Alex and Chickpea Do Southeast Asia: Cambodia takes a turn for the weird on the trip from Poipet to Siem Reap

Getting to Cambodia was only the beginning. After clearing customs, we walked out of the minuscule, un-airconditioned visa office into the dusty heat. Looking through the lazily-guarded fence, we could see the Thai bank where we had just changed our baht for dollars. (Cambodia has two officially accepted currencies: the riel and the more desirable US dollar. )

Our initial relief at a successful border crossing deflated almost immediately. With no real direction beyond few tips gleaned from travel blogs, we started wandering toward what we hoped was the shuttle service. Fewer than 20 feet from the visa office, we saw a naked baby, dirt-streaked and screaming on the sidewalk. He was alone. Someone had put an empty soda cup in his hand to collect money.

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Alex and Chickpea Do Southeast Asia: Bussing it from Bangkok, Thailand to Poipet, Cambodia

When Alex and I reluctantly re-packed our backpacks to exchange Bangkok for the countryside of Cambodia, we weren’t prepared. Here in Korea, we usually know what to expect. Sure, there’s toilet paper at the dinner table, pocket-less billiards, and McDonald’s delivers, but outside of the obvious, I find day-to-day life fairly straightforward. Not so in Southeast Asia.

This became all too clear when we arrived at the Morchit (Northern) Bus Terminal for the first of our many bus trips across the region. We were there early — ungodly early — because Alex read that crossing the border after noon means long lines and lots of waiting. We bought our tickets for Poipet, handed over around $20 worth of baht, and went in search of our bus. That’s where it got interesting.

In Florida, land of suburbs and sprawl, driving is the only efficient way to get around. I’ve never used my hometown bus system, although I do ride the bus in my new Korean city of Daegu a few times a week. It’s fast, efficient and easy. It’s the polar opposite of our Southeast Asian bus experiences.

After finding our gate and walking cautiously out into the parking lot, we found that none of the buses were numbered. There were several marked as heading for Poipet — which one was ours was anybody’s guess. We soon learned that this is when folks lacking official uniforms approach and urge you to get into the nearest unmarked, unofficial van or bus, sometimes without even bothering to look at your ticket to check your intended destination. Learning when to trust strangers was more valuable than all the treasures we picked up a Chutachak Market.

Bleary-eyed and barely conscious, we settled in for the four-hour-long ride. Watching the skyscraper-studded cityscape fade into fields proved too exciting to fall asleep, even though it was still only 6 a.m.

Right on schedule, we saw casinos cropping up — the telltale sign that we were nearing a border town. It was only after the bus dropped us off in a parking lot — which held little more than a few fruit vendors, aggressive tuk-tuk drivers, and a pay-to-use bathroom carefully guarded by a few local women — that we began to realize we weren’t in the comfort zone of Thailand anymore. This was Cambodia, the sometimes-rival, sometimes-friend of neighboring countries. It’s unpredictable, it’s at once devastating and heartwarming, and red dust covers the glossy-safe sheen of everything we’d seen before.

I wasn’t ready.

Korean Spring Festival Series: The Jindo Sea Parting fest

Korea is still clinging to the last vestiges of winter, but spring is (finally) almost upon us. That means it’s festival season in the Land of the Morning Calm. (See a handy and comprehensive festival guide here). Beginning in March, there’s a new fest nearly every weekend. Themes run from the beautiful (cherry blossoms!) to the bizarre (anchovies?), and it seems that there’s a tribute to satisfy the most eclectic of tastes.

One of the more popular and impressive fests is in honor of the Jindo Sea Parting. In two weeks, Alex and I are going to play Moses when a changing of the tides causes the sea between Jindo and Modo islands to mysteriously part, leaving nearly three kilometers of dry land. Fest-goers can walk the path, collecting abalone and marveling at the natural phenomenon, all the while hoping that global warming hasn’t caused some cataclysmic shift that will cause the seas to come rushing down ahead of schedule.

We’ve read varying accounts of the fest, with some semi-reliable sources saying that this year’s celebrations are canceled to prevent the spread of Foot and Mouth Disease (darn that pesky virus!). But even if there aren’t any official activities, you can still get biblical with it and tackle the 40-meter-wide path on your own. We’ll be taking a bus directly from Daegu, but there are buses scheduled to travel to Jindo from several cities: here’s a bus schedule.

If you’d rather do a group thing (especially if you’re already in or near Seoul), check out this Facebook group. If you can spare the extra won for the sake of convenience, it includes the bus fare to Jindo, sleeping accommodations, insurance (they won’t be liable if you’re suddenly swallowed up by the sea) and an “entrance fee” (not really sure what this refers to).

And if you’re ready to start planning the rest of your Korean festival season, check out this list of events.

Photo courtesy of Contact Korea

Alex and Chickpea Do Southeast Asia: Thai Trippin’ – 13 things to do in Bangkok

We’re back in Korea and back to the grind. It’s the first day of the spring semester. Unfortunately, it doesn’t much feel like spring. I’m still dreaming of the warm weather, tropical fruit, green spaces and the impressive architecture of Bangkok, Thailand. We did too damn much while we were there to cover it all, but here are the highlights (and some suggestions if you find your way to this cosmopolitan Asian city):

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Welcome to Korea, again: SHINee, ddukbokki and diary decoration in this edition of Letters from Korean Students

We’re back from our travels — and what travels they were. Southeast Asia was good to us (especially Thailand), but it was oddly comforting to be back in the land of anyeong haseyo, norae bang and Big Bang. That’s why I thought I’d share these sentiments from my students before launching into the tale of our myriad misadventures.

One of my winter camp lessons was on e-mail and letter writing. My kids were thrilled about the prospect of writing to my best friend Kalynn, once I convinced them that yes, she would really be reading their letters all the way in Florida.

So, without further ado, here are the burning questions my middle schoolers had for the world’s best biffle (entirely unedited, except for names):

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Christmas in Seoul: Eight fun things to do on your expat ho-ho-holiday

Before I dive in, let me start by saying that this is not intended to be an all-inclusive list of stuff to do in Seoul on Christmas. There are myriad fascinating things to do in Seoul every day of the year, and December 25th is no exception. A second caveat: Christmas is to Korea what Valentine’s Day is to the West — a couple’s day. If you’re thinking family gathered ’round the fire and decorating the Christmas tree, you’re probably S.O.L. But if you wanna explore one of the world’s largest cities during the hap-happiest time of the year, here’s Alex and Chickpea’s 24-hour itinerary:

1. Breakfast of champions. If you’re looking for fast, cheap, and delicious (no doubt MSG-laced) breakfast, follow your nose to the nearest subway station. My favorite way to start the day is with a heaping bag of manjoo from one of the vendors who take up residence in the mass transit hubs. These cream-filled fluffy corncakes are so delicious you’d rather scald your mouth and stuff your face than wait for them to cool.

2. Take in the views from Namsan Tower. Also called N. Tower or Seoul Tower, this 237-meter behemoth towers over the city and provides 360-degree aerial views of the megalopolis below. A lover’s destination year-round, N. Tower was especially crowded with couples on Christmas. Pledge your everlasting love by inscribing a lock with a special message, to hang forever from one of the many lock-filled trees, banisters, benches and railings across the tower. Or, you can do what we did and pose with every mascot.

3. Forget the Christmas ham. You’re in Korea for Christmas, you might as well go all the way. If cheap and greasy is your style, try fishy odeng, spicy ddukbokki rice cakes, pa jun veggie pancakes or perhaps a double-battered, double fried, sugared corndog from one of the ever-present street vendors. If you’re looking for some soju to accompany your meal, try samgyeopsal (heaven on a grill) or pop into a kalbi joint. You won’t regret it. Try sundubu jjigae (tofu soup) if you’re looking for a lighter meal, or sample some bibimbap if a spicy mix of veggies and rice sounds good. If noodles are your thing (and they’re mine), try jjajangmyeon, a black soybean noodle dish commonly advertised as Chinese, but it’s all Korean. Trust us, you won’t run short of dining options in this city. (Just steer clear of the many Italian places. Alex is tired of the sweet-and-sour “spaghetti.”)

4. Get schooled at the Seoul Museum of Art. We took our second trip to this trendy art spot on our Christmas trip. Set back in a peaceful cobbled road near Deoksugung Palace, SMA has regularly rotating exhibits, both local and international. This time, we saw an enlightening Chagall retrospective; our first trip was the tasty multimedia smorgasbord Seoul Media City.

5. Take a time-out at the War Memorial of Korea. Yes, it’s sobering to learn about the tragedies of Korea’s war-torn past on Christmas, but it’ll also make you grateful for what you have, and you’ll leave in awe of how far South Korea has come in the last 60 years. Even the courtyard monuments could take a few hours to see; the museum itself is enormous. The War Memorial museum could fill an entire day, but since admission is often free (if not, just 2,000 won), we decided to take it one gallery at a time.

6. Run with the bulls in Myeongdong. The fashion heart of Seoul is throbbing with people on Christmas. If you don’t mind a crowd (hey, it’s a good way to stay warm), this is a sight to see. Seoul’s hip and trendy converge with tourists to shop, eat and people-watch here. And trust us, there is people watching aplenty. We even spotted a sign-carrying, loud-speaker wielding messenger of the Lord, encouraging the heathen masses to remember the reason for the season.

7. Warm up in Shinsegae. Named in TIME Magazine as one of the top Seoul sights, this behemoth department store includes more name brands than you can shake a stick at, along with a multi-floor food court and an upscale grocery. Plus, it’s a great respite from the cold. Bonus: it’s connected to the subway station and offers the best Christmas light-views in city.

8. Stroll the Cheonggyecheon. After warming up in Shinsegae, you’re ready for a riverside stroll, right? We were. We braved the single-digit temps to take in the most stunning (and eco-friendly) Seoul attraction. This underground stream — running nearly 20 feet below street level — used to be covered by a highway. But when a new city beautification project began, the stream was one of the first things to get a facelift. A mix of natural beauty and the ever-present blazing neon lights makes Cheonggyecheon the perfect symbol for Seoul. Take a walk, check out the underground art exhibit and light show, or pack a picnic.

Bonus: Public drinking is a-okay in Korea, so a stream-side bottle of wine is the perfect end to the day — if you’re willing to stay outside long enough to finish it.

Korean student stress saga

Yesterday, while my English Winter Camp students were busily scribbling away at their daily journal entries, I noticed that one of my brightest girls had a few white hairs poking out of her otherwise jet-black ‘do. When I asked her about it, she said “Stress, teacher.” She’s 13.

When I was 13, the only thing stressing me was that my parents wouldn’t let me wear JNCO jeans (for which I’m now and eternally grateful). Teenage life is a bit more taxing here in South Korea: it’s not unusual for my middle schoolers to spend anywhere from 10 to 16 hours a day at school, after school classes, private school classes and studying. And this is during their school vacation.

This subject deserves a detailed, man-on-the-ground post, which I’ll get to one of these days. But for now, check out Ask A Korean‘s polarizing thoughts on the subject here, here and here. Spoiler alert: He thinks American teenagers should stop whining and start studying as hard as their Korean counterparts. Discuss!

A guide to New Year’s Eve in Korea

Since arriving in Korea five months ago, Alex and I have been trying to do things the Korean way. We’ve sacrificed burgers and fries for live octopus and samgyeopsal. We’ve foregone shopping malls for immense, age-old markets. We’ve ignored Gap in lieu of streetside clothes hawkers (um, mostly).

So when it was time to plan our first New Year’s in Korea, we wanted to do it old-school. That means a pilgrimage to Pohang, where a gigantic statue of a hand emerges from the East Sea to cradle the first sunrise of the New Year. Stay up all night, take in a few traditional dance and musical performances, eat rice cakes and shiver on Homi Cape while the symbolic first sun of 2011 comes up. Unfortunately, foot-and-mouth disease had another plan.

So, instead we headed to Korea’s coastal party capital, Busan. Here are a few of the highlights — the must-sees, the can-dos, the be-prepared-fors.

Tip #1: Arrive early. We hopped the 5:50 KTX train from Daegu, and by the time we arrived at 7 p.m., downtown was already in full swing with musical offerings, contests, street food vendors, swarms of people, and, of course, lights, lights, lights.

Tip #2: Stay warm. As a Florida native, I’m new to this concept of cold, so I might be overstating the case when I say that I was freezing my buns off for 14 hours straight. I think the temps were hovering somewhere in the 20s, but try wandering the city and beach for the better part of a windy evening, and you’ll understand why I recommend thermal underwear. Of course, if you do bundle up, you’ll be the only one (especially us ladies). Apparently impervious to little things like below-freezing temps, Korean gals will all be wearing miniskirts, tights and sky-high heels, topped off with a puffy, fur-trimmed jacket. Damn your cuteness, Korean girls. Making me look bad.

Tip #3: Go to Yongdusan Park. Starting around 11 p.m., seemingly half the city congregates in “Dragon’s Head Mountain Park,” just a few steep flights of stairs away from famed PIFF Square and Jagalchi Fish Market. Volunteers hand out free coffee and balloons to be released at midnight. There’s music and merrymaking, and you can rub elbows with Busan’s mayor, who rings the giant Korean Watch-Night bell at midnight. Then there’s the obligatory fireworks show and everyone heads to …

Tip #4: Hit up Haeundae. If you’re willing to drop a few ten thousand won notes on cover, we hear there are some fantabulous parties to ring in the New Year inside the numerous clubs on the strip. From techno to hip-hop (and, honestly, not much in between), if you’re looking to dance, Haeundae is where the party people are at. Being the cheap-os that we are, we took refuge in a warm bar with cheap(ish) beer called 88 in Miami. That way, when we were finally kicked out at 5:30 a.m., we were close enough to…

Tip #5: Watch the first sunrise of the New Year at Haeundae Beach. It’s cold. We’ve have at least five or six cups of coffee apiece. We’ve spent the last few hours prying our eyes open at our last source of refuge, a nearby noraebang.

But it’s finally here. It’s 7 a.m. and everyone in Busan who hasn’t fallen into slumber’s sweet, sweet embrace has trudged their way to Haeundae Beach to watch the indescribably beautiful seaside sunrise. Camera crews, monks tapping out a steady tune asking for alms, bleary-eyed foreigners, kids in pajamas and ajumma in track suits, and the ever-present mascots — they’re all here to start the Year of the Rabbit together. Depending on your frame of mind, it’s an awe-inspiring sight or something straight out of a Hunter S. Thompson novel.

It’s a rough road — we lost a lot of people along the way to the siren song of sleep — but it was worth it. Especially when I passed out in a nearby McDonald’s a few minutes later. (Hey, I deserved hash browns after all that.)

A few quick hits: Eat hodduk in PIFF Square, where the street stand rumored to have originated this salivatingly sweet stuffed pancake fries up hundreds of the tasty treats every night. Play sa-gu in any one of the hundreds of billiard bars (a misleading name, as they often don’t serve alcohol). And eat the tiny, meat-filled, mandu-like packets of noodle goodness at No. 18 Wandang, where you can get a front row seat to watch the artisans rolling and stuffing the noodles for their famous traditional soups.

See EXCO’s Trick Art exhibit before it disappears

If you live around Daegu and are looking for something indoors to do in the next couple of weeks (this Floridian is ready for spring), Alex and I are giving our official stamp of approval to Trick Art, the traveling exhibit that’s landed at EXCO until Jan. 22. You might learn a little about classic art, but mostly you’ll just make rude poses that make other spectators uncomfortable.

Score!

Many buses go right to EXCO, but if you are cabbing it, any taxi driver should know where to take you. Admission is 10,000 won and worth every bit. We spent about three hours making fools of ourselves, but depending on how creative your poses are, you could really make an afternoon of it.

Now go forth and get tricky!

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How-To Korea: How to send mail from a Korea Post Office to the U.S.

I’d avoided it for weeks. For months. I’d been amassing a collection of Korean goodies for my friends and family since I arrived in August. But I just couldn’t make the final leap, the last and most crucial (and painful) step: tackling the Korean Post Office.

I hate post offices. They’re sterile. They beat the DMV for long, slow-moving lines. The employees are generally, to put it kindly, less than helpful. And I can never, ever, get a straight answer about what kind of shipping to use. These issues arise when I try to send mail in the country where I speak the language. I’ve been having nightmares about the Korean post office for weeks.

As Christmas rolled around, I knew I had to bite the bullet. It couldn’t be avoided any longer. Packed and labeled Christmas packages had been sitting in my apartment for weeks, taunting me.

But I had no reason to fear the Korean postal service. It rocks! It was the least painful post office run I’ve ever made (aside from the $150 I dropped on shipping). We just jumped in a cab and asked for the nearest post office.

Tip #1: For anyone looking for a post office in Korea, they’re relatively easy to find. Just ask for the woo che guk, the Korean word for post office. Or, look for their red sign with a bird on it.

Immediately after opening the post office doors, we were greeted by an English-speaking employee who not only showed us which shipping containers to use, but helped us to set up, pack and label them with lightning speed and efficiency. I’ve already written about the outta-this-world customer service in Korea, but it continues to leave me in shock and awe.

Tip #2: Wait to pack your box until you get to the post office. For one, they may not accept your box. There are limits to the types and size of boxes. The second reason is you may end up paying more for an oddly sized box. Third reason? They will help you pack and tape up the box at the post office.

Tip #3: You have to fill out a customs form before sending packages overseas. It doesn’t take that long, but allow for a few extra minutes, especially if you are sending multiple packages.

Tip #4: Post offices in Korea are generally open from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday, although during the winter months (November to February) they may only be open until 5 p.m. Also, most post offices are closed on the weekends, although some forum posts suggest there may be a few open on Saturday.

After double-checking that each of my five packages were correctly labeled, we lugged our haul to the counter, where they quickly weighed and tallied it. The downside of sending mail from Korea to the US: even the more expensive option, shipping by air, takes two weeks to a month to arrive. Shipping by boat (what the post office calls “surface”) is considerably cheaper, but takes two to three months to reach it’s destination. Still, the shipping experience itself was about as pleasant as could be.

So, a big apology to all of my friends and family, whose Christmas presents are still hurtling across the world to land on your doorsteps (in a week or two). I guess I should start sending birthday gifts now…

Waygookin’s first jesa

Before I jump into the whole complicated story, allow me to begin with some background: jesa is a Korean memorial service held on the anniversary of an ancestors’ death. As it’s been explained to me, this usually goes back for four generations — Abeoji and Eomeoni (father and mother); Harabeoji and Halmeoni (grandfather and grandmother); great-grandparents; and finally, great-great-grandparents.

If you’re keeping track, that translates to eight jesa a year. (No wonder Korean women avoid marrying eldest sons, as it’s the wife of the eldest son who’s in charge of preparing the extremely complicated and time-consuming jesa table.)

The ceremony is a very involved one, with many minute steps required to pull off the perfect jesa. (The Ask A Korean blog has an interesting and extremely detailed description of the process here.) The gist of it is this: once a year, on the anniversary of the departed’s death date, the surviving family members pay tribute to their forebears by preparing an enormous feast for the ancestor; by performing special rites (among them burning incense, pouring alcohol, and tapping chopsticks in a bowl three times).

Obviously, I’m a novice: jesa is still a mystery to me, but it’s an extraordinary insight into the importance of Korean traditions. After reading about it, I asked my friend and co-teacher a few details about the ceremony. She, in turn, invited me to her family’s next jesa. I was shocked. I didn’t think any non-family members were allowed, much less a clumsy white girl who can’t even do a proper jeol (an honorific bow).

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Not-so-much News Flash: Forever 21, purveyors of party dresses and trendy club wear, hails from South Korea!

Sorry for the absence, folks — I know you’ve been awaiting a new post with bated breath. Alex and I have been a bit busy for the past few weeks, what with a Christmas trip to Seoul, a New Year’s trip to Busan, Winter Camp woes, and tackling the Korean postal service in between. Posts about all of that and more are forthcoming, but today I discovered something of such utter importance that it warrants an immediate update.

Forever 21 — aka the greatest brand to ever grace the hallowed hallways of malls across the world — was created by a South Korean husband-and-wife duo. Yes, that bastion of cheap fashion, the purveyors of sublimely trendy and fabulously hideous alike, the paragon of party dresses and trashy club wear, is all the brainchild of Dong-Won Chang and his wife, Jin Sook, who opened the first store (still called “Fashion 21”) in LA in 1984 in an effort to bring South Korean trends to Korean Americans.

How have I lived in Korea for five months without discovering this sooner?! This explains so much, like: Why Forever 21’s sizes are so laughably small; why there is so much glitter and bows involved; and why I love it so much.

But here’s the 21-dollar question: Why don’t they have a store in Daegu?! Show some Korean love! I don’t want to go to Seoul every time I need a cheap bedazzled accessory, t00-small stretch jeans, or weird graphic tee. Actually, now that I think about it, all of Korea is like a giant Forever 21. I see all of those things en masse every time I walk down the street of my little Chilgok suburb, and piles of trendy junk occupy the lion’s share (fashionista’s share?) of Daegu’s largest market, Chilseong Sijang.

But I’d really love it if we got one, anyways.

Life as a Korean public school teacher: winter camp and private piano concerts

The season is upon us: No, not the Christmas season (it’s barely registered with me this year) but the English Winter Camp season. Yes, while the other seonsaengnim enjoy a few months away from school and students, I’ll be here, warming this desk o’ mine. But I don’t mind (much). I need the time to learn more Korean. (Oh, and plan our 18-day vacation trip across Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. We have the plane tickets. Now we need a plan …)

But this post isn’t really about the travails of life as a Native English Teacher (as we’re so formally referred to). I love my life here, and small moments like the one I had today are the reason why. After another typical cafeteria lunch — kimchi, “black” rice, budae jjigae, bulgogi and apples — my co-teacher invited me to an impromptu concert in the music room. (She’s been brushing up her ivory tickling skills with the music teacher’s guidance.)

The music seongsaengnim is teaching her Gummy‘s “Jugeo do Saranghae” (“I Love You Even If I Die” Sweet, huh?). This song has a special place in my heart because it was the first Korean song I could actually understand (some of) the lyrics to.  Since then, the love has worn off a little, because Korea has a tendency to blare the same 10 top hits from every club, restaurant and convenience store, and this is one of ’em. I’m getting off topic.

At any rate, the three of us went up to the (surprisingly well-equipped) music room, where the music teacher played “Jugeo Do Saranghae” for us on the piano. It was beautiful, and I swayed to the song as my co-teacher sang along. But this wasn’t good enough for the piano teacher, who decided to kick it up a notch and play some classical number I’ve heard before but can’t name (sorry, Beethoven buffs). It was jaw-droppingly awesome. I literally couldn’t believe my eyes as her fingers twirled across the keys. This lady is amazing, and she sits right next to me. It was a special moment.

To top it off, all this fancy-pants piano playing drew in one of our second-grade (14-year-old) students, who also gave us an impromptu piano concert. Of course, we all clapped for him and he looked thrilled.

These are the moments when I really love my life in Korea.

EDIT: Immediately following the writing of this post near the end of the school day, my school had pizza and wings delivered for the teachers. If that doesn’t say ‘Merry Christmas,” I don’t know what does. Happy holidays, folks!

Korean kids are crazy for gonggi

You like that alliteration? I thought so. I want to weigh in on the school-wide — and, from what I can tell, Korea-wide obsession with gonggi (which also means “air”).

It’s like the Korean version of Jacks, and it goes something like this: Hold all five gonggitdol (colorful, round, plastic playing pieces) in your hand. Toss gonggi on the table/floor/friend’s back/any level playing surface in sight. Strategically choose one gonggi; pick it up. Toss chosen gonggi in the air while scooping up one gonggi; catch the tossed gonggi. On the next turn, scoop up two gonggi, then three, etc.

Of course, there are finer points of the game, as well as different “versions” (which I think just refer to the skill level or style of the player). These include babo (stupid) gonggi (“Boy, you really suck.” This is the category of gonggi player I fall into); genius gonggi (“Damn, you are really good, and spend too much time playing gonggi instead of studying”); and ddalki (strawberry) gonggi (I have no idea what that could possibly mean, but the student who demonstrated did a particular sweeping motion when scooping up the gonggi).

After seeing the rabid gonggi consumption between classes, I decided to integrate them into one of my lessons. After each “level” completed in gonggi, the students had to answer a question about the lesson. This was particularly effective since many of the kids who rarely participate are in the “genius gonggi” category (like I said, too much gonggi, too little study). In this case, their gonggi skills became their downfall, and my victory, muahahahaha! Yes, that’s my evil seonsaengnim (teacher) laugh.

Incidentally, my biffle Kalynn introduced me to gonggi a couple of years ago back in the States, but I had no clue that it was a Korean game until I moved here. The more you know … (cue Reading Rainbow theme song).

Here’s a brief how-to on gonggi:

My on-court experience with Orions basketball: or, free stuff in exchange for public humiliation!

Readers of this blog (and anyone who’s been around me for more than 15 minutes in the past few weeks) know that I’m an increasingly huge fan of Daegu’s pro nun-gu (basketball) club, the Orions.

So far, I’ve settled for admiring the game (and the players) from afar. But last night, things got a little personal. My friend/Korean teacher/co-teacher HyunJeong and I arrived for the 7 o’clock game half an hour early and settled into our seats.

The Orions announcer was doing his usual comedy schtick down on the court when I heard him ask about waygookins (foreigners). As I tried to look inconspicuous, HyunJeong began waving wildly and, unfortunately, caught the emcee’s eye. In an effort to avoid public humiliation, I ducked down in my seat but, realizing there was no escape, I sheepishly lifted my head and decided to play along.

At first, I thought he just wanted me to stand up and show my Orions spirit. Okay, I can do that, I thought. But when he motioned for me to come down to the court, I realized I had made a mistake. Please don’t make me play an on-court game, I thought. I will die of sheer embarrassment. I cannot dribble a basketball, make a lay-up or run without falling over. Thank god all I had to do was stand on the court with the cheerleaders while the players were announced at the opening of the game. (Thought I felt pretty shabby standing next to all those pretty ladies in my oversized Orions t-shirt and jeans).

While the pain may seem minimal, I promise you I was cursing HyunJeong under my breath every moment I was on that court, and wishing nothing more than to be back in my spectator’s seat. But maybe (and that’s a strong maybe) it was worth it: I got a free basketball, a free trip to a upscale jjimjilbang and a free night’s stay at a fancy hotel, all for a few seconds worth of clapping. But the best Christmas Eve-Eve gift of all was getting to see Lee Dong-Jun in all his tall, muscly glory.

Actually, he looks kinda scrubby up close, and seems a little asshole-ish and indifferent to the fans. Just another reason I’d rather keep watching from my seat high in the stands.

Welcome to Korea: Toilet paper at the dinner table?

Yes, it’s true: One of the strangest things for a Westerner to see upon arrival in Korea is that TP is no longer relegated to bathroom functions — it’s a multipurpose paper that serves in place of Kleenex, paper towels and even napkins.

I can’t tell you how weird it was for me the first time I sat down for lunch with my co-teachers and someone plunked a roll down in the middle of the table.

And have you ever tried drying your hands with two-ply tissue paper? It’s not super effective. But it sure is efficient. Why use myriad different paper products when all your cleaning needs can really be served with one? Oh, those clever Koreans.

— Chickpea

I find it strange that while there is toilet paper all over the lunch room and restaurant dining areas, there is rarely any in the public bathrooms. Which is not cool when you consider most public bathrooms have these:

— Alex

McDonald’s delivery to your door and other tales of Korea’s customer service craze

Since moving to Korea four months ago, I’ve experienced only minor difficulties with the communication barrier. Most people speak at least a little bit of English — though I admittedly feel guilty for expecting them to speak in my own language when I’m in their country. I’m working on it!

Things like asking for directions (or, conversely, giving a cabbie directions), shopping, and ordering food have posed little problem (though Alex and I once wound up with one stinker of an appetizer when we blindly ordered off the menu at our neighborhood hof. Wriggling octopus? We eat it. Pig’s anus sausage? Not nearly as bad as it sounds. Actually, quite tasty. But the dried squid “jerky” that we accidentally ordered is not at the top of my list of favorite Korean foods. I digress.)

My point is that customer service here — at least in my experience — is outta this world. So what if shop owners shadow me while I walk around the store? They’re more than happy to answer any questions. When the cable guy installed my service (hallelujah!), he realized I didn’t have a remote control. After motioning that he would be “right back,” he returned in under 10 minutes with a brand new remote, batteries and all.

McDonald’s has home delivery service here, for God’s sake. Don’t feel like getting outta your pajamas to enjoy a Big Mac? Don’t. Just order in and you will be enjoying greasy, MSG-laced burger goodness in a flash. In fact, all food delivery in Korea is spectacularly different from what I’m accustomed to in the States.

First, take-out isn’t relegated to crappy Chinese restaurants and pizza. You can get just about anything delivered here. And — here’s the kicker — there’s no delivery fee. How is that even possible?! This has lead to an overabundance of crazed delivery drivers on scooters tearing around the city at a breakneck speed to bring you your food while it’s still hot and fresh (and risking their own lives in the process). But damn, it’s worth it.

From phone call to feeding my lazy face in less than 10 minutes: that’s what I call service. If you order from McDonald’s or a fried chicken joint (yes, Koreans love fried chicken — I’m in heaven), you’ll get your run-of-the-mill paper and plastic accoutrements. But if you order from a sit-down restaurant, they’ll also bring you real china plates, silverware, napkins — the whole nine. When you’re done, just put the dirty dishes outside your door. They’ll pick it up later. The U.S. is gonna have to step up its game if it ever wants to see this expat again.

But all of this foodie fabulousness pales in comparison to the real inspiration for this post: NongHyup Bank. Yep, bank service is pretty miserable at the best of times, even when the teller and I speak a common language. But imagine trying to send money overseas in a country where you know next to nothing about bank-speak in the native language. The results could be catastrophic (to borrow a recent North Korean phrase).

Enter Seong-Mo. This unassuming dude works at my local bank, and he is a life saver. After hours of trying to figure out how to transfer money on my own (unfortunately, NongHyup Bank’s website is not as fantastic as their employees) I decided to bite the bullet and go to the bank by myself. I was prepared to do epic battle. Not only did I not have to wait in line (unheard of!), Seong-Mo spoke excellent English and told me exactly what I needed to make the transfer. He even got me a coffee while I waited. (Well, that’s a lie. He sent his secretary to get me a coffee.)

Unfortunately for Seong-Mo, I am babo (stupid) and wrote down an incomplete account number. Apparently, I also wrote down my phone number incorrectly, because the poor guy spent the whole next day trying to get in touch with me, to no avail. Fortunately, he was actually listening when I told him what school I worked at, so he called my school and explained the situation to them. I went back to the bank and he worked it all out. Another of my expat friends said that Seong-Mo actually came to her house to help her with internet banking. While I feel that this is borderline creepy (especially since he told me that my “students are so lucky to have such a beautiful teacher”) no one can deny that it’s some radical customer service.

So thanks, Seong-Mo, for making my life here in Korea even better.

Sa-gu, Korea’s popular alternative to pocket pool

I’ve been meaning to write about sa-gu since … well, since a couple of months ago, when I did a double-take while walking by one of Daegu’s many sparsely furnished but brightly lit pool halls. (If the description sounds like the antithesis of the average American billiards experience, that’s because it is.)

When I play pool (badly), there are a few things I want/require: dim lighting, so I can ignore the rednecks guzzling Bud Light at the next table; beer, and plenty of it (preferably a Yuengling, please); and a comfortable, well-worn bar, table or other manner of seating to rest my weary bones after a particularly grueling battle with the cue stick.

Here’s what I’ve seen in Korea: lighting that looks like you’ve entered the sterile, pristine confines of a dentist’s office; the offer of coffee or tea (although I’m certain that almost all billiards bars do serve beer); and a few plastic chairs that look like they might shatter into tiny pieces if I attempted to heave my full weight (read: under triple digits) onto them.

But that’s not what made me do a double-take. Most pool tables here have no pockets. And there are only four balls. That’s why it’s called sa-gu (사구). Sa is Korean for “four” and gu is “ball.” Pretty simple, huh?

Being epically bad at run-of-the-mill billiards myself, I have yet to try the doubly difficult sa-gu. But the basic rules are this: There are two cue balls, one for each player. Points are earned by hitting both of the other balls with your cue ball. I’m lucky if I can tap one little ball when I shoot the cue, forget trying to hit two in one shot. Fortunately, most pool halls I’ve seen have both sa-gu and the more familiar pocket billiard tables.

I thought this four-ball phenomenon was unique to Korea, but the ever-enlightening Ask-A-Korean says that this is called “straight carom billiards,” and variations of the game are played all over the world. Well I’ll be darned.

So while I’ve yet to find a pool hall with that stale-beer-and-day-old-vomit smell and the greasy, comfortable vibe that I crave, if you’re looking for a fun (and super cheap) way to spend a few hours in Korea, just walk out on to any semi-populated street. Look up and to your left; look up and to your right. Odds are you’ll see more than a few blazing neon sa-gu signs beckoning.

Korean Magpies: a visit from the good news bird in the midst of North-South Korea tensions

While the world watches and worries as tensions between the Koreas reach a boiling point (I’ve  been a constant visitor to Voice of America’s Twitter feed all day) I figured everyone could use some good news.

Last week, my co-teacher and I shuffled along a crinkly-leaf strewn sidewalk to Africa Coffee Shop in Chilgok to continue my Korean lessons. A bird landed in the withering grass nearby and began its peck-peck-pecking in search of food. I’d seen many of them since landing in Daegu. “What’s it called?” I asked. “Ggachi,” she said. “If you see one, it means you will have a welcome guest.” (I don’t know if it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy, but my co-teacher did visit my house for the first time later that week.)

I’ve been charmed by the ggachi since we first came to Korea. I’d never seen one before, and although they look pedestrian at first glance — like an outsized raven, maybe — upon inspection they’re beautiful birds. Striking white markings cover their underbellies and their wings are tipped with shimmering blue.

What my co-teacher said intrigued me, and I decided to do a little research of my own. Turns out that these bearers of good news and welcome guests are Korean magpies, or pica pica sericea. Of course, I was surprised to find that the Western symbol of greed, frivolity and vanity is one and the same as a Korean symbol of good.

So, as I sit here glued to my Twitter feed, fretting over North Korean nukes (and my English Winter Camp lesson plans) I’m hoping that Koreans got it right: maybe my magpie friend will bring a bit of good news.

“Are you busy?”: Our brush with Buddha’s Witnesses

Alex and I were in the harried midst of hanging our clothes to dry (yep, no dryers here in the good ol’ ROK) before setting out to downtown Daegu for another Orions basketball game when we heard a knock at the door.

Each time this has happened — a total of only three times in the 10+ weeks we’ve lived in Daegu — we exchange surprised glances before one of us goes to the door. The first time, it was a census lady (there’s no escaping them, trust us. Alex had to fill mine out while I was mid-Skype session with my family). The second time, it was a little lost ajumma who wandered into the wrong apartment. But this time might have been the most surprising of all.

“Could we have something to drink?” said the mid-30s, bespectacled Korean man when I opened the door. I glanced at his companion, a similarly outfitted woman in her late 20s. Both were wearing hiking gear. Maybe they just got of the nearby trail at Hamji Mountain, I mused.  Still, I couldn’t quite figure out how or why they got into my code-secure (or so I thought) apartment building. There’s a convenience store less than 15 yards away.

Nevertheless, I’m not one to turn down a couple of thirsty strangers, so I fumbled through some basic Korean and asked if they’d prefer water or juice. I couldn’t decide whether or not I should invite them in. Despite the awkwardness of the situation, I felt guilty leaving them in the cold hallway. I poured them each a glass of water.

Once they had gulped it down, they asked the questions we get almost daily in Korea. “Foreigners? Where are you from? How do you like Korea?” And then, one unexpected question: “Are you busy?” From our broken conversation, we gleaned that they were going up a nearby mountain. What they now told us is that they were visiting a Buddhist temple … and collecting offerings along the way. Yep, we were hit up by the Buddhist version of Jehovah’s Witnesses (with far less fire and brimstone, and no uncomfortable looking suits).

We politely declined, said we had to get going. They said they’d pray for us at the temple. Praying for my eternal soul in exchange for a glass of water? That’s a hell of a bargain.

Love and Basketball: Hello, Daegu Orions

Before I extrapolate on the wonders of basketball in Korea, let me take a moment to celebrate the fact that it’s Friday; that I saw my first Korean snow yesterday; that my ondol heating system is on full-blast; that my open class is over (observations suck);  that I’m drinking a beer (even if it is Hite); that I’m snacking on string cheese, courtesy of Daegu’s Costco; and that I’ve got Creedence Clearwater Revival’s greatest hits as a soundtrack. The neighbors are in for an impromptu norae bang treat when “Bad Mooon Rising” starts.

Yes, life in Korea is good. Especially since I’ve discovered the Orions, Daegu’s very own, very crappy, basketball club. No one can ever call me a fairweather fan, though. I’ve already got a branded t-shirt, noise makers, and even a cell phone charm (so sue me) repping my new hometown b-ballers. But big ballers they are not.

I officially became a fan at my first-ever professional basketball game last Sunday, when we played the Incheon Elephants. Since then, I’ve learned a few interesting facts about Korea’s most under-appreciated sport. First off, to call this a pro club is technically accurate, but is misleading for fans of American ball. Daegu Gymnasium can host a whopping crowd of just over 5,000 — and it’s rarely half-full. I’ve seen high school games with more crowd enthusiasm. Also, there are a few club rules that are unfamiliar for US fans: teams can have only two foreign players (usually, two of their starters) and one Korean-American player. This is to prevent clubs from importing their entire team from abroad.

There are nine teams in  Korea’s pro league. Currently, Daegu is ranked eighth. Le sigh. Despite losing both games I’ve seen, the Orions are entertaining nonetheless. Their stars are Glen McGowan (who was injured in the first quarter of Tuesday’s game against Jeonju); Otis George (Crowd chants: Oh-ti-suh!); and my personal favorite…Number 40…it’s Lee…Dong…Juuuuuuuun! Yes, Lee Dong-Jun is a lanky, long-haired Korean-American (given name: Daniel Sandrin) who dominates in the paint and behind the 3-point line. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that he’s also modeled in Nike fashion shows.

So I’ve got the fan gear. I’ve got a favorite player. I’ve got plans to see many more games. What I don’t got is a winning team. The Orions were up by more than 20 points — yes, 20 — and still managed to lose to the Elephants last Sunday. I had hopes for Tuesday’s game against lower-ranked Jeonju’s KCC Egis. Alas, despite a rousing back-and-forth lead, we fell just five points short of a W.

You can’t blame the cheerleaders for the loss, though. Those gals were shakin’, poppin’, lockin’ and costume-changing as if the win and their adorable little lives depended on it. I also have warm-and-fuzzies for these ladies because, although I haven’t won any (yet), they give out free gear — from signed balls and jerseys to pizza and Pocari Sweat — throughout the game. Another +1 for Korean ball: the mascots breakdance. Take that, stateside b-ball fans.

Worth mentioning is that, with tickets at 9,000 won a pop (about $8), supporting the home team is extremely affordable. Nosh outside the stadium before the game at one of many street food stands (I always recommend a sugar-dipped, double-battered corn dog) or bring your own snacks into the stadium. Yep, I was spoiled by my hometown Tampa Bay Rays open policy on bringing your own food to the game, but the happy tradition continues, halfway across the world. Except that my now my game time snacks include dried squid.

Welcome to Korea: Another Sunday, another tub of fish eating your foot’s dead skin

Yes, that’s right. We’ve really been enjoying the bounty of seafood that Korea has to offer, from live octopus to giant clams, fish and squid in various states of dessication and more. So, Alex and I decided to give a little back: We went to Doctor Fish.

These are tiny fish — a little bigger than a minnow, maybe? — that eat the dead skin off your feet. It was originally used to treat eczema and other skin problems, but now it’s mostly used as a spa treatment. I’ve been wanting to try this this I came to Korea (If I’m being honest, since I saw it on the Tyra Show a couple years ago. Full disclosure).

On Sunday, I found  Namu Story, (for Korea peeps: it’s across from the UniQlo in downtown Daegu) and convinced Alex to go with me. Just as interesting as the experience itself is where the Doctor Fish are: in a a big cafe. Yes, a tank of fish sunk into a raised platform at one end of a large, posh, second-story cafe. So while people are drinking their coffee and eating their pastries, Alex and I (okay, mostly me) were giggling in a corner while tickly little fish ate dead skin off our feet. I thought it would take a while to get used to, but in a matter of minutes I was able to stop laughing and enjoy. It’s like a little massage!

The best part is this: there’s a $3 entrance fee to get into the cafe, but it’s all-you-can-eat croissants and coffee, and the Doctor Fish treatment is less than $2. It was a great way to spend a relaxing Sunday afternoon.

UPDATE (3/8/11): Namu Story, the coffeeshop where we first experienced Dr. Fish, is no longer offering the service. Check back here for updates on other nearby Dr. Fish proprietors.

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Welcome to Korea: My first day as a middle school teacher

…..well, sorta. Today I experienced a common trend of teaching English in Korea, the infamous….dun dun dun….desk warming!

I was under the impression that I would come in for a little while in the morning, take a tour of my new digs at Gu-Am Middle School, meet the principal and peace out. But, they like to get their allotted time out of you, even if you’re just sitting around doing nothing, so I had a full day of just that.

I did use my time to plan my first few lessons, though. I was on a roll, until they changed the section of the book that they told me to teach and I had to re-do them all. Basically, it took me the whole day to write four lesson plans. I gotta get faster at that!

I was really early for school today, because I left the house super early. I was sure I’d get lost. Actually, I had no problems finding it — a minor miracle. It’s about a 15 minute walk from my apartment. I was taking in the cool morning air, enjoying the new scenery (mountains, whoa!), and thinking about how much better this is than driving everywhere. Of course,  I nearly forgot that sometimes there will be rain, snow and other inconvenient acts of nature. It will be an adventure!

There’s not a whole lot to report for the “big” first day. The school is nice; I have my own desk in the teacher’s room, where most of the teacher’s just smile sweetly and nod when I say hello. I’ve been trying out my Korean greetings, to mixed reactions. Some people seem surprised and pleased that I can even form words in Korean; others seem to grimace at what I’m sure is my miserable pronunciation.

None of the teachers at my school speak much English (ironically, not even the English teachers) so I am still unclear as to how my classes will be run. First they told me that I wouldn’t have a co-teacher (which is actually illegal, a co-teacher is required to be in class with me at all times). I wouldn’t complain though; I think in a lot of ways running a class would be much easier alone. Then they told me I would have a co-teacher, but I’m not really sure who teaches which grades, which part of the lesson I’m responsible for, how much time I’m allotted in each lesson — you know, minor details. In short, I’ve got bupkis. I planned my first few lessons from start to finish so that I’ll be ready for whatever they throw at me.

One of the English teachers is so sweet and cute (although she did make fun of me for my poor use of chopsticks). She offered to help me with my Korean, so I hope that I won’t be so useless at this language for long.

I am still getting the hang of wearing “inside shoes,” “outside shoes” and “shower shoes.” All the teachers look really funny because even though they’re dressed up for work, they’re all wearing these funny indoor slippers (like the Adidas slip-ons that were popular a decade or more ago) and crazy patterned socks with their trousers and dress shirts or dresses.

I ate lunch with the teachers today, which I was nervous about because … Continue reading

Welcome to Korea: Chickpea vs. Daegu

Anyeong haseo from Daegu!

I am officially in my new apartment.  So much is going on, but I’ll try to keep it as short as possible. First of all, you can thank someone in my building for this post, as I’m using their unsecured wireless network. I probably won’t be able to get Internet at my house for about a month, since I need my Alien Registration Card to set it up, and that won’t come for a month or so. I’ll just have to hope Mister or Mrs.  Unsecured Wireless doesn’t notice that I’m using his connection, or use a PC bang (Internet cafe) until then.

My big lesson plan presentation yesterday went well — my group took second place overall, which was nice. I wasn’t too nervous, and I feel a lot better about writing lesson plans now. Thanks, EPIK!

Last night was fun — we had the farewell dinner and a talent show by our fellow teachers. It sort of felt like the grown-up version of the last night at camp. Of course, lots of people went out afterwards, but Alex was feeling sick and we had a big day today so we just packed out stuff and hit the hay early. Yeah, yeah, we’re old.

Today was, of course, the big day. We had a four-hour bus ride from the orientation site to Daegu, where we finally met our co-teachers. Turns out I am the first native teacher my new school has ever had. I think this is a good thing, since they have no preconceptions about Native English Teachers — some previous NETs give us a bad reputation. Also, that means they’re as new at this as I am, so that helps.

So, it turns out I’m teaching middle school — hoorah! In Korea, middle school is  the equivalent of grades 7, 8 and 9 in the U.S. (13 to 15 year olds). I’ll only be teaching grades 1 and 3 (7th and 9th grades). This is great news because it means fewer co-teachers and fewer lesson plans.

I also found out that I’ll have my own … Continue reading

Welcome to Korea: Life at EPIK’s Jeonju University orientation

Anyeong haseo!

It’s 10 p.m. Tuesday night in Jeonju, South Korea, so my peeps in Florida probably just started Tuesday morning (I think it is 9 a.m. Florida time, but honestly I’m still a little foggy on the time change thing. Am I living in the future?!).

I just finished meeting with my group — tomorrow we have to present/demonstrate a lesson plan in front of a few staffers and our entire class (about 60 people). I hate presentations so I’m nervous, but I think our lesson plan is pretty good. It’s on “ordering in a fast food restaurant,” which I think will go over well in a room full of expats who have been eating rice and kimchi for a week.

This week has been really crazy. Every day we have six full hours of lectures, followed by an hour of Korean Language class. Sunday we went on a field trip, so even though our brain got a break we were totally exhausted. We skipped dinner and Alex fell asleep at 6 p.m. and slept for nearly 13 hours!

It was an amazing trip though. We went to a Jeonju Hanok Village, where there are Korean traditional houses, a rice wine museum, an Eastern medicine museum, a Hanji center where they make traditional Korean paper, and a fan-making shop. We got to decorate our own fans!

Then we had the meal that JeonJu is famous for : bibimbap. It’s rice with all sort of veggies and spices mixed in, and a fried egg on top. You mix it all together, and it is delicious! Koreans eat family style. I have never seen anything like it: all the food is in the middle of the table and everyone just digs right in. It’s a little weird for us, but very fun, too.

I’ve been trying all sorts of new food and I like almost all of it so far. Maybe the most odd was strips of dried fish dipped in a sweet, sticky brown sauce. It really didn’t taste like fish until you chew it for a while, but it was good.

After our lunch we saw Samul Nori (Four Drum) dance, which is pretty neat — and at the end of it, they invite everyone in the crowd to dance with them, so all the teachers joined them in the middle of the town square. This little old lady (they’re called “ajummas”) was trying to teach me how to dance; it was really cute.

Afterward, we went to Keumsan Buddhist temple, which was a sight to behold. The walk up is through a mountain, complete with a peaceful and very cold) stream. There were families camping all around and even in the stream at the shallow parts, and everyone is cooking barbecue on tiny grills and playing card games. It was a happy moment. Lots of people approached us to practice their English, and some people in our group were even invited for drinks and barbecue! The temple itself was beautiful and peaceful, set back in the middle of the mountains.

Since then it’s been anything but peaceful: nothing but lessons and prepping for our presentations tomorrow. After that, we’re meeting our Metropolitan Office of Education supervisors (I guess the equivalent of a superintendent) to sign our contracts. And then we find out what grade we’re teaching and what school we’re in! I can’t wait. After that, it’s the farewell dinner and the next morning, off to Daegu.

We don’t really know how things go from there — or even when our first day of school is — but we’ll be meeting our co-teachers. They’re basically our lifeline in Korea. They help us get our Alien Registration Cards, get cell phones, set up Internet and show us around the city. Then, we see our apartments, so it’ll be a big day. I am really hoping we have the weekend off before we have to start teaching, but we may have to go in on Friday. I’m getting nervous! You can’t cram an Education degree into 10 days, but our lectures have been really useful and I feel a lot better prepared for teaching.

Still not so prepared for speaking Korean, though. I only know four phrases: “Hello, my name is Franki. Nice to meet you. I’m from the United States.”

Ha!

 

Pack dozens of teachers into dorms, lecture at them for 10 days straight while feeding them quasi-Korean food and then smoosh them against a wall and some desks and tell them to pose while saying "Kimchi!" and this is the photo that you'll get.