Monday, March 30, 2009

Gyeongbokgung Palace

I went on a great late-afternoon trip a couple weekends ago with friends from school. The destination was Gyeongbokgung Palace, the home of Korean royalty and the seat of government from 1394 off and on until the Japanese took control of Korea in the early 1900's. The Koreans have spent the last several decades reconstructing the entire complex to its original splendor. Its a shame that few of the original buildings remain (the Japanese destroyed all but 10) but their pristine condition makes it feel like you're seeing the palace as it was 150 years ago. The complex is near the center of Seoul, with several seemingly out of place 30-story buildings a few blocks away.

Local Hike & View of Anyang

Its hard to overstate the difference between Korean and English. I thought I was bad at Spanish...I know for certain I'm bad at Korean. Luckily most Koreans don't expect you to be any good at it. I started Korean classes a couple weeks ago and have learned a lot. Its possible that I'll be able to have a conversation with a cabbie before I leave, but not definite. The alphabet is systematic and easy to learn but with an ear for language as bad as mine its hard to get over the initial "what is this". Surprisingly the most frustrating result of my difficulty with the language has been my inability to remember the names of places I've been and the ones I want to visit. I've seen a lot of great spots in Seoul since I've been here, but would have a hard time remembering the names of 1/3 of them. They're so alien they go in one ear and out the other. I end up describing places using their landmarks, which isn't very effective (Korean architecture is pretty boring and homogenous).

The pictures above are from an amazing hike a fellow teacher took me on last Friday. I was amazed to find a bit of nature so close to my apartment. When I travel out of my little town all I see are building-lined streets or the inside of a subway tube. I forget that I'm in a hilly little pocket of greater Seoul. The first 3 shots are the view from the hike's peak. My building is amongst the tall white ones in the foreground of picture #2. Seoul is beyond the mountains and to the right. Hopefully you can see what I mean when I say Korean architecture is a little boring. I've recently learned that the pictures show Anyang, and that Pyeongchon (what I've referred to as my neighborhood) is really just a section of Anyang...........I'm still learning my way around (see paragraph above).

My Apartment Building

Hopefully the most unexciting post I'll ever have (pictures of my boring building). The only slightly interesting thing I can say about these two pictures is that Korea is the most trusting place I've ever been in. Can't really tell from the picture but my mailbox (one of the dozens of metal flaps to the right, just inside the door) is unlocked, like all the other mailboxes in my building. People routinely leave things unlocked here. My friend Peter just bought a motorcycle (don't worry mom...not asking for lessons) and he leaves it unlocked on the sidewalk in front of his building, along with the bikes of several others. The other instance where I have been struck by the trusting nature of Koreans is on the subway. The cars have overhead racks, just like the Metro North or LIRR cars do. People walk on, put their briefcase/backpack/purse up on the rack and then find the nearest seat. They aren't that far away from whatever is they stashed, but after spending a significant amount of time on the nyc subway, the non-chalance of ignoring your valuables while surrounded by stragners, is striking, and great.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Dinner That Fights Back

Last week my friends Thomas and Heather took myself and two of the other new teachers out to an elaborate octopus dinner at the local seafood place. Elaborate in diversity and amount, not price (the meal was probably $8 US per person). The main attraction was the octopus, served extremely fresh. The waitress put down the squirming plate minutes after plucking the unlucky creature from its tank. Like chickens octopus, or at least their tentacles, have some fight in them after they're dead. For at least 20 minutes the pieces were moving around and sucking onto the plate so hard we could barely pick one up (see video below). The texture wasn't great but fortunately it didn't taste like much, especially after a generous dunk in the accompanying sauce. The other plates were great...tempura sushi, fish soup, grilled fish, shrimp, and lots of others that I'm forgetting. Felt a little touristy taking pictures in this local restaurant but I don't think I'll be eating octopus again anytime soon.

Main Street Pyeongchon

This is the main street of my little part of Seoul. Work is just off it, my apartment building is right on it, commute is 4 minutes. In the last picture I'm standing on a pedestrian overpass over the one big road that bisects main street. I call it main street because I have no idea what the street is actually called. Something I should probably figure out. A big grocery store right across the street serves as the local landmark. Especially useful when trying to communicate with cab drivers at the end of the night. The metro stops running at 12:30 and doesn't start up again until 6:00. Unless we want to have a particularly late night my friends and I usually cab it home at the end of Friday and Saturday nights.


This post would be a lot better if I had a picture of my students (I'll take some soon) but for now I thought I'd share one of the more hilarious lessons I've had to teach in my 5 weeks of work. Every speaking level has at least 3 books (homework, exercise book, reading book). Our company is big enough to develop its own curriculum, some of which is easy to teach and as entertaining as can be expected. Some of it is incredibly quirky and poorly edited. Sometimes this is good....I can ask the kids to recognize and point out errors in their book...though this can be embarrassing when there are several in a row. For me the most entertaining moment comes when I see what the topic of the day's reading is. Their reading books are of course mainly designed to teach English (pronunciation, vocab, punctuation) but they often supply a decent dose of American culture. My favorite reading topic so far has been "Jeans". I had fun explaining to the kids who Levis Strauss was, that my sister works for them in San Francisco, and that I was in fact wearing a pair. The really good part came when I started to actually read the story. I'll quote the best part below. Listening to my serious Korean students read incongruous and out of date stories like this one is often the most comedic part of my day.

A Fashion Phenomenon

It was about half past seven on a cool morning in 1970. About 200 people were standing in line, waiting for the ticket office to open. Every minute, more people joined the line. They all wanted to buy tickets for the next Rolling Stones concert. They were all Stones fans, and lots of them were wearing the same kind of clothes. Nearly every one of them was wearing blue jeans.

This scene was repeated many times over the next three decades. By the late 1960s, blue jeans had become the uniform of young people in many parts of the world. Since then the bands and pop groups have changed, but the uniform has stayed the same. Today, young people stand in line to buy tickets for Destiny's Child, Ricky Martin, and Blur. But they are still wearing jeans. Most people under sixty years old have at least one pair of jeans in their closet.

Jeans eventually became so popular that fashion designers started to make them. If a nineteenth-century coal miner went into a jeans store today, he would be amazed at the range of styles. He could choose loose or tight jeans. He could choose straight legs or flares. He could also choose from blue, black or white jeans. People used to buy jeans because they were practical. Today they are an essential fashion item!

Avalon Building

Pictures of the outside of my school building and the school playground across the street. This building is one of many Avalon campuses. I work on the 4th floor along with 14 other foreign teachers (Americans, Canadians, Australians, Kiwis). Friends work at a middle school and high school campus on the 5th and 6th floor. Played a great game of pick up frisbee with 3 friends from work Tuesday on this field. We had to wait for recess to end, jumping over the fence as soon as the bell rang. Half a dozen little kids walked to class backwards so they could watch us running down long throws. Frisbee is a big sport here. My friend Thomas plays in an extremely competitive league and is traveling to the "Dream Cup" in Japan this weekend to play against 80 other international teams.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Wa Bar

There are a couple of bars along the main street that defines my little neighborhood. I've actually only been to one, a place called Wa Bar, pictured above. You can find a teacher from my school there most nights, and often more than a couple. Cheap drafts are 2,500 won....about $1.50. Plenty of foreign beers if you're willing to pay for them (I'm usually not). Its great to have a local place to head to. Tipping doesn't exist in Korea, which has been weird on a number of occasions, but is most noticeable when I walk away from the bar, ladden with beers, without leaving anything more than exact change behind.

End of the Week at Avalon

Last Friday all the teachers at my school (foreigners like myself and our Korean co-teachers) celebrated the end of our winter semester, the departure of a foreign teacher, and the recent arrival of 4 new teachers (myself included). Lots of Pizza and Coke. The Coke tasted reassuringly familiar...the pizza was closer than I thought it would be. Corn is one of the most popular pizza toppings here, and though it goes well with pepperoni, green peppers, etc, I still laughed every time I looked down and saw yellow kernels on my slice. My good friends Thomas (from CA) and Heather (from Toronto) are the ones running around. We're in the lobby of our school, Avalon. Ours is an elementary campus. Above us on the 5th and 6th floors are Avalon elementary and high school campuses.