Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Virgil James Bieniek

Jun. 28, 1981- May. 30, 1997

Gone from our sight, but never our memories----
Gone from our touch, but never our hearts.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

"I believe in nothing, everything is sacred. I believe in everything, nothing is sacred."

-Tom Robbins

Tuesday, May 23, 2006


The dog hair-dying fad has reached Dangjin

This weekend I went to Dangjin where my friend Ben lives, located an hour an a half bus ride southwest of Suwon. Around 120,000 people live in Dangjin county but it's a cowtown compared to Seoul. There are only 4 English teachers living in the city and there is a definitely a more curious vibe from the people than you get living in Seoul or Anyang.

What is there to do in a small town in Korea? Well in this particular town, probably not unlike many small towns in America, it involves BB guns, roman candles and beer. I was starting to get nostalgic memories of being back in Kansas at the Ranch... We also went to the market on Saturday where I saw freshly slaughtered pigs being thrown out the back of a truck and then chopped into pieces for sale, something I can happily say I've never before seen.

The most entertaining thing about Dangjin was walking around and watching the wide-eyed and sometimes horrified expressions on the faces of passing children when 6' 2" scraggly-bearded, long curly-haired Ben passed into their field of vision. These kids rarely see foreigners and Ben doesn't exactly blend into a crowd. Sometimes the middle school kids would run up and shout, "Jesus, Jesus!", or something about his beard or his height before running away. The younger ones would just stare with intense curiosity unless Ben caught them, in which case they would quickly avert their eyes and turn away.

At the market in Dangjin

Squid at the market in Dangjin

Friday, May 19, 2006

New photos

I forgot my memory card last weekend when I went to DoekJeokdo island but I bought a cheap disposable camera before I left Incheon. I love the convenience of my digital camera and the instant gratification it provides but it was actually fun to only have one shot and not know how it turned out until later. It was exciting picking up the film yesterday (even though the 27 shot camera was crap and only gave me 17). I found out you can get a CD made even from disposable cameras, how fun! So I just posted new pics below on the Doekjeokdo post.

The attention grabber above is the second crazy naked guy I've seen in Seoul. The streets were packed in Insadong on Sunday and this guy was walking towards me parting the sea of walkers like he was on fire. Korean boyfriends rushed to shield their girlfriend's virgin eyes and cameras clicked. From what I gathered, he was a religious extremist preaching to the crowds. He had three thick cross-shaped scars on his abdomen and chest.

Okay, gotta run! I have two more classes and then I'm outta here... Going to some country town for the night southwest of here.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Everyday Earthday

Sunday in Insadong I saw a crowd gathered around this guy painting green designs straight on to the T-shirts people were wearing. His name is Hoseob Yoon, he is an environmentalist and an artist. As the paint was soaking through to my leg from the leaves he was painting on my pants, he told me his paints are all natural and to prove it he took a lick from his paint-covered finger. I think he will be in Insadong every Sunday throughout summer. He's an interesting character and it's entertaining to watch him paint (or be painted).

"You must live in the present, launch yourself on every wave, find your eternity in each moment. Fools stand on their island opportunities and look toward another land. There is no other land, there is no other life but this."

Henry David Thoreau

Tuesday, May 16, 2006


DoekJoekdo- Seopori beach

Last Friday night I took the subway to Incheon and relaxed the night away at a salt water sauna. Saturday morning I went to the Yeonun Ferry terminal and without checking times beforehand luckily made one of the only two ferries to Deokjeokdo island leaving at 8:45 am. A group of Korean men sitting in front of me were forcing shots of soju on one another the entire length of the trip, which they used to wash down kimbap and dried squid. Ah, the smell (or thought) of soju in the morning. There's nothing quite like it.

The trip took about an hour and as I stepped off the ferry a loud eccentric ajumma directed the only other foreigners and myself to the bus bound for Seopori beach. From our conversation on the bus it was soon made clear that she was wanting our business for her minbak (room rented in her house). From the bus she linked arms with me (the others had escaped) and nearly dragged me the short walk to a minbak despite my protests. She was quite a character, a feisty old country lady who only seemed to know one word of English, "Okay!" Everything I said I received an exuberant, "Okay!" in reply. She asked more than I had or wanted to spend for the room and I had to turn her down much to her disappointment.

I walked along the beach, endlessly fascinated by it in a way only a landlocked girl from Kansas could ever relate to. For lunch I had spicy kimchi jiggae and then went for a nap on the beach to sleep off my lunch in the sun. Some kids playing in the sand on the nearly deserted beach woke me up after I was sufficiently rested.

I decided to take a hike up to the highest peak on the island. On my way towards the trail the crazy lady crossed my path and changed direction to walk with me. Along the way we passed her house, which was different from the other room she offered earlier, and she said I could stay for 20,000 Won plus rice for dinner. Deal. I dropped off some stuff and continued on my hike.

Most trails in Korea are very clearly marked and well-traveled. This one was
uncharacteristically faint and as my mind wandered, so did my feet, straight off the path. My over-active imagination conjured up the path every once in awhile but I'm quite sure it was never really there. It wasn't so bad going up without a path, besides the unforgiving thorn bushes and sticky spiders webs that were attracted to my face.

The peak was a great view of the island with a cool breeze all to myself that I enjoyed by standing on the highest rock, arms spread, and head towards the sky. I stayed up there sitting on the rock for awhile and then looked for the trail back down. I saw a trail going down the opposite side and an arrow pointing towards the side I just came up written in hangul. I thought it must have said "trail this way" but after about 2 minutes down that way I decided it definitely said "NO TRAIL HERE".

The way down was a bitch. It was as if Mother Nature had taken the top layer off the forest floor, shaken it up, threw it down, covered it with a layer of dead leaves, leaving it perfectly unstable for a girl alone in the woods. Plus, every tree I went to grab for support after stepping on one of the wobbly boulders was inevitably dead and of no use for any supporting. I sent more than one boulder thundering down the hill leading me to wonder what would happen if one injured me and left me alone for a(n) night/week/indeterminable amount of time. I went sliding down a couple times, thorn bushes giving me a couple of good cuts.

Eventually, of course, I made it out and back to crazy lady's house. She had dinner ready and waiting for me at the table in her kitchen. We sat on the floor and ate fresh vegetables, mushrooms, kimchi and rice and a pot of some animal that I politely declined. Her cat strolled by and she pointed and said, "Koyangi", telling me the Korean word for "cat". I said, "Yonga, 'CAT'". She points to her pet and excitedly says, "Cata, Cata!" while presumably laughing at the joy of learning a new word. She was a funny old lady who talked to me throughout dinner while I answered at every pause with an "okay".

After dinner she says, "Copi, sauna", and sent me to on my way for... Coffee at a sauna? I have no idea what the hell she was talking about but I went for a walk anyways. I met some other foreigners on the island who all seemed to be eating at the same small restaurant and we decided to gather on the beach for a bonfire after sunset.

No matter the season, beaches in Korea are always full of fireworks and Saturday night was no exception. It got cold once the sun set but the fire was warm and the soju made it warmer. There will certainly be more bonfires on the beach before I leave Korea. Doekjoekdo is a perfect island getaway from Seoul, but some advice for anyone planning the trip: Bring enough money for the ferry ride back, there are no ATM's on the island...

Working in the garden.

Gazebo at the top.

View from the top. Seopori beach and my minbak are below.

Going back down through this. In sandals.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Teacher's Day

Today was Teacher's Day but they made us go to work. If they wanted to really show us how much we're appreciated they should have given us the day off but that's just my irrelevant opinion. Most of the students brought gifts and cards, my absolute favorite being the card from Sebastian's mom that's pictured above:

To: Aly Teacher
It does as a favor
the Sebastian pretty,
from thank you.
Please plentifully pretty
Sebastian and teach carefully
like now.
Sebastian said "I love Aly teacher
Aly teacher Good!"
Congratulations for teacher's Day. Good luck!!
-Sebastian's Mom

Wow. That's poetry if I've ever heard it. I finally managed to twist my tongue around those strategically placed delicately written words and I still don't comprehend it. It's deep, real deep. I've always thought Sebastian had a bit of genius hiding underneath that uber-trendy curly perm of his and now I have the document to back it up. Tears of joy (laughter) I cried as I opened up the chic box the card was attached to to find a silver bowl to hold...Candy? Potpourri? The rest of my weird gifts?

Today is the perfect occasion to discuss the differences of gift giving in this country. Not so much when or how the gift is given but what is actually considered appropriate to give someone you do not know personally (I'm talking about the parents here). I got hair conditioning spray from Melody. A huge tacky, sparkly (but nonetheless, expensive) watch from Mark. And Lancome liquid eyeliner from Tony. Eyeliner. I'm serious here. I don't wear eyeliner now, but there was a time (in my oh-so-distant past) that I did and I don't think I'm out of line to say that eyeliner is a frickin' weird gift. From a best friend, maybe, but that's even pushing it. Other similarly strange gifts that I've seen at the school include: foundation, pantyhose, feminine man scarves, and underwear. The good intention is definitely there and these items are usually on the expensive side but to me it's so strange sending such personal things as gifts.

Besides the few unusual and several unfunctional gifts I received, I also got a few very nice ones that will actually be used. Among those include Aveda hand creme from Sophia, some other undoubtedly expensive lotion from Andy, and seaweed and rice soap from Tony. The most humble gift was an origami flower made by Jay and a homemade card that said, "I love you Aly Teacher!" Now that says Happy Teacher's Day far better than any eyeliner ever could.

Friday, May 12, 2006


In my afternoon classes at the end of class I've started telling the students stories about something (anything) that happened to me recently. It's a really good way for them to practice their English conversational skills-- during the story they always have plenty of questions about vocabulary they don't understand or other questions about the story. Besides being a great learning tool, the students love hearing them and I get to be a complete drama queen and reenact exciting moments in the story.

Not surprisingly, the more suffering I endure in the story, the more the students want to hear more. They absolutely love to hear about me in embarassing situations or about me getting hurt. The more bruises to authenticate the details, the better.

The first story I told them was about what was supposed to be an uneventful trip to the grocery store on my bicycle before class. It wouldn't have been story-worthy if I had the skill or the coordination to ride a bike with a bag of groceries dangling off each of the handle bars, but I don't. I did alright weaving through all the school children and people on their way to work who were unknowningly taking up the entire bike path. (I'm very appreciative my bike came with a bell, I haven't yet mastered how to say in Korean, Coming up behind you, move it or lose it!)

I was almost home, I made it within mere meters of my apartment building, but when I braked to stop and swung my legs over the bike the imbalance of the groceries caused me and my bike to topple over. Hard. Damn it was good fall and no one was even there to laugh at me. I have several bruises to back that one up and so did my produce. At least something good came out of it, the kids absolutely loved hearing about it!

My student's favorite story though is definitely from two weekends ago when got locked out of a friends apartment. (Now imagine me telling this really slowly, using overly simplistic words and lots of acting out with my hands.) I had gone out in Hyewha with a couple new friends to a fun bar. (I start dancing and singing for the kids.)

Relatively early in the night I decide I'm too tired to stay any longer and decide to catch a cab back to my friends house. (yawn.) I fall asleep in the cab and wake up at her apartment. (I lay down on the table and start snoring, jerk awake, and then pay the imaginary cab driver.) I go up the 12 flights in an elevator (ding!) and start searching my pockets for her key that she entrusted to me. Coins, chapstick, ticket stub...no key! I had on cargo pants and searched every one of the several pockets before literally freaking out. I scream at the top of my lungs as I throw everything from my pockets on to the floor (at this point I was saying some four letter words best left out in the youngster version). I uselessly pounded on the door and fell to a heap at the bottom of it.

I wouldn't have freaked out so much but I left my backpack in my friend's apartment, along with my money, my handphone, my phone numbers, and my jacket. So I was completely helpless. And I didn't know the area at all. I went downstairs and asked the apartment security guy and he shook his head and waved his hand back and forth, which translated quite clearly to me as, "you're screwed."

So I went back up to the twelfth floor and after a few tears I picked up my coins and chapstick and layed down on the COLD, HARD floor. I had a T-shirt on and I was freezing. I tucked my arms into my shirt and tried to go to sleep. A couple times I woke up to the sound of my handphone ringing. The rest of the time I was in and out of sleep. (This is all being acted out in front of the classroom door.) It was on of the coldest nights I've spent in a long time. I won't be forgetting it soon.

I woke up and went outside and the sun was up. It was 5:45 am and I tried a different (friendly) security guard this time who called someone and told me to go back up to the room and wait. A locksmith finally came and 30 minutes and 30,000 won later I was happily asleep on a soft couch under 2 very thick blankets.

The kids loved it. Like I said before, the more suffering, the better. It could have been much worse, but then again, it can always be worse no matter what the situation.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Typical George

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Gyeryeongsan mountains

Peak at Gyeryeongsan

On Friday I went hiking at the sacred mountains of Gyeryongsan in Chungcheongnam-do province near Daejeon. It has been long believed that the Gyeryong mountains emanate a very strong mystical energy. Because of this many Buddhists, shamans, Christians and others have built temples, shrines and churches here.

The bus dropped me off near Donghaksa temple. The outside speakers at the small convenience store near the bus stop were ironically playing 'Jingle Bell Rock' (which managed to lodge itself into my head for the remainder of the day). I walked to the temple and stopped there to have a look at the Buddha's birthday festivities.

Bathing baby Buddha at Donghaksa


A family with two young kids adopted me for lunch at the temple, beckoning me to follow them to a suitable spot on the grass for a lunch of bibimbap. After bibimbab we had tomatoes, bananas and melons and I smiled as they took pictures of me with their hand phones individually with every member of the family. After thanking them for their hospitality I moved on to the trail. I hiked towards Nammaetap, a set of "brother-sister" pagodas, and then towards Gapsa temple. I sidetracked the trail to Gapsa for awhile to climb some steep stairs to a peak with a view. It was worth it.

The trail from the peak to Gapsa was far less crowded than the earlier trail I had been on. A middle aged Korean man and I were going the same pace for a while and he asked me where I was going (in Korean). I told him Gapsa and he replied, "Same, same," (a phrase that every English teacher here has certainly heard hundreds of times in the classroom). "Together," he said. Without looking for one, I found myself a hiking companion. He hardly spoke English and every time I would say something in Korean it would send him into an amused fit of the giggles. We made our way mostly in silence through the brilliant green trees, eventually making a short stop at a small temple for him to do bows.

Playing Korean chess

Right before Gapsa he asked me if I wanted to stop at a small teashop alongside a stream and surrounded by trees off to the left of the trail. Of course I did. The only tea I recognized in hangul was omijacha (5 tastes tea) and he ordered two cold cups of it. As we were resting and savoring the tea I told him I was planning on going to Yeoseong and asked if there was a bus. He said there wasn't and a taxi would cost 50,000 Won. I started doing the motions for hitchhiking, trying to ask him if he thought it would be alright. (I assumed most people were going to Daejeon from Gyeryeongsan and Yeoseong is directly in the middle so I thought it would be a relatively easy task.) His look clearly said: You poor thing, how have you survived this long alone in this country without someone holding your hand the entire time? Not the reaction I was going for but I should have expected it.

After our tea we walked by the temple and out to the main parking lot. He asked around and to his relief more than mine, found out there was a bus to Yeoseong in one hour. He found out how much the fare was and then, ignoring my refusal, stuffed the small amount in my backpack, perhaps in hopes I would completely abandon the dangerous idea of hitchhiking.

Too much food

I ate dinner and read (Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami) while I waited for the bus, not really knowing what I was in for for the night. When I got off the stop in Yeoseong I caught a taxi to Jakwangsa temple where a friend was staying for the night. We watched a dharma talk and then had a chat with a monk before retiring for the evening.

I had a room to myself that night and slept with the windows open, the fresh mountain air reminding me of Colorado at the cabin. The smell of rain and the sound of the moktok woke me up early to Saturday morning. And the weekends only just begun.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Konglish sighting in Gangnam

Who doesn't feel happy when they eat their friends?

This shirt provided a few laughs in Gangnam a couple weeks ago. For now, it's the weekend already and I'm on my way out the door to catch a train out of town. But tomorrow... Happy Buddha's Birthday, Children's Day, Cinco De Mayo, and most importantly, my Dad's birthday! Love you Dad!

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Yeoido island cherry blossom hunt

Yeoido "island" is in the middle of the Han river and home to Seoul's financial district, the 63 Building and supposedly one of the best spots in Seoul to enjoy the cherry blossoms in the spring. Saturday morning I made my way to Yeoido for the second time in a week. The first (and only) other time I went was on a field trip to the 63 Building with ten 4 year olds in my care. Saturday on Yeoido was far more relaxing without the mandatory head counts every 2 minutes, crying little ones, and rushing through a hot and overcrowded aquarium.

I started my search for cherry blossoms at Yeoido park. The park is home to an ecological forest, three ponds, a bicycle track, bike and skate rentals, and many perfect picnic spots that were being taken advantage of. The sun was shining and I decided to postpone my hunt for awhile while I enjoyed the weather under a tree behind the Kind Sejong statue.

After searching the entire park and then walking towards the National Assembly and then back again to the park I had only spotted a couple scattered cherry blossom trees, certainly not what everyone had been talking about. I was walking back through the park to the subway when I saw a large crowd gathered on the large rectangular basketball/skate area. There was a stage set up and people wearing sashes and carrying signs. It seemed to be a rally or protest for something. I saw a few men wearing white robes with long beards and also a few monks wandering amongst the crowd.

The parade of protest

I asked a woman what was going on but lack of common language prevented a complete explanation. Five minutes later the same woman came running up to me and pointed at her hand phone, "Englishe!" She said. A man on his hand phone came up to explain what the event was for.

He said that the Korean government has stopped recognizing acupuncture as a legitimate practice and is trying to disestablish the practice throughout Korea. The acupuncturist community throughout Korea is very upset about the governments new stance and organized a rally to gain support for the long held tradition, which they believe to be very beneficial and natural.

I told him I had never had acupuncture done and asked him what it was like. His face lit up and he yelled for a woman to come over to us. "You very lucky today," he said. "Many acupuncture masters are gathered here. She is one of best! Where do you have problem area?"

I shrugged and told him I didn't know of any specific problems. With her hands holding my wrist and then neck she did a diagnosis. She said I have circulation problems and also a slight problem with my liver and heart (could it possibly be from the Hoegaarden and hookah from the previous night..?).

She proceeded to stick several small square bandaids on my hands that had miniature needles attached. Then came the larger needles that were stuck in my chest, stomach, lower back, behind the knees, and the scariest but also the one with the least feeling, in the top of my head.

Making a diagnosis

Overall, it was a very quick and relatively painless process. I can't comment on the effectiveness because I have no idea how to tell, but I'm almost certain it did no harm. As far as I'm concerned (and I know absolutely nothing about acupuncture) the Korean government should leave the acupuncturists alone. If the people getting acupuncture believe it works, then it probably does. After all, the whole world is only in your mind...

The acupuncture master

I never found the cherry blossoms on Yeoido. Maybe the blossoms had already gone. Maybe I didn't go to the right park. It doesn't really matter though, it's all about what was found along the way.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Buddha's 2,550th Birthday

Dongdaemun Stadium ceremony

Buddha's birthday is celebrated this Friday, May 5th but the biggest even took place Sunday night in the form of a huge parade marching from Dongdaemun Stadium to Jogyesa temple near Insadong. I went to Hwagyesa beforehand and listened to Hyon Gak Sunim give a dharma talk on war. His talk centered around something Seung Sahn Sunim said, "Ending war not possible, also not necessary (italics mine)." The talk was insightful and entertaining, full of the dramatic silences, Konglish phrases and repeats of his favorite stories that are characteristic of Hyon Gak Sunim. As a reply to a question about teaching and learning (after the first misunderstood answer of a long silence), Hyon Gak Sunim tried a more blatant approach, yelling as loud as possible something to the man along the lines of, "WHAT DO YOU WANT TO LEARN?! TELL ME! WHAT...DO...YOU...WANT...TO...LEARN?! EVERYTHING YOU NEED TO KNOW, YOU ALREADY HAVE RIGHT NOW!" There's one more reason to love Hyon Gak Sunim's dharma talks.

I asked Hyon Gak Sunim a question regarding his book, 'From Harvard to Hwagyesa', which is written only in Korean, without an English translation available. Perhaps I am being naive, but I am honestly curious why he wrote his book after listening to his dharma teachings. I realize it's only a teaching tool (all words are bullshit, right?), but then why not translate it into bullshit English as well?

"Why did you write a book and why only in Korean?" I asked.

He wittily answered, "To answer your first question, I wrote it for you. And only in Korean so you cannot read it." Laughter from the audience, and then, "Writing the book was mistake." And that was it. So now I know... sort of.

Click here to see a video clip of the parade.

After the dharma talk we all took the bus and then the subway to Dongdaemun Stadium where a ceremony was held before the parade that involved lots of showing off of elaborate robes and gowns, lanterns and dances.

I went to the parade thinking I would be watching from the sidelines but during the ceremony at the stadium I was given a flag (along with several other foreigners, Koreans, monks and nuns from Hwagyesa) to carry in the parade, to represent Seoul International Zen Center. Hwagyesa was towards the end of the procession and it went for about 2 hours. I met a few people throughout the day who frequent the temple, including a nun-in-training from Texas named Wan San (sp?) who originally came to Korea to teach English and a Korean girl named JY who has lived abroad for the last 16 years and says she's probably more of a foreigner than I am.

Throughout the parade I had some interesting conversations all the while feeling like somewhat of a celebrity marching past the cheering, waving, photo-snapping and smiling crowd. It was definitely the biggest event I've been to in Korea and I didn't even witness it all from my moving post near the end. That's the sacrifice you make when you take part in the festivities, but it was a small price to pay, I must say.

Hwagyesa marching

Smiling nun

Look familiar...?

I wrote about this ad from KScene (an English magazine in Seoul targeted towards expats) in this post from October. Since then, the ad has caused quite an uproar from some Canadians that are seriously lacking a sense of humor. Quite a few people took the ad seriously and failed to notice the obviously satirical nature of the article. The Korea Herald wrote an article about it which only added to the fury of certain oversensitive Canucks. Strange enough, it came out on the same page as the article I wrote in the Herald on Hwagyesa...

Canadians banned from group for cultural understanding

An organization that promotes cultural understanding and brings together people from different nations is open for anyone in Seoul to join. Anyone that is, except Canadians. In a classified ad in KScene, a free biweekly magazine, World Class describes itself as a group that "brings together all nationalities to discuss world issues and break down cultural barriers and prejudices."Breaking down the prejudices, however, doesn't extend to all countries. "No Canadians please," the ad continues.When contacted by a Korea Herald reporter by e-mail, the organizer of the group, Bernard Carleton, elaborated further, "The thing is, CANADIANS ARE SCUM! They are self-loving, welfare supporting, over taxing, work ethic hating scum!!! They are not welcome in our group."Anyone who would like to join the meetings with Carleton in order to break down prejudices, dissolve stereotypes and have an enhanced understanding of people from other countries can contact him at: cbicsmd@yahoo.com

After several complaints, KScene removed the article, apologized and now says they will no longer print offensive ads.

Carthartidae revealed the (much suspected) inside scoop:

The truth was revealed to me by a (Canadian) friend who was, in fact, the "Bernard Carlton" mentioned in the original KH piece. According to him, the real organizer of the club was a (Canadian) friend of his, a person I've met a few times. He came up with the idea as a joke while chatting with friends over drinks at the Three Alley Pub in Itaewon. He scribbled out the ad and decided to send it in to KScene for shits and giggles.

In the latest (and probably last) turn of events, someone sent the article to Jay Leno and it appeared in an April episode of the Tonight Show. Who would have thought it would end up there? And now with all of that said, ENOUGH!