Wednesday, December 4, 2013

The Happiest (and cheapest) Train

Hello, and welcome, children. Today we're going to talk about something very few foreigners seem to be aware of. I only discovered it myself over Thanksgiving weekend. It's a marvelous thing called the Happy Rail Pass.

What is it?
This is a little card that you buy which can then be exchanged for unlimited train tickets for the duration of the period you booked it for. So, slow trains and KTX. But not subways. This saves you a fortune if you're doing multiple transfers, or going up to Seoul for the weekend, for example.

All prices in KRW:
KTX from Daegu to Seoul: 33,600 - 55,300
Saemaeul (slower): 30,000 - 34,000
Mugunghwa (slowest train): 17,200 - 20,000
Bus:  17,000 - 27,700

Those are one way trips. Yeeeeeeeeesh. So, a return ticket to Seoul on the KTX will total over 100,000 if I want to travel in style, or 68,000 if I slum it. Ouch.

Now, we get to the Happy Rail Pass. This pass is best used when travelling in a group.
Happy Rail Pass (solo) for 2 days: 87,000
Happy Rail Pass - saver - (solo) for 2 days: 78,300
Edit: I misread the information, unfortunately. The group price is 78,300 per person.
And that is including your return ticket home, and any KTX/slow train travelling you do during that time.

The Happy Rail pass is aimed at visitors travelling within Korea, but it can be used by anyone, including foreigners with ARCs. You need to use a credit card and your passport number when booking, and include the names and passport numbers of your companions if you're putting them on the same pass. Bring your passport with you when you go to the train station. You can use foreign credit cards to book this pass online.

When you get to the station, take your Happy Rail Pass number (you got it when booking) and your passport to the ticket window. Exchange it for your first ticket. The timer starts now. Keep the little card they give you; that is exchanged for all train tickets during this time except subway tickets.

The Happy Rail Pass doesn't guarantee you a seat rather than standing ticket during peak season, so get there well before it's time for the train to go in order to be certain of one. Peak season is summer vacation, Chuseok, lunar new year and Thanksgiving day, year end and beginning of the year.

Book your ticket online here:
(English version of the site is available). Happy Rail passes are under "Travelling".

Bon voyage.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Traitorous Jjimdalk

When I moved into my apartment, and before I learned how to order food, I relied heavily on local take-out places. I'd walk in, point at stuff, and show them my ARC so they could figure out where I lived.

I developed a mild addiction to Andong Jjimdalk. Run by a lovely ajeossi and his wife, this noodly, chicken and veg concoction makes me happy in my mouth. I want it.

It also made me fat, so now I ration my jjimdalk. Over the months, it has gotten so that I can walk in and they know my order - spicy, boneless jjimdalk with a coke, sometimes. They know where I live too. I just walk in, hand over my card or cash, and food magically appears at my door within half an hour.

Of course, one cannot live on jjimdalk alone (OH YES YOU CAN) so I downloaded the free 요기요 app from the android store so that I could order delivery without making awkward bad-Korean phonecalls with frustrated, nervous and non-English speaking restauranteers.

Tonight as I walked home from my Korean class I was hit by a sudden craving for jjimdalk. I went to the restaurant, where the lights and TV were on (there's a hairdressers' chair for waiting people to comfortably sit and watch TV, or for the ajeossi (who does the deliveries) to hang while he waits for orders). But the door was locked. She was out and he was on a delivery, so they'd briefly locked up. This is very unlike the chicken place down the street which stays teasingly open all day but is hardly ever manned by people to take your order.

Dejected, depressed and still craving jjimdalk, I trudged home in the rain. But the craving persisted.

I picked up my phone and questioned whether it would be a complete betrayal to eat different jjimdalk. And what if the new jjimdalk was better than the one from my local place? Would it forever taint the awesomeness of my regular jjimdalk? I swallowed the bitter taste in my mouth and tried to push the guilt to the back of my mind. I felt like such a traitor as I scrolled through 요기요's different options of local takeout places. I even had a little daydream in which I showed my ajeossi and ajumma the app and their business soared, and we celebrated over jjimdalk. My stomach rumbled.

I selected the first one I saw, and was amazed by the options. It is so simple to walk into my jjimdalk place and order the same thing every time - 매은 순살 (spicy boneless). But here I had options. Half a chicken. A whole chicken. A chicken and a half. Noodles. Extra noodles. No noodles. Three levels of spiciness. For the sake of testing quality to compare my jjimdalk place to the 요기요 one, I chose an order similar to my usual but a little cheaper (not boneless, medium spicy). A few minutes later the sms confirmation came through, and it told me it would take about 30 minutes.

So far, comparing wait time, they're the same. Prices are the same too.

I paced a bit.

My stomach rumbled again.

At last! The doorbell. I skipped over and let the delivery guy into the building, and then hovered by my door, waiting to hear the rustle of the bag outside. I opened it as he rang that bell. And there he was, with the glorious jjimdalk in his hands. His face was covered by his helmet, but as I handed over the exact change, he raised his visor and smiled at me.

My ajeossi. From my jjimdalk place. The one I've been ordering from all year.

And it tastes just as good as ever.

Yum. Not my picture. 

Friday, October 25, 2013

The Ulsan Whale Museum

Last weekend I had a fun date at the Ulsan Whale museum.

There's no shade, so bring your own hat or steal someone else's
I took the express bus from Dongdaegu to Ulsan, and it took a little longer than expected. The bus to the whale museum stops right in front of the bus terminal ACROSS THE STREET from where the express bus terminal is. Buses 246 or 406 will get you there. My Cashbee card worked happily on the bus. The bus ride is pretty long, and you may get the feeling you've missed your stop when you go past big whale signs and whale sculptures. Do not be fooled. Ulsan is full of whales. It used to be full of real ones, but let's just blame Japan for that too, ok?

When you finally get to the whale museum, you'll see its big modern buildings standing out against the relatively nothing-ful town/dorpie it is in. It's right on the water, which is nice. Tickets were pretty cheap - we got the packagee deal which included the whale museum, the whale experience building and a 4dx whale movie. 

The immigration office
The bus stop is in front of the Ulsan Immigration Office, where nice whales can get their passports stamped before being brutally murdered and served for lunch at the restaurant next door.

Wait, what? If you don't want to eat whale, there's a convenience store that sells squid, nuts, fruit, junk food and ramyeon. They also have fried chicken cunningly hidden by the door.

The museum is more of a museum about whaling rather than an environmentally friendly save the whale kind of place. It didn't seem to pass much negative judgement on whaling; instead, a cute cartoon is shown to kids about how whalers were death-defying heroes who struggled to bring in the whale that would help their village survive through the winter. Fair point, I guess.

Happy fun dolphin time!

There are lots of cute and fluffy things about this museum. There's even a whole section about how Korean Dokdo is. But there are non-cute and fluff-less things as well, like porpoise fetuses in jars and the contents of a whale's stomach.

Best viewed before eating lunch

There are also some friendly, poopy dolphins playing in a tank for you to watch. They poo a LOT. The 4DX movie... Well, telling you anything would result in spoilers and I take a firm stand against that.

Ready for some 4D experiencing

Finally, between April and October you can go whale-watching/water-staring on a boat for about 20 000 won, next to the museum.

Whale watching info. Click to embiggen

We didn't have the nerve to eat whale meat this time, and the whale watching season was over, so I think we'll have to go back to stare at the sea and hope to catch a glimpse of our lunch in the wild next time.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

More reasons to learn Korean

Good morning, Daegu. After last night's debauchery, I hope you're picking up the pieces of yourself and sticking them back together with tape and sticky rice.

This morning I've discovered ten more reasons to learn Korean. I can't stress enough how much this will improve your life here.

1. Get discounts at stores because they're so impressed you speak Korean.
2. Stand up for yourself when being derided in Korean.
3. Be aware of any and all schedule changes way ahead of time because suddenly you can understand school emails.
4. Talk about things with your friends that happened last night without your mom understanding facebook comments.
5. As Nelson Mandela said, "If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart."
6. Discover that the menu at your local kimbab place has a lot more to offer than kimbap.
7. Understand specials, deals and ways to save money.
8. Be able to explain things to your students quickly and effectively in a way they can understand.
9. Make friends with Koreans.
10. It's super-easy and totally worth it. 

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Bulgogi of Doom

In Korea, I get this sense that I'm locked in a bizarre time vortex. I'm settled into my routine: Teach. Study Korean. Meet up with friends. Repeat. For a while I also ventured into tra-la-la romance land (but I'm back now). Days melt into each other and now I track time by which chapter I'm teaching; even then that's a hazy guess because with the schedule changing all the time, the classes are all over the place. I haven't seen the 304/5 A class since July. They say they miss me.

I decided to start being a bit healthier, and I'm saving up some money to throw it down the drain in Japan next week, for Chuseok. So I went out and finally bought some cooking utensils (a pan, a pot and a wooden spoon/spatula/thing) and some fresh ingredients. I threw the bulgogi in the freezer, put the mushrooms in the veggie drawer, and carried on with my pretty steady routine. Teach. Study. See friends.

Well, one night I was feeling pretty peckish but I didn't feel like take out, so I decided to try making the bulgogi. It was a big bag of frozen meat with a marinade included that I picked up in the frozen aisle at Emart. It was frikking delicious, but I hate making instant stuff and I thought I'd jazz it up with the last of my mushrooms.

Yum. It was so good that I had eaten it all straight out of the pan before the rice had even finished cooking. Whoops. A delicious, satisfying feast of saucy meat. Possibly the best food I've cooked in ages. 

Except for the time vortex. Because the vortex got hold of me and what I didn't realise was that these were bad mushrooms that were way past their time. Evil mushrooms. Mushrooms of doom. And not the fun kind. 

I could have had a very different night.
There I was, minding my own business and watching reality shows like the Bachelorette, (which I definitely don't recommend right after a break-up). It started with cramps. Then I was sprinting for the loo. And then, within five minutes of feeling fine and wondering whether half the guys on the show are deliberate plants or if they're really that weird, my sinuses went crazy. I blew my nose, started having an asthma attack, coughed up a lung, and caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror. 

I'm sexy and I know it

My first thought was "My sinuses have inflated like balloons! Surely I didn't blow my nose that hard..."

I did what I usually do when faced with any weird medical symptoms. I sent a photo to my dad and asked if I should be worried. Should we skype about it? By this point it was almost 1am and I was thinking of trying to sleep off whatever was going on, but my sudden transformation into Quasimodo was causing some concern. My eyes had become so swollen that I couldn't open them fully or close them completely, and they were tearing up like crazy.

My dad's response was "Hospital. Now." So I did. I threw my Kindle, phone, wallet and ID into my handbag (in that order - I prioritise well) and caught a cab to Fatima. Is it just me or is the emergency room a bit difficult to find? Once I found it, I was on a bed with tubes in my face and needles in my hand and all sorts of fluids running through my veins within minutes. I was scared and lonely, so I talked a friend into joining me, and she kept me company while typical emergency room drama unfolded around us. My throat and chest cleared. The swelling went down. 55k won poorer, I was out within an hour, and I was in bed by three. 

Lessons learned:
I cook delicious bulgogi
Beware of mushrooms
I have wonderful friends
The Bachelorette is addictive. 

So that was my weekend. How was yours? 

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Wangtas and Bullying in Korean Middle School

Before I came to Korea, I watched a lot of Kdramas (supposedly in an effort to learn the language). One in particular starts off with a kid who's being bullied, and he resorts to killing himself by jumping off a building with the rest of the school egging him on. This year there have been a couple of teen suicides in my city, some related to bullying and some to the stress of academic pressure.

I read up on it and braced myself for the "wangta in every class" problem. The 'wangta' is supposedly the class reject, chosen by the alpha to be rejected all year. That's something I'm pretty familiar with - they did the same thing at my primary school/middle school, and I was the wangta myself two years running before they moved on to another kid. So I was ready to see this kind of thing in Korea. I'd heard so much about it, after all.

And then I got to my Korean school, and... Somehow, my school seems to have gotten a handle on it. It could have something to do with police officials standing at the gates some mornings, holding "Bullying is bad" signs, or the students who greet us each morning wearing sashes with similar slogans (at least, I think that's what they say). Or it could have something to do with the warm atmosphere I've felt in most of the classes, from most of the teachers. My office is the third grade homeroom teacher's office, so I see all kinds of drama. Lately most of it has consisted in girls being forced to wash off their makeup, or wear longer skirts.

There was a fight in my math teacher friend's class this week, and I've had to break up a couple of fights in my one first grade class. But aside from standard messing around - chasing each other with bottles of water, kicking slippers around - the usual tomfoolery that is more a sign of initiation into the wolfpack - I haven't seen any bullying in the amounts that I was expecting it.

The only real case of bullying that I've witnessed is the sad way in which a bunch of girls in one class have ganged up on another girl due to a quarrel over a boy. The rejected girl lashed out by stealing the alpha female's phone (probably to sabotage her relationship attempts) and it's gone steadily downhill since then.

What surprised me, and amazed me, and made me absolutely love a couple of specific classes, is that the classes with the most likely 'wangta' targets - the D-classes with the kid with Down Syndrome, or the poor kid, or the gay kid, or the many kids with learning disabilities... Are warm, friendly, loving places. During one game this week, the boys in the D class let the Down Syndrome kid get away with making a couple of mistakes for a couple of rounds, before finally telling him he was out but that he'd done a very good job up to that point. And he beamed with pride, and he was included. During the speaking tests, the kids with learning difficulties were cut a break with easier questions, and their classmates were warm and supportive towards them. The girl with the massive birthmark across her face is one of the most popular girls in the school, and I haven't seen or heard of any kids making fun of others for being overweight. Furthermore, the kids who seem most likely to have been chosen as wangtas for all the usual reasons - poverty, appearance, learning disabilities... are generally 'protected' by the alphas rather than excluded by them. Somehow, someone has gotten through to these kids that compassion earns you more respect than bullying does. I applaud them, whoever they are.

Maybe the language barrier excludes me from the bitchy comments that must be flying around. But I like to think that at my wonderfully dong-chim-free school, bullying has been nipped in the bud for the most part, and it's a pretty awesome place.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

So you made it to Korea... Now what?

Right, newbies. If you're in EPIK, you've completed the training, got the certificates, maybe found some way to carry your weird wooden sculpture thing or polystyrene mask all the way from your orientation site to your new home safely. Hagwoners, however, have probably been unceremoniously dumped on the pavement and given a scrap of paper with their address scrawled on it in unreadable Korean handwriting. You've carried your bags up infinite stairs and are probably living out of them because the thought of unpacking is overwhelming. You probably expected your new apartment to come with cups, bowls and spoons, at least... But all you got was a dead cactus and the lingering odour of next door's plumbing. If you're like me, I bet you have already had a good long cry as the shock that comes with moving your whole life to Asia hits you like a chopstick to the eye.

But now what? How do you get on your feet? Where do you go from here?

Hey guys, I made you a helpful guide. I kinda wish there'd been something like this for me when I got here six months ago. Specific to Daegu. Hopefully someone in your area will make one for you, but most of the info should be fine for the rest of Korea.

Daegu 101

Pick up a free copy of the Daegu Compass (in many stores downtown). It contains maps. You can also download it here:

I have also made a couple of maps, linked here. They can be a little overwhelming though.  Maps

Important Phone Numbers: 
Criminal Act112First Aid Application1339
Spy Report113Lost & Found182
Fire, Rescue119Postal Info1300
Drug Report127Citizenship Reference1382
Illegal Import Report125Law Counseling132
Current Time116Volunteers' Center1365
Telephone Utility100Pension Counseling1355
Local General Info120Domestic Telegram Service115
Pollution128International Telegram Service00795
Water Supply121Drug Abuse Counseling080-767-5115
Electronic Power123Weather Forecast131
Transmitter's Number Service155Collect Call Service1541
Telephone Disorder110General Financial Info1369

Getting a bank account and phone: (I wrote a lengthy post about this here)
TL:DR - Bank: You need an ARC, and two other forms of ID (Passport AND National ID will suffice). So far KEB offers the best options for English services and sending money home. Go in person to a branch and hopefully you'll get one of their lovely, patient tellers who speak just enough English to tell you where to sign your name. Ask them for internet banking while you're there. It will save you a trip.
Phone: I used Eliza from AUI Korea to get my phone (also detailed info in that post linked above). You need an ARC and your bank info (Bank book should cover it) for this. Set up online banking by following this guide.

Medical Help: I was sick as a dog when I arrived here and struggled to find a doctor. Here is some Hangeul for you to match with neighborhood signs, as well as the names of some of the hospitals I've tried.

Ear, Nose and Throat: 이비인후과 (say eee bee eeen hookaaah)
Hospitals (byeongweon -  병원)
파티마 (Fatima - pronounced Patima) Hospital. This has an international section with English speakers who will go around with you.
(곽) Kwak's Hospital. Few English speakers but good for quick attention to trauma. I had a walk-in brain scan within 15 minutes.
피부과: dermatologist

Ordering food in a restaurant:
(food) (number) juseyo. 
Foods: bibimbap (rice and mixed vegetables) - 비빔밥
mul naengmyeon (cold noodles in icy broth) - 물냉면
bibim naengmyeon (cold noodles without broth, in a red sauce) - 비빔 냉면
kimbap (rice and veggies and sometimes meat, wrapped in seaweed) - 김밥
samgak kimbap (triangular kimbap) - 삼각 김밥
samgyeopsal (pork barbecue) - 삼겹살
bulgogi (stir fried beef) - 불고기
Dalkgalbi (stir fried chicken, sometimes with rice added) - 닭갈비
jjimdalk (chicken, potato, vegetable and noodle stew) - 찜닭
kimchi jjigae (kimchi soup) - 김치찌개
dwejang jjigae (non-spicy alternative to kimchi soup, made from some kind of bean) - 뒈장찌개
sundubu jjigae (tofu soup) - 순두부 찌개
galmeki sal (pork rib barbecue) - 갈매기 살
pajeon (korean pancake with greens) - 파전
ttoppokki (rice cakes in hot red sauce, sometimes with fish cakes added) 떡볶이
hotteok (donut-like fried street food) - 호떡
soon sal (boneless/deboned) - 순살
mepke (spicy)

Numbers: when ordering food, native Korean numbers are used.
1 = hana 하나
2 = dul 둘
3 = set 셋
4 = net 넷
5 = dasot 다섯
6 = yeosot 여섯
7 = ilgop 일겁
8 = yeodolp 여덟
9 = ahon 아혼
10 = yol 열

e.g. I want cold noodles in broth. I say: "Mul naengmyeon hana juseyo." 물냉면 하나 주세요

Ordering takeout:
If I'm lazy, I use the 요기요 app, available in the android store, along with google translate and image searching. It has been known to backfire; the image search pulled up something that looked like stir fried chicken. I got a bucket of seafood. It was still delicious.

Otherwise, follow this guide:
1. Write down your order in romanized korean if you don't know how to read hangul, as well as the address on the back of your ARC. Check that the menu page doesn't mention a delivery minimum (the minimum value of food they will deliver). Or just order enough for four people and you'll be fine.
2. Call the number on the menu, prefixed with 053.
3. Follow this script:
Restaurant: Yuboseyo. Restaurant's name imnida
You: Baedal juseyo.
Restaurant: Neh
You: (order) juseyo
Restaurant: address please/would you like anything else?
You: (address)
Restaurant (if successful): neh/algesseyo. (blah blah time it will take to deliver and total cost)
You: Neeeh. Gamsahmnida


Restaurant if unsuccessful: actually there's a delivery limit and you haven't ordered enough and our entire kitchen staff have been abducted by aliens. (Click. )

Wait and hope.

Getting around in a taxi.
I live in the North, and sometimes I want to go to a general area but I'm not sure what to tell the taxi driver.
If you want to go to the northern part of downtown (where the Uzbeki restaurant is), ask the driver to drop you off at Daegu Station and walk from there. If you want mid-downtown, ask for Novotel (Nobotel). If you want south downtown, ask for Banwoldang. Having the address in hangeul is always a plus, although some taxi drivers can't read. Showing them maps on your phone often infuriates them. Get to know the local land marks and aim for those, or find out the name of the nearest intersection. Asking for Jungangro can be tricky because only buses are allowed to drive on Jungangro at certain times of the day. This might also mean your taxi driver takes an unsettling detour through a bunch of alleys to get you where you need to be. Don't worry. You're probably not being kidnapped or swindled.

Learn Korean.
If you're an Epiker, the DMOE will probably organise free classes for you. While that's all well and good, I haven't heard great things about it, and judging from the korean spoken by friends who attended only those, I'm not sure how effective they are. No offense to those friends! You guys are awesome for trying. It will cost you a little more but if you're a fast learner and you're willing to put in the effort, sign up for some Korean classes at the YMCA. New courses start a week or two from now so this is the time to do it, if you can afford it. I do the intensive course, but the regular classes are just as good. The YMCA is near exit 14 of Banwoldang station.

Buy stuff for your apartment.
Daiso should be your first port of call. You may only be here for a year, so I wouldn't want to spend a fortune making my place a palace. Pink plastic is fine for me, and at between 1000 and 5000 per thing, it's a damn good store. Daiso is good for containers, pots and pans, plants, and many other hidden treasures. Other than that, homeplus and emart do the job, but check out your local convenience stores and that supermarket at the end of your alley. Supporting local businesses does wonders for the community and if they get to know you and what you like, sometimes they go out of their way to make things easy for you. Every second and fourth Sunday, Emart and Homeplus close so that local businesses can have a go at selling things. Remember: Two and Four, shut the door. One and three, let's go see.

Making friends with foreigners.
I was lucky in that our Epik group bonded pretty quickly, although it did get very cliquey. But as a friend mentioned on Monday, cliques are a natural part of social interaction. We can't be friends with everyone at all times in equal measure; that would be exhausting. Anyway. If you're looking for foreigners, go to Traveller's on a Wednesday night for pub quiz, or any other night. Thursday Party 1 and 2 are also good bets for finding foreign friends, especially if you want to branch out of the teaching community and befriend some army blokes. As you get more familiar with downtown, you'll find more bars and develop your own habits and preferences. Maybe you'll discover a bar that you keep secret, with your friends, as a quiet little getaway, or the dance club that puts all other dance clubs to shame. Go forth and explore. Get hold of the Daegu compass - freely available in lots of places downtown - and use it as a springboard. It has handy maps in the back. The Kyungpook University North Gate area also has some wonderful bars and restaurants, and a more Seoul-like feel to it, full of indie bands busking in board game cafes, and university students hooking themselves up to coffee IVs.

Making friends with Koreans.
This is easy. When I got here, I made a point of sitting with someone different every day. And office drop-ins also worked up the courage to speak to me. I made two of my closest Korean friends just through everyday interaction. As for non-work friends... Lots of Koreans want foreign friends so that they can practise their English. Join some language exchanges, like the one that meets at Buy the Book every Friday night. Go on group trips that aren't just aimed at foreigners. Be friendly and open, and it will happen.

I can't think of anything else. Here's a moving in checklist for you.

1. Translate the buttons on your air conditioning, washing machine and ondol.
2. Memorise all door codes.
3. Unpack; just do it.
4. Take daily walks around your neighbourhood to figure out where stuff is. Use google maps on your phone and mark home so you can find your way back. Memorise the bus numbers on the stops nearest to you so that you can find your way home without having to puzzle through hangeul bus route maps.
5. Learn to read hangul. A lot of signs are english words just spelled out in hangul. This will be useful. Do it.
6. Say hello to every foreigner you see. Maybe they're new like you,  or maybe they're old and can help you out. We're generally a friendly, helpful bunch of educated alcoholics.
7. Read blogs on Korea. You are not alone. I've linked to a bunch on the right hand side, there ---->
8. Join the infinite foreigners-in-korea-who-do-stuff-together facebook groups.
9. Get a bicycle. Try not to crash headfirst into a pole. Helmets are cheap and worth it.
10. Get to know your co-teacher. Build a relationship. You'll need it later when the going gets rough.
11. Get off the internet and go outside. It's a beautiful summer day and you've finally made it. You're here.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Desk-warming Survival Guide of Doom

I know, I know, it's been months since my last post. Well, since then I've been pretty busy puttering along, getting my job done. I've ticked off some things on the bucket list, like getting onto an army base, hitting the Boryeong mud festival, and things like that. I've got a few ideas for this blog that are in the works, namely the long and gruesome tale of the disaster that is my skin and what the most famous dermatologist in Daegu is like (with photos) but those will take some time (and polishing) to complete. The good news is that for the next ten days or so, I have nothing but time. It's deskwarming season! So here's a handy survival guide. I've made it nice and long so that you can kill extra time just by reading it.

*And this wouldn't be right without some kind of doom and gloom - my original plan was to read books once I'd finished planning for next semester. And then, the night before desk warming began, I dropped and broke my Kindle. NOOOOOO! Boo hoo. 

What is deskwarming and why the hell am I sitting here in the office, all alone, during school vacation?

Well, you're considered a public servant, which means you need to work public servant hours. Sparrowfart of dawn to early evening, and at least in summer it's still light out for a good three hours or so after you leave work. Sure, the other teachers have all gone home. It's different for foreigners. A while back, if you had no work to do and there were no kids around, nice Principals would let you go home. Then, chuffed to bits, you'd crow about it on facebook. And the poor sods stuck at school complained, so they've made deskwarming compulsory. You get a certain amount of leave each year and it's significantly less than there are days of school vacation. Suck it up and get ready to enjoy being paid to do... Whatever you want.

Really? I can do anything I want? *strips naked and dances around the school*
 Waaait! Maybe not quite anything. Don't forget about the security cameras, and the odd wandering staff member who might pop their head in. Here's a list of the things I'll be doing over the next few days to kill time at school between 8am and the holy grail of 4:30. They're listed in order of most professional to least. I am not responsible for any maiming, funny looks, or accusations of impropriety that may result from following the advice in this post. Please don't sue me.

1. Do your job.

Being a teacher is not just about teaching. It's important to plan and make materials. Well, now's your chance to get ahead of the madness that was last semester, when you were flying by the seat of your pants. This is your chance to make the massive, time consuming powerpoint review games, or do some bad-ass cutting and sticking (especially if you teach elementary school) and colouring things in. Beware of tasks that require printing or photocopying - there's no one around to fix the damn machines and the odds are they're already out of ink and/or broken. Today I started working on a review game for last semester's work, because (after planning a rough outline of what will be taught when this semester (time killed with excel colour coding: 1 hour), I saw that I may have a couple of stray, pointless lessons right in the beginning). The game (Trivial Pursuit, downloaded off Waygook and available here) has space for 300 questions. Working my way meticulously through the textbook and having each A card set as "Advanced" and B as "low level" means that this has taken up a huge chunk of my day. And I've only made 50 questions so far.
Time killing rating: 5/5

2. Become better at your job.

Yes, we've all done our TEFL and suffered through the online training, and some of us were qualified teachers before we even decided to come to Korea. But maybe you've realised that you still have trouble with classroom management, or you're not entirely sure how to get kids to improve their speaking skills, or how to make them interested. Maybe you need ideas. Maybe you just like developing your skills to their fullest. Improving your professional skills through research can do wonders for your renewal and how your coworkers see you. Read education journals online, or other teacher blogs. Get up to speed on the latest strategies. I found a bunch of books on foreign language teaching in my English room's bookshelf. Another option is to work on improving your own vocabulary and grammar, to make yourself better at English so you can better teach it. Who knows, you might think of something new and be able to write a paper on it or something, which could be presented at conferences like those offered by KOTESOL. And that looks REALLY good on your record and CV. Do the grunt work now and enjoy the higher pay and better jobs later.
Time killing rating: 5/5 (but it can be boring at times)

3. Learn Korean

You've got a desk, the internet, and some peace and quiet. It's a great time for you to work on your Korean skills. I recommend doing the intensive course through the YMCA (I'm on the 1B level now and it's amazing) but if you can't afford it or aren't that committed to it, you can always just work through the Talk To Me In Korean website, and other resources listed elsewhere in my blog (and on the right hand side of this page).
Time killing rating: 5/5

4. Learn other stuff
Extreme Tea Pouring
I went for lunch with Theresa yesterday and asked her what she's been doing to pass the time. She said "Research" and I was very impressed until she explained that learning how to do anything counts as research. I think the example she gave was "Drying peaches in my apartment". Is there any skill you've been curious about learning? How about sign language? Or knitting? You can learn stuff through Open University or you can learn things off Youtube. Hairstyles? Makeup tutorials? Why not? But it's probably best if it's something that won't disturb other people in your office (if there are any) or things that don't look like you're just messing around. Lolly recommends learning to do that cup song from Pitch Perfect. Learn to photoshop. Get creative. Time killing rating: 4/5

5. Basic Self-Entertainment

Read a book. Watch a movie (but have another tab ready to alt+tab to if your VP suddenly pops out of a cabinet). Listen to music. Make 8tracks mixes. Stalk every single one of your Facebook friends. Beware of too much passive stuff though - if you're just doing nothing but watching stuff, or receiving stuff, you can be more susceptible to depression. Time killing rating: 3/5

6. Get fit

Check out Convict Conditioning for exercises you can do in a limited space with limited equipment. Become a superhero. Time killing rating: 3/5 (but beware of stealthy/concealed staff members)

8. Write lyrics the song your school uses as a bell
It's only day one and the bell is already driving me mad. There's a great video by Mike Aronson of a rap he made using the Seoul Metro song. Why not do something similar for your school bell? If it's really awesome you could teach it to your students and be the coolest teacher ever. Boom.

Then again, it may be awful.

  Time killing rating: 3/5

9. Write 

Keep a blog, work on that novel or knock out some poems. Studies have shown that doing something creative and productive (even if it's just for yourself) is more stimulating than passive entertainment like watching TV, and is better for avoiding the depression that comes with doing nothing day after day. Maybe write a travel article about that awesome place you discovered over the weekend, and submit it to the Daegu Compass or the Matador network, or Chincha. Time killing rating: 5/5

10. Devise a fully executable zombie/Other survival plan for your school. 

Find all the exits, store rooms, possible safe rooms. Think of every eventuality. Winter is coming. Time killing rating: 2/5

I'm sure you can think of more. Tell me in the comments! How are you passing the time?

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Dealing with Co-Teacher Conflict

So, like, I totally just sorted out the stuff that's been bugging me lately. I won't go into it on my blog; that would be inappropriate and tedious. Ain't nobody got time for that. So I've been deliberately obscure about it. It's not the point of this post. 

Instead, let's just say it's a classic case of co-teacher/NET miscommunication about many different things that was on the verge of spiralling into something self-destructive. And here's how I neutralised it:

Did I call in the DMOE? No. Did I talk to higher powers within the school? No. Did I pore over my contract or throw my toys in any way? No.

Because that's not how I roll. Instead, I spent the day being above reproach. No facebook. Lots and lots of diligent admin. If I wasn't teaching I was doing epik training, planning, or (briefly over lunch) my Korean homework. Also, following the advice of some very smart people, I kept track of everything I did over the day, which helps me to know which class is where in the syllabus, while covering my ass later if there is some kind of disaster (highly unlikely although I'd like to remind you of the title of this blog).

As for sorting out the drama - I had a conversation with my co-teacher. A gentle, lets-clear-up-this-cultural-confusion conversation, where I expressed where my worries were coming from and how I thought things might have been interpreted differently on either side of the divide based on the bad actions of a foreigner minority who generally make it worse for the rest of us. The kind of people who call in sick because they have hangovers, or complain that they have to deskwarm when others don't, resulting in policy changing so that everyone deskwarms by default. The people who call in the DMOE over anything and everything that they find unsatisfactory or difficult without trying to resolve the situation themselves.

Don't get me wrong; you're perfectly justified in calling in the DMOE if you've tried everything you can to resolve a situation and you've gone through the hierarchical ladder step by step, or if your contract is being obviously flouted and you are being abused. If it's a matter of policy or safety, by all means, call them in. But personal relationship problems are not their problem.

Basically, I spoke to my co-teacher in my gentlest, most easy-going voice. I circled ever so softly towards what was worrying me, and used all the self-help techniques I could think of - starting sentences with "I feel that..." or "It seems to me that...", never making any direct accusations, just explaining to her how it appeared to me that the situation had come about. My main concern was that the situation made me look unprofessional and just like every other Lazy Foreigner who is too hungover to bother going to work on a Monday.

I did this for every conflict we've had over the past couple of weeks, from me querying my schedule (which came across to her as an aggressive refusal to teach beyond the hours stated in my contract) to talking about our different teaching philosophies. I also let her tell me how it looked from her side of the equator. Her concern was that yes, it did appear that way, and that was terribly embarrassing for her and for the students, and everyone was feeling pretty damn awkward about the whole thing.

And by the end of the conversation, we've both put ourselves in each others' shoes, and I've shown her that I'm not the Lazy Foreigner that I was appearing to be, and she realised I take my job a lot more seriously than it may seem when I get sucked into the Facebook abyss, and all is well in Teaching-Land.

Anyway, basically, the point of this post is that 1) don't assume they're out to get you. There's probably a cultural misunderstanding happening causing embarrassment on one side of the barrier and that's making both of you look bad. 2) Try to resolve your problems quietly, internally and completely non-dramatically. It will make things easier for everyone. 3) Keep copies of all documents (doctors notes) and track what you do every day so that if the shit does hit the fan you've got your ass covered, just in case (but don't be a demanding douche about it). That's a professional thing to do, and keeping track of your work hourly can actually make you better at your job.

And finally, when in doubt, call home, have a big cry, and get some clear-headed perspectives on the mountain of a molehill you're struggling to deal with. Do NOT fuel the inferno.

Oh, last thing, I promise: stop bitching about everything on Facebook. I was guilty of this. I've stopped and deleted all my whingeing. No one wants to read it, and if it becomes known to your employers you can be sued for defamation. Just a little heads up. Facebook is not for airing your grievances about your professional life. That's what friends and beer are for. Facebook is for Star Wars jokes and cat pictures.

PS - little shout out of thanks to the people who gave me sage advice this week. You know who you are, and you're awesome.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Why it's difficult to explain idioms in class

Sometimes my more nit-picky students ask difficult questions, particularly with regard to idioms, and I try to explain them, and end up having these kinds of conversations.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Amazing Free Weekend

I mentioned before that I'd made friends with another math teacher at my school. This brings my current count of Korean friends (not including infinite gyopos) up to about 6.

Well, on Friday night I went over to Math Teacher 1's house for dinner and some movie watching. We ordered some jjajangmyeon (spicy black chinese noodles) and some chicken and beer, and pigged out while watching Stander, which, for the American readers, is a good South African movie about a bank-robbing cop. Halfway through the movie, MT1 asked me if they were speaking Afrikaans. No, they're speaking English, mostly... Well, that's why we had subtitles. Next time, she'll choose a Korean movie. When the film finished, Math Teacher 2 arrived with flowers and cake, and we stuffed our faces some more and had typical girl talk - boys, clothes, hair, make-up, art and interior design (MT1's house is amazingly decorated).

They decided that before I went camping with MT2 and her family the next day, I should get my hair done and get a free facial, massage and consultation at her husband's oriental medicine hospital. This all being in Korean, I figured I was getting a hair cut and someone was going to massage my face. Hey, why not?

So, finishing off our beers and our awesome Fire Friday, and promising to do it again soon, I went to bed, excited for the weekend ahead.

Getting my Hair Done Sans Anglais

MT2 took me to her usual stylist, in Beomeo. Less than 100m from a geocache I found there last weekend. So I will definitely be able to find the place again, which is good because I don't remember what it was called. If it helps, it looks like this:

I had no idea what to get, but I knew one thing: I did not want a trim and a blow dry. Other than getting a bob, or shaving my head, or a fringe now and then, the only haircut I've ever gotten is a trim and a blowdry. No, I felt it was time to veer away from a haircut. I wanted a hairstyle. So I put my fate in my new unni's hands and she made all the major decisions.

She chose a bob.

I made her choose something else. So there I was, with chemicals in my hair, getting my first perm. I had asked them if they had worked with foreigner hair before but they had no idea what I was saying and gave me delicious herbal(?) coffee to shut me up. They left the chemicals in too long, resulting in something close to an ajumma perm, so the stylist, muttering "I've made a terrible mistake" in Korean, suggested something else. Something that would take another 2 hours.

I sat like this for an hour or so
The coffee was delicious, but 3 hours in a hair salon is a bit much for me. Still, I love the end result:

Straight on top with a 'natural wave' perm on the bottom. 
Then my unni took me to her husband's hospital, in Changwon. I walked in and discovered he was a bigger deal than I thought he was. He's worked with dozens of beauty queens, specifically dozens of Miss Koreas and one Miss Universe. The main nurse is a flight attendant student and she's pretty good at English and didn't want to miss a chance to practice on me, so we chatted away while I was weighed, measured, squeezed, poked, prodded, and had my bone density checked. Turns out the scale I bought at e-mart isn't very accurate; I'd put on 3 kilos over lunch. Then she took me in to see the doctor, and asked me some questions about my diet. The most awkward moment was when she had to look up the english words for 'Bowel Movements' on her smartphone. I rolled with it. 

The doc handed me a diet plan (completely in Korean) and sent me in for my 'facial massage'. That's when I discovered it was a facial AND a massage. While I was lying there with the mask on, he prodded my stomach and suggested some acupuncture. Well, I'm all about new experiences so why not? Stab me with needles, my friend. Well, they did something... My stomach did feel better afterwards. A girl came in and was chatting with her mom, who was getting the same treatment as me. She came in cheering; she was down 3 kilos from last time she'd checked, which made it a loss of 5kg in one week... without exercise. Wow. Maybe I should take this diet seriously and give it a try. 

The nurse asked me if I wanted some 'cupping' and again, I'm all about the new experiences, so she stuck some cups on my back with fire and gusto, and I had the bejesus sucked out of me. Pop, pop, pop they were removed and I was sent on my way. The doc and I got into his HUGE 11-seater hybrid and drove off to his apartment, to pick up the wife and kids. While we were driving, we had an incredibly intense chat about religion, philosophy, medicine, genetics and legacies, in broken English and Korean. Like a boss. 

Jirisan and Namwon
Unni, Doc, the kids (aged 7 and 9 by western standards) and I drove to Jirisan, a huge mountain near Jeonju. I taught the kids to play "I spy with my little eye" and immediately regretted the decision. 3 hours of "I spy a tree" later, we arrived at an absolutely stunning resort. My camera and phone batteries were both dead, so here's a photo from the hotel's website:

It's pretty new and there's a lovely camper van area you can stay in that looks good for a romantic getaway. We stayed in one of the normal bedless sleep-on-the-floor rooms. After dinner and putting the kids to bed, unni, doc and I headed out for an evening walk and a couple of beers. 

The next day we were up bright and early to tackle Jirisan, a huge mountain that I have to return to at some point soon. Unni doesn't like hiking very much and the kids were very young so we just did the easy walk up to nogodong peak. We stopped at a temple along the way.

Misty morning view from the resort

Kid 2 at the gate to Hwaomsa 

The main temple building

You can do templestays here and it looks like a lovely, peaceful, secluded place to do it. Just right, I think.

Then we headed up the mountain. 

Exhausted, we had some ramyeon next to a mountain spring and then headed to Namwon, a small town near Jeonju, for a walk in a famous park and a proper lunch. The park is named after Chunhyang, a love story similar to that of Romeo and Juliet, except that in this one, 'Juliet's' death was an ordered execution and 'Romeo' saved her just in the nick of time. I think I prefer this ending.

Outer wall of the park, which is part of the original city center

The biggest swing I've ever been on. 

Golden Koi

Then we headed into the hanok village, where we had a feast. A hanok village is where people live in traditional houses, quite closely to the old way of life, and I think they get a grant from the government to do so.

Remove your shoes and eat in a private room. We shared a room with a guy who looked like Korean Elvis. 

The food was pretty good; standard traditional fare with lots of side dishes. I was absolutely stuffed. We all were. We rolled ourselves back to the car and set off for home.

Kid 2 fell asleep before the food was served, snored loudly and hilariously through the meal and woke up when we were in the car on our way home. He murmured, "Heeeey... I didn't get any food." We gave him some chips and he went back to sleep. By the end of the trip, everyone was asleep except for myself and my new unni. Hanok villages rolled by, we sipped iced Americanos, and kpop popped quietly over the radio.

It was a fantastic weekend and I have been racking my brain to find out how I managed to get it all for free. I think they wanted their daughter to practise her english, and boy did we. Also, the doc asked me to translate the meal plan and send him a copy of it in English for his foreign patients. And I'm perfectly happy to do that since I have to translate it for myself anyway. It was nice to have a change from the drinking-with-foreigners routine I have gotten into. Not that that's so bad either.

Life is good. Next weekend I'll hike Gayasan with a bunch of waygooks, visit Haeinsa temple and take the kids geocaching in Duryu park, as we weren't able to do it in Jirisan because they'd been muggled or had bad coordinates.