Saturday, June 30, 2012

The Anchovy Hotel

This week, Korean clicked.  I finally began to understand how to conjugate verbs thanks to my awesome tutor Chae Woo and many cups of Cafe Americano.  Let me tell you, being able to do more than just say "noun" plus "yes" or "no" was a big deal.  When I came home and was able to ask Aunt Kim what she was doing tomorrow, she about fell out.  Granted, I couldn't understand her response, but baby steps, right?

This was a three-day week of classes, and on Thursday, the CLS group headed out on a cultural excursion to the southern coast of Korea on the East China Sea.  I was really excited to get out of Jeonju for a bit and do some exploring rather than sitting cooped up studying the language all week.  The bus pulled out at 8:30 on Thursday morning, and we were off to Tongyeong (map).  The bus ride itself was incredible as we drove into deep green valleys, right into the heart of giant mountain tunnels, and over miles and miles of rice patty fields.  We arrived within a couple hours and visited a traditional Korean military pavilion from the 17th century that was used to house guests and host lavish parties for Korea's military elite.  We didn't find any leftover soju, so we went on our way.

We toured a couple literature houses which are basically house-sized buildings that act as memorials to Korea's treasured artists.  We also toured a fishery museum and walked through an outdoor modern sculpture park which was every bit as strange but twice as risque as UAB's exhibits.  When we finished there, it was time to check into the much-anticipated Anchovy Hotel.  With a name like that, I was expecting a Korean version of Motel 8.  I couldn't have been more wrong.  The hotel was incredible with huge rooms and comfortable beds.  The shower even had a curtain and shower head which, I'm sure you know by now, is a big deal.  My only reservation about the hotel was its food.  I was slightly alarmed when I went to dinner and breakfast the following morning and had, you guessed it, anchovies.  Though the taste was rather disconcerting, there was something about eating anchovies at a place called The Anchovy Hotel that was oddly satisfying.  The view at the hotel was incredible, overlooking an off-the-beaten-path fishing town, and definitely made up for the distinct lack of night life in the town where I believe the average age was somewhere around 70.

The following day, we headed out for a day at the sea.  First, we visited an old POW camp at Geoje.  It was set up as a memorial to the South Korean camp for enemies during the Korean War and emphasized the good treatment of its prisoners while demonizing the North.  Though the whole place was wrought with propaganda (I somehow doubt that the Communist prisoners spontaneously decided to put on a musical for the cultural betterment of themselves and the camp as a whole), it was a really interesting experience.  You could get lost in thought walking through the lines of tents with Cold-War era nationalistic music blasting through the speakers and forget entirely when you were.  Walking around the mock POW camp and listening to the stories of war and imprisonment really caused us to reassess our own worldviews (how important was it really that we couldn't find a suitable karaoke joint the night before???).

After a tour of a major ship-building plant called DSME, we finally set off for the South Sea.  After driving through secluded hanok villages and coastal enclaves, we stopped at the most beautiful place in the world.  Jutting into the sea next to a smooth rock beach was a rock cliff peninsula overlooking mountains softly protruding from the foggy water.  It was an incredibly spiritual place and carried a power all its own.  Though it sounds crazy, the scene seemed to tell of the age of the nation itself and emote a sense of eternity.

Note - Not my picture.  Taken from Yuri.

Despite a rather intense morning of inner reflection, we were ready to hit the beach!!  None of us seemed to care that the water was freezing or teeming with jellies and instead dove right in.  After all, how many chances do you get to swim in the Korean Straight??  After capturing a couple jellies, building a sand castle, and walking around another ridiculously quaint village, we headed to dinner.  At some point over the past several days, I discovered that Korean food isn't quite my thing and hence didn't eat much on the trip.  I think the discovery was made when I mistakenly ate an obnoxiously hot pepper that was just meant as a soup flavoring and not to eat.  I honestly thought I was going to die.  This night, however, we had what I can best describe as thick cut bacon fried at the table with 25 side dishes.  It was incredible.  I probably took about three years off my life from all the arteries that are clogging as we speak, but it was worth it.  I was hungry.

We returned to the Anchovy Hotel and decided to give Tongyeong night life one more go.  There wasn't anything going on within walking distance (how much karaoke can you take?!), so we settled for going to a restaurant for some late night snacks.  When we got the menu, we sounded out the Korean characters and realized that we had entered Uncle Tom's Cabin - The Restaurant.  I'm not quite sure what the owners were going for with the name, but the food was pretty good...

We awoke the next morning and packed our bags to head back home.  I reluctantly went down to breakfast, wondering how I was going to choke down anchovy stew, and carrying a pack of Korean-version Oreos as backup.  The elevator doors opened, the clouds parted, and choir of angels began to sing.  It was an American breakfast bar.  I'm pretty sure I ate 4,000 calories that morning of eggs, toast, fruit, french fries, Frosted Flakes, and OJ.  I have never in my life been that excited for breakfast.  We loaded the bus and headed back for Jeonju, taking a two-hour side trip to a butterfly house and museum which was literally 90 miles from the nearest grocery store.  I have no idea how we ended up there, but the butterflies were cool.  We got back home on Saturday afternoon just in time for monsoon season to start.  I feel like I am living the line in Forest Gump when he is in Vietnam and says "One day it started raining..."  I don't think it's going to quit for the next several weeks.  At this point, everyone in the group stopped making fun of me for paying for extra baggage when they realized that I have a giant rain jacket and full-sized steel-toed galoshes.  I am so ready for this.

Crazy Korean Discoveries of the Week:

1. I found a traditional Korean toilet in a back alley.  This is one of those times when only a picture will do (see right).

2. I don't know why so many of my Crazy Korean Discoveries center around the bathroom, but here's another.  Many toilets operate on a BYOP (bring your own paper) system where only a bidet is used, so I decided that I needed to learn how to use one.  They say the best way of learning is doing, and of course the Anchovy Hotel had bidets in every room (would a place like the Anchovy Hotel be complete without crazy toilets and night-club style lighting in the hallways??).  So on night two, I sat down and gave it a whirl.  There is no way to describe that experience that is appropriate for public.  Let it suffice to say that I have never felt cleaner.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Jeonju Nightlife

Koreans really enjoy their weekends and definitely know how to have a good time.  And after a week of  long and difficult classes, I was ready to let loose for a bit.  Fortunately, everyone else had the same idea.

Friday is cultural exploration day; so after class ended at 3:30, we went with our class to whatever event our teacher has planned.  Our class theme is traditional Korean culture, so we took at taxi over to Hanok Village which I would describe as the ancient Asian version of Bridge Street with lots of shops and restaurants.  There are also a few mini-museums and areas to make crafts and such.  We went to a fan-making workshop and came out with some really cool souvenirs.  Afterward, we went to a restaurant and had some of the best Asian dumplings I've ever had.  Our TA, Yeom Shin Young Sanseng Neme kept having to save me from on-coming traffic and ended up guiding me around by my backpack strap calling me "Baby Jacob Jacob."  The name was later expanded to "Preppy Baby Jacob Jacob" due to my clothing and changed later again to "Baby JJ" for ease of use.  I was dragged through many clothing stores that evening...

Afterward, Yuri, one of my friends from CLS, invited us to a church event at a Catholic church in the area.  Seeing as it was Friday night, I was a little hesitant to go to church over exploring what the city had to offer, but the teacher, TA, Chris, and I decided to go anyway.  I'm not sure "church event" is the right word to describe the scene.  I think "Korean Oktoberfest" is a much more accurate description.  Needless to say, there was some awesome food and music and some crazy people to watch.  We left around 10:30, and about a dozen of us decided to go to a nore-bang (literally song room).  Norebangs are basically karaoke bars, but each group is given a separate room with a TV and stereo system.  The rooms have flashing lights and obnoxiously loud speakers and just about every song (Korean and American) you can think of.  Despite all the options, something inside me said "Sweet Home Alabama," and it had to be done.  With my teacher dancing along with all of us as I sang that song, I find it really hard to concentrate on anything in class now...

I wanted to test out my language skills, so I decided to head out 45 minutes before my midnight curfew to see about finding my way home by myself.  Bad idea.  I walked out of the building onto a back alley and realized that there were no taxis in sight.  So there I was, on a back alley in the middle of Korea with no language skill and really no idea where I was in relation to the apartment.  It was adventure time!  I wandered around for a few minutes looking for a big road (and hence a taxi) and finally found the road about 5 blocks away.  I hailed a cab, got in, and told him the name of my apartment complex.  Unfortunately, my accent is really bad, so he didn't understand.  I thought for a moment and realized that I had forgotten to send a postcard earlier that day which had my address written in Korean on it.  Perfect - he knew exactly where that was.  But, he didn't want to take me there and started rattling off Korean and made me get out of the car.  I was really confused at this point but just decided to keep walking.  After a couple minutes of mulling over the situation, I looked around and saw the church we had been to earlier!  It was a sign from heaven.  I realized that the taxi had been going the opposite direction of my apartment, and I should get a cab from the other side of the street.  So, I crossed the street, hailed a cab, showed him my postcard, and got home for $3.90 and 20 minutes early.  Weekend night one - success!

I spent most of Saturday studying for my test on Monday.  That evening, I had made plans to meet up with a few people from CLS and some new Korean friends for dinner and a night of karaoke.  We went to a restaurant near the university and had squid and kimchi night.  There was squid pancake, squid kimchi pancake, squid stew, kimchi stew, and on and on.  Not my favorite dinner ever....  Afterward, our Korean friends took us to a norebang.  Walking around, I thought, "hmmm this looks familiar."  Lo and behold, we ended up on the same streets I had been wandering around the night before!  It was an awesome night of singing and dancing.  I learned some Korean songs, and we taught them some classic 80s rock.  Afterward, they showed us where the taxis pick up people in that area.  Turns out, it was about a block away from the building.  That knowledge could have saved me a lot of confusion the night before...

When I woke up the next morning, there were two random people sitting in the living room, and I really still have no idea who they were.  We had a really nice breakfast with them though, and they seemed nice.  I couldn't understand what they were saying, and I haven't learned the phrase "Who are you and why are you sleeping in the room next to me?" yet, so I really can't be sure about what was going on.  After breakfast, Uncle Joe and Aunt Kim (really hope Americanizing the names doesn't offend) took the youngest brother, Aunt Kim's sister, and me to a festival at the university.  None of the group speaks English, so I was on my phone's dictionary constantly looking for translations or communicating with hand signs.  Therefore, I didn't discover until later that day that it was in fact the Lotus Festival.  I also learned that evening when talking to host sister that the finger wrap I got there was a semi-permanent stain meant to ward off ghosts and that the stain won't come off "until the first snow" which was pinpointed to November 30 or December 1st.  I have since had the following conversation with two completely unrelated Koreans:

Me: "So I got this finger stain at Lotus Festival.  When will it come off?"
Korean: "At the first snow." (no hesitation)
Me: "The first snow?  Like when is that?"
Korean: "Hmmm.. [pause to think]  I would say November 30.  Or maybe December 1."

Mind = blown.  They really know their meteorology.  Host sister also told me that the first snow would bring my first love.  So watch out November 30th!  (or possibly December 1st...)

We got in the car, and I realized that we were not heading toward the apartment.  Due to my confused looks, Uncle Joe said, "world's largest sea wall.  33 km.  We go now."  I love this family - they are so spontaneous!!  After an hour or so (it is actually 70 km away; the seawall itself is 33 km), we ended up at Saemangeum Seawall on the west coast of Korea.  It was like a scene from a movie with foggy water on either side, ships coming into harbor, and green mountains protruding from the water in the distance.  At the end of the seawall was a fishing village somewhere around Buan.  It was low tide, and people were digging for clams in the exposed seabed to carry back to the village to sell and ship away.  We stopped at a roadside seafood joint to eat clam stew (incredibly similar to clam chowder), with clams fresh from a mile away.  It was unreal to be in a place where so few non-Koreans ever venture and was somewhere I would have never gone without a guide like the host family.  On the way back, Uncle Joe got really tired, so we ended up pulling over to the side of the road where I thought we were going to change drivers, but we ended up leaving Uncle Joe on the side of the road and drove off.  I honestly have no idea what happened to him; all I know is that I didn't see him for five hours.  

Crazy Korean Discoveries:
1. Students going out with teachers on Friday nights is completely normal.  They aren't there to judge you; they are there to party.  And yes, they will reference your karaoke abilities during class on Monday.
2. I know I've said it before, but Korean rest areas are just in a class of their own.  The last one I went to had a huge monument of DC proportion, a hiking trail, a restaurant, and a convenience store.   
3. Many public restrooms have a bring your own toilet paper policy.  It's that horrible moment when you realize this that... nevermind...

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Total Immersion

After a day of orientation filled with safety, medical, and language briefings, it was time to meet the host family. It was set up like a reality TV show. In groups of six, we left the room and went into the hallway where our host families were waiting. We were matched by the teacher (san-seng-neme) and awkwardly shook hands and said "annyong-ha-sayoh." Unfortunately, this was about the end of my Korean vocab except for ten phrases I had scrolled out on a few note cards I had written on the plane ride. So there I was on the side of the road with 90 pounds of luggage, 10 Korean phrases, and 0 idea what was happening.

My host parents, Jo Hyung Il and Kim Jung Ran, saw the flash cards and gave a laugh and sigh as we got into the van and drove off campus into the city.  After a few minutes of awkward silence, I said, "Do you speak English?" to which Jo Hyung Il said, "little" in a strong Korean accent.  I asked what their names were but could not repeat them (I'm a visual learner).  Jo Hyung Il started writing their names down as well as the names of their three kids, a girl who is in middle school, a son in upper elementary, and a son in primary.  Driving through a foreign city of 700,000, of which there were only maybe 50 Americans, I realized that this was going to be quite an interesting summer.

When we got to their house, Jo Hyung Il took me around and showed me my room, bathroom, etc. and instructed me on where to put things.  I unpacked for a bit and was quite uncertain what to do.  After awkwardly staying in my room for a few minutes, pondering an escape, I decided that the best thing to do was to take my flashcards into the living room where they were and start to study.  And that is where the 5th floor apartment in the middle of Korea turned into a home away from home.  They were all incredibly friendly and helpful and wanted very much to help me learn.  When the daughter (dang seng) got home, I learned that she speaks English very well, and we became good friends.

Jo Hyung Il told me to call him Sam-Jone (Korean for uncle), so I have begun calling him Uncle Jo in my head.  He took the bus with me to school the next morning and walked me to my building to make sure I knew my way.  School was from 8:30 AM - 5:30 PM that day - a full nine hours of intensive Korean language, grammar, vocab, etc.  I was paired with five others from the group of 32.  The six of us are a class for the rest of the summer, and we do everything together with Sanseng Neme - eat lunch, go to class, and have breaks.  Fortunately, I have a great class, and we all get along really well.  The first day was really rough, though.  First off, we didn't see much of the group, many of whom we had become close to.  Also, it was extremely disorienting being surrounded by so much Korean.  Our teacher doesn't speak English, so everything we do must be in Korean.  If we don't know a word, we look it up.  If we don't understand, she acts it out.  Grammar points are especially difficult to grasp, but we manage.  Sanseng Neme is really nice, and we all love her despite her giving us 75 vocab terms to learn on day one and an additional 100 on day two.  I hope this isn't an exponential growth...

Day two was much better after adapting to the environment and getting a few words and phrases to work with on a day-to-day basis.  We had our first class of traditional music and dance which was a lot of fun.  The teacher is hilarious and spent the first half of class doing introductions - a tricky thing to do with a group of beginners.  It really surprised me, however, when I said, "Annyong hasayoh.  Chow nun Jacob imnidah.  Chow nun migug saram imnida.  Chow nun Alabama eso wassayoh."  I guess that's what happens when you're in full immersion - you're forced to learn the language very quickly.  After classes ended at 3:30, half of the group of 32 ended up invading the coffee shop a block from campus where we did homework for a couple hours and chatted.  Although it feels kind of like high school again, it is a really great group, and it was energizing to get to see them all and realize that there are more than five Americans in the whole town to talk to.

I took the bus back home around 5:30 to study more with the host family who are extremely helpful and nice.  I got a bit stir crazy after a couple hours and went for a run around the city.  I definitely got more than one stare as the only white person running frantically down the sidewalk at night.  Ah well, I'm getting used to it by now.  I was initially worried about the language pledge not to speak English after two weeks, but I know that it will be no problem.  This program is seriously incredible.

Things that are strange in Korea:

1. You don't drink water with your meal.  There are water stations by the door in cafeterias and restaurants where you shoot a glass of water on your way out.
2. I have seen more than one urinal filled with ice.  I don't even have a guess on that one.
3. THE FAN DEATH!  It is believed that if you have a fan on in the room while you sleep, you will die by asphyxiation.  The idea is that the fan will create a vortex in the room and suck out all of the oxygen.  It's not a passing superstition; people are totally serious about this one.  My fan has a timer and won't stay on for more than 15 minutes at a time.  So I go to sleep nice and cool but wake up sweaty.
4. There are no shower curtains, but there are showers.  This causes the floor to be perpetually wet.  To combat this, they have installed drains on the bathroom floors and have bathroom sandals at the door that are to be worn in the bathroom only.  I feel like a shower curtain would be a cheaper and less difficult solution, but who am I to question?

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Hey Y'all

I met up with some of the CLS program participants at baggage claim when I landed at Dulles airport on Thursday.  That place is massive.  I had to take an underground tram two stops just to find my way out of the building to where my friends were waiting.  I was very excited that it was a planes, trains, and automobiles trip!  It was about the time that my bags came around on the carousel and the other program participants stared at me that I realized I had over-packed majorly.  Most people have one large carry-on weighing about 45 pounds, a backpack, and a small suitcase for carry on.  I had all of that plus another 45-pound bag.  I’m blaming the shoes.

We rode the 5A metro bus into the city and were dropped off near L’Enfant Plaza, which, as we soon found out, was not directly next to the L’Enfant Plaza Hotel.  We ended up dragging our bags off the city bus, down five DC city blocks (infinitely larger than your standard city block), into a tunnel, through a parking deck, into a back closet where there happened to be an elevator, and finally through the elevator doors into the lobby of the hotel. 

The rest of the day was spent exploring the city before a brief orientation and check-in that evening.  We had to stand and introduce ourselves, and not even thinking, I stood up and said, “Hey y’all,” at which point everyone started laughing.  I told Jessica Ly that “y’all” would make me endearing, and I was right!  I am now known as “That Guy from Alabama” or “Jacob from Alabama” or simply “Roll Tide.”  For dinner, a few of us headed to Chinatown for soup and sushi at Wok and Roll where they played country music which was a bit random.  I decided not to continue my Southern act too much, and refrained from singing along to Rascal Flatts.  Afterward, we walked around the National Mall and hung out around the WWII Memorial before heading back to the hotel around 11:30. 

On Friday, we spent a full ten hours in orientation programming in the same meeting room of the hotel.  It was absolutely exhausting.  For dinner, we went to the Dupont area for Malaysian food, wondering why we were eating rice for our last meal in America.  That was poor planning…  We had some free time that evening to walk around Dupont, bus back to the hotel, and walk around the monuments some more.  Almost all of us had been to DC before, but it was still a really fun way to meet everyone – just cruising around DC.  Though some people stayed up all night, I decided that I would not have a good humor if I didn’t at least get a couple hours of sleep and decided to head to bed at 11. 

I got up Saturday morning at 1:30 AM for our 2:30 checkout, 3:00 bus, at 6:00 flight from Dulles.  By the time we got on the plane, everyone was exhausted, even those of us who had gotten at least a couple hours of sleep the night before, and we all slept most of the cross-country flight to San Francisco.  We had a two-hour layover at SFO before embarking on the 11-hour flight to Seoul.  Economy was a rather horrible experience with zero leg room and barely-edible dog food.  There were of course a few strange characters to keep us entertained. 

We arrived in Inchon-Seoul airport at 3PM on Sunday and immediately took a four-hour bus ride to Jeonju.  It was an interesting trip since we got to stop at a couple of rest areas.  Koreans love their rest stops.  They are not like interstate rest areas in the US which may have a vending machine or two if you’re lucky.  They have souvenir shops, multiple food options, live music, clean bathrooms, and tons of people.  It honestly feels like some kind of carnival event.  The farther we got from Seoul, the fewer foreigners we saw.  When we got to Jeonju, we got stares and waves from the Koreans who rarely see Americans. 

We checked into the hotel, had a brief orientation in which we got our Korean cell phones, and then went out on the town.  It was a pretty chill evening.  We walked around part of the city that night, eating and seeing what was up.  Jeonju is a very homogenous place, and we did not encounter a single non-Korean besides us.  This will definitely be a full immersion!  Some interesting things we did learn:

  1. If a barber shop is open at midnight, let’s just say it doesn’t pay the bills cutting hair.
  2.  Dogs may be butchered in apartments for dog stew at random hours of the night.
  3.  Korean drivers stop for no one.

This week, we will have a one-day orientation at the university, move in with our host families, and then begin our intensive Korean immersion program.  After today – I have two weeks to learn enough of the language to get by without the use of English.  Challenge accepted.

I'll post pictures later when I have faster internet!

Thursday, June 14, 2012

A Fresh Adventure

There are few times in life that we separate from what we know in search of something new.  As I sit at Huntsville International Gate 9 holding my ticket for Seat 9A, I look at the field just over the runway, full of acres of corn or cotton, and realize that the moment I've been waiting for all semester is finally here - the start of a fresh adventure.  
For those of you who don't know, I will be traveling to South Korea this summer to study at the Korean Language Institute at Chonbuk National University in the "small city" of Jeonju.  This program is through the US State Department's Critical Language Scholarship Program (see the blog disclaimer so I don't get deported early!).  I'm going with 32 other Americans from around the country with the intent to master the language by the end of the summer.  Well, at least learn a little of it...  I'll be back in Alabama for two weeks in August before heading to the American University in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, for the fall term through the Clinton Scholars Program.  

This blog will document some of the funny stories, strange foods, and odd places that I encounter over the next several months (and possibly further on, but more on that later).  I will do my best to post a weekly update so everyone knows that my host family has not thrown me out onto the street.  I hope everyone enjoys the blog.  I'll try to make it as entertaining as possible, but bare with me as it may take some time to get used to blogging.  Let me know if there is anything you want to hear about on the blog!

Until next time.