Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Nerd Alert!

On Saturday I went with a bunch of my co-workers to Comic World, an anime convention that's held in Seoul once a month. I love conventions because no one is more passionate than nerds and cons have a great, open vibe.
I heard about Comic World while I was doing some research before coming to Korea and it has been on my list of things to do while I'm here. Most conventions are held annually and have a lot to offer. Generally a con will have panels where you can hear lectures or talks on a variety of things, an artist's room where people can sell and showcase their work, a dealer's floor with booths selling all kinds of goods, and random other things going on like film screenings and contests and performances. Since Seoul's Comic World is held every month though (apparently there is also one in Busan every two months) I wasn't really sure how big it would be since that scale of events would be a lot to produce so often. 

As it turns out it is mostly just an artist's floor with a few vendors sprinkled outside along the street as well. I think the idea is more to showcase upcoming artists, many of whom had books and items for sale. There is really only a fraction of Japanese anime and manga that make it to the US so it was surprising to not recognize most of what was on display. Not to mention of course that plenty of it was South Korean manhwa which unfortunately I still don't have a lot of familiarity with at all. 

It was still pretty cool though, even if I had been hoping for something much bigger. The cosplayers however were out in force so there was certainly a lot to see:
I have no idea why this guy was wearing a random horse head but it was equal parts hilarious and creepy. There was also some guy dressed like a carrot. I don't even know.
Yep, according to the sign that guy is definitely named "Sausage Head". I don't even question these things anymore.
After poking around inside for a while we went to check out the vendors out front. They were selling plushies and little things like replica items from anime series' and such. I bought a couple nerdy things, a replica mask and kunai similar to the ones used in my favorite show, but the best thing I came away with from the day I scored for free. 

Since you really can't buy posters in Korea, we were all on the lookout for any big pictures or canvas paintings to decorate our apartments with. At the end of one of the rows there was a small table with a bunch of mini posters that you could take for free. Basically they were just the covers for upcoming comics but the one that I pounced on is for a fanfiction comic (fanfiction being stories created by fans using the characters/settings from an already existing work). 

Haha oh man, I love it. I'm not sure which part is my favorite- JK Rowling posing for a senior class picture, prettified Snape, or the fact that Harry is getting a ride from his father who is in Patronus form and still wearing glasses. All I know is that I need to find a picture frame for this ASAP so it can go on my wall next to the picture of Kim Jong-il painted to look like Ronald McDonald. Two amazing works of art need to keep each other company.

There is a website for Comic World but since it's in Korean and Google translate only gets you so far, we had to collect the info from a few different places. So for others who ever have an interest in hitting up Comic World, here is what you need to know:

Location: The AT Center in Yangjae-dong, Seocho-gu
How to Get There: Take the subway to Yangjae Station which is on Line 3, the Orange Line. Go out Exit 7 and then take either a taxi or a bus down to the AT Center. It's actually not even a far walk and you can just walk straight once you leave the station but we jumped on one of the green buses, number 20, that had the AT Center on its route and were there in less than 10 minutes.
When: One weekend a month, both Saturday and Sunday from roughly 10:30am to 5pm.
Cost: 4,000 ₩

Check the website for the dates each month and confirmation of times and location. I'm pretty sure it's consistently held at the AT Center but it never hurts to double check!

Trivia of the Day: The 2008 Namdaemun fire was a fire set by Korean citizen and arsonist Chae Jong-gi (채종기) that occurred on the Namdaemun, one of the most historically significant gates in Seoul, South Korea, and the first of Korea's National Treasures, on the date of February 10, 2008. The fire caused severe damage to the structure. The reason that Chae targeted Namdaemun was because it was easily accessible and had just one security measure, namely motion sensor detectors. South Korean newspapers blamed the government for not enacting stronger security measures. The Cultural Heritage Administration of South Korea said that it would take three years and $21 million to rebuild and restore the historic gate. 182 pages of blueprints for the gate were made in 2006 as a contingency against any emergencies which may damage the structure, making reconstruction possible.

Monday, March 21, 2011

And her hair it hung over her shoulder, tied up with a black velvet band

Happy belated St. Patrick's Day!

Since the holiday fell on a Thursday this year I saved the celebrations for the weekend. Luckily Korea is awesome and had a festival for the occasion:
It was hosted by the Irish Association of Korea which according to their website has been around since 1996:
The AIM of The IAK is to highlight & Promote Irish culture in Korea. We do this by providing events of interest to the Irish in Korea, and opportunities for Korean people to experience and learn more about Irish customs and traditions.
Basically there were a bunch of bands who played and some dancing in between, though no badass step dancers like I was hoping for. There were a few tents set up selling t-shirts and Irish tea and one area where you could make a donation for a memorial the IAK is hoping to build in honor of Irish who died in the Korean War. Ireland wasn't actually in the war but apparently there were at least two hundred soldiers who fought with the American, Canadian, and Australian forces.

Probably the strangest thing about the set up was that there was no beer tent. I had to walk down the block to a 7-Eleven though it was slim pickings since everyone else was doing the same thing. Korean beer is just okay, nothing to write home about, and they don't offer a big selection of imported beers which is too bad. However, there are no open container laws here which is a happy trade off.

So I bought a few beers and a hotteok (호떡) from a street vendor to go with them. Hotteok is the most delicious thing ever. It's basically a fried dough pancake with a brown sugar/cinnamon/peanut mixture inside that melts into gooey goodness. They're super cheap on the street and you can buy pre-made mix in the store in the baking aisle for making at home. When you buy one they hand it to you in this little rectangular piece of light paper that makes it easy to eat as you walk.

Of course if you are a space cadet like myself and not paying attention as you eat and walk, there is a chance that the gooey brown sugary sweetness inside, blazing hot since it's fresh off the griddle, will gush out and make you believe that you just stuck your hand in a POOL OF LAVA. Oh man did my hands have some blisters after that. If I ever have to booby trap my house like Kevin did in Home Alone I am totally making one of the traps trigger a giant falling bucket of half eaten hotteok. Delicious yet deadly.

Once I rinsed my hands under some cold water I headed back to the festival area and grabbed a seat to enjoy the music.
I wasn't really sure what to expect from a Korean Irish festival but it was a good time. I heard some familiar songs and some new ones and the crowd, though mostly foreigners, was a nice mix of folks from all over. At one point I was in line for the bathroom (apparently no matter where you go in the world women always get stuck waiting in long ass bathroom lines) and this girl behind me had this crazy get up going on with green tights and shorts and green shoes, etc. She asked if she looked ridiculous and someone responded, "There is a Korean man out there with a green mustache.... you do not look ridiculous".

After the festival I went to Itaewon and met up with a bunch of my co-workers for dinner and drinks. As part of the festival the IAK was also hosting two hooleys, a big one in Gangnam and a smaller one in Itaewon, so we went to the latter. One of the bands from earlier was there playing and we just spent a few hours hanging out, having some drinks, and listening to Irish tunes. My kind of evening.

You know it's funny because as I was looking around the crowd on Saturday I'd been thinking that it seems so random having an Irish Association in Korea. It really isn't at all but I guess it just took me by surprise at first. But then I was thinking that Ireland and Korea actually have a hell of a lot in common. In terms of size they're both relatively small nations (though their populations are hugely different) and geographically they're each slightly set off from a bustling continent. Ireland is an island and though Korea is a peninsula, considering that you can't exactly just take a road trip through the North and into China it's pretty much just as cut off. Ireland and Korea both have a history of being occupied by a neighboring nation and each country has been wracked by civil war that's left it divided.

It just seemed unexpected at first to hear one of the members of the IAK making announcements to the crowd in his Irish accent and then moments later repeating it again in Korean. And maybe I'm completely grasping at straws here but I think I can appreciate a little more how these two countries might get along so nicely.

Oh yikes except now I'm trying to picture an Irish/Korean dinner gathering of corned beef and cabbage with a side of kimchi and some Guinness and soju to wash it all down...

The unique cuisine makings of a beautiful friendship.

Trivia of the Day: Kim Yu-Na (김연아) is a South Korean figure skater. Kim is the first South Korean figure skater to win a medal at an ISU Junior or Senior Grand Prix event, ISU Championship, and the Olympic Games. She is the first female skater to win the Olympic Games, the World Championships, the Four Continents Championships and the Grand Prix Final. She is one of the most highly recognized athletes and media figures in South Korea. She has never placed off the podium in her entire career. At the 2010 Winter Olympics she won the gold medal, becoming the first South Korean skater to medal in any discipline of figure skating at the Olympic Games. Kim's gold medal was South Korea's first medal at the Winter Olympics in a sport other than speed skating or short track. Due to her dominance for the past few years, she has been nicknamed "Queen Yuna".

Monday, March 14, 2011

Happy White Day!

So I was more or less zoned out during February and completely forgot to mention anything about Korean Valentine's Day. Luckily today though Korea celebrates what basically amounts to Valentine's Day Part II so I'll just cover it all now.

How it works here is that on February 14th, Valentine's Day, women give chocolate to men and then on March 14th, White Day, men return the favor by presenting women with candy. I was grocery shopping on Valentine's Day and there was a big display in the middle of the store with bins of chocolate and such (I was tempted to treat myself to some Hershey Kisses but they are super overpriced here). The local bakeries had decorations up but aside from that I didn't really see too much of the holiday, probably because I just worked that day. I asked my kids in class if people were giving out chocolate for Valentine's Day at school but was careful not to put them on the spot since even when you're an elementary kid that stuff can be touchy. One of the boys said, "None of the girls gave us chocolate so we will not give them any candy" but they're fourth graders so really they didn't care much either way.

Today I wished my students a happy White Day and some of them said they'd brought in treats for their friends. Then when I walked into my second class one of my students, who is usually a little punk, was like, "Here teacher, catch" and threw a candy at me. He had enough for the other kids too but they were all so surprised that when he threw them they thought he was throwing the candy at them and kept dodging out of the way. One of the girls was all, "When did you become so nice?". I think he was trying to pretend like it was no big deal but seemed pretty pleased with himself.

White Day originated in Japan but at some point became something that Koreans celebrate too. Actually as Grandma Wikipedia tells it, every month in Korea there is a love-related holiday celebrated on the 14th:

January: Candle Day
February: Valentine's Day
March: White Day
April: Black Day
May: Rose Day
June: Kiss Day
July: Silver Day
August: Green Day
September: Music Day
October: Wine Day
November: Movie Day
December: Hug Day

I'm not sure to what extent all those other random love ones are celebrated but after Valentine's and White Day, Black Day is probably the only one really worth further mention. Black Day is basically a Korean Singles Awareness Day. Following right after Valentine's and White Day, Black Day is a time for single folks to get together and eat jjajangmyeon, which is noodles with black bean sauce, and commiserate/celebrate being single. I like to think that it's more of a celebration because a bunch of people sitting around being depressed and eating black sauced noodles sounds miserable.

I like to think of Valentine's Day as a time to celebrate the people you love, whether it be friends or family or a significant other. Korea really pushes the whole "couple" thing though so I can appreciate why they would have an actual holiday here for those who aren't part of one. A lot of the couples here are extremely cutesy, it's sort of just the nature of things. They often say "I love you" very early on and you can find all sorts of "couples" items from matching rings to underwear and pajamas. I'm kicking myself that I don't have any pictures of the couple outfits in action (often matching sweatshirts or t-shirts) but I'll be on the lookout.

Trivia of the Day:  Seoul, the capital and largest city of South Korea, has been known in the past by the successive names Wiryeseong (위례성, Baekje era), Namgyeong (남경, Goryeo era), Hanseong (한성, Joseon era) or Hanyang (한양). During the period of Japanese colonial rule, Seoul was called Keijō (in Japanese) or Gyeongseong (경성) (in Korean) . Its current name is Seoul, and this name has been in use since at least 1882, at times concurrently with other names. Seoul originated from the Korean word “seo'ul” meaning "capital city". An etymological hypothesis presumes that the origin of the native word “seo'ul” derives from the native name Seorabeol (서라벌), which originally referred to Gyeongju, the capital of Silla, then called Geumseong (금성). Also believed to be the origin of the name Seoul is "Se-ultari," which literally means "new walls" or "new castle." Seoul was a walled castle city from its construction in the early 15th century until most parts of the walls were destroyed during the Korean War.

Monday, March 7, 2011

The power of a fresh start

The last full week in February was the end of our winter term at CDI. There are a lot of kids I'm bummed about not having again this term but overall I was just ready for a fresh start with new students and new material. By the time the last class rolled around on Friday night I was real burnt-out. The term ended pretty well though. I tried to fit in lots of games during the week and brought snacks for all my classes and donuts for my two Friday classes which were my favorites. Here are some of my Level 1 kids on their last day:
These were my Memory Mega kids. We had a rough start but by the end they were probably my second favorite class. Kids come and go so frequently at academies that if you have problem students there is a decent chance they won't last for long. This class lost a few of those trouble kids along the way and managed to pick up some really great ones. (Notice the room being distinctly divided into a "boys" side and a "girls" side. Oh kids). 
And these kids were in my Wednesday/Friday Memory Giga class. I called them my dream class because they absolutely were. If you have a crummy class then the four terms with new sets of students can be a real blessing but it's too bad to lose a group you enjoyed so much in the process.
Haha I love this last picture the most. In all the other pictures I got smiles and then there's this. Thanks for playing boys.

So far I think my new classes are going all right. My schedule is pretty decent and I don't repeat too many lessons which is great because when you end up having to teach a boring ass lesson (I'm looking at you "Christopher Columbus" lesson) more than once it can be draining. I only have one night off this term (Wednesday again which I like) which is good for my bank account though I do miss getting out early on Monday nights.

Mostly I've been a lot more confident already this term than I was last. It's hard when you start of brand new and all the kids know the schedule better than you do. I'm sure they could all tell my first few weeks that I was clueless. All my first new classes last week went smoothly though and I have better ideas for making my class more fun. There are tons of new faces but a few students from my old classes and that helps with the transition. Plus it makes for that many fewer new names to memorize which is always, always good in my book.

I have a few posts backlogged and some recent pictures I still haven't gotten around to sharing so hopefully those will be up soon!

Trivia of the Day:  The Unification Flag is a flag designed to represent all of Korea when both North and South Korea participate in sporting events. The flag was first used in 1991 when the two countries competed as a single team in the 41st World Table Tennis Championship in Chiba, Japan and the 8th World Youth Football Championship in Lisbon, Portugal. The two countries' teams marched together under the flag in the opening ceremonies of the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney, the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens, the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin, and the 2006 Asian Games in Doha; however, the two countries competed separately in sporting events. The flag was not used in the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, due to the decision made by the Beijing Organizing Committee for the Olympic Games (BOCOG), that the two teams would enter separately. The flag represents North and South Korea. The background is white. In the center there is a blue silhouette of the Korean peninsula, including the island of Jeju-do to the southwest and Ullung-do to the east. The flag has no status as the official flag of either country.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The universal language of goodbye

It felt really good the other day to talk about my Gram and sort through everything I was feeling. I don't think I need to do that again but at the same time what's happening at home today is particularly on my mind. So rather than ignore it or indulge it, I'd like to talk about a recent experience that relates but at the same time lets me keep a safe distance from upsetting myself again.

Let me tell you about a Korean funeral.

A couple weeks ago our assistant manager, Kevin, lost his father-in-law to stomach cancer. Kevin is the nicest guy and bends over backwards to make our lives easier. So when he texted all of us the night of his father-in-law's wake and asked us if we wouldn't mind coming to console his family, there was no question about paying our respects. Kevin doesn't ask for anything and it was the least we could do.

We took multiple taxis and headed to a nearby hospital. In Korea, the funeral homes are connected to the hospital which I suppose on some level makes sense. Downstairs there are several rooms so that funerals can be held simultaneously. There were these huge flower stands lining the corridors and a big TV on the wall that listed the rooms and the names of the deceased and family members so you could determine where you should be. We spent a few minutes trying to figure out which room to go to since none of us could remember Kevin's Korean name. Finally we just picked one that seemed right and figured a group of thirteen foreigners would draw enough attention for someone to redirect us if we were wrong.

Luckily we picked the right room which apparently, as we were told later, was the biggest there. There were more flower stands and a small lounge area with a couple couches in the area immediately inside the door. Then to the left there was a sort of lobby area that had a reception desk with a guestbook and a slotted box for donations. This is customary for Korean funerals and after my initial surprise it didn't seem so strange. Funerals can be tough financially and I think it's just a way of supporting the family in a stressful time. We each donated ₩20,000 and then put the combined total in an envelope which they provide for you there. Then we took off our shoes and waited in line to pay our respects. I was especially glad that my pants were long enough that day to mostly cover my bright orange and pink socks. We were told going barefoot would be disrespectful and I was relieved I hadn't just been wearing flats.

The whole thing was more of a wake than a funeral but different from an American wake. For one, the body wasn't there. Since the country is so small, they don't really have the land for lots of burials and this makes burials more expensive. So most people are cremated. You still go up and say a prayer and pay your respects but it was at a sort of altar rather than a casket. This was in a room right off the lobby. On one side of the room was the altar with a big half circle of flowers arranged on top and a picture of the deceased framed in the middle. To the sides were more flower stands and in front was a big soft mat on the floor for bowing. There is a particular floor bow routine you're supposed to follow and we were all trying to peek around the doorway at the Koreans in front of us to see how to do it but opted for short bows from the waist instead.

Inside the room we each picked up a flower and placed it on the altar when we were in front of it. There was also incense and I think soju below the altar. Then to the right of the altar was the receiving line. Kevin stood next to the altar in a black suit with these sand colored armbands on his right arm that made him look like a pilot. Beside him were a few more men dressed the same and then three women after them, including his wife, who were dressed in these sort of black dresses that seemed to be made out of the same material as graduation gowns. I shook Kevin's hand and said I was sorry and politely bowed to everyone.

Back in the lobby we headed into a big room to the right where there were long tables and cushions lining the floor. All the tables had white plastic tablecloths on them and when we sat down they brought out a bunch of food and drinks- soup, meat, a variety of typical Korean side dishes, etc. Korean funerals last for a couple days and people apparently will come all through the night to pay their respects (by the time we left it was near midnight). So it wasn't surprising that they also brought out lots of beer and soju so that people could stay up with the family. I can't begin to imagine how exhausting a forty-eight hour wake would be.

Kevin came over a couple times to talk with us and brought his wife at one point to introduce her around. She was so sweet and grateful to us for coming, I'm not sure how she held it together so well but she did. I think some people are just much better in these situations than others. When we were leaving later she thanked us again and I gave them both hugs. Her dad was young, only in his mid-fifties, and she and Kevin have two little kids. Situations like those just suck no matter which way you slice it. I think we all felt good about being there for Kevin though, since he does so much for us.

When I came home later I googled "Korean funeral etiquette" and actually came across another blogger's run down on what to do and how to behave should you ever need to attend a funeral while in Korea. It pretty much covers exactly what my experience was but is much more comprehensive when it comes to explanations and includes some pictures so you get a better idea. I recommend it if you find yourself in similar circumstances. You can read it here.

So even though a Korean funeral was different in some ways from an American one, the feeling was still the same. A send off attended by friends and family seems like a pretty good way to go, no matter what language they're saying goodbye in.