Thursday, August 27, 2009

Swine Flu.... again...

While the rest of the world has realized that swine flu is something that just needs to be accepted, Korea, on the other hand is still overreacting to the situation. The Joongang Daily reported today that when the fall semester starts, students in all Seoul public schools will undergo a daily fever check. How is it feasible to check millions of children's fevers every day? I'm not sure, but if anyone can figure it out, it would be the Koreans.

While that has no affect on my daily life, my school reminded us again yesterday (it's been 3 months since the last reminder) that we are "strongly encouraged" to stay in our homes to avoid contact with the flu. Understandable from the company's viewpoint, I suppose, since the school will shut down for 2 weeks if any student or teacher contracts the disease. But, I really doubt my bosses are staying out of public as they are suggesting we do. That same night we went to a company dinner in COEX. The suggestion seemed particularly aimed at us foreign teachers... as if Koreans are any less vulnerable to catching the disease. I'm sure if I do catch it, it will be from one of my children. Maybe I should just let them know I have 10 kilos of kimchi in my fridge... that should pacify their fears.. right?

The school has also has just installed hand sanitizer dispensers at the entrance of the school. Evidently every child is supposed to sanitize their hands before entering the school. Though... I'm not sure what good it does to sanitize a child's hands if they are already infected. Not to mention the lack of soap at the sinks some days.

Anyway, I'm sorry for the rant. It's not really against my school, but just Korean culture in the face of this pandemic. Many schools have baned their teachers from leaving their dong during non-school hours. I should be grateful my school hasn't gone that far yet. Every school is going through this same situation right now. I understand that they have the "safety of the children" in their minds (or two weeks of lost profits, but that's the same thing anyway, right?) But they need to realize that only .1% of infected people die from this flu. Its really no less dangerous than any old flu. If they are going to take such serious action against swine flu, they should theoretically be doing the same for people infected with the seasonal flu too. But that will never happen.

How is your school handling the swine flu epidemic? Do you work at a public school and have you heard about the daily fever checks?

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Trip to Yongpyong

Wow, it's been 2 weeks since my trip to YongPyong and I just now got around to writing this post. We drove there on Friday night. It's supposed to be only a 2.5 hour drive, but it wound up being a 4 hour drive because of some crazy traffic. Being a "holiday weekend" (independence day) I guess everyone wanted to get out of the city. I use quotation marks because even though it was a holiday weekend, I got no days off from school because it fell on a Saturday. We didn't arrive in Yongpyong until 1am. We stayed with my boyfriend's friends with their toddler son at their condo not far from Yongpyong.

On Saturday morning, we went to a cow farm to do some hiking. Not only was it a cow farm, but it was also a wind farm, which was super cool for me, since I'm a geek about that kind of stuff. The map said it was 4 km to the top, so it didn't sound bad. We thought it was a little strange that everyone was taking the bus up the mountain, but we wanted some exercise, since I don't get much nowadays. We started climbing and we realized why everyone was taking the bus. Although it was the hottest day of the year that weekend in Seoul, Yongpyong, being in the mountains is remarkably cool. We were quite chilly at night, and when standing in the shade we were very comfortable. On the other hand, this was a farm with few trees. We were in the direct line of sun. Not to mention we assumed there would be little stores along the way, like in most Korean tourist sites, we didn't bring any water. We quickly realized that this was going to be a tough hike for us.

As we climbed along, we passed lots of animals. I bet if I were a little kid, I would love this place. It was still great to be out in fresh air getting exercise though.


Ostriches... and I found out the Korean word for ostrich is 타주... I'm sure that will come in handy some day.....

Cows (소)

Sheep... we particularly liked the do on this one. (양)

These aren't animals... we happened across the filming of some tv program. Two well known TV personalities were being filmed here for some reason. I managed to get a close up with my 48X zoom (I like to brag about that zoom). I felt special to see celebrities... but I have no idea who they are so they might as well be nobody...

Well, we finally reached the top, an there was an observation point there. We were supposed to be able to see as far as the ocean... it was only about a 1/2 hour drive from Yongpyong. But, though you can't tell from these photos, it was so hazy we couldn't see anything. So, it was not quite photo worthy.

After finally reaching the top after an exhausting (and rather lonely because we were the only ones hiking UP) hike to the observation point, we looked on the map and saw that we could take a different route down. It didn't look like anyone was going that way, but then again, no one seemed to be up for a hike here, so we went down the lonely path to find another way down. After about 1/2 hour on a path with no one in sight, we found a sign that said no trespassing, 500,000 won fine. That made us a little nervous, so we called the information booth at the bottom of the mountain from my cell phone. It turns out that it was about a 4 hour hike that way down the mountain. With no water and baking in the sun, we decided to turn back. I was burning to a crisp because I forgot to put sunblock on my legs and the back of my neck. We finally, somehow, made it back to the bus, and rode it all the way down to the bottom. We went back to the condo and took a long nap...

Me on a lonely path leading to nowhere... with no water and burning from the sun....

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The Korean White Skin And My Sunburn Prone Body

As opposed to American styles, which praise dark skin as a sign of beauty, dark skin here in Korea is generally regarded as undesirable. Ajummas wear visors and stylish women carry parasols and wear long sleeves all summer to protect their precious skin from the rays of the sun. Many skin creams, including many sunblocks, go so far as to include whitening agents to make the skin even whiter.

While we foreigners generally tend to make fun of the glowing white faces the long sleeves on a 90 degree day and the long sleeve t-shirts in the water at the beach, I'm starting to feel as though they might have a point. I have disgustingly white skin thanks to all the northern European blood in me. Every year I go to the beach hoping to come home with a tan, and every year I come home with a painful sunburn which eventually fades away to my normal white bread skin.

Finally after 23 years of futile efforts of tanning, I decided, on the beach in Bali, that I was going to cover up my skin. While all my American friends laid out with varying degrees of skin showing, from tankinis to topless, I hid under my beach towel. Even still, I managed to burn my scalp, because I didn't keep my head covered well enough. And my ankles got burned because my towel didn't cover them. After that I invested in a geeky baseball cap which I kept on my head the rest of the time.

Maybe these Korean women have a point. Are they getting skin cancer in their 30's and 40's? Probably not, but you know the American women are. Why exactly do we praise tanned skin? I know that it gives us the look that we have lots of leisure time to spend tanning, or on vacation in tropical places. I know that many people think that they just plain look better with tan skin. I on the other hand, am starting to feel as though white skin is one hundred times more attractive than red skin, which seems to be my only other option.

While you'll never catch me with the whitening creams, I'm keeping my skin covered from now on. No more tanning and no more sun burns for me. Thank you very much.

Cucumber treatment a la boyfriend for my sunburned legs after 3 hours of hiking this past weekend near Yongpyong.

Finally made it to Sindang Dukbokki Town

I've lived in Sindang for over a year now, and I haven't done the one and only thing Sindang is famous for. Dukbokki. Every time I get into a taxi and tell the driver I want to go home to Sindang, here is the inevitable comment about dukbokki. Just ten minutes from my house is the world famous (...) Dukbokki Town (떡볶이 다운).

Just what is dukbokki, you ask? Well, it's one of the most famous street food/ snack food in Korea. The main, most important ingredient is duk (떡). I found this great description of duk here:
In Korea, there are different types of duk, with ingredients, shapes and tastes varying from region to region. Specific cakes are served at specific occasions. Duk is made mainly from rice or glutinous rice that has been ground up, steamed, turned into dough and stuffed with a variety of sweet fillings before being transformed into dumplings or bread-like cakes. The taste and texture is similar, perhaps, to certain types of nonya kueh or mochi, the equally chewy Japanese version of glutinous rice cakes.
Duk comes in many forms, and it's common to see it made into deserts, or put into soup to add some more chunk. Dukbokki duk usually looks like small rolls of duk. Then there is the sauce. It's usually made in some sort of super spicy red sauce. On the street, you'll often see it with some odeng or even a boiled egg mixed in.

In dukbokki town, the dukbokki is not sold on the street, but in real restaurants, so the dukbokki tends to be a bit more complex than what you find on the street. We ordered two portions of the standard dukbokki dish, and we found two different kinds of noodles, mandu (dumplings), odeng, boiled eggs, cabbage, and, of course duk.. a smaller, probably homemade version of what you usually see on the street, all mixed together in that crazy spicy sauce.

Everything was brought over uncooked, and placed on a burner on the table to cook. 10 minutes later it was ready to eat!

mmmm.... 맛있겠다!

Life Decisions...

With only 3 months left in Korea, I'm starting to seriously think about my life after Korea. Part of me really wants to come back. I mean, life here is easy. The pay is good, the travel is good, my school will give me an apartment, not to mention now the boyfriend is here.

The other half of me is stressing about whether or not this is something I want to spend my life doing. I like teaching. For a while I was seriously thinking of going into ESL as a career and getting my degree in it.. so I could get a job anywhere in the world, not just East Asia. I still haven't abandoned that thought. But, on the other hand, my degree is in Environmental Science. I know I don't want to work in a lab anymore... been there, done that... but some other career in that field would be more beneficial to me in the long run.

I do have one strength towards getting a job in that field, and that is that I speak Spanish quite well. I'm not bilingual, but certainly better than your average environmental scientist. Getting involved in some sort of project in Latin America would be amazing. Unfortunately, I haven't found anything like that. And every day I spend here in Korea I loose more and more Spanish. I mean... it comes back when I try, but the less I try, the more I lose.

I have really enjoyed learning Korean, and I've gotten to a point where I think if I had one more year going to a private school like I am now, I could be at a high conversational level... maybe good enough to keep up with conversations with my Korean friends. I want to keep studying Korean... but really.... in the end, what good will speaking Korean do for me... career wise?

Learning another language like Chinese or French... or even Japanese would be far more helpful to me in the long run. Chinese being highest on my list of priorities. I could go teach in China for a year, and try to learn Chinese. Or, just try to find a job in the Environmental Sector in China and learn Chinese, which would be even better.

Oh... I don't know what to do. I know I don't want to be stuck at home doing some boring old job, that's for sure. Knowing me, I'll probably just come back to Korea for another year. Upside? My college loans will be completely paid off soon if I do that (less than $9,000 left to go and only just over a year after graduation). Then I'll be debt free and able to do whatever I want, even if it means taking a job that pays next to nothing, just for the experience.

Well, if you've read to the end of my ramblings, you're quite the dedicated reader. If you have any suggestions, please.. please... let me know... I'm getting a bit more stressed by the day, but it's still to early to put in applications anywhere... not that I've found any appealing jobs anyway...

The kimchi in my fridge .... or the perks of having a Korean boyfriend....

Soooooo.... my boyfriend decided that I don't have enough kimchi in my life and found a "great deal" on one of the Korean online shopping websites. While prices of kimchi are rising with the cost of food prices around the world, if you buy online in bulk, you can get much cheaper prices than your local E-mart. The "great deal" wound up being 10 kilos (yes, 10 kilos, more than 20 pounds) of kimchi for a piddling 18,000 won. Great price for him, since he cooks at my house almost every day. Not so great for me. Now I have 10 kilos of kim chi in my fridge. Every time I open the door, all I can smell is kimchi. Not to mention, now we have to eat all that kimchi. Don't get me wrong.... I like kim chi... but... I'm not sure how I feel about this one...

Hyundai Opens Peace Talks With North

The JoongAng Daily reported today that the Chairwoman of Hyundai Group, who has been in Pyeongyang for the past week, initially bargaining for the release of a worker who was being held hostage. After she negotiated for his release, she stayed longer, and evidently did what the South Korean government has failed to do for the past 6 months, which is to resume tourism to the North, and resume work at the Kaesong Industrial Complex where South Korean companies have production lines just over the border in Kaesong in the North.

Talks with North Korea have been hostile, to put it mildly, since last November. Why all of a sudden this change of heart on the part of the North? I just don't get Kim Jong Il. It's like he's bipolar. One day he's your friend, and the next day he's ready to nuke you. It's also strange to me that all the negotiations that have gone on recently, have gone on between civilians with the DPRK. First with Bill Clinton, now the chairwoman of Hyundai. All these negotiations don't amount to much if the actual governments can't come to an agreement.

Anyway, check out the article here.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Driving in Bali

Wow, I just realized that I have so many posts in my head that I need to start getting them down. I realized just now that I had so many posts that I had planned in my head while I was still in Bali, but since coming home I only posted some photos and I haven't written a thing.

I must say, Bali was definitely my favorite vacation so far, of all my travels. It's such an amazing little island with so much culture. The people are so friendly. While I expected them to be pushy like in Vietnam, always trying to get your money, but usually when you said no to whatever they were selling, they just moved on to the next person.

I thought I should mention driving in Bali. The first difference is that they drive on the opposite side of the road, like British style. Our most interesting experiences driving were on the tiny island of Nusa Lembongan. It took an hour boat ride to get out here to this tiny developing island. We had been told that there were no cars on the island, but it's something you can't truly believe until you see it for yourself. They did have a few trucks on the island (I really doubt more than 20 or 30 on the whole island) and everyone else road motorbikes. If there hadn't been a huge hill on the island separating the only two villages on the island, I bet people would have gone around on bikes, since it is small enough.

On our first full day on the island, we realized that we weren't going to see much of the island on foot. In the hot (but dry) temperatures, walking long distances was a bit uncomfortable, but the beach where our hotel was located was really a beach for boats, not swimming. It was very shallow and there was a breaker out in the water so there were no waves. To get to the other beaches, we broke down and started to learn to ride motor scooters. I was fortunate enough to go out with my friend's husband who is really into motorbikes/motorcycles before anyone else in our crew, and got a real instruction on how to drive it. Most people were just given the bike and were told, "good luck". After riding a while with him, I was driving it myself with him on the back. Later that day, I even took another girl out who had rented her bike for the afternoon, but was too scared to ride it.

Though I was no amazing driver, driving on this island was easy, since there were so few people and literally no cars. The only two things I worried about were starting the motorbike, because I seemed to have a habit of accelerating too fast while the wheel was turned, and driving into the side of the road, and other tourists like me on their bikes. Obviously the locals know how to drive, since I noticed that they learn to ride when they are about 10 years old. But, there were so many other folks like me who were just starting to learn how to ride that it was a bit scary. Also, remembering which side of the road to stay on was a bit nerve racking too.

Fortunately, I survived with no accidents, and the only accident in our whole group of friends were some minor scrapes. We did see an Australian guy with a dislocated shoulder from falling off his bike. I was glad I was done riding after that and getting ready to leave the island, because I'm not sure if I would have wanted to ride again after seeing that nasty injury.

Going back and forth to the hotel, we were given a ride in the back of a truck. I took these videos of the roads while we were driving:

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Wet Bathroom, Moldy Bathroom

For those of you who have not been in Asia, it's quite common over here to see the "wet bathroom". Asian bathrooms are generally constructed on the idea that the bathroom is an inherently wet place, so there's no point in trying to keep it dry. You can by plastic sandals for 1,000 won anywhere you go, to place outside the bathroom door to keep your feet dry when you go in.

In older apartments and villa style homes, showers are generally a hose that goes from the sink to a shower head which rests some where on the wall of the bathroom. There is no special place to shower, just try to avoid hitting the toilet paper as you do it, and the water goes down a drain in the middle of the floor. Pretty much everything gets wet, but I guess if that's all you have, you get used to it quickly. More modern apartments like mine may have a separate shower area. I am especially lucky, my shower is completely enclosed behind a glass door, and its quite a large shower area too. The drain, though, is located just outside the shower, so the water must flow out of the shower and into the drain.

Cleaning this style bathroom is quite convenient, though. Just take everything out of the bathroom and spray everything down with the shower head. I think that's the purpose of the drain being outside of the shower.

The one cleaning problem I have is the constant struggle against the mold. There are no windows in my bathroom, so there is basically no air circulation. I need to keep the door open whenever possible to keep some semblance of airflow so that things can dry a little bit. Even still, inside my shower, the floor is covered with very small, maybe inch-sized tiles. It looks very nice and stylish, but the mold, from the constant dampness, grows in between every tile and becomes a nightmare to clean. Maybe if I were a clean freak who cleaned all the time, I'd be able to prevent this problem, but unfortunately, my cue to clean is when I see something dirty (otherwise, why clean it, right?), so it's usually too late before I am motivated to do something about it.

Recently I found that scrubbing with an old toothbrush can get those hard to reach places, like the corners of the shower and in between the tiles. I still have to scrub the big tiles on the wall pretty hard sometimes to get the film of pink that has grown there that I didn't notice till it was almost fluorescent (that may be a slight exaggeration).

This video perfectly explains the inconvenience of a typical wet bathroom, I'm so glad that I don't have to deal with a bathroom like this except for when I'm away from Seoul...

Anyway, I was just wondering if anyone had had any similar problems with their bathrooms, and what you do to solve the mold problem. Any other comments on Asian style bathrooms?

Thursday, August 6, 2009

US Jounalists releaced from North Korea

Bill Clinton made an unexpected trip to North Korea to apologize on behalf of the two American journalists who happened to work for Al Gore's Internet news channel. Fortunately, he was able to get them out of labor camp and back home to their families. Too bad he couldn't have negotiated for all the Japanese and South Koreans still being held hostage there too, but I guess we can't be too greedy. Head over to CNN to check out the full story.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

The English Language Torture Chamber

This month I have been given a special summer class in my first block of teaching (I'm an afternoon teacher again, praise the lord.. or whatever deity you wish... no more preschool for me). The class is called TESOL prep and I have four children in the class. Two 4th graders and two 2nd graders (elementary school). These children come to my school normally on Monday Wednesday Friday, but now they come Tues /Thurs for the next month for this summer class. This class is basically 25 minutes of a Korean teacher giving them a reading test out of a book, then checking the answers, then me coming in and giving them another 25 minute listening test, checking the answers, and by then there's enough time for 5 minutes of hangman, then it's time to go. Thursday I will go over the answers from the listening that they got wrong. This same format will go on for a month. One poor 2nd grade boy in the class looked through the book and asked me "everything test teacher?".... well, I couldn't lie to him... "yes... everything is a test"...

Why would any parent subject their child to this kind of torture? Especially because the kids in this class are particularly low level. I was watching them as they took the test... they were guessing on every answer. Just kill their self-esteem and make them feel like crap for 8 days of their precious summer vacation. Not only that, but make them sit through 80 minutes of torturous test taking two days a week. I wouldn't even discuss the fact that there is a Mon/Wed/Fri version of this class for similarly aged children. These kid's parents are just plain dumb. Why not send them to an English camp where they might actually learn something while having fun?

Anyway, I'll try not to fall asleep as I'm teaching this class for the next month. My finger is going to get a lot of exercises hitting the play button on the CD player.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Doctors and lack of sanitation...

For the past two weeks I've been having some bladder issues... more information than you need to know, but I need to give some background to this story. I waited so long to see a doctor because I was in Bali with no insurance and little faith in a medical system on a tiny island in the south pacific. Finally today after waiting so long I went to a doctor in the same building where my hagwon is located. I would have sworn someone told me that this doctor spoke really good English so I decided to go there instead of an international clinic. I went in and, as usual, didn't need an appointment, and I was seen in 5 minutes later.

I sat down in front of the desk... because doctors offices resemble a real office more than any examination room, though there was a bench to lie on in the corner, if necessary. He looked a bit nervous when I walked in... then he asked me in Korean, if I could speak Korean... I told him.. just a little... I didn't really want to risk screwing up a doctor's visit with my 2 year old level Korean. I have no idea how to say things like urination and bladder. So, I explained my symptoms in English, and at first he didn't seem to understand, but in the end, his English started to sound better as he probably became a little more relaxed. He prescribed me some antibiotics, pain killers and something for the digestion of the other pills because he said it might upset my stomach. Then he asked me to pee in a cup so that he could check, and tomorrow he can give me the results. Seemed reasonable enough to me.

He brought me out to the front desk and the receptionist gave me a plastic cup... with no lid. Then she told me to go to the bathroom down the hall... aka outside of the office, down the hall to the public bathroom for the building. Pee in the cup with no cover there, then bring it back. Ok... fine... gross and awkward to carry an uncovered cup of your own pee down a hallway in a building with lots of other, non medical buisnesses, but ok, fine. She gave me no disinfectant wipes to wipe the cup with either. So, I did it and brought it back. She took the cup of pee, and with no gloves, poured it into another tube to do tests.

Would something like this fly at home?? I think not. But then again, I did pay 4,500 won ($3.60) for the exam, then another 2,900 won ($2.30) for two days worth of prescriptions until I get a real diagnosis. I guess I can't complain. Lets just hope that this thing clears up with the drugs. That will be the real proof. Although, I would help if I didn't leave my pills at work...

Statues of Bali

I was so fascinated by the stonework in Bali. Every restaurant, temple and even nicer homes had many beautiful statues. They often put their daily offering and incense on or around the statues, as you'll see. Most people in Bali practice Hinduism, unlike the rest of Indonesia which practices Islam. It was so amazing to see a different culture. I'm so accustomed to the Buddhist style that I've seen in every other country I've been to in Asia... it was so refreshing to see something new.

Offerings are piled at the bottom of the statue. You can see offerings everywhere you go.

Statue in the Palace in Ubud

Statue in the Palace in Ubud

Statue at a resort on Dream Beach on Nusa Lembongan Island where we stopped for lunch and a break from motorbiking.

A statue I found at a temple on a hill on Nusa Lembongan

A statue outside of the temple in the village near our hotel in Nusa Lembongan

Part of the ambiance of our hotel, Mainski, on Nusa Lembongan. The outside was far nicer than our room.

Sunday, August 2, 2009


As I'm working on Bali things to get up here, here's a post I meant to post before I went to Bali. One of my preschoolers' moms got me and my partner teacher free tickets to a dance performance called Sachoom. I guess the real tickets were 50,000 won. While I don't think the show was worth anywhere near 50,000 won, it was still fun to see and something to do on a weekday night instead of bumming around the house. It was entertaining to say the least...

Here are some video clips I took during the show.

Bali Dance

I just returned to Seoul a few hours ago from Bali, and I have a lot of things I want to write, as usual, but I thought first I'd share some beautiful photos I took while watching a performance of Balinese dance on Friday night. All I have to say is that I love the zoom on my camera for letting me get such close up shots...