Sunday, January 27, 2008

Clubbing in Seoul

This week was rather uneventful. The work is pretty filling of time, so the events during the week are mostly work. We did have a “carnival” at camp this week and I was a face painter of all things, which was hilarious because that’s what I do for work at home. It was a lot of fun to paint up the kids!

We went clubbing Seoul style on Saturday. It was a lot of fun and must-do experience. Sarah, Ellie, Nick, and I met Jung Won and Yong Gok at the subway and we all rode the subway in together into Seoul, where we met up with a couple of co-workers, Heidi and Kate. We found the Chicken Palace for dinner and the chicken was truly tender and delicious and well, palace-like. We got going with the beer and soju there and were soon off to the clubs.
Here's the girls all ready to go.

A lot of clubs seem the same anywhere you go. The three clubs we went to all played the popular hip hop hits, guys try to grind on girls who don’t really want to dance with them, and you make the fun yourself. We had a great group of people, so we didn’t have too much trouble having fun. We danced, drank beer, and just let loose after a long work week.

The troops slowly disbanded until only Sarah, Jung Won, Yong Gok, and I were the only ones left. We proceeded to get some ice cream in the freezing cold and found a taxi to take us all the way back to Incheon.

The next day was spent recuperating and I just chilled. I did manage to get out and get some dinner and I even bought a little skirt for Thailand, just to remind myself that some day very soon I will be able to walk around outside without a down jacket.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

The Halfway Point

It’s been kind of a sleepy week. I’ve just been settled in, working, and taking some alone time when I can. I’ve been more of a social butterfly lately than I have been in a long while. Sarah and I have been so fortunate to get such great “instant friends”. The six-day work week with kids has been tiring me out to, so most of the going out lately has been for dinner or shopping or something.

Earlier in the week Ellie had us foreign teachers over and made us a fabulous dinner. We brought the wine. She even put balloons up in her apartment and post-it notes with “welcome” written on them. We just ate, drank wine, and had a nice mellow evening. It was lovely.

On Friday, “Mommy” and two of the other family members picked Sarah and I up to go to the movies. We went to the IMAX and saw ‘Sweeney Todd’. Ummmm… I had heard it was gory, but give me a break, I don’t think I have seen so many close-ups of slit throats in my life, spurting blood everywhere. I can’t even remember the last time I covered my eyes during a movie but I did for this one on several occasions. Johnny Depp rocked as usual and the gothic style visuals were great, but the blood was a little too overflowing for my taste. Going to the theater, however, was great and I definitely plan on going there again before I leave. I love going to the movies.

This weekend, a few of us went out for dinner, barbecue (yum) pork. It’s basically the same cut of pork that bacon comes from, just not cured like bacon. It was good, but I think I prefer the lean beef better. After that, I just spent the evening in and got some rest.

Today, Sunday, the family picked us up and took us to the Korean Folk Village just outside of Seoul It was very quaint, informative, and historic. Sarah and I got stopped twice by students to have English conversations, we saw a man walk a tightrope, we saw horses and horse acrobatics, we ate a lot of food (of course), went to a museum or two, saw lots of traditional housing, swung on foot swings, and were cold. I think my toes were completely numb at one point. I did get a lot of really great pictures though and now I feel a little more educated on Korea’s cultural history. The family was generous as usual and took care of us very well the whole time.

That's me in front of the "Dutiful Wife's Monument" Ha! I just thought it was funny that the one woman monument that I could find was for the dutiful wife and for her pious devotion to her husband's family.

Here are the horses... and the people.

I have also been taking pictures of interesting Korean English.

Half way done with the camp and in some ways it feels like it flew by and in others, it feels like I’ve been here for forever. I wonder what the second half will hold?

Monday, January 14, 2008

Turning Korean

I think I might be turning Korean. Not really, but the process sure is fun. One of my students was asking me about bulgogi today, which I said I liked, and he said, “Oooh, you’re Koeran then,” with a big smile on his face.

I make the joke because I think these last few days have been very “Korean”… maybe, I don’t know, I’ve still only been here for about ten days.

Saturday was happily met by several very tired teachers, but we were not dying out just yet. The four of us (the foreign teachers) were taken to a fun dinner by our fabulous TAs where a special kind of rice wine is served called Dong-dong-ju, that to me, is very similar to unfiltered sake. We were also served several kinds of Korean pancakes that were DE-LI-CIOUS. Let’s see, there was also a plate of spicy chicken feet, a plate of pork (regular meat and skin, imagine sautéed pork rinds), glass noodles with vegetables, savory brown gelatin, and of course, lots of kimchee. One of the pancakes was even a kimchee pancake, I gotta’ make it when I go home, you would never believe how good it is.

After dinner, I had my first proper noribong experience. That is, basically a private karaoke room for four hours with an unhealthy serving of soju and beer snuck in from the corner store. A bottle of soju is about two dollars here and there’s no cutoff time. No wonder why I have heard that there is a problem with Korean men drinking too much.

The noribong was great, we went crazy, singing and dancing like it was going out of style.

The next day, I and the other teachers were in bad need of some recuperation. We were lucky, because that day we had planned to have the samgyetang again (that ginseng whole chicken soup) and experience the Korean style spa. Sarah, Nick, Ryan, Ellie, Heidi, and I rode the bus to a restaurant for the delicious soup and then Sarah, Nick, Ellie, and I took a taxi to In Spa World.

Let me tell you, that this is one of the craziest best things ever. It costs about ten dollars to get in and it’s the size of a big casino, four floors of it. However, instead of blackjack tables and slot machines, there are saunas and hot tubs. There are separate women and men’s sections where most people are very naked and very “whatever” about it. The hot tubs and cold tubs are mostly in this area. Then there is a shared floor where both men and women can go. The saunas are mostly in this area.

When you first walk in, you take your shoes off (of course) and put them in a little locked cubby. You trade that key for another key and then go up to the locker rooms. On your way into the locker room, you stop at a front counter where you pick up your little outfit you have to wear in the shared area: comfy shorts and a t-shirt, pink for women, blue for men, and green for kids. After you change into your little outfit and drop your stuff off in your locker, you head down to the shared area where there is food, massage chairs and a lot of relaxing going on. The floor and air is very well heated and people just sleep anywhere, really… anywhere; the nearest bench, the floor, a chair, wherever. There are snack bars where they have delicious fresh beverages, ice cream, fruit, and more. There are counters where they sell clothes, beauty products, underwear, swimsuits, eggs, everything. We; Sarah, Ellie (our newfound Korean friend), and I, got these big cups of Shikye, a refreshing sweet rice drink before we went for our sweats. I was especially interested in sweating and checking out the saunas. Everything has a digital temperature outside of it, bith the saunas and the hot tubs, so you can choose just how hot you want to be. The most surprising thing to me when I first walked into one of the saunas was that there was a television mounted into the wall behind some Plexiglas.

You have to understand that this seems to be a regular family affair and there are lots of kids and whole families, couples, friends. That’s actually one of the things I really like about it. It’s like a park that’s indoors and you come out feeling refreshed and glistening. The first room was a little too comfortable for me as I wanted something hotter, so I went into the next room with a higher temperature gauge. I was surprised to find that the floor was covered in coral-colored rocks. So, imagine walking into a blasting hot, enormous, circular sauna, with a TV playing Korean dramas or music videos, some little kids watching the TV, some grandparents taking a nap, all in a sandbox filled with walnut-sized, hot, pink, rocks. It was great and boy, did it make you sweat. You lay down right on the hot rocks and settle yourself into a perfectly shaped little rock bed. You can even take some of the rocks and put them on top of you to really get the sweat going. I came out of there dripping!

Well, I had to wash off after all that sweating, so it was back up to the locker room to get naked and do some bathing. Through the locker room you enter a bath house full of showers, Korean-style bathing buckets, hot tubs of varying degrees, steam rooms, and one of my favorites, a cold sea water tub just big enough to swim around in. When you go in, you take a shower, scrub the heck out of your skin to get rid of all of those dead skin cells that you’ve been sweating through. Then you go in the hot tub for as long as you can stand (I like the hottest one). When your pores are all open and relaxed, you scrub the heck out of them again, shower off and then get back in the tub. I liked to stay in the hot tub and then go in the cold sea water tub and then do the process all over again as many times as I can stand it without getting sick.

By the time, we were finished with the spa, I was ready for bed. But, of course, we couldn’t just go to bed, no. We had to have people over to our apartment and make dinner and more conversation. Nick and Ellie came over and the four of us ate a big vegetable stir-fry with brown rice. Elli brought kimchee over that her mom made and taught Sarah and I how to make those Korean pancakes we loved.

I don’t remember what time I fell asleep that night, but I know it happened quickly.

Today was back to work and then a much-needed nap before my Korean haircut. (See, I told you I was turning Korean.) Yay! Ellie took Sarah and I to her favorite salon in a downtown area of Incheon to a very swanky salon. The catch is that I had probably one of the best, most professional haircuts of my life and it ran me about fifteen dollars. You’re not even supposed to tip, but neither Sarah nor I could help it.

After the super haircut, we went to a shabu shabu restaurant. Shabu shabu is a lovely Japanese dining experience where you have a big metal pot of broth boiling in the middle of your table on a burner and the servers bring a plate of perfect thinly sliced beef and lots of fresh vegetables. You throw it all in the pot and eat as you like it. When you’re finished with the meat and vegetables you throw some very fresh noodles into the same pot of broth and eat them when ready. Finally, you empty out the broth and the server cooks savory rice porridge to finish you off. That meal was about twenty-two dollars for all three of us. Amazing.

I don’t know if I’m going to get fat with all the eating I’m doing or lose weight from all the unprocessed food. Although my stomach still puts up a little fight from time to time, I generally feel pretty good and am loving the culinary adventures.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Snow in Incheon

It’s snowing! Well, not right this minute but; it did snow all day today. It snowed big fat snowflakes and little skinny snowflakes. There were quick darting flakes and drifting floaty flakes. Apparently, it doesn’t snow in Incheon like it did today, so it was pretty special. It is always special for me when it snows, because I have probably seen the snow fall from the sky a number I could count with my fingers.

I’m still having a pretty great time. We met some other teachers who are also staying here in the same building, but teaching at a different camp. Today was the birthday of one of them, Peter, and Sarah and I went and visited the little party in his second story apartment. It was full of people from his camp, other teachers and TAs mostly. It was nice to meet some new faces and share in a little debauchery. (There was one big bottle of whiskey, a bottle of white wine, a bottle of absinthe, a bottle of pomegranate juice, and a couple of other bottles of some other stuff.) They also had a beautiful little cake to go with it. I had just a taste of some weird kind of sweet Korean wine and bid them adieu as they jaunted off to meet a cab to take them to a bowling alley. As inhumane as it may seem, I have to work tomorrow, Saturday, and was unable to join the caravan.

Nicholas, Sarah, Ryan, and I walked into town where we found a little dinner of stall food, mandu (Korean dumplings), and kimbop (Korean sushi). I ate a perfect dinner of basically some meat-stuffed dumplings, a vegetable roll, and peppery hot broth for about two dollars.

I love countries where you can eat out for cheaper than you would if you bought items at the store, cooked it yourself, and washed your dishes! Hip hip hooray!

Thursday, January 10, 2008

It Boggles the Mind

Last night, “Mommy” took Sarah and me out again. This time, her niece joined us and we went out for chicken soup in Incheon. Koerean. The soup is called samgye tang which is a delicious ginseng soup served in an iron pot with a whole chicken (a very small chicken) stuffed with rice, garlic, persimmon, jujube (asian date), and seasoned with scallion. It’s served with the usual sides along with a dish of shaved salt and a light pepper. You kind of dip your bites of chicken into the salt and pepper to your liking. The meat falls off the bones, heck, the bones fall off of each other it’s so tender. You have a bite of fresh green peppers or kimch’i every so often and settle in.

Neither Mommy nor her niece spoke much English at all and my Korean is limited to say the least, so the whole night, we mostly drew pictures, shared facial expressions and gestures. It was crazy in a fun and yummy kind of way.

On the way back, we stopped by a war memorial that was pretty amazing. The architecture reminded me of some kind of ancient Aztec or Egyptian design. It was weird yet beautiful to see a war memorial from the Korean War as an American with Koreans in Korea.

Today was another day at winter camp and I laugh at the prospect of losing my voice if I yell any more. When you have over 150 kids’ names to remember (all the kids in the camp) and no knowledge of how to say sit down or be quiet in the language the kids speak, it’s a funny experience indeed. I just laugh, get crazy, and talk really quiet and wait, that seems to work. Before long the good kids tell the bad kids to be good and we move on. We’re working on plays, one of which is Snow White and I actually got one of the boys to play the wicked queen and he’s AWESOME! The first time he read his part, I just started cracking up, perfect evil queen voice and everything. It’s strange because in some ways, they seem to understand so much about word meaning and grammar, but can’t answer or ask simple questions. The mind boggles.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Korean Kind

It’s been quite the last few days. I became virtually adopted by a lovely Korean family, I started teaching English to little and big kids, I went to the super grocery store of South Korea, Sarah and I had a dinner at our place with the other teachers, and I got sick. Sweet!

Well, I feel a lot better now and I don’t want to highlight having a sick tummy. Aside from the radical change in diet, I’m pretty surprised at how well my stomach has been holding up, but yesterday it cried uncle. Like I said though, I feel a lot better now and keep getting better.

Before Sarah and I left California, Sarah was told by one of her students to get in touch with one of his friends. She sent an email and on Sunday his mom, his brothers, and his best friend picked us up. His mother had three sons and no daughters, so she was especially happy to show us her South Korea. I still don’t know her name as she insisted we call her Mommy.

The four of them took us by car to the local subway station where we rode a train for an hour and a half to Seoul. We walked up from the subway to a city as enormous as they say. We were walked down the street to Seoul’s famous “ old town” called Insa-dong. Cobblestone streets, old wooden buildings, maze-like alleyways, mouth-watering food-stalls, handi-crafts and arts make up the area of Seoul known as Insa-dong. Now, this is South Korea and apparently one of the first things you do when you finish or begin anything is eat. So, the first thing we did (after taking a few pictures) was walk down a little beautiful alley full of restaurants until we came to the end and were taken to a truly sweet and wonderful restaurant smelling of fish and sesame oil. (Apparently, if a restaurant smells like fish and sesame oil, this is a good thing, I guess.) We had a traditional Korean lunch of many, many, plates of spicy, fishy, ricey, fermented things, finished off with a warm persimmon juice sweetened with cinnamon and a little sugar.

After lunch, we walked around Insa-dong, checking out the many sights. I bought a cute warm hat for about nine dollars. We walked into antique shops and art galleries. We walked up the ramp of a four-story building that went from first floor to top like a ribbon. We delighted in street sweets like freshly made rice cake and some famous fried doughnut thing that was devilishly good with a line of people that wrapped all the way around the food stall.

Sarah and I were even stopped by a girl with a microphone who apparently worked for EBS radio. EBS is an English learning radio station in South Korea, I guess, and this girl was looking for a couple of English speakers to read off of a script for a show. We obliged and now, for all I know, we are being broadcast along the Korean airwaves for learners everywhere.

After Insa-dong, we walked a short way to a quaint stream that ran through the city like an insolent child. Families flocked there and seemed to be taking their Sunday evening stroll. There were stepping stones that acted like bridges to cross the little stream. We later found out the stream used to run through the poorest part of the city once and was even filled for a time. But now, it runs through a very affluential part of town indeed.

After a fun-filled day in Seoul we were bound for the subway to head back to Incheon. But of course, once we got there, apparently we had to eat again. So we were taken, once again to an amazing meal. This time it was the Korean barbecue most westerners are aware of. It was a real family place, two stories of it, filled with families and flowing the meat, kimchee, and soju.

I was exhausted by the time we got home especially since I knew I was starting work the next day.

The camp has been crazy.

It’s fun and flies by for the most part. The schedule is great. We have the same kids for the same classes come through Monday, Wednesday, and Friday then different kids for the same classes on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday. The camp is twenty-four days total; so essentially, I only have to plan for twelve days. Sweet!

I teach kids from about seven to fourteen. But, it’s not the age that matters as much as the fluency. Most of them seem to know barely a lick of English, but they’re pretty brilliant at the grammar. That makes sense since most of them have to study English from the beginning of their education, but never speak it… ever… until this camp that I’m at (at least that’s what it feels like so far. The whole thing is really quite amusing. From the insanely noisy little kids class to the morbidly silent junior high age class to the bizarre lunches to super cute hugs to the “TEACHER TEACHER TEACHER” to the funny guys with chosen English names like Boom and Dragon.

Overall, I had been given a picture of Korean people, from I don’t know where, that was unfriendly, sullen, and distant and that just hasn’t been the case so far. In fact, the folks that I have met have been some of the most friendly, generous, proud people that I have ever met. I mean there are barkers in the Safeway-style spotless supermarket telling you to try their meat or bread sample and how good it is (I think) and then they smile and bow when you buy some. Imagine this at Safeway!

One of the really neat things is that there are really hardly any foreigners and those that are live or work here so that, unlike a tourist travel destination, you are really one in their country. It’s really special. Sarah and I are especially fortunate to have essentially been taken in by a Korean family (so we really get the inside scoop) who now wants to take us out again next Sunday. We also have two other terrific teachers living in the same building as us and we have cooked and shared meals together with plans of more meals and evenings of fun. If I didn’t have a little unforgiving cough and a somewhat sensitive tummy, I don’t think it could get much better.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Culinary Adventures

Saturday night was a lot of fun and a lot of adventure, culinary adventure that is. Sarah, Nicholas (one of the other teachers), and I all met up with some of our TAs: Kate, Heidi, Katherine, and Jennifer (not their real names, their English names) for dinner. The girls took us to this crazy dive where critters living in shells in the tanks were out front awaiting their doom. I’m just glad we were with some locals who knew what they were doing, because I would have ran out for fear of blushing to death not knowing what to do. Before I knew it, there were more plates than our table could fit that were full of… I don’t know what. Here’s my guess, one of them were definitely silk worm larvae, yes, crunchy silk worm larvae, and of course they plopped it right in front of me. I wanted to be the westerner who tried it and was like “oh yum” and chow down on the bugs, but no, they were admittedly gross… nutty maybe?

There was a plate with whole garlic cloves and fat slices of chilies, red sauces, brown sauces, raw oysters, frozen kind of crunchy fish over a coleslaw of some sort, cucumbers, an omelet I think, weird brown slimy things, and a huge plate of raw fish (chewy yet delicate raw fish).

There was a big gas grill in the middle of the tiny metal table and when we were done with the huge plate of raw fish, our server (who didn’t really seem like a real server, more like somebody’s mom who was feeding us) grabbed a handful of snails and clams out of one of the tanks outside and just threw it on the grill.

We were each given a glove to wear on our left hand and there was a huge pair of scissors and tongs that I was far from in charge of. The glove, I later found out, was to keep your hand from burning when you grabbed a clam or whatnot from the grill, the scissors to cut up the snails or clams from their shells and the tongs for convenience. Just when I thought I could not eat another weird fishy thing, they brought out the biggest tray of them all with every kind of clam that exists I think already opened and drizzled with sauce and garlic and I don’t know what. These got put on the grill too (and they set the tray on a little stool right next to me, I don’t know why I was apparently the one to get all the weirdest stuff closest to me!). While these were bubbling up to edible goodness, Mom brought out some hand rolls Japanese style of rice, negi leaf and delicate ginger colored fish eggs. Several of the things we got were “on the house” and “Mom” was just so excited to have us. Then there was the Soju, two bottles of it between us, cold and refreshing. Then we were pleasantly surprised to find out that the girls were taking us out! Aside from that they said that it was very cheap for what we were having and that in Seoul it would be twice as much.

We walked out full, smelling of fish and garlic, and still a little reeling from all the craziness. I could go on and on, the buckets by your feet to toss the shells into, the big plastic basket for everyone’s enormous coats, the crowded noise and unusual smells, my inability to read anything anywhere, the bucket with the fish flopping about right behind me (don’t worry, he was stabbed in the head and was very quiet soon after). I don’t think you could get any fresher and apparently, Incheon is one of the bestest places to eat seafood.

Saturday, January 5, 2008

Settling in.

Korean breakfast looks a lot like Korean lunch and dinner: hearty, spicy, and fermented. Yesterday, I had survived off of Korean style “Cup O’ Noodles”, so I was definitely craving some nutrition. I spent most of yesterday sleeping, bathing, reading, blogging, and sleeping with not a lot of energy for things like conjuring up enough language to find real food… ahhh jetlag.

Today was much better, not perfect, but better. Which was good, because Sarah and I had our first meeting fore the camp with the other teachers and our TAs. The meeting went well and everything is really organized. Each teacher specializes in one thing and mine is speech. Sarah’s is speaking and listening. When I chose it, I thought it would be a lot of pronunciation and word stress, which I really enjoy, but it’s actually more like giving speeches. (Which is funny, because on the plane I watched a movie called “Rocket Science” which is all about speech and debate in high school.) This should be interesting since most of the kids are little kids who speak very little English. But, who better to teach kids how to get up in front of people and make a fool of yourself than yours truly. I am a firm believer in acting like dork while your learning.

It was great to meet the other teachers. There are only two other native speakers, both Americans and guys who have been already living in South Korea for at least a year. This is terrific, because they know enough Korean to help us learn the language a little better and get around town a little less awkwardly. We are all in the same building and they are in an apartment similar to Sarah and mine’s, but on the seventh floor. We are all going out to eat tonight with our Korean TAs (five brilliantly sweet Korean girls), so it should be a lot of fun and a little adventure.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

On the Other Side of the World Again!

So, I’ve gone and traveled to the other side of the world again and I don’t know if it’s quite hit me yet.

I am currently in Incheon, South Korea after about 24 hours of travel. I am with my lovely friend and co-teacher Sarah and we have settled into our 2-bedroom apartment quite nicely. I’ll try to fill you in.

Our flight from SFO to LAX was supposed to leave at 7:53AM, but of course, it was delatyed to leave at about 9:00AM. (But, gosh it was nice to wake up at 4:45AM anyways! Thank you for the ride Robin!) Our connection flight to Seoul was to leave at 11:05AM and when we arrived at about 10:00AM we were high-tailing it from the domestic terminal to the international terminal, on to the international security line (which was approximately the length of a football field). We were tricky teachers and talked to the right folks to get us through that awful line quickly and without difficulty and we made it on our flight.

I give props to Korean Air and at this point, highly recommend them. We had the in-seat TVs with more movies than you could ever watch, enough legroom, yummy food, and a little zippered bag with socks, a toothbrush, and a fabulously turquoise eye mask. Though we were exhausted from our flight, we still had much traveling to do and were met outside by Alex, our recruiter for the winter camp (did I mention why I went to South Korea in the first place?). He bought us some water and snacks and set us neatly on a public bus for a 2-hour ride to Inha University.
Here's one of the sights from the bus!

When we got to the university, we were pleasantly met by Kate (the camp director or something, I think) who helped us get to our apartment. We were led to our fifth floor two bedroom apartment. The apartment is hooked up with everything one could want to live comfortably for a month. The floors are heated, which I can’t tell you enough how happy I am about that. We have a full kitchen, comfortable furniture, full internet access, and immaculate cleanliness. We even have a lovely patio that looks out upon all of Incheon’s loveliness.
Here's the view from our living room!

...and our fabulous kitchen!

...and my room of course!

Getting breakfast this morning was an adventure as I guess most stores and restaurants in South Korea open midday and close late and breakfast usually looks the same as dinner. I did run into a Caucasian as I was exiting the building in search for some grub who led me to my free breakfast. I can’t tell you it was very nutritious, but it was really sweet and awkward: a potato salad sandwich with a side of some meatballs of some sort.

When Sarah awoke, we walked into town only to find many closed stores and restaurants, but an open corner market where we bought eggs and Korean style “Cup O’ Noodles”. Needless to say, I had a “Cup O’ Noodles” with an egg cracked into it… yum.

Now, I sit back and try to get over jetlag while I wonder about what this “winter camp” thing will bring. I guess you will find out as I do, one day at a time.