Aug 26, 2013

Goodbye, Korea

I'm sitting at the airport, waiting to board my flight. I've said all my goodbyes, checked my bags, and am currently coping with the traumatizing loss of my Alien Registration Card. They took it away at immigration. I'm a little bit devastated.

I'm starting to gain some perspective on all that has happened this year. A couple weeks ago, I had a conversation with a friend about my experience here (actually, he was interviewing me for a project). I told him I've been thinking a lot about what I'll say when people ask me, "So, how was Korea?" How do I begin to answer that? It's impossible to sum up what this year has meant to me. It's been the most amazing year of my life. I've done things I would never dreamed of and seen things I could have only imagined. I've visited nine foreign countries, including Korea. I've met people I will never forget. I have had the opportunity to have an impact on a child's life, even for a brief span of time.

It's still difficult to say how much I've changed as a person. I know I have, but trying to pinpoint it is like trying to figure out what you look like without a mirror. I think I'll need the mirror of my former life and people who knew me Before in order to see how I've changed.

Yes, Before is capitalized. There will always be the time Before Korea, and now the time After Korea. 

This isn't my last post on this blog. My journey isn't over yet. It is, however, coming to a close sooner rather than later. I'd like to take this moment to thank everybody who has joined me on this adventure, whether you're a personal friend or you found my blog through various internet means.  Writing this blog has been a way not only for me to share my stories with you, but to keep them for myself to look back on in the times to come.

Ok, this is starting to feel final, so I'll stop  there. It's not final. That time is coming soon, but it's not here yet.

So until then: So long, Korea. Catch you on the flip side.

Asiapalooza Photos!

As promised, here are the photos from Asiapalooza

Things I Will Miss About Korea

-3G on the subway
-being able to charge my phone literally anywhere, including bars
-elevator buttons that cancel if you press them again 
-key codes to apartments
-dweigi galbi
-dalk galbi
-all the galbis, really
-being invisible to sidewalk solicitors
-cheap contacts and glasses
-national health insurance
-drinking in public
-만원 ($10) shoes
-5천원 ($5) clothes
-천원 ($1) socks
-$16 salon haircuts 
-no tipping
-busses that are timed to the second
-no last call
-McDonald's delivery
-feeling safe walking around at 2am
-this view

-a lot of other things that won't occur to me until I'm home

Aug 24, 2013

Smile Because It Happened


Oh god, I'm so relieved. Talk about stress.

Now I'm just cleaning my apartment and watching Doctor Who to avoid confronting my emotions. NBD.

Friday night was the big farewell tour. It was just about perfect. We started at a bar that we found our first weekend in Hongdae, when we were just wee K-babies. Then we went to a music lounge that has become a favorite haunt of the Seoulmates, followed by a stop at my favorite rock club and ending at The Park. It was Hongdae in a nutshell. The only thing missing was noraebang and the makgeolli man.

Last night I met some friends up and we watched the water show at Banpo bridge, almost exactly a year after I saw it the first time.

 (Top: last year. Bottom: Saturday night. What a difference a year makes. For starters, this time we knew what side of the river to be on. )

I've had to say goodbye to a lot of wonderful people in the last few days. Each one has been riddled with promises of messages and future visits, but we all know the odds are slim. I do know that I've met people here whom I will never forget, and I can enjoy knowing that I have friends in cities and countries around the world. I'm already planning my grand couchsurfing tour of the UK in two years, which will consist largely of going to various cities and calling up my friends saying, "I'm in town. Come pick me up."

But I digress. I only have a handful of goodbyes left, but they will be some of the hardest. I don't think it's really hit me that I'm leaving for good. My brain can't quite process anything that comes after the hug I will give my mom when I land in LAX.

When I was growing up, I was a ballet dancer. I was in The Nutcracker every year for nine years running (I know). Every year after the show ended, I would get really sad for a couple days. My mom called them post-performance blues. She would always tell me, "Don't cry because it's over. Smile because it happened."

My Korean post-performance blues are still to come. I can feel them lurking, like a dark, scary thing hiding around a corner. But when they come (and I have a nasty feeling it'll be sometime around when my plane takes off), my mom's voice will ring in my head, reminding me, "Don't cry because it's over. Smile because it happened."

Aug 22, 2013

The Beginning of the End

The time has come, the walrus said...

Today is my last day of school. I just said goodbye to my students for the last time. Each of my classes today made me a farewell poster.


I gave a 3-sentence speech in Korean to the teaching staff during a meeting this morning (nailed it, by the way). I told them how much I love the school and the students and thanked them for everything this year.

 Yesterday the younger teachers surprised me with a cake.

Tonight I have a farewell tour of Hongdae with the Seoulmates.

I'm sorry my writing is so bland and stilted. I'm just feeling really drained. It's possible all of this hasn't hit me yet. It also doesn't help that I've been up late almost every night packing and meeting people up to say goodbye.

I'm sure I'll be incredibly retrospective and long winded once I'm back in America and have hours and hours of downtime at my parent's house, so sit tight.

In the meantime, 화이팅!

Aug 21, 2013

T-Minus 1 Week

One week from today, I will be in America.

It's funny how time seems to speed up when you least want it to. My week has been so chock-a-block full of dinner dates, errands, and packing that as soon as I get out of school I'm going nonstop until about now... which is 1am. I do have downtime in school, but that only serves to heighten my anxiety. There's not a lot of things that are worse for moving-related stress than having to sit idly in an office and think about all the things you could be doing. I'll try to write more once things calm down a bit (i.e. once I move out of my apartment on Sunday and into Coworker's house, where she graciously invited me to stay for the 2 days I'm homeless). But for now, just know that I'm stressed, excited, sad, happy, overwhelmed, and anxious. So, just all of the feelings, really.

More soon.

Aug 19, 2013

Notes from Asiapalooza

I'm back! I'll post a full Flickr set of my pictures soon, but first, here are some notes from my trip.

I have:
-taken 10 flights in 9 days
-set foot in 5 countries
-visited major world heritage sites like Angkor Wat and the beach where The Beach was filmed
-watched a 6-year old boy dance on a beach with a flaming baton
-gotten rather excessively intoxicated on Koh Phi Phi
-possibly been (but almost definitely was) peed on by a monkey in an overhead tree
-been invited to a party by a Thai masseuse
-listened to a soft-rock rendition of "Oh Holy Night" in a Thai cab at 4:30am
-flown to the wrong Cambodian city and had to purchase last minute flights to the one that really is next to Angkor Wat
-waited out a monsoon holed up in a tuktuk with our driver
-witnessed the abrupt end to a Khmer cultural show when Chinese tourists leapt onstage to pose for pictures 
-watched more American TV than I had in the past year in a Cambodian hotel room
-decided that Singapore looks more like the CGI mockup of a city than an actual city
-become bunk bed buddies with an elderly Pakistani man
-successfully crossed the street in Hanoi without being hit by a motorcycle
-made an unplanned overnight visit to China when my flight from Hanoi was delayed, causing me to miss my connecting flight to Seoul and forcing the airline to get me a 72-hour visa and put me up in a 5-star hotel
-cried my way into getting a free half-hour of computer use in the hotel's business center because I had no money and no way to contact anybody to tell them where I was
-traveled to places I would have never dreamed I'd see
-had, overall, a most excellent adventure.

Aug 9, 2013

Adventure time!

I'm going on an adventure!!!
Ok, fine, I know I'm reusing this gif from a couple weeks ago, but I don't care because it's accurate. Also I love it.

I'm leaving today for Asiapalooza. With two of my friends, we'll be hitting up 4 countries in 9 days: Thailand, Cambodia, Singapore and Vietnam.

I was up most of the night packing, so I'm ready to go.

-sunscreen? check
-spare contacts? check
-lots of tank tops? check
-binder full of every itinerary, resesrvation confirmation, and visa document? check.
-3 new books? check. check. check. (While nothing beats the smell of a real book, I really love my Nook Simple Touch for travel.)

I'm ready!

I'll try to write a blog post or two while I'm there, but no promises. Vacations are kind of like a busman's holiday for travel bloggers.

So until then... catch you on the flip side!

Aug 7, 2013

Yay Korea! Table Buttons

One of the (in my opinion) great things about Korea is that it's a no-tipping culture. This affects your experience in ways that I didn't really think about before I came here.

My personal favorite is that when you're eating, your waiter or waitress leaves you alone. No awkward interruptions every five minutes to ask if you need anything. Instead, if you want something, you just push a button! It sets off a little tone (and sometimes a light) to alert the staff that you want something.

These little buttons are at the end of the table in almost every restaurant. It's so simple! No awkwardly flagging down a passing waiter or having him interrupt your meal. Push a button and your waiter/waitress comes right over! It's genius.


Aug 6, 2013

A Week of School Lunches

I decided to document every lunch I ate for a week. Korean school lunches are profoundly different from American school lunches, and I am convinced they play a vital role in why Korea doesn't have the obesity epidemic currently facing America.

Monday: Stir-fry noodles, pork ribs, seafood soup with bean sprouts and octopus tentacles, rice, and kimchi. 
Tuesday: stir-fried mystery meat, a roll of rice dough, spam soup with other mystery meat, rice, and kimchi.

Wednesday:  Special food day!
This was a disappointing special food day. Some days we have 'spaghetti" or "pizza." This week it was bibimbap, friend octopus bits, pineapple(!!!), seaweed soup, and kimchi. 

Thursday:  Sesame spinach(?) Donkasu (fried pork cutlet with gravy-ish stuff), tofu soup with peppers, rice and kimchi

Friday: Dalk Galbi (spicy stir-fried chicken), corn on the cob, kimchi, seaweed soup, and rice. Friday was special because we got lettuce to make little wraps with our chicken and rice.

So this is a typical week of lunches for Korean students. I'm no expert, but if I had to go out on a limb and say why Korea has a vastly lower obesity rate than America, I'd say this has something to do with it.

Looking and Seeing

A while ago, I submitted an essay for a contest hosted by EPIK about challenges we've faced in our school.

I'm excited to say that mine was one of the ones they selected!

It's about making sure you really see your students as individuals, instead of just a mass of faces.

Sorry about the PDF. It's on the EPIK website like this, too.

If you click the little < on the top left corner of the frame below, you can minimize the annoying sidebar.

Aug 5, 2013

K-Fail: The bicycle incident--Part 2

Read Part 1 here

Last we left our increasingly unfortunate tale, N and I were holed up in a remote trail-side cafe trying to stave off dehydration as we planned our next move.

We'd just about had our fill of the "scenic trail," so we decided to hit the road to the beach. It seemed pretty straightforward.

After doing our best to refresh ourselves, we headed back out into the brutal heat to look for the road. We had to navigate the bumpy, unpaved, uphill cafe driveway before emerging onto pavement.

Once we made it to the main road, all seemed well. The road was nice and straight and sloped gently downhill. But during our periodic Google Map checks, we noticed that we didn't seem to be moving as quickly as we thought we would. We realized that, once again, we had been duped. The beach was a solid 15km away, and we were getting increasingly sunburned.

Screw it, we decided, Let's get a cab.

We pulled over in front of an E-Mart and accosted the cab drivers waiting at the taxi stand. They recoiled as we approached, filthy, smelly, and walking our bikes beside us. All might have been lost had it not been for a friendly passer-by. A Korean man dressed in fancy bike gear noticed our plight and stopped to help. After several minutes of intense negotiation, he managed to persuade two cabbies to take us and our bikes to the beach for a flat rate.

We were more than ready to lay out and have a relaxing afternoon on the beach. Unfortunately, the beach had other plans.

Upon arrival, we locked up our bikes and sprinted into the water, eager to wash away the sweat and grime.  We were immediately knocked off our feet by some of the most powerful waves I've ever experienced at a beach. They flipped us over and over, dragging us through the sand along the bottom. When we finally extricated ourselves, we were covered in sand. It crusted our hair and lined our swimsuits. We ran for the showers... only to find them out of order.

We had no choice but to go back into the water for what we called the "dunk and scrub." We would wait for a big wave to crash, run out, dunk and try to scrub the sand out, then run back out before the wave retreated and dragged us with it. It was only mildly successful.

Too uncomfortable to enjoy laying out on the sand, we finally decided to admit defeat. We got back on our bikes and rode to a nearby convention center, hoping to pick up another cab or two. All the cabbies waved us off. One told us to catch a bus and pointed us towards a small, isolated bus shelter.

The view from near our bus shelter

We had no way of figuring out if or when a bus was coming. The schedule posted on the shelter wall was unintelligible, even with N's superior Korean skills. So we waited. And waited. By now, it was about 4 in the afternoon: 90 degrees, not a cloud in the sky. The sun beat down on our little shelter as we huddled in the shade, nursing our increasingly fierce sunburns and raw, sand-worn skin.

Then, our angel arrived. He took the form of a little old Korean man driving a black cab. He pulled over and asked where we were going. We said the name of our town. He told us to get in. "With bikes?" we said. "Yes. With bikes."

We were saved.  He dismembered our bikes and shoved them into his cab. He had to tie the trunk down with string because it wouldn't close. We piled in and headed home.

As we approached the hostel, N and I decided that despite all our troubles, we didn't want to admit defeat. We didn't want the hostel manager to know how sorely we'd been beaten.

So obviously, we couldn't pull up in front of the hostel in a cab. We had our cabbie/angel pull over about a block away. We got out, reassembled our bikes, and rode into the hostel courtyard in a blaze of pride and glory.

Then we both took 2-hour naps.

K-fail: The ATM Incident

23 days left in country and I still manage to pull stuff like this. It's a wonder I've even survived this year. 

Today I was out shopping for a new external hard drive. I'd just struck a bargain at Yongsan Electronics market, but I had to go get cash from the slightly-sketchy ATM on the ground level. I had to get a weird amount out, so I put the number in manually instead of just hitting a button.

Well, I must have miscounted the 0's... because all of a sudden I was holding my entire bank account in my hands. Hands. Plural.

Internet, I freaked out. 

I stood there trying to keep 10,000won notes from falling on the ground and trying to shield the whole debacle with my body, lest any of the middle-aged Korean men waiting to use the ATM suddenly decide to seize an opportunity. 

Just then, I remembered that this particular ATM was run by my bank. You have to understand, I almost never find ATMs with my bank. They're just not common. So to be standing at one in this building, at this moment, was nothing short of a minor miracle. 

I would like to take this opportunity to bestow my eternal love and devotion to the person who invented the "deposit" button. You, madame or sir, are my personal hero. 

I frantically stuck my card back in the machine and jabbed the "deposit" button, certain that it wasn't going to work. My relief when that little metal door slid open was visceral.  Without stopping to count my money, I shoved it all in and greedily accepted my receipt with my newly restored balance. 

When it was all over, I still had to get money to buy my hard drive. 

This time, I got one of the preset amounts.

Aug 1, 2013

Bread Cake

Sometimes, when teaching in a foreign county, you have to fudge the details a little bit.

I'm in the middle of English summer camp at the moment. Today was "cooking day." At the request of Coteacher, I had to come up with something "western" for the kids to "cook" that didn't require cooking equipment or expensive western ingredients. 

My first instinct was to make sandwiches, but deli meat is nonexistent. I gave Coteacher PB&J as an option, but she said peanut butter was too expensive (nut allergies seem to be less of an issue here).

So I thought fine, lets just have them pile a bunch of random stuff on top of bread.

 Behold, the invention of "bread cake."

Some of the students got very artistic with it. 

Others, less so...

At the end of the lesson, I had convinced them (and my Coteacher) that "bread cake" was a staple of the American diet. 

I might be going to ESL teacher hell.

Jul 31, 2013

Hey, look! I've been published!

Hey everybody!

I wrote an article for Yahoo and they published it. You should go read it (for your own benefit, obviously, not because I get paid per view...).

Jul 30, 2013

K-Fail: The Bicycle Incident-- Part 1

It's been a while since I had a genuine K-Fail. However, this one is pretty fail-esque. This story is from my weekend on Jeju Island, about 3 weeks ago.

Saturday morning dawned bright and sunny, much to our dismay, since Seoul had been rainy for two weeks straight. Still, the forecast promised a rainy afternoon in Jeju.

My fellow weekend warrior, N, and I decided to take advantage of the sunshine and rent bikes from our hostel to see the area with. We were feeling ambitious. and decided we wanted to eschew public transit in favor of something healthier and more green. When we broached the hostel manager with our request, he seemed taken aback. He asked us if we were sure we wanted to rent bikes today. We assumed his reluctance was due to the Korean tendency to avoid the sun (pale skin being valued as beautiful). We scoffed off his surprise and responded with emphatic affirmatives.

In retrospect, this should have been an ominous warning.

We loaded up and hopped on, riding through the streets in the glorious sunshine. At 10am it was already about 80 degrees with about 70% humidity, but we didn't feel it as we cruised along towards our first destination-- a waterfall that appeared practically next door on the map.

We reached it with few problems, other than noticing that our map was not entirely honest about streets or distances. We parked our bikes, walked to the falls, and spent several pleasant minutes taking Lewis-and-Clark style pictures.


The sun was climbing higher in the sky, and we noticed it was getting quite warm. There was no sign of the promised cloud cover or rain, and we only had a small tube of sunblock between us.

Still, we decided to soldier on. Our next destination was a segment of the famous Olle trail. It's a walking trail that winds its way around the circumference of the island. My "trusty" guidebook said that it was also good for biking. The next entrance point was close by, so we set off to find it.

However, we soon realized that our map left out some key information about the roads-- specifically elevation. Yes, the trail entrance was close by, but to reach it, we had to climb a steep, hairpin-riddled road from our point at the bottom of the waterfall to a high ridge overlooking the sea. We resigned ourselves to the climb, knowing we would be rewarded with a glorious, smooth trail ride along that ridge.

It took us about 20 minutes to reach the top. Some points were so steep we had to get off our bikes and walk. As soon as we stopped riding, the heat and humidity would make itself known. We were quickly drenched from head to toe and could feel the backs of our necks starting to redden from the sun.

 We could sense that the trail was close, yet it was nowhere to be seen. We wandered amilessly on our bikes through small dirt roads for another solid 20 minutes before caving and asking for help from a cafe employee. He pointed us down the road and said we were close.

Around the next bend, we finally came upon the trailhead. Eureka! Our problems were over! We knew now that we could enjoy a pleasant, shady ride with a stunning view of the cliffs and sea.

Or so we thought.

We noticed that the trailhead started with a staircase. Odd, since the guidebook clearly stated that this was a good place for biking. We concluded that the bike entrance was somewhere nearby. But we didn't see anything, so we decided to just cart our bikes down the stairs. We were eager to get on the trail and out of increasingly brutal sun.

For a while, all seemed well. We stopped at a scenic overlook to take pictures not far from the trailhead. Even though we were now in the shade (and by the sea), we had no escape from the soupy humidity. We had to compose our pictures to hide our repulsive sweatiness with strategically placed shade.

As it would turn out, this was our one moment of reprieve. My "trusty" guidebook turned out to be quite misleading. The segment of the Olle trail we were on was not, as it were, made for bikes at all. We were constantly either walking our bikes up hills too steep and rocky to ride, or carrying them down the stairs on the other side. Not only did this mean we weren't getting the cooling benefits of riding our bikes, we were actually getting hotter and sweatier through the effort. After what seemed like forever (but was really probably only an hour or so), we came to a cafe whose driveway lead to the nearest road. Exhausted and frustrated, N and I decided to treat ourselves to smoothies while we cooled down and figured out our next move.

Jul 18, 2013


It's been a while since I wrote a nice long text wall here. I'm sure you've all missed it (hah).

I have just under 6 weeks left in Korea. Tomorrow marks eleven months since I set foot here. It's difficult to pinpoint how I've changed since that day, so I won't get into that now.

I can tell my time here is coming to an end because I'm getting restless. It's like a bubble sitting under my sternum. I've never been very good at enjoying the moment and not thinking about what comes next, and I'm guilty of it once again. I'm trying to focus on my remaining time here, but mentally I'm already getting ready for my next adventure.

On a related note, the plans that constitute "my next adventure" have gone through a rather dramatic change in the past month, and I should probably fill you lot in, in case you don't know already. I still want to go to graduate school and pursue a career in science journalism, but I've decided not to move back to Boston for the interim. Instead, I'm going to try my hand at a new city--THE city. New York City. I used to be intimidated by NYC (remember, I grew up in a Montana town with 1 high school). However, after living in Seoul for a year, I've realized that no city is too big or too unmanageable. Plus, NYC is smaller than Seoul (8.2 million compared to 10 million), and everything is in English!

 I'm currently in the process of looking for employment and/or a place to live. I'm planning to do a lot of freelance writing, but I'm also going to need a day job (so if you know anyone... wink wink). That's one reason why I haven't been writing much here lately. I've been doing a lot of writing, but it's all cover letters (blegh) or article submissions. Or emails to people I've woefully neglected in the last few months.

So that's that.

Also, it's been really, really hot here. Like... stupid hot. I basically go home and lay flat on my back on my bed with my aircon turned up to 11. It's too hot to write.

Anyway, this post is getting rambly. Suffice to say I'm a bit preoccupied with the next chapter in my life and it's precluding me from being able to focus fully on my life here.

On the bright side, I'm off to play in the mud this weekend, so that should definitely help me... ahem... focus.

Jul 17, 2013

Jeju Island--the Hawaii of Korea

So last weekend, I went to Jeju island. It's known as the Hawaii of Korea and is a very popular vacation spot for Koreans and Chinese tourists.

It was gorgeous... except for the part where it was 80 degrees with full humidity. My friend and I rented bikes to ride around. I'm pretty sure I lost about 5 pounds just on Saturday (no complaints here, though.)

I would write more, but frankly, I'm really really tired. Plus, the pictures pretty much sum it up. Also, the last picture in this set is the only semi-appropriate picture I took at loveland, the infamous erotic sculpture garden. You'll just have to leave the rest up to your imagination. Or Google it.

Jul 16, 2013

Heart-Warming Video of the Day

As much as I gripe about the daily grind of teaching, it's still one of the most rewarding experiences I've ever had.

Katie (승아) is one of the brightest students I have. Recently, she's been coming in for about half an hour every day after school to talk to me. We started watching (school appropriate) music videos for English songs, and she decided she wanted to learn this one. I hope the finished product warms your heart as much as it warmed mine.

Side note: You can see from the state of my hair that Seoul is just a humid bowl of soup these days. On the bright side, my skin is super soft.

Jul 11, 2013

Learning to Be Slow, Part 2

This is part 2 of my account of life in a Buddhist temple. To read part 1, please go here.

One thing about Buddhist monastic life is that it's not for the lazy. Following an early bedtime, we were awoken at the ungodly hour of 4:30am, for the pre-dawn bell ringing ceremony. I'm not sure if we had to get up so early because it's high summer and the sun rises early, or if that's just the norm. I'd like to think the monks get to sleep in a bit in the wintertime, but for some reason, I doubt it.

 Even though I'm not a morning person (understatment of the century for those who know me), I found the early start to be strangely pleasant. I think it was because I wasn't expected to speak or interact with anybody else.

Pre-dawn at the temple is almost otherworldly. There are no sounds save the soft shuffle of rubber slippers on stone as the monks and nuns sweep the temple and make morning offerings.

We were lead up to the bell tower, legs increasingly complaining from yesterday's prostrations. There, we stood patiently for our chance to ring the giant metal bell.  I would imagine local residents don't love hearing it every morning at zero dark thirty.

After that, it was time for morning meditation. The previous day's 15-minute session was just a warm up. This was the real deal. We had to sit absolutely still for half an hour under the watchful eye of the Zen Master. Intimidating? Absolutely. However, maybe it was the early morning, or maybe it was the temple atmosphere starting to affect my brain, but I found it much easier to sink into a semi-conscious state that morning. I didn't count, as I had the previous session. It sort of felt like my brain was floating in warm, dark water. I don't remember much of what I thought about, but when the Zen Master clapped the bamboo sticks to signal the end of meditation, I had the sensation of surfacing from a deep pool.

To awaken our stiff, sleepy limbs (which were increasingly sore from the aforementioned prostrations), we were then led in a brisk walking session around the temple courtyard.

As the sun came up, we got a better view of the neighborhood surrounding our temple. It's truly an oasis in the middle of chaotic city life.

After that was breakfast, then we headed back to the main hall to have a traditional Buddhist tea ceremony. Our leader detailed health properties of green tea, and said that with their rigourous daily routines, even monks and nuns need caffeine! I took this to mean that I shouldn't let anybody shame me for my crippling coffee addiction. Even Buddhist monks think caffeine is ok.

The tea was delicious, refreshing, and a much-needed source of energy. While we were drinking our tea, our leader offered to analyze our characters. She is a student of Buddhist philosophy, and says she can tell a lot about a person just by observing them and knowing their name.

This was a laugh. As she went around the circle, telling us things about ourselves with varying degrees of accuracy, it was entertaining to watch people get uncomfortable. Some of the things she said were eerily accurate. Each of us were a different sort of object in nature. For example, she said I am a big tree. I (apparently) cast a large shadow, and people seek shelter in my shade. One of my friends was a torch who sheds light and guides the people around her, and my other friend was a river who accepts everything that comes to her, good and bad, and is good at navigating a variety of situations.

Here's a picture of our wise leader:

On that fun and enlightening note, we wrapped up our little program. Even though I'd only been in the temple for 24 hours, it felt strange to put on my regular clothes, turn on my cell phone, and go back out into the world. I found the serenity of temple life to be a much-needed break from the hectic, often stressful life of a teacher. If they offered a week-long program, I would gladly sign up.

So to anybody in Korea thinking about doing a temple stay, I absolutely suggest you do. It's a wonderfully refreshing way to take a time out from the 'balli balli' of Korean life, so you can learn to be slow.

Jul 6, 2013

Notes from a Korean Staff Trip

I just returned from an overnight staff retreat with the rest of the teachers at my school. It was probably one of the most classically Korean 24 hours of my life. Also, just to clear up any ambiguity in the tone of this post, I had a blast. My colleagues are hilarious and fun to hang out with, despite the fact that we communicate mostly through pantomime and broken Konglish. 

Have been on the bus for 2.5 hours. Vice Principal has been talking into a mic up front for 2.49 hours. Coworker and I have taken one nap each and secretly watched half an episode of New Girl with K-subs on her phone.

VP just handed out presents to the staff. They were all variations of this: 

Arrived at our hotel. Sharing the 3-bedroom suite with 11 women. Let the bathroom wars commence.

Eating dinner. It's raw fish. Have already taken multiple shots with my colleages of what can only be described as Korean berry manischewitz. Principal is making the rounds with the bottle. 

Still eating. More importantly, still drinking. 

Joined the other young female teachers for some air and and a quick selca session.  

Heading to noraebang with my principal and fellow staff members, because Korea.

Just completed a killer rendition of Hard Day's Night...solo, of course, as I was the only English speaker in the room. Principal was impressed. 

Still singing.

Back at the hotel. Watching colleagues throw each other into the pool. 

Soaking wet. Was thrown into pool. Used the opportunity to shout a lot of bad words in English because nobody could understand me. 


Wondering why in God's name is everyone else in the room awake when breakfast isn't until 8.

Breakfast. Beginning to understand why everyone woke up so early. Wishing I'd been awake longer before I had to face this guy.  Principal just cracked open a bottle of soju.

Back on the bus. I believe we're going hiking. Or to a river. Either way, VP has reclaimed her spot at the front with the mic. 

Apparently we're going hiking. 

Back from hiking. Consisted of walking to a river and playing in it for a while before turning around. Alarmed my coworkers by walking in the sunlight instead of avoiding it. Told them I want my hair to get lighter. They said I have magic hair. 

Lunch time. Maekgeolli is flowing.

Visited some sort of museum to a writer. It's in a very pretty spot. 

Eating again. Pajeon and makgeolli. Am in utter awe of my colleague's drinking abilities.

On the bus back to Seoul. Coworkers have discovered that the bus is equipped for noraebang, which they are now participating in with great enthusiasm. 


Jul 2, 2013

Learning to Be Slow, Part 1

Life in Seoul is hectic. The unofficial motto of modern Korean society is "balli, balli", or "hurry, hurry." Everything is just fast.

 The need to be fast is always something I've struggled with. I always have to be the first one. I like to joke that I'm not competitive, I just always win.

So when I signed up to do a temple stay at a local Buddhist temple, I was interested to see how I would react to such forced "slowness."

I arrived at the temple midafternoon on Saturday. There were seven people in the temple stay program that weekend, two of them being my friends "P" and "R." We were shown to our room and given our temple uniforms, then told to wait for the rest of the program participants to arrive. We were told we could either wait in our room or enjoy the small library across the hall. Obviously, I made a beeline for the library.

I could already feel the serene atmosphere of the temple affecting me. I love nothing more than curling up with a book and vanishing from the world, so I happily found a comfy patch of floor and delved into a Peet family favorite.

After about half an hour, we were summoned to the main hall where our program would take place. In true Korean fashion, we were given cushions to sit on. Our program leader was this tiny woman who was the embodiment of a happy boddhisatva.  Her kind, smiling face and relaxed demeanor immediately put me at ease.

 She gave us a quick overview of Buddhist philosophy. She said, "Buddhism believes that we have 3 "poison minds": Greedy Mind, Angry Mind, and Foolish Mind. We can sink into Greedy Mind from five things: greed for money, greed for love, greed for food, greed for sleep, and greed for power. All of our angry or foolish feelings stem from our greedy feelings, and all of our greedy feelings come from wanting one of those five things. The three poison minds keep us from accessing our Buddha Mind, which is calm and serene." She said, "Buddhists believe we have poison thoughts 108 times a day, and to make up for it, we must do 108 prostrations."

A prostration is also known as a full bow. You start in a standing position with your hands pressed together in front of you, sink to your kneeds, put your hands and head on the ground, turn your hands palm-up to the ceiling, put them back on the ground, and stand back up. 

Our leader explained that we would do 108 prostrations, and to keep track we would string Buddhist prayer beads as we did it. One prostration=one bead. But, she said, "Prostrations can be hard for beginners. Many foreigners opt to add 2 or 3 beads for one prostration, and that's ok."


As we started the prostrations, we were told to focus on clearing our minds of poison thoughts. As you might imagine, this is easier said than done. My biggest challenge when I try to clear my mind is turning off the narration in my head. Whenever I'm doing something remotely story-worthy, I have a voice in my head instantly taking what's happening and putting it into past tense for future storytelling.
 I tried a few different things to achieve a clear mind. Like every good cradle Catholic with a string of beads in front of her, my first reaction was to start cranking out some Hail Marys. It's like the Catholic version of a mantra.  That worked for a little while, but I couldn't get the cadence of the prayer to match the cadence of my prostrations. Instead, I tried to focus all my mind power on what I was doing. Stand, kneel, head, hands, take a bead, string it, stand up. Repeat. I kept glancing around me to see the progress others had made on their bead strings. Some were ahead of me, some were not. I decided that I wouldn't try to win. I would just finish at my own pace and not worry about who was first. I ended up finishing last, but I didn't care. I had done every single of the 108 prostrations, and felt good. I was making progress.

We were all a bit wiped after the prostrations.

After the prostrations came 15 minutes of meditation. We had to sit perfectly still with our legs crossed, back straight, eyes half closed, hands forming a circle in our lap. No movement allowed. This was a different kind of challenge. Stillness is surprisingly difficult for me to achieve, considering how lazy I am. I kept thinking about my legs, which were slowly falling asleep. I decided to start counting my breaths. I could hear the ticking of our instructors little clock, so I focused on breathing in for 2 ticks, then out for 2 ticks. I ended up counting to 300. It wasn't exactly achieving nirvana, but, again, I was making progress.

We were pretty wiped after the meditation.

 Evening bell ringing followed that. We each got to ring the giant bell one time with the resident nun. Standing next to that gargantuan thing when it was reverberating felt like what I imagine standing next to an alien spaceship would feel like.

After bell ringing, it was dinner time! The temple food was amazing, and completely meat-free. As a former vegetarian, it was wonderfully refreshing to eat such a delicious vegetable-based meal. 

After dinner,we got a little tour of the temple, followed by bedtime. We had about an hour and a half of downtime before bed, which we used to unwind and read our books. We had to have an early lights-out to prepare for our 4:30am wakeup call!


 This post is getting long, so I'll talk about the next day in part 2. In the meantime, please enjoy these pictures of the temple in the evening.

Jun 26, 2013

Grocery Delivery, part 2

THEY'RE HERE!! I can finally make my ramyeon (ramen) dinner.

 You may be thinking, "Uhhh...Meg...there's no ramyeon in that bag..." You're right, but this bag has all the goodies I add to the ramyeon. But that's a whole different post. Stay tuned. 

Grocery Delivery, part 1

Today on my way home from school, I stopped by the little grocer by my house to pick some stuff up. I finally worked up the courage to ask for it to be delivered. Gave them my address, everything seemed fine. I don't know how long it takes, but knowing Korea, it shouldn't take too long.

That being said, it's been almost 2 hours. I'm getting hangry*.

*hangry (adj): when someone is so hungry they get angry.