Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Visiting Base

This weekend, I got a chance to visit the American military base in Yongsan, Seoul. In order to get on base, you must be escorted by someone who works there, and luckily my friend/coworker Andrew's parents are employees and were nice enough to escort a few of us on base for the day. The first step in entering is to stop at a small office outside the gate where each visitor must present two forms of ID, and the escort must have their fingerprint scanned to verify their identity. Then each visitor gets a temporary card to carry around to show who they are. After visiting the office, you pretty much just drive onto base.

There isn't a lot to do on a military base if you're not an employee. We visited the food court, which has the only known (to us) Taco Bell in Seoul. However, even restaurants such as Burger King which are common in Korea offer the traditional American menu instead of the Korean-ized version. There are places to shop on base, but only employees are allowed to buy things. I did manage to obtain a bag of cheese-flavored Cheetos, which are basically nonexistant in Korea and are therefore quite the delicacy to me these days. One of the most interesting things about the base is that it operates predominantly on American currency. It really is like a small piece of America transplanted to another continent.

There are a lot of families living on base, many with fairly young children. Although the base is an American one, there are also Koreans who work there. Many are service industry workers but some are members of the American army. For those of you who didn't know, Korean men are required to serve in the army for just under 2 years. However, some of the men (generally the wealthier ones) are allowed to operate as part of the American army during their service time. These soldiers are referred to as KATUSAs, which stands for Korean Augmentation To the United States Army. This is a highly favorable position to have because the US army is considered to be much less strict than the Korean army.

Overall, the trip to base was rather uneventful. As an outsider, there weren't many places we were allowed to go. Therefore, it didn't really feel like being in a military establishment at all, minus the rather drab decor on some of the buildings. The base is self-sufficient, with its own schools, athletic facilities, and grocery store, so it mostly felt like visiting a small town, albeit a town with rather high security and a youth-skewed population.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

K-pop Artist of the Week: Brown Eyed Girls

My arrival in Korea coincided with the emergence of a new K-pop phenomenon: the release of the song "Abracadabra" by the Brown Eyed Girls. This song has been a ubiquitous part of my experience here. In fact, as I sat down and began to type this blog entry, the restaurant across the street began playing the very song. Although there is another fairly popular single from the same album as "Abracadabra," it and no other song have been as widely heard by yours truly in Seoul as this one. It has the exact components that make any song popular: an easy to remember tune, a distinctive but easy to copy dance move, and a fairly scandalous music video. In fact, the song's trademark dance move is one of the most commonly seen moves. I've witnessed everyone from male waiters in bars to one of my 12 year old students doing it.

About the group themselves, I know little to nothing. It would probably be more accurate for me to title this entry "K-pop Song of the Week," but that would be inconsistent with the rest of my entries so here we are.

Check out Brown Eyed Girls' video for "Abracadabra" here. Or check out the less-offensive "stage version" here, released due to the controversy following the original.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Leveling Up

Although I tend to focus on life in Korea when writing, I guess I have an occasional obligation to mention the reason I am here: my job. At my school, the year is divided into 4 13-week terms. During week 10 of each term, the students take an Achievement Test to determine if they will "level up." The English program is divided into 10 levels, and the Achievement Test decides if the students are ready to move on to the next level. Interestingly, the student's score on the test is pretty much the sole factor in making this decision, with the weekly review test scores, homework completion rates, and general in-class behavior having little to no impact. While these things do technically matter since no student will level up without putting in some effort, I feel that this is a somewhat abstract concept to explain and therefore general teacher policy is to pretend that these factors account for a significant portion of the leveling decision.

The achievement test consists of 4 components: reading, writing, listening, and speaking. As the teacher, I grade my own class's writing and speaking sections, which is a somewhat stressful process since the grading must be completed before the 3-hour class period is up. For the writing section, you only get about 15 minutes in some classes to grade up to 14 writing samples. Talk about a time constraint.

The stress on the teachers is nothing compared to the stress on the students, many of whom are under a great deal of pressure from their parents to level up. The test results come out at the end of week 12, which is where we are in the term right now. Students who don't level up have to repeat the level again, and those who have leveled up feel as though they've put enough effort into their current level, and therefore the general degree of motivation during the last week and a half of term is low to nonexistent. Furthermore, some students who don't level up choose to leave the academy and study elsewhere, presumably at a place where it is easier to move between levels.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Clothes Shopping in Seoul

Seoul, as a major city and the capital of South Korea, is definitely a shopping mecca. The city is full of neighborhoods catering to every need a shopper could have. For fashionable young adults, the main shopping hub of the city is Myeongdong, an area of the city about 3 blocks by 3 blocks in size that is more or less off limits to traffic and is filled to the brim with shops and restaurants. The shops range from the expensive and high-class to the tiny and cheap (home of $10 shoes). Housed within this area is the city's only Forever 21, a sight for sore eyes for this recent college graduate who is used to skimping on quality in favor of saving money. Myeongdong also contains a large underground shopping complex as well as a mall and a Shinsegae department store.

Walking around the city, an observant American might notice that most Koreans (women in particular) are rather small, and that the obese portion of the population that is becoming predominant in America is more or less nonexistent in Korea. This suspicion is quickly confirmed on a shopping trip. Women's shoe sizes in most stores max out at size 50 (or 250 mm), approximately an 8 or 8.5 in American sizing. Even less forgiving is the range of pant sizes offered; most stores have only up to size 28 or maybe 29, the equivalent of up to around a size 6 in America. Keep in mind that the average American woman has a pant size of 12. Quite the cultural disparity. So what is a larger-bodied foreigner to do? Pretty much the only option for larger sizes is to go to Itaewon, the center for foreigners. Here you will find many stores specializing in larger sized clothing that cater to Americans in need.

Another important difference between shopping in Korea and America is in the department stores. While American department stores are generally places to find good bargains on clothing and household items, Korean department stores are places for expensive, quality items. Generally the floors are arranged in order of descending price from bottom to top, such that the entrance floor contains the most expensive items. For example, this floor usually contains stores such as Louis Vuitton, Gucci, Chanel, and Dior. The second floor will be equally pricey with boutique stores like Coach and Burberry. Eventually, the floors begin to stock clothing items, although they still tend to be rather expensive, with the cheapest brands being Tommy Hilfiger, DKNY, or similar. Not exactly the American experience.

Shopping can be frustrating at times, but being fashionable is highly valued in Seoul, so it's important to keep up with the trends. Therefore, the malls and neighborhoods like Myeongdong are packed every weekend, regardless of the weather. As if anyone needs an excuse to go shopping.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Pepero Day

Today, November 11th, is a holiday of sorts here in Korea, although it's hard to call something a holiday when it's corporate-sponsored. Today is Pepero Day, a truly unique day on which children exchange Pepero candies. "Pepero" is not a generic name for a type of food: it is a specific brand of snack produced by the Lotte company. And although Lotte claims the idea for the holiday wasn't theirs, there is hardly anyone who believes them. Not to mention that if it wasn't their idea, they should really make some changes to their marketing division.

Let me explain: November the 11th, or 11/11, is Pepero Day, because Pepero sticks look like 1's and 11/11 has four ones in it. The exchange of candies is somewhat along the lines of American Valentine's Day in that the people trading the candy are usually children or teenagers, and they give them to friends or romantic interests. In fact, the Lotte company makes over half their Pepero sales just in the month of November. Even though Lotte claims they did not create the holiday, they have certainly stepped up to provide for it, creating a variety of Pepero baskets and goody bags specifically for the 11th. The holiday is mostly contained to the youth population, although it never hurts as a teacher to pass out some extra goodies to the kids.

Happy Pepero Day!

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Kpop Artist of the Week: Big Bang

If Korean pop music were a meal, Big Bang would be the rice. You can't have a complete understanding of Kpop without them. Big Bang resembles a typical United States boy band: there are 5 members, they sing and dance, they are wildly popular with teenage girls, and the selection of members was documented on a TV show. Unlike the boy bands of the US, however, most of the members of Big Bang had careers in the music industry before combining into one group. This boy band also aims to maintain more of a hip-hop image than a pop one. Furthermore, the group endorses Hite, a Korean beer. Not very wholesome if you ask me.

Big Bang is probably the first Kpop group a foreigner will become familiar with. And the foreigner audience is exactly who they are aiming to attract. Most of their songs contain a combination of English and Korean lyrics. The group is currently trying to break into the Japanese market, recording songs in the Japanese language. This move does not go over well with their Korean fan base, because as my students say about Japanese pop, "You can't understand what they're saying."

Check out Big Bang's breakout single, "Lies."

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Physical Fitness: Hiking

Physical fitness is something that is taken very seriously in Seoul. This becomes very obvious when one chooses to travel one of the many hiking trails in the city. These trails are always very carefully groomed to be optimally accessible to the public. There are often stairs built into steep inclines and sometimes there are even paved paths to show the way. This being said, these trails are not for the faint of heart. When my friends and I embarked on a trail rated "easy to moderate," I imagined a flat, gently rolling path. What we encountered was a straight half hour of uphill climbing followed by two more hours of ups and downs (see picture). Needless to say, we were a bit unprepared for the experience.

The hiking paths here are always bustling with people, even on weekdays. The crowd tends to be somewhat older than what you would expect, with many hikers who are definitely in retirement. On the other hand, there are always plenty of small children who somehow manage to make it through these physically demanding hikes. Along the trails, there are always parties who have left the path to have picnic lunches, usually involving at least some beer or soju. Fashion is, as always, a crucial component of hiking. For both men and women, brightly colored hiking gear is expected to be worn, and it is always helpful to bring along a hiking stick.

If the hike alone isn't enough, you can always pull over at one of the many mountain-side exercise equipment stations. These consist of gym equipment which is installed right amongst the trees and which is free for anyone to use, assuming you can make it there.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Taking Out the Trash

It's one of the most common chores you could think of: taking out the trash. Theoretically, it should be quite an easy task. It certainly is in America, but here in Seoul the "green" obsession has made taking out the trash a rather convoluted process. At the most basic level there are two types of waste: recyclables and non-recyclables. Trash separation in America generally reaches its limit at this point, with the potential for a third category when allowing for multiple types of recyclables (ie paper and plastics).

Here in Seoul, there are seven different categories of waste product. When recycling, one must separate into five categories: glass, plastic, paper, can, and vinyl. Since having five separate containers in one apartment would be somewhat overwhelming, my strategy is to gather all the recyclables in one bag, and then separate them later. My apartment building provides a bin for each type of recyclable down at street level.

For non-recyclable products, there are two categories: food waste and everything else. Food waste is technically supposed to be collected separately from other trash and then placed into a special trash can for food bits. The interior of this lovely container is pretty much coated with rotting bits of food and is home to a flourishing colony of fruit flies. After two experiences with opening this can, I decided to never again separate my food waste from other waste (it's just not worth the loss of appetite). As far as "regular" trash, it must be collected in special white trash bags that can be purchased from convenience stores for about 25 cents a bag, depending on the size. Since there is no fee for trash pickup, this system of purchasing trash bags ensures that each person pays relative to the exact amount of trash they produce. When your trash bags are full, you simply place them on the sidewalk in front of your building at night. Around 3 am, trash collectors come around and grab the bags off the sidewalk. The only night they don't collect trash is on Saturdays, although many people seem to not realize this, resulting in a lot of trash bags lining the streets on Sundays.

So there you have it: a generally mindless household task turned complicated. At least it's helping save the planet, right?

(On a related note, there are hardly any trash cans in the city. You just leave your loose trash items wherever you want, and someone gets paid to pick up all the trash at night. It's sort of a double standard, don't you think? Not to mention one of the hardest things to get used to as a foreigner who has been indoctrinated with an anti-littering mindset.)

Tuesday, October 20, 2009


This weekend, I went to an area of Seoul called Insadong with my coworker Lauren. First, we visited a Buddhist shrine, Jogyesa. Because it was a Sunday, the shrine was packed. One of the weirdest things about siteseeing in Seoul is that many historic areas are encapsulated in a small, quiet pocket of the city with trees, but if you look around you can see skyscrapers just outside the protected area. The shrine was one such area. The center area was a large building with three enormous golden Buddhas inside, each of which represents something different. To enter the main building you must remove your shoes, and monks are constantly chanting inside. The compound had an Information Center for Foreigners, where a helpful English-speaking old man gave us a little more information about the compound. Unfortunately, they were completely out of information packets written in English. Oh well. I took one in Korean, and maybe someday I'll be able to read it.

After visiting the shrine, we went for a walk through Insadong, which is one of many shopping districts in the city. It was pretty much a long roadway with shops on both side, and it was packed to the brim with people. Around the midpoint of the road there is a complex which is four stories high and is basically an upward winding path with shops all along and a performance area in the center, on the ground level. The stage featured a few very strange plays as well as a group of extremely out of sync bellydancers while we were making our way through the complex.

At the very top level, we found a special treat: apparently it was the day of the Women's Festival. As we had been seeing fliers for this event, we were anxious to see what it consisted of. It seemed like rather a big deal. However, it turned out to be located on about a 20' x 20' patch of roof, with a few tables lining the sides of the area. There was no discernible goal of the event, nor did there seem to be many activities. However, we did get a chance to draw pictures on a wooden board of things that stressed us out and then have a man hold the board so we could punch it in half. So all in all, a worthwhile venture.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Korean Crash Course: Driving

Although I personally have not had the thrill (or terror) of driving while in Seoul, I have had ample time to observe the rules and regulations (or lack thereof) in place for those who elect to use this mode of transportation. I have summarized my findings as follows:
  • There are only three color options for a car: white, silver, and black. While a small percentage of car owners (>1%) choose other colors, I assume this is frowned upon. Exception: city service vehicles may be dark blue.
  • Although there are traffic lights which operate by the standard three-color system, red lights are only strongly encouraged. At non-busy intersections, or if there are no pedestrians in your lane, you may proceed through a red light if you feel like it. Definitely turn right on red, even if the opposing traffic has a green arrow allowing them to turn left. They will totally stop in time to let you in.
  • Although there are designated parking spaces (and roads) to park on, the sidewalk may be used for parking if the spots are full. Or if the sidewalk is the closest available parking space to your destination. Or if you just feel like it.
  • Although there are police officers who drive around, they don't seem to serve the purpose of enforcing traffic laws, so don't worry if you see one. At all. I have read about speeding tickets being issued, but I'm not sure in which part of the city this happens.
  • On a positive note, don't lean on your horn or crank up your music to an obnoxious volume like you would do in most other cities. That would definitely be considered uncool by the other drivers. Noise pollution is so not green.
Rules for drivers of motor vehicles other than cars:
  • If you drive a bus, never stop at red lights unless you absolutely have to. Also, don't stop at a bus stop for more than 1.5 seconds unless you absolutely have to.
  • If you drive an ambulance, always stop at red lights, even if your siren is on. If you drive a regular car and an ambulance is behind you with its siren on, no need to rush getting out of the way. On a completely unrelated note, try not to get seriously injured in Seoul.
  • If you drive a scooter, all laws are out the window. Feel like driving on the sidewalk? Go for it. Red lights are downgraded from "strongly encouraged" to "pause if you want, then weave through pedestrians in the crosswalk."
Happy driving!

Monday, October 12, 2009

Random Thoughts on Teaching

I am now starting my seventh week of work, which has allowed ample time to observe the workings of both my school and the students who attend it. The experience has been rather enlightening thus far. The students in my classes range from 11 to 16 years old, and their behavior spans an ever wider range of "ages."

For starters, one of the important things to know about Korea, and Seoul in particular, is that there are simply not enough "good" jobs to match the number of eligible persons. Therefore, a great deal of emphasis is placed on getting a good education. This is one reason that English academies are so popular. For most Korean children, once the regular school day is over, work is far from done. They generally attend one or two after-school academies (or "hogwans") that specialize in subjects such as English, math, science, and so on. Obviously, this does not go over well with the children, many of whom are attending school until 10 pm. Add in all of the homework one receives from attending multiple schools and you have some very unhappy kids on your hands.

The changes in children with age are pretty obvious when comparing classes, which are grouped by age and skill level. In a class with 11- and 12-year olds, you are generally going to receive the instant respect and admiration of the students, but change the ages to 12- and 13-year olds and you have some serious behavior problems on your hands. Once the students reach 15 and 16 years of age, getting any response beyond a blank, unresponsive stare is pretty much a victory.

The students are, as a whole, extremely smart. A 15-year old in one of my classes told me the entire story of the 2000 US Presidential Election, a feat which I doubt many American children of the same age could accomplish. On the other hand, some students know the answers and simply withhold them to be difficult. This often leads to an exciting round of increasingly simple questions on my part, usually ending with a comment similar to "I see the answer written in your book. Just read what you have written right there on the page." Sometimes even that doesn't work.

Our school has a reward system of Bonus Tickets in place; however, I have found candy to be a far more effective motivator, even with teenagers. This necessitates a system that delicately balances improved behavior due to the desire for candy and worsened behavior due to sugar high.

Some of the students are very manipulative at getting what they want. There are always the students who act very nice while you are looking at them but try to get away with things when they think you aren't looking. Luckily, we have the threat of CCTV to keep students behaving fairly well. Little do they know the recordings are used to monitor the teachers rather than the students.

Finally, you can always expect some strange comments when working with kids. So far, I have had an 11-year old ask me why I always wear the same shoes (I totally alternate 3 different pairs), and a 15-year old tell me that my face is too small (still not really sure where she was going with that comment). On the positive side, I get a lot of compliments on having blue eyes.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Kpop Artist of the Week: 2NE1

2NE1 is a girl group that has just recently emerged on the scene. They have two hit songs, "Fire" and "I Don't Care." The group is composed of four girls with the average age of 21, hence the name. Unfortunately, this leads to some serious issues related to the passage of time and the inevitability that one year from now, their average age will no longer be 21. To counter this glaring problem, the group name has an alternate pronunciation, "to anyone," which presumably means their music is accessible to any person. I will allow you to be the judge of the accurateness of that statement.

The group was created to be the female answer for male pop sensations Big Bang (who have not yet been featured as a Kpop Artist of the Week, but never fear, it's coming). As a result, their first video release was a rather whimsical song and video collaboration with the male wonders, which doubled as a commercial for a new cellphone. Yes, their first work as real artists was advertising a product.

As is obvious from the picture, the group's style is always a little outrageous. As far as Korean girl groups go, this group is definitely one of the least (for lack of a better word) processed. Each member was allowed to maintain an individual personality, a pretty rare feat. However, they do stick with the basic formula requiring one member who can rap.

Check out 2NE1's video for "Fire."

Monday, September 28, 2009

Run DMZ: R16

Hip-hop culture is a large part of life for young Koreans, and one of the most popular aspects of the hip-hop lifestyle is B-boy (short for "break-boy," essentially breakdancing). A long-time fan of the show America's Best Dance Crew (much to the chagrin of my father), I couldn't wait to experience b-boy in person. Luckily, the opportunity came quickly with the R16 Competition in Incheon. My coworker Lauren and I made the trip south to check out the R16 crew competition finals on Saturday night.

The crew finals was a single-elimination tournament in which two teams (aka crews) had about 5 minutes to battle each other. If you have never seen a b-boy battle, the way it works is that each crew alternates turns (30-45 seconds per turn), and a single person will freestyle breakdance or multiple teammates will do a pre-choreographed b-boy routine. The winner was chosen after each battle by 5 judges. The 16 competing crews represented 15 different countries, and each crew had an average of 9 members.

Sound like an event for teens and 20-somethings? While the vast majority of the crowd fell into this age range, I saw fans in strollers as well as more than a few totally hip old ladies rocking out. The audience was significantly depleted when both Korean teams were eliminated in the first round, one in a complete upset by Holland. Yes, Holland. The country famous for windmills, clogs, and marijuana is apparently rather prolific at breakdancing and advanced all the way to the semifinals where Japan (the ultimate R16 champions) finally knocked them out in a tie-breaker round. The USA crew advanced to the second round where they were defeated by the Russian crew (eventual second place finishers). I guess we know now what Russians do during those long winters.

Another country with a shockingly good crew based on completly unfounded stereotypes I didn't even know I had was Canada. Our often-neglected neighbors to the North are actually pretty awesome at breakdancing. The most fashionable crew by far was from Portugal, whose members all competed in outfits of bright green and red (if you don't understand why, google the flag of Portugal, then crank up the neon-ness of the shade of green in it by about 50 times). The second most fashionable crew was the victors, Japan, who all wore matching t-shirts and changed outfits three times during their four rounds of competition. Taiwan's crew was the most unfairly eliminated crew, knocked out by Holland (gah! Holland!) in the quarter finals despite their routines including members being thrown halfway across the stage.

Sound totally dope? Watch part one of the final round here. Doesn't sound totally dope? You're wrong, brush up on your hip-hop slang and then watch part one of the final round here to see why. The final round, as a side note, is significantly longer than the qualifying rounds.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Kpop Artist of the Week: Rain

Rain (or λΉ„, pronounced Bi, the Korean word for rain) is probably the most famous Korean pop artist in America due to his longstanding "feud" with Stephen Colbert (summarized here for the unfamiliar). If it were possible to make one person from three others, he would be the lovechild of Michael Jackson, Usher, and Justin Timberlake. Rain is old news to the Korean pop scene at this point as he has been around for about 7 years, significantly longer than most of today's popular artists. Rain has transcended the world of pop to also become a singer/actor/model/clothing designer/Global Goodwill Ambassador for South Korea. Apparently in his newly appointed ambassador position his main task is to popularize Korean-style food around the world (really!).

Check out Rain's music video for "Rainism." You may notice his flair for the dramatic.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Korean Crash Course: The Subway

The Seoul Metropolitan Subway is composed of 11 separate lines that cover the entire urban area, service both of the city's airports, and extend into outlying cities such as Incheon. The lines are constantly criss-crossing, creating an intricate web of transfer points. The Seoul Metro is highly accessible to English-speaking foreigners, although usage by foreigners seems to be disproportionately low. When transferring, there are strips of color and arrows marking where you need to go for the entire duration of the transfer, making the trip extremely easy. I would estimate that at any stop that is also a transfer, at least 80% of disembarking passengers will make a transfer instead of exiting, which leads me to wonder how anyone ever makes it to their destination.

The Metro is by far the cheapest way to travel, and the pricing is made according to a zoning system, whereby the farther you travel, the more you pay. To enter the subway and travel anywhere within a radius of a few stops, the cost is 1000 won (~85 cents). The most expensive ride I have ever taken took about 2 hours and cost 1500 won. Because Seoul is a very environmentally conscious city, if you buy the reusable and rechargeable card for 2500 won, you get 100 won off every single ride you take for the rest of your life. If you buy a single-ride card, you are required to make a 500 won deposit to get the card, which is refunded to you at the ticket-return machines at your destination.

Many subway stops are linked to underground malls, which are very popular and extremely cheap. However, most of these shops are catered towards women's clothing and shoes, so if you are a man you might be out of luck.

For those seeking helpful tips for safe riding, here is a list of some subway Do's and Don'ts:
  • DO bring a book or cell phone with TV or music so as to avoid making eye contact with other passengers.
  • DON'T sit in the seats designated for the elderly, pregnant, and infirm, even if the train is completely devoid of such persons.
  • DON'T commit suicide by jumping onto the tracks. Apparently this became such a popular method of killing oneself that the metro authorities equipped most stations with glass sliding doors to separate the tracks from the platform (as seen here). However, not all stops have this feature.
  • DO line up in front of the doors when the subway is approaching the station. This applies to both the boarding and exiting riders. The first person in line should stand no farther than 6" from the door to ensure quick transfer and maximum awkwardness with the person on the other side of the door.
  • DON'T make eye contact with the on-board vendors who walk up and down the cars trying to sell novelty products. Also, DON'T steal their products even though they leave their bags unattended as they walk around. However, DO purchase things from them if you are interested, even though you have spent the previous 60 seconds pretending the vendor did not exist.
  • DON'T ride during rush hour unless intimate personal contact with complete strangers is something you enjoy. Unfortunately, rush house is impossible to predict as it varies by line and by day. Sometimes it is at 3 pm, and sometimes it is at 10 pm. However, DO talk to the nice English-speaking Korean man who is concerned for your emotional welfare during your first rush hour experience, and whose face is about three inches from your own.
  • DO provide plenty of time for your late-night rides. The subway shuts down around 1 am on weekdays and around 12 am (midnight) on weekends. If you do not leave enough time for your ride, the subway will simply stop running and you will be kicked off wherever you are. Then you may choose to take a taxi the rest of the way or wait until 5:30 am when the trains start running again (a popular strategy of Saturday night club-goers).
  • DON'T confuse an underground crosswalk at a busy intersection with a subway entrance. Subway entrances are clearly marked and you will look pretty foolish searching for one in a crosswalk.
  • DON'T refer to subway stops by their handy three-digit number codes, even if you are a math person and the number system makes more sense than the names. You will get made fun of.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Korean Crash Course: Street Fashion (Autumn)

It is a well-known fact that Korea is among the most beauty-conscious of all nations. As such, there are some very strict guidelines for what Koreans, especially those in their teens and twenties, are expected to wear in public. Of course, these rules may be violated as long as one does not wish to be asked on a date ever, by anyone (joking...sort of).

  • Age 15 - 22: This is a fashion gray zone. The young male may adopt many fashion styles, ranging from preppy to punk. However, all jeans must be skinny jeans.
  • Over 22: Option One: Suit. In fact, there is no other option.
  • Age 15 - 22: There are two options for the fashionable young lady. The first is what I call Street Stylish. This look generally involves a short, high-waisted skirt, a vest, or similar trendy piece. Required piece: high heels. The second option is Punk Stylish. This look requires skinny jeans and a t-shirt with a graphic design or ironic slogan. While this look can also be paired with high heels for an extra-stylish vibe, it is more often paired with colorful sneakers.
  • Age 23-55: Women in this age group should opt for the Sexy Professional look by day but may switch to Street Stylish in the evening. However, Punk Stylish is a bit immature and tends to be out of the question. The key pieces of the Sexy Professional look are a high-waisted, knee-length, form-fitting skirt and high heels.
  • Over 55: The fashionable but elderly Korean lady will follow a very strict clothing formula. The woman will wear pants and a t-shirt, and a sweater if it is chilly. Either the pants or the shirt must be patterned. There must be at least one extremely vibrant color involved. If it is a sunny day, the lady may opt for a bedazzled plastic visor to protect her face from the sun (example). Shoes are generally extremely short, chunky heels.
Other Tips: Referencing the US with your Wardrobe
  • If a baseball cap is worn (on the teenage male or Punk Stylish female), it should be a New York Yankees baseball cap. These can be purchased at any Korean hat stand.
  • NYPD gear is also strongly encouraged. This can be purchased in Korea at a variety of locations.
  • In fact, any t-shirt referencing an American city is encouraged. While New York is preferable, shirts from such varied places as Indiana and Lancaster, PA have been sighted.

View my pictures from Korea!

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Korean Crash Course: Dining Out

For the non-Korean-speaking traveler, one of the most immediate problems is purchasing food. Obviously this is not something one can simply ignore, as eating is a basic human need. Eating out is surprisingly cheap in Korea, and can often be carried out for around 5,000 won (plus, no tipping!). Therefore, eating out is one of the best options for a hungry American, especially if said American has no kitchen supplies. Here is my step-by-step guide to restaurant dining:

Step One: Find A Restaurant. Walk into the nearest street and look in any direction. There is at least a 75% chance you will be looking at a restaurant, bar, or convenience store. Easy enough. Don't forget to take off your shoes if the restaurant has floor seating!

Step Two: Order Food. The language barrier is particularly obvious when it comes to meal times. I have developed three basic dining strategies. The first and best method is to choose a restaurant with a picture menu. Picture menus are much more common here in Korea than they are in the United States, so with a small amount of determination and about fifteen minutes of free time it is generally possible to find a restaurant with a picture menu. These restaurants are also the most likely to have an English-speaking owner and English words on the menu. The second, riskier but faster, method is to choose a fully Korean restaurant and simply point at random items on the menu. This actually tends to be more successful than one would think; however, there is a great deal of uncertainty involved. If you manage to figure out what you are eating, you still don't know what the dish is called and therefore have gained no helpful knowledge for future restaurant visits. The third option is to wimp out and buy food from a convenience store. Still no guarantee that you will know what you're eating, though.

Step Three: Eat Food. Hopefully you carried out step two successfully, because otherwise this step will get tricky quickly. A lot of Korean food comes in the same flavor: spicy. It takes a little while for the stomach to acclimate to two spicy meals a day. Luckily it is possible to learn how to avoid spicy food. With nearly every meal there will be small side dishes provided for free. One of these dishes is always kimchi, and there is almost always a kimchi-flavored radish. Kimchi is apparently quite good for you, and comes in a surprising variety of spiciness and overall quality.

Step Four: Order More Food or Drink. The waiting system in Korea is much more sophisticated than that in the US. While in the US you are subject to the whim and personality of your server (ranging from overly helpful to vanishing act), most Korean restaurants place electronic bells on every table. This system has two main advantages: the first being that you are never hassled by your server unnecessarily, and the second being that you can immediately get service when you actually need it.

Step Five: Pay. Most restaurants have a standard check listing every item on the menu. The server marks on the check whenever you place an order. Therefore, when you leave, you simply bring the check to the register and pay. Simple! And remember, no tipping!

Future Crash Courses: Public Transportation, Drinking and Nightlife, Street Fashion

Monday, September 7, 2009

Korean Showers and Other Technology

I am officially the tenant of my very own apartment! Finding the apartment was actually a relatively easy experience. The company recommended an English-speaking realtor for those teachers remaining in Seoul, and I set up an appointment with her for one day before class to look at apartments. She ended up running late, so her semi-English-speaking coworker came to pick me up from the subway instead. He called me "Miss Jessica" and carried all my things for me while we were walking. He seemed to be in his 50's and was wearing extremely fabulous shiny silver pants with white pinstripes. I was taken to five different apartments in the area of my school and allowed to choose my favorite. The building I selected is brand new; I think I am the first person to ever live in this room.

One important thing to know about apartments in Seoul is that they tend to be extremely tiny. All five of the apartments I was shown were around 200 sqft of total living space, not including the bathroom. I was therefore extra happy with the final option I was shown which had a loft area for the bed, essentially doubling my living space by allowing the bed to be stored out of sight. Plus, the apartment I chose comes standard with a microwave, quite the rarity here from my experience. Another important thing to know about Seoul apartments is that many of them (even the brand new ones) don't have an actual shower. Instead, there is a drain in the middle of the bathroom floor and a shower head that is attached to the sink faucet. Basically the system ensures that the disorganized bather will drench everything in the bathroom with water. This shower system also explains why all the toilet paper holders have a metallic "shield" portion to help keep the toilet paper dry. I have yet to figure out the justification behind this system, although it saves a marginal amount of space and water.

I moved on Saturday with the help of Roger, from my training group. My new apartment in Mokdong was about an hour from my hotel by subway, so we dragged all my bags through the public transportation system and bought a beer each from 7-11 immediately upon exiting the subway turnstiles (yes, it was after noon and yes, it is legal to drink on the streets in Seoul. And yes, they sell beer cans at 7-11.) We got all my things to my new apartment with the help of my new favorite realtor (this time wearing a rather Wild West-looking getup). Then it was simply a matter of finding a place able to deliver me a mattress that same day. After wandering the streets for about an hour, we found a used furniture store that sold me a "super single" size mattress and frame for 70,000 won, which they delivered and assembled in my loft two hours later (no extra charge). Service really has an entirely different meaning over here. I went back to the store the next day and bought a kitchen table and nightstand for 75,000 won more, bringing my apartment to a livable level.

Many apartments in Korea feature a very futuristic key system in which each apartment door has its own electronic keypad in lieu of a key. You swipe your hand over the keypad and little blue numbers appear, and you type your pin number to enter the room. Needless to say, I think it is pretty awesome. In addition to the electronic keypad, the doorbells are equipped with video cameras, which light up a small screen on the wall when someone rings the doorbell so you can see who is outside. The screen is accompanied by 8 buttons which are all labeled in Korean and which my landlord claims can be used to talk to visitors at the main entrance and then buzz them up. My experiments with the system have been more or less a complete disaster. The first button I pushed turned out to be the emergency alarm button, which summons the landlord (or presumably, the police). Luckily I managed to turn off the alarm rather quickly, but my landlord still came up to see if I needed help/was being attacked. I have been less hesitant to push the remaining buttons, but after translating them online, I have discovered them to have such enlightening meanings as "transformation," "currency," and "door line rim." As a result, I am unfortunately still unable to communicate with visitors at the front door.

(PS - I have many pictures of my apartment that I will post and link to as soon as possible!)

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

First Day(s) on the Job

Monday marked the beginning of my soon-to-be-wildly-successful career as an English teacher. It certainly had its ups and downs. I had to get into work at 1 for my 4 pm class, but first I wanted to drop off my ARC paperwork at company headquarters (without an ARC, you can't buy a cellphone in Korea). Unfortunately, HQ is in the opposite direction of my school, but only by two subway stops. However, I still needed to leave half an hour earlier to allow time for these extra two stops, so 11:30 am found me rushing out of the hotel feeling late already. After hustling down the street on a mid-80s day to the KT Tower, where HQ is located, I had to face the rest of my hour-long commute and day wondering if I smelled bad. Plus I ended up getting in to work about 10 minutes early...so much for the need to rush.

At work, I had a meeting with my Head Instructor for the Memory program. One of my fellow new instructors was also in the meeting with me, and (selfishly) to my relief, he seemed to have even more questions than me. My HI took me up to my classroom on the sixth floor of the building, and I must admit I ended up with a pretty awesome room. All the rooms are basically identical, with a whiteboard and teacher's desk with a computer at the front, and about 13 desks in a U-shape in the remaining space. The thing that makes my room awesome is the back wall: basically huge windows from wall to wall. It's one of the few rooms with such large windows, and since most of the neighboring buildings are shorter than six stories, you can see a good deal of Mokdong.

I taught one class on Monday and one on Tuesday, with varying levels of success. My class on Monday was a real grab bag, with personalities ranging from the hyperactive genius to the apathetic teenage girl. I ran into my first huge problem about half an hour into class when I began our first activity and realized I could barely understand the kid's accents. It was pretty obvious I couldn't tell what the students were saying, and the class became rather amused with my inability to hear them. So much for pretending I'm not a new teacher. My class on Tuesday went much more smoothly. Even though the kids are a little younger, I can understand them much better. Plus the personality range is much smaller, so the class is a little easier to handle. Some of the kids are really curious, which is cute, except for when one of my Tuesday students took my attendance list from me to try to see what was on it. Luckily, she didn't spot the column where I was writing distinguishing features of each student to help me remember names ("tiny!" "pink glasses!"). Close call.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

The Week of the Thousand Hotels...

Good news - I am officially a teacher! Training went all of last week and was a pretty intense process. We went from 4:30 - 10 pm every night, which sounds really late but is actually the times we will have our real classes. There are two different programs offered at my school in the area in which I was trained: a Memory English program and a Listening and Speaking program. The Memory English basically involves learning to read and how to use certain phrases and vocabulary. Training involved a LOT of mock teaching, as well as gaining thorough knowledge of the school's methodology. The curriculum is very strictly followed, but there is still plenty of room for creative freedom in teaching. Mocking was pretty nerve-wracking at first, but you get used to it quickly.

After passing training on Friday, I was finally told my branch location. I will be teaching in Mokdong, which is on the western side of Seoul, south of the river. It's a pretty good location, in my opinion. The subway line I'm on (purple/5) goes directly into the downtown area. One of the really weird things about Seoul is that the subway closes at midnight, which is rather early for a city which pretty much runs on public transportation. Basically the train just stops running and you have to get off at whatever stop you're on, whether or not it's where you wanted to end up.

On Saturday, Jenn and I moved to our third hotel of the week, where we will be staying until we find apartments to move in. Unfortunately, Jenn and I are headed for opposite sides of the city after this. Our training group has been through quite a complex string of hotels since our arrival. Within a few days of arriving at our first hotel, we began to notice some strange things about it. For example, we were never allowed to stand in the lobby or parking lot while waiting for our rides to training. One of my fellow trainees got a very non-G-rated "welcome pack" upon arrival. In the interest of the mental state of my friends and family, I refrained from mentioning the accommodations until now, but yes, we eventually discovered that we were staying in what is often referred to as a "love hotel." If you don't understand what that means, let's just say most people don't stay there for more than a few hours at a time.

When we brought the state of our hotel to the attention of our employers (they had never used the hotel before), they said they would look into finding us another. However, no move happened until a seeming disaster struck on day 4 of training - my fellow trainee Mike came to work with a fever and some stomach issues and was whisked off to the hospital for a swine flu test. An hour later, the remaining members of the group were informed that we were under a REAL quarantine, until the following Tuesday or Wednesday. Of course, this had certain implications. For one, we would miss the first few days of work. For another, those trainees who were heading to other areas of the country would not be allowed to leave the city until the swine flu test results came back. And finally, we were told we would have to switch hotels (this was one result that we were more than okay with). Luckily, we were able to get in touch with Mike the next day and found out that his fever had gone down before he reached the hospital, and so he hadn't needed to be tested for H1N1. This also meant that our 24 hours under quarantine were officially over, and we would be able to report to work as planned.

On Saturday, Jenn and I made our third (and final?) hotel move, and the rest of my fellow trainees were dispatched around the country. For now, I have nothing to do but prepare my classes. Oh, and open a bank account. And get an Alien Registration Card. And find an apartment...

Tuesday, August 25, 2009


Although our trip to the medical center prompted a lot of jokes about being under quarantine, we soon discovered that our employer actually does want us, for lack of a better word, to self-quarantine. From Thursday through Sunday we had to submit our temperature and any flu symptoms via e-mail twice a day. In order to do this, I first had to learn how to use a mercury thermometer (hint: the end with the mercury in it is the one that goes in your mouth). Furthermore, during training orientation on Saturday we found that our hotel group was the only group of trainees we should be interacting with (even though there are about 80 people total completing training this week). This is apparently done because last February one trainee managed to infect about twenty other trainees with swine flu and forced the school to shut down its entire operation for a week while they recalled the trainees from all ends of Korea and put them in quarantine. So it totally makes sense that they changed their training policy to help keep andy potential diseases contained. However, none of us were too keen on the recommendation to wear our surgical masks in public.

Before training officially began on Monday night, we took advantage of our free time under "quarantine" to get out into the city. We bravely navigated the subway, which turned out to be a rather easy task since every sign is double-posted in both Korean and English. On Sunday I took the subway to City Hall with Jenn and Stacy, where we stumbled upon the memorial service for Kim Dae-Jung. If you aren't familiar, Mr. Kim is considered the first truly democratic South Korean president, in office in the early 2000's, and he passed away on August 18th, the day before I arrived. The entire square was completely mobbed with people sitting and standing and cops lining the street. Almost all the people watching the service had yellow signs or balloons bearing pictures of Kim and slogans like "Goodbye Mr. Sunshine" or "Because of you we know what democracy really is." The craziest thing about the memorial service was that they didn't shut down the square to traffic, so all the buses were running as normal through the middle of the crowd.

The service was being held right across from Deoksugung, which was our intended destination. There are a few different palaces in the city of Seoul, and Deoksugung is one of them. It is basically a walled-in area enclosing a few buildings as well as an art museum. There are lots of trees and LOTS of cicadas when it is hot out (and it was - around 86 degrees with the kind of humidity you can only feel during monsoon season), so you kind of feel like you've walked into another part of the world, minus the fact that you can see skyscrapers surrounding the palace walls. The best part about Deoksugung is the admission fee - 1,000 won (about 80-90 cents). The cost efficiency is great because you don't feel all the pressure to learn that is normally associated with a visit to a historical landmark since you can come back as often as you want. Plus, if the day is disgusting you can take a quick loop around and go find somewhere to buy some cold drinks (that's what we did).

After fighting our way back out of the memorial service, we headed at random down some streets trying to figure out where to go next. We encountered pretty much every cop in Korea waiting in packs along the streets to be called into duty. Korean cops, by the way, are not particularly intimidating in size, although the mob gear they were carrying helped a little. We ended up on another busy road a few blocks away from City Hall that was also lined with police. Then, while attempting to decide where to go next, I noticed the six-lane road had become empty. The next thing I knew, we were watching the funeral procession of Kim Dae-Jung. It was a completely awesome feeling to stand on the sidewalk and watch the car containing the body of a former president drive by, even if it's the president of another country. If you ever have the opportunity to attend a head of state's funeral, I highly recommend it.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Surgical Masks and Umbrellas on Eye Charts

On Thursday morning, my roommate Jenn and I were scheduled to have our medical exams. This exam is required by South Korea for anyone staying in the country for an extended length of time. We were picked up by a shuttle provided by our company and were met with the pleasant discovery that we were not alone: there are 5 other teachers in our hotel with us. We all piled into a mini van and headed over to Seoul Medical Center. Upon entering, the volunteer interpretor somehow managed to instantly figure out that we were the group of Americans she was expecting. She told us to take a seat, and then returned with a box of surgical masks, forcing each of us to put one on for the duration of our exam, demonstrating the comforting level of confidence the Korean government has in Americans to not be carrying H1N1.

The first step of the exam was to file some paperwork and have our temperature taken. This was accomplished quickly and painlessly by some sort of laser device that points at your forehead and can read your temperature without even touching you. This was the second time I was subjected to a reusable, no-cleaning-required thermometer that can take temperatures from an inch away (the first time was at the airport, with your temperature taken, for some inexplicable reason, behind your ear). It is beyond me why this technology has not appeared in the US yet.

Next we were all herded upstairs, where we began a sort of follow-the-leader game through the hospital. In the first room, we had our height, weight, and blood pressure taken, then our hearing was checked. Next, we had to pass a color blindness test (more difficult for some than for others) and identify numbers and objects on an eye chart. These tests were made even more stressful due to performance anxiety, since at least three other teachers were in the room at all times to laugh at you if you made a mistake. I provided some entertainment by mistakenly identifying a tiny picture of a car on the eye chart as cherries.

After the first room, I was told to follow the green tape on the floor of the hallway to the x-ray room. The hallways of Seoul Medical Center are conveniently lined with color-coded strips of tape to help you reach whatever test you need. It's actually an incredibly smart system which efficiently transcends the language barrier, although at least half the employees of the hospital could speak English. So I followed the green tape to get a chest x-ray, then followed the red tape to get blood tests. They drew three vials of blood to test us for Hepatitis, Anemia, and AIDS. Most unfortunately, I underwent bloodwork at home to test myself for anemia just before I left the country, and I was extremely displeased to learn I would need to do it again. The blood drawing occurred in a room with one long desk that could take two people at once, with the waiting area directly behind you so that anyone walking by could witness your blood being drawn. Maybe a strange system, but it also went extremely quickly. After the blood test, I had to provide a urine sample, which I had to carry in an open cup through the hallway. Super gross. All in all, the hospital was incredibly efficient, finishing all 7 of our tests in about an hour.

The best thing about the medical exam was that it turned out to be a great bonding event for all of us. There's something about watching your fellow teacher insist that the 48 hidden in the color-blindness test is actually an 18 that brings people together. Not to mention seeing all the regular hospital patrons cover their mouths as they walk by because our surgical masks make us look like we have some sort of incurable disease.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Traveling to Seoul

On the morning of Tuesday the 18th at 4 am, my journey to South Korea began. Having finally obtained my work visa the week before (a long and somewhat arduous process consistently made more difficult by the registrar at JHU), I was told to report to Korea on Wednesday the 19th. My 7:45 am flight from Philly took me to Atlanta, and from there it was a 15 hour flight to Seoul.

The flight to Seoul was truly indescribable. For those of you who are lucky enough to have never made such a flight, allow me to explain it for you. First of all, and something I did not realize ahead of time, on a 1 pm flight heading west, the sun never sets for the entire length of the flight. Therefore, the flight staff basically make a simulated night where they shut all the windows and turn the lights off so that everone has time to sleep. Everyone's seat has a personal entertainmnet system which has movies and games. I probably watched 4 or 5 movies on the flight.

However, after a few hours, not even your own personal entertainment system can keep your mind off the fact that your butt feels like it's going to fall off. You pretty much lose all sense of time, especially after waking up from naps that could have lasted anywhere from five minutes to an hour. The last two hours were particularly painful. The second period of "night" ended about forty minutes before we landed, and those last 40 minutes were among the worst.

Immediately upon disembarking, everyone on the plane must hand in a medical self-evaluation and have their temperature taken before being allowed to enter the airport. Incheon was an extremely clean and efficient airport, and luckily very well-labeled with English. Two coworkers who I met in Atlanta and I went through visa processing and customs together, and managed to buy bus tickets to the City Air Terminal. From the CAT, we simply had to take cabs to our hotels. The only problem was that everyone was going to different hotels, and no one spoke Korean. Luckily for me, another instructor named Jenn who was at CAT can speak Korean and turned out to be going to the same hotel as me.

By this time, it was around 7:30 pm local time (6:30 am back home), and I was completely wiped out from all the traveling. Jenn's aunt, who is a Korean native, took us to a restaurant nearby and got us dinner. I was asleep by 9:30, which was a welcome relief after the day and a half or so of flying and sleep deprivation. I had the national medical examination to look forward to the next morning.

Coming up next: Seoul Medical Center and Beginning to Explore the City

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Because having an empty blog is ridiculous...

This is my first official blog post. At this point I am still waiting for some necessary visa application items to come in. Like my transcripts. And my background report. This process is more difficult than I thought...

Stay tuned for more exciting posts as my Korean experience progresses.