Monday, December 28, 2009

Merry Christmas to All

Koreans don't sweat in any measurable amount. As such their demand for a product such as antiperspirant is non-existent. That poses certain problems for those of us that aren't Korean. Where do you buy a product that isn't in demand?

After an initial failed effort at the local grocery store, my second impulse was the scour the local super-store, named E-mart.

E-mart, is to my knowledge, the only company that has managed to enter into a relationship with Walmart and come out ahead. You see, years ago Walmart partnered with a local company in order to penetrate the South Korean market. Walmart received a local partner in order to set up shop in a developed nation that is growing by leaps and bounds. E-mart received first class instructions on how to run an efficient store. But when the time came to renew their contract...E-mart (having learned what they needed) sent Walmart packing back Arkansas with its tail between its legs.

In Korea, there are no Targets, Fred Meyers, or Walmarts. There is only an E-mart in every town. If you want one stop shopping for just about everything that you use in your daily life...E-mart is it. If you've been to any of the above mentioned stores, you can imagine E-mart....only those stores are one 1 story....a typical Emart rises 7 stories...

When I lived Haman, every foreigner knew which bus to take to get there (the 88) Or they would just hop into a cab and say "E-ma-tu" ("E-mart" will just get you a blank stare from the cab driver...) From Migeum (where I live currently) there are 2 within spitting distance from my apartment....one is a 20 minute walk, 100 meters from the next subway stop.

E-mart is my stop for any groceries that I need that aren't at the local market. Case in point, the local store doesn't have chocolate candy that I use to keep my students under some semblance of control. They also have a selection of Belgium beers (Leffe anyone?) that makes life just a little more livable...

But they don't have antiperspirant.

My third, impulse was to check out Costco. Costco is the only "American" store that I know in Korea. It's similar to what you remember in America, only as is typically Korean, it has multiple floors.

Costco has a wide variety of products that I always bought at home. From the mega-packs of muffins, the Prego spaghetti sauce (you'll probably never realize the craving you'll have for Prego until after you've tried the unpalatable "Korean" spaghetti sauce...) cheese ravioli (or as I had to explain it to my Korean friends "cheese dumplings") and Korean oatmeal (but oddly not Quaker Oats...)

But they don't have antiperspirant either.

Hmmm.....my options were getting shorter and my imagination was running dry...So I headed to the armpit of Seoul...Itaewon... aka the foreigner district.

I have a lot of friends that love Itaewon...maybe I've just been jaded based on bad experiences...but they do have a great book store. They also have Muslims. Which I find it odd that are Muslims in Korea for no other reason than Muslims reject 2 of foundational pillars of Korean culture: drinking and eating pork.

They also have a foreign food market that manages to fill the gaps between what you can't find at E-mart and Costco. Mixed in among the Middle Eastern and Indian spices (such as authentic curry and garam masala) are staples such as Jello, toothpaste, and Quaker Oats.

Still, no antiperspirant.

So I decided to search the one place I KNEW it existed:

America.

I wrote an email to my parents urgently requesting a care package. Despite my reservations against the Korean mail system. They managed to lose BOTH of the other care packages I was sent. But they've managed to deliver the post cards sent by my aunt and uncle...so I knew that they weren't incompetent, merely kleptocompetent. This time I used my school's address, instead of my own.

And 2 weeks later (the Tuesday before Christmas), low and behold a shoe box wrapped in brown, grocery bag paper arrived at my school from my dear, sweet, wonderful mother.

I took it home after work and unwrapped it.

Only to find that it was again in CHRISTMAS WRAPPING paper! It was Tuesday....Christmas wasn't until Friday. I wanted to open up, but there are RULES against opening presents early.

So, now I had to wait to open the only package I've received in 10 months...well my opinion of my mother turned from saintly to cruel and vindictive...

I spent the day before Christmas dressed up as an unconvincing Santa Claus (or Santa Phil as my kids called me)

Regardless, I made it thru the few days. And celebrated by staying up after midnight, and unwrapped my sole Christmas present with a enthusiasm I haven't experienced since I was 10. Inside, where half a dozen sticks of the much need antiperspirant, nearly 4 boxes of pepto bismo pills (another much missed American staple that can't be found here), forwarded mail, candy canes, a puzzle, and one pair of Homer Simpson pajamas.

I spent Christmas doing a little caroling and finished it off with a white elephant party. I managed to snag a much needed 3000 won umbrella. One of the Koreans managed to snag a rubix cube. To which this high school senior scoffed, "What am I 10 years old!" Well it is a white elephant gift exchange, you're not supposed to walk away with something you like.

This is a struck me as a strange cultural divide. I've had rubix cubes on and off for years...I've twisted and turned and gotten bored with them. But it's different here in Korea. Here they're sold at the stationary stores that are on every block. They don't have just have the plain old 3X3 rubix cubes. They sell 4X4 (as favored by the Harvard bound Korean twins from Vancouver, WA) and 12 sided polygon for the masochist in your life.

Now, I made 28 some years in this world being perfectly blissfully ignorant having never completed a cube without cheating. But for some odd reason, I felt the compulsion to learn while I was here. So I, the then 28 year old learned how to solve "the cube." According to Korean high school senior that puts me on the same level as a Korean 10 year old.

But one thing I did learn by solving a rubix cube, that was that there are certain problems in life that you can try to solve by yourself....but there are certain problems you need help with. The cube falls into the later catagory. You can spend a lifetime attempting to solve it, or you can take the time to learn the half dozen patterns.

That's it 6 patterns. For all the colossal headaches that little box causes people causes, and it's that easy to figure out.

I'm not sure what rubix cube have to do with Christmas....but there it is. Merry Christmas. Glad Yule, Feliz Navidad and have a Happy Year!

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Lions and Tigers and Bears OH MY!


This weekend I went to the zoo. And I actually learned something...animals just don't like cooperating with a camera. First, I should explain something...my camera also can record short videos. So if you're experiencing something that a single picture can't quiet grasp (say a large foreigner wearing skull make up riding a toy motorcycle) a brief video can really help you capture the moment.

I wish someone would tell the animals this!

First, there was this parrot...my Korean guide for the day managed to get the bird to speak Korean! I whip out my camera, only to have old Cap'n Flint revert into random whistles and clicks. Bird brain can speak more Korean than I can, but just had to get camera shy.

The other was a pair for rhinos. While I watched, the first rhino went up to a pile soccer ball sized (and let's us the Korean word here) ddong and began to roll it around with his nose. Then, he left his own contribution to the pile. Up walks the second rhino...who proceeds to roll around the steaming new ball soccer ball left by the previous rhino. I race to get this on video, only to have the rhino leave his own soccer ball on the pile.

Stupid animals...

The only animals that did cooperate were the tigers. I thought cats were untrainable...but really, all you have to do is to not feed them on Friday, then throw a few whole chicken in the cage on Saturday. Those 200 kg (500 pound) tigers will leap into the air like a kitten!

And could someone please explain why there are totem poles in Seoul Korea!

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Daedun Mountain



For Halloween, the weather report called for rain in Seoul and sunshine in Busan. So when I went on a boat ride half way in the middle of those 2 cities, the weather was beautiful.

So this weekend, I looked at the weather report and saw the same...and expected the same result when I went hiking on a Korean mountain.

Man was I wrong. Instead of blue skies, I witnessed the first snow that I've seen in Korea since I first arrived. It frosted the mountains and made for a beautiful, if not chilly, hike.

I've been on a few hikes now, and I'm starting to notice a few themes of the national parks that the tours go to...

First, Cell phone coverage. I set a new record for cell phone coverage on Mt. Daedun...I sent down to 4 bars.... I don't think I've seen it below 5 bars since I've arrived here. Even on the subway, they Koreans will not be deprived of their cell phones!

Second, silk worm larva. These foul smelling and even fouler tasting grubs are available just about every tourist trap and yet I don't haven't seen anyone eat them.

Third, decked out Koreans. Koreans don't just throw on a random sweatshirt, jeans, and a jacket when they head for the hills. Koreans enjoying their unofficial national past time, MUST be dressed in the latest and greatest Gortex gear from North Face and Columbia Sportswear regardless of the actual weather itself.

Fourth, picnics. These fully decked out Koreans, will never neglect their stomachs on a hike. Case in point, on top of Mount Daedun, all covered with snow, I lost my poor meatball, when somebody sneezed...wait...that's not right...but on top of the freshly powered mountain, amidst the howling wind, half a dozen groups of ajimas and ajashis (old Korean women and men) sitting on thermal pads and sharing soju and kimchi (Korean vodka and sauerkraut)

Fifth, shops. Koreans love to set up shop to sell things. So whether you are on top of a mountain in a national park, as sure are your cell phone has awesome reception, there will be a Korean trying to sell you something. From the Buddhist monks at the top of Mount Sorrak, to the 6 separate professional photographers in the caverns, or at Daedun where you've been scrambling up snow covered rocks for the past hour....there WILL be a shop selling something!

Sixth, Stairs. I guess I'm just used to a slightly more natural hiking experience. But over and over again, the Korean hiking experience involves metal staircase anchored into the rocks. While I have to say the stairs were MUCH appreciated this trip (you noticed more with the stairs weren't there and you end up with scraped hands and a sore rear end.)

Oh...and I carved my first turkey last weekend!

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Thankfully Yours

Both of these bills are worth 10,000. One is 10,000 South Korean Won and the other is 10,000 Japanese Yen. I'd have liked to add an American bill in there, but I'm fresh out of $10,000 bills...

One of these is worth about $8.50 (the green Korean won on top) and the other is worth about $120. Funny how things that look so similar can be so different.

International finance is never really something I've looked into. I've seen the infomercials on TV...the little flashing ads next to the newspapers I read online. I never thought I'd be foolish enough to waste my money gambling it on the random fluctuation of currencies. Well, that was before I started getting paid in won.

A lifetime ago, say two years, the 1000 won was worth more that a US dollar. As the world economy tanked, so did the won. So my fellow English teachers that had to move all their money at the end of 2008...watched all their hard earned money money lose 30 cents on the dollar. (and probably get no sympathy from those that had money in the stock market...) However, those people that started out as English teachers here (such as your humble author) have seen any money they didn't send home...have seen their money increase in value by 20 cents on the dollar.

You might ask, what the difference is between those who saw a 30% drop in their savings and a (so far) 20% increase...the answer is time. They got out at a bad time...and I got in at a good time. No amount of luck or research meant anything. It was what year your happened to come over here.

Fate, it seems, is a fickle mistress.

And as the the Won can buy the most Dollars in something like 16 months, I've decided to start officially saving my money.

Now, I've been saving (or attempting to anyways) a portion of my paycheck each month. But even with all those millions of Won in my Korean bank account...it just doesn't feel the same as having it back home in my American bank account. Like the great American said, "A penny saved is a penny earned." Well, until I turn it into pennies, I don't feel as if I've earned it.

The transferring process itself is as easy as paying a bill in Korea. I just log onto my bank account and make a transfer to my remittance account (an international transfer account that is tied directly to my American bank accounts). Three days later, money appears in my account back home.

There are 2 frustrating things about sending money home are the Korean laws and the fees. (and for the record, if these are the BIGGEST problems I have with sending money home...I've got it GOOD)

First, the maximum amount of money I can send home is equal to my monthly paycheck. So, while I want to send home 9 months worth of savings all as once...I've got to send it home in installments.

Second, both banks want a slice. Due to the beauty of the internet, I know how much each transfer should be worth and I know how much goes into my account. There's a $50 dollar difference. I don't like using a random ATM in order to avoid a $2 fee. So the $50 fee comes with a bit of sticker shock.

But my Korean bank wants a little bit of the action and so does my American bank, so there's not much that I can do.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Banking in Korea


I grew up in a different country, that used a slightly different banking system. I have the same bank that I started a savings account with when I was in the 1st grade. Before I came to Korea, I paid every bill that I could with a check. I've since changed, as my bills don't exactly get sent to my current apartment anymore.

So I thought that when I came to Korea, it would be the same. After all, I have a bank account and an ATM card, the same as I had back home...

Well almost....

When I say ATM card, I mean just that...an ATM card...There is no Visa or Mastercard logo on it. I can't use it to buy groceries or pay at a restaurant.

Oh, and they don't give you a check book neither...but that's probably a good thing as I don't write much Korean.

But then how do I pay my bills without checks? I use the ATM to transfer money directly into their account. This is rather strange to me, as back home your Routing and Banking numbers are closely guarded secrets! I mean back when I worked for an insurance company, that information was held more securely that people's Social Security numbers!

Well, they do things a bit differently over here.

In fact, you know what? Here...my is my banking information:

Philip Langaunet
Woori Bank
1002-275-496172

Now anyone can use my account to transfer money to me ANY time they want.

Your account number isn't really a secret. But, transferring money OUT of my account. Well, that's a little harder.

If someone wanted to log onto my bank's website to transfer all of my money to them...they would have to know:

my user name
password
have my USB drive that's on my key chain
have the bank's encryption card hidden in my wallet
and have my other banking password

OR

Having my ATM card
and my PIN

Well, yes...then if they had all that information without me knowing it...I suppose they could take away my millions (of won that is)

So, I'm pretty sure that even on the internet, that information won't hurt me.

Where was I....paying bills...

On every bill I receive, there are the banking account numbers of 3-4 of the big national banks. If you have an account with one of those bank, you can transfer the funds free of charge...if not, a nominal fee (a little more than the price of a stamp back home) is charged on top of the bill.

I don't think that much of that fee (I really don't have a choice), but Koreans on the other hand DO. Most of them will have 4 different bank accounts in order to dodge those fees.

I just wish my bank would change it's name. While the Koreans have no problem depositing their hard earned money into a bank they call "oori" I have a problem keeping my money in a banking whose name is "Woori"

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Korean Megacorporations


Ever wonder how Korea went from being the dirt poor nation of goat farmers that I saw on MASH...to the nation where one of the top 20 TV stations is dedicated to a video game (aka Starcraft). From one of the most dirt poor countries in the world to a country that's has more wireless access than Microsoft.

The answer is Chaebol. The Korean world for me mega-corporation. For the last 50 years Korea has used, abused, threatened, and gamed them against each other to achieve an economic miracle. You've probably heard of some of the winners...Samsung...Hyundae...LG...the losers...well they don't exist anymore.

The one thing about this economic miracle is that it is export driven. As much as humanly possible, Koreans don't do imports. Over 95% of the cars on the road are made by Hyundae (or its daughter company Kia.)

Everywhere they can, they mentality is that they can make it here, so why should they pay someone else to make it themselves. This applies to just about everything. In fact, it's hard to find many products that are made somewhere else (besides the token, overpriced foreigner foods at the supermarket.) So instead of say a Nestle Crunch Bar or a Kit Kat bar produced by the Swiss mega-corporation Nestle...they have Crunky and KicKer made by the Korean mega-corporation Lotte.

Now what pray tell do candy, Chaebols and November the 11th have in common? Well, the Chaebols here have the ability to manufacture holidays here the same way...say Hallmark does in America. In this case, national Pepero Day. Everyone is expected to give each other chocolate covered pretzels. In fact, my students gave me half a dozon boxes of these. Or as I called them last night...

Dinner

Friday, November 6, 2009

The Fortress


While I was in Japan, I really enjoyed seeing all the fortresses. Every major city seemed to have one one area moated off. Behind the moat was a large stone wall jutting above the ground level us of mere mortals wandering around on foot.

Upon returning to Korea...I really wanted to see what this country had to offer. I mean the rivalry of the Koreans towards the Japanese in INTENSE. (the Japanese on the other hand barely know where Korea is...)

So I did a little research and discovered the most famous fortress in all of Korea. It located either 2 hours by subway or a 20 minute bus ride...

Some of the friends that I knew from Everland lived in the area, so I met them at the bus stop. We hiked up the hill for a while, until we arrived at a parking lot. Then, we went into the woods for a quick hike...apparently the guy leading the charge didn't like paying $3 entrance fees...

On arriving to the fortress itself...there was to epic moat ensuring ninjas didn't sneak across into the fortress in the middle of the night. There were no mighty walls to fend of pirates or the Japanese. There was merely a modest 3 meter wall encircling the perimeter of grounds...and that's about it.

In the Japanese castles there are moats, and multiple rings of unclimbable walls lined with guard towers capable of raining down stones, arrows, and boiling oil to fend off the oncoming armies of samurai, ninjas, and whatever was thrown their way.

I guess I now see why the Koreans did do too well in the land battles with the Japanese. Now...don't get me wrong, there were some epic navel battles that the Koreans used to starve the Japanese army back into retreat...but sadly...in the battle between who has better castles....I would say that this round goes to the Japanese.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Halloween


Halloween is celebrated a bit differently here in Korea. It's an American holiday...and almost NO Koreans celebrate it. Oh sure...some of the kids at the English academies celebrate it...but it is celebrated about as much as El Dia de los Muertos is celebrated in America.

Have you ever celebrated El Dia de los Muertos outside of Spanish class?

Exactly...

The costume selection is limited to what is found on a folding table at the local department store...

I was able to pick up some fangs and scare my students on our Halloween theme day.

Face paint is for sale...but its for sale year round at the stationary stores that are located on every block.

So instead of having a wild party in Itaewon (the armpit/foreign district of Seoul)... I chose to go on a cruise. The Cheonju dam that I found so unimpressive 6 months ago creates a long and lovely lake. The changing Autumn leaves makes for some beautiful scenery. But since it was Halloween...I also chose to wear some face paint.

While I don't blame the high school students for being a little scared here...I mean...if you were hanging out in the pre-dawn hours and you saw someone skeleton face paint on ANY OTHER time of year...you might jump too...

(Oh...and I still think I make a more compelling Ghost Rider than Nichols us Cage does...but the picture is above so you can judge for yourself)

The cruise was relaxing...most of the foreigners stayed on the roof of the ferry admiring the view in what can only be described at typical Seattle weather (cloudy with a chance of rain). While on the first floor of the ferry, the ajimas and ajashis (old Korean Men and Women) danced their hearts out to the latest and greatest Korean pop songs.

After a hours the ferry returned to the dock and we went to a cave and a natural stone arch and returned back so Seoul.

Once we returned....my friends convinced me to stick around and enjoy Halloween with them in Seoul (as opposed to the outskirts where I live and which are my typical stomping grounds)

We started at a little place called "Ho Bar 3." and no...it isn't what it sounds like...just as Dick's Drive It serves Hamburgers and Fries...a Ho Bar serves Budweiser and Guinness...the best part about the bar was the group of what had to be high school exchange students taking advantage of the lax enforcement of drinking age...

Clue number one that they were in high school...well they all looked 16

Clue number two....the boys were ordering shots of Baileys for themselves...

Eventually we moved into a more chill location...where we enjoyed the flavors of strawberry and kiwi smoke while we contemplated the questions "Who are you?" and "So you think you've changed, do you?" while giving out such advice as "Explain yourself." and "Keep your temper." and "One side will make you grow taller, and the other side will make you grow shorter."

Because being 3 inches tall is such a wretched height to be....

Saturday, October 24, 2009

The Wedding Crasher

Well...its been 8 months that I've been in Korea and I have been to a wedding yet. But I received an invitation to attend a friend's wedding at noon on Saturday. I've never been to a Korean wedding before...so I jumped at the opportunity.

I had the afternoon free and I was going to be up near where I used to work, so I called up an old co-worker to she if she wanted to go hiking afterwords. It ends up she was going to the wedding of our co-workers later that afternoon. So, I accepted her offer to join her. Two weddings on the same day was a coincidence that I just couldn't pass up.

Then, I found out the really strange part...they were getting married at the same church.

It's a small, small world...

The wedding services were remarkably western. The grooms wore nice suits with white gloves. While the the brides were decked out in white bridal dresses with long flowing trains with white gloves. What can I say...they really like white gloves here.

Neither wedding had a groomsmen, bride's maids or bridal processions. The couple's mothers' wore a traditional Korean robe called a han bok. They are bright, colorful robes that are made from silk that are color coordinated depending if you are the groom's or bride's mother. Case in point...a mother of 7 girls (like my co-worker's mom) will only need to buy one wedding han bok for all of her wedding matriarcla duties...but a mother of a boy and a girl will require 2.

As for the sermon? Well I understood the words "Josh""Amen" and "Kiss" But sadly the rest was greek to me.

The reception consisted of a buffet that was in the church basement...the food...identical (as it was at the same church...) seperated by 4 hours. I gorged myself both times because let's face it...Korean food is delicious!!!

I spent working on my friends' English skills by making them describe what an actual Korean wedding is like. All I was able to gather is that there are han boks on everybody and people throw Chinese dates into a towel. You may think that's strange, but honestly, think about some of your traditions. I mean what other culture endorses throwing a piece of the bride's underwear at all the single guys...

The bride's boquet is not thrown into a pack of flower hungrey, wedding crazed girls can throw elbows for a fistful of flowers. The Koreans are much more devious. The bride hands the boquet to one of her friends and...as the tradition goes...the recipiant must either get married within 6 months...or she won't be able to be married for 6 years...

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Korean Drivers


I've wanted to write about I've held off writing until I got in a car accident...

not if...when..not if...it was a matter of inevitability...

Why?

Korean drivers are nuts.

This car has the highest rate of pedestrians being hit by cars of any developed county.

I've seen a bus pull an impromptu U-turn in the middle of a main road. Been in a taxi that ran 6 red lights in a row. The buses run them too...but they stop...look both ways...then run the light. (and no that is not legal in this country either.)

If you're driving along and you don't like the was the bus is driving... go ahead and cut off the bus (on the 4 lane highway no less) and get out and rip the bus driver a new one.

Well...my accident was a bus on bus fender bender...nothing serious...and no injuries. But still, it's an experience I've seen coming ever since I arrived here.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Socialized Medicine

So after about a week of sleeping 4 hours a day something strange happened to me...I caught a cold. Funny how that works. But due to my shunning of doctors (especially a certain dirty old Korean one that initially examined me when I first arrived...but that's a different story)...I let it go on too long and the cold moved into my chest and I caught a mild case of Bronchitis....

The first thing I had to do was find a doctor...

There are more clinics within one block of me than there are Starbucks in downtown Bellevue. There are 3 clinics on ONE side of ONE block going towards work. For the record, I'm out in the outskirts of Seoul...my apartment building is only 8 stories tall (as opposed to the 15+ that are standard in Haman...and they only get taller is Seoul).

I had my co-workers help me pick a local doctor that speaks English. In this case, it was the second clinic from the subway....it was pretty far away...I mean I did have to cross the side street and everything. After a 5 meter walk, I took the elevator, then I took a number and waited...and waited...and caught up on my Sodoku.

When the doctor saw me, I explained that I had a cough and an annoying rattle in my chest. He had a somewhat vacant stare Hmmm...while apparently he advertised himself as an English Speaking Doctor...his conversational skills were somewhat rusty.

Fortunately, I turned my head and coughed just then (into my sleeve the way I've been taught!)

His eyes lit up and he whipped out his stethoscope (I didn't even have to take my shirt off) and declared that I had chronic bronchitis... He briefly wrote a prescription and sent me out the door...

I walked up to the counter and the receptionist asked me for my insurance card...my national run by the government insurance....you know socialized medicine insurance card...she told me how much it was...thought better of herself...then wrote it down. It came out to 3500 won.

I couldn't believe my eyes! I had her check it again to make sure all the zeros were correct. My co-pay on my doctor's visit was less than 3 dollars. Curse you socialized medicine! I spent more on coffee that day than I did visiting my doctor!!!

I went downstairs to the pharmacy...and paid for the antibiotics...another brutal hit of 18500 won to my pocket book...however could I manage to spend 16 dollars on a week's worth of medication!!!

Man socialized medicine is awesome!

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Chusok


Tomorrow is Chusok. Or as my Korean friends have roughly translated it for me "Korean Thanksgiving"

All I know is that I got the day off and a present from my director. Imitation SPAM and tuna fish.

And yet...it isn't as crazy as it sounds.

First over all, the traditional main course isn't Turkey. Why would it be...they love their pig, chicken, shrimp and squid here....ohhh and rice...they have rice or noodles with every noodles...but they are understandably short of American game birds in Asia. Their main dish is something called Seong pyang. Its a form of rice cake with things mixed in.

But every Korean housewife knows how to make this dish...and has their own special family recipe for making it. So the stores can't sell that...so they come up with something else.

Second, SPAM is a luxury meat over here. I don't know why...but they are willing to pay a lot of extra money for something that, in my opinion, isn't worth it.

Finally, when you put 2 and 2 together...the stores inherit desire sell things...and a special holiday...well...what comes out is SPAM in a briefcase shape box.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Soraksan

Last weekend I went on a Korean Adventure...with a company ironically called Adventure Korea. They packed 2 buses filled with foreigners and headed to the Eastern half of the country.

I experienced a strange sensation once I was in the mountains...

...breathing...

I guess I've gotten used to the air the way it is...I forgot the way it should feel like.

The mountains are nice..but not very tall. Two hikes were offered...one was to the National Park's namesake...or to go to a second...shorter mountain. Well Soraksan had a Gondola going to the top. THAT'S NOT HIKING!!!

So I settled for the second tallest mountain....but the better hike... The hiking trail itself was quintessentially Korean...by that I mean along the trail there were 3 minimarts, 4 restaurants, and a Buddhist monk at the top of the mountain selling beads.

The hike itself wasn't challenging until the last part...then came the stairs...lots of them...steep too. But even then...the air was so clean I practically flew up the stairs as my friends huffed and puffed away.

That night we wander around the tourist trap and entertained ourselves at the norebang (Korean Kareoke) and a jinjibang (Korean Spa)

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

The happiest place in Korea



The biggest amusemnt park in Korea is called Everland. It's a combination waterpark and theme park. Think Enchanted Village / Wild Waves combined with Disneyland done Korean style.

Me and my lotley crew of English teaching friends headed down early on Saturday....and went to the Caribean Bay first.

It's just a water park like all the others that I went to as a teenager. With one decernable difference...

LINES...

Every slide in the park had at LEAST an hour line...some of them had 2 hour lines!!! Everything except the wave pool and the moat.

As patience is a virtue I've never quite had enough of, I started in one line....got bored....moved to another line...managed to wait around long enough to actually go on one water slide...then I spent the rest of my time doing things that DIDN'T require lines. (the Wave Pool...floating in circles in intertubes...and looking for my friends)

One major disadvantage of waterparks is that there is a lot of water. Funny how that works... But if unless your cell phone is as water resistant as your watch...no one has their cell phone on them.

This makes finding your friends a little difficult after you've lost them...

But somehow...by some strange, unplanned reason...we all went to the changing rooms at 5:00. It was a happy coinsidence...so we all walked out of Carribean Bay over to the amusement park section of Everland...called oddly enough...Everland.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Hagwons and Dragonflies


Well...

I have a couple of stories from my school...

First...as I live right across the street from my school, in an 8 story apartment complex...I guess it was inevitable that I live near my students.

I can't tell them where I live! So while I manage not to tell the older students, but the potential to play a joke on my kindergarteners to just too great. I've convinced her I live in the garage. Considering she has less than a 6 months of English...the conversation goes something like this...
"B2, teachers....car car car teacher car....

Second, the boys in this country are a little different than in America. Case in point...bugs...in America...its the boys who play with bugs and scare the girls. Well, not so in Korea. Well, not so. Here, two of my girls released dragonflies in class. AND THE BOYS WERE SCARED STIFF!!!

Finally, speaking of being scared stiff. The resurgence of swine flu has all the school paranoid. The a few of the public schools have closed for a week (the incubation period of swine flu) A many of my friends that have traveled overseas on their summer vacation receive a week of quarantine (aka another week off) when they return. (Sadly, I had to go straight back to work after Japan)

But the private academies, like the one I teach at, are a business. And businesses need to make money. The only way they are going to close their doors is if mothers pull their children out of the academy. And those mothers ARE SCARED that their kids will catch the disease!!! So...

I've installed a "soap dispenser" in my room. But instead of soap, it gives out a gel that smells like rubbing alcohol. Everyday, every student that comes into my classroom must put some on their hands. And everyday I get to wash down all the tables with a special magic bottle that they special that they ordered.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Korean Baseball

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The one thing I regret not seeing in Japan was a baseball game. On coming home, I found a sudden touristy itch that that just needed to be scratched. I rounded up a few friends and headed up north.

The first thing I noticed about the game was the ticket prices. The cheap seat cost less than $ 5 and the REALLY nice seat went for around $10. But even then, on a brilliant Sunday evening....the stands were only 80% full.

Korea is not a big country. Think of it like New York. A quarter of the Korean population lives in Seoul. A quarter of the population lives in the other half dozen cities (Busan, etc...). So it should be no surprise that 3 of the 8 professional baseball teams find their home in Seoul. This will matter in a moment...just wait...

On arriving at the stadium, we noticed that their were 2 very distinct colors: white and red. Gone were the Yankee hats that seem to dominate that brows of all the Koreans. They were all wearing hats with G (for the Seoul Giants) or T (for the Seoul Twins). We stumbled across a crosstown rivalry game!!!

(See I told you it would matter!!!)

We walked up to the general admission seats behind home plate. (the general admission seats do not have assigned seating) Spanning across the infield seating was a giant colored divide....the home team (the LG Twins) were the home team and their fans we covered the right half of the stands in white. The visiting team (the Lotte Giants) covered the left half of the stands in red.

We tried to find 3 empty seats on the Giants sides...but we couldn't find any.

We tried to find seats on the Twins side and succeeded.

Please note that the visiting fans outnumbered the home team fans.....I shouldn't have to tell you who one this game...

In order to maintain our hydration levels I stopped off at the snack shack to grab a few beers...16 oz cans sold for less then $2.50. I should also point out that they sold CANS at a baseball game and were not afraid of some idiot throwing the cans around.

But really, we didn't leave our seats, as there was a roaming beer man with a KEG strapped to his back!!! And it gets BETTER!!!

The Korean believe in singing while their batter is up. So half the game one half of the stadium is bursting out into song...the bottom half of the inning...the other half of the stadium is on its feet singing.

They don't stop during the pitch. I've noticed in American games that the speakers go eerily quiet when the pitcher is about to deliver the ball. This probably not wanting to disturb the delicate egos of the multi-millionaire men that are paid to play a game for a living.

In Korea...it's all about the fans...they chant and sing the entire game....and are encouraged by their mascot.

Oh...and for the record....while I find the dancing abilities of Seattle's ground crew amusing...professional cheerleaders manage to do a better job of exciting the crowd...

I'm not sure what the final score was. I honestly stopped watching at the top of the first when our pitcher didn't manage to throw a strike for the first 6 batters. Then again....maybe that's why the game is more about the fans in Korea than it is about the game being played.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Soo bha bok su kha pi


I decided to pretend to be a tourist in the city that live in....Never mind I have at least another 9 months to live here...the was still some major thing I needed to see.

First on the list. "Soo bha bok su kha pi"

Or as you may know it Starbucks Coffee. When Starbucks first opened its stores in Korea, it couldn't use English letters for the sign. It had to use the Korean alphabet. That rule has since changed...and all of the other stores changed their sign...all except this one.

After I got a picture of that, I went out to the prison museum. This is a structure that was built by the Japanese during their occupation of Korea. It housed mainly political prisoners. I think it is almost needless to say that the guards behaved badly.

The prison sort of reminded me of Alcatraz...only in this prison...the cells were full of poor Korean manikins being tortured laughing Japanese manikins. And you wonder why a lot of Koreans have deep seeded hatred of the Japanese built into them.

Then again...Japanese history brushes over all this history with the audacious claims....that they were occupying Korea to assist in its industrialization....

For me...the saddest part of this museum....a museum that is dedicated to the struggle for independence of the Korea nation....is that the struggle never succeeded. For all the pain and all their suffering....the Korea people were unable to liberate themselves. It took 2 atomic explosions for Japan to surrender...64 years ago today...to free Korea.

On a happier note...

Finally, I went to Seoul Tower.

I took a gondola up the hill. I could have spent an hour walking up the hill...but then I would have missed the sunset...

Unfortunately, the smog took care of that for me...the brown air was so think that I couldn't watch the sun sick over the horizon on a perfectly cloudy day.

I began to miss Seattle...for its clean air and drinkable tap water...

Friday, August 7, 2009

Coming home


Having seen pretty much everything I wanted to see. I gave myself until noon before I needed to head towards the airport to catch a 3:20 flight back.

I walked around the Akitabara Arcades, to get a glimpse of the crazy gaming culture that Japan is famous for. Only to find that nothing is really open before 10:00

I went over to to Yoyogi park to catch some of the out of this world costumes on display that Japan is famous for. Again...they seem to be more nocturnal creatures.

I went to the zoo to see the Giant Panda that is supposed to be there. Only to find that he had died last year of a heart attack.

I walked back to the train station and noticed a rapid train bound for Narita. So, instead of wasting my time going back to the central station and then catching a direct train there, I hopped on the train and took a little nap.

My first sign that something went wrong was that I was the only tourist on the bus. No one else on the bus had anything more than a briefcase. The second thing that I noticed was that for being the rapid train, it seemed to stop at every station. Then I realized that Japanese trains are like popcorn at the movie theater, there's no such thing as small....regardless of how accurate it would be.

When I finally arrived at my destination, I learned another gem of information...that the narita train stop and Narita Airport train stop are 2 different places.

So I had 2 wait another 40 minutes for the next train to arrive. This time there were some fellow travellers, so I felt secured in the fact that at least this time I was going the right way.

I arrived in Narita AIRPORT and walked up to the ticket counter. I watched the girls eyes almost pop out her head. I had 20 minutes to get thru customs, thru security, and to the far side of a major international hub.

Oh boy...

She brought me thru to the express line thru security. Fortunately, I didn't bring any dull cutlery in my pack this times, so getting thru security was a breeze.

The customs line was a good 40 minutes deep...thankfully I saw some people towards the front of the line. Not that the Japanese are rude people....I can attest that they were amazingly polite to me my entire visit there...however...white skin, increases the chances that the person speaks English...and I don't just want to burst in front of someone in a long line.

These individuals were a couple of Australian guys that were kind enough to let me cut in front of them. The custom official waved me thru promptly and I took off running thru the airport. All the while listening to the loud speakers making the final boarding call for gate 31....my gate...

I ran faster.

I made it with 2 minutes to spare....

WHEW

And so ends my Japanese adventure. If you want a Japanese postcard, albeit with a Korean postmark...email me your address and I'll send one over.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Kamakura



I got off the sleeper bus in Tokyo at around 6:00 in the morning.

I've used my deductive reasoning since then to determine this was about the time the case opened for "Philip and the case for the missing Sherlock Holmes book" began...

I caught the subway to the tsukiji fish market. While it was interesting to watch a man render a 5 foot Tuna with a band saw, to me it looked like a fish warehouse and market slapped together. I think I'll rack this one up along with Kobe beef...legendary, but not worth the hype.

I caught a subway out to Kamakura. This yet another of Japan's former capitals. Kamakura was where the idea for the shogun came from. Around 800 years ago, the military head of government (shogun) separated from the religious and state head of the government government (emperor).

I contains Japan's largest sitting Buddha. While I was definitely on Buddha overload at this point, the ability to go inside and look how it was put together was really cool.

The cute little statue is part of a much larger shire, filled with lots other cute little statues...which is all fine and dandy...until I read that the temple is dedicated to souls of the miscarried children. At which point, the cute little statues became kind of sad too.

I hiked around in the lush hills surrounding this seaside town, and reached a level of tranquility that can old come from walking in Japan for 20 minutes and having not seen a vending machine...

I managed to find a shrine called zeniarai-benten which due to its triforce shaped mono glyphs etched everywhere and me reminiscing to all those wasted hours playing The Legend of Zelda.

Afterwards, I headed back to Tokyo to catch some Zs on a real bed....well floor pad...despite the name...a sleeper bus is notoriously hard to get a good nights sleep in.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Nara Buddha

So I caught the early train out of Kyoto. I got off in Nara and started walking towards the Todai-jinju.

So apparently, the Japanese used to think that the deer were the messengers of the gods. The parks around Nara double as deer preserves.

There are men selling deer crackers.

The deer here aren't scared of people. Once they realize you have food...you get surrounded by a dozen deer that can't get enough of you....until they realize that you don't have food...at which point they move onto the next tourist...

Continuing along the path, I evertually reached the largest wooden building in the world.

Conveniently, it houses the largest sitting Buddha in Japan.

You know you've seen too many Buddhas when you see the largest sitting Buddha in Japan housed in the largest wooden building in the world...yet you focus on the statues guarding the buildings...

牛を投げなさい


Well, having seen 2 imperial castles already, I can't say I expected too see anything else too nice from the castle department.

Man was I wrong...

West of Kyoto

West of Osaka

West of Nara

Lies the Castle Himeji. Also known as the the White Heron is towers over the small town that surrounds it.

Honestly...it's almost out of a fairy tale. It towers over the surrounding country side and town. This castle put me in officially into castle overload....I mean...in order for me to take another picture of the castle...it has to be cooler than this one.

Good luck on that...

Afterwards, I caught the train back towards Kyoto. But first I took a brief stop in a little town called Kobe.

So according to my traveling bible (aka Lonely Planet-Japan) there is just one place to eat a real Kobe steak...and that's in Kobe. However, the list just one restaurant in Kobe...a restaurant that's clientele was half backpack wielding hauling gaijin (aka foreigners)

I happened to be seated next to 2 Canadian Med students. The Japanese chef took our orders and set about grilling vegetables and garlic. Eventually, he grilled the steaks in front of us. The others had already started and judging by their cloth bibs I was reminded by that classic dieting adage..."if you're note sure about something, rub it against a piece of paper. If the paper turns clears..."you know that it's good to eat.

While I can say the steak was delicious, was it worth the hype.

No chance.

Now, oh...and while I was usually looking for fun looking souvenirs...the Fuji climbing Canadian med students I sat next to, stole there grease covered bibs...

I headed back to Kyoto and caught the sleeper bus back to Tokyo.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Japan's History...

The original capital of Japan was Kyoto. It remained a central point for the culture even when the official capital was moved from the city to avoid its decadent influence.

As such, there are SO many temples and beautiful sights here that one day was not enough to see all the basics, let alone the subtle things that made this city the central pillar of Japan's cultural history.

I have to say that this was probably one the the better ceiling I saw at the yet another amazing temple complexe in Kyoto. There was an amazing gold buddha right below it...but at this point I was on Buddha overload. I wasn't not however on ceiling overload...

That being said, I went to bed early hoping to catch an early train furhter west (avoiding the swine flu infested Osaka...) to see some more sights and have a dinner that was rumored to change the way I eat steak for the rest of my life...

Japan Trip Kyoto


How do you make a 4 hour car ride into a 6 hour sleeper bus?

Rest stops. Lots of rest stops.

At 8:00 bought a city bus pass I got on a city bus bound for the north part of the city.

And this palace? Eat your heart out Gold Finger! It's covered in GOLD.

I toured the Nijo-jo palace and was weirded out but the shoddy construction on the floors. THEY ALL SQUEAKED when you walked on them! Only to find out, this was done on purpose...In order to avoid assassination by pesky ninjas and others that wanted to do either the occupants harm...the floors were designed to squeak as to alert the guards.

I hiked thru some bamboo gardens that looked like they were right out of Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon movie.

After that...I was on a hunt for one of the infamous geisha....

Kyoto is supposed to be home to the 100 or so that are left in this world. Sadly...they are about as elusive as unicorns...

Somewhere around this time I started to get a common ailment in Kyoto. Temple overload...

Its not that the temples aren't beautiful...it's that you begin to ask yourself...is this temple more beautiful than the temple I saw 15 minutes ago. If the answer is no...really...why bother taking a picture...

Fortunately...I still had some amazing things to see.

Japan Trip 1


There so much to write about and so many pictures. Too much and too many to write about here. In fact I feel that I wrote too many pictures that it I felt like a tourist out for picture taking the revenge for all those Japanese tourists in the 80s.

So touched down in Tokyo's airport (Narita) on Monday to be treated with rain, main and more rain. I also promptly discovered that most of the museums are closed one day a week....Monday. So I checked into my hostel, sang some songs with my fellow travelers in the lobby...and went to bed early.

The first place I went was the Meiji shrine. This is a beautiful park in the heart of Seoul that is dedicated to Emperor that brought Japan into the modern world. You may think that hair cuts, pants, and beer are all pillars of modern civilization, but many samurai died defending their country resisting those ideas in the Tasty-little-Christmas-orange rebellion (ok ok it's actually called the Satsuma Revolution...)

From there I took a brief hop of the bridge into the war dead memorial. The Yasukuni shrine is where all their war dead. They honor ALL their war dead, including the war criminals.

The history presented in the attached museum was...interesting...to say the least. The first room is dedicated to the fighting/warrior spirit of the Japanese.

The second room denotes the encroachment of foreign powers into the Eastern Hemisphere. The rest of the museum is based around those 2 themes: warrior spirit and fending of the aggression of the west. Japan is the victim here...never the aggressor. The Japanese always wanted Korea to be an independent nation...Nanjing was just a misunderstanding...oh...and Japan was forced to attack Pearl Harbor by the United states.

Needless to say the history was...creative...interesting...but creative...

Due to the heat, I made sure to stay hydrated...one such place was the Sapporo restaurant where, in addition to the lamb dish, I made sure to indulge in some hop flavored carbonated water...

I walked around Tokyo a little bit and ended up catching the sleeper bus to Kyoto...

Monday, July 27, 2009

Day One...

Well, I made it here. I really wish i had more stories to tell but most of the museums are closed on Mondays. I'm staying in a hostel in Tokyo. I had to revise my original plans as the weather is going to be a combination of cloudy and rainy for the next week. While that's annoying walk around it, it's downright dangerous to climb...and that means stupid to climb it. i can always climb a mountain another day...but getting stuck in a white out...I'll pass. So instead I'm jamming more cultural stuff...starting first thing in the morning...

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

The mud and the moon

So I learned or 2 regarding the supposed "health effects" of the mud festival. Mud can be bad for you.

First, over 200 people (of the thousands that attended) mudfest, came away with rashes. Not exactly something you want to advertise (and no, I was not one of them)

Second, mud is IMPOSSIBLE to get out of your ears. I've gone thru dozens of Q-Tips (wood ones...that's all they seem to have over here.) and I'm pretty sure I'm be smuggling it to Japan next week...

Third, I finally understand the expression, "get the mud out of your ears"

So today was the longest eclipse of the 20th century. Did you miss it...probably, it completely missed North America. As it was partially cloudy today, I was was to see it both directly and thru some clouds.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Mudfest


So this past weekend was mudfest. I think it is supposed to celebrate the health qualities of the mud...or something like that, unfortunately, I don't think I'm not sure what point was....but it was a festival...and there was a lot lot of mud eventually...

So I signed up as many foreigners do in Korea...thru some random agency I looked up on the Internet. The idea was that I would pay a bit more...but that I wouldn't have to worry getting down there, lodging, or getting back.

Unfortunately when I initially signed up for mudfest, it was during my time of transition. Where I knew I was leaving my previous job, but hadn't quite nailed down the new job yet. So I wasn't exactly picky about which subway stop I was picked up at. I honestly didn't think it would make much of a difference...a bus ride is a bus ride...right? That's like saying a boat ride is just a 3 hour tour...a 3 hour tour...

So, I just happened to pick the pick up location that was the farthest one from me. But that wasn't really a problem...as the subway system in Seoul is amazing. The problem is that this bus left last...and therefore hit traffic. How bad you may ask? There were men in the middle of the highway selling waffles. The picture is that of an off ramp...there were men in the middle of the biggest highway in Korea...selling waffles. When's the last time you saw a dozen hot dog vendors strolling between cars on I-90?

What should have been a 2-3 hour drive lasted well over 5 hours. It was so long that by the time we arrived.. they were out of mud. Oh...and everyone was wet...not from the mud...but from the rain.

I really didn't care...I was off that bus. I threw my things in a rented locker...and went for a brief swim in the ocean. Got bored, and went and found my room.

The downside of not planning your own trip, is not booking your own room. I expected a few extra people, but I didn't expect to cram 8 people on the floor. We figured out how to fit 6 comfortably....but we couldn't figure out where we were going to put the Aussies...but they weren't there...so we kind of put the decision off.

I strolled around...ate some delicious Indian food, watched the fireworks (a professional show that made of for the 4th of July), and watched a really bad hip hop concert. I don't mean to say I didn't enjoying watching the concert...just the guys doing the concert were really bad. The entertainment came from the audience. You see...they had 500 plus drunk foreigners...and only 3 security guards. While the guard could handle the 2 entrances to the stage...they couldn't do that AND patrol under the stage.

So what would happen is someone would decoy the security guard...and someone else would go onstage and dance with one of the back up dancers....only to be escorted off

Or streak...

Or just annoy the guards...

Once that was over...I headed to bed....or well what I called bed. You see...Koreans have a slightly different idea of beds than us Americans. They like to sleep on the floor on pads. So the hotel room was just a plain room with pads, blankets and pillows in the closet. Again...we managed to cram 6 of us on the floor...but theoretically had 2 more roommates that were nowhere to be found.

I woke up the next morning...with 6 people crammed into the room...only to discover the Aussies had miraculously showed up during the middle of the night. Not wanting to disturb anyone they politely just curled up on the floor in the hallway and in the closet...without blankets, pillows or pads...WHAT NICE GUYS.

After, eating some more Indian food for breakfast. I made it back to the beach only to discover that mudfest was officially back in business...they had mud again. Only today was a downpour and windy. Most everyone stayed inside to avoid the bad weather. I can't say I really cared. I mean...did you intend to stay dry...at a mud festival?

I muddied up like Arnold Swartzenager gearing up to fight Predator. Then ran into the mud wrestling pit. I held my own against a couple of guys...but really...but got tossed a few times...did my share of tossing...but decided it wasn't my thing when I took a guy to the ground...only to have a pair of guys topple onto us....and another set of guys topple onto the pile of us...

I washed off in the raging ocean...did I mention the wind was up? (there was a Korean life guard that made blow horn noises at you if you got any deeper that 2 feet of water...)

The bus ride back was uneventfully slow. We took 5 hours to get back...but not because of traffic this time...our driver just got lost... LOST ...all he had to do was follow the highway and we would have been fine! It's like getting lost going from Yakima to Seattle....just turn onto I 90 and follow the signs...it really isn't that hard.

He tried to placate the passengers with movie out of his personal collection....but it took a while to find on in English...

Anyhow...I'm not sure if I can vouch for the health properties of mud...but I can vouch for the negative consequences of getting mud in your ears. DON'T I'm still trying to get it out with these crazy wooden Q-tips!

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

I did a 5 K!!!


This weekend...it was America's birthday and I wanted to get out and celebrate America. For the record...the equivalent day in Korea is March First, 1910. That is the day Korea began its resistant to the Japanese invasion. They finally succeeded on August 15th 1945 (what we call VJ Day) Kind of makes our own struggle for Independence from Brittan seem kind of short (8 years as opposed to 35...with some brutal repression that still gets the Koreans riled up_

First stop: Western Seoul

My first party was on the opposite side of the city. No problem...2 hours and less than $2 later I was on the other side of Seoul. It was a pretty standard American themed BB. There were burgers, chicken and hot dogs on the BBQ....a little bit of dancing and a little bit of fireworks. Fireworks, that are legal to purchase year round. Kind of takes the fun out of it...really. If I could buy them year round, I wouldn't burn holes in perfectly good clothing once a year.

Anyhow...after a couple of hour of cooking, chatting, and hanging out. The rest of the party decided to go to a place called Tigerworld. It sound intriguing...an amusement park with a indoor skiing. I might have to save that for another day as I was off to a second party.

The second party was a bit closer to home. My friend was leaving Korea to pursue a Masters back in America. I'll miss him. A group of his friends met at a restaurant, ate our fill and wished him well back in America.

Around 11:30, I decided it was the point of no return. You see, I was about a 45-60 minute subway ride home (I live WAY out in the outskirts of the city) But as long as I could catch my train before midnight...I should be fine. I asked one of the guys if he thought I could make it in time. He assured me that I could...and I assumed he knew what he was talking about.

However, he didn't take into consideration the walking time from the restaurant to the subway station. Ahhh...without really thinking I caught the train to a big subway hub hoping to catch a taxi home.

That was my big mistake...

You see, between the BBQ and the going away party...I'd gone thru the rest of the case I had on me. Oh sure...my subway pass has money on it...so does my bank account...but those taxi drivers want cash.

That's easy enough to arrange...I simply had to go to the ATM and make a withdrawal, right?

Newflash: Korean ATMs are in Korean.

While Bank ATMs provide an English option. All back ATMs are locked up after 11:30. By this time it was after midnight.

The local 7-11 (yes there are probably more 7-11s in Korean than Starbucks...they LOVE their connivance stores here) had an ATM...but it didn't have an English option....nor was the interface intuitive enough to operate without speaking the language...

So here I am. I'm broke, in the middle of Seoul and have no way of immediately getting home.

So I started walking. (gee...this sounds familiar...)

I didn't walk home....rather I walked to the Olympic Park that is near where I was. It's a beautiful park, but is unfortunately closed after dusk. Well, there isn't much to see in a park after midnight anyhow...I was just killing time.

I stopped periodically and read my travel guide to Japan. I stopped and played the golf game on my cellphone.

I just took my time...the subway didn't start up until 5:00.

Even at my leisurely pace, I eventually circled the entire park.

Upon reaching my starting point, I looked down. There were numbers painted into the sidewalk "5000 M" Wow...I'd just done a 5 K in 4 hours! hmmm...I hope my time is better next time!!!

Ohh...and the picture this week is a Korean Bow and Arrow.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

I made the newpaper!!!



Oh...and I REALLY need a haircut!!!

Monday, June 29, 2009

Mountains and Molehills


I need to get into shape. Seriously. While teaching can drain your energy, it’s not exactly going to turn you into a body builder. With that in mind, I decided to engage in a little of South Korea’s favorite outdoor activity. No, I’m not talking about badminton (although it is a pretty close second) I’m talking about hiking.

On any given weekend around Seoul…(remember the u is not silent) you will find people geared up for hiking. Decked out in North Face from head to toe, the Korean have explorer hats, backpacks, hiking poles, gortex pants and hiking boots. With all this state of the art gear you’d think they are taking on massive challenge. When I hike Si and Tiger I’m sporting an old cap, t-shirt, shorts and a backpack that dates back to at least Jr High. Since the Koreans invested so much money in their equipment…they must be up to some truly grueling hiking.

Sadly…no…

What they call mountains in Korea, I call hills. The “mountain” that we climbed towered a few hundred meters. Again…I think I’m spoiled having grown up in Washington. Where a 30 minute drive put me at Mt Si..a real hike...not like these vertically challenged Korean mountains.



Well the view was nice and I hope to see a real mountain on my upcoming vacation.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Cooking in Korea


While this may not look like much to you...this is the culmination of my cooking skills in Korea. This is my first official cooking from sctrach. That's right, I can now cook the infamous pork cutlet that is in every two bit restaurant in Korea. While I haven't quite mastered the side dishes (nor do I have the inclination to store rotten cabbage under my bed for 5 years while it ferments. I would like to talk about the staples of the Korea diet.

The first thing to have to know about Koreans is that they LOVE their side dishes. I can go into any authentic Korean restaurant and have all I can eat pickle radishes and kimchi for FREE. To me...that just sounds strange as I'm used to getting charged for extra fries whenever I go out to hamburgers!!!

While kimchi and pickled radishes are found EVERYWHERE I have also be at restaurants that serve you over a dozen side dishes...and I couldn't recognize anything except the kimchi (which is...due to the oder...hard to miss) and the soup (I didn't know what was in the soup...but all that hot water with stuff mixed in was a dead giveaway for soup).

The Korean's like their rice PLAIN. They savor the flavor of plain rice. What that flavor is...I still don't know. I only know that I still get weird looks from the Koreans that I'm with when I put any form of sause into my rice!!!

PS I still have yet to eat dogmeat...

Monday, June 1, 2009


I need to preface this with a general description of my job.

I don't have to pay rent. That's taken care for me by my school. As is my airfare to and from home. If I need a new Visa, they fly me to Japan, on their dime. I have full medical insurance. I work about 6 hours about 5 days a week. Each weekend, I can travel and explore the city or the country. I don't make a huge amount of money, but I can easily send half my paycheck home each month. All because I have a clean background check, university degree and speak English fluently (aka Native speaker).

It's a pretty plush deal.

I know a factory worker. He works 12 hours a day, 6 days a week. His housing isn't taken care of for him and I'm not too sure about his health insurance. He has to pay for his own housing and makes less than half of what I make.

He works 4 times as hard, 3 times as long, and makes less than $2 an hour Its a pretty bad deal, but it's the best he can do.

What a difference a degree makes...

Korean High School is geared towards a massive test. A massive test that makes anything I ever experienced during my 17+ years in school seam like paddie cake.

In university, we gained the freshman 15 (pounds) because we got away from mom's home cooking. Here, they gain the weight their senior year....because they don't move from their desk....they just sit in front of a desk/computer and cram, cram, cram. This test is the main factor that it takes them to get into university. If they don't get into university, they are stuck in a factory job.

Needless to say, there is a lot of studying going on in high school and a lot less goofing off. In fact, you can go to the mall on a weekend and not see a single high school student. It's a crazy contrast to America...where the malls are swarmed with students with nothing better to do.

Monday, May 25, 2009

It's like dejavu all over again...


So this weekend, I went back to the Imperial Palace. There's plenty of things I still need to see in Seoul, let alone the rest of Korea...but my friend hadn't seen it and to be honest...I was a little rushed the last time I saw it.

It was pretty much the same as I remembered. This time, however, I was interviewed by some Jr High girls. They asked me some pretty basic questions, what's your name, why did you come to Korea, and what is your favorite Korean song.

Hold it...I don't like Korean music. I like classic music. Classical and Classic Rock. Sadly, this is not what they play on the radio. They play a little something called K-pop...all day every day. In every store, subway station, and restaurant. You can never run away from it.

K-pop songs mainly consist of some random Britney Spears esc song that is littered with random bits of English.

To say the songs are obnoxious say the least...but that's not enough. They really don't have a big enough population base to generate an actual variety of garbage music that all sounds the same. In Korea, they just overplay the same song over....and over...and over.

Every month, they pick a new song. That song will be played every 15 minutes over and over and over. The next month, they will pick a new song. The old song fades away. Not that I know the titles for any of the songs. For the most part, the song titles are all in Korean.

So what do I tell these young girls? That all of their music sucks? That their popular culture is but a shadow the American pop culture...which I also can't stand?

Then it hit me. The song of the month this month...."Lollipop". Whew...I didn't have to crush their poor adolescent hearts. I just lied thru my teeth...

PS...the weather report is sunny with a 25% chance of U-235...

Sunday, May 17, 2009

What the Dak are you looking at...


This weekend, I managed to take in some more of that "culture" stuff. I went to the Seoul National Museum. It was a nice museum for a couple of extra reasons. First, it was free (always a good start) Second, they have some very interesting old artifacts (although, if you've seen one stone age exhibit, you've seen them all) Artifacts such as 1000 year old statues of Buddha and 2000 year old pottery. Third, they had a free, high quality concert in the main foyer. A piano and violin playing classical music that would have been able to name in high school, but who's name escapes me today. So in between exhibits, you could take a load off and listen to them play.

But the more interesting story came as I was waiting for the Subway home. I sat down on an empty bench and proceeded to read my book. A middle aged Korean came and sat down next to me. Well, it wasn't hard to discern that he was well past tipsy. He also wanted to practice his English.

Oh Boy.

First, he offered me some of the food that he had. It was a rice cake (dak) loaded with nuts. I tasted a little bit as to not offend him. "Oh it's very good" I told him. His shy little wife kept up a pretty consistent pattern of giggling, blushing, and trying to convince him to leave me alone.

Then, he broke of a giant chunk the size of my fist and handed it too me. Now to refuse food from an Asian in an insult. As I didn't want to offend a man that wouldn't remember me in the morning anyways, I smile, accepted it and told him thank you.

Speaking of being thankful...the subway had arrived and was slowing to a halt.

Finally, his wife starts pulling on his arm (still blushing and giggling) to pull him towards the train. So he points to his wife. "Very beautiful, huh?"

I say "Yes, she is very beautiful" and get up for the subway that has begun to unload passengers. I squeeze into the subway car 2 lengths down from him to be on the safe side...still munching on my very dry rice cake.

Oh the joys of being a foreigner...

Saturday, May 9, 2009

DMZ


So...I finally visited the one thing that I just HAD to see while I was here.

The DMZ.

So you get in a tour bus and after fighting traffic for about an hour and a half you arrive at DMZ world. It's an amusement park...in the DMZ...that no one was at. Even though it was the weekend and the perfect weather for going to the fair...the rides were all idle.

I guess everyone would rather go to the Korean versions Disneyland (Lotteworld and Everland) It's not like its a big country...it's half the size of Washington state with 7 times the population...I digress...

This stop was to check in and register everyone's passports. So after a 20 minute rest stop...we were off to Tunnel #3.

The "Third Tunnel of Aggression" is one of 4 that have been found in South Korea. It is about 75 yards underground. There are 3 things worth pointing out about this tunnel.

First, was the hilarious South Korean propaganda film we had to what before descending into the depths of the tunnel. It lasted about 7 minutes about the seriousness of the war, the division of Korean, and their hope for the future. In reality it was so poorly done that it had me laughing thru at least half of it.

If you want to want a well done propaganda piece...what "The Triumph of the Will"....seriously...

Second, is the outrageous claim made by the North Koreans about the tunnel. They claim it is a natural coal tunnel that occurred randomly.

Right....

I guess I need to explain how the South Koreans found the tunnel to begin with. A North Korean engineer defected and revealed the approximate depth and location of the tunnel. So the South Koreans drilled PVC pipes down about 70 meters and filled the tubes with water. They hoped to that they would hit the tunnel directly and that the water would just drain out....but they never actually hit the tunnel with those pipes.

What they did find was that some of the pipes kept shooting their water up into the air. Sort of like Ol' Faithful? Well maybe....only the geysers in Yellowstone are naturally occurring. The pipes were shooting up water for a slightly different reason. Dynamite. So after the South Korean mining engineers did a few math problems...they figured out the location of the tunnel and find it they did.

When they confronted their neighbors to the North about the tunnel...the responce was...typical. It's a coal tunnel...see...the walls are coated in charcoal....It's a coal tunnel! OK....so lets look at the facts...there is a straight "6 foot by 6 foot" tunnel running straight towards Seoul (it was about 30 miles away when it was discovered) thru the solid granite, with obvious traces of dynamite, and a thin layer of charcoal paint lining the granite walls.

You've got to be kidding me!!!

Third are outrageous claims made by the South Koreans. They claim that the tunnel could accomated 30,000 men and equiptment could pass thru the tunnel in an hour. Now part of the tour involved walking IN the tunnel itself. They "claim" it's 2 meters by 2 meters. Now I'm 185 cm tall...so I should have about 15 cm of clearance (6 inches). I had hunch over the almost the time. There is NO WAY you could send 30,000 thru that tunnel an hour.

The next stop in the tour was an observatory on a hill. The hill provided a nice view of the countryside and farm that constitule the DMZ.

So you may ask how the Koreans get people to farm in the DMZ? I mean the Allied forces canvased the 38th parallel with 100,000 landmines, of which only 30,000 mines have been removed. My Great-Uncle Arnold farmed wheat and as such HATED the rocks the were on his property. But those rocks didn't have the chance of exploding...

Well, the South Koreans that live there pay no taxes, have no military services, get subsides from the government and their sons do not have to serve in the military (there is mandatory service in this South Korean) Consequently...most of the farmers in the DMZ are VERY well off to say the least.

The final stop of the tour was the train station.

Korea is a peninsula...and South Korea is on the bottom part of it. So in order get all the goods that are produced here need to be either sent via freighter ship or by airplane. If they want to ship the goods to Europe, the ships take forever and the airplane is WAY too expensive. So the government had a brilliant idea! They built train tracks thru North Korea, China and across Russia.

Too bad the only way over land to Europe is thru North Korea. The brand new tracks and brand new train station are idle because the North Korean government is throwing a temper tantrum.

After, visiting the eerily new and yet strangely deserted train station, we headed back into Seoul. With a brief stop at a jewelry store that must have been in cahoots with tour company, we arrived back where we started in Seoul.