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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iPhone Photoessay: (Delicious) Things I Consumed in Argentina

First of all, I want to start with a moment of gratitude. This morning, I finished my morning run and had not accidentally adopted any dogs by the end of it. Pfew, a sigh of relief.

This blog began back in 2011, when I wanted to document my semester abroad in Argentina. Since then, I haven’t written a whole lot of meaty posts about the experience. The writing I was doing back then (on Tumblr) was mostly short, anecdotal or quick story-based with a photograph or two. I’ll have to remedy that, in due time, but for this post I’d like to reminisce on delicious Argentinian food. Because I’m hungry, and looking at a bunch of juicy steak is going to make that better, right? Right.

24 Jul 2011 1 Ovieda Apple Pancakes

Ordering in restaurants did not start out on the right foot, in Argentina. This was “pancake”. It was literally sugar, baked onto a metal plate with a little breading in it. Way too sweet!

27 Jul 2011 2 Alfajor y Cafe

A traditional alfajor, or sandwich cookie biscuit thing, usually covered in powdered sugar. For some reason, I just couldn’t get into alfajors, unless they lacked the outer covering and were straight dulce de leche. Then I was totally into alfajors.

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Speaking of dulce de leche, it was a key culprit of my horrible eating habits during this semester. I could never say no!

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STEAK! This was the first steak I ordered in Argentina, three months in, believe it or not, because I was actually a vegetarian before studying here. Needless to say, that didn’t survive my trip.

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The best part of studying abroad might be the melting pot of cultures all coming together in one place. His face hiding behind a camera, pictured is a friend from Argentina who studied in Germany. The cook, not pictured, is a German who was also studying abroad in Argentina and decided to make us a German meal.

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The panaderia’s, or bakeries were both my best friend and my worst enemy. I wanted to try all of the different pastries available, ever, so I made it my mission.

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This sandwich was literally as big as both of our heads combined. So we each ate half, and died finishing it. Gotta love absurd portion sizes.

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My attempt at “healthy” by eating a whole grain medialuna. or butter croissant. It was unsuccessful, but deliciously so.

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My apartment was directly above one of the most incredible empanada shops. They made them open faced, with little bread bowls and I ordered take out several times a month. So. Good.

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Oh look at that, more pastries. More dulce de leche. More drizzled chocolate, powdered sugar and other creamy white sugar concoctions stuffed into a butter-saturated pastry from heaven.

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I lived 20 minutes away from “Chinatown” (actually Asia-town), which meant I could go into the grocery and get an uncut giant roll of sushi, unwrap the plastic and just eat it while walking or sitting or on the train. It was awesome.

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Okay, so I didn’t consume all of this, but it was consumable. Bariloche in Argentina, or the little Switzerland of Argentina, makes their own chocolate and it’s SO GOOD.

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Sometimes you order a meal, and it’s just three different kinds of potatoes. Argentina has a LOT of different potatoes that you can buy, though, so that’s pretty awesome. Did you know there are 5,000 different species of potatoes? Now you know!

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THIS PIECE OF CAKE WAS DELICIOUS and I’ll never forget it. Ever. As you can see, Argentina is pretty talented in the cake/pastry/fattening sweets area.

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Argentina and wine go together, and tasting wine at a winery while in Mendoza, a wine producing capital? That’s just a must-do. Not tipsy scraping and destroying your knees while falling off of a bicycle on the way back, though. You don’t need to do that. Trust me on this one.

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Argentina is famous for its asado, or barbequed / outdoor grilled meat. This asado was a king of asados, I’ve never seen a layout quite so big.

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Bondiola, or grilled, huge pieces of pork put on a nice bun, covered in weird sauce and stuffed into your face as quickly as possible, before it gets cold or drips on you. I miss bondiolas.

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Instead of just plain ketchup, you should probably also opt for the mini fries on your hotdog. I don’t know why, but you should just do it.

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I wandered around Bahia Blanca for a long time, unable to find anything I wanted to see. This cupcake shop and peanut butter cupcake literally saved the day, and made sure I wasn’t a grumpy grumpy monster when I got back to my accommodation.

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Thanksgiving in Argentina: though I missed my family, I didn’t miss out on great food and company. Or eating bird.

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More asado, because it’s delicious. This time in someone’s backyard. Sausages and huge slabs of beef are the usual.

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And to round this little photoessay off, only more pastries would be fitting.

Did I mention I gained 15-20 pounds in those five months? Well, I’m sure you can figure out why. How is anyone supposed to say “no” to food this delicious? Or even stop at reasonable amounts? It’s just not possible. If you can stay skinny without upping your exercise in Argentina, I’m assuming your taste buds don’t work.

Good thing my next stop was Asia, or I’d have been in real big trouble. (Hehe punny me!)

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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!
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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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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!

You can find me on the ABOFA Facebook Page or sign up for the email list, if you’d like.

NaBloPoMo, Yo

Are you confused? Allow me to explain.

National Blog Posting Month, or NaBloPoMo, is organized by a site called BlogHer.com. The goal is pretty simple: post something new everyday. The serious writers among us may instead be participating in NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month, and kudos to them. I’ll be blogging.

Coming up with new ideas everyday will be a stretch, particularly coming up with ideas worth expanding on. That’s one of the main reasons that I’m choosing to participate in this: it’ll exercise my brain, get me thinking about different things to write about and hopefully, in the long run, make me that much better of a blogger. I have a feeling I’ll be digging into the archives of my experiences, my semester abroad in Argentina or even as far back as my high school adventures in Austria. I’ve completely neglected talking about my three days in Northern Cyprus, back in January, and I’m sure there’s more material to find and work with. Interesting things are a-comin’.

So, get ready for a lot of blog posts! And get excited! If there’s anything specific you’d like me to write about this month, then please contact me. I’m sure I’ll be hurting for ideas at some point. (Blog prompts are available, but they’re more directed towards personal blogs.) In the meantime, sit back and relax while I do all the work.

To writing!

NaBloPoMo Progress to Date

1// This introductory post, you’ve just read it 🙂
2// Weird Noms: Salt & Seaweed Flavored Pringles
3// An Honest Review of 16 Months Studying Korean
4// Working in a Small, Private Middle School in Rural South Korea
5// The Characters of Sambong
6// You Know You’ve Been in Korea Too Long When…
7// iPhone Photoessay: (Delicious) Things I Consumed in Istanbul

8// How To Stay Warm In Winter Like a Korean
9// Foreign Movie Pick: “Friend” (2001)
10// Mini iPhone Photoessay: A Week of School Lunches
11// Pepero Day in Korea
12// Typhoon Haiyan, Human Suffering and Responsibility
13// iPhone Photoessay: St. Hilarian Castle in Cyprus
14// Featured Photograph: Red, Green, Yellow, Orange
15// Your Crash Course in K-Pop
16// The Slow Decline of Days
17// Random Snippets of Life in South Korea
18// Language Misadventures: How I Adopted and Unadopted a Dog Before 8am
19// iPhone Photoessay: (Delicious) Things I Consumed in Argentina
20// Photoessay: Bikes of Germany
21// Photoessay: Stunning Sunsets in Rural Korea
22// 13 Reasons Why Pittsburgh is the Best
23// The Superpower You Can Cultivate: Foreign Language
24// My Top 5 Wanderlist
25// 11 Christmas Gifts for Travelers, Vagabonds and Wanderers
26// iPhone Photoessay: Ruins of Salamis in Cyprus
27// Sacrifices of Travel: Thanksgiving Away From Home
28// Featured Photograph: White on Water
29// A Look Ahead: The Last Month in Korea

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Photoessay: A Neighborhood in Rural Taean

Over a long weekend, I took a little trip to Padori Beach in Taean, South Korea. The area is remote to say the least, so finding a remote place in a remote area? Turns out it yields some interesting photographs. These are from a small neighborhood tucked behind the beach and quite a bit away from the main roads. From the photographs it would seem as though the whole place is deserted, but that’s not the case. I just happen to wake up and take my dog for walks at hours when civilization isn’t ready for it. Also, the few people I saw were elderly Korean ajummas. And one does not simply take a picture of an ajumma, my friend.

Enjoy yet another look into rural, countryside life in the high-tech internet capital of the world, South Korea. The contrast is amazing, isn’t it?

(The featured photograph of a farm ladder from a little bit ago was also taken during this walk.)

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(You can buy prints of this photograph here.)

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7 Ways South Korea Has Changed Me

I’ve been a little retrospective lately, as my contract comes to a close this Christmas. A year and a half isn’t really a long time and the time has certainly flown by, but when sit down and really think about my earlier self, I realize that I have changed a lot. Some of these changes are surprising and others simply hilarious. (I also suspect that landing in the USA will reveal an entirely new host of transitions that I didn’t even realize I’d gone through.) For those hoping that my weird, not that funny sense of humor would be one of the things vanquished during my time in Asia, I have some sad news for you: my jokes are still horrible. Get over it.

I Stopped (Binge) Drinking

I mentioned this shortly in my earlier reflections after a year post, but this is a huge contrast to my college years. Grandma plug your ears, but oh my gosh did I drink a lot and do some really, really dumb shit. I guess everyone does, but my senior year most people had cleaned up their act and I was still drunkenly stubbing toes and getting rides in police cars. Anyways, those days are over. Either it was my overwhelming and new-found maturity, the $25 price tag on a taxi home (living in the countryside does that) or perhaps the uncomfortable reality of Korean-made beer that tastes like water, but it isn’t actually refreshing. By some strange combination of elements, I stopped drinking anything but occasionally and now actually enjoy my sobriety. I don’t even know who I am anymore.

I may have stopped binge drinking, but Koreans did not.
I may have stopped binge drinking, but Koreans did not.

Road Rage

I’ve always been a patient driver in the USA, allowing people to be stupid, slow down in the middle of the freeway and calmly maneuvering around them. I used to let strangers merge ahead of me during rush hour, and condescendingly reprimand my cousin when she screamed at cars on the way to Denny’s. Those days are also over. Driving in Korea has made me an angry, angry, unforgiving and ruthless driver. My mouth is about as clean as my bathroom floor 95% of the year and thank goodness my windows are tinted because I have flicked a lot of birds. As soon as I step out of my vehicle, though, all is well and I’m a content, zen-like human being again. Still to be determined: if my road rage will diminish in the USA or if it’s here to stay.

Nothing Sudden Phases Me

I’m not talking about ghosts popping out from behind a tree here. I’m talking about life’s little surprises, also known as the tendency of fellow Koreans to not tell you what’s going on until immediately before it happens. Like when I have several extra classes and I’m told at 9:15am that morning. Like when my coworkers are missing, I go to find them and discover it’s picture day, my turn to sit and I haven’t showered. Like when all of my classes are cancelled for unexplained reasons, then rescheduled, then cancelled again, all within a three hour time span. I’ve become a strange life-events Gumby and sometimes it weirds me out. Today, some martial art competition was happening next to the building where my class was and some strange competitor decided to show me his abs. I calmly shut the classroom door and continued with teaching. Sometimes I walk around a corner and see the building that was there yesterday has now burned to the ground. Interesting. Next week it’s two new restaurants. Korea’s taught me to just roll with it.

So you went camping on the sidewalk... interesting.
So you went camping on the sidewalk… interesting.

I Understand How Studying Works

Yes, this was the skill set that I was supposed to learn in high school so that I could use it in college. In reality, I was too smart for my own good and somehow just remembered enough from class to get by with A’s and B’s. I honestly graduated university without knowing how to really, hardcore study. Insane, right? That’s not to say I’ve never studied in my life, I have, but not for long periods of time and never on a schedule. Korea, land of kimchi and student suicides because they study too much, made me realize that I totally didn’t even know what real studying was. Learning Korean to the less-than-stellar level that I’m at now required me to really sit down, study and then repeat. Regularly.

Honestly, I still really suck at studying. But at least I understand now how the whole thing works, and how to do it successfully, even if I’m not always able to execute it well.

I’m a Modest Dresser

The USA and South Korea have a complete opposite view of modesty. Arms and shoulders and chest are scandalous when they’re shown off too much in Korea, but in the USA, a v-neck shirt is pretty standard and certainly nothing to look twice at. Tank tops are everywhere. Hell, belly shirts are totally in fashion now. But none of that flies in South Korea, particularly in a professional setting, even more particularly in a rural professional setting where you work with a bunch of middle school kids. Even outside of work, I live in a building full of single, middle aged laborers and a town equally as populated with grandmothers. I just don’t feel comfortable going anywhere in a shirt without sleeves. Or shorts that look sexy. Or a shirt that is v-necked and wide shouldered. Yeah, that tube top I packed has definitely not been put to good use, and I honestly don’t even feel comfortable in it anymore. I don’t see us having a very promising future, that tube top and I.

I Like Spicy Food (or at least can always tolerate it)

My older brother was always the one with sixteen different hot sauces from Arizona sitting in the family kitchen. At least one of them had a skull and crossbones on it. I always, always ordered mild salsa with my burrito and did not participate in the extended family Quaker, Steak and Lube atomic wings challenge. (Yes, this really happened.) Well, in Korea I’ve had no choice but to eat spicy food all the time. Spicy chili paste is a staple ingredient in, well, everything. Ever. To enjoy my time and food in Korea, I’ve had no choice but to go in with an optimistic, “Yes! Spicy! I’LL EAT THE SPICIEST THING YOU HAVE AND LIKE IT, MUAHAHA!” attitude. Somehow it worked and now I kind of like spicy food. Some of it. Anyhow, I’ll be trying that medium Mexican salsa from now on.

Chili peppers, kimchi and other unidentified red specks? Alrighty.
Chili peppers, kimchi and other unidentified red specks? Alrighty.

I Don’t Care About Beauty

Korea is a really superficial culture sometimes and rocks their plastic surgery capital of the world title with no shame. Even more uncomfortable, the only compliment I get when I meet someone is that I’m pretty. The people I least expect sometimes surprise me by whipping out their new Dior brand foundation with a big smile. To add to it all, South Korean women are straight up tiny. I’m officially an extra large size in pants when I go shopping, as opposed to my usual single digit pants size in the USA. Instead of worrying about being up to snuff, I’ve found myself completely rejecting this obsession with image. I haven’t touched my high heels in months and partially in an effort to be an example for my students, mostly because I stopped caring, I haven’t worn make up more than three times in the last six months. I don’t even know how much I weigh, because I can’t justify spending money on a scale. My style has now become the style of being clean, wearing clothes and brushing my hair regularly. I just can’t be bothered to care about looking more “beautiful”, because it simply doesn’t matter to me anymore.

I’m a free spirit, ya’ll! Who wants free eye shadow? Because there’s no way I’m making space for something so useless in my suitcase, this time around.

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