Monday, May 17, 2010

Lotus Lantern Festival and Teacher's Day

Happy Monday!

Spring has finally made a permanent appearance in Seoul, and I spent the weekend enjoying the sunshine and warm weather. This Friday is Buddha's Birthday - a national holiday. I don't know why I was so surprised to find out that Buddha had a birthday, but he does. And it's a big deal. For the past several weeks lanterns have started showing up all over the country as preparations got underway for festivals and celebrations. Friday, apparently, is Buddha's actual
birthday, but Seoul celebrated yesterday with the Lotus Lantern Festival in the main downtown plaza of the city.

My friends and I arrived to the festivities fairly early Sunday afternoon. I painted a Buddha magnet, made a lovely pink paper mache lotus flower, took pictures of traditional Korean dress and food, listened to live music, and enjoyed the afternoon. The streets surrounding Seoul's Jongyesa Temple were packed with booths and people. In fact, this was the biggest festival I have seen in Seoul besides New Year's Eve.

Jongyesa Temple was beautifully decorated with thousands of colorful lanterns. You couldn't even see the sky through the tightly packed lanterns dangling over almost all of the temple grounds. It was amazing.

The day culminated, however, with a bright parade through the main streets of Seoul. The parade began at dusk with traditional drums marching through the streets followed by almost two hours of floats, tradtional clothing, thousands of bright, colorful lanterns, and citizens of all ages taking to the streets.

Over the weekend, Korea also celebrated Teacher's Day. I, luckily, do not work on Saturdays, but my coteachers and the students all come to school. When I arrived at work this morning, I had two bouquets of flowers on my desk. I also had a wonderful array of colorful cards with carefully written English messages in them. Despite the fact that they made me question my ability to successfully teach English, they brightened my entire day, and I'm going to go hang them all up on a wall in my apartment as soon as I get home. It's days like this that make me very happy to be in Korea teaching. Here is a sampling:

"Hello Teacher
Nice to meet you. What do you like? I like pizza and carrot. I love you teacher. Have a nice day teacher. Good bye."

"What a nice day. Teacher congratulation. Because today is teacher's day. Teacher very very pretty cute and kind. Very very thanks teacher. Bye Bye."

"Hello AndyTeacher! I'm still learning from you. I wrote this letter because of course today is teacher's day in Korea. I'm so thankful to you. Maybe you don't know me well...but I'm so thankful to you! Really! I want you to teach us very well. But youre still teaching us well!"

Have a wonderful week!

Monday, May 10, 2010

Busan and Jeju Trip!

I have been so fortunate to have so much time off! I just got back to Seoul after a five day weekend of exploring some of Korea's best beaches. I got up way too early Wednesday morning (Children's Day!), and took KTX (the Korean rail system) three hours south to the second largest city in Korea- Busan. After finally finding a subway, I headed to a far end of the city where I met up with my friend Liza. We decided to begin our day by exploring Beomeosa Temple. The temple, unfortunately, looked just like every other temple in Korea. The grounds were nice, however, and we enjoyed walking through the woods and surrounding area. Since Buddha's Birthday is quickly approaching, many places have lanterns up in celebration, and the temple was colorfully decorated with strings of bright lanterns.

Hungry, we left the temple and went straight to Haeundae Beach - a popular tourist destination in Busan. Because it was Cinco de Mayo, we decided on Mexican food. Unfortunately, a distressed waiter greeted us at the door of the Mexican restaurant and told us we could not eat there because "they ate it all! It's all gone!!" I don't know who ate the entire restaurant out of business, but we had to take our Mexican food cravings elsewhere. After a nice lunch at a nearby restaurant, Liza and I wandered out onto the warm sand. The beach was surprisingly crowded, and we spent a couple hours just lounging before heading to see another temple.

This time, we were headed for Haedong Yonggung Temple which is an amazing temple complex built on the cliffs overlooking the sea. It was refreshingly unique, and both of us were impressed with the temple grounds. Here, too, there were colorful lanterns being put up to celebrate Buddha's Birthday.

After a margarita at the Mexican restaurant, that had miraculously recovered from its appalling lack of anything only hours before, Liza and I headed to the town of Ulsan where she lives. The next morning, Liza went to work, and I boarded a bus back to Busan. I had planned to spend the day by myself on the beach just reading. Unfortunately, the weather had turned cold, cloudy, horribly windy, and drizzly. After spending the morning with my book at a coffee shop, I decided to tour the Busan Aquarium. As aquariums go, it was alright, and it was certainly better than spending all day in a coffee shop, but it was not all that impressive . . . UNTIL, I rounded a bend after the jelly fish exhibit and saw two tigers in a glass pen. For good measure, next to the tigers, two lion cubs occupied another pen. I want to say I was very surprised at the lions and tigers in the aquarium, but something about this just seemed so typical of Korea I couldn't muster up any surprise.

The tiger at the aqaurium is so typical.

Thursday evening, I headed to the airport and flew about 50 minutes off the coast to Jeju Island to meet my friend Sarah who came down from Seoul. Jeju is supposed to be the tropical gem of Korea- the Hawaii of the country. Upon leaving the airport, however, we quickly realized, that it was freezing. I've never been to Hawaii, but I like to think it never gets this cold. Sarah and I were dropped off about an hour south of the airport by a large bus that sounded like it was about to fall apart. We couldn't find our hostel and after struggling around the legitimate Korean countryside in the blasting wind pulling Sarah's rollerboard suitcase behind us like some freakish episode of The Simple Life, we were quite frustrated with the island.

Just because there are palm trees, doesn't mean this is the tropics.

Luckily, Friday morning was clear, warm, and sunny, and Sarah and I found our way to Jungmun Beach for the day where we eventually met up with my friend Rachel who came in from Japan. Jungmun Beach was beautiful, don't get me wrong, but Korea is a peninsula with many fantastic beaches, and I was not that impressed with what Jungmun had to offer. Sure, it was the beach, but it wasn't white sand or clear water - both attributes I think of when I hear "tropical island." Both Friday and Saturday, the three of us split our time between laying on Jungmun Beach, eating, and visiting the famous waterfalls of Jeju. I was slightly annoyed with the waterfall situation. Over the past nine months, I have seen my share of waterfalls. The waterfalls of Jeju were nice, but somewhere between buying the ticket to see it, being jostled by the hundreds of Koreans wearing top of the line gear (waterfalls are outdoors, after all, so top of the line gear is in order -- refer to Sokcho and Seoraksan entry below for more information), and fighting my way through the crowd to take a picture that will inevitably not turn out like all the Korean photos because I'm not toting a gigantic camera and a tripod to knock people out of the way with, I became irritable. Korea just has too many people and not enough aesthetically pleasing sights. (Sorry Korea- I love you, I really do, but we both know it's true).

I flew back to Seoul Sunday afternoon, and I was eager to get back to the city. I realized on this trip just how much I really do think of Seoul as "home," and I am eager for my parents to come next month so I can show off my city. Today, it was back to teaching, and despite the fact I got scratched breaking up an intense fight between two fifth grade boys (who somedays I wish were small enough for me to dropkick), it was a good day. I'm excited to be at school this week.

Have a great week,

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Sports Day!

Tuesday was sports day at Gil-Dong Elementary School. The American equivalent of field day, sports day in Korea is a highlight of the year. Alas, I never saw anything resembling a sport taking place, but the day was entertaining nonetheless. From my second floor window, I had a great view of the action!