Saturday, November 19, 2011

Happy Anniversary

Today I have officially been in Korea for one year!

I feel really good about this. It's been an amazing year and I have become so comfortable since wandering out of Incheon airport one year ago in a fit of nerves and uncertainty. I'm ready to head home to spend time with my family and friends but I will miss Korea so so much. I grew up a lot here. I learned a lot about myself and what I am capable of. 

And there have been so many awesome experiences. Korea is an amazing country with a lot to offer. Sure, there are things that I won't be sorry to say goodbye to, like squatter toilets and the smell of bundaegi. But the things about Korea that I will miss far outnumber the things that I will not.

I pretty much have hit everything on my "Things to do in Korea" list except that since the spring I've really wanted to rent a bike and ride along the Han River. So today Brianna and I finally decided to do just that. We woke up early and took the train to Yeouinaru Station, right by the 63 Building, and rented a couple of bikes. 
It was a perfect day for it. The park was almost completely empty which meant there weren't many other bikers and though the day was chilly it felt nice once we were riding for a while. I can't remember the last time I rode a bike! Which is sad! I always liked riding one during summer vacations when my family rented a cottage by the beach because the neighborhood was big and flat and there weren't many cars and it's a nice way to spend an afternoon, just cruising around. 

The bike path is something like 40 kilometers long and it's a really nice ride. We only rented ours for a couple of hours but the area we biked was mostly flat with a few hills thrown in. It follows right along the river so the view is decent and there are lots of places to rest, use the bathroom, or get a drink at a water fountain (or a snack at a convenience store) along the way. 
After that we headed to City Hall Station to find lunch. We ended up at a Vietnamese restaurant and I had a weird feeling of coming full circle because I remember that my first meal in Korea when I got here exactly a year ago was at a Vietnamese restaurant too. I usually don't eat Vietnamese food so, I don't know, it was just a strange thing I guess. The whole day just felt like saying goodbye and that added to it somehow.

Then we headed to Deoksugung Palace to check out the Seoul Museum of Art which is located on the palace grounds. We were actually just at this palace last week but it was at night and the museum wasn't open then.
We were AWWWing so loud at this adorable little boy. 
The museum wasn't really what I was expecting and was kind of a let down. I guess I thought it was going to be much bigger, my mistake, and we were done in about 30 minutes. It holds four exhibit halls and is currently running an exhibit called "Art of Communication".
Each artist had a few of their works on display and I only cared for one or two of them. Then again I don't really like contemporary art so maybe if there had been a different exhibition running it would have been more enjoyable.

After the museum Brianna headed back to Incheon and I went down the street to Kyobo Bookstore to check off one last thing on my Korean to-do list. Since the store is next to Gwanghwamun Square I stopped to take some pictures.
Admiral Yi Sun-sun, a famous commander from the Joseon Dynasty and all around badass dude
Sejong the Great, fourth king of the Joseon Dynasty, creator of the Korean alphabet (Hangul) and the face on your ₩10,000 bank note. Also it is difficult to see in my photo (I need to get a zoom lens) but on the left, at the foot of the mountain is Cheongwadae, called the Blue House, where the President lives.
I love Gwanghwamun Square. I was actually there last weekend for the first time and couldn't believe it had taken me so long to see it. It was nighttime then and the place was buzzing with people just relaxing on the grass and talking with friends. It's just a really cool place. You don't leave Korea without knowing who Admiral Yi Sun-sin and King Sejong are. They are huge figures here. So being in this place with their statues looking out over the city and the President's House behind them and all these people around felt rather like being in Washington D.C. and looking out at the Washington Monument from the Lincoln Memorial. I think the idea is the same, you get the same vibe, it holds the same significance. 

I think really what I am most happy about as I look back on my year here is that I squeezed as much out of the experience as possible. I know some people who come to Korea and leave without having done much more than sit at the local bar week after week. And hey the local bars can be great, it's part of the experience. But there is so much to this country that every week I have done or eaten or seen or tried something new. I went up mountains, into caves, swam in the Yellow Sea, wandered countless museums, walked through a tunnel toward North Korea, explored temples and palaces, and so much more.

Everyone comes to Korea for different reasons and I know it's not my place to judge what you do with your time. But I will say that if you don't get out and explore you are missing out big time. There are endless adventures to be had no matter what sort of things you are interested in. Don't leave without partaking in some of them!

(It's okay if you skip the squat toilets though)

Trivia of the Day: Jeju Loveland (제주러브랜드) (also known as Love Land) is an outdoor sculpture park on Jeju Island in South Korea. Twenty artists, mainly graduates of top art school Hongik University, helped open it in November 2004. The park is focused on a theme of sex, running sex education films, and featuring 140 sculptures representing humans in various sexual positions. It also has other elements such as large phallus statues, stone labia, and hands-on exhibits such as a "masturbation-cycle." Jeju Love Land is a place where art and eroticism meet in cool, fun, humorous styles.

*Jeju was recently named as one of the New 7 Natural Wonders of the World and since then I've seen a few supposed "facts" saying something like, "There is an island in Korea that is full of sex statues and it was just named a wonder of the world". Ehhh, not quite. Love Land is only a park on the island and it's a pretty reasonable location for it considering that Jeju is a honeymoon spot for Korean newlyweds. 

Friday, November 11, 2011

Hey hey it's Pepero Day

So while everyone in the States is observing Veteran's Day (thank you for your service!) over here in Korea it's Pepero Day.
Pepero itself is a snack made from sticks of cookie dunked in chocolate. It's the same as pocky essentially. There are a bunch of varieties- strawberry dipped, almond, chocolate filled, etc.- and they're available year round. However, November 11th is always Pepero Day because of course when you write 11/11 it looks like a bunch of sticks of pepero.

Pepero Day is pretty equivalent to Valentine's Day and White Day. The stores all put up massive displays and you can buy extra big boxes of it or the bakery made variety with sprinkles or "I Love You" written across it. If you've ever watched a Korean game show you may have seen pepero before when it's used in a kissing game. They play it a lot in We Got Married (우리 결혼했어요) which features a variety of Korean stars who are paired up for the show. Each person in the couple takes one end of pepero in their mouth and then begins eating it so that they get close to kissing, à la Lady and the Tramp. Of course since they're so shy about that here (take a drink every time a Korean drama fades out or cuts away from a kiss!) the game is basically to see which couple is willing to get close enough for a kiss before biting off and therefore have the shortest stick of pepero at the end. So Pepero Day is definitely a holiday that couples can indulge in but there is plenty of pepero exchange between friends too.

Walking to work I passed a bunch of students heading home and saw them carrying boxes with bows on them and gift bags and even one girl who had to use both arms to carry a heart-shaped pepero box display. At work one of the students in my first class gave me a box of pepero, the chocolate filled kind which is the best obviously. Then in my second class one of the students brought in extra large, individually wrapped sticks for everyone in the class. Another student even gave me a big box of pepero from Paris Baguette which is slightly fancier and probably cost much more. Very sweet!

I am for any holiday that encourages the eating of cookies dipped in chocolate so long live Pepero Day!

Trivia of the Day:  "The Liancourt Rocks, also known as Dokdo or Tokto (독도, literally "solitary island") in Korean or Takeshima (たけしま/竹島, literally "bamboo island") in Japanese, are a group of small islets in the Sea of Japan (East Sea). Sovereignty over the islets is disputed between Japan and South Korea. The islets are currently administered by South Korea, which has its Coast Guard stationed there. The Liancourt Rocks consist of two main islets and 35 smaller rocks. Two Korean citizens—an octopus fisherman and his wife—are permanent residents on the islets. A small Korean police detachment, administrative personnel, and lighthouse staff are stationed in non-permanent supporting positions on the islets. Although claimed by both Korea and Japan, Liancourt Rocks are currently administered by the Republic of Korea. Both nations' claims extend back at least several hundred years. Significant arguments supported by a variety of historical evidence have been presented by both parties, which have been challenged by counter-arguments with varying degrees of success. North Korea supports South Korea's claim.

The Liancourt Rocks are a point of heated contention*, alongside other Japan–Korea disputes. The Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs considers its position "inalterable". South Korea, for its part, maintains a nationwide educational program which sends the students of 62 elementary, middle, and high schools on field trips to the rocks on a regular basis. The government has also written a textbook about the rocks, intended to be used in elementary schools across the country, and manages a year-round national educational tour. When Japan's Shimane prefecture announced a "Takeshima Day" in 2005, Koreans reacted with demonstrations and protests throughout the country, extreme examples of which included a mother and son slicing off their own fingers, and a man who set himself on fire. In 2006, five Korean "Dokdo Riders" embarked on a world tour to raise international awareness of the dispute. Another notable protest featured South Koreans decapitating pheasants in front of the Japanese Embassy."

*The Dokdo debate is serious business! My students get all worked up about it (although this is true any time Japan is mentioned) and it's been used several times during their end of class project. Most recently I had a group who drew a picture of the Korean peninsula as a buff person who was punching Japan and saying, "Dokdo is ours!".

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Then.... some idiot turned on the lights

So despite my best intentions to actually stay on top of blogging this month, I've had a lot of other things on my plate and on my mind and so my little adventures have been moved to the back burner. But! This was Halloween month, possibly my favorite time of the year, and that means that some sort of post is entirely necessary.

Halloween in Korea was much better than I was expecting. My local Lotte Mart put out a pretty decent Halloween display that included decorations like pumpkin lanterns, glow-in-the-dark skeletons, banners, and window decals as well as kiddie costumes, masks, accessories like wands and pitchforks, and a range of witches' hats. It was nice to decorate my apartment since I always do the decorations at home and missed out big time this year for holidays.

This weekend I went into the city to celebrate and naturally the areas that are always crawling with foreigners were decorated up and there were tons of people in costume. I went as Minnie Mouse which was very easy to pull off and meant I could wear my red sneakers which made dancing for three hours a much more comfortable experience. We got some looks on the subway ride in but hey, as a non-Korean I get stared at all the time here anyway so I'd rather for once it be for an interesting reason.

At work yesterday we celebrated as best we could by wearing either costumes or at least funny ears or hats (our boss isn't big on anything that involves either teachers or students or staff enjoying themselves so we were lucky to even get away with that). I gave my students treat bags and they went crazy. You should have seen them with the candy corn. They've never had it before and had no idea what to even do with it. I had to explain that yes, it's edible and no, I have no idea what it's actually made of (I'm afraid to read the ingredient list to be honest, some things are best left a mystery). They really liked it though.

Probably the only flop of the Halloween season was carving a jack-o-lantern. A few weeks ago I managed to track down pumpkins at a local vegetable market but man, Korean pumpkins are not a pretty picture. They're a dull orange-brown color and very squat and awkward. I made the mistake of waiting too long to carve it (as well as leaving it on my coffee table which sits directly in the sun) and found it molding pretty fiercely when I finally decided to take a stab at it. Blech. So I didn't clean it out and put a candle inside because it was too nasty but I did still carve a face just for fun.
And then I promptly took it outside and threw it in the trash.

Now I'm just recovering from a candy coma and trying to wrap my head around the fact that it's November. November! Almost a year exactly since I came to Korea! It's been a big year, an amazing year, and sadly a year that is quickly coming to a close. I'm officially leave at the end of this term and I have mixed emotions about everything. I had wanted to stay on for an extra six months but things didn't quite work out with my contract renewal so on November 28th I'll be on a plane home to Massachusetts. I'm so excited to see everyone at home! But I'm in love with Korea and I'm going to miss it here immensely.

Recently I've been buzzing around between trying to clean and pack things up here, establish work and school plans for my return home, and experience as much of Korea as I can before I have to say goodbye. It's been exhausting and I've been feeling guilty about not being a better blogger because I think it's a great outlet for me but you know, priorities. Besides, I started this blog before I got here so I may just hang on to it for a month or two when I return home and have some time to share pictures and things that I didn't get a chance to post before. And post my version of the ultimate Korean packing list because I must have read dozens of those before coming here and they were really useful.

Stay tuned!

Trivia of the Day: Korean horror, sometimes referred to as K-Horror, is the term given to horror films made as part of the cinema of Korea. Korean horror features many of the same motifs, themes, and imagery as Japanese horror. Korean horror has been around since the early years of Korean cinema; however, it wasn't until the late 1990's that the genre began to experience a renewal. Many of the Korean horror films tend to focus on the suffering and the anguish of characters rather than focus on the gory "blood and guts" aspect of horror.