Monday, December 22, 2014

Skiing Solo in South Korea (Daegu to High1)

There are many group packages that are great for a fun, drunk weekend of skiing. But they can be a little expensive, and sometimes you might want to trade off the party for a bit more time on the slopes, and a peaceful night's sleep to soothe your aching muscles. 

This year, the Boyfriend and I decided we wanted to ski as much as possible, since our vacation times don't line up. Here's how we did it.

Step 1: Join the Snowboard and Ski South Korea Facebook Group
The group is ideal for finding out the conditions, and finding buddies to go with so you're not completely alone (and to share accommodation costs), and any other information you might want. Additionally, it is through this group that you can progress to the next step. The Korea Snow website is also helpful.

Step 2: Get a season pass
Pick a resort and get a pass for it. I think it's possible to get a multi-resort pass (or it SHOULD be, darnit!) but if you're going to just go with one resort, then I recommend High1. I've heard Phoenix is good too. You also might want to check out the facilities at Pyeongchang, which are being upgraded for the upcoming 2018 Winter Olympics. High 1 is ideal for beginners and snowboarders, although if you are an intermediate/advanced skier/snowboarder then you'll enjoy the relatively empty non-beginner slopes as the crowds trip over each other on the bunny slopes.

The passes sell for much less if you get them early in the year. I ordered mine for High 1 in September, and the prices at the time were as follows:

Man without bus: 300,000won

Man with bus: 352,000won

Lady without bus: 190,000won

Lady with bus: 236,000won

Option A: You can book that all online if you speak/read Korean, through the High1 website or through 3rd-party sellers like Gmarket. I'm afraid I can't help with that, because I went with option B.

Option B: The easiest way to do it is through John Shaw and his wife, Choi Jiyeong. They post on the facebook group and will organise your season pass and bus pass for you, as well as booking your bus each time you ski and your gear rentals, for a very very small fee. The service they provide is amazing!  They have stopped taking orders for this season, and will probably start up again sometime in September for the next season. Keep an eye on the facebook group.  My ski pass arrived in the first week of December. I also received two images on my phone. The one with my picture on it is the bus pass and the other is for ski rental. I have my own ski clothes.

Accommodation: If you're coming from Daegu, the odds are that the bus will drop you off at the Valley Ski House. There is a pretty good motel just five minutes' walk down the road (if you take the shortcut through the bus parking lot) called the Goodstay High Valley Hotel. You can book a room online here. The room was comfortable, the bathtub was soothing for achy ski muscles and we were able to order pizza to the room as well. I was able to use my KEB credit card on the Agoda website but others have had problems. Apparently you can book via the hotel's website as well.

Step 3: Get to the resort
With your bus pass in hand (on your phone or printed out), and the bus booked by Jiyeong, head to your pick-up point a little ahead of time. It's best to wear your ski clothes on the bus (everyone else does) to save time when you arrive at the resort. Take a book, a pillow, an eye mask, or whatever you need and settle in for the long nap as you head to the resort. My bus left at 4:50am and the pick-up point was really close to my apartment. People on the bus were all extremely quiet and friendly and the bus driver was one of the friendliest ajeossis I've ever met. He didn't turn the heat up too high although I've heard that's a problem on some buses.

At some point during the trip (usually when you arrive at the resort) a dude will walk through the bus to scan the barcodes on your bus pass. It's the image that looks like this:

Travel light to save time as well. I brought the absolute minimum, so I didn't have to worry about loading the bus. It's also a bit of a walk when you're on your way home so you don't want to be lugging a huge bag with you.

Step 4: Get your ski ticket
Once you get off the bus, follow the crowds through the front doors of the ski house and to the right. Stand in line at the "Season Bus" desk and show them the image with bar codes and NOT your picture. If the desk is closed (as it is in this picture), then go outside, down the escalator, turn right and go into the "Season Bus Lounge". You must do this in the ski house where you were dropped off. I was dropped off at Valley but Boyfriend had to do all of his at Mountain. They are connected to each other by a gondola if you're in the wrong place.

The season bus desk:

Season bus lounge:

What you must show them:

What you get:

Complete the form with your details.

Step 5: Get your gear
I didn't rent clothes but I imagine it works much the same as the ski rental. Get a ticket, fill out details, and go where you need to go.

For skis, head to this desk:

You'll hand in the top part with your passport or ARC and keep the bottom part to return the skis and get your ID back when you're done. They will tell you what time to return the skis. If you're skiing for two days but don't have a night rental, you need to repeat this process both days. They'll give you your stuff, and you can find a bench somewhere to sit and put everything on.

When you're done struggling, stash your things in a locker. You need two 500 won coins to operate the locker, and if you want to open and close it again you'll need to pay again, so make sure you have everything you need.

Step 6: Ski!
You're done! Hit the slopes, have fun, be careful not to crash into babies on skis or beginner snowboarders, and see you at the top! For lunch, I recommend the cafeteria-style food at the restaurant at Valley Hub, or KFC down at the Valley ski house at the very bottom. The rotating restaurant at the peak has good food but it's very expensive. Pro-tip: eat an early lunch and beat the rush, then ski while everyone else is eating and enjoy the empty slopes.

Step 7: Going home
Return your stuff, get your things out of the locker, and head down to the bus parking lot that you cut through to get to the Goodstay High Valley Hotel. Follow the crowds and ask for help if you're confused. The buses are all there. It's a little tricky finding the right one, but if you ask nicely, they'll be happy to help you. Your name should be on the driver's list so it should be pretty hard to get on the wrong bus.

I went to my bus at 4pm and was able to nap there until it left at 5pm.

walking to the buses at the end of the trip

I couldn't have done it without John Shaw and Choi Jiyeong, and highly recommend them to anyone. Ski rental for the weekend came to 24k won, and the hotel was much cheaper than the resort condos as well. The bus (as part of my season pass) was free to ride, so the weekend ended up being really cheap. It's definitely worth the investment if you plan to ski a lot during the season, and I was amazed by how easy it ended up being.

Comparing prices with the group package tours, if you only ski once it's more expensive. But if you ski more than once, suddenly it's MUCH less expensive. I think you break even after two or three trips. It's even cheaper if you book a room with a group of friends, sleeping on the floor, and split those costs. You also get more ski-time because the admin stuff is quicker when it's just for you and not 200 sleepy/drunk foreigners.

Group Package tour: KRW 219,000
Season pass (lady with bus option): KRW 236,000
Hotel (couple room): KRW 80,000
Rentals(skis and boots, 2 days, no night skiing): KRW 24,000
Total cost of first trip: KRW 340,000
Cost of trips thereafter: KRW 104,000

Monday, November 3, 2014

The End of the EPIK Job Security Myth

photo courtesy of Kat Hazzard

All good things must come to an end. It seems the DMOE is being forced to finally jump on the national bandwagon. Tonight the teachers in Daegu received this email:

Hi All - 

I'm sure many of you are wondering why the contract renewal process has not yet started. We were prepared to have the official document out two weeks ago, but have been delayed due to a serious budgeting issue that occurred after our yearly audit by the national government. To be blunt, the DMOE is now having to succumb to what has become a national trend in the downsizing of the native English teacher program. For those of you that have been with us for awhile, you know that we have been somewhat impervious to these type of budget cuts, while places like Seoul and Busan have already seen drastic cuts. 

Before you read on, if you are an NET that hasn't gone through the renewal process at least once (that would be our February 2014 teachers), you will probably benefit from reading over the wikispace page regarding the general renewal process.

Originally, we were asked to cancel renewals and the new teacher intake for February. In order to avoid such drastic actions, we have been in negotiations for the past week and a half with the Superintendent and City Council. We have finally come to a consensus. The plan for February renewals is as such:

1. We will significantly increase the number of NET's that must travel between 2 schools. This was determined by counting the number of classes total at each school (3rd - 6th grade for elementary school, 1st - 3rd at middle schools). If the class total was 21 or more (30 for middle school), that school will receive 1 dedicated NET. Anything less will result in a traveling NET. We are still in the process of figuring out which schools are effected, and what the school pairings will look like (based on location and total class size). We won't be able to officially announce the school placements until the first week of December, but you may work under the assumption that the majority of schools will become traveling schools. 

2. Schools that currently have 2 NET's will change to 1. Understand that some schools may have 1 August and 1 February NET. Seeing as we must honor the August contract, the February NET will be asked to transfer. If both NET's are February NET's, then we will leave it up to you and the school to decide who will stay. If you and your school are not able to make that decision, the DMOE will do so for you in a random manner. If you work at a Global model school, it is possible that one or more positions will change to a traveling NET. 

3. There will be no high school positions, save for a handful of special exceptions (Foreign Language HS, Science HS). If you are currently at a high school and are offered a renewal contract based on your work performance, we will give you the option to move to either a middle or elementary (most likely traveling) position. We will contact you later for your preference.

4. There will be about 2-3 positions available in February at our Global Education Center (near Duryu Park) and G-Station (located in Beomeo station). Generally, the Global Education Center focuses on middle school programs, while G-Station focuses on elementary school students. We have attached information about both centers, if you are interested please refer to those documents. In addition to our regular Center positions, there will be about 3 or so teachers that will be dedicated to high school programs. The high school programs will also be held at the Center or G-Station. You may indicate on the renewal form if you would like to be considered for any of these positions, we will contact you individually later on with the application process. If you apply for a position and are not selected, you will be either be able to stay at your old school or be moved to a new location (we will contact you after the application process is finished).

5. The DMOE will change its pay scale to match that of Incheon/BusanEssentially it is about 100,000 won less per pay level. We will still honor an automatic upgrade in pay scale upon renewal. Don't forget that traveling NET's are subject to a 100,000 won traveling allowance as well. 

6. In the case that there are more NET's that wish to renew than available positions, we will fill those positions based off of your school's end of year evaluation and mid-year evaluation. 

7. For those of you that were considering a transfer, you may still apply for one. However, you must fully understand the current situation. Realistically, we will have far less openings than normal, therefore we will have much less options for placement. If you are not granted a transfer, you may stay at your current school. As always, specific school requests will not be granted.

8. If you are one of the NET's that are forced to be moved (this will specifically effect HS NET's, schools that are shrinking 2 NET's to 1), we will contact you later to find out your preference for placement. Understand that we will do our best to meet your preference, but nothing is guaranteed. 

At this point in time, we are looking at the official document going out tomorrow. We will give you and your schools a week and a half to send in the necessary information (intent for renewal/renunciation and evaluations). Contract renewal results are expected to go out by the end of November, school placements should be finalized by the beginning of December, and if all goes well, the renewal contract signing meeting should take place on Friday, December 12th.

We understand that this is a stressful development, and these changes might have a profound effect on your decision making process. We hope that, however less than ideal these changes seem, that they are much better than what we've seen happen to NET's in other parts of the country. 

It looks like I'm getting out just in time. As of March 2015, I'll be switching over to the night shift as a I start a job in a reputable hagwon in Ulsan. I'm looking forward to it.

In the meantime, I know many of my friends are bitterly disappointed as they realise the relationships they've worked so hard to build at their schools are going to be cut short by legal technicalities, and some of them question if they even want to stay in Korea any more. 

I wish you all the best of luck in making your decision, and if you choose it, finding other jobs. 

Thursday, September 25, 2014

After-school Hiking and Walks

I love hiking but I'm low on time so I try to get mini-hikes in after school, if the weather is good. We're going into fall now so the hiking will be sublime. Here are some of my favourite local hills that can be hiked in an hour or two.

Chimsan Park

This park has lots of little hiking paths that branch off the main path. A nice way to do it is to start with a steep climb up the stairs at the southern end and then walk a loop on the hiking paths. There's a pretty pagoda and some fitness equipment at the north end, at the peak. It's usually not too busy, and it's close to the Sincheon river. There is a bike rack near the stairs at the south end. Otherwise, take a bus or cab to Chilseong Emart and walk to the park from there.


I took a cab to one of the buildings that was near the start of a trail, and then hunted around for the start. This hill is a little steep but you can get to the peak in about 15 minutes if you try, and then walk along the ridge until you feel like going down again. It's not as developed as most of the other parks. I liked the wildness of it. For an extra challenge, you could follow it with the Beomeo Trek. 

This is the route I took: 

Beomeo Trek
North of Muhaksan and a short walk away, Beomeo has two parks that are right next to each other, so if the big one isn't big enough you can follow it with the other park. 

Die-hards with a free day could attempt the Beomeo Loop. The map says 2hrs 42 mins but it really depends on your own speed and how much you want to push yourself. I think Beomeo has one of the prettiest parks in Daegu.

The saddest hill in Daegu: Waryeongsan

This crescent-shaped hill has a very sad story attached to it. From wikipedia: 

The Frog Boys (Korean개구리소년) were a group of five South Korean schoolboys who disappeared on March 26, 1991. The boys had gone to Mount Waryong to catch frogs but never returned. Their bodies were found 11 years later. Although it was discovered that they had been murdered, the case has never been solved. 

Many of their families quit their jobs to look for them, and ended up losing everything. It's a terrible tragedy and gives the hill a hushed, eerie feeling. Flower petals cover the paths in spring and it's hard to believe that something like that could have happened in such a peaceful place. 

Yeonap Park

This is the hill across the river from Chimsan Park. I decided I wanted to see the temple/memorial hall(?) I'd spotted from a distance up close, so I walked in the direction of it and kept walking until I found a way up the hill. I ended up walking up a really steep road, then finding a path that led off into the forest. I wasn't even sure if I was going the right way. But I kept going. I ended up behind the temple, peeking over an ancient wall. I followed the wall to the front, walking over piles of broken traditional roof tiles, but the temple was closed. Oh well, it was worth a try. The suburbs behind it are full of old buildings and Buddhist temples, and it was a really interesting walk. I bumped into only one other hiker, so if you're looking to get away from the crowds this is a good one. 

The memorial hall (closed)
And for those of you who hate hills, here are some of my favourite walks in Daegu:

Sincheon River
The river cuts through the center of the city, and you can walk in either direction for miles. Make sure you're on the West side of it as you head south, because there are no exits on the east side for a solid 5-7km stretch.  If you head north and then west, you'll walk through a beautiful wetland reserve, and can see lots of cranes, storks and other long-legged birds. North and then East will take you through a bizarre sculpture/farm park and close to Costco and the EXCO center. 

Yulha Sports Field to Dongdaegu
Walking along the river, cross at the bridge to the War Memorial Museum, and then walk to Dongdaegu Train Station. It's a long walk with a few hills but there are lots of interesting things along the way, such as surprise camels. 
The Junggu Walking Tours
A bunch of alleys in Downtown Daegu have been laid out as walking tour trails for tourists. You start at one end and meander along the route, reading the signs and looking at interesting things. There is an app in the android store that you can download which provides you with maps and more information. 

And then...
Sometimes I just walk. 

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Replacing Stolen Stuff

A continuation of this: Ultimate Doom

Of course, in true RPoD style, a certain moron left her passport at the police station. Well, if you're going to leave it somewhere, that's probably the best place, right?

Then later, when I went to collect my snazzy new frisbee from our captain, I found out that of about fifteen frisbees that had been ordered, mine was the only one that went missing while he was naming them.

Well, of course. Added to that, I've fallen over about three times in the last two days (a week or two of vertigo takes its toll) and I've started losing my voice the very same week we restarted the 3-2-1 English PA broadcast lesson.

This is my life. And yet I remain surprisingly upbeat about all of it.

I did, however, manage to replace my phone by going through Eliza at Aui Korea again. Since she had all my information already, it was a matter of switching my old contract over to a new phone. We upgraded my phone while we were at it, and it was a breeze, although time consuming. I got to keep my old number. I now have a Samsung Galaxy S5 LTE with unlimited data and a screen that unlocks by scanning my fingerprint. If you do email her to ask her to set up an appointment, be sure to drop my name in your message - she said I'll get perks. The address (again) is auikorea at gmail dot com, and her office is a subway stop away from Banwoldang, in Jinsok Tower. 

Today my classes have all magically been cancelled so I'm trying to get permission to duck out to immigration so I can sort out a new ARC. Once I've got that, I'll be able to replace my bank cards and won't have to draw money with my bank book inside the branch any more.  It is possible to draw money with bank books at the ATM... but you need an ARC to set that up. 

I should probably go get my passport too...

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Converting your school computer to English

This is a regular headache for us NETs - over the vacation, a computer's been replaced or upgraded and you have to go through the whole process of converting everything back to English, or re-learning where all the good buttons are and how to avoid the bad ones. Asking the school techie helps little - ours tried really hard and worked for hours but in the end just gave us mouse-hover English labels for the buttons. Not being able to see your options at a glance slows you down and makes your job harder than it needs to be.

Have no fear! You can change your software to English in under 15 minutes.

Head over here and follow the instructions.

There. Did I make your day?

Here's a direct link in case the one above isn't working.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Ultimate doom!

As I was sitting in the back seat of the police car this evening, looking at the shiny black material that seemed particularly blood resistant, and the absence of a door handle on the inside of my door, I found myself thinking, "Well at least this is another thing to cross off on the bucket list of life..."

It all started way before I came to Korea. I met a guy. A tall, handsome, afrikaans lad who got me hooked on geocaching and tried in vain to interest me in cricket. One day, he led me onto a grassy field, with rugby posts on either end, and taught me to throw and catch a frisbee. Then other people showed up and we ran around madly trying to score points and immediately losing count of them. He introduced me to Ultimate Frisbee.

All right, all right, it's just called Ultimate now.

That relationship ended when I came to Korea, but the seed had been planted. Before I arrived, someone I'd met in an expat facebook group suggested I join the Ultimate Frisbee league. Coming from a team (more like a group of people mildly interested in tossing frisbees to each other) of no more than about 10 people, the idea of the league enticed and intimidated me. The last time I played a team sport with real uniforms was when I was a field hockey goalie in middle school. I stopped that when it got too serious, with my teammates focusing more on getting provincial and national recognition and less on the fun of the game. And also, my bag full of hockey stuff was stolen in broad daylight.  The game had become a chore and I had no more interest in it, and the theft of the bag was the last straw. Thus ended my dazzling hockey career.

After that I stuck to less competitive individual sports, like diving, scuba diving, and when I felt the need to bash balls at someone, squash.

I was scared of the frisbee league. They had teams, with uniforms and regular practices and game plans and strategies and a membership fee. A steep membership fee for a new arrival. I kept putting off joining with a new excuse for each season. And then I forgot about it, only remembering that the league existed when I bumped into them in bars. Then I formed this image of them... Summed up as this:

A few weeks ago, however, my dear friend Olivia decided to join, and she decided to drag a bunch of her friends with her. This lady is a sports BEAST, belonging to at least three different sports leagues that I know about. She's nuts. And a lot of fun.

I thought that if all these people who I liked were joining, then maybe I could join too and not be utterly useless. In fact, my very brief experience in university would give me an edge over the complete newbies. So I let them talk me into it and before I knew it, I was sending money off into the ethernet to sign up for the league. Then it was a waiting game, as one of the biggest signups in the league happened, and organisers scrambled to make new teams and shuffle players around into them.

Then, finally, I found out which team I was on. We have the ugliest jerseys, by far, and the prettiest captain (but don't tell him!) and I decided to crush any inkling of fear, shyness or excuse-making, and do it. I even went so far as to buy cleats that clashed as much as possible with the jersey.

Blah blah, why were you in a police car?

Well, armed with my cleats of radioactivity, I headed to the first practice. It was going to be huge, with every team in Daegu and more from out of town invited to play on one field out in the middle of nowhere. Knowing myself, and my life of things going rather well  doom, I left three hours early to be sure to get there on time. I got on a bus that immediately went in the wrong direction, but ended up there with enough time to get some coffee and a piece of "pizza toast" that was cheap and delicious.

I finally walked to the field and saw some waygooks tossing discs. Using my Cluseau-like powers of deduction, I deduced that these were in fact the droids I was looking for, and I waved timidly at them.

the last photo ever taken with this phone
They told me to leave my bag with theirs and I scurried off to join them. And they turned out to be three of the most awesome people I would meet that day. Two of them were on my team!

I learned a lot that day. I learned about cutting and stacking and flicking. I learned about being supportive and laughing at yourself when you mess up, and I got over my fear of being the least fit person there, or a nerdy outsider at a jock party. These people were nice people, and fun and friendly. That is, until they're on the opposing team and you've got the disc and they're in your face. Then they are evil trolls who are virtually impossible to escape.

But I'm learning.

I had yet to learn the most valuable lesson of the day. After we'd done some skills stuff and played a couple of minigames, there came a big lesson.

Are you sitting comfortably? Then I'll begin.

Life Lesson #22523

When playing an attention-holding sport in a big open area with lots and lots of people running around, do not place your phone, credit card, bank card, ID, kindle, cash and the only pair of skinny jeans that has ever and probably will ever fit you in ONE bag, out of sight and far away. Especially not a generic black bag with no distinguishing markings. 

I still haven't quite recovered from the sinking feeling of having all my most important things taken from me in a split second. I cried a little at first but then decided there was nothing that crying could fix and I couldn't do anything about it until offices opened on Monday. So there was no point letting a little catastrophe ruin my birthday party, frisbee friend-making weekend.

Luckily for me, the girl who had told me to put my bag there in the first place was so wracked with guilt that she gave me my subway fare home and returned with me the next day to try lost and found and head to a police station. Both of them were closed but we had a chance to chat and bond and I think I've made a great new friend.

I've rediscovered a sport I love and am not completely useless at. I've learned the value of friends who buy you burgers and beer to drown your sorrows in, and the value of petroleum jelly on chub-rub when you're stuck in sports clothes for 24 hours because your change of clothes went missing. I've learned to enjoy the moment and not wallow in self pity. I had a fun birthday party and got to watch Ben's band win Battle of the Bands, and played resistance with my coworkers and friends, mastered schrabbing and watched a wonderfully awful piranha movie - with all the gory bits blurred out - as the sun came up.

Pardon me, miss, but have you got any tictacs?
At lunch time I cancelled my bank cards and used my bank book to draw some money so that I can replace my ARC so I can get new bank cards. I contacted Eliza the Phone Lady and she's sending me a shiny new one. And on the way home, I went to the police station (staffed with sexy policemen) next to the fire station (full of sexy firemen). I think it's something in the water in Chimsandong. Anyway, the sexy police station was closed so a sexy fireman used a sexy SOS phone to call another less sexy policeman to help me.

And that's how I found myself in the back seat of a police car, being driven two or three blocks away to another police station, where young police officers fumbled their fairly decent English nervously while trying to figure out how to translate "Kindle" into hangeul and helping me file a report.

I walked home in the early evening breeze and felt pretty good even as my life is burning all around me. The flames are slowly being tamed by the sexy firehose of bureaucracy and, this whole time, I've had a feeling my bag will find its way home, and that this has all been an innocent but annoying mistake.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Korean Yoga Class

It's pretty easy to find yoga classes in English, aimed at foreigners in Daegu. However, there's a gym just a block away that I joined last year which has yoga every night at 7, and is super convenient for me. So, with rain all day and the Ultimate Frisbee League season I signed up for approaching quickly, and in the wake of all the burritos I'm carrying around in my butt cheeks, belly and thighs after three weeks in Texas, I decided to renew my gym membership and let the tiny bodybuilders in tiny lumo shirts talk me into going to yoga as well.

I was a member of the gym last year until I ran into my elderly landlady in the shower and was too mortified to go back (and someone accidentally 'stole' my shampoo, which was identical to hers) so I know how things generally work. This time I got a locker, rather than store my shampoos etc with the plebs. But I'd never joined yoga or been there while they were having a class so I didn't really know what to expect. Maybe I expected it to be like the yoga videos I watch and try to copy on youtube, like the wonderful series by Adriene Mishler. You know, some sun salutations, a couple of twists, maybe a bunch of plank variations... the usual stuff.

My gym has uniforms that you're expected to wear while working out, but yoga in shorts doesn't appeal to me that much. So I wore my usual semi-stretchy sweatpants and a big t-shirt and headed off to the gym. It's my first time; I get a 'gimme' to check out what everyone else does and copy them next time. Turns out they just wear yoga pants under the uniform. *shrug*

I was the first person there (little Miss Over-eager) so the bodybuilder Dudes introduced me to the most beautiful woman I've ever seen; she was the instructor. And she didn't speak a word of English beyond "one, two, three", "inhale/exhale" and "changee". But that's all you really need...Right? I figured I could watch her and she'd correct me if I was totally off. Today, I taught her "hips", "core" and "pelvis". Nevertheless, we managed to communicate, and I managed to follow the class. Well, I could follow what I was supposed to be doing.

Doing it, on the other hand, was another question.

HOLY COW, Yoga lady! There was not a single sun salutation or plank, but I got one hell of a workout instead. Of course, I'm surrounded by lithe, limber little Korean fairy-elves... and one very elastic ajumma. And there I am, bigger than three of the Tinkerbells put together, awkward and stiff and jetlagged and with no muscles in my stomach whatsoever. At one point I figured out she was trying to tell me to lift my legs 90 degrees off the ground BEHIND me using only my hamstrings... I grunted "Opseoyeo" (I ain't got none!) and the class giggled. She managed to get the forms across to me by pushing and pulling my bits and helping me, and I think I'll be able to do it on my own next time, perhaps. I felt a bit babied but that's ok. She is a good teacher.

Anyway, yoga is not a competition. It's about doing what you can and getting a little better each time. I'm good at some things and not at others, and I'll get better. And I wasn't the first person to fall over. I may not be able to do the splits but I can hold an ajumma squat on my tippy-toes with my hands stretched above my head for hours, thank you very much.

So I was ungainly, wheezing, red-faced and constantly going in the wrong direction. Who cares? I had fun, I feel good, and I think this is definitely something I can work into the daily routine I haven't started yet.

Next adventure: working with a tiny bodybuilder personal trainer

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

And then something like this happens

Today I got a nice surprise message from a colleague on cool messenger. Completely out of the blue - I did all my complaining in that last blog post and haven't said a thing about it at work. My main CT said that she and this teacher had been talking about it today. Anyway, here it goes. I'm posting it here so I can look back and remind myself of good things from time to time.

You know? You're one of the best native teachers I've ever met.
So you've been taken over more work than other NETs have.

We Korean English teachers need native speakers who have much knowledge like you.
We think you're the best in proofreading.

We've seen many of native speakers don't know grammar exactly. 
If we have to employ one teacher between you and another NET, we'll choose you. And if you need recommendation letters when you get a job in other country, we'll give you the most score.
We know you have more work than other NETs do.
But could you help our work second semester in the way you did this semester?
We are really sorry that you do more work than other NETs do. But we put more value on you. 
But if we need your help and your work hours are over 22 h average a week for which native speakers are supposed to work, we won't give you work.
We always appreciate your help.

That feels good.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Yes, I can use chopsticks... And ride the bus... And eat spicy food.

This article has been doing the rounds, often tagged with "Substitute "Korea" and it's the same".

So I went through it and did that. Here you go:

Yes, I can use chopsticks: the everyday ‘microaggressions’ that grind us down
·         MAY 1, 2012
Have you ever noticed how many interpersonal interactions in Korea are like “speed dates” of set questions?
For example, the taxi drivers who have the odd fascination about where you’re from, whether you’re married, how much you like Korea, and how hard you think the Korean language is?
The barkeeps and clientele who try to slot you into their hackneyed preconceptions of some country and nationality, what you can and cannot eat, and (as things get drunker) how much you eNKoy having physical liaisons with Koreans?
The neighbors who have a white-hot curiosity about how differently you raise your kids, what you fight with your spouse about, and how much you like Korea — regardless of how many years you’ve been interacting?
In the beginning, these were dismissible as just acts of awkward friendliness by people who didn’t know how else to approach you. It at least made you really good in certain areas of Korean conversation.
But after years of repeat games, boredom sets in, and you begin to realize two things: 1) that you can sleepwalk through most conversations, and 2) that, if you stay awake, you see there is a larger issue at play here: social control — something increasingly recognized by social psychologists as “microaggressions.”
Microagressions, particularly those of a racialized nature, are, according to Dr. Derald Wing Sue in Psychology Today (Oct. 5, 2010), “the brief and everyday slights, insults, indignities, and denigrating messages sent to (visible minorities) by well-intentioned (members of an ethnic majority in a society) who are unaware of the hidden messages being communicated.”
They include, in Korea’s case, verbal cues (such as “You speak such good Korean!” — after saying only a sentence or two — or “How long will you be in Korea?” regardless of whether a non-Korean (NK) might have lived the preponderance of their life here), nonverbal cues (people espying NK and clutching their purse more tightly, or leaving the only empty train seat next to them), or environmental cues (media caricatures of NK with exaggerated noses or excessive skin coloration, McDonald’s “Mr. James” mascot (JBC, Sept. 1, 2009)).
Usually these are unconscious acts grounded in established discourses of interactions. Nobody “means” to make you feel alienated, different, out of place, or stereotyped.
But microaggressions are also subtle societal self-enforcement mechanisms to put people “in their place.” For NK, that “place” is usually the submissive status of “visitor” or “guest,” with the Korean questioner assuming the dominant position of “host” or “cultural representative of all Korea.”
It’s a powerful analytical tool. Now we have a word to describe why it gets discomfiting when people keep asking if you can use chopsticks (the assumption being that manual dexterity is linked to phenotype), or if you can eat kimchi (same with taste buds), or if you’ll be going “home” soon (meaning Korea is just a temporary stop in your life and you don’t belong here). It can even help you realize why it’s so difficult for the NK long-termer to become a seonbae in the workplace (since NK subordination is so constant and renewed in daily interaction that it becomes normalized).
Now let’s consider microaggression’s effects. Dr. Sue’s research suggests that subtle “microinsults and microinvalidations are potentially more harmful (than overt, conscious acts of racism) because of their invisibility, which puts (visible minorities) in a psychological bind.”
For example, indicate that you dislike being treated this way and the aggressor will be confused; after all, the latter meant no harm, so therefore the NK must just be overly “sensitive” — and therefore also “troublesome” to deal with. Resistance is not futile; it is in fact counterproductive.
Yet do nothing and research suggests that “aggressees” become psychologically drained over time by having to constantly question the validity of their position and devote energy to dealing with this normalized (and after a while, predictable) “othering” that nobody else (except — shudder — the alienated NK barflies) seems to understand.
So in come the coping strategies. Some long-termers cultivate a circle of close friends (hopefully Korean, but rarely so: JBC, Aug. 2, 2011), others just become hermits and keep to themselves. But those are temporary solutions. Sooner or later you have to take a taxi, deal with a restaurateur, have words with your neighbors.
And then, like it does for the wangttas  (who are also victims of other strains of microaggression), you begin to dread interacting with the outside world.
Therein lies the rub: Microaggressions have such power because they are invisible, the result of hegemonic social shorthand that sees people only at face value. But your being unable to protest them without coming off as paranoid means that the aggressor will never see that what they say might be taken as prejudiced or discriminatory.
The power of microaggression is perhaps a reason why activists like me occasion such venomous and obsessive criticism, even online stalkers.
I happen to fight the “big fights” (such as “Korean Only” signs and rules, official propaganda about foreign crime). But I also fight microaggressions (the racist word “waygookin,” the oddly destructive platitude of “fighting!,” the effects of NK being addressed by name without a “ssi” attached), because after decades of experience I know where they lead to: perpetual subordinate status.
Alas, my actions to stem or deter this just make me look alarmist, reactionary and paranoid in the eyes of the critics (especially the NK ones, who seem to think I’m somehow “spoiling” Korea for them), either because they haven’t experienced these microaggressions for themselves, or because they live in denial.
“Know how to pick your battles,” some decry. Fortunately, the battle is partially won, because now this dynamic of low-level aggression and “othering” is less invisible. We finally have a word in the English language (hopefully someday in Korean too) to identify it, and social scientists endeavoring to quantify it.
Someday we just might be able to empower ourselves away from our own microaggressive self-policing of preconception and prejudice. And we will gain the appropriate respect for those brave enough to stand up to it. And at least the daily questions might become less boring!

 Why did I do this? Well, lately I've been particularly feeling the pressure of being different, and being judged according to my race and nationality (when they can remember that I'm not South American). It's making me miserable, and it's turned a job I once loved into one I dread going to and struggle to get out of bed for. It's made me less inclined to explore the country I moved to, choosing instead to hide in my apartment, ordering food through yogiyo and praying that I won't get a phone call from the restaurant. 

I spent months learning Korean and used to be excited about it, but these days I hardly even try because, quite frankly, I don't want to talk to you. I made a pact to stop being negative about Korea, and it's a struggle, and I'm probably breaking it now with this post. I loved this country. I was so excited to be here. But now I'm at the point where I'd rather move to grease-eatin', gun-shootin', gay-bashin' America than live another year earning good money at a relatively easy and fulfilling job in Korea. 

I'm tired of being tarred with the same brush as people who made mistakes. I'm tired of people being surprised that I was able to use public transport... even though I'd been living here, and using it, for over a year. I'm tired of having 20-minute lectures over and over again about work ethic based on the mistakes made by other foreigners, when I've worked as hard as I can, gone beyond what they've asked me to do, and haven't taken a single sick day this year. I'm tired of being warned that something labelled "mepke" on the menu is spicy - that's why I chose it! I'm even tired of adorable little children shouting "Waygookin!" when they see me, even though they don't know the effect it has. 

Meat carefully separated on a barbecue grill to avoid sauce-tainted stuff touching the celiac's portion gets suddenly mixed by "helpful" waiters who leap in to cook your food for you. And every single meal becomes a "How do you like Korean food?" conversation, and "Oh, she eats well" or "You can use chopsticks." 

Despite all the kindness that people have shown me - the stranger who took me to a doctor on my first weekend in Daegu, my jjimdalk guy who gave me corn just because, the student who told me she wanted me to come to class early so she could have more time to practice English, the ajummas who showed me the ropes at the jjimjilbang and shared their tea with me, and the many other small acts of generosity and kindness shown to me almost every day, this feeling of otherness and inferiority has worn me down to breaking point. 

Coming from SA, where we spend a lot of time talking about race and othering, this hit home. Here in Korea my white social privelege has been stripped away and I can understand the effect of these kinds of micro-aggressive terms used on people of other races in other countries. "Oh, you speak such good English..." "What kind of Asian are you?" and "Your people..." I've come to experience first-hand the psychological toll that it takes to be told you're not as good as everyone else (or to have people react with surprise when you are). And I have huge respect for people who manage to stick it out and get through day after day of living like this. 

But I'm not as strong as them. I don't think I can do it for another year. I'm sorry, Korea. I think we need to break up. 

Thursday, May 22, 2014

That time my students talked me into losing 5kg in a week

Korea is known for having ridiculous and un-achievable beauty standards, well, at least for those of us unwilling to consider plastic surgery. Deva Lee wrote a brilliant post about it. Read it here: Teacher Small Face. Usually I ignore it and waddle along the street, aware that I may be the fattest and worst dressed person standing at the intersection. My jeans have holes in them; I can't find them in my size here. The jeans my mom sent me are too small to go past my knees. I have become fat in Korea. But it's never really bothered me. I'm comfortable in my skin... More or less.

But then I started indulging in a bit too much jjimdalk. I was hitting the "I'm over Korea, and all this crap" phase and I comfort ate like it was going out of fashion. I put on about 10kg in the space of a month or two. Suddenly I was panicking every morning because none of my clothes fit and I had no hope of buying more. I hid myself under flowy cardigans and my biggest, baggiest jeans. I felt ugly.

I started doing little things here and there. I attempted a daily yoga challenge and made it halfway through the month before losing interest. I ate more jjimdalk.

Then, last week Wednesday, I maneuvered my hulking frame into my 3rd grade middle school girls classroom. The lesson after lunch on a Wednesday. My coma-patients. These girls have been the least interested, least willing to participate bunch I've ever taught. I've tried everything - pop culture references, being a performing monkey, games that are hits with everyone else, but I get nothing. So I was completely shocked when, seconds after my arrival, a girl mustered up the courage to speak to me.

"Katie teacher," she said angelically, "Why don't you lose some weight?"

Oh my god HER ENGLISH WAS PERFECT! was my initial reaction, followed by OH GOD has it gotten that bad? It had I was the heaviest I've ever been in my life, with a pot belly and so much junk in my trunk it looked like I was moving house. My seams were splitting and I realised when I looked in the mirror that my chin had started to disappear into my neck. So they had a point.

At first I stood there, gobsmacked. Then I said, "Actually, that's a bit rude in my culture," and I joked about how references to a woman's weight are likely to end violently. We laughed together and the tension was eased. The moment of panic passed. And I saw the opportunity to hold onto this moment and cement it and take one step closer to bonding with these girls who had closed themselves off to me for so long.

I raised my hand, and made a solemn promise. "I swear to lose 5 kilograms by next week." They gasped, and applauded.

Why did I pick that number? Well, most Korean women weigh about 55-75kg. They believe the ideal weight is 55kg (regardless of your height, body type, bone structure...). So 5kg is roughly 11% of your bodyweight, if you're Korean.

I am not Korean. I weighed a lot more than that, and I knew from experience that when you start losing weight, it comes off really fast in the beginning. Most of that is water weight. So 5kg was an achievable number for me, while being impressive for them. And it's a nice, round number, and a good place to start.

After class, I walked back to my office and took a deep breath. I'd made a public promise and I had to keep it. It was time to get serious. I re-activated my Sparkpeople account and started logging my food and fitness. I hid the instant coffee sachets and switched to green tea. I developed a strategy for dealing with cafeteria food.

An average meal at my school looks like this:

The top three are banchan, with kimchi on the far right. In this case it's mul kimchi, but usually it's standard spicy kimchi. In the bottom two bits, there's soup and rice. So I decided to eat on a pattern. I alternate banchan and soup, and after two or three rotations through those, I can have a little bit of rice. This way I fill up on soup and veggies without triggering mass panic among the Koreans by bringing my own food or not eating any rice at all. So far it's working. Focusing on how I eat is also making me more conscious of how much I eat and how fast I eat; both are things I've been needing to change.

Usually I sit at home, eating jjimdalk while watching TV. I look down and the food's all gone, and suddenly I'm stuffed. By focusing on my food, I pick up on the signals of fullness sooner.

My mom told me about a new diet that's all the rage; similar to the paleo thing. I dunno. That sort of extremism has never appealed to me. The only detox diet I've ever tried ended up with me puking blood, so no more of that. I'm sticking with the Sparkpeople method - moderation, awareness and all-round improvement of habits, nutrition and fitness. It's not just food; I am also trying to go to bed earlier, workout more, and drink more water.

I did some long bike rides in the evenings after school (and I now fully understand why Korean cyclists mummify themselves. In the language of gnats, they call me the Oncoming Splat). I also did some hiking, some geocaching, some zombie running, some bodyweight reps, some Qi Gong to see what it was like... I've been trying different things. Anything that appeals to me. As long as it gets me moving for at least 30 minutes a day, it's good. I may invest in a hula hoop, or use the huge ones in the parks, because that's fun too.

I worked hard and in the end I did it. Yesterday, I walked into the class and announced that I had lost exactly 5kg. I kept my promise. And then I told them that I'd keep working on it, but that from now on I'm going to stick to a healthier rate of loss, because 5kg a week is not maintainable. My mood has improved, I'm looking better, my chin is back from it's holiday into my neck, and I don't feel like I'm carrying all my emotions in a balloon around my stomach. It's fun, and I did it without spending a whole lot of money on a gym membership or supplements.

My friend Kaleena posted a very supportive comment about not letting their ideals mess with my head, and she's right. It made me question why I'd done this. It wasn't just about the number. I wanted to get healthy again. I wanted to feel happier. I wanted to bond with my students. Making a big public promise was the most motivational factor in doing this, but from now on it's private, it's about me, and it's up to me to keep going. I started off at a sprint, but now it's time to settle into a jog and cover the distance.

Here are links to some of the websites, apps and programs that helped me. Most of them are free:

Zombies 5k
Do You Yoga Daily Challenge
Neila Rey's Bodyweight Workouts

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

The Visa Waiver Program and using the ESTA

This post is not really related to living/working in Korea, but it may be useful for anyone trying to travel to the US.

The last time I went to the US, I was about 11. It was summer and we went to New York, where people were friendly and welcoming and artistic and a bit weird. It was April 2001. Getting a visa was a bit of a nightmare, though, as we filled out endless forms and had to go for interviews at the embassy, and so on.

When my boyfriend invited me to visit his family this summer, I started to plan a trip to Seoul to visit the embassy - a tricky feat when they are closed on Korean and American holidays and hold the same office hours I do. I'd have to take a day off, or something. Add the expense of the KTX or the time-expense of the Mugunghwa to get there and back, and the expense of the visa itself, and all the paperwork and standing in queues, and getting photos taken, and being interviewed... Ugh.

Then my wonderful boyfriend sent me a link to an article about the newly-signed Visa Waiver Program. This is an agreement the US holds with 38 countries that lets you come in under certain conditions without a visa. South Africa is not included in the list...Yet.

From the website:

The Visa Waiver Program (VWP) allows citizens of participating countries* to travel to the United States without a visa for stays of 90 days or less, when they meet all requirements explained below. Travelers must be eligible to use the VWP and have a valid Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA)approval prior to travel.

The countries are: 
The United Kingdom, Andorra, Australia, Austria, Belgium Brunei, Chile, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Monaco, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, San Marino, Singapore, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, and Switzerland, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Greece, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Slovakia the Republic of Korea and Taiwan

as long as you meet the requirements, which are detailed here.

Luckily for me, I have dual citizenship so I can travel to the US on my UK passport.

Important for UK passport holders: Your passport should be a modern one (issued after October 2006), with biometric data in it. On the cover you should see a symbol that looks like the one below, and the back should be hard and plasticky, with a digital photo.

If you qualify for the VWP, that means that all you need to do now is complete the ESTA application and pay the fee. You have to use a credit card to pay it but the card does not need to be in your name. It costs $14 so you could probably ask a nice friend to do it, and give them the money, if you don't have a credit card that works internationally. 

Completing the ESTA application was a bit frustrating as the website kept timing out while processing my information. You'd think the country that created the NSA would have better information-capturing government websites... I digress.

Head over to the official ESTA page to apply. Beware of third party websites that attach a monumental fee to your application without actually providing you with anything you can't get for free yourself. I almost paid $79 instead of the basic $14 because of this. What a con!

The official ESTA page is here. Complete your information and submit it. It might get stuck on step 4, or say that the server timed out. If you go back to the original screen and retrieve your application, you should get a screen saying "Authorization Pending" if it is not immediately processed. I had that screen for a few nerve-wracking hours, and it seemed like the website was broken.When it finally allowed me to try to pay, it wouldn't accept the credit card I was using. Then it went back to being "Authorization Pending" for a few more hours. Finally, this morning, I got the beautiful "Authorization Approved. Welcome to America" message. 

I've heard about it taking up to 72 hours to complete. Don't panic and keep trying. If something does go wrong and it's rejected, you can try again after 10 days. You must pay within 7 days of applying. As far as I can tell, the approved authorization is valid for 2 years before you need to apply again. 

Update: My arrival in the US was a piece of cake. There was a self-service immigration machine with a special queue for those of us with ESTAs. Simply scanning my passport and then going where I was directed (another queue for people with a certain kind of X on the receipt) for it to be verified by a human being, and I was done! The longest part of my arrival was waiting for my bag, which was the last one to come out. I definitely recommend this to anyone who is eligible for a smooth, cheap and easy arrival.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

And another year begins.

Well, school has officially been back a week, and I've taught most of my classes. Things got shuffled up a lot this year. I'm now teaching half of every grade and will see the 2nd graders fortnightly for speaking practice. This frees me from the book a little but means I need to prepare extra activities for practice, and most of the kids were my first graders last year so they've seen the best of my materials already. Well, that's life as an ESL teacher in Korea: constantly having to download  make new materials.

I've changed up my discipline plan this year as well. Last year I used a chart with random 'candy' blocks. Do well on an activity, or your team wins? Get a stamp, and maybe candy. This didn't work very well at all. I don't have my own classroom so I couldn't keep the charts myself. Most kids lost theirs, lost the books they were glued into, or just didn't care enough about candy. It also rewarded ability over behaviour which wasn't the aim of a successful motivation/discipline plan. Also, I kept forgetting to buy candy.

This year I am ONLY giving candy out to third graders who have perfect dictations after the first, high-speed reading. Instead, classes will compete against each other by earning points for good behaviour and losing points for bad behaviour. Each lesson is worth either +1 or -1. If a class hits 0, they have to apologise and either lose break time or do a ridiculous and embarrassing chicken dance. If they hit ten, they win a star. At the end of the semester, the class with the most stars in each grade will get a pizza party, ice creams, chocopies, or a movie outing (depending on how awesome they are and how much money I can afford to spend on 90 students). After a star or an apology, the score resets to 5. So far it seems to work. Classroom implementation doesn't really require the co-teacher (mine are sometimes absent): I draw a smiley face and a sad face on the board with a line dividing them. Depending on how things are going, I move a magnet to either side of the line. It is not affected by skill in English, but by behaviour. The point for the class is determined by which side of the line it's on at the end. I decide how far it moves. Eventually I should be able to deal with bad behaviour with just a pointed look and the move of the magnet, without disrupting the lesson, yelling or singling students out. Getting the magnet to the positive side has been enough to prompt answers from students already. If there's a tie between two classes at the end of the semester, I'll have some kind of score-able quiz/activity and see which class gets the most points.

I have to teach with a lot more co-teachers this year, with only 2 classes or so with each of them. They all seem to have different expectations of what my responsibilities are, so I'm wiggling my way around all of them to see exactly where I fit in. The 3rd grade classes so far have been a breeze after I worked my butt off preparing stuff for them last year. I'm trying to put more effort into my 1st grade classes now, and have never taught 2nd grade before. 1st grade seems to be the same plan as last year, and 2nd grade will just be that speaking practice.

I'm in the nice new English Teachers' office, only have 2 classes with my main co-teacher, and so far life seems to be pretty good.

Howdy, neighbours.
Another great change this year is that our little neighborhood of foreigners seems to be becoming more social. My awesome Canadian neighbours were great, but I did feel like it would be nice to have someone to go to dinner with nearby. Sadly they have moved out, back to Canada and travelling elsewhere this year. I am the only foreigner in my building. But there are a whole lot in the building across the alley! One of the new people, Steven, has just moved in. We discovered about 10 minutes into a long anecdote about my first day that Steven reads my blog. Hi Steven.

It's pretty weird to have a lot of the newbies coming up to me and saying they read this blog. I feel like I haven't put that much effort into it lately and could be doing more. I've started doing some editing work for the Daegu Compass and Platform Daegu magazines, to keep busy and keep my CV good for more than just teaching.

Other news? My relationship is going well and we're planning our next steps for After Korea. This will be my last year in Korea, and then I guess the Red Pen of Doom will be giving new expats tips on how to order food and so on from, oh, I don't know... South America?

We'll see.