Dec 28, 2012

Notes from Bali

I'm currently sitting on the front porch of the cottage where my friend, K, and I are staying in Ubud. As I write this, I can hear gamelan music from the nightly dance performance happening down the street. The only other sounds are the chickens wandering the courtyard and a very enthusiastic cicada in the flower bush nearby. My tall bottle of water is sweating on the table beside me, next to the carafe of tea set out earlier by our hosts. The warm, moist air is making my hair curl and stick to my sun-drenched skin.

There is a tiny gecko in our bathroom. I'm naming him George.

Tonight I had raw avocado for the first time in 4 months. It was in a salad with tomatoes, basil and lettuce drenched in lemongrass-flavored oil. It was so good I almost cried.

Yesterday we went to Pura Tanah Lot, the most photographed temple in Bali. Tomorrow we're taking a bike tour to see a volcano, rice paddies, monkeys and more.

Korea feels like a world away.

Dec 24, 2012

Onward to Paradise

And by paradise I mean Bali. I'll try to post once or twice on my trip, but no promises. Your regular glimpses into the depths of my mind will resume after the new year.

Meantime, Merry Christmas!

Dec 23, 2012

'Twas The Night Before Christmas...

Twas the night before Christmas , and all through Korea
all the waygooks were saying to their family: 'won't see ya"

A teacher of English was  hunched in her room
while dreaming of soju-the liquor of doom.
when from the outside there rose such a clamor
but it was just an old ajumma in her highest of glamour.

She glared at the waygooks and shoved them around
then turned and with a breath: spat on the ground.
The foreigners rubbed their rib cages in shame,
amazed an old lady their bruises could blame.

As the teacher of English went down to the subway,
she heard a loud noise that sounded like a stray...
rocket that could have been sent from the north
to blow her to wee bits, pieces and so forth.

Much to her surprise, her eyes they did see:
a man dressed as Santa soaring above the trees.
And what was that written on his sleigh’s shiny rung?
“Korean Santa: sponsored by Samsung”

As the teacher of English sighed with relief,
Korean Santa shouted one message brief:
He reached out his arms and rang out a gong:
saying merry Christmas to all, and to all “annyeong!"

Dec 19, 2012

4 Months Gone: A Reflection

I was on my way to Artbox to pick up some new headphones because I left mine in the pocket of my gym shorts, before throwing them into the hamper in the locker room.

As I passed the rows of ddeukbokki and ingappang vendors and stepped around displays of raw fish for sale with nary an ice cube in sight, hoping to find a vendor selling egg bread-- my favorite street snack-- it occurred to me that I am not the person I was when I got here.

No longer do I notice the sharp contrast between the sleek, glittery Lotte department store and the ramshackle food vendors that populate the plaza in front, selling everything from fish-shaped waffles filled with warm red bean sauce (DELICIOUS) to dried squid on a stick (less delicious).

 It doesn't occur to me to be amused/repulsed at having to avoid the puddle of fish juices that accumulate in front of the guy who sells raw fish out of a box on the corner of my block.

It's weird if I don't eat rice at least once a day. When I make food at home (read: microwave ramen or frozen dumplings), I eat it with my own set of chopsticks.

Sometimes I crave kimchi.

It's obvious that I've changed in a thousand tiny ways, but I think the big changes are ones that I can only notice if I look very carefully at myself.  They're the ones that are more difficult to put into words.

I'm becoming more confident in myself. I mean this in the sense that I know that I'm capable of taking care of myself and figuring out how to navigate new environments.

I'm also becoming more confident in my ability to interact with people. I still don't love talking to strangers (shudder), but I know that I can make friends with a diverse group of people and make a moderately decent impression on at least a few of them.

 I'm also learning the art of humility. This one has been tough, and is something I still struggle with.  I don't like admitting that I am fallible and am capable of making mistakes. Spoiler alert: I'm kind of a huge control freak. I'm one of those people who plans important conversations with a flow chart to outline all possible outcomes. But I'm learning to acknowledge that I can't always do everything all by myself and to admit when I screw up.

On a related note, I'm learning to relinquish some of the control I hold over my own life. I think I'm getting better at trusting that things will all work out, somehow.

Case in point: Next week I will be adding another country to my passport. I'm going to Bali on vacation for a week. Granted, Bali isn't exactly a rough-n-tough, off-the-beaten-track destination, but the fact remains that I will be spending a week in a foreign country (Indonesia, for those of you who are not geographically inclined) where I don't speak the language and have only a vague grasp of its cultural offerings. And yet, I don't think I've ever planned less for a major trip. My friend and I have a rough outline of what town we plan to be in on what day, but that's about it. We don't even have a hostel booked for the last two days there. She and I are just trusting that we'll decide what we want to do and will be able to deal with it  there.

I know I'm changing in other ways, ways that I can't even detect right now. I probably won't even notice them until I return home and have the mirror of the familiar to hold up against the "new" me.

Until then, all I can do is keep plugging away and living each day like the amazing opportunity it is.

(At least... I will definitely do that when it stops being a giant kimchi freezer here. I had the whole day off yesterday, and spent most of it curled up on the floor watching Community. We can't carpe diem every day, ok? Sometimes it's just too cold out.)

Dec 18, 2012

These Are My Kiddos

In light of the devastating tragedy at Sandy Hook, I am brimming with teacherly love for my students and and their enthusiastic (read: loud) little voices.

I shot both these videos yesterday. The first is of my 3rd graders singing their favorite ABC song. (The little boy in the Mickey Mouse hoodie who runs up to me is my secret favorite student.)

The second is my 5th graders singing "All I Want for Christmas is You." Yep, that one girl is knitting. I don't ask questions.

You may want to lower your volume.

Dec 16, 2012

Things I Should Be Doing vs. Things I Am Doing

Things I should be doing:
-Writing a proper blog post
-Writing my article for ESL101
-Writing something for my latest side project (to be discussed at a later date)
-Watching the children's TV series my coteacher says we're showing the kids during winter camp so I can know what vocabulary to teach.

Things I am doing:
-Defrosting mandu for dinner
-Dinking around on Facebook
-Everything pictured below

Dec 10, 2012

Precious Moments

Remember problem child, from a while back? Little second grader who is a handful in class?

Long story short, he's not a problem child anymore. At least, not to me. He's one of those kids who is extremely talented and too smart for his grade, so he gets really bored and acts out. He's also the biggest ham I've ever met.

Anyway, just a few minutes ago he peeked into my room and asked "teacher... phone?" I told him to come in and he used my desk phone to call his mom. I think she was late to pick him up. I heard him say he was in the English classroom. He hung up and said "teacher... stay?" I had him pull up a chair and help me make nametags for English camp. When we were done, I asked if he wanted to listen to Christmas music. He smiled. We were listening to Christmas music last week in after school class, and he'd repeatedly requested "All I Want For Christmas is You." I put it on and pulled up a page with the lyrics. We spent the next ten minutes learning the words and singing them. Boy, kiddo can SING! Future K-Pop star here. Calling it.

His mom showed up a few minutes later and he ran out without the song lyrics. Of course, I had to chase him down and give them to him. I'm hoping to get a youtube-worthy performance before the end of the year.

I was touched that he picked me to visit. His homeroom is two floors down. He's visited me before out of the blue. I get the feeling that he has a hard time getting along with the other kids, and that some of the teachers think of him the way I used to-- like a problem child. Without getting too much into a cultural critique, I get the impression that it's even harder to be a "different" kid here than it is at home. Korea is a culture of collectivism and conformity, and anyone who doesn't quite fit in faces a tough road.

Anyway, he's the sweetest little boy and I worry that he's going to have a hard time as he gets older.

My heart is all full of teacherly love.

Dec 9, 2012

Yay Korea! Dog Cafes

This is the third in a series I'm calling "Yay, Korea!" There are a lot of things here that are just so brilliant, you don't know how you ever lived without them.

I finally went to a dog cafe. It's a cafe where you can just play with all the dogs that live there. It was everything I'd dreamed of. I'm not going to explain it in depth because I think the pictures speak for themselves. I did talk about it in my article for this week, so you can go here to read about it. 

Otherwise, just sit back and enjoy the puppy pics.

Dec 4, 2012

Winter is Here

Winter has officially come to Soongshin Elementary. The kiddos had a snowball fight at lunch today.

Speaking of lunch, Special Food Wednesdays continue to be the highlight of my week. Today I saved these bad boys to eat alone in my classroom so my happy awkward noises wouldn't disturb the other teachers. On my way to my classroom one of the sixth graders asked if he could have one. Back off, punk.

One final note: today Principal said something to me for the first time in months: "Stop coughing."

Breaking News

Guys. I ate all my kimchi at lunch today. This is huge.

Dec 1, 2012

Winter is Coming

It's getting cold. Really cold.  Wear-long-underwear-every-day kind of cold.

You'd think I'd be used to this, having spent my entire life in exceptionally cold climes. In theory, Seoul and Boston have almost the exact same climate, and neither place gets as cold as my hometown of Bozeman, Montana. But for some reason, I cannot get warm here.

Maybe it's the fact that my classroom gets one hour of heat a day. My day revolves around the little jingle the heater sings when it turns on. No matter what we're doing, Coteacher and I will stop and do a little happy dance when we hear that sound. This includes times when it happens in the middle of class. Then, an hour later, when it makes the sad little "I'm turning off now" jingle, Coteacher and I will stop, look up, and sigh in unison, resigning ourselves to knowing that we will only get colder for the rest of the day. 

It doesn't even matter what I wear to school these days because I never take off my coat. I could wear the same thing every single day, and nobody would ever see it. I probably could get away with not wearing a bra. Just sayin. It may happen. 

One thing I do wear to school every day is long underwear. My collection of high tech long johns is quickly becoming extensive and varied. Koreans take their long johns very seriously. Every major department store has a giant section devoted to long underwear in every shape, style and color. In fact, later today I'm heading out to purchase some more.

Another thing that contributes to the unending cold is my bathroom. For some reason, it is an absolute ice box. All the time. I keep the door shut so it doesn't make the rest of my apartment cold.  I'm starting to think the real purpose of those ubiquitous shower shoes is really just so that Koreans don't have to stand on the frigid tile floor. Unfortunately, a frigid bathroom makes it almost impossible to have a nice, hot shower. Even if I turn up the hot water, I never stop being a little bit cold.

Thank God for my ondol, which does make my apartment quite toasty. But that takes a long time to heat up, and while I love my giant windows, they mean I have to have the ondol on pretty much all the time if I don't want the temperature to drop into the 60s.

I'm a bit nervous about what my hot water bill will be this month. Oh well.

I keep telling myself that it really isn't that bad, yet. It's only dipped below freezing in the last few days, and I know colder times are ahead.

As my friends and I have taken to saying in our best Ned Stark (from Game of Thrones) voice, winter is coming.

Nov 27, 2012

Yay, Korea! Dermatologist

This is the second in a series I'm calling "Yay, Korea!" There are a lot of things here that are just so brilliant, you don't know how you ever lived without them.

I have what you might call problem skin. Despite my repeated insistence that I'm a grown up, I get breakouts with all the frequency and vigor of a 13 year old. Usually they come and go, but sometimes they decide to camp out for a bit.

Due to a combination of factors, in the last 6 weeks or so my skin has become considerably less visually appealing than I would like.

Enter: Korean skin care.

Koreans are OBSESSED with cosmetics . There's a whole district of town dedicated to plastic surgery clinics.

I could launch into a (flawed, unqualified) analysis about the Korean obsession with appearance and its implications for the society as a whole, but I'll spare us all. Plus it's not like America isn't guilty of the exact same thing.

Anyway, this morning as I stared sullenly at my blotchy reflection, I decided enough was enough. With 5 minutes before I had to leave for school, I did a quick search for English speaking dermatologists in Seoul.  It wasn't hard to find one. I emailed the first one I found that was moderately close to me to inquire about appointments this week. By the time I got to school, I had a reply saying I could come in at 5:30 today.

I love Korean promptness.

Cut to 5:30. I walked in the door of the clinic and was greeted by the friendly, English speaking receptionist. I filled out my info and sat down. I waited for less than five minutes before the doc was ready to see me.

I went into the office, answered questions for about five minutes, and was given a prescription for antibiotics and some cream. I was out the door before I even realized what was happening.

My visit and the topical cream combined came out to 34,000 won-- or about 30 bucks. Throw in an extra 13 for my antibiotics and you get... an insanely affordable trip to the skin doctor.

Mind you... none of this was covered by the National Health Insurance because it's considered "cosmetic." So yep... 43 bucks is FULL PRICE.

I fully expect to wake up tomorrow with the smooth, flawless skin of a Korean K-pop star.

Yay, Korea!

Snapshot of Life

This picture says so much about Korea. Babies with cell phones.

Nov 25, 2012

Let's Talk About Music

Let's forget about Korea for a minute. Thanksgiving is over... and you know what that means: BRING ON THE CHRISTMAS MUSIC!!!

Even though Sufjan Stevens' new Christmas EP, Silver and Gold, is out (and it's awesome), Songs for Christmas remains my favorite. "Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing" is my current obsession.


Note, if you're reading this in an RSS reader, you may have to click through to see the embedded playlist.

Nov 24, 2012

Some News!

A bit of mildly exciting news: I'm a real blogger now.

Starting this week, I am writing a weekly blog for called "Get Off That Ondol!" It's about things for teachers to do on a weeknight instead of... you guessed it... going home and curling up on that nice warm ondol. is an up-and-coming site dedicated to providing resources for prospective and current ESL teachers. The site is brand new, and more things are being added every day. I'm very excited for the opportunity to write for the site, and am looking forward to dragging my friends to do random stuff during the week under the premise of "IT'S FOR RESEARCH, GUYS."

So, if you have any suggestions for things I should check out, please let me know!

K-Fail: Costco

This is the latest installment in a series called "K-Fails", in which Meg does something dumb because she can't speak Korean.

So... I went to Costco. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.

Walking into Costco was total sensory overload. My brain started overheating as I looked around. I CAN READ EVERYTHING WHAT IS HAPPENING?!?!

We were like... actually, we looked exactly like this.

Costco was overwhelming for two reasons. The obvious one was spotting deals on things we'd forgotten even existed. Like bagels. and cheese. and OH MY GOD THAT'S PUMPKIN PIE.

I went with a few other girls, which turned out to be a very wise move. The first one was that one of those girls has a Costco card, so that explains that.

As it turns out, Costco members (in Korea?) can only bring two guests in with them, but the lady apparently saw how excited we were and let all 4 of us in. This turned out to be oddly foreshadowing of our experience.

The other reason was more practical. For those of you who have never been to Costco, it's where one would shop if one had to feed an army American family. You can't just get single-person-sized versions of anything.  So we decided to divide and conquer. One person bought a bag of bagels, another bought a 3-pack of cream cheese. See what we did there? We all walked away with a reasonable number of bagels and a tub of good ol' Philadelphia.

The plan was to shop, check out, and then hit the food court for some real Costco cuisine (hot dogs).

Everything was going smoothly until we got to the front of the checkout counter. My total was about $73. I handed over my card.... and the cashier froze.

Yep. In my excitement over being at Costco, I forgot that I was... at... Costco.

For those of you who have never experienced this most American of institutions, Costco is a bit finicky about the payment types it accepts.  In America, it'll take debit cards,  but not most credit cards. However, apparently in Korea, it only accepts cash or Samsung cards.

My stomach clenched. All my cash was upstairs in the storage locker where I was forced to put all my stuff. To get back up there, I had to go through the checkout area, get on a packed escalator, push my way through the crowd to my locker, retrieve my wallet, circle around through the whole store to get to the 'down' escalator, circle around through the store to get back to the checkout area, duck under the rope, and sneak past the 50 people in line.

All of that happened while my stuff was piled up at the end of the register. 5 minutes later, I made it back, only to realize that I didn't have enough cash. At this point, the cashier just piled my stuff along the side and kept ringing people up. I shoved my way through the crowd to the ATM, got my cash, and paid.

Phew. Crisis averted... or so we thought.

We were all famished from our experiences, and were looking forward to parking the cart and sitting down for a true American dinner (again: hot dogs).

So you can imagine our surprise when we realized that there was no way to get to the food court from the checkout! We found ourselves being pushed along with the crowd back UP the escalator, and before we knew it, we were unceremoniously dumped outside the front door, into the 40-degree chill of the evening.

We looked at each other, aghast. All we wanted were some hot dogs.

We decided that two of us would stay with the cart, and the other two would venture back into the fray for snacks. My friend, R, and I fought our way through the crowd and eventually made it to the food court. That's when we realized that we had to somehow get 4 hot dogs, 4 drinks, and a chicken pot pie back up the escalator... with only 2 sets of hands. Not to mention the fact that everyone wanted different things on their hot dogs. We were going to try to bring cups of ketchup, etc. back up with us, but quickly realized that idea wasn't feasible. We ended up texting our friends to get their condiment requests, and I ducked and weaved my way BACK to the checkout line to find the same cashier who rang us up. I begged her for one of the old orange boxes they were using to put peoples' groceries in. She smiled and gave it to me.

Hoisting it over my head in triumph, I went back to R and our pile of food. We loaded up, delved into the sea of humanity heading up the escalator, and finally delivered the food to our eagerly waiting friends.

I'm sure, had we been able to read Korean better, we would have realized that we couldn't use our cards, and couldn't reach the food court after we'd checked out. I've never worked so hard for a hot dog.


Dunkin Donuts Understands Me

This was my coffee sleeve this morning.

On a related note, I'm catching up on a lot of writing today, so new posts and a mildly exciting announcement coming soon!

Nov 23, 2012

Nov 20, 2012

Seoul Lantern Festival

Fall is in full swing here in Seoul, which means changing leaves, wildly fluctuating temperatures, and the Seoul Lantern Festival!

In case the name wasn't self-explanatory, the festival is a week-long event when elaborate paper lanterns are set up along one of the major streams that cuts through the city. The lanterns were lit as soon as it started to get dark, so The Gang headed over as soon as we got out of school. 
It was quite a sight. I was expecting some pretty little spheres bobbing down the stream... not the elaborate tableaux that I encountered.
It's amazing to realize that they're all just made out of paper and wire.

There was even a pineapple, which we found a bit odd, since last I checked pineapple goes for about US $15. I think this lantern was sponsored by Singapore, come to think of it.

This one depicted a traditional Korean orchestra, and even had traditional music being piped from speakers somewhere. The whole effect was rather haunting.

We were a little bummed out that there weren't any actual floating bobbing lanterns that we could affix our hopes and dreams to, but you can't always get what you want.

The evening ended in a pretty typical fashion for us (dinner and beer), but it was a great chance to get out and breath some of that polluted fresh Seoul air.

Nov 19, 2012

Death by Foreigner Flu

Sorry for the lack of writing this week. I'm dying from what we've dubbed the Foreigner Flu. It's really more like bronchitis, but a full two-thirds of the foreigners I know are either currently sick or are just getting over it. It's rotten.

But fear not, I'm going to the doctor today. In the meantime, please enjoy this picture of my after-school boys playing games before class yesterday.

Nov 15, 2012

In Other News...

A kid vomited in English Club today. Nothing shocks me anymore.

Language barriers and things that break them.

There's been a lot written about language barriers. It's one of the first things people ask me about when we're talking about my experience, and it's the Big Thing that I run  up against every single day.

However, a language barrier, even one as severe as the one I usually have to deal with, does not have to be a barrier to friendship. Most of the teachers in my school have an English level about on par with or slightly above my level of Korean (and THAT is saying something, because my Korean is still rotten.) However, that hasn't stopped us from bonding over common experiences and trying to get to know each other. In particular, there's one teacher with whom I've become friends, despite our inability to speak each others' languages. She's one of the school special ed teachers, and she's my age. We're the two youngest teachers in the whole school.  We were both shy of each other at first. I know I was shy because I was embarrassed at my abysmal Korean, and I'm sure she felt the same way about her English.  But over the last few weeks, we've started stopping by each others' classrooms to say hi. We can hold simple conversations about what we did recently, and what our plans are for the weekend. 

Side note: I've mastered saying "I will go to Hongdae. I will meet friends and we will drink and go to noraebang." Convenient, because that's pretty much all I do. I can also say it in past tense.

We also send each other little messages through the school messaging system. This lets us have slightly more realistic conversations, thanks to the (albeit imperfect) help of Google Translate.

Yesterday, however, our friendship successfully transcended our  language differences. It all started with a simple message: "Do you like Wii games?" Ummm... yes.

Yep, apparently the special ed classroom has a Wii.



But I digress.

I headed downstairs to her classroom (blissfully warm, I might add), we "chatted" over a cup of tea, and then fired up the ol' Wii. Her (much older) coteacher walked in right as we were in the middle of our first Mario Kart race, yelling in our respective languages and at each other in a weird mix of both.  Elder teacher just smiled and shook her head at the two youngins.

 Before long, we were taunting each other, taking credit for blowing each other up with shells, and sneering "hello, goodbye!" when one of us passed the other.

Then, as I blew her up with a blue shell, she said three little words that I knew meant we were true friends: "I hate you."

If you're ever uncertain about whether someone is your friend, play them in Mario Kart. If they really do hate you, they're not going to say it. They'll just sulk when you win.

It's funny how an hour spent playing a mutually-understood video game can remind you that we're really all just the same. Even though we don't all  have the same culture or speak different languages, we all still feel the same joys, the same frustration, and the same agony when you lose your half-lap lead by being blown to bits with a blue shell.

Nov 7, 2012

The Day The Country Holds its Breath

In case you had any doubts about the level of seriousness to which Koreans take their education, today should put those to rest. Today is the day every high school student in the country takes the KSATs. They're the SATs, only... you guessed it... Korean. The exam is only  held once a year, and it's so important that the entire country stops functioning for a few hours. It's 9:40 am and I just got to school, because every workplace started an hour later. They wanted to make sure the students didn't encounter rush hour traffic on their way to the exam and risk being late. Yeah. I know. My friends teaching middle school (not even high school-- middle school) have the whole day off so their coworkers can help staff the exams. Get this: the airspace over much of Korea is a no-fly zone right now, because the sound of planes could distract the students from their test. The whole country is holding its breath.

This is all very convenient for me. The extra hour of sleep was great because yesterday was a Rather Big Day in American politics, and the local foreigner community had some celebrating to do. I met up with a group of my fellow Americans (and a few Obama Supporters of Other Nationalities) for dinner at a pub in the foreigner district, Itaewon. On my way up the escalator from the subway, a man caught my eye and smiled. He said he was from Nigeria.  He asked if I was American. When I said yes, he smiled and asked if I was happy. I smiled back.

Dinner reminded me a bit of the end of the very first chapter of Harry Potter-- when small groups of people all over the world come together to raise their glasses. Team America took up just a small corner of the pub we were in. One of my friends had commandeered a tiny paper American flag, which we stuck in the top of the plastic sign on the table and saluted periodically. The mood was proud and optimistic, as we excitedly discussed the outcome and the details of our respective states' elections. We congratulated people whose states had done exceptionally well in our eyes-- states who had passed groundbreaking legislation or who had made history in the people they decided should represent them.

We rehashed the President's victory speech, and many of us (including me) confessed that it made us a little teary. I was just happy I'd been able to watch it live. It just so happened that daylight savings time gave me the extra hour I needed to be done teaching when he took the stage. I put the speech on my classroom smartboard, cranked up my speakers, and settled into one of the students desks to watch and be exceptionally proud, for a few moments, to be an American.

Nov 6, 2012

Best. Pick-Me-Up. Ever.

This could not have come at a better time. Been feeling a bit low lately... hence the lack of posts (sorry about that).

But seriously... How great is my mom?!?

Also note that there were 3 Reese's peanut butter pumpkins... but I already ate one.

Oct 31, 2012

An Ode to Ondol

Ondol is the name for the Korean system of under-floor heating. This is my tribute to it.

Oh, ondol, how I adore thee.

I know we haven't known each other for very long, but I can foresee that this is a love that will last a lifetime. If I could, I would bestow a thousand bottles of soju upon the wise, wonderful Koreans who invented thy delicious floor-warming properties.

Nothing in this mortal world compares to the moment when I set foot in my humble home, kick off my shoes, and alight upon my toasty, warm floor. Thou, my wonderful friend, hast convinced me of the infinite superiority of sleeping par terre. Indeed, I have gone native for thee, ondol.

Behold: My bed is no longer my bed. It has, instead, been relegated to the position of mere sofa.  My ukulele and violin have taken up residence there, the way cats perch on their favorite piece of furniture. Now, the floor is my bed.

And what a lovely bed it is. Always radiating warmth and comfort, ready to embrace me at day's end. Who needs companionship when I have thee, ondol? Thou providest all of the cuddly warming benefits of another human, and yet I worry not about thee hogging the blanket.

Ondol, where hast thou been all my life? Ah, but it matters not. We are together now. Let us never be parted again.

Oct 29, 2012

Non Sequiturs

My school toothpaste tastes like green tea.

I'm convinced the lunch ladies give me extra kimchi.

I'm still waiting to like kimchi.

My coteacher (and principal, and vice principal) keeps insisting the neighborhood around my school is dangerous. Just once, I'd like to ask what exactly they think will happen to me.

I'm pretty sure the 6th grade boys are saying inappropriate things about me.

I have no way to prove this.

I will never understand why Koreans sanitize their toothbrushes with special UV cabinets... but sneeze into their hands.

I think I know the real reason Korean style is loose and baggy-chic. S'cause nobody has a dryer. Their clothes just stretch out ad infinitum. My sweater sleeves are almost to my knees.

My coworkers get super stoked when they hear me say even a single Korean word. I think they forget that outside of school, 90% of my interactions have to be in Korean.

Few things make me happier than the words "Second grade is cancelled today."

I believe I've stumbled upon the secret to why Koreans are so skinny. You try deboning a fish with chopsticks. See how long it takes you before you give up and stop eating.

Floors are just more comfortable here.

Oct 22, 2012

Out of the minds of fifth graders

I think that mysterious letter in the second word is an a... so we can only guess what he MEANT to write.

Mmmm, Lunchtime

Also, today I finally managed to snap a picture of my school lunch. I have to be sneaky about it because I eat in the conference room with all the other teachers and the principal. That's why it's vertical. I had to look like I was texting. They already think I'm weird. No need to confirm it.

Behold, the setting for my daily game of What Did I Just Put in My Mouth?

As far as I could tell,  today's contestants were (clockwise from top left):

-Kimchi (duh)
-Steamed(?) sesame spinach
-Mysterious black stringy substance (that one will remain an enigma forever)
-Spam(?) with barbecue(?) sauce
-Soup with tofu and octopus bits
-Rice (also duh)

On the ratings scale, I'd say this lunch was a 5. I've had way better, but I've also had way worse. What's for lunch pretty much makes or breaks my day. Special Food Wednesdays (a city-wide tradition) are the single most anticipated meal of my whole week. Sometimes it's "western food," but sometimes it's just SUPER KOREAN food. Last week we had crab soup. There was an entire claw sticking out of my tray like a creature from the deep.

Either way, it's always an adventure.

Yay, Korea! Acupuncture

This is the first in a new series I'm calling "Yay, Korea!" There are a lot of things here that are just so brilliant, you don't know how you ever lived without them.

Today's "Yay, Korea!" is, brought to you by the letter P, for pain.

I've had back problems for a while, but my firm Korean bed, my uncomfortable work chair, and the Forces That Be have combined to make my lower back a constant source of pain and discomfort. I think (read: webMD tells me) that I probably have sciatica.

Anyway, as I mentioned in my pity party last week, I've been wanting to get acupuncture but have been  apprehensive about the language barrier. Today I decided, "Screw it, I know the word for 'here' and I know the word for 'hurts.' Let's do this."

I went to the clinic in the building next to mine. The place was warm and cozy and smelled like ginseng. A smiling middle-aged man greeted me and handed me a little registration form. When I looked at it uncomprehendingly (note to self: add the words for name, address, and phone number to your flashcard deck) he pointed and said "name," "address," etc.

He immediately took me to one of the offices in the back, where the doctor asked me a few questions. I have no idea what they were, I just kept nodding and saying 네, 네 (yes, yes) .  If that didn't seem satisfactory, I would point to my lower back and say that it hurt.  Then, he took my pulse and felt my shoulders. Right away, he cracked my neck, which felt AAMMMAAZZZINGGG. I already know I'm going back tomorrow for another one. Immediately my upper back and shoulders felt looser.

Then he took me to another room and had me lie facedown on a table. He examined my lower back, asked a few more questions (네, 네) and then started sticking me with needles. I think he use maybe 10 all together, but it's difficult to say because they're so small, you can barely even feel them.  He put a heat lamp over me, and left me to ponder my fate.

About 10 minutes later, he came back, took out all the needles, and ushered me to the front to pay.

The price for all of this? 6,000 won. Yep. In Korea, acupuncture is covered by insurance, so you can get it for less than $6 USD.  Honestly, I'd pay that just to have my neck cracked every day.

I'm definitely going back tomorrow.

Yay, Korea!

Oct 21, 2012

Hi, Herman!

A quick shout out to Herman of, who has been following my adventures and posted about my blog on his awesome website today. Check it out if you want to see and learn about a HUGE variety of interesting stuff!

Myeongdong: A Shopper's Paradise/Nightmare

I was talking to a friend from home recently, and she asked me about the shopping here. I told her it would make her head explode.

Korean shopping is a whole different experience. Take, for example, the shopper's paradise/nightmare of Myeongdong.

Oh, Myeongdong. How I love/hate thee. Every time I go to this black hole of shopping, I come away having spent way more money than I intended to.  A 5 dollar shirt? Don't mind if I do. 10 dollar shoes? Sure, I need a new pair of flats. Wait... is that a Forever 21 over there? And it's... oh my god, it's 5 floors tall.

Myeongdong has all its bases covered. Getting a little hungry? No need to sit down (which would take away from crucial shopping time). "Here, you go," Myeongdong says, "have a hot dog covered in french fries on a stick. If you want to be healthier, have a kebab of grilled chicken and leeks, sprinkled with an addicting amount of salt."

"Or a piece of fried dough filled with cinnamon and sugar, still crackling from the fryer. Or have an ice cream cone the height of your head."

In case you do decide you want to sit down, there are plenty of coffee shops and restaurants to choose from. If you're in need of a little company, you can even go to one of the dog or cat cafes, where for a small fee you can play with the resident creatures to your heart's content.

As I keep learning (over and over again), there's no such thing as a "quick trip to Myeongdong." It's like Ikea. It just sucks you in, and you can't help but love it.

Oct 18, 2012

Microwave K-Fail: Solved!

Update: K-fail solved! Thank you to Paula and Chloe who both took it upon themselves to help me clear up the mysteries of the microwave:

보온: warm
약 : light
약중: light-medium
중강: medium-strong
강: strong

K-Fail: The Microwave

This is the latest installment in a series called "K-Fails", in which Meg does something dumb because she can't speak Korean.

Today's K-fail is an ongoing problem. 

As you may have gathered from a few posts back, I have recently acquired a new microwave. That does not, however, mean that I know how to use it.

I wanted to break it in by making a mug cake. I had slaved away for the better part of an hour in the grocery section of Homeplus looking for ingredients. I hauled them home in my pimpin ajumma cart (see below) and started mixing. It was challenging without measuring cups, but I've made enough of these to be able to guestimate and correct for mistakes. When I deemed the batter satisfactory (despite my lack of vanilla extract), I popped it in the nuker and anxiously awaited that first warm, gooey bite. So, you can imagine my surprise when I pulled it out and it was... the exact same temperature. Puzzled, confused, and sad, I put the mug back in and punched in a few more minutes. When it came back out... same thing. I squinted at the settings knob, pulled up my trusty Google Translate app on my phone, and started translating. Here's what I came up with:

Clockwise from left:
보온: Lagging
약: About
애동: Thaw (the one in orange)
약중: Yakjung
중: Of
중강: DCM
강: River

Yeah. I know. Google Translate's crippling weakness regarding the Korean language aside, I have no idea what any of these could possibly mean. Except thaw. That one's pretty self explanatory.

It took me several tries, but I eventually figured out that if I put it on "yakjung," it will more or less do the trick. I don't know if that is a low setting or if my microwave is just a pansy microwave, but it still takes a loooooong time to cook my mug cake.

This K-Fail is still unresolved, so if any Korean speakers out there would like to chime in and demystify the enigmatic microwave, I would welcome you with open arms.

My pimpin ajumma cart:

Oct 17, 2012

5th Grade Heros

I love my 5th graders. I think I've said that already, but I'm saying it again. They're awesome and teaching them is a pleasure. This week we're talking about jobs and careers, which  is fun because it gives me a chance to get to know them better. In my advanced class (which is only 10 kids), I have a future mathematician, a future plastic surgeon, a CEO, a science teacher, and a pianist. So, when these kids grow up to do amazing things, let it be written that they first learned the English word for their profession from ME!

That is all.

Oct 14, 2012

The Slump

The Dark Place. The second phase of culture shock. The Adventure Hangover. Whatever you want to call it, it is very real, and can strike with a vengeance.

I'm heading into my third month in Korea. When I got here, everything was new and exciting. Everything was a fun challenge. Can I order coffee in Korean? Delivery? Can I figure out where I'm going without getting lost? It was a time of discovery. Look at this! Why didn't WE think of this? Haha, thing X (grocery shopping, ordering food, buying shoes) is exactly the same, only in Korean! 

Now, that novelty has turned sour. Ugh, grocery shopping is the exact same, just in Korean, so why is this so hard? All I want is some f***ing vanilla extract. Everything is still a challenge, only it has ceased to be a challenge in the sense that challenges are fun and stimulating. Now, a better way to describe it would be that everything is an effort. Things that are supposed to make your life easier are an effort. My local 'mart' delivers your groceries to your house for free, but that involves telling the cashier that you want them delivered, then explaining where you live. Even though this would save me enormous effort when lugging home my 6 pack of 2-liter water bottles (no drinking the tap water here), the thought of having to have yet another "conversation" with someone who thinks (correctly) that I am a stupid foreigner who can barely function in society is more mental strain than I usually want to deal with. I'll just carry my water, thanks.

Traditional medicine-- like acupuncture-- is covered by health insurance here, and I have been having back problems, I guess. I would love to go get acupuncture at the clinic in the building next door, but you have to call and make an appointment. If there's one thing that I hate more than having to explain myself (in broken Korean) in person, it's having to do it over the phone. In person, I can lean on my well-developed and finely-honed charades skills (Seriously: Never go up against a TEFL teacher in charades. We will smack you down like the hand of God). Over the phone? I'm hopeless. I'll take the back pain. That's what my Costco-sized bottle of Advil from  home is for.

The Slump also often sparks mini existential crises, seemingly at random. On the subway, in the middle of 2nd grade, at home on a Sunday night downloading the latest SNL. They sometimes come in the form of "The Head and The Heart" lyrics. God, what are we doing? Can't live this way forever.  I find myself wondering what I've gotten myself into, and whether I've made the right decisions along the way. I wonder if I'm doing everything I can to be the best teacher I can be, the best person I can be. I worry about losing touch with the life I left behind, and clinging too desperately to it.

It's Monday morning, and according to my rigorous planning schedule (see below), I should be in the middle of planning fifth grade lesson 2. I'm writing this instead. I sort of have an excuse., my saving grace and lifeline, is in the middle of its usual Monday morning server overload.

Time to forge ahead.

Oct 10, 2012

Mysteries of Korea

2nd grade kiddos never did show up, so I ended up lollygagging around my classroom playing the ukulele for 40 minutes.

Where were they? I'll never know.
Just chalk it up to one of the mysteries of Korea.

The suspense is killing me

At this moment, my 2nd grade class is almost 20 minutes late to their 40 minute class. Are they coming? Are they not coming? Aren't there rules in the Geneva convention against this kind of psychological torture?

The Joys of Modern Cooking

Behold: the fruits of my Korean online shopping labors. Even though my new toy effectively decreases my counter space to zero, my cooking options have just increased exponentially. I am about to become the iron chef of microwave cuisine.

Oct 8, 2012

Gettin' Naked Part 2: Significantly Less Naked

For the first part of this tale, see Gettin' Naked: Part 1.

Let's resume our harrowing tale of nudity and friendship. Last we left our heroines, they were recovering from a verryyy close encounter with a nearly-nude old lady who scrubbed all the dead skin off their bodies.

Ok. We soaked in pools of various temperatures and flavors (like ginseng) until we felt like mandu that had been left in the boiler for too long. Overcooked dumplings. That's what we were.

The ladies and I oozed back to the locker room and poured ourselves  into our standard-issue jammies.  What followed was an exensive lolling-about on the cozy, heated floor of the jjimjilbang common area, complete with small, brick-like pillows and the traditional snacks of smoked eggs and sikhe, a sweet, refreshing rice-water drink.

The next hour or so can be summed up in these snippets from our conversation:
(must be read in the croaky, slurred voice of someone who just spent far too much time in very hot pools of water.)

"I think you stole my pillow."
"Here, have it back."
"No, it's ok. I already lost my head indent."

"The floor here is just...comfier.
"Comfier than what?
"...other floors."

"I wish this straw were longer. I can’t lie down and drink at the same time."

"Two of us have the same colored straw, and now I don’t know which sikhe is mine."

"My sikhe has too much rice in it."

"Guys. There's an ice room. It has a snow man."
"You're on your own, sister. 
I'll stay here and save this patch of floor for you because I love you."

" The sauna is too hot... the ice room is too cold."

"Guysssss, someone stole my patch of floor."

"Remember: Shower sauna warm bath medicine bath shower repeat."

"Guys. An ajumma in a lace bikini told me I have dry skin. Then she scrubbed it all off.

"That was the only action I've gotten in Korea...and I think it was better for me than it was for her."

That lasted for about 2 hours, before we finally caved and decided it was sleep times for real.  The great thing about jjimjilbangs like this one is that they're open 24 hours a day, and have built in sleeping rooms. And by sleeping rooms, I mean quiet, dark, temperature-controlled rooms with floor mats and more brick-ish pillows. And by temperature-controlled, I mean not really. Same with quiet... and dark. But the sleeping mats and pillows were there.

Here's a picture. The first three sets of legs belong to the ladies.

We slept here for about 7 hours, then headed home around 9 the next morning.

One final note: The cost for all of this? About $40. Here's the breakdown:
$12-- Entry fee for 12 hours
$25-- Scrubdown
$2-- Sikhe
$2-- smoked egg

Ok, fine, $41. I have degrees in Linguistics and Journalism. Mama doesn't do math.

And that, my friends, wraps up my jjimjilbang saga. I'm sorry this entry wasn't as cleverly written as the previous one. All my writing mojo went to lesson planning today.

Oct 7, 2012

Gettin' Naked: Part 1

Not like that.  Take your filthy mind elsewhere.

No, I have crossed off yet another rite of passage for living in Korea: the jjimjilbang. If you're too lazy to click the link, here's a snippet:

Jjimjilbang (찜질방) is a large, gender-segregated public bathhouse in Korea, furnished with hot tubs, showers, Finnish-style saunas, and massagetables, similar to a Korean sauna or mogyoktangJjimjil is derived from the words meaning heated bath. However, in other areas of the building or on other floors there are unisex areas, usually with a snack bar, ondol-heated floor for lounging and sleeping, wide-screen TVs, exercise rooms, ice rooms, heated salt rooms, PC bangnoraebang, and sleeping quarters with either bunk beds or sleeping mats.

In case it wasn't clear, the part with the hot tubs, saunas, and showers is gender-segregated, and participants are au naturale. That's right. It's nekkid time.

The ladies and I decided to check out the most famous jjimjilbang in Korea: Dragon Hill Spa. We walked in and were given a bracelet with a key and beep-thingy that acts as your credit card, locker for our shoes and jammies to change into later. We went to the women's locker room and stashed our stuff.

Then it was time to get naked, and subsequently seal our friendship forever.  It's part of the Girl Code. Once you've seen someone's lady bits, you have to be friends for life. That's the rule.

So, after several admonitions of "FRIENDS FOREVER," we stripped down and darted into the bathing area. Walking around naked is a very interesting experience for someone raised with American puritanical-like modesty.

You think Americans aren't modest? Think again. How much hell is raised over nudity on television? Answer: A lot. 

I think one of the most interesting things about it is that after about 5 minutes, it ceases to be an issue. That is... until you get a glimpse of yourself in the full length mirrors. WHY, SATAN?! WHY DO YOU PUT FULL LENGH MIRRORS IN THE JJIMJILBANG?! (On a related note, today I started the 30 Day Shred. More on that later.) But seriously, once you see all the little old naked adjummas scrubbing each other's backs, you kind of just get over yourself. Nobody cares.

Speaking of scrubbing, one of the staples of a true jjimjilbang experience is getting a full scrubdown. Jjimjilbang etiquette stresses extreme cleanliness. You're supposed to shower thoroughly and scrub down every inch of skin with a rough brillo-pad-thinger before you go into any of the baths. If you fail to do any of this, prepare to be yelled at by a naked adjumma.

To help you in this process, many jjimjilbangs offer a service where, for a small fee, you can lay down on a table and be scrubbed within an inch of your life by an adjumma in a black lace bikini.

Obviously, I had to try it.

I beeped my little bracelet-cum-key-cum-credit card against the beepy-paying thing, and a naked adjumma beckoned me over to a table.  She strapped on her lace bikini (I am 100% serious about that detail), and went to town with the brillo pad thinger. Within a minute, I was covered in little grey rolls of my own skin (EWWWW).

About 10 minutes later, I emerged raw, red, and soft as a baby's bottom. Even as I'm typing this now, I keep running my hands over my arms. So. Soft.

After we each got a scrubdown, we cycled through the various pools and saunas, raising and lowering our body temperatures in such rapid-fire succession that I'm surprised more people don't have heart attacks in jjimjilbangs. I certainly thought I was going to have one after going from the dry sauna to the cold pool. Talk about a rush.

After an unknown amount of time (there are no clocks inside, and obviously my phone was far, far away in my locker), we figured it was time to put clothes back on and see what the rest of the facility had to offer.

More on that later. I'm hungry and tired of typing. Stay tuned for "Gettin Naked: Part 2: Significantly Less Naked" 

Oct 4, 2012


Sorry I haven't written in a few days... I've had the last 5 days off and have been busy manically making up for lost time exploring Seoul!

Saturday we decided to get as many photo ops as possible, which mostly involved a stop at the Hello Kitty Cafe before moving on to the Trick Eye Museum.

 Sunday, we took advantage of being strangers in a strange land... and went to the Korean version of Disneyland.

While we were there, we rode on the steepest wooden roller coaster IN THE WORLD (for which we waited almost two hours).  Below is the "before" picture.  I was too busy having an existential crisis to take the "after" picture.

Monday, we decided to take in the view from the top, so we headed up to N Seoul Tower.

After that, we got our culture on at the Hanok Traditional Village, where we met a very precocious 8-year-old name Jane (as in Tarzan and Jane. She told us.)

Tuesday, we decided to take it easy and give our feet a little TLC, while also seeing to the nourishment of some clearly hungry fish.

I also made a few strategic footwear purchases.

I wrapped up the weekend with a visit to one of Seoul's palaces, Gyeongbukgung. It's open all year around, but they only open it up at night twice a year. Sit back and enjoy the killer night-reflection-on-the-water shots.