Written as an introduction to my gifted writing class (the example for them so they can write their own introductions--the last time I did this, I wrote about taekwondo):
"Americans all eat hamburgers every day."
Actually, I'm a vegetarian.
"Americans are Christian. They believe in God."
Although I celebrate Christmas, I wouldn't really call myself Christian. As for whether I believe in God, that's a long story for another time.
"Americans are all white."
Tell that to my black, adopted sister. Or to the other foreign English teacher at Taegu Foreign Language High School, a Chinese-American.
Everyday I hear strange generalizations made by Korean students about natives from my country, the U.S.A. Although these misunderstandings are easy to correct for my students, other mistaken beliefs are not so easy to explain. Partly because they are based on deep-rooted parts of culture that one has to study intensely over a long period of time to really understand. And partly because it's really hard to see your own culture objectively enough to be able to explain to another person why something is wrong, even if you can see that it is.
Last semester, I found out that TFLHS offered a course called "American Culture" to its second grade students. It was taught by a thoughtful, hard-working woman who had spent only six months in America, even though we had two American citizens teaching English at the school. She struggled to understand things I'd known since birth. She was always asking me questions and seemed overburdened with teaching a subject so out of synch with her experiences.
This arrangement struck me as preposterous, so I suggested to the head of the English department that rather than co-teaching the English Reading second grade class, perhaps I would serve the school better co-teaching the culture class. So this semester, I was excited when I learned I'd been assigned the class with Ms. Lim.
However, I became overwhelmed. Where do you even begin to explain your own culture to another person? How can you help them understand your culture through comparisons with their own when you are only beginning to understand theirs in the most superficial of ways? I was never more grateful than at that moment to be co-teaching with such an intelligent Korean woman.
As we teach the course, most of our planning meetings consist of frank discussions about the differences between American and Korean culture. In this last month I have learned so much about Korean culture through my conversations with her. For example, though I knew Koreans and Americans to both be hard working people, I saw Americans as valuing efficiency more than Koreans did. When I told this to Ms. Lim, she was horrified.
"But Koreans really value efficiency!"
"Then why do they spend so much time at the office being unproductive--taking naps, socializing, goofing off? If they worked more efficiently, then they could leave earlier and spend more time with their families."
She thought about this for a moment. "Koreans don't see it this way. When they are at work, they are part of the company. Their job is to make sure the company works efficiently. If they went home early, and someone needed to talk to them about something, it could cause a problem for the company's efficiency."
A light went off in my head. "I think I get it. Americans direct their efficiency towards individual productivity. Even though they are part of a company, they tend to think in terms of it being my job and my work. It's not that Americans aren't team players, they just don't view the company above their personal tasks."
"I think that's a better way to explain it. We don't want to offend the students."
I laughed a little. "I suppose if we were in America, Koreans would see our work habits as selfish and inconvenient to cooperative efficiency."
I love this kind of cultural exchange. In fact, a big reason that I left the U.S. to teach in Korea was my interest in learning about another culture by living in it. For the last year and a half, I have been trying to make sense of my adopted country, Korea, and usually I must do so by making comparisons with my homeland, America.
I've picked up two hobbies here in Korea--one distinctly Korean that I had planned to try while I was still back home, taekwondo, and one, unexpected, that originated in my own country, swing dance. I find myself paying more attention to American issues than I did when I lived there. It's almost like I'm just now starting to understand what being an American really means.
Ironically, I had to move halfway around the world to figure out what that is!
Tuesday, March 31, 2009
Written as an introduction to my gifted writing class (the example for them so they can write their own introductions--the last time I did this, I wrote about taekwondo):
Monday, March 30, 2009
Warning: Post is a bit long and audiovisual heavy. Enjoy!
Saturday, Min Gi and I took a drive out to Cheongdo for the Cheongdo Bullfighting Festival (청도 소싸움 축제). The bullfights consisted of two animals, roughly matched in weight, butting their heads at each other until one of them decides he's had enough and runs away. Although I've heard it's more brutal in Spain, where the aim is to kill the animals, by the end of some of the longer fights (20 or more minutes), some of them had quite a bit of blood oozing out from various places on their bodies (especially behind the ears where the opposing cow's horns often struck).
Most of the matches consisted of a few moments of action between long periods of rather boring tension while the bulls pushed their heads against each other, moving very little. You can see this for yourself in the video below. The beginning and ending of this clip show the moments of action, while the middle minute or so is pretty much why it got kind of dull after awhile.
The bull who has the advantage here, 탱고 (Tango), maintained the lead for most of the match, but eventually lost to the more experienced bull.
Outside the main arena were a number of Cheongdo culture celebrations booths. Of course, there were also games for children and lots of art featuring bulls.
Dance troupe from Pyongyang
The festival also feature performers from all over Korea, but the highlight of the day was a troupe from Pyongyang, North Korea. They were introduced by a group of North Korean refugees who work for some kind of reunification non-profit group. This was the first time I've seen live North Koreans who weren't trying to scare the living daylights out of me at the border.
This was my first time hearing the North Korean accent in person. To me, it sounded like they were speaking Korean very high-pitched, like they are just about to run out of breath, and with an air of desperation. (It's possible this is compounded by the effects of Communism and starvation, but who knows?)
Watching the dance troupe reminded me of the novel, Jia, where the main character is a lead dancer at the main tourist hotel in Pyongyang, North Korea for most of her adult life. While seeing it for myself was very much how I imagined it would be (more about precision of moment and pitch than individual expression, big and bright and propagandistic), it was also quite a shock to see them so close with tensions between the two Koreas in such a strained place.
I tried to get as much video as possible of the numerous performances, but it was difficult because half of the stadium decided to leave their seats while the performance was going on and because I'd used so much memory photographing/videotaping the bulls that I was almost out of space. So none of the clips are of high quality or of the complete performances, but they are definitely worth watching.
Creepy Toy Dance.
Cool Dance with Strange Castinet-Like Instruments.
After the Pyongyang performance, we decided we'd seen enough of bulls butting heads, so we headed out to a wine tunnel we passed a few minutes from the stadium. This wine tunnel was a storehouse for persimmon wine. While I'm not a huge fan of fruit wines in general or persimmons in their natural form, the wine itself was pretty dry. It tasted a bit like a well-oaked chardonnay. I enjoyed it and wandering around in the dark.
Check out the full day's album for more pictures of interest:
Wednesday, March 25, 2009
My best friend from the US, Anne, came to Korea for her spring break, which happened to coincide with my birthday on Monday. Yay! Although she is now in Seoul, we had lots of good times in and around Daegu.
On Sunday, we went out to Palgongsan to ride the "Happy 700 happy car" (Replacing the So-so 600 so-so car, which had been a dramatic improvement over the original Depressed 400 depressed car) up the mountain. Although overcast, the views were still quite lovely, and the cherry blossoms are budding. Next week it will be in full bloom. We also visited Donghwasa, making this my third trip there.
The next day, Anne visited my taekwondo studio, where Kwanjangnim threw an impromptu birthday party after practice.
Finally, last night, we had a wacky evening in and around the Kyoungdae Bukmoon area. We had dinner at my favorite Indian restaurant, and then stayed out far too late, being goofy.
The rest of the photos from our time together are spread out in two different albums on Facebook. You can see them here or here.
I'll miss the Anne-nan-nan!!!
Friday, March 20, 2009
Hard to believe it, but I'm finally on my last blog post about my trip to Vietnam. I hope you enjoyed reading about another country. I'll return to discussing the interesting things about Korea very soon.
So on my last night, I took a bus from Hoi An to Hue, the imperial capital of the Nguyen Dynasty. I stayed at the best hotel of my trip--a guesthouse called Sunny Fine. The owner spoke English pretty well and the rooms were very clean and spacious for the $7/night price. If you plan to visit Hue, I can send you the e-mail information for the hotel.
I arrived in the early evening, so I just went out to a little bar down the street and treated myself to a full body massage at a nearby spa. The next day, I visited the ruins of the Imperial Citadel, nearly destroyed during the Tet Offensive. They were really spectacular. Plus it was so early in the morning, that I had the grounds largely to myself to explore.
I wish I'd had time to see some of the other ruins around Hue that in conjunction with the citadel make it a World UNESCO Heritage site. View the rest of my photos from Hue's citadel below.
And so, I bid adieu to my Vietnam series. I hope you all enjoyed the pictures and the stories.
Tomorrow night Anne is coming to Korea for a week. And Monday is my birthday. I am beyond excited. For now, I'm off to taekwondo. My 2단 (second degree) belt test is set for April 26, so I've got a lot of work to do! 와이팅!
Wednesday, March 18, 2009
I haven't had short hair for five years.
About two days ago I decided I MUST have short hair. The back was feeling bulky, and I thought it was looking a little straggly. I seem to only wear it up these days anyhow, so off to the salon I went.
I was scared, because my hair is crazy in a way that's very different from your average Korean's, but thought... what the heck? I found a nearby family hair salon, called Shampoo, that was staffed almost entirely by men. Male hairdressers listen to what you want. It's refreshing.
So I managed to explain well enough. My hair is too curly, so it ended up a little shorter than what I'd hoped for, but it'll grow out. I got some home dye and the final result is below.
I'm a little behind on blogging about my last few days in Vietnam due to my massive bout of homesickness and follow up remedy. I will try to catch up now.
The day after my motorbike tour of the countryside, I decided to explore the town of Hoi An, itself a UNESCO site. Hoi An's historical background is as an international port trading town for Vietnam. The ancient part of the town has been carefully preserved as a kind of living museum. Nearly all the businesses in town are custom tailors or traditional craftsmen. This makes Hoi An a kind of shopping paradise, and I must confess that I went a little overboard. I bought lots of custom-made dresses, pants, shoes, and even a winter coat. I also got some presents for friends and family at the local craft shops.
You can purchase a walking tour of Hoi An ticket that allows you to see several of the main sites. The weather on the particular Sunday I did this was absolutely spectacular.
The best part of Hoi An, though, was the laid-back vibe in the town. Although obviously economically supported by tourism, the vendors here were much less aggressive than in Hanoi and everybody was a lot friendlier. Heck, even the lizards lived in comfortable peace with the locals.
Finally, I ended up relaxing in the afternoon on Cua Dai beach, where I met some awesome folks and had my cool encounter with Moon Magic.
You should absolutely check out all of the photos I took around this picturesque, internationally influenced town.
|Hoi An Ancient Town|
Sunday, March 15, 2009
1. Amazing friends, both new and old
2. Very understanding parents
3. A loving boyfriend who, if he doesn't always understand, will at least cuddle, listen and try
4. Bad American TV
5. A physical illness to distract you from your emotional one
6. Cute kitties
7. A challenging and interesting job
8. Volunteer work
9. Swing dance and taekwondo
10. Spring weather
Make plans to visit, chat, and eat good meals with (1). Call (2) often and talk for a long time. Sometimes this might not be possible as they are also quite busy with their own lives, but make the effort. Spend time with (3), trying not to whine too much when you do. Do not take him for granted or you might spoil the dish.
Eventually (5) will happen as the stress becomes to much. Although it feels bad, it will eventually revive you. Watch a lot of (4) and cuddle with (6). When you can't sleep, throw yourself into (7) and (8) with vigor. You may feel exhausted, but eventually you'll start to feel the rewards.
Keep doing (9), even when you don't feel like it. You have a great time. Wait patiently as (10) begins to appear. Take the whole mix as often as possible for two weeks. During this time, your moods may be unpredictable, but persevere and you will reap the sweet rewards of this homemade cure.
Friday, March 13, 2009
Wednesday, March 11, 2009
I met Hai, my motorbike taxi tourguide from the day before, at my hotel after an early breakfast in Hoi An. We set out for My Son Holy Land, a UNESCO site, and the central highlands of Vietnam to view some gorgeous scenery along the Ho Chi Minh trail, meet some local farmers from one of Vietnam's many minority ethnic groups, and learn a little about traditional farming and food preparation.
My Son was in the middle of a jungle paradise. They called it a "sanctuary," and it certainly had an amazingly verdant jungle smell and air of peacefulness about the site, despite the numerous tourists already arrived by the time we got there.
From Hai, I learned and practiced most of the Vietnamese that I picked up while touring the country. I learned that pineapples grow in bushes, not trees. That gold is mined from rivers using barges designed especially for that purpose. That Vietnamese bury their families in grave sites in active rice fields (the ancestors protect the rice?). I went on a motorbike ferry across a river and crossed a bridge on the motorcycle that seemed like it was going to give out at any moment.
Overall, I got just a small taste of the "real" Vietnam, and I loved it. If I came back again, I would definitely take a full tour with Hai. Even though the tour was by far the most expensive day trip I went on while in the country, it was worth the extra cost. If you travel to Vietnam and will be in the Da Nang region, I will happily give you Hai's contact information.
Please do check out the rest of the album from my best day in Vietnam:
|My Son Holyland; Highlands Motorbike Tour|
Tuesday, March 10, 2009
After the trip to Perfume Pagoda, I took an overnight "express" train from Hanoi to Da Nang (en route to Hoi An). I got the most expensive "soft sleeper" car, which had four beds in a room. In my room there was a couple from Sweden travelling to Hue (a stop before my stop) and a gruff Vietnamese man who kept talking loudly on his cell phone and smoking right outside the cabin (there is no real ventilation in a train car, so while I appreciated his effort to not smoke in the cabin, it didn't really make that much of a difference). The food on the train was pretty good (though not dreadfully vegetarian-friendly) and the bed comfortable. The views along the coastline were pretty spectacular, though not photographable through the dirty train windows. I will not write about the bathrooms so as not to ever have to think about them again. Ever.
I arrived in Da Nang well-rested, but very dirty (between the day at Perfume Pagoda and overnight on the train with no shower, I'm amazed people were not running in the other direction at my approach). I decided to take a taxi to Hoi An, because although it was a bit pricier than the bus, I needed the luxury at this point. So when a man approached me and offered to take me there for $5 (I had assumed I'd have to fork over $15), I agreed.
Then he escorted me to his motorbike.
I had avoided these in Hanoi because I was terrified of them. I hesitated as Hai, my driver, took my bag and started to strap it on the back, responding to my admitting to being American by telling the story of how he was shot twice during the Vietnam War as a South Vietnamese (the ones who helped the US) soldier. He even pointed to the front of his bike that had a "Proud to be American" eagle sticker on it. He was so friendly, and I had already agreed to go with him, that when he handed me the helmet, although I must have been completely white with fear, I hopped on the back, assumed a death grip on the handlebars and prayed for a quick, death-free voyage.
Once the ride started, I saw that the traffic in Da Nang was nowhere near the nightmare that was the capital city. Hai explained that he'd take me out to the coastal road because we could see some of the war sites along the old DMZ and My Khe beach(popularized by the television show China Beach) and then around the Marble Mountains. He said it would take longer, but assured me that it was still the same price. He noticed my camera and asked if I wanted to stop and take some pictures around the beach. His driving and relaxed, straight-forward manner started to put me at ease.
When we arrived at the Marble Mountains, he encouraged me to go explore them for as long as I wanted. He said he'd wait at the base while I took a hike through the park and took some photos. I felt bad for making him wait, but I was very excited because I'd wanted to see the Marble Mountains while I was in Hoi An, and wasn't sure I would have time to make a side trip out to them. Plus, as it was already mid-afternoon at this point and I thought I'd have to waste my whole day in transport, the opportunity to turn the journey into a sight-seeing excursion for no extra money (except the generous tip I was now planning to give him), delighted me.
I was trying to go quickly because I didn't want Hai to have to wait too long, but in the end, there was just so much to see that I took over two hours, including the time I spent purchasing a very nice present for my parents from one of the marble craftsmen at the base of the mountain.
Finally, as we headed through the countryside towards Hoi An, I began to relax completely. I realized that this more rural, traditional part of Vietnam was what I had been yearning for after months in the concrete jungles of Daegu.
I arranged a day tour for the next day with Hai, wishing I had enough time and money to do one of his week-long central highlands tours. I had discovered the true joy of solo travel--that unexpected opportunity, that chance you can seize upon without consulting another who might balk at the time or the expense of the unplanned undertaking. As I settled into my first night in the lovely town of Hoi An, after a much needed shower and relaxing dinner with some girls I met on my trip to Ha Long Bay, I was bursting with excitement about the next day's voyage. Feeling for the first time in a long time, truly free.
Check out the rest of the day's album:
I skipped the swing dance party that I'd really been looking forward to because it was Saja's first day back home post-operation. I enjoyed a quiet, relaxing weekend.
No, no, tell them the truth. Tell them how you were so homesick you wanted to eat at McDonalds, which you usually abhor.
Ok, ok. The weekend was a little dull. And since Dad's out of the hospital now but still needs a lot of help, I'm feeling especially guilty about not being home right now. So I did have a minor bout with the blues. But it was nothing, really.
You were fantasizing about your old apartment and job. You even looked up available housing on craigslist and other apartment listing sites. You considered calling your old boss.
Well, I've also been checking out Korean apartment listings. I think I'm just going through a real estate phase. Besides, I had a great dinner with Se Jin downtown, and we got to girl-talk in a soul-fulfilling way. I'm having a pretty good time these days.
You had a nightmare about your graduate school degree.
Fine, ok. I'm unhappy right now. Do you have to be such a bitch about it? Now I'll go eat a tub of ice cream and cry at the ending of the Harry Potter movie on TV. Is that what you want? Huh?
Sorry. Sheesh. Don't be so sensitive. The weather is improving. You were happy today when you went shopping for your teachers' class.
Maybe you're right.
Just don't check the exchange rate again for awhile... ok?
Note to readers: I'm not having a psychological break with reality. I promise. I'm just having major mood swings for no good reason at all. I'll be better soon, I promise.
Friday, March 6, 2009
Warning: This post contains some graphic images of dead animals. The photo album has some worse ones.
After I got back from Ha Long Bay, I decided to take a bus trip to visit Perfume Pagoda, which is one of the more important holy sites in Northern Vietnam. The trip, including lunch, was only $16, so even though The Lonely Planet told fellow travellers that it wasn't worth it, I figured it couldn't be all that bad. (As a side note, I'm mildly disturbed by how many people I met who seem to be married to their little blue guidebook. I understand that one does need some advice when in a foreign land or a new area, but really people. Let's take our eyes out of the books and look around us while on a trip, mmmm kay?)
I was unimpressed with our guide for this trip. He was maybe 17 years old and rather disorganized. On the bus, though, I met some cool folks from Scotland and England. They were friends from back home and traveling together, but we hit it off alright. So when we got to the village on the Perfume River where we caught our boat rides to the pagoda, we shared a four person boat.
Ok, to be honest, the complex at Perfume Pagoda was the dirtiest place I went in all of Vietnam. It may actually be the dirtiest place I've ever been in my life, not counting the detritus-filled swamp fields on Wallops Island I played around in for Biology class in tenth grade. It was a teeming tourist trap (though almost exclusively for Vietnamese tourists; besides our group I saw very few other non-Vietnamese visitors) and had the only toilets I've been to in Asia where I actually turned and walked out again saying, "I can hold it. The trip back is just four hours..." (and I've used an outdoor squatter located on a 400-year old farmstead with no hot water).
One of the disturbing things was the sight of all the recently killed animals in various states of preparation for feeding hanging around the restaurants on the docks. Especially disturbing were the dogs and ocelots (who looked like my kitties--boo hoo).
After lunch, we had only a short time to explore the areas around the base of the mountain and head up to the pagoda. I had to take the cable car to the pagoda because of the short time (too bad!).
I had a really good time exploring on my own. I could take all the pictures I wanted at my own pace. The Vietnamese tourists in my cable car kept trying to speak to me in English. And some ladies I met in the pagoda wouldn't let me leave until I'd washed my face five times with the cave water (this is supposed to bring me luck... and I complied even though I was already feeling really dirty). Honestly, if I went back again, I'd go just on my own, not through a tour company.
The pagoda itself was a small disappointment without a full understanding of its religious significance. Our tour guide wasn't much help on this subject. The boat ride and temple at the base was worth the trip, though, and I had a fun day overall. Then I ended up meeting the boys in my boat again for drinks one night in Hoi An (coming up in future posts).
Check out the album from the day (remember there is a more graphic pic of the animals in the album):
Wednesday, March 4, 2009
Min Gi continued his new career as a phone interpreter for animal health:
"How much did the vet say the surgery would cost?"
"A little expensive. 200,000 won for the surgery. Then there is a blood test (60,000) and the cost for the hospital stay (30,000)."
"That's about the same as it would be in America at a private vet." Current exchange rate puts the total at a little less than $190.
"Yeah. Looks like we're not going to Japan, hon."
"I am sorry." Me, too. Hopefully after Friday, though, I can sleep through the night once 사자 stops trying to attract any tomcat in a 15 mile radius to our door.
We have an inter-office message system at work. I asked my boss (who sits next to me) for help:
"Ms. Seo, I can't log in to the messenger system anymore."
"Oh, you need to change the information."
"Ok. How do I fix it?"
"We were sent a message about how to change it."
"Through the messenger system?"
"That I can't log onto anymore until I fix it?"
"Yes." I stare at her disbelievingly for a minute, and we both laugh at the ridiculousness. "I'll call the IT person."
Tuesday, March 3, 2009
Yesterday, 사자 was acting a little more crazy than usual. She was mewling loudly almost all the time and rubbing herself all over everything. She was acting just like she was in heat, except when I got her from Kelly, I'd thought she was fixed. So when she was even worse upon my return from work today, I figured I should take her to the vet anyhow.
Min Gi helped translate a little via phone, but the vet couldn't find anything wrong with her. He started asking me the details of her spaying surgery (kind of funny because the only English word he could remember was "ovaries") when I realized that I didn't know the details. The vet book Kelly had given me only had some vaccination records. I knew she'd gotten 사자 as a pretty young kitten from another foreigner who couldn't take care of her anymore, but I was pretty sure the cat had been fixed under the previous foreigner's care.
The vet tried to check if the surgery had been done because I had been so sure at first that it had been done, but didn't know the details. He said he couldn't tell, but that she seemed perfectly healthy, so if she has had the surgery, then she's probably just stressed (which doesn't make sense because me being gone to Vietnam should have caused more stress than starting work, and neither of my kitties really get "stressed"; Princess worries a bit if I'm gone too long, but no stress).
So I talked to Kelly online a few minutes ago.
Yeah. She was like "Oh. I think I remember that I wanted to get it done, but I didn't do it." Hm. Information that would have been helpful to me back in July when I first took her in.
Well, at least I found a decent vet near my house and figured out what's wrong with 사자 (the solution to which should make her less rambunctious and annoying at night, to boot). I'll call tomorrow to schedule the surgery. In the meantime, I probably won't sleep tonight. And I kind of pity our neighbors. For a tiny animal, she's really loud.
Monday, March 2, 2009
A little east of Hanoi is UNESCO World Heritage Site and new seven world wonders contender, Ha Long Bay. After exploring Hanoi, I took a three day/two night tour to the area which included one night on a junk boat, a smallish-cruise ship about four stories tall, with about 35 other travelers from all over the world.
The next morning, most people returned to Hanoi, while the 10 of us who wanted one more day in this paradise stayed in a hotel on the largest island in the chain, Cat Ba. At the center of the island is a huge nature preserve and park. We went on a short, but very steep hike up to this scary-looking rusty, old, metal tower that was missing some steps and part of the roof.
During this part of my trip, I was pretty social as there wasn't much to do but relax and chat with people on the boat and the island. However, the scenery was spectacular, the kayaking and hiking fun, and the company pretty decent, so it was a great side trip, even if I didn't learn all that much about Vietnam hanging out with Germans, Danes, Australians, and various others.
You should definitely check out the other photographs in the album:
|Ha Long Bay and Cat Ba Island|