A Travellerspoint blog

May 2006

Hey! You! 10-year-old!

here's a knife!

Clearly, living in Korea, one is subjected to major cultural differences between the West and the East. Many you grow accustomed to, many are just baffling.

For example, taking off your shoes when you enter an apartment, or a sit-on-the-floor kalbi restaurant. At first it seems strange, but after a short period, you get used to it. Like I was reading "A Death in the Family," and one of the characters was going to put on his shoes in his BEDROOM. Immediately the Korean part of my brain (I am not the slightest bit Korean, ethnically speaking, but I have reserved a part of my brain for Korean customs so that my head doesn't explode) thought, "Are you CRAZY?!"

Another one is giving or accepting things to/from Korean people. Generally, it's polite to use both hands, but it is acceptable to place your unused hand on the giving/receiving arm. And do a little bow. Now you're Korean! When I came home to America in February, I subconsciously did this all the time, the first time being at Wendy's with the Hispanic boy behind the counter. It was brought to my attention that I was doing it only by one of the Delta flight attendants who had lived in Korea for a time.

It is easy to adapt to these small differences that make Korea so charming. Other things include bowing, cute stationary and my newfound obsession with it, street food, terrible TERRIBLE Korean fashion, including but not limited to the men who wear nothing but suits, some of which are sharkskin in appearance (that's nice, but a nice suit is a wonderful thing on a man. It loses its notability when every single Korean man is wearing one), and sometimes stares (cute from children, rude from older people).

A Korean teacher at my school, Matt, and what I like to call, his "party shirt."

Some things are annoying. The lack of trashcans, for example, which Paul commented on in his blog. There are no trashcans ANYWHERE, except sometimes you'll find the scattered blue trashbags here and there. There are NONE, however, in the subway. If you finish a drink in there, prepare to hold on to your bottle until you have reached your destination, have walked out of the subway station, and have walked at least 5 blocks before you can throw it away.

Also, the public restrooms range from the pristine to the raunchy, which is true in any culture. But good luck finding a) toilet paper and b) soap. None of the kids at my school wipe or wash their hands. And yet they refuse to enter an apartment without first removing their shoes.


All of this was a prelude to a story I have from yesterday that freaked me out. In America, if a student walked into a school with an exacto knife, the knife would be confiscated and the student would be all but expelled. Possibly incarcerated in juvenile detention. Here? No problem. In fact you can buy them at any stationary store, and they often have cute little cartoon characters. The students use them to sharpen their pencils or cut paper, or make cute little jokes about stabbing each other, themselves, or on occasion, you.

The Korean teachers, when confronted about the ridiculous and dangerous nature of this possession, wave us away with "You wouldn't understand. This is KOREA. You are AMERICAN. KOREAN culture is DIFFERENT than AMERICAN culture. (mumbled in Korean) Stupid foreigner."

Yeah, no, I got that. One of the reasons I came to Korea was to experience that said difference. However, I don't care what culture you come from, giving a 10-year-old an exacto knife is not a good idea. And here's why:
Yesterday, one of my students, John, was apparently sharpening his pencil. I did not notice this as it is fairly standard practice by now. The student behind him, Sung Hwan, was generally horsing around as was normal and accidentally bumped his desk into John's chair. Hard enough to really jostle John. Hard enough to make John slip and cut his hand. With the exacto knife, which was such a good idea in the first place. He starts howling and holding his hand so I couldn't see it. One of the students claimed "Oh! Blood!" so of course I hustled him to the front desk where the first aid kit was and also where they spoke Korean. Come to find out, it's actually a pretty nasty gash in poor little John's hand.

So I'm sorry, Korean teachers. This whole children with exacto knives thing isn't really a good idea, huh? You claim I can't understand because they don't really have school violence here so my fears are ungrounded. Nevertheless, I am not worried about kids hurting kids. I am worried about kids hurting themselves. Kids, by nature, are given to exploring. That's what they do, that's how they learn. It is our job as adults to make sure that they don't explore dangerous things, such as poisons, fire, and yes, exacto knives.

Other precious 10-year-olds I try to protect from the exacto knife, Jenny Kim and Becky.

That's all I have to say about that.

Posted by lrbergen 19:49 Archived in South Korea Comments (1)

Spring in Korea

giving the people what they want...

Who'd have thought that Korea could be such a beautiful country? After seeing the ho-hum browns and the hum-drum grays of winter, not me. But I suppose it's like that everywhere. You get stuck in an ugly season for what seems like so long that you can hardly remember that this place, or any place, can actually be beautiful.

I think I was a little too scared out of my mind/homesick when I first got here to appreciate anything more than the sweltering heat (flashback: August). But spring has been good to me (aside from the aforementioned laryngitis, which can I just say, thank you for $4 antibiotics!) and to the landscape of Korea. It's really coming into its own. Rock on, Korea!

So this will be a purely photo-inspired blog.

This is a sidewalk I walk down on my way to work.

Fruit sellers enjoy the shade.

Same sidewalk, further down.

Yet another sidewalk, off the beaten path.

This is the street I live on, from the overpass bridge.

Advertisements everywhere you go.

At the elementary school. Some kids doing their daily exercises.

On the pedestrian bridge going to "Central Park."

A lamppost on the pedestrian bridge.

People moseying. If you had seen them in action, you would agree with the word choice.

A bridge in the park. With some kindie-gartners!

Fountain. Taken under the pagoda.

Hey monkey!

Hey dragon!

What's up...bear? Anteater?

Aaaand...a cow.

Nothing is safe from urban sprawl. Don't try to resist.

A nice little sitting area further in.

Ok last one. The real street from the entrance of central park.

Kinda nice, eh? Central Park is about 10 minutes from my apartment and it's always full of people, mostly a) kindergartners on field trips playing games with their teachers or b) older folks "moseying." There are the occasional families with young children who aren't in school that are having picnics, mostly with just their mothers because their fathers work all day. It's a nice space to have. Kind of like the REAL "Central Park." Only much smaller.

(PS - I changed my template yet again to a simpler one. The guy on the rocks was cool and dramatic, but he kind of set too high a standard for my posts, leaving me feeling like I could never live up to his expectations.)

Posted by lrbergen 19:10 Archived in South Korea Tagged photography Comments (2)

Somewhere between D and F...

...you know...for effort.

Well I've been holding it down here at camp laryngitis for the past couple of days. I haven't eaten anything really substantial since...well...probably Saturday night. It is now Thursday. You do the math.

But that is neither here nor there. Our students had speaking tests and to accompany them, essay tests. Oh those are fun. We administer the speaking tests and grade the essay tests, native English speakers that we are. As I said in a previous post, imagine someone gave you a sheet of paper and said, "Here. Write an essay in Arabic." What if that same person said, "You have 30 minutes. Go." Imagine the pressure! The stress! And you're only 11 years old! And you've had a full day of school already! All you want to do is play computer games or watch TV!

Well...hopefully you'd come up with something better than this, when asked to summarize as much as you can on a unit you had read about Mars (mainly about how we've sent Pathfinder, and how we don't know if there is life or water).

[Note: question marks denote where I couldn't read what the student wrote]

Mars is 1990 years old start is mars is rianin(?) crop(?) too quick

inticre(?) and to do much mars is world out here

mars is sun relax is out herer to much

mars is world one is to bed is relax

mars is too to do much and did quite

saw much rain to rain saw too much to do

muching there cratin (?) more incre (?) to dict insiting

mars moon is mars as to many muching to did

inciting there to did quick to gary (?) They are to many exellent

mars in the is paridise and did very hansome marse

is hansome mars is very cold and hot add house

summarize mars is summarize as you can about

unit on mars as to much mars

much as you can about mars

mars is to big moon.

See? Hard.

Posted by lrbergen 20:12 Archived in South Korea Comments (1)

1, 2, JUMP!

tales from a fat foreigner

Friday was Buddha's birthday/ Children's day, both national holidays and so we were given the day off. Chantal and Rebecca decided at the last minute that we should go whitewater rafting. So at 7am we all met and took the trek that included a bus, the subway, and another bus.

Mikey on the bus to Seoul. Complain no more, woman!

Me, Scottish Mike (Princess), Mikey, Heather on the bus to Gangwon-do.

We had had sunny days all week prior so of COURSE this day was overcast and it threatened to rain the whole day. Of course when we were out on the water, it did. But no matter. We arrived to the campsite shortly after 12 and were shown to our cabin.

View from our cabin.

We met at around 1 to learn proper safety procedures and then get out on the water. They taught us the Korean for several important instructions which we didn't quite get. We only knew the danger signal and everybody row. "Hana! Dul!" (1! 2!) the whole time. I brought out my camera in a ziploc bag. Fortunately I took it out before we really shoved off and they noticed and made me leave it behind. We were all completely soaked by the end of the trip, so I got lucky.

Everything started out great. The water was a little bit calmer than I would have liked, which we later found out was due to the shallow waters. We went down small rapids surrounded by high cliffs with interesting rock formations. We passed a temple and some waterfalls that are used in many Korean movies. We saw lots of herons and cranes. The water was so fresh, our guide said, that he took a drink of it. We were a little bit more gunshy about that. When we approached our first big rapid, we saw a man fall out. That same man was taken to the side of the river with a big nasty cut on his leg. So we were delayed for about 20-30 minutes while we waited for EMS to figure out how to come get him.

The guides kept apologizing, but really it was ok. I wouldn't want to be left alone, either. We finally went on our way down some more small but fun rapids. We got stuck a couple of times. Then we stopped at a bank and while another raft packed up and left, we got to go swimming. It was cold of course, but for being May, it was not that bad. Just think of Lake Michigan, if you will, and how it is in June. The water was about 3 times as warm as that.

It was when we continued on that we hit the rough spots. And by rough I mean the water was so shallow that we could see the rocks we were trying to pass over. We all thought it would have been much easier if the 7 heavy foreigners had been able to get out and walk over these rocks, but to save the 3 Korean guides' dignities, we were forced to stay in the boat while we watched them struggle to pass over the rocks. Altogether, there was about 40 minutes of this. Just when we thought we were smooth sailing, we'd hit another rock and be stuck.

Hence the subject line in this blog. The only way they could get us to really go anywhere was by having us jump so they could push the raft from under us. "1, 2, JUMP!" Story of our rafting trip.

Then we went swimming again, and hit relatively calm waters. More beautiful rocks. Then games where we tried to knock the other "team" off the raft. Good times. We were out there for a little over 4 hours, and we went for about 9km. It was hard, but fun, and I'm just waiting for the next day off when we can go again.

Kind of a fun anecdote: no one expected for us to get as wet as we did. Which is why many of us neglected to bring how do you say...dry clothes or shoes. Mikey was wearing socks and shoes in the boat. Eventually they came off. So for the entire 4-hour duration of the trip we had two socks floating around in the boat, which was full ankle-deep with water. Great. Just great. Eventually I think we all got sick of it so he tied them around his ankles. Sporty!

Another fun anecdote: Our guide in the back, Hyuk Jin, reminded us that when we paddled, we should insert our ENTIRE paddle in the water. Chantal made reference to Scottish Mike, the most muscular one of all of us, and how he was doing virtually no work. Hyuk Jin said "Ah! Princess no!" So now we have Princess.

After we got back, we went and took hot showers and changed into dry clothes. We were bussed to a restaurant nearby for a kalbi dinner where we were gawked at by the vacationing Korean families. No matter. The food was delicious, and even moreso after being outside on the river all day.

Then we got back to the cabin and started drinking the beer that we had saved up. We saw the rafting guides out practicing and when they were finished, we enticed them to come join us for beer and singing. Really great people, so of course a really great time.

I don't remember their names, except for Hyuk Jin in the black hat.

Me, Heather and Rebecca with the rafting guides.

Rebecca, Heather, Hyuk Jin, Scottish Mike, Chantal, and....?

Watching Chad playing guitar.

A candid shot...Mikey looks like he's really feeling the music.

Welcome to the GUN SHOW! (I have no less than 4 pictures with Rebecca in this pose)

Where is the foreigner? Hint: skin and eye color.

Inae, the only female rafting guide, and Mikey rockin' out.

This massage chain is popular in Korea. Well not this specific one, but you get the idea.

So one of us fell asleep around 9/930pm. And you remember at slumber parties how if you fell asleep early, something really terrible would happen to you? Well...we had no shaving cream nor any freezer in which to freeze underwear. And this might not have worked with anyone else except the person who could sleep through the end of the world.

Chantal had earlier bought a packet of razors, possibly for the sole purpose of what happened that night. The Koreans thought it was hilarious.

Chantal and Chad shaving a racing stripe into Mikey's leg.

Inae is surprised.

I am horrified.

Let me just say that Mikey was the best sport about this that he possibly could have been. As he said, we could have beaten him with a baseball bat and he wouldn't have woken up.

One of the guys giving me a foot massage.

Our new Korean friends left shortly after and we lingered awake for a short time more before all piling together in our tiny cabin on the floor and passing out after a long long fun-filled day.

The stoop the next day. Kind of white trash-y, eh?

The razor/hair/cup the next day. Yum!

All in all, a great time had by everyone.

For more pics: http://www.flickr.com/photos/31481968@N00/

Posted by lrbergen 18:10 Archived in South Korea Comments (1)

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