Saturday, September 25, 2010

We've Gotta Stop Meeting Like This

It is 9:37 AM.

This is strange.

Well, actually, any time I sleep past 8 o'clock these days is strange. I am lying on my left side, watching the red digital numbers blink for seven minutes. There is a truly ugly lamp in my field of vision, as well as a half-eaten bag of potato chips and a small mountain of clothes that smell like cigarettes.

As I roll over, I remember how sore I am. And when I spot the fully-dressed, fully-comatose forms of Kris and Gustie I remember where I am. And then I realize I'm also in all of my clothes from the night before. Ugh.

The shower pressure sucks. I'm not confident I even got the first layer of sweat and smoke off of my shoulders. The mirror is completely fogged up, which is fine, because I'm sure I look like hell anyway.

This is going to be a long day.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Chuseok is ending, and we're in denial. A night of rowdiness is in order, and Gangnam is where it's going to happen. It just happens to be the birthday of our new friend Kris, and we are more than happy to celebrate.

Gustie and I got the last two tickets on the 2 o'clock bus out of Icheon. That was the good news. The bad news was that the seats on the last row of the bus are horrible. There are armrests in inexplicable places, it is impossible to get comfortable, the afternoon sun is just a little too bright and the road construction is not helping the migraine that is slowly building behind my right eye socket.

But we get there.

Met up with Angie after some tribulation, hopped into a cab, and fifteen minutes later pulled up to the Tiffany Tourist Hotel. The front desk guy spoke pretty decent English, but probably not enough to make up to the fact that the lobby smelled like mildew and our room key weighed about a pound.

Sixth floor, room 601, looks like something out of a tawdry mid-century French sex novel, but at least there's two beds and one's a queen. Change of clothes, re-applied eyeliner and we're out of there. It's nothing much, but at least our sober selves thought ahead this time.

We meet up with the rest of the merry travelers off of Exit 5 at Gangnam Station and then set out to find some Turkish restaurant that was rumored to be in the area. Either this was a lie or our navigational skills leave something to be desired, because none of us had any Turkish food that evening.

But, then... shining, like a beacon in the night... a Mexican restaurant. Literally called "the Tacos". Yes, please. And twice.

(And yes, we ordered both the lemon and the lime margarita pitchers.)

After tearing into some chicken quesadillas and getting to know one another a little better, we began our little pub crawl. What's difficult about this is that we just ate, but Korea (being Korea) is sort of strange. There are a lot of bars here that will kind of force you to buy "anju" (or bar snacks) with your drinks, as kind of a profit-insurance, not-really-a-cover-charge-but-kind-of-is situation. So we actually had to go to a few different bars before finding some that weren't going to force us to squeeze a layer of Korean anju on top of the Mexican food-babies we were already carrying.

The first bar was pretty cool- very dark, long tables, gigantic big-screen TVs showing some Korean women's basketball. (They were playing Brazil.) I couldn't really say for sure all of the beverages consumed at Stop #1, but I do recall a ladies' round of neon-green appletinis that were incredibly sweet. Some beer, some Long Island Ice Tea, some other stuff... right before we left, the guys bought Kris a drink with a very dirty name. I shan't repeat it here, but it was lit on fire and that was exciting.

And then it was onward and upward. Problem was, 'upward' led us to a very strange bar. The place had plum-colored, crushed velvet-lined booths, with sparkling threads of beads that hung around every table, slightly obscuring the view of the (probably) dirty things that would transpire in (on?) them. We all sat, giggling uncomfortably, for about five minutes before we bolted.
We don't need any of that.

Finally. Another normal bar. And normalcy means the most gigantic, ridiculous pitchers of Miller I've ever seen. As well as at least two bottles of soju. I vaguely remember the sign on this place saying it was a "classy soju bar", but we were downing cheap beers like champs and the booths were held together with duct tape, so there you have it. My end of the table played a few rousing rounds of "Never Have I Ever". I won't name names, but someone's been arrested, and someone's had sex in an elevator. Scandalous.

By this point, we are definitely in the soju happy place, and we wanna dance. Gangnam was very accomodating. We troll over to this underground club called "Harlem" (all of the truly interesting stuff happens underground these days) and descend the black staircase into the middle of a club that looks like what I assume an acid trip feels like.

Let me try to set this up: when you enter the club, there is this gigantic, circular bar, that is fully lighted and changes color every two seconds. To the right is the dance area, with different areas of raised platforms. With poles. There's a live DJ somewhere, but I only saw him once, because this place has smoke billowing, and strobe lights flashing and more Korean club kids than you can shake a glowstick at.

We. Were. Psyched.

As per usual, the details all get sort of hazy after one has entered the Korean dance club. It's like a portal into the Twilight Zone. I remember meeting a lot of guys that were American military... some from Georgia, some from Texas, Louisiana, probably some other places. The bartender was from Omaha. I think.

At one point, an American guy named Fred introduced me to a nice, young Korean fellow named Leo. We danced for approximately four or five hours. In that time, I think I comprehended about four of his attempted English sentences, but he was a sweetheart.

As the night wore on, I was exhausted, bathed in sweat, and feeling every step of the mountain hike that Gustie and I had taken the day before. Thank God I was wearing boots, and not the prevalent four-inch stilettos. Sometime around 5 AM, half of the group left in pursuit of food, and Kris, Angie, Gustie and I held out for about another half an hour before it was time to call it a night.

Begin what was probably one of the funniest cab rides of my life that I remember none of.

And then one of the worst hangovers of my year which I remember all of.

Oh, Korea.

We've gotta stop meeting like this.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Cold Chicken, Professional Soccer and Korean Erectile Dysfunction Commercials: Chuseok Holiday 2010 (SATURDAY)


So, the original idea was to get lunch in Suwon. That was literally all that was set in stone. Lunch with Juanita and crew at Outback Steakhouse, and meeting up with Brent and Angie at 4:00. That was it. But I didn't make it back to my apartment until 8:00 PM.... Monday night.

Having a sirloin at Outback was an almost-religious experience. I am a carnivore. And even though Korea indulges my meat-eating ways (sort of), I was jonesing.

It. Tasted. So. Good. Om nom nom.

At lunch, we met some of Juanita's buddies, one of whom told us about some things to do in Suwon, including a soccer game at the Suwon World Cup Stadium that was free for foreigners that night. Free for foreigners?? Cheers, Korea.

After lunch, we popped into the third floor bookstore, which (wonder of wonders) had an English section! We were like kids in a candy store. Except way nerdier. I picked up a few paperbacks: A Thousand Splendid Suns and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. (Sidebar: wandering around Icheon today, I saw a Korean version of A Thousand Splendid Suns.) I think that the Madison GEPIK kids may be starting a rotating English books library.

Shortly thereafter, we located Brent and Angie, and wandered into a small second-floor cafe to muse about our jobs and Korean oddities. Even though the GEPIK program is somewhat standardized, everyone's experience varies so much. After hearing about some of the things that other kids have gone through (horrifying apartments, temp housing, sickness, being dragged to Jehovah's Witness meetings by host families) I am quite pleased with my situation here in Icheon.

We decided that we were all about seeing some Korean soccer (I've been wondering what all the fuss was about) so we set our sights on finding the Suwon World Cup Stadium. This is difficult when one does not speak Korean. But right outside of the Suwon subway station there is this thing called a "taxi stop". It's such a stupidly simple idea, but I don't recall ever seeing one in the U.S. It's literally just a section of a road where taxis line up and so everyone knows where to go to catch a cab. The thing is here, there are at least two different types of taxis. There are the regular ones, which are usually silver or white, and then there are "deluxe" taxis. The only really obvious difference is that deluxe taxis are painted black, and also have completely black tinted windows. I assume this is for privacy while rich Korean businessmen snort coke off the thighs of very expensive prostitutes, but I guess we'll never know.

So, we all piled in our non-deluxe, mere-mortals cab, and speed off in what we are praying is the general direction of the World Cup Stadium. Luckily, our cab driver is savvy, although she is watching Korean game shows on her GPS, which is slightly unnerving when there are four lanes of traffic all going 80 km/hr. We screech to a halt, pile out, and are standing right in front of one of the most enormous soccer stadiums I've ever seen. This thing is monstrous. And so freaking awesome. We are like six-year-olds.

Well, maybe alcoholic six-year-olds. Why Korea Is Awesome #39: You can bring booze pretty much anywhere. We kind of scope out the place, take some obligatory pictures (especially in front of the free-standing bathroom SHAPED LIKE A SOCCER BALL. Really. I couldn't make this up.) and then head across the street for some snackage. The hometown team is the Suwon Bluewings, and there are people in jerseys all over the place, particularly in the convenience store that we popped into. Couple of tallboys of Cass, some water and potato chips, and it was game on.

Now, we had heard in passing at lunch that this game was free, but this had never really been confirmed by anyone, and we had no idea how to obtain tickets. We kind of wandered up into the complex and were looking at ridiculously over-priced Bluewings jerseys when this adorable Korean staffwoman comes up behind us, beckoning for us to join her. (Racial profiling for the win.) And then she just hands us all free tickets, no questions asked. Sweet.

This stadium is b.a.l.l.e.r. I probably couldn't do this description justice without pictures, but suffice it to say, it is enormous and super-cool. We were in row 7, and the field is super green and the fans are psyched and some are waving Che Guavera flags (that one we haven't figured out yet) but it is just... cool. The team lost, 2-0, but it was really surreal to be at this professional soccer game, in Korea, knowing that the Badgers were playing ASU in the morning, cold chicken and warm beer, Korean kids chanting cheers we couldn't understand.

Today, I was looking at this file I have on my computer of just interesting pictures I find in my cyber travels, and there is this one of some graffiti. I don't know where it is, or who wrote it, but it just says this:

"You are alive."

And that's what it felt like.

You are watching Korean soccer. You are drinking beer with your new friends.
You are content.

And you are alive.

Later, other stuff happened... like we got kicked out of a taxie by an irrate cabbie, traversed the Seoul metro and I slept in a ball on Angie's apartment floor. But more on that later.

<3 from Korea. Jenny.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Cold Chicken, Professional Soccer and Korean Erectile Dysfunction Commercials: Chuseok Holiday 2010 (FRIDAY)

I am sitting in a suite at the Hotel D'Or in Itaewon. Keanu Reeves is angry about something on the American channel, there are five KFC boxes on the floor and I can't find my pants.

And this is how I got here.


Koreans, God bless them, have many national holidays. Chuseok, also known as Korean Thanksgiving, happens to be occurring right now. Well, technically it's Tuesday through Thursday, but if you're lucky, your school will let you off for Monday and Friday as well. Gustie and I are lucky. And lucky girls sleep until 10 AM in their swanky hotel suites with jacuzzi tubs. Sadly, Angie, our partner in small crimes, had to depart early this morning. But that's getting ahead of the story.


For me, Chuseok began at 4:30 PM on Friday. With mysteriously delivered rice cakes in saran wrap. Really. Things just appear on my desk all the time. But I departed the school, rice cakes in hand, on the way to the bus terminal. The goal for the night was Chinese food and general debauchery with some members of the Icheon foreigner crew.

Met up with Felicia, Sean and Gustie at the station, hopped on the 8, and stopped right by the restaurant a very sweaty twenty minutes later. (City buses tend to be PACKED right after school, and Friday was no exception. Definitely rubbed more than a few elbows with the locals.) After a brief conversation with some very drunk guys outside the ATM, we headed up for some Chinese cuisine. (Because can you really have enough Asia? Ever?)

After dinner, we walked down a whole two flights of stairs to land right in front of a bar. (I love this city.) And there, we made an awesome discovery. Korea Fun Fact #486: a lot of the tables in bars or restaurants have these little call buttons on the side, enabling you to summon your waitress whenever you want. These shall be known henceforth as "booze buttons".

Many pitchers later, we had made it through just about every flavor of "soju margaritas" the place offered, and an idea was born. Felicia had bought West some post-its, ostensibly for remembering important, job-related things. We decided, however, that they should be re-appropriated for scribbling down the hilarities of the evening. (With a compilation version to be produced at the end of the year.) A sampling of the "things to remember":

- drink soju (with check-mark added)
- learn to talk English-ee
- perform sacrilege on the metro transit
- don't get beat up by adjummas

A most excellent evening.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Apple-Flavored Soju and the Goddamned Flat Chopsticks

I've just been handed a bottle of canola oil for no discernable reason. I am gnoshing on gigantic purple grapes and fresh tomatoes. My vice principal, two desks away, is wearing a pink glitter tie.

Just another day in the office.

So... it's been an interesting 48 hours. On Tuesday morning, Mrs. Kim informed me that I was being sent away for a day to go get "mentored". Whatever. No school. Wednesday morning, I slept in until SEVEN THIRTY A.M. And it was glorious. It's really about the small pleasures here.

My particular mentoring experience was set up with the native speaker at Seolbong Middle School, which is about a fifteen minute trot from my apartment. It was a part of town I hadn't really been in before, and I discovered about three fried chicken restaurants I had no idea existed. (Korea Fun Fact: People really dig fried chicken here. Well, chicken is all of it's forms actually. I have absolutely no problem with this, but it does make me laugh.)

Anyway. I got to Seolbong Middle, which is signifcantly larger than Daewol. I kind of wandered around looking for the admin office, and eventually got steered in the right direction. Right as I got back into the hall, I spotted my mentor for the day, Adrian. Now, I don't know if I just have this really U.S.-centric view of English speakers, but I was surprised to discover that Adrian was South African. As it turns out, about half of the English teachers here in Icheon are South African. Cool.

Basically my day consisted of Seolbong students alternately staring at me or ignoring me, and sitting on Adrian's couch in the back of the English room. I think the idea was that I was supposed to observe his teaching style and ask him questions that my co-teachers just wouldn't understand... for seven hours. But Adrian is a nice guy, and answered all of my "OhmahgodIjustdon'tunderstandthisfreakingcountry"-type queries.

Then we looked at comics.

Adrian introduced me to this website: It's basically these comics for/by foreigners about the perpetual weirdness and contradiction that is Korea. Illicits cries of "That's SO true!" every five minutes. Take a gander.

So, the teaching stuff was all well and good, and I did take some of Adrian's advice about discipline style, but the real value of the day came after class was over. Adrian and I left the school at about 4:30 PM and briefly met up with one of his friends, Dawn, (another South African teacher here) who invited me to dinner with a group of Icheon English teachers. Hello spontaneity.

Obviously, I have very little resembling a social life, and I'd been wondering where all the Icheon expats were hiding, so I was in. Turns out they'd been about two blocks away the whole time; the restaurant we ended up at was about one street over from my apartment.

And then I met about half of the foreigners in Icheon.

Talk about a diverse group. Just a sampling from the party: a bubbly, vivacious South African woman, a newbie from Philly, two seminarians, a West Coaster, an East Coaster, a Minnesotan and me.

So about midway through the meal, I realize that I am in Icheon, South Korea, discussing the Ground Zero mosque project with two seminary students, one Korean/Canadian, one Kenyan, eating Korean fried pork and downing countless liters of Cass beer. Living in Korea is like a constant exercise in surrealism.

After dinner, a few of us went out for further alcohol, at a second-floor bar named "Cheers". Seven shot glasses and pitchers of neon-green apple soju appear, and it's sweeter than sweet. We're talking about bridges and Costco and the DMZ and mac and cheese and it's great.

We're all having dinner again tonight, with the happy addition of Gustie.

It's all just... interesting.

I sort of realized it this afternoon- this is exactly what I wanted. I wanted to make something new for myself; I wanted to have something throw me off balance. I'm like a weeble wanting to be wobbled. And Korea's doing it. But right now... it's really good. Even when it's aggravating and awkward and infuriating.

It's really really good.

<3 from Korea. Jenny.

Monday, September 13, 2010

900 Korean Schoolchildren Are All Yelling Your Name

Hey all,

So I guess this is going to be a frequent posting week, mostly since it's Tuesday. On Tuesdays I have one class, and it's already done, so I'm killing time in the library. It occurred to me that I haven't really talked much about my actual school, which is a large chunk of my daily existence here in Korea, so I thought I'd give you all a sneak peek into the goings- on of Daewol Middle.

I suppose I'll start with the 'scenic backdrop': Daewol is basically this country area outside of Icheon City Proper. (According to the tiny tourist map, it looks to be generally southeast of Icheon itself, where my apartment is.) Every day I get picked up by Miss Ha, the adorable, super-nice Special Ed teacher here. At Daewol, the English translation they have on the door is the "Love Class". So, Miss Ha picks me and two other teachers up in her tiny red Matiz, and we embark on the 25-30 minute ride out to Daewol. It takes like 10-15 minutes just to get out of the city and pass the major highways, and there are a lot of small mountains and little villages in the area. The actual road that gets to my school, (I think it's called Ch'oji-ri, don't quote me), passes Konkuk University and also goes by the Daewol Elementary. I've met the guy that works as the Native speaker there, Mark, who is from Vancouver and gives me advice on the futility of certain Korean beauracratic systems. He's been here six years, so he's sort of like my Icheon "Yoda". Very wise.

Once you actually pull up to the school, there is this gigantic, pristine soccer field right in front. Our kids are very good at soccer, and some are just generally uninterested in anything else. I don't think they usually play games here, but sometimes I watch them practice after school. The road that the teachers drive up rounds the right side of the school and there is a back parking lot that leads right into the back entrance. (The front one is a little more grandiose, but nobody really uses it.) Right when we get in the door, there is a big wall of little wood cubbies, because you don't wear your street shoes in the school. (It's kind of funny- there are all these rows and rows of Korean names, and mine just says "JENNIFER".) In school here, all the kids wear these rubber sandals that look a lot like those Adidas black and white striped jellyish sandals that kids in the U.S. used to wear. The teachers sometimes get sort of fancier ones, but I just wear the ones the kids do. They're comfier. Korea really embraces the socks and sandals combo.

So, Daewol is in the public school system, but the kids all wear uniforms. The basic get-up is a light-blue checkered shirt with an embroidered nametag (the nametags are different colors depending on their grade level) and navy blue pants or navy plaid skirts. Some of the kids seem to do anything to not wear their uniform shirts, and I can't say that I really blame them. They all look pretty cute though. A lot of them have these gigantic, black plastic Harry Potter-esque glasses that I have fallen in love with. Actually, in my afternoon conversation classes (which are pretty small) there are these three boys that all sit right in a row with these glasses, and it's adorable.

The school itself is a big rectangle. The 3rd grade (8th grade in the U.S.) has classrooms downstairs, which is also where the Love Class, music room, science lab, admin office and cafeteria are, and the 1st and 2nd grades are upstairs, with the library, nurse's office, and "broadcasting room". Still no further details about the broadcasting room. It's a mystery.

The way that most schools operate is that the teachers all have desks in large room, with low partitions so that you can see everybody. Some schools have specific "English rooms" where all of the signs and stuff are in English, but we don't have one at Daewol. And the really big difference from U.S. schools is that here, it is the teachers that move around to different classes, not the students. Every class has one room that they stay in for the majority of the day, and the teachers just haul their laptops and materials around everywhere. May have to invest in a messenger bag sometime soon. Although my school laptop is still being fixed, so I guess it's not an immediate thing.

Even though the school is generally pretty modest, every classroom has these giant flat-screen TVs that the teachers can hook their laptops up to for powerpoint presentations and showing movies, etc. I use these a lot. We also have a lot of whiteboards, but they aren't white. They're greenboards. So you use these sort of paint-markers. The kids all have desks like in the U.S., and little cubbies at the back of the room for their books. The shoes are all kept in these shelves outside of the classroom. (Sidebar: A student just looked over my shoulder to see what I was typing, and started shaking her head in disbelief at all of the English and how fast I was typing. Haha. They keep trying to ask me questions in Korean, which is sort of failing.)

Ah... what else... the classes are pretty standard, 45 minutes long. The bells are a little different here; they are sort of this weird melodic Korean music. Interestingly, the kids have a bell at the end of class, 10-15 minutes in-between classes, and then there is another bell. The teachers don't leave to go to the classroom until AFTER the second bell. Seems kind of strange to me... like all of our set-up time takes place right at the beginning of class.

안녕하세요 (One of my students just typed this for me. It says "annyang haseyo" which is "hello" in Korean.) :) She just asked me if my friends would read this, and I said yes. We're in-between classes at the moment, which is why there are kids running around.

The students are kind of funny here. The range is amazing, because some of them clearly haven't hit pubery yet, and are super-short. But there was a kid in my last class that was taller than me with a very deep voice that the other kids get a kick out of. A lot of the kids are really energetic, but some of them are too cool for school, and really don't want to learn English at all. It's definitely a delicate balance trying to get an entire class to stay with you for a whole lesson. I guess it's only the second week and we're still working out the kinks. Even though they get squirrely in class sometimes, in the hallways they are all really nice to me, and a lot of them will yell out "HI JENNIFER!" when we're in the halls. I guess we have to expand the vocabulary to include more chit-chat, but for now it's fine. If I ask them how they're doing, a lot will just say "Good!" and run away giggling. There are a lot of giggling children in my life these days.

Well, I guess that's about it for this installment of "Really Long Descriptions of Jenny's Work Environment", but maybe sometime I'll tell you about the cafeteria, which is often a lot more humorous.

<3 from Korea. Jenny.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Hongdae (Hongdaze?) Part II

Okay, where was I? Friday night downpour in Hongdae...
(Oh, and I'm safely back in Icheon now, for all of you keeping score at home.)



For all of you Madison folk, it's sort of like a gigantic, multi-street State Street. But with much more bars and cars, bright lights, beautiful young club kids, and monsoon weather.

Okay, it's not really like Madison at all. But it is interesting. And loud. And it's a good thing I bought an umbrella on a whim at the bus terminal, because it is POURING. But there are still thousands of intrepid partiers in the streets, determined to have their good time. Through wind or rain or dark of night. (And actually, in this case, all three.)

The first stop was food. (Waiting for lost Jennys for over two hours makes for hungry Rachels.) So we ended up at a "Mr. Kebab's" of all places. As I'm sure most of you know, I was in Israel just a few months ago, so having some shwerma in the middle of Seoul was kind of surreal. And tasty.

After dinner (and drying out some) the bar search commenced. Honestly, the whole thing is a little daunting. How do you choose where you want to go when there are literally hundreds of bars of every style and persuasion in your immediate vicinity? Do you want to dance? Do you want to quietly sip soju? Do you want to meet foreigners? Or Koreans? Or just drink anonymously? So many options.

Luckily, this choice was quickly taken care of, as Rachel's buddies were already staked out at a table in an underground club- 'Papa Gorilla'. (Throughout the night, as things got much blurrier, this was also referred to as "Mama Monkey" and sometimes just "that primate bar...?") We were downstairs just long enough to stash our bags in (very convenient) lockers before heading off to another venue- 'Gold Bar'. Gold Bar was pretty standard in terms of the Korean nightlife I've witnessed so far. Reallly dark bar, with roving, flashing brightly colored strobe lights. Loud music. Model-beatiful bartenders. And shot glasses.

Our particular band of merry travelers that night happened to include a birthday boy. (Names have been ommitted to protect the drunk, although I'm sure they'd all admit it to you.) And birthdays mean Jose Cuervo. Served with nacos, chicken, bowls of peaches, and other semi-identifiable snacks. The other semi-identifiable element of the night was definitely nationalities. If I had to hazard a guess, I'd say that there were about six or seven countries represented in our group alone. (For those interested: American, Canadian, Welsh, British, South African, Korean, Saudi and a few others I couldn't really confirm.) Everyone is eating and drinking and having a fine time, but nobody seems to be getting particularly drunk. Because that's the thing about partying in Hongdae... it sneaks up on you, and then hits like a ton of bricks. And that ton of bricks hit right as we left Gold Bar to go back to Papa Gorilla.

The first stop at Papa Gorilla had been pretty tame. There were maybe twenty people in the whole bar. Now, it was PACKED. Remember, this place is underground, so all of the heat and sweat and music don't really have anyplace to go. It has this heavy, hot atmosphere, pretty sparse except for long, thin tables that people are now dancing on top of. Okay.

So, drinks at Papa Gorilla are really cheap, and a fair amount of them come in buckets. Not dissimilar to the popular fishbowl, but a lot less sophisticated. (As though fishbowls were sophisticated.) No, these- these are just plastic buckets. Like ice cream pails. And they are fantastic.

Buckets at Papa Gorilla make you do crazy things. Like dance on tables, or with people you just met (whose names you may or may not have known at the time, and that are definitely erased from your memory now), or singing along to Ke$ha in public. I fell asleep in the cab on the ride home, but then again it was 4 AM.

But's that's Papa Gorilla.
And that's Hongdae.

And it's awesome.

<3 from Korea. Jenny

[Author's Note: To any and all concerned parties (especially grandmothers) that may be reading this- I was very safe and with friends the entire time. I promise.) :)

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Hongdae (Hongdaze?) Part I

So, I'm sitting here, in Rachel's loft in Bucheon, trying to think up some adjectives to even begin to describe Seoul. It all seems to go by in a blur, and basically the things that surface in your memory are bright lights, smoky bars, glinting bottles of imported liquor, mirrors everywhere, tiny gorgeous Korean women in four-inch heels and rain.

Welcome to Hongdae.

So, as far as I understand it, Hongdae is sort of the University area of Seoul, and lends itself to a young, arty, bar-filled atmosphere. I had decided to be adventurous, and now armed with a functional ATM card, I was ready to take a trip up to the big city. Rachel graciously agreed to put me up for the weekend, and so I told her I'd meet her at the #1 exit off of the subway next to Gangnam Bus Terminal.

And that's where the trouble started.

I think I was conscious of my cell-phone dependency prior to coming here, but two weeks in Korea without a phone, combined with spotty internet access, has been awful. If you want to meet up with someone, you have to shoot them an e-mail with a time and place, hope they see it by then, hope they can figure out where it is, and hope that they are even free to meet up. There is quite a lot to go wrong in that equation, and Gustie and I missed each other about four times in Icheon. And that's Icheon. Icheon is miniscule in comparison to Seoul. So I really didn't understand what I was getting myself into.

[To backtrack, there are two buses that go from my city, Icheon, to Seoul. One is a bus that goes to the Dong-Seoul Terminal (which is East Seoul, crossing the Han River) and one is the "express bus" (nothing is express on Friday night) which goes to the Gangnam terminal- more on the Western side of Seoul, and closer to Rachel's surburb, Bucheon. So I'm on the route to the Gangnam. Okay, resume.]

The bus I'm on left the Icheon Terminal at about 6:30 PM, and they claim that the trip is about an hour to an hour and a half. This is a filthy lie. Maybe on a Tuesday at two in the morning. But on Friday afternoon, when most normal people actually want to come into the city, it's a nightmare. So, poor Rachel has the impression that I could be there as early as 8:00 PM, which is a fallacy. Including the time I got lost in the labyrinth that is Gangnam Station, we found each other a little closer to 10 or 11 PM. By this time I am aggravated, sweaty and starving, so my weekend vacay to the city has not had a good opening number.

And then the rain starts.

Rain in Korea is different than regular rain. You just can't get away from it. Umbrellas are a permanent accessory. It is monsoon season, and if you are caught without an umbrella, you are screwed. And soaked. Pretty much instantaneously.

So, that's what happened first. Haggard, frustrated, cell-phone-less country girl is catapulted into the hot, humid rainy hi-speed merry-go-round that is Seoul. Hilarity and tequila ensues. But more on that later. Rachel and I are about to head back to the bus station and grab some lunch.

To be continued...

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

The DMV From Hell (or Jenny Visits the Suwon Immigration Office. And Then Eats Korean McDonalds.)

What do you get when you take thousands of foreigners, bring them to South Korea, and withhold cell phones and bank accounts without domestic identification?

Really long lines at the Immigration Offices.

* * * *

So, I'm sitting at my desk on Monday, minding my own business, and then Mrs. Kim saunters up. It's always something, and this day was no exception. "JINIPAH! You need to go to Suwon. To get your Alien Card! Tomorrow! No school!"


Now, I understand that they want us teachers to, you know, not have criminal records and HIV, and I have no problem with this conceptually. But then she drops the real bomb: that I will be going on this little adventure.... alone. Because the other teachers have things to do, and on Tuesdays I'm pretty expendable, so this voyage will be solo.

Now. I know where Suwon is, geographically. Sort of. It's pretty much directly west of Icheon. But I have only used the Icheon Bus Terminal a grand total of one time, and that was on the way in two weeks ago. When I was jet-lagged and half-asleep. So I am not very confident in my skills here. Basically, my mission is this:

Take a bus you've never used, to a city you've never been to, to an office you've never seen, fill out forms you don't understand, wait for two hours, and then come home. By yourself. Love, Mrs. Kim.

I was feeling pessimistic.

As it turned out though, getting on the bus was not the difficult part. Basically, you just walk up to the window, say the city you're trying to get to, pray you're pronouncing it right, and then fork over some cash. They give you a ticket, and then you wander through the platform trying to decipher the different signs, although they have switched it up just to spite you, and these signs, you discover, are written VERTICALLY. So, this takes about fifteen minutes, until some merciful soul comes over and spins you in the right direction. Suwon is station #8, if you were wondering.

The bus ride was about an hour long, and goes through some smaller areas on the way, like Yongin and others I can't remember. It's very mountainous, and the views are amazing. We went through a lot of long tunnels. Getting to Suwon is not quite as picturesque. It is a much bigger city than mine (Icheon is about 200,000 and Suwon is about a million) so the roads are enormous- lots of four-lane highways. Mrs. Kim has instructed me to get off at "Yeongtongdong" which turns out to basically be a bus stop on the side of the highway.

This presents issue #2: how does one hail a cab when they are all going 80 km/hour?

At first I wasn't even seeing any cabs, so I started walking down the street a ways, but then one finally popped up. I stuck my hand out, and honest to God, this taxi crossed three lanes of traffic and missed a metro bus by about a foot to brake right in front of me. Okay. Taxi: obtained. My Korean is only modestly less terrible than it was last week, but still does not include any casual taxi chitchat, so it was a quiet ride to the Immigration Office. It hasn't been made clear to me whether or not you're supposed to tip cab drivers here, so I didn't. There may or may not be two Suwon cabbies with a very poor impression of Americans now; I hope they do not take this out on any foreigners that may be reading this. My bad. (Have just consulted my co-teacher, Mr. Hyun, on this point: the answer is no, you don't tip them. Interesting.)

So, the Suwon Immigration Office. If I never have to go back there for the rest of my life, I'll be very happy. This brief moment of hope was immediately extinguished however; I have to return in two weeks to pick up my stuff. You can't just get the card on the spot. Argh.

Basically, a very very very long story short: it's exactly like the DMV. You grab a number, fill out a form, and wait in a room with hundreds of people waiting for the two government workers to get through everyone. When I got there, they were at #51. My number was 123. I made a lot of progress in my novel and eavesdropped on the languages I could understand. There was one hilarious, pissed-off Brit in the corner who kept stage-whispering European profanities, which was probably only for our benefit, because the workers seemed completely non-plussed by the huge and ever-increasing crowd of people.

When it was finally my turn, the man just took my forms, muttered to himself for a few minutes, and said to come back in two weeks. Gave me a receipt, and I was done.

Pretty anticlimactic, I know. Welcome to Korea's red tape.

On the plus side, the week has gotten a lot better from there. Gustie and I have managed to find Pizza Hut and a working ATM (over-joyed about this particular discovery) and there is some bar exploration planned for the future. Finding good beer would be quite a coup. But more on that later.

<3 from Korea. Jenny

Friday, September 3, 2010

This Is How Twenty Korean Teachers Get Down

Hey all,

So, yesterday was interesting. My day started out really horrible, but ended with my 40-something Korean colleague during the thriller dance in the middle of a seedy kareoke room with red booths, a disco ball and about thirty empty Cass cans.

And here's the story.

Korean food hates me. And my stomach hates it right back. Yesterday, the grudge match came to a head, and Korean food won. I was at my desk at school, basically doubled over after another insanely spicy dose of Daewol cafeteria cuisine, when my co-teacher rushes over. While I was pretty sure she came to give me Korean teaching guideline #5,000, she noticed my state of hell, and brought me up to the school's infirmary. (Incidentally, right next to the "broadcasting room". What gets broadcast from a rural middle school in Icheon? This eludes me.) So she hands me over to the new school nurse, who gives me a hot pad and a bed, and I basically lie there for an hour trying to ride out the pain, all the while students coming in and out of the nurse's office, wondering what's wrong with Jennifer-teacher. Delightful.

Eventually, the pain either digests or subsides, and I felt slightly better. I went back to my desk to half-heartedly make more slides for my Introduction powerpoint I'll be using next week. Upon my re-arrival to the office, Mrs. Kim informs me that we will be having a "teachers dinner" that evening, and we're all leaving at 4:30.

Now. I really like my teachers. But I was in no mood to eat more Korean food, and I was going to beg off. But I didn't. So, we hop in Mrs. Kim's silver car, with what is probably a $1000 GPS but AC she refuses to use even in post-typhoon humidity, and we were off.

We arrived at the restaurant, and I was surprised to see that we were actually at one of the old-style Korean meal joints, complete with a shoe rack, seat pads on the floor and tables that are about a foot high. Add some table burners and about 500 semi-identifiable side dishes, and voila! Korean dinner. The main course were these pork strips, that looked a lot like thick-cut bacon and were a bugger to try to stab with chopsticks. All of the teachers from the school piled in, and within five minutes, the place was a total buzz of Korean chatter, simmering pork and really loud fans that did absolutely nothing for the immense heat coming through the windows.

Now, I'd heard about Korean drinking traditions. I thought I'd been adequately prepared. I was mistaken. I don't know exactly how many bottles of soju our two tables went through, but I'd have to guess it was at least 10-15, not counting the beer that was also flowing. It seemed like every five minutes one of the teachers was coming over to pour you a glass. After about five shots of the stuff, I was feeling no pain, and the other teachers seemed mildly impressed that I could even keep up. (Thanks, Madison.) It was actually really funny seeing my really formal Vice Principal thoroughly buzzed, pouring drinks for everyone, letting his hair down. The meal went on forever, and we ate a ton, and I remember about 70% of it. But it was fun.

The night did not end there, however. After dinner, the P.E. teacher, whose name I don't think I know yet, insisted that we traipse over to the nori-bang (kareoke room) right across the streets. The younger female teachers were just drunk enough to agree that this was a fabulous idea, so we all rambled over.

Cue the kareoke room: gigantic, sticky tiled floor. Red leather seats. Table full of beer in the middle. Disco ball overhead. Enormous TV screen with what looks like Korean music videos from the nineties rolling in a loop. More beers, and then the madness began.

Korean teachers know how to get down. Miss Yun, the math teacher whose desk is across from mine was yowling like a rock star, the nurse was on tambourine, the P.E. teacher was dancing like he was in a 90s boy band, and the rest of the crew was bopping and drinking and singing along for every song. The science teacher, (name also unknown), was definitely the best though. He was popping and locking like it was nobody's business, and coming up to me every ten minutes insisting that I dance with him. Seeing him on Monday is definitely going to be funny.

After many, MANY Korean pop songs, and probably more beers, we finally retired to our respective rides. Luckily, Miss Ha, my driver for the evening, doesn't drink very much, so we all got home in one piece. After meandering back to my apartment, I collapsed into bed, and slept in until 8 AM. Quite the partier, this girl.

So, that was my Friday. Hope your's was just as enjoyable. And if it wasn't- just find a middle-aged Korean teacher. They're ragers. :)

Miss you all!

<3 from Korea.