Monday, January 30, 2012

I'm a quitter

The coffee culture in Korea is quite quirky. As one walks down any street in Korea, they can experience a rather rhythmic pattern of establishments. Coffee shop. Hair salon. Pastry shop. Coffee shop. Beauty shop. Hair salon. Hair salon. Coffee shop. Coffee shop. Pastry shop. Clothing store. Ice cream! Coffee shop. Donuts! Coffee shop. And the beat goes on....

Prior to coming to Korea I would easily slide myself more toward the avid coffee drinker side of the caffeine scale but would stop a few notches before obsessed. Now, having lived in Korea for 15 months, I have purchased enough 3 to 5 dollar cups of joy to be moved a couple more notches. CLOSER. to. obsessed. Not ON obsessed. Regardless, the scale is tipping and I would like to maintain balance so for this reason, I have decided to give up coffee for... for...well...I'm not sure for how long but hopefully for a long time. (subjective I know because for those that consume their paper cupped caffeine on a daily basis would argue that 29 hours is a long time to go without) I'm aiming for AT LEAST a year.

This is almost like choosing to give up scarves in the dead of winter--sure you don't need 'em but GEEZ life is toastier and sweeter with 'em. Coffee culture in Korea is unique in two main ways: one, it's thriving and is an automatic default activity among Koreans and two, coffee culture is a night thing, not a morning thing. I feel like in America, coffee shops are like local news stations--they all want to be the first one so they each start their day a bit earlier than their competition (news at 4 am??!!?) where as in Korea they're all fighting to be the last to turn off their light; your typical coffee shop (including Starbucks) doesn't open until 10 or 11 am. However, many won't close until 1 am.

Text book American first date: dinner and a movie (drinks?)
Text book Korean first date: dinner and coffee (more coffee?)

You ever seen a 4 story Starbucks? If you live in Korea you sure have! Yep! 4 floors of tables filled with couples, business partners, friends, singles, students, and so forth.

So I raise my paper cup and plastic lid and propose a steamed and frothy milk toast to myself for giving it up. Cheers. I'll drink to that.

Sunday, January 29, 2012


Konglish (Korean + English = Konglish) is easy to find in Korea. Korean establishments like to use English in their advertising, as decorations, and just randomly. This Konglish find was one of more unusual ones I've seen, mostly for its placement. This is written on the inside of a tissue package (more commonly used for toilet paper because most bathrooms in Korea don't provide toilet paper so it's essential to carry your own). It made me giggle...

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Doctor, doctor give me the news

Visiting the doctor in Korea is a very unique experience and is something I'd like to share about. First, I'll give a little back story to tell about the reason for my most recent visits.

This winter, I decided to take up snowboarding. I feel fairly confident in my skiing skills and have gone a few times in Korea but had yet to ever step foot on a snowboard. Among all of my friends that I hit the slopes with, I am the only skier so I thought, hey, what the heck! It can't be that hard...right? My first experience was painful as I was warned it would be. The first thing to master is standing up. Fast forward to 30 minutes later. Ok. I've mastered standing up. Now, I have to figure out how to go down the hill. Muscle control and shifting my weight. Right. Got it. It wasn't as hard as I expected but I took some hard falls that would later leave me with swollen and bruised knees.

That was my first go at it. My knees took about a week to heal. After I got back from Thailand with my sister and after she had returned back to America, I was invited to go again by a different group of Korean friends. My first mistake: saying no to knee and butt pads. My second mistake: to keep boarding after I took some really really hard, painful falls. After the day was done and the group went back to the pension for dinner, hang out, and rest I inspected the damage. Both of my knees were swollen, the left one being the worst of the two and my right shoulder was of no use to me. I collected some sympathy from my friends and they all helped nurse me. I iced my shoulder and my knee that night and kept my leg elevated all night in hopes of waking up with the same body I had the day before. However, we don't always get what we want and I woke up more stiff than ever. I couldn't use my shoulder at all and absolutely no weight could be put on my knee. It was time for a trip to the ER...

Later that night when I returned back to Seoul I took a visit to the ER. The check-in process is quite different from that in America. No wrist bands are given with my name and ID number on it, no pulse or heart rate are taken. Rather, I just give my ID and medical insurance card to the woman at the desk, then go over and sit on one of the beds that has a pull curtain draped half way around it. Language is never an issue at any sort of medical establishment (ALL doctors in Korea obligatorily study their field in both Korean and English.) I've made a handful of trips to the doctor for a variety of reasons and I've had the same encounter at every single one in terms of communication: the receptionist can't speak English or if he/she can, it's unknown to me because he/she will never use it, the nurse can speak a little bit of English but it's choppy and she(he) feels extremely shy to do so (their English is usually padded with shy giggles and/or long drawn out "uumm..."s and "eerrr...."s but they manage), the doctor speaks fluent English and knows more English medical terms than I do. So, the challenge at at Korean doctor's office usually exists at the front counter--when you explain why you're there and who you want to see. After you get past that, you're golden. Anyway, the doctor came to check out the injuries and decided to take x-rays of both my shoulders and my left knee. I'm not sure if all x-ray machines are like this now but the one that I experienced in Korea was much more simple and easy than the ones I remember in America. I just laid on a hard elevated surface while they took many different 2-second shots of what they needed with a machine that was extended from his suspended base on the ceiling. No heavy jackets like I remember there being in the States. I then waited a bit more while my x-rays were being reviewed.

Nothing was broken. Thank goodness. I was given some pain killers, paid $80 (for an ER visit, 5 x-rays, and medication....amazing) and was on my way in no time.

Fast forward to present day (elapsed time is 2.5 weeks) and my shoulder is finally beginning to feel normal again (after acupuncture) but my left knee is still having some problems. Plus, the bruising has crept its way down into my entire lower leg, foot and ankle. Plus, there is swelling in my entire leg from the knee down. Basically, it looks like this, 3 weeks after the incident.

This might be totally normal if it had looked like that the day of the incident or if I had injured my leg, ankle or foot but the fact that only my knees were injured and the bruising has crawled down my leg bothers me a little bit. It's been almost 3 weeks since the accident and there is no sign of my knee healing at all. It's still very very swollen and there is a gathering of what feels like hardened tissue that makes a patch of tough texture under my skin. So, today I will go get an MRI to see what exactly is going on. The cost is projected to be much cheaper than in America; I'll find out first hand.

Something else that is very interesting is the treatment I received for my shoulder. I decided to go see a doctor that practiced traditional oriental medicine and healing. I went for four different visits. The idea of this treatment is that it draws out the old blood that is in the troubled area so the body will send fresh new blood to heal the strained muscles and tissues. In order to do this, they must prick me about 50 times with a needle to draw out the old blood then use suction cups to really suck it out. They also put suction cups on my shoulder that stimulate the muscles. Also, they put things on certain points that use heat (the things they put on my are actually burning and smell quite nice) to trigger the body to heal that area. Each treatment takes about an hour and cost me $9. Acupuncture is not painful at all and I would highly recommend it to anyone. After the first treatment, my muscles were the most relaxed they've been in a long time.

It's always a learning experience...

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Back on the wagon!!

APRIL 27, 2011???!!! That was my last post? Are you kidding me? (sigh in self-disappointment) Well, I've procrastinated long enough and it's time to get back on the blog wagon and time to start committing time to this blog. Why do I put it off?? I love writing! My mom frequently asks me about it. I always think about it. Why put it off? Good. Question.

My mother was right (words to live by), I need to start composing small posts about my daily life, adventures, run-ins, experiences, observations, and so forth as apposed to large posts about many things that have happened over the past month. I think this style of blogging is easier for the readers as well as myself when I want to reflect upon my journey or refer back on this blog for information. So, I hope to add more frequent updates about small occurrences. Let's call it my belated new year's resolution--it's better than my prior resolution, which was to conceive a resolution before the end of the first week of January. (sigh again...) Good thing I'm young...

Just to give a brief update of where I am in my life now, I'll skim over the past 7 months in an abridged version.

I finished out my first contract (which was a full year contract) at the elementary school. Because I am a GEPIK teacher, (GEPIK [Gyeonggi-do English Program In Korea] is a government funded program that sponsors teachers in the northern province of Gyeonggi. They are responsible for their housing, salary, and 365-day employment.) I was obliged to stay at my primary school for 365 days but after that, I have liberty to decide if I want to stay at the same school (only in the circumstance that the school's budget allows for it), move to a different school, or leave Korea all together. I knew I wasn't ready to leave Korea quite yet and unfortunately my school was unable to fund me for a second year so I was left with choice B: moving elsewhere. This was actually what I would have done anyway because I was ready to move to a larger city and was in hopes of finding a middle school for my future place of employment. The search was stressful, difficult, and was full of games but as I'm learning, a lot of the professional world is not I made some appearances to have face-to-face interviews with some privately owned after school tutoring schools (called Hagwons) and found one that I was going to settle for but it just didn't feel right. I kept trying and sent out my resume to countless recruiters and then fatefully heard back from one that had a position open in a city called Ansan; the position was even for a middle school. The only problem was that I would finish my current contract a month after the school in Ansan wanted to hire me. However, the Ansan school was willing to wait for me after reviewing my resume and speaking with my current employer. (happy sigh of relief)

So, on the morning of September 31 (the very last day of my contract) a moving truck arrived at my apartment, packed all of my things into the bed of a rickety truck, and delivered them to Ansan. I moved from here
to here.

Not much of a move, really--only about an hour away but much closer to Seoul and MUCH more accessible to Seoul; it is on the subway line. I was so ecstatic to have a job at a middle school in a large city on the subway line.

I've now been at my new school for 4 months and am thoroughly enjoying it. Teaching middle school students is challenging, no matter where you are in the world. It takes a lot of energy, patience, commitment, and self-confidence. My student are generally well behaved and most have an interest in learning English, though their motivations are all quite different. Some genuinely want to learn English because they have a liking for it or just want to be in with the the hip trend of being able to speak English while others realize that in order to be successful they have to learn English and have taken upon themselves to commit to learning it while others are feeling the heat from their parents to learn English in order to be successful and are doing it because they have to. Still, there are some that have give up hope don't care to speak any other language but their own. English is an EXTREMELY important factor to success in Korea. You must take an English exam to enter college and then almost all jobs require you take an English exam. Your score, of course, determines your success. Even before the college exam, students must take high school entrance exams which consist of all subjects, including English. Their high school entrance exam will place them in the "appropriate" school based upon their test scores. The students that prove to do well on their tests will be placed in a top high school while..well, you know the rest. When students apply for college, their high school plays a BIG role in where they will be accepted. The Korean school system (Korean life system for that matter) is all based on tests. They don't receive grades for homework, for in class work, or for participation; they receive grades based on tests. If you want to do anything in Korea, there's a test for it--including getting hired anywhere. Korean students are all too familial with tests and they also understand how important it is to "learn" English (many can read and write but few can speak) in order to get ahead in this world (Korea).

Speaking of division, the Korean system loves division. I teach 7th and 8th grade students. While I do teach boys and girls together, there is still division in the system. My 8th grade students are divided up by 3 levels: low, intermediate, and advanced. The difference between the classes is drastic! I'm going to allow you to use your common sense to configure how the three classes are different. All in all, I am enjoying my time here and I really like the school and the school staff.

That is the major update. Unfortunately, I've done some small things that I had wanted to share but now have forgotten about so in order to avoid this from happening again, I am going to take my mother's advice and make frequent small posts, for both you and me. Win, win.

One more thing I want to share that was a big part of my life. For 2 months, I fostered a Siberian Husky named Hanul. She was a rescue dog that was found chained up in a busy shopping district of Seoul. Some volunteers had been working to rescue her for a year before I found an advertisement looking for someone to foster her. I fell in love with her as soon as I saw her chained up, living in filthy conditions next a a sewer drain. She was filthy and needed to be set free. I stepped up and took her in as a foster dog. She was there as a guard dog but was far from having a respectable resume for a guard dog. She is SO sweet, kind, loving, never barks, and just wants to run free and love life. She had a terrible ear infection and I soon found out that the bill for an animal doctor is about ten times (if not more) expensive than that of a human doctor's bill. Aside from her ear infection, she was clean. I realized that I'm in no place to be a dog owner (or a mother!) any time soon but for 2 months, I had an amazing companion that I now miss dearly. Since leaving me, she was sent to her forever home in America where she is living on a 20-acre farm in Virginia. She's finally living the life that she deserves. :-)

Also, my sister came to visit me in Korea. We had a great time together and traveled to Ko Phi Phi, Thailand. Southern Thailand was breathtaking. The landscape is incredible and I kept asking myself, 'Am I really here????' Phi Phi was PACKED with tourists, though. Most were European though we did manage to come across a couple other Americans. We spent our days exploring the islands, snorkeling, rock climbing, cliff jumping, lounging, camping, and taking it all in. It was even more incredible to see my sister and spend the holidays with her. There's no love like family love.

Cheers to a new year and sticking to my resolution.