Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Singing, Celebrating, and Running

Last week we celebrated Irene's birthday at school!! This is already my fourth kindergarten birthday party in as many months as I've been teaching...and I'm kind of over them. It's unbelievable what a big deal they make out of the whole thing! I'm all for celebrating birthdays (anybody's but my own!), and especially Irene's (she is my favorite, after all!), but the whole principle of it is just ridiculous. Really, a $30 double layer chocolate mousse cake for a 5 year old and all her classmates, is that necessary?? Plus look at all that other food- the kids literally eat themselves sick, get on a massive sugar high, run around and destroy the classroom, and then crash and refuse to do any classwork. All the makings of a very productive day!

Right before Irene's birthday was another birthday celebration...mine! We decided to go out in Itaewon, which is one of the big foreign districts in Seoul. The U.S. Army base is right near there, so are many American soldiers and other Westerners living and working in the area. After dinner at a Thai restaurant, we met up with some other teachers at a big bar/restaurant nearby to start off the night! It was a FREEZING cold night- thus my fur hood and jacket in every picture. I hadn't been out in Itaewon on a Saturday night like that, so it was very exciting!! The last place we went to is called Grand Ol' Opry...picture a Country-Western imitation bar in the middle of Seoul, and then picture Ricky Bobby and basically the whole cast of "Talledega Nights." An interesting mix! Oh and don't forget the dance floor in the middle that is used especially for line dancing...lets just say there were lots of American men with crew cuts, cowboy boots, cut-off t-shirts, and big belt buckles. America's finest!! And a fine way to celebrate a 23rd birthday in Asia :)

In other news: the last week or so has been a great running week for me!! Yes, you heard right: a GREAT RUNNING WEEK! I'm still afraid that just by admitting this, it will all backfire on me...and reverse itself back into something horrible again. I had taken a bit of time off from running (or maybe I should even say "trying to run," since it wasn't going so well) while I was sick and feeling so overwhelmed and exhausted every day. That was tough- I had gotten into a nice little routine, and it seemed much easier to just forgo the whole exhaustive process of trying to get back into that routine. I had to start running on the treadmill at the gym, which is just about the most dreadful form of exercise I can imagine. I hated it...20 minutes of absolutely painful (and painfully boring) jogging. The worst part is the view from the gym: sure, there are wall-to-wall windows, but what view do they provide us with? Oh, just block after block of high-rise apartments buildings, of course. Not the most stimulating of sceneries, to say the least. I tried to keep at it, though...especially after considering just how much I've gone through up to this point to even make it onto the treadmill. I realized I owed it to myself, to my PT, to my family, and to everyone else who had to deal with my body problems in the past 4 years. Why NOT try my hardest to run while in Korea?? This is the time for trying the unexpected, the most difficult, and the most adventurous things. Surprising as it may sound, running has been at the top of that list here. It's such a scary experience for me- being so afraid that my body will fall back into its old habits, but having to trust myself enough and find the mental willpower to continue.
And last week, I feel like I was finally rewarded for some of that! I had a few really wonderful runs outside, later at night, along the stream in the city. The weather was perfectly fall, cool and windy. And cool weather meant that I couldn't even smell that old stench of sewage and pollution rising from the water next to me! I couldn't believe how good it felt- strong, swift, and energized- for a whole 50 minutes. Since then, I have done a few more longer runs like that...and I am still amazed that my body is holding up so far. And no need for the words of caution you are about to throw at me: I am still being smart about running! No overdoing it, I know my limits :)
One more story from the past week, titled "Britney Unexpectedly Becomes a Choir Member." Here's how it goes...I finally got to attend a Catholic church last Sunday. I was so excited to partake in an English mass, to meet other foreigners (and possibly Koreans) there, and to become involved in a church community again. My supervisor from school, Lucy, offered to pick me up and drive me to the church she attends- she had tried to give me directions a while ago, but I was never able to find it. She had been so excited when she found out I was Catholic, too, and she felt bad that I hadn't been able to make it to an English mass yet! The church is in Jeong-ja, which is 3 subway stops away from Suji...that is, 3 subway stops after first riding a bus from Suji to the subway station in Jukjeon, the next town over...and after then crossing a bridge and walking 10 minutes, upon exiting the Jeong-ja subway station. Sound confusing? It's really not...but it is quite a trek for 9 am Sunday mass!
Lucy drove me to the church and showed me where to go inside for the English mass: in a "chapel" 3 floors below the basement level. It was definitely an odd layout of a church, with no actual church on the ground level, and an even odder setup within the basement chapel for mass. Instead of pews, there were long rows of tables and plastic chairs. I took a seat cautiously, feeling as though I was back in school and choosing a seat in a large lecture hall. The only difference was, this large hall was completely filled with Koreans! I counted two other foreigners besides myself...both of whom were about 30 years my senior or older. My first impression: not exactly the atmosphere I had been hoping for...
The mass was alright- poor English translations in the worship guide (which I'm used to by now) and an co-mingling of Korean and English phrases by the lectors, choir, and priest alike. It was difficult for me to really feel as though I was at a mass- with the absence of a real altar, pulpit, pews, and all the other parts of the church. And I was disappointed at not seeing other foreigners, let alone anyone under the age of 60. During announcements at the end of mass, a lector asked if there were any visitors or newcomers. I timidly raised my hand a bit, lowering it and feeling relieved when the lector didn't see me. But of course, the two elderly Korean couples sitting on either side of me quickly jumped up and pointed to me, yelling out, "her! her! her!" (not making that up- I think every eye in the room turned toward me at that moment). I reluctantly stood up and said good morning, my name, and that I was an English teacher in Suji. I heard the murmur of "ahhh..." throughout the room, as that is such a common murmuring for every Korean to utter when they understand something in English (I hear this from my students every day, when they understand something, the very exaggerated "ahhh...")
Well, this little introduction sure got everyone's attention, because they all hounded me right after mass with welcomes and invitations and business cards and requests for my email and phone number...and of course, a cup of instant coffee and several toothpicks of dak (the traditional Korean sticky-rice snacks, usually filled with sweet bean paste and sesame seeds). I talked to a few of them at length, pleasantly surprised by how nice and friendly they were. Many nodded vigorously and murmured their "ahhhh...." when I said I was from Minnesota: "ahhh yes, Min-nee-soh-tah, very many waters there...ah, how do you say, lakes? Many lakes? And very cold, ahh yes very cold there!" I could tell they were excited to practice their English with me, and to see a non-Korean English speaker there...and apparently they were very eager to keep me there, because a lector immediately took down my name, number, and email, affirming briskly, "okay, yes, we see you here every Sunday now." And then they all kept saying that to me: "see you next weekend, and every weekend! Yes, see you every weekend here!"
So not only did I somehow get myself bound to the obligatory 9 am English mass at St. Matthews Church every Sunday...but I also somehow found myself agreeing to become the newest (and youngest, by a good 40 years) member of the St. Matthews English choir! Apparently, the choir director heard me talking with another choir member, and she thought I had a "very nice voice" she assumed (wrongly assumed!) that I must also have a very nice singing voice and would be a great addition to the choir! I honestly tried to say no, but then all these women came over and urged me to join! I felt so obligated to say yes, especially after they had just fed me instant coffee and sticky glutinous rice balls and were so nice!
This was a good learning experience in how to say NO to people- I tend to have problems with that. However, that doesn't translate the same in Korean culture; it can be extremely offensive to turn down help, compliments, or invitations when someone offers them to you. And since these church members had already offered me food, conversation, and an invitation to join their church, I felt that it would not sit too well with them if I kept denying their choir invitation. So, lo and behold, I was rushed off to choir practice for the next half hour (still with my instant coffee and glutinous rice snacks in hand). All the women were like, "ahhh you are the youngest one here!" Well, yes...and not by choice! I was so afraid they'd ask me to sing something by myself- and I was mentally preparing myself to flat-out refuse that! It was their decision to beg me to join- I wasn't volunteering some spectacular singing voice!!
When practice was over, the women tried to arrange for a ride home for me. Apparently, "Harry," one of two men in the English choir, lives somewhat closer to Suji. The women said, "okay Harry drive you home now. Then Sunday, Harry pick you up for church and choir practice. Practice at 8 am Sunday. See you then!"
Well.....that was the end of it for me, I had to step up and mumble something about "trying to travel a lot on the weekends..." Translation: if I'm not at choir practice at 8 am every Sunday (which I WON'T be!), or even at 9 am church there every Sunday (which I'm not planning on- not when there's other churches here to try), then just assume I'm out of town!
I figured that was better to say than to mention something along the lines of, "hmmm if I'm not there early on Sunday, it's probably because I was out at the bars and then doing noraebong karaoke until 4 am."
We shall see how this weekend pans out...and if I will indeed attend choir practice, as it is already planned by my new friends at St. Matthews Church, Jeong-ja.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Seven Days in Taiwan

If I had a lot of time on my hands right now, I'd love to sit at my computer and type a novel about my trip to Taiwan last week. But since it is nearly midnight on a Thursday night- and since I am wholly opposed to blog entries that reach novel-like lengths, I'll try to keep this as short as I possibly can.
I have swine flu to thank for this amazing trip...and my fellow travelers, Shauna and Christine, too! We were a bit bummed at first about not booking a trip to some more tropical or exotic location...but with the hassle of flights to Thailand and the Philippines (which require much more than 2 hours' notice to book and plan for), we opted to stay closer to home. One google search of "beaches, asia, cheap" later, we were already set on Taiwan as our destination- and only $200 poorer. Two hundred dollar airfare, a two-hour flight, and tropical beaches for a week- a pretty convincing argument for us to head to Taiwan!
We had googled Taiwanese currency, transportation, and attractions as much as we could in the 24 hour period before our Sunday morning flight. Other than booking a hostel in the south (the more tropical region of the country), and checking on the cost of the high-speed train to deliver us there from the north, we decided to just roll with whatever else happened during our travels. And lucky for us, Taiwan turned out to exceed any expectations we may have began with...if we had any at all, other than the google images of its beaches!
We were all immediately by its difference in landscape from Korea. Landing at the airport in Taipei, we were glued to the windows, taking in the abundance of green fields and palm trees and plants surrounding the airport. No high-rises! No hazy layer of smog between the clouds and the ground! No random patches of rocky, barren landscape in-between the cities! Before we even stepped off the airplane, we were in love with Taiwan. Lush greenery, rivers not tainted by sewage, and even flowers...Taiwan had something very valuable that Korea certainly lacks...NATURE.
And before we even left the airport, we were aware that Taiwan's culture was very different, too. It just felt so relaxed compared to Korea. No one rushing through the airport, or butting in front of you in line, or stopping at every window or reflective surface to check their reflection and fix their hair (yes, everyone does that in Korea- especially men). Maybe it was the warmer, tropical weather...or the abundance of nature and greenery...or just the overall culture...but we immediately found Taiwanese people to be much more friendly, welcoming, and hospitable than Koreans. Not that I haven't had some great experiences with Korean people- I have few complaints about them, and probably much less than a typical Korean would have with any given American! But it was so apparent that the Taiwanese were much more open, much less concerned with themselves, and more willing to initiate acts of friendliness and generosity.
I wish I could describe to you our every encounter with a friendly or generous Taiwanese person...but that would take forever! We met so many incredible people, especially down south where it was more rural. Our hostel owners (Terry, a Canadian man-turned-Taiwanese teacher-surfer, and his wife Ee, a Taiwanese woman) ranked at the top- they were so personable and willing to do anything to ensure a great vacation for us! They even drove us to best, but most obscure, beach in the area- which turned out to be our beach of choice for the week. It was so beautiful- isolated from the rest of the resort town, surrounded by a thick jungle of palm trees, and covered in white sand. We practically had the whole beach to ourselves for most of the days- and we were perfecly content to just set up camp in the same spot each day, with our snacks from 7-Eleven (basically the ONLY option for convenience stores in Taiwan- they're everywhere!) and our sunscreen.
And even on the beach, we met some very interesting people- including a few young Taiwanese who were so excited to see Americans and to practice their English that they ran over to us excitedly and asked to take our pictures. They kept saying, "you're all so cute! You're all so beautiful!" It was funny- we felt like celebrities! But we were also very taken aback at first- that definitely never happened in Korea...people in Korea don't give you much more than a glance, if even that. Americans and other foreigners just aren't acknowledged as much as in Taiwan, or as in China (so I've heard about China- but it seems likely that Taiwan would be similar, since they have a strong Chinese culture and background, too). They also invited us out for drinks with them that night- so much fun!! They were hilarious- and just so friendly! As they helped us find a taxi home later in the night, they all gave us a million hugs, made us promise to "stay in touch" through facebook, and said that they would "miss us so much!!" So funny- but also very refreshing to meet such truly kind and friendly people. We were sad to only have known them for a day before they had to leave!
Our days in the south passed by so quickly- with the majority of the hours spent at Baishwana Beach. When it came time to make the trek back up north, where we would fly out of in a few days, we were so reluctant to leave...and considered just skipping our intended days and nights in Taipei. To think of leaving the jungles of palm trees...the beaches...the open fields...the small towns...a VERY unappealing idea! We were not ready to transition back into city life...not in Taiwan, and certainly not in Korea just yet. We were definitely spoiled by our short time in the south, with its tropical weather, lazy island lifestyle, and our beloved Surf Shack hostel.
Taipei brought us some pretty interesting adventures though, too- and I immediately felt as though I'd love to have another week just to explore that city in itself. It was a very beautiful city- as far as big cities go. You could definitely see that it's a more recently-developed city- the architecture, the landscaping, just the overall urban design were all very modern and efficient. And the subway was laughably easy, compared to Korea's! We visited one of the famous night markets when we first arrived- a chaotic mess of streets and alleys lined with vendors selling everything clothes, shoes, bags, jewelry, tropical fruits, smoothies, puppies and kittens and even pet mice! We wandered through the food building first, which reminded me of the state fair- row after overwhelming row of street food, with every vendor yelling at you to try their squid on a stick, or their stir-fried chicken anus (yes- truly), or their pig liver (again, yes-truly). It was loud, crowded, dirty, and smelled strangely like the swine barn at the state fair. But the food we tried was delicious, hard to believe...but it's definitely for the brave of stomach (and nose).
On our last night in Taipei- and in Taiwan- we visited the 101 Tower. Interesting story how this building got its has 101 floors and is the tallest building in the world! Check out my picture of it above, once again- it looks freakishly tall compared to the rest of the city- and that is not photo-edited, or super-imposed (though it is a picture I got from the internet, ha). Taking the elevator up to the top? No big deal...unless you are deathly afraid of heights, as I am, and unless that elevator also happens to be the fastest elevator in the world. Well....I can still hardly believe it, but I had quite the record-breaking night with our visit to the tower...tallest building in the world, fastest elevator in the world (it reaches the top in just 45 seconds)...and I overcame both of those phobias at once! On a psychology sidenote, it was a perfect example of "flooding" therapy, which is used to help people overcome their phobias. Basically, you "flood" the person with the object or context of their phobia- so that they are forced to overcome the full extent of the phobia all at once. Well, I really outdid myself on that one!!
The view from the top of the building was absolutely was a perfectly clear night and not too windy (a hellishly windy night on the top of a 101-story building? No thank you). I was so happy with myself for going through with it- SO worth it!!!!
And we were all so happy with ourselves for taking a risk and heading to was definitely not a country I had ever intended on visiting, or even knew that much about, aside from the fact that it's in Asia. But I'm hooked on it now- I know I have to go back! Still can't believe all of that happened in just a week.....thank you, swine flu pandemic '09!!!

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Halloween at LCI!!

Just got back from a WONDERFUL, unexpected vacation to Taiwan!! I'll blog about that trip later...let me first explain how it came about. The school had warned us a week ago that parents and local health officials were beginning to panick about the sudden spread of H1N1 in Seoul schools...although we hadn't yet had any cases within our LCI, the school directors informed us that any confirmed case would be enough to shut the school down for awhile. We all weren't quite sure how to react to this would be great to have an unexpected break from teaching, if only for a few days, but any days off would mean either a cut in pay or the dreadful possibility of having to make those days teaching on Saturdays.

It was a frustrating work week, having that information in mind while also trying to prepare for Halloween. The directors ended up cutting some of our Halloween activities in order to make it more "swine flu prevention-friendly." Friday Oct 30 was supposed to be our big ay-long Halloween bash- with a haunted house, schoolwide Halloween song contest, snack bar, games and prizes, and face painting (which I volunteered for, how did you guess??). Instead, most of the kindergarteners showed for school that morning dressed in their costumes and breathing masks (clearly a sign of their over-concerned parents), and we were only allowed to leave our classrooms in 10-minute intervals to visit the haunted house and grab a snack of hot dogs on a stick and shrimp-flavored corn chips (Korea's idea of Halloween treats is not quite on par with America's).

The kids were all disappointed, especially about not being able to perform their Halloween song in front of the whole school. Instead, each class performed individually in front of the school directors- not much fun in that! I was secretly kind of glad though- my kids sucked!! We had practiced so much, and they LOVED the song, but they absolutely bombed that performance. I was so mad while I watched them stomp around the stage, jump up and down, or just stare at the "audience" blankly. Oh well- teaching 10 6-year olds a new song is quite the daunting task anyways- I wasn't expecting much!
Like my pics of my Halloween decorations in my classroom?? The other teachers were pretty baffled by how much time I spent making all the decorations- but honestly, that was one of the best things about teaching here so far!! My kids loved them- every time they walked into the room and saw something new I had put up, they'd just scream and jump up and down excitedly :)

The week leading up to Oct 30 Halloween bash was "Spirit Week" (ironic, since us teachers were feleing the least amount of spirit yet this year, given the news about the cancelling of Halloween activities and possibly closing of the school we had just heard). But it was so much fun to see the kinders everyday, dressed in the daily theme: pajama day, crazy hair day, sports day, and backwards day. Some of my favorite pics of them are above.
Spirit Week ended with the news that the school would be closing down for one full school week, so 9 days including the weekends. There was definitely a stunned silence in the staff room when they told us this, at 6:30 pm the night before Halloween, while we were all still in our Halloween costumes for the day's festivities. The staff announced that while there was no "serious confirmed case" at our school (leading us to wonder whether there was in fact a confirmed case, just not a serious one), the concern of the parents and of local elementary school officials was enough to override the school. As we took in this news, I know that the foremost thing on our minds was not "how will we make up these days?" or, "how will be end up being paid for this shut-down week?", but rather, "Nine day vacation!!! Where can we travel to in that amount of time??? Let us out of this room so that we can rush home and check for cheap airfare to ANYWHERE!!!"

And so we did- and Shauna, Christine, and I ended up finding flights to Taipei, Taiwan for just over $200. We planned a beach vacation in southern Taiwan, including hostels and high-speed train plans, in less than 24 hours. It was a nerve-wracking 24 hours, especially since my Dad was still staying with me until the next week, but we did it!! And in my next entry you will hear all about it!!