South Korea

Prospective CEV teachers

Dear Prospective CEV Teacher,

Congratulations for wading through all the internet and finding my blog! You must’ve dug deep, because searching for Changnyeong English Village information is hard.

You want thoughts? You want to know if it’s a good job?

First, I recommend you check out this thread (read to the end, don’t stop at the first post) and this thread. Dave’s ESL is a great resource for anything, not just checking out this job, so make sure you use it! 🙂

If you have any other questions, please don’t hesitate to comment or email me. Even if it’s a couple years later. We waygooks have to look out for each other, especially at Changnyeong English Village.

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Categories: CEV, Culture Quirks, Lost in Translation, South Korea | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Our Future plans (explanation)

So you already know we’re going to volunteer with Syrian refugees for five weeks. Let me tell you the backstory of how that happened.

Ever since the Arab Spring in 2011, I have been trying to follow Syria’s civil war (this was before most Americans knew about ISIS). I wanted to help, but I wasn’t an aid worker. I was in college, preparing for a wedding, trying to figure out if I could afford grad school. But I often looked for more news as the years went on. Still, I never donated money because 1) I wasn’t always sure which organizations were legit, and 2) We were living hand to mouth a lot of the time. I didn’t have extra money to donate.

Right before we left for Korea in November 2015, we were invited to a Halloween party. I was excited–it was hosted by my best friend, and we take our historical costumes quite seriously. I drove to JoAnn’s Fabric Supply and bought materials to go as Robin Hood and Maid Marian. It was so much fun. I borrowed my friend’s sewing machine, got to use skills my grandmother taught me, and even took a weekend trip to visit my mother-in-law so she could help me with her serger. We bonded, it was a blast, I had a lot of fun. I don’t regret any of that.

Then I realized how much money I’d spent on Halloween costumes: $190. Yep. A lot of money.

That same night, I saw on the news that Benedict Cumberbatch was playing in Hamlet in London. After the curtain fell on Oct 12, 2015, Cumberbatch gave a short speech, urging British citizens to lobby their government, to get involved, and to do whatever they could to help the Syrian refugees. He said, “No one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark….You have to understand that no one puts children in a boat unless the water is safer than the land.”

I immediately felt chastened. I had just spent $190 on something as trivial as a Halloween costume when I had been so morally indignant about the plight of Syrian refugees and how no one seemed to care about them. I cried on the way home from the Halloween party, coming face to face with my own hypocrisy. Jordan and I both promised to do better. He asked if we could donate money as soon as we got jobs and a steady inflow of cash again, and I agreed.

We came to Korea, and exactly one month after the actor’s speech, on November 13, Paris was attacked by ISIS insurgents. We read online in horror, struck by the blood and the death and the grief just like our fellow Americans back home. We thought, “something has to be done. France needs to change their security systems. And we need to make sure that ISIS doesn’t kill anyone else, be they French or Syrian or Lebanese or American.”

The very next day, there was a massive outcry against accepting refugees. Although none of the Paris attackers were refugees, suddenly, both of our facebook news feeds were filled with fear and alarm that all the refugees coming to America were really terrorists in disguise. Then I saw this facebook post: “Obama says that it is our moral obligation to take in these Syrian refugees that terrorists WILL infiltrate. Question today about the legality of state governors refusing to allow the federal government to place refugees within their states…

Hear this: Whether or not it is legal for us to refuse refugees in [my state], when I hear of the bus coming into this state full of these refugees I and those who are like-minded will be at the border, armed to the teeth. I will not tolerate my family being intentionally placed into harm’s way.

And our jackass president can take his moral obligation and shove it.”

My jaw dropped. This came from someone I respected, a mild-mannered, quiet Christian I had looked up to. He had been fed misinformation and lies and then reacted in a violent manner.

Jordan barged into the bedroom, upset from things on his newsfeed, too. “Don’t they know those memes about thousands of refugees landing in New Orleans and escaping are false?” he demanded. “Don’t they know there’s a vetting system already in place, and America’s got the best vetting process in the world?”

I shook my head. “The posts with the strongest language, the loudest critique, are coming from Christians. I don’t know what to do.”

“I do!” Jordan declared. “We’re going to help Syrian refugees.”

And so, after 12 months of praying and planning and thinking, we are doing just that. We hope to be very open and post often about the work we’re doing and the people we meet in December and January. We welcome questions, concerns, and more either on facebook, this blog, or in private messages. We only ask that you keep things civil and respectful.

Categories: Lost in Translation, Serbia, South Korea, Spiritual Life | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Reflections on South Korea

So we’re leaving Korea in a week. The year here has sped by so fast–we can’t believe it’s over. In between all the packing and sorting we’re doing, we’re also reflecting on our past experiences. I don’t think we’ll fully know how we felt about our time in Korea until everything’s settled and over, but a few thoughts have come to mind already.

No cultural practice is wholly good or wholly bad. Culture is created by and for society, which is a tricky little monster in that society is just one great, aggregate lump up the most inconsistent, confusing things in all of creation: humans.

While there are definitely practices that are not beneficial or healthy to society at large (racism, for example), often the ideas and values behind them are perfectly amoral or helpful. Culture is also a conundrum because what is good in some circumstances isn’t so good in others. What I’ve found helpful in my own understanding of different cultures is careful language in framing the differences and similarities. For instance, a die-hard New Yorker once told me that Southerners are “dishonest” and that the phrase “Bless your heart” should die out and was only hurtful to people. I heartily disagree with everything he told me about my own subculture, and it showed me how important understanding value systems are. American southerners aren’t dishonest, but they do often prioritize keeping the peace over bluntly speaking one’s mind (unless you’re family–then you can be blunt).

Value systems, I believe, are where it’s all at. Hofstede thought so also. My theory that it isn’t personality so much that causes a person to like or dislike a culture, but the value system. While my personality is similar to the esteemed and exemplified personality (introversion, compassion, quietness), my value system is different. In this sense, I’m pretty Western (honesty over harmony, etc).

I didn’t get to know Korean culture as intimately as I had hoped. Part of that was my fault (I didn’t self-teach Korean). I also lived in a rural village of about 80 people, most over the age of 60. I interacted with very few Koreans regularly. Most Koreans I interacted with on a regular basis (at my job) were not people I wanted to befriend, and they were not interested in showing me their culture. Looking back, I’m not sure what I’d do differently (besides learning more Korean). My situation was pretty weird, even compared to other ESL teachers in Korea.

Still, I did fall in love with some things in Korea, and I’ll always have fond memories of those.

Without further ado, here’s some things I’m going to miss:

  • The bright yellow ginko trees. There’s rows and rows of them near where we live, and they’re so cheerful in the fall.
  • The mountains. Korea is 72% mountains, and I just love that so much.
  • The politeness of Koreans. It’s so refreshing.
  • The friendliness of Koreans.
  • The kids I taught. Most of them were angels, and I am so sad to leave them.
  • Samgyeopsal (Korean bbq). It’s basically pork belly with all sorts of sides. Delicious.
  • Our expat church in Daegu. It was a lifeline when things were bad in our work situation, and I felt supported and loved there.
Categories: CEV, South Korea | Leave a comment

Dropped off the map

I’m afraid I’ve dropped off the map in terms of blogging.

Well, I’m a bit busy at the moment. Here’s what I’m up  to:

  1. Our contract ends in 16 days, so we’re starting to pack and finish up work
  2. We’re planning our trip home–more details on that after we’ve left Korea
  3. I’m busy with NanoWriMo! It’s an awesome way to get people into novel writing, with the goal of hitting 50,000 words in 30 days. Because we’re leaving the country halfway through November, I’m not doing the full, traditional goal. But I have been working since September 28th to get the rough draft of another novel done during my time in Korea. Whatever complaints I have had with my job and with ESL in Korea in general, it has given me time to hop back into fiction writing, and I’ll always be grateful for that.
Categories: Lost in Translation, South Korea | Tags: , , , , | 3 Comments

Great aspects of Korean culture

So recently I wrote a blog post explaining what ESL teachers mean when they sometimes complain about Korea. So now it’s time for me to detail all the things I personally love about Korea!

Hardworking people: Koreans (and Asians in general) have amazing work ethics. They work and work until the job is done, and then they ask for more work. They’re a great example to live by, and I hope some of their work ethic has rubbed off on me.

Good students/kids: Kids (once past toddler years) are expected to be polite, respect their elders, and behave appropriately. This means teaching is, by and large, easier than in the States. The kids are expected to listen closely and fill out worksheets quickly. When you tell them to do something, generally they obey without question. I always thought middle schoolers would be the worst group of students to work with, but these Korean kids proved me wrong.

Beautiful landscapes: Korea is roughly 72% mountains. The country has numerous national parks. Hiking is practically a national pastime because Koreans love to get out of the city and see nature. I live out in the boondocks, and I get to wake up every morning surrounded by mountains. It’s gorgeous.

Always polite: Manners are incredibly important here. Koreans tend to be very formal, polite people, and it’s kind of a nice change from the US’s casual atmosphere. They care about protocol and making sure everyone knows what to expect, that way there are no nasty surprises. It is nice to be greeted with smiles everywhere you go (in the American South, this is the case, too–everyone smiles)

Quiet culture: I hate loud, loud noises. People yelling in stores, static, car alarms, rushing of people in big cities all irritate me. Sometimes I really hate crowds. But I’ve never felt as claustrophobic/panicky as I do in the States, and this is mainly because everyone respects one another in terms of noise. You’d never guess Seoul has over 11 million people in it if you were blindfolded on the street. I really love that.

Clean: So for some reason, Korea has a thing against trash cans. I don’t know why, but it’s almost impossible to find one in public. We commonly set our trash down on the curb and walk away. But somehow, still, Korea is a clean country. Litter doesn’t stay around for long, and we see tiny, old ladies sweeping the streets clean all the time. No dirt or trash or leaves in sight!

Safe: Korea is one of the safest countries in the world. Although most men know how to shoot a gun, private gun ownership is strictly regulated. They also have a huge social stigma against stealing. People will commonly mark their places with their belongings or purse, then walk to the bathroom. Korea has much less crime than the United States.

Strong sense of heritage: Korea is one of the most monoethnic nations in the world. They have a strong sense of shared history and culture. They maintained their culture and language despite being invaded several times by China and Japan, and they have fought long and hard to keep their identity. And they’ve done a great job at it. Even though most Koreans wear jeans and blouses/polos most of the time, at their Lunar New Year they always dress up in traditional garb and enjoy their ancestors’ food and culture.

Interest in everyone getting along: This trait can obviously be taken too far (see my last post). But it’s really refreshing to be in a community where people care about your feelings. I’m a Highly Sensitive Person, and I’m always overthinking and very aware of my words and body language (too an extreme). So it’s nice to finally be in a culture where tone of voice and facial expressions mean just as much as what you say. I also love that people will work to accomodate others’ feelings and opinions to create a harmonious environment where everyone feels valued and respected.  This is something the East does extremely well, and I wish the US would pay attention sometimes.

We’re nearing the end of our contract, and I’m starting to realize I’ll miss a lot from this place. It’s been an interesting year.

Categories: Culture Quirks, Lost in Translation, South Korea, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Korea crazy”

So we English teachers in the land of the morning calm have this catch-all phrase that we use whenever describing something we see as illogical, ridiculous, disturbing, or just plain weird. We call it “Korea crazy.”

Example:

Person 1: My boss is crazy.

Person 2: You mean Korea crazy or crazy?

So let me break down for you what we mean by this. “Korea crazy,” like I said, is a bit of a catch-all phrase, a subgenre of the normal word “Crazy.” In my time in Korea, from experiencing Korean culture, Korean workplaces, and other English teachers, this is what I’ve come across. Interestingly, being called “crazy” in Korea is a much bigger insult than it is in the West. While it’s certainly rude in the West, in Korea it includes the connotations of “useless” and “worthless,” so while English teachers use “Korea crazy” as shorthand to explain otherwise strange behavior, we wouldn’t say any of that to a Korean’s face.

Crazy means:

  • Anything that offends our Western sensibilities, is flagrantly opposite Western values, or just doesn’t make sense
  • Parts of Korean culture that really don’t make any sense or are flaws in an otherwise fascinating, rich, ancient, and amazing culture
  • Illogical, irrational human behavior, often accompanied with mental illness, personality disorders, and actions that should require medication.

“Korea crazy” covers the top two bullet points.

The first bullet point, of things that don’t make sense to Westerners include

  • A monument to how humiliating and degrading South Koreans treated Chinese and North Koreans in the Korean war, with loud, patriotic music in the background
  • A play based on folklore at a festival that has magical farts as a major plot point
  • A lantern festival with an entire row of lanterns portraying Japanese soldiers being tortured
  • Koreans lining up for a bus before there’s ever a need to, but refusing to follow a line in any other situation
  • Tiptoeing around a problem rather than addressing it
  • A highly paternalistic work culture and expectation of the government to educate and care for the people
  • Strong desire to “fit in” and not stand out in any shape or form
  • Absolute insistence that Dokdo matters to the world and is Korean land.

Some of it is just weird by Western standards, and I don’t know the reasons behind it. Some of this is just like humor, I think–some people love puns, others hate them. Some people love quirky behavior found in East Asian countries, other prefer quirky behavior found in North American countries.

And the rest of this boils down to culture differences, right? And much of the things that rub Westerners the wrong way have their roots in Confucianism. It is an ancient, highly paternalistic, respect-driven culture. From that stems the rigid hierarchy of elders telling young people what to do (even strangers), expectations that the government will handle most problems, the saving face and pretending problems don’t exist (if Korea ever has a natural disaster, saving face will not serve them well), and the belief that bosses can rule your life and deserve lots of respect.

And while I respect Korean culture and realize that in many ways Confucianism has served them well, I think there are significant flaws. Which leads me on to the second bullet point.

Every culture has weaknesses and flaws. Although I love my own American Western culture, I am intimately aware of all the problems that come with an individualistic, polarized, and materialistic culture. There are significant problems with the way we do things in the States, just as there are significant problems in every country and in every culture. I’m not trying to bash Korea, Korean people, or suggest that their culture is in any way inferior to the rest of the world. It has great strengths, but this blog post is about its weaknesses as perceived by Westerners. Most of these points are also strengths of Korean culture, just played out a little too far so that they now hinder, rather than support, the culture.

  • Lying to save face, especially in serious situations like crime, natural disasters, and office mistakes. The first step to fixing a problem is admitting there is one, and Koreans usually aren’t willing to do that. This is also probably one of the main reasons alcoholism is rampant–no one will admit it’s a thing.
  • Expecting employees to come to work when sick. Colds and viruses spread like wildfire out here because people aren’t allowed to quarantine themselves when sick.
  • The hierarchy stifling otherwise a vibrant, creative, productive generation of young people into following their grandparents’ desires. While I love the fact that the elderly are respected in East Asia, rather than ignored like in the West sometimes, I think this goes too far. It also hurts my American individualistic beliefs, too.
  • Materialism. I was quite shocked to come to Korea and find many people far more materialistic and focused on flashy, expensive cars and clothes than people I’d met in the States. This is a flaw that Korean culture shares with American culture, I think, though Korea’s materialism stems from the confucian belief that the outside reflects the inner (a beautiful woman is a kind woman, a flashy car doesn’t just mean a man’s rich, but that he’s a good person). The rates of plastic surgery in Korea are some of the highest in the world.
  • Societal pressure to perform really hurts everyone. This is something that happens everywhere in every culture, I think, but because this is a blog post written by an American about Korean culture, I’ll keep my comments germane to the topic. This issue also affects the United States, but I think the pressure to live up to your family’s name, to be successful in all that you do, is even stronger here. Alcoholism is a real thing here, though they pretend it’s not. Korean kids are stressed, sleep-deprived, and always worried about their schoolwork, and Korea’s depression rates are some of the highest in the world (Japan’s rates are also high). The speed of industrialization in the 20th century also may have something to do with pressure and expectations.
  • Strong nationalism and suspicion of “the other” will really hamper South Korea’s growth on the international scale unless something changes. Korea has a difficult history, and it’s sandwiched between China and Japan–two regional powerhouses. The fact that Korea has kept hold of its identity and homeland over the past two thousand years, defeating both Chinese and Japanese invasions multiple times, is astounding. It’s worth celebrating. They’ve kept their language, made their own alphabet, and have progressed rapidly in just 60 years. But this is not without cost. Many (not all) Koreans are very racist. Not just curious about other types of people (which I fully support and think is healthy) but actively racist. I’m just lucky we somehow convinced Koreans that white people are cool. Korea is the most ethnically homogeneous country in the world. 20% of Koreans have the last name Kim. Four last names make up about 50% of the population. Every human, every culture, has a suspicion of the other (which isn’t of itself is bad), but the Korean government has encouraged its people to make value judgements based on people’s skin color, last names, and other characteristics.

And finally, the last bullet point, actual craziness. Sh*t you don’t want to be around. (I have so much personal experience with this I’ll have to document it later, when I’m out of Korea). I think one reason English teachers come across so much “Korea crazy” is because many of us work in hagwons and even a few iffy public schools.

Hagwons, or private, for-profit schools, are in it for the money. That’s the name of the game. So while Korea is full of wonderful, amazing people we’d be lucky to know, hagwons are full of administrators that care about money, not people. And when they have a steady influx of foreigners who don’t know the language, culture, work expectations, or anything else, really, it’s very easy to abuse the system. I think English teachers come across power-hungry men at a much higher rate than regular Koreans living in their own country do. And these power-hungry men know they can get away with so much more because we’re, well, clueless. This can seem like “Korea crazy” because it’s most of what we see, but it actually takes up a much smaller segment of the culture/population than we think.

As for the actual mental disorder stuff? Well, mental illness “doesn’t exist” in Korea, so that’s just your imagination. Get with the program, folks.

A video on Why Not to Teach English in Korea Hilarious with a lot of truth in it. A critique of the ESL industry.

Final words: Korea is an amazing culture, but everything has its flaws. This is just an American’s explanation of a common ESL teacher view of the country, with a little explanation of how the culture got that way. If you’re interested/concerned with something I’ve said, comment and share your thoughts. And do some research on your own to learn about Korean culture and the subculture of ESL in Korea.

Categories: CEV, Culture Quirks, Lost in Translation, South Korea | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Visiting the DMZ

Korea’s Thanksgiving, called Chuseok ( 추석 in Hangul) is a great opportunity for a wonderful, relaxing, five-day weekend. Jordan and I took advantage of that by traveling to Seoul (unfortunately our last time) and visiting the Demilitarized Zone.

We showed up, bright and early, for Koridoor’s DMZ tour at USO Camp Kim. Because this is run through the U.S. military, we were told it’s the best one out there, and it gives people a chance to go to the JSA (Joint Security Area).

We hadn’t been around so many Americans in probably a year–it was a little disorienting, actually. We left Seoul in a big tour bus surrounded by American, European, and Singaporean tourists and drove about 50 minutes into the northern countryside.

The Demilitarized Zone, or DMZ, isn’t just a line in the dirt. It’s a strip of earth, a ribbon running from one end of the peninsula to the other, about 160 miles long and 2.5 wide. Because few humans have walked withing the DMZ, much of it is teeming with wildlife and actually quite pretty, despite the barbed wire and landmines still present. There are a few roads, however, that go to the actual border within the DMZ, the real line between the two countries. That’s called the Demarcation Line.

Along the way, we passed Daeseongdong, a small farming community also known as Freedom Village. It’s one of two villages within the DMZ, the other, Kijong-dong, is called “Propaganda Village” by American soldiers. Built by the North Korean regime, it has one of the largest flags and flag towers in the world, but based on surveillance through binoculars, no one’s really convinced that anyone actually lives there, and it’s all just empty buildings. Sometimes South Korea blares KPop music over the propaganda loudspeakers.

Although farmers in Freedom Village lead a somewhat dangerous life so near North Korea, have lots of rules to follow, and have a fractured history of the 1950s, they’re actually quite well off–they don’t pay rent, tax, or do military service.

We stopped at Camp Bonifas, which is jointly run by Americans and Korean soldiers. An American usually stays for about one year, Koreans about two. Korea has compulsory two-year military service for all males. They usually do it in between high school and college. The camp is named for an American captain who was killed in the Axe Murder event by North Korean soldiers. There, we disembarked, filed into a tourist building, watched a very fast slideshow of the history, and were put on different, UN buses. Camp Bonifas is the last stop until the JSA, or Joint Security Area, which is along the real border between the two countries. It’s where the UN hangs out when they have conferences.

_mg_0965At this point, to be honest, I was getting a bit frustrated. Our military tour guide for the JSA was a young American soldier who seemed like he’d drawn the short straw and had to babysit a bunch of tourists. He wasn’t enthusiastic, and I had a hard time hearing him. I think I also may have had higher expectations. I expected, because this was a hostile border area, more history and a serious look at the political and social forces at play. But the soldiers really weren’t interested in telling us much of that.

We walked quickly and quietly through a courtyard area, into the the Peace Pagoda which was built to house separated families when they hosted reunions. There have only been a handful of reunions, primarily because North Korea’s government is wary of contact with the outside world. The Peace Pagoda has never been used to house families.

We walked, double file, out onto a back deck of the Pagoda.

“Do not move quickly. Do not wave at the North Korean soldiers. Do not walk over the lines. Do you see that water tower? Do not take pictures of it. Only take photos of North Korean buildings. Do not touch the South Korean soldiers. Do no make sudden movements. Do not stand on that part of the deck.” And on the list went. I couldn’t hear the soldiers very well, and was pretty nervous about making a mistakes.

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We took photos for a few moments, and then another American soldier said, “that’s enough. Put your cameras down.” We obeyed, and led down the steps to one of the blue buildings.

Built for treaty meetings and UN conferences, the building straddles to demarcation line. One half of the building is in South Korea, the other in the North. It’s the only place tourists get the chance to step into North Korea.

White stones now mark the demarcation line, but back in the 60s and 70s soldiers of both sides could freely move around, and guard towers were built on both sides of the demarcation line. However, one American/ROK tower was surrounded by three North Korean towers, and the line of sight to the headquarters was blocked by a tree. After a lengthy discussion and agreement, American soldiers went to prune the tree, to allow for better eyesight to their lone guard tower in 1976. However, several North Korean soldiers grew anxious, and things disintegrated. Two American soldiers, Bonifas and Barrett, were killed in the attack. You can learn more about the Axe Murder Incident here.

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Once we finished taking our photos, we were instructed to calmly leave, walk back through the Peace Pagoda, and get on the bus. The bus drove us back to Camp Bonifas, where we toured a small museum (finally, I got to learn some of the history), and purchase North Korean trinkets. I admit, I bought some North Korean money. I thought it was fascinating.

Our Koridoor tour guide and bus driver took us to Dora Observatory, which is exactly what it sounds like–an observatory tower with binoculars to peer into North Korea. We got to see Gaesong Industrial Complex, a rare example of North and South working together. Unfortunately, it’s being shut down. While South Korea will suffer the loss of cheap gadgets made there and shipped into the country, North Korea will lose up to 20% of it’s GDP.

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Another stop was the Dorasan train station. The northernmost train stop in Korea, it’s tracks run to the Gaesong industrial complex, though freight trains on ran between them in 2007 and 2008. However, rails are in place to link Seoul to Pyeongyang, on to Beijing.

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“Just think!” we were told. “After reunification, you could travel from Seoul to Paris by train!” It is a pretty crazy thought.

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Because the train station is only used a couple times a day, coming from Seoul, it’s mostly set up as a museum to “what could be.”

Our final stop (after traditional Korean lunch) was the third infiltration tunnel. Long story short, there was a North Korean defector who told the South Korean government the military was digging it’s way to Seoul to invade, in at least 20 tunnels. The South Korean military, ever vigilant, began drilling holes and filling them with water to detect for tunnels. And they found four, from 1974-1990. The North Koreans denied that they’d dug the tunnels, claiming they were old coal mines.

Now, South Korea has opened the tunnels up as tourist destinations, which now that I think about it, is pretty weird. But I think it’s a calculated attempt to publicize to the world how crazy their neighbors are, as well as a show of strength, like, “your attempts at infiltration is so pathetic we entertain ourselves with the efforts.”

That tunnel, though, is pretty deep, and pretty narrow. Supposedly, it could get 30,000 soldiers through in an hour, but I just don’t see how. I was bent over half the time, trying to avoid hitting my head on the low ceiling, and returning, I huffed and puffed up the 11% grade incline. Anyway, that was our last visit of the day.

I found it really enlightening (after a bit of wikipedia searches), and would recommend it to people–as long as they do a little research beforehand so they’re not frustrated and confused like I was. I did learn a lot, and have a much better understanding of North Korean relations now. I had really wanted to visit Pyeongyang on a 4- or 5-day tour through Pioneer Tours, but we’re running out of time and money. So the DMZ tour was kind of our one shot at getting to see North Korea. And it’s highly educational and worth going to understand the South Korean perspective as well.

 

 

Categories: South Korea | Tags: , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Grocery shopping in Changnyeong

Grocery shopping isn’t something most people find entertaining or even very interesting. But when you’re thrown into a foreign country with foreign foods, prices, and language, suddenly it becomes a lot more time-consuming and interesting!

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Although we live in a village called Gyeseong, we don’t have a grocery store. There’s a 7-11 and a GS25, both small convenience stores, but that’s about it. So on Monday nights our boss, Richard, drives us into Changnyeong so we can do proper grocery shopping.

Changyeong has it’s own mini supermarkets and convenience stores, but the three main stores in town are Jin-Mart, I-Mart, and Topmart. We hardly ever go to Jin-Mart (I don’t know why Richard won’t drive us there).

I-Mart offers great deals on bread, while Topmart has good prices on frozen chicken breasts, so we normally rotate between the two every other week.

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The biggest surprise I had when shopping was the price of the food–everything was so much more expensive than I was used to! I think it’s because Korea is a peninsula and very mountainous–most of it’s farmland is used for rice, garlic, onion, and cabbage. Many other foods, especially fresh fruit, must be imported.

I’ve gotta say, though, my eyes bulged when I saw that a small carton of strawberries would cost me 8 USD.

It’s been almost 10 months, though, so I’ve adjusted to the price. I buy a few vegetables every week and one type of fruit, usually one on sale. A lot of the produce is seasonal, so we get strawberries in the spring, nectarines in November/December, and grapefruit in August. Apples, lemons, and oranges are pretty regular, thankfully.

Beef is very expensive in Korea, so we normally buy chicken and pork. Most grocery stores have aquariums of live fish, eel, and octopus ready for sale, but I have no idea how to prepare those dishes, so we just cruise right past that aisle.

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Soy, teriyaki, and sukiyaki sauce all comes in large containers, and we regularly buy it along with pounds and pounds of rice. Ramen is practically considered a food group in East Asia, and many stores have an entire aisle dedicated to the flavors, spices, and types of Ramen they sell.

We don’t know what half of the store’s goods are, nor do we know how to cook with it. So our diet is pretty limited to the stuff we can recognize. Thankfully, gmarket is basically Korea’s version of Amazon, and it delivers real cheddar cheese (as well as other non-perishable goods). iHerb, also, is a California company that ship organic and all-natural non-perishables overseas, so we make an order from them once a month.

Also once a month we visit Daegu’s eMart, a much larger department store that carries all the fruits, vegetables, dairy, and seasonings we could want. They have a great foreign foods section, which doesn’t have much American, but it does have a little Mexican, Thai, and Italian. Between eMart, gmarket, and iHerb, we’re able to fill in most of the gaps that our small town grocery store doesn’t provide for.

At checkout we buy our monthly allotment of garbage bags (pink bags by local law) and pack our groceries in our shopping bag we bring or a cardboard box the store allows us to take.

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Shopping in Korea was definitely an adjustment process–even greater than the adjustment I made when in South America. But after 10 months we’ve made our peace with the missing things in our diet (don’t get me started on how much I miss American Chinese food, Chik Fil A, or Sonic though) and had filled the gaps as best we can. It’s a good chance to assimilate into the local culture, and while we haven’t done it perfectly, we’ve certainly tried!

Categories: CEV, Lost in Translation, South Korea | Tags: , , , , , | 1 Comment

Getting to the Philippines

Summer break has arrived!

I’ve been waiting a very long time for this. And finally, our two-week vacation is here, and we can go travel some more. Jordan and I had booked our tickets a few months ago, back when flights were still cheap, and had decided to visit the Philippines and Japan.

Our flight went from Busan to Manila on Saturday evening. We were supposed to land in Manila around midnight, get a good night’s sleep, and hit the city running in the morning. But that didn’t happen.

The airplane was delayed because of bad weather, so instead of leaving at 9:40 pm, like scheduled, airport staff said it could be 10:30 “or canceled because the airport closes at 11.” The airplane landed at 10:40, and people poured out of it, disgruntled from being an hour behind schedule.

“Everybody board!” crew announced, and we rushed for the airplane as fast as we could. I’ve never gotten through a gate and into a plane as fast as we did. Ticket agents were ripping boarding passes and pushing us on. When we got onto the airplane, we were told no to buckle our seatbelts because the plane was being refueled as we boarded. By 11:05, cabin doors were shut and everyone held their breath in anticipation.

Then the pilot announced that the flight had been canceled and we all had to disembark. This was all very difficult to understand, because announcements were first made in Korean, then English. But all the Korean passengers groaned and complained over the English announcements, so we had no idea what was happening. Jordan and I looked to the few other Westerners on the flight, asking if they heard more. As we got off the plane, we realized that the tower had probably decided it was 11 pm, they wanted to go home, and shut down the airport.

Airline agents and staff were in a tizzy, rushing around and whispering to one another as we all filed back through immigration, got our passport stamps voided, and waited in the gate. No one knew what was going on.

Information was passed out first in Korean, then English, but by the looks on people’s faces, neither Jordan nor I were convinced the information was accurate. The entire airport had been shut down, so we filed through dark hallways until back in the departure hall, where we lined up at the ticket counter. Thankfully, we were fourth in line from the front. We stood, sweating without AC, waiting for someone to tell us anything.

After about twenty minutes an agent began explaining that the flight was canceled, would fly tomorrow weather permitting, but not before 6 am. She walked down the long line, speaking to groups of six or seven at a time. Finally one man came to the ticket counter and beckoned the first person forward. Five minutes later, the passenger left, unhappy, and the second person went forward.

We had made friends with another American traveler, and joined him at the counter when it was his turn.

“Okay, so what’s going on?” he asked the ticket agent.

“One moment.” The airline employee scurried out from behind the desk and to a back office. Two minutes later he came out. “The flight will go tomorrow.”

“When will that be?”

“We don’t know yet. Write your name and phone number down, and we’ll call you in two hours and let you know.” He gestured to piece of paper and pen on the counter. “Everyone will do this.”

We asked about hotel vouchers.

“We called, but every hotel in Busan is full.”

We asked where we were supposed to stay for hours with the airport closed.

“I do not know.”

We asked about a taxi voucher.

“Maybe not.”

We asked about them calling a cab.

“The airport is closed. All the taxis have left for the night.”

So we left, unhappy with the inefficient way it was being handled. Over 100 people streamed behind us, each waiting to get up to the desk and receive the same disheartening information. Twenty minutes later they announced over the PA the flight would depart at 10:30 am, but maybe earlier if everyone showed up earlier.

Jordan, me, and our friend found a cab and split a fare going back to Sasang, the main bus station in Busan. There we walked for over an hour, looking for an available room. No hotels had room. No love motels had room. No noraebangs had room. I tried to cool off in a hospital waiting room, but the security guard shooed me out.

“I had a scuba diving instructor who’s Korean,” our friend mentioned after stopped at the 7-11 for water and Gatorade. “He said in a pinch, you can rent a DVD room and sleep there. Pay for the movies, but not actually watch them.”

We agreed to give that a try.

So that’s how at 2 am Jordan and I ended up in a small room, paying 24,000 won for pirated copies of The Merchant of Venice and Jurassic World and asking not to be disturbed until 6:30 am. The room provided two pillows, a small blanket, and a leather lounge that we stretched across and tried to sleep.

Long story short, we turned back up at the airport the next morning having slept very little, boarded the flight at 9 am, and FINALLY landed in Manila. Most of our day to explore Manila was shot. But here we are, safe and sound and so relieved to finally be on vacation.

Categories: Philippines, South Korea | Tags: , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Sokcho and Seoraksan

Jordan and I had a five-day weekend recently, and really wanted to explore another corner of Korea. We live in the southern/central part and haven’t gotten much of a chance to see other parts of the country.

This fixed that problem!

So we hopped on a bus from Changnyeong to Daegu, took a 40-minute subway ride to bus station in the north of the city (BukDaegu) and hopped on another bus. Six hours later, we arrived in Sokcho. Multiple events conspired against us. I had originally hoped the entire trip would take 6 hours, but it took 9. There was terrible traffic, rain, a fight on the bus (and the driver pulled over to yell at people!), and more traffic.

Nevertheless, we were determined to enjoy our time away from CEV.

Our first full day in Sokcho was spent hunting down Korean food we like (and avoiding Korean food we don’t like), eating Baskin’ Robbins ice cream (yes, we live in an extremely rural village), and going to the beach.

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Dinner was bibimbap, or not my favorite Korean dish. But it’s quickly made and a Korean favorite:

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The next day was probably our favorite way to spend our mini-cation (or at least Jordan’s favorite!). We went hiking in Korea’s most beautiful national park, Mt. Seoraksan.

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The mountains are incredible. Korea’s favorite pastime is hiking, so we encountered plenty of casual and very serious hikers. (We fall into the casual category). The park is massive, and the trails are miles and miles long, so the park is set up more how the Appalachian Trail is, with bunkhouses along trails.

We stuck with the two-miles-or-less trails near the entrance of the park. Besides this being Korea’s prettiest park, it may also be the most popular. Buses and cars lined the road, searching for parking spots. Once inside the park, however, people spread out and I had personal space again.

Jordan and I took the cable car up one of the mountain peaks to hike a trail to an old fortress.

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Although it was cloudy and muggy, we still caught a few beautiful views. The trip to Sokcho (the town) and the national park wasn’t easy, but I’m glad we did it. I feel like I have a much better appreciation for Korean nature and even Korean people.

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And that’s pretty much it! For anyone planning a trip, some prices are below:

  • Bus from BukDaegu to Sokcho: 25,600 won per person one-way
  • Entrance to park: 2,000 won
  • Cable car 10,000 a person
  • Hotel: More expensive than it should be. This will be by FAR your greatest expense.
  • Beach: free, unless you want an umbrella or shower

 

Categories: Culture Quirks, South Korea | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

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Morgan S Hazelwood

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