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."