Sunday, October 25, 2009

Pancakes and Headaches

Today was officially a Homesick for America day. After yet another week of my body feeling much less than 100%, and then a long, frustrating night out in Seoul on Saturday, I woke up today (Sunday) wanting to surround myself with everything familiar and comfortable and American. I love my life here, but I can't take much more of feeling so sick and tired all the time. At the gym last week, Christine and I were lamenting how we can barely muster the energy to run even 20 minutes on the treadmill. Me, complaining about running?! You know I must really be feeling bad if I'm avoiding trying to run. Why do I keep feeling sick? I just finished a full week of antibiotics- only to feel just about zero times better. I think there's a serious mold problem in my apartment- in my bathroom, in my laundry room. I asked Dr. Bridget Haeg to please research the long-term effects on human health of exposure to mold in the home- I am still awaiting her response, but I'm fairly certain I know it's not good!

Therefore, in celebration of my continued poor health here, and in honor of Homesick for America Sunday, we decided to spend an obscene amount of money on indulging in Western food- a heavenly, satisfying, and expensive dining experience! We went to a place called Butterfingers Pancakes, in nearby Jeong-ja, that we had heard about from other teachers in the area. Craving pancakes and french fries and waffles, we were overwhelmed by the Western choices available- and strangely found ourselves craving American foods we had never even eaten, or liked, at home. I can't even try to explain the unexpected craving I had for a big, greasy omelet or a plate of bacon and sausage covered in ketchup (yes, bacon! Darren will never believe that!). We settled with a huge omelet stuffed to the brim with ham, onions, peppers, and- get this- gooey American cheese. Our plates were also packed with rosemary and pepper potatoes, as well as two of the fluffiest, most buttery pancakes I have ever tasted. After reading my long description of our American homesickness and 4 pm "breakfast," can you guess that we shoveled the food in our mouths faster than I'd like to mention? It was the most delicious, satisfying meal I've had in Korea yet. In true American fashion, we had stuffed ourselves with greasy, salty, sugary foods and even left a big pile of food still on our plates upon leaving. Well, at least it's good to know that we're still American, through and through!!
After our meal (which set me back 19, 500 Won, or just under $20), we browsed in a nearby shop called "I Love Cookie," which is stocked wall-to-wall with imported foods and products. Sure, you can find the Pop-Tarts and Cheez-its you're dying for, but they'll cost you about $15 apiece! I had my eye on some Quaker oatmeal, but decided I might have to wait until my next paycheck to splurge on the $14 tub. London bought two normal-sized packages of Reese's candy for her boyfriend, who doesn't have a store like this in his Korean city. You should have seen all our eyes when the cashier rang up the total price as 15,000 Won- $15 dollars for two bags of Reese's!!

In conclusion- imported Western food and other products here are ridiculously expensive, so please send me all my favorite foods and health & beauty products from back home- thank you. I'll accept anything that has a label written in English.

On Saturday, Christine and I had a great, long hike in a mountain in Suji. If you don't remember, this is the mountain that we dragged our kindergarteners up a few weeks back, and that Dad and I had the chance encounter with the nice hotelier last weekend. Well, it was another eventful outing there on Saturday! We chose one of the longest trails, a difficult 5k climb that took about two hours. When we finally reached one of the peaks, we were awarded a spectacular view of the foliage, surrounding mountains, and the wondrous spread of high-rises below. It was quite a sight, the high-rises stretching into the horizon and the reds and oranges of the trees around us. We climbed up to a small, rocky lookout point to take in the view, and we were soon offered a hello and a friendly gesture by two fellow climbers resting next to us. They were both Korean men decked out in full hiking gear (bandana tied around the neck, long shirt and pants, gloves, vest, huge hiking backpack, and walking sticks)- typical of just about every Korean hiker!). One of them produced a huge bottle of Korean rice wine from his bag and offered a cup to us. Christine and I just looked at each, shrugged, and accepted it! He also handed Christine a flat strip of what looked like the dried skin of a fish- yummy! Ugh- Christine did not look happy about being the one offered that snack.
After a few more minutes of drinking our rice wine and eating the trail mix we had brought along (which we also offered to the men, and which they looked pleased about), we were given a can of Corona that had suddenly appeared out of their backpack! That was a pretty unique experience- sitting atop a rocky lookout point on the peak of a mountain, in a suburb of Seoul, sharing rice wine, cans of Corona, and dried fish jerky with Korean hikers. How often will we get to say we did something like that??

On our journey back down the mountain, we were approached by another Korean hiker who asked us if we were English teachers. When we replied yes, his face just lit up, and he began excitedly telling us that he loves American and speaking English! We walked and talked all the way down the mountain- him asking us many questions about our lives here and sharing about his experiences of living in America in the 90s and his troubles with speaking and practicing English. He had very interesting insight to share, and he was very funny!

When we reached a certain point on the trails, Christine and I realized that we'd never be able to make it back off the mountain before the sun set. Our new friend showed us a short-cut trail that would take us out of the forest and off the mountain in much less time, saving us from the possible disaster of being stuck on the mountain in the pitch dark! He told us to follow him, and then stopped and waved to a woman we hadn't even heard behind us the whole time. "My wife, " he said, to our surprised faces. "She doesn't like when I speak English to others because it is very boring for her! But I cannot pass up an opportunity to speak English with foreigners when I see them, so she said to me, 'Go! Talk to those Americans up ahead on the trail!' "

The man and his wife ended up showing us where to catch a bus home, saving us miles more walking. It turned out that he lives in the high-rise apartments just behind our apartments- what are the odds! They accompanied us on the bus, the man still rapidly continuing an English conversation with us while his wife sat beside us, just smiling at her husband's giddiness with speaking English. They even paid for our bus fare, since we didn't have our transportation cards or any change on us.

After that day's experience of hiking a mountain right in our own backyard, getting a much-needed dose of fall colors and trees, and having an unexpected encounter with a kind Korean, we were feeling pretty good! I can't believe that on back-to-back weekends, I've had such great experiences with Korean people like that- on the same mountain!

Sunday, October 18, 2009

A Post-Chuseok Miracle and Tom Visits Korea

Here's what's new on the Suji homefront...

Last week was incredibly stressful. I wasn't sure I'd ever find myself saying that here, considering I am teaching kindergarten and 1st graders, but there have been so many demands at school lately. There were monthly tests to write, essays and vocabulary tests to correct, problem students to worry about, and an absurd amount of Halloween planning to begin. We began decorating our classrooms in preparation for this (important?) holiday. The best-decorated classroom will win a big prize...and I swear to God I will retire as a teacher if I do not win this contest!! If anyone really knows me, they'd know that I'll put my heart and soul into decorating and crafting something like this. So in the spirit of competition, and given my creative nature, I have spent every free second of the past weekend gluing, cutting, coloring, taping, and stapling every imaginable Halloween decoration. And in the spirit of the Orient...I will bring dishonor to my family if I do not win this classroom decorating contest! :)

I also had an important parents' meeting for my kinder parents last week. Picture this: 10 Korean moms and dads, crowded around a table in a small meeting space. I am the guest of honor (or should i say interrogation?), as all their eyes and ears are focused on me, sitting at the head of the table. The two school directors on my right translate to many of the parents as I introduce myself, go through our daily classroom routines, and then individually address every parent to share my comments on their child's academics and behavior. Awkward? Yes. Stressful? Yes. Scary? Yes.

Talking about my students is not the difficult part- I love to talk about them to anyone who will listen! And that's pretty much how many of our conversations outside of school end up- each of us sharing stories about our students, bragging about them as if they're our own children, or ranting about their odd behaviors (truly, the social conversations between any English teachers here, while out to dinner together or out on the weekends, will always come back to the subject of our students. Always.) I truly do have wonderful things to say about my kinders: I feel that I know them each, both as individuals and as a collective, very well. And I was pleased to hear one of the student's father compliment me on this from my weekly kinder reports to them- that I seem to be very in-tune with each student's personality. Maybe that's the psychology major in me? However, it was difficult to gauge just how much to share with everyone. My supervisors had told me to "be honest and tell the truth...just don't say more bad things than good things. Just try to focus more on the good things."'s the same thing when we write the kinder reports- we're really only supposed to write compliments and praise and give positive feedback. But what about those couple of students who really struggle in phonics? And the others who can't stay focused long enough to write just one word? I felt very restricted by what I could say to the parents- especially because it was in the presence of all the other parents!

I think it all turned out well, though, and I think I made a good impression (hopefully!). I really do love teaching each of these students- they're just all so different! I can never get over that, how much individual personality they exude at such a young age. I'm excited every day just to hear what kinds of crazy things they'll say!

In other Suji news: Tom Haeg has spent an enjoyable first 4 days in Korea with me! Since I was so stressed out last week, I was a little anxious for him to share my apartment and for me to entertain and be tour guide. But it has been SO great having him here- and he has fulfilled just about everything on his Korea Wish List:

1) Play squash with Canadian teachers at my school- CHECK
2) Play squash with locals- CHECK

3) Buy new glasses at the amazingly cheap Korean prices- CHECK (and he's already looking for a second pair!)

4) Wander up and down the streets while I am at school, making conversation with random people and trying to recruit more squash players for himself- CHECK

We had a great day in Seoul on Saturday- he was marveling the whole time at the miles and miles of high-rises. It was really interesting to hear his insight on the Korean economy and their development in the past decade (and no, I'm not even being sarcastic when I say that!) I showed him around Insa-dong, the artsy-craftsy district that I love (weird, I loving artsy-craftsy stuff?) We had a delicious traditional Korean lunch at an open-air restaurant off the beaten path (too bad Rick Steves couldn't join us!). That was my first time going into Seoul "on my own"- without any of the other teachers to help me. I think I did pretty well, getting us into the right area and then even finding the district we wanted to get to! Maybe I actually CAN figure out this Seoul thing...or at least 1/32 of it, as that's all I have probably seen of it so far.

We had the craziest but best random encounter with a Korean this weekend. On Thursday night, as I was sitting in my apartment along, waiting for my cell phone to hopefully ring with news that my dad had (somehow) arrived in Suji and had (somehow) gotten hold of a phone to call me on, I heard from him. Too bad he had no idea where he was...and I had no idea where he was...and basically, I had no idea where I even was, considering that my apartment building and the streets around it don't even have names! I had begun to panic in the past hour, realizing that my dad could end up in any number of suburbs across Seoul...and how would I ever be able to find him?

As it turned out- a Korean had gotten off the airport shuttle behind him, as he saw how frantic and uncertain my dad looked. The man offered use of his cell phone to call me, and when my dad couldn't say where he was, the Korean got on the phone and directed me to them. We were both still on the phone, me thinking recognized the general area where they supposedly were, and both of us still on the phone, when BAM!! I turned the corner on the street and there they both were! It was a Chuseok miracle!!

This Korean was so kind- he spoke English very well and had obviously helped us both out a lot! Had it not been for him, Tom Haeg could still be on a wild-goose chase throughout the city of 13+ million right now. The man wouldn't accept any money, and instead gave us his business card, saying that it is his duty, as a person of hotelier profession, and as a Korean, to guide those who are lost- especially foreigners. We were both ecstatic about how lukcy that episode had been- and how generous that Korean man was.

BUT: the plot thickens thicker! This afternoon we took a rest at some benches atop a local mountain in Suji, where we had been wandering up the trails. Suddenly, a Korean man walks right up to us, says hello, and then sits down. "Good to see you, " he says, "Don't you remember me?"
Well, of course neither of us did...awkward! But then the man said, "from the bus stop the other night...," and it clicked! He was the guardian angel Korean man who had helped Tom Haeg reunite with his daughter!! Of all the people in this nearly 1 million-populated suburb of Seoul...we happened to run into him on the top of a mountain on a Sunday afternoon!!! There's no way this was chance- I know this was something of God's doing. How could it not be?

We sat and talked with him for about 20 minutes. He was a very interesting, engaging, and clever man! His English was very good, but he said he had only learned it by listening to "Voice of America" long ago...pretty impressive! He told us about his family in Suji, his work, and even discussed North Korea/South Korea politics with my dad. Then he very generously showed us the shortcut trail down the mountain, and the quickest way back to my apartment area. Along the way, he called his wife and daughter to drive by and meet us! It was such an amazing experience- meeting this extremely kind and generous Korean who was so willing to not only help us because we were foreigners, but who also took the time to get to know us. He told me many times to please call or email him or his daughter if I have any troubles in Suji, or if I ever feel lonely and want a good Korean meal!

It was a really great way to end the weekend- how can something like that not make you feel good??

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Just got back from a night run, and it felt GREAT!! I'm still a bit afraid to even say that- given my history of running, not running, and so on. But this was 43 minutes of the best running I've felt in the past few years. I can't believe I'm able to say that, finally!! I think that because I'm finally able to let go all those anxieties and expectations about running, it's falling into place...well, that and a little (ok, a LOT) of help from an excellent PT :)

It's been a whole new experience again to me, being able to run even just a few days a week. I've mostly been running at night, after school. Right now, it's getting dark out around 5:30 or 6, so before we even leave school for the day. Once it hits 8 or 9 o'clocl though, and everyone in Suji is getting home from work, the walk/bike paths by the stream are packed. I like being outside at that time- it's comforting to have so many people around. There are lots of families out this late, pushing their babies in strollers or walking alongside their children on bikes (you'll see these families out as late as midnight, even during the week- apparently, kids do not have bedtimes here!). There are groups of women, all dressed identically in nylon windsuits, gloves, and visors, pumping their arms vigorously while speedwalking and speedtalking in Korean. There are tons and tons of teenagers out, walking the paths with linked arms and hands, still in their school uniforms: plaid skirts and sweater vests for the girls, white collared shirts and ties for the boys. I always wonder what time these students actually go home...they'll be out walking, carrying bags of chips and street food on sticks, dressed in their uniforms, even when I'm walking home from the gym at 11 pm.

The other great sight to see is the Korean businessmen drinking and smoking their lives away- late at night, every night. They sit on plastic patio chairs, huddled around small tables outside of the Korean restaurants and convenience stores, puffing cigarettes and getting drunk on soju (the hard liquor) and cans of Cass beer. At 11 pm on a Monday night, dressed in their suits and ties, probably fresh off the bus or subway from Seoul, they seem to be just getting started.

But the good thing about all of this (and Mom and Dad- this is directed at you) is that it's very safe to be out so late at night. When you're running alongside a family with toddlers on tricycles, or walking in back of two elderly women, at 10 pm on a weeknight, you get the feeling that it's okay to be out on the streets so late. I also like how the city looks at night- there's so many bright lights and colored lights, but all the worst of the city becomes hidden in the shadows. Even the sewage stream becomes pretty and peaceful, with the colored lights on the bridges reflecting off its glass surface. The air is much, much cooler, too, so you can't smell that odor that is Korea quite so intensely. Despite the lights and bustle and crowds of people at night, I still find it the most peaceful and calming time of day to be out- and with the added bonus of being able to run in the cool night's the best thing to end the day!

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Chuseok Celebration!

The last week here in Korea has been very exciting- and (as always) busy, busy, busy! We only had 3 days of school last week because it was a big holiday weekend- Chuseok, the Korean Thanksgiving. Koreans travel to their hometowns, or the towns of their ancestors, to celebrate with their families and make lots of traditional foods. I had the privilege of accompanying Christine Teacher on a visit to her uncle and aunt's home in Jeonju for our long weekend vacation. Her uncle (Bob) is married to a Korean woman (Shina), and although they normally reside in the US, they have been in Korea for the year while her uncle fulfills a Fulbright position at a local Korean university. They are the most welcoming and hospitable people! They were so excited to have us (Christine, Shauna Teacher, and myself) visit them and to share more about Korean culture with us.

We traveled about 2 hours by bus to Jeonju city, which is south of Suji. This region (SW) of Korea is said to have the best food in all the country, because it has the most arable land for farming (although it is still fairly mountainous, it is flatter than the rest of the country). We knew that it is supposed to be famous for its Bibimbap, the mixed rice dish that we all LOVE- so of course we had to sample the local cuisine! We tried the dolsot bibimbap, which is served in a big, burning hot stone pot. You mix up the ingredients (rice, dried seaweed strips, all kinds of mushrooms, shredded carrot, shredded radish, thin beef strips, bean sprouts, chili paste, etc) with the raw egg on top, and the heat from the pot cooks the egg inside the bowl. We were also served about 15 different side dishes with our lunch meal of dolsot bibimbap- which isn't unusual to see in Korea! After a meal out, your table is completely littered with dozens of dishes. Aside from the kimchi (which you can bet will always accompany your meal), we sampled tiny egg pancakes with green onion, all sorts of pickled and fermented radishes, tiny dried anchovies (this time, I was brave enough to try them- even though they still had eyes on them), and acorn jelly cubes. Part of the fun of eating out here is just seeing what different side dishes they'll bring you- and this meal was no exception- anchovies and acorn jelly??!

I hate to keep rambling on about food in this post, but our meals really turned out to be an important (and time-consuming) part of the holiday weekend! Shauna, Christine, and I thought it was okay to rationalize that we had to eat a lot anyway, since it was technically "Thanksgiving" weekend :) And our Chuseok celebration on Saturday turned out to be centered around a traditional meal, just like our Thanksgiving at home. Shina invited us to spend the day in Gwanju (a city about 1.5 hours away) with her mother, siblings, and their families. We were so excited, knowing that we'd have a great experience in store, but also a bit nervous at what sort of food they'd serve...and how to be polite by eating it all, no matter how strange! Koreans love to eat a lot, and eat often...and one of their favorite phrases is something like, "eat more! Eat more!" Also, there was that small problem of the language barrier to think about...

The experience turned out to be so amazing- we had the best time in Gwanju and were just on Cloud Nine by the end of the night!! We were so taken back with the friendliness, warmth, and genuity of Shina and her family- they welcomed us into their home by literally jumping up and down and shouting "Hello! Hello!" excitedly as our elevator door opened to their apartment floor. We were enveloped in hugs from all around, then quickly ushered into the apartment (we all remembered to leave our shoes at the door, thankfully- we're getting used to that by now!), introduced to the whole family (Shina's mother, brother, sisters, and nieces and nephews), and then shown a place at the table on the floor. The relatives had already eaten earlier, but they joined us again at the table to share a second meal and to get to know us. We had barely been introduced before they started encouraging us to eat, eat, eat!! It was all very whirl-wind...but once we sat down on the floor at the low table, we picked up our chopsticks and didn't put them down for another hour or so.

The food was absolutely delicious- Shina said her sisters and mother are very good cooks, so we were getting the best of the best! I couldn't get over the fact that I was sharing a big holiday meal with a Korean family...sitting at a table on the floor...hearing Korean spoken all around me...using chopsticks...and eating so much food that I had never tasted before. It was just amazing!! The meal selection included, but was not limited to: beef galbi (very tender, marinated, and grilled beef), jopchae (stir-fried sweet potato cellophane noodles with mixed vegetables and ham), oysters, a plate of whole fish (eyes, teeth, and all!), songpyeong (traditional Chuseok rice cakes with sweet red bean paste and sesame filling), marinated mushrooms and greens, Asian pears, chestnuts, and more.

After the meal, Shina's siblings took us on a tour around Gwanju, including a memorable last stop atop a local mountain to watch the sunset while sipping tongdongju, a sweet rice wine. We were sad to part with this Korean family at the end of the day- even though our conversations were were limited, as Shina's family didn't speak much English, it still felt as though we had communicated effortlessly. The sincerity and generosity of Shina's family was undoubtedly evident- and we felt so fortunate to have met them and shared the Chuseok holiday in their home. It was also so great to have "parents" for a weekend again- Uncle Bob and Shina. I think that was one reason we didn't want to leave their home in Jeonju on Sunday- it felt so comforting to have people looking out for us, teaching us, and of course, feeding us. What a weekend!!! :) :)