Photoessay: Stunning Sunsets in Rural Korea

My area, particularly Waymok Beach is actually quite famous within Korea for its incredible sunsets. I live a few kilometers from the famed beach view, but my view of the sunset is usually pretty stunning, regardless. Framed by seemingly endless rice paddies, some beautiful cloud formations and a distant ocean, I’ve managed to capture a few killer shots. I also took a little trip to the nearby seawall to capture the photographs with the pagoda in them.

So enjoy this assortment of the most gorgeous sunsets I’ve seen in my area, and my attempts to catch them on camera. Whoever said that the countryside was boring obviously didn’t look around long enough to catch these beautiful moments.

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IMG_0884 R ED

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Language Misadventures: How I Adopted and Unadopted a Dog Before 8am

I’m all about going with the flow, saying yes to opportunities that present themselves and diving in when I have no idea what I’m doing. This has brought me nothing but interesting opportunities, if not sometimes mildly uncomfortable, but always something manageable and usually a good life experience, to boot. But this morning, that tendency lead me to end up in the most absurd situation imaginable. I still don’t believe that just happened. It’s not even 9am, but I need a beer.

It all started last week, Friday, at 6:15am, as I made my way to the exercise track near my school with Mary in tow. As is usual, some Korean ladies on their way to… somewhere… stopped me and asked about me and my dog, commenting on how cute she is. One mentioned that she had dogs at home, but one died. We spoke in Korean, which means that I was understanding the gist of everything, but would occasionally miss a sentence but could struggle through. For some reason, which I couldn’t correctly comprehend, they (or she?) wanted to meet me. I reluctantly agreed to meet the following week, at 6am, in front of the school. Maybe they or she wanted to meet to exercise with me? One lady or two? To show me her dog?  To feed me kimchi? Who knows. I said yes and figured that I’d find out Monday morning what exactly we were meeting for.

Oh boy, was I in for a surprise.

Monday morning, I groggily dragged myself out of bed at 5:45am, knowing that I was supposed to meet this lady whom I knew nothing about for unknown reasons in 15 minutes. I threw on an exercise outfit, put Mary on a leash and we headed out into the freezing cold. She was nowhere to be seen, so I headed to the track to begin running. About 6:30am, one question of mine was answered as I saw one figure walking towards me with something in her arms. The sun was still hiding and a full moon was shrouded in dark, ominous rain clouds, but as I got closer I was able to see that she was holding a dog. A cute, white, shaking, adorable little dog wrapped in a blanket like a baby.

We conversed in Korean, in which I understood really just one thing. This was her dog, and she had kept her promise to meet me. (Indeed!) She asked me a question in Korean, which I guessed to mean “do you want to hold her?” I motioned “holding” and we were both a little confused, and I said yes. She repeated this question, I said yes again. That verb I don’t know, it must mean “to hold”, right?

Damn me and my “yes.” I didn’t know it yet, but I had just agreed to keep her dog and raise it with Mary.

She motioned for me to walk with her, which I did, wondering when I was going to hold her dog like I’d just agreed to do. A question I am well accustomed to and understand clearly, always, she asked me where my house was, and we started walking towards it. I understood at this point that my run was over. Answering, I told her where I lived, at which point I gathered that perhaps she was going to leave the dog with me for a time. To play with me at my house? This was turning out to be more than I’d hoped to agree to.

Mary doesn’t even like other dogs, how are we going to play together at my place?

She told me about how she loved the dog and her younger sibling also loved the dog, but no one else in her house liked her. It was a sad tale, and I felt her pain. I answered a weird question about where my dog sleeps, which now in retrospect, was a question about where poor little Parry would sleep. “Oh, you really speak Korean very well, Sally!” she said. She asked when she should visit, which I assumed meant pick up the dog and take her back.

Suddenly I wasn’t so sure at all what I had agreed to. The verb “방문” means, very clearly, a visit. Not a return. A visit.

Confused, I carried a swaddled dog in one arm and pulled Mary on her leash back to my home. Mary hadn’t yet noticed that I was, indeed, carrying a dog and hadn’t commenced her usual aggressive barking when another canine is near. She was oblivious. I was also oblivious. And really, really confused.

Parry wasn’t in my house more than ten minutes before she shit on the floor.

As sweet as little Parry is, there is no way I want to have an unhouse-trained dog in my house, even to play. Even if her little white tail is dyed orange. It wasn’t even 7am yet, but I figured I could use some help from a Korean speaker. I called my boyfriend, woke him up, and was yelled at for telling this stranger my house address. I don’t even know her! Now she knows where I live! It’s a weird situation, what if she’s trying to farm my organs or something! His grumpiness, unclear morning thoughts and paranoia about my safety combined into an unfortunate combination. I sent him a picture of Parry and the lady’s phone number, amid cleaning dog shit off my floor.

Mary finally noticed that there was another dog in the house, and barking hell broke loose. I shut her in the bedroom, separate, and mentally apologized to all my neighbors that weren’t up already for work. She was one unhappy puppy, clawing at the door and barking, even though little Parry didn’t respond one bit.

I poured myself a very much needed coffee.

After a few minutes, my boyfriend called me back and I was not prepared to hear what he had to say, as the official translator. I’d ignored my deepest suspicious, that I was supposed to keep this dog, because it seemed like way too strange a scenario to be real. My gut already knew, though. This lady that I had met twice, randomly, had given me her dog to keep. She couldn’t afford to raise it anymore, because extra family had moved in recently and they didn’t like poor little Parry. She thought I would be a good candidate, because I already had a dog and like dogs and I’m nice. Apparently I had gone along with it the whole time.

I had accidentally adopted a dog.

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My official translator then communicated to her that it wasn’t possible for me to keep little Parry; I have dog allergies (true, Mary is hypoallergenic) and I’m leaving soon for the USA. I had misunderstood. I thought I was just supposed to play with her for a little bit and then give her back. I thought I was babysitting. I, sadly, can’t keep the dog and raise her. Mary doesn’t even like other dogs. I’d meet her at 7:50am and bring back Parry, and she’d have to find a different home if she couldn’t keep her.

I literally burst into a fit of laughter, because I didn’t know what else to do.

I also felt stupid, stupid and really stupid for somehow agreeing to keep her dog and simultaneously really guilty for letting her hopes down. In my guilt, I put together a little package of dog food and grape juice packets as an apology gift. An “I’m sorry I pretended to speak Korean, adopted your dog and then unadopted your dog immediately afterwards,” gift. I got a fair warning from my boyfriend to not say “yes” to questions that I don’t understand and a nice apology for yelling at me when he was tired.

I continued laughing.

As Mary barked repeatedly, still scratching at the door, as the little white dog pissed on her own blanket only twenty minutes after shitting on my floor and as I continued to try and choke down some caffeine so I could understand what was happening in my absurd life, I laughed out loud until it hurt. I bellowed.

7:50am, waiting outside my school, I held little Parry in my arms as she shivered in the cold. The same Korean lady walked up, a big smile on her face of amusement (and probably a little hidden disappointment) and took Parry back. I handed her the bag of goodies, my apology gift, which she graciously accepted as well as my apology, in Korean. She didn’t try to say anything else in Korean to me, probably out of fear that I wouldn’t understand. Her fears were grounded in a very recent reality of huge misunderstanding.

I walked into work, still in disbelief, recounted the story to my early morning class and took a moment to breath. By 8am, I had accidentally adopted a dog and then unadopted her. This story was one for the books.

Sometimes, I don’t believe my life.

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Sorry, Parry, it just wasn’t meant to be.

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I would ask whether you’d ever accidentally adopted a dog before, too, but I feel like I’m alone on this one.

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Random Snippets of Life in Korea

Today, I’m blogging from the road, literally, as I type this post up on my phone while the bus takes me to Seoul. Let no one say I’m not committed to NaBloPoMo!

Since my only resources are… well just this phone and the pictures on it, I thought I’d just throw some pictures together, explain them, and hopefully give you a laugh.

Here goes nothing!

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English gone wrong… I don’t know why food companies are so desperate to write English on their packaging, that they’ll throw anything together to make it happen. I wonder what those marketing statistics are on English words or Korean words on the packaging… does it really help? Who knows.

I’m also pretty sure the secrecy of this love will be in jeopardy if you give someone chocolate that blatantly has the word “love” on it.

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Thirsty? Drink this, it’s made of pine trees! I really have no words. Apparently it gives you extra energy.

Actually, the drink tasted quite okay. Just like a pine tree, as you’d assume.

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I keep these mini dinosaurs on my desk, mostly in an effort to block myself from putting papers down and making it messy. Somehow they end up in a tower every time students are around…

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Just in case the weirdness of middle school kids was in question.

Luckily, the tuna wasn't as hard to find.
Luckily, the tuna wasn’t as hard to find.

Do too many choices overwhelm you, terrify you or make you nervous? Avoid the tuna aisle of grocery stores in Korea.

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Just thought I’d throw in a picture of Mary, cause, why not. Go ahead and try to tell me she’s not cute. Try it. I dare you.

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Your Crash Course in K-Pop

If you’re anything like me before I came to Korea, you figure that Korea probably makes its own music, but you know nothing about it. This is your crash course in Korean Pop music, or K-Pop. It’s weird, it’s wonderful, it’s sung in both English and Korean and it’s kind of a big deal. Dive in. Your life may never be the same.

Image is Everything

This isn’t surprising in Korea, where image is already important. In music videos, it’s ten times more important. Everything you can imagine is done to the maximum: hair, makeup, set and backgrounds and more than anything, fashion.  This is pretty similar to any culture, but this is Korean style. Dialed up, it can look crazy. Oh and most of the artists have huge budgets… so it just gets insane.

Example: Hyuna – Ice Cream

Coordinated Dancing Rules

Remember Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” and Britney Spears’ “…Baby One More Time” and N*Sync’s “Bye Bye Bye”? How awesome were those dance moves? If you’re a fan of coordinated dance, then you’re already a fan of K-Pop and you don’t even know it yet. While the USA music video industry grew out of their coordinated dances phase, the K-Pop world just made them bigger and badder than ever.

Example: Girls’ Generation – I Got a Boy

Boy/Girl Bands

Did you notice how many girls were dancing in the last video? They weren’t all back up dancers… that was the actual group. Girls’ Generation is one of the most famous artists with a million people in it (okay, so there are nine) and the boy band EXO, between their Korean and Chinese members has 12 people. INSANE! Most groups are less, and the magic number seems to be about 6. And if you haven’t guessed this yet, yes, the Boy/Girl Bands and coordinated dancing pretty much go hand in hand.

Example: BEAST – Bad Girl

Single Girl Singers

The alternative to the groups, are the solo singers, which are almost entirely women, with few exceptions. They sing plenty of sad ballads about being heartbroken or lonely, but there’s always the occasional single girl mantra or happy song. These tend to come and go in fame, one hit wonder kind of artists, sadly. Some of them are extremely talented (even if their choice of ballad is not).

Example: Lee Hi – It’s Over

K-Pop Fans

I’m going to put this simply: K-Pop fans can be obsessed and insane. More than you’ve ever seen. Belieber fans on cocaine. It’s a little bit cult-like and people all over the world go crazy for K-pop. If you’re not 300% in love with an artist’s music, it may be more stressful than fun to go to a concert, since K-pop obsessed teenage girls are known to scream, push, kick and let nothing get in their way of a potential sighting of their idol. God help you if you’re accidentally in a public space when a K-Pop band shows up to do a signing and fan meet… you will not be able to move and your ears might break open.

Example: A news story about international K-Pop Fans, one of which shows off her tattoos of the group ‘Super Junior”

It’s a Machine

Here’s a fun fact: K-Pop celebrities are fully manufactured. Scouted out in elementary or middle school school, the label takes them under their wing and makes them “trainees”. For years. Rigorous singing, dancing, music, English, everything under the sun lessons and a full-time life dedication are required. For years. And then when the label decides you’re ready, you pop out into the popular music scene like an egg freshly hatched. Awww, so cute. Except kind of torturous…

Example: This guy that was a trainee explains his daily schedule (in English, don’t worry!).

G-Dragon

Yeah, you’ve heard of PSY and that’s great, but in order to know anything about K-Pop, you NEED to understand who G-Dragon is. He is the biggest deal, biggest name, most famous, most insane and most arrogant, with a lot of reason. He’s legend. In his earlier videos, he’s androgynous as all hell, why does he look like a woman now? A man? Who knows. He doesn’t care. Basically G-Dragon doesn’t care about anything, except for his music, which he makes incredible. I could keep explaining, or I could just make you watch this music video.

Example: G-Dragon – “미치Go” (or “Go Crazy”)

Because he’s G-Dragon, here’s a second video: G-Dragon – One of a Kind

Congratulations, you’ve just graduated from your crash course in Korean pop music! YouTube can provide all advanced lessons on the subject.

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What do you think of K-Pop, do you like it? Is it insane? Do you want to sign up to be a trainee and slave away for years, too?

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How To Stay Warm in Winter Like a Korean

Before I left for Korea, my grandmother asked me one question that I remember clearly: “Are you bringing a warm winter coat? I heard winter in Korea is bitter cold.” At the moment it was June, and I knew her knowledge of Korea’s weather primarily stemmed from news that troops were freezing their balls off during the Korean war, which (at least during the winter months) was fought closer to North Korea. So I brushed it off, seeing that the latitude was similar to Pennsylvania and thinking that yeah, North Korea is probably bitter cold in the winter, but I’ll be in the South!

Well, imagine my surprise later in the year when the freezing rains became freezing snow and then it was dry and just plain freezing. Freezing, I tell you! I’ve never been so cold. I’ve also never been to Russia, Canada during winter months or anywhere with much of a temperature drop in comparison to Pennsylvania. So I was caught off guard, to put it simply. Grandma, you were right, dang it! (That’ll teach me to ignore advice from smarter, older people.)

I suffered a lot during my first winter, because I didn’t have a good jacket at first, didn’t own a lot of leggings and couldn’t figure out how the heating worked in my apartment. Eventually I figured it out, though, and I’m much more prepared for this upcoming winter. Part of my preparation comes from picking up tips from the Korean winter experts, themselves: Korean people. They look stoic in the winter months, not shivering, not uttering words of complaint. Sometimes I like to imagine that Koreans are actually just immune to temperatures and have special Asian skin made for horribly, painfully cold temperatures. Totally not true, they just know what they’re doing cause, you know, they live here. All the time.

Except for those girls in short skirts, there is definitely magic going on there. You girls be crazy.

So, if you’re new to Korea and don’t understand why your coworkers aren’t chattering their teeth and losing limbs to frostbite, I’m about to break open their secrets. None of them are particularly genius, really, but for those of us with little cold-weather sense, they make a big difference. This is how to stay warm in the winter, like a Korean.

The Clothes

First, you need a serious thick sweater that goes with everything, so you can wear it everyday. You’ll want all of your shirts and sweaters to cover your butt, so buy them as long as you can find. Bonus if it has a hood. Then you need thin, warm underlayers. They are the foundation of everything: under your pants you’ll need thin leggings, under your long sleeved shirt you’ll need a thinner, long sleeved shirt. Those girls you see in Seoul wearing only leggings in the bitter cold? They have a secret weapon, a fuzzy, fur-like lining inside the leggings. Back to the top, even better if you have a thin tank top underneath that thin long-sleeved shirt. Think layers, tiny layers and way too many layers. Don’t just embody an onion in layers of personality, dress like an onion. (Don’t smell like an onion, though.) As for your footsies, buy the super fuzzy socks or if you need to put shoes on top, wear two pairs of socks.

Like these!
fuzzy socks

Outerwear, you’ll want a scarf and a hat (duh), maybe with cute ears attached to it (double duh). Get cell phone friendly gloves, the ones with magnetic magic in the tips of the fingers so you can use your phone from the warmth of your finger blanket. Your jacket needs to be hardcore: multi-layered, fuzzy or fur inside, rain resistant and long. Spend money on your jacket because it will become your dearest possession when those temperature digits start growing, but in the negative.

Most popular among older people and children, cloth face masks must be mentioned, even if they make people look like they’re sick and trying not to spread disease. In reality, they’re just keeping the air warm before they breathe it into their lungs, and I can attest from personal experience that not only does it work but it’s wonderful for freezing cold morning runs. (I just look ridiculous, that’s all!) You can grab them in plenty of colors, with cute pink animals adorning the front or in a simple frill-free white.

I mentioned so much about underwear/clothes, because that’s the big secret: be the onion. And then wear a good jacket.

The Housewares

The big Korean secret that you’ve probably heard about but don’t quite understand the gloriousness of (until you experience it) is ondol, the underfloor heating system, where warm water flows through pipes below your feet. There is nothing better on a freezing cold winter day than putting a blanket on the floor and laying down on a warm surface. Nothing compares.

Another secret, which once again isn’t such a big secret, is using an electric blanket. During the worst months when six blankets isn’t cutting it because your face is still exposed to cold air, the electric blanket will do the trick. (But making a cave and tunneling under all your blankets won’t hurt, either!)

I do a stock image search for "blanket" and this is what it comes up with... really?
I do a stock image search for “blanket” and this is what it comes up with… really?

If you must, there are also space heaters, but that opens up a whole new can of worms called “how not to set your house on fire while you’re sleeping”, so I’d advise just figuring out how the ondol works and cuddling up with the below.

The Noms & Drinks

Asians are pretty stellar at having seasonal foods and drinks that should be consumed dutifully only during particular times of year. Koreans are no exception.

While Koreans eat hot food for pretty much every meal, throughout the year, no matter what, the fare gets a little heavier when it’s cold outside. Rice porridge becomes more popular, instead of only among sick people. Soups become meat-heavy and rice is given in excess. While roaming the streets, one of the most popular (and spectacularly tasty) items to buy is hodeok, a pancake-like thing filled with warm cinnamon and nutty goodness. Also good are red-bean-paste filled pastries, served warm, mandu or Korean-style dumplings and pretty much anything else warm that can be eaten. Another one of my winter favorites is no nonsense, baked sweet potato, peeled and eaten as is.

It's warm, but ANYTHING BUT THIS. [Read about how I got food poisoning and it was all my fault, here.]
It’s warm, but ANYTHING BUT THIS. [Read about how I got food poisoning and it was all my fault.]
As for the drinks, there are a plethora of coffee/milk/unidentified warm drinks ready to go at every convenience store. My favorite of these is definitely the honey and ginseng drink, which is exactly what it sounds like: honey, ginseng and water. (Ginseng in general is considered a winter necessity, in whichever form.) Koreans use warm drinks essentially as hand warmers in the cold months while at work, cupping their little instant coffee and only occasionally sipping it. While this goes for all year round, as well, drinking soju and makgeolli warms even the coldest body up.

The secret: eat warm, drink warm, and be warm.

[For a full list, see Seoulistic.com’s article: 15 Popular Korean Winter Foods and Snacks]

The Big Secret

You’ve become the onion and draped a giant coat on top, embraced the ondol (and the heating bills that come with it) and begun consuming a steady stream of warm food and drink. If you’re still cold, the last secret I can give you is this: ignore it. Pretty much your only other option would be to become Korean, and if possible, I’m both impressed and in favor of that transformation. But as far as I can tell, if a Korean is cold, they’re not talking about it. They’re ignoring it. I think that’s the final weapon, the last ditch effort against a constant affront of freezing wind and really cold feet. Don’t think about it. Go where you’re going. Move on.

And with that, you’ll be warm enough.

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You Know You’ve Been in Korea Too Long When…

As an expat, Korea is a great country to live in. As an ESL teacher, it’s even better. Free housing, excellent pay, a low cost of living, a job that isn’t completely time consuming, other foreigners that you can relate to. The list could go on for ages. But it’s also a country that vastly different than the West, and if you don’t go home frequently enough, then it becomes easy to lose track of social norms and the correct spellings of complicated words. The slope gets even more slippery when you notice how easy it is to sign for a second year, or skip that visit home in exchange for a cheaper, more adventurous and booze-filled vacation in SE Asia.

So yeah, a lot of us (myself included) find ourselves in Korea maybe just a tad bit too long. Here are some tell-tale signs that you need to fly home and reacquaint yourself with Western culture, before it’s too late.

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You give your expat friends money with both hands.

Once you get into this habit, it’s hard to get out. I guess it can’t hurt to be extra respectful to your friends, even though you just look weird. Thank goodness your friends are expats and understand your struggles; you won’t find the same understanding at home.

You take “selcas” in public and send them to your Western friends. (And you call them “selcas”, not “selfies”.)

Everybody and their grandmother takes selfies in Korea, sometimes people take selfies with their grandmother. After a while you stop watching marathon selca sessions and start to just accept it. Then you try it out yourself. Then you like it. Then it becomes a problem because you don’t have anyone around you who’ll give you weird looks or just tell you to stop being so obsessed with yourself and put your damn phone away, you’re at the gym.

I can't be entirely sure, but I think that selfies with your dog are still culturally acceptable, though.
I can’t be entirely sure, but I think that selfies with your dog are still culturally acceptable. Right?

Excluding sleep, you haven’t spent more than an hour of the last day not looking at some kind of screen.

Good morning, check your phone. Open the computer with breakfast. Walk to work, or commute to work with your phone. Get to work, use the computer for things. Take a break and read a little on your Kindle. Remember that you haven’t played that cell phone dragon game in two days. Answer messages from a friend. Write a blog post. Go home and edit some photographs. Relax before bed with a Kindle. Oh my gosh, I need to get out of Korea before my brain turns to mush and my eyeballs stop working!

You become passionate about Dokdo.

I’ve read about the historical nuances of the territory dispute, and I get that it’s just a giant rock but in a strategic location. And I agree that based on the history, Dokdo should probably belong to Korea. But if you are not from Korea and feel really passionate about this subject, then you probably need to take a breather from propaganda and read about mass murders by drones or something. It’s still just a rock. And if you’re a foreigner, it’s not even yours.

You use the world “delicious” (or, worse, “deliciously”) without irony.

The word “delicious” used to sound kind of creepy, when not used in the correct context. Now I don’t even know what that context would be. I can’t even think of an alternate way to describe food, except for “good”. Last week, I wrote the word “deliciously” in one of my updates and I’m wondering if I should be ashamed about that, too.

Also unacceptable, the word "yammy".
Also unacceptable, the word “yammy”.

You not only drink the instant coffee, you like it.

If you were trained as a barista at some point, then this one applies doubly to you. There should be no circumstances in which sugary, milky, chemically not-coffee is drinkable. Unfortunately, us expats in Korea know that indeed, such circumstances exist and they no longer feel shameful.

You’re no longer upset that beef at the grocery store costs $10-15.

It’s outrageous. And if you’re not upset about it anymore, then you need a vacation. It’s outrageous, I say!

You group text your friends about grammar, because you can’t tell if a sentence is wrong or just awkward sounding.

You know it’s bad when you’ve been out of an English-speaking environment so long that your internal mother-tongue radar needs a recharge.

You stop giving warning to friends about upcoming events.

Everyone knows about Korean propensity to tell you ten minutes in advance about extra classes, cancelled classes or huge life changing events that are about to take place. When it’s rubbed off on you, that’s when you know you have a problem. Your friends back home will not appreciate this new trait if you don’t get it together and fight your urge to notify people of things at the last second.

"Hey guys, I'm going to Germany tomorrow, so can someone take care of Mary for the next two weeks?"
“Hey guys, I’m going to Germany tomorrow, so can someone take care of Mary for the next two weeks?”

You never type “haha”, only ㅋㅋㅋ.

Especially if you’re typing in English… you have to actually switch keyboards on your phone to do this. If this is you, please schedule your visit immediately.

When you want to search for something, you use Naver.

I rest my case.

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By virtue of even being able to make this list, I think I qualify as having been in Korea too long. Time to go home.

[In July 2014, did. It’s been hard.]

What kinds of weird quirks have you picked up that make you realize it may be time to get out of Korea? Do you disagree with any of these? Let me know in the comments!

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The Characters of Sambong

In a small town, it’s a given that you’ll see some people more than a few times and learn their face, even if you don’t know their name. In a teeny tiny rural Korean town with three roads, it’s even worse (or better?). There are some people that I see every single day, doing the same things, while I do the same things. Sometimes they talk to me, sometimes we just pass each other by with a head-nod of acknowledgement and sometimes it’s a new face, doing the same things the other old, similar face was doing. It’s kind of a weird way of life, but the people that live in my town are the pillars of my existence, in a sense. They make Sambong, my little town, what it is. They color my experience with entertainment and wonderment, causing me to simultaneously scratch my head and laugh hysterically in public.

So without further ado, I’d like to introduce you to the characters, the faces, the Korean people of Sambong.

The Exercising Ajumma

Every morning I wake up earlier than the crack of dawn to run with my puppy. I walk to the school track and in the dark morning, through the darkness I always look for the moving shadow. The exercising ajumma is often the same woman, but sometimes a new face appears to do the exact same thing. She does a brisk walk for about 30 minutes, sometimes 45 minutes, and then does strange stretches for another five minutes before disappearing into the new daylight. Her signature stretch is arms raised in a V-shape above her head, holding a scarf taught between them, and twisting to either side. Another favorite is what I like to call the almost-falling-backward-onto-the-bed stretch, where she leans backwards, arms stretched out, as far as she can without falling over and holds the position. Do these stretches actually stretch? I’m not sure. But I would never question her.

The Avid Golfer

About ten minutes into my morning exercise routine, the avid golfer usually arrives. In his mid forties, he comes to the track in his running gear and with a golf club in hand. (I’m totally serious, this guy is real.) He does the same series of exercises: alternating between a brisk walk with the golf club, a (very) short jog with the golf club, some stretching with the golf club and then actually using the golf club for its intended purposes, by doing swinging practice in the nearby sand pit. His reasons for exercising at all are crystal clear.

This is what you've been missing in your exercise routine.
This is what you’ve been missing in your exercise routine.

The Gung-ho Crossing Guard

On one of the three roads in town sits my school and while there is some traffic in the morning, I’m not entirely convinced of the need for a crossing guard. Regardless, he is there every morning, bright and early, in his neon vest and military-style hat. He takes his job extremely seriously, swinging his stiff arms in quick succession; signifying to cars that yes, they may pass, even if no students are in sight, let along trying to cross the road. He reminds me of a robot, on occasion. As I walk closer to him on my way to work each morning, he swings his arm sharply up to his forehead into a salute, and yells “Good morning!”

The Farming Neighbor

This elderly man was clearly hot stuff back in the day, based on his charming smile and confident swag. I don’t see him everyday, but on the stretch of road between home and school, he sometimes walks around his fields or checks on piles of garlic (or potatoes or cabbage) that need to be sorted out for selling. When I see him, he smiles that devious old man smile, waves hello, asks about a random work in English (“pumpkin!”) or just gives up the facade and makes arm hearts at me.

The Sober Laborer

Korea has a bit of a social epidemic on their hands: all the women move to the city and all the men working menial jobs are left in the country, wife-less and bored. I live in a building of one-room apartments, which I’m sure you can imagine attracts exactly this kind of 40-year-old man. The sober laborer is many people who all do the same thing; they smoke, they wear their construction vest, and they stand outside between 6:10-6:25am waiting for the bus to work. All of them say hello to me, as if we’ve talked, because hey… there’s only one foreign girl with a dog in the area. They adore Mary, and frequently use her as an in to ask me weird questions that I don’t understand.

The laborers in the morning club, as seen from the roof.
The laborers in the morning club, as seen from the roof.

The Drunk Laborer

The drunk laborer usually appears outside of restaurants on Saturday and Sunday mornings, though occasionally he appears outside my apartment having a Saturday/Sunday picnic on the rolling table. He says things like “beautiful!” “pretty!” or the classic, “foreigner!” He adores my dog even more than usual. Last week the drunk laborer even gave me arm hearts, although usually he just slurs his words or stumbles down the road, going nowhere with a lit cigarette in hand. By evening, he’s ironically nowhere to be seen.

The Student Terrified of Dogs

Some students like puppies, but other students have this deep seeded, unexplainable terror for animals in general. As I approach, the student terrified of dogs will give Mary a wary eye, and as I get closer they’ll shy a little behind their friend, towards the street, away from me. When I get close and I let Mary sniff their feet (because I’m a jerk!), the student terrified of dogs inevitably lets out a high pitched scream, runs sideways or backwards off the sidewalk and never takes (usually) her eyes off of the scary, biting and drooling, flesh ripping thing that is my ten month old, ten pound puppy.

TERRIFYING.
TERRIFYING.

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Working in a Small, Private Middle School in Rural South Korea

I haven’t talked a lot about my job in South Korea, because beaches and pictures and weird flavors of Pringles just seem more interesting to me. Who wants to hear about my boring 9-5, everyday gig? And I’m realizing that, probably, you do. Because you don’t work here. It’s not boring for you. It’s exciting and foreign and mysterious! So I’m going to take you into my professional world, today. To kick this post off, here’s a short video:

Now, let’s get started. I’ve decided to interview myself with questions that I’ve heard from my friends and family over the past year or so. Because interviews are great, and I don’t have any on my blog yet. Who better to start with than yours truly?

Aren’t Korean kids better behaved than kids in the USA?

No! Did you watch that video? Do you think that only happens between classes and then magically, as soon as the bell rings, the students gracefully sit up straight, have their pens poised and ready to go and shut their mouths? Eyes eagerly looking forward, waiting to learn? Does that sound ridiculous? Great. I’ve conveyed my point. Kids are kids are kids. Don’t believe anyone who tells you differently.

What’s the difference between a private and a public middle school?

Just from walking around or observing classes, nothing really. They have the same curriculum and school hours, uniforms just like every other school and there’s nothing remarkable about the school building. So from the students’ perspective, I don’t know what the difference is, really. From the native English teacher’s perspective, it just means that I wasn’t required to go to orientation (a blessing and a curse), I filled out a lot less paperwork (no EPIK forms) and my contract is much more flexible than Korean government contracted teachers. I renewed for six months and was able to negotiate half the benefits, something other EPIK teachers don’t have the freedom to do.

Yeah, they're angels.
Yeah, they’re angels.

Do you know all of your kids’ names?

Yes and no. I know all of their English names, but I only know maybe 20 of their Korean names. I tried to memorize all their Korean names, but it was taking too long and compromising my authority as a teacher. It’s hard to get a rogue student’s attention when you can’t even say their name! So English names it was. And I learned all ~130 very quickly.

Are you friends with your co-workers?

I’m at-work friends with some of my co-workers and on friendly terms with everyone. But the majority of them are older, with families and kids and we don’t have a ton in common. I don’t think any of them have ever lived abroad, some have never left Korea. Most of them can’t speak English well enough to carry a conversation. My co-English-teacher is the closest thing to a “friend”, though I’m pretty sure we’re from different planets. She’s 25 with a minister husband, new baby boy and never-been-stamped passport (if she even has a passport?). So while I enjoy working with my co-workers, there aren’t any friendships there that I’ll be keeping up in the long run.

Are there any other foreigners where you live?

Ehhh, yes and no. In walking distance? Definitely not. In the nearby town? Plenty. I just need to hop in the car and drive 25 minutes to see them.

Delicious food for dinner helps soothe the pain of half an hour drives.
Delicious food for dinner helps soothe the pain of half an hour drives.

Since your school is so small, do you have less work to do?

No. While I teach fewer classes per week than my other native English teacher friends, I have to teach new material with much more frequency. So while teachers working at a big school can teach the same lesson over and over for a week or even just two or three days, I only have two classes before it becomes repeat (unless I reuse a lesson on different grade levels). So the hours that other teachers spend in the classroom teaching the same lesson, again, I spend at my desk making new lesson plans, again. It’s different work but it’s no less.

Are your classes graded?

No. I created a sticker system to create some semblance of rewards for doing well, though. So you could say that my classes are graded by the potential for getting candy at the end of the semester.

How do you keep your kids disciplined?

Sometimes I don’t, and candy. My classes are my own, so it’s just me and a bunch of kids. Considering my lack of cred as a disciplinarian (I won’t hit kids with sticks), sometimes they get a little rowdy. The key is just to have an interesting game or change activities a lot during class. Or bribe them with ten minutes of Sherlock at the end of the lesson, whatever works. Sometimes it doesn’t, that’s just life as a teacher. And candy.

The only surefire teaching method: bribery.
The only surefire teaching method: bribery.

What do you like about your job?

I like the relaxed atmosphere and the freedom I’m given inside my classes. We can cover literally anything in the lesson, as long as the kids are being exposed to English words. I also like my middle school students (mostly), because unlike elementary school, they are going through hilarious and awkward growth and puberty spurts and crushes on girls. I can also tease them without provoking tears and sometimes they even catch my sarcasm. Lastly, living a three minute walk away from work has serious advantages.

What do you dislike?

I don’t like that I’m so remote and far from friends, because it takes away all of my spontaneity. This also means I can’t enjoy a beer after work with anyone, or ever with friends, because I’ve driven there and have to drive home. (And don’t tell me “just one beer is fine” because driving in Korea is all kinds of crazy when I’m sober.) So everything about my school is great, except for the location.

Do you feel like you’re making a difference?

Yes, but not in the way you’d think. I don’t think my students are learning a lot of English and I don’t think they’re picking up on my accent and fixing their pronunciation. (Even though I try so hard!) But, I think that the exposure to someone from the USA/Western world has been good for them, because they see that I’m human. When we talk about Christmas or Halloween or any other cultural subject during class, they listen and are interested. So while they’re not becoming fluent in English while I’m here, they are being exposed to a lot of information about the West that they’d otherwise not know. And they see that I’m a normal, breathing person who likes to eat ice cream and has friends outside of work. So my hope is that they see foreigners not as a weird class of people, but a group of individual people, not so different from them.

Can I have some candy?

Yes, Sally, since you just went through such a long and detailed interview with yourself, I’ll give you some candy. Oh, readers, you want candy too? Sorry, I ate it all.

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If you have any questions of your own for me on this subject, go ahead and write them in the comments below and I’ll add them to this post / answer them. Wouldn’t want to hog the interviewee!

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An Honest Review of 16 Months Studying Korean

I came to Korea for a variety of reasons; money, foreign-ness, a new language and a high potential of personal growth were all factors that pushed me to buy my plane ticket. I didn’t choose Korea specifically for Korean, rather I wanted to learn a new language in general, so I choose Korea and therefore Korean. So while I never had any special interest in the Korean language, per say, I did come to Korea preparing to learn the language and hopefully end up conversational. It’s been one of my big ongoing goals throughout my life in Korea and early on in the year, I was also writing about my progress with Korean language updates on the blog.

[Previous Updates: My Initial Plan, My Brain Exploding, Tortoise-ing, Writing A Story About a Tomato, Improvements]

Recently I’ve been quiet on the subject. I never stopped learning Korean, but the structured studying ebbed and flowed, ended, started, slowed, disappeared and was often put aside for more pressing matters. I poured a lot of energy into getting this blog officially up and running, I started practicing my photography, I ended up with a rescue puppy and significant time commitments to make sure she wouldn’t eat my house while I was at work, everyday. But while I haven’t been cracking open a textbook everyday (or even on a weekly basis), I have been learning Korean in less direct ways, through conversation, random research on a word I’d seen, and sometimes Korean music/media.

So now that I’ve got less than two months left in Korea (eek!), I thought it would be a good time to take an honest look at my methods, my progress and what I could have done better. While I can have basic conversations with a Korean, or text message conversations (where I can take a minute to look up any unknown words), more in depth in-person conversations are still impossible for me. I can ask for anything I need in a restaurant, store, or from a co-worker, but their responses remain a mystery to me 50% of the time. I have room for improvement. But to say I haven’t gotten anywhere would be a gross misstatement of the truth. I’ve gone far, but Korean requires more of me.

[Related Post: Tips and Resources for Learning Korean]

What I Did Right

I started off on the right pronunciation foot. Before arriving in Korea, I got private help from a Korean-American in town who taught me the alphabet and the correct pronunciation for words. When I arrived in Korea, I started meeting a Korean weekly and practicing vocabulary and verbs. By spending time with native speakers in the very beginning, I was able to get the right sounds off my tongue from the get-go. (To this day, I’m complimented on my pronunciation by Korean speakers.)

I collected a variety of resources. Studying can be boring, really, really boring. But I collected a bunch of different resources, from internet to books to flash cards to conversation partners and used them all. It was this variety that made it possible to study so often in my first couple months. It’s hard to get bored when you’ve got resources that engage all of your senses!

I met a Korean weekly. This ended for tragic, unforeseeable circumstances, but the two/three months that it continued was extremely helpful. Sadly, once it came to a stop, there was no way to begin again and I never found a replacement partner. But I learned a lot while this was in session and I think it’s one of the best ways to up your Korean game.

What I Did Okay

I spoke Korean with Korean people, sometimes. You’d think that by working with Koreans, I’d have taken that opportunity to practice my Korean with them everyday. Sadly, those opportunities arose fewer times than you’d think. When my co-teacher spoke to me, it was understandably to communicate some kind of important information. Which meant she spoke in English to make sure I understood. As for meeting Korean friends, I ended up adopting a kind of half Korean, half English conversation style. While I did use some Korean, it would have been better if I’d really pushed myself harder and tried to say more complicated sentences.

I got a Korean boyfriend. You shouldn’t get a Korean boyfriend unless you like your Korean boyfriend; the foreign language practice should be a bonus. But I can’t exclude this, because it’s played a big part in my language development. It’s been invaluable to have a living dictionary, kind of, whom I can text a question and get a quick response, or ask to clarify some grammar point I don’t understand. However, we don’t speak exclusively in Korean which would have really upped my level over time.

What I Did Badly

I invested time in language projects that I didn’t use. I spent a lot of time making flashcards, which was helpful at least to make them. Sadly, though, I made them, used them one time and they’ve been collecting dust in a pile ever since. Instead of spending hours finding the right card stock, drawing the pictures, writing the words and organizing the cards, I should have just studied more from the book. Or used Quizlet. Or anything really. I’ve never been a huge flashcard person, so I’m not sure why I thought this time would be different.

I never replaced my Korean conversation partner. While it wasn’t my fault that I couldn’t meet my first conversation partner anymore, it was definitely my fault that I never found another virtual one. My town is a third elderly, a third single middle aged men who work as laborers, and a third young children and their parents. It’s extremely difficult to find people my age in the neighborhood, so it’s understandable that another in-person conversation partner wasn’t in the cards. But I could have easily turned to iTalki, or any of the other Skype conversation exchanges available online. I didn’t.

I didn’t stick to a self-study schedule. Granted, once Mary came into my life, all schedules were thrown off. But I never had a consistent one to begin with, just a vague goal of “everyday” and some free time. If I had set aside certain times every week, then I think I’d have gotten a bit farther. My sporadic study sessions should have been regular. If I could go back in time, this would be the first thing I’d change.

At The End Of The Day

It’s funny how hindsight is 20/20 and looking back, I can see everything that I could have done better. But when it comes down to it, I’ve still learned a lot of Korean. No, we can’t discuss the intricacies of the USA political system in Korean (and a shame, because I’ve got a lot to say about that!). But I can tell you how to cook a classic American breakfast correctly. Still, I could be better at Korean by now, and it’s my own fault that I’m not. But while I can’t go back in time, I can apply these lessons to the next language on my plate. Like not to bother with flash cards, ever.

And when I get to my next foreign language (which based on history, is inevitable), I’m grateful that I’ll know, at least a little better, what to do.

[Related Post: A Critique: Benny the Irish Polyglot’s Language Learning Method]

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Weird Noms: Salt & Seaweed Flavored Pringles

This past year, my friend Haley moved to Thailand to teach English. About six months ago, she posted this photo to Instagram. I was jealous, really jealous. Because I freaking love seaweed. And Pringles. A combination? I wanna try those!

Then this week, I was cruising slowly around my local grocery store, as I often do in both curiosity and indecision. Something caught my eye and low and behold, it was nothing other than Salt & Seaweed Pringles! My wishes come true. The price, 2,750 Korean won, or about $2.50, was not one of my wishes. Regardless, immediately following my return home, I sat down and cracked open the can of Pringles, stopping only long enough to take pictures before inhaling the entire can. Thankfully, I can do that on occasion, because my little rescue puppy drags my butt out of bed to go running six days a week. Jerk. But also thanks, Mary.

Shopping success.
Shopping success.

They don’t smell very potent, for lack of a better word. Faintly salty, faintly like dried seaweed. Actual dried seaweed has a much stronger smell, I would know because I’m snacking on some as we speak. I told you, it’s delicious.

IMG_6162 ED R
The Pringles, right before I sniffed them.

As for taste, I was a little disappointed. Part of the issue is that the Pringles were imported and had lost some of their crunch and pizazz during the trip, somehow. So the original Pringle taste wasn’t quite up to par. The other issue is that the seaweed taste was too soft and subtle. Go big or go home, Pringles! I want to taste my dried, green, dead ocean plant, not kind of, but full on, potent and in my face mouth.

IMG_6164 ED R
Pre-demolition.

Then why did I stuff my face with all of them, in such a short amount of time, all at once, you ask? Because I’m just like that. Because I love junk food. And because while they weren’t the most delicious chips I’ve ever had, I still like chips and seaweed and I was hungry after work. So they were consumed, in mass, quickly.

The final recommendation: if I’m willing to eat slightly stale original Pringles (the only kind available in my little town), then I’ll be going for the seaweed flavor. Yeah, it’s not that seaweed-y, but I like the extra kick. So tentative, if you think your Pringles won’t be stale, then thumbs up on these.

But I’m in this teeny rural area, and it’s just safer to go with the tried and true sheets of dried seaweed when I need a snack. With the added bonus of having less saturated fat and costing almost a third less, it’s hard to imagine not snacking on dried seaweed. Delicious, cheap, not stale, a little healthy?

Sorry seaweed Pringles, in this case, you lose.

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