Friday, March 28, 2008

korea's got seoul... and spas.

here's the naked truth: you can't really say you've done korea unless you've been to a public bath. what may sound seedy back in montreal is very traditional in korea.... and not seedy at all. public bath houses are found all over korea, and they resemble spas. for the low cost of 8$, you have access to all the rooms (hot and cold, saunas, baths...) on top of the "jjimjilbang" part: spacious heated rooms where you can watch television, read, sleep, or just lie on the floor on cushions. you can also get massages and scrubs. it is a common thing to have random koreans scrub your body while you're in the bath house, and it looks a bit painful in my opinion.

moi and my fellow canadian friend decided to brave the bath houses last week. being girls, we love spas and saunas and whatnot, so we thought it would be a fun (and cheap!!) activity. we were a bit nervous as we did not know what to expect, and many people scared us by saying koreans tend to stare at foreigners.

when you first get in, you pay the fee and they give you a "uniform": orange t-shirt and shorts (white t-shirts for guys). you go to the locker room, and get changed into you ugly uniform (at that point we wished we had brought our cameras, the fits were awful). at that point we also wished we had some soju in tow, as we were getting a bit nervous. the part where you wear your uniform is the jjimjilbang, aka the television and reading rooms, and various other rooms you can chill out in. one room was like an oven, you had to enter through this little door and sit on the floor while sweating profusely for as long as you could stand it (i stayed less than a minute, i started panicking). another room was a huge fridge, with a temperature of minus 11 degrees celcius. my favourite room was the salt room , where you sit in heaps of sea salt and rub it on your skin, while the ajummas (older ladies) smile and (probably) talk about you. each room has some kind of "benefit", such as clearing out your skin or curing 'diseases'.... of all kinds.

the next part was the baths, and that's when we started getting really nervous. i started thinking, wow, the spa experience is not relaxing at all, just more stressful than anything. obviously the rooms are different for men and women, but still. basically it's a huge room full of showers and different baths and saunas. there is salt available to scrub your body and most people bring their toileteries and toothbrushes. it is a lot of fun once you get past the initial weirdness, and some ajummas were showing us where to go: warm bath, then cold bath, then sauna. they also told us to shut our mouths while in the sauna, i guess were were a bit chatty!

the funniest part was the towel incident. they gave us only two tiny towels (no kidding, just a small square), so when we saw a big pile of huge towels in the locker room we just grabbed those and wrapped them around. however, when one of the employees saw us she started telling us to take them off, that we were not allowed to use them. turns out those 'towels' were in fact... carpets. they all had a laugh, definitely making fun of the foreign girls, but in a nice way. i also got yelled at when i absentmindedly put my boots on the locker room floor (koreans are very strict about the 'no shoes inside' rule, which is nice in fact).

all in all it was a fun experience, i'm looking forward to go back. it will definitely be more relaxing next time since i know how it works. i'll also try to take a picture of the uniforms, they're hilarious.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

il pleut sur séoul

went hiking again yesterday, this time right in seoul. just hopped on the subway and got off at one of the numerous mountains of seoul, they're everywhere. i truly enjoy hiking, it's a good workout and it feels nice to get away from the downtown area for a bit. i want to keep going on a regular basis, on top of my usual gym sessions.

i'm thisclose to obtaining my 'alien' status in korea. the month of april will certainly be more interesting: i'll have some spending money, a gym membership, and a phone! i also feel more comfortable with my teaching duties. it's still very different from what i was doing before, but in a way it's definitely more rewarding. sometimes i feel like i'm spending a 40-minute class just screaming to get the kids' attention, but other times i see them really learning and enjoying the games- those moments are the best. i also like running into my students in the street- i don't recognize them sometimes, but they obviosuly recognize me, and they shout: "vivian teacher, vivian teacher!!". i just try to keep on a good behaviour, i don't want them to see me drinking or something, hehe. we're surrounded by students and staff here, a lot of people live in the school-owned apartments, so i feel like i have to be careful. sometimes i miss my old job, but mostly the people i worked with. maybe i just didn't have time to think about it too much, because everything has been so exciting here. it was so difficult to quit, but i'm so relieved i did. if i had stayed in montreal i'd be missing out on so much. i feel like i'm actually living my life here, instead of just working long hours and trying to squeeze in some gym time.

i am still trying to adjust to korean way regarding our duties: they tend to sneak things up on us and telling us everything at the last minute. for example, last week we had a school banquet and i was just chilling out by the table. suddenly the head of the english department came over and casually ask me what my plan was regarding teaching the korean teachers. i went like: "whaaaaaat? i wasn't aware i had to teach teachers!!". after some discussion with the principal and even though i kept saying i was not comfortable doing so, i still got stuck with the duty. they don't really listen and that made me angry, and when the principal said i wouldn't have to teach, but rather to just "smile and hang out with the korean teachers", i couldn't really say no. it's only two hours per week, and i also felt guilty saying no when i only teach er.... 21 hours per week.

another example of the korean stubornness: when you are shopping for clothes, the sales assstants don't always let you try what you want. from what i could sense, they'll only let you try what they think will look good on you. my weirdest experience so far was in a little boutique down the street, i was browsing through the dresses and the sales girl asked me for my size. i had no idea what my korean size was, so she just told me to open my jacket and she felt my waist and went: "oooooohh!!!!!". anyways, she told me i was a korean size 5, but every dress in the store was either a 4, a 6 or an 8, so she did not let me try anything on. i pointed to two dresses, sizes 4 and 6 (i might as well try both, one should fit!), but "no, no!!"

so today is easter, but it's not celebrated here. however i made a little easter egg hunt for aaron, but then again i did not find any easter chocolate, just regular one. it's still fun. it's been raining all day today, first rain i've experienced in seoul. april is supposed to be quite rainy, but at least it's warm! i'm definitely not missing all the snow and harsh temperatures back home. spring in seoul has been beautiful so far, very warm and sunny. i also discoved a great park right behind the school, they have workout machines right outside! i must take some pictures.

we also have some new canadian friends, teaching with us and living right next door, which is nice! the other foreign teachers at our school are south african, and they've been here for several years, so they've been so great at helping us settling in. the rest of the english department are four korean girls around my age, they are very nice too, but so different: they go to church and probably don't drink or party too much, so i'm always afraid i'll offend them somehow. they're very sweet though, they want to go shopping and go to the beach in the summer, so we'll see.

and last thing. the following video was made by some foreigners teaching in korea, and it pretty much sums it all up for me, they got all the funny cultural bits, and as a newcomer to korea, i feel like i can relate so much:

Monday, March 17, 2008

waygookin and sightseeing

'waygookin' is the korean word for 'foreigner'. a few weeks ago, when we were hiking in daejon, some children passed us by and said 'waygookin!!'. aaron's korean friend then explained to me what it meant. i thought it was funny, but it's so strange. i really am a foreigner here: i look different, i don't speak the language, and i'm the outcast. never in my life have i experienced that, it's an odd feeling. i do get more attention, but sometimes i wish i could just blend in. it's exciting, but i can see it fading away very quickly.

right now i'm still in the exciting phase, where i make new discoveries and everything is so exotic and seems better than at home. the food is cheap, the shopping is a-m-a-z-i-n-g. it's the dream of every fashionista, seriously. went to the ritzy neighbourhood gangnam yesterday, and i was like a kid in a candy store. the department store galleria carries everything a girl could dream of, all the brands you can imagine. and that's just one neighbourhood. we visited 3 or 4 different ones over the weekend, and i'm loving seoul more and more. the city that seemed huge and scary at first is now more friendly. i can recognize the chain stores and restaurants and take the subway without getting lost.

i also saw the olympic park, where the 1988 seoul olympics were held. for some reason i can remember the 1988 seoul oylmpics so vividly. i don't know why-- maybe we talked about it a lot in elementary school or maybe i just watched a lot of coverage on television. it was exciting to see the installations and how huge it is. it's a nice part of seoul, very wide open with lots of green spaces, something quite scarce in other areas of the city.

so i'm fully enjoying the first few months of excitement, not looking forward to the homesickness. it still feels like i'm on vacation it seems. i remember the first few mornings i woke up in my bed in seoul, i had no idea where i was for the first few seconds, which was terrifying. i also remember being terrified when we got into that plane, there was no turning back. but it's a lot of fun now, i'm liking the apartment more and more, it definitely feels like home.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

times are a-changin'

i've only been in seoul for two weeks, but so much has changed. i remember the first week i was here (er, last week) i was so overwhelmed by the quantity of restaurants and stores, and i'd get to tired of seeing korean letters all around me, and hearing korean nonstop. i'd get home from walking around and i'd be dizzy and exhausted from the language, smells, and sights. the smells are a huge change for me as well, everything smells different.

in only a week i feel like ive gotten accustomed to most of those things: hearing korean spoken around me is natural, smelling the "kimchi" smell in the street (that's what i've been calling it, im not sure it smells like kimchi but it's strong) is just another normal thing. and im almost done memorizing the korean alphabet, so i can read many words now. it takes me a few moments, but i can read some basic things and recognize some frequent words, like "pharmacy". and last night, i had to give directions to my cab driver with the 10 korean words i know, and it was a success. aaron wasn't there to help me (well, he was physically there but let's say it was a soju-filled night followed by a noraebang stop-- more on it later). i also exchanged some traveller's cheques on my own at the bank-- a lot of written exchange was involved, but i got it done.

so i'd say i'm not doing too bad. i still get frustrated at some random things, like public washrooms. some are normal and clean, but many are so disgusting, mixed, and.... let's say the "toilet" part is missing. i don't even want to get into it, i hate them. the princess in me refuses to use them. i'll probably have to sometime, but this day has yet to come. i now tend to locate the "normal" bathrooms nearby before going out anywhere, hehe.

i also get frustrated because i feel like i still don't really have a life here- no friends, no cell phone, no gym membership, no bank account, etc. but this should change soon, as i successfully aced my medical exam (ie. i'm not a drug user, i don't have HIV, and i'm in good shape). this means i can now go to immigration and get my ARC (Alien Registration Card), which will help me get a cell phone, bank account, gym membership.... and perhaps some friends.

oh, and about the noraebang! last night i had so much fun, i can't remember the last time i partied like that on a wednesday night. a friend of mine from montreal was in seoul, on vacation, so aaron and i met up with her and her boyfriend in myong-dong, a crazy cool shopping neighbourhood. went out for drinks and some finger food at a local "hof" (beer restaurant, pretty much), loaded up on soju (um, 7 bottles were emptied in one sitting), then we were just drunk enough to hit a noraebang.

noraebangs are "sing rooms", ie. karaoke rooms. it was my first time, and a total "lost in translation" moment. we had a private room, two microphones, two tambourines and the disco lights. and some more soju. i had such a blast, i must do it again sometime soon! i don't recommend it on a wednesday night when you have to teach the next day, but.... it was worth it. my best night in seoul so far!

oh, tomorrow is "white day". i thought it referred to us white teachers, but apparently it's just like valentine's day. exciting, two in a row!

Monday, March 10, 2008

teaching, drinking, hiking.... and other foreigners

teaching is actually a lot more difficult than i thought it would be. the hours are fairly easy compared to my last job, i only teach for less than 3 hours each day, even though i have to be at the school in between classes. it requires a lot of preparation, my biggest fear is always to show up in front of a class with nothing to do or say. i was surprised, we did not get any training at all! i was expecting at least a few days of training in a classroom, but no. first day of school they gave me a schedule, some books and i had to come up with something to say to those little korean kids staring at me. i follow the book and we have some picture cards, cds, and dvds, but i like to be creative and add my own learning games. i am quite comfortable around kids, i guess it comes from all the summers i spent working as a camp counselor. i love my kids, i dont know any names yet (they all picked an english name, but still i'm confused), but they're adorable for the most part. the only part that bothers me is when they don't seem to care at all (we have a few bad classes), and how the school is disorganized in general- they seem to always have surprises for us, last-minute changes. i think i hate teaching in slippers too, i just feel so ridiculous. and i'm quite clumsy, so i 'slip' a lot it seems. plus it looks horrible when i'm all dressed nice. the shoes are part of the outfit!

life in seoul has been pretty sweet. i've been quite sick lately though, i don't know what happened, but i think it's a combination of all the departure jitters/jetlag/cold apartment. so i've been more tired than usual and it sucks because i feel like i cannot take full advantage of everything seoul has to offer. i'm getting better now, i saw the school nurse and she gave me some strange pills, saw the pharmacist and got some other kind, and apparently it's working now, my cold is slowly going away. aaron and i went to a city called daejon over the weekend, that's where he used to teach two years ago. it was a lot of fun, we went clubbing and hung out with his friends.

i also got my first encounter with 'foreigner' bars. basically, bars where other foreign teachers hang out. actually, seoul has a neighbourhood called itaewon, or "america town", where english teachers go hang out, and the american army crew. believe me, you don't want to be there. i thought i'd be excited to see other canadians or americans i could relate to, but i definitely do not relate to them! for some reason, most of them become white trash party animals when they are abroad: they hate korean culture and korean food, but they love the cheap alcohol and the korean girls. it's a pretty disgusting sight. apparently they also very much like canadian girls and dancing on a stage at a club, pretending they are black and from the ghetto. not all of them are jerks, but most i met over the weekend fit the loaded frat guy, meathead-type. they're actually an embarrassment, giving a bad image of canadians (or americans, for that matter) abroad.

oh well, i definitely won't be hanging out in itaewon very much. i do hope i meet some nice canadians or americans, i'm sure they're out there. clubbing in korea has been quite the experience: bars are open all night, they close at sunrise. they love to dance, and some places you just pay a cover charge (like 10$) and drink all you want. no tipping either! they also have those little lockers, just like at the swimming pool, where you can leave your jacket and bag, so you don't need to lug anything around or wait in line for coat check. i love that about korea, they seem to be so organized about most things. it was fun to dance and drink with the koreans, they are so nice and polite. they wave and smile a lot, they're very shy, but they are so interesting and respectful. you would never see that in a montreal club.

we also went hiking over the weekend, i think i'm in love with it! korea is covered by mountains (70%), so it's a great place to go hiking. it was my first experience, and i did pretty well for a beginner. it was a small one, but we made it to the top and it was very exciting. it's an amazing workout too, i should try to go once a week.

and today i had my medical exam, required by immigration. they test for drugs, hiv, and whatnot. i was pretty nervous, i hate hospitals and the sight of blood, and it was a pretty long series of tests. i'm glad it's over now, i think the staff got a kick out of us.

homesickness level: pretty low. i haven't been homesick very much so far. i know it has yet to come, and even though i go through ups and downs all day, i am not homesick. i miss a few things here and there, but it hasn't kicked in full gear.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

the art of showering

okay, i know i already wrote a lot about showers, but i had to go on. it is now very complicated and elaborate to take a simple shower. picture one hand holding the shower head close to your body because you cannot actually stand right underneath it when it's on the wall (the ceiling is too low, even for someone my height). while you're holding the showerhead close to you, you have to wash with the other hand, while making sure the water doesn't go everywhere else in the bathroom. imagine the physical effort it takes to shave your legs, or wash your face. if i stop holding it i get too cold, as the bathroom is not heated. it now takes me twice as much time to take a regular shower, lots of walking around in the shower sandals and temperature adjustments as it goes from boiling hot to cold in less than five seconds. i'll try to write about teaching next.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

vivian, lost in seoul

away from home, once again, ten years later. this time it's quite different, a complete culture change. i still feel all the same things i felt back then in indiana, but everything is just more intense. i don't understand the language, i am not familiar with the food, and i look so different. i get so many stares and compliments everywhere i go, which is nice but a bit overwhelming. i am surprised at how little english is spoken in seoul- since it's a huge city, i was expecting most people to be quite fluent, but definitely not. hence i have decided i should learn korean as much as i could. i started memorizing the alphabet and sounds, and i can proudly say i can read some words here and there. i can also say hi, please and thank you, but i mostly just bow and smile a lot.

the first few days were exciting, but overwhelming. on top of being jetlagged, the apartment was not ready, so we stayed in a guest house (inside the school!) for 4 days. we were finally able to move into our apartment last night, after making some major improvements. the apartment was rather disappointing, or in aaron's words, a shithole. we demanded some renovations and changes, and with a few trips to costco and home plus, it now looks decent. perhaps even cozy.

we did not have to work for the first week, but we attended several meetings and gatherings at the school, all pretty odd. at the teacher orientation, we were offered a snack that consisted of tomatoes and vitamin c juice. at the church meeting (our school is christian, they asked us to attend a ceremony on saturday, but it was the first and last time!) they gave us toothbrushes. another funny thing is, we walk around everywhere in the school in slippers! no shoes are allowed inside, so there goes my fashion sense. all my pretty shoes will have to stay home, i felt kind of ridiculous (perhaps vulnerable) teaching in a nice dress, tights, and.... slippers.

speaking of clothes, the fashion is just crazy here. girls all wear high heels, guys are totally dressed up like designer ads, and you can get away with wearing the shortest skirts ever. the shopping is insane, and i've only seen a minor portion of it. most stores are open late at night, and in the dongdaemun market area, they stay open all night! aaron and i ventured there for a few hours, i had never seen anything like this in my whole life. so many stores, so much people, i doubt i could even buy something there.

and the food, oh the food... it's been very good so far, i just need to get familiar with the different names. at first i was scared at the amount of white rice we would eat all day, but i noticed i don't eat very much sweets around here. the only thing i feel odd about is korean food for breakfast-- they eat kimchi (fermented cabbage), soups, and california rolls for breakfast. maybe i'll get used to it, but i bought some good old oatmeal and cereal for now. my biggest fear is to get sick of the food, but as aaron pointed out, there are so many options. and it's insanely cheap! for 3-4 dollars, you can get a full dinner, including apetizers, and no need to tip. as for alcohol, same thing: a bottle of soju costs like 1$, and it's as strong as vodka (41%). i cannot even drink a whole bottle, it's way too strong. you can find soju pretty much anywhere, they have depanneurs on every street corners, including "seven-elevens", where you can find pretty much anything.

my last observation for the day is regarding.... showers. aaron had explained it to me before we came, but you have to experience it... you actually shower right in the middle of the bathroom, no shower curtain, no bathtub, nothing. the shower head is right over the toilet, so you stand right there and everything gets soaking wet!! then if you need to brush you teeth afterwards you must wear sandals to walk around. it's kinda crazy, but i like it. i bought some clear purple shower sandals, which i wear every time i walk into my bathroom.

heading back to my apartment now, gotta get ready for teaching the first real day tomorrow!