Sunday, July 29, 2012

Losing Modesty

Myra's Birthday in the Norebang
Sorry it has been so long since my last post!  The past couple weeks have been full of adventure with the added stress of trying to get ready for the fall, so time has been pretty limited.  Anyway, I'll try to keep things short and let you in on all that's happened recently, starting with last Monday.  Last week was CLS Birthday Week with three birthdays.  Myra's birthday was on Monday, and we headed to a norebang after class let out.  Norebangs are always a good time, especially when they have "Call Me Maybe."  The few Koreans who were with us just didn't understand when we all jumped up to dance during the chorus.  I don't know why that song is so awesome...
Tea Ceremony Time
The rest of the week was pretty uneventful until our class excursion on Thursday.  After school, we went to the Hanok Village where we donned hanboks and learned how to perform a traditional tea ceremony.  As you probably know, I am a total spazz.  Trying to steep the tea and pour it in the set pattern with proper decorum while speaking Korean was just too much for me.  Besides my laughing at random times and awkward mistakes, my phone went off during the ceremony, and it took me forever to get it out from under the three or four layers of clothes I had on.  The tea ceremony instructor was less than pleased...
On that midnight train to Jeonju.

After school on Friday, Winston and I headed to the bus terminal and set off for his birthday weekend in Seoul.  We arrived at the hostel in Itaewon just before dinner, got cleaned up, and went in search for some non-Korean food which we eventually found at a Bulgarian restaurant.  It was really random.  After dinner, we went in search for some nightlife and met some really cool English teachers along the way who showed us around.  Our other friends from the CLS program, Justin and Chris, also finally made it.  It was an incredibly fun night with some great memories.  The next day, we took it easy and slept in before meeting up with some other CLS people for a dinner of fried chicken.  Afterward, we went to a honky tonk called Grande Olde Opry.  I'm not even joking - in the middle of Korea is a legit country bar with Kellie Pickler, Alan Jackson, Taylor Swift, and line dancin'.  Speaking Korean in the honky tonk was one of the weirdest experiences of my life and has caused so many strange dreams since.  I had to leave at 10PM to make the midnight bus back to Jeonju (I sang "Midnight Train to Georgia" subbing in "Midnight Bus to Jeonju" about fifty times that day) and was sad to leave Seoul - a city full of many crazy memories.

I arrived back at the apartment in Jeonju at 2:30 that morning and was hating life when my 5:30 alarm went off Sunday morning.  The host family and I left the house at 6AM for the 2012 World Expo in Yeosu - about two hours away.  Somewhere along the way I got a second wind, because despite the miles of walking I did that weekend, I was ready to go for the Expo.  The theme of this year's World's Fair revolved around the ocean, conservation, and renewable energy which are all areas that I am really interested in studying.  My host sister and I had a great time exploring the International Exhibits, but I'm not sure that host brother was equally amused.  By hour five, he was having a bad time for real.  I think the picture explains it pretty well...  

Ringing in evening prayer.
"Where do you come from??"
The next week only had three days of classes, difficult as usual, and was full of homework and tutoring.  My tutor (Chae Wu) and I went on a bit of an adventure on Tuesday in search of my rain boots which I left at the tea ceremony the week before.  It took a while, but we eventually found them down a side street at a restaurant.  I don't know why I can always find a cheap $20 pair of rain boots but Raybans never show up after they go missing.  On Thursday morning, everyone from CLS met up at the school, and we set out on our third and final cultural trip around the country.  We drove to the east 

coast and ended up at a Buddhist temple nestled in a forest valley.  That afternoon, we participated in many rituals with the monks; my favorite was using the ram to sound the massive gong for evening meditation.  We set out with a monk on a hike of silence through miles of tree-lined paths, stopping for meditation along the way.  That night, we stayed at the temple in hanoks next to the stream.  I was set for a great night of sleep until that 3:50 AM alarm sounded.  Yes, 3:50 AM.  We were pulled from bed by the sound of the gong from across the compound, calling everyone for morning meditation.  After meditation, we walked into a room with mats for each of us and beads with string in front of each.  I thought, "oh, arts and crafts time - this should be fun!"  Wrong.  In fact, it was an exercise to learn about the Buddhist belief in 108 sufferings.  There was a bead for each suffering, and in order to understand the suffering, we did a stand, bow, stand sequence while thinking of human suffering.  It took 35 minutes.  In silence.  My legs were suffering, my butt was suffering, and I was hungry.  At least I now have a cool souvenir...

Night on the beach.
After lunch, we left the temple and set off again.  We had already deviated from the schedule, so I wasn't exactly sure where we were headed.  At one rest stop, we all got off the bus to find rolling hills and a goat farm complete with petting zoo.  When we were at the petting zoo, a Korean kid came up to me and said in English, "Hello, where do you come from?"  When I responded in Korean, he screamed and ran away.  His parents found me later, laughed, and insisted that we get a picture.  After the goat farm, we headed for that night's acommodations - a 99-room hanok house.  I christened it the "CLS Party House," and the name couldn't have been more accurate.  After dinner and a tour of the complex, our teachers loaded us up by class into taxis; none of us knew where they were sending us.  We ended up at the beach which happened to be just miles from our house.  Nobody was prepared for a trip to the beach, so after hours of hanging out on the beach, our taxi drivers were less than pleased to get soaking wet and sandy college students packed into the back of their cars.  The night was pretty crazy - our teachers definitely know how to have a good time!

Let's cross that bridge when we get there
In the morning, we headed out through the mountains for a hike.  We hiked for about a mile to a monorail station which took us to an incredible cavern.  The cavern was spectacular with amazing formations and slime.  It took a full hour to traverse it all, and I was very thankful that I packed my hiking boots for the venture.  After the monorail and hike back to the bus, we set out for the beach (part 2).  On the bus ride there, our bus driver found the news station on the built-in TV, and we watched the opening ceremonies and Parade of Nations for the Olympics.  Driving through the mountains of Korea and shouting for Team USA in Korean is one of my favorite memories from this summer.  

Swimming in the Pacific.
The weather was perfect at the beach, and we had a great time in the water.  After a few hours, we headed to our hotel for the night which we quickly discovered was complete with a traditional Korean sauna.  I'm not sure if you're familiar with Korean saunas, but they are not for the faint-hearted.  It is essentially a huge room with public baths of varying temperatures where you and your closest friends (and teachers...) get naked and relax in the giant hot tubs.  It was actually a lot of fun after the initial awkwardness and was definitely a bonding experience.  The novelty of the sauna wore off rather quickly, and we decided to explore the random village where we had landed for the night.  We stepped out of the hotel only to find a free concert just down the road.  As happens a lot with us, we weren't dressed for the occasion, and Myra can now say that she went to a concert in her pajamas.  I went into the convenience store for snacks, and when I came out, I ran into two teenage girls who saw me and literally started screaming and shouting "movie star."  When I spoke to them in Korean, trying to explain that I wasn't in fact a movie star, one seriously went weak at the knees, and her friend had to hold her up.  To all of you haters of my hair gel - please reference this video.  I am still in shock.  

My Amazing Class
We got back to Jeonju Sunday afternoon after hours of driving (and sleeping) on the way back.  It was another incredible journey with crazy stories that just couldn't happen anywhere else.  It occurred to me on the bus ride today that leaving Korea is going to be much harder than I thought - it has become a second home, and I have made friends here that I will have a horrible time saying goodbye to.  There are only two more weeks left here - it's time to make the most of them.  

Crazy Korean Discoveries: 
1. In some ways Koreans are very conservative, but in others, they have no modesty whatsoever.  For example, many Korean met won't go shirtless at the beach but they have no problem soaking naked in a bathhouse.  
2. During meals, you're unlikely to be served individually with separate plates.  Typically, all of the food is placed in the middle of the table, and everyone attacks it with chopsticks.  I can't count the number of times I've gotten in chopstick fights for the most American-looking food on the table.
3. Yep, this happened: (picture right)

Monday, July 16, 2012

The Great Wall of Geochang

So glad to be done with that exam!
In America, we all have Asian friends, and as a general rule they study about five times as much as the rest of us.  I used to not put much thought into it, thining that it was merely coincidence.  And then I experienced midterms week in Korea.  We got new material up until the day before the exam.  On exam day, we spent three hours in testing, 90 minutes of written exam plus a rotating individual oral proficiency exam.  After it was over, our teacher took us to an all you can eat American lunch buffet.  I haven't eaten that much in one sitting since Dad took me to DC in eleventh grade and I discovered the endless breakfast bar.  Needless to say, I was worthless for 5th and 6th periods and instead spent my time in a total food coma.

Fun at squid party night with Mina.
I got home from school on Thursday and assumed my normal position on the sofa in the living room.  Aunt Kim was running around like crazy and told me that "Uncle Joe and sister are coming for dinner."  I said, "sounds good!"  Of course, this conversation was in Korean, and the thing about Korean is that there is no distinction between singular and plural.  For example, if you go to the bakery, you may say, "I want bagel" which can mean that you want anywhere from 1 to 100 bagels.  You have to add the optional units for clarification.  So a better thing to say may be "I want bagel, 12 bagel units please."  Or in my case, it may have been better for Aunt Kim to say, "Uncle Joe and sister - 7 people units - are coming to dinner."  Yes, seven sisters.  When the doorbell kept ringing and women kept coming through the door, I started to wonder what kind of party this was.  However, the night was really fun, and my confusion was soon cleared up.  They also served my favorite Korean food which was a plus.

On a search for the Buddhist temple.
On Friday, I was completely exhausted from the intense schedule of the week.  I could tell I was getting sick and needed to sleep.  I honestly can't remember the last time I got a full eight hours.  But when I was invited to squid party night in makoli town, I of course couldn't turn down an invitation.  I met up with some CLS friends and a few of our new Korean friends.  Though my conversation pieces pretty much amount to random pickup lines and "What did you do yesterday?" we had a good time.

Buddhist Temple.

The next morning, we met at the school at 8:30 for another weekend trip.  Clearly we just can't stay put for more than a few days.  Luckily, we had plenty of time to sleep between random literature houses and museums.  That afternoon, our bus stopped at an unmarked point in the middle of a mountain road, and we were told it was hiking time.  We set off on a 7 km hike through kudzoo-covered mountain paths, just budding soy bean fields, and finally an incredible breathtaking rock beach.  Unfortunately, we took the wrong turn at some point and were forced to trek over a rather trecherous part of the beach which was covered in slippery, pointy, algae rocks.  Added challenge: it was raining.  Thank goodness for good shoes!  After another 3 km monsoon hike, we ended up at a secluded Buddhist temple deep in the woods, a mile from the nearest road.  It was absolutely beautiful set against the foggy mountain backdrop.

Beach night!
We eventually ended up at the hotel which was right on the beach and of course boasted the most incredible views.  That night, after I made a fool of myself at the Korean poetry reading, a few friends and I went to the beach and sat around watching some crazy guys shoot fireworks at their friend target in the water.  It was a lot of fun!

Traversing Geochang with my teacher.
The next day, we toured a literature house and discovered ancient tombs of high class people that were in the style of Stonehenge.  It is crazy that they were able to lift those huge stone

into formation without the help of modern technology.  Afterward, we headed to the city of Geochang's Old City Wall and fortress that was used to protect its citizens from attacks.  I dubbed it the "Great Wall of Geochang," but I really have no idea what it was called.  We arrived back home in Jeonju that evening for some much needed rest.  I don't think I've slept past 8AM since leaving America, but why sleep when there is so much to explore??  This summer, there is an adventure around every corner.

Crazy Korean Discoveries:
1. There is a saying that says, "If you go to Korea, don't forget to pack a spare liver."  This country can drink some booze, let me tell you.  They also have very strict rules for drinking.  For example, when drinking, you must turn away from anyone who is older or higher ranked than you.  This is one of the most awkward table practices I have ever seen.
2. Never, ever write somebody's name in red ink.  This means either that they are dead, will die soon, or you want them to die.  Similarly, if you give somebody a gift in a set of four (like four cups or something), it is like telling them to go die.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

28 Hours in the World's Largest City

After last weekend's trip, I came home to a near empty house; both Aunt Kim and Uncle Joe were gone.  After some initial confusion, I found out from host sister that the grandma had died and that their aunt would be staying at the house until the parents returned from the funeral.  The next couple days were pretty crazy with about a million family members coming through the house.  At one point, I exited my room to find three middle-aged women in black robes running through the house.  I am not quite sure who they were, but they made a great dinner.  By Tuesday, things had calmed down at the house, but school was a different story.
Spiderman Movie Night

On Monday, we beginners made the much anticipated language pledge, agreeing not to speak English on campus, at group activities, or at home.  Even though this has led to many awkward moments such as telling the music teacher that the meaning of life is to rave or realizing that we left someone at the Seoul bus station, my Korean skills have been increasing exponentially.  Last night, I actually held a conversation with my host family in Korean - albeit broken Korean - for nearly three hours.  With help from plenty of pictures and hand motions, we were able to have a normal conversation which was really cool!  Apparently Aunt Kim has been worrying that I don't eat enough and that my host brother eats too much bread instead of rice.

Dinner at the Professor's Apartment
Indian Tea and Wine Bar
Thursday was an insane day.  In addition to the normal 8:30 - 3:30 class, we had a culture activity with our teacher.  After class, we headed to her apartment to make some traditional Korean food (the good homemade kind, not the Anchovy Hotel style sadness) and watched TV dramas.  I had made plans to see Spiderman with the host fam that night, and I thought that I was to meet at the apartment at 8:00.  Turns out, the movie started at 8:00, so when I pulled up to the apartment in a taxi at 7:45, the host fam was already in the van in the parking lot and waving frantically and yelling as I jumped into the van, just shutting the door as Aunt Kim hit the gas.  They are serious about their movie times.  It was a fun outing, except for the fact that I had to stay up way too late studying for a test the next day.  Luckily on Friday, our teacher gave us a 30-minute nap time during second period after everyone literally fell asleep on our desks during break.  After a long, stressful week of Korean, I was really excited for the weekend.  Friday evening, I went with some friends to a hole-in-the-wall traditional Indian tea and wine bar.  We walked down a side street, turned a corner, went into a small door in the middle of the block, down a flight of poorly lit stairs with camels on the walls, and ended up in an ancient world, but cleaner.  We couldn't wear shoes and were seated on a raised platform booth lined with pillows around a center coffee-style table.  It was a really neat place and reminded me of movies about the Old Testament, minus the sparsely clothed harem.

Fortunately Took the Wrong Subway Exit
On Saturday morning, some friends and I met at the bus station for a weekend trip to Seoul!  We were definitely those foreigners who held up the line, and people were not happy.  Ah well...  I got on a bus in the middle of Korea and got off in America.  Seoul is incredibly similar to the US; it felt like walking around New York with different demographics.  Most people even spoke English!  Come to find out, Koreans actually come to my city (Jeonju) for a dose of their own culture.  Anyway, we arrived in time for lunch in the 10-story mall attached to the bus stop.  Afterward, Chris and I spent the afternoon getting lost on the subway, discovering free attractions like taekwondo performances and hanbok tents, and taking a super cheesy bus tour.  We met up with Nick, Mike, and Myra at the hostel in Hongdae and got ready for an awesome night out.  We started with a dinner of friend chicken and perused a street fair complete with live music and clowns on stilts.  We then made our way to the American neighborhood of Itaewon which is famous for its nightlife.

Myra isn't too sure about Chris's score keeping.
We cruised Itaewon for a bit, popping in and out of the various lounges, restaurants, and cafes.  We stopped in a sports bar for a while where we taught Myra how to play darts.  Itaewon was full of old people, though. It was kind of like wandering around with your parents, so we took a taxi back to Hongdae, which is situated in the middle of three universities.  We thought there would certainly be a hot spot there.  We arrived in about ten minutes and went down the first street we saw.  Apparently we were good guessers, because the place was jumpin' and everyone was around our age.  #winning  Side note: Korean girls really like American guys who can speak a bit of Korean.  Knowing simple phrases in Korean such as "Do you know this song?  It's American.  I'll teach you," can go a long way.

Never So Excited for a Big Mac
The next morning, I broke from the group to again test my survival skills.  I decided to set out by myself in search for some good souvenir shopping places.  A guide book gave me the name of a couple places that sounded promising, so I started off there.  Other than momentarily losing myself down a back street with a bunch of fan vendors, I got around pretty well and found a few neat things to buy.  Plus, I rekindled my relationship with McDonald's, and it was glorious.  That afternoon, I met back with the group at the bus station and headed to Jeonju.  After comparing stories about what everyone did, I realized that 28 hours is not enough time to even scratch the surface of Seoul.  With ten million people, every street and alley has a different story to tell and a new sight to see.  There is nowhere quite like Seoul.

Crazy Korean Discoveries:

1. Stairs are not a standard height, even within one flight.  Don't be fooled - the top stair may be 50% taller than the rest just to trip you up.
2. Taxi drivers are their own kind of crazy.  They will throw their automatic cars into neutral while driving.  This is not limited to stop lights or stop signs, either.  If they are going down a hill and are just feelin' it, that car is going into neutral.