Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Seoraksan National Park!

After my exciting weekend in Gyeongju 2 weeks ago, I was eager to get out of the city again last weekend.  I really love Seoul, but coming straight out of Madison, Georgia and then the "bustling" Winston-Salem, North Carolina community, city life is sometimes difficult for me.  To put Seoul in perspective, Seoul is the 5th largest city in the world.  The metropolitan area has approximately 23 million people while the country has a population of slightly under 50 million people.  That's right- half the country lives here in the city.  The country is also surprisingly small- it is only about the size of Indiana (a state who has a population of the Seoul metropolitan area).  Getting out of the city is vital to my happiness.

Saturday afternoon, I met up with 4 friends to head up to Sokcho, a city in the top corner of Gangwon-do Province a few hours from Seoul.  I wish we had planned more time for actually seeing the city of Sokcho because it was an amazing little place.  The city was incredibly clean, had little traffic, has a Rodeo Street with tons of cute shops (Korea loves to label all their shopping streets Rodeo- there are at least 2 that I know if in Seoul alone), has beautiful beaches (still too cold for that though), and is famous for its seafood.  

After we got off the bus, we immediately checked into our hostel (one of the best I've ever stayed at-- very clean and colorful with the most helpful and friendly owner), then hopped on a bus hoping to get to Naksan Temple -a pristine Shilla dynasty complex- by sunset.  We just missed sunset, but the views from the Temple were still spectacular.  Naksan is on a mountain on the coast and the view from the top is amazing-- the mountains are behind the complex, the lights of Sokcho are in the distance, and on the other side is the Sea of Japan.  The temple is definitely my favorite so far in Korea.  The entire area was absolutely (and surprisingly) stunning, and I found myself saying, "I can't believe I am in Korea right now." (the temples and palaces in Seoul are great, but I think you lose something when you build a city around the area.  Nothing says beautiful and historical like a Dunkin' Donuts around the corner, overhanging smog, the noise of traffic, and concrete buildings in the background).  The best part of the temple grounds was the 53 foot tall statue known as the Gwanseum-Bosal.  The statue is at the center of a large plaza at the top of the mountain.  In front of the structure is hundreds of candles, to the right is the Sea, and behind it is the mountains.  It was amazing.  

We explored Naksan for several hours before heading back into Sokcho.  We had a delicious all you can eat Korean barbeque dinner complete with chicken, beef, seafood, kimchi, and ice cream.  I like to think it tasted better outside the city.

Sunday morning we were up with the sun to catch the bus out to Seoraksan National Park.  Seoraksan is part of the Taebaek Mountains, and the mountain is the 3rd highest peak in Korea.  The big hike was closed, but there were still several hiking options for us.  We entered the park, stopping to take pictures of the Big Buddha, the mountains, the river, and the stacked rocks (I think this is a Buddhist form of prayer or a wish for good luck.  I'm unclear on the exact details, but these stones are stacked in piles all over the park.  There is something quite beautiful about them, and even clumsy foreign tourists like myself gingerly step around them because- call me superstitious-, but I don't want to knock any over for fear of destroying someone's hopes and dreams.)

The Big Buddha in the Park

We decided to head up to Ulsanbawi.  This is a huge rock formation in the park that offers a fairly challenging hike.  Because Korea is so densely packed and because the park at Seoraksan is a treasured place among Koreans, the hike was crowded.  We joked on the way up that in America, most hikes are done by young people and sometimes you never see another hiker.  In Korea, it is the opposite.  Not only is getting lost in the wilderness not a feasible option (rest stops with food every kilometer and steps and railings guiding the way), but the hike is done by mostly pushy old people decked out in impressive gear.  Koreans love to get dressed up, and exploring the great outdoors is another opportunity to dress to impress.  Older couples in full hiking gear (pants, Under Armour, gloves, hats, walking poles, special glasses, the works) chatter up the trails.  (I would like to note that the gear is not limited to actual hiking.  I see people wearing the exact same thing when I jog in Olympic Park in the city.  It's highly unnecessary and hilarious.)

Despite the throngs of people, the hike was amazing.  The unique rock formation at Ulsanbawi was worth the bazillion stairs (that's right, stairs) we had to climb over the rock cliffs to make it to the top.  After or descent, we headed up in a cable car (terrifying) to another peak - Gwongeumseong Fortress (not a real fortress. A folklore mountain "fortress.")  At the top was a rock peak that required scooting up a steep rock - unfortunately, I only made it halfway up before I got very scared and scooted myself right back down to the bottom.  I might have missed the best views, but I got to see enough from the bottom of the rock formation on the mountain.  It was a clear day, and the mountains were stunning.

The stairs heading up to the summit at Ulsanbawi
Gwongeumseong Fortress-- halfway up that rock is where I got scared :)

Exhausted, we headed back to Sokcho after our cable car adventure.  After a delicious seafood dinner, we headed back to Seoul.  Unfortunately, the weather hasn't been nice since our return and it has been 45 degrees and raining for the last 3 days.  In a defiant move that I'm sure my mother would call, "cutting off my nose to spite my face," I have refused to wear a coat all week because I've been "trying to show the weather."  Right now, the weather is winning, but hopefully soon, "I'll show it."  This weekend, I will run a 10k with a few friends, and next week I will leave for a 5 day trip south- Busan followed by Jeju Island!  
Have a great week!

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Funny School

My students truly brighten my days.  Even on days when I have to drag myself out of bed and to work, by the time I enter the school grounds and am greeted by dozens of students who seem genuinely thrilled to see me, I am instantly in a better mood.  I love to say "Good morning!" and hear little voices reply "good morning Andie Teacher!"  Their excitement to interact with me makes me excited to be at work, and school is really fun.  (Or, as my students would say, "funny school."  No matter how many times I correct them, things that are fun are always described as funny - it's an easy mistake to make for not a native speaker, but it drives me nuts!)  Anyway, school is funny.

Last week, for example, I got to name one of my students.  Most of my classes come to class wearing English nametags with an assortment of names including, but not limited to: Windy, Sunny, East King, Transformer, Coco Joy, and Rot.  This morning, one of my favorite students, a 4th grader named Sarah, told me she did not like the name Sarah anymore (possibly because her best friend recently changed from Sarah to Chelsea?)  Anyway, Sarah asked me to "chang-ee" her name, but stipulated that it must begin with an 'R."  Off the top of my  head, I threw out the name "Riley."  She did not like this suggestion so then decided that her new name would be "Rainbow."  After convincing her that I would not call her Rainbow, we then decided to brainstorm some more.  I will now dub her Rachel.

There are so many things the students do on a daily basis that is hilarious, and I ususally forget to jot it down.  Recently, however, I've been trying to keep track of the things they do and say.  One of my favorite events recently was in the 4th grade when I asked the students do draw and label a picture about their favorite type of weather.  One student drew the earth splitting in two .  Upon further investigation, I realized his favorite type of weather was, "earthquake."  Not really a weather pattern, but okay.  Another student drew skeletans on the ground with smoke coming off of them.  Other skeletans were walking around smoldering with the words "OH MY GOD!!!!!!" coming out of their mouth.  At the top of the page in crooked writing it said, "I like lightning."  Where do they get this stuff?

Today, I amused myself by teaching my 4th graders to say "What's up?"  Unfortunately, most of them struggled with the pronounciation and I had 100 4th graders all saying, "Watchup???" for the rest of the day. They were adorable if nothing else.

There are also several phrases my students say all the time.  First, they LOVE to tell me that another student is "crazy."  This seems to be fairly insulting, and they have a great time dragging their headlocked friends to me and saying, "Teacher! He/She uh crazy!!"  The friend will then instantly sign no (make an X with your arms.  Apparently this means -and unfortunately for me, forevermore No.)  Some of them seem quite concerned that I literally think they are crazy.

They also love to tell me that their friends can't speak English.  Unfortunately, this does not come out of their mouths like, "My friend cannot speak English.  Can you help us?"  Instead, if I ask a question to a student who cannot answer, the friends all start yelling, "Teacher! English No!  English no." (again make X with your arms).  If I respond, "try," I usually get a more exasperated, "He/She English No!!" which roughly corresponds to "silly teacher! stop trying!"  It's simultaneously cute and annoying.

Another phrase I get a lot is, "Olleh!!"  If students get an answer correct, if they get a good grade, if anything wonderful happens to them, they immediately throw their hands in the air and yell "Olleh!"  During a recent "If you're happy and you know it" song (which means clean up your mess and sit down) one class even shouted "If you're happy and you know it shout "OLLLEEEHHHH" instead of hooray.  Another overused word is "Shiny."  If anything is pretty, they love to declare it Shiny.  People are shiny, objects are shiny, and I find, "Shiny" and "Shinee" written on pencil cases and desks all around the room.

Most recently, my (mostly male) students have started to only Zombie Walk.  Everywhere they go they have their arms straight out in front of them and look straight ahead.  Before class starts I usually have a room full of little zombies and as soon as class is over they return to zombie state.  

My favorite part of my day, however, is reading my students T-Shirts, pencil cases, and English notebook covers.  While the kids work on an assignment, I love to walk around pretending to monitor them while secretly giggling over the absurditites they carry around.  I don't understand why every single case and notebook has a phrase that either makes absolutely no sense, is severely incorrect, or is some deep statement about love that makes no sense for a 4th grader to be carrying around all day.  When I have time, I try and write down some of my favorites.  These are by no means the best ones, but here is a good selection of ones I've observed lately:

-Alphebetically Speaking, You're OK!
-I am in everlasting love with you.
-It's a noun when you see love as a literature.
-Apple Tree Bear: Silly games. But he's a warm-hearted young Turk.
-English class is coming next.  Are you ready to enjoy?  It's fun time!  Get it on!
-Love Whisper: Only you don't know that I love you.
-In your career, you will met many people.  All are sillignant and deserve your allention and care oven if all you can do is smile and say HELLO.
-Newton's Law: Sometimes Love needs a little help. Have a blast., Always stay with the "In" crowd., I'm the genuine artical. . . not a pirate copy.
-Remember Memory: It is written indelibly on my heart designed by my focus
-Pucca: Funny Love. It was  s cold day. "Here matches. Buy matches please." Pucca was selling matches.
-Joy, Hope, Love: Traveling will be a good outlet for you to expand your romantic interests.
-Our relationship is so great that I have no regrets.

As my students would say, I am "Pinishee!! (finished) now, but I'll try to remember to tell more about the day to day interactions with my students.  Have a great week!


Monday, April 19, 2010

Weekend in Gyeongju

Early Saturday morning I headed out to join ten friends for a weekend trip down to Gyeongju, Korea.  The city is about four hours South of Seoul, and it is one of the first times I've actually left Seoul for a tour of the "country."  Korea is not the most aesthetically pleasing nation, but there are some places that I do need to see before I leave in only four short months.  Gyeongju is famous for several Korean landmarks including Bulguksa Temple, cherry blossoms,the Cheomseongdae Observatory, and several royal tombs including the tomb of Queen Seondeok.  We planned our trip, however, around Gyeongju's 13th annual traditional Korean alcohol and rice cake festival.  Our Korean friend Sanggoon (aka Leo) is from Gyeongju, and he graciously offered to take us down to the festival and show us his hometown.  Not only did he rent us a large van, but his family offered to cook us a traditional Korean meal upon our arrival to the city.  (Koreans really are the most welcoming people - their hospitality never ceases to amaze me).  

Leo's mom cooked us a traditional meal including rice, kimchi (all different assortments!), bulgogi, chicken, kimchi pancakes, all the side dishes (including roots and seaweed), fruits, vegetables, and sauces.  It was amazing!

Leo and his parents!  They made me miss having parents around -- after we ate lunch, they loaded up our van with sodas and cookies and sent us on our way.  

After our amazing lunch, we headed to the festival grounds to sample some rice cake and traditional Korean drinks.  We started with the liquor booth area.  After purchasing a 1,000 won ($1) sampling glass necklace, we could go to any booth and have a small sample of their alcohol.  We got to try everything from traditional ginseng drinks to mushroom wine.  Following our drink samples, we spent the rest of the afternoon eating rice cake (one of my favorite foods!).  After some delicious rice cake samples and watching rice cake being made (lots of rice being beat to a pulp. Literally), we headed back to our van and to our hotel for the evening.  We stayed at a traditional Korean accommodation called a minbak.  We had reserved two rooms that both opened into a large garden and courtyard area.  When you walk (or climb in our case), into the room, it is just an empty room.  Folded in a corner or in an armoire are mats and blankets and pillows.  The minbak rooms have heated floors (like my apartment the heat comes from the ondol.)  Sleeping on the floor isn't fantastic, but it isn't as bad as you might imagine either.

A sign on the wall at the festival.  So typical.

Sunday morning we woke up early and headed to Bulguksa Temple.  The temple is a UNESCO World Heritage sight, and the temple as well as the surrounding area is really beautiful.  The grounds leading up to the temple were packed with cherry blossoms and vegetation combined with vendors under colorful umbrellas selling visitors everything from postcards to tasty larvae snacks (gross, I know.)

The grounds leading up to Bulguksa Temple

Bulguksa Temple, Gyeongju

The grounds at Bulguksa Temple, Gyeongju

Inside Bulguksa Temple

After we saw the temple, we headed to another area of Gyeongju that was bursting with colorful flowers.  There was a huge rapeseed flower field and plenty of cherry blossoms.  The entire area was amazingly beautiful.  We explored for awhile, took way too many pictures, then headed to lunch (at a famous Korean tofu restaurant) and the tomb of Queen Seondeok before our trip home to Seoul.

Streets of Gyeongju outside the rapeseed field

I definitely hope to travel more outside of Seoul in the following months.  I have a few more weekend trips planned, and I am excited to see more of the Korean peninsula.  Seoul is so big I never get tired of exploring it, but I know Korea has so much more to offer.  Have a good week!

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Black Day

Happy Black Day!

Black day, the Korean holiday celebrating the opposite of Valentine's Day, is here.  April 14th is the official day for single people to wallow in singledom, wear dark colors, eat black food, and do other equally emo things involving self pity.  
Happy Black Day

Typical Black Day food

Koreans love to celebrate love.  On February 14th (Valentines Day), Korean women are expected to get something for their mate.  On March 14th (White Day), however, the men return the favor and bestow gifts upon their favorite women (think large and embarassing gift baskets on the subway).  I can't forget to talk about Pepero Day (November 11th)- the most blatantly commercial of the holidays.  On Pepero Day (Pepero is a Lotte candy made of cookie sticks dipped in chocolate), couples celebrate by giving each other Pepero and buying obscene amounts of the sticks (11/11, get it?).  The holiday was created by Lotte several years ago to promote sales, but because Koreans love love that much, they buy into it.  Literally.

White Day. . .

And this is Pepero Day . . .


The Korean culture is obsessed with dating.  Sometimes I feel like I live in a Disney movie where happiness solely revolves around meeting your perfect match.  This is exacerbated by the fact that it is absolutely acceptable in Korean culture to ask questions deemed inappropriate by Westerners.  For example, one of the first questions I get asked by my coworkers is, "Andie, Boyfriend?"  We got a new principal in March and when we met for the first time, it literally went like this, "Hi I'm Andie." "Ah, Hello. Andie, Boyfriend?" "No haha no boyfriend." "Oh.Very Beautiful."  That's all the man has ever said to me.  Moreover, from listening to some of my coworkers and Korean friends, I've realized Korean women feel limited without boyfriends.  On holidays if you don't have a boyfriend it's a big deal-- as in, most women won't do things alone.  Some of my coworkers are single and if you ask them what they are doing for a weekend or holiday, they will sigh sadly and say, "I have no boyfriend.  I will stay home."  Relationships, apparently, are the gateway to fun.

While I am on the topic of the Korean dating scene, I have to tell you about the 100 day party that occurs in many Korean relationships.  After dating 100 days in Korea, couples sometimes celebrate with a party or by exchanging rings.  Many jewelers even carry 100 day rings for couples.  That's right - after a mere 3 months of dating you exchange rings. Because Koreans love love that much.  

Two more of my favorite Korean relationship phenomenons are purses and underwear.  I personally feel that the best part of having a boyfriend in Korea would be never having to lug my purse anywhere again.  When you have a boyfriend, he carries your purse like it is his own.  Everywhere.  Romantic, right?  The underwear thing is my other favorite part of Korean relationships.  All lingerie stores (and trust me they are EVERYWHERE-- from the subway stations to every other street corner) have matching his and hers lingerie in the windows.  As if having your boyfriend carry your purse wasn't emasculating enough, forcing him into underwear matching your lingerie should do the trick.  Any pattern is available for the matching his and hers.  It's all part of the Koreans loving love.

Happy Black Day to all my single friends!

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Icheon and Easter!

It's finally spring!  I just looked out the window and realized the trees lining my school are beginning to get small yellow buds on them.  It is, after all, after Easter and a week into April, but I'm still wearing my coat and leggings every day to school, so I haven't really considered it spring yet.  Today, however, is almost 60 degrees!  I don't think it has been 60 degrees since October, and I am SO ready for nice weather.  

I had a wonderful Easter weekend in Korea.  On Saturday I went with 4 friends to the small town of Icheon about an hour bus ride out of the city (embarrassingly enough, one of my first times being outside of Seoul).  The town is famous for its ceramics and pottery.  We had a nice lunch in the downtown Icheon area before heading out to the ceramics village.  In typical Korean fashion, most of this was a bizarre combination of modern art sporadically placed around graffitied kilns and large kimchee pots.  After some exploring, we took a taxi to another part of Icheon where we were able to make our own pottery.  I've never used a pottery wheel before, but it is surprisingly difficult.  With the help of an exceedingly friendly Korean man, all of us were able to successfully create a piece of pottery that afternoon.  

My finished product from the ceramics village

A kiln at Icheon Ceramics Village

To celebrate Easter, I met with 3 friends on Sunday morning for brunch then headed to a 2PM English church service at a large Presbyterian Church in downtown Seoul.  I've noticed that most Korean churchgo-ers are very intense and tend to really push going to church and talking about Jesus down your throat to the point of uncomfortableness.  I had not yet attended a service in Seoul, but I was hoping to find one that was fairly traditional (no speaking in tongues, excessive contemporary praise bands, and no reason at all to have to go to the front of the church and kneel, confess, sing, etc.  We luckily picked a good service.  Somang Presbyterian church had beautiful, traditional music, an American pastor, and no one did anything too intense.  Besides the fact that the choir called Jesus, "Jeshus," and there was an incredibly awkward "Welcome Song" for visitors at the end, I was very pleased with my first visit to a Korean church.

This week should be a nice work week.  The students are always better behaved when the weather is pleasant.  There are times I get really bored at work or irritated with my classes, but my students always make me smile.  Most of the time when they do something bad, they are so cute it is hard to get mad at them.  This is a huge change from teaching 6th grade last year because unfortunately for 6th graders, it's a really awkward age and, frankly, they aren't cute. I had one student last week who every time I looked up was balancing a pencil between his upper lip and nose or holding his book between his bottom lip and his chin. It was all I could do not to laugh at him every time I looked up.  Most of the students are really well behaved this year, and I am enjoying being in the classroom much more than last semester.  4th and 5th grade are both pleasures to teach.  

The only problems I am having this year so far involve one 4th grade student and some special needs children.  The 4th grade student is particularly frustrating.  Two weeks ago, he would not sit in class - as in, at one point he got up and ran out of the classroom and my co-teacher had to chase him down.  Because he then refused to stay in the classroom, we had to lock the classroom doors and conduct class while this student would run and literally throw himself at the door.  He alternated doing this and running and jumping in order to try and reach the high lock on the door.  He eventually succeeded in the latter and escaped again.  (Korean schools don't have the same discipline avenues that American schools have- it isn't like detention or going to see the vice-principal is an option).  Last Friday, instead of being trying to escape, the student absolutely refused to leave the classroom when class was over.  My co-teacher and I turned off the lights and the heat and locked one of the doors, and he would not get up.  He is a rather large student so we couldn't pick him up.  It took almost fifteen minutes to physically get the student to move.  It was absurd.

My other problem is the special needs students that come to class.  Not only do I usually feel like I am hardly qualified to be a teacher, but I am certainly not qualified to be a special needs teacher.  Disabilities are recognized differently in Korea, so all students come to class regardless of their ability to keep up with the lesson.  I have one girl in the fifth grade who is a special needs student.  She is probably the most extreme example that I teach.  She is always exceedingly friendly (unless you wake her up when she is sleeping on her desk), she loves to give hugs, and she is perfectly capable of learning English, but she is unable to learn the same way the other students do.  The students around her help her, but she needs almost constant monitoring or she does things she blatantly should not.  I've learned to just smile at her a lot and smile when I tell her to do something, but it is hard to teach and try and help her at the same time.  This girl, at least, has outward signs of being a different type of learner.  I know there are other students in my class who are autistic or even have learning disabilities such as dyslexia or ADD, but this is not recognized.  I have so many students per week that it is difficult to modify my lessons or give one on one help to these students, and it is frustrating to see that they are perfectly capable of learning English but they really need more individualized attention.  

Overall, teaching is a really positive experience though, and I am having a blast every day.   Have a great week!