Sunday, December 19, 2010

Santa Claus is Coming?

It's interesting how we measure the year in seasons, marking the time with the changes in weather, the changes in wardrobe, and the changes in the world around us. This time of year usually has quite a marked and distinguished difference from every other season; it stands out from the rest of the year like gangbusters. The scent of pine greenery and flicker of lights everywhere you go, the catchy seasonal tunes that never seem to leave your head, the smell of pumpkin and allspice baking in the oven--I never realized before how all-encompassing it really is. That is, I never realized it until all of that became absent.

Sure, Koreans celebrate Christmas, but not nearly to the degree that Americans do. In some ways, it's a little bit refreshing that the weekend after Halloween doesn't cue all of the retail world to pitch into holiday-themed ad campaigns. In a way, it's a little bit nice that everyone isn't scurrying around like mad to accomplish all their holiday shopping. But, I must admit, my American-ness runs deep, and I kinda miss it, even some of the madness.

When you think about it, it's sort of amazing how an entire country as large as the United States embraces a little bit of magic all at once. Call it a consumer-driven holiday if you like, but I think that even if you're not religious, it's something much more than that. I think it's the something more that's what sustains it. I always feel such warmth and hope, renewed with each lit up tree I see, each plate of cookies I bake, and each carol I hear on the radio. It's a time when I feel constantly reminded of the beauty life can bring, and the love that is present in each breath, each blade of grass, and each raindrop (or snowflake).

Maybe it was my charmed childhood, in which my parents really made Christmas a time of magic, wonder, and love for all of us. I couldn't wait to bake pie with my mom and my sister, to wrap presents in secret from dad to mom and from mom to dad, to sing carols with the church choir and to smell the breakfast casserole baking in the oven on Christmas morning. As our little family grew up, I clung tightly to our family traditions. I helped dad put up the outdoor lights every year, making him promise to wait for my holiday break from college so that we could do it together. I demanded that everyone help decorate the tree on Christmas Eve, just as we had when we were kids. Everyone heaved deep sighs and asked "do we have to?"--it's a lot of work when you have an ornament from every year of your life, and then some! I even continued to write my Christmas Eve note to Santa Claus, leaving cookies and milk as well as a carrot for Rudolf, well into my college years. It's a little silly, I know, but I always loved seeing what "Santa" wrote in reply in the morning. Behind every one of these traditions was a little excitement for the joy that life can bring, and a lot of thanksgiving for that gift.

This holiday season, I am feeling grateful, indeed. Things are different here, to be sure, but I'm trying to find my own small glimpses of Christmas spirit where I can. Yesterday I went to Starbucks, (I know! In Korea!) which seems sort of ridiculous, but I knew they would be all decked out in holiday cheer. I ordered a peppermint Mocha with whipped cream and sat by the window, alone. I looked out to the busy street and listened to the Christmas music and just got quiet. I thought about the miles between me and my family this Christmas and felt truly grateful to have so much support and love across all those miles. It's not just the care packages of late, containing ingredients for holiday treats, a cookie press and all the recipes I have been missing. It's knowing that I can go wherever I will with my traveler's heart, I can do whatever I will with my scattered ambitions, and I will always have a family back home, missing me, but hoping that I'm having the time of my life. They will always encourage me to follow my crazy dreams. Reflecting on a gift like that, I feel all the warmth of the season right here with me, no matter the distance.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

aaaand I'm back!

I know I have been absent from this blog for nearly a month. Apologies. In the time since my last post:
  • I have Moved to a new apartment. See this link for my mailing address. Remember, anything bigger than a letter should go to my school, at this address. My old place was great, but the new one is even better! It is about the same size, but now with a better, more functional lay out. Moving was my original excuse for getting behind on the blog, but at this point I don't think I can play that card anymore. Ah, it's just life.
  • I have visited Babbie in Sokcho once again, in time to see the fall colors and hike ulsanbawi. Awesome. Simply awesome. Click the photo for more views from the hike, and the whole weekend. In addition to the hike, we ate some delicious food, walked all over Sokcho, drank some korean rice wine called Machholi, met up with Greg, had multiple good conversations over delicious cups of coffee, and just enjoyed each other's company. It was probably my best weekend away from Pohang yet. Relaxed but full of enjoyable company and beautiful scenery. The weather was perfect.
  • I have started taking Korean lessons! At school, every foreign teacher has a Korean counterpart. My partner, Kang Mi, has become a dear, loyal friend. She has adopted me somewhat and is endlessly supportive. She is always up for a little excitement, and we share some personality traits which make our out-of-school adventures a good time, every time. At any rate, I told her awhile ago that I would really like to learn some Korean, so that I can function a little easier and attempt some conversation with people I meet who aren't proficient in English. She talked to her sister, and now we have a trade going. Her sister, Sunny, is a mother and a housewife. She and one of Sunny's mom friends come to my house once or twice a week and give me one hour lessons. On Sunday, I babysit their children. It is delightful, and I am finally learning! I know the alphabet now, mostly. Little by little, I am learning vocabulary and conversation. cheon-cheon-hi! (slowly!)
  • I have started playing music with people! There is a local cover-band in Pohang that plays twice a month, at a bar about 5 minutes from my apartment. They are awesome and fun and their bass player, Rob, has become a loyal friend. He and I jam out once a week or so, and as it happens, the band is having me play with them on stage in a few weeks. Needless to say, I'm stoked. There is a possibility that I may become a "member" of this band when their guitar player and lead vocalist leaves in February, but whatever happens, I am content to be a guest musician for now. As an aside, the owner of this bar (called Live Story) is simply delightful and has come to treat me with the hospitality of an old friend every time I show up there. I'm feeling a community forming, and it's a great feeling.
  • I ate a delicious thanksgiving dinner, complete with pumpkin pie. Rob, who I mentioned, and Erin, (his girlfriend, also becoming a good friend to me) invited me over to have our own little ex-pat feast on the weekend of the holiday. I brought my friend Jack along. The dinner Erin prepared was delicious. For dessert, they let me use their oven to bake up a little taste of home. We counted our blessings over the meal, then played charades and trivia, talked for hours, and enjoyed the company and more good food. I was really missing my family that weekend, as holidays tend to trigger those emotions. They helped a lot. They are warm and opened, and I certainly counted them among my blessings this Thanksgiving.
  • I placed third in a local poetry slam. Yeah, this one is total left field. The slam started with an idea being thrown around in conversation, and then this awesomely nice guy named Sam got it together. It just happened this past Friday. It was great to see that kind of creativity come alive on stage, and some people were really incredible. Apparently this may become a monthly fixture at Live story. I would be delighted to see that happen, and I think it would motivate me to write more. Sam was even talking about getting a slam team together, as there are competitions in Seoul and Busan and other big cities. Who knows? Maybe just pipe dreams, but it could be pretty rad.
  • I was offered a little work at my favorite bar, Mindys'. This is yet to be seen, but I may begin helping out on busy nights from time to time. The girls from Mindy's were my first real friends in Pohang--you may remember Ruby and Cha-cha (Chan-Hee) from an earlier post about a hike in the north of Pohang. Well, I have since gotten to know Mindy a little as well. It might be obvious to point out, but she is the owner. She invited me out for a dinner with the girls and a few of their friends, and while there, asked me if I wanted to come work for her from time to time. Of course, I accepted. We shall see if this happens, but I think it will be a lot of fun if it does. Health code laws are pretty different in Korea, so when you go to a bar, the feeling is much more that you're hanging at someone's house, and the people working there are simply hosting you. What I mean is, the bar tenders often have a drink in hand themselves, or are eating a plate of food when it gets slow. They play cards and darts and pool with the patrons, enjoying themselves while still making sure to get everyone's drink orders and keeping things tidy. I already hang out at Mindy's once a week or so. To get paid for it, and be provided free drinks and food? Um, of course I'll accept that offer!

So this is getting lengthy, but the last thing I feel I must mention is the latest developments in the North/South Korea debacle. There have been some concerns voiced from people I love, which is reasonable. From what I have heard, American media is blowing it up quite a bit. Allow me to diffuse some of the worry. The word on it from most Koreans I talk to is the recent developments are more of the same. This attack was sad, and significant, but the thing is, these things have been happening off and on for the past 60 years since the violence of the Korean War ended in armistice. Koreans mostly say it's a lot of posturing and asserting of power that will likely amount to nothing. People also say that the submarine incident of last March was much more significant, as 46 sailors died. In this recent case, Lee Myoung Bak (our prez), responded calmly and coolly, but with appropriate sternness. He asserted that he wants to keep peace and does not want to do anything that would create further violence. He is even saying now that reunification will happen.

People also think that North Korea really doesn't want a war. The common opinion is that they would be completely decimated in a matter of weeks, as all of the world powers are supporting South Korea for the most part on this, and the current state of their economy is pretty bleak. True, China is supporting both Koreas, but their statement in this case is that they hope both Koreas will find a way to work towards peace. Another Korean I talked to thinks that this particular incident is an attempt at a show of military prowess on the part of Kim Jong Un, the successor to Kim Jong Il. People of that opinion think that he is trying to prove to North Koreans that he is as powerful, fearless, and bold as his father.

Who knows, but the bottom line is, I'm safe! Where I live is far from the recent action, and it is incredibly unlikely that anywhere else in Korea will be attacked. The place that was hit has a long history of conflict, even after the Korean war. It's a small fishing island on the north east side of the country that I've never been to nor do I have any reason to go there. Rest assured!

Babbie wrote a recent post which is really informed, and has more information than what I wrote here. She lives 30 minutes from the border, which is significant.

Thanks to everyone who has been following me here, I think I'm back on the wagon. I'm really enjoying my life in Korea, but I love hearing from you in any way, letters, emails, and just little facebook messages are quite nice. I must admit, the holiday season makes for some pangs of homesickness.

All the best!

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Jukdo Market

Pohang is home to The Jukdo market, a huge traditional opened-air fish market. However, there is much, much more than fish in this market. Many of the things you find are common to Korea, but are also the likes of nothing I've ever seen in a fish market in the U.S. Even at Pike Place, Seattle! Below, I have quoted from the official city website:

"The Jukdo Market in Pohang was created after road merchants started to sell products at the swamp of the inner harbor in Pohang 50 years ago. In October 1969, the Merchant Group of the Jukdo Market was officially established, and the current number of stores is about 1,200. The market is the largest traditional market on the east coast of Gyeongsangbuk-do [my province].
The Jukdo Fish Market exists 500m east of the center of Pohang. About 200 raw fish restaurants are concentrated inside of the marine product stores, and fresh raw fish from the east coast can be purchased at low prices in any season. If you pay for sauces, you can eat raw fish right there at a store. In winter, you can enjoy fermented fish, which is a fish famous in Pohang."

I have walked through the market countless times since my arrival in Pohang, often just to get some fresh local produce or hot fried Korean pancakes (pajeon) from a food cart. It's pretty centrally located, near my bank and the main downtown shopping area where I often wander on weekends, so it's often on my way. I always forget to bring my camera though, and there is so much to see! Yesterday, I grabbed my camera and set out with a purpose! I mostly focused on the fish section, but it goes on for blocks and blocks--live seafood, vegetables, fruits, plants, clothing, bedding, shoes, toys, woodcarvings, housewares, jewelry--everything! And as far as the food goes, it is so cheap! On this visit, I bought a huge bag of mushrooms for about $3, the equivalent of which might be $20 or more at the grocery store.

At markets in Korea, you can't really buy just a few of anything, at least when it comes to produce. There's a weekly market near my apartment that I frequent. The first time I went there, shortly after arriving in Korea, I tried to buy just one apple, and the vendor wasn't having it . She kept gesturing that I choose more, and even after I had taken three, she placed another three in my bag. She looked like she would keep piling them in until I finally smiled and flailed and said "that's good! That's good!" She seemed to laugh at me, and said something in Korean. For all of those apples, I think it was also only about $3. I think I ended up taking them to work to share.

Another nice thing about it is that often, vendors give buyers "service" or free items with their purchases. This actually happens a lot in Korea, everywhere you go. Restaurants, small retail establishments, food carts, even in convenience stores! I'm told it's how they thank you for patronizing their establishment. Talk about customer appreciation!

Thursday, November 4, 2010


Alright! I now know that my offical moving date to my new apartment is November 23rd. For those of you who are in snail mail correspondance with me, you can start sending letters to this address after the 15th.

Kirsten Smith
#301, 645-6,
I-dong, Nam-gu
Pohang-si, Gyeongbuk

Mail takes about 7-14 days to get to me, so that is a conservative estimate. Also, if you send anything in the hazy window of mid-November, maybe send me a message to let me know so I can be on the lookout at both addresses.

Thanks so much to everyone who has sent me letters. I love postal correspondance!


The cold has come to Pohang, and each day I wrap my scarf around me, pull on my gloves and jacket, and brave a ten minute frigid walk to work. The walk home is colder still, as by that time, the sun is not up to offer its forgiving rays. The bitter chill got the better of me this weekend, and I am battling a horrendous head-cold that makes me want to stay in bed all day, sleep, and drink tea. Alas, there are students to be taught. Hopefully, the weekend will offer me the rest I need and I'll be back to 100% soon enough. Well, perhaps I can credit the cold air for my sickness, but I may have to note a busy Halloween weekend which may have had its part as well.

This weekend, I ventured to the city of Busan, two and a half hours south of Pohang. It was my first trip to the south, and one of my best yet in Korea. Why Busan? I was connected to this city by a friend of a friend back in Portland, interestingly enough. Upon arriving at a Halloween house party there, I met my original fellow expatriate west-coaster, and was then introduced to person after person, each one inviting, friendly, and at ease in conversation. Eventually, the entire party rallied, and it was off to downtown to check out the bar scene.

The Halloween festivities were a little crazy in downtown Busan, in a major foreigner hub whose name I can't recall. People were everywhere in outlandish costumes, parading in the streets, and of course, most of them were foreigners. Koreans do not celebrate Halloween, officially. That there is any acknowledgement of it all, let alone hundreds of bar parties across the country speaks directly to the foreigner presence in Korea. I bar hopped with this group, danced my face off, and caught moments of conversation with costumed patrons whenever I felt the need to just sit and gather energy. The evening wrapped up with some Norebong, at which point my voice was so hoarse, I decided to call it a night after just two songs. I snagged a cab and made it "home," collapsing onto the couch-bed close to 6am.

I woke in the (late) morning to my gracious hosts (Tabby and Chad) offering me coffee and a place on the porch beside them. We sat and gazed from the 18th floor sun-room balcony onto the Gangwan Bridge and the water below it. The sun shone brightly, making the water sparkle. The breeze wafted through the opened windows and I looked beyond the water to the horizon--a sprawling city skyline backed with mountains covered in treetops. Beautiful.

Eventually we made our way outside and down to Busan's Global Gathering festival that happened to be occurring that weekend. I had no prior knowledge of it, but it I was up for anything. The festival was held at the waterfront, and Tabby and Chad's singing group would be performing a set in a line up of performers. I was amazed that they were able to find a group of people with this shared interest in Korea, but I had to remind myself that Busan is quite larger than Pohang. 3 million people larger, in fact, with quite a thriving artists' community. Busan is actually the sight of PIFF (the Pusan International Film Festival), one of the top film festivals in the world.

We ate food of multiple cultures and lounged in the sun, waiting for their moment. It couldn't have been a better day for an outdoor event, and I felt rejuvenated, despite my worsening sore throat. I watched the water, I talked a little and listened a lot, I lay on my back in the sun, I felt the breeze and took deep breaths.

I watched my new friends perform, and delighted in the sounds of voices singing harmony. I miss singing. Especially choral music. When they had finished, we headed back to the apartment to deal with the havoc of the previous night (they had hosted the house party where our Halloween began). It really didn't take too long, and once it was done, we all felt relief. We returned to the porch where we passed a few hours swapping stories, swapping songs, and just sharing ourselves with each other. Though it was Sunday, I decided to stay the night, at their invitation, and leave in the morning. I just didn't feel like leaving quite yet.

In the morning, I hugged Tabby as she headed out the door for an early Monday, then made a breakfast of scrabbled eggs and hash browns for Chad and I. Chad then walked me to the train station, making sure I found my way alright. Though they had both said so a few times before, Chad reminded me that I was always welcome for a visit. I thanked him, hugged him, and hopped on my train. I beamed as I looked out the window at the station disappearing into the distance, the tracks click-clacking beneath me. It is always a good feeling to connect to people in such a meaningful way. My ride home offered me more beautiful blue skies, and hills covered with trees just beginning to turn. The fields of rice are now turning to a brilliant gold, and when the sun is out like it was then, it seems to make them shine.

A day later, my head became congested, my throat pained, and my nose an endless drain for the grossness in my head. It is now Thursday, and I'm beginning to see the light at the end of this head-cold tunnel. I haven't been sick in a long time, so I really don't think it's so bad. Tomorrow is Friday, so I'll just have to make it through, and then I can come home and collapse, and sleep for 16 hours if I so choose. In the end I think, sickness is not always preventable, especially when you work with children. Who's to say I didn't get it from one of them? Certainly, enough of them have been having their share of coughing and sneezing since the weather has turned. Whether it's the kids or the awesome weekend, I will survive, and it's worth it.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Bogyeong-sa Temple

I'm starting to see a pattern that my posts are coming mid-week, rather than each weekend. Ah well, they are still weekly!

Two weekends ago, I went for a hike with two Korean friends, Ruby and Cha-Cha (her Korean name is Chan-Hee). We went to Bogyeong-sa temple in the Northern region of Pohang, nestled in the foothills of Mt. Naeyeonsan. It was beautiful. The weather was clear, the sun was bright, and the breeze was cool. A few trees had just begun to change their color. There were so many people out enjoying the weather! I was amazed at how crowded the trail was. Koreans love to hike, I have been told.

As always, it felt good to get out of town, but I was particularly happy to at last locate this particular temple and hike. I had been trying to get there on my own for weeks, with little success. One of the local buses goes to it, but not on every run. I couldn't figure it out! I'm lucky to know some cool Koreans who were interested in some fresh air and good exercise. As leaves are popping even more now, I plan to make another excursion to the mountains to see them in full force.

This temple is well known in Pohang because of the beautiful surrounding area, including the hike with its twelve waterfalls, many gorges, and beautiful bridges. Walking across an awesome pedestrian suspension bridge, I looked down to see the water pooling below, so clear and clean. From far above it was easy to see into its crystal depths.

The temple itself was built in 602 (C.E.), during the Silla (seel-ah) period. The "Silla" period (57 B.C.E.-935 C.E.) was quite important in Korea, and signs of it still remain today. Silla refers to the first time in its history that Korea was unified as one kingdom, bringing an end to the era of three separate kingdoms. The Silla period was a time when Korea flourished, and stood out as one of the most advanced cultures in the world.

I'll briefly mention that Korea has a centuries-old special relationship with China, mostly one of great respect. Silla was closely connected with the Tang Dynasty in China, sent many of its students to Tang schools, and at this time was given the significant Chinese designation of "flourishing land in the East." The Silla capital, Gyeongju, the "city of gold," is just 30 minutes outside of Pohang! Now often referred to as the "museum without walls," Gyeongju is an historical treasure I plan to visit quite soon. If the Bogyeong-sa temple is any indication of the Silla architecture and beauty, I can't wait to see a whole city full of the same. Despite some casualties of history, much of Gyeongju remains intact.

Korea has so much beauty, and I'm just beginning to explore it! I can't wait to see more!

Monday, October 18, 2010

Another Mailing Address!

A few of you need to know that if you plan on sending me something in the mail that is bigger than a letter, you need to send it to my school, not my house. This is mostly because the mail man does not know the key code to get into my building, and partly because of the weird hours I work and sleep that don't quite line up with the mail schedule. There is a chance I will receive a package if you send it to my house, but not a good chance. If you have already tried to send me a package, let me know, and I will go with a Korean-speaker to the post office; I think they hold them there. The address you should use is:

Kirsten Smith
c/o: Moon Kkang English Academy
2nd floor, 470-5
Daejam-Dong, Nam-Gu
Pohang-Si, Gyeongsangbuk-Do
South Korea, 790-310

Letters can still come to my apartment address, for now, but that may be changing soon. I will let you know.

And just for fun, a word about addresses, in case you're curious.

Moon Kkang English Academy, 2nd floor, 470-5: This, of course, is the name of the school, followed by the floor and building number. In my home address, the first line is just my apartment complex name, apt. number, and building number. In Korea, there are very few signs with street names. Most streets don't have names at all! And though buildings all have official numbers, they usually aren't posted anywhere. Some buildings have names, but those usually aren't posted either, unless it is a business or a school. In addition, they number buildings according to when they were built, so you could have number 19-3 next to number 174. It makes it loads of fun to find someones' house for the first time!

I'll take a brief aside to point out that I say "house" in the non-literal sense--I have yet to see a single house; everyone lives in apartments buildings, many of which are up to 30 stories high! Mine is only 5, which means no elevator! The style of building that I live in is called a "villa" (pictured right and above) because it is somewhat smaller than the high-rises you see everywhere in Korea. I'm not sure, but I think villas are a little nicer than most high-rises. Though my apartment number is 502, I live on the 4th floor. Why? Because in Korea, the number 4 is superstitiously bad luck and a symbol of death, much like the number 13 at home. Therefore, when numbering, lot of buildings go right from the third to the fifth floor.

Daejam-dong, Nam-gu: Dong means neighborhood, so Daejam-dong is the name of my neighborhood. A Gu is an urban district or ward, which contains many dongs. Nam-gu is my district. Fun fact: I live right next to city hall! It is beautiful. To the left is city hall from the front. To the right and below is a picture of the park behind city hall were I like to hang out and read sometimes.

Pohang-si, Gyeongbuk: "Si" is Korean for "city." Pohang-si is simply, the city of Pohang. Gyeongbuk (formally Gyeongsangbuk-Do) is the province of Korea that I live in, much like a state. It has 13 cities and 10 counties, and a local government that reports directly to the national government. My city, Pohang, is the major port city of the region, as well as being a major port city to all of Korea.

South Korea 790-826: This may seem obvious, but I won't assume--the numbers after Korea are just the postal code, much like a zip code.

This post was prompted by a question from Claudia, feel free to shoot me any other questions you may have, I'll be happy to fill you in. :)

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

National Health Care!

As some of my readers know, I have a jaw disorder called TMJ (Tempromandibular Joint disorder). I was diagnosed when I was in the fifth grade after a mysterious and excruciating pain arose in my jaw that made it difficult to chew food as soft as the noodles found in my chicken soup. After a few weeks of the pain persisting, I went to a specialist who figured it out. I underwent some physical therapy in the form of intensive full body massage followed by hot packs (rough, I know), and it got better. Since then I've stayed away from gum and taffy, and it's mostly been ok. I'm a lucky one--some people have TMJ so bad, it causes intense migraines and chronic pain every day.

So, that was when I was 10 years old. My TMJ has been pretty dormant for most of the past 15 years with a few slight exceptions. However, strangely enough, a few weeks back it flared up, full force. I really don't know why, nothing in my jaw behavior has changed. I haven't started chewing gum--something I haven't done regularly since I was 10. As a rule I stay away from taffy and caramel, and if I'm feeling a headache coming on, I'll avoid anything even mildly difficult to chew. Nuts, salad, sweet-tarts. Contrary to what you might imagine, I'm not entering any yodeling contests either. But who knows? Moving to Korea and starting a new job amid a populous who don't speak my language or understand my culture--this is a major life change. Maybe it's related to that and the resultant stress? It's possible. At any rate, I realized after a week of Tylenol and no real change in the pain that I needed to do something more about it.

Quite conveniently, there is a Korean traditional medical clinic on the bottom floor of the building that Moon Kkang is housed in. Since arriving here, I had been wanting to check them out and see about getting acupuncture treatments just as a practice for general health and well being. With the return of my TMJ pain, I had an even more pressing reason to go. Two Mondays ago, I decided to give it a try. Joe accompanied me to help with the language barrier. We stepped into the waiting room, removed our shoes, and gave the receptionist my national health card. Less than five minutes after entering, unscheduled, I had filled out paperwork, and the doctor called us into his office to talk to me.

He wore a pale blue lab coat and a tie, and gestured to two comfy wings chair before taking a seat at his mahogany desk. We sat, and I looked around at certificates on the wall, a few photos on his desk, and felt the plush blue carpet under my sock-feet. I explained my pain and my history. Joe helped with the finer points. In broken English, but with only minimal help from Joe, the doctor said what my specialist said all those years ago. TMJ is a difficult problem to treat, and many doctors are unsure of what the best treatment is. He tacked on that this is true weather you chose to treat the disorder with eastern or western medicine, or a fusion of both. Then he had me hop up on the patient table which was discreetly tucked against one wall of his office. He felt my jaw, my neck, and my back, applying pressure gently. He asked me to open my mouth and say "ahh." He had me lay down and took what I recognized from previous acupuncture treatments in the states as what could be described as my "Qi pulse" (though this is probably really bad terminology, of my own mixed creation). Basically, he took both my wrists in his hands for a few moments, rested on my abdomen, in a different grasp than a western doctor or nurse would use to check the pulse of the blood. He then gestured that I sit back down in the chair.

He asked about any shoulder, neck or back pain, all of which I confirmed. I must admit, that's kind of the status quo, I have probably neglected it from being used to it. He said that though this is a difficult problem, he would like to try his best to help me. He said he wanted to see me 3 times a week, and that he would focus on the TMJ, but also attempt to treat the pain along my spinal column as well, as it is all connected. He explained that he thought acupuncture would be a good method to try. He seemed to be checking in with me about this, with an inquisitive, uncertain facial expression. I smiled, nodded, and said it sounded good to me--I had entered his office expecting to find treatment with acupuncture. The doctor stood up and opened a door that we had not entered through, at the other side of the office. At this point I looked at Joe, who had been helping bridge the language gap all along, because I was confused about what was next. I thought now was the time to make an appointment. My mistake! Now was the time for treatment!

I was immediately led through the back door of the office and into the treatment area, which resembled an ER. Exceptions being that it had low lighting, and a pleasant aroma of light incense. There were several beds, all in a row, separated by curtains. The nurse gestured to me to lay down and then brought a heat pack to drape over my abdomen. She turned on a heat lamp. I rested there for maybe 5 minutes, quietly chatting with Joe, before the doctor returned, and began the treatment. He wiped my temples and spots on my arms and hands with alcohol swabs, and inserted several needles. Perhaps 15? I'm not sure. He spoke to the nurse in Korean, who then attached electrodes to two of the needles. The doctor smiled softly and said "This, electricity. Do not afraid, normal treatment." I smiled and said, "It's ok," thinking of how I had sat with my grandmother a few times while she received the same treatment for her shoulder bursitis from our family acupuncturist back home.

I lay there for about twenty minutes, resting my eyes and trying to focus on my breathing. It felt good. Calming. Eventually, the nurse returned, removed the electrodes and needles, and told me I could go. I went to the counter to pay. It amounted to a total of 5,500 won, about the equivalent of $4.95. Hurrah for national health coverage.

Within 40 minutes of walking into this Korean medical clinic, I had filled out paper work, talked to the doctor, received treatment, and headed back out the door, early for my work day. I felt sort of heady, to be honest. Like I had just experienced some kind of miracle. I have a medical problem, and I am getting treatment. Immediately. At a cost I can afford. What is more, I have been back what, 6 times now? EVERY time I go there, without an appointment, I walk in and I am immediately taken to the treatment room where I lay down, I am given a heat pack, the doctor arrives and treats me, and I leave, within 40 minutes. Every time. Now, I know they are expecting me, but it is not the same as an appointment. They simply ask that I come on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. They don't care what time. I haven't missed one yet, but I imagine if I did, that would be alright, no penalties. No cancellation fee. And each time I go, I pay about $5.

Prior to this experience, I had some medical issues I was dealing with back home, and the actual medical problem aside, it was less than pleasant. Each time I went to see my doctor, though I had appointments, I always had to wait for a good 20-30 minutes. Of course, by now I have accepted that as standard with any doctor appointment back home. That's almost always been the case, no matter where I've gone for treatment. Each time I went, I had to pay a $25 co-pay, even if all I did was talk to the doctor for 10 minutes (after waiting for twenty) and then have a prescription written. And of course, the prescription would then cost another $15-$30. Maybe more, if the prescription was not available in generic form. In this recent debacle, I had to have some lab work done, which amounted to much more than I ever would have dreamed of (thanks to my naivete). If I had better insurance, more would have been covered, but my low income demanded that my health care coverage be affordable (which means VERY basic with an inordinately high deductible). I'm still paying off the bill. I know my story pales in comparison to that of many more Americans frustrated and bankrupted by the same problem.

I did not intend for this to become a rant on the American health care and medical system, but it seems inevitable at this point. I've been bold enough to hope our country could work to create a better system, more so since I've been old enough to fully grasp what that means, but I'm beginning to become pretty disillusioned and frustrated. And I don't even have real medical concerns. In the 1960s, Korea had a GDP about equal to that of Ghana in West Africa. In the short time from the 1960s until now, Korea has grown to be have a market economy that ranks 15th in the world. One of the "Asian Tigers," Korea is included in the list of G-20 major economies and is included in the "Next Eleven" countries, which means it has high potential of becoming one of world's largest economies in the 21st century. How long now has the U.S. been an economic superpower and the world's wealthiest nation, and completely incapable of providing all of its citizens with adequate health care. Even minimal health care. Ugh.

It is such a wonderful feeling to know that if anything should happen to me while I am here, I don't have to worry about how much it will cost to see a doctor. This is something that used to cause me a lot of anxiety, and has probably delayed me from seeking treatment at times. I recently met someone who is also teaching here, who broke his arm last year. He was immediately taken to the hospital in an ambulance, saw a doctor within 5 minutes of arriving at the ER, and left with the bone set and a cast on his arm inside of half an hour. The cost of everything, the ambulance ride, the emergency room, the set and cast? About $5.

I will say that I sincerely hope that our country is capable of real and lasting health care reform. I know the problem is very complex and driven largely by capitalism and the almighty dollar. It is not so easy to change, as it is connected to every other part of our economy. But one can hope. However, I am deeply grateful to have this opportunity to utilize the gift of national health care while I am in Korea in a meaningful way. I am grateful to be able to see first hand how the system can work--it is not just a fantasy.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Sokcho to Gangneung

This weekend, I hopped on yet another bus, and made the trek to Sokcho, on the northeast shore. Sokcho is the smallest city in South Korea, and current home to my longtime friend and former roommate, Babbie. It was great to see her for the third time in two months. These frequent visits make me feel like home really isn't that far away, and the world is growing smaller with each year that I inhabit it.

This trip was my furthest exploration outside of Pohang yet, and it was rewarded with some experiences I have long been craving since I arrived. Babbie and I, along with Megan and Courtland, went to a coffee house acoustic show in Gangneung. The performers were more friends of Babbie's from her first year teaching in Sokcho. They were welcoming and inclusive, and even asked Babbie and I to play a little music at the break. The music was good, and the crowd supportive. This is the first live music I have attended since I arrived, and it ended leaving me inspired to seek out more of the same. I miss opened mics and acoustic sets, and I am beginning to wonder if I shouldn't go about creating something like it here in Pohang. The jury is still out, we shall see.

After the show, the shop owner, Lim, invited us into his beautiful home, where he made us a Korean meal. We were up until all hours, talking and listening to his stories about his family, his travels, and his career as an entrepreneur. As the night wound down, he invited us to stay, as the hour was early and our original plan not quite as comfortable. We accepted the invitation with much gratitude. In the morning, after a good night's rest, he cooked us another traditional meal, followed by tea and further conversation. He was a genuine person and treated us with such great kindness and hospitality, we all came away feeling comforted and warmed.

We had stayed at Lim's much longer than we planned, but none of us had regrets. When we left, we had a little time remaining to enjoy the emerging sun on the beach in Gangneung. As the cab pulled around a corner and the coastline emerged, my breath escaped me. The horizon opened up on crystal blue waters, breaking waves, and golden sand littered with shells. The beach in Pohang is beautiful, but this, was magical.

On my bus ride home, I breathed deeper. There is so much to see and do here, and a year really is not so long. There is so much ageless natural beauty amid a culture of genuine hospitality. When I have moments in which that is fully realized, I begin to wonder why I ever feel lonely here.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010


The past week was an unusual one, as smack in the middle of it was the Korean Thanksgiving, or harvest festival, known as Chuseok. Though pilgrims and natives are not involved, it does carry some parallels to the American Thanksgiving holiday in that it is a time for food, family, and days off from work!
I did some reading on Chuseok and came to learn that at the time of origin (maybe as early as 57 B.C.), it was all centered around a month-long weaving contest between two teams. At the end of the contest, the team who had woven the most cloth was rewarded with a feast, prepared by the losing team.

Today, there are no weaving contests to speak of, but there certainly are feasts! Koreans celebrate Chuseok by traveling to their hometowns, to be with family, eat mass amounts of traditional food, and celebrate their ancestors. EVERYONE travels on this weekend, which I discovered in real time by finding it impossible to buy a bus ticket out of town, even by the Friday after. Ah well, I thought, I was willing to save further travels beyond the reaches of Pohang for another weekend.

As for us foreigners, we had Tuesday-Thursday off, and we decided to make the most of it by celebrating with a potluck. According to wikipedia, one of the traditional foods that is prepared during Chuseok is is songpyeon, a crescent-shaped rice cake which is steamed upon pine needles. Unfortunately, I did not get to try this particular dish, but one of the Korean teachers, Kang-Mi, who is also my teaching partner, did bring a few delicious Korean dishes for us to try. I will have to ask her for the names once again. One resembled potstickers, filled with pork and rice noodles, to be dipped in a spicy red bean sauce. Another was a spicy cold noodle dish, and another resembled a pancake made with rice flour, seaweed and onion. All were quite delicious.

Throughout the evening, we drank, ate, and played games. We took our time, and Stephanie and Tony did a bang-up job of making sure every course of the meal ran smoothly. The amount of food was overwhelming, but everything was delicious. We paced ourselves between courses with rounds of bananagrams and conversation. It was a lovely evening.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Seoul Weekend

This past weekend, I went to visit two of my college friends, Greg and Babbie, in Seoul. It was the first time since I arrived in Pohang that I had ventured outside of my city. I knew I needed it. I knew it would be good for me. Looking out the window as we pulled out of the intercity bus terminal and into the Korean countryside, I became light. A smile spread across my lips reminiscent of the one I felt overtake me when my airplane first began it's decent into Incheon international airport back on the first of August. The feeling spread through me beginning with that smile--of adventure, of independence, of anything being possible if only I make the choice to take a leap. I began to feel life overtaking me in the best way that it can, when the wholeness of the spirit is felt, and there is nothing for you but to feel true joy, seeping from your pores. The four and a half hour ride was short, and full of thoughts of all the things I might see in the year ahead of me, just beginning. I reminded myself that this feeling is always within reach. I only have to be open to it.

Greg met me at the Dong-Seoul bus depot, in the heart of downtown. He doesn't live in Seoul, but close enough that he's learned a few things about the city. I didn't plan a thing, I just told him I wanted to visit him, and showed up. He took the reigns, and proved to be an adept tour guide. He first took me to Gyeongbokgung Palace. A time capsule in the middle of the bustling metropolis of Seoul, it really was a surreal experience. Such beauty, such intention, such precision and attention to detail in the architecture, artwork, and horticulture. Breathtaking. We walked and walked, took pictures, and absorbed some history. After a time, we sat on a bench in the shade. The sun was bright and the sky was blue, and we passed an hour or so catching up on the last few years, drinking in the calm of the early afternoon and a few days with no obligations. The company was perfect, and a sense of easy comfort was palpable.

That afternoon we ventured to another neighborhood, Insadong, where I was lucky to happen upon some Nagchampa as well as some Korean phrase books which I have been yearning for since day one. We ate bulgogi at a rooftop restaurant on a busy mall, where traditional goods were abundant, and the views were worth the number of stairs it took to arrive at the top. Now well-fed and ready for more sitting, we found a coffee shop where we chatted and waited for Babbie to get in touch with us. She would be arriving in the evening.

We eventually met her in Meyong-Dong, an insane shopping district, thick with people, LED displays, designer brands, and street vendors selling everything from knock-off gucchi sunglasses to bizarre little plastic characters in action poses--some dangling from springing cords designed to dangle in window fronts. It was a sensory overload.

While we waited for Babbie, Greg bought me a delicious pastry from a street vendor, reminding me of elephant ears and funnel cake. It had a sweet and cinnamon taste, warm and sticky.

Babbie and her friends arrived and we feasted on spicy dahk galbi: chicken grilled at the table with vegetables and spices. They drank soju, but I had already learned to avoid it. I had a beer.

Greg and I elected to depart from their group at this point and head to the jimjabang, where we would be staying for the night. We were exhausted. For those unfamiliar, a jimjabang is the Korean version of the public bath, but is also so much more. There are many spas of course (separated by gender) where massages and body scrubs and other services are available, but that's only the beginning. This particular jimjabang also had a rooftop movie theater and garden, an arcade, a restaurant, several common areas, sleeping rooms, a swimming pool, an ice room, additional clothed co-ed saunas, outdoor spas, and a full gym. The entrance fee? About $10.

After our respective spa-ing and unwinding, we met again in the common area. We played some games I had brought, ate ice cream, and gradually became too tired to sit up any longer. We retired to our respective sleeping quarters. I awoke the next morning refreshed. I took a spa, showered, and packed to go. We met up with the rest of the crew and decided on an easy day. We made it to an Asian art museum, but took our time. The sun and blue sky had left us and as we each carried our umbrellas, the rain falling all around us, I breathed in a reminder of home. We walked more, and rode the metro. We ate Italian food and then sat in food-coma state while we felt the warmth of a good weekend wash over us in quiet repose. We talked of the week ahead--the Korean thanksgiving holiday right in the middle of it, giving us 3 extra days off. I felt it had been a good weekend, but welcomed the idea of my bed and my space. I thought of future weekend trips and smiled to myself. There is so much life to explore.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Bus Exploration, Number 1

On Saturday, I felt determined and eager to set out, by myself, into the unknown. I didn't know where to go or how to begin, so I decided to make it easy. I found my bus route map, chose a route that I could see had a wide breadth of north to south distance, the 107, and decided to ride it to the end of the line, both ways. I packed a sandwich and my ipod, my camera and a book for good measure. It was drizzly but warm, and the air smelled of rain.

Me and my anonymous companions passed through the busy downtown of Pohang and into the countryside. We wove in and out of suburbs and rice fields, watching the sunlight weave in and out of clouds. We drove on city streets and highways, and I tried to follow our progress on the map. Difficult, as it was all in Korean, as were most of the road signs.

We arrived at one end of the line, and I got off, looked around, and wondered as to my best course of action. I really didn't know where I was, and my initial plan had been to just hop another bus of the same route back the way I came. However, I as I watched other buses come in and out of the depot, I thought that maybe I was up for grabbing a different route number, and see where it would take me. I couldn't read the time tables though, and two buses had already come and gone. I began to tell myself I would hop on the next one, no matter what it was. The next bus to pull up was a 107, my route. I was a little disappointed and began to reconsider, but I only had a moment to make the choice. As I debated, I saw a mi-gook (American) hop onto the bus. Meeting people was not the objective of this venture, but I had admittedly been feeling lonely the past week, and saw a chance. That, and I can't yet seem to release my insane (and insatiable) desire to attempt connection whenever possible. I'm working on it. But at this moment, I laid that aside, went with my gut, and followed him on.

His name was Marshall. He was in Korea with a program called Epik English (one I had considered, amazingly), and would be staying for five months teaching at a small hagwan outside the city. He was 21, in his mid-college years at Michigan State University. I told of him my incredible propensity to meet people from Michigan wherever I go. He laughed. We chatted in a friendly manner for the next hour or so before we began to near his small town. We exchanged info and said we would try to reconnect sometime. I don't doubt it. But that's just how it is here--foreigners connect to one another, and stay connected.

I said goodbye to Marshall and put my headphones on and listened to the rich timbre of Alice Russell's soulful voice, drifting in and out of my thoughts. I began to wish it were always that easy to talk to strangers here. And by that, I mean Koreans. I wished that I didn't feel a pull to talk to every foreigner I see simply because I don't have the option of talking to most Koreans--we just don't have the tools. There's that whole language barrier thing. I began to wish I had studied Korean for at least a year before I came. I began to think about how maybe I'm not trying hard enough to connect to locals, and I'm only reaching out to foreigners because of some silly fear or something like it.

...but then I wondered about what just happened as well as all the interactions I'd had with other foreigners I had met up to this point. I had quite enjoyed Marshall, as well as the other friends I've had the met since I arrived here. I began to wonder as to weather the simple ease and approachability in our interactions would hold out if it were a possibility to communicate with just about anyone--if there were no language barrier.

I began to think to myself, maybe I should stop wishing for things and just be where I am now. Stop fighting with my frustration, and really enjoy things as they are.

After all, where I am now is pretty nice.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

new toys!

This week, I received my first paycheck, a great reassurance! I have resumed paying off school debt, which is always a good thing to do. But the income also gave me the chance to make 2 purchases I have been eagerly awaiting.

#1: New Camera!

I have never had a digital camera before, and I have already begun taking pictures like mad. I started with my apartment and neighborhood. You can see them on my flickr site here.

#2: New Bike!

Soooo green! It has a basket, a rack, a bell, a crazy under wheel wrap-around kick-stand that allows the back wheel to spin freely when in use, and a cool built in lock which locks the back tire to the frame. Her name is Lilly (thanks, Eli :). I also got a helmet and attached my lights, no worries. Safety first!

I plan to take my maiden voyage this evening, when the sun gets lower in the sky, and it's not so terribly hot. I look forward to exploring and covering more ground than I have been able to in the past few weeks. I want to go all over, with no destination in mind. I have a good sense of direction, so I doubt I will get lost. And even if I do, I know how to ask the way home. The acquisition of the bike is making me feel adventurous and independent, as I knew it would.

It's been another mellow weekend, which I think is good for me. No nights out this time, just some movie watching and food cooking at home. Also on the agenda for today: guitar practice, letter writing, meditation, bike ride!

In other news, Katie and I have made plans to start writing our new zine split, and I am eager to begin. It will be called "Across 5,248.5 Miles," and will likely be a monthly publication. Our first deadline is Oct. 1, and I am optimistic. It will be a comparison of our lives and experiences in Pohang and Portland, respectively. I feel good to have a project in the works! If you want a copy sent to you when we are finished with the first issue, you should email me your address. You should do the same if you want me to send you a letter or a postcard! I have been writing letters weekly, and I must say, there is nothing better. I simply love letters.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Offically a Month

I now have internet in my apartment! Skype me!

As of the 26th, I have been here one month. Time is such a bizarre illusion. It's odd how when you're in a space where everything is new, and days are so very full of things, a single day can feel like a week. So, you ask, does it feel like a month has passed? Yes, at least. If not two.

These days my sleep schedule has been completely wacky--many nights I'm up until 5am. I get up around 1 or 2pm, and do my morning routine--coffee, breakfast, exercise/guitar/writing, shower--before I have to be at work by 4:30pm. That's still a good full 8 or 9 hours of sleep, and more than I've gotten on a regular basis in years. But despite the longer (and deeper) sleeps, I don't think it will ever feel normal to me.

Though all of this does sound somewhat crazy, just as in New York City, Pohang (and probably the average Korean metropolis) is a place that never sleeps. Bars, take-out joints, and norebongs are opened all night, at least until 6am. You see people on the streets for most of those hours as well, on weekends. On weekdays, even young kids are walking around unchaperoned until eleven pm or so, on their way home from academies. But not to worry, that last fact points out that there is always a sense of safety--and from my last post, you may have some idea where it comes from.

I really am not sure how I feel about keeping these hours. It can't be bad for me, can it? I am rested, fed, and getting a healthy amount of downtime in between. But something in me just can't sit with it. Maybe it's a whole lifetime of being on more "normal" hours. Perhaps it's that I really do enjoy the early morning quiet, when the sun isn't yet at it's brightest, and the morning birds have just begun to sing their songs. It could be the nostalgia that I've always felt for those precious hours connected to my father's morning cup of coffee, and in more recent years, his morning sudoku puzzle. He is quiet and calm. With the scent of the coffee beans and the ruffle of the newspaper, the day is held softly at bay and the moment is now. It is a moment I always hope to share with him when the timing is right. When we do share it, we don't say much, but I feel how he is my dad, and I'm his little girl. It is a moment I have found myself missing on some mornings, with each time I leave home.

Or perhaps in addition to all of this, in my current situation, my uncertainty and indecision comes from the prospect of waking up to hours of unscheduled time laid out before me, to do with as I will. What freedom. What a feeling of satisfaction--that more of my life is about living, and less about working.

The reality is that when you get off work at 10pm, and eat dinner around 11, it just doesn't feel like it's time to go to sleep. I often come right home, but even after I've eaten, I'm wide awake, so accustomed I've been to a work schedule that gets me home with 6 hours of down time before bed. In truth, on some Fridays when my coworkers and I go out, I honestly have no idea how the wee hours of the morning creep up on us, until we start to see the first lights of dawn.

All of this being said, there are days when I attempt to go to bed earlier, determined to have an early start, and steal back my morning. It is difficult to do, as the body likes a good routine, but at times, I find it is worth it. On other nights, I have felt rewarded by the choice to stay out a little longer, stay up a little later, because I am enjoying the magic of an evening, the sharing of a life experience with another human being.

From what I can tell, the jury is still out, but none of the options are bad. I was sitting up late with my friend Joe the other night, and out of the corner of my eye saw on the clock that the hour was approaching 5am. I let out a deep sigh and couldn't help but smile. Another late night. Or more appropriately, another early morning. We had spent a night talking and laughing, thinking and asking questions. We had shared so many stories about our families and where we each came from, and I was feeling grateful and warm. I felt overflowing with everything, and yet we were only beginning to scratch the surface. I looked at him and said "Life! It's so crazy. ...and so good. Isn't it?" He had to agree.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Values of Respect

I am eagerly awaiting the time when I have an internet connection in my own apartment, (tomorrow, maybe!) but until then, I have been hopping down to the coffee shop on the corner, called "Holly's". I have been here enough times now that the young man who works here recognizes me, or so it seems. Every time I order something, we exchange awkward konglish, and he says a lot of things in Korean that I absolutely don't understand. Many of the things he says sound like questions, but I just smile stupidly, nod, and apologize a lot. He also apologizes, which I find sort of funny, since I am foreign in HIS country, and he should not be expected to be able to speak my language. I think this aptly illustrates a certain politeness I feel everywhere I go here. It truly is above and beyond the expected.

This politeness points to a sort of deep respect for other people that surpasses anything I've seen in my travels to any other place. It feels like a cultural belief in basic human decency. I've noticed it a lot when I am interacting with people as a customer, but it's more than that. When I pass people on the street, they aren't overly friendly--they don't really say hello like at home, but as soon as I look like I need some help, they help me as best they can. It's just a given.

Something else which I find to be connected to this idea struck me a few days ago-- it is so clean here. It is quite clean in Portland, to be sure, but since I have been here and been wandering all over Pohang, I have not seen one single example of graffiti. Not one. I also have seen all kinds of municipal workers and store employees grooming the street, sidewalks, and plant life around the city and the local establishments. It is nearly pristine.

Not only that, but I have noticed that people leave their bicycles outside, unlocked. Everywhere. Tony told me that one time, he went on a big shopping trip at E-Mart (equivalent to Fred Meyer), and accidentally left one of his bags on the sidewalk outside the store when he got in the cab. He got home and didn't realize it was gone until a few hours later. When he did realize it was missing, on a chance, he went back to see if it was still there, outside the busy shopping center. It was. It had not been touched.

All of this tells me that in Korea, it seems there is not just a underlying respect for other people, but for things. People treat each other with a certain respect for one another, simply because they are living beings. They treat their own possessions with respect and value, and also respect that when something does not belong to them, it is not theirs to abuse or to take if the opportunity should arise. I think there is more to be said and discovered about this, the longer I am here, but I am beginning to appreciate it. I am curious to know what formed the culture in this way. Or maybe a better question is, how did western culture come to deviate from these values so much? How has theft of unattended items and tagging downtown buildings become the norm? I wonder a lot about these things, and have a few ideas, but for now, I'll leave it as food for thought

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

A Taste of Home

I am a little behind on my weekly post, better late than never!

This past weekend was a whirlwind with my teacher friends and our Korean friend Joe. First, I cooked dinner for Tony and Steph at my apartment, the first I've hosted anyone since I arrived. It felt really good. We talked and drank wine while we chopped vegetables and stirred sauces. Ben and Joe joined us a little later, and we all played bananagrams and dominoes. I felt more at home than I have since I first arrived. After a few rounds, we went out for the first time to some foreigner bars downtown.

Foreigner bars are exactly what they sound like--a place for ex-pats to find each other, and have a little taste of home. It was the strangest sensation. Since I have arrived, apart from the people I work with, I have seen maybe 5 or 6 foreigners on the street. We walked into this bar, and EVERY person was a foreigner. Everyone was speaking English, laughing loudly, and behaving as westerners do--a little, um, less reserved than the Koreans I have met so far.

Also, here in Pohang, and in most of Korea I have been told, it is not so easy to find a good microbrew or a nice bottle of wine, least of all for a reasonable price. Most beers are the equivalent of a PBR or Natty Lite... a far cry from what I was accustomed to at home in Portland. At the first bar we went to, my jaw dropped in surprise to learn that they had an amber ale on tap. And, that the bartender gave me a taste of it in a shooter, like they do back home. I heartily thanked the bartender, ordered an amber, and asked him with a smile if I could please give him a tip. Remember, there is no tipping in Korea. The first time I ate out, I was by myself, and I attempted to leave a tip on the table. The server chased me down the street a few minutes later, extending the money to me in his hand, smiling and shaking his head. At the foreigner bar, I just wanted to express my gratitude, and have a little sense of home. The bartender smiled and said, "sure you can, there actually is a tip jar, but tips are not expected."

The rest of the evening continued with much enjoyment. At the next place we played darts and then a game of pool with some people from Italy, England, and Michigan respectively. It was delightful. I realized I had been craving not just more people to be around, but I had been missing the ability to strike up a conversation with an interesting person, taking much for granted what the common ground of sharing a language can do. The only regret I have at this point in my journey is that I made NO attempt to learn any Korean before I left. I feel like this was the only thing I didn't really think through before hand. I think I was feeling daunted by how vast the difference is between English and Eastern languages, but the reality is, I didn't even try. It is not too late, and I am now making an effort. It is slow going, but worth it.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

cultural differences

Well, I've made it through 2 full weeks in Korea, and my first week of teaching! A lot has happened, but then, that's always what it feels like when everything is new.

I have moved into my apartment, as previously stated, and it is REALLY good to finally be in my own space, and not be living out of my luggage. My apartment is quite sizable and comfortable, though I will admit I was a little disappointed that I have to move again in 3 months. Oh well, I will still continue to settle in despite this fact--I know myself and I just won't be comfortable unless I allow myself to nest. One of the added bonuses of getting this big apartment is that the previous couple left me their elliptical machine as well as many appliances and housewares, which I will likely be able to take with me to my next apartment. Talk about luxury!

Teaching is going well. I must admit, my first day was somewhat haphazard, and I was a little confused about the wheres and whats and whyfores, but it was a great gift to have a 6-month seasoned teacher (Tony) there to help me and my fellow new teachers (Stephanie and Ben) ride out the turbulence. For example, on my first day, the school had not given me the correct schedule, and if it weren't for Tony, throughout the day, I would have had several classrooms full of students wondering where their teacher was! By Friday however, I had figured out the general rhythm and I think I will do just fine.

The students are, for the most part, respectful, well behaved, and engaging. At times, I have to be a little more energetic and bubbly due to dry subject matter, but I almost enjoy this the most. I get a kick out of their reactions to me, the crazy foreigner, jumping around in front of them and asking silly questions of them. I realize I somewhat enjoy the way they perceive me as odd, maybe as much as I have perceived of some Korean customs. The other day, I wore some earrings I have which are made from welded and twisted forks (anyone from Portland knows the Saturday market artist well!) . When a student raised her hand, tugged on her ear, and asked "teacher, octopus?" I replied, "no! they are forks!" with a gesture and a face indicating eating a delicious meal. The students giggled and exchanged looks disbelief with raised eyebrows. I smiled and made a face of complete disbelief to match theirs. Another day, as I was checking a student's homework, I saw at the bottom of her work a little cartoon sketch of what I could tell was me and her, smiling, with a message, "welcome Kirsten teacher!" I grinned and told her "thank you for the beautiful drawing, I am so pleased to be your teacher!" I am looking forward to getting to know them more.

Some of the past few weeks has been challenging for me, as could be expected. I am fairly isolated from everything I know, and contrary to what I had thought prior to coming here, not many Koreans do speak English. Living fully immersed in a place that does not understand me, even in the simplest way, is a real first for me. True, Africa was pretty different from home, but the ability to converse and communicate with the people there right from the first moment made such an immense difference. I was able to connect and make friends with Africans, and completely take for granted that the first step to successful communication is simply sharing the same speech. Tony has given us all copies of the Korean alphabet, and believe me, I am working to learn it fast.

My thoughts are with you, thanks for keeping in touch!

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

My address, for now!

Just a quick mid-week post to share my address:

Kirsten Smith
Green-vil apt, #502, 991-4
Daejam-dong, Nam-gu
Pohang-si, Gyeongbuk

I will be living at this address for the next 3 months, and then I will be moving again! Though this is inconvenient, I understand why it has to be this way. You see, two of the teachers who my counterparts and I are replacing were a couple, living together. When they left, there was still 3 months on their lease. Normally, Moon Kkang would just renew the lease for the next teacher, but they do not often have a couple, and they never give one individual an apartment of this size (it is quite large!). I am finishing out the lease before they find me somewhere else to live. My next apartment will be in the same building with 2 other teachers, but for now, I am just close by to 2 of my teaching counterparts, but in a different building.

When my address changes, I will be sure to post it. But send me letters! I promise, I am an excellent pen pal and will respond. :)

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Roman Candle

It's a week now I've been in Korea, and tomorrow, I begin my life as an english teacher. I have been trained, and I am eager. I feel ready. After 3 days of observations and a weekend full of sufficient distraction, I can hardly wait to have a classroom of my own. In the time between, I have found some space for fun!

Last night, my new friends (Tony--already teaching at our school, Stephanie--new like me, and Jo--former teacher at my school and native Korean) and I drank wine and ate cheese while laughing and learning each other's quirks. We then struck off to the beach to set off Roman candles (completely legal!) and wade in the shallows. I felt in some of those moments overwhelmed with the aliveness within me, and the colors and flavors of this vast and tiny earth. There is so much life to live! When we had our share of mayhem, we were still brimming with energy, and so we went off to close out the evening with norebong (karaoke!) into the wee small hours.

This afternoon, after plenty of rest, we returned to the beach, where we sat beneath beach umbrellas and took in the sun, sand and surf. The others ran off to the water and I stayed behind in the shade. I looked out across the sea at the penninsula--the tail of the tiger that forms Korea--and studied the rise and fall of the tree topped mountains, just barely visible through the ocean mist. A part of me feels like I'm crazy for being here. There is so much unfarmiliar, so much that I simply don't know, and very little to hide behind and find comfort in. For some reason, I know that's alright, and by now, I know that those feelings are only fleeting; temporary. I have been here before. I remind myself therin lies the point. This is an adventure I have embarked upon to test my very limits--not unlike some choices of which I have already come to see the labors and fruits thereof. Even still, I find it hard to imagine that I could come to be so comfortable in a place where I am so different. I am optimistic, and we shall see.

Tomorrow the real challenge begins. Tomorrow, I will begin to see if teaching--a life long curiosity--is one of my talents, and maybe even one of my callings.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Annyong Haseyo!

I have arrived in Korea!!! After a few years of dreaming, a few months of planning, and many hours of flying, I have arrived on the other side of the world. And in the past day and a half since I landed, I have seen a mountaintop view of a sprawling Korean city, eaten at least 4 new (and spicy!) foods, met up with an old dear college friend, and sung karaoke norebong style until the wee hours of the morning.

Let me back track. When I first arrived, members of the "reinforcement team" of my soon to be employer, Moon Kkang English School, picked me up and took me to HQ where I finally met the people I have been corresponding with since May. They gave me an ice cream bar and a training packet, and sent me off to my hotel, not before letting me know they are here to help me with anything and everything. They are delightful.

The next day was mine to sieze, and I sieze it I did. I got in touch with my friend Babbie, who is in her second year as a English teacher up in Sokcho, on the northeast shore. Coincedentally, she was spending the next few days on vacation, just a short drive away from Daegu in Gyeongsan, and was ready to appear on the scene for a reunion! But before she arrived, I had time to explore. I put on a summer dress to tolerate the 85 degree heat with what felt like 90% humidity, and struck out on my own into Daegu, the third largest city in South Korea, population 2.5 million.

As I walked down the busy street, taking in all of the sounds, strange sights, and trying to soak in the general feeling of the country I will be calling home for the next year, something washed over me. I burst into a wide grin, and I felt good. I thought to myself, "I did it. I'm really here. This is really happening!" I can't begin to explain how hard that is for me to believe after years of delayed dreams and mislaid plans. But I'm getting there. Training starts today, and teaching begins on Monday, so the reality will surely be sinking in with due course.

Every Korean I have met in the last day and a half has been helpful and kind, despite the fact that neither of us can understand much of what the other's words mean. There was the flight attendent who brought me an extra dinner roll and did not try to mask her delight upon learning that Korea was to be my home for the next year. Later, strangers in the airport exchanged some Korean words that may have been "can we help you?" and then carted my 2 massive bags onto my luggage trolley despite my assurance that it was no trouble. The Korean ticket agent in Seoul got all my baggage through, waived the fee I should have paid for my guitar without me realizing it until it was too late to say thank you. All this before even leaving the airport!

I can already see there is so much for me to learn here. As I was walking with Babbie through the beautiful Aspan Mountain Park, I felt so ignorant. Our wandering feet led us through a Buddhist shrine, a Korean War memorial, and past several statues of famous Koreans, nameless to my western mind. I wanted to know what stories each statue had to tell, what the significance of the ornate details on the pagoda were symbolic of, and who was staying in the guest house of the shrine and why. I want to be able to speak to the Korean people I am interacting with each day, and I am eager to begin learing.

I feel optimistic and overwhelmed, hopeful and excited, there is so much to come! Now: off to my first day of training and observation. Wish me luck!