Christmas in Seoul Part 3

On Sunday, we decided to go back to Ssamziegil. On the way, we stopped at a very cute little cafe for coffee and a bagel for Steve (it’s hard to find bagels here, which is unfortunate). We did some browsing and I knew I wanted to find a shop to get a 도장 (dojang). A dojang is a traditional stone or wood stamp engraved with your name.

I saw a little shop with many samples outside, so we went in. After looking at all of them, I decided on a small stone stamp with a purple ladder and a moon at the top. I gave it to the shopkeeper and she had me write my name on a sheet and I had the option of choosing a design – I picked a whale because it is the animal of Ulsan (the city I’m living in). I paid 33,000 won (about $28).

The shopkeeper told me to come back in 30 minutes, so Steve and I walked around until then.

I was so happy with the finished product! It even came with a soft case and two cards with my design stamped onto them. I love it so much.

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After picking up my dojang, Steve and I went back to Ssamziegil. I made him take pictures in a photo booth with me. Photo booths here are so cool! They are much bigger than at home, and you stand up inside instead of sitting down. They take six photos, and then you exit the booth where you can decorate all your shots on a big computer screen. It was so much fun!

Then, we found the basement, which is actually set up as working artists’ studios. People could also make crafts with the artists like spinning or painting pottery. There were also lots of food stands and we got delicious deep fried mandu and little cakes filled with Nutella.

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After Ssamziegil, we headed over to the National Museum of Korea. Steve was exhausted, so he sat while I did a walk-through. Admission was free and the permanent collection was very impressive. There were prehistoric galleries, Medieval galleries, painting and calligraphy galleries, and sculpture galleries. The top floor was dedicated to arts of Asia including works from China, Japan, Tibet, and India, among others. Everything was really beautiful!

After the museum, we were starving, so we set out to find food. We had really wanted Korean, but the first place we saw was a Quiznos and we said “screw it” and got sandwiches. They were actually really satisfying.

After lunch, we went across the street to the KTX and took the train home. We were so incredibly exhausted! Overall, though, it was an amazing Christmas vacation in Seoul. I can’t wait to go back!

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Christmas in Seoul Part 2

On Saturday, I woke up at about 7:30. Naturally. I floundered in bed a while before heading downstairs for my free breakfast. I wasn’t expecting much, but was actually really happy with what the hostel provided. There were scrambled eggs, ham, toast with strawberry jam, OJ, and coffee. Then, I waited for Steve to wake up.

He got up earlier than I thought he would, around 10. I met him at his hostel and we set off for the Dragon Hill Spa. We got to the door only to find out that it’s currently closed for construction. So upset! Quickly, I took out my phone to find another jjimjilbang (spa) in the area. We found one called Siloam Sauna and made our way there.

It cost 10,000 won per person to use the sauna and the baths. We were given “uniforms” and directed to the men’s and women’s changing rooms, respectively. There were naked people everywhere. I changed and headed upstairs to the “fomentation” area (saunas). First, I went into the charcoal room and laid down on the floor. It was calming. As I was leaving, I saw Steve. We decided to explore together.

There was a salt room, a jade room, an ice room, a dugout room, and a Loess ball room, among others. The Loess ball room was my absolute favorite. When you walked in, there were two giant pits of little ceramic balls. They were hot and you laid in them. It was like dipping your entire body into a sack of grain, a sensation I thoroughly enjoy.

When it was too hot to take, we left and got some bingsu, a shaved ice dessert topped with red bean and fruit. The jjimjilbang was amazing. There was a food court, a norebang (karaoke room), a PC room, a hair salon, a nail salon, you name it.

When we were finished we the saunas, we went back to the segregated rooms to use the baths. You had to take your clothes off, but I sucked it up and did it anyway. Most of the baths were way too hot for me, but I found that I liked the jade bath. I was going to do a body scrub, but I chickened out.

Overall, it was an awesome experience and I would do it again. We left feeling so rejuvenated.

After, Steve and I made our way to Namdaemun Market to have a look around. It was so crowded! We stopped for what was probably the best mandu (dumplings) we’ve had yet and later, kebabs. Street food is so cheap and delicious.

At night, we went to Lotte World, which is the biggest indoor amusement park in the world. There was some confusion with the ticket types, and we might have spent too much money, but it was worth it for a really cool evening. The wait times for the rides were ridiculously long, so I only went on two, one of which was the monorail. I love monorails. It was seriously fun just walking around and seeing how extravagant everything was.

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After Lotte World, we figured we’d go hang out in Gangnam because well, it’s Gangnam. Total disappointment. We couldn’t find any bars or anything else to do, for that matter. I’m not sure if we weren’t in the right place or what.

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At that point, we were just so exhausted and went back to go to sleep.

Christmas in Seoul Part 1

On Christmas morning, Steve and I took the KTX from Ulsan to Seoul at 9:22 with less than a minute to spare. After we purchased our tickets, we had to run as fast as we could to the platform, up a massive flight of stairs, where the train was boarding. When we got there, another foreign man let us board first because “we were panting.”

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The journey took about two hours and we arrived in Seoul a little before noon. Steve and I took the subway to Insadong, where my hostel was. (Steve hadn’t booked anything because he decided to come with me last minute.) I was able to check in early, and Steve found a place to stay literally right across the street.

Then, we went to Changdeokgung Palace, which was within a five minute walk from the hostels. What an incredible sight. The palace was constructed in 1405 as part of the Joseon Dynasty. The grounds were sprawling and there were so many beautiful, colorful buildings and halls.

It was cold out, but sunny. After walking around the palace, we found Bukchon Hanok Village, a traditional craft village. It was very busy since it was Christmas, but we walked around for a while before making our way towards the heart of Insadong.

I was so excited! In Insadong, the streets overflow with traditional crafts: pottery, jewelry, masks, abalone boxes, stamps. I wanted to look at everything. While we were exploring some side streets, I mentioned how nice it would be to have a cup of tea. Then, magically, we walked by a place called Teastory, a tea museum and cafe. We decided to stop. There was a small but lovely exhibit on the history of tea in Korea, a gift shop, and a cafe. We shared a pot of mistletoe tea (so festive!), and a sweet potato rice cake. At one point, the only other people who were there sent over a piece of chocolate cake for us. I think they were celebrating a birthday. Regardless, it was very sweet.

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Eventually, Steve and I reached Ssamziegil: a shopping center and art complex comprised of over 70 stores, all connected through a spiral ramp system. It was decorated for Christmas, which was absolutely lovely.

We had to fight the masses, but we reached the top floor and went to visit the Wall of Love. Here, couples can purchase a small plastic tag, write a message on it, and hang it among all the other tags. It’s a really fun date idea!

After Ssamziegil, we went back to our hostels to relax and charge our phones for about an hour. Then, we headed to Hongdae, another neighborhood in Seoul known for its restaurants, bars, and underground culture.

We decided we wanted western food for Christmas dinner and set out for Beale Street, an American-style BBQ restaurant that I had heard really good things about. Too bad when we got there, it was closed. Instead, we went to a place called Burger B right downstairs. Steve and I were so impressed. Definitely the closest we’ve gotten to a real western meal since we’ve been here. We both got the burger specials, soup of the day, and cocktails. The burgers were actually medium rare (burgers here are ALWAYS well done) and they had caramelized onions and gruyere on them.

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After dinner, we were going to meet Hannah and her boyfriend for coffee at the You Are Here Cafe. However, Steve pointed out the Hello Kitty Cafe, which was right across the street from where we ate dinner. Excited, I called her up to see if we could change plans. She said yes. So, Steve and I grabbed a beer while we waited for them to get there.

The cafe was amazingly adorable! Hannah and I both got hot chocolate, Steve got an Americano, and Hannah’s boyfriend got a sweet potato latte. Our drinks came with a little package of Hello Kitty cookies, too!

Following coffee, we said goodnight and Steve and I explored Hongdae some more. It was so alive. Lights everywhere, music playing, crowds moving through the streets. South Korea doesn’t have much in the way of alternative subcultures, but Hongdae was the closest I’ve seen to some. It was a lot of fun.

After a while, we decided we were tired and figured we’d call it a night. We took a subway back to where we were staying. On the walk home, it started snowing! It was actually a really nice way to end an excellent Christmas day.

Keeping Busy

I feel like I haven’t posted anything in a while!

Work has been keeping me very busy. Over the weekend, I attended my first comic convention in Busan, which was a lot of fun. I saw some beautiful costumes, and bought an illustrated deck of Sailor Moon cards and a cute pencil case with little cats eating things on it. Very Tia.

Today and tomorrow, I plan on doing some fun Christmas activities with my students.

Then, on Christmas, Steve and I will be heading to Seoul for the long weekend.

Merry Christmas everyone!

I absolutely plan on writing about my adventures in Seoul after we get back to Ulsan.

Christmas Cards and Cheer

Yesterday was absolutely fabulous! I got to spend the majority of my day making Christmas cards with my elementary students. The school provided colored paper, markers, and crayons. I printed out some reference pictures (like Santa, elves, reindeer, Christmas trees, etc.).

These kids were so excited. Some of them brought scrapbooking scissors, stickers, and glitter glue. They went all out. I even made a little sample of my own and they all gasped “Wow! Teacher good!” It was so cute. I loved working with them and helping them glue things and write little notes.

At school, we also have a Christmas tree and a giant singing Santa Claus. It’s actually quite festive.

My middle school classes weren’t allowed to make cards, but instead of doing text book lessons we did a conversational lesson about Christmas instead. They told me what they do with their families, asked me about Christmas in America, and we talked about movies and sang songs. They all seem to love Home Alone. Which is awesome. Because it’s my favorite Christmas movie, too!

After work, Steve and I went out for shabu shabu which was the best possible dinner choice since it was so ridiculously cold. We literally sat in the restaurant with our hands over the boiling broth while everything cooked. I don’t think I’ve ever been so cold in my life. My school hardly turns the heat on: kids and teachers walk around in their coats (and sometimes blankets). They also keep the windows open. Especially in the bathrooms. It’s bizarre. I guess that’s just how they do it here.

Monday

On Monday evenings, I teach a middle school class with four boys and one girl. They are very shy and rarely speak. However, I can tell that the girl’s English skills are very good based on her written work.

Tonight, I got to my classroom and she was the only student there. I decided to postpone my original lesson and have a conversational class with her instead.

Within the first ten minutes of class, I was so impressed by how much she was talking. She speaks very well with some simple grammatical errors, but we were really having a conversation. I asked her why she never participates. She told me that the boys make her too nervous.

We talked about school in Korea. She said that middle school and high school students are required to wear uniforms and are not allowed to individualize them at all. She told me that one time, she wore a ring to class and her teacher took it off her finger and threw it in the trash. I was in shock.

She went on to say how she wishes she was American-born because there is so much more freedom in America. It broke my heart to hear this from a 14 year old.

We also talked about music and books. She loves fantasy books like Harry Potter. I asked her if she liked unicorns. (Because I love unicorns and I have to share my love for them. Obviously.) She did, so I told her about The Last Unicorn and wrote it down for her. We also talked about traveling and cooking.

At the end of class, she told me she had fun! Fun. How awesome is that?

I really hope she stays positive and at least tries to participate more in class. Her speaking skills are among the best out of all my students, and I can’t believe it’s taken nearly four months for her to use them!

A Change of Plans

Last weekend, I had made plans to spend this weekend in Daegu with Roxy and Aisling. I was really looking forward to it. Too bad the universe laughed at me and said “no.”

After work on Friday, I took a local bus to the KTX station, about 30 minutes away. I went to the window to buy a ticket only to be told I miss the last bus to Daegu (by minutes). Tears. Panic. I messaged Roxy to tell her and we figured I would just come the next morning.

Then, I went outside to take the bus home. Unfortunately, the last bus back to my neighborhood stopped running, too. More tears. More panic. I called Hannah to freak out. Looks like I would be taking a taxi. Which I really didn’t want to do. Because I’m cheap.

In a split second, I made the executive decision to go downtown to Cima Bar instead of going home. I don’t usually go out by myself, but I was really upset. When I got to Cima, it was pretty empty. Al, the bartender, was there with several other customers. I told him about my tails of woe and he poured me a strong drink: cranberry and vodka. I also found out the one of the other guys there was from Bergen County! It was really cool to talk to someone else from Jersey.

There was more talking, and drinking, and playing Youtube videos on the bar computer. Dorian and Steve showed up at some point, too. I also may or may not have danced to a handful of RuPaul tunes.

The bar was ready to close at I don’t even know what time it was, and Dorian and I took a cab together because we live in the same neighborhood. We also sat outside of a 7/11 and chatted for a really long time. It was nice.

Then today, Sunday, I met my friend Lily for coffee and a Korean lesson. It was a beautiful sunny day and surprisingly warm out, so we got frozen drinks. We practiced some verbs, simple sentences, and my “homework” is to practice numbers/counting. I feel like I’m getting better at reading in Korean, even though I still ready very slowly. It’s really great to have a Korean friend to hang out and practice with.