Korea Travel Tip #1

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. 

Too much!

Too much!

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.

Water Dispensers Everywhere

LOOK FOR ME!

Some Things Bagels

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.

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First attempt

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Bali

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.

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Growing Safety Drills in Korea

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.

Being Korean in Korea, but Not Really Korean

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.

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My Parents Meet My Parents

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.

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The whole family

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Sewol Ferry Tragedy

There has been a thick feeling of grief and regret in the Korean area this past week. I am referring to the Sewol ferry tragedy that happened last Wednesday, April 16. With several mistakes overlapped, a ferry to Jeju Island sank, costing the lives of hundreds – a majority of them high school students. Over 150 people are confirmed dead, and over a hundred still missing. With no survivors eight days later, there is little chance that anyone other than the 174 already rescued will make it out alive.

Each individual had rich memories, likes and dislikes, dreams and aspirations, inside jokes, friend drama, skills and talents. Now, it has all been taken away and it breaks my heart.

Most students did as they were instructed by the captain: stay in the cabin. They must have been frightened and unaware what to do, so they did as they were told, assuming the captain knows the correct safety procedures. Others recognized the dangers of staying inside as the ship steeply inclined and headed to the top. They made it out alive by disobeying and instead using their own judgment. Obedience to authority is valued and ingrained in Korean culture. This is an important lesson: don’t always listen to authority and use your own judgment! Trust your instincts.

I feel helpless in this situation. I will keep the affected people in my thoughts and hope that the passengers experienced as little suffering as possible. It is easy to get angry with the captain and inexperienced crew member who fled the scene without helping passengers, but let’s not forget the heroes and their selfless acts during the emergency.

Terrible preventable things happen in the world everyday. While it all scares me to no end, it is important to always hope for the best and never live in fear.

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Don’t give up hope

 

A Teacher Story

The coordinator at the local Office of Education asked me to write a story about my time here in Korea to be published in a section called “Teacher Voices” for a report. I thought I’d also post it in my blog.

My first year, I worked in a very small school. In fact, my entire third grade class consisted of four girls. At the start of the year, my coteacher informed me that they had no English exposure whatsoever. The sweet girls struggled to understand me and it was difficult to motivate them to speak any English in class. They would say how difficult English is and perhaps did not understand why they had to learn this strange language. Even with the language barrier, however, I was able to foster a relationship with them. When they weren’t in class, they would visit me and write any English word they knew on the board, asking me how to spell “I love teacher”. They always begged me to sit with them at lunch, which I did (another interesting cultural difference in Korea – teachers eat the same lunch as the students in the cafeteria). I was pleasantly surprised to hear the girls saying phrases I taught that very morning: “I like rice.” “Do you like kimchi?” “Yes, I do!”. I felt proud that the girls eventually gained confidence and were using English voluntarily. I really love the students. Crossing paths in the hallway or anywhere outside of class where I’m greeted with a deep bow and a smiling “Hi! Hello!” followed by giggles keeps me smiling and so excited to wake up to go to school every day.

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Teaching English in a Korean Public Elementary School

I have been teaching in public elementary schools (six in total) for over a year and a half now. Some friends back home were curious about the school system in Korea, so I wanted to reflect on some basic similarities and differences between my experiences in elementary schools in Korea and the states. These are just reflections and observations based on personal experiences, not a generalization for all schools. End disclaimer.

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Third grade students

 

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My first classroom.

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On Being Adopted

Adoption: a touchy subject. But don’t worry, it’s not sensitive for me; I openly talk about it (if you haven’t figured that out already). It’s just a big part of who I am. Why should I hide it.

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My Real Family

I get all kinds of reactions when I first tell someone that I’m adopted. Sometimes, it’s a sad “oh” followed by silence and the lowering of the head. Other times, it’s a flood of questions. I don’t mind them; it is a chance to educate others and give a perspective for those who never met an adopted person before. Even if they did interact with adoptees in the past, every person has different experiences and perspectives.

I’ve spent a lot of time with Korean adoptees from around the world – Sweden, Australia, Denmark, Italy, Canada, France, Norway, and the Netherlands, to name a few. Meeting so many international adoptees initiated daydreams of how my life path was randomly selected to be American. Would I still have a love affair with vegetables if I was Danish? Would I have been a French gymnast? Would I still do my routine back-cracking and quirky microwave dances in Australia? Would I still have a thirst for travel? The limits of the parallel universes are endless.

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InKAS Summer Camp 2012

Through interacting with this diverse group of Korean adoptees, I came to learn how different we all are, not unlike any group of people. At first, I intuitively thought that we adoptees would get along so well and be buddies in friendship island forever because we finally have other people who “understand”. We don’t quite ‘fit in’ our adoptive countries and certainly will never be fully integrated in Korean society. So, we can finally fit in with each other.

This couldn’t be further from the truth.

The following is MY perspective on being adopted. I can attest that my account is very different from most adoptees that I know, but there are some friends who fortunately share the same positive attitude. I hope that other adoptees can be as fortunate as me. Even if their birth search and/or reunion isn’t as successful, they can still benefit from the right mindset.

Often, people pity me for being adopted. “Don’t you feel bad that you’re unwanted?”

It wasn’t that my birth parents didn’t want me; it was certainly the opposite. They loved me so much that they did what they thought was best for me at that time. In the late 80’s, my family was extremely poor and already struggling to raise three girls, so resources were scarce. They couldn’t give me what they wanted to give, so they let me go to have more opportunities in a safe environment. Even if my birth parents didn’t want me, at least my mother would have been kind enough to go through pregnancy and childbirth to give me life rather than get an abortion. They say “If you love somebody, let them go. If they return, they were always yours. If they don’t, they never were.”

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My Birth Parents in their 20s

Yes, it is a little sad that I did not know who my mother was, but it was not something I thought about often. Actually, I rarely thought about it. I think other people were more concerned about my birth parents than I ever was. As far as I was concerned, my adoptive parents are my “real” parents. Family never had to do with blood relations. I never had in interest in finding them until hearing other adoptees’ stories when I first visited Korea when I was 22.

I opened my search and had no hopes. I would be elated if they were found, but neutral if not. I didn’t feel like I was “missing” something and that finding my birth family would fill that void.

Well, the search process was rather simple. The adoption agency was able to put me in contact with my birth family because they have been inquiring to try to find me. So, it went from there.

My case is rare in that I connected with my birth family and they still love me and include me in their family. In fact, we recently took professional family photos together. They try very hard to incorporate me as evidenced by the fact that they put on English songs and shoved a mic in my face at the noraebang (karaoke room). Most adoptees cannot even locate their families. And if they do, it is even rarer that a relationship is fostered after that. It could be awkward. I have so much gratitude that my situation turned out the way it did. Korea might be a dark place for me if it took another turn.

 

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Already joking around within hours of first meeting each other. I inherited their goofiness.

So, rather than pity me, envy me. I have not one, but TWO sets of parents and families that love me so much. No, I am NOT an orphan nor was I ever was an orphan. Some children really do not have parents. Some children only have a mother or father present. Even if both parents are present, a nasty relationship may exist. Now that, my readers, is an unfortunate situation. Not mine. I know I’m lucky. So, so very lucky. And I’m forever grateful for the people in my life that I love.

What else am I grateful for? I didn’t grow up in Korea. When imaging what my life would have been like had I grown up in Korea, I didn’t enjoy the mental images. High school from 7am to 10pm, pressure to be smart/beautiful/rich/popular/obedient, probably marrying a Korean man who might work late hours and go out drinking during weeknights, leaving me alone. Would I have gotten the double eyelid surgery as seemingly every Korean girl has? Would I hide under umbrellas every beautiful sunny day? Would I go through great lengths to have a “small face”, “high nose” and stick thin legs?

Don’t get me wrong, I love Korea, but I love it as a foreigner. I would probably not be the happiest as a Korean citizen. But who can really tell? As an American, I value the ability to openly express my opinions without fear of getting rejected from a group. I value how I can go without makeup and nobody will tell me that I look “tired”. I value that I can be friends with people of all ages and not having the pressure to talk in a super polite manner to people two years older than me. Koreans just have different values. Neither set of values are superior to the other. They’re just different.

Of course, growing up as an adoptee wasn’t always peachy. Perhaps I had issues with identity growing up, but who didn’t? Maybe I felt annoyed by the looks people gave my multicultural family when we’re out. I may or may not have hated everything about Korea and being Asian for most of my life. But it’s all good now. I’m quite comfortable in my own skin. It’s a nice feeling. You can feel this way, too. I didn’t have these positive thoughts my whole life – I guess this is more of a recent thing, but I can’t even remember what it’s like being negative anymore. Changing your perspective changes your world.

I’ll close this with one of the best perks of being adopted: Over the years, I spent much less time filling out family medical history questionnaires at the doctor. That’s probably enough time to take a walk in the park and enjoy a picnic.

Funny video about what it’s like to be adopted.