Saturday, December 27, 2008

Merry Christmas!

Caleen and I at Jungangtap Park.

Caleen, Sherry and I at Jungangtap.

Our friends Sherry and Mi Ok

Mi Ok and Sherry displaying their gifts.

Our cute little Christmas tree!

Happy Holidays! We hope this year’s Christmas season brought you all some refreshment and fun. Despite being thousands of miles from home and familiarity, it’s certainly been a good season for us. We’ve been so thankful for the love and friendship of those near and far and, most of all, for the Hope that dawned so many years ago and continues to shed its light in this present time.

As you might have guessed, Christmas in Korea isn’t quite what it’s made to be in the States. In fact, in some areas (ahem - Chung-ju), you’d be hard-pressed to find any clue that the Christmas season was upon us. People generally do as they have been all year – working, shopping, working, eating, etc. And while there are some people here who celebrate Christmas, it’s done pretty casually. From what we could gather, families usually go out to eat for dinner and give gifts, though fewer than the much preferred holiday of Lunar New Year, when children receive money from an assortment of relatives, including extended family.

In the midst of this considerably scaled-down Christmas environment, Caleen and I were something like yuletide cheerleaders, imparting holiday cheer whenever possible. Because we are about to begin another session in school, we had some extra time to pretty much do what we wanted, so we used it to share how Christmas is celebrated in America and teach Christmas carols in English. Though I received some groans whenever I giddily passed out a new stack of yet-to-be-sung carols, I think they liked it. They seemed curious to know how things go in the perceived wonderland that is America, so it was fun to tell them about our customs and even a few family traditions, though I was careful to leave out the Semi-Annual Impromptu Christmas Eve Dance Party held at our Dad’s house. I didn’t want to give them the impression that everyone did the funky chicken and electric slide at Christmas time.

On Christmas day, Caleen and I were in for yet another harried holiday relay, though of a different variety. We usually spend our Christmas Eve’s and Christmas days visiting pockets of friends and relatives all over the Boise area, often wrapping gifts between destinations, but this year was naturally different. Having opened our gifts to each other the night before (naughty, I know), Caleen and I got up and rushed off to the home of our friends, Isaac and Erin. There we had the typical American celebratory breakfast of pancakes, eggs, and bacon and played games with new and newer friends. It was a good time. We played the infamous ‘What if…Game’ and Spoons, throughout which we discussed the highlights of the night before (i.e. Isaac choking down a can of dog food for 50,000 won). When we finished there, Caleen and I rushed home to tidy up our apartment and prepare another meal for our esteemed Christmas guests; Sherry, a student from school, and Mi Ok, Sherry’s mentor/past social worker.

To give you a little more info on how this came about, you should know that it came about through one of Caleen’s aforementioned ice cream socials at Baskin Robin’s. As a student of hers, Sherry came with her mentor, Mi Ok, and the new friendship started from there. Sherry had told Mi Ok a lot about Caleen, and so Mi Ok wanted to meet her and get to know her better. By the end of their meeting, they had formed plans to go to lunch and Jungangtap, a park near Chung-ju which features a 7 story pagoda to indicate the center of Korea. When the day came, Mi Ok, Sherry, Caleen, and I went and had a wonderful time. In addition to seeing the pagoda at Junangtap, we also visited a local, privately own liquor museum and sculpture park, during which we got to learn a little more about Sherry’s home situation. For reasons still not completely known to us, Sherry’s parents divorced when she was five and was sent to live with her grandmother, who went blind three years ago. Now twelve years old, Sherry has to care for her grandmother alone while attending school and two after-school hagwons. Needless to say, much of her childhood has been taken from her. One of the only sources of relief and fun for her is her weekly meeting with Mi Ok, who though no longer being her social worker, has continued to mentor and care for Sherry. Mi Ok even has a huge photo album devoted to chronicling Sherry’s childhood. Anyway as we said our goodbyes, we were so touched by the beauty of their relationship that we decided that we would like to have them over as our Christmas guests.

Having a despairingly small kitchen with no oven, there really isn’t a whole lot we could have prepared in the way of traditional Christmas foods, so Caleen and I settled for a spaghetti dinner. Despite the absence of some preferred ingredients, things turned out pretty well, and we enjoyed our time with Sherry and Mi Ok. Though neither of them really celebrate Christmas, both of them bought gifts for us. Sherry used what little pocket money she probably had to buy a Monet notebook for Caleen and a lap blanket for me. It was so sweet. Mi Ok then presented her gift of several photos she’d taken of us at Jungangtap and a picture frame. We felt so special. We weren’t expecting anything from them. We then gave them their gifts from us, cleverly wrapped in the Christmas stockings we weren’t ever going to use again. They loved them. We knew Sherry loved Harry Potter books but had never seen a Harry Potter movie, so we bought her a Harry Potter DVD. We also bought Mi Ok one of those lovely bath and lotion sets so popular with us and women worldwide. We then all sat on Caleen’s bed to watch Sherry’s new Harry Potter DVD, eat cookies (Thanks, Judy!), and drink hot chocolate. Unfortunately, Sherry was called home to feed her grandmother in the middle of the movie, so they had to leave a little prematurely, but it was a special night. We felt blessed to have them over and hope to spend more time with them.

Well, that’s all for now. In closing, we wish you all a belated Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year! We hope to write again soon with our thoughts on the new year!

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Some craziness in Korea

Often times as we are walking the streets of Korea or happen to experience something out of the ordinary, we are forced to to only one take a picture!

Stir-fry and paper towels, a logical bonus buy

A Korean feast

This is actually a mushroom (probably fermented)!

Our friend Isaac, grimacing as he swallows down 10 bondegi

The infamous bondegi

For those of you that don't know what bondegi is, it is actually a silk worm (this isn't the greatest picture of it by the way). This is a popular snack among many Koreans. We told our friend that if he ate ten of them, we would take him out to dinner. Of course he met the challenge and afterward dared us to at least eat one. If you know me at all, you would know that I of all people would never eat something like that, but I was told that if I did, my friend would do something extremely crazy. Ashley and I both reluctantly ate a silk worm, which tasted exactly like it smelled, and to our surprise saw our friend Isaac pick up an entire cup of silk worms and crammed his mouth full of them!! Needless to say, this was one of our more memorable experiences together.:)

I don't know about you, but there's just something disturbing about matching underwear, especially when it's decked out in pink and black lace. This is fairly common to see all over Korea.
Since the last time we wrote, we were beginning to see a season of festivals and cultural highlights around areas of Korea. We (or I) had the pleasure of attending a mask festival in Andong, about 2-3 hours from where we live. It was among one of the first cultural celebrations of Korean ancestry and tradition. I had the opportunity to go with a couple friends and marvel at the different masks and performances that have been cultivated by the Koreans and other cultures for centuries. One other such festival, a martial arts festival in fact, took place in our little town, we call home now. Both festivals were pretty big and mapped out with all kinds of cultural activities and performances. This one was unique in the sense that it brought people from all over the world to stage and present their mastery of martial arts.

Martial arts from Malaysia

Martial arts from the Ukraine

Martial Arts from Lithuania

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Some pictures of me and my friend Erin at the Mask
Dance Festival in Andong. We also had the opportunity to attend a traditional Korean fashion show.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Doing pretty well...

Okay. To begin with, Caleen and I are not born photo-nazis, so we're going to try to take more pictures next time. This, unfortunately, is what we had laying around.

Me looking very silly.

Caleen and I in the scenic vicinity of our apartment.

Mmmm..Bibimbap. What hamburgers are to Americans, bibimbap is to Koreans. How sad.

Caleen and I thought you would be interested in seeing how Koreans dispense beverages.

With a post nearly a week ago, I sort of feel like I have nothing to say. This, of course, isn’t the case, so I guess I’ve just grown a little too accustomed to posting say, once a month or every two months. :) Anyway, as Caleen indicated in the last post, things are going tremendously well. We’ve gone from clinging to the walls of our apartment for social interaction to being busier than we’ve been for a while, so you could say that we’re slowly, very slowly developing actual lives. I must say, I’m quite proud. I wasn’t sure that was ever going to happen for us. We’ve also made incredible progress in our use and understanding of the Korean language. We can now count things, tell time (sort of), and order around waiters, waitresses, and cab drivers with greater efficiency and accuracy. I almost teared up when Caleen could actually tell a cab driver where we lived, which is actually quite long to say (Yeon-su-ju-gong sam-dan-gi ka-ju-se-yo). Until recently we’d been showing them our address written in Hangeul, which usually elicited smiles, nods, and chuckles but got the job done. You’ll also be glad to know that we can now manage our way around Seoul with relative ease now too, which should hopefully relieve the anxiety felt by some of you on our behalves, namely our mother.

As boring as it sounds, the most distinctive part of our daily lives, at least for me, has been how quickly time seems to go by here. I get up, try to do a little exercise, eat something, read or write emails, buy a little kimbap for Caleen and I to eat at work, work, and come home, where I either read or write until I go to bed. After doing this a few times, it’s the weekend and the past work week becomes a blur of non-event events, and it’s made me think a lot about what on earth we will do when this year is over. However, this isn’t too terribly surprising to me. I seem to be somewhat predisposed to anxiety about the future, so these thoughts aren’t anything new. I just didn’t expect them so shortly after we’d arrived here.

Along less ambiguous lines, Caleen and I continue to feel incredibly blessed by our increasing numbers of acquaintances and friends. We now have another foreign teacher at our school named Isaac, who has been wonderful to get to know and work with. The students also seem to love him, for I think three reasons: He’s a guy, he’s really tall (6’3’’), and he’s really, really nice. A perfect fit. It’s not uncommon for students, mainly boys, to come into the office and hang around with him and literally on him until classes start. It’s so cute. And speaking of cuteness, he comes with a girlfriend, Erin, who we’ve also found to be quite awesome, so Caleen and I are thrilled to have the two of them around. We feel like we’ve won the co-worker lottery. In fact, last night at dinner we discovered that we all have similar political views, which was both relieving and stimulating. We now have people to discuss all the new information we now have from watching so much CNN, one of the few English-speaking channels we now have. And speaking of politics, it’s amazing how much Koreans know and are interested in the current presidential elections back home. We’ve even managed to have a small political debate with a cab driver.

We’ve also gotten the opportunity to spend more time with our Korean friends Mina and Grace. We’ve had the pleasure of hanging out with them both at the raddest little coffee shop in Chung-ju, Jazz and Sanzo. It’s actually an old, traditional Korean-style home that’s been converted into a coffee shop with a lovely outdoor seating area and eclectic ambiance. I feel like I’m entering a lush garden every time we go there, which is makes it a little oasis in the middle of an otherwise unassuming and slightly sketchy alley. After going there with Grace, we went to a local noori-bang (literally a “singing room”), where we karaoked for over two hours. It was great. Just in case you didn’t know, the way the Chinese and Koreans do karaoke is to rent out small rooms, where you can give private little concerts for one another. They come equipped with water, microphones, and TAMBORINES (!!!!), so everyone can rock out. Those of you who are looking into visiting us in January, expect to be taken to a noori-bang. It’ll be a good time.

In all, Caleen and I are doing very, very well at this point. We miss home like crazy, of course, but we are also very much enjoying our time here as well. Again, we appreciate all your continued prayers and messages of encouragement. Only 10 more months to go! Take care!

Monday, September 8, 2008

Our long Overdue Update!

Shopping in Insadong, Seoul
Listening to traditional music
In the Buddhist temple
People worshipping in the temple

Ashley and I with our friend Jessica
fake orange palm trees
hangin' out downtown

So…for those of you have threatened to write the blog for us because we have been bums and have not updated you thus far- here it is! Sorry for the long over due update. Things have really picked up speed for us over the last month. We have experienced a lot of changes in our schedule, not to mention some surprises of sickness due to the weather change and weekly travels. But…we are adapting to yet another completely different schedule again and will commit to sharing our lives with you. **Hopefully we will hear from you soon with a comment or two just so we know there are people out there who read it.:) It keeps us motivated if you know what I mean.

First, I’d like to share with you what we have learned. Over this last month – it was yet another turning point in our life when we both turned a year older. We found out that we are older than we think. According to Koreans, when you are born, you are already one year old. This concept makes sense, but what about the other three months?? Also, when New Year’s Day arrives, you instantly turn a year older. Because of this, most Koreans celebrate their birthdays twice in one year! Now, when people ask our age, we give them our Korean age and International age. I prefer giving them my international age myself.:) 27 just sounds too old! At least they celebrate with cake!

Another helpful tidbit we learned about Korean culture is how to write their names. A few weeks ago I was using a red pen to write the students’ names. This has been particularly for attendance and detention purposes that we have to submit to the secretary. To our dismay, the head teacher approached us and said that it is offensive to write their names in red! To do this means they are going to die or have already died. You can imagine how awful we felt and vowed to never do it again! This would have been helpful if they had told us prior to starting our classes. A simple 101 Korean class would have been nice, but of course that’s not how things work do they?

We have learned other things such as the amount of Vitamin C and other vitamins that are packed in seaweed (something Ashley and I eat almost every day), or that kim chi has the same properties as yogurt! Apparently kim chi provides the natural bacteria necessary to aid the intestinal wall. I haven’t grown too fond of kim chi yet, but maybe we’ll benefit from this health food soon enough. We really do learn something everyday here!

Ashley and I are enjoying our classes, but they are met with challenges. It really is difficult trying to make the content fun and interesting, yet stimulating. We are trying to find innovative ways to do this though. With dictation classes, it’s even more a challenge. These classes provide hardly any interaction with our students because we are pressured from the school to get through the books as quickly as possible. These are older students too who don’t really like earning stamps as an incentive for doing their work. Because of this, Ashley and I decided that we would try to reward these students somehow by treating them to ice cream or dinner. Of course, we don’t have bundles of money to do this with all our students, so when we give them a writing assignment (every Friday or every other Friday) for Writing Day, we decided we would choose 2-4 students every so often that submitted the best paper. The first time, Ashley and I took two of her students to dinner after class one night. Since our schedule has changed though we can’t offer this kind of luxury to our students.:) My last class ends at 9:30 now, so I decided the best option was to take my students to a coffee shop where they could choose between a number of things. Their parents, for whatever reason, were totally okay that I took them out on a school night downtown! Students in Korea typically get up at 7:00 in the morning, start school around 8 and go until 4 or 5 in the afternoon, attend some sort of music lesson, have a break for doing homework and make their way to the haegwon where we teach. Students take anywhere from 1-3 classes depending on the level of their class. If that wasn’t enough, most students have to do homework after such a day!....Anyway, taking my students out was definitely an adventure. I didn’t want to limit this experience to only 2 students like we had originally planned so I extended this invitation to two other students as well, who happened to all be boys. I did this because Korean students are hardly recognized for their efforts. They are met with increasing pressure from not only their parents, but their teachers and the world telling them that if they don’t succeed they’re a failure. I became more aware of this as I read their papers from the latest writing prompt I gave them on, “The Most Difficult Obstacle in Your Life”. About more than half of the students wrote about the challenges of studying and never being able to meet up to the expectations of people around them. It was heartbreaking to read. The opportunity to come to a school and be filled with knowledge has become, for some students, their worst nightmare. One student wrote that his studies must be his future job because he even dreams about it in his sleep.

We boarded a taxi and went downtown to our favorite coffee shop. It was great because none of the students had been there before. It was a real treat for them. They couldn’t believe that their teacher wanted to take them out! It’s surprising how much teachers hold a negative view for most students here. It’s actually quite common for teachers to hit their students. The most affective way to discipline in the public schools is by using a stick to hit students with. I don’t want to go as far as to say that this method is wrong, but it certainly does not appeal to my philosophy on education. I’m trying to look at the way they do things here, but sometimes I can’t help but strongly oppose their methods. Anyway- I took my girl students out as well. There were 6 of them! I have to say though that the boys actually tried to practice their English; another incentive for going. I never thought I’d say this, but I actually prefer to work with the middle school students here. I think I could say the same thing for Ashley. We just prefer to engage with our students on a deeper level. For the younger ones, it’s a challenge because they can hardly speak any English. Don’t get me wrong, they’re as cute as can be- but then they lose a little bit of their cuteness when they deliberately disobey. Some of this though I think is attributed to miscommunication. We just don’t have the resources to effectively teach and communicate to most of our students. We are doing the best we can to work around it however.

Ashley and I are building our vocabulary. I think we know about 15 words in Korean now. Hahaha- which is actually an unsightly number when you live in an area like we do! Our friend and neighbor Grace though has offered to teach us Korean once or twice a week. She is a God send. We discovered she lived right next door to us about 4 weeks ago. She is happy to translate when we go anywhere and we are just happy to be in her presence! She is quickly becoming our closest friend here. She even ventures to come to Seoul with us sometimes when we go to church. That’s right, we go to church every week in Seoul. It’s about a 2 hour bus ride just to get to the bus terminal in Seoul and then we take the subway (about 30 minutes) to get to Itaewon, a district in Seoul, where we then walk about 20 minutes up hill through these side streets to attend church at 11:00 in the morning! The lengths we go to, to go to an English speaking church! We love it though. The people are genuine, extremely welcoming, and hospitable. I think we had 3 people offer to have us stay with them overnight whenever we come to Seoul so we don’t have to get up so early on Sunday mornings. The pastor even gave us a key to his home and told us to drop by anytime we come! We feel very blessed to have such a wonderful group of people to fellowship with. The 3 hours it takes to get there is worth it.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Food, Friends, and Adventure!

Fountain at Gyeongbukgung Palace

The building in front of The Blue House
A tip of The Blue House. Can you see it?
David, Christine, John, and I
Caleen was there too!
A shot of one of Seoul's downtowns!
A fountain in downtown Seoul
The entrance to Gyeongbukgung Palace.

Hello Everyone! It’s been quite a week, so I hope you’re in the mood for a lengthy update! Caleen and I just had a wonderful four-day weekend, of which, three were spend in Seoul! It was so amazing! I’ll tell you all about it, but before we dive into that adventure and how things are going back home, I’m going to start on a tangent. It’s better to get through it now, so things don’t become too disjointed or incomprehensible later on. :)

Before and since coming here, many people have asked Caleen and I about Korean food and what we were going to do concerning our diet situation. For those of you who don’t know, Caleen and I have been on highly restrictive diets (for health reasons) at some point over the past year, and we’ve just been trying to be cautious since then. Anyway, when people have asked about it, we would generally tell them how we thought sticking to our dietary guidelines in South Korea would be relatively easy in comparison to living in the U.S. We knew that rice, not wheat, was the main staple here and that people ate lots of vegetables. We were sure we would have nothing to worry about. However, we couldn’t have been more mistaken. I’m not sure if we have mentioned it before, but the food here hasn’t been the easiest to get used to. We’re all for eating vegetables and fish, but we’re not huge fans of unrecognizable, pickled foods that are covered in a spicy, yet somehow bland chili sauce. To put it simply, our dislike of a lot of Korean food has driven us to eating things that we oughtn’t, like sugar and wheat. It also doesn’t help that Koreans have these strange and beautiful desserts that are offered to us regularly, like sweet potato cake and odd, disc-shaped-custard-filled treats. They’re so great! The sweet potato cakes are moist, decorated with slices of sweet potato and dark chocolate, and covered with whipped cream frosting and powdered chocolate. How could you resist?!?

We also don’t have many alternatives in the event of a sugar-craving attack. They have a dismal selection of the sugar-free foods that we would normally eat when we were craving things. In fact, we’ve only found three. The first is the nastiest chewing gum you’ve ever had. It’s made with xylitol, which is great; but it also tastes like a cheap menthol and eucalyptus cough drop. To my bewilderment, Caleen chews it all the time, which I think speaks volumes about her sad gum-chewing addiction. The second is Diet Coke, which normally gets the job done, but the third alternative is my favorite and hardest to find, sugar-fee dark chocolate. As far as I know, it can only be found in these small convenience stores called Family Mart, where there are usually few to none. The outer packaging had been opened both times we’ve found it, but we were desperate enough to buy them anyway. We’re cracking way down on our wheat and sugar consumption from now on, but I just wanted you to know that our resolve to eat well while we’re here has considerably weakened at times. If you are at all bored or feeling generous, you could join our cause by either praying that we develop a taste for Korean food and/or sending us pounds and pounds of sugar-free dark chocolate. You can buy it in bulk at Winco. :) Just kidding…

Okay. Now that that’s out of my system, I’ll talk about the things that you really want to hear - or read.

As Caleen mentioned in our last email, we are in the middle of the school’s Summer Session, which to our dismay (namely mine), has greatly prolonged our working hours to nearly 10 hours/day. Despite our feeling perpetually tired, we’ve adjusted pretty well. The middle of the week is, by far, the hardest part. We largely look and feel like zombies for all of Wednesday and Thursday, so for those days, it’s helped to crash immediately after eating dinner. That way we get about 10 hours of sleep before the next day and are less likely to think the rest of the week impossible to get through. The Summer Session is not nearly as harried as a normal work day, but the days certainly go slower. We’re definitely looking forward to our normal work schedule. Only three more weeks to go!

As far as our social life is concerned, things have certainly improved. (Praise God!) There’s a new Korean teacher at the school who’s been a student in the U.S. for the last 4 years, and she’s been great to get to know. Caleen and I had her over for dinner this week, where we got to hear more about her family and her experience coming to the Lord. It was a good time. I don’t think we’d laughed that hard for a long time, and we’re hoping that she’d like to come to Seoul with us the next time we go. Unfortunately for us, however, she’s leaving at the end of the month to go back to the States, so Caleen and I are a little bummed. We’ll make the most of our time with her until she goes, but until then we’re planning on stuffing ourselves into her luggage when she leaves. J

There’s also another English-speaking Korean woman, who we found out lives right next to us. She’s just moved here for work and seems in want of company. We haven’t gotten the opportunity to hang out with her yet, but she seems nice and very eager to get to know us, though I think we’re a bit more desperate to know her.

In all, we’ve been doing pretty well. We’re starting to battle homesickness and the tendency to view everything through the lens of ethnocentrism, but who doesn’t when they move to a radically different country? For now, we’re just trying to stay optimistic. We’ve even come up with the Caleen-and-Ashley’s-10-Best-Things-About-Living-In-Korea List.

1. The people of Korea are incredibly helpful. Every time we’ve remotely
needed help, someone has miraculously appeared or been more than happy to
assist us when we’ve solicited their help.

2. Caleen and I re-did the math and found that, hypothetically, we’ll be able to
obliterate most, if not all of our debt and may even come home with some money.

3. Our new friends, David and Christine. They took amazing care of us while we
were in Seoul. I’ll talk more about them later.

4. The humidity in the air makes it so we don’t really need lotion.

5. The people here are really respectful of the elderly. They bow lower to them
when addressing them, serve them first, accommodate their needs, and even speak
to them in a specialized way (honorifics system).

6. Public transportation is great, even in Chung-ju. A cab ride across town is
only around 2,500 Won ($2.50 USD).

7. Tipping is not expected or required anywhere.

8. So far, men have been very respectful toward us. Unlike walking around in the U.S., we’ve not once been creeped out by anybody (okay, once) or been hit on. It probably helps that we don’t speak Korean.

9. Eating out is usually inexpensive. Street food is usually around $2-$3, and a sit-down meal is not normally more than $8.00.

10. Because Caleen and I just work and have few friends, we lead very simple lives. We’re not constantly running in and out of the house to meet people or get things done. It’s a slower pace of life that’s allowed us to do things we haven’t been able to do in a long time. For instance, Caleen is trying to pick up painting again.

*11. Bonus!* The produce here is immaculately beautiful. Caleen thinks I’m silly for
putting this on here, but it’s true! You’ve never seen such huge, pristine fruits and
vegetables in your life! They taste good too!

I know, some of that’s a bit weak, but we can say with all certainty that every one of those are good and true things about living here so far.

Now on to our adventures in Seoul!

As we may have mentioned in our last blog (I should really read what we’ve told you already), our dear friend, Shirley Moon, helped us connect with some friends of hers in Seoul. Their names are David and Christine, and I can’t tell you how thankful Caleen and I are for their generosity and help. Once Caleen and I had put it in our minds to go to Seoul for our 4-day weekend, we gave them a call to see if they would be at all willing to help us find a hotel and give us some advice about coming to the city. They said they would love to help, so we made plans from there. However, I don’t think we ever anticipated the kind of reception we received when we got there.

Because Chung-ju is a small city that doesn’t benefit from the ease and efficiency of a bullet-train, Caleen and I came to Seoul by bus, which isn’t a terribly long bus-ride in the first place (about 1 hour and 40 min.). We were excited and a little nervous as we got off the bus. I remember thinking that if the Seoul Express Bus Terminal was anything like the rest of Seoul, we were in for something drastically different and wonderful. Comparatively speaking, this bus terminal put the Boise Airport to shame (and it was only one of its two terminals). It has 4 levels (technically 5) and more upscale shops and stands than you can imagine. When we got to the information counter, we were almost immediately greeted by David and Christine and their cute and quirky son, John. From then on, we were treated like esteemed and honored guests. David took Caleen’s luggage; John was coerced into taking mine; and off we went.

First, we stopped at the hotel to get ourselves checked in and settled in our room. David was so cute as he told us about how reasonably priced and strategically located our hotel was. He reminded me of our dad when he gets really excited about telling us something, all quiet, but still enthusiastic. The hotel, it turns out, was pretty cool. It’s down the most narrow street you’ve ever seen in your life and centrally located in Seoul with easy access to the subway and Itaewon, a place I’ll tell you about later. It was a little more than we were expecting to pay per night (around $60), but you also have to understand that Seoul is one of the top 5 most expensive places in the world, so we were actually quite fortunate. It had two twin beds, a mounted flat-screen TV, a refrigerator, and an air conditioner, which was all I really cared about. Anyway, after dropping off our things there, we headed out for lunch in Insadong, the city’s historic district.

On our way to Insadong, David and Christine told us that not only had they intended to get us settled into our rooms and take us out to lunch, but that they’d also planned to spend the entire day with us. David had it all planned. We were going to go to Insadong for lunch and shopping first, The Blue House second, the Gyeongbukgung Palace third, and then Itaewon for dinner and more shopping. We didn’t know what half of all that was at the time, but we were eager to see it all and excited nonetheless.

It turns out that Insadong is a street as much as it is a district. There are small traditional shops, art galleries, restaurants, tea houses, antique shops, and other specialty shops crammed up and down the street. There are also people everywhere. Though the narrow street is primarily a tourist destination, this street is also fully functional during the week. So having come on a Friday, we toured Insadong though great crowds of people and moving vehicles. After eating a good, traditional Korean meal and looking at a few shops, Caleen asked if going to tea houses was at all a tradition in Korea, to which they said that it was and mistook Caleen’s question for a desire to got to a tea house. They found the most delicious smelling tea house down the road. It smelled of the most exquisitely intense sweet, baked cinnamon imaginable, and Caleen and I knew we had to have whatever it was. It turns out it had to be one of two things, a hot cinnamon tea or a cold cinnamon tea punch. Caleen and I were determined to find out what exactly the smell was, so we ordered both. And so to not sound as if all I cared about was what Caleen and I did, I want you to also know that Christine had a citron tea and that David and John shared a cold rice tea. J Anyway, in addition to this tea house’s heavenly smell and delicious teas, it was also quite expensive. A cup of tea was around $7-$8 USD, no joke. Seeing this, Caleen and I sneakily slipped my debit card into the bill folder to save our magnanimous hosts any further expense. After all, we didn’t want to seem too expectant or ungrateful.

After seeing Insadong, we went to The Blue House next. The Blue House, it turns out is where the President of South Korea lives (The White House…The Blue House, get it?). However, we didn’t actually get to see much of The Blue House. I’m not sure exactly why, but we couldn’t go beyond this gate which stood in front of the building which blocked our view of The Blue House. We could only see a fraction of the roof beyond the building in front of The Blue House, which was, indeed, blue. However, the great part about coming there that day was seeing a parade in which soldiers or mock-soldiers were dressed as warriors representing each of the Korea’s dynasties. They all got off their charter busses in full uniform, marched across the street and though the main gate. It was pretty awesome. Some dignitary or foreign official was there that day, and we had come just in time to see the parade begin outside the main gate. David kept saying over and over that he’d never seen anything like this in real life and felt we were very lucky to be there that day. We felt pretty lucky too. To not entirely cheapen the experience, it was kind of like finding a two-for-the-price-of-one sale.

Next we went to Gyeongbukgung Palace. It was the palace of the Joseon Dynasty, and it was beautiful. Caleen had already seen historical Asian architecture in China, but this was my first time seeing it first hand, and I adored every bit of it. However, I’m not sure why I was so enamored with it. It looked exactly the way I imagined an ancient Asian building would look. Perhaps that was why. Reality usually falls so far short of any idealistic prototype, not unlike the way a hastily wrapped cheeseburger with wilted lettuce and only half the cheese on it looks in comparison to the advertisement that inspired its purchase. At any rate, it was beautiful as you can see from the pictures above.

The last place we went to, Itaewon, was actually the only place Caleen and I went to for all of Saturday too. It’s largely considered the Westerners’ district. The U.S. Army has a base right along the street, so there are tons of American soldiers, not to mention people from all over the world who have set up shops and restaurants to cater to them. This was a little like paradise for Caleen and I. We really missed American, Thai, and Mexican food, and I was eager to find some clothes that fit. (Clothes run quite small here, and even the clothes I found turned out to be hideous and ill-fitting, at best. They’re also extravagantly over-priced. Caleen feels the same way.) We also hadn’t really seen many Western faces since moving to Chung-ju, so seeing so many came as a surprise to us. After looking at a few shops, David and Christine took us to their favorite Thai restaurant, where Caleen got to have her Pad Thai and I got to have my Thai curry. It tasted more authentic than any Thai food I’d had in Boise, and it was really good. We also had a great time with David, Christine, and Jon there. We’d talked the whole day about Korean history and culture, and by then we were talking about the main differences between Korean social behaviors and American social behaviors. David is an international businessman of sorts (he works for Korean Air), so he’s well aware of the differences between North American and Korean culture. What he had to say was sooooooo funny to Caleen and I. Apparently, Caleen and I shouldn’t make eye-contact, smile, and say An-yeong-ha-seo to people anymore. We were perplexed that most people look so stoic when we see them, and we told them that we had been somewhat depressed that no one appeared to be very happy about life. David laughed when he heard this and told us that Koreans don’t generally smile – not because they’re all depressed, but because they all know each other. According to him, Koreans don’t feel the need to smile and make other people feel comfortable because they know what another person is thinking, even if they don’t really know them. To put it in a way in which I could better understand this idea, I imagined that this isn’t too far from how we are with members of our immediate family. We don’t always feel the need to smile and greet one another all the time, and I’m guessing that’s what he was getting at. He also told us that if we went around smiling and saying hello to everyone that people might think we were crazy. That, of course, would be more likely if we were Korean men, but he said to tone it down a bit anyway. Caleen and I laughed so hard when we heard this. We’ll see how well that goes!

After dinner, Caleen and I took David, Christine, and John to Coldstone for some ice cream. We had passed it on our way to the Thai restaurant, and David had never heard about it before. After that, they dropped us off at our hotel and said our goodbyes. We would see them again on Sunday when they picked us up to go to an English-speaking church, which proved to be a major highlight of the trip. Caleen and I hadn’t been to church in nearly a month, and we were in need of some encouragement.

After misunderstanding one another about which church we wanted to go to and getting lost on the way, we ended up at the Seoul International Baptist Church, which turned out to be a great choice for us. Everyone there was very kind, and the congregation was composed of all sorts of people – Americans, Canadians, Africans, Koreans, etc. We also really liked the pastor and his wife. They are from the great State of Texas, and that certainly came out in the way they talked. We loved it. The service went a bit long for David and his family, nearly two hours; but Caleen and I hardly noticed how long the sermon went. It was exactly what we needed. We’re hoping to go there a little more to see if we want to make that the church we attend on a semi-regular basis.

When the service was over, we had just enough time to eat lunch and sightsee around the terminal before our bus left. It was nice. We ate, drank smoothies, and then got to watch the beautiful, green Korean countryside flash before our eyes as we headed home.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Life As We Know It

A typical classroom
Another example
One of the school hallways
The school bookstore
One of our favorite coffee shops!
Ashley with some Dietrich and a cup of coffee

Ashley's desk
Caleen's desk
A sea of Koreans downtown
Downtown Chungju
We love our Asian pears!
This is what the weather does to our hair!

It’s been another adventuresome week. Ashley and I have started to expand our current mode of transportation. Yay for us! We are now using the taxi to get across town and using our new set of wheels to get around (we'll post pictures another time). Our vice principal was nice enough to provide a couple of bikes for us to use. Our bikes are right up there with Yolanda (Ashley’s former car) in terms of coolness. When we ride them however, people tend to laugh and point. We don’t know why exactly. We think we look pretty cute:).

Ashley and I are starting to get out more. In fact, just the other day, we were anxious with delight by the possibility of some American food. We went downtown to search the surroundings and spotted a Pizza Hut. I don’t think I’ve ever been so excited to eat at a Pizza Hut before! (Ashley and I haven’t quite grown accustomed to Korean food yet). At any rate, we were ecstatic to see familiar logos, a salad bar(!) and some forks to go with our meal. As we were eating however, we felt like we were re-living a moment in Arachnophobia. As we glanced outside, enjoying our meal, we were horrified (okay, maybe I was more so) to see 10 or 15 huge black spiders hanging from the roof!! They were about the size of a 50 cent piece. I don’t know if you can imagine this, not sure if you want to…but let me tell you that it was a pretty gruesome sight. The waitresses were quite amused because we were so engrossed with what basically could have been their window ornaments for Halloween, there were so many. Needless to say, we gave them something to laugh about. Sorry, no pictures.

The bulk of our time however, is in the Korean hagweon. When we first arrived to the hagweon, the students were pretty enamored with us. A few students lit up when they saw me because of my blue eyes. One student said I looked like an angel! Haha- I guess they don't see very many blue eyed people. The students are also pretty fascinated when they hear that Ashley and I are sisters! They even ask again, just to double check! Anyway- this past Tuesday we experienced a complete shift in our schedule. We are arriving to work around 8-8:30 in the morning and leaving a little after 6. It’s taken some time to adjust but we almost prefer this schedule more. We are actually given 2 hours for prep, (which helps a lot when you have 7-10 classes to prepare for) and lunch this time around. Ashley and I have developed a system too that has taken some tweaking, but has been working pretty well now. As some of you know, we were having a few problems in certain classes with behavior (those dang middle school boys :)). Anyway, we have found that most Korean students, especially the older ones, are over worked and thus do not want to be fully engaged in class. Realizing this, as well as their tendencies to speak mostly Korean in class, we came up with a system that at least from this week, is proving to work quite well. By encouraging the students to speak only English, it has actually cut down on half of the discipline problems. Also, we give students 5 stamps if they speak only English (no Korean), which is a good incentive, because the school provides a stamp party twice a year. The students can buy prizes and food with their stamps. We also start each class with 3 dashes on the board. If the students are being too noisy, or refusing to follow instructions, we erase a dash. If all the dashes are erased, the students have to stay after class for 5-10 minutes. (I’ve only done that twice and the students REALLY don’t like it!) If all three dashes are there towards the end of class, we play a game. I’m at the point now where most of my classes play a short game at the end. And of course, there are students that we have to send to detention if they don’t respond to the above, which doesn’t happen very often. We’re whippin’ those kids into shape! Not literally of course. We actually really enjoying teaching and the students are great! Sometimes, when I get them to play a game, I’ll give out prizes to the winner.

I don’t know if there is anyway to describe how different things are in the school system compared to the U.S. That was probably one of the hardest things I had to adapt to. The school is really only interested in students taking tests every day and getting through the curriculum as fast as possible. In fact, they encourage the teachers to go through an entire textbook within a month. Most of the classes are centered on listening, dictation, (the ones that Ashley and I teach) and grammar (what Korean teachers teach). However, when the students write, it seems unlikely that they were actually schooled in English grammar. The first day, the head teacher told us that we couldn’t do games or arts and crafts in the classes. I was really disappointed about that, but a couple of my classes call for it (practically every day from the text) so I do it anyway if the text suggests it. No one has said anything yet :). We feel really bad for these kids. They are in the public schools all day and are then forced to come to a hagweon (could be for an English, music or tae kwon do hagweon). Then the students go home and do homework all night. Supposedly high school students are in school until 11 p.m. or so and have to do homework on top of that. The teachers at our school are mandated to give the students a list of words that they have to write 2-3 times in English and 1 time in Korean each night for a test the next day. We also have to give them listening homework and an activity from their workbook each day as well. The students are expected to do that for each class they take (usually up to 2-3 in a hagweon), not to mention the homework they are given in the public school. Right now the students are on vacation, but it’s not much of a vacation because they just take more classes at the hagweon.

It has been an interesting ride. We still have conflicting views and struggle with the system, but perhaps our perception will change over time. We are just trying our best to work with what we are given and reach out to our students within the time we have them, which is a lot of students. We have about 130-150 students total. There are 13 students on average in our classes. We’ll let you know how it goes when we have to make a report card for each student :). Thanks for staying tuned! I'm sure we'll have many more experiences and pictures to share!!