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.