First, however, I'd like to air some grievances. As previously stated, on multiple occasions, I love living here. However, there are a few (namely three) things that DRIVE ME INSANE.
1. Lack of Personal Space
Korea, as a society, doesn't really give a crap about personal space. And coming from America, where my bubble is FIERCELY defended, this is tough to get used to. The worst violators of personal space are the little ajummas, or Korean grandmothers. They push. They shove. They stand uncomfortably close. They bump into you with intent. Its totally obnoxious. Koreans are also just touchy feely people by nature. Kids hold hands all the time. Boys hold hands with boys. Girls hold hand with girls. They hug each other. They hang on each other. They punch each other. Its really just a hugely tactile society, which definitely takes some getting used to.
When I think about my personal space being violated its not always physically. People here stare a LOT. Its as though I have a huge sign floating over my head that says "Oooh, she's different. Stare at her." The other day I met Dana, a friend who is Chinese American, and I was telling her that I was bitter than I had left my Kindle/iPod at home because that left me nothing to distract me from the stares on the train. She seemed surprised and said "Really? People stare a lot?" Um...yes. 20 minutes later as we still stood waiting for someone to meet us, she was like "Whoa, seriously, like everyone is staring at us! Oh my gosh!" I had to laugh. Welcome, Dana, to the world of the foreigner who doesn't blend in. And the thing is that when people are staring here and you look back at them, they KEEP staring. Then I end up looking away because I feel uncomfortable. Julia said she just stares them down until they look away, but no way can I do that!
3. Child "Janitors"
Our schools don't have full time janitors here. The kids do most of the cleaning. They empty trash cans, sweep the floors, clean up the playground, etc. Kids will come into our office about once a day with little brushes and dust pans to collect some of the dust. (Note: Some. The schools are still super dusty.) That is all well and good, but the one thing that TOTALLY GROSSES ME OUT TO NO END is the "mopping" that occurs. Basically kids drag around dirty, nasty mops, full of god knows what diseases all around the building. They "mop" the hallways, the bathrooms and the classrooms....I would guess without washing the mops out with any kind of chemicals or cleaners. It is so disgusting. I hate walking through the halls and seeing the little slug trails of kids pulling the mops. I know they drag it through god knows what in the bathrooms and then right out into the hallways. ACK! I would rather they never mopped at all.
OKAY now on to more positive things.
Last I left you was a Tuesday afternoon as Seoul turned into a winter wonderland. That evening I had my first open class for after school. Basically they let the parents come in and sit in the back of the classroom and see what they're paying for. I had everything extra planned out and made all sorts of extra materials. When I got to after school, Mrs. Hwang told me that Evan (the teacher from Aju) was sick and she was going to combine his class with mine for the last period. So, all of a sudden, instead of teaching a group of 12 higher level kids, I have a group of 29 really mixed kids. And I ended up with 14 parents! Too many people in the English room. But it all went fine, and I'm going to take it as a compliment that she decided to combine Evan's class with mine rather than someone else's. But it could just be because I'm fun based activities and simply THAT awesome.
On Wednesday, the night after our first snowfall, we had a district wide meeting we had to attend. Basically all of the elementary school NSETs and our co-teacher were told we had to go to a mandatory meeting from 1:30pm-9:00pm. And this was after teaching all morning. Needless to say, I was DREADING it. However, I was pleasantly surprised. The first hour and a half I thought I was going to die I was so bored. We started late (and all of you who know me well can attest to how much I love that...not). They put us all in a room and said everything once in Korean and once in English. It was also a verbatim, slide by slide exactly the same, presentation that we had just seen at the August orientation. Tedious. Before going to the meeting we each had to fill out a questionnaire. The results were reviewed in a VERY fast PowerPoint that I actually wish we'd had more time to discuss. One question, for instance, asked how useful we thought co-teaching was. FOUR PERCENT of Korean teachers said they felt that co-teaching was USELESS. Not a single NSET put useless. Those are the kinds of things I would have liked to address.
After the first meeting we were split into the Korean teachers who stayed in the auditorium at the Gangdong-gu Office, and the NSETs who went to the auditorium in the elementary school next door. I am not entirely sure what the Korean teacher talked about, but our session was run by a hilarious guy from New Zealand and it was all about "loving life in Korea." He gave us some great tips for places to go, things to see, and places to eat in our area and outside Seoul, so that was a pretty useful hour and fifteen minutes. Then we went off to a (very delicious) buffet dinner.
At this point, tons of people left. It had been a really long day. I, however, stayed and I'm very glad I did.
The next session was an "Olympics" of traditional Korean games/activities. We were all split into teams (GO LIGHT BLUE!) with a mixture of Korean and Native teachers. Actually, Candice from down the hall and I were the only two native speakers on our team. So Young was on our team, and so was one of the teachers from Aju where I work after school. We did various activities, including a Korean wrestling game where you hold one foot and jump around trying to knock the other person down (terrible), top spinning that you keep going by whipping with a stick that has a string tied to it (absurdly hard), "tuho" where you throw arrows into a pail (made more difficult by the nonstandard weight and size of said arrows), "yutnori" a game where you throw round sticks with one flat side in order to advance around a game board (I was actually pretty decent at this and it was fun), "jaegi chagi" which is a lot like hackey sack, but you play individually and have to keep this pompom in the air (I was horrid at this!), and a chopstick contest where you had to see which team could move the most uncooked beans from one plate to another in one minute (Candice and I DOMINATED and won a set of chopsticks each, hahaha). It was a whole lot of fun. Then we spent an hour doing super random "English Recreation" games with a crazy Korean man who I swear was a cruise director in a previous life. Andrew's co-teacher gave us a ride home and I crashed. While it was way better than expected, it was still a super long day. I was a little bitter when I heard that the middle school teachers in our district actually got to go on a 2 day retreat to Seoraksan...until I remembered that in a few short months they inherit the sixth graders that have been annoying the crap out of me. Fair trade.
Our team. Can you spot the foreigners?
On Saturday, I met up with Laura, Julia, Erich and Dana to lay out some plans for our trip in February. From February 12-24 I will be visiting Cambodia, Thailand and Laos. I am going to visit the temples of Angkor, veg out on the beach in Phuket and visit the PoP schools outside Luang Prabang. And get three new stamps in my passport! I am beyond excited. However, due to ticket prices, now it looks like only Erich and I will be slugging out the whole trip. My brother is meeting us in Thailand and Dana and Laura are going to start in Beijing and try to find some cheap tickets to come meet us. Julia is also going to try and meet up with us in Laos. Anyways, we basically spent the afternoon researching fun stuff to do in those countries and hanging out in a coffee shop. It was a pretty chill day.
Sunday I met up with Natasha and we headed over to Gwanghwamun to check out the Big Air World Cup snowboarding competition. This is the first time a major snowboarding event has ever been held in Asia, let alone in Korea. Korea is really trying to mold themselves into a winter sports haven as part of the big PyeongChang has submitted for the 2018 Winter Olympic games. In order to host this event, they built a giant ski jump directly in the center of town. Gwanghwamun Plaza, you may remember, used to be home to fountains and thousands of flowers. Well the fountains were closed down and the flowers were torn out to put in an ice skating rink and a snowboard jump. The jump was 100 meters long, and 34 meters high. It was this crazy man made mountain right in the middle of busy streets and office buildings. They kept pumping snow out to cover it, but it was a beautifully sunny and warm(er than it had been) day, so it was difficult for them to keep up. Still it was a bizarre and awesome thing to watch.
Awesome new statue of King Sejong in Gwanghwamun Plaza. He was the king who created Hangul, the written component of the Korean language. This thing is huge! Think Abraham Lincoln in the Lincoln Memorial. Its really quite beautiful.
Ski jump right in the middle of the city.
Flying through the air.
Clean landing. Please note the blue tarp peeking through the snow. Looks...dangerous.
Last week was bitterly cold. And my heat broke. So that was fun. I woke up and it was 14*C in my apartment! I like to sleep with it chilly, but that is downright FREEZING. It was painful to walk out of my bathroom after my shower and have my hair feel like it would turn immediately to an icicle. Thankfully they fixed that by Thursday night. Its been super cold and windy. The other day it was only 9*F! Brrr! Sadly no snow (unlike my friends and family on the east coast!).
This Friday Julia Facebook messaged us and said that her coworker had free passes to Lotte World and wanted to know if we wanted to go. I was scheduled to have dinner with my co-teachers but we weren't meeting at Lotte World until 7pm so I was in. First my coworkers and I went out to dinner at an Italian restaurant on top of Home Plus near our school. The food was delicious, the atmosphere cozy, and the conversation hilarious. It was a very good time. Then I headed over to meet the girls (Julia, Dana and Laura) at Lotte World. Julia had been under the impression that she had 6 free passes, two in each of three envelopes. Since there were only 4 of us coming, we decided to give away the one envelope to a woman in line so she wouldn't have to pay. Seconds after she went in, we found out that the envelopes, in fact, only had ONE free ticket in each. We all chipped in for the fourth ticket (which was only 12,000won to begin with) and headed in.
When we walked in, it was clear that this was not just your average night at Lotte World. The ice rink had been turned into a huge seating area and there was a stage with performers that were being projected on big screens. There was also a super random petting zoo set up. We spent a little time looking at/touching/getting depressed about various animals before we spotted an area where they were letting people hold something and taking Polaroids of them. Dana and I headed over to investigate and found...
Say whaaat? He was tiny and soft and had huge eyes and little man hands. It took everything in me not to shove him in my hoodie pocket and run out of there. The girls working could see how much we loved him (a major hint was probably how much we were fawning over him) and let us hold him longer than the other people.
Picture of a picture of me holding a lemur. And CHEESING.
Giving him some TLC.
After we were done playing with the animals, Dana and Julia went on a ride and I tried to figure out what was going on downstairs. While I was waiting, I got to see 2NE1 perform on the big screen. They are a K-pop girl group and they are really quite good. I especially appreciated that they didn't lip sync like some of the other groups (ahem, ahem, Brown Eyed Girls, ahem). Soon after they were done with the ride we headed downstairs to watch more of the concert. We saw lots of BIG K-pop people, including 2NE1, Brown Eyed Girls, 4Minute, Kara, Psy, and G Dragon. It was just so unexpected and therefore even more fun. There were TONS of people there.
Stage with crowds and the big screens on each side and on the ceiling.
Stage (you can see G Dragon on the side screen).
G Dragon performing a slow jam.
4Minute singing their song Music/Muzik.
After the concert started to wind down we found some chairs and just chilled, took a bunch of random self portraits, and listened to the rest of the performance. Then we headed upstairs to snap a photo in the Christmas section and head home.
Aforementioned self portraits, showing off our free passes.
It looks like a postcard!
For real, we could be a Lotte World advertisement. Love it.
(Dana, Me, Julia, Laura)
Saturday I slept in and cleaned a little before heading out to the USO travel agent to make the final payment on Erich and I's tickets for February. In total it is 7 flights: Seoul, South Korea - Siem Reap, Cambodia; Siem Reap - Bangkok, Thailand - Phuket, Thailand; Phuket - Bangkok - Luang Prabang, Laos; Luang Prabang - Bangkok - Seoul. It cost us $1476.00, which I think is a pretty decent price. I am so far beyond excited that I can't begin to describe it. Look forward to hearing me gush even more about it in the future.
After hitting the travel agent, I met up with Ayzia at the Cheongnyangni train station in northern Seoul to catch a train out to Cheongpyeong (seriously, they could not make these two names harder for a foreigner to pronounce). The ride was about an hour long and cost 3,100won, so less than $2.50. Then we took a taxi out to the Garden of the Morning Calm to check out their Lighting Festival. It did NOT disappoint. There were lights EVERYWHERE! It felt like some crazy lit up Willy Wonka funland. It was absolutely beautiful. And FREEZING! We walked around the garden for about 2 hours total, enjoyed some dinner while there, and then took the 9:09pm train back to Seoul. It was totally worth the trip. And its there until February, so check it out if you get the chance!
Church will all kinds of things floating around it in the Heaven Garden.
Pretty pathways all lit up.
So beautiful. (I especially love the light up grapes on the arch, haha.)
The Sunken Garden, my favorite area.
Such a beautiful backdrop.
Sunday I awoke looking for adventure. Haha, not really. I awoke intent on doing some shopping for the stuff I'm making for our Christmas potluck/sleepover. I headed out to HomePlus (the medium sized one near me) where I actually ended up buying an oven! I really miss baking (something my mom and I always did around Christmas) so I decided to buy it as a Christmas gift to myself. It is a little electric convection oven that only set me back 95,000won or about $76. Not too shabby.
There she is!
Yesterday I baked all afternoon and made about 4 dozen peanut butter/chocolate cookies (using a Lotte Ghana chocolate bar instead of the much more expensive Hershey Kisses, haha) and 2 dozen small pieces of almond bark. I took them into school today and they were a big hit! I will probably spend most of Wednesday baking since I'm done with school. That way the cookies will be extra fresh for our Christmas Eve sleepover. I am pumped!
As far as I know, today was my last full day of teaching until March! That is exciting news. Tomorrow I have to go to work, but we don't teach and the kids go home before lunch (seems like a waste of time to me...). Then I'm off until January 4th when I start camp. I work camp for three weeks half day, have 4 days off, work one day, then work 2 weeks. Now So Young told me that the special subject teachers don't usually teach during those two weeks, but you never know. Then I have my 2 weeks off (and my trip!) and the new school year starts in March. I cannot believe how fast it is flying by. I am often startled to realize that I've been away so long. It seems impossible.
I'll update again before Christmas, but in case you don't see it, I hope you have a fantastically Merry Christmas, and a wonderfully happy and peaceful New Year. Much love.