Monday, October 25, 2010

Palace Tour and Secret Garden In Seoul

On Sunday I had the most excellent opportunity to take a tour of Changdeokgung Palace and it's recently opened to the public, "secret garden". I went with a friend's Korean coteachers who were more than happy to have me tag along, I have a feeling their new cyworld profile pictures will involve me... they love to pose! And always making the peace sign, which by the way, also means "me too" or so says my main coteacher. Some students were doing it in class after I asked a question and I was quite confused. Anyways.

Palace front gate. (These were taken on my cellphone, I've yet to get a real camera...)

We ran to the tour start destination after we entered because we were running a little late. The tour was only for the back garden, which was more like a 78 acre forest with ponds, traditional houses, temples, and trees- no well manicured floral displays or anything like that. However, it was in the middle of Seoul and once you entered the garden, all you could hear were the birds, the scraping of leaves, and the tour guide's amplifier. I didn't take a lot of pictures because one of the teachers was nominated official photographer, hopefully I'll be getting emailed some photos!

This was part of the servant quarters- it was gender separated by this wall. Many of the buildings I had seen up to this point had been painted bright colors, reds, oranges, and greens. It turns out that only temples and palaces were painted bright colors in Korea, so a pleb's house or quarters would look like above picture and not like this.

This building was called "Lotus Shrine" or something of that nature because it's very pointy roof was designed in the shape of a lotus flower.

An ancient library! The first floor was reserved for the books and the second floor was the reading and study area. Unfortunately we weren't allowed to go into any of these buildings- I would have LOVED to go into this one! I'm sure it's just an empty nest though.

The garden tour took a total of two hours and cost about 5000 won, totally worth it. I love being in a country that has more than 300 years of history, fascinating!

Wednesday, October 20, 2010


There's a lot about working in a Korean school that's different from the US school sytem; much of it positive, though of course there are negatives as well.
This could be taken as either a positive or negative depending on your perspective and whether or not you participate.

If you work at an elementary school in South Korea, you will most likely be asked to play volleyball with the other teachers- at least that's what I've heard and it's certainly true in my situation. At my school we play volleyball every Wednesday from about 2:30-4:30+ (whenever the last game finishes). I didn't play the first couple of weeks because I was a little intimidated, I was told it was super competitive and the last time I had played was probably gym class in High School, over seven years ago, not too confident in my skills.

I finally worked up the nerve to join them one day, I waited until about 4 before I went outside that way I would only be in for about one game. Within the first few minutes of play I had made an amazing save, which was bad news because they all thought I was really good- so for the next twenty minutes the male teachers kept trying to set me up for spikes or other cool plays which I failed not so elegantly time and time again... I don't regret playing at all though! The feeling of comraderie I had after the game was incredible and they all gave me the double high fives that they love to do here. I felt really good, like I had finally crossed the volley valley and was part of the team.

As I continue to play every wednesday the comraderie I felt after the initial day has grown tremendously. By not playing I was really feeling left out, but because I wanted to play and actually enjoy it it's become a really positive experience for me. And I'm told by my coteacher that they all really enjoy having me play with them, so it's not just a positive experience for me but for them as well. I think it's important that we try to connect with our korean teachers here, NOT JUST our coteachers- but all of them. Some of my teachers can hardly speak a lick of English but by playing volleyball with them I've entered into a dialogue of friendship that doesn't really require words.

If you don't want to play or can't play volleyball or whatever other sport your school likes to play- try to find something to connect with your Korean coworkers about. It will really improve your experience teaching here.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Just Another Burger Monday

House Grill now has a facebook- also, check out the owner's blog to see his art.

Brian and I have decided to start a ritual; what ritual? You might ask. Well, we found a nice burger joint near the Yongmun Lotte that has decent prices and delicious grub; so we've decided to baptize Monday as "Burger Monday". Really though, I don't expect we'll go there every Monday as I'm pretty sure I'd get sick of burgers pretty fast... but it's nice to have the suggestion of routine.

Let me tell you about House Grill, the burger place. It's a hole in the wall joint with a swell interior where your chef, waiter, host, and owner are all the same person- and yes he speaks English relatively well. On the menu you'll notice the slogan "burger + art" in which the burgers are self-explanatory but the art might take a minute. Hanging on the walls are illustrations of characters that may have either come out of a Tim Burton movie or a Maurice Sendak children's book; though they come from neither! They are a creation of the owner and are all for sale for rather reasonable prices.
Pretty much... he's a cool Korean guy that studied art in the US for a while, where he also developed some reasonable language skills. He decided to come back to Korea, open a burger joint and use it as a medium of art distribution. Oh, and his chili fries are damn good.

If you're near the Yongmun Lotte in Daejeon be sure to keep an eye out for House Grill! Fantastic!

View House Grill in a larger map

Friday, October 15, 2010

Avez-vous une cigarette?

I imagine that there are many South Koreans who have or will have lung cancer.

One of the teacher's rooms in my main school is the official smoking room and also the male teacher's lounge. Being a non-smoker and a male I was slightly worried that I'd be forced to asphyxiate if I wanted to socialize in a teacher's lounge. Luckily I was invited to the 요자 lounge- women's lounge. Yeah, the kids giggle everytime they see me walk in there and one 5th grade boy even tried to grab my arm and pull me out whilst yelling "Yohja Aniyo YOHJA ANIYO," terrified that I might get cooties, no doubt. But it's not a big deal and other male teacher's will venture there on occasion as well. Anyways, this is supposed to be more of a ponderage about the smoking habits of South Koreans than a conflict of gender disaggregation.

Recently, maybe in the pat 20-25 years, smoking has really become 'uncool' in the US. Laws have been passed prohibiting smoking in restaurants, bars, pubs, bowling alleys, and pretty much anywhere that your smoking may offend someone. And current Hollywood has done a pretty decent job in not propegating smoking as a cool thing to do- unlike the Hollywood of past eras. Also, cigarettes are taxed heavily in the US, costing almost $8.00 a pack which is obviously a heavy deterrent. Perhaps these are some reasons as to why I notice the smoking in Korea so much- I had pretty much been removed from it in the US and now, I see people smoking everywhere- even inside! Guffaw!

Some questions:

How much does it cost here?

It isn't nearly as expensive as it is in the US- maybe $2-$3 a pack.

It seems to be mainly a male thing- why?

Does the media have anything to do with it?

Can they smoke anywhere?

Unless otherwise stated, and even then you'll smell it on the walls.

How many South Koreans die of lung cancer a year?

Etc... etc...
To answer some questions.

Smoking- not for me, you can do what you want to your body... but I will like you less for it.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Yeouida Park, German Sheperds, and Explosions

I visited Seoul again last weekend with the intention of meeting a friend. Things don't always go according to plan though, or maybe the fact that I don't really make plans can oft cause things to not go according to them- which isn't always detrimental. I won't delve into the cacophonous mishaps too greatly, simply put- I arrived in Seoul at 3:15 PM and I didn't end up meeting my friend until Midnight in Bucheon. The main reason for the delayed has much to do with my cell phone malfunctions- I couldn't recieve or make calls and many of my texts weren't 'uploading'. And when I did get texts they would arrive late, about an hour.
Destination Yeouido Park (여의도 공원)
Not entirely sure where the park was, and unable to find it on my subway map because I was looking for "Yoido" (요이도) which doesn't exist on the map- smallest miscommunications can make a huge difference- I asked a taxi driver outside of Seoul Station. The first one had no idea what I was talking about and the second did his best, which was pretty good. Yeouido is a district in Seoul and a pretty neat one at that. It's a rather large island on the Han River with some wonderful recreational areas and other Seoulesque attractions. As we were driving across the bridge to Yeouido we passed one of the river parks which was where I'm pretty sure I wanted to go, but the traffic was so bad that my driver opted to take me another route. He drove into the city more and eventually dropped me off at a part of the park, about a mile away from the river. I paid my 8000 won bill and began exploring. I made a new friend almost immediately:
His name is King Sejong and he was kind enough to let me take a picture of him.
He doesn't really have the greatest view in the park though.
I wandered around the park for a while, because it was beautiful, until I got a text letting me know that my friend had arrived down at the river portion of the park.
Destination Han River Park
This is the part where I never ended up meeting my friend due to technomishaps and a coin flip. The park was astir with thousands of people- playing in fountains, biking, blading, chilling in tents, or just meandering- much like I was. My attention was officially caught when I heard snare drums in a drumline style. I followed the sound until I saw what might be one of the coolest things ever... flying drummers.
I watched these guys for a while until I received a text from my friend informing me that she was somewhere close to a green bridge and a boat that had a KFC and other delcious things on board. I walked to land's edge and looked east and saw no green bridge or KFC boat, looking west I saw a bridge that was pretty far away and what looked like a white boat on the water with white buildings on the land. The flip of a coin decided that I would go west towards the green bridge.

Destination Green Bridge & KFC

After about five minutes of walking I looked at my phone, there was an error message on my screen. It informed me that I should call the service center; I had five bars but I couldn't use my phone for communication purposes, oh well. I decided to keep walking towards the bridge and hope that it was the right choice. I was walking on a dirt path along the shore, which turned out to be a mistake, because Yeouido- being an island- has a definite end to it. I walked by a lot of old korean men with their fishing rods secured to the ground and lures bobbing in the river 50 feet away. Each man; with Soju, Cass, and cigarettes to keep them company, had at least four rods set up just waiting for the first sign of a fish to catch on it. I ended up walking to the end of the island on the west side, the green bridge was still about half a mile away and there was no way across the river in site, so continued walking around the island now on the South Side heading East.
There were some signs written in Korean in a red font, as I read them I imagined what they could say- my best guess was "No trespassing." I walked up a small slope and I looked down into a construction site and boat dock and also, a way off the island and to the green bridge. I was seperated from route by about 200 yards of concrete, a small bridge, and a fence. I was about to make the walk when I noticed the guards, and the dogs. There were only a couple of them, but they were some of the biggest German Shepherds I had ever seen. Luckily they hadn't seen or smelled me, so I jumped down an embankment and enjoyed the gap-toothed stares of startled fishermen.
I walked parallel the construction site until I found a safer way around the fence. Eventually I got within sight of the green bridge and I came upon the white KFC looking boat; as I got closer I noticed more and more people- maybe I was headed in the right direction! As I got closer it became more apparent that the white boat was in fact not KFC, and the white tents on land were little shelters with tables under them for the customers of the Seven Eleven... and that this was not in fact where my friend was, at all.

Destination Back to Han River Park
When I finally got back to the park I was walking towards the bathroom when I hard snare drums start up. By this time it was dark and I couldn't see where the sound was coming from when suddenly around a corner comes a row of drummers dressed in colonial era european soldier's uniforms, with faces painted white like french clowns, or maybe ghosts? By the time I got my phone out to take a picture, which was still not functioning like a real phone, a spotlight had turned on to illuminate our snareful conspirators.

I apologize for the bad photos... my next big purchase is going to be a decent digital SLR camera. For now all I have is my cellphone.
Anyways, these guys were drumming and walking through the crowds of people. Occassionally they would stop walking, drum for a minute, and then charge forward forcing everyone in front of them back- it. was. awesome. While they were drumming there were also about five groups of traditional korean drummers walking around. Six sets of percussion in total all marching more or less to the same beat. Eventually the snares dissapeared and then out of nowhere...
They flew in on their harnesses and drummed over our heads, circling the audience, making faces at us and one of them even threw her clothes down as she started doing air ballet in a circus style swing. After about ten minutes of pure enjoyment there was a brilliant light followed by a loud bang. Everyone in the crowd turned around to enjoy the start of the longest fireworks display I have ever seen.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Red Riding Hood

I've been in South Korea for over a month now and there are some things that I'm getting accustomed to and certain things that are taking a bit more time. Lately I've felt like a more attractive version of The Big Bad Wolf dressed as Grandmother, except instead of Little Red remarking on my large eyes, nose, eyebrows, beard, face (yeah I heard that one too), or other appendages (keep it PG, I'm not that promiscuous)- it's every Korean that you talk to or meet for the first time.
I'm not complaining, don't get me wrong... in fact I'm very flattered by what they all have to say as I've always thought of myself as an interesting looking average joe sort of guy. But in the story The Wolf tries to kill and eat Little Red; maybe if Koreans were a more meaty people I might have similar thoughts, instead I always feel like I should compliment them back. Maybe it's just me, but I get a little uncomfortable and dare I say sheepish when complimented. A huge part of me feels like if I return the compliment then they'll think I'm hitting on them so I try to compliment something that I think of as neutral territory:
"Your earrings are really nice."
"Where I come from, small noses are pleasant."
"I like the embroidery around your jacket."
"You have really nice pants."

Although, the best solution I've found is to simply smile and say thanks- and change the subject.

The flip-side of being told you're handsome all the time is that when you get close to certain Koreans then they will let you know when you're not looking so great. However, I don't suggest replying to a criticism with a criticism, that is probably a faux pas here. Of course most Koreans will withhold their criticisms of foreigners- at least to their faces. Your principal might let your coteacher know that he thinks you're smelly and then leave it up to the coteacher to inform you that you should bathe more frequently. Appearance means a lot here, the cover is important even if you don't think it is, just be aware.
That being said, I haven't changed who I am or the way I dress, or even the fact that I sometimes wear the same undershirt two days in a row... shhhhhh. But I have found myself trimming my beard more often, and actually looking in the mirror before I leave for work- which rarely happened in the States. I think it's been occurring on a mostly subconscious level and has only now come to light.

Monday, October 4, 2010

The Quest and Beer

What you should do if you want to take the KTX is reserve a ticket the night before, or maybe two days before- it's fairly easy, you can do it online on their website which has a pretty easily navigable English section. I wanted to make my quest more spontaneous so I planned on simply going to the station in the morning, whenever I woke up. (Planned spontaneity, is it really spontaneous?) From the station I would catch a train to Seoul and find my way to the Nakwon Arcade, a gargantuan music store complex- multi levels with about 30 stores on each level. The idea was to just wander around until I came upon a banjo- I watched the YouTube videos of this place until I saw a banjo in a shop window as evidence that they might actually have one. After the banjo purchase I would scurry back to the Seoul KTX and make my way home. In retrospect I should have considered wandering around Seoul before buying a banjo, it's exhausting carrying one of those around for too long... That was the plan. Everything went according to plan, in fact I think it was too easy! Sure it was an adventure, yeah I've never traveled alone before, but I was entirely too successful! I was hoping for more of a thrill I guess- really though, it was just banjo shopping.

I arrived at the KTX station at about 11am with murse on my shoulder filled with traveler's essentials; Seoul guide book (thanks Adrienne), iPod, korean pocket translator, pint sized notebook, and a four-colour pen. I also had an umbrella which might have been a mistake... it's a large umbrella and slightly unwieldy and no one else seemed to be carrying one, I guess the advantage of being a Korean in Korea is that you can understand the weather channel. It's sort of a rule here, for me at least, that if the sky has some dark clouds in it then you should bring your umbrella with you.
Buying the ticket was easy, too easy- I actually thought I had done something wrong, it was that easy. They have automated ticket dispensers, you simply go up to it and hit the giant button on the bottom that says "English" and follow the steps as stated. I ended up getting a train at leaving at noon, the first two were sold out- only an hour wait. I waited around until it was boarding time for my train and when it was called I went to the platform and loaded. I had an opposite direction facing window seat, which I thought would make me want to vom everywhere- it didn't. It was a pretty cool ride, 300 km/hr is quite fast! I don't think I've ever gone that fast on land before. The coolest part had to be when we crossed the Great Han River as we arrived into Seoul. It just made me happy, that's all. You can really find anything on Youtube.
The Seoul station subway was a mess; like when you drop too many raisins into your oatmeal. Again they had automated ticket machines which were slightly more confusing than the fancy KTX ones but still manageable. It turns out the st
op I needed was only two stops away! What luck! The subways are wider than they are in Daejeon, which totally makes sense because it's a little more dense, if you know what I mean.
So I got off at my stop and looked at the street map on the wall- the Nakwon Arcade was just a few blocks away, walk straight, take a right, walk straight, and you're there. The building was a little indiscreet, as in, if I wasn't looking for it then I may have just thought it was another concrete multi-level possibly habitable shell. The first store I stopped at was just outside the complex, nice guitars and violins. I said howdy to the shopkeeper and asked where I could find a banjo. He responded somewhat quickly, because apparently there's only one store in the entire place that sells banjos. I understood "second floor" and "to the right" so I walked up to the second floor and quickly turned left- let's take some time to wander. Insert youtube videos here of Nakwon Arcade, that's what I saw. Dozens of little music stores filled to overflowing with sweet accessories, and totally-gnar gear.
Eventually I stumble upon the afore mentioned "second floor to the right" store. The store window displays a plethora of guitars, two banjos, and a banjo guitar. One banjo was a rather shoddy instrument I hardly gave it a once over, but the second banjo was a Hohner... the harmonica company? Yeah, same people.

Here she is!

It was priced at 500,000 kwon, about 450 bucks or something. A pretty good deal considering it retails at $699.99 when it's not on sale. I played in the store for a while and I walked out about 20 minutes later with a new banjo in a beautiful hardshell case, two packs of strings, and some finger picks for 540,000- the case alone should have been another 100,000.
So yeah, it was a fantastic deal. I ended up going straight back to the KTX, caught a train immediately, and was back in my apartment by 5pm pickin' away. What a comfort it is to have a banjo! It's like a small part of me that I left in the USA just decided to show up and hang out and NEVER leave.

So later on Saturday night I met up with some friends, drank a little too much, and played Rockband. Fantastic way to spend a Saturday if you ask me. Check out the catalyst- and the beer cooler.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

New Banjo!!!

Went to Seoul to buy a new banjo- check it outski!
Haven't played in a while... This is the song I use when I want to show off.
More abut the sojourn later!