Monday, January 25, 2010

You know you've been in Korea a long time, when...

Dinner after a long weeks' work- tteok boki and gimbap. A convenient, traditional, and cheap eat in Suji!
Mmmm tteok boki...squishy rice cakes stir-fried in a spicy sauce. Don't they look appetizing??

Namsan Mtn. Tower in Seoul- visited there with Lindsey, a friend who's teaching in Seoul. Beautiful at night! On the top of Namsan Mtn.
Namsan at night

They LOOK fake...but nope, they are definitely real...and definitely for sale at the market
My best guess: frog carcasses? Sold for some possible medicinal purpose?

These snow pics are a bit overdue- but here is Suji after the snowfall, Korea's heaviest snowfall in 103 years!
My street: nothing MN hasn't seen before...but a pretty shocking scene for Korea
Stepping out of my apartment....SNOW!! are about to work on a Saturday, and you eat Korean street food for dinner.
What a strange week...about to call it an early bedtime on a Friday night (which isn't actually so odd here, considering how exhausted I am by the end of each week), but also preparing for another day of school tomorrow. Making up a recent snow day (see pics above) by working a Saturday. That can really do a number on your work mentality, beginning the week on Monday while bearing in mind that you will only have one day's rest for the next 13 work days. My only solace was my guilty pleasure Korean street food that Shauna and I treated ourselves to after school...feeling MUCH too tired to even consider cooking dinner (although at 2,000Won, or less than $2 each, you'd hardly consider these foods to be a "treat")
The first picture is tteok boki, which is technically a big mess of soft, squishy rice cakes in a sweet and spicy sauce. They sound disgusting, are impossible to chew, and hardly look appealing when you see them all lumped together in a heap of bright orange sauce...but they're also delicious. I can't even believe I'm admitting to loving them right now...I think that's a sure sign that I've definitely been in Korea awhile, because they're one of those foods that foreigners don't quite understand the appeal to, and initially gag at the sight of (and aren't afraid to say out loud, "this is seriously FOOD? And people seriously LIKE this?"). I feel like there's a lot of Korean food like that looks, sounds, and smells pretty that I initially swore I'd never try, or like, and especially not crave. But here I am, feeding my tired body exactly what it doesn't need, but what every other Korean is feeding themselves...salt, sugar, spicy red sauce, and most importantly, some form of rice.
My other latest- and believe me, surprising- craving is gimbap (shown in the second picture avove, with the tteok boki). I like to call it the Poor Man's Sushi...and if you tried it, too, you'd probably agree. Koreans are obsessed with it- they sell it at every convenience store, gas station, traditional restaurant. My students bring it for snacks. Families carry it in their backpacks while hiking. It's like a giant sushi roll- rice wrapped in sheets of salty dried seaweed ("gim" means seaweed, and bap means rice...put the two together and you've got gimbap!) Unlike fancy sushi, however, gimbap can be filled with some or all of the following: cucumber, pickled cucumber, yellow radish, pickled radish, cabbage, pickled cabbage, sprouts, spam, bulgogi (thin marinated beef strips), tuna, and even cheese. Honestly, I don't really want to know all that is in my gimbap...
And I posted a few other pictures here for your viewing delight of the fine delicacies of Korean culture...whole pigs' heads and frog carcass, which I really hope were sold at a market in Seoul for medicinal purposes only, and not for purpose of cuisine.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Hangul and Haircuts

Two weeks back from Christmas break, and I'm feeling ready for another vacation...
Even those first two snow days right after break turned out to be not-so-lucky...we have to make them up by working a Saturday. With that 6-day workweek looming in the near future, and the recent removal of kindergarten playtime at school (in order to schedule more practice time for the big school pageant coming up in February), I'm already feeling pretty overwhelmed and exhausted at the idea of getting through the next few weeks. Otherwise, it hasn't been too exciting here lately...aside from the heaviest snowfall that Korea has seen in 103 years, no big deal! And the freezing temps lately (though not as cold as MN, as I know a lot of you would be quick to point out). Namu-chuwa-yo! ("It's so cold!")

I've been trying to study my Korean just about every day, writing down all the characters of the alphabet (called Hangul) whenever I can and sounding out the words on signs and stores everywhere I go. When Christine and I first learned the alphabet (one Sunday at Starbucks after church- because you can't expect to learn Korean without the atmosphere of an expensive American coffee chain), it was like a whole new world opened up to us...we were literally walking down the street, stopping at every storefront and street sign to sound out the characters...and then jumping up and down in excitement when we actually recognized a word. It has opened up an unbelievable new world of possibilities (we can read menus! make sure we're getting on the right bus!

The only problem is that we don't understand about 99% of what we read...but that's a minor detail right now, I'm still basking in my glory of learning the whole alphabet. I've started on some basic verbs and conjugations, plus some useful vocabulary like the days of the week and how to say "puppy" and "shark" (the latter of which is useful only if you have a boyfriend who is a really big fan of sharks- good thing I do). I'm so much more in-tune with what I hear around me now...and what I see all around me! While I'm working out, I'll read and repeat all the Korean words printed on the elliptical or stairmaster, or try to read any street signs I can see out the windows.

It's so tempting to ask my students for new Korean words, or to sound out something for them to check my pronunciation...but since they're not allowed to speak any Korean in school, even during their breaks, it's not a good idea to. That's why I really wish I could start a Korean class now, or get a tutor...but it just doesn't seem possible, with the long hours at school everyday. I feel like I barely have enough time to get home, make dinner, and get to the gym...trying to fit in a Korean class at night would be pretty tough. I do think it's helpful, though, to have some understanding of the language while teaching, and that it would have been much more helpful to have had an understanding from the very beginning. Most public school contracts here for foreign teachers include basic Korean classes or tutors...wish we just had that! I can really see now why my students pronounce words and sounds the way they do, or why their sentences always seem myseteriously devoid of a subject and articles. For example, my kinders will say something like, "My book get, please," when trying to express that they will go get their book. We'd say it, "May I get my book?" but in Korean, they reverse the order and drop the subject and articles.

Sorry if that sounds confusing- it helps me to really think it out, and then write it out, to fully understand how the language that little explanation was just as much for me as it was for you :)

To Mom and Bridget: I learned how to read and speak Korean this year. What did you learn? Oh wait, doesn't matter, I win.

And one more thing: I got my hair cut for the first time here last week, and it was quite a disaster. Other teachers had gone to this salon, so I thought I'd be fairly safe with it...but apparently my insistence that they only cut "little, little bit" was lost in mean "little hair," as in, "cut it very short!"

Not what I had intended...but I guess I know for next time to NOT use the phrase "little, little bit" when describing a haircut.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

A Hong Kong Christmas

There's Hong Kong! You can see both pensisulas- Hong Kong Island and Kowloon Peninsula

This is the tram that brought us to the top of Victoria's Peak, up on a mountain overlooking the whole city and both peninsulas. It's the steepest incline by a tram anywhere in the world! (basically vertical at some points...just a bit scary)
This is very representative of our time in HK (for Christine and I, at least): it didn't quite feel like Christmas until we had our first gingerbread latte from Starbucks!

At Hong Kong Disneyland, with a few of the "elves." Disney was all decked out in holiday lights, decorations, and costumes

You have NO idea how happy it made Darren to find cotton candy ("candy floss") at Ngong Pong village on the top of the mountain, when we were visiting Big Buddha. After nearly 2 weeks in Asia, he was ready for some American junk food again!!
Po Lin Monastery, also up on the mountain near Big Buddha. This monastery was so enchanting...incense burning all around it, surrounded by palm trees and bright, beautiful was so incredible and peaceful

The entrance to the Po Lin was so foggy up there on the mountain

Statues surrounding the Big Buddha

Big Buddha: the world's largest bronze of the most incredible sights I've ever seen

These stairs led up to the Big Buddha. That's Ngong Ping village in the background

The fog kept rolling in and out...when we first got up there, we could barely even see the outline of the Buddha. But within 20 minutes, the fog had completely cleared for a few minutes. So foggy...

In the cable car, heading up the mountains to Big Buddha. Notice the gingerbread man...he accompanied Darren on his travels as a special request from a kindergarten teacher at his school, to take pics of the gingerbread man around Asia to show her class :)

Cable cars climbing up the mountains...over the water...

We opted for the "crystal cabin"- the new glass-bottomed cable cars. So cool...not even that scary!!

Everywhere in the city, there were beautiful Christmas decorations, lights, and trees set up

A temple on the side of the road in HK

Enjoying our Dim Sum experience: Dim Sum is like Chinese tapas, or appetizers that they eat with tea. We had jasmine tea and some of the following (which don't sound too appetizing but were actually pretty good): barbecued pork buns, steamed pork buns, glutinous rice with meat and vegetables wrapped in a lotus leaf, scallop and crab rice balls, egg and mango rice ball, shrimp and pork buns

So Darren accidentally ordered chicken claws as one Dim Sum choice...I had thought he was just being adventurous when I heard him ask the waiter for them!!
The exterior of the Jumbo Restaurant- all kinds of cool dragons and beautiful Chinese designs
The Jumbo Floating Restaurant
We took a boat like these ones out around the harbor to get to the Jumbo Restaurant
Another view from the top of Victoria's Peak...this was the closest I could get to the edge!

Waiting for our little boat to carry us out to Jumbo

No big deal, just doing some stretches on the pier at Repulse Bay beach...I'm actually demonstrating the "windmill" exercises my Grandma Helen used to do! Repulse Bay: there were some pretty crazy (and expensive-looking) apartments overlooking the bay behind us Repulse Bay beach: a bit too chilly for swimming though....

Statues for sale at Stanley Market
The view from our balconies at the Maryknoll House in Stanley: beautiful!

View from our rooms and balconies- Stanley bay- it was covered in fog every morning

Darren, me, Molly, and Molly's roommate Amy- just getting some snacks (and Guinness?) from our beloved 7-Eleven Merry Christmas from Hong Kong!!!
Molly, Christine, and I- the crazy, chaotic streets of HK
At some points, you could narely even see the sky because every inch of space around you was people, buildings, traffic, or felt kind of claustraphobic
We got these Santa hats for free at the obviously, we had to put them to good use

Down by the bay...Stanley Bay

The pier down at Stanley Bay

Best friends- Asian reunion!
(and yes, we had just gotten Starbucks...naturally)
Lunch down by Stanley Bay
Stanley Bay Beach- the only sunny day!

Stanley Bay Beach

Boats in Stanley Bay

Beautiful church for Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve
Just arrived in HK on Christmas Eve! Hong Kong Disney

Dumbo ride at Disney

Christine and I with the Big Buddha

It's nice that I actually have the time, so soon after this trip, to write this: we're on our second snow day from school! We woke up Monday morning to a snowstorm brewing outside...and panic brewing across all of Seoul, as the city struggled to get moving in about six inches of snow. It was so peaceful to watch the snow falling from inside my top-floor apartment...and to stay in my pajamas and drink tea, instead of diving back into the work routine. Happy Extended Christmas Vacation to us! Apparently this is the most snow that Korea has seen in 103 years...I think the total right now is around 12 inches (so not too impressive by MN standards, but record-breaking by Korean standards!). Until the snow melts somewhat, there's no way for them to clear off the roads here...they don't have snow plows or anything like it, since they're not accustomed to getting more than just a dusting of snow at a time! Right now I'm waiting to hear if the school will open for afternoon elementary classes...I'm crossing my fingers that it doesn't, even though I am excited to see my students's just so nice to go a bit longer without the stress and responsibilities again!
Got back from Hong Kong on Dec.31, just in time to ring in the new year with our Korean taxi driver as he drove us back to Suji. He had initially asked if we were from Canada, and when we corrected him and said the US, he got very excited and said, "Oh USA, yes! Number one! Number one!" and then, "Canada, number two! Number two!) :D When we got back to Suji, we dumped our bags in our apartments and then bundled up for a nice, cold, midnight walk to McDonalds (by this point, I was too tired and weary from traveling to fight Darren's insistence that we eat American fast food). We enjoyed a fancy feast of McChicken sandwiches, fries, and milkshakes while discussing our respective New Years' resolutions...who would have ever thought??
Hong Kong was pretty amazing- like a huge, chaotic, and incredibly diverse mix of old and new, East and West. I felt like I didn't even know what nationality everyone around me was...there were Chinese, and British, and Chinese who spoke with British accents, and Taiwanese, and Filipinos, and Africans, and Australians, and Indians...much more of an international city than I had realized. One of the strangest sights, which my friend had warned us about, was seeing the hundreds (maybe even thousands) of Filipino women lining the sidewalks and public spaces on Christmas and on Sunday. These women represent a majority of domestic workers (i.e. nannies, servants, housekeepers) who don't have any other place to go on their days off, since they live at their house of on those holidays and Sundays, they literally take over the city and sit out on the sidewalks and in parks, as though they're tail-gating for some big event. We initially thought they were staking out spots for some Christmas parade, seeing them sitting there in groups, huddled on blankets while drinking Boonesfarm wine (seriously), eating from big tupperwares of Filipino food, playing cards, and even facebooking on mini laptops (also, seriously). They were so many of them, it was such a crazy sight!
Our first hostel in Hong Kong was a bit...sketchy. It was in what seemed to be a Little India community, on one of the busiest streets in all of HK (called the "Golden Mile"). It was incredibly overwhelming to step outside the hostel building and just be immediately swept away in a tide of millions of people. Navigating the subways was about the same, especially around Christmas- so packed with people! We ended up forgoing our second night in the hostel and opting for "The Maryknoll Option" instead- staying at the Markynoll Guesthouse down south in Stanley, with Molly (best friend from college who's teaching as a Maryknoll volunteer in mainland China for the year- we had planned to meet up in HK). The Maryknoll house was a like a big, beautiful oasis, compared to that first hostel- situated up on the highest hill overlooking Stanley Bay, surrounded by greenery and palm trees, rooms with was so peaceful! We basically had the place to ourselves- aside from a few of the Maryknoll brothers and priests who live or visit there.
It was so great to see Molly again! Even though we had talked about Asian reunions when we were both dreaming of Asia and applying for teaching jobs last year, I still wasn't certain that we'd actually end up seeing each other. Molly took us to a beautiful church for Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve- it was so packed full of people that we had to sit on the back lawn, watching the service on a big screen. It was very magical, with the high-rises and lights of the city twinkling in the background, and the sounds of the mass, and of Christmas carols, filling the night air. Other than at mass, though, it just didn't quite feel like Christmas...maybe if I had been in Korea, in the place I now know as "home," it would have felt more like Christmas. But there in Hong Kong, even with some of the people I love, it just wasn't Christmas because it wasn't Minnesota...
This entry will have to be cut short now- just found out that I have to head in to school for afternoon elementary classes! I guess 1.5 snow days is nothing to complain about...
Happy New Year!!!