Monthly Archives: August 2013

On our first free weekend in Seoul, we decided to venture to one of our nearby parks. We hopped on the subway to go to Olympic Park, built when Seoul hosted the 1988 Summer Olympics. When we got off the train, we noticed a disproportionate amount of pre-teen girls in the area; turns out, the show “K-Pop Star”, which we inferred to be similar to American Idol, was auditioning at one of the venues in Olympic Park. So throughout our walk we got to encounter an array of singers, ranging in pleasantness from pretty good to not-so-good.

The weather has been cooling down, and on a Saturday the park was full of families out for the day. Many people bring tents to the park to shelter from the sun (and possibly bugs?).  Place looked like a regular Hooverville.

On our walk we came across four photo sessions. The area was beautiful with huge trees and rolling hills stretching far before hitting a line of city buildings in every directions. One photo shoot was a wedding, with the bride, groom, and wedding party romping barefoot with balloons (half reading I love you, and the other half reading I love Jesus) through one of the fields.

We climbed a hill in the park which gave us beautiful views of mountain-encompassed Seoul.


Olympic Park 1

Olympic Park 2

On the way down from the hill, we saw a bunny duck under a bush. But this bunny was what we would consider a pet bunny, huge, black and white, and weighing about 10 pounds. We think it might have been a runaway taking refuge in the park. It looked something like this:

Black-and-white spotted rabbit

On Saturday night, Ryan’s friend who has been living in Korea for five months now showed us around a few places in Seoul. We got to enjoy some good burgers in Itaewon and drink plenty of (supposedly) formaldehyde-laced Korean beer, Cass. The Cass prognosis: probably no formaldehyde, but the taste doesn’t help its case.  Sadly Koreans don’t have a big beer culture, and getting a good beer requires a special trip, a long wait, and deep pockets.  The top option for Koreans is the rice-based alcohol, soju, which tastes more or less like a cheap vodka.

On Sunday, we ventured to one of the huge Seoul swimming pools in Han River Park. It was the last day the pools were open, so we expected it to be busy, but it was fairly mellow. We went to Jamsil Swimming Pool, which had three huge pools. There are five other parks with similar facilities along the Han River, which cuts through Seoul. We enjoyed a dip in the pool before heading out for our first Korean barbecue experience. We went to a restaurant right around the corner from our apartment that is always crowded and ordered Samgyeopsal, which can really only be described as very thick bacon which is grilled to crispy deliciousness at your table. It was served with the ubiquitous kimchi, a variety of salads, soup with something that was either mushroom or gelatin, scrambled eggs, and red bean ice flakes for dessert. And with that we were rested, full, and ready for our first real week of work.

Welcome to Earth

Last week we went to our school to meet with our director and get set up in a hotel to begin training for school. To our surprise, we were immediately escorted to our apartment- our dust-encrusted, yellow-linoleum, furniture-packed apartment. We spent a few days of intense cleaning, as the apartment couldn’t have been cleaned for at least a year. After shoving a coffee table, huge outdated tv, and table and chair set into the corner of our apartment to clear some space, the apartment was feeling a little more like home.

We started training with the teachers we were replacing the next day. This was no more than sitting in classes to observe how each of the books were taught. We each have about 8 different books that we teach from, and with the books switching over as the new semester begins, it took us all week just to figure out which book we should be teaching to which class. The school is disorganized in a lot of ways, but the kids have been nice so far and all of the teachers friendly and helpful.

As we’ve begun to settle in and stop moving around so rapidly, a lot of differences have started to stand out. Culture shock is a little harder to catch when you’re moving every three days, but now that we have a home that we’ll be living in for the next year, we’ve started to notice some differences between back home and our new neighborhood.

-Huge military airplanes flying over our neighborhood at low altitudes a few times a day. After hearing and seeing them for a few days, we discovered that the Seoul Air Force Base is in the city directly south of us. Even thought it’s very common, it’s still startling.

F-15 Fighter Jet

This is not my picture. The planes are impossible to get pictures of. We just included this picture to give you a proper idea of this occurrence.

-Soldiers in camouflage with rifles chillin’ on intersection street corners at 9 PM on a Tuesday like it’s no big deal. (this was just a training exercise, but took us by surprise)

-Taking off your shoes immediately when entering a living space or restaurant

-Really ugly, dirty, awful entrances, hallways, and staircases to very nice, beautiful apartments.

-Buildings that have stores/offices/schools/churches all on different floors, so you walk up to the fifth or sixth floor sometimes to get where your going. Often, the entrance to the staircase for the building seems to be hidden and/or nonexistent. We haven’t figured out how to get to many of them yet.

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-Really awesome English t-shirts and signs. This one deserves its own post once we collect enough, but one of Brittany’s favorites that is everywhere is “Oh, baby in car!”

Oh, baby

-Deboning a chicken with chopsticks.

And then there’s differences in work. After we both spent time working in Title I schools the last one or two years, there’s a stark difference to our Korean private academy experience this year.

-Class size of 2-8 kids

-Working 6.5 hours a day and having almost no work to do at home.

-Working in the afternoons, meaning we can sleep in, eat a relaxed breakfast, do an hour of yoga, meditate, go to the gym, and eat a good lunch before starting work.  Our days feel way more relaxed.

Every classroom in our school is named after a body in the Milky Way; Ryan is Earth and Brittany is Sun. The kids were wonderful enough to draw cards, pictures, and posters welcoming us to the school. All of Ryan’s cards said “Ryan teacher! Welcome to Earth!” An apt welcome for our adventure in a new corner of the world.

We spent 5 days in Busan, waiting for our visa numbers and wandering about the sea cliffs and beaches.  Early Tuesday morning, we got a surprise message from our recruiter not only that our visa numbers were in, but also that our school wanted us to start work the following Monday, a week earlier than we had previously discussed.  This meant that in order to get our visas back on time, we had to leave that day.

In order to get a visa to work in Korea, you need to leave the country, so we went to the ferry station in Busan to catch a boat across the Sea of Japan to Fukuoka Japan, home of the nearest Korean embassy.  Our choices were between a slightly cheaper 12 hour, overnight ferry ride and a slightly more expensive 3 hour hydrofoil (quite the fancy invention).  The choice would seem obvious, but after traveling on reserve funds for a month, the mind begins to question the wisdom of spending $60 to avoid sailing overnight, sleeping on the floor with sixty other individuals.  However, being unable to read the Korean directions for the liquid motion sickness medicine we found, we decided to go with the hydrofoil and were in Japan by Tuesday afternoon.

Japan, like ourselves, is all about being cool.  Style abounds and there are rock and roll haircuts aplenty.  Smoking is an undoubtedly cool activity in Japan, and most cafes and restaurants allow smoking.  But we weren’t quite cool enough to go buy some Lucky 7’s.

Our combined Japanese lexicon totals 2 words (konichiwa and arigato), so we learned a good deal about inferencing and body language.  Despite our clear lack of knowledge, it seemed that people still spoke to us far more extensively than any shopkeeper or waiter in America would.  Not only this, but many people were happy to practice their English on us as we walked through the city.

We were able to feast on Italian food most everyday (oh, how I missed spaghetti carbonara), as there is an Italian restaurant every block or two in Fukuoka.  Also among the goods that we have not found in abundance in Korea was cheap wine.  Needing to take advantage of this, we washed down most of our tasty pasta dishes with a glass or two or three of wine.

The neighborhood our hotel was in was a huge shopping district, so we spent a lot of time meandering around huge outdoor malls open late into the night. Fukuoka is the 6th largest city in Japan, so it was surprising that during the day the neighborhood was fairly quiet. After 7 PM or so, huge crowds filled the stores, restaurants, and malls in the area.

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One of our finest Japanese days was filled with a walk around Ohori Park and the neighboring ancient castle grounds.  In the dense trees with no sound but cicada cries all around, there existed an unusual atmosphere in the middle of the big city.  Topping off the beauty of Ohori Park was the Japanese Zen Garden, which demonstrated a perfect symbiosis between man and nature.

Castle Grounds

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Ohori Park

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Japanese Garden

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After a couple of days in Fukuoka, we had our visas in hand and headed to Seoul to move into our home for the next year and start working.

Golden Dusk Days

After our visit in Gyeongju, we made our way about an hour south to the coastal city of Busan. Busan is the second-largest city in Korea and provided a striking contrast from the quiet hills and tombs of Gyeongju. After our bus ride we made our way on foot to our new hotel, which was actually a room in a Korean family’s apartment. The apartment was in one of what seemed to be hundreds of high-rise buildings. We’ve seen these buildings everywhere in Korea – from the most populated areas of Seoul to in the middle of fields and farmlands in the center of Seoul. At first, the buildings seemed creepy, with building after building of the same design sprawling anonymously. This particular apartment was in LG Metrocity in Busan, in a neighborhood of Busan that has over 72,000 people living in just 7 km. The same building, over and over again, rambled for as far as we could see.

The apartments inside, though, are beautiful and spacious. The family we stayed with was so sweet. Every time the mom ran into us, she would feed us something.  A few of these somethings happened to be hot dogs and fish sticks for breakfast, but these oddities also came with sweet pastries, delicious curries, baked squash, and fresh fruit.  A popular afternoon snack was a tomato topped with whipped cream. When we left, she gave us a bag of pasta for the road.

The first evening in Busan we wandered down the road to find some food at a nearby beach. The view across the water was spectacular, with the Gwangan Bridge spanning across the ocean.

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We were surprised to see the array of bike paths and walking paths in Busan, and even more surprised to see that no one used the bike paths. Either bikers were in the middle of the road or constantly asking us to get out of the way on the sidewalk.

The next day, we went on a walk out of our neighborhood. Starting out we saw this huge black and yellow spider, of which we have seen many more since.

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Our walk evolved into a seaside cliff hike with beautiful views of the city across the ocean and waves crashing against ragged cliffs along the coastline. We had wandered into Igidae Park, with paths hiking up Mount Jangsan and other paths running along the coastline with stairs and boardwalks zigzagging up and down.

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IMG_4221 IMG_4228 IMG_4233 IMG_4239 IMG_4257 On our third day in Busan we made our way to Haeundae Beach. One of the most famous beaches in South Korea, parasols and innertubes trail as far as the eye can see – and we were there on a Thursday.Image

We rented a beach pad and parasol and camped out in one of the endless rows of parasols, joining our sun-avoiding Korean neighbors on every side of our parasol. Throughout the afternoon we played in the waves, watched the insane number of people around, and listened to warnings about sexual camera predators occasionally blasted on the speaker. After chicken and beer for dinner, we made our way back to the beach for a concert, part of the final day of the Busan Sea Festival. A (somewhat strange, somewhat entertaining) show ensued, which involved a mixture of Korean and English songs from Broadway shows like Chicago and Fame and an insanely long commercial for some type of company that just kept saying “innovation”.

The next day we had to switch hotels due to availability, so headed to a new area of Busan. Our hotel was across the street from Busan Station, where a huge fountain provided a place for everyone to cool down.

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Over the next few days, we frequented a quieter beach, found a Cold Stone (miraculous!), and located
Russiantown, doubling as the city’s red-light district, next to our new hotel, which also happened to be the first place we’ve seen roaches. However, the time there was short-lived. Tuesday morning we got an unexpected call to start work a week early, so we headed straight to Fukuoka to get our visas.

The Temple of Easy Balance

On a day of August heat and humidity, we went to find Gyeongju’s famous temple, Bulguk-sa.  A short bus ride out of town and we arrived at the site of the ancient temple.  The temple was originally built in the 6th century, during the the Shilla Dynasty, and it remained intact for over 1000 years.  Bulguk-sa was burned to the ground in the late 16th century.  The temple served as a stronghold and meeting place for Korean fighters during an eight-year Japanese occupation of Korea.  Since 1608, the temple complex at Bulguk-sa has been meticulously reconstructed and stands today as a Unesco World Cultural Heritage Site and a stunningly beautiful and peaceful place to be, despite the swarms of Korean and foreign tourists.

The temple complex is remarkable for its classical architecture and all the beauty that comes with simplicity.  The humble layout and style of the complex is also reflected in the Buddha statues and peace they inherently emanate.

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Brittany’s favorite teaching was that of the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara, who opts to be reborn until all sentient beings reach enlightenment.

During our wanderings, we came to a beautiful path just to the side of the main fare wand walked up it a ways.  It’s desolation in the midst of the hundreds of visitors made us think we missed some sort of keep out sign, but the whimsical call of untrodden fallen leaves was too tempting, and we were drawn to walk along a beautiful old stone drainage, and we managed a few moments of silence before returning to the main path.

Definitely among the most striking features of Bulguk-sa was the Pavilion of Rock Cairns (so dubbed by us).  The pictures show it better, but I will say that there was something very magical about this place.  Cairns were everywhere, along the roof tiles, on doors, and covering the grounds.  We decided quickly to have cairns throughout our one day garden.IMG_4073IMG_4093IMG_4086

After leaving the temple complex, we took a two mile hike up the mountain to another national treasure, Seokguram Grotto, which was built in the 8th century and is made of huge granite stones which had to be carried many miles on mountain paths for the construction.

Of course, at this point, lunch was necessary, so we snacked on gas station PB&J’s (though what was inside them was more like mildly peanut flavored whipped cream than our idea of peanut butter) and some famous Gyeongjubbang (Gyeongju bread), small pastries filled with a sweet red bean paste.

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As most people decided to drive or bus to the site, we had the mountain path pretty much to ourselves, and we were ever drawn onward by the mysterious sound of a gong ringing through the forest (at the top we discovered that you could pay 1000 won to give the gong a whack).  The trail was also adorned every now and then with signs showing the tragic death of a friendly bear protecting his child from falling rocks.

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The Grotto was even more crowded and we were pushed through the small site, but the view from the mountainside was most excellent, as we could gaze out to several peaks on the horizon.  And it is to that southern horizon that we travel next.

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And just like that, Gyeongju fades behind as we travel on…

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Gyeongju

After a few issues finding jobs, we finally got some ace positions in Songpa-Gu, Seoul.  So, after much confusion and a lot of scrambling for jobs, we arrived in Seoul with a month of free time before we actually start.  So, as was once suggested to us, when in doubt, we headed south.

We wrapped up our time in Seoul by going to drop our luggage off with our new school. After lugging 200 pounds of luggage across the entire Seoul subway system, we showed up good and drenched in sweat to meet our new boss for the first time. After giving us ice water and ensuring that we weren’t about to pass out (even though we looked like we might), we were able to tour our school, meet the current teachers, and say hello to some of the adorable and enthusiastic students. The school is relatively small (with only two foreign teachers and about 5 Korean teachers) and 7 or 8 classrooms. Everyone at the school was wonderfully kind.  The bosses even took us to lunch where we had our first Hanjeongsik, or Korean set menu, which included plenty of fermented vegetables, soups, rice, pork, and fish.

The next day, we left Seoul to make our way Southeast. We are now in Gyeongju, the capital of the ancient Silla Dynasty (57 BC-935 AD), a dynasty that ruled the Korean Peninsula for 1000 years. There are a lot of historical and museum-y things to be seen, but we spent the first night spending a ridiculous amount of money on two shots of whisky (though the bottomless Doritos and chocolates that came with it almost made up for the cost) and hanging out in our somewhat dingy hostel with wet and hairy bathroom floors.

Seoul to Gyeongju

Then came our second experience with han-jeon-sik, and the time we learned the name for good.  Koreans are not big on breakfast, so hearing that western breakfast could be found down the road, we headed off with thoughts of eggs and buttered toast.  The Korean waitress, seeing that we knew none of what the menu meant, pointed to han-jeon-sik nodding approvingly.  Assuming this would be the western-style breakfast and approximating its meaning to be first meal (as hana is the Korean word for one), we happily agreed.  What we forgot, however, is that Korea is Hanguk, and the prefix han actually signified this was a traditional Korean meal.  We soon had another traditional Korean feast sitting before us, including a whole fish, bowls of anchovies covered in chili sauce, a sort of mayonaisse and cucumber salad with tiny eggs in it, and plenty of kimchi (fermented and spiced vegetables) – at 8 AM.  So we learned something new today.

After our breakfast, we started walking to view some of the tombs and other sites in the town. Unfortunately, it’s over 100 degrees and the most humidity either of us have ever experienced. We were driven in within a few hours, but got to meander a little.

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oldest surviving astronomical observatory in East Asia

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This trip feels much more like a foreign country than Seoul did. Even though the language is so different (and the weather), there are strange things that make it feel the same as home.  Korea, like anywhere foreign, feels strangely familiar at times, despite its differences.  Thankfully, the coffee craze is on in Korea, and we can indulge as we adjust to our new country.

Twenty-three more days left of wandering before we start our new jobs, and some beautiful places to see.  Next stop, Busan.

Korean-less In Korea

So…here we are, fresh off the plane in Korea, making our semi-obligatory arrival post.  Turns out, being able to read hangul (the Korean alphabet) does not directly result in being able to speak with anyone.  At all.  We are very good at thanking people and saying hello, though.

Still, reading hangul did allow us to order some tasty udon noodles with squid and deliciously spiced ramen with kimchi. And it allows Brittany to sound out Korean words like a 4 year-old, probably pronounced awkwardly and incorrectly. We don’t know because even if we pronounce something right we don’t know what it means.

We are staying in Incheon (a city a little outside of Seoul) for the first few days and have spent a lot of time walking to random places.

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walking in the park

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outdoor exercise equipment!

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we were surprised to find large farms growing in the backyards

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and we are very impressed with the adorable law enforcement

For those who were curious, Finding Nemo is good anywhere in the world.