Thursday, December 31, 2009

2009 Kinda Sucked... 2010 Is Looking Up.

Mostly due to health issues, I only half accomplished my goals for this year. I did get my Master's. I do eat healthier. I would be out of consumer debt if I wasn't getting married, hadn't already paid for the honeymoon tickets, and hadn't had to visit the hospital in October. However, I'm much closer to being debt-free than I was last year, even with those expenses. The other goals have had progress made, some more, some less.

This year, I have a lot on my plate, so I'm keeping it pretty simple.

1. Obtain proper visa so that Min Gi and I can move back to America in August/September.
2. Get a decent job in America.
3. Be consumer debt free and pay off the smallest of the three school loans (with the highest interest rate).
4. Health stuff: a) Get my strength back by training 3-6 days/week b) Get the second degree belt in taekwondo after returning to training full time in March c) Eat out 3 or fewer times per week (including ordering in) because I eat more vegetables and healthier food when I cook.
5. Raise at least $7,500 for the Kenyan NGO where Min Gi and I would like to volunteer in summer 2011.
6. Have an awesome first year of marriage (starting January 9)!

I have some other things I'd like to accomplish in my Korean language studies, dance, and my writing, but I think these are the best goals for me at this time.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Christmas in Busan.

I titled this blog "Going Places," but lately it seems I haven't really gone anywhere--well physically anyhow. I've been feeling a little better each week, so I was finally up for an out-of-town adventure, just in time for Christmas.

Last year, on New Year's, Min Gi and I were planning to go see the sunrise at Haeundae beach in Busan. It's a very popular tradition in Korea to see the sunrise on the beach on the first day of the year. However, I missed out. So he suggested we go for Christmas. I started thinking maybe we could catch the last sight of Santa's sleigh as he left Asia for America (haha).

We woke up early to catch a 2 a.m. train to Haeundae and arrived at 5 a.m., just when all the clubbing folks were heading to the subway after a night of fun. While there weren't many Christmas lights up, there were lots of city night lights up, like this dizzyingly tall sign marking the businesses in one building.

Neon Fun.

The ocean front was cold, but we were very bundled up, so we felt nice at first and were having a great time relaxing on the dark, empty beach, listening to the waves and watching some stars. After about 15 minutes, it felt pretty cold again just sitting there, so we walked up and down from one end of the beach to the other to stay warm. Around 6:40, we settled back in to watch the sun rise.

Colors of the Dawn.

Unfortunately, it was a bit too cloudy on the horizon. We watched the light slowly fill up the sky, but not a proper sunrise. It's been too long since I've watched a sunset or a sunrise... Something I miss.

Goofing around in the early morning.

Finally, we were too cold, so we got up and looked for a restaurant for a yummy Christmas breakfast.

We had mushroom and tofu soup and pajeon. Heaven.

Since we had a few hours before we had to meet my friend Rebecca for a yummy Christmas brunch, we decided to take a nap in a jjimjilbang. Jjimjilbangs are kind of like Korean saunas that have separate male and female bath houses and a joint room where you can sit in the hot rooms or take a nap on the floor. We asked around and found a nice one in Seomyeon (the downtown area of Busan where two subway lines intersect). Only one Korean woman stared at me the whole time I showered, so I call that a victory (usually, as the only foreigner, I'm stared at by at least five naked women while I shower). We caught a very pleasant two hour nap before heading to the pancake brunch.

View from the apartment we visited in Busan.

Some people say that Korean architecture is identical everywhere (and ugly), and so it seems to a certain extent, but I really enjoy visiting other cities because there are subtle differences, such as the way Busan's buildings are worked around the mountains that run through it, or the way Seoul is designed around the Han river and Daegu is all flat in the valley that is surrounded by huge peaks. Although the architecture may not be spectacular, the cunning ways engineers figure out to work with the land to make population density as efficient as possible is impressive. I may prefer to live in a land with more beautiful buildings and more accessible greenspace, but I admire the ingenuity of tetris-like land use in Korea.

Check out the rest of our Christmas beach adventure:

Busan at Dawn on Christmas

We rounded out the evening with a potluck dinner at Ju-ick's house. She made the very special Christmas announcement that she and another Canadian friend of ours, Rick James, are now officially a couple! Yay for Christmas romance.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009


Our students voted to have uniforms next year. Normally Korean school uniforms (at the high school level) are super-cute three piece suits (skirts for the girls and slacks for the boys). However, our principal seemed to have decided to give students a choice between fugly and fuglier. All the teachers were making jokes about how the young men will look like ajosshis (middle aged Korean men) and the girls were very angry because the uniforms don't include skirts. Check out the "winter" options for yourself.

I'm a little sad for my kids because they so badly wanted something they could wear with pride to let other students know they belonged to one of the top two high schools in the city. Now they'll just look a little preppy. And rather frumpy.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

My body apparently hates me.

After finally recovering from the hell that was my October, I caught some kind of nasty bug on Friday. I thought it was just the 24-hour kind because I was feeling alright the next day and met my friend Jina for lunch as planned, but about an hour into dancing at Asurajang, I started to get a nasty headache and some stomach issues. I took a cab home and put myself to bed.

I woke up the next day after not sleeping well with the nastiest, biggest headache I've ever had in my life. Seriously, blinding white-out type pain from between my eyes around my skull, down the back of my neck and spine.

But Korean pharmacies do not open on Sundays until 12. Min Gi, bless him, tried to find pain meds at 10 am, but was unsuccessful. He went back out at 12:30 with the instructions not to bother returning if he couldn't find me some damned ibuprofen.

He was successful. Thirty minutes and 800mg later, I was back to being just a little achy, and I was finally able to think about something other than the pain in my head. It was lovely. However, my plan of making up for being out of commission on Friday failed to happen. I will go to bed early and hope that 2009 ends quickly and that 2010 lets me have my body back to normal--or some semblance of normal.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Korean Hive-Mind.

Perhaps that's extreme. But Koreans have a kind of group-think mentality that is difficult for individualistic Americans to understand. I've blogged about it directly before: once about being accepted by my swing club and another time when showcasing my students' opinions about Korea's core values.

Well, of course, naturally, Koreans also have a difficult time understanding the concepts of "rugged individualism" and "alone time" as positive things. They think if you are alone, then you must be lonely.

Recently, fellow blogger Liz of I'm no Picasso, encountered this culture clash in a very direct way and tries to make sense of it in her latest post. She has been planning a lovely solo trip to Vietnam (highly recommended, btw) when her co-teacher decided to join her. Although she remains torn over what to do about the situation because she likes her co-teacher, but that streak of independence is what kicked in at first:

When it first happened, I was infuriated. Who does something like that? I've been looking forward to this vacation for an age, with visions of me playing Thomas Fowler in a gorgeous hotel room overlooking a main road, waking a little late in the mornings and drinking strong Vietnamese coffee at a table outside on my imaginary hotel's imaginary veranda overlooking an imaginary busy, scenic Vietnamese street. I would then spend the day wandering around and taking in the various cities, not bothering with anything too touristy or pressurized, basically just trying to soak up the place in whatever way struck my fancy that day. Time alone. To unwind and decompress from the continuing uphill pace of life in the ROK.

Now I've got a middle-aged Korean tagalong. What in the hell am I going to do with her?

And, more importantly.... I.... it's vacation, okay? Who doesn't look forward to the potential, while traveling abroad, of meeting a cute little local and having a bit of what-happens-in-_____-stays-in-_____ fun? Or just meeting new people in general? Which is a lot harder to do when you have a travel companion.

Later she reflects on her difficulties adapting to this culture:

I hope it stops after this, though. I get a little tired sometimes, in Korea, of the group mentality. It's the one thing that's really hard for me to cope with about Korean culture. I like doing things alone, and I like doing things my own way, and I don't always want other people jumping in. Sometimes I don't want a ride to _____, because I had my own plans about how I was going to get to ____, and a whole schedule worked out for the day I was going to _____. Sometimes I don't want someone to join me going to that museum, or that temple, or that store, or that movie. I just want to go and enjoy it on my own, without the stress of it becoming a social situation. I don't need help with everything and I don't always need (or want) company. Just because I mention my plans to do something doesn't mean that you're invited.

Does that sound really bitchy? Well. Whatever. I'm trying my best to adjust. But some things about me are not American or Western -- they're just me. And they're not likely to ever change. That doesn't mean I'm wrong.

I love Liz's style of writing, btw--so full of voice and character, even while exploring some very complex cultural issues in an honest, personal, raw way. However, I have to disagree a little with her last statement. The ability to even conceive of yourself as separate from your culture or any other group, to make bold claims like these qualities are "just me" is a distinctly Western and American approach. Not that she's wrong at all--just that this kind of thinking is more culturally based than we realize.

Anyhow, I've struggled with all this myself and so I commented to her about my own frustrations:

I had a really hard time at first planning the wedding because I had NO control over the guest list. In Korea, if you mention an event, it means the person is invited. Foreigners often take YEARS to realize this, so they wonder (I've wondered) why they're not invited to the company dinner, yet asked why they didn't attend the next day. Why a casual mention of your weekend plans suddenly means your co-teacher is taking you out to the family farm for Chuseok.

I've finally learned, after much trial and even more error, that if a party is talked about around you, you're invited to it and that co-workers find it completely acceptable to invite themselves into your plans (especially if you'll be alone--who would WANT to be alone? they think) if you mention them at work. There was also a very interesting (not at all sarcastic this time) thread when Liz posed her problem on Dave's ESL Cafe. I highly recommend that you read it!

(Many thanks to Liz for sharing her experience and--hopefully--not minding my re-bloggering of it. Yes, bloggering is totally a word.)

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

In less than a month...

...I'll be married! WIth that, my family's impending visit, and the closing of the school year (and all the winter camp scheduling madness), my to-do list is completely insane.

The good news? Today, having been off the prednisone for a few days, my doctor declared me officially in remission and wished me a happy wedding (he's been invited and may attend) and my next appointment is not for a whole month--woohoo!

I'm starting to feel back to my normal self energy-wise (although it's still disappointing to have lost so much of my athletic abilities and strength) and my face is a little less circular (although the depression and prednisone food cravings have caused a very minor weight gain, but I'm kicking that down as quick as I can; may not be the goal weight for the wedding, but certainly will be for the honeymoon... yay for beaches in Cambodia and Thailand!).

And now to bed so that I can get everything done!

Friday, December 11, 2009

Like being in jail.

This weekend I'll be once again locked away for three days writing/proofreading/recording the entrance exam for my school. This is to prevent me making mucho dinero by selling it to potential test takers or hagwons (this happened a few years ago, which is why the rest of us must suffer no internet/cell phones for three days).

Last year it was three full days of the white foreigner's plight--to be constantly watched and commented on, but not interacted with; to be both never alone and yet very lonely and isolated. I can take this treatment for about 8 hours before shutting down completely...

This year, there are more people who will be with us than just our school's English teachers, so I anticipate this situation to be even more exaggerated. And while last year's vice principal was accommodating of my vegetarianism and very well organized, I don't know how the current VP will manage the weekend.

I'm hoping it will be ok.

Tell you in three days.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Monday, December 7, 2009


Winter in Daegu is cold. Usually bitter cold with wind making it feel colder. However, winter is also sunny and bright, with clear blue skies and lots of sunshine. Often, when I look out the window (if the room I am in is adequately heated), I forget that it is winter and bitter cold and that the sun sets at the ungodly early hour of 5 pm and doesn't rise again until a bit after 7 the next morning, and I want to go hiking.

I love hiking. Min Gi and I went hiking on our first date and have been hiking on many mountains in the area since then. I had a plan to hike two of the biggest mountains in South Korea before I left, but alas, my health problems have made hiking pretty much impossible for the last few months. It has been hurting our relationship a little, although thankfully we've learned through this illness that we're a pretty strong unit.

Last night, I had a dream that we went hiking. We were the only two people on the mountain. When we got to the top, it was a glorious, deep sky blue, not a cloud in sight, and we could see spreading green below us for miles and miles. I woke up sad--mourning for my lost ability to go more than 50 meters uphill without breathing heavily, for that feeling of peace at the top of a mountain (I wonder if there is a word in Korean for that feeling... I know there's one for the color--푸르디푸른)

Recovering from an illness is daunting. I remember being healthy, but being so obsessed with the 10kgs I wanted to lose that I never appreciated it. My body used to be so strong. And strength is beautiful. The last few weeks have been hard not only because I can't exercise as I want, but because when I look in the mirror, for the first time since high school, I truly hate what I see reflected back at me.

Alas, this is my last week on the prednisone. My moon face is "waning." I have been able to exercise and dance the last few weeks. I just have to stop being depressed that I can't instantly do all the stuff I used to do. I have to accept that it will take time to be able to kick that high, run that far, and climb that mountain, again.

Patience, when the day is this short and the air this cold, is hard.

I hate winter.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Pre-wedding discussions.

"How many kids do you want to have?"

He thinks about this a minute. "Well... I don't know if my brother will have kids, so we should have more than two."

"What does that have to do with us?"

"It is family!"

"Um... so you're going to be a stay-at-home dad and raise our hundreds of children we must have to carry on the family name?"

He thinks about this. "But I want to work."

"So do I." Commence silly staring contest, both of us struggle not to laugh. I win.

"Ok. Maybe I will stay home. Will you still cook?"


Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Korean "Core Values"

I've blogged about my American Culture co-teaching class this year multiple times. It's been a big challenge for me, since I'm not really trained as a social studies teacher, but also the class I've learned the most from teaching this year.

In class, we've been using a textbook, American Ways: An Introduction to American Culture by Maryanne Kearny Datesman, JoAnn Crandall, and Edward N. Kearny, that asserts three basic "core values" that traditionally all Americans share and value and three consequences of those values that also have become essential defining characteristics of American culture. Although not all-encompassing, I believe that they are a fair assessment of traditional American ideology.

The values are individual freedom, equality of opportunity, and the pursuit of material wealth (I would probably call this "prosperity," as the American Dream is not exclusively about materialism, but whatever) and the three American traits that stem from these values are self-reliance, competition, and hard work, respectively. Say what you will and feel free to disagree, but most Americans (myself included) hold most of these values near and dear--especially individual freedom and self-reliance.

Throughout the year we have studied how these values help us understand the features of American culture, such as religion, family, education, and diversity. It's been a nice framework for the students because it was a way to connect each individual unit together (something not commonly done in Korean courses where students tend to memorize for a test and then promptly forget everything they've learned). Sometimes we've had to introduce new values (such as "can-do" optimism and inventiveness), but generally they were either not as essential to the American character or they were not really as universal for Americans.

The last chapter in the text deals with the future of these values (which have, of course, changed slightly from how they were originally conceived) and modern challenges to America (such as health care and illegal immigrants). Reflecting on the idea that one of the main reasons to study another culture is to learn about our own, I asked the students this week to come up with Korea's "Core Values."

I was impressed. These kids have moved from thinking about Korean culture in terms of "kimchi" and "hangeul" at the beginning of the year, to being able to express and reasonably explain in a very thoughtful, critical way the main precepts that create the Korean identity. This week, I've learned a lot about Korean culture from these bright budding young sociologists and anthropologists--some things I already knew, but hadn't really found a clear way to express. For example, this post from a little over a year ago sums up a lot of my thoughts along these lines.

So, from the mouths of babes, here are some of the core values they identified, along with my attempt to re-create their explanation of it:

1. Confucianism/Neo-Confucianism -- The influence of Confucian values, such as respecting elders (they often called this a separate value of "Politeness" or "Courtesy," defining relationships (and the obligations within that relationship) clearly and hierarchically, and the prizing of scholarship as a mark of success were all cited by students as part of Korean values from the Joseon dynasty and could be a problem in the 21st century as the population ages (due to a low birth rate).

2. Sense of Community/Jeong (정, hanja: 情)/Cooperation -- This concept, students explained, comes from Korea's agricultural roots where the community would share their land to grow food and divide food according to the needs of the families in the community. In modern times, students pointed out that this leads to Korean people actively seeking group relationships and maintaining these networks with great care and that, if taken too far, sometimes creates the pervasive regionalism in politics and tendency for companies to only ever hire graduates of one or two universities. (Although many students were quick to point out that South Korea is NOT Communist, I do think that perhaps the existence of this concept in both Koreas' histories probably provided some fertile ground for Marxist ideals back in the 40s and 50s.)

3. Patriotism/Korean National Identity -- This is one of the more modern values they identified, although many students also connected it back to Confucianism. Like #2 where Koreans value group identity, they see the nation of Korea (well, South Korea... and sometimes if the political rhetoric suits the occasion, unified Korea) as one big group. Therefore, the successes and failures of each Korean personally affects Koreans more than it might other nationalities. This value was blamed for the homogeneity and racism that sometimes manifest here, but also cited as inspiring the unparalleled national and economic development of South Korea over the last 60 years.

Other contenders for a "core value" were: Education Fever/Eagerness (one student argued that this might come from a false belief that education means equal opportunity), The Faster the Better (빨리 빨리)/Convenience, Diligence/Hard Work, Conservatism/Traditions/Love for "Original" Things, and Family/Child-centered.

Not the work of a Ph.D. scholar, but not bad for high school kids in a 20 minute discussion group.

In strangely related news, the Korean expat blogosphere (yes, this is a thing that actually exists... like some grotesque hybrid between real blogging and the insanity that is Korean internet culture, which I briefly discussed in this post), has been a-twitter with the proposal by one politician to require a Korean culture class for foreign teachers issued an E-2 visa. If you are curious about the issue and subsequent "netizen" attempts to blow this issue out of all proportion, I recommend Brian's entry about the subject.

Perhaps we should enlist my students to write the curriculum.


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