Monday, December 8, 2008

Goodbye Cheongok-dong

Jason and I will be flying back to the states in a few days, seven to be exact...but whose counting? I am!!! It's been 13 months since I've seen my family and many of my friends. That's a hell of a long time. Hopefully next year I'll be able to visit the states more often.

We're moving to Gunpo come February. It's south of Seoul but still on the subway line. Our new jobs are at a university and if you're an ESL teacher in Korea you know what that means. VACATION! I mean...a chance to teach at an institute of higher learning, a chance to do some research, a chance to interact with a group of more mature students, and three months of paid vacation. Woo hoo! I'm truly excited and feel very fortunate to have found such a great opportunity. I'll be able to get my master's degree since I'll be working far fewer hours, I'll get experience working at a university, and I'll have an opportunity to visit my family and travel around Asia. I feel truly blessed to have landed this job.

Although I'm estatic to be seeing my family again, I am feeling a little trepidacious about going back to the states. I think this must be due to reverse culture shock - I can't think of any other reason. I remember when I returned from traveling through Mexico and Central America after college... walking through the airport and seeing the automatic sliding doors tripped me out - they seemed so futuristic. Of course I'd been dealing with them my whole life but three months of living in third world countries had reset my buttons. I also remember going to a restaurant in southern Arizona. I went to the bathroom and it was huge! I came out and said to Jason, "You have to see the size of the bathrooms here. I could live in them". But eventually I became used to the States again and I took all of the modern conveniences and space for granted.

So I think I might be a bit worried about this kind of stuff happening again. Of course Korea is a first world country but it has only been so for a short time. When you realize the Korean War was only 50 years ago and that the country was thrown into abject poverty, their current status is amazing. Yet while traveling around here you realize there are some places where the 21st century has not yet arrived. Plus, I've been living as an alien in this land for some time.

I've gotten used to being in my own little world. People are so conscious of me here that I've had to develop a thick skin in order to not notice how I'm gawked at and paid attention to so severly. I'm afraid this has given me some stange habbits. For example, I sing all the time. Not loudly or anything but in a small voice. Jason and I'll be shopping at the grocery store and I'll just start singing, "Meet me in the morning...56th and Wabasha, ba ban ban baoum...." I know this kind of behavior is unacceptable in the states, but I'm so insulated here. No matter what I do I'm stared at so I've come to view my myself as living in my own little world. Other people are almost paper dolls that are set into my landscape. They don't speak my language, they don't understand me, and they think whatever I do is strange and/or interesting anyway. I'll have to watch myself over the next few months while I'm in the states.

Since I've started to analyze what things might throw me off when I return to the states, I thought I'd post some pics that show how different Korea is. (I'd have said weird but that might be viewed as culturally insensitive.)

Koreans are very into fitness. They have hiking trails everywhere. Usually along the hiking trails there are also outdoor gyms. I love the giant hula hoops. I'm teaching Jason how to work them.
He's more at home with the weight benches.

This was my New Year's gift from my school. Jason and I both got one! Yes, I've tried Spam. It's hard to avoid in Korea. But I'm glad to say that my palette hasn't accepted it as 'real food' yet.

This picture is for my grandpa Vernie. He was a big fan of John Deere tractors.

There are so many different kinds of street food in Korea. They have vendors that sell everything from bundage (silkworm pupa) to tiny waffles shaped like fish with whipped cream inside. Pictured above is a chesnut roaster.

The women in Korea no longer bind their feet in the traditional fashion...they've upgraded to high heels. Women wear high heels all the time here...even to go hiking. Yes, I've seen this a few times. The women are limping along in their fashionable get ups while whining at their male companions in an especially irritating tone of voice.

This proud man is the cleaner of the first floor bathrooms at the Seoul airport. Nuff said...

This rad picture is from the Seafood Festival. We were forced to watch psuedo eighties style music and dancing complete with smoke machines, laser lights, and side pony tails (not pictured). The style of music and dress most popular here is very eighties inspired.

And doesn't have to long as everything is hip looking. in Korea. It's not quite what I had in mind. Although it is very spacially efficient.

I haven't eaten here yet but it's on my list of things to do next year. As an aside, if you call a kid crazy...something like, "you're a crazy little bugger, aren't you?" the kid will start crying hysterically. Apparently, 'crazy' here doesn't translate so well...they take it to mean actually insane. Both Jason and I learned this the hard way.

Korea reminds me of Vegas in so many ways; the open all night bars, the neon lights everywhere, and the ads for ladies that paper the streets after a Friday or Saturday night. These are the more conservative ones I've seen.

Speaking of prostitution...the variety of concoctions Koreans have to improve 'male stamina' is overwhelming. Essentially if something tastes or looks particularly vile the reason given for it's existence is that it helps with 'male stamina' - you'd think the whole country was impotent or something.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Tripitaka Koreana

I've had a wonderful autumn in Korea. It's so beautiful when the leaves are changing. I celebrated with some great hiking, a very romantic picnic, and a trip to a Haeinsa Temple.

Haeinsa Temple is in Gayasan National Park. It's an old and very important temple in Korea. It's one of three main temples of Chogye Buddhism. The Haeinsa temple represents Dharma (Buddah's teachings). It also contains the Tripitaka. The Tripitaka is a large collection of wooden blocks upon which buddhist scripture is carved. The Tripitaka was first carved in the 11th century but was destroyed by the Mongols during an invasion. The current Tripitaka that is housed in the temple was carved in the 13th century and is made up of 81,340 wooden blocks. It's been designated as an UNESCO World Heritage Site. If you want to read more on this - check out this link.

The temple is quite lively this time of year. Like many temples in Korea it's located inside a National Park. So there were plenty of people that were popping into the temple for a moment before they embarked on a hike.

Kelly and Dale joined us on this trip. They have a car so it was so much easier than the last time we went. We had to take a taxi to a train to a subway to a bus the last time we came.

The temple was decorated with colorful lotus lanterns.

This is a shot inside one of the rooms that house the Tripitaka. The tablets are stacked on the shelves on the right side of the photo. The shelves are at least 25 feet high.

The photos we have from inside the rooms are illegal. Jason wasn't supposed to take any pictures but it's hard to stop him when he has a camera in his hands. He was scolded by a few of the security guards.

After viewing the Tripitaka we went on a short hike into the mountains. This was the first time that Kelly and Dale had seen fall colors. They're from a tropical area of Australia.

Couple photo!

Australian style couple photo!

I love this photo. I could live in it.

There are a wide variety of trees in Gayasan National Park, but the bulk of them are pines, gingko, and maple.

Pretty maple leaf.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Somewhere over the Rainbow

I first heard this version of the song while watching 50 First Dates. If you're looking for an Adam Sandler romantic comedy, I would highly recommend it. I heard it for the second time at Jed and Leni's wedding. They put together a wedding album full of wonderful music. I played the song over and over on the trip back to Minneapolis. Then a few months ago, a friend in Korea played it for me on YouTube. I find myself singing it all the time these days - so I thought I'd let you hear what it sounds like when I'm not butchering it with my falsetto.

It's sung by a guy named Israel Kamakawiwo'ole. He was a famous Hawaiian ukulele player and a beloved national hero in his home state. When he died in 1997, he was the third person ever to lay in state at the capitol building in Honolulu. This video was made as a tribute to him so it might seem a bit cheesey to some of you. At the end of the video it shows a part of his funeral in which his ashes are scattered in the ocean.

Listening to his song, I get the same type of feelings I have when I listen to What a Wonderful World by Louis Armstrong or Imagine by John Lennon. There is a sweetness and feeling of love and kinship and hope that I don't find a lot in the music that I generally listen to. I hope you will find it as beautiful as I do.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008


I'm usually of the mindset that the price of a product or service doesn't always allude to it's value. Cheap products are sometimes better than the high priced ones. For example, Totino's frozen pizzas are the best frozen pizzas around. Sure there's the 'rising' crust pizzas like Freshetta or Dijourno but they taste half as good as Totino's. The have actual tomato sauce (scoff!) instead of the tasty neon red tomato gel that is a signature of Totino's. You can't beat that - plus it's cheap as all get out!

Of course there's always the exceptions, such as eyebrow waxing. I've found that its worth the extra $5 to get it done at a salon instead of at a beauty college. Unless you don't mind looking like a confused vulcan for a few weeks, then it's a good deal.

Well, I've found something else that is worth the pretty penny you pay for it. The KTX. What's the KTX, you ask? It's only the coolest way to travel in all of the Korean penninsula. High speed rail! I know I've talked about the trains before, but this is different. It's quiet and smooth and fast. I don't know if I'll ever be able to go back to the 'slow' trains now. I might be ruined for life. It would be like eating velveeta after trying fresh mozzarella, like wearing Tevas after having Chacos, like watching ER after seeing House. It's not possible for me...unless I'm willing to endure some pain.

The trains have monitors on board that track its speed. We got up to 300 kph (186 mph) and it was as smooth as butter. Plus we got to Seoul in a fraction of the time it usually takes. I'm hooked! Why don't we have these in the States?

This is a picture of the 'slow' train. We couldn't even get a picture of the KTX - it went by so fast. ;)

This magazine looks like it's an English language magazine, right? It's not. A lot of the magazines here have English on the front covers but only Korean characters inside. I think it must look more sophisticated or fancy to people here if it has romanized letters on the cover.

If you think this looks like a staged're right. I finished my coffee before we got on the train.
This is the platform at one of the KTX stations. They all have Dunkin' Donuts franchises and convenience stores inside. On a side note...Dunkin' Donuts is really popular over here.

Happy Halloween

Sadly enough...Halloween isn't celebrated in Korea. I was crushed when I found this out. As you may know it's one of my favorite holidays. I love costumes! I'll take any excuse to dress up as a sexy_______. Since college I haven't been to one costume party outside of October so Halloween has been my saving grace the last few years.

Instead of dressing up this year, we threw a Halloween party at school for the kids. A few days before the holiday the kids colored pictures of jack o' lanterns, vampires, witches, and zombies to decorate the hallways. In case any of you are interested....jombie is the Korean word for zombie. Yeah! More Korean words that I'll remember.

On the big day, my class played hot potato and musical chairs. These are internationally loved games now! I didn't realize how violent musical chairs is...I had about six crying kids throughout the day. The most common injury was smashed fingers. No blood or stiches though so I'll call it a success.

Jason and I (by that I really mean Jason) meant to take more pics of the kids but we were the unwitting MC's of the festivities and didn't find the time.

I hope you all had a blast this year!

It was pretty festive around school with all the decorations up and the kids jacked up on candy. The little boy in the picture is a darling. His name is Vincent...actually it's not but that's his English name. I only know a few of the kids real names.

They sell a select few costumes at the major 'Wal-Mart' type stores here. That's a testament to the popularity of English education. The only place Halloween is celebrated is at the hogwans. The little girl on the left (Sophie) is both Jason and my favorite student. She's so tiny and cute!

As I said above...the selection of costumes here is quite limited, so we had a lot of Scream masks and glittery witch hats.

Erica she's known by the kids...did the face painting. I thought she did a pretty bang up job.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Andong Maskdance Festival

I have been to two festivals in Korea thus far. The first one was held last March. It was a Seafood Festival. Jason and I (and a large group of foreigners) were lured there by the promise of a free crab dinner. The organizers were offering the free dinner to foreigners only...and we naively forgot to question why.

Once we arrived at the festival, we (and all the other foreigners) weren't allowed to mill around the festival, check out different booths, or participate in any of the different activities that were being offered. When we complained that we just wanted to enjoy the festival and not be made a spectacle of, they said, "But you are our honored guests. It would be disrespectful if you don't go along with the program". Apparently by not sitting quietly and observing the action on the stage we were insulting our hosts.

So instead of enjoying ourselves as "honored guests", we were paraded through the festival and then coralled into a roped off section of seats in front of a stage. We were forced to witness some very disturbing things...namely a lady in fishnets with a large plumage sprouting from her behind play some rockin' violin numbers, two Miami Vice guys who played the sax ala Kenny G, and of course endless speeches by numerous politicians.

After about an hour of being treated as an "honored guest", I assumed we'd be marched off a plank into a pot of boiling soup before the night was over. Thankfully they let us free after being the backdrop to some publicity photos for the politicians - which I think was the whole purpose of us being (held hostage) there.

It took six months before Jason and I braved another festival. This one was the Andong Maskdance Festival. I'm happy to report that it exceeded our expectations and we had a great time.

There were a number of stage areas scattered around the festival grounds that showcased everything from Indonesian mask dancers to little kids showing off their Taekwando skills.

Nathan and Kat dressed up in hanbok and had a traditional wedding photo taken.

I know this looks like Nathan and Kat suddenly aged ten years, but these are different people I swear. Kellee and Dale also dressed up in the traditional garb. Jason, of course, refused to participate so I didn't get any bright red lipstick or cheek stickers. Damn him!

There was a small parade of different mask dancers accompanied by some loud music and confetti cannons that was really cool to watch.

This is my favorite pic of the trip. Obviously I didn't take it as my photos usually come out blurry and crooked.

This is the Andong style mask of a Confucian scholar.

Confetti canon fodder.

I'm the one in the blue mask chasing the Korean guy!

The Chinese people were hams...they took at least a dozen pictures with us.

Rock on!

I bought a marionette like these but I'm not sure why. Am I going to take up puppeteering again? Probably not. I was an impulse buy - like gum in the checkout line.

I couldn't figure this out...look at the lady in blue. She has four incense-type things burning on the back of her hand. I assume it has something to do with health....

I love the way the old men dress in Korea - it reminds me of my grandfathers except they didn't wear hats...that I can remember anyway.

Peace out.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Strange Dreams

The strangest thing happened last night. I dreamt I was driving in my old Nissan Sentra with Jason riding shotgun. It was almost twilight and we were driving along a deserted highway. There was sagebrush on the sides of the road and mountains in the distance. It reminded me of a Wyoming-style desert.

Suddenly the check engine light came on and the engine cut out. Jason turned to me and said, "Not again. This always happens in this area." I then had a memory of getting stuck on the same road before.

While I was trying to coast to the side of the road a deer ran in front of us. I tried to swerve but it was too difficult to steer with the car turned off. I was just about to hit the deer head on when I woke up.

It was 5:30 in the morning and still dark outside. The dream had spooked me a bit, so as usual when I have a bad dream, I cuddled up to Jason.

"I just had a bad dream." I whispered.

He was awake and said, "I did too."

"What was yours about?"

"We were almost in a car accident."

"What? That's what I dreamed about too."

"We were about to hit a deer."

"Mine too."

"You were driving and I was in the passenger seat."

"Mine too."

At this point, Jason sounded a bit freaked out. I had goosebumps all over my body even though I had been sweating before I woke up. We discussed the details of our dreams and although there were some differences it was essentially the same dream.

I have had shared dreams before. When I was in first or second grade my sister Jaime and I had the same dreams when we shared a bedroom. I had told this to Jason years ago. So last night I said to him, "I told you Jaime and I used to have the same dreams." To which he replied, "Yeah, but I thought you were making it up. Like you were trying to tell me how close you were or something. I didn't think it really happened."

It was really strange and kind of freaky...but I was satisfied that I could once again say, "I told you so!"

I must be a trying person to live with. Jason has the patience of a saint some days.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Chusok! You Suck!

Chusok! You Suck! That was the theme of the weekend. Of course the boys added all sorts of colorful language after the 'you suck' part of the cheer. Yes, as wonderful as it was to hang out with Jason, Nathan, and Fritz for four days straight, I did get a bit weary of the 'male sense of humor'. Sorry about all the quotations but I don't think everyone reading this is ready for a description of the more 'colorful' language they used. ;)

Korea celebrated Chusok last weekend and consequently so did I. Chosuk is the 'Korean Thanksgiving' according to the locals. It's a bit different than our Thanksgiving pilgrim hats, cornucopias, or turkeys. Instead they travel for hours in hellish traffic to the paternal grandparent's (or eldest son's) home, the ladies cook Korean deliciacies including the lovely rice cakes (gag), and worship their ancestors.

Worshipping their ancestors means that they place food on a special table reserved for Chusok, then they bow and say prayers. The men go first, then the women, and finally the children (yes, this is sort of like the buffet line at Thanksgivings past). Aparently, over 50% of the women in Korea want to abolish the holiday. For them it's a lot of cooking, traveling, and hanging out with their in-laws. After listening to my book club ladies, I'm thankful once again that I actually like my in-laws.

Instead of the whole worshipping of ancestors thing, Jason and I traveled to Danyang to meet up with Nathan and Fritz (for those of you who don't know Fritz, his last name is Schmidt, so I'm sure you'd like him). Danyang is near Sobaeksan National Park. Suprise, suprise...we went hiking over the weekend!

In addition to hiking, we also went to a Gosu cave. This was the first cave I'd ever been to and I loved it.
Stalactites hang tight from the ceiling and stalagmites reach mightily for the sky...or something like that.
If you look closely you can see the jaw bone like crystals on the right side of the picture.

Gosu is a limestone cave that is 1.7 km in length. The pathways were quite narrow in some places and the walkways would make a batophobic cry (yep, I looked that word up).

Our happy little group photo.

Danyang is situated on the curve of a large dammed river. It's very beautiful from afar.

We also went to Guinsa Temple. It's the headquarters of some buddhist sect whose name I forget.

Some monks jiving about the local gossip, I'm sure.

That's me! I look so little in the photo and it's not because of my french lady diet either. The building was huge!

And finally, we hiked up birobang mountain. Yes, it sounds like Beer Bong...and no we didn't.

Fritz conquered the switchbackless mountain in fine form.

The hike was 5.5 km up and 6.8 km down the backside. I just realized I was converting km's wrong this weekend. It's 1.6 km to a mile not 2.2 (that's kilograms to pounds by the way).

This shot epitomizes the entire weekend for me.
1439 m and still smiling.

There were many flowers on the mountain, a bit surprising for being early September - it was lovely.

This was honestly one of my favorite hikes in Korea so far. The hike was pretty hard but the scenery at the top and down the backside was breathtaking.