Friday, May 28, 2010


This one's for you, Mom: the Korean version of road trip McDonald's iced coffees: a little McCafe at 6 am, ready to board the train for Busan!

Tom n Toms Coffee: one of the most popular coffee chains in Korea. Of course, Britney and Christine had to take a picture to represent their favorite Toms (Haeg and Grotjohn, respectivel)
And don't worry about the third coffee picture of the weekend, representing the Midwest with a little Caribou Coffee! I've seen a few Caribous in Seoul, plus this one in Busan. Starbucks, to be expected...but Caribou? Strange.
Near the port in Busan- the only beautiful weather of the weekend!
Saturday: rain, all day long. This was supposed to be our Beach Day...
Awkward, not only because I'm wearing a rain jacket at the beach...but also because I had realized a split second prior to this shot that if I don't make the Asian peace sign in a picture these days, I don't know what to do with my hands. Guess I'll have to work on this before I come home. A beautiful Buddhist temple along the coast that we visited on Sunday- decorated with thousands upon thousands of colorful lanterns

Sunday = what else, pouring rain. But ridiculously overpriced, neon yellow rain ponchos bought on the street saved the day!
Nothing completes a cold, rainy day like a boiling hot pot of kimchi jjigae! A red stew made with kimchi, red pepper paste, onions, tofu, egg, pork, rice cakes, and more

The long-awaited long weekend celebration of Buddha's Birthday in Busan- a weekend of rain, naturally.
The journey down there was slow, but of course the day of travel was marked by sunny, cloudless blue skies and soaring temperatures. We had opted for the normal (read: slow) train ride down south, given that we made our travel plans a bit late in the game and had once again forgotten the many other million Koreans also making travel plans during this important holiday weekend (one of only two national holidays during the year in which most Koreans are granted a day off from work). KTX high-speed train: booked. Bus: highly dangerous option, considering the number of cars to be expected on the roads at any given time, at any given place in Korea, throughout the holiday weekend. Truly, the normally 4-hour long bus ride could (and has actually been rumored to) turn into a journey of double the time, due to heavy traffic. The "normal" train was quite the experience: we had all been picturing a spacious car that would grant us a leisurely ride of a few hours, in which we would marvel over the scenery of the Korean countryside and engage in deep conversations. Quite the opposite: we learned very quickly that the "normal" train is a very popular means of transportation for those people who don't have a strong preference for comfort, personal hygiene, and luxuries while traveling. In other words, the railways sell not only reserved seat tickets, but also an almost-unlimited number of "standing room only" tickets...because there's just that many people in Korea!
We were squeezed like sardines into our train car- me squished against the window next to an older Korean man who was sitting a bit too close for comfort (although to give him the benefit of the doubt, he had quite a few elbows, backs, and other body parts in dangerously close proximity to himself, given his more vulnerable position in the aisle seat). The aisles were positively crammed with people- the young and the old, sitting and standing, some reading intensely, others chatting rapidly on their cell phones, and still others staring out the windows aimlessly the entire 4.5 hour trip (or at least, as much of the window as they could see, which was probably not a significant amount). You can imagine the stale, stuffy air of that train car...too many people, too many smells, and too much time spent wishing I was anywhere but in that train car.
Needless to say, we were incredibly happy to be free of the train, 4.5 hours later as we rolled into Busan station. We noticed the difference in landscape, atmosphere, and the population, as soon as we stepped outside of the station. It felt like a much different pace from Seoul- slower, more relaxed, more carefree. True, Busan is the second-largest city in Korea, but it just seemed so much freer of the constant stimulation that plagues Seoul at all hours of the day and night. The city was certainly packed with foreigners, though- it seemed as though every foreign teacher in all of Korea had made the trek to this coastal city for the holiday weekend.
The one downside of the weekend? Oh, well that would just be the rain that started on Saturday morning and did not stop...did not even let up...for the entire weekend. When we arrived in Busan on Friday afternoon, the weather was perfect. We naively planned a beach day for tomorrow, dismissing the forecast for "a chance of rain, with overcast skies," truly believing that since we had put so much effort into our journey south (and had endured such atrocities on the train ride), of course the weather would turn out to be just beautiful, in our favor. Still, we managed to see a lot of the city- a huge fish and seafood market (even though I've been to a few in Korea now, those never get old!), a huge ferris wheel overlooking the ocean (just another impressive feat of me conquering my fear of heights, no big deal), and visiting some beautiful Buddhist temples (decorated in amazing colors for the holiday). The best was the temple along the coast that we visited on Sunday (see my pictures above): it was breathtaking, built upon the rocks and cliffs of the coast, so vibrant and peaceful at the same time, almost like a dream because of the dreary, blurry, rainy weather. Some 2,000 won ($1.50 US) neon yellow rain ponchos saved our lives that day!
Very good trip, even despite the amazing time with amazing friends, Shauna and Christine! :)

Friday, May 7, 2010

Happy Birthday, Buddha! (and other May celebrations)

Topgol Park in Seoul, near the site of the Lantern Festival and parade for Buddha's Birthday

The lanterns hung in the park were mesmerizing!

And the sunny, blue skies definitely added a bit of beauty...

Lanterns are hung like this in many streets, temples, and parks across Korea in anticipation of Buddha's Birthday They looked like bright balloons against the sky...
I couldn't stop taking pictures!

We painted little wooden Buddha magnets at the Lantern festival

My Buddha...wish I could have sat there for hours, painting more!

Temple food: rice and vegetables, wrapped in a lotus leaf
Lotus leaf-wrapped rice: you were not as delicious as I'd hoped you'd be

The hub of the lantern festival: Jogyesa Temple and shrine
It was packed with tourists and worshippers...and of course, paper lanterns
Walking under a tent of paper lanterns!
Lanterns on display, made by Buddhists from around the world. This one was my favorite!

Lantern parade: miles and miles, thousands upon thousands of lanterns and people
Buddhist monks carrying their lanterns

Lantern floats from around the world

Most of them were Buddhism/peace/unity related...but there were definitely a few wild cards in there. Umm...promotion of safe syringe usage??

It can't be an Asian parade without the giant dragon head!! I kind of feel like my life is complete, now that I've seen one of these with my own eyes!!
Again...not too sure what this float was trying to promote...
And in other birthday celebrations...Happy Birthday, Kindergarten Chris!!

The birthday boy, looking his best!!
What a month of celebrations! Korea in May has been pretty good to me so more kindergarten birthday already, the onset of steady warm weather, anticipation of upcoming vacations, and 3 major holidays...can't complain!
Wednesday, May 5th was Children's Day, a national holiday that granted us a day off from school. It was absolutely perfect- sunny and 70s, a day meant for laying around in the park (a.k.a. the small grassy patch in between high-rises), eating bibimbap for lunch, and just feeling thankful for the opportunity to be in Korea, teaching the most adorable children in the entire world. I kept hoping I'd see some of my students around Suji that'd think that's virtually impossible, given the vast population of Suji, but it has happened before...and it's just about the greatest feeling you can have as a teacher :)
It also made me happy to see so many children out with their families that day, just enjoying the sunshine (well, enjoying the sunshine in their long pants, shirts, hats, scarves, gloves, and sun umbrellas) and the freedom of the day. Children here aren't really given that freedom to be children any given day of the week, with their strict schedules of education and extracurriculars...attending both Korean and English school from 8-7 pm every day, plus often having school on Saturdays, doesn't leave the average Korean child much time for fun and games. This day reminded me of how many more freedoms children in the U.S. have...I don't think my students would even believe me if I told them that many American children go right home after school to just watch TV, drink pop, and play video games. I realize that these may all be biased observations of Korean children and education, given that I've only been teaching at a private English school here, but it still makes me thankful for the freedom I was given as a child to just be a child, enjoying spontaneity and free time and individuality. That doesn't seem to exist here for children!
Children's Day this month was followed closely by another great holiday (at least according to me): Teachers' Day! Celebrating the value and accomplishments of teachers everywhere in Korea by giving flowers, gifts, cards, and lots of hugs...what a novel concept! :) I received homemade cards from all my kindergartners and from many of my elementary students...all of which said, in some form or another, "Britney Teacher, thank you. I love you." And since the parents at my ritzy private school love to compete and try to outdo each other with spending money on their children and their children's teachers, I also received a collection of expensive gifts: Chanel eyeshadow and lipstick, earrings, roses, brand-name bath and beauty products, and more. Other teachers received everything from cologne and perfume to Coach bags, Swarovski crystal necklaces, and fancy leather wallets. Not a bad day for any of us!
And just after Teachers' Day was the Lantern Festival, marking the celebrated week of Buddha's Birthday. The actual holiday is on Friday, May 21st this year, but the Sunday prior is the huge, international celebration representing Buddhist culture from around Asia: Korea, China, Japan, Nepal, India, and Sri Lanka. The celebration was held in Seoul, in a Buddhist-influenced neighborhoods surrounding a prominent temple. The weather was warm, the skies were clear and sunny, and the streets were absolutely packed with people and paper lanterns. Seeing all the bright-colored lanterns strung above the streets and across the temples is a sight I'll never forget...perhaps one of the most beautiful and enchanting sites I've ever seen. I couldn't take enough pictures of them all!!
The lantern parade commenced in the evening, as soon as dusk fell around 7 pm...and it continued for over two and a half hours...with the continuous marching of thousands upon thousands of people. I heard that more than 100,000 people partake in this parade...and I can't even fathom the number of paper lanterns present! There were lanterns of all shapes, sizes, and colors...and huge floats of paper lanterns pushed along by Buddhists, in the likeness of giant Buddhas and elephants and dragons. Every single float was amazing, seeing them glow against the backdrop of crowded streets and sidewalks, hearing the steady beat of drums as traditional Korean dancers and muscians marched along...with the occasional lull in clamor and celebration, as a troup of Buddhist monks would pass by in their identical robes, silently carrying their lanterns and prayer beads. The whole scene was mesmerizing, magical, and incredibly peaceful...feeling the positive energy of the Buddhist parade participants reflected back in the crowds lining the streets...and knowing that all of these hundreds of thousands of people were present for a single cause of celebration. It was a beautiful, truly collective celebration...and I felt so fortunate to have been witness to it. Definitely one of the most memorable experiences in Korea!
I'll finish celebrating Buddha's Birthday this weekend, taking advantage of our long weekend off from school by traveling by train to the southern city of Busan! Very excited- haven't been that far south in Korea yet. The celebrations and perks of May continue...

Bibimbap on Teachers' Day...wouldn't have it any other way!!

See that dust-like coating on the car? Now imagine that in your pores...and in your nasal cavity...and in your lungs. Welcome to Korea in the height of yellow dust season!

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Spring Weekends

Christine and I on the peak of the mountain in Suji

A hiker surveying the city below...

On the peak...being Korean
High rises, high rises, high rises

Oriental Medicine and Herb Market...need some hooves?

Bags and bags of loose tea

Twigs, berries, leaves, roots...and who knows what else??
Exactly what it looks like...a big ol' bin of chicken feet for sale
And here's the rest of the chicken! Octopus-in-a-bag Twigs? Cinnamon sticks? So many kindergarten birthdays...promise, I do actually teach sometimes...
Perfect picture. Thank you, Jamie :) Happy birthday, Julianna!
Pottery in Insadong, in guilty pleasure. I could look at this pottery all day, any day.. Tea store in Insadong
Beautiful trees in Suji
Lots of blossoms! Warm weather, sunny skies, cherry blossoms...can it really be spring in Suji?!
Street food...bacon-wrapped hot dogs. Any takers?
7-Eleven snacks...packaged corn sampler?
One of my favorite galbi restaurants...that's spicy pork and tteok (rice cakes) cooking on the grill at our table So many little dishes on the table!
This is kindergarten Sean. We celebrated his birthday last week, even though he had just gotten sick (in the classroom, all over the floor, in front of the table with the cake and all the food) minutes earlier. The Korean staff stuck a party hat on him and made him take birthday pictures, even though he was crying...some of their logic, I will just never understand!
The Birthday Boy is still not looking too happy...would you be?!
Britney Teacher's class

FINALLY- writing this on Sunday night, at my desk that faces the lone windows in my that are FINALLY open to let in a warm spring night's breeze. And it only took until May 1st!
Today was absolutely beautiful...sunny and 72 degrees, with just enough of a breeze. I hated having to waste some of that precious time outdoors by making the hour-long trek into Seoul by bus for church...but this time was very much redeemed by the afternoon I spent hiking with Christine! We returned to a mountain in Suji, just blocks behind our school, that we had climbed back in the fall. It felt pretty surreal to be returning six months later with the same intent of enjoying beautiful weather while scaling the peak. How was that six months ago?! Where has the time gone between then and now?!
The trails were hopping with Koreans decked out in their full hiking gear...visor, face mask, handkerchief around the neck, dri-fit shirt, vest, hiking boots, hiking backpack, and even hiking poles. Many hikers were even toting along their dogs...fluffy little lap dogs who are generally dressed up in obnoxious sweaters and hairbows...certainly dogs that should not be scaling mountains! Every hiker carried a backpack, no doubt stuffed with mageoli (Korean rice wine), gimbap (rolls of seaweed stuffed with rice, spam, pickled radish, cucumber, and more), and dried squid to gnaw on at the rest points (rest points which include, but are not limited to, the following: exercise equipment, hula hoops, dumbbells, and even mirrors- for reapplying makeup, obviously). This is Korean hiking culture, in a nutshell.
And then there was Christine and our college t-shirts and tennis shoes. We passed many hikers who, after doing a double-take at seeing foreigners climbing the mountain beside them, were eager to offer their lone words of English to us: "Hello! Nice to meet you! Hiking!" It was very cool, though, to see the crowds of families out hiking together on a weekend afternoon...would you see this at home, teenage children trekking along after their parents up a mountain in the middle of a Sunday afternoon? Grandmothers and grandfathers, decked out in their North Face gear and head scarves, strolling up a mountain peak? Definitely not. I love this part of their culture, the love and respect for the mountains that surround and define their country. It puts many values into perspective...the importance of good, old-fashioned exercise outside, the appreciation for nature (no matter how scarce it is, in a city like Seoul), and the focus on hiking as a family activity. Never mind that just about every Korean man would qualify as a smoker...and that they tend to drink their soju (Korean rice vodka) like least they still value and promote hiking as a healthy cultural activity!
Sitting on the peak of the mountain, Christine and I were again reminded of the enormity of the city we've been living in for the past 8 months...surveying the land below is like viewing a tiny model of a city packed to the brim with high-rise apartments and buildings. Mountain, mountain, stretch of high-rises...mountain, mountain, stretch of diversity of landscape or lapse in this pattern, as far as the eye can see. I still can't even fathom the number of people living within the city of Seoul, and especially within its outer limits like Suji. Amazing!

On Saturday, we went to the Oriental Herb and Medicine Market in Seoul...I had been there in the winter but wanted to experience it again when it was actually bearable weather to be outside and linger around the curious stalls of unknown roots, herbs, and animal parts. This market was much kinder to us as foreigners than the last fish market...many questions of our origin, such as one man asking, "Where you make in?" We were confused until he continued, "Me, make in Korea. You, where make in?" Ahhh...translation: where are we from? I bought some loose green tea (nokcha) from a nice vendor who told me, "Miguk, beautiful!" (American, beautiful!) This was one of the few things I could recognize by reading the Korean signs. Probably best not to experiment in buying at a place like this...considering that 75% of the goods were unidentifiable to us, and 20% of the goods were clearly the intenstines or various body parts of animals that should never be eaten or used for medicinal purposes (by American standards, at least): dried frog, butchered dog parts (recognizable by the paws still intact on the legs), chicken intenstines, pig hooves, silkworm larvae...lots of good pictures, though!