Saturday, May 31, 2008

my french day

sunday morning. i wake up at the crack of dawn (8 am) since it's sooo hot and sticky and the sun is shining through my curtain-challenged windows. as i'm eating my bowl of oatmeal and watching sex and the city, i decide i should check out seoul's french neighbourhood. i miss speaking french, i haven't done it much since i got here (except a few times on the phone) and i don't know any other french teachers in seoul. and i'm dying for a real bakery and perhaps some perrier. i had visions of myself, sitting on a terrasse, sipping a cappuccino and making tons of new french friends to commisserate with and whatnot.

so i put on my best french outfit (navy dress, white sandals, red nails... you get the picture). i knew the subway stop, but not much else. as i get out of the subway station i find myself standing on the side of a highway with huge buildings around. no bakeries or cafés in sight. typical seoul: you think you'll get out of the subway and be right where you want to be, but you have no idea where you are and you don't recognize anything around. besides, most subway stations have ten different exits, so you take a wild guess every time. seoul is so huge, so, so huge. you have to see it to believe it. at that point i'm dying of hunger, i had planned to have a nice breakfast in the french village, but i see to be nowhere near it. so i settle on healthy french fries (the only french thing in sight) to hold me over.

i finally ask the concierge of a nearby hotel, who gives me clear directions. so i walk for about twenty minutes, and turn on a quiet little street indicating "seorae", aka the french village. it was a bit disappointing. it's only a small stretch, pretty much only one block. there is a french flag, a few nice french restaurants and wine bars, and a few cafés. but nothing too authentic. the most exciting thing was the french bus sign. i was hot and tired so i just left and went to apkujeong, an upscale neighbourhood filled with expensive boutiques and cozy cafés. which, in my opinion, is closer to the real french cafés i'm used to.

in other news, last night i had a fantastic time in apkujeong (once again). met a new friend and had some late afternoon drinks in a lovely garden. i also acquired a newfound love for seoul. it's fun to discover new neighbourhoods, and apkujeong is probably one of my favourites. i saw places i would never find back in montreal, amazingly designed cafés and restaurants. and galleria, the best department store in the world. so good that they have two of them across the street from the other. that's when you realize how huge seoul actually is.... you see things you never thought existed in asia, it takes you 2 hours to cross the city by subway, and no matter how many times you visit new places, you're never done discovering it. i am loving the big city life.

Friday, May 30, 2008

gym uniform pictures

as i previously mentioned, the gym makes us wear a uniform. actually i don't think it's mandatory, but everyone else wears it. the good thing is, you can go straight to the gym from wherever you are and not have to worry about going home to get your workout clothes. i leave my sneakers there too, which is practical. it also saves me from loads of laundry.

there are two options regarding the uniform: you can pick the orange baseball tee, which is awful when you're running and sweating like crazy. the other one is an oversized grey t-shirt that could fit a body builder. and the shorts.... navy nylon shorts with the matching orange stripe. there is only one size available, which is tight at the waist and huge at the thighs. oh, and lucky you get a glimpse of the, ahem, beautiful locker room. i had to sneak those pictures, i got lucky since the locker room was empty. i did not get a good picture of the shorts, but you can mentally picture them. i hope you appreciate my hard work.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

i'd rather be...

partying, shopping, putting on a fashion show at a baseball game, or reading magazines with an expensive coffee.

so things are better at school, i'm trying not to care as much and to keep my mouth shut. this week has been fun so far, we don't have to teach. it's the speech contest, so we only listen and mark the students on their english speech abilities. it's not 'fun' per se, but much easier than teaching. it gives me a nice break from the yelling at the grade 2!

i had a fun-filled weekend, too: baseball game on friday night (koreans cheer at the weirdest moments, a.k.a. all the time!), some sightseeing on saturday (the traditional, touristy part of seoul, shopping for some souvenirs, ie. hello kitty cat), and some lounging and picnic in the park on sunday, followed by some shopping in hongdae.

i also have a newfound love for korean traditional rice porridge, "juk". it comes in a variety of flavours: chicken, mushroom, seafood. it's basically like oatmeal, but with rice and a flavour. my favourite kind is pumpkin (see the first picture), which is really just a pumpkin potage, sans rice (they have a few rice noodles inside, but i don't eat them). the good news are, it's filling and very healthy. it comes with a side dish of kimchi, and a side dish of shredded beef. it's a "yummy, delicious food" like koreans would say. yesterday i tried to go on a day without rice, but it's practically impossible. the school cafeteria serves it every single day for lunch, along with different soups or side dishes. but it's at the core of every meal!

in other news, the weather is still insanely hot. i'm dreading the summer, i'm not good with too much heat. the gym hasn't started turning on the air conditioning, so it's been crazy hot and sweaty in there. plus the scale is out of order, which defeats my whole purpose of visiting the gym in the first place. ha! kidding.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

rant of the day

adjusting to korea has its ups and downs. and while i always try to find something positive about the (confusing) culture here, some days i just can't. yesterday was the most frustrating day in korea so far. i've been frustrated on many occasions right from the start, and somehow it always relates to the school: they gave us a shitty apartment, they did not give us time to get over jetlag, they did not give us a training, they gave me more classes, they made me teach teachers, etc. all kinds of last minute surprises, which is typical in korean culture. while i still hate the apartment, i don't mind so much the extra workload- i find it challenging.

so, yesterday. got into a bit of a discussion with my supervisor, who told me that i could use microsoft word to type a lesson, instead of the korean program, which i don't understand and haven't had a training for. turns out she changed her mind and still wanted me to use the korean program, even though i cannot understand it. when i asked if i could have a quick training, she laughed in my face. she told me that aaron and i were the only ones that complained about it, even though the rest of the foreign teachers complain about it within our staff room. and when i told her i just wanted to work things out and work on finding a solution, she walked out on me.

apparently, "finding a solution" is not possible in the korean workplace. back home, i learned that there was a solution for everything. i mean, i worked for one of the most popular tv shows in the province and god knows how many times we encountered problems. and we'd always work on it, sit all together and find solutions so that everyone is happy. and i loved that. we changed everything, we changed the office, we changed all the rules, we changed our daily tasks and we adjusted. if i was unhappy with something, i'd go talk to my producer and we'd agree on an understanding. it's one of the most valuable things i learned in the workplace, to compromise and work on finding solutions. i also learned to stand up for myself and speak up.

unfortunately, standing up for yourself and speaking your mind in korea is a big no-no. it's culturally unacceptable to say "no" to you boss or to express unhappiness. it's also impossible to work on things. it's a fact: even though 6 foreign teachers all complained together about the teacher's classes and presentations we have to give weekly, nothing was changed. they'll listen and nod to your complaints, then stick to their ways.

it's one of the most difficult things to accept for me while i'm working here. while i like the school in general and my students, i feel alienated from my korean co-workers. i already find it difficult to relate to them in general, but it's far worse in the workplace. some days i find it depressing to come to work and to have to put up with all that bullshit, but then i remind myself that i came here to travel and experience things outside work.

so that was my rant for the day, hopefully my next entry will be about something fun.

Monday, May 19, 2008

only in korea

i just got home from the most excruciating hour of my time spent in the r.o.k. so, it all starts casually. the head of the english department tells us that there will be a ceremony to inaugurate the new patio in the school yard, at 4pm. nothing too surprising here, they have ceremonies for pretty much everything, they like everything to be formal. last month we just had a pizza party for the new garden.

we got outside on the new patio, as it starts raining lightly. it is quite cold too, and a bit uncomfortable. all the teachers (korean and foreign) are in attendance, along with the pastor, the dean and the principal. one by one they speak in the microphone and give a little speech, or a prayer. yes, a prayer for the patio. then the principal (who is a bit of a nutcase) grabs the microphone and goes on and on for over an hour!! in korean! we just sat there, listening to him getting very excited and pointing the wood used to built the patio, and we just had no idea what he was rambling about for so long!

finally we all got up to cut the ribbon, and at this point it was pouring rain. pouring! the principal still wanted all the teachers to kneel on the patio and pray for a few minutes. madness. aaron and i just stood there, watching everyone else in astonishment. they then proceeded to cut the ribbon, every single teacher armed with a pair of scissors, while the school's photographer captured it all. he, in fact, captured every minute of the aforementioned endless speech. can't wait to post those pictures!

we were rewarded with watermelon, oranges, crackers, rice cakes and 2% (the best drink in korea, peach-flavoured water).

then we went home. the ceremony lasted one hour and a half. for a patio.

as aaron said, there is only one word to describe what just happened: "wow".

Saturday, May 17, 2008

my last day in montreal, first day in seoul.

last day in montreal:

i woke up in panic, had someone from work dropping off a box of my personal stuff, met aaron on mont-royal, went out for breakfast at beauty's (eggs and bacon, yumm, it seems like ages ago), went downtown looking everywhere for korean currency (finally found one place), rolled up aaron's canadian coins at second cup, went shopping at zara (got a last outfit, boots and a sweater), met sarah for dinner, went to the gym (probably spent most of it in the sauna), finished packing my suitcase, called my mom, wrote a few emails, took a shower, realized i had a small bottle of veuve cliquot left and got a bit drunk, did not get any sleep, waited for aaron to show up, got to the airport at 4am, freaked out in chicago when realized there was no turning back, then watched breakfast at tiffany's on the plane to seoul.

first day in seoul:

arrived in incheon late afternoon, got picked up by the recruiter, ate most of the chewing gum in the car ride to seoul, got stuck in seoul traffic for two hours, was dying from hunger, got to the school early evening, was greeted by the over-enthusiastic director, was told we had to sleep in the school's guest house for the weekend, freaked out a bit but then saw the nice quarters and wanted to live there for good, got presented with pastries and jam when we told the director we didn't have dinner, finally went out for a real dinner and caught a glimpse of the neighbourhood, watched some korean game shows, and passed out for the night.... then woke up at 6am, jet-lagged, and not knowing where i was.

good times, good times. seems like so long ago now!

Thursday, May 15, 2008

head like a kite

i got to see a whole different side of korea last weekend. we had a holiday (buddha's birthday), so aaron and i decided to get out of the city and go breathe some fresh air up in the mountains. after a smelly 4-hour bus ride (koreans like to snack on dry fish on long trips, lucky for moi), we arrived in a small town called sokcho, which is located right on korea's east coast. it's also as close as you can get to north korea's border, which is quite fascinating. i got my first glimpse of the sea of japan (or east sea, as the koreans call it). the beach is aligned with barbwire, which is used to keep the north korean spies away. as aaron puts it, "...where the barb wire is to ward off the north koreans and the spotlights to ward in the squid!". yes, seriously. there is a huge fish market, first experience for me! we walked along a narrow street filled with live fish swimming in buckets and fighting for their lives. as you walk along, you can pick your fish and eat it right away, sitting by the sea. not a bad view, but that lunch made me quite uneasy. i'm not the biggest fan of sea food, especially not when it's alive and staring at you from their bucket. i almost had a mini-breakdown, but we finally settled on clam, which seemed beginner-friendly. they were quite delectable, and the friendly owner even threw in some free shrimp. all that with a bottle of soju, to give me some much-needed liquid courage.

we also had the funniest encounters while walking around the port and on the beach. a korean family invited us to share their grilled bulgogi (beef) and homemade lemonade. right after, a group of drunk korean ladies invited us to share some soju, whisky, and beer. they couldn't speak a word of english and were so smashed that they thought we understood korean! it was rather funny, they kept giving us drinks, feeding us asparagus and one lady gave me a bottle of banana milk. so odd, what a weird combination... no wonder i felt sick for the rest of the day. we also ran into a group of korean soldiers, guarding the beach.... once again from north korean spies. they were waving at us and smiling, they seemed excited to meet foreigners. i took a pictures with them, they were so shy. regardless, i liked being in small-town korea, where people seem to be friendlier (or maybe just drunker!).

we then headed to the amazing seoraksan national park, the most beautiful place in korea. and perhaps one of the most beautiful places i've ever seen: mountains, rocky peaks, lush greenery, buddhist temples, waterfalls... we went on a few hikes, including a scary one where we had to climb some steep stairs to get into a cave, where a monk was drumming and chanting. i had to get over my fear of heights, but it was worth it. i'm not the most outdoors-y girl, but it was fantastic! the view from up there was amazing, the sun was shining, and it felt like a real vacation.

actually this whole year is a vacation for me, i almost feel bad sometimes! i work hard but it's quite easy when you think of it. i stay at school long hours, but once i'm done preparing my classes i can just use my free time however i want. i spend my whole weekends being a tourist, wandering around seoul and discovering new neighbourhoods (i'm not even done yet, still so much to see). we can go away for very cheap on long weekends, which is a great thing i've never really done before. i'm having a blast.

homesickness comes and goes, but small things make it easier: a few days ago i went to costco and stock up on imported foods, such as macaroni and cheese (shame on me!), cheerios, oatmeal, nesquik, bagels, and CHEESE CHEESE CHEESE!! yes, i went crazy when i saw all the cheese, which is nearly impossible to find anywhere else in korea! and whoever knows me well enough knows that cheese is my staple food. that made me really happy, and it made me feel more at home to have my favourite foods. also buying a few english magazines always cheers me up- they're a bit more expensive than back home, but it's worth it. i appreciate them so much more here.... at home i used to buy loads of magazines and not read them all. i wish i could read more korean, their magazines look pretty cool.

oh, and last thing. today was teacher's day at school.... a celebration of teachers i guess?! it was kind of fun, we got the afternoon off and the kids gave us presents and flowers. i got the craziest flower arrangements you could ever imagine.... picture a single red rose, but packaged in a bright pink bow with glitter and pink fishnet ruffles and ribbon.... i'm not kidding. i even took some pictures. among my loot was: flowers, various snacks (bread, oranges, rice cakes, yogurt), a dishcloth (weird... i know), and.... dior lipstick (!!!) and a big Estée Lauder bag, full of makeup and skincare. crazy!! that stuff is so expensive over here, way more than back in canada. i was so excited, i guess word got around that vivian teacher has expensive taste. just kidding. but parents are so generous, i felt bad. they pay so much money for that private school and for my international classes... maybe i should start preparing more when i teach about the growth of soy beans and how to get rid of head lice ;)

Saturday, May 3, 2008

random observations in the r.o.k.

republic of korea, that is.

*showing shoulders is considered indecent here. girls don't wear tank tops here in the summer. i wore one today, it was such a hot day, and it's only may 3rd. i felt many disapproving looks from older ladies in particular. however, it's totally okay to wear the shortest skirts and shorts paired with high heels.

*koreans are so afraid of the sun, which is a good thing considering the damages it can do to your skin. however, they're afraid because the sun darkens their skin, they want to remain as white as possible. i've seen so many whitening skin products, it's insane. every department store brand here (chanel, lancome, estée lauder...) has a whitening line. it's funny how they're trying to get whiter and i'm desperately trying to get a tan!

*speaking of summer, i feel it coming faster than i'm ready for it. the temperatures are already hot and humid, and it's only the beginning of may. i got my hair straightened in order to avoid the extra work in the summer, it will save me so much time, as my wavy mane is too heavy for korean weather. i found out the hair straightening process is so popular here, hence a fraction of the price. i couldn't believe that most korean girls get their hair straightened, even though they already have stick-straight hair. either that or a perm to get some curls, as my korean friends told me.

*korean friends are a gold mine to have if you're a foreigner. they are so kind and generous, and so helpful. i always feel bad asking them, but i always need their help for random things, such as booking an appointment or making an important purchase. i believe i would do the same for them back home, it makes you really appreciate the small stuff.

*korean cats have shorter tails. maybe i keep seeing the same cat over and over, but it seems like they look a bit different than western cats.

*funny thing happened at the gym: i sat on a stationary bike, set it for 10 minutes at high intensity (i just wanted a quick warm-up) and start pedaling. suddenly, this korean lady sitting next to me comes over and presses 'stop' and 'reset' on my bike. before i knew what what happening she set the time for 35 minutes at a lower level. then she just went back to her bike, as if nothing happened. part of me wanted to lose it on her, i was so angry, i thought it was so rude. but another part of me thought it was hilarious, and knew that she probably did that to be helpful-- maybe she didn't think i understood the machine, or maybe she thought it was better if i had a longer workout at a lower intensity. who knows. i just kept going, and yes, i did the 35 minutes. it was so odd! i guess i learned to be more tolerant in weird situations.

*we had 'sports day' at school, a special day for kids to participate in a race around the school yard. it was great to see the kids being so excited about the challenge, and really getting into it. those kids work so hard, they study so much. they're only in elementary school, but they go to bed later than i do, and they cry when they get 28 points out of 30 because 'my mom will be so angry at me'. it's quite sad, but i'm glad to see they can let loose and have fun on sports day. i also try to make my lessons as fun as possible.