Friday, December 30, 2005

Turkey and chopsticks

Sunday for Christmas, the foreign teachers and I (my surrogate family) decided to order a big homestyle turkey dinner from one of the Western hotels here. Two of the guys picked it up and we met at Geoff, Thomas, and Gilles' house (3 of the foreign teachers from Canada). Since the 3 of them share an apartment, their place is bigger and more equipped to hold the festivities. 15 people were there, all of the foreign teachers from my school, as well as some of the foreign teachers who used to work there and their significant others (several of the guys have Korean girlfriends). It was great---the dinner and the company. Our dinner consisted of turkey, gravy, stuffing, cranberry sauce, corn, mashed potatoes, brussel sprouts, and fruit salad. I made chocolate covered pretzels to bring, and Christmas cake is a really big thing here so we had one of those. I drank this raspberry Korean wine, which another Korean at the party told me it's supposedly good for a man's stamina. Who knew?? Carving the turkey was interesting...none of the people there had actually done it before, and all they had at the house were steak knives, so a couple of people were just hacking away at it. There wasn't enough silverware to go around, so several of us had to eat with chopsticks...
We played games, drank, and ate. And of course, the night ended with a trip to the was a really fun Christmas. Not religious in the least, but fun!!


To recap, my Christmas weekend was great. Friday night was our work Christmas party, where all the teachers, Korean and English went to a nice restaurant for drinks and dinner on the company. We got the whole restaurant to ourselves (there were only like 5 long tables) and everyone sat on the floor at long tables. There were burners built into the tables (as many restaurants have), and a pot of oil was boiling at each burner. Then there was the massive spread of food, side dishes as well as beef, mushrooms, carrots, onions, broccoli, cabbage, and more to put into the boiling oil. (see picture of Korean teacher stirring our dinner). When the whole pot came to a boil, you could reach in with you chopsticks and pull out the food. It was great!! And not spicy at all.
As far as alcohol goes, most restaurants only serve beer and soju (vodka-like drink). Not many choices. Koreans love their soju, and you'd be hard pressed to find other types of liquor here. It tastes like really cheap vodka though, so I don't think it's great. So anyway, the foreign teachers were pretty much at one table, at the far end of the restaurant, and the other end of the restaurant was getting loud and crazy. We didn't know what was happening, so a few of us got up to take a look, and we realized that the Korean teachers were doing shots! One of the two Korean men that work at our school is a bartender on the weekends, so he was pouring beer into mugs, and then dropping a shot glass with soju into the middle of the beer mug. They call it "titanic" here because the soju shot glass sinks into the mug of beer and it mixes. Kind of like Jager bombs back home. Anyway, one teacher would go (slam the concoction) and they would choose the next person to go (and yes, I got called to go). By the end of dinner, everyone had done one. What was cool about it was that most of the teachers at our school are these conservative little Korean women, who weigh about 90lbs. And they ALL DID IT!! Everyone would chant the name of the person drinking. Even the manager of our school (she's sort of like a principal) was chanting. It was great!!! I guess this is very normal when Koreans go out for a night on the town with their work crew. Wow.
So, the foreign teachers and I thought it was just awesome. We were expecting a really conservative, wholesome, and boring night, and it was far from that.
After dinner we went out to noraebang (karaoke) to sing, which is also typical for Koreans. It was funny though, many of the Korean women were singing these slow Korean love ballads, and Geoff (Canadian) teacher and I did a rendition of "Welcome to the Jungle" by Guns 'n Roses. We probably scared them. It was a blast.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Merry Christmas!!

Hi Everyone!
I hope you had a great holiday...I sure did. I haven't had time to type all about it this week, but I will post a nice long one this weekend complete with pictures. I have Friday off for the New Year weekend.

And by the way...Koreans sure can drink!! (And that said by a girl from Milwaukee!!)

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Holiday spirit

Nice! Christmas is this weekend!! I sure wish it would have fallen during the week, so we all didn't get screwed according to vacation time. So here, I don't even get the Friday or the Monday off. Given, Christmas isn't as big of a deal here as it is back home. Imagine, not seeing Christmas decorations right after Halloween??!! Shocker. Here they start all the retail showiness of Christmas about 2 weeks before, which is about right, if you ask me. Only about 30% of the population is Christian here, so that's why Christmas is more low-key.

As for my holiday plans....Friday at school it will pretty much be all-Christmas-all-the-time. Sweet! The students have something called a "cookie party" where they will all bring in their store-bought, generic tasting cookies. Baking isn't a big thing here, because lots of people don't have ovens. I have to come up with other creative ways to bake cookies. Since the floor is heated here, I figure throwing some raw dough on it and letting it sit for a few days should do it.

Since the foreign teachers (that's me) don't really have any 'family obligations' on Christmas, we are all going to hang out together. We are paying a hotel $200 to make us a turkey dinner with all the fixin's. Yippee!! Then of course there will be eating, drinking and merrymaking. It's great that we all get along.

We're doing Secret Santa at school this week...I pulled the name of a Korean teacher who is great with child (aka "knocked up"). I don't really know her that well so I didn't know what to get her. I went to a place similar to The Body Shop back home (although they have those here too), and was looking at buying one of those fragrance pots that you drop oil into that makes the room smell nice.
***A note about shopping here*** "Aggressive sales people is an understatement. In a store the size of a bedroom, there are literally 6-8 sales people. As soon as you walk in the door they pounce. The entire time you are shopping, they are at your heels the whole time, watching your every move. It's like that shadow game we all used to play when we were young. Good God, I hate that.

Anyway, I think I have it a little better; because I'm foreign, the sales people are a little more timid with me because they know they'll have to whip out the ol' English skills. So there is a lot of embarrassed giggling and stammering as they try to throw their sales pitch my way. No habla. Anyway, they usually sick the best English speaker on me, and this particular time he was pretty good. He asked who I was buying a gift for, and I let him know she was pregnant. I guess it was a good thing I motioned it, because he snatched the fragrance light away from me and said that it's very bad for pregnant women. Ok. So I didn't know that. They are very paranoid about that stuff here. Oddly enough, their vitamin C drink (sold in little glass bottles at convenience stores) has nicotine in it, so don't talk to me about health. But fine, so I almost injured an unborn child. Who knew?
So needless to say I put the fragrance light back and got her some lotion. Happy Holidays.

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Just do it.

"Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn't do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover." -- Mark Twain


Friday, December 16, 2005


I knew that there would be things here that would be a bit different from back home. I didn't know exactly what they would be, or how they would affect me, but I am picking up on a few things.
One that I have noticed is that women aren't treated as well as men are here. I haven't had too many run-ins with this, but I really noticed it one night when I went out to dinner. There were 4 of us, two men and 2 women. The servers very pointedly served the men first--I mean they brought out their full dinners while Kristen and I waited quite a while before we got ours. I'm not trying to be snotty about it, like I think women should be served first, but it was something I took for granted back home and I just noticed it here.

Another different (and alarming!) thing I've noticed here is how important appearance is. And I thought America was bad. There are mirrors everywhere here, and it's pretty normal to see people checking themselves out whenever they can. I routinely see the school's manager and the secretary fixing each other's hair and putting on makeup in their little hand-held mirrors right at their desks in plain view. There are many very stylish people here, and you'll see women wearing mini-skirts with very thin nylons in 10 degree weather walking to the subway or hanging out in the streets (and they're not prostitutes). I'm all for style, but frostbite isn't all that stylish...
Also, I guess by Korean standards, I am considered fat. Many of the female Koreans I've met have been very weight-conscious. Very similar to the American obsession, but these girls are tiny. They literally are the size of kids. My supervisor thinks she's fat, and she is barely bigger than a twig, so I look like the Amazon woman next to her. I asked her about pant sizing here, and she said that my size would be considered Large and it will be difficult to find. It's weird because back home I am definitely average... what I don't understand is that I see people my size quite a bit here--and even bigger (if you can believe that)--yet they must not be able to readily find clothes?? I haven't seen any obese people here. Just "plump". And even then, not so many.
Being considered "fat" isn't all bad... I have boobs and they don't. Probably won't be able to find my bra size either. ha.
I also have very large feet here (again, back home they are normal sized--8.5). But here it is rare to find a shoe over size 8. There is a shoe store by the subway that I checked out tonight...their shoes were sized "S, M, L & G". Evidently I'm "G" or "Giant" sized. What the hell?

So anyway, my point is that I used to measure up as "average" (in terms of weight) against my peers. I have gotten used to that, and now that I'm here I am being measured against a whole new set of standards. I am now considered 'fat' and have big feet.
It's just crazy to think that I can feel differently about myself just being placed in a different environment. It has the potential to turn my self-image upside down and inside out...not that I'll let it...but it's interesting to think that the way I feel is relative and can be shaped and molded according to my surroundings...
I always knew that, but it's so apparent here...we get so stuck in our own lives and the same people around us that I think we forget...
So my new plan is to surround myself with very fat and unattractive people so I can feel great about myself!! :)

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Shemen teacher

I got the most darling Christmas card today from one of my 4 year olds. She is one of my favorites. Although some of the other kids make me hate teaching kindergarten, this is the kind of stuff that makes it worth it...

P.S. my name is not Shemen, but it is my card.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Itaewon and a Korean haircut

This weekend I went to a part of the city called "Itaewon". This area is very popular with foreigners as it is very close to the military base where the American soldiers are stationed. This is by far the most diverse area I've seen. Many, many different races...Indian, African, American, Canadian, Australian, European, etc... it felt like I was in New York City. Also, most shopkeepers speak English, so this is the place to go for things like a haircut, Western foods, cheap phone cards, etc... there are a variety of restaurants there, Indian, Thai, Mexican, even down-home American pork chops and mashed potatoes. You can't really find that where I live. It's mostly Korean food or chain Western restaurants like "TGI Friday's" or KFC. This is definitely the place to go when feeling homesick.

Today, I got my haircut there. There are lots of salons by my apartment, but with the language barrier, you never know what you're gonna get. Things like haircuts are risky. A friend of a teacher at our school went to a Korean beauty shop and walked out with a mullet that could not be fixed. (and she's a woman---not that mullets are any better on men...)

Kristen and I walked into a beauty shop above a Burger King. A Korean male stylist walked out and we asked if we could get cuts. He said "Why not?" and so we were whisked away. Very similar treatment to back home, except 1) you have to take your shoes off at the door 2) the stylist cut my hair in under 10 minutes-yikes, and 3) it worked like an assembly line. One worker shampooed, another cut, and a third styled and blow-dried. Uh yeah...about that styling...she just went to town on me and got me all curled up. I ended up looking like Farah Fawcett, Charlie's Angels era. Ok, I didn't look like her but my hair did. Check it out...

Anyway, it was a great weekend. I had awesome Indian curry on Friday night, Saturday I went Christmas shopping and bummed around at Starbucks (see picture of Korean Starbucks- yes, they are everywhere). Saturday night I went to a party and met a lot of other foreign teachers (stayed out til 5am, went to a 24-hour diner after for food--it was no George Webbs, but it was cheap Korean food!) and today I went to Itaewon.

For the most part, I really like it here. It's very interesting and exciting experiencing new things all the time. I'm meeting a lot of people with similar interests (love of travel!). Sometimes it gets frustrating with the language barrier (my building security guard/manager has tried to communicate some information to me several times and he thinks that by speaking louder or closer to my face I will understand--not so much), but it's eye-opening being in a different position and not taking for granted the easy things back home. Being understood, knowing exactly where to go to shop, where you are going, etc...
At the supermarket, I can't even figure out which bottle is the laundry detergent and which is the fabric softener! The writing is all in Korean, and I bought one thinking it was the other...I had to take a picture of the bottle to show my supervisor to clarify...and FYI, it's fabric softener.
So I am definitely a little challenged here. But in a good way. It's almost like I'm seeing what it would be like to be illiterate. Can't read a lot of the signs, labels, menus, etc...thank god for restaurants with pictures on the menus!

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Belly-dancing Korean style

Another teacher and I decided to join the neighborhood gym. We priced 2 different ones, and found our best bet to be one with a sauna, personal trainer (included in cost!), and classes. Tonight we went for the first time. They gave us their uniforms to wear (reminiscent of high school gym class-not attractive uniforms--knee length navy shorts and a gray "well-being fitness" t-shirt). We got measured and weighed (in kilos-so I could be skinny for all I know!) and they set up a fitness plan for each of us. Luckily the manager speaks English pretty well, because the personal trainer had a pretty limited vocabulary and kept saying stuff like "fat" so we felt kind of bad. We are the only whiteys at the gym. They claimed they gave us a "special price" because we are foreigners. I find that hard to believe. Maybe he meant "special high price"...

Anyway, so Kristin and I took a belly-dancing class tonight (after basically being forced into it by our personal trainer). It was ridiculous. I have a hard enough time being coordinated in America, when the teacher speaks English. Taking an aerobic class in another language is hilarious. The teacher kept coming to us and physically moving our bodies into the correct position. I didn't think it would be that hard because you can just mimic what the instructor is doing. Of course our instructor was tiny, and she was wearing the belly-dancing genie pants with gold charms hanging off and a midriff top. Lucky her. The rest of us looked like idiots. Let me just tell you, doing belly-dancing in a gym uniform is not so seductive.
Luckily I have no problem making fun of myself...
I think I'll stick to the treadmill.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

DMZ and I'm still alive!

Today I went to one of the biggest tourist hot-spots in Korea--the DMZ. This stands for the demilitarized zone. This area divides the two Koreas, is heavily protected by barbed wire fences, watch towers, and landmines. It stretches approximately 248 km in length (east/west) and 4 km in width (north/south). It has been untouched by humans for more than 50 years, and therefore has become a haven for plants, wildlife and endangered species. Korea is the only remaining divided country left in the world.
The DMZ is about an hour north of Seoul, and I went with a tour group of mostly Westerners called "Adventure Korea". It snowed for the first time last night, and today was the coldest day since I've arrived (figures, I was outside all day!). It was bitter.
Basically, the DMZ is the closest I can get to North Korea without entering. I was told that Americans aren't even allowed to go into North Korea. I could see it though, from where we were. North Korea has the largest flag in the world standing at the border. It's even in the Guiness Book of World Records. North and South Korea basically had a pissing contest, each country whipping out a bigger flag until they called a truce (and North Korea won).
I was able to see many monuments to American soldiers who fought in the Korean war, which was very somber. There was also a freedom bridge, a peace bell, and many planes, tanks, missiles, etc...that were used in the war. I was even able to get my passport stamped at the last train station to the north in Korea! It was all pretty cool.
It's funny that it's such a big tourist spot, being that the tension between the countries is still stong. We weren't allowed to take pictures beyond a certain yellow line, and there were guards watching us look at North Korea. I wasn't able to get pictures of the big flags. Sad. We got to go into the 3rd tunnel, a tunnel that North Koreans dug about a mile into South Korea (and was discovered in 1990 by South koreans) that would allow 10,000 armed soldiers or 30,000 unarmed soldiers invade Seoul in an hour. They believe there are still at least 20 tunnels that the North Koreans have dug that are still undiscovered. (couldn't take pictures in that either). We had to wear hard hats and crouch down a bit. North Koreans must be short.
FYI-- Kim Jong-il joined us for lunch. He's pretty cool. He drinks a lot though. All right, again, not true...but again, it makes my story much more interesting.
All in all, it was pretty cool. I would like to go back when it's not so darn cold!

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Dongdaemun Market

Last weekend I went to Dongdaemun market. This is the most famous market in Seoul. It has over 30,000 stalls and shops. This is spread out in several buildings as well as outside on the street. It's crazy, and it never closes. Kristin teacher and I wanted to look for curtains for our apartments, as I have a big patio door right by my bed that crazy Koreans peer into at night. Just kidding, I am on the second floor, but I thought it would make the story more interesting.

Anyway, so we go to the market, and find out that the draperies are in building C. Easy enough. We go inside and there are 9 floors of draperies, fabrics, yarn, etc... and this is no small building. Each floor was huge, and everything is crammed in on each floor. There are no roomy aisles to walk down, so you have to push through people. You'd think with 9 floors of only fabric people would be spread out enough to make it a comfortable shopping environment. Guess again. I guess that's what it's like living in a city with 11,000,000 + people. It's nuts.

It's funny too because in most cases, prices are not marked. The point of the market is to bargain. Well, it's kinda hard to bargain when you don't speak Korean. So most of the day we just wandered around asking "eolmoyeo" (how much is it?) and when they would answer us in Korean (since we asked the question in Korean), we would have to motion that we didn't understand and they had to type the number into their calculator. More work than I usually like to do when I shop. And at the end of all that, I didn't find any curtains.
I miss Target.

Kindy birthday party

What a day. It started out with a kindergarten birthday party. Once every two months our school does this for the kids who have birthdays in those months. It is sooo extravagant. The birthday boys and girls dress up in their special occasion gear, called hanbok. They are then seated at the front of the playroom at a long table, kinda like a head table at a wedding. The table is filled with decadent food, like cake, gimbap (Korean version of sushi with ham, cheese and vegetables in it) fried chicken, and pizza (did I mention that Korean pizza has corn and sweet potatoes on it?) so anyway, these kids are sitting behind this table with crowns on while their classmates come up and place gifts in bins at their feet. They look like the royal court! Can't wait to see what they do for my birthday (ha ha)! After all of their classmates sing happy birthday to each and every one of them, the birthday kids have to perform in front of their 40 or so classmates (mind you, these kids are 4 and 5 years old). They get up and sing a song or do a dance. Sooo cute.

All in all, I really like playing with the kids and have no problem loving them outside of class. It's during class that it's a problem. My 2 kindergarten classes a day are by far the most frustrating part of my day. They don't listen, and did I mention, they especially don't want to work or learn English? It's like talking to several brick walls. I look away for one second and 2 of them are crying, while another two are hitting each other or pasting themselves to their workbook. And yet another is eating an eraser or cutting their hair with their scissors (yes, that really happened). Boy, it's fun. But here are some cute pictures that make everything ok.

Did I mention I found a grey hair?