Every year, twelve English Immersion camps (EIC) are held in a Youth Education Center in Hwasun, South Korea. Thirty same-sex 3rd grade middle school students (equivalent to 9th grade in the U.S.) from around Gwangju are chosen to attend EIC in the middle of nowhere for one week. For each camp, three native teachers are invited to join to facilitate. In my third year teaching, I was finally selected. Hooray! I missed a full week of teaching regular classes and packed my bag to stay in Hwasun for the week.
As the years after college creep on, I’m seeing less photos involving red Solo cups and empty beer cans on a Wednesday evening. They have been replaced with staged engagement poses, overly priced rocks on fingers, and babies eating/sleeping/being cute/totally unaware of what is going on (okay, I do like to look at cute squishy faces) splashed over all forms of social media. It’s weird that people my age are settling and reproducing. They’re playing chess with each other on a Friday night (okay, maybe we do that already…) instead of going to ‘da club’ (well, never my thing). They’re cleaning up vomit from little munchkins, not their friends’ on a Sunday morning.
Some of my friends have gotten hitched while I was in Korea and I am regretful I was unable to attend. However, I was finally able to experience a Korean wedding.
I’ve received a few invitations from other teachers in school (one of them was addressed to Lianne, the “Angel of (school name)”. Didn’t know I had that nickname). These invitations came a week to two weeks before the event, so I was not able to go because of previous plans. For the most recent invitation, I cleared my calendar for it; I especially love this energetic and loud-laughing science teacher.
Disclaimer: this post is based on my observations from the only Korean wedding I attended; it is not to be generalized to them all. To keep privacy, I will not post photos.
Prior to my first trip to Korea in 2010, I stumbled upon photos of gigantic mountains called Seoraksan in the Gwangon province. Literally meaning “big snowy mountain”, Seoraksan is a huge national park spreading over four cities in northeastern Korea (South Korea, that is) and boasts the third highest peak in South Korea, Daecheongbong as well as a handful of waterfalls, valleys, rocks, caves, and a temple. Mesmerised by the photos, I put it high on my priority list of what to see on my first trip to Korea.
In August 2010, I backpacked in Korea with an old friend from Florida who was living in Shanghai at the time. Oscar, the quiet chessmaster who thought he was Chinese but is really Puerto Rican/American, was my travel buddy in Korea. From south to north, we spent our days eating kimchi, crashing in jjimjilbangs, and walking endlessly in the August heat. I sweat through my clothes up the tough mountain, but marveled through every steep step.
The second time was in February 2013 with my dear friend, Liz after a trip to the Penis Park. I woke up in the most beautiful hostel, The House Hostel in Sokcho, on my birthday to be greeted with a card and chocolate from my thoughtful friend. We ventured over to Seoraksan and tiptoed around the park, unfortunately unable to hike in the icy conditions. The scenery was still inspiring; I couldn’t think of a better way to spend my birthday. I said to myself I want to come back to Seoraksan during every season.
With the upcoming three-day weekend, I vacillated with my weekend plans. Seoraksan? Camping? Bike trip with Adam? On Wednesday night, I ultimately decided to go to Seoraksan with a hiking group based out of Seoul. My two new friends also signed up, as did my CouchSurfer from the previous week, coincidentally.
So, after teaching classes on Thursday, I packed my bags and took a four-hour (with terrible traffic) bus to Seoul to meet the twenty other anxious hikers. We loaded on the bus, attempted to snooze, and arrived at Osaek at 3:00am. Our hiking commenced shortly thereafter. Even though it was an ungodly time of day, we were certainly not alone. Seemingly hundreds of other decked out hikers were in the parking lot stretching and preparing for the sunset trek. The first 20 minutes or so were stuck in a queue. I mean, I’ve experienced waiting in lines for roller coasters and to meet Dream Street as a teeny bopper, but never to go up a mountain.
Almost every elementary school in Korea has a staff volleyball team. They have practices, games, uniforms, and some even hire professional coaches. Schools schedule tournaments and let’s say things get competitive.
Over my two years in Korea, I was never once informed about a volleyball game/practice, so I usually end up wearing my work clothes and school slippers to practice. At this point, I don’t even care anymore. Such is life in Korea.
Since my current school placed last at tournaments for several consecutive years, our principal decided not to participate in them anymore. Rather, we would enjoy non-competitive volleyball games within the staff of the school. I much prefer this option.
Yesterday marked the first practice of the semester. It was the first day back from a five-day Chuseok weekend and of course, I was not informed about practice. I showed up in my dress and school slippers, the rest of the staff in exercise clothes and matching collared shirts.
First, we sat in a circle and munched on 팥빙수 (patbingsu), a Korean dessert with shaved ice, sweet milk, red beans, and rice cakes. Although it looks unappetizing once mixed and everyone’s spoons contaminating the shared pot, it is still quite delicious. After dessert, it took me by surprise that four boxes of pizza were plopped in the middle of our circle. The fifth grade teacher literally threw packets of hot sauce across the group and opened the service pickles. The teachers munched on the hot chicken and corn pizza, washing it down with small cups of Coke. After sitting around and chatting for what seemed like an hour, it was time to play volleyball.
We got up from the floor, did some personal stretching, and got to work. A ball was given to a few of us and we formed a circle. We were instructed to practice tossing the ball. A bump here, a set there. The sixth grade teacher snapped photos of us with his cellphone. After literally one minute of tossing the ball, he said we are finished. Everyone immediately stopped what they were doing and nonchalantly walked out of the gym and back to their classrooms.
Happy Sports Day?
This is the first post of a new series called Korea Travel Tips, providing not-so-obvious information for newcomers to Korea.
Tip #1: Bring a good reusable water bottle.
Unlike Southeast Asia, you don’t have to buy a sealed bottle of water every day to replenish the water you lost trekking through the humid zones. It is painful to have to consume so much plastic and contribute to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, but it’s either that or risk being hospitalized in a foreign country. Hm.
Tap water in Korea isn’t unsafe to drink, but it isn’t ideal, either. One can easily fill up on cold, refreshing filtered water seemingly anywhere – the bank, post office, every restaurant, some subway stations, phone stores, you name it. These filtered water machines were provided by the Korean gods in every corner to nourish our cells and quench our throats. Drink up.
As for me, I look for a few things in a water bottle:
- BPA Free – Don’t get cheap plastic that will break down, find its way into your belly, and participate in evils carcinogenic activities.
- Spill proof – (AKA Lianne-proof) If you’re a clumsy gal like myself, get something that will keep you dry in the event of a klutz incident.
- Easy access – I really liked my Camel-bak bottle (I have since broken it) because I can ingest water seconds faster by popping up the straw rather than unscrewing the top, but it did break the spill proof rule.
- One with a loop – Great to hook a carabiner to your backpack during a hike.
These water dispensers, or something like it, should be everywhere in the world.
I am from New Jersey. No, I never went to a tanning salon and no, I’m not friends with Snookie (actually, there was a character on there that went to my high school. Not something that prides me). But yes, I love me some ska, pizza, and BAGELS. Everything bagels, to be exact, toasted with a schmear of cream cheese, not too thick. After high school, we always had a break time before gymnastics practice started. The girls gathered in their leotards and sweat pants to journey over to the A&P supermarket. On top of Entemann’s cookies and other sorts of delicious garbage, we purchased everything bagels for pocket change (literally, they were 25 cents per). Some people fear that gymnasts are at risk for anorexia, but our team destroyed that stereotype. Everything bagels melting in my mouth every day. Even though I lived in New Jersey, life was good.
Eighteen years was more than enough in the Garden State, so I shimmied my way to sunshine in Florida for the next six years. It was during this period of time that I learned that bagels are not the same everywhere. Dry and crumbly. Just, meh. It’s the water, so they say. A mediocre everything bagel is better than no bagel at all, so I sucked it up and still ate them.
Then, I moved to Korea. I regret ever cursing the Floridian bagels because I’d listen to Nickelback on repeat for two straight hours if I could have an everything bagel. While it may be possible to get such a treat in Seoul, it is not an easy feat in Gwangju. Besides, the last thing I want to do on a rainy Sunday morning is to haul my ass across town for a ring of sweet dough.
So, I took the liberty to try it myself.
This is an overdue post about our Bali vacation back in January.
After spending about two weeks exploring Guangzhou, China and Java, Indonesia, it was time to rest our sore feet in the island of Bali. January is rainy season, but the weather didn’t noticeably hinder us from doing what we wanted to do. Because it was low season, finding nice, affordable accommodation was no problem.
The predominantly Hindu populated island appeals to travelers of all ages and budgets. From observation, there were a lot of couples visiting the island as opposed to young, single backpackers looking to party that crowd Thailand. Kuta is the exception, though – the busy area that bursts with tour package offices are flooded with people looking to catch a few waves, guzzle Arak & Bitang beer, and perhaps get lucky. Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat Pray Love has also inspired yogis to flock Ubud, the culture and art center of Bali, and indulge in massages, yoga, meditation, and natural alternative medicines. Scuba divers and snorkeling enthusiasts would be pleased to explore some of the most beautiful spots of the underwater world for a fraction of the price elsewhere. Retirees kick it back in the quiet beaches and honeymooners can escape the world in luxurious waterfront resorts. Those who really want to be immersed in the culture can easily rent a scooter and zip around, visiting the seemingly thousands of shrines, temples, and daily offerings laid out in the streets.
In Korean, Bali Bali means hurry, hurry, the cultural psyche of speedy production and activity while often sacrificing quality. This mentality could not be further from Bali’s, which radiates the quintessential island life aura. Shoes are optional and time doesn’t exist.
In Korea’s bali bali (hurry hurry!) culture, safety is often sacrificed for the sake of time and money. Constructing new buildings and remodeling is done at incredible speeds, yet I don’t often see workers wearing hard hats, even while acrobatically walking along poles four stories high. To speed things up, most motorists pretend to be colorblind (well, maybe 10% are) and believe that the red light is green and run through it without care. I have not seen one traffic ticket given out.
If anything good came out of the tragic events of the Sewol ferry, it is the recognition of the lack of safety procedures in Korea and the initiative to focus on preventing further incidents from happening.
In particular, my school has held two recent events to promote safety. Last week, the sixth graders and faculty learned CPR and how to use the AED device. While I was certified a few times during my lifetime working at the YMCA and in public schools, my coworkers surprisingly never once got certified. After watching several boring (especially since it was all in Korean) videos with poor acting, we practiced on dummies. It was entertaining to watch the students bob up and down in unison while counting to thirty in Korean. I’m now comforted that a 12-year-old poop-joke comedian can resuscitate me in case of an emergency.
This week, there was fire safety training. Two of my classes were canceled for the drill. During my almost two years here, I never participated in a fire drill. Growing up, however, we had unexpected drills every month, an exciting time to miss class for a moment. I’m glad that my school finally had this practice. At the scheduled moment, the fire alarm went off. My coworkers and I exited the building where the students were lining up on the soccer field. For their first fire drill, they were exceptionally well behaved. Perhaps they were mesmerized by the firefighters.
Yes, firefighters came in a truck followed by an ambulance. They took this drill to the next level. Fake smoke was escaping from a classroom and the firefighters wastefully sprayed liters of water from the powerful hose to “put out” the “fire”. In the backdrop of this scene, a student was pretend-injured and pushed in a stretcher into the ambulance. Very dramatic. If they were to make a Korean drama, it would be called The Fire Sale.
After the show, the students briefly learned how to use a fire extinguisher. The thick white foam blanketed the air as the two students released its gases for the first time. It was actually my first time seeing an extinguisher in action, and surely the students’ as well, so I was ooh-ing and aah-ing right along with them. I’m glad that they are equipped to evacuate in case of a fire because I always plan cooking classes for summer English camp.
Despite some of the safety concerns that Korea must catch up with, I still feel infinitely safer as a woman in Korea than I ever did in America, even with our northern neighbors’ occasional bluffs.
Even though America is a “melting pot”, I still felt like I got different treatment than white people, especially when living in the south. They are usually subtle, but occasionally blatant. After hearing “I bet your mom makes better Chinese food than what we have here” and “You’re Asian, can you figure out how to split this bill?” and “Neehao. I know some Chinese, I can finally practice” (after I said I’m not Chinese. True story) you’d want to escape from it, too. Occasionally, I poke fun of myself for being Asian; I don’t get offended if people make Asian jokes, but it can be distasteful.
“In Korea, I’ll blend in. I’ll finally fit in”, I thought. It couldn’t be further from the truth.
As discussed in my recent post about adoption, I am one fortunate human being. First of all, I was adopted as an infant, leaving me free of traumatizing memories of being taken to a new land as a school-age child, when memories are retrievable. My adoptive family is wonderful and supportive; never did I feel like they loved my sister any more than me.
Not all adoptees can say the same things, but I would be perfectly happy with my life if I never found my birth parents. But I did and I am also content with this outcome. Not only did I find them, they wanted to meet me and include me in their family. If an adoptee is fortunate enough to find his/her birth parents, there is an even smaller chance that the family will include him/her. There are several reasons for this, one of them being extreme shame and guilt over the situation as well as secrecy. So I am grateful that my situation is the way it is.
I don’t want to brag of being annoying about this.I feel very sorry those who are desperately searching for their families but have the highest hopes that everything will turn in their direction. My friends and family expressed interest by my story and I am open enough to share it.
I was pleasantly surprised when my parents booked tickets on three planes to see me here in Korea. My Air Force veteran father rarely sets foot on a plane without anxiety, so I was surprised by their decision to visit.