beginning of the month. Every morning before first period, the students gathered in front of the school to practice the Korean National Athletic Exercises and the past few weeks have been rife with student coming to class sweaty and late, or not at all. Last Tuesday, the entire morning was devoted to a Sports Day dress rehearsal.

For Sports Day, the school was spit into two teams - white and blue - and the two teams competed for the Sports Day trophy. Last Monday, I was talking with the girls in the broadcasting club after practice and I asked what team they were on. Three girls were on the white team and one girl was on the blue team.

"Is your team going to win Sports Day?" I asked the white team girls.

"No!" they answered. "Our team is very bad at running. We will lose."

Then I asked them if they were excited about Sports Day and I also received a negative.

"No!" 한솜 told me. "I hate Sports Day!"

"Well," I asked, "do you like class?"

"Nooooooooooo!" she told me emphatically.

"What do you like more - Sports Day or class?"

"Sports Day. Okay, I like Sports Day a little."

On Wednesday, I quarried my regular 6th grade classes about Sports Day. "What day is it tomorrow?" I asked at the beginning of class.

"It's Thursday."

"Yes," I sighed. "Tomorrow is a special day. What is it?

"It's 운동회날!"

"In English," my constant refrain in class.

They thought it over and finally decided upon PE Day. "Teacher, tomorrow is PE Day."

Thursday morning dawned bright and clear, and as I walked to school, I passed a vendor selling cotton candy and balloons setting up his cart right outside the school gates. The festivities began with long speeches by the principal, vice principal, head teacher and several people I had never seen before. The students were already lined up in the sun and kept fidgeting as the speeches droned on. Finally the speakers finished and Sports Day could begin in earnest. The first activity was 국민체조 (Korean National Athletic Exercises), which I privately refer to as interpretive dance calisthenics (videos here and here).

Sports Day - 9.16.2010
Interpretive dance calisthenics or Tai Chi to music

Next came the races. There are about 900 students at my school and all of them participated in at least one race, so while other groups played games or gave performances in the center of the playground, at least one grade was holding races around the parameter. It made the day feel like a three ring circus, never sure what event I should be watching. The food vendors and families milling about didn't hurt the comparison either. The students races in groups of five or six, one kid from each class. The younger kids just ran around the playground, but the 5th and 6th graders ran an obstacle course. They had to jump through a hula hoop, crawl under a volleyball net boot camp style and jump over a hurdle. There's a dwarf student in the 5th grade, and when he reached the hurdles, two sixth grade boys ran onto the track and lifted him over the hurdle so he could continue the race.

Sports Day - 9.16.2010
3rd grade boys racing

Sports Day - 9.16.2010
6th grade boy jumping hurdles

All the grades also had jump rope activities. Grades jump roped in unison, jump roped divide by gender, criss-cross jump roped, jump roped use one rope and two people, swung the ropes about like lassos to music, all hilariously unsynchronized. There were also games for each grade. The 3rd graders piled four to a hula-hoop and ran around traffic cones, the 2nd graders tried to break apart two buckets taped together using bean bags (think piñata, only more Korean and no candy inside), and the 5th graders had to keep a giant ball aloft while passing it from student to student. There was also a 사물놀이 (samul nori, type of traditional Korean music) performance by a group of 2nd, 3rd and 4th graders.

Sports Day - 9.16.2010
Dwarf 3rd grader (sister to the 5th grader) jump roping.

Sports Day - 9.16.2010
2nd grade piñata game

The final event was a relay race for the 3rd, 4th, 5th and 6th graders to determine the winner of Sports Day and my 6th graders prediction came true: the blue team won by ten points. The team leader accepted the trophy, the students performed the national exercises one more time, the cotton candy and ice cream vendors packed up and Sports Day was over.

Friday, September 17, 2010


6-1 - 9.17.2010

Here, have a picture of my 6-1 class boys playing baseball using a fuzzy plus dice for a ball and their shoes for a bat.

It beats me actually writing about my day, which was... long. My co-teacher was sick and and left me to teach class alone while she went to the nurse's office (which, seriously, I don't mind, disease happens and it's not like she didn't cover for me plenty when I was sick this spring, plus, she's like a hundred months pregnant, if the lady needs to take a nap, let her take a damn nap), and while my first class went fine, my second class, 6-4, was awful, the sort of awful where I couldn't even start class. A group of students ganged up on one boy and hid his pencil case, and while I was trying to deal with the ensuing meltdown, a different group of boys decided that NOPE, they didn't want to go to class today, sat down in the hall and refused to go to class. My steely-eyed bitch face scared most of then back into class, but one boy pulled the I-don't-understand-you card, even when I told him told him to get into class in Korean and, of course, while I dealt with the delinquents, the well-behaved students were out of their desks and talking and SERIOUSLY kids, now is not the time to try my patience. Ten minutes into the period without starting class, I admitted defeat, interrupted my other co-teacher's class and begged for help. Co-teachers were found, yelling in Korean commenced, students were cowed into submission and barely made a peep for the rest of the class, and yet, hours later, I still feel like I have knots in my shoulders and frustration simmering just under my skin.


The good news, however, is that next week is Chuseok (Korean Thanksgiving/Harvest Festival/major holiday) and starting tomorrow, I have nine glorious days off. Hopefully I'll be a bit less frustrated by the time I go back to school.

Monday, September 13, 2010

China, Day 4: The Mao-soleum

(Subject line courtesy of Sarah and The Rough Guide to China)

When I was in high school, I saw Discovery Channel special about mummies. It mostly overlooked Egyptian mummies and focused on European bog bodies and the Chinchorro mummies of Peru, but there was also a section on the mummification of modern politburos such as Lenin, Ho Chi Minh and Mao. Lenin is so well preserved that even eighty years after his death, his body is still squishy! (I am many things, but squeamish isn't one of them.) Look, mummies are just generally awesome, but I'm especially fascinated by the modern ones.

Mao's mummy is laid to rest in Beijing, and there was no way I was visiting China without paying my respect to the Chairman. Sarah and I went on Thursday morning before she left for the airport. The mausoleum is large building in the middle of the of Tiananmen Square, a mere ten minute taxi ride from our hostel. We stored our bags at the luggage check and joined the line to enter the mausoleum. Even though we were at Tiananmen Square by 9:00 in the morning, there was already a long line snaking around the mausoleum. We waited for at least an hour, but the line was constantly moving and before long we were past the metal detectors (our second metal detectors, since we had to go through a metal detector just to get into Tiananmen Square) and the florist booth selling flowers in memory to the Great Leader.

Mao is housed in a crystal coffin. His mummy is a rather distinctive orange hue and he clashes with the red Chinese flag covering him. We can't even be sure we saw the real Mao; there is a wax model of the body which is sometimes displayed in place of the real chairman. We shuffled past in less than a minute and emerged into the bright sunlight of Tiananmen Square.

Mausoleum of Mao Zedong
The Mao-soleum

Chungju Lake, Gosu Cave & Dodamsanbong

Last Sunday, just a few days after I posted about how I was disappointed that I hadn't traveled more within Korea, I went on a trip! (I also had dinner with a fellow teacher in Seongnam last week, so clearly the way to fix personal shortcomings is to whinge about them on the internet. Please take note, other personal faults include impulse buying and biting my fingernails.) The trip was arranged by Adventure Korea, a tour group catering to expat teachers, and while I'm normally not a fan of tours (ugg, being told where to go and what to do, and also other people), this was less of a tour and more letting someone else arrange transportation and tickets. No colored flags or matching T-shirts to designate our group, just a private bus and two guys pointing us in the right direction. Hopefully all Adventure Korea's tours will be the same way, since I'm going on another one next week.

Chungju Lake

We went to the Danyang region in Chungcheongbuk-do, the only landlocked province in Korea, a few hours from Seoul. Our first stop was an hour and a half "pleasure ferry" on Lake Chungju, a man-made lake created by damming the Namhangang River. Siobhain and I made lots of comments about how we were "sailing on a boat and we're going fast" and how we were "gonna fly this boat to the moon somehow," especially once we discovered there was a karaoke room on the first floor of the ferry. Then "My Heart Will Go On" started playing over the loudspeakers and every single girl in her twenties made a crack how "I'm flying, Jack!" James Cameron, you have indoctrinated us well. There wasn't a lot to do on the boat except look at the scenery, but that was enough. The lake is beautiful, with lots of trees, hills and craggy rock formations, and very few signs of modern civilization, a rarity in Korea. It's good to be reminded that not all of the country is a concrete jungle.

The second stop was Gosu Cave. It's one of the better known caves in Korea and has some very impressive rock formations. Also impressive were the women in fancy dresses and high heels making their way through the cave. Only in Korea. It was 15° cooler inside the cave than it was outside, which felt wonderful. I got sunburned on the ferry (the breeze made it feel deceptively cool and I was a nice rosy red afterwards) and the cooler temperature felt nice.

Gosu Cave

The last stop was Dodamsanbong Peak, which reminded me why I don't like traveling on tours. It's three rocks in a river. They look like an 'S' from above, be we were viewing them from ground level. There's a pavilion on one of the rocks. It's nice enough looking. It would be a lot more scenic if there wasn't a high-rise apartment complex and a highway under construction in the background. I was ready to leave after five minutes: we stayed for an hour. A few people went hiking along the river, but most of the group ended up eating cheap ice cream in the parking lot. There was terrible traffic and typhoon related rain on the long bus ride back to Seoul, and it's a week later and I'm still a bit pink, but I'm really glad I got out of Seoul for the day and had a chance to see a little bit more of Korea.

As per usual, the rest of the photos are on Flickr.

Chungju Lake

Friday, September 10, 2010

China, Day 2: Xi'an and the Terracotta Army

The travelogue continues! The trip to Xi'an is one of the more crazypants things I've ever decided to do. When Mom and I booked our tickets to China, we planned to spend five days in Beijing and five days in Shanghai. I asked Leah what she most wanted to see in China and she immediately said the Terracotta Army. I have also wanted to see the Terracotta Army for approximately forever, but it's 750 miles from Beijing. Not exactly a day trip. Or is it?

Enter Sarah. Sarah decides she is going to China and we have the following conversation in a ten minute break between classes:
11:34 AM
Sarah: how close are the terra cotta soldiers?
me: um, fairly far away

11:56 AM
Sarah: um
so I totally want to see the terra Cotta army
apparently it's only and overnight train ride away
I'm totally up for that
And like that, I decided that maybe going to see the Terracotta Army was something I should seriously consider. Clearly, I'm easily suggestible if I already want to do something. (I was already planning to go back to China over Chuseok just to see the Terracotta Army, but I would rather go with someone. China can be intimidating by yourself and if I go by myself, I have no one to make excited seal noises to.) I shot off a quick email to my mom, letting her know I was going to Xi'an for a day (on a family vacation, no less) and inviting her and Leah to come along. They thought it would be fun. And like that, we were going to Xi'an.

The plan was to take an overnight train to Xi'an, spend the day at Mausoleum of the First Qin Emperor (home to the Terracotta Army) and then take an overnight train back to Beijing that night, essentially treating this like a 1,500 miles (2414 km) daytrip. (It also meant two and half days without showers, and China is hot in August.) Ca-ray-zee.

Guys, it was so, so worth it.

We left Beijing on Monday evening from the Beijing West Railway Station, the largest train station in the world. Sleeper trains to Xi'an were four berths to a compartment. We booked our tickets through our hostel, and the travel agent was only able to buy top bunks, meaning we were separated into two compartments. Luckily, there was an Austrian group in the same situation, and we were able to switch berths and end up in one compartment. The sleeping cars were nice, if small. Bedding was provided and there were two bathrooms (which quickly ran out of toilet paper) at the end of the car. I was lulled to sleep by the rocking of the train in the suburbs of Beijing and woke up to sunrise in Shaanxi province.

The Terracotta Army was amazing! The army was built from 246 BC to 210 BC by Qin Shi Huang, who unified warring city-states in the Yellow River basin and became the first Emperor of China, to help him rule another empire in the afterlife. It was buried when he died in 210 BC and rediscovered in 1974 by farmers digging a well during a drought. The sheer scale of the necropolis is staggering. There are an estimated 8,000 soldiers guarding the tomb, and in addition to the soldiers, there are horses, water birds, musicians and acrobats awaiting the Emperor in the afterlife. Only three pits of soldiers open to the public, but dozens of other pits have been excavated and there's a really excellent museum full of the finds. There's no AC in Pit 1, which is really just a glorified air craft hanger, and it was sweltering hot, but we still spent hours walking around the army until our clothes were plastered to our bodies. Well, Sarah and I did. Mom and Leah abandoned us to play cards in a gift shop.

We stayed at the Mausoleum until closing time, then caught a bus back to Xi'an. We made the mistake of getting on a local mini-bus instead of the tourist bus that goes directly to the train station. They cost the same, but the mini-bus has a much longer route and there was a tense twenty or so minutes as we stared out the window and tried to figure out why we kept seeing fields and not a train station. We just barely made it back to Xi'an in time to catch our train back to Beijing.

The trip to Beijing wasn't quite as pleasant as the trip to Xi'an. We weren't able to switch bunks for the ride back, so we were in different compartments. Also, Mom and Leah found out the hard way that you *must* show your train ticket before exiting the arrivals terminal in Beijing. Sarah and I had our tickets, but Mom and Leah left theirs on the train. Mom blustered her way past the guard, but Leah, who was prone to getting stuck places on this trip, lacked Mom's gall and was detained, so Mom went back to wait with her. Sarah and I tried to pass Mom and Leah our tickets, but we were caught and the guard started ripping everyone's tickets so they could only be used once. Someone eventually gave Leah an extra ticket and she made it out, but Mom was still stuck. Eventually a guard took Mom back to the train to search for her ticket, but due to the language barrier (we spoke no Chinese, they spoke no English), all I knew was that Mom had been taken away after pissing off the guards in the Chinese train station. I spent the thirty minutes Mom was gone freaking out about how we hadn't even be in China for 48 hours and ALREADY someone had managed to get arrested or detained or whatever, what am I going to DO and, oh God, Mom has Leah's passport, I can't even take her back to Korea with me. Luckily Mom reappeared waving her ticket before I started contemplating calling the Embassy.

We escaped the the train station, caught a taxi to our hostel, and I took the best shower of my life. It was an awesome trip!

Terracotta Army

Terracotta Army Terracotta Army

Terracotta Army

There are many, many more photos and more information that you could possible want about the Terracotta Army at my Flickr page.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Typhoon Kompasu

I woke up to the sound of the wind screaming past my window. I rolled over to check the clock - 6:00 - burrowed my head under my pillow to drown out the wind and rain and tried, unsuccessfully, to go back to sleep.

I checked my email before work and saw a message from the US Embassy with a warning about Typhoon Kompasu, the worst typhoon to hit Seoul in fifteen years. That explains the wind, I thought.

The street outside my apartment was covered in white. At first I thought it might be flowers - in the spring, the cheery blossoms cover the ground like snow - but when I looked closer I realized that it was Styrofoam that had been picked up from a store display and destroyed by the wind. As I walked to school, I noticed the none of the stores were open and the ground was covered in downed branches and leaves. The ginkgo trees by my school had dropped their fruit, which split on the sidewalk. There were also no children. There are always students around the school, even in the summer when there's no class, but today the streets were empty and my school was silent.

I called my co-teacher from my office, hoping that a Category 1 typhoon would be enough to force Korea to close schools. I was forgetting the motto of the Korean educational system: children are never allowed to not be in school. Teachers had normal hours and students had a two hour delay. Class would start at eleven.

I hung up the phone, walked into my classroom and saw a shattered window. Luckily the window shade had kept the worst of the rain out, but there was shattered glass all over the floor and a jagged tear running the length of the now ruined shade. I cleaned up the glass and laughed at the teachers who were trapped on the roof of the other school building by a jammed door. The copy room attendant bored up the window and I taught my classes like normal.

I was lucky. Above-ground subways aren't working and there are massive power outages. The front windshield of my co-teacher's car is smashed and she saw a church with its steeple knocked off on the way to school. A bit of missed sleep and a smashed window isn't too bad for my first typhoon.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010


Pagoda Garden @ National Museum of Korea
Sunset at the Pagoda Garden the National Museum of Korea

I've been in Korea for six months today! (Well, a year and six months. Six months this time around.)

I live in Seongnam, one of the northern most southern suburbs, this year. I'm much closer to Seoul this year (twenty minutes vs. an hour) which is nice, but the proximity to Seoul means I haven't really developed a social life in the area where I live in. The handful of foreign teachers living in my building introduced themselves when I first arrived, and they're nice and we chat in the elevator or the bus stop, but I already had a social network set up and I quickly fell back into my old routines. I rarely want to socialize after work, but I miss the spontaneity of getting dinner with friends after work without first having to spend forty minutes on the subway.

On the Occation of Your Birth
Marie and me at a clam bake in Kongdae.

I've been back to Ansan (the city I use to live in) a few times to see friends. Nostalgia is a funny thing. I'm glad I don't live in Ansan anymore, but that didn't stop me from getting emotional over old sights. That was my bus stop, the kimbap shop I went to that once, the store where I bought my chopsticks and extension cord, and I go all ♫ memory // all alone in the moonlight // I can smile at the old days // I was beautiful then ♫ The quickest way from Seongnam to Ansan is by bus, and the route happens to pass directly by my old school. I usually spend the trip with my nose in a book, but the first time I happened to look out the window at a stoplight and spotted a teenage boy that looked suspiciously like one of my 6th graders last year. Huh, I thought, he looks just like Jinho. And then the light turned green and the bus drove past my old school, and I realized the kid probably *was* Jinho.

Pungmul @ Ttukseom Hangang Park
Your average Saturday afternoon: riding your motorcyle to the park to practice traditional Korean dance with your friends. AS YOU DO.

School life is different this year. A new national curriculum was introduced this year and the 3rd and 4th graders now have English twice a week instead of once a week. This means there are 42 English classes taught at my school each week, more than I can personally teach. Instead, my co-teacher and I teach each grade together once a week and the co-teacher teaches each grade solo once a week. It works okay, but it means that I'm never the primary teacher and I'm always playing by someone else's rules and cues. There's also a lot less communication between me and my co-teachers. Last year, my co-teacher and I would plan lessons together and then prepare our respective parts. This year, I plan my lessons alone, without discussing the lessons plans with my co-teachers, and half the time I feel like we're teaching two different lessons that just happen to share a vocabulary set or grammatical concept. There's no cohesion between my lesson and my co-teacher's lesson.

4-4 - 5.26.2010
4-4 Class playing a board game in English class.

I think my current students are lagging behind my last school. Both of my schools have been in poor areas, but I think this area is more impoverished. A significant number of my students are on welfare and we did so poorly on the national tests in July that the principal has decided that all the homeroom teachers have to teach three extra classes a week and extra teachers have been hired to offer remedial classes for struggling students. Right around the six month mark last year, I saw an explosion of English from my students. Almost over night, they went from only using sentence fragments to full fledged sentences arguing the merits of different Kpop bands. Teacher, I don't like Top. He is ugly and has big face. I LOVE G-Dragon! HEARTBREAKER! I just can't see a similar widespread surge of English use among my current students. It's not all bleak - a group of 6th grade girls and I recently got into a discussion about our favorite member of 소녀시대 and a 5th grader brought me his essay on the wonderful cockroach to edit - but for every bright student, there are another dozen who, when asked what their name is, can only answer, "Teacher, WUT?!"

3rd & 4th Grade Advanced - 7.27.2010

I really wanted to make the effort to travel around Korea more this year, but I haven't done a very good job of it. In April Siobhain, Caroline and I went to the Nonsan Strawberry Festival in Chungcheongnam-do. It was your typical country fruit festival, full of giant strawberry balloons suspended over the fair ground and strawberry infused foods, many of which were not improved by tasting like strawberry. (Strawberry flavored hot pepper paste is not delicious. Nor is strawberry flavored seaweed.) There were also copious amounts of fried food and I finally tried a french-fries-covered-corn-dog-onna-stick, which was exactly as delicious as it sounds. I'm just a little ashamed that Korea beat the South to inventing it. The weekend was lots of fun and navigating Korea outside of Seoul was too difficult and and I remember thinking on the train back to Seoul that I need to take more weekend trips. That was five months ago and I haven't left the Seoul area since. Hopefully I manage to see a bit more of the country before my contract is up.

Nonsan Strawberry Festival
(l → r) Siobhain, Caroline, Strawberry Chick who grabbed my ass, me

It's been a good six months, and I'm glad I came back for a second year.