Feeling “Normal” Abroad: My One Month Update

Even 7,000 miles away from home, McDonald’s fries taste like McDonald’s fries. And that’s comforting.

I have officially been in Korea for a month and, honestly, it’s a little difficult feeling normal while living abroad.

I don’t speak Korean, although I am making a serious effort to teach myself how to read and write hangeul, which is paying off so far.

It is awkward (and almost always uncomfortable) going into businesses and trying to get what you want through broken phrases and pantomime. Sometimes it works. However, sometimes you and the person you’re trying to communicate with stare at each other while you fervently flail your hands around, distressed.

Sometimes, you get stopped on the street by Jesus freaks. They are persistent. Although, occasionally they have free coffee or tea.

Additionally, while I love Korean food, sometimes I crave salads. And sandwiches. And dinner plates featuring a meat, a vegetable, and a potato. I have found that these things are nearly impossible to find, but when you find one of them (only referring to the salad and sandwich), you buy it and eat it gleefully.

Alternative culture is also pretty nonexistent in Korea. However, it is incredibly important to me. I love heavy metal, goth clubs, and Renaissance Faires. And sometimes, I will sit in my apartment while blasting Metallica and consequently start bawling my eyes out because I desperately miss my whacky haunts from home.

I also desperately miss my friends. I have made very few female friends since coming here and it’s been hard. I’ve met some girls in passing, but I’m just finding it really difficult to reach out. It feels like high school all over again and it sucks. I just really want to explore all these awesome beauty shops, and get manicures, and go for coffee with someone. I love me some “me” time, but I’m honestly getting kind of sick of it.

Overall, though, I really am enjoying my time here. I like my job and my apartment. I feel like I’m making a difference through working with kids. I like having the freedom to explore and try new things. I also like that it doesn’t cost an arm and a leg to go out and have a good time here. Life is good right now.

Chuseok in Gyeongju – Part 3

This morning, we woke up early. We checked out of the motel and got breakfast at a nearby Paris Baguette. After, we took a taxi to Bulguksa Temple, which is the head temple of Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism. It was about 20 minutes outside of downtown, but well worth the trip. The paint on the temples looked brand new and you could smell incense while people knelt for prayer. It was hard to believe that the complex was hundreds of years old.

Bulguksa.

Bulguksa.

There were actually many temples to walk around, each with its own beautiful representation of Buddha inside. There were also various sculptures and incredible architectural features everywhere. I am a huge fan of dragons, and I had to take pictures whenever I saw them.

Dragon and Bulguksa.

Dragon and Bulguksa.

When we were done exploring Bulguksa, we took a cab to Seokguram Grotto, which is technically part of the Bulguksa Temple complex, but about another 15 minutes east and in the mountains. As we ascended, it became cool and breezy. The view down the side of the mountain was incredible. To get to the grotto, we had to walk through the forest and climb many stairs. Photographs were not allowed of the beautiful Buddha sculpture inside, but if you are ever in Gyeongju, it is absolutely worth a visit.

Seokguram Grotto.

Seokguram Grotto.

After, we took a cab back down towards the Anapji area. Our next goal was to find a ssambap restaurant for lunch. Ssambap is a traditional dish of Gyeongju, and it is a type of Korean barbecue served with rice and various leaves (lettuce, cabbage, etc.) to wrap your meat and banchan (side dishes) in. Our meal came with so many banchan (including a whole fried fish) and everything was absolutely delicious!

Ssambap for lunch!

Ssambap for lunch!

I had an incredible weekend in Gyeongju. My calves feel like they are going to explode and I definitely have shin splints, but it was so worth it to see all the things this beautiful city has to offer. I definitely want to go back to this museum without walls because there is still so much more to see there!

Chuseok in Gyeongju – Part 2

Trying to find our way back downtown proved to be a struggle. Once again, we had no map, no WiFi, no point of reference. Nothing. Pretty much completely reliant on guess work and sheer luck. I could feel blisters starting to form on my feet. I was terribly hungry and thirsty. But we walked. And walked.

Finally, I recognized some of the large mound tombs. We were somewhere in the general vicinity. After making our way closer to the shops and restaurants, we saw a naengmyeon (cold noodle) shop and absolutely had to stop and eat. I got naengmyeon with chicken breast, Steve got spicy noodles, and we shared an order of mandu (dumplings).

My chicken naengmyeon.

My chicken naengmyeon.

Following sustenance and water, we were feeling much more like humans again. The next order of business was trying to find a place to sleep for the night. We checked two guesthouses that were seemingly closed. I was getting frustrated. After the third closed guesthouse, a Korean woman saw us struggling and tried to help. (Side note: she was cycling with a partner and visibly bleeding from the shoulder, and still insisted on helping.) She spoke very little English, but took out her phone and pulled up a map. I took a picture of the map with my phone, and we thanked her profusely. Her kindness was so unexpected, but greatly appreciated.

We walked around for another 20 minutes and still could not find a place to stay. All of a sudden, we saw a Western couple turning the corner, looked at each other, and immediately ran across the street to talk to them. They were from Norway and gave us detailed directions back to the downtown area and bus terminal, where there are many motels.

We thanked them and successfully made our way back downtown. We settled on a place called Motel Icarus, solely because the name was Greek. It cost 50,000 won ($41.00) for one night and it was actually really nice. Not like fleabag motels you find back home. I regret not taking any pictures because the walls were literally covered in images of Santorini. Bizarre. But cool.

We left our things in the room and headed back out to Anapji Pond, which is located in Gyeongju National Park. It was part of an ancient Silla palace complex. When we arrived, there were masses of people making their way around the pond. It was a surreal and beautiful experience.

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Anapji Pond.

After leaving Anapji Pond, we walked down the main road and passed many different street food vendors. Everything looked good, but it was a perfect night for ice cream. So that’s what we got. We walked around for a bit, and Steve spotted Cheomseongdae, which is the ancient astronomy observatory. I had been wanting to see it, so we made a little detour. It was all lit up at night, which made it extremely striking.

Cheomseongdae Observatory.

Cheomseongdae Observatory.

Then, we walked some more and came across a little strip with shops and eateries. Steve got a tornado potato at one stand and we noticed the vendor was making something. He told us it was an ancient royal candy. It is called kkultarae and it is made from honey, maltose, and a nut filling. He was so friendly, I just had to buy a box from him. I haven’t tried it yet, but I am really looking forward to!

Man making kkultarae candy.

Man making kkultarae candy.

We were so exhausted after this, so we went back to the motel and called it a night.

Chuseok in Gyeongju – Part 1

Chuseok (추석) is a national holiday celebrated in Korea. It is a harvest festival which falls around the autumn equinox, on the 15th day of the 8th month of the lunar calendar. From what I’ve been told, Chuseok is most comparable to American Thanksgiving. Koreans spend this holiday with their families in the towns of their ancestors and eat traditional foods.

During this time, it is also customary to give gifts. For the past few weeks, I have been seeing many different gift baskets and specialty items popping up in the supermarkets. Some of the most popular ones I’ve seen include Spam (yes, that Spam), oil, and soy sauce. I’ve also seen stations set up selling what I think are little sweets (rice buns and something that resembles a brittle).

Chuseok also means that I get a four day weekend.

So, Steve and I decided to take a short trip to Gyeongju on Sunday, which is roughly an hour by bus north of Ulsan. However, it took nearly three hours for us to get there because of all the Chuseok traffic.

Steve and I on the bus.

Steve and I on the bus.

It was hot and uncomfortable, but we made it there in one piece. Our first order of business was to visit the Gyeongju National Museum and after jumping in a taxi, we quickly learned that the city sights are very spread out. We arrived at the Museum and, to our delight, there was no admission fee. There were also games set up for children and their families to play because of the holiday.

We weren’t there for ten minutes when a Korean man asked us to take a picture of him and his children. After, he asked where we were from and even asked us to take a picture with his kids. His English was very good and he said that his children have never seen foreigners before, so it would be nice for them. It was actually quite cute.

We parted ways and went on to explore the Museum, which was made up of several large buildings (with lots of stairs) and galleries. Most of the galleries were dedicated to Silla art. The Silla Kingdom was one of the Three Kingdoms of Korea and was ruled for nearly 1,000 years.

Buddha sculpture at the Gyeongju National Museum.

Buddha sculpture at the Gyeongju National Museum.

Below the main complex, there was also a beautiful structure surrounded by a lovely little pond. We took a walk down there for a closer look.

At Gyeongju National Museum.

At Gyeongju National Museum.

After the Museum, our plan was to visit Bunhwangsa Temple, a temple from the Old Silla Era. However, we might have had a hard time trying to find a taxi. So we walked. And walked. And it was rather hot out. Finally, we saw a taxi approaching and we waved it down. Too bad it already had passengers and they waved and laughed as they passed. With no map and no WiFi, Steve and I had absolutely no idea where we were. So we just kept on walking.

In the distance, we saw a bridge. As we got nearer, we heard music. We couldn’t tell if it was a recording or live, so we just followed it until we stumbled upon Gyochon Village. Gyochon Village is a traditional hanok village that offers glassmaking classes, pottery workshops, quilting, and tea ceremony training. They were having a festival for Chuseok complete with live music performances, costumed performers, and more games. It was so wonderful! We spent a good amount of time there before grabbing some water at the cafe and trying to find our way back downtown.

I Promise to Listen to My Teacher

Children who do not respect their elders are dealt with very seriously here. In fact, judging by what I just witnessed at work, I would go so far as to say corporal punishment in schools is alive and well in Korea.

I had been having a very difficult class earlier this afternoon. Two of my students absolutely refused to pay attention or do any work. The same two students have been giving me trouble for the past few weeks. Today, though, I was very tired of them talking while I was talking, poking other students, not speaking any English (in English class, mind you!), and audibly laughing every time I wrote something on the board or had my back turned.

That was the last straw. I told both of them to stand up and that we were going for a walk downstairs. Immediately, the pleas of “sorry, teacher! Study!” came pouring out of their mouths. Nope. The head Korean teacher was going to deal with them. We walked downstairs and I handed them off to her. She was not amused.

I stood in shock as I watched what happened next. The head teacher balled her hand into a fist and punched them both in the side of the head. Hard.

My heart sank.

I was expecting a 100 lines of “I promise to listen to my teacher.” Or something. Anything, really. Just not that.

The head teacher asked me to return to class, where I drilled the rest of my students on verbs, nouns, and adjectives. Through the window, I could see my other two students standing outside the door with their arms raised above their heads while the head teacher yelled at them.

I wanted to cry.

After class, I returned to my desk where I began planning for some tests on Friday. A few minutes later, the students who had been punished came in to apologize. I thanked them for their apology and told them to be good next class.

I think I am mildly traumatized. Actually, genuinely distressed.

I really don’t know what else to write.

A Little Late…

But Happy Autumnal Equinox!

Autumn is my most favorite season, and I’m a little sad that it doesn’t feel like it yet here in Korea.

The weather has been going back and forth between hot and muggy and cold and rainy. I’m just dying for cool and dry with the option of sweatshirt.

I want to see leaves turn to rust, to gold. I want to smell that fall earth smell: light, crisp, with the slightest hint of musk. I want to walk through beautiful places and watch nature works its magic right in front of my eyes.

Unfortunately, everything is still verdant as ever.

I can’t find a pumpkin spice latte. Not one. I even went into Starbucks the other day (which I only do on the rarest occasions) in the hopes that they would have pumpkin, but all they had was maple pecan. Which was still good. But not pumpkin.

Even if I can’t fully embrace autumn yet, I can still listen to my absolute favorite band of the season: Type O Negative.

The Sass Attack

Sometimes, kids can be pretty funny. Today was one of those days.

During my first class of the afternoon, two of my students had arrived earlier than the rest of the class. One little boy had folded a paper airplane and was throwing it around the classroom. At one point, he threw it and it hit my other student, a precocious little girl whom I thoroughly enjoy teaching, in the arm. Without skipping a beat, she picked up the paper airplane and slowly turned around to face him while crushing it in her hand. Then, she threw it back at him, shouted something in Korean, and sat down at her desk, arms folded across her chest. Stunned, the little boy sat down and I couldn’t help but laugh hysterically.

Minutes after, the rest of my class began to come in. One of my other female students skipped through a door carrying (and eating) a family size bag of potato sticks. She filled my hands with them, saying “teacher! teacher! is good!” I ate them. They were good.

I really like that class.

We also had a student bring in a box of sticky rice buns for the office; I’m assuming for the upcoming holiday of Chuseok. It was really sweet. The buns were filled with red bean paste, so they were literally quite sweet, as well.

Today’s pretty good so far!