Jan 31, 2013

Urban Mountaineering

The picture below is the view from the hallway window at school. If you look very closely, there's a small pagoda on top of that little mountain in the distance. On Wednesday, I decided to try to go there.

My quest took me through increasingly narrow streets that slowly wound uphill.

Eventually, I reached a dead end. There was no way to keep going up on the streets. I could see the hilltop looming just beyond these stairs, so I took a deep breath... and started to climb.

and climb...

and climb and climb.

Eventually I came to this: A quaint, tree-filled park perched at the top of the hill.

It was a little oasis smack dab in the middle of northeast Seoul-- which is otherwise not very pretty.

I followed the path for a few minutes before I rounded a corner and saw this:

I had reached my destination! I looked out at the city below and low and behold, there was my school nestled among the hanok roofs and dilapidated buildings.

Mission accomplished.

On Our Northern Neighbors

There's been some chatter in the news recently about Seoul's grumbly northern neighbor.

Here's the prevailing feeling here about North Korea.

Jan 24, 2013


So I've been whiling away my deskwarming week by bringing episodes of TV shows to school on a thumb drive to watch. I'm almost done with season 1 of Homeland.

This morning I accidentally left the thumb drive in my apartment.

Jan 23, 2013

K-Mystery Solved! (Caution: Science Ahead)

I think I've solved the mystery of the other hot water problem.  A lovely reader pointed out to me that I had neglected to account for the flow of water through pipes-- specifically the idea that pipes have a threshold for how much water can flow through them at any given moment (at least, for our purposes they do).

This is the missing piece to the puzzle! If I turn up my water pressure higher than the maximum rate at which hot water can flow through the pipe from my heater to the shower, the plumbing is going to add more cold water to the flow to make up the difference. This is assuming that the maximum flow of cold water is higher than the maximum flow of hot water, which is a pretty safe assumption since cold water is essentially an unlimited resource here.

Conclusion: If I drop the shower pressure to be at or below the maximum hot water pipe capacity, I can have as much hot water as I want.

Not nerdy enough for you? Fear not, I also graphed it. The top graph illustrates the theoretical ideal water pressure for a lukewarm shower (equal parts hot and cold water). The bottom one illustrates the theoretical ideal water pressure for a VERY hot shower (much more hot water than cold water).

*drops mic, walks out*

Jan 22, 2013

K-Fail: The *Other* Hot Water Problem

This isn't really a K-fail, more of a K-mystery.

For months, I was dealing with a strange phenomenon. When I turned on my shower, I would have medium-hot water for approximately two minutes, at which point it would turn cold. You can imagine how unpleasant this was in an unheated bathroom in the dead of winter. My hygiene may have suffered slightly. I found myself showering at the gym a lot-- choosing the stares of old Korean women over the inhumane conditions of my own shower.

It wasn't until about 3 weeks ago that a friend of mine let me in on what is apparently an open secret in Korea: When showering, don't turn the water pressure on all the way. Only turn it about 80% on. I tried it, and was treated to a scalding (seriously: face-meltingly hot) shower that lasted (seemingly) forever. I was appalled. I still am. There is no logical reason for this to be happening.

First of all, my apartment is heated by hot water. It's pumped through the pipes under my floor that make up the ondol system I have gushed (pun intended) about frequently. My floor heats up approximately to the temperature of the heated seat in a car. This is no lukewarm rubber water bottle. That water is hot.

It stands to reason, therefore, that there would be enough of the stuff to give me more than 2 minutes of a  moderately hot shower at full pressure.

But say there isn't. Let's say that there is a limited quantity of hot water, and the pressure at which I run my shower determines how long I can take a hot shower. The math still doesn't add up. By reducing my water pressure by about 20%, I figure I should be able to extend my shower by about the same amount. Along those lines, the more I reduce my pressure, the longer my shower should be. But so far, I haven't found a significant difference between, say 50% water pressure and 80% water pressure. They both result in a very hot shower lasting around 40 minutes. Yet, if I turn the water up to full pressure, it turns cold in mere moments.

Let's keep my carbon footprint out of this for now. It's been really cold here, ok? Like... really, really cold. Also remember that I was taking 2-minute showers for months.

This is so baffling to me that I even tried to figure out a mathematical formula to illustrate the relationship between water pressure and length of hot shower. Seeing as I haven't taken math since junior year of high school, I obviously failed miserably.

The only theory that works is one posited by my more mathematically-inclined friend. She suggested that the lower pressure gives the heater time to heat up more water. While this makes sense, it doesn't explain the giant discrepancy between 80% and full power, or the fact that the water coming out is SO BOILING LAVA HOT that it should take much longer to heat up than the few moments a slight change in water pressure can give. Water has a high specific heat, meaning it takes a long time and/or a  lot of energy to heat up.  (How you like me now, Mr. Borland*?!) We've established that my water heater is powerful, but it's not a miracle worker. Moreover, if it's so powerful, how come it just can't heat up water fast enough for me to take a shower at full power?

Anyway, this is an ongoing conundrum for me, albeit one I thoroughly enjoy testing now that I can take gloriously hot showers.


*Mr. Borland was my high school freshman science teacher. We loathed each other despite the 95% I got in his class.

I Don't Know What Just Happened

One of the ajummas who cleans the school just came in and scolded me for something. She was speaking sternly very closely to my face and poking me. Eventually she asked for a piece of paper and wrote down what I have since translated to "Why are you alone?" She kept poking me and telling me (I believe) to go to the teachers lounge. I would have interpreted this to mean that something is going on there, but A: I was just there 5 minutes ago to get coffee and B: I would have gotten a message on the school system about it.

I think she was just telling me to stop being antisocial.

Jan 21, 2013

Deskwarming... Fa La La

Greetings, people of Earth.

I am on Day 2 of Epic Deskwarming Week. You may be wondering, "Meg, what the hell is deskwarming?" Allow me to explain.

Due to a weird feature of my contract, the number of vacation days I am allotted does not match up with the number of vacation days the school has. I don't have enough vacation days to be able to have the full school holidays off, resulting in weeks like this one. School is not in session, no other teachers are here (the only souls I've seen are a few administrators), and yet I have to come to school and sit at my desk for the day to fulfill my contract hours. The teaching community has dubbed this "deskwarming."

It's not bad. To be honest, I'm quite enjoying it. It allows me to fully indulge my natural tendencies toward being a hermit. Yesterday I didn't talk to a single soul until I met a friend for dinner. So far today, I haven't spoken out loud at all. I don't have any plans for the evening, so it's not looking like that will change any time soon.

 I love it.

It's also giving me plenty of time to prep before the anticipated onslaught of stress that will be February.

You see, Coteacher is dealing with some rather serious health problems and has taken medical leave until sometime in April. I'll have a sub to help me when the new school year starts in March, but for the next month I'll be flying solo.

At a bigger school, I would have the support of the other Korean teachers in the English department. Alas, my school is tiny, so Coteacher and I collectively are the English department-- a distinction that will fall solely on my shoulders for the next month.  To add to this, it's review time. That means I don't have a set curriculum to guide my lesson planning, and that I'm responsible for making sure the students in each grade know the material before they advance to the next grade level. I don't even know if there's a final test. If there is, I have no idea how to obtain it or administer it. Tests are something Coteacher always handled.

I know it's not going to be as bad as I'm making it out to be. I'm making good progress in planning this week, so hopefully I won't be swamped once class starts again next week.

Luckily, I'll have two weeks of real vacation at the end of February. And, bonus: I'm getting a Very Special Visitor for part of that time... so I definitely have things to  help me get through this month.

Fear not: I got this under control.


We'll see.

One final note: I've had a few people ask about what ended up happening with the frozen pipes. They are all fixed! I had to pay about $120 for the whole thing. I do still have a small leak under my kitchen sink, but I can stop it by turning off the hot water valve down there. I just wash my dishes in cold water now. Problem solved... ish.

Jan 14, 2013

Yay Korea! The Hair Salon

This is the latest 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.

Over the weekend I finally bucked up the courage to get a haircut. It was about time. I hadn't had a haircut since I'd left the US, so my split ends had split ends.

I was apprehensive. Haircuts are always a bit of a nerve-wracking experience, especially with a new stylist. Throw a massive language barrier into the equation, and I would have been happy to walk out of the salon with any hair at all.

As I should have figured out by now, when it comes to making things convenient and efficient, Koreans are, for lack of a better phrase, on top of their sh*t.

I went to my nearest branch of Juno Hair, known amongst expats as a good place to go for an English-speaking stylist. I was convinced, however, that my branch was going to be the exception. I live in an extremely low-English area, and this salon is in the basement of the Homeplus.

I got a little nervous when I walked in because the receptionist didn't speak any English. Still, she beckoned for me to sit down and wait, so I did. A nice girl came out with a menu and asked what kind of coffee I wanted.

Um... what? I looked around. This is a hair salon, right? Yep, there's an ajumma getting her perm touched up. "OK, uh, I'll have a cappuccino please."

She smiled and bustled away. Right on her heels came a girl who turned out to be my stylist. She sat down next to me, iPad in hand, and asked me what I wanted.

"Just a trim, please."

She started running her fingers through my hair, examining the extent of the damage. She nodded,  tapped her iPad, and started flicking through pictures of gorgeous Korean women with flawless hairstyles. Coffee Girl returned and pressed a mug into my hands.

"Something like this, maybe?" she said, pointing to a girl with thick, shiny Korean hair falling in perfect layers to just below her shoulders.

Hah. Yeah. Sure. My hair is about as un-Korean as it gets, without being curly. Attempting to foist a Korean hairstyle on my fine, wispy, cowlick-ridden locks would have been...well, it wouldn't have been good.

"No, really, just a trim please. For health." I threw that part in cause Koreans LOVE doing stuff "for health." I think I got my point across because Stylist smiled and nodded.

From then on, it was pretty much a normal haircut. She washed my hair, gave it some kind of treatment to make it shiny and smell amAHzing, and gave me a 5 minute scalp massage while the treatment was setting.

Then the cut, product and blowout. I don't think Stylist had ever cut foreign hair before. She kept running her fingers through it (more than seemed necessary, anyway). At one point I believe she even uttered the words "Your hair is so fine and soft, like puppy hair."


Canine comparisons aside, it was a terrific haircut. I walked out of there with my hair looking exactly the same, only shiny and split-end free.

As with every experience like this in Korea, I cringed as I approached the checkout, thinking of the luxury in which I had spent the previous hour and telling myself that now was the time to pay for my indulgence.

As with every experience like this in Korea, I was then wonderfully surprised. The total came out to 20,000 won ($20), but they gave me what I assume was a 'new customer' discount. 18 bucks. No tax, no tip. I love this country.

Yay, Korea!

Jan 8, 2013

Korean Spin Class: Challenge Accepted

I don't whether to file this under "Yay, Korea!" or "K-fail." It is neither and both at the same time.

Preface: Since my return from paradise (read: Bali), I've been spending my evenings eating my way through the junk food my loved ones sent me for Christmas and hate-watching season one of Girls. All the while, I had that annoying, niggly little voice in my head reminding me of the not-cheap gym membership I'm paying for.

So last night, I bit the bullet and took a spinning class.  What happened next almost defies explanation.

I have done spinning. I actually like spinning. Incidentally, this, combined with my inclination to move to increasingly colder climes despite my undying hatred for being the least bit chilly, makes me think I have issues with self-punishment that I should probably seek professional treatment for.

But I digress.

Spinning in Korea is NOT like spinning in America. In Hamburger land, spinning is about going on a simulated bike ride through lots of steep hills and valleys, accompanied by some motivational music.

 In Korea, spinning is literally doing K-Pop dance moves on a bike.

The class started like normal-- some stretching, then biking at a moderate pace to the beat of the music.  I should have known something was amiss when I realized the resistance knob was disconnected--rendering it useless.

But then, all of a sudden, everyone around me started doing something that resembled push ups on the handle bars of their bikes. Confused and embarrassed that I was, once again, the dumb Waygook who didn't know what was happening, I tried to follow along. Almost fell off. YOU try doing push ups while riding a bike.

But it didn't stop there. Pretty soon, we had progressed into full on dance moves. We had head swings, arm movements, even body rolls. That's right. We were doing body rolls. On a bike. Pedaling at full speed.

And by "we," I mean the Koreans around me. I was just trying to make sure my head stayed on the same level as everyone else so the instructor wouldn't look at me. I'd already heard her say "Yongeo...chincha?! (English... seriously?!)" when she came around to check everybody's pedals before class and couldn't explain to me to keep my back straight.

This went on for the whole 45 minutes. I can't count the number of times I almost fell off. At one point, I almost tipped my whole bike over.

As a former ballet dancer and someone who has always considered herself blessed with a moderate amount of coordination, this was a huge blow to my ego. They were doing things on a bike that I didn't even think were possible. I walked out of there dripping in sweat, shaking on legs that had just had more exercise than in the last month combined.  A normal person would be insane to ever try that again.

Challenge accepted.

Jan 4, 2013

K-Fail: The Cold Water Problem

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

So, apparently during my absence, it got cold here in Kimchi land. Like... really cold.

I had anticipated some serious chill, and accordingly had left my hot water heater on, turned to the lowest setting. I also left my thermostat at the lowest setting. My theory was that while my apartment would get very cold, at least this way it wouldn't get below freezing. In other words, my pipes shouldn't freeze.

How very wrong I was.

Following my red-eye flight from Bali (and still reeling from the 90-degree temperature difference), I arrived back in my apartment highly relieved to find everything appearing to be in one piece. I could hear the hum of my water heater and feel a bit of warmth in my floors. I checked my kitchen sink-- it worked fine. All seemed to be well. At least, until I went to use the bathroom.

I flushed my toilet, but it didn't fill back up. The tank stayed empty. I became a bit alarmed and tried my bathroom sink. Nothing. The pipes in my bathroom had frozen.

First, I tried to deal with it myself. I went out and bought a space heater (something I had been meaning to buy anyway) and set it up in my bathroom. I also boiled several kettles of water, diluted them to make them lukewarm (to lower the risk of a leak), and poured them down my sink and into my toilet tank. Still nothing.

Then I thought, "Hey, maybe coteacher tipped off my building manager that I was leaving and they turned off the water to my bathroom to prevent freezing." I went downstairs and told the man (in my broken Korean) that my bathroom didn't have any water.

When he frowned and grabbed a hair dryer from his desk, I knew this couldn't be good.

He spent the next hour blasting my pipes with his little hair dryer and pouring kettles of warm water down the drains, but still nothing.

When he stopped, turned to me and said Coteacher's name and "phone," my heart sank. I got Coteacher on the phone and passed the phone to Maintenance Man. They talked for a few minutes and hung up. I just stood there, bewildered. Mind you, I was running on about 2 hours of sleep at this point.

5 minutes later, my phone rings. It's Coteacher. She tells me that they have to call a technician to sort out the plumbing. She throws around the figure 700,000won ($700) and I panic. I don't have that money. I just got back from vacation. That's 70% of what I have to live on for the rest of the month. Turns out, that's what my rent is. She was saying that the school can pay my rent, but not anything extra and that I would have to foot the 100,000 won ($100) bill to fix the plumbing.

This felt like one of those scenarios where a teenager tells her mom she's pregnant, and then says "Just kidding, but I did fail my science test." I was so happy that the first thing wasn't true, I didn't even care about the second thing.

I hung up with her, and Maintenance Man told me (in Korean) that the technician would be here around 7 or 8. He left.

I immediately lay down for a nap.

The technician arrived promptly at 6:30, jerking me from my coveted slumber. He spent the better part of the next hour hooking up some contraption between my kitchen sink and my bathroom sink. At one point, something went wrong and a large quantity of smelly water spewed onto my floor, drenching a few items of freshly-laundered clothing that had been laid out on the ondol to dry.

Oh yeah, this all happened while my clothes and unmentionables were spread out over my floor. So that was fun.

Finally, the technician summoned me to show me that my bathroom sink was, once again, functional. But then he told me that my kitchen sink was NOT functional, and he would have to come back tomorrow to replace a part. Fine with me. I need a hot shower more than I need a kitchen sink.

A moment after he shut the door, I went into my bathroom to investigate. The sink worked, the shower worked, I gave my toilet a test flush... and nothing happened.

I thought about calling after him, but I was so tired that I just decided to leave it until tomorrow.

So, toilet issue is still unresolved. I was able to fill the tank with water from the bathroom sink, so I'll be able to flush it at least once without having to repeat that process. I'm hoping that will sort of kick start it back to life-- like jumping a car-- but this only goes to show that my plumbing skills are rather abysmal.

Coteacher informed me that I should have told management that I was leaving. If I had been able to express that in Korean (and had a better working knowledge of Korean plumbing), this all could have been avoided.

K fail.

Jan 3, 2013

I Have Returned!

I'm back from Bali, but I'm very tired at the moment and am trying to deal with my frozen bathroom pipes and mountain of laundry. In lieu of a  proper post, please enjoy this video I shot at Pura Tanah Lot. Stay tuned for more pictures (or check out my facebook, if we're friends on The Book.)