Category Archives: Korea

Transience

The sun sets over Seoul, as seen from Olympic Park.

The sun sets over Seoul, as seen from Olympic Park.

As the end of May approaches, I’m rounding the three-quarter mark of my teaching contract. The end of this go-around is visible on the horizon, and it’s the popular water-cooler — actually more likely patio table — topic of the moment. Are you staying? Are you going? What’s next?

It’s decision time around the city, and Korea continues to impress me with its professionalism. My co-teacher breached the topic of renewing with this gem: “Are you satisfied with your job?” Clearly that’s the only criterion we use to decide whether we should dedicate another year of our lives to this country. In addition, this conversation happened yesterday, and the deadline for my decision is tomorrow. If my math is correct, that gives me two days to choose. Awesome.

Two days for a life-changing decision. That pretty much summarizes life as an English teacher in Korea: as adventurous and challenging as it may be, it all comes and goes very quickly. Nine months ago, I arrived as a wide-eyed American, but it feels like the pages of the calendar have just flown off the wall. The evanescence of this experience, however, goes beyond the time that passes.

This experience is as much about the people as it is the place. Ever since orientation, when I was quarantined for a week with 200 other foreigners, I’ve basically survived with this group of friends. Now with the questions, we all realize the adventure will soon drastically change for everyone. A large portion of this group is headed in different directions, and it’s over,  just like that.

We’ve all been through this at least twice before: high school and college. I had essentially the same friends from second grade through graduation — 11 years — and then I had to move on and start over. The cycle repeated itself in college but instead in a five-year period. Now I’m in Korea, where the lifespan of an English teacher — and its consequent friendships — is all too often only one year.

Tomorrow I decide whether this one year in Korea is enough for me. I think the easy decision is to avoid the unknown and re-sign, but the thought of giving one more year to this venture isn’t one that inspires joy in me — especially without a handful of my newest and closest friends. They’re leaving as quickly as they appeared, and I could very well do the same thing.

Stay tuned.

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Apparently children are important

The Lotus Lantern Festival kicked off a string of four Korean holidays in 2+ weeks.

The Lotus Lantern Festival kicked off a string of four Korean holidays in 2+ weeks.

In general traditional Korean gratuity, we’ve observed four holidays in the past 2.5 weeks. The festivities started with the celebration of Buddha’s birthday. The birth of the Prince Siddhartha Gautama is noted as the eighth day of the fourth month of the lunar calendar, which falls this year on May 2.

Buddhism comprises a large portion of the Korean religious population (although the majority of the country is secular), so this is a very important holiday to the country. In Seoul, lotus lanterns hang across the city for weeks leading up to the actual holiday. The celebrations culminate at the Lotus Lantern Festival, held in downtown Seoul. The festival stretched from the metropolitan center, Jongno-gu, to the traditional — and usually tourist-infested — district, Insadong. Events included lantern-making, traditional performance and a lantern parade.

The parade featured brightly-lit floats and throngs of citizens carrying lanterns shaped like, well, lotus flowers. The parade led into Jogyesa temple, home to the largest Buddha shrine in Seoul. Countless strings of lanterns created a multicolored ceiling outside the temple — a nice alternative to the starless skies of Seoul. This entire evening reeked of photo-ops, and it was fantastic:

Lotus Lantern Festival-5876 Lotus Lantern Festival-5883 Lotus Lantern Festival-6013

Three days after Buddha’s birthday (and the continuation of a five-day weekend, which is another post in itself) on May 5 was Children’s Day. The premise for this holiday still seems vague to me, but the origins of Korean Children’s Day trace back to a children’s writer in the early 20th century,  BangJeong-hwan (방정환). He created the Korean word for child — 어린 — and promoted the idea of respecting children as individuals rather than treating them as property belonging to the parents. To celebrate this holiday, parents often take their kids to zoos, museums or outdoor festivals strewn about the city in various parks.

A little girl stares off into the distance in Children's Grand Park.

A little girl stares off into the distance at Children's Grand Park.

These kids, who to this point, I’m sure, have contributed little to society, seem to have a more important holiday than the two that came in the next week and a half: Parents’ Day and Teachers’ Day. Without parents these kids wouldn’t be here. (Don’t give me that “They are the future” spiel. What have they done for me lately?) Without dedicated educators like myself (lolz), these kids are going nowhere.

On a more serious note, Children’s Day seems much more fun, while Parents’ Day and Teachers’ Day seemed much more subtle. Maybe it’s because I didn’t have the day off during the latter two days. I didn’t come out empty-handed, though. I got two half days, and on Teachers’ Day, I got a couple bookmarks and some vitamins. It wasn’t exactly the most prolific haul, but I’m not a big gift person anyway.

It’s been rather uneventful (or too eventful depending on how you define “event”) couple of weeks, but a trip to Busan is on this weekend’s docket as is another annual celebration of me, er, my birthday. It should be nothing short of a mess.

Just in case I disappear for another long stint, you can always check my Twitter feed and Flickr photostream for more frequent updates on my life.

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Pretty phones make me weak in the knees

I love gizmos and gadgets, and they can’t be avoided here. Korea, home to electronics giants Samsung and LG, wants to continue improving its electronics so it can compete with its Japanese counterparts. Cell phones, mp3 players and personal media players (sometimes all combined into one) are only the tip of the technological iceberg, and every Korean and his mother are tinkering with one or all of those things on the subway, bus or even while walking.

One of my fatal flaws is that I can’t resist shiny new toys. I got rid of most of what I owned to come to Korea to save money to pay off some bills. The whole minimalism/aescetic mindset is a little harder for me to achieve with the electronic temptations here. During the previous six months, I’ve accumulated a small speaker system, a 22″ external LCD monitor, a DSLR camera (with a handful of lenses) and most recently, a cell phone.

None of these are necessities (even though I’ve managed to rationalize every single decision into a quasi-necessity), and they’ve made a little (read: big) dent into my savings plans. The only thing that will leave the country with me when I do is the DSLR. Everything else is pretty much just a really expensive rental. They can easily be sold to someone else who has the same affinity for gizmos as I do.

These spending tendencies are a stark contrast to my backpacking habits. I’ll eat as much street food as possible (although that may be linked more to my palette’s preferences) and sleep in the cheapest hostels I can find. I’ll haggle over what ends up being 30 U.S. cents. In normal life, though, when I’m bored I’ll tend to do one of two things: eat and/or spend money.

At this point, I can’t imagine making any more large technological purchases. I have everything (and more) than I could ever need, even for a traveler: iPod, MacBook, Canon 40D, fancy mobile phone and Nintendo DS. I suppose that pushes me toward the realm of flashpacking, but I still need to do a little more traveling before I can wear that badge.

Note to self: travel more. Duly noted.

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Angry people make me angry

We’re wrapping up the first week of my staycation here in Seoul, and I haven’t made as much progress in the things I had planned for the week. I’ve still had a good week, though. While I wouldn’t mind traveling some exotic country, it’s nice not constantly having to catch buses and taxis and generally running around a new place cluelessly. Sometimes normal is fine by me.

Tuesday included a trip to Yeouido, an island in the Han River and home to the Korean Stock Exchange and TV/radio broadcasting conglomerate MBC, which earns it the occasional nickname “Seoul’s Manhattan.” I spent most of Wednesday cleaning and organizing my stuff in preparation for moving out of my apartment and ended the evening with a couple drinks. Thursday’s rather impulsive plan included buying a new phone from Yongsan and a long night of debauchery — one that had me arriving home a half hour before the girlfriend had to wake up for work.

It’s been pretty much a ho-hum week, but one event from last night reminded me why American G.I.s have such a terrible reputation here. We were our in Itaewon, which is essentially ex-pat and G.I. central since the neighborhood is literally around the corner from the U.S. army base. At the club, one of my friends — who is half-Chinese, half-Korean, wholly-Canadian and quite single — began chatting with a girl, one who had previously been schmoozing with a G.I. The army man took exception to my friend’s drawing the girl’s attention away from him and delivered an alcohol-fueled diatribe that included calling my friend a “kimchi-eating motherfucker” and boasting about how much the U.S. army has done for his “people.” For goodness’ sake, he’s stationed in South Korea, which is a cakewalk compared to the desert where the forecast is hot with a chance of raining mortars.

Other than the meathead mindset that leads to his solving problems with fights, the G.I.’s ridiculous sense of entitlement and self-importance is the number one reason people — Koreans and foreigners alike — dislike G.I.s. There are even bars that deny admittance to G.I.s because trouble often follows them in the door. I understand it’s completely unfair to paint all soldiers with the same brush, but I’ve seen so many situations where the soldiers expect things to fall in their favor simply because they serve in the U.S. military — like when the idiot at the club decided that we should be the ones to leave as if he and his boys owned the place.

The U.S. military as an entity already gets plenty of bad press from the likes of Guantanamo, Lynndie England, and a couple of wars in the Middle East, so the singular actions of these testosterone-driven brutes are just adding to America’s negative image. It’s a sad situation of a few ruining it for everyone, but it’s especially true for a conservative (and — truth be told — judgmental) nation like Korea.

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I’m not complaining

After coming back from Vietnam, I returned to my normal post as English teacher at my elementary school. “Normal,” though, isn’t the proper word to describe the last two weeks of the school year. The kids had been on winter vacation for six weeks before being forced to return to wrap up the school year. I had spent the same six weeks bouncing between Thailand, Winter Camp and Vietnam. None of us were ready to be in school.

The students, suffering from mental lag from the break, had no inclinations for paying attention — especially the sixth graders who had already checked out before break. I was out of significant lessons to teach, and all that was left were games. The two weeks (including two full days with not a single class for me and a full week of half-days) passed rather innocuously, and here I am on vacation again. This time it’s their “spring vacation,” despite what the 23-degree (I still work in Fahrenheit) weather says.

I’ll be spending this week organizing my stuff to move into a new apartment — one that I still have to find. I plan on doing some local sightseeing (i.e. playing with the camera) as well, but this weather might be a deterrent. Next week, if everything goes to plan, I’ll be touring around Korea, seeing what this country has to offer. It’ll be me (and someone else, in theory) and Lonely Planet Korea.

After this little spurt, it will have been 10 weeks or so since I’ve taught a serious class, but even the first week back won’t be a return to normalcy since it’s the first week of the new school year. I’ll be adjusting to new students, new co-teachers (teachers change positions every year and school every five years) and new class rules. I’m excited to see how these new classes turn out, but I’m slightly nervous about having to learn my co-teachers’ tendencies all over again. I was starting to get used to my last set of co-teachers.

I don’t see how all this commotion can be good for the educational system, but I’m sure the students and teachers are all conditioned to the change. I suppose I should be, too, since I’ve already experienced a few too many unexpected changes. They always turn out okay, though, and I expect nothing else from this school year.

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