Thursday, October 30, 2008

Halloween

Yesterday was a lot of fun with the kids,they looked so cute. I mean, Korean kids are already so adorable. They shyly brought only one item to wear, but they brought TONS of candy and all shared it, they're the most generous kids. And the moms! The moms brought goodie bags and pencils and presents... gotta love the moms. They always bring me Starbucks and Krispy Kreme and.... Dior,Chanel and Estee Lauder.

My (amazing) co-teacher and moi, wearing my sleeping mask
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My two smartest students and me
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Possibly the cutest Halloween purse ever
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My whole class making the "angry" face
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Kids sharing their candy
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Gloria, my favorite student, so smart and adorable. She gives me Korean lessons.
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I'll miss them next year!

The Stalker

Is it considered stalking when someone calls you eleven times in the span of 24 hours?

So I keep running into this guy from the gym in my neighborhood. Whenever I finish my workout and head home, I run into him on the street and we make small talk, he seemed like a pretty nice guy. And by small talk, I mean literally SMALL talk. I think I know more Korean words than he knows English, so you can imagine the conversations. I think I made it pretty clear that I had a boyfriend, pointing to Aaron at the gym, and explaining we came to Korea to work together.

Last night I ran into him again, and after a short exchange (I was trying to explain that I was an English teacher), he asked me for my digits. Which is completely normal when you meet Koreans, you usually have plenty of new phone numbers every now and then. I imagine he wants to befriend more foreigners to practice his English, or to just learn about another culture- it's always hard to tell. Does he want free lessons or a new gym friend?

That happened at 9pm last night. He since called AND texted me eleven times.

9:20 last night: Hello! Coffee Bean Friday??
7:29 this morning: HELLO HAVE A NICE DAY!!!!!!!
6:37 tonight: YOU GO GYM TONIGHT??????

I only texted back once, saying I was missing the gym tonight, and he kept calling and calling afterwards, I had to turn off my phone (and miss the gym since I don't feel like seeing him either).

It's kind of hilarious but freaky. I wonder if he's done calling and texting for today?

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Green pumpkins and Halloween


Thank goodness I love Seoul, I have amazing friends, and that I enjoy teaching the kids so much. The situation with the school is not getting any better, too many cultural differences and communication problems and "pretending" and "showing face" and "saving face". Argh!!

On to something fun. Halloween is not very big in Korea, although all the kids know about it. They don't trick or treat or dress up, but they carve pumpkins. And, pumpkins are green here- I have yet to see an orange one. Kind of odd.

I did tell my International Class (my group of super smart second graders) they should dress up today and bring candy. My Korean supervisor stated they should only bring "one accessory", otherwise it might interfere with their "learning"(I'm rolling my eyes as I'm typing this). I told them they should dress up and go all out with candy, I think it should be fun... they're 8 yr-old kids who know more about science than I do.

As for Seoul, I think there are plenty of celebrations going on in the popular nightlife areas. I'm not sure I'll be going out to bars, I'd rather have a house party (but not in my apartment). I'm dying for an occasion to wear the kimono I got in Japan (along with the tiny wooden matching shoes), even though I'll get so much hate from Koreans ;)

Alright, off to marking piles and piles of midterms. I actually enjoy marking tests, reminds me of when I was little and I'd play teacher. I guess I get to play again for one year.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Seoul Fashion Week

I was lucky enough to get invited to Seoul Fashion Week by a Korean friend of mine who works in fashion. She is like Lauren and Whitney from The Hills, she is an intern and works backstage at shows. I actually met her back in Montreal, where she was studying, and she was one of the applicants to rent my apartment. The apartment was already taken, but somehow we stayed in touch as she was providing me insightful information about Seoul and beauty and fashion there. She is now back in Korea, and we hung out a few times, she is the sweetest girl I've met.

Last night we headed to a fashion show from designer Lee Young Hee, who is the most famous Korean designer. I've looked her up and saw she was showcased in Paris and New York fashion weeks a few years ago. She also owns a Korean Traditional Dress Museum in NYC, which is an interesting fact.

Her designs are all inspired by the traditional Korean dress, which is called a Hanbok. She uses the traditional materials such as silk and linen to create more contemporary versions of the Hanbok. And the metallic quality of silk gives volume and structure to her designs. Here is the traditional Korean costume:
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And Lee Young Hee's designs, inspired from them:
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I thought it was a beautiful collection, even though I'm not the biggest fan of silk and its iridescence. The dresses were whimsical and amazingly draped the model's bodies. I was pleasantly surprised to see healthy-looking models, thin but not skinny. It was my first fashion show so I was overall pretty impressed by the grandeur of the event, with all the press and front-row celebrities, and the music, and runway.

Monday, October 20, 2008

116 days left

Days like today make me anxious to go home so I don't have to put up with the school's antics anymore. I was having a perfectly great morning, with a good breakfast (breakfast is my favorite meal of the day, it always cheers me up when I have lots of food) and for once I wasn't too tired. The weather is so perfect these days, so sunny and crisp, I never experienced anything similar close to November. And the mosquitoes are gone, finally, so I can actually sleep and not itch all night.

Then I get to school and once again put up with an incompetent supervisor and it makes me miss my old job, where at least I could look up to my boss and not hear any nonsense. It would take too long to explain how the schools work in Korea, but basically we never hear any good feedback about our hard work. In other words, it's mostly about appearances, about pretending... and pretending. The schools here are more of a business corporation than an actual place to get education. Sad but true.

It's getting very old now, but I only have 2 more months of teaching (one month is a vacation, I cannot complain to much, right?)

And, on a better note, I'm going to Seoul Fashion Week! A Korea friend of mine who studies in fashion (and also lived in Montreal and Toronto) invited me to accompany her to a fashion show, I'm pretty excited. I think it might be a famous Korean designer, I'll definitely take pictures and report on it. Love those perks.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

You're so vain!

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Koreans seem to think most foreigners are either very handsome or beautiful. I don't know why- I think we remind them of some celebrities, or it's just a thing to say to be polite or engage conversation. At first it was very flattering, being told you're so gorgeous ten times per day. But after a while, it's like "yea yea, I know". Haha.

A few months ago I was at a dinner party with a mix of Koreans and foreigners. A Korean girl I had just met started gushing about how pretty she thought I was, and that I reminded her of some actress. I laughed a bit, and simply said, "thanks!". She looked a bit uncomfortable, and after a few minutes I found out why: I was told that my "thank you" was a big no-no in Korean culture. The correct answer to her compliment would have been to brush it off and insist on the opposite, such as: "oh no, not at all, i'm not pretty, please stop!".

However, growing up, I was educated to accept compliments by simply saying thank you, and perhaps returning the favor. I don't think that highly of myself, but I can accept a compliment. I don't think it's conceited.

It mostly has to do with self-esteem, I think. For instance, my Grade 6 girls were complimenting me on my size: "oh, teacher so thin! teacher good weight!" (since when Grade 6 girls should be worried about their weight??!! Isn't it too young?) They also asked me: "teacher, do you think you're pretty?" to which I replied: "well, some days not so much, but other days I feel good about myself, so sometimes yes". Once again they told me I was being too vain, that in Korean culture it was wrong. So I asked them: "do you think you're pretty?" and they all answered: "no, we are so ugly, not beautiful at all, not thin at all!!" (when in fact they're the most beautiful little Korean girls you could imagine).

It makes me sad, I don't know if it's a lack of self-esteem or just an automatic answer. I also happen to know that the rate of plastic surgery is verrrry high in Korea, as opposed to Canada or the US. Apparently most girls my age have had at least one thing done, either on their eyelids, nose, or something to make their face appear smaller (which seems to be a huge complex for girls here). Honestly I think Korean girls are probably one of the most beautiful girls in the world, I don't understand why they'd want to change anything. I'd kill to have their amazing almond-shaped eyes and perfect skintone.

I guess we're all the same about our looks, wherever you go, chances are girls feel the same insecurities about body image.

Sleepless in Seoul

Seoul is a city that never sleeps. Pretty much everything seems to be open around the clock, including some shopping malls such as Dongdaemun Market, and so many restaurants, bars, and cafes. And you're never alone, as the Korean peninsula is overpopulated: Korea is one of the most densely populated countries in the world, meaning the most people per square kilometer... as opposed to Canada, which is on the other extreme. You're never alone in Seoul, yet it can make you feel so lonely.

Korea is full of dichotomies. On one hand, there is always something to do, you can party all night: more bars than you could ever imagine, karaoke rooms, restaurants, even bathhouses. On the other hand, it gets overwhelming, there is too much to choose from, and an evening at home is sometimes what I'm craving. Seoul is also so huge and has so many great neighborhoods to explore, for every taste: Itaewon for the international flair, City Hall for the big downtown feel and financial district, Insadong for the traditional side, Gangnam for the upscale feel and fancy cafes, Olympic Park for its green parks, Hongdae for the college, hippie vibe... I'm probably forgetting so many. Still, the city is so big that it often takes over an hour to get from one point to another. You have to plan your days very well... and thankfully the taxis are so cheap, so sometimes it's the best option. And sometimes not, because you can imagine the traffic jams in a city like Seoul. Yikes.

I've been here for 8 months now, which I still cannot fathom. I'm at the point where I've tried everything I wanted to try. So everything is not as new and exciting, but I think it's better. I'm at the point where it's comfortable: I know where are my favorite spots, I don't get lost in the subway, I have a great group of friends, and I know where to find pretty much everything.

I'm loving all the lights, all the action, all the people. I'm also loving the big urban feel, something I never quite got in Montreal. However, I'm longing for green spaces. For quietness. For less people everywhere. For clean, fresh air. Seoul is so polluted, it's quite sad. The past few days have been especially foggy, due to pollution... something I never experienced before, to that extent.

On the bright side, things at school are better (well, there is still lots of tension, but we don't care anymore). Even though the school politics and antics are getting old, I'm enjoying every minute spent teaching the kids, they always make me so happy. I'm also really motivated with the gym, Aaron and I renewed our memberships until February, and the owner gave us a huge discount, I think he likes us. And the weather has been great, a bit cooler and really sunny. The bugs are pretty much gone (or so I think), and I sneak home to eat lunch at watch "The Hills".

Seoul Food

I don't think I'll ever get tired of word games using "Seoul". When I first got here eight months ago (I still cannot believe it's been that long), I was so happy about the prospect of eating a healthy diet of Korean food on a daily basis, and I also loved the idea of going out for every meal. It was so much fun to try all the different places, and to not have to cook or clean or worry about picking up groceries. However, that phase did not last too long. I got quickly tired of Korean food and started to miss familiar food, like bread and cheese and lots of fruit and vegetables. I also started hating going to restaurants, which are loud and crowded and often smell of cigarette smoke. I longed for some home cooked meals, but I thought it would be impossible to cook anything other than pasta.

I got started a few months ago, and since then I barely go out anymore, and it feels great. Many ingredients are difficult to find in Seoul, but with some creativity and willingness to travel a bit further, you can find pretty much everything in Seoul. After all, it's a huge cosmopolitan city, and Koreans love to follow new trends, such as ethnic restaurants or brunch cafes. Before coming to Korea, I thought I would spend a year without seeing a Starbucks. I was so wrong- there are more Starbucks in Seoul than probably the whole province of Quebec, and they also have The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf, which Canada doesn't even have. I'm telling you, Koreans are so quick to pick up on all the trends, for food and fashion in particular.

So, I'm not ashamed to admit I traveled one hour in the subway to pick up a single can of overpriced chick peas. I successfully made my own hummus, and it's pretty amazing. I would never have done that back home, when it's so easy to find. I also spend a bit more money on fruits and vegetables instead of getting angry by the prices. I should take pictures at the market next time, I see 15$ watermelons and the small box of tangerines with a hefty 24$ price tag made me gasp. You can also buy 3 apples for 5$. However, if you feel more adventurous, you can hit the markets and buy the produce for much cheaper, from the farmer's truck. Did I ever mention the vegetable truck? It's a truck full of vegetables and fruit (duh.) that travels around the back alleys with the loud-speaker on, announcing the deals on fruit or something like that. It's kind of funny at first, but it gets very irritating when you're trying to sleep in on a Saturday morning. The first few times I heard the vegetable truck I always got nervous, I thought North Korea was invading or something, I had no idea what was going on. Speaking of noise, I think Korea's motto is: louder is better. The streets are hardly ever quiet.

Stay tuned.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

The bad side of things

Turns out Korea is not all fun and games. I guess I had a bad day. I woke up this morning and first thing I saw was a jumbo-size cockroach, making its way under the bed. What a fabulous way to wake up, especially after getting three hours of sleep due to constant mosquito biting (due to our screens being torn and not repaired after we asked upon arrival). This apartment is old and nasty and horrible, and even though we complained and asked for changes we did not get much. So we've been roughing it for now seven months, but the cockroach sighting this morning was a bit too much. I mean, it was the size of my palm. I researched the critter, and found out that in order to get rid of them, the whole building (and not just our apartment) must be treated.

Should not be a problem, our school is one is the ritziest schools in Seoul: the school is so modern, and undergoes renovations and new additions every week. Our classrooms are quite posh, colorful and equipped with the latest Samsung digital equipment... a far cry from the good old blackboards of my youth. The school is replenished every week with new beds of flowers, or new prayer patios (yes, really. whatever that means). We even get our own exterminator who comes once a month to spray the school. The school is so focused on the outside appearances, probably to please the parents who pay a small fortune to give their overachieving kids a first-class education.Still, the foreign teachers live in the ugliest and unsanitary apartments hidden behind the school.

After putting up with it for several months, Aaron and I thought the school would at least be understanding of the bug problem and take care of it. After a very unpleasant conversation with the school dean and our supervisor as a translator, some yelling and anger (mostly from the dean's part), nothing was solved. Or, shall I say, it was solved the same way all our problems with the school were solved: we have to suck it up. We expressed our anger about the school having so much money for everything else but our apartments, and insisted on the fact that we were not asking for any luxuries.... just something quite basic and vital to our health and well-being. But no, apparently cockroaches are "normal" in Korea, and some yelling parts of the dean's speech were definitely not translated. From what I could catch he said something about hating us, and how ungrateful we were, and how spoiled we are. It was quite awful, and no solution was provided. For now all we can do is buy some kind of repellent, but the problem is still there. And it's not so much about the cockroaches per se anymore, it's about the lack of communication and understanding we have with the school, about how much they don't care about their employees' happiness and comfort.

I promise I'll post pictures of this luxury mansion when I leave in four months, for some reason I can't bring myself to do it now. End of my rant, I'm heading to the gym for some winding down!

Sunday, October 5, 2008

La Dolce Vita

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I just realized (once again) that my life is pretty fun and easy here in Seoul. Sometimes it's hard to believe when I go through bouts of homesickness, culture shock, and not being able to find the food I like or the places I enjoy. I still don't really understand the language, and being a foreigner in Korea is not easy: you get refused many things (such as some services at the bank, cell phone contracts, and many other perks), and it can be so frustrating to not understand what is going on. Also just the term "foreigner" can get so annoying, it's quite condescending and politically incorrect (as I once stated to my supervisor, one day that I was in a bad mood).

Yet, this year is a vacation for me. I went from working over 60 hours per week, 6 days a week, and not having much of a social life. I'd come home late, try to fit in a workout, eat a quick meal I'd pick up at the grocery store, then pass out for the night. I'd usually work on Saturdays, so Sundays would be dedicated to getting some rest, doing laundry and chores, watching movies and perhaps fitting in a few hours of quality time with my friends.

In Korea I work way less hours (as opposed to Koreans, who have the longest working hours in the world), so I have so much free time. I actually enjoy going to the gym, and I even started reading books again. On weekends, I explore different neighborhoods of Seoul, or go hiking, or take short trips out of the city. I can go to brunch every weekend, go to museums, go to cafes. I even started cooking, something I've never tackled before. I also joined a bunch of different meetup groups such as the "dining out" club and the "French" club. I keep meeting new people, which is great. I read my Korea Lonely Planet and pick out places I should go to, I have a list of things to accomplish before I go back home. I just hope I stick with my new resolutions when I go back home.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Moderate Fitness is Required

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Hiking is Korea's most popular leisure activity.The country is covered with mountains (about 70%), so it makes sense. The scenery is quite amazing, and it's especially nice to feel so far away from the city, even though you're still in Seoul. The city is surrounded by mountains that can be easily reached by a short subway ride. Koreans are so serious about hiking: they have the full hiking gear, which includes sun visors, gloves, backpacks, walking sticks, shoes and matching North Face outfits.

I was excited at the prospect of hiking the numerous mountains, but I soon realized that a hike in Korea is not a hike on Mont-Royal (Montreal's famous small hill). I love and I hate hiking at the same time. I love being outside, I love the nature (for a few hours at a time), I love the workout, and I love the sights. I guess I hate how scary it gets when you get near the top, and suddenly you have to go up on really steep and dangerous rocks, holding on to a steel rail, and hope for the best. I hate how you always think you're close to the top, but you still have two more hours to go. And I hate how crowded it gets, so crowded that sometimes you have to wait in line to go up a few rocks.

Today was a national holiday (Korea's birthday, happy birthday Korea!), so Aaron and I decided to take advantage of the beautiful, crisp autumn weather and go hike a pretty big mountain (810 meters), right outside of Seoul. It was probably the most strenuous hike I've ever been on, and also the scariest. The part close to the summit was pretty much rock-climbing on a verrrry steep path, with only a thin steel railing to hold on to. I guess wearing Converse shoes to go hiking is not the best idea, gets a bit slippery. I have yet to invest in a full-on hiking outfit (it's not happening). Aaron had to bribe me with a Snickers bar and a promise that we'd go to a museum tomorrow when I declared that I actually hated hiking, at about 800 meters up. I also mumbled something about wishing we had some Soju or strong liquor in toll (something I never actually desire). I was going to lose my mind. But I made it (um, almost). The view from the top is rewarding, and so is the feeling of accomplishment (and getting a kick ass workout out of it). Going back down is another difficult part, so hard on the legs (and slippery), but still enjoyable.

We were pretty much the only foreigners climbing today (we saw only 4 others, which is not a big daily occurrence). At one point, we were sitting down on a rock, just having granola bars and water, and we had a real celebrity moment. Half of the Koreans walking by would do a double take, and either point or smile or tell their friends about a "foreigner sighting". I'm not used to so much attention, since Seoul is a big city with a big foreigner population, but apparently small-town Korean peeps are still excited at the sight of a white person. One elderly man even did a 180 and came back so close to us, examining our faces and peeking at our snacks. Another person had the nerve to actually put his camera right in our face and take a picture, flash included. We felt a bit like animals on display at a zoo, but since it never really happens, I thought it was hilarious and actually enjoyed my 15 minutes of fame.

Even though I'd probably rather go to a museum or sit at a cafe, I'm happy when hiking (or rather when I'm done), and I'm proud I'm in good enough shape to make it to the top (especially when my Lonely Planet states, "Moderate Fitness is Required").