Three Week Hiatus

That’s right. A hiatus. I’ll be back on May 22nd.

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Your Quinquennial K-Pop Update

Here’s how it was: I would wake up and get ready for work whilst watching Mythbusters on the Discovery channel. It was one of the few American, not to mention English-speaking, channels that I got. Then one day, out of the blue, Korea decided to switch the Discovery channel to the Korean Discovery channel. No warning. I woke up one day and the Mythbusters were gone, replaced by a Korean nature show. Something had to fill the void. I mean, what was I supposed to do – get ready with the television OFF? Get outta here…

The English movie channels are always an option. If they’re playing something watchable, I usually tune in. The problem is I never have enough to time to finish watching the movie: I have to go to work. Then it happened. I found the Korean version of MTV, playing music videos like it’s going out of style. I won’t say I’m proud of it, but I’ve been watching it in the mornings – you know, for research. I’m now ready to publish the results of my study. After careful examination, here are a few songs they’ve been breaking the ‘replay’ button on in Seoul for the past few weeks. At least until the fickle masses abandon them.

4 Minute – Heart to Heart

Silliest Part? – 1:30 to 1:45. They got him GOOD. I think of Super Troopers during that moment.

Let’s have a heart to heart to heart……GET IT OUT OF MY HEAD. It’s a good thing I’m not prone to getting a chorus of a song stuck in my head and repeating it ad nauseam.

CNBLUE – Intuition

Silliest Part? – Three words: dip dip darido. No, that isn’t Korean. I think.

These guys remind of Maroon Five. I keep expecting them to break out into “This Love.”

Girl’s Day – Twinkle Twinkle

Silliest Part? – 2:39 to 2:42. Extra points for the eye sparkle.

Don’t confuse them with Girl’s Generation! Let’s be honest – this is the silliest video amongst them all. And seriously – what’s with the 2 fake-out intros?

Big Bang – Tonight

Silliest Part? – That guy wearing the hood that looks like a Native American headdress. Are those bowling patches?

I think it’s safe to say that Big Bang has taken the collective heart of Korean tweens away from SHINee.

JYP – Itaewon Freedom

Awesomest Part? – 1:25 to 1:30. It speaks for itself.

This is the one song I would admit listening to. I’ll say it – I’m a fan – I’m a JYP fan.

Girl’s Generation – Hoot

Silliest Part? – Any hat that appears anywhere in the video.

Okay, this song is actually a few months old, but we needed an update of everyone’s favorite 9-member Korean girl group.

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The Yeouido Cherry Blossoms

Ah, spring. It can only mean one thing:The Yeouido Cherry Blossom Festival (I haven’t missed it since coming to Korea)! Japan may be the Asian cherry blossom capital, and Washington D.C. may get all the attention stateside, but Seoul has its fair share. Yeouido, besides having more vowels than Pat Sajak, is Seoul’s answer to Manhattan. It’s an island, of sorts, with a large financial district and a great walk along the Han River. It is also famous for its cherry blossoms.

Apparently, the cherry blossom trees are only in bloom for a few weeks, and this weekend and next weekend are the peak times, so I chose a good time to go. Unfortunately, about half of Seoul seemed to have the same idea I did. The crowds there, especially on the subway stops surrounding Yeouido, were horrendous. Once you got away from the subway exit, though, it wasn’t so bad, and the charm of the festival took over.

You could have your portrait painted, stroll along the river walk, or take in some of the street food. The food vendors were particular enticing: there was a mix of carnival-type treats, like cotton candy, ice cream, and corn dogs, and your classic Korean street foods. They did have one treat I hadn’t seen in Korea up to that point:

You jealous of my coconut?

How about now? You paid your money and the guy would bore a hole in the coconut, stick a straw in, and let you enjoy that sweet sugar water. Nice.

Yeouido is also home to the Korean National Assembly. The Korean legislature is unicameral, so there is only one house of congress. The National Assembly Building sits within the boundaries of the festival.

There is also, for some reason, a soccer field directly in front of the National Assembly, and wouldn’t ya’ know it – there was a tournament going on! I like to think it was between the legislative and executive branches.

Is that Korean President Lee Myung-bak?! Nice knee socks, Mr. President!

Anyway, if you’re in the area, check out the Yeouido cherry blossoms. Surely your love of Korea will…bloom.

Posted in Events, Food, Tourism | 4 Comments

Westerners in Korea

A while ago, I commented on a list of Korean behaviors (part 1 and part 2) that I found in my orientation book. Ha – orientation! That seems like an eternity ago. Well, what I didn’t tell you is that there is also a list of “Things Koreans find strange about western behavior,” and I think it’s about time us foreigners get our comeuppance.

There are only 12 “behaviors” on this list, as opposed to the 25 on the “Korean behaviors” list, so I will share them all with you now.

Before I begin, I think it is relevant to say that foreigners have a publicity problem in Korea, especially members of the American military and, to a lesser extent, western English teachers. While there are plenty of Koreans who have adapted to and accepted westerners living amongst them, foreigners are still a relatively new phenomenon in this ancient collectivist culture. Some Koreans believe all foreigners are drug-using, job-stealing, under-trained, individualistic cowboys walking around with no regard for Korean culture. That’s why I cringe when I see or hear stories about foreigners doing something so obviously insulting.

A lot of it can be forgiven, as most of these are very minor. But some of these are so obvious, and you’re socialized into them so quickly, that, hey – come on!


THINGS KOREANS FIND STRANGE ABOUT WESTERN BEHAVIOR:

1. Overly firm handshake.
Do I do it?: I don’t think my limp-fish handshake could ever be construed as “overly firm.”

2. Receiving or giving anything with just one hand, especially the left (very disrespectful).
Do I do it?: I’ve gotten better at this. I have to say I used to often forget, but I’ve gotten used to handing something with my right hand while my left hand supports my right elbow (an accepted technique).

3. Speaking with our hands in our pockets.
Do I do it?: Hands in the pockets – that’s my butter zone! I really had to adjust to this one, especially since this is one that I’ve specifically heard from Koreans is rude and “unprofessional.”

4. Using too much eye contact during conversations.
Do I do it?: Ah, eye contact. I will never understand it in this country. I think I’m alright on this one, but I’ve found myself asking myself, more than once, when talking to a Korean, “What are they looking at?”

5. The direct nature of our conversations.
Do I do it?: I try to contain myself.

6. Answering with one word answers or responding with a noise like, “aha” or “mhmm.”
Do I do it?: Oh, all the time! Sometimes when my students look confused I realize it might be because they don’t know what, “Ahhhhh yes, mmhhmmm, I see” means.

7. Speaking very quickly and using slang.
Do I do it?: I think the speaking quickly qualm is bunk. Anyone trying to learn a language will think that native speakers of that language talk fast. I think Koreans talk fast. Slang? Maybe. There is a lot of figurative language in English.

8. Challenging other people’s opinions.
Do I do it?: I’ll argue with anyone who says I challenge other people’s opinions.

9. Asking your employer to give you things in the beginning (they want to give you holiday time as a gift for excellent work, not because they must based on a contract).
Do I do it?: No. I’ve taken my vacation when I was told to and I’ve never taken a sick day. It does seem like the contract is a bit of a joke, though.

10. Kissing in public or public shows of affection.
Do I do it?: Ha.

11. Wearing revealing clothing.
Do I do it?: Well, of course. But seriously, I should say that if you’re a woman and you choose to wear a low cut shirt here, be prepared to STAND OUT. There’s less cleavage here than the Salem witch trials. Maybe that will change with the advent of warmer weather.

12. Blowing your nose in public.

Do I do it?: Thankfully, I don’t like to blow my nose in public anyway.

Well, there they are.

Meanwhile, while I’m on the topic of foreigners, here’s the newest thing the kids are listening to:

Itaewon Freedom

That’s JYP. Itaewon is where the American military base is located in Seoul. It’s a popular expat hangout.

Posted in Korean Culture | 4 Comments

The Seoul Motor Show

This weekend, I went to the Seoul Motor Show in Ilsan, just northwest of the city. Held inside the Kintex convention center, the Seoul Motor Show is expected to have over a million visitors during the 10-day period it’s open to the public. It was the certainly the most Koreans I’ve seen in one room.

Now, I’ve never been to an auto show before, but from what I can tell, the focus is mainly on 3 things:
1. Vehicles
2. Models standing in front of the vehicles
3. Photographers rabidly taking pictures of the cars (or the girls?)

Here are some of my favorites:

My favorite of the Mercedes-Benz section – the DeLorean style rabbit-ear doors.

Speaking of rabbit-ear doors: this car. It’s really more of a hole in the side of the car with hinges than a door. I also like the interior. Not sure of the make here, but with the steering wheel on the right, it has to be European. Koreans drive on the right side of the road, like Americans, in case you were wondering.

The American car companies were well represented at the Seoul Motor Show. This is a Chevy entry that looks like something Charlie Sheen might have driven in Wall Street after a meeting with Gordon Gecko.

Here’s the Nissan Leaf, shown with it charging station. Do you think they made the charging plug look like a gas pump on purpose? Subliminally easing the consumer in…

Kias are all over the road in Korea, and I notice it more and more as I begin to pay more attention to such things. This particular Kia won my prize for best interior, complete with a rear-facing passenger seat and a hardwood floor. I want. Kia also won the prize for best photo-op:

Okay, that one was just because the model was wearing cat ears.

Anyway, this is a pretty small sample size I’m giving you. There were hundreds of cars at the motor show, not to mention motorcycles, buses, and big rigs. Here are some of the many other photos I took:

Man, these car models, what a job they have. One day…

Posted in Events | 3 Comments

A Korean Cinema Primer

I know little about Korean cinema. Do not take this post seriously. In fact, I’ve only seen 1 of these movies. None the less, I know something.

I know the Korean movies I have seen are stylistic with the right touch of pragmatism. And here’s a fact to strap to your back: Korea is one of the few countries that has domestic box office sales that outperform imported foreign movies. That’s straight from the Bureau of Facts. Korea must be doing something right.

I’m not going to type up a long post about the history of Korean film – I don’t know the history of Korean film. Instead, I’m going to list 3 movies any self-respecting Korean would know.

THE CLASSIC (AND ITS REMAKE) – The Housemaid

Last year, a movie called The Housemaid came out. Watch the trailer here:

The Housemaid Trailer

Boy – that’s a tad chilling, wouldn’t you say? Some might say, “Ferociously tawdry.” When I first saw the trailer for this film (props to MHKB), I was enticed. Of course, having the attention span of a gerbil, I quickly forgot about it and never bothered to see it (read: lazy). A month or so after that first trailer viewing, I ran across the fact that The Housemaid is actually a remake of a classic South Korean movie from 1960. I found a “trailer” for it, although there are no subtitles and the text is in Korean. Here it is:

The Housemaid 1960 Trailer
 
Hopefully you watched the newer one before that, as it probably makes no sense otherwise. Man – how about when that kid bites the woman’s arm and the girl starts beating her with that bat! That’s something. Anyway, the 1960 version really is a true classic of Korean cinema. One of the most well-known films from the “Golden Age” of Korean cinema, which was about two decades from the 50s to the early 70s.

THE MODERN CLASSIC – Oldboy

Watch the trailer for Oldboy here:

Oldboy Trailer

Who doesn’t know Oldboy? Well, not so long ago, the answer would have been “me.” Too bad, because the plot of this movie sounds right up my alley: A man is kidnapped and locked in a hotel room for 15 years with no explanation. He is then released and attempts to take revenge upon his captors. What’s not to love?

Oldboy was released in 2003. About 8 years later, from where I’m standing, it seems like this movie represents modern Korean cinema. It’s a cinematic ambassador: a gateway movie to the artsy portal of Korean film. If you’re going to start watching Korean films, start with Oldboy. Oh, by the way, it’s violent.

THE POPULAR ACTION/MYSTERY – Joint Security Area

The Trailer:

JSA Trailer

This was one of the movies screened for us way back at orientation. Is it a mystery? Is it action? It was my favorite of the 3 I saw during orientation. Basically, a shooting occurs in a village within the DMZ, and a Swiss military officer (who doesn’t look very Swiss at all) is sent in to investigate. This movie is notable for showing the DMZ and apparently caused quite the ruckus when is came out.

That’s it. That’s all I am going to give you. Yes, my knowledge of Korean movies is something to be laughed at. I don’t doubt there’s someone reading this and laughing, right now. However, if you were interested in watching a Korean film, I would argue you couldn’t go wrong with any of these. If you don’t mind reading subtitles.

Posted in Korean Culture | 6 Comments

Halfway Home (maybe) – Some Sweeping Generalizations

It’s been a few days over 7 months since my plane touched the landing strip at Incheon International, and just as I expected, those 7 months have flown by. All of a sudden, I only have 5 months left on my initial contract and a whole lot of questions about my future that need answering.

This mid-year reflection is actually a month late, as you may have noticed. I’ve been caught up in the flurry of a new school year. Let me take a moment to explain the system that’s in place here. When I arrived last August, I was actually starting school in the middle of the Korean school year. The school year here begins in early March, after a two-month break in January and February. Their summer break is actually their semester break and is much shorter, lasting about a month from the end of July to late August.

For me, I have welcomed the new school year. It has been a chance to start over in many ways. For one, the students were changing foreign teachers mid-year. Before me, there was a Canadian teaching in my position. He had been there 2 years, so the students, especially the 2nd and 3rd graders, were, understandably, used to his teaching. Now, I’m starting with a clean slate with all the new 1st graders, and the 2nd graders have officially seen me more than the Maple Leaf (having known him for only 1 semester). Are you following me here?

However, more importantly, the new school year has been a perfect chance to adjust my teaching style. Listen – all my teacher training and fancy book learnin’ could never have accurately prepared me for the challenges I was to face during my first semester here. They certainly have helped (a LOT, I might add), but the challenges I face here are just so unique at times. The learning curve has been tremendous, and with the start of the new school year, I can take everything I learned during those first 6 months and create a classroom atmosphere more conducive to learning English.

I can understand now why the schools here want foreign teachers to stay as long as possible: it takes a good amount of time for them to step in and adjust to the Korean system. Initial contracts are 1 year, but I feel that it would be in Korea’s best interest to make that 2 years. I figure that the first 6 months are really an investment – an adjustment period for a foreign teacher to learn the job and get used to life in another country. Now that I’ve got some confidence in what I’m doing here, my contract will end in a mere 5 months. For Korea, this isn’t the most efficient process: 6 months of adjusting and 6 months of adjusted. Now, that’s over simplified. Certainly I did some good teaching in the first half of my time here, and I don’t want to pretend I’ve mastered the job now. However, in principal, I think I’m on to something.

Which brings me to my future. One of the most common questions I get asked here (besides blood type) is, “How long are you staying?” It’s an important question, but it’s a strange way to live – walking around with an expiration date. It begins to affect the way you live your life. You start to ask yourself – should I buy/invest in/bother with/become friends with/learn/see/do this if I’m just going to leave in a few months? It makes you feel like you’re putting your REAL life on hold sometimes, and if you’re not careful, you start thinking that you’re running from life and not living it. I constantly have to remind myself that the opposite is true. Still, I’ve heard other foreigners say, “I can’t stay here forever.”

Now, I’m not going to stay here forever or, realistically, very much longer, but if you were to ask me where I’m going to be in, say, December, I could honestly tell you that I have no idea. If I get a teaching job in the US – great. If I don’t – I have a job. Not knowing where you’ll be in a year makes you walk a fine line between scary and exciting,

Look –

The last 7 months have been everything I thought they would be, and I would recommend this experience to anyone who thinks they have the right temperament for it. But I’m still in the stages of figuring out what this country and my time here means, and will mean, to me. One thing I do know for sure: whenever I go back home, I want to be able to say I made the most of my time in South Korea. Here’s to the next 5 months.

Posted in My Life, The Journey | 3 Comments