Sunday, 29 November 2009

Po from Pohang

Scott and I met up with Alice at Emart yesterday because she was going to buy a Siamese kitten. Emart has a fully functioning vet clinic and pet store on the second floor here, which I didn't know about until this weekend. While Alice was cuddling her new found friend and signing some paperwork, we had the chance to fall in love with two little Persian kittens who were also in the store. We were doomed from the moment Alice went into that office. Not that it was a complete whim, for we'd already done prior research into having and relocating an animal back to America.

And that is how we met and acquired Po- we named him for the city he was born in. The vets in the office speak English, which helped make our decision at the time. He's only two months old and still has some shots and...other medical procedures to be done, so it makes it easy on us that we can just take him back there. He was born on Sept 26 and was bred in a home and not a kennel, so he's already litter trained and perfectly social. Persians also have the benefit of scarcely shedding and being quite quiet (as evident by his only 2-mew car ride home), a trait that will be of great benefit as a cabin passenger on a flight back to America in another year. I don't know if I should disclose the price of him, for that is the drawback of falling in love with designer cats, but I will say that he was only a fraction of the cost that a Persian kitten would be in America.

Back at home Po settled in quite comfortably.

He's quite perfect (so far...), because he already is a cuddly fuzzy lap kitty, but also very playful. An early fixation on wires meant we needed to do a bit of kitty-proofing on our apartment. During his first day, he discovered half of our apartment, and I think I'll miss his awkward little kitten gait when he gets older; bouncing and halting from place to place, flinching suddenly at the dangers inanimate objects pose after staring at them for 5 seconds. He still hasn't traversed the 15 foot expanse of open room to discover the kitchen or the bathroom yet, but I'm sure he'll be climbing into sinks in no time.

He can't yet jump up and down from anything, so it was a rather big surprise when he insistently kept finding ways to climb on the bed last night and effectively trapping himself there. We let him stay after about 4 rounds of this, taking our chances on his tiny bladder. I built him a makeshift ramp this morning in case he needed to conquer the bed again while we're gone.

He's currently experiencing his first independent run of the house while we're at work. Unless he's figured out how springy his legs are in the past 7 hours, I think our apartment will be relatively free of mayhem.

Thursday, 26 November 2009

Happy Thanksgiving

It's probably not surprising that I was a little homesick today. I didn't have my parents or my puppy to hug, but at least I can see them on Skype, so I'm eternally thankful for technology. And
Korea also doesn't stock the Thanksgiving essentials that I'm used to: turkey, gravy, cranberries, stuffing, or pie. However, my co-teacher Mrs. Im did hand me a cup of coffee this morning and say "Thanksgiving coffee" so the day wasn't without its special touches.

I'm so lucky that all of my friends and family back home are continuously supporting me from so far away. With the holidays upon us, I will be missing you all the more. Thank you guys.

Monday, 23 November 2009

Surprise at Lunch

About halfway through lunch today, a little girl sat down across from me and asked "which state are you from?" with perfect pronunciation. Upon recovery from my shock, I replied "Michigan." She smiled and said "Oh! Me too! I'm from Troy." This is how I met Jessica for the first time, and it's a wonder to me that in all the time I've been here we had never spoken before. She is in 2nd grade, and perfectly fluent in Korean and English (with a vocabulary above the average American girl her age, I'm convinced) even though she moved to Korea when she was 3. From the way she talked, I could have sworn she just stepped off the plane yesterday- very impressive. It was astounding to me just to have a full English conversation with a person under 20 for the first time in 8 months.

But for all of her advanced communication, she was still a little girl, so we spent the next fifteen minutes talking about Disney World. We both very much like Splash Mountain and Animal Kingdom, but she recommends the test track at Epcot on my next visit. There is nothing more endearing than a little girl excitedly telling you about a hippopotamus blocking the track of the Animal Kingdom safari ride with a giant piece of meat the size of her hand half sticking out of her mouth. I hope I can run into her every day.

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Seoul and the DMZ

Two weeks ago, the teachers of the Gyeongbuk province (that have been here since before summer) were invited by EPIK to go on a trip to the DMZ and Seoul. Our POE (Provincial Office of Education) officer, Angela, explained that is was a thank you for working so hard over the summer. Apparently they hadn't intended us to teach every day (that wasn't an official requested vacation day) although most of us had done so. Though some of my best teaching moments were during the summer English camps, so I took this trip as a happy bonus.
The trip started out on Friday at 9am at the POE office in Daegu. This meant hopping on the 6:30 bus out of Andong to make it on time. Ugh, yes. After a bunch of coffee and an hour and a half bus ride, we finally made it to the Daegu bus station bathroom. Since there were six of us- Myself, Scott, Katie, Alice, Bonnie, and Tom (Andrew got a ride with his co-teacher who was selected to go, and the head of the Andong office of Education), we split up into two taxis from the bus station. My taxi driver got confused and took us on a ride all over the city and to the intercity education office (though the one we needed and told him was located very close to the bus station), so it's really fortunate that taxis are so cheap in South Korea.

Because so many teachers were on the trip, we were split into three large tour buses; the Andong crew were allocated to bus 1. Lucky for us, this was also the bus with Angela, and Angela is awesome.

After making it to Seoul, the first place we visited was the Gyeongbokgung Palace. Scott and I had been there once during my late orientation in March (which I didn't write about due to my huge encounter with so many new things). The first time I wandered around by myself, but this time we were lead around by the bus 1 tour guide, whose English name was Bill. I was able to see where certain people lived: a special group of houses for concubines, for the prince, princess, and the grandmother (queen and mother of the crown prince). There was a carved stone picture on a chimney outside of the grandmother’s living quarters, covered with images of animals and plants that were carefully selected as symbols of long life, fitting for a respected aging queen.

Other features were more subtle; not as distinct as stone carvings, but slight alterations in the basic design. Most interesting surrounded the structures for the prince. The roof of his living quarters was missing the long white block that capped the other buildings, which our guide explained was so his spirit could ascend to the heavens while his body slept.
Another thing I would have missed completely was the shape and arrangement of the building posts. They were all round nearest to the places of the prince, surrounded closely by another set of square posts. I was told that the circle was the unending symbol of the prince, while the square the symbol of the royal guard, protectors of the prince. Some of these post placements were so hidden that I had to squat down and peer under the buildings to catch a glimpse. Also, the stone tiled pathways the prince would walk were uneven and riddled with imperfections, which I learned was to show that a crown prince was always to walk slowly and deliberately, without any cause to rush. I usually pride myself on picking out detail, but there were clearly things still tucked away from my careful notice.

The backdrop of Gyeongbokgung, a large mountain, was also an item of interest. Bill explained that the best location for a place, according to Korean tradition, is between a mountain and a river. The flow of water would guarantee good fortune for the future of the family, and the mountain offered strength and protection. For this reason the palace was built with the mountain to its back and a moat-like body river of water flowing through its front courtyard.

However, the strong imposing shape of the mountain also meant that living too close to it would mean disaster for future generations (though success for the first to live there), because there was too much strength energy to handle. Ironically, despite this manner of thinking, the president's house (in Korea, it's called "The Blue House") was built right next to the same mountain. The first president to live there was very prosperous, but since him, Bill pointed out that every president has met with some terrible misfortune, whether it be through shady dealings or suicide. Indeed, the last two presidents died within the last year. Interesting thought.

At the back end of the palace grounds there was also a folk museum. Not as grand at the National History Museum, but another good small place to go to glimpse replicas of daily life as well as some interesting artifacts. A section of the museum is set aside for temporary exhibits, and this I found most intriguing because it was a history of the female Hanbok. The fabric and pattern trends did change during certain decades, but the style has remained pretty much the same through the ages.

The front of the palace was slightly more lively, with traditional music and dance in the usual location for the guard changing ceremony. My favorite is the hats they wear, with big ribbons attached to a spinner to swirl around in circles as their head swings back and forth.

As soon as it was dark, we headed over to Seoul Tower.

In the dark, it was hard to notice anything but the large glowing tower itself, but there were some human figures suspended overhead (one of the Seoul Tower's trademark images) that were nearly transparent until illuminated by light. Very creepy.

Originally I had been confused about our arrival time, but apparently it's the most popular at night because of the city lights and the view is the clearest. However, I’ve never been so high up at night (the whole tower is 777ft high). and was seized by a sudden fear of heights when I had to step into that elevator. I could have sworn I felt the whole thing swaying, and I felt a little like my mother taking creeping careful steps to the wall of windows.

Before making it through the elevator line of imminent doom, the coffee shop on the observation deck caught Katie and my eye, with a big sign for a "Pumpkin Latte." True to its word, it was just that, but perhaps more actual pureed pumpkin than latte.

Friday night was eventful. Bill had been telling us all day on the bus about the best nightclubs that we could visit, with a free shuttle downtown from our hotel. After running into him again in the lobby on the way out, he told us we weren't dressed well enough and wouldn't be allowed in with our jeans, no matter how tight Andrew's were, so we decided instead to find a bar. Waiting for a shuttle though, Andrew's tight pants turned on him. Because we are all mature 20-somethings, we started practicing our sweet Hapkido and Taekwondo moves while we waited. Unfortunately, Andrew tried putting his right leg up on Katie's shoulder (not a move our Hapkido master probably intended for us) and twisted his left leg so hard that his left kneecap popped out. It was on the side of his leg. The side. Scott and I ran off to alert Bill and Angela and call 119 for an ambulance, and when we came back he was moaning out of pain and relief "oh you Korean angel!" for an old Korean woman had hopped off the shuttle just as we left to pop his leg back into place, and was rubbing it vigorously. He remained pretty positive about the whole thing, though he had to go back to Andong early.

The rest of us woke up on Saturday by a sudden onslaught of rain just in time for our ride out the the DMZ.

Ah, well, we were all still very eager to see it. Our first stop at Imjingak, gave me the first glimpse of the DMZ area: The Super Viking! There was a whole theme park of oddities, apparently making the DMZ more of a prime tourist lure for families with children. You know, apart from all of the swerving because of the large spiked road blocks scattered all over the road to make quick travel impossible in case of invaders.

Because of the rain, there wasn’t much to see or say through the mist around the observatory looking in to North Korea, save for a tree or two that may have still been in the South. Nonetheless, we were still required to stay behind the photo line (which was right where the observation deck roof stopped, so there was no shielding us from the rain). I'll have to go back. Behold, North Korea:

The trip down to the 3rd infiltration tunnel was better. I officially spent Halloween in a dark creepy tunnel used for the purpose of North Korean invasion. Like all of the tunnels they found, it was headed toward Seoul, and it was one of their longer endeavors. We had to wear hard-hats because it was rather short and narrow. Scott talked about this tunnel on an earlier visit to the DMZ, (at

We also had a chance to see Dorasan Station, the train station built with a railway to Pyeongyang, in the event of reconciliation with the North. This would also allow for land travel to other parts of the world, which South Koreans are otherwise incapable of doing because of the Northern blockade.

Getting back into Daegu after the DMZ on Saturday was an altogether different adventure. The plan was to arrive back at 7. Enter the worst foreigner in Korea, Patrick. There is one teacher in the EPIK program who is like a badly written character in a movie- the kind written without realist qualities that make them human. Patrick decided to insult and inconvenience all several hundred of us without a care. Each time we set out, he decided to switch buses. On Friday he went from bus 2 to 3, Saturday morning from 3 to 1. He did this, of course, without telling the people in charge of attendance, making us 20 minutes late on Saturday (which made us then miss our time slot at the DMZ to watch a documentary and slip another hour behind). When our POE supervisor, Angela, told him he should go to bus 2, he told her he was going to stay on bus 1. Never mind that Angela's boss was also on our bus. After telling her no three times, his bus 2 tour guide came on and asked him why he had no common courtesy for others, and he told her he liked the bus 1 tour guide better. In the end he didn't leave.

On the trip back to Daegu, we stopped at a rest area and were told 5 minutes, because we were already so behind schedule. After 20 minutes, nobody could find Patrick. He wouldn't answer his phone, and people were searching the whole rest area for him. He had gone back to bus 2 without telling anyone. Incredible. We were then caught in a wave of traffic, and didn't make it to Daegu until after 10. That was 3 hours later than scheduled (and 40 minutes behind the arrival of bus 2). At this point everyone on our bus needed special arrangements, because the buses stopped running out of Daegu at 9:30. When Angela was explaining alternatives, our bus driver started shouting rapidly, causing Angela to stop, smile, and tell us "Oh, he is talking about the Patrick." I wonder if he'll be allowed to stay in the program after this one. We did have one small justice. He left his bag on the bus so he had to wait for us to get in.

Several of us decided to stay in Daegu anyway, so for me it wasn't terrible. Plus, it was Halloween, and foreigners in costume were abound. I managed to catch Swine flu, but not to worry, I didn't bring it back to Andong.

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

Happy 빼빼로 Day!

Whoever thinks Valentine's Day is a holiday dominated by Hallmark and candy companies has never encountered 빼빼로 (Pepero) Day. It's named after a single brand of chocolate-coated biscuit sticks produced by the Lotte candy company, and on November 11 (11/11) because the date looks like the sticks. Nothing beats this kind of marketing.

Its nationally recognized too, and every grocery store and stationary shop has a big display devoted to Pepero. I went into one of my favorite stationary stores for a pencil case, and half the stock had been moved or put away so that the length of the store was covered in different styles of Pepero, as well as cards, bags and baskets, and decorating materials for dressing them up as gifts.

The idea is that couples will buy Pepero sticks for each other, but it's also turned into a gift giving day for friends and teachers too. Before each of my lessons today, I asked my students "What did you do yesterday?" (because we're learning several expressions using past tense), and in every class they were shouting "Pepero! buy/bought Pepero!" Do I think Lotte's an evil corporation turning children into consumer slaves? No. I'm not that melodramatic. The whole concept is actually pretty fun. I mean, you can get about 4 boxes for the equivilant of $1, less if you choose to give larger individual Pepero sticks.

It's mostly just the energetic spirit of giving, and as holidays go, this is by far the cheapest and most random. It also worked very well for English class, because shy students were given a catalyst to come up and speak to me personally using some simple English phrases ("Here you are," "This is for you!"). Adorable. It was a very good day to be a teacher. I think I shall be happily munching these sticks for a long time.

Monday, 9 November 2009

A Very Wet Hike

The last time I went to Juwang-San, I came back and told my co-teachers, who told me I should return in the fall because of the beautiful colors. This being the first free weekend to make our way back, Scott and I hopped a bus with our friends Alice and Dave to do some hiking. This time we wanted to try and climb to one of the peaks, since last time we got a peak at the waterfalls.
(Dave is a Hagwan, after school academy, teacher that also works in Andong)

After a week of beautiful dry and rather warm weather, the rain started to fall as our bus was about 5 minutes outside of the park. We were not deterred. This being the third time mountain climbing in the rain since I've been here, I've gotten accustomed to wearing a poncho.

It was in a way good timing though, because Sunday was the last day for the apple festival running down around Cheongsong, so we were able to snag a couple single-packaged apples and a free cup of chrysanthemum tea (the best tea in the world, I'm convinced) right before they started taking everything down.
Since I've already written about Juwang-San once, I'm going to make this mostly a picture post about our journey to the top of Juwang-San peak. It is a good hike, because it has whole sections of flat pathway to break up the moments of intense upward climbing over rocks and roots, and the occasional built in stairway. And although the rain was working at beating the last of the autumn leaves off the trees, it was still vibrant and beautiful.

This is as far as we got, about .3km from the peak. It started raining incredibly hard by this point, and the rocks were slippery. To make our way through this particular spot, we had to creep around the big rock and hold on to the railing (about a 1 foot wide space where the person with the umbrella just came from). On the other side of the rail was an immediate drop down. Not that we aren't adventurous, but it was starting to thunder and we still had 2km to backtrack. Dave had wisened up about 20 minutes earlier and turned back, not that he looked any less saturated when we regrouped at the bottom.

We were slowly becoming one with the fallen leaves and the river of water at our feet. We were very wet.

The storm made the whole place look very eerie as the darkness started to close in under the clouds, and a creeping fog floated around us.
I'd like to say we should start checking the weather forecast before we leave to go places, but then we'd miss out on such splendid discomfort- and forget how good hot showers feel.

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

Priceless Language Moments 7

Britney Spears will never sound the same again after this one.

I was riding in the car with Taebun, who sometimes listens to American pop songs, and the Britney Spears song "Womanizer" came on. Somewhere in the middle, he asks me "what does 'womanizer' mean?" I told him that is was a term for a man who has a bad reputation for using women poorly. He laughed and explained that he assumed Britney was singing about a man who was turning into a woman, using the example of how "an energizer gives energy." But since Britney is a woman already, he applied the womanizing to the man himself. Good point. From a ESL perspective, applying similar rules to different words can have a hilarious result.

Britney Spears' lyrics (or whoever) lend themselves quite easily to Taebun's assumption, too:

Superstar Where you from, how's it going?
I know you
Gotta clue, what your doing
You can play brand new to all the other chicks out here
But I know what you are, what you are, baby

Look at you
Gettin' more than just re-up
Baby, you
Got all the puppets with their strings up
Fakin' like a good one, but I call 'em like I see 'em
I know what you are, what you are, baby

You're a womanizer
Oh Womanizer
Oh You're a Womanizer Baby
You, You You Are
You, You You Are
Womanizer, Womanizer, Womanizer

Boy don't try to front I (I) know just (just) what you are (are are)
Boy don't try to front I (I) know just (just) what you are (are are)

You Got Me Goin'
You're also Charmin'
But I can't do it
U Womanizer

Boy don't try to front I (I) know just (just) what you are (are are)
Boy don't try to front I (I) know just (just) what you are (are are)

You Say I'm Crazy
I got your crazy
You're nothing but A Womanizer

You got the swagger of a champion
Too bad for you
You just can't find the right companion
I guess when you have won too many, makes it hard
It could be easy
Who you are, that's just who you are, baby

(and so on...)

I wonder how many other people in Korea have the same translation.

Sunday, 1 November 2009

Autumn Out with My School

Every Wednesday, all of the students leave school after lunch, so usually the staff all gathers to play volleyball or another game similar to dodge ball (my inability to play well at both led my injured pride tochallenge some of the teachers to a footrace instead, then trip and roll in the dirt and gravel while I was in the lead 5 feet from the finish. Now I try and stick to hitting people with volleyballs). Last week, I was informed that instead of volleyball, we would go hiking. There's a hill right behind our school that I haven't tried yet and often hear people talking about, so I assumed that we would head up there during the regular 2 hours we would spend on volleyball.

I was surprised, then, when I was ushered into Taebun's car. When I asked where we were going, he didn't know. Neither did Mrs. Im when she got in, or the new 5th grade gym teacher. This is how plans usually play out, so I've found it's always easiest to go with it.

Therefore, when we stopped at a rest area after a half hour of driving, I was open for anything. This same rest area was the home of a trained duck (painted with sparkly red paint to set it apart from the common duck), which would jump (without flapping his wings) to catch bits of vegetables.

The next stop was to see Banghojeong, an old lecture hall built and named for the pen name of Jo Jun-do (but don't ask me who that is, other than a scholar of some note) on the rocks overlooking a lovely shallow river. The pavilions contain Jo Jun-do's works, as well as many poems by scholars. It's now accessible by a modern bridge, which I found to to be more aesthetic than eyesore; simple fluid lines in an unoffending white.

The location was inspiring, between water and rock. It was surrounded in yellow- little flowers and trees that I was informed are famously called gold trees- money trees. I stuffed some of the fallen leaves in my pockets, just in case.

Our next stop was a white stone beach, in a narrow long river valley between two hills.

The stones looked almost malleable, with as many soft soft curving dents as there were jagged edges. I didn't catch the name of the place, only that it's famous for photographing nude models.

We continued our journey through the land of apple trees. We were pretty close to the town of Cheongsong, which like Andong is famous in the country for its apples. In the summer, all of these trees had little bags tied on the branches to protect every fruit, but now they were hanging in bunches almost too heavy for the branches.

When we made our third stop, I was beginning to wonder if our hiking trip was going to involve any hiking. We arrived at Yongdamsa temple, and were greeted very enthusiastically by a male and female pair of Jindos (Korea's signature breed).

The male, after happily licking our principal, vice principal, and several of the teachers in turn (A remarkable attention to the hierarchy!), went running around our fifteen or so cars marking the tires with his urine. But not to worry, after all, this particular Jindo was a Buddhist (as evident by his Buddhist-marked doghouse).

The temple was quite small, built during the Silla dynasty (and rebuilt in the Joseon), smaller than the other grand temple's I've been to, with only a few buildings. But it is still functioning, like all other temples, and was so quiet in a little clearing beside a forest and a mountain. It was a nice change to see a humble temple.

Our final stop did involve hiking a small path down a slight mountainside, to see a small waterfall pouring into cavern visible at just the right angle between two rocks.

This trickled down to pool into a small pond in the nearby clearing beside the mountain, and turning my back to the waterfall, the contrasting openness was the most beautiful view of the day.

We didn't go anywhere extravagant, and made a lot of little stops which at first seemed to me a bit oddly chosen. However, that meant I saw several places that I couldn't take a bus or my bike to- places I wouldn't even know how to ask for. Surrounded by the colors of autumn, they had an out-of-the-way kind of charm and beauty. I can see the large mountains and cultural sites easily enough on my own, but these little trips are just another reason to be grateful for my school.