Friday, February 24, 2006

Time of change

The subway entrance near my apartment.

Today marks my 6 month anniversary in Korea! It was also graduation day for the kindergartners at the school. Tonight we will be celebrating with a staff kalbi dinner, which will no doubt include many soju bombs from the owner followed by a trip to a noreabang for some ludicrously drunk singing. No use fighting it, it's the Korean way.

My time in Korea will be equally divided by many factors taking place in the next week:

I am losing most of my current classes and will be the new teacher for the brand new 5 year olds. (That means I get to name them all! Suggestions welcome.)

I have a different work schedule and will no longer be working overtime. I now get an 1.5 hour break everyday!

My best friend and co-worker that I met here is leaving. It definitely won't be the same without her around...

Three new foreign teachers are arriving from Canada and the States. That's always interesting.

I'm moving out of my cave into a room with windows! I'm so excited! Unfortunately my new classrooms are all windowless so I will remain part-vampire during the daylight hours.

The weather is beginning to change to spring!

Since I only have 6 months in Korea left I've also begun to research several international job/volunteer/retreat options for my next adventure. That's the kind of research I like. If anyone has any ideas for me, send them my way! I have a couple semi-serious prospects but I'll say more when I know for sure. Who knows what could happen in 6 months for me? I tell myself to stay in the moment (and for the most part I do) but the travel itch is a strong one as many of you fellow travelers know...

For now, it's time to kick off the start to my almost-3 day weekend (I only work 3 hours in the afternoon on Monday!). Peace, I'm out.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Bubblegum Buddha

This picture does not do justice to the sequined, birthday-frosting-pink gaudiness of the Buddha I saw Saturday when strolling around art museums near Anguk station.The Buddha suction-wrapped in a representation of modern materialism, bright and shiny but still wearing the sage smile of a Buddha.

Of all the paintings, photography and 3-D art I saw, this one caught my attention the most. At first because of the glittering, sacrilegious nature of the piece but after initial regard, because of the paradoxical balance that still exists between old and new Korea- in particular between the fast-increasing consumerism trends and the established ideas of Buddhism in Korea.

Seoul gives me the same feeling I get when looking at this statue on some days when transitioning back and forth so quickly between two extremes:

From brightly lit and always busy shop-lined streets to places such as the ancient and sacred temples where attachments are forsaken along the journey to enlightenment.

From the children whose mothers have permed and dyed their hair (and their dogs hair) to bald monks at Dharma talks.

From the overcrowded streets of Gangnam and Shinchon to the serene hermitages that can be found on many mountains surrounding the city.

From the hordes of women and men in Seoul who go to Apkujeong and believe they've found their fountain of youth in the unlikely form of a scalpel to the simple monks who live their lives in the mountains where the only reflection they glimpse is an occasional distorted one in a stream or lake.

The contrast can be overwhelming. There seems to be no middle ground. Consume, consume, consume, bigger, better, younger, newer, faster, more, more, more...

For now, I'm growing accustomed to the incongruousness of Seoul. I love living here and continue to find constant amusement in the "newness" of everything around me.

"Nothing is permanent."

-Buddhist teaching

Monday, February 20, 2006

The end of Open Party and ABBA

Kitty Class: This is a video! Click here to view.

Gone are the daily ABBA wake-up calls that shook the walls and penetrated the peaceful silence of so many mornings! (Click here for the final Mamma Mia show. To more closely experience my perception of this song, have someone turn it on full volume for you while in a deep sleep.)

Last Thursday we finally had the Big Show that the students have been practicing and anticipating since November. The teachers and the kids alike get inordinate amount of pressure from the director to be perfect for the show. (A favorite quote from my director, "Yes, I do understand they are kids so they can't be perfect like us adults...")

Unfortunately, the primary goal for many Korean private school's is to be profitable. Education comes straggling in at a not-so-close second. The performance last week is a great source of pride and entertainment for the current students and parents but the ulterior purpose is as a marketing gimmick to attract new students to the school, hence the need for "perfection".

Nonetheless, although they weren't perfect, the kids were all very cute and did really well on stage. Especially Kitty Class. They are seriously the cutest kids I've ever seen! Kitty Class rendition of Yellow Submarine video to come soon...

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Poetic Konglish

"I was so happy when I knew that friend is very valuable mean."

-Konglish on a plastic plate in a sandwich shop

"Not to be able to offer you hot water. And so you never eat noodles. It's official rule in this airport."

-Sign on hot water machine at Incheon airport

"Hey June!! Didn't you see my panty and brassiere?
well... Is that yours? NO!
How about this one?
It's mine!! My underwear!!
why don't go to yes? yes? yes!! yes!
Let's go to yes!!!!"

-Sign on 'Yes' lingerie shop

Monday, February 13, 2006

Jeju island Fire Festival

I love fire!!!

Last night I returned home from Jeju island extremely exhausted but very pleased with my experience on the "Hawaii of Korea". Why an island in winter? Besides the obvious, "why not?", my primary reason for taking a flight to an island for a mere 2-day weekend was none other than FIRE. It was the 10th annual Jeju Fire Festival and I have a pact with myself to learn how to throw fire before I'm 30 years old. (My fascination with fire-spinning started at a party thrown by an environmental college--yes, kegs and professors present-- in a valley in Asheville, North Carolina where Cedar Rose and her fire were the entertainment for the evening...but that's another story.)

We arrived early in the afternoon on Saturday to the charged festival atmosphere with a Korean twist: numerous barbecues going on, lots of soju drinking, Korean games, cactus candy, and delicious cinnamon tea, among other things. As the sun went down everyone converged around the main stage where my friend and I happened to stumble into VIP seats for Nanta followed by a traditional Korean dance performance. Although the shows were good, the biggest bonus for our upgraded seats came when we were handed bamboo torches as a massive fireworks show got underway. We then followed in a mob of other torch-carriers as we made our way to several constructions of wood and hay at the bottom of a huge hill and proceeded to light them on fire, which started the entire hill on fire.

For the next 30 minutes it was the closest I've ever come to feeling like I was in the middle of a war. The burning hill resembling a volcano, the fireworks, the burning ashes flying in my face and torn flags all contributed to this effect. All being played out with dramatic music blaring from speakers that seemed to be correlated with strong gusts of wind. (I realize the music wasn't very representative of a real war but in my mind it was, since my only experience with battle zones has been from movies.) It was something unlike anything I've ever seen or ever expected to see. A pyromaniacs dream turned reality. My brother would have gone crazy.

As the fires blazed on I spotted some kids throwing around metal cans on wire filled with hot ashes. I ran over, filled a can with ashes and was so excited at my first chance at fire-spinning I failed to notice the kid walking straight through my path of destruction. Fortunately, he ended up perfectly fine but there's nothing quite like a scalding hot can of hot ashes to the back though... I've said it before and I'll say it again, I AM SUCH A KLUTZ!!! I felt really horrible and vow to never forget the first rule of fire-spinning ever again. Besides my bad start, it was the most fun I've had with fire in a long time. My first fire-spinning was also documented by a Jeju news crew that thankfully started filming after "the incident".

My overall opinion of the weekend: Korean festivals rock.

The hill before...

...and after

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Endless Sky becoming Koreanized?

Last week I was given the Korean name "Young Hanul", which I was told translates in English as, "Endless Sky". I like it. It's simple at first, but yet at further thought it's unfathomable. Jiggam, nanun hanguk saram ida, or in English, "I am now Korean."

In reality, not even close, but it's interesting how much you assimilate to another culture the more time you spend emerged in it. The other day I was served a glass of water with ICE in it and it was like a foreign beverage to me. I find myself putting red pepper paste on everything and also eating excessive amounts of seaweed, kimchi and rice, all with chopsticks. I no longer write names in red pen or board marker (Red is the color reserved for the dead. I only had to make that mistake once in the classroom!). Instead of or accompanied with a "kamsamnida" I now bow as a sign of respect. I offer and accept money with both hands. I have abandoned the western "come here" finger motion for the inoffensive Asian way: palm and fingers facing down, moving hand back and forth, which when I first came I mistook for shooing away.

Undoubtedly, I have adapted in many other ways that I probably won't even realize until I leave Korea. Who knows, after a year I may feel more at home in Korea than in my own home country...

"Here we are, trapped in the amber of the moment. There is no why."


**If anyone knows how to get Korean characters to show up in my posts would you please share with me?**

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Freezing weather and Ping-Pong

I had mistakenly thought the worst of winter was over. Then came last week, in particular last weekend when I wasn't inside the school protected from the freezing temperatures. These last few days have left me dreaming of green leaves, the smell of flowers, sandals and light jackets, and the energizing feeling of life that comes with the season of spring.

Alas... Until then I have to settle with freezing walks to the subway (but oh, how I appreciate the heated seats on the Seoul metro!), winter coats, long underwear, and the very taxing task of preparing 10 kindergartners to brace the cold. Imagine ten coats, hats and scarves, 20 mittens, usually at least one crying child and worst of all...the damn ZIPPERS that always manage to get stuck and then me in the middle trying to orchestrate the entire show... Let me reiterate my point: I will not be missing the winter coat season once spring rolls around.

"Yeah, we're cute. If only we knew how to put on our own coats..."

Consequently, I decided winter was the perfect time for me to join the ping-pong hall for a month and I've been going for the last two weeks. Ever since Christmas, circa 1990 when a ping-pong table showed up in our basement I've considered ping-pong the only "sport" I'm good at. Now that I'm in Korea I feel confident that it fully qualifies as a sport (not that I ever questioned that fact before). Koreans are decked out in Butterfly brand shirts, shorts, shoes and socks specifically designed for the ping-pong-er and they have serves that involve a series of intricate movements and violent foot-stompings. Plus, a few good games gets your heart rate racing and your shirt soaked in sweat. Sounds like a sport to me.

I was decent at ping-pong back home...How I loved to beat the boys at this game of eye-hand coordination (funny how my coordination fails me when walking though). Korea has since taught me that I know NOTHING about ping-pong. Most everything I thought I knew was wrong: my fronthand, my backhand, my serve and my returns. The Koreans I play with could play me blindfolded and left-handed and still manage to kick my ass without losing a sweat. They are GOOD. Luckily for me, some of that ass-kicking skill is starting to rub off and I think I've started to swing my paddle correctly and return the backhands with the right side of the paddle. I play my best when I'm not thinking of anything. The other games around me become background noise, I'm not concentrating on my technique and you only see the little white ball: rapid ping, pong, ping, pong, and I've entered into the ping-pong "zone".

It's been kind of embarrassing to play Koreans and I'm usually thankful for the language barrier (Although most of them have figured out how to say, "Private lesson", as in "You are in serious need...") I am looking forward to playing my Dad and brother to see if I'm up for the challenge of the "old man ping-pong skills" or facing my competitive little brother. Too bad Dad sold out and traded in for the much-inferior pool table (in my opinion), something I've yet to get over more than 4 years later...

*I apoligize to any readers who are not ping-pong fanatics and were completely bored with this entire post...I won't continue with the ping-pong theme from this point forward...*

Thursday, February 02, 2006

From the classroom

Sean, Sarah and Sam-I-am

Kitty and Bert Class have been continuing to practice 'Yellow Submarine' and 'Green Eggs and Ham' for the big "Open Party" night coming up later this month. I'll be relieved when Open Party is over and I can wake up to something other than children screaming Mamma Mia songs through the (extremely) thin walls that separate my room from the cafeteria. I just found out that the teachers will also be performing a song in Korean (and dance?)for the show. That should be interesting...

Last week Bernie and I were in the hallway and I was questioning her for the required bi-monthly oral test. She's answering the questions but distracted with something she has just pulled out of her pocket. Perhaps a toy? Maybe a piece of candy? Oh no, it was a long purple octopus tentacle. She was plucking off the little suction cups and eating them. I just laughed as I thought about how a teacher in the States would react in the same situation.

An impromptu lesson in subject-verb agreement: I was running with Bert Class to the bus for a field trip last week. I abruptly stop at the door to the bus and hold my hand up to signal them to stop. Sean holds his hand up palm-to-palm with mine and we both receive a shock of static electricity. Very E.T.-esque.

"Magic," I say. (A word that I use often in the classroom)

Sean screams, "Aly Teacher you is CRAZY!"

I explain, "No, Sean! Aly Teacher you ARE crazy!"

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Lunar New Year's Holiday on Gangwha island

Sunrise on Gangwha-do

Sunday was the first day of the Lunar New Year and everything was closed Monday, including hagwans, which meant I got a three day weekend. I started out on Saturday (later than planned) and made it to Incheon in time for lunch in China town. The rest of the weekend was spent on Gangwha and Sokmodo, islands which are off the West coast near Gimpo. Ganghwa island is around 300-square-kilometers and could potentially be navigated entirely by foot quite easily if time allowed.

Saturday night I stayed at a small sauna, at 7,000 Won being the ideal choice for a thrifty solo traveler. Maybe because this was a sauna frequented by more "country folks", but nonetheless, they allowed smoking inside. I can now tell you from experience that naked women who are smoking are not sexy no matter how romantic the idea may sound to some. I went in to the jimjilbang before I went to bed and it was HOT but I stayed for 10 minutes. It was a dark circular room with a concave ceiling, fire pits burning behind 2 doors and pine branches tied in a bundle releasing their fresh, pine scent. I fell asleep early after finishing Vonnegut's 'Cat's Cradle' and had fleeting dreams of Bokononism before waking with the sun. The next morning I went to step into the jimjilbang once more and and it was insanely hot. I got one foot in and it felt like my skin was melting. I stepped back out and saw stars for a few seconds before deciding painfully hot saunas are not for me.

After leaving the sauna I went to Jeongdeung-sa temple (founded in A.D. 381) and saw the main hall where the ceiling is agonizingly held up by strange indistinguishable human-animal figures. One story says a carpenter carved them to represent his unfaithful wife and to warn other women against infidelity.

I ate breakfast on a small street winding up to the entrance of the fortress at a place that had candles burning on top of huge heaping mounds of wax. They wouldn't accept money for my meal...I have no idea why not though because they couldn't speak any English. Maybe because I was their only customer and it was the first day of the Lunar New Year? I don't know but either way it was very friendly.

I was told that there was not a bus to my next destination on the island so I flagged a car down and got a ride from a nice couple from Suwon. From Oepo-ri harbor I caught a ferry to Seokmodo and met two foreigners who were teaching in Gimpo. We went to Bomunsa temple and then up to the 'Eyebrow rock Buddha', which is a Buddha image carved into the rock on the mountain. Afterwards we caught the ferry back to Ganghwa and took a bus to Hajeom to hike up Mt. Bongcheon. On a clear day from the top of the mountain you can see into North Korea. It wasn't a clear day so we had no chance of spotting the sign that says, "America go home" in hangul but we did see a vague dark outline of the mysterious place.

By the time we got back to the bottom I was rather exhausted from hiking the mountain with my pack on. Almost everything was closed for the holiday but we managed (without too much effort) to find an open bar to spend the majority of the evening at. I heard stories of teaching in Ghana and Shamanism in Ecuador that enticed me add yet more places to my "To Visit" list. (Incidentally, that same list has started to look more like a list of every country in the world) After experiencing the night life in Ghanhwa I slept on the floor of my new friends' yeogwan. Yet another fine weekend in Korea...

Sunset on Gangwha-do

Ferry to Sokmodo island (west of Gangwha-do)