Monday, March 25, 2013

Seoul: There and Back Again

My recruiting company, KorVia, always throws these parties around the start of each semester. And this one happened to be this past Saturday night (3/23). At first I wasn't sure I wanted to go. At first glance, it didn't sound that appealing, especially after spending 3 days away from my place already. I didn't know anybody, and their biggest selling point was making the tallest tower out of toothpicks and cheeseballs.

But then the orientation happened, and some plans changed.

The plan was for new-friend Tim (if you read the last post, this is Tim #2, who shall heretofore just be known as Tim) and I to head to the party together. He'd get to my place about 4 (which unfortunately would take him a 2-hour bus ride plus a 15-minute train ride just to get here). We would then take the train(s) to Seoul and pick up a friend of his from uni days who lives there, and then the three of us all go to the party in Itaewon.

But things happened and we got a bit behind schedule, and we didn't end up leaving until about 5:30 or so. Oh, and his friend had to cancel, so we would just go straight to Itaewon. But they made plans to meet up in Seoul again on Sunday so she could show him around. So instead of traveling 2+ hours back to his place and then another 3 hours back to Seoul the next day, I was gonna let him crash at my place that night.
(And yes, that whole part of the story is important.)

We start our journey via subway. We know we'll have to make a few transfers, so we have maps and everything so we don't get lost. The first stop was easy--it was just one stop over and the next train was immediately across the platform. This train, however, was much longer. There were about 14 stops until our next transfer, which was the bulk of the 50-minute train journey. And at one point, we thought it got pretty packed. People were pretty crammed in.

 But then… this happened.

This was bad. It was even worse than the picture shows. There were people literally being uncomfortably pressed between others. There wasn't an inch of wiggle room. Tim and I were smashed against the back door to the next car (which appeared to be equally crammed). And this wasn't a normal occurrence. This was so crazy full, even the Koreans on the train were freaking out and taking pictures of it. And this went on for a handful of stops. It was hilarious when the majority finally exited, because every person left on the train, Korean or foreigner, gave a massive sigh of relief at the same time.

When we got off at our next stop, we had to walk quite a distance to get to the next train (it was almost like an airport terminal, it was so big). And the last train was easy, as it was just two stops over to Itaewon. And then we realized… we had no idea where we were going. We knew the name of the pub the party was at, but no idea how to get there. So we stood around as Tim tried to look up a map, and I took the following pictures of the area right outside the subway exit.

We wandered around for a while until we finally found the place, which was tucked away in some back alley (well, it was a street, but it's what most Americans would consider an alley). And we made our way a few flights up to Scrooge's Pub. It was a tiny place with way more people than could really fit in there.

When we first walked in, we're bombarded with so much stuff. One guy is giving us orange juice or apple juice (which was donated by a company). Another guy is giving us an pamphlet on their company for Korean Safari and something for the Cherry Blossoms Festival coming up. Then somebody else was giving us stickers for nametags. And another guy was giving these complimentary containers with dentist stuff, as apparently they are the only dental care place in the area that specifically serves foreigners. And then as soon as I have all of this, I'm pulled into a corner where I finally got to meet Sasha, my recruiter from KorVia, who was really nice.

After this, we're trying to figure out the food situation and even ask at the bar downstairs, but we're told there's actually going to be a buffet thing at the party, so we just go up, find a table, and wait (the buffet wasn't much, but it was filling enough… and it was western food, which was a nice change). And that's when the young woman from the train station the day before, Kyla, shows up, and we start talking.

This was us a little later.
 We also got to build our epic cheeseball towers, though our group didn't win.

It just wasn't good enough.
But the cheeseballs actually served endless entertainment afterwards, as Kyla made a plethora things, including this great Eiffel Tower.

It took a while, but it came out great.

They also had some trivia games they were playing up front, which were entertaining. 

A crowd watching the trivia games going on.
And it was at this point I realized a certain person was at this party, as well… when you're prepping for Korea, you look up all the information you can. And I spent endless hours watching videos on YouTube and whatnot getting a lot of people's perspectives. But there was one girl, Chelsea, who had a ton of really interesting videos that I watched quite a bit. And lo and behold, she was at the party! Unfortunately I never got a chance to actually meet her due to the big crowd (which she always seemed to be in the middle of), but it was at least cool to see her in person.

Soon after that whole thing ended, Kyla went to go talk to I think her recruiter, and I hung out with Tim and another young woman, Kira, who turned out to be really cool, too. But about 9:30, Tim got a text from his friend in Seoul saying she wouldn't be able to meet on Sunday, and there was some "misunderstanding" about the whole thing, so there was no reason he needed to stay at my place that night. But it was right on the line around when buses toward his place might stop. So we decided it was time to head out and see if we could make it back in time--though he also realized his backpack was still at my place and the internal struggle began on whether to leave it and get it next weekend or just stay the night on my incredibly hard and uncomfortable couch.

Kira came with us since she was going good distance, too, and we just kinda hung out on the train for a little bit as we tried to figure out what to do. Long story short, Tim decided to come back to my place to at least get his stuff and see what time it was and whether or not he wanted to attempt the journey back home tonight. Eventually we parted ways with Kira, who had to take a different route, and Tim and I made our way back to my place.

We tried checking information on bus routes and when they stop/start, but couldn't find anything. So he just decided to stay (and left about 5 AM, which I don't exactly blame him with that couch of mine).

We may or may not meet up in Seoul again next weekend; we talked about it, but it's all on how we're feeling at the time. But let's just say after all this time with people at the orientation and then the KorVia party, it's nice to have a little alone time. Although it's also great I've made some cool new friends.

Kira, me, and Tim

(And here's a video KorVia put together from pictures of the night:)

Sunday, March 24, 2013

The GEPIK Orientation

(Warning: This is a long one.)

I knew for quite some time that I'd have to be coming to this GEPIK Orientation a few weeks after getting to Korea. (If you don't remember what GEPIK is, check my first post where I go into it in one section.) The orientation is basically this 3-day long conference where they put all teachers new to GEPIK up in this little resort and make us go to different seminars/workshops all day. It's also the real first (and biggest) way to make (non-Korean) friends in the country. But before I could start this journey, I had to get to the right place.


A little over a week ago, I had gotten an email giving me instructions and details on this orientation. So I knew I'd have to take a train and then wait for a bus that would take a GEPIK group to this resort place. The train to the correct station where I'd wait for the bus was easy to get to. It was just one stop over (in the opposite direction as work). But after getting there… that was the interesting part. I have to go to exit 6, but I don't see any signs for exit 6. And then when I finally do, it's hanging above a staircase… pointing left. So there's these two signs. One says Exits 1-5 go straight up the stairs. The other says Exits 6-9 go left… towards where the train pulls in. And I certainly wasn't going to take another train anywhere.

So I decided to just go up the stairs. And sure enough, I continued seeing signs telling me to go left. So I kept going straight. And eventually, the path split into two, and exit 6 was to the left. So it was more of a "keep left" than "go left" sign, I guess. I get down to the stop and see a guy and young woman already waiting there, so I wait there with them, and there's the usual awkward small talk. And it wasn't long before another guy showed up. This one Australian. He introduced himself as Tim, and we all started talking. (For the sake of this post, I will be referring to him as Tim #1.) More people started showing up, and Tim #1 and I began talking more. And when the bus eventually came and everyone boarded, he sat next to me for the 90-minute trip. We talked the whole way up, and he was pretty cool.

And then we get there. The place was nice. Pretty big. It was a couple buildings--one for bedrooms and cafeterias, and the other for the auditorium and all the seminar rooms. There were also free internet cafes (which I'll get to later), and a sports area for basketball, tennis/badminton, and a golf practice/hitting range thingy.

This was the view out the window on the fourth floor.

So anyway, we get our name tags and room keys, and make our way to our rooms to settle in (I think most guys were on the fourth floor) before going down for the welcoming ceremony.


I walk in, take my shoes off, turn the little corner… and this happens (OK, so I took this picture the next day, but still…):

Yup. Nice and cozy with a roommate. The made bed was mine.
I knew I'd have a roommate, but I wasn't aware we'd be in this close proximity to each other. Fortunately, it was only a few minutes before he came in. And it was an awkward introduction… because his name was also Nik (short for something else, though). And he was from Canada. He was really friendly, though we didn't talk much, and we both eventually headed back downstairs and went our separate ways.

The bathroom... an actual shower door!

We had to keep our keys in this thing
to turn on the lights.

The TV across from the beds.

The window we had to keep open
due to the crazy heat in the rooms.


We get into the auditorium, and I end up sitting at a table on my own. I guess everybody else had either already met people or just nobody wanted to sit with me. (And as it turned out, about 90% of the people at the orientation had already been in Korea for at least 1-2 years, some even more. They had worked Hagwons and had now transferred over to public school with GEPIK, so they were new to the program, which is why they had to come. So it was difficult finding anybody who was a newbie like myself.)

We get a couple brief introductions from people before we're treated to a Samulnori dance/show. It went on for about 10-15 minutes, but I caught just a few snippets on video. I missed out on capturing some of the best moments, though… but here's some of what I did get.

After this, we get a string of introductions of the GEPIK coordinators for each district before they released us for lunch. But as I'm standing there waiting for the crowd to die down, a guy walks up to me and asks "Nick?" He has an Australian accent, and his name tag says his first name is Tim. But it's not the same Australian Tim as before. And I had an idea of who he actually was. Short version: I've mentioned before that my current neighbor/co-worker will be leaving now in a few weeks. I've talked to the person replacing him, Naomi, on Facebook a few times. And I knew her boyfriend had already come to Korea and was living in another town. Turns out, this was him! (For the sake of this post, I'll call him Tim #2. And probably any post after this that mentions him, I'll drop the number.)


We talk and hang out at lunch before going upstairs for a bit, and I get to try out one of the computer rooms for internet. These were some of the worst computers I've ever been on, and the internet was atrocious. And not just for Korea, but in general. Like, dial-up would have been better. That is, whenever you could even get to the internet with the computers constantly locking up.

So we headed to the first seminar of the day. It's a group one with everybody in the auditorium. This was probably one of the best lectures of the three days, so I guess they wanted to start with a bang. He talked about motivating kids, particularly through the use of PowerPoint. And this man could do some crazy things with PowerPoint I'd never seen before.

After this, though, we realized everybody was split into groups for some of the lectures, and Tim #2 and I were not in the same group. So we had to go our separate ways after the break that followed that first lecture.

You know who was in my group, though? Tim #1. And we got to sit through the next "lecture" together. Fortunately, the presenters decided to do away with the PowerPoint and just have a big Q&A. While I heard the other groups had a lot of whining about co-teachers and just general complaining, our group had a fairly good discussion about multiple issues (though there was some random complaining and whining, just not much).

The next break had us sign up for the "optional" session later on after dinner. I decided to sign up for "Intro to Korean and Useful Phrases," but I'll get to that later. Anyway, then we went to a lecture on teaching in multi-level classrooms. And it was interesting. The guy was around my age, and I found him pretty entertaining. And he kept using me as an example because I was near the front. He also introduced a really cool game called "Soldiers vs. Ninjas." I'd like to use it in class someday, though it's a bit complicated and takes a ton of preparation.

Finally there was dinner (if you're wondering about the food… almost none of it at any point over the 3 days was that great. The lines were always enormous, and there wasn't enough room for everyone to sit at tables. There was only one meal that was good, and it was cold by the time I got there). Oh, and only a few people are going to get this reference, but at some point, somebody actually said "Oh hi, Mark" to somebody, and I had to try not to laugh and look like an idiot.

So I go from dinner to my optional session, and it was a good one. The guy was really funny (and he had the greatest laugh--he sounded like a super-villain). The only issue was that it was a beginners class, and out of about 30 people, only 5 of us were beginners. So there were a ton of intermediates who kept interrupting and challenging the presenter, which got pretty annoying after a while. We even ended up staying 30 minutes late and still didn't get to finish everything he had planned. He moved pretty fast, too, so I wasn't exactly able to let things sink in by the time he had us practice. But I got some good notes.


By the time that was done, it was already 9:30 PM (yeah, these were long days). I met up with Tim #2 again at this point to try and figure out something to do. There were further options at this point--a movie in the auditorium or board games/cards. We went to go see what the movie was, but it was some weird Korean movie about ski jumping, and there were maybe 2 people in there. All the board games were pretty much taken by this point, too, so we ended up just sitting and talking for the next hour and a half before heading off to bed… because breakfast was at 7:30.

Soon after getting back to my room, my roommate showed up and was surprised I was already getting ready for bed. He decided to work on his laptop and watch TV and all kinds of stuff as I'm trying to go to bed. Oh, and it was also like a sauna in the room. They had the heat on full blast, and we had no control over it (and the front desk was no help). So we had to keep the window open all night. But I was finally able to fall asleep, though I woke up pretty much every hour. And let's just say it's a really interesting experience having a roommate.


At breakfast and before the first sessions of the day, I met some new people that I would talk to on and off for the rest of the orientation. They were pretty cool guys. Then I ended up running into Tim #2 going to the first big auditorium session of the day where we learned about working with co-teachers. Aaand… not very exciting. It wasn't terrible, just kinda dull.

Afterwards, we split into our groups to go learn about lesson planning. I sat with one of the guys from breakfast, and… I kid you not, we ended up doing an activity I did about 5 years ago as a student teacher during a teacher work day. So even in another country, it's all just the same old thing.

After lunch was a mixing of worlds. The rest of the sessions would be big group sessions in the auditorium… and this is where Tim #1 and Tim #2 finally got to meet, and we all sat together near the back. The first session there was a really fun one on "understanding Korean students" where we played a lot of weird games and talked about K-Pop. And the presenter brought in 4 of his elementary students to help "teach" us the games and stuff. And I unfortunately had to show off some of my epic dance moves on stage with some other losing members of the last game.

And that wasn't the only unfortunate thing to happen. The next session was hands down the worst. It was on classroom management, and the presenter was awful. He starts off talking down to us, and then goes into his qualifications of why he can discuss this topic (shocking result: He has none… I was more qualified to talk classroom management than this guy). And on top of everything, he was so… so… boring. He just droned on and on with blocks of PowerPoint text. No games. No pictures. No videos. No humor. And there were some mic issues, and he would just keep talking over them instead of stopping as they tried to fix things. It was painful. By 30 minutes in, the entire auditorium had mentally checked out. Some groups were talking quietly together. Most were on their phones. Quite a few even had their heads down. I'd be surprised if more than 2-3 people were still paying any kind of attention. And he didn't seem to sense this whatsoever. Not to mention the majority of what he was saying was flat-out wrong.

Thankfully it finally ended after what felt like 5 hours, and I got to sign up for the next optional session (PowerPoint, with the guy who gave the very first session on the first day). Both Tim's and some other guys also signed up for this one, too, so we were all in there together (it was a good one, though it was more of a quick overview of a lot of things than really digging deep into it). But before that session was the final big session of the day, which was… you know, I don't even remember what it was about. I remember the presenter, but not much about what he talked about. He was good, though. He just talked really fast and we actually got out a bit early.

People were lining up for dinner like 20-30 minutes early, so me and the Tim's went up to our rooms to drop some stuff off, and we ended up waiting out in the hallway and talking about stuff for a while. Unfortunately, conversation went downhill here. We made an off-hand comment about how people didn't like the Nationalism presented in Spider-Man 3, and that brought on some random guy who decided to start talking to us about American politics, which branched off into politics of other countries, and a whole bunch of other awkward and uncomfortable conversations that the rest of us really didn't want to be talking about. And he sat with us at dinner, too. He wasn't a bad guy; he just sometimes acted a bit snobbish, and he didn't start off with the greatest impression with the political conversations (and he didn't have opposing views or anything--just the way he came about the subject). Anyway…


After getting out the PowerPoint session, the Tim's and I went to look at what movie was playing (it was The Host--the Korean monster movie that came out around the same time as Cloverfield. I actually own this movie, and it's pretty good. Just not as exciting on rewatches). We passed on the movie and decided to check out the sports area outside, despite it being like 30 degrees or colder out.

Tim #2 and I found a second basketball and played a bit of soccer on the court for an hour. I totally destroyed him (…though if you ask him, you might hear a slightly different story). Our extremities were frozen after an hour, so we went inside and played Jenga (he'll tell you he won 2 out of 3 but… you totally shouldn't believe that). Then we just hung out and talked as another group in the room played Jenga. We left for bed after watching an insanely intense group battle that did some inconceivable things with that Jenga tower.

It was about 11 by the time we went to bed, and my roommate showed up again shortly thereafter. He was playing some games with some other guys and was gonna come back to shower and whatnot in 15 minutes, so I was to expect more lights on and stuff shortly. I just did stuff on my phone while waiting for him to return.

And when he came back… we talked. And talked. And it turns out, we had a lot in common. We talked superheroes, movies, books, graphic novels and comics, video games, anime, and everything along those lines. It actually wasn't until about 12:30 AM when he realized he still wanted to take a shower, and I needed to get to bed. And I slept practically all night through.


I found Tim #2 and some other guys at breakfast the next morning, and we went upstairs to get our stuff from our rooms to check out and eventually met back up in the other building for our last session. Our final session was on using technology in the classroom, and the guy shared some really cool sites with us. It was a pretty good final session. Then everybody said goodbye, and they shared a quick video they had compiled over the last three days of everything (I'll try to get a link to it on here once they post it up online). Then we went to go find our buses back. (They had sandwiches for us, but I was still full from breakfast, so I didn't bother.)

I sat and talked with Tim #1 again on the bus back to the train station, which was an easy ride back. And we all parted ways to our trains. At first I ended up waiting on the wrong train, and I had a nice conversation with another teacher who was at the orientation, too (in fact, it was the same young woman from the bus wait at the beginning of the journey). Fortunately the train was taking its time, so we eventually realized I needed to be in the next terminal over. So I said bye to her and went to wait for the right train, which I didn't have to wait long for. And… that was that!

I was originally going to post about the following night's adventure in this post, as well, but this is going on long enough, so I'll make that separate. Keep your eyes peeled in the near future for my first venture into Seoul!

Friday, March 15, 2013

My Day In Sanbon

So last Sunday (3/10), my neighbor took me to Sanbon, which is basically downtown Gunpo. It's the heart of the city--where everything is at. And it's glorious (at least in comparison to where we're at normally). (Note: All pictures were actually taken today (3/16) when I went back on my own.)

We left about 2:30 PM and grabbed a taxi. Apparently a taxi for two is just as much as a bus for one, so might as well grab a taxi (it's about 2 bucks). He taught me how to get there via taxi so I got to tell the driver "Sanbon yok" (I'm only guessing that's how you spell it until I can confirm). It translates to "Sanbon station." Once we got there, we went to the center of Sanbon so he could show me things in every direction.

Front facing the train station.

Toward the back (away from the station).

To the left with some benches
(and I think towards the bus stop)

To the right (I think).


We decided we were gonna go see a movie that afternoon, so we would get our tickets ahead of time. The two options for movies in English at the time we wanted were Jack the Giant Slayer and Stoker. Of course I chose Stoker. I've seen 5 Park Chan-wook films in America (he's a Korean director for those who don't know). Why wouldn't I see his first American film while I'm in Korea? The irony is too great. (Off topic, but I also plan on seeing the American remake of Chan-wook's Oldboy, my favorite Korean movie, while I'm here, too.) Anyway, this particular theater is in a giant building with different stores on the bottom floors and apartments up above, so we went up to the theater and got our tickets. We also had to choose which seats we wanted, as there was assigned seating.

One of the posters inside with listings/times.
From there, we made our way around Sanbon. It's basically this one long road/walkway with intersecting roads as you go along. He showed me different little restaurants and places so we could figure out what we wanted for lunch. We ended up just getting a couple burgers and fries. It was decent, though the patty itself was more like this rib-meat burger that was about the thickness of a few sheets of paper. But it was filling enough.
Wanna go to Outback Steakhouse? They have it!

The little burger place inside this tiny little garage.

Then there was the adventure known as E-Mart. E-Mart is basically like a giant Korean version of a Wal-Mart or Super Target and the like. The first floor was basically all foods, and the second floor (yes, there were at least two floors) was mostly electronics and appliances (as I later discovered, there are a few more floors… clothes, cosmetics, and parking as far as I could tell). To get from floor to floor, especially if you had a basket, you went on these things that were basically a mix of a moving sidewalk and an escalator. So a moving ramp, I guess? And I was forewarned before going in that Sundays are the worst possible days to go because of how crazy busy it is. And he wasn't wrong. For those back in Victoria, imagine something like the day before Thanksgiving at HEB times three. You have to just wade through Asian people like they're an ocean you need to get through. But I was assured this was the worst I'd ever see it, and most other days it's not close to that bad. Oh, and there's these little lockers as you come in to put any bags you don't feel like carrying. I was also told there's ones especially for little dogs so people can put their dogs there to wait while their owners do their shopping.

The moving ramps as best as I could get.
From E-Mart, we made our way to a Dunkin Donuts for some hot chocolate and to just sit and talk for a while and kill time. And apparently Koreans love them some donuts, because the place was packed. We were there for a while until he decided to show me this little bar and grill (that serves breakfast) that's apparently a good place to meet people, but it was closed.

We still had quite a bit of time to kill, so we went to an arcade and played a little House of the Dead 4 (for those unaware, a zombie/monster shooting game) while a bunch of teenagers watched us. I lasted just a little bit longer, but soon died off, too. We still had quite a bit of time, but we thought we'd just go to the theater and relax there and wait. Little did we know our most entertaining part of the day was yet to occur.

The front of the building with the theater
(it's super tall with the apartments above).

When our elevator finally takes us up to the theater (it kept taking us down into sub-levels to get more people), we took a seat in this waiting area near these bathrooms. And this is where the fun began. As we waited, there was somebody (presumably in the men's restroom) making the most bizarre noise. It sounded like a mix of choking, heaving, and squawking. And I'm not even sure that description does it nearly enough justice. It happened in short intervals, and at first neither of us knew what was going on or if it was some cultural thing we were unaware of. But then we noticed even Korean people trying to investigate where the noise was coming from and/or what it was. But every time we'd try to start a conversation, this noise would start, too. And eventually we would just burst out laughing and couldn't control ourselves. It really was the most ridiculous thing ever. We think it was a guy having a really bad reaction to something. We suspected it was one guy who eventually came out of the bathroom soon after the noise stopped. But then he went back in and never came back out. Hopefully he didn't die.

We also talked about funny little things about we could be talking out loud in English because nobody around us knew what we were saying. So my neighbor started saying ridiculous things just to prove the point ("I ate a clown today!") to which nobody reacted. He also let me in on the little "looks" we will get as foreigners from Koreans. They won't outright stare (most of the time), but they will look at you at least once. And he was right--if you're paying attention, you will see the Korean people steal at least one glance at you. So while they (usually) don't look at you, they're always very aware that you're there.

The next strange thing happened as we were going into the actual theater area. The ticket girl looked Korean, but spoke English… with an Australian accent . It was quite strange. The theater room itself was incredibly small. Easily the smallest I've ever seen (and probably even smaller than you're imagining. The chairs themselves were comfortable, but there wasn't a whole lot of leg room. As for the movie--it started off really slow and weird. The first 20 minutes were very odd, and I never knew where it was going. But as it got into the story, it got better. By the end, I really liked it. Definitely not for everyone, though.

We left the theater and headed to the bus stop… in some weather that easily dropped like 20 degrees in the last couple hours. And I was shown how to take the bus home from there (and which bus to take). And I got home about 7:30 or so. And that was about it! This was easily the best afternoon I'd had so far in Korea. And I'm sure I'm gonna be spending quite a bit of time in Sanbon.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Friday, March 8, 2013

A Short Note On My First Week

As this is posted, I will have officially been in Korea for a week(!). And boy does it feel like I've been here longer (not necessarily in a bad way... I've just taken in a LOT in 7 days). As you can tell from prior posts, some days were better than others. So I wanted to make a short post summarizing my thoughts on my first week here. So, in no real order...

*Korean people are both super nice and unintentionally insulting--though I knew both these things going in. I actually find these "insults" to be kinda funny (for the most part). For instance, within a span of 2 days, I was told to go on a diet because I was too fat at least 3 times by 2 different people. I was also frequently given a fork so not to embarrass myself with chopsticks. (The insulting thing doesn't happen often. They're just a pretty blunt people. On the whole, they're pretty nice.)

*I've gotten pretty decent with chopsticks.

*Korean food is the most ridiculously healthy food on the planet, yet it's still very good. I've probably liked at least 70-75% of what I've had. But I think I've eaten healthier in this last week alone than my entire life combined. I will say, though... after one week, I'm already sick of rice.

*I really, really need to learn some Korean, as well as the Korean alphabet. Not understanding people is so awkward. (And I feel bad when little kids try to talk to me or ask me things in Korean and I have no idea.)

*(The majority of) Korean children are so absurdly adorable it should be illegal.

*There are some pretty crazy ones, though, just like in America.

*I have three different co-teachers with three completely different teaching styles, and I have three completely different emotions towards them. I won't really go into detail on this one too much, though. At least not here.

*I would have died without all help from my neighbor, and I'm so upset he's leaving in a month.

*This first month of living here I have dubbed "the dark ages," which I will explain further in another post in the future. Probably at the end of this month.

*Homesickness does hit at random times, usually when I'm at home and bored and other things I'll eventually discuss in the "dark ages" post.

*I'm slowly getting used to the whole transit system. I've pretty much got the train from home to work down solid. I'm still figuring out the bus. And I've done a lot of walking lately, too.

*I'm also still trying to get used to their trash system, which is very different--I'll probably elaborate more on that later, too.

*It's funny that I've gotten so used to cold weather in this last week that it was 57 coming home today, and I was unzipping my jacket and pulling up my sleeves because it was so warm.

*I have yet to get hit by much culture shock. Maybe a little, particularly on Monday, where there was a LOT of new information to take in, so it was a bit overwhelming. But on the whole, I'm still in the kind of "honeymoon" phase where everything is pretty fascinating to me, though still bordering on kinda scary due to its newness.

And that's about all I can think of right now. If you have any questions on any random thing, I can answer that in the comments.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Korean Food, Soju, and Random Hugs

More unexpected new experiences to write about (though I'll keep this one shorter than the others)! Let's just say that today made yesterday worth it.

The only difference in routine was that I took the bus to the school for the first time (after getting off the train). It was a bit confusing, and I'm still not sure when to get off. Besides that, the morning at school was fine--I mostly made some lesson plans for later in the week. It was pretty laid back. But then I got to have school lunch.

First there was an enormous serving of rice. A little kimchi. A bowl of seaweed soup. This cold beef/vegetable stir-fry that you put into this mu-sam, which is thinly sliced pickled radish used to wrap the food (like a really small, super thin, lime-green tortilla). And some strawberries. It was actually all very good. The rice was a bit much and filled me up quite a bit. I had a couple pieces of the kimchi, which wasn't bad--spicy. The seaweed soup sounds disgusting, but it's actually really good. I mostly had the broth, though. I liked the mu-sam and stir-fry quite a bit. Despite it basically being a cold vegetable wrap, it had a very sweet flavor. And the strawberries were fresh and delicious. It was all quite good, but there was so much of it that I barely ate half. And I'm pretty sure my co-teachers thought I hated it because I didn't eat a lot.

Then there was the afternoon classes. One was another second grade class, which worried me at first, but it was much better this time. Those kids are funny (even though I don't understand what they're saying). Just their actions are fun. And after that I had some older kids (I think they were 6th grade). This class was... OK. It was much more reserved than the younger kids. And the girls were much more behaved than the guys. They weren't as goofy or as fun to be around, but they were (at the same time) easier to handle. And they spoke a little English.

Anyway, the good stuff is still to come. I found out right before that last class that I had to go to this school dinner because I was new and it was a start-of-year new teachers dinner thing. My neighbor decided to cancel a doctor's appointment he had and go with me and a couple of our co-teachers so we wouldn't be alone (the only one of the English department not there was the original co-teacher that first showed me my apartment and took me to the hospital).

If you are unaware, Korea has a big drinking culture. I'll probably get more into this in a future video (along with some quirks that go along with it). But I was forewarned that I would be forced to drink tonight. So we eventually get to this restaurant and have to take off our shoes at this step before going into the main part of the place. Our school party is in these three little rooms at the side of the place with these long wooden tables in each room. And around the tables are these thin pads/pillows to sit on the floor with. So we join a table in the middle room as the food is already cooking (you cook your own food on this hot pad in the table--something else I'll probably go into in a video at a later time). There's a ton of food around, as well as different bottles.

One bottle I recognize--Soju. It's a strong yet cheap Korean alcohol. There's also what I learned was Korean Cider, which was very good. It's basically sprite with a tiny bit of ginger flavor. So my neighbor decides to teach me how to correctly accept and drink alcohol and lets me try to Soju before somebody else gets to be first.

It tastes like rubbing alcohol.

Fortunately, the flavor leaves your mouth pretty quickly. So we continue eating (it's Korean BBQ that's very good) when suddenly our principal shows up and pours me another shot of Soju, which I have to take. Oh how it burns. He goes away and we eat more and laugh and (at least us big white boys) try to shift around because our legs/feet are falling asleep from sitting on this hard wood floor.

Despite all of us being full, they talk me into trying a cold noodle soup... just for culture's sake. So they bring it out, and it's even stranger than it sounds. It's this black (or maybe a very dark purple), thin noodle that looks almost worm-like. These noodles are in an ice soup; it's a cold soup with chunks of ice, so it's almost like a shaved ice looking thing, but as soup. And there's also bits of cucumber and something else that I'm not sure. So I had a little bit and... I must say it wasn't bad. For ice soup, though, I did not expect it to be as spicy as it was. I could find myself getting used to it pretty easily.

And that's when the Vice Principal showed up. I wasn't sure who he was at first (it was explained to me later). Let's just say he was already quite red in the face. He pours me yet another shot of Soju, which one of my co-teachers tells me to drink. But then I discovered he wasn't ready for me to drink yet, so he pours me another. And I wait for a toast and shoot that down. To make this story shorter, he pours me at least 2 more after this before finally telling me I can refuse if I want.

During the whole time he's there (and he's there a good 15-20 minutes), he's telling me (which has to be translated for me) that I remind him of his daughter who has gone abroad herself, and he says I need to make friends soon because he fears I will become lonely. I also need to show pride in school and respect in its students because our school was the best school and our students are the best students (not that I wasn't doing those things--they were just open declarations).

And, yes, at one point he takes my hand, shakes it, then leans in and gives me a great, big hug. And it was just as awkward as it sounds. But everybody was laughing and having a good time, so I didn't mind.

Eventually it was time for everyone to leave, so we got up (and thank God that didn't happen 5-10 minutes earlier, or I'm not sure I would have been able to stand properly. I could barely sit there without dizziness). Another co-teacher gave us a ride home and... that was that.

It was a really easy, fun, and cultural day. And it reminded me of some of the positive reasons I came to Korea in the first place.

Monday, March 4, 2013

My First (Stressful) Day At Work

"Grab your towel and don't panic!" - Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

I wasn't originally going to write anything today. But then... today happened. This was probably the most stressful day I've had in quite some time.

I woke up at 6 AM (well, that's a plus! The last couple days I've been waking up at 4), and my neighbor and I headed off to the subway by 8. Keep in mind during the rest of this that, when we left this morning, it was about 30 degrees outside (and I stayed about that cold for the remainder of the day). Anyway, I've never ridden a subway before (if you don't count the ones in airports). And getting to it was a good trek in and of itself. Go down the street a block or so, cross the highway, go down a long alley, make a turn, go up some stairs... etc. The train itself is packed to the breaking point. I was literally pressed up against the door. The good news is that it only took about 4-5 minutes to get to the next town over.

Normally, as was explained to me, we'd either take a bus (with bad weather) or a 10-minute walk to get to the school from the Uiwang station. But a teacher that my neighbor knew pulled up and gave us a ride.

The English level of our building was a few stories up (at least 3-4). And it's explained to me that in Korea, teachers change schools every 5 years. This year just happened to be that year, so almost everybody in the department was brand new and hadn't taught this before. Besides my neighbor and the aforementioned co-teacher that helps us foreigners, there were two other teachers that I met today, one of which was my second co-teacher. Her English was very limited, but she was quite friendly and nice.

So here's where things start getting interesting. Soon we all go down to the gym for a big student orientation thing, and I just see an ocean of the most adorable Korean children ever, a good chunk of whom kept looking over at me in awe. I suddenly find myself called on stage with a bunch of other teachers. I can only assume we were all new teachers? I couldn't tell you, because everything in this orientation was in Korean. But anytime I heard my name, I followed suit. I also apparently did a very nice bow on stage, which I was complimented for afterwards. And then I was introduced again later. I think maybe for the English department.

From there we go back to the English teachers' office and pretty much sit at our desks to work on stuff. Now, I was told at first that I wouldn't be teaching today or anything. I was then shown my teaching schedule. I guess there is a difference between the morning and afternoon classes (I'm still kind of confused about that). Every class is only 40 minutes long, but the morning classes were continually called the "regular" classes, and then there were the afternoon ones. And while I have scattered afternoon classes everyday, I only teach regular morning classes on Tuesdays and Thursdays (5th and 6th grade... I think respectively, but I'd have to check). But the co-teacher I have for Tuesdays told me, thankfully, we're going to switch my schedule to Thursday/Friday for this week only so to give me more prep time.

I was then assured that I wouldn't have to worry about my afternoon classes today because I had to go to the hospital for my medical check. But to start prepping for the next day's afternoon classes, my neighbor sent me what he does for his self-introduction PowerPoint and his Classroom Rules PowerPoint. And it's a good thing I started putting together my Introduction PowerPoint, because I soon found out that since I wasn't leaving for the med check until 2-something, I would have to be in with my first afternoon class.

And the panic started.

At that point I probably had about an hour or so before that class started. It's like every teacher's worst nightmare. Let me set the scene for you with this imaginary conversation:

-"Oh, you only have high school experience, right?"
-"And you can't speak or understand pretty much any Korean?"
-"And you've done almost no prep work for this so far, right?"
-"And isn't it true you just met your co-teacher for these classes a couple hours ago for the first time?"
-"That's true."
-"Alright. You have to go teach second graders who don't speak English in an hour. GO!"

So my co-teacher has been furiously prepping activities while I'm trying to wrap up my Intro PPT. And I'm going over what the rules and procedures mean with my neighbor. Fast forward to about 1:35 (five minutes before the class starts) and I'm trying to set up my PPTs in the room, but can't get my flash drive to show up, so that's freaking me out. All the while I'm having these little Korean girls come up to me talking to me and asking me questions in Korean... and I have no idea what they're saying. And my co-teacher is nowhere to be found, and I'm freaking out, and I'm about *this* close from having a full-out panic attack.

But we finally get my PPTs up, and my co-teacher shows up, and the students start getting settled. There are about 7 or so in the class altogether. We start with all the introductions and rules, and all of that goes well. And then... co-teacher realizes that the lessons she had planned were from a textbook the kids had already used. They'd done it all before. And then she leaves the room.

Yes. She leaves. And I'm standing there with about 7 little Korean children sitting in front of me. They don't speak English. I don't speak Korean. But it's still easy to pick out the types of students they are. There's a boy who is clearly the smartest, but he's also a bit popular and a bully. He sits at a table with two others, and there's another girl nearby. They're all buddies and they start to get a little rough with each other, so I have to do some separating and settling down to the best of my abilities with hand gestures and body language. There's a girl in the far back of the classroom who sits by herself. She's pretty clearly outcast and bullied. She starts to warm up a bit through the class. But then it was all for naught when she tries to join in with the popular kids up front. She brings up this pencil container she wanted to show off, but the bully boy pushes her, snatches it, and messes with it until the girl starts crying and yelling. So I'm trying to give her stuff back to her and get her back to her seat and calm the class down, and my co-teacher is nowhere to be found. The crying and yelling continues as the bully kinda laughs, and anything I do is only kind of working. And another little girl is trying to explain something to me in Korean, and I'm like "Seriously, look how white I am. I don't know what you're saying." (OK, I don't really say that.)

But finally the co-teacher comes back and calms them down as she tries to figure out what to do about the lesson now. She hands me this worksheet and kinda explains what I have to do, but not really, so I do the best I can, and she's apologizing to me saying it's her fault and stuff. I also tell her about what happened while she was away. She has a little talk with the boy and gives the crying girl a lollipop of some sort, which makes her smile.

Fortunately, my other co-teacher shows up to rescue me and whisk me away to the hospital at this point. We take a taxi to the hospital and make our way to where I need to go. And boy was this process awkward. First I get to pee in a cup and then pour it into a test tube myself. We then take my blood pressure, take my weight and height, do some ear and eye tests, take my torso measurements, have a chest x-ray, and then... the dreaded blood sample. I've never given blood before, and I have this thing about needles in certain places of my body--one of which would be that part of your arm where they draw blood. So I'm hoping I don't faint or anything. She puts the needle in and... it's fine. I felt the pinch as it broke skin and that was about it. About 10-15 seconds later, she's done and I'm OK.

Before going on to the next step, they tell my co-teacher that my blood pressure is high and we'll need to test again after while. So we go to another floor in the meantime to have a dentist look at my teeth. He was nice and spoke English. It was really fast, and he pretty much told me I needed to brush certain areas a little better (I know... for shame). We go back to the first area, and my co-teacher and I relax for a bit to let my blood pressure go down before the re-test. So we chat for a while and test again... and it's still high. But they say I can still be hired to teach--I just need to lose weight (and with healthy Korean food and all the walking to and from school everyday, I don't think that will be much of a problem). And I was later told this is a pretty common occurrence with foreign teachers (high blood pressure/lose weight).

So from there we try to find our way around this shopping center to find me some school shoes (in Korea, you always take off your shoes before going in to residences. The same is true for teachers in schools. We take our shoes off and switch into what are basically slippers). My co-teacher was about as lost here as I was, and we tried to figure things out together. We eventually find a place with the right shoes, but (as expected) I can't find any big enough for my giant Bigfoot feet. So we'll have to special order some.

We make it to the subway to take it back to Gunpo rather than the school, though there's a line switch to be made. So we go from the current station to another, and then switch lines to take to Gunpo. However, my co-teacher couldn't go on the second train with me as she needed to be back in a meeting at 4:30 (and it was about 4:20 or so already). She asked if I could find the way back to my apartment from the Gunpo station (after telling me which stop to get off at for Gunpo station), and I was like "Uh... sure. I think I can remember." But, really, I was like "OK, I'm the most directionally challenged person ever, and I'm going to end up getting lost and taken and needing my personal Liam Neeson to save me." So I get off the train at the right station and get lost within the actual station itself trying to find my way out. But I eventually find the way. And from there, I started recognizing things. I was easily able to make it back to my apartment, and that was that.

It's now after 6 PM. I haven't eaten yet today (I couldn't eat lunch or anything because of the medical test). I'm tired and stressed. I'm gonna go find some food and relax. I surely hope tomorrow is not nearly as crazy as today.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

The Journey to Korea, My First Full Day, and DHWL #2: My Korean Apartment

Important Note: I can't yet transfer pictures from my phone to my laptop, as I can't find wifi for it to work just yet. So I plan on eventually uploading a few pictures to this, but it won't be for a few weeks probably. Anyway...

So here's how it went. As most of you already know, I awoke on Thursday the 28th at about 4 AM after 5-6 hours of interrupted sleep (I woke up constantly). At 5 AM, we (my parents and I) took a shuttle to the airport where many hugs were given and much crying from my mother ensued.


The first snag in my journey came at the Austin security check, wherein I forgot to take off my belt and remove my PS3 from the suitcase before going through the scans and whatnot. They rescanned the PS3, felt me up for explosives and/or weapons, lectured me briefly on taking out large electronics from the bag, and then let me go. I found the gate pretty easily.

This first flight was pretty uneventful. The plane itself was pretty tiny and claustrophobic. I barely fit going down the aisle itself, and I had to master yoga positions in order to fit in the seat. I was at the window seat in a row of three. Luckily the girl who sat in the row with me was in the aisle, leaving an empty seat between us. The flight took about 3 to 3 and a half hours before we finally landed at LAX.


I was worried about getting lost in LAX, since I had to transfer terminals entirely (I switched from American Airlines to Thai Airways), though I fortunately had a 3 and a half hour layover. I had to find the Tom Bradley International Terminal. I saw sign after sign leading me forward and... eventually led me outside. There were no signs pointing anywhere else, so I turned right and began walking. I thought I saw signs pointing me into buildings for Tom Bradley, but I guess I was mistaken. After asking at least 3 different people and finding a few more signs, I found the terminal. Had I just taken a left instead of a right and went to the next building over, I would have found it much faster.

Once there, I had to get my next boarding pass. I didn't have to wait in line very long (maybe a minute or two) before the woman called me up. There was a little confusion about certain information she needed, but she eventually printed the ticket. However, Thai Airways is a bit weird with its carry-on rules. Whereas most airlines don't have a weight limit, Thai Airways does. I'd already checked two bags and had two carry-ons: A backpack and a small suitcase. But while the backpack was apparently fine in weight, the suitcase was over. I was originally going to check it (for an additional $119 due to it being a third checked bag), but the woman told me to just shift some stuff around in order to take out about 4 pounds or so and put it into the backpack. I switched out the power converter box, which alone is about 7 pounds. We re-weighed and it was fine, though she didn't re-weigh the backpack for some reason. I'm still a little boggled about how 4 pounds was way too much over, though the exact same amount of weight was going onto the plane anyway. Oh well.

By the time I got to security (yes, I had to go through again), an hour had already passed from the time the plane landed. It seemed like it took a while to get through, but it really only took maybe 15 minutes. And while I did take out the PS3 this time, I forgot to take off my belt again, so I had to be rescanned and felt up all over again. Oh joy.

After that, it wasn't long until I made it to the gate and had about a 2 hour wait, I think. I just killed time until... the big flight.

I did stuff like take pictures of my enormous plane.
The inside of the plane didn't seem to be as huge as the outside, but it was much more spacious than the first plane.

A picture of the inside, back section.
 There was what I can only assume to be a Korean businessman sitting next to me at the window, and he kinda drove me crazy. He was too shy and/or reserved to ask me to get up to let him out, so he would wait until whenever I decided to get up to step out (which I eventually did frequently, and he eventually stopped getting up). For the most part he did what everybody else did on that flight--slept or watched an in-flight movie.

The movie selection was HUGE. When I went to Hawaii, they had maybe 6-7 movies to choose from, and they were on a timer. If you missed the beginning, you had to wait until it started reshowing again. That wasn't the case here. You had total control--pause, rewind, fast forward, etc. And they had movies of multiple genres, countries, and years. Throughout the flight, I watched...

-Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (I had to give it a watch!)
-The Thieves (a Korean action/thriller that's kind of like a mix between Ocean's 11 and Reservoir Dogs. It was pretty good, though confusing at times)
-The Fugitive (hadn't seen this one since I was really little)
-Hotel Transylvania (Not great, but not terrible, especially for a modern Adam Sandler movie)

I'm pretty sure I watched another, too, but I honestly don't remember what it was right now. It was a long flight. I maybe got only an hour of sleep, a little near the start of the flight, but most of it near the end. I had too much adrenaline to fall asleep before that, I guess. It really came to the point I had to get up about every hour to stand for a while, because my butt was killing me in that chair for 13 and a half hours (plus the flight before and the waiting in between).

The flight staff were really nice and kept everybody fed and hydrated pretty constantly. The food... wasn't that great. And every meal had this type of dinner roll/biscuit with it that didn't really taste bad but had a really strong smell. By the end of the flight, the whole airplane smelled of those things, and it got to a point it was making me nauseated.

Also, a couple cool things of note about the flight... we pretty much chased daylight the whole way. There wasn't any time where it was dark outside (and the flight map showed darkness behind us the whole way). So it really wasn't until I left the airport that I saw night. Also, at some point we flew over what I believe is the Arctic Ocean. I took a picture the best I could.

Just imagine a vast sea of ice and you'll get a better idea.
But eventually we finally reached the Incheon International Airport in Seoul (the plane was actually going to continue on to Bangkok, Thailand with some of its passengers in about an hour, though some of us, of course, were staying in Korea).

I pretty much followed people on my plane to find my way to the baggage claim. The signs were kinda helpful, but a little confusing. I eventually found myself in a little subway station lined up with people. The train came every 5 minutes to take people to the baggage claim area (yeah... a train to baggage claim. It's a big place). There were too many people for the first train to come, but I caught the next one. And it was funny because a group of little kids about fell over simultaneously when the train jolted to a start.

Before I could actually get into baggage claim from there, though, I had to pass through this kind of immigration checkpoint. The guy took my passport and this little card I had to fill out, then took my electronic fingerprints and a picture before handing me back my passport and letting me continue on. When I found my baggage claim area, I waited there for at least 20-30 minutes. Thankfully my plane was 30 minutes early or else I would have made my driver wait for a long time. Anyway, my bags were pretty much some of the last bags to come through from my flight. And from there, I had to move to customs.

I had to fill out this long form on the plane of anything I might be declaring. But all it was... there was a guy standing near the exit area. He took the form, looked at it for about a second, said OK, and I just moved on through. From there, I ended up in the arrivals area and found my driver who would be taking me to my apartment. He called Sasha (my recruiter), and I checked in with her before the long walk to his minivan. And boy was it cold when those doors to the outside opened.


From the airport in Seoul to my apartment in Gunpo, everything was relatively quiet. He'd answer his cellphone from time to time, and he had to pay at some tollways, but we didn't really speak to each other. What was funny, though, was what did make the majority of the noise in the car. In America, people worry about being distracted by cellphones and texting. In Korea, I'd heard that practically everything is connected with a TV. And apparently that's true.

Yes, there was a little TV playing a Korean drama next to his GPS.
I tried not to laugh when he had to turn down the TV to answer his cellphone while driving down the highway. I mainly focused on the scenery--most of which I couldn't see since it was dark out. But there were instances of large buildings (one of which even had like a laser show going on on the outside of it). And every now and then I'd see this mountain in the background of a building or cityscape (in an otherwise flat land. It's like "Oh hi, random mountain").

He helped me get my bags into the apartment building and to the elevator when a woman from my school showed up to take me the rest of the way (she's over us foreign teachers to help us out and whatnot). Unfortunately, nobody had told me or her what the passcode was to get in (as doors are locked by a passcode instead of by key). So she had to call somebody to get that. She also introduced me to my neighbor, who happens to be another foreign teacher like me who also works at my same school. Together they showed me around the apartment, and my neighbor promised to show me around the neighborhood and whatnot later. (And he'll actually be leaving in a month to be replaced by a new girl, who I'll have to show around when the time comes.)


I woke up at 4 AM Korean time (which is like 1 PM or so my normal time). And I was completely at a loss at what to do. I had no internet. No cable TV. And, as I soon came to realize, the HDMI cable for my PS3 doesn't fit in the TV I was given--so I can't use it until I get the proper size cables (and I unfortunately did not bring my regular AV cables with me for some reason).

So I started the video I'm posting at the end of this and then unpacked. I then got to experience a Korean shower before returning to and finishing the rest of the aforementioned video. I then, under a random happenstance, discovered that if my timing is right, I can hook into some really weak wifi for my laptop (though not for my phone, sadly). So I spent some time trying to catch up as best I could (though I'd take dial-up at this point).

A little after 10 AM, I went next door to see if my neighbor was ready to show me around. He ended up taking me down the street, showing me different things like fruit, vegetable, and meat markets on the  sidewalk. We went into a nearby grocery store and he helped me get some stuff there (and the check-out lady was really nice). We headed back to put the stuff up in my apartment where we were met in the elevator by two Korean women (one young and the other a little older)... who turned out to be Jehova's Witnesses. Yup. Even in Korea, you can't get away from them. But they were really nice (well, the younger one, anyway, who was the only one that talked to us) and told us all about Jesus dying for our sins before parting ways.

Soon after, my neighbor helped me get a bus card so I can take the bus places (like the downtown area, which he's gonna show me next weekend). Then he treated me to lunch at a place I forget the name of, but it's basically Korean McDonalds (not actually McDonalds, but it's basically Korean fast food). We got a mix of stuff to try out. It was alright--the best was actually what turned out to be Japanese food, and it was basically this big pork cutlet in some kind of sauce.

And then he showed me an internet cafe that's actually in this same building as my apartment, which is what I'll be using to upload videos until I can get internet myself. (Future Note: The internet cafe is equally cool and confusing. It's full of teens playing video games, so it's pretty loud. But the internet is fast and it's basically less than a dollar for an hour. However, most major websites--like YouTube--are entirely in Korean. So that makes it a little difficult to figure things out at the moment.)

And speaking of videos, since it's now 1 PM (Saturday March 2nd) and I don't think I'll be doing anything that interesting for the rest of the day... let's get to the video, shall we?


Here's a tour of my actual apartment. Enjoy!

*Note: One thing I forgot to talk about in the video is this little panel between the couch and the shelf thing. It's for heat. One button will heat up my water so I can take hot showers and whatnot, and another will turn the heat on in the apartment (which I believe is via heated floors).