A Travellerspoint blog

South Korea

Things to do!

As many of my family and friends already know, I am going to be ending my time of teaching English abroad for something equally scary: starting over in America. It's coming up soon in March 2015. It is now September 2014. That's, like, 6 months.

Though I've lived in Korea for about 8 years, I have failed somewhat on the tourist attraction front. I mean, it's gotten a lot better over the past few years, but I have really missed seeing a lot of stuff. I'm going to try to jam-pack it into this fall because let me tell you, the winters here are awful. I mean, just terrible. They don't salt the sidewalks AT ALL, so walking anywhere is pretty hazardous. When I lived in Seoul, my entire street was covered in a thick sheet of ice for weeks at a time. Walking outside to let Kron do his business was a challenge every day. Fall here is beautiful and mild and lovely, so I'm going to force myself to do something every weekend (starting next weekend).

Over the Chuseok holiday, I finally made it to Namhansanseong, an old fortress that was just declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in June. It was a little too warm for my liking, but it was absolutely beautiful. Kron and I will definitely be going again at least one more time.

I also ventured to Everland. Too hot. Too many people. But cheap! And the T-Express wooden roller coaster was not too shabby. (This coming from someone who LOVES roller coasters.)

I need to make a to-do list for what I really want to do in Seoul before I leave (there is SO MUCH!):

  • Seoul Tower (Namsan Tower) - seriously, how have I never been here?
  • Bukcheon Hanok Village - traditional Korean homes! Near two palaces!

- BONUS! Gyeongbokgung! Changdeokgung!

  • National Museum of Contemporary and Modern Art - I LOVE modern art!
  • Hwarangdae (Gangneung) - burial mounds! Royals buried here!
  • Seonyudo - "Host to a water purification plant for decades, this island was recently turned into a park – but instead of dismantling the plant, it was incorporated into the park’s design: support columns are given over to ivy, chemical settling basins turned into lily ponds."
  • Jongmyo Shrine
  • The Blue House - like the White House, but blue.
  • Seodaemun Prison
  • Kimchi Museum - when I first moved here, I mocked the kimchi museum. Now I want to go.
  • kimchi-making class! Other cooking classes!

I also have one week of vacation in the winter, and I think I'll be heading to Hong Kong for that week. Stay tuned to see if I can complete my to-do list!

Posted by lrbergen 04:52 Archived in South Korea Tagged tourist_sites life_in_korea Comments (0)

Year 8


This year, I turned 30. Quite a milestone, yes? I had to renew my passport because it expired. Yet another milestone. And I got to thinking about another landmark in my life and it gave me pause. As of this month, August 2013, I have been living abroad and teaching English for 8 years.

8 YEARS!!!!!!!!!!

That includes Mexico and Korea.

So what have I learned?

  • Don't really trust your Korean boss. I've been duped into it a couple of times with mildly to horribly frustrating and disappointing results.
  • When given something to eat that you don't know, at least try a bite. More often than not, it's actually good, and it always makes for a great story.
  • Wherever you go, pack lightly. Read up ahead of time to see if you're going to a place that doesn't have, say, tampons (I can safely say most of SE Asia does NOT carry these). Do you really want to be the one tied down to a rolling suitcase? Do you really want to wait at baggage claim because you brought too much stuff? It's so satisfying to get off the plane, go through immigration, and leave the airport.
  • There are trade-offs to everything. You might get a great job with awesome pay, but there will always be something that is not so great. Always. I love my life, but I don't have a house or car or husband or children. Trade-off.
  • Learn to roll with the changes. I am not good at this. I usually take it as a personal affront if there are last-minute changes at my job, but I do somewhat okay outside of that. If you live in another country, you'll have to deal with a lot of difficulties in your everyday life...setting up a cell phone, going to the doctor, figuring out immigration...at least in Korea, no policy ever stays the same. So. There's that.
  • Learn at least a little bit of the local language. I have really slacked off on this in recent years, but on my backpacking trip in Vietnam, I learned a lot of basic phrases and important words. While it wasn't essential to basic communication (a LOT of people there speak English in the more touristy towns), it was just...nice. My Korean is terrible, but I mostly know how to communicate in my everyday life, and that is very helpful.
  • You NEED vacation. You do. I have a friend who didn't take a real vacation for more than a year and I can't for the life of me understand how he did it. I have learned that I need to get out of the country on this vacation, but not everyone can or needs to. I actually just got back after a week from the Philippines and I honestly feel I am much better for it. It's Korean culture, however, to work long periods of time with no vacation. WHY?!
  • Don't keep working at a job you hate. Of course it's hard to get out of it and get a new one, and your life will get upset for a while, but in the end it's worth it. I know teaching here is most of my life. I've quit 3 jobs because there is no reason to be miserable.
  • Change can be really good.
  • But so can routines.
  • It's a bit easy to get desensitized to beauty and wonder and excitement.
  • *This post was written in August 2013. It is now September 2014! Oops!

Posted by lrbergen 04:50 Archived in South Korea Tagged tips_and_tricks living_abroad Comments (0)

On Teaching in Korea

a how-to guide....kinda

UPDATED 2/14/2015!

I've been asked by many a friend, or friend of a friend, or random person that someone kinda knows about teaching in Korea. I'm always happy to give answers to any questions, but for someone who has never been here or taught abroad, there are usually just too many. So usually I write e-mails full of as much information as I can think of....but I usually end up forgetting lots of stuff. I've written a lot of these e-mails, so now it's time to put it down in blog form. What follows is as much as I can offer about teaching in Korea.

There are a few options of teaching in Korea, but in this post I'm going to talk about the three options that I've done: after-school hagwons (privately run, for-profit businesses), public school, and after-school public school jobs. I've done all three, and there are pros and cons for both, as you can imagine.
(There are also universities, international schools, and institutes where you would teach adults, but I've never done those!)

The similarities between all three are:
- your airfare and apartment are paid for by the school+
- your school sponsors your E-2 visa
- you will receive a month's pay extra after finishing your contract
as a severance bonus++
- if your school is on the level, you will be paying into the national pension fund and they will match it...at the end of your time in Korea, you get all of that money back! (Per year, it comes out to roughly 1 month's salary.)+++

+ - usually. Some hagwons are trying to worm their way around paying for your flight...and some of them will choose the cheapest, and often crappiest, flights they can find. In these cases, it might be best to get your own flight and then usually your school will reimburse you for most of it. Also, some schools offer a housing allowance in lieu of just providing an apartment...if they do that, make sure they can pay the "key money" (deposit - usually around $5000) and that you have a say in the apartment you'll be getting. I've been unpleasantly surprised in the past to learn I was going to live in a shoe box for a month.
++ - I thought this practice had fallen out of fashion, but it still seems perfectly legal (or at least EXTREMELY EASY to get away with) that hagwons will fire you in your 11th month to avoid paying this. Do some research on your hagwon before you accept a job there...a simple google search will generally connect you to a "blacklist" site that will have reviews by other teachers. If there is any funny business (no severance, late pay, etc.), it's best to avoid that school. In my experience, other foreigners are more trustworthy critics than any hagwon director I've ever worked for.
+++ - a lot of hagwons are getting away with contracts that omit the pension. They claim that you are an "independent contracted individual" rather than an employee, and this is a loophole that they love. I'm not sure if it's illegal, but basically they have found a way to avoid paying you money. If there is no pension listed in your contract, ask about it. If they don't offer it, it's up to you. You pay about half a month's salary over the course of a year and so does your employer. Do you want to work for a company that wants to weasel their way out of paying you? I've worked for 2 such places and in the end quit because of other reasons. But I think the pension issue is indicative of other problems.

With a hagwon:
- you will usually be working with other foreign teachers, which is often helpful when you're first starting out
- you can usually get more money +
- your class size is usually a lot smaller, and you get to know the kids a bit more
- these kids can usually speak at least a little bit of English so it's easier to communicate
- some hagwons can be disreputable: hagwons sometimes don't pay on time, fire teachers with no legal grounds, or sometimes close up
altogether leaving you stranded....among other issues
- you'll be working a bit more than at public school...often teaching 6 hours (sometimes in a row, with no break)
- vacation is usually 1-2 weeks per year...yes, per YEAR
- they hire year-round

+ - meh. I've been here since 2005 and my starting salary then was 2.1 million won ($~2000) per month. I have seen a LOT of listings that still have this as starting pay. I've made more, but it was usually at the cost of my pension. I've seen listings for less. There are also listings for a lot more money, but you'll be working around 10 hours a day in split shifts. It's really ridiculous that average salary prices haven't been raised in 10 years!

With public school:
- you are most likely to be working as the only foreign teacher in the school...this can be daunting, or a nice break depending on your
point of view (I personally didn't mind it)
- you will get paid a bit less, although if you get yourself an online TEFL certificate of more than 100 hours you can start off a bit higher....also, if you live in a rural area, they will give you a bit more money
- your class size is anywhere from 20 to 40...and depending on the size of the school, you will see every student in the school 1-3 times
a week
- don't expect much from the kids in the way of English...some of them will speak it, but the kids are separated by grade level, not
English ability
- you will always get paid on time, and you never need to worry about your contract ending early. Korea is experiencing budget cuts right
now, however, so it's not guaranteed that you'd be able to re-sign for another year. +
- there is tons of free time...you'll have to be there for 8 hours a day, but you'll get around 3 of that to yourself
- you'll be teaching a winter "camp" and summer "camp", during which you will be the only teacher and will have a lot more freedom in the way of what you teach
- if you work at an elementary school, you will have a set curriculum that you will follow...middle and high schools do not have a curriculum
- 4 weeks paid vacation. That's the big pull for public school.
- the hiring season is usually for September or March

+ - they are not hiring NEARLY as many teachers for public school, again because of budget cuts. So you can imagine, they are pretty competitive.

I have just finished working for an after-school program, which also vary wildly on what you'll get. These (from my understanding) are independently contracted companies that work with public schools to provide after school English, which is separate from what the students learn in their regular school day. Some companies are for-profit, like a hagwon, but some (like mine) are through a university. I personally worked with Hanshin University and I had nothing but good experiences with them. They are the only company I've worked for in 9 years that I would recommend.

So, what can you expect from an after-school job?
- shorter work hours. This was 100% the reason I took this job. I worked 4 hours a day, with no office hours, prep time, or desk warming. I came in 10 minutes before my class started and left when it was over. Some after-school programs are around 6 hours, including prep time, but from what I know you will still only teach 4 hours. And 6 hours is still less than 8!
- less money. I mean, it's a trade-off, right? You are working few hours a day, so you get paid less. I also got a housing allowance of $300...they would have put me in an apartment that I didn't like (because it was $300 and you get what you pay for), but I opted to pay more to have a better apartment. They did provide key money though!
- SOME after school jobs will give you permission to work part-time teaching jobs to make up the money. This is a new benefit for E2 holders. I've been working at a private kindergarten for an extra hour a day to make up the difference in money.
- it seems to be a cross between a hagwon and a public school. At least mine was. I always got paid on time, had 2 weeks vacation for the year, had pretty small classes, and was the only foreigner at my school (and quite possibly that entire neighborhood).

As far as recruiting companies' reliability....it's a total crapshoot. There is literally no accountability...recruiters can (and often do) lie with no consequences. And never publicly denounce them, or you can suffer Korea's libel laws. You can get lucky, though, and have a decent one. Unfortunately, there just doesn't seem to be any way of knowing. If you want public school, I recommend Korvia.com. They were wonderful to me. As far as hagwon recruiters go...it's hard to tell. I just recently quit a job because it wasn't at all what I thought it was going to be. That's just the
way it is in Korea...

Posted by lrbergen 21:57 Archived in South Korea Tagged tips_and_tricks living_abroad Comments (0)

Foreign Country Dentistry

not the same as america.


You know the old adage "You pay for what you get"? It's true. Every time I find this statement verified, I'm surprised, though I never know why.

Teaching in public school, I have a LOT of vacation. I haven't taught a full day since December 15 (the week before Christmas, we showed "Elf" to the kids). February is full of downtime...the kids come to school for only a week and March starts the new school year. Weird, eh? That's one of the reasons why I decided to have my wisdom teeth taken out. They don't usually bother me, sometimes they're a little sore, but they haven't surfaced (I'm almost positive that's not the correct term but oh well) and they don't threaten the other teeth any more than normal. So why did I decide to torture myself this way?

A bit of background: Growing up, I never had any major problems with my teeth (I'm 27 and am going on 28 years with no cavities).....this is extremely fortunate because we always had little to no dental insurance. Teeth cleaning alone cleaned us out. I had to have dental x-rays as part of my Peace Corps application in 2005. The dentist said because the bottom ones are impacted, in the US it would be $1000 per extracted tooth. That equals $4000. FOUR THOUSAND DOLLARS. For non-threatening teeth. (Ha...from that sentence, I imagine them holding little knives to my other teeth.) Obviously, I didn't go through with it.

I've had my teeth cleaned twice since I've been in Korea (it had been a looooooooong time before that first one) and because I've gone to a....luxury dentist, it's been 60,000 won, or around $60. That's the most expensive I've heard of. My friend started the wisdom tooth trend, telling me hers would be a grand total of 20,000 won. Yep. 5,000 per tooth.

$4000? or $20? Hmmmm...I listened to other stories of friends getting their wisdom teeth out (in the US or Canada) and it didn't sound like it would be all that bad. I had a whole week to recuperate...so why not?

To reiterate: I decided to get it over with because it's cheap and I had a lot of time to recover. But doing this all in Korea is VERY different than what I heard about Canada and the US. Examples follow.

  • In Canada and the US, dentists speak English. So do you. Therefore, you are told what to expect beforehand and given clear care instructions after.
  • In Korea, some dentists speak English. Mine didn't. Usually someone else working there will speak English. No one...NO ONE at my dentist spoke English. I chose this particular dentist because it's a 2-minute walk from my apartment and I thought the whole language barrier would be less frustrating than it was. It was way more frustrating than probably any other experience I've had so far. Should something have happened (it didn't), I wouldn't know what was going on. Fortunately, a very awesome friend of mine was available to translate. We spent a lot of time on the phone that day.
  • In Canada and the US, they will usually extract all of the wisdom teeth at once. This makes sense to me...why spend 2 weeks recovering when you can just spend one?
  • In Korea, they don't. When I made the appointment, the lady did a lot of miming and I understood "Which teeth do you want out?" I responded "All 4." She said OK. I came back the next week for the procedure, and as I was sitting in the chair, they mimed that they would only take out one side at a time, with 2 weeks in between procedures. We called my friend, he confirmed. I kind of already knew this was common beforehand, but because of that blasted language barrier, I thought they were making an exception when I made the appointment. Nope. That's not how they roll.
  • In Canada and the US, they sometimes put you completely under. They sometimes only give you local anesthesia. It just depends.
  • In Korea, they only give you local. You can prepare yourself mentally beforehand if your dentist speaks English and tells you how it's going to be. Mine of course didn't, so I brought along a friend who could make sure I got home okay in case they put me under. It was nice having him there anyway. For those of you who have never had this done, they stick a big needle into your gums. It sounds (and looks) scarier than it is. (And it's really odd that I freak out when getting poked by a medical needle, since I have 6 tattoos...and counting.) Eventually, your lip will go numb and you will start to feel like you're drunk (though...that may have just been mental). At some point, the dentist will come back in and he'll start. (All the waiting was due to the fact that there was ONE dentist on duty and several other patients that he had to attend to...also, I'm sure he's making sure you're completely numb before he starts.) Here's the thing though...you can't feel most of the pain, but you can definitely feel that something is going on. It's standard procedure that they break the bottom wisdom tooth and remove the pieces. You definitely can tell when he's doing this. You feel pressure, and it sucks feeling that someone is trying to literally break part of you. In Korea, they put a cloth over your face (with a hole for your nose and mouth) for most procedures (even cleaning) so you can't see what's going on (or into your mouth). I am really thankful for this, because I'm sure seeing it all would have made it worse.
  • In Canada and the US, I'm guessing if they give you local anesthesia, they give it to you all at once and do all of the teeth at once? I don't know, really. I do know that the whole thing is really fast.
  • In Korea, at my dentist, they numbed the bottom, took out the bottom tooth, injected the top, then took out the top. In between all of these things, they waited a loooooooooong time. That's why I was there for 3 hours. The actual procedures didn't take that long (the bottom took about 15-20 min and the top around ...5-10). It felt like I was there forever.
  • In Canada and the US, they put in dissolvable stitches, so you don't have to go back and get them removed.
  • In Korea, they don't. I have to go get mine out today, a week later. The bottom ones have already pretty much come out though (and are just kind of...there) and it's pretty annoying. Not painful, but annoying.
  • In Canada and the US, they realize that they are breaking part of you and removing it. It doesn't feel good. So they give you pretty strong painkillers as to make it bearable.
  • In Korea, they give you motrin. I'll let that sink in. MOTRIN. This is what I take for my menstrual cramps, not having teeth taken out of my skull. After all was said and done, I had to bite on that gauze for 2 hours before I could take it out. I was in...pain. Not excruciating...not the worst I've ever felt in my life, but definite, REAL pain. I had to wait 2 hours to take my pain medication, which I thought was stronger than your ordinary run-of-the-mill motrin. After 20 minutes of taking it and feeling it was doing nothing, we googled it. (Korean medications have different names than back home.) "MOTRIN?! Where's the vicodin? The codeine? The lovely little pill that is going to get me through this?" We actually packed it up and went back to the dentist. They said they don't give anything stronger for just wisdom teeth. Policy in Korea. If I was in too much pain, I could go to the 3rd floor doctor and get a shot. Fine! We went down and sat there while he finished up a phone call. I went in and described my pain (the dude speaks a bit of English) and asked for whatever he could give me. He told me I was being impatient and needed to wait the 2 hours it takes for the drugs to kick in. Wait...it takes TWO HOURS to kick in? So I'm sitting there, unmedicated and bleeding, for a full 4 hours? This has to be a joke. A very cruel...sick...joke. I think this was the worst part of the whole thing, because it really did feel like they couldn't care less about how I was feeling, about my pain.

[Sidenote: I hear it's common to under-medicate for pain here. We were wondering...is it because of the...war? Like...Koreans (and, whatever...I guess foreigners too) are expected to be stronger because they've been through so much? Or...kimchi helps? Or...the West just over-medicates? I don't know, and I don't care. When I know I need it, I want it available.]
[Sidnote #2: The motrin is really all I needed after the first day. I wasn't in too much pain for the rest of the week.]

There were a lot of tears on this day. My friend, who was coming to support me, and I had miscommunicated about where to meet and then he couldn't find it right away, so when I thought he wasn't coming... that was upsetting. I came in scared but, I thought, prepared and when nothing, no nothing, was how I expected it to be, that was upsetting. The bottom tooth came out and I was freaked out, but for me the top (and easier to remove) tooth was horrible. There was way more pressure and I completely tensed up, started shaking, started crying. Then, when I found out I'd be in pretty bad pain and there's nothing that anyone could (or in my mind, would) do about it, I cried. Maybe I had just needed a good cry.

This scared me probably way more than it should have. People get this done all the time. I always think I'm so strong, but when it comes to this I'm a huge baby. I'm supposed to go back and get it done all over again next Monday. But...I don't want to. Yes, I'm scared, even though I know what to expect. Maybe if I could get some better painkillers for the first day, I might consider it. Or maybe if they put me under, I might. As it is, the right side can stay put for now. Indefinitely.

Posted by lrbergen 19:27 Archived in South Korea Tagged dentistry living_abroad life_in_korea Comments (0)

Korea: Year 4

no longer a hagwon peon

This is mostly a personal update. Because it's my blog and I'll whine if I want to!

Things have been going smoothly, for the most part. The weather has turned, and it's pretty cold here. My school is about a 20-minute walk from my school, and there IS a bus that goes there, but it only comes every 15-20 minutes. I spent 10 minutes waiting for a bus yesterday morning, but had to make a quick decision and take a taxi at the last minute. It was under $3, so that's not too bad. I mostly walk, just to get a bit of exercise. To and from, it's about 40 minutes a day, which is better than nothing!

There have certainly been some adjustments.

First, my school: I'm now the only foreign teacher to almost 400 students. I work full-time with 3rd-6th grade, and each grade has 3 classes each. I see each class twice a week. In addition, they asked me to teach "overtime" to Kindergarten-2nd grade. I teach K twice a week and 2 1st and 2 2nd grade classes once a week each. This makes me about an extra 400,000 won (~$400) a month. 3rd-6th I teach with a Korean co-teacher, and K-2 I'm on my own. This past month, she has been doing most of the regular classes while I get adjusted, but I'm actually not too sure what my role is. She teaches the book (with interactive CD) and I plan games / other activities. I've mostly been walking around and making sure kids are doing what they're supposed to and correcting behavior/work. I usually try to lead the games as well, but I don't know how effective my role is because she always has to translate. The levels are varied; I have about 3-4 kids in each class who go to academies (like I used to teach at), or lived abroad. Sometimes these kids are helpful, but mostly they seem bored. It's an experience. The job itself is really easy, but it's hard to see my role, as I said. I really like my co-teacher, whose English is pretty good.

Another good thing about my school is I get free lunch. It's Korean food, of course, but usually it's pretty good. I've noticed that I'm basically Korean now, in my tastes and in a lot of my mannerisms and habits. Today's lunch was really bad, though, so I could only eat kimchi and rice. However, my Korean co-teacher agreed and bought Papa John's for after class. :D It was her treat today, but it will be mine the next time we have to do this.

Second, my apartment: Now, I've lived in tiny apartments here. And really, none of the apartments I've lived in have been HUGE. I know some lucky foreigners get those ones. Over the summer, the budget for my housing was cut and they had to move me to another place. I thought it would be comparable. It's not....it's about half the size, with no storage space. It's tiny. I've been there for about a month now, and while I've gotten used to it, I haven't been able to get over the principle of the thing. Maybe I shouldn't complain, but I have, and it's expected that I'll get to move in February, to an apartment in the same building that is much bigger with an extra room (mostly used as a closet). This was a big source of stress in both mine and my co-teacher's life for a while. I felt bad complaining, but at the same time I have enough experience to know that this isn't right. My recruiter was a HUGE help in negotiating all of this. And I actually really don't mind the area...these appear to be pretty new apartments, and it's really quiet. Though on the weekends,when I want to sleep in, there are always people playing soccer outside (I live by a middle school). I don't have a bed yet, so I bought a mat and have been sleeping on the floor. At first I was a little indignant, but now I've grown accustomed to it. In lieu of a bed, I've requested they buy me a sofa bed, which is mostly like a futon. I'll also be getting a nice big bookshelf, and I've already gotten a microwave and toaster.

Also, Korea has been hosting some pretty sweet concerts as of late. Back in July, Usher! Then Stevie Wonder, which was sold out and I didn't get to go to....but last Saturday: MEW! And this coming Saturday:


It's really exciting.

More to come later, because I'm going to Laos for 2 weeks in December-January. OH YEAH!

Posted by lrbergen 01:33 Archived in South Korea Comments (0)

Seoul in May

yes...2 months ago

So two months ago, I took photos and posted them on Travellerspoint, never actually blogging about them. Since then, I have gone to Borneo and still need to post photos/blog about it. I also went to the DMZ. I have had plenty to write about. Next weekend, I will go take photos for the first time since ...June? Time to get caught up!

First, we went to the Noryangjin Fish Market in Seoul. There were tanks upon tanks of fish, shellfish, baby octopuses (octopi?), and squid. There were lots of people there to shop and take pictures, and the hawkers were happy to oblige. After you've had your fill of the sights, you can pick up some fresh sashimi, sliced right in front of you (or, as was our sashimi's case, sliced only very recently) and take it to a little restaurant and eat to your heart's content. We also got ourselves some fresh raw oysters. How much would you pay for this? Back home in Indiana....a lot. Here in Korea...less than $15. YES!

What does this look like...?
Sea cucumbers
This lady was only too happy to pose for my camera
Just like Mr. Peanut!
Tools of the trade
What kind of fit?
Lots of kidd-os there, fascinated by the creatures
Fish market lamps!

So our trip to Noryangjin was a great success! Not long after that, I went into Seoul to do some shopping/sightseeing with Michael and his wife, Dixie. This was before Buddha's birthday, before I went to Borneo, before Michael and Dixie took off to SE Asia. I always forget how lovely walking around in Seoul can be.

First, we hit up Insadong, which looks very different now than it did in the winter, the last time I took photos there. It's much more crowded, especially because it was the weekend.

Chicken-on-a-stick (dalk kkochi) seller
Fortune tellers are pretty popular here...they decide how "compatible" couples are for future marriage and sometimes decide names for unborn babies. I never really noticed them before, but now that I know what they're used for, I see them everywhere.
Ceramics shop; Insadong is pretty well-known for its ceramics
Man carries boxes
We stopped for lunch: kimchi jjigae, kimchi pancake, and makeoli (rice wine). Delish!

Then we decided to walk to Namdaemun, the huge outdoor market where you can buy EVERYTHING. We passed Jogyesa, the Buddhist temple, and the surrounding religious paraphernalia shops. This time of the year (well...THAT time of the year, May) is the most beautiful around these parts because of all the lanterns being made and sold and hung.
Lotus lanterns for sale
The lanterns strung around Jogyesa
They made the yin-yang from the Korean flag
Reflection of the lanterns
Tired of lotuses? There are plenty more options

Reflection in Jongno
Jongno tower
Saturday Seoul traffic
Chunggye stream, Seoul

And that was May in Seoul. Hooray, May!

Posted by lrbergen 01:20 Archived in South Korea Comments (0)

Hiking Bukhansan

we did that like...4 months ago.

Oh, readers. It has been far too long, hasn't it? I apologize for my tardiness and when I greet the "readers" I can only greet the IDEA of readers since I've been so inconsistent with my posts.

This post is meant to commemorate the great hike of '10, wherein Antony, James and I had the great idea to go hiking in the snow. It was fine going up...wearing double everything, it was relatively warm. It heated up even more on the steep stairs/trails. Going down, however, was a might bit tricky. I've always had a hard time making it down mountains (read: Falling Down a Mountain) and it was made much more difficult by the record snowfall, which totally covered any sort of trail there might have been. That, the loose snow, and the pine needles and dried wet leaves made it very difficult indeed.

Pre-hiking kimchi chigae.

This cute puppy was NOT impressed.



Korean Buddhist version of the diorama.


The house that makeoli built.

I reeeeeally regret not getting a clearer shot of this dog, who is just hanging out over the fence.

We slipped and slid down the mountain, and at the end were covered in dirt and sweaty. We had a nice hour-long cab ride back to civilization, had dinner and a couple of drinks, then called it a weekend. Wouldn't you?

Posted by lrbergen 05:57 Archived in South Korea Comments (0)


frozen fingers and sylvester stallone impressions

Due to our 2 days off of school (which we now have to make up with a 12-hour shift on Saturday...but that's another story for another time), we had a lot of free time on our hands. Monday was spent trekking through the snow (which spread up to about ...my knees) for a couple of hours. Tuesday, a buddy of mine and I went into Seoul for another photo shoot.

Now, I still don't claim to know what I'm doing with this camera. It's getting easier and I'm definitely more interested in what settings go with which lighting, the subject, the angles, the focus...there's SO MUCH to learn. But practice makes perfect, and Korea offers a lot of subjects. One such place, even in the frigid winter (at night it's -1 °F, about -18 °C...not much warmer during the day), sliding along snowy slippery streets and inadvertently dancing like James Brown and sounding like Sylvester Stallone, is Insadong. Insadong is full of souvenirs, but for the most part it's not the tacky polyester and plastic things that you can find in most parts. There are lots of art galleries, pottery shops, paper shops, hanbok stores, traditional teahouses, and antique stores. Sure, it's being infiltrated by the cheap Chinese knockoffs, but for the most part there is a really good atmosphere.

The perfect place to take pictures, right?

Besides my fingers feeling like they were being bruised anytime they brushed against ANYTHING, the fact that I couldn't feel the lower half of my body, or that when I started walking I usually accidentally got on the good foot like the hardest working man in show business...well...it was pretty great.

We ate at a very touristy Korean restaurant. There was some good lighting in there.
Kimchi pancake!
Traditional Korean dolls.
Snack seller.
Hanging stuff.
Candy sellers. (Men...would you be caught dead wearing those hats? Just curious.)

The already-narrow street was made more so by the snow piles.
A funny photo op. (James' idea...I stole it!)
Spices/mushrooms/nuts...all dried.
Lotus with a snow hat!
Motorized Egg man.
This man had just swiped some scrap metal. And was very...slowly...getting...away.



Posted by lrbergen 05:34 Archived in South Korea Comments (0)

Snow-covered Seoul

SNOW DAY!!!!!!!!!

Today was the start of a new year of work. Most schools, such as ours, were to start special winter vacation English class fun with the kids...at work at 8:40, classes start 9:10.

When I stepped out this morning, sure it was snowing a lot. To the trained Hoosier eye, though, it's just another snowy day. It was hard to walk through the sidewalks...most people trudging single-file through paths made by other trudgers. The roads were no better. When I got on the subway, it was packed, but this was nothing new either. As you may recall, I played the role of sardine crushed in a tin can when I used to take the subway 40 minutes into Seoul. At school, right before classes were about to start, classes were cancelled. The end. Go home.

I recently bought a new "real" camera, the Canon EOS Xsi 450D. I was able to go around and test the thing out yesterday; I was overjoyed at the prospect of a full day out in the snow, snapping photos.

It continued to snow...and snow...and snow. Looking in the news, we had record snowfall; 25 centimeters (about 10 inches). To a Hoosier, this is a cakewalk. In Korea, the whole country shut down. The subway stayed busy all day, people were shoveling for hours, and all of us amateur photographers took the day off and ventured out. Three hours and pants soaked halfway up to my knees, shoes completely destroyed, I came home exhausted but satisfied.

Without further ado:


Snow day in Seoul! (And no school tomorrow either!)

Some other test shots from yesterday:

Posted by lrbergen 08:05 Archived in South Korea Comments (1)


chu seok at seoraksan in sokcho

So far, my get-everything-out-of-Korea-I-can attitude is off to a good start. For Chu Seok (Korean Thanksgiving) holiday this year, with only one day off of work, my friend Tina and I took a night bus to Korea's east coast. Our destination: Seoraksan, Korea's jewel of a mountain just outside of Sokcho, right on the Sea of Japan.

Sokcho is a sweet little town with beautiful clean beaches, reliable transportation (something very common here in Korea), and awesome seafood.

Our first destination was the Hwajinpo Aquarium, which the guidebook said was shaped like a whale. That is why we went...BUT! Unfortunately, the guidebook people can't tell the difference between a whale and a ship or they did a complete overhaul in the past two years. Both seem possible.

The first floor was full of dead things. Stuffed creepy seals that smelled awful, creepy mannequins with assorted limbs, and creepy stuffed and shellacked fish / aquatic life that had googly-eyes glued on in lieu of real ones. CREEPY.

Blowfish. That just ain't right.

When I said assorted limbs, I meant it.

We finally made it to the actual aquarium where there were fish that were...you know...ALIVE.
This fish was pretty cool. I can't remember the name of it though...

The boy wasn't part of the picture, but he was stunned at the sight of us, so he stayed. Yes, that is a fish tank. And yes...that is a dinner menu advertised right above it.

Some more Sokcho sights:
Hwajinpo (Hwajin Lake) from the beach.
Man fishing in the Sea of Japan.
A fish ...cannery? On the bus ride back to Sokcho proper.
Cute street lights!
Fresh fish market.
Dried...something-or-other. Some type of seafood.
There are eleventy billion kinds of kimchi. These are just some of them.
Making pajeon, Korean pancake.
Sang-tae chigae, fish stew. It was different...lots of bones, and not very filling.
Ojingeo sundae...squid stuffed with spices and other things that I don't really care to know about.

Saturday, Tina, Prut and I made it to Seoraksan for a day of hiking in the mountain air.
Jjambong, spicy seafood noodle soup. This was breakfast! (Note: it is as spicy as it looks.)
The marquee seemed out of place among the natural beauty.
The road to Biryeong Pokpo (Biryeong Waterfall), our first destination.
The natural springs are put to use to cool the canned and bottled drinks for sale.
We made it a bit too early for significant fall colors, but some of the trees were already starting to change.
It was an easy hike there. I look pretty pleased with myself.
We found a friend on the trail. One of my friends said it's like he was giving the typical Korean peace sign.
Gosh, it's beautiful here.

I kind of knew there was a big giant Buddha somewhere in Seoraksan, but it was a real surprise when we came upon it.
This couple was posing in front of the statue.
I'm not sure what these tablets were on the left...I think it was some sort of donation system. If you gave some money, you got to write a message on them.
How is this rock stack still staying up? MAGIC!
The temple of Sinheungsa / Seoraksan in the background.
Reeeeally nice.
Some lanterns. You know...no biggie.
We saw some more foliage.

The second trek we took was to Heundalbalwi, a giant 16-ton boulder near a Buddhist hermitage.
This is the view when we finally reached it.
One of the little Buddha statues on a rock.
Inside one of its temples.
Supposedly, the way it's positioned, you only need a few people to rock it back and forth. We were not those people.
As we climbed back down, we stopped and saw this amazing view.

Our last day, Tina and I tried to soak up the beach as much as possible before our 12:00 bus left for Seoul.
Matching outfits!
There were fences with barbed wire all along the beaches to keep out North Korean spies.

It was really sad to leave Sokcho...the air, the friendly people...just like with most small towns, it was hard to return to the big city.

Posted by lrbergen 05:25 Archived in South Korea Tagged tourist_sites Comments (0)

Back in Korea!

back to work...

As you all know, I am back in Korea. I arrived about a month ago and have already started getting back into the swing of things. This trip will be different though...I plan on making my time here well-spent. A lot of the free time I have during the day has been devoted to fitness...I've started running again and some basic strength training, usually because I am bored. I have also been watching a lot of TV on the internet. Yikes.

I am also awaiting my first paycheck. I thought about it the other day, and I haven't gotten a paycheck in about 3 months! How is that possible? Lots of help from friends and family.

I'm planning on seeing more of Korea this time. I went to Busan once and Gangwon-do three times in the entire 2.5 years I was here before. Since I'm trying to save money this time, my travel bug will have to settle for domestic trips, which I am happy to take. Apparently there is some pretty amazing stuff here. Go figure.

Anyway, I have been doing things lately that I had forgotten about...unique experiences only in Korea. And since I already wrote a mass e-mail about most of these things, I will let the pictures speak for themselves.

Red peppers drying on a bridge overlooking the Tancheon.

This kimchi stew is in contention for my favorite Korean food EVER. The kimchi is buried in the ground in clay pots and ferments for 3 years. Sound disgusting? Makes for some amazing food.

I got to hang out with my friend Jay (who apparently loves Popeye) and his friends from high school.

Korean bar food is very different than American bar food. And you can get it at all hours of the night.

Like...barbecue squid.

...and seafood soup.

Maehwasu...Korean lady liquor. It's very dainty.

Cass lemon. Cass is terrible, Cass lemon is no exception.

Sam gyeop sal! YUM!

Kyelin chim...fluffy egg soup.

Kim McJong Il!

Here my friend Tina and I are having the dead skin on our feet and legs eaten by tiny little fish. It feels really crazy at first, but then you get used to it. Sometimes they even went in between toes.

At Castle Praha brewery in Gangnam, they had these decorative pigs for sale.

We went to Rainbow Hookah bar...one of my faves from before!

This was on the inside.

My dinner...Mr. Wow spicy sausage on a stick...with mustard! (Street food in Korea! AWESOME!)

There was a concert in Korea last night, called Global Gathering. I didn't really care about this concert, not a fan of electronic music, but my one of my favorite bands, Royksopp was in the lineup! Tina and I decided to...ahem...loiter outside of the grounds to hear the music. For free. We had to walk to Nanji park from World Cup Stadium and a nice Korean girl gave us directions...in Korean. If I had been able to understand, I think she was saying "But guys, you're going to have to walk for like...an hour." Here is the riverwalk by the Hapjeong River (which eventually...a long way down the road...flows into the Han River). It was a really pleasant night and we ended up making it for the last half hour of their set!

Character of a Japanese Izakaya in Hongdae.

There is a mini-bar called "Vinyl" that offers to-go cocktails in little plastic pouches.

I got a vodka lime!

Tina karaoke...with Tina!

Cute little owl bar.

Ok! That's it! My next post will most likely be after Chu Seok...we are planning on going to the East Coast, to Mt. Seoraksan for some hiking!

Posted by lrbergen 04:18 Archived in South Korea Comments (0)

Leaving Korea

...does that mean i have to change the title of this blog?

-17 °C

Well, folks.

It's been 2 and a half LONG years in Korea, but I've made it.
Korea has always been a temporary place, and it's been hard to see people come and go. It was easy to get settled in, but with the knowledge that it couldn't be forever.

I've taught lots of kids, made lots of friends, drank lots of soju, gone to lots of countries, read lots of books, eaten LOTS of kimchi, and taken TONS of photos.
Now comes the time to move on to the next place. It's time for a new adventure. I don't doubt that I'll be back in Korea...just hopefully not for a few years. This country can get to a person, if one really allows it to happen.

It's time to post some photos.

Things I will NOT miss:

Trudging to work via the subway EVERY MORNING during rush hour. It is so miserable.

Dodging cars on the sidewalks. There are technically traffic laws, but they seem to be more guidelines than anything.

The massive amounts of pollution; on the sidewalk, in the air...everywhere. It's especially bad during "Hwangsa" or the yellow dust storms that come from the Gobi desert, picking up heavy metals along the way.

Beondaegi. Silkworm pupa. I don't encounter it on a day-to-day basis, but come on. I've eaten centipede and I won't even CONSIDER this.

The same apartment buildings everywhere. And I do mean everywhere.

Traffic. Traffic. Always with the traffic.

Terrible fashion. But to be fair, I will also miss it. It's so absurd sometimes.

Being attacked by Christian propaganda. If a stranger approaches you on the street, in the gym, or on the subway, it is either to practice English or get you to come to church. Even if you have a constant scowl on your face and headphones on. Agh.

I will not miss being stared at, though I will find it odd that everyone ignores me back in America. I will not miss being pushed around by old women and men, I will not miss the whiny girls, the crowds, the trash, how it's ok to spit in public but not blow your nose, being told to go home, being discouraged from speaking the little Korean I know, the pushy mothers.

I really could go on. It IS time to go home. So just to prove that it hasn't been ALL bad, here are:

The things I WILL miss:

Insadong, where they have changing displays in the Andy Warhol factory. It's just a really nice area.

Bundang in the spring. Since Korea doesn't get a lot of snow, there's no slush. It's beautiful.

Even though they take it to the extreme sometimes, Koreans can unite like nobody's business.

Konglish. Engrish. Call it what you will...it's funny and it's everywhere.

Old fortresses everywhere.

Riding my bike into Seoul and aside from the wandering children / ajummas / couples, being completely safe.

Buddha's Birthday celebrations. We get a day off of work AND there's a really cool parade.

Drinking outside. Legally. At a convenience store.

Korean baseball games. Even though I really only went to one...

Dogs dressed up. Ok, most of me feels bad about having to see a dog suffer this. I love dogs. I do. This is just absurd.

Kimchi...kimchi mandu. Kimchi chigue. Kimchi fried rice. Kimchi, kimchi, kimchi.

When it does snow, it looks really nice.

Mandu ramen.

Sam gyeop sal and kalbi.

I will not miss the subway, but I will miss cheap access to reliable and efficient public transportation.

Rafting weekends in Gangwon-do.

Proximity to lots of OTHER really awesome countries:

And last, but certainly not least, my students:
John K
John C

I've taught them well.

I will of course miss my friends, but I know we'll meet again.
Don't know where, don't know when.
But I know we'll meet again some sunny day.
Keep smiling through
Just like you always do.

Compliments of the Man in Black himself, Johnny Cash.

I (We) made it!

Tune in next time for my 2-week vacation to Thailand! Woohoo!

Posted by lrbergen 05:38 Archived in South Korea Comments (1)

Yard Time

just like prison

Once a week, each class gets 30 minutes of outdoor time, making use of the front yard of our school.

And now I have pictoral proof of this.







Smooshed on the slide.

The reason I get up in the morning, Esther-pants.

(*81 days left until I leave Korea! 12 days until I go to Singapore!)

Posted by lrbergen 05:53 Archived in South Korea Comments (0)

One Wedding and an Outing

not quite the makes of a movie....

Ok, loyal readers. I know that it's been approximately 10 years since I've posted anything. For this, I am only partially sorry. Most of the time, I feel that I am as comfortable in Seoul as I was in South Bend, meaning, of course, that nothing has really been too blog-worthy. But since I have not e-mailed anyone either, I feel it is time for a DOUBLE POST! That's right....two, two, TWO BLOGS IN ONE! Why all the caps? It's all very exciting, you see.

The first post will be about the first of many outings taken with my NEW class at the Daechi Worwick. (Sidenote: if you don't remember why I am not at the Bundang Worwick, backtrack to the post "Being Fired in Korea"...ring a bell? Ok, let's continue then.)
My NEW school is set in Daechi, in the greater Gangnam area, in Seoul. What this translates to is an hour commute via crowded, hot, smelly subway for 40 minutes one way. I didn't move because, well....I really hate moving. My entire community of friends and restaurants are set in Bundang, and I only have 112 days (not that I'm counting) left in Korea, so why move? To a smaller and dirtier apartment? Where I have to relearn local geography and infrastructure? No, thank you. The school itself is quite beautiful. It was the first of the series, and is a stand-alone building, two stories, with a FRONT YARD! It's not very healthy or particularly lush grass, but it serves its purpose. We also have a swingset, with a slide and seesaw and are alloted 30 minutes per week to go crazy in an outdoor setting. This part I like.

I will not go any further in depth into the parts I don't like. Not gon' do it. Wouldn't be prudent.

Anyway, the only thing keeping me sane amidst the regular insanity is, again, the kids. I have a class of 7 (slightly down from the 9 I started with) beautiful, silly, wonderful, bright students. I took over for a teacher that incorporated no discipline, who took over for a teacher that incorporated FAR less discipline. My kids have adapted well, speaking no Korean in class, and for the most part staying in their seats. I love them.

Because of our location in Seoul rather than the "suburbs", our outings seem to be limited. We had my first one at Olympic Park in the Jamsil area. It was a beautiful, mild day and the kids seemed to have fun, then be worn out and irritable. So it goes.

The conditions were favorable.

Grass is very sacred in Seoul. When we tried to let the kids run around all over it, we were promptly scolded by the ajassi landscapers.

My new babies, Libra class. 1st row, L-R: Denny, Kate, Sebin, Cindy, Esther. 2nd row: me, Daniel (who has left us for Korean kindergarten), Sean, and Jung Ook (our Korean teacher)

Chaos in a garden maze.

Clara, from Cassiopeia class, is by far one of my favorites.

I can't remember what they were pointing at....I believe one of the kids was using his taekwondo powers on a swarm of gnats....

Esther, on the left, is the new sunshine of my life. (Ignore the cocked fist...she usually just hugs or clings)

This is Sean, modeling one of the classic poses after an outing. The dismay. The horror. The exhaustion.

My kids are super-sweet, if not a little rambunctious. I have parent-teacher meetings coming up, an event that always makes me reach for the Tums, especially at the new place. Our punishment is to teach a full day of kindergarten, then have double elementary, then two hours (average) of meetings. I'm looking at a 12-hour sentence. Fun.


Christina's Wedding

Recently, one of our ex-co-workers, Christina teacher, got married. Up until now, I have avoided Korean weddings like the plague.

So, imagine, if you will, a Korean wedding: they take place in a Wedding Hall, which is basically like a wedding factory. The ceremonies are about 30 minutes long and secular (I think). The halls are in a perpetual state of decoration, the same ones all the time. The couple comes in, gets married, there is generally a banquet somewhere on the premises, quickly, then the next one comes. Usually when the ceremony is taking place, the entire audience (because that is exactly what they are) is talking on their respective cell phones. Phones are ringing, people are elbowing each other to get the best seat/standing area. It's like the subway. It's hard to get a good picture because there is a crowd of photographers standing at the altar with the couple. They are omnipresent. Everything is in Korean, because, well....we're in Korea. So if you're a foreigner in the audience, it's pretty much guaranteed you won't understand a word. Two people sang songs, one in Korean and one in English, (I don't know if that's typical) the ceremony was over, then the whole family was herded like cattle to the front for pictures. Then the friends. Then the food. Then get out, get out, get out! because there's another couple coming in.

I went because it was our friend's wedding and I knew it was pretty much the only time I could reason going to one of these things. I managed to get a handful of good pictures in.

A picture of the formal picture of Christina and her new husband, Dong Hyun.

Wedding hall exterior.

Amy and I with Christina in the bride's room.

The interior of the wedding hall.

Christina and her dad going down the aisle.

Listening to one of the singers.

Bowing to Dong Hyun's parents (this is customary; the bride does a half bow, but the groom does a full-body bow)

Just married!

Christina and Dong Hyun's families.

And so a Korean wedding goes.

This post was incredibly long, but I'm making up for a lot of lost time. My next post will probably be from Singapore, where I am going for Christmas! Woohoo!

Posted by lrbergen 03:53 Archived in South Korea Comments (0)

Being "Fired" in Korea

kind of...

-17 °C

Disclaimer: I apologize if this post sounds bitter, or angry in any way. But, as in life, the good always comes with the bad. Also, this sad tale illustrates a big part of Korean culture in a work-related form.

Um, so yeah...as the title suggests, I've finally been had by the kids' moms, who don't want me as their kids' teacher, claiming that I don't like their kids and the feeling's mutual, never once bothering to actually talk to me, or even look at me.

As you probably know from previous posts here, my favorite class, my only class, was closed due to the higher-ups being cheap and making me take another class of higher-level kids, the ones who are full of themselves, yes, even at 7 years old. It was a rough first month because I didn't bend to this attitude and instituted my own classroom rules and began disciplining, which seemed to be the first time this ever happened to them. This happened in July.

Things changed, the kids got used to the rules, and suddenly, we all got along. The kids freaked out when they saw me in the hall...we joked with each other and I began to care about the little punks. Then one fateful day, we arrive at the "Peach Incident," as it has later been referred to.

One day, we had cut up peaches as a snack. Given no plates or forks, I put the peaches on a tissue on their desks.

And that was the peach incident.

The moms had the proverbial cow, taking this as a clear sign that I hated their children and severely insulted them, their kids, and by extension, all of Korea.

So they wanted me out...and since they are really just big bags of money who want their kids to be doctors at age 12, who don't want their kids to actually have fun, they will always get their way. So even though I loved their kids, and their kids loved me, I am no longer a teacher at my school's Bundang campus.

But wait...am I really fired? No. I am not. Unless you genuinely screw up (like set fire to a child), you will just be transferred. It's the Korean way. You could be lazy, incompetent, or in this case, just unpopular, but you will just be moved. So I am being transferred to the Daechi campus, near Gangnam.

I am heartbroken, more so than before when my other class was canceled in the first place. The directors of my school set a precedent when this same thing happened to a co-worker of mine. Our directors bow to the mothers, and I like to think they fight their hardest before they do so. They agreed with me that this was an absurd request, they know that I love my job and my kids, and that I try to be the best teacher I can. But still.

This is so very sad.

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I will miss my babies.

Posted by lrbergen 18:27 Archived in South Korea Comments (2)

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