Thursday, October 1, 2009

Happy Chuseok! Less Happy Birthday.

Since I know that an entry about K-Pop doesn't really count as an update (and I'm over a week behind), I decided to buckle down and let you know what is happening with my life!

Last Thursday I went to school and my afterschool program and came home exhausted. Angie and I went out to get pizza for the first time since arriving to celebrate being in Korea for a month. We went down the street to Pizza School where we got a cheese pizza that turned out to be pretty damn amazing (even though it had corn on it...) and was about the size of a medium thin crust pizza at home. The major difference? Our pizza only cost 5,000won, or about $4. Awesome. They have a ton of crazy choices so we will be going back there soon!

Friday was my first really shitty day here. Most of the emotional roller coaster was centered around the fact that I thought I would be spending Chuseok alone. Chuseok is Korean Thanksgiving and it falls on October 3rd this year. As this is a major holiday, we have Friday and Monday off. Ages ago, Brigid and Natasha and I had decided that we would like to go somewhere over the break. We looked into Jeju (no plane seats left coming back) and Busan. I thought we had kind of agreed to take the KTX down to Busan, but we never really cemented plans. Then I found out that they had booked a trip to Taiwan with another friend of theirs. Since I had just taken two sick days off last week, I didn't think there was any way I could go because at that time I was still under the impression that we had to take a week off for quarantine whenever we travelled out of the country. I mentioned this to my co-teacher who told me that the rules had JUST changed, and now (as long as you had no symptoms) you could return to work the next day. So then I got pretty excited and thought maybe I could go with them. I looked into getting a seat on the flight etc. My coteacher mentioned that you really have to clear international travel with the vice principal and principal at your school, so we went downstairs to meet with our VP. He denied my request to leave. He felt that since I had just been sick, my body wasn't ready for international travel and I should take the time to rest and recuperate. To say I was upset is kind of an understatement. I was kind of devastated since I figured everyone else would already have plans and the people I thought I was going to spend Chuseok with were leaving. I got a little teary at school but mostly sucked it up and waited until I got home to wallow in self pity and homesickness. I basically holed up in my room, ate Old Bay ramen, and BAWLED MY EYES OUT while watching Grey's. It was therapeutic and I felt much better the next morning. I think only having one tiny break down in over a month is pretty good!

Saturday morning we went on a USO tour of the DMZ. (As a humorous side note, while searching for the tour on Google, I couldn't figure out why I wasn't getting any results. Turns out I was typing "USO tour to DMV." You know, those exciting tours to the department of motor vehicles? Hahah. Also at one point I typed "USO tour to DMX," which would probably be a pretty hilarious concert outing.) Chicago Laura, Brigid, Natasha and I met at the USO's Camp Kim at 10:30am to pick up our tickets and head out. We had to split up on the bus because it was already pretty packed, but it was alright. The trip up to the DMZ from Seoul took about 1 hour. On the bus seated next to me was a couple who I immediately judged when they pulled out a bag of RED PEPPER STICKS to eat on the bus. Really? Ugh, I hate that smell and the whole bus smelled like them. (Later I learned that they were pretty hilarious and cool.) There was quite a mix of people on the bus, from various countries with wide ranges in age and profession. There was a big group of military guys, quite a few hagwon teachers (SOOO ANNOYING) and some random couples. I was quite happy to see a number of tattoos on the trip, as I have only seen TWO visible tattoos on Korean people SINCE I ARRIVED. Which is kind of insane to me.

Our first stop was at a spot on a mountain overlooking the DMZ. Our packed bus had to climb a huge hill, which was pretty nerve wrecking since we had previously stalled the middle of a completely flat intersection! But thankfully our driver kept us creeping upward and we made it. The overlook was...a bit of a let down? You could see a fair distance to the North Korean mountains (even though it was hazy), however in order to take pictures you had to stand behind the "photo line," which was probably 30+ feet away from the wall. They said this was due to the fact that they didn't want you taking detailed pictures of a "sensitive military installation." Yeah, I don't know what you would have taken pictures of! It is basically just lush trees for 4 km. So that was kind of bizarre.

Standing by the boulder that bears the name of the overlook: Do Ra Jeon Mang Dae

Far away photo line.

DMZ / North Korea.  See the giant North Korean flag in the middle?

DMZ / North Korean view through the hazy day.

Here you can see a ROK soldier and between him and the first viewer, you can spot the giant South Korean flag.

Then we loaded back onto the bus and headed over to the restaurant where we had lunch. As the tour guide said "There is one restaurant. It serves two things. You have to pick one. Either bibimbap (rice mixed with veggies and chili paste), or bulgogi (marinated strips of beef)." I got the bulgogi and it was decent. I loved the awesome pot stickers served as appetizers, too.

After lunch we headed over to the Third Tunnel. Basically there are four confirmed tunnels that North Korea has attempted to build (so they could invade easily) that have been discovered/revealed over the past 20 or so years. This tunnel is the third one (hence the name) and you can go down into it...because some people like those things. (For all of you who are thinking about cracking jokes related to my LOVE of the Lackawanna County Coal Mine Tour, you can bite your tongues. This doesn't have a cool tour, OR a cool trolley you get to go down in.) The first thing we did there was go into this auditorium where we watched a little video about the history of Korea/The Korean War. was HILARIOUS. I don't know who wrote the script, but it was most DEFINITELY NOT a native English speaker. Some favorite quotes? "Here, in the DMZ, you can see many wild animals, such as (list of a few animals), and the living fossil: goats." Whaaaaaaaat? "The DMZ will remain FOREVER...until the two Koreas reunite." It was quite funny. Then we walked around looking at some pictures and displays for a while in a little museum area. They had this crazy huge DMZ diorama that you could walk over. Upon closer inspection, I hope it was nowhere near scale....or the DMZ is full of pterodactyl sizes sparrows, and teensie tiny grizzly-esque bears.

One more thing I wish a native speaker had proofread.

Crazy not-to-scale diorama.

Chilling with fake ROK soldiers.  They actully put white stones in the fences around the DMZ like the one shown here because they make it easy to tell if the fence has been tampered with. (You touch it and the stone falls out and is seen by patrols.)

Then we walked over to the Third Tunnel entrance. Let me tell you a little bit about the Third Tunnel. It is the closest tunnel to Seoul, and would have probably done the most damage. According to Google (which knows all), it was estimated that about 30,000 ranked, heavily-armed troops could pass through the tunnel per hour. It is about 73 meters (239 feet) underground and in order to go down, you have to walk down a 350 meter tunnel with an 11 degree incline. Of wet stone! With hard hats! In an increasingly squeezy tunnel! I figured I would at least try...and I mate it about 100m before realizing that there was NO FREAKING WAY I was going all the way down there. I knew I was going to have a claustrophobia induced panic attack and have to climb a damn mountain to get out. I had to use my inhaler just for the 100m walk back up! I have no regrets about not seeing the bottom of the stone tunnel that ends with a slab of concrete.

Super cool sculpture depicting the reunification of North and South Korea.

Our tour guide with a diagram of the third tunnel.

I don't know what women in the military wear here (as I have seen a billion guys, but never any girls) but I assume it looks something like the uniform above.

After everyone clawed their way out of the tunnel, we headed back to the bus (which almost left Laura as she was buying gifts for her dad). Then we headed over to our last (and unquestionably coolest) stop: the UN's Joint Security Area, or JSA. A US soldier took us around the base on a bus owned by the Republic of Korea's army. What do they call it? The ROK bus. What do they call their soldiers? ROK soldiers. How do you talk about that without cracking a smile? "Let's get on the ROCK BUS!" Anyways, the first thing that we did was go to a briefing by a different US soldier. He talked VERY fast, and VERY quietly, but I absolutely learned more about the Korean War in his 10 minute presentation than I learned in all of world and AP US history. It was incredibly well put together and interesting. Really great. After signing a waiver that basically absolved the UN of any responsibility should we get killed or dismembered by N. Korean soldiers, we boarded a ROK bus and headed into the heart of the DMZ. Along the way we passed Taeseongdong, the "Freedom Village" in the DMZ. It is this crazy little town that lives outside the rules. These people are the natives who lived in this valley for thousands of years, and so they are given special privileges and rules that apply only to them. For instance, no one pays any taxes, their houses and land allotments are much bigger than the rest of Korea, and the men are excused from having to serve in the Korean military (mandatory for all other men in Korea). Women are allowed to marry into the village, but not men (because then they could get out of their military obligation). It is kind of bizarre. Someone asked why they got to stay on the land, and the soldier told us that it was because they were the native people from that land so they got special treatment. How different from the US...

Then we arrived down into the center of the JSA and walked through the Freedom House. It was constructed as a place of reconciliation for families that were torn apart by the war. However, it has never been used for that purpose since no one from North Korea is allowed to cross the Military Demarcation Line. For those of you who, like me, didn't know...the MDL is the actual line that splits Korea in half. It is a single line that stretches from coast to coast. It is near the 38th parallel, but that was really never meant to be a permanent line of demarcation, but rather a general guide. On either side of the MDL, the Demilitarized Zone stretches out forming a barrier of 2km on each side. The DMZ, in total, is 4km wide, with the MDL running directly down the center of it. In the JSA, the DMZ runs directly through the buildings. Each building's paint color indicates who owns/maintains it. The blue buildings are owned by the UN, while the tan buildings are owned by North Korea. Conferences between the sides take place in T-2, which is a split building so that no one ever has to step foot in the other country. After being scrutinized through binoculars of a North Korean soldier for a few minutes while our soldier was telling us some history, we got to go into I officially got to stand in "Communist North Korea" as our tour guide kept saying. There were ROK soldiers standing in the room with us, and they are BUFF. Our tour guide pointed out that they are some of the tallest and most cut Koreans you will ever meet because they are hand picked to work at the JSA. They all wear these reflective aviators and stand in a modified Taekwondo pose to constantly look menacing and ready for anything. It was very interesting. We also learned that they wear chains in their uniform pants because many years ago that made it sound like many more soldiers were coming when people heard them. We certainly learned a lot on the trip. When we came back out to exit the JSA, about 10 more North Korean soldiers had gathered to watch us with their binoculars. Our soldier pointed out a building and said that it was the "rec room" for the North Korean soldiers. The name is a little misleading as they don't have any recreation equipment in there and he said basically it is just a place where between shifts about 30 armed North Korea soldiers hang out. He said that we could tell there was no one in there now because the curtains were closed and if they were in there, they'd most certainly be flicking us off, doing the cut-your-throat gesture and other gems. According to him, all the US and UN troops refer to that building as "The Monkey House" for that reason.

Standing on the steps to Freedom House, looking across the MDL at North Korea.  You can see the MDL running through the middle of the buildings.  T-2 is on the left.

Our soldier guide and the ROK soldier showing off his badass sunglasss and modified tawkwondo pose.  He def looks threatening.

Clearly taken from the lighter North Korean side of the MDL.

So booyah!  I've officially been to North Korea (and I didn't even need Bill Clinton to get me back out).  Sadly, they do not offer passport stamps.

Then it was time to head back, so we hit the gift shop and got back on our bus. The ride home seemed QUITE long as we got stuck in some hellish Seoul traffic. After arriving back at the USO, the four of us headed over to twoowt (pronounced two two, as they are just mirror images of the word) where we had some awesome fried chicken, garlic chicken, barbecue chicken and fries, along with a MASSIVE pitcher of beer for a whopping $9.34 per person. Seriously, that pitcher probably had at least 12 beers in it. Awesome. On the way home I had a thought that I think is really quite an accurate commentary on my life in Seoul. I got on the train and I looked around and thought to myself "God...why are there so many white people on here?!"

On Sunday I slept late, cleaned my house, and fell in love. I fell in love with Daiso, a store just around the corner from us. I guess it is basically a dollar store, as everything is between 1000 and 5000won (about 80cents-$4). It has EVERYTHING. It is three floors of cheap, adorable, useful goods. It is AWESOME. I have already made a trip there since. It is also full of hilarious random English phrases on stuff. I am going to have to take my camera back next time, just to capture the hilarity.

When reviewing my week and deciding what to talk about on Monday it struck me that the most memorable thing from Monday was the awesome soup we had for lunch. I imagine it to be like the Korean alternative to chicken noodle soup. I just want to eat it every time I am sick. It had a broth base with potatoes and squash that was just delicious. In other Monday food news, Sal, Angie and I went back to Pizza School, where we ordered a pepperoni pizza (no corn this time!) and a "combination" (read: supreme) pizza with a cheese crust. Cheese crust rules my life. Monday night I also met with Sang Ah for the first time. Her parents own the noodle restaurant in our building and one night after we ate there, she ran after me and asked if I would help her practice her English. She wants to study abroad in Australia, but her English really isn't strong enough now. I sat down with her to talk about tutoring like 2 weeks ago and she asked how much she would pay me. I explained that I couldn't take any money. She insisted. I told her that, no, it was forbidden. I had to do it for free. I wasn't allowed. To which she replied, quizzically, with her hand near her ear "Not loud?" Sigh. Moral of the story, we worked it out that she would help me some on my Korean and I would work with her for 1 hour, two nights a week. We were supposed to start last week, but I was sick so it never happened. I am happy to report that I chose a good English workbook and I think that the tutoring is going to be mutually beneficial.

Tuesday school was normal and I headed over to my after school program. On the way I realized, with a bit of dread, that we were told we'd be having a dinner meeting after the program that night. I was just tired and I'm still not feeling 100%, but I said I would go. In the end, all of the native teachers except for one went, along with the Vice Principal, after school program coordinator, three Korean English teachers, and two secretaries. It ended up being a 2.5 hour, eight-course Chinese meal. It was delicious and actually a lot of fun. The VP treated and kept our drinks refilled all night in a (somewhat) successful attempt to get all of the English teachers sloshed. Copious amounts of beer and plum wine were consumed by all (though mostly by Evan, the full-time English teacher at Aju who the VP apparently LOVES). I didn't get home from work until almost 9:30pm. A long day, but lots of fun.

On Wednesday, I introduced my co-teachers, and the kids, to Dr. Seuss. We have been talking about liking/not liking foods in fifth grade, so we did a readers theater of Green Eggs and Ham. When I asked at the beginning of class who had heard of Dr. Seuss, only one kid raised his hand. I asked where he had studied: Canada. It was a lot of fun and lesson actually went very well. Wednesday is also my favorite: International Day in the cafeteria. Today we had onion rings and tuna salad sandwiches. Win! Since yesterday was my 1-month anniversary of working at Shincheon Elementary, and today was my birthday, I brought in a cake from Emma Cake House for everyone in my office. So good. It was covered in shaved chocolate, and while it wasn't as sweet as a cake from home would have been, it had lots of whipped cream and was super tasty. We ate it with chopsticks, which was a totally new experience for me, haha. Also, we got to leave early. When I asked why, Sienna said that the rule is that everyone is supposed to get out early at least once a month to "enjoy nature." Whaaaaat? In reality, apparently we only actually get out early like 2-3 per quarter, but still, that is awesome.

I went home and watched some TV and generally vegetated until I received a text from Angie asking me if I wanted to go out for a birthday dinner. After a quick trip to Daiso (addictive) we hit up Sarang Gimbab, a restaurant right next to our building. They serve gimbab, which basically rice, various veggies, and other ingredients rolled up in seaweed, a lot like sushi. We got a roll of tuna gimbab and a meal that included a breaded pork fillet, udong soup, and some sort of filled rice ball. It was all really good and SUPER cheap, so we'll be going back there. I got my first birthday gifts (except for the package my mom sent me) from our landlord Liz (fruit, shampoo, and a really soft face towel) and Angie (Skin Food's Banana Yogurt Face Mask, which I am super excited to use). After dinner I came home and had some conversations about various illnesses in the hallway with Angie, Laura, Arianna (who is walking death! stay away!), Liz, and Korean Andrew from downstairs. Sang Ah was late to tutoring because her restaurant got really busy and she had to stay and help.
Today I woke up and spent the day at school as per usual. Except today each class started with a group of 4th grade Korean children singing me Happy Birthday. My coteachers got me a card and 30,000won of gift certificates that you can use at the bookstore, movies, wherever. They're awesome. A fourth grader also slipped me a note that said "Dear Magon Teacher. Happy birthday, Magon! I hope you can enjoy your holiday. Bye! From: Hannah" with a picture of a cake. So sweet. I am now the last person left in my office and I leave in a few minutes to head over to my after school program. Everyone is busy tonight, so I'll be headed home to eat some ramen and watch some American TV...alone. I am trying not to be bummed about it, but I am definitely missing my stateside friends right now. It just kind of sucks how things worked out.
Anyways, Happy Chuseok, everyone! Much love. Miss you guys like crazy.


  1. Oh Magon I miss you too!! I wanted to do something fun for your birthday but its kinda hard since I can't call you or get you a letter in less than a month. :(

    Cheer up my little korean dumpling. We will see you soon.

  2. Hey Megan! I love the blog! Its cool to see all that you are doing and seeing and experiencing over there!! Miss you!!
    <3 Mon :)

  3. i love that you too have discovered daiso. it quickly became one of my favorite pacific-northwest stores.

    <3 the number one daiso fan

  4. i think i have seen you in jeju-do near nonghyup bank.