Tag Archives: Korea

Welcome to Korea, pt. 2

“Korean organization” ranks right up there with “War on Terror,” “reality TV” and “good morning” as some of the biggest oxymorons, and that’s the kind of (dis)organization with which I deal on a daily basis. I accept it as a part of Korean society, but that doesn’t mean it’s any less annoying. Of course, this source of the anger behind this little diatribe is the dreaded winter camp. I’ve actually known my camp dates for a little more than three weeks now and even have some winter break plans organized. The dates of the camp, however, all pretty much all I’ve known — until last week.

The school continues to test my patience as they decided last week (or at least that was when they informed me) to hold a school camp instead of having me work for the district camp — the same school camp that wouldn’t fit in the budget three weeks ago. This camp will comprise 60 students from first to sixth grade, grouped by ability into four classes. It all sounds like standard fare, but we’re in Korea where nothing is standard fare.

Because the higher-ups decided so suddenly to have an English camp for our school, they weren’t able to to find any other native-speaking English teachers. It gets even better: they told me that after trying to put the burden of finding help on me. Everyone I know in Korea is an English teacher — meaning they’re all doing the same thing I’m doing. The talent pool is a bit shallow during that time of year and on this short of notice.

Yesterday the teacher directing the camp asked me to help her with the student interviews by which we’ll separate them into their classes. Of course, I told her it wouldn’t be a problem to figure out a time to do that, especially since camp isn’t for another four weeks. Monday turned to Tuesday, when it became a problem: we have to find a time to do all 60 interviews this week because the camp’s orientation is next Tuesday. This is especially fantastic because I had already re-scheduled a class into the remaining free time I had this week, which was already limited because of the supposedly nine-hour workshop I have on Wednesday — and learned about on Monday.

I don’t know where the breakdown in communication occurs; however, a lack of communication would imply there was information to pass along to me. As with the original dates (and location, even) of the camp, there was absolutely nothing my co-teacher could tell me because there was nothing to know. For a country that seems like its brains should be hard-wired to logic and reasoning (since its educational system excels in math and the sciences), Korea doesn’t seem to be able to keep its days straight.

Even though I know it won’t come anytime soon, all I want is a little more notice and organization. Korean inefficiency will continue to boggle my mind.

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A Social Experiment in Economics

One of the biggest reasons I chose to teach English in Korea over other countries was that I would be able to save a significant amount of money in a relatively short amount of time. Without having to pay for housing, gas, and other monthly nuisances here in Korea, I estimated I would bank at least 60 percent of my paycheck each month. Even inadvertently, I had saved about that much (which, however, resulted in the counter-productive purchases of a 22-inch LCD monitor, a DSLR camera, and a round-trip ticket for a weekend in Taipei) but now that the Korean won has fallen faster than Sarah Palin’s approval rating with turkeys, I need to be more critical of my expenditures.

Again, it’s all about setting goals: I’ve decided to put myself on a strict budget. I believe I can live comfortably in Seoul for 600,000 won per month. All it takes is finding some new things to do instead of carousing two nights each weekend in a bar or nightclub. My personal pledge to see something new every weekend helps with this as well; I can’t wake up at 2 pm with a throbbing headache and expect to make sightseeing a priority over drinking water and sleeping more.

After receiving my monthly paycheck, I’ll take out the 600,000 in cash and live from that. The more interesting experiment comes in its first run-through this month: I spent 420,000 won booking a flight to Taipei for an ultimate frisbee tournament, leaving me with 180,000 won for essentially a month. Ignoring the exchange rate[1], think that anything that would cost $1 in the States costs roughly 1,000 won here; I have the spending power of about $180.

Obviously the nightlife will be a bit tamer (I was getting a bit jaded toward the bar scene, anyway), but it’s the little things that will need to be reined in to make this work — mainly my insatiable desire for snacks. I constantly eat, even when I’m not hungry and especially when I’m bored. The stops at 7-11 on the way to school will have to be reduced, and I’ll have to fight off my constant urge to devour street food every time I see it. Chicken on a stick is hard to resist.

While this might be a bit extreme and I might be able to talk myself into ignoring the cost of the plane ticket as an outlier that shouldn’t be figured into my monthly budget, it’ll be interesting to see whether I can do this. I have a reputation to be a free-wheeling playboy with my excess savings, so I’ll have to learn to be more disciplined — especially since I’ve *knock on wood* bought all the tech gadgets I’ll need for this leg of the journey. Maybe the occasional lens will set me back a bit, but in theory, I’ll have more than enough for that.

I’ll probably disappear off the social map for a while (except for my inexpensive “See a New Thing Each Week” tour), but I’ll have more time to be productive for myself and maybe tick some other things off my “To Learn/Do” list. Saving some money and actually doing new things isn’t all too bad.

See you in the black.


[1] At the time of this post, $1 USD equaled 1,456 Korean won. When I arrived in Korea, I exchanged $1 USD for 1,050 won, which means I’ve lost nearly one third of my paycheck in the three months I’ve been here. Because of the Korean economy’s instability, I constantly check xe.com to add a sprinkle of depression to my day.

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Welcome to Korea

Today is November 11, and the winter break begins December 24. In Korea, the school year is the opposite of Western nations: the school year starts in March and ends in December (except for a seemingly random two-weeks in February during which the sixth graders take exams and graduate to middle school). As a result, the winter break is the longer of the two holidays.

While having essentially 2.5 months off in Asia sounds fantastic, it’s not such a dreamy gig for the native-speaking English teachers, or NSETs. While some principals let the NSET have the entire break off, most English teachers will have to do some sort of winter camp. The duration of these camps vary from district to district and even from school to school, depending on who organizes these camps. Camps can last from two weeks to five weeks, but often the point is moot. During the time there isn’t a camp, many schools require the teacher to come into the office and do literally nothing. There may be only one other teacher in the school at the same time.

We NSETs working for the Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education have 21 paid vacation days in our contracts, which they prefer for us to use during these long breaks. My problem, though, is the complete lack of communication from the district down to my school to me. I was told, in early October by my liaison teacher, that the school doesn’t have money in its budget to run a camp, that the district usually does one each year, and the district would have these dates set sometime in late October to early November. I was also told by a less official source — my English co-teacher — that I wouldn’t have to come into school during the days without camp, but that decision is usually left to the principal.

Today is November 11, and the winter break begins December 24 — and I still have no word from anyone on whether I have to work a district camp or whether I have to come into school during the off days. Even though this camp is an annual event, the district hasn’t figured out if or when it’s going to happen, yet. As a result, I will summarize my winter break plans with the following word:

Umm.

I can only watch flight prices continue to rise as I’m stuck in this red-tape limbo. I can’t even begin to plan my trip since I don’t even know how much time I have off. Two weeks? Three weeks? Five weeks? If push comes to shove, I will decide my two weeks’ worth of vacation dates, and the district can have a camp without me. This is Korean efficiency at its finest.

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Am I Korean, yet?

A World Cup qualifier between Korea and UAE at Seoul's World Cup Stadium

A World Cup qualifier between Korea and UAE at World Cup Stadium.

Last night, I went to a World Cup qualifier between South Korea and UAE. I had only been to one other professional soccer game before this one, and it was nothing compared to this. The game was played at Seoul World Cup Stadium, which is simply an amazing venue. Opened in 2001, it hosted the opening match of the 2002 World Cup. The other soccer match I had seen was an MLS match at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas, which obviously pales in comparison.

Our seats were fantastic, especially for the 30,000-won price tag: We were about three rows up in the corner of the field. The most expensive tickets, which put you on the side of the field, were only 50,000 won. For any major sporting event in the States, a $30 ticket would probably leave you in the nosebleeds — if that gets you a ticket at all.

Korean national team captain Park Ji-Sung after scoring his teams second goal of the night.

Korean national team captain Park Ji-Sung after scoring his team's second goal of the night.

Once the game started, my fellow English teachers and I found ourselves genuinely cheering for Korea. We cheered on the goals and groaned on the misses. We even found ourselves rooting harder — along with the natives — for Korean superstar and team captain Park Ji-Sung, who plays his club ball with Manchester United. The “Taeguk Warriors” cruised to a 4-1 victory over UAE.

The gimbap snack at the game. Only 3,000 won!

The gimbap snack at the game. Only 3,000 won!

During the game, I also indulged in Korean concessions, which are a bit healthier (and cheaper) than the grease-covered, heart-attack-inducing snacks found in America. For 6,000 won, I got a 24-ish oz. beer and a box of gimbap, seaweed-wrapped rice rolls. To continue the “how American sporting events suck” comparisons, $6 will barely get you a beer. I think I might actually like the Korean array of snacks better which includes things such as dried cuttlefish.

Cheap tickets. Cheap food. Great soccer game. I’m loving the Korean life.

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And off we go

I decided to make (read: procrastinate) packing into an all-night affair. Since this was also my last night in my room and house of the past two years, I had cleaning to do on top of that. The Olympics were no help, either, as NBC forced me to peek into the Michael Phelps love-fest as well as the women’s all-around gymnastics competition. Nastia Liukin provided quite the respite from a stressful day.

Anyway, packing and cleaning for an overseas move, limited to two 50-pound bags and a carry-on, I had to first and foremost prioritize between things I really needed and things that added to the piles of black garbage bags of what essentially became junk. I donated three full bags of clothing, and various things like clothes hangers, a TV stand, my desk and a golf putter ended up in my front yard free for passers-by to collect.

This arduous process of streamlining my life to (almost) the bare necessities took me until 5:15 a.m., which also happened to be the same time I needed to leave to catch the bus. The final rush of cleaning carried me to the bus, on which I stayed awake for about 10 minutes. Next thing I knew, I was working out the cricks in my neck as we pulled into Detroit Metro Airport. This was only the beginning of my prolific sleep habits for this trip.

I had little semblance of coherence. For the past five years, I’ve flown — although domestically — at least twice a year. I should know the check-in process in and out: Scan ID or credit card, grab boarding pass, wait for luggage tags. Today I decided to walk up to the check-in counter and absently stare at the clerk. After an awkward pause, she points to the kiosk and says, “Sir, you can start checking in now.”

Oh, right.

After boarding and falling asleep before take off, I found myself dazed and landing in Chicago 15 minutes later — thanks to the time zone change — but four hours before my next flight. I meandered my way over to the international terminal and prepared myself for the next flight; being the only one at the gate, I set my stuff down in a corner, laid my pillow on the ground, and slept for yet another 2+ hours.

The countdown of days left in the U.S. had now become a matter of hours and minutes. I made my final calls to my parents and my brother in the minutes before boarding, letting them know I’ll e-mail them as soon as I land on the other side of the world. I hang up my American phone for the final time and get in line to Korea — but not before I enjoyed my last truly American lunch.

A Big Mac is an appropriate final meal in the U.S.

A Big Mac is an appropriate final meal in the U.S.

But as I tried to get on the plane holding my fresh Big Mac, the Korean Air employees noticed on my boarding pass — the same one with which I went through security when I changed terminals — that I had been “randomly” chosen to be searched, usually annoying but moreso exasperating now that we were only a half hour before departure.

After a quick frisk, inspection of my full 38-liter backpack and watching my Big Mac roll through the X-ray machine, I rushed back to my gate where they were essentially holding the plane for me. I found my seat, inhaled my McDonald’s, and immediately did what I do best: I fluffed my pillow and fell asleep before take off. After a pattern of sleeping, eating, watching Scrubs, sleeping, eating and sleeping, I was overlooking the green mountains of Korea and slowly descending toward Seoul.

I'm guessing that's Chicago in Hangul.

KE 038: I'm guessing that's "Chicago" in Hangul.

I’ve made it. Let’s begin.

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You say goodbye, and I say hello

Things are a changin’ as I’ve said my first goodbyes and said my first hellos. The first goodbye is usually the most dramatic, and this was no exception. I said goodbye in the most theatrical fashion to the one thing that has been with me from the very beginning to the very end of my college journey: my five-year-old laptop. Its performance was quickly fading into oblivion, so I recently purchased a MacBook to make the technological aspect of life more tolerable.

After I took out the hard drive — the only salvageable part in the computer — my roommates and I ceremoniously grabbed our golf club, hockey stick and bike pump and marched into our front yard where we proceeded to go Office Space on it. The only thing missing from the carnage was a Geto Boys soundtrack.

The aftermath of a dramatic goodbye to my old laptop

The aftermath of a dramatic goodbye to my old laptop

The next — and first real — goodbyes came this evening at our Ultimate summer league. This week’s games were the finals, which my team won (no big accomplishment this year in a league of four teams), so this would be my last time playing frisbee with all these kids. These were the kids with whom I spent the most time in the past four years, and now I was saying, “Take care of yourself and keep in touch.”

The thing about goodbyes is that they’re always awkward, whether it’s the result of the circumstances or some figment of my overactive imagination. I think I’m always expecting something a little more dramatic, especially with the people closest to me, but what more can you really say other than, “See you later, and good luck with [insert future goals here]”?

The simplest goodbyes are the easiest, but it just means I’m ready to say new hellos — in only three days.

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One last American jaunt

The Sears Tower from the front steps of the Art Institute of Chicago

The Sears Tower from the front steps of the Art Institute of Chicago

As excited as I am to move to Seoul, I know I’ll miss plenty of things from the midwest. One of those things will definitely be Chicago. Though I’m sure I’ll get a similar feeling of the hustle and bustle of the big city in Seoul, I do have a special place in my heart for Chicago. As a suburban-ite, I’ve always liked having a little bit of a rush around me, and Chicago fulfills that and then some.

My brother (from Texas) visited me in East Lansing, and since I’m unemployed, I figured I’d show him Chicago since he’d have no real reason to see Chicago anytime soon. We took a two-day whirlwind tour of the town. The trip started somewhat ominously: As soon as we left my house, my iPod — the entertainment for the 3.5-hour drive — died. Despite that, the rest of the trip went quite swimmingly.

We arrived on Wednesday in the early afternoon to my friend’s apartment which is somewhere between Lincoln Park and Lakeview. My friend had some errands to finish, so my brother and I hiked to the free Lincoln Park Zoo. It didn’t seem so far on the map, but it turned out to be about a 2.5-mile walk, which was fine since we got to see the town firsthand. To the zoo, around it and back was by far the most I’ve walked in a long time, but that’s Chicago for you.

Then later that night, my friend joined us downtown where we wandered out to dinner and then Navy Pier. Navy Pier is clearly for tourists — idiots like me and my brother — as evidenced by the kiosk selling disposable cameras and sunblock and the gratuitous twice-a-week fireworks show. It makes sense, though, since it provides a fantastic view of the skyline, especially at night.

Thursday was a long day. We started with the Art Institute of Chicago, one of the most famous art museums in the United States. My favorite exhibit, maybe because of how surprisingly interesting it was as it sat among more classical pieces of art such as “A Sunday on La Grand Jatte“, was probably the paperweight collection.

The paperweight collection at the Art Institute of Chicago

The paperweight collection at the Art Institute of Chicago

Who would’ve thought there would be so much work put into paperweights? They were so intricate and ornate, especially for hunks of glass that are supposed to sit on stacks of paper. I usually just use a stapler for that purpose.

Once we finished strolling through the Institute, we headed off to the Korean Consulate so I could drop off my paperwork for my E-2 visa. It all went very smoothly, an in-and-out job. It was especially easy because I didn’t have to do an interview since Korean immigration issued me a notice of appointment instead of a visa confirmation number. Finally getting the last of the paperwork out of the way is quite liberating. I’m almost there.

With only an afternoon left in Chicago, my brother and I did a lot of wandering, up to the north end of The Magnificent Mile back through Millennium and Grant Parks to the south end of the downtown loop, the Museum Campus. Throughout the final 2.6-mile trek, the city — with its people and towering skyscrapers — always felt alive, which isn’t something that can be said about most places.

The Chicago skyline as seen from the Adler Planetarium

The Chicago skyline as seen from the Adler Planetarium

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