Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Well-being (왤빙)

With my 5th graders in the school cafeteria
How happy are you? Do you measure your contentment in life based upon your wealth, your community ties, or your safety? How does your country measure well-being?

The OECD, which stands for Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, measured well-being in its 34 member countries using 11 topics, some of which include housing, education, governance, and work-life balance.  By exploring the interactive website, one can see the distribution of countries based upon the Better Life Index. With scores close to 8.0, Canada and Australia ranked the highest, when the 11 topics were set equally.

South Korea belongs to the OECD, and its Better Life Index is 5.3. Ten months have past since I moved to Korea, so naturally, I was curious to see how this country defined well-being. Access to jobs, education attainment, and personal safety were ranked the most important components of well-being in South Korea. In comparison, Australia and Canada placed greatest emphasis on housing, education, and life satisfaction.

Some of the statistics surprised me, so I’m including a few. See how Korea ranks!
- At 2256 hours a year, Koreans work the most amongst the OECD countries. The OECD average is 1739 hours.

- 44.7% of Korean men and 7.2% of Korean women reported smoking daily in 2008. Smoking rates for men are the second highest in the OECD, while the women’s rates are the lowest.

- Amongst the OECD countries, Korea has the lowest percentage of the labour force that has been unemployed for more than a year. Currently, it is 0.01%.

- Only 80% of Koreans believe that they know one person who would help them in a time of need.  (I was confused that in a country that emphasizes the collective over the individual, people would indicate social networks to be weaker than in other OECD countries.)

- The educational level of Koreans is one of the highest in the OECD. 98% of Korean young people aged 25-35 years old have attained education equivalent to a high-school degree. Korea also has the highest literacy scores in the OECD. The PISA average is 539 out of 600. (Talk to any educator in the Korean public and/or private education system, and they’ll tell you not to accept the numbers blindly. Korea’s education system has its unique challenges.)

While you think about this, let Kanye inspire you. Thanks for reading!

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Let's Go Fishing!

Two weekends ago, I went way up North to Hwacheon in Gangwon Province with two of my Fulbright buddies, Jing and Jillian.  It was a 5-hour trek from Cheongju Cherryland to Hwacheon, but we were so glad to make it to the Hwacheon Ice Fishing Festival on its FINAL day.  People paid 12,000 Won to catch fish with their bare hands at this festival.  Included in the entrance fee were the bright orange shirts saggy knee-length pants we could wear in the fishing ring.

The contest began just minutes after we got to the festival site, so the three of us were very confused about what was going on.  Women manning the changing booths shooed us into the line of people shivering and waiting to catch fish.  Spectators bundled in their winter coats watched as one contestant after another jumped into the ring.  The first contestant to catch three fish with his/her bare hands within five minutes would win the contest.  
Those five minutes felt like fifteen minutes! My legs went kind of numb the moment I stepped in.  For some reason, I thought that I could simply pluck the fish out of the water with ease.  Nope! I was in squatting position, crouching with 3/4 of my arm submerged in the cold water, trying not to give myself away to the fish.  Even my bra got wet from hunching over.  The fish can detect any motion, and when you think that you've got them in your hands and squeeze, they slip right out because they're so slippery. I’m proud to say that I caught two fish, both of which I shoved down my shirt, in order to free up my hands to catch the third fish.  Those two were flapping around my stomach, and removing them from my shirt was even worse! AKA see my face in the picture below.
Go Jillian! Last woman standing in the ring!
Taking Flopping Fish #1 out of my shirt. Fish #2 was waiting by my belly button.

Salting the fish (after knocking its lights out) for the oven
Each aluminum foil-wrapped fish cooked in its grill for 30 minutes.
Do you know what the best part of the day was?  Eating the fish I caught just minutes after! Yumm!

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

I'm Back!

After a three-month hiatus from the blogosphere, I’m back online as well as back in the ROK. Just yesterday I arrived in my homebase Cheongju, a city that is always a pleasure to return to.  I’m quoting Far East Movement in my (lunar) New Year’s resolution to “live free and stay wired.”  In layman’s terms, have all the fun I want traipsing around the world without forgetting to stay connected to my peeps and fambam by being reliably online.

Today is Korea’s Independence Day (March 1st), and it represents the beginning of the movement to win independence from Japan.  On March 1, 1919, when Korea had been occupied by Japan for ten years already, Nationalists tried to read the Declaration of Independence.  March 1st represents Korea’s Independence Movement.  While all governmental offices were closed and Korean flags were hanging from street lamps on every road, much of the country simply treated the day just as any other day to work and consume.  Considering how nationalistic Koreans are and quick to distinguish themselves from their Japanese neighbors, I was quite surprised that this holiday is not celebrated with more grandeur.  My host dad, for example, went to work, while my siblings were excited to have one more day off of school before the new school year begins.  No parades, no parties, no commemorative coins.  Nothing close to the festivities of American Fourth of July (which I missed in 2010 and will miss once again this year). 

And this is how South Korea is commemorating March 1st with the North: flying propaganda-laden balloons over the border

On a different note, tomorrow is the first day of the new school year! The school year in Korea starts in March, unlike the US.   I’m sad that my two-month paid vacation is coming to a brutal halt.  After experiencing the warmest winter days that Los Angeles has experience (87 degrees in February, people!), I’m pouting about the rainy wind and overcast weather in Cheongju. 

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Hike at Sognisan

Munjangdae at Sognisan
Today, I had the day off from school while my students were taking national exams...ALL DAY.  I was seriously considering sleeping in and watching How I Met Your Mother online, but I decided to put my day to better use by going to Sognisan, a mountain in my province of Chungcheongbuk-do.  I'd just returned from Seoul after having Thanksgiving dinner at the U.S. Ambassador Kathleen Stephens' residence, and I felt the pumpkin pie pounds tacking on.  Not only did I need to exercise, I desperately needed a reprieve from the noisiness and sensory overload of urban life.  I haven't been on a hike in five months because of my knee, and I'm so excited to report that I made it to the top of the mountain! 

At times, the solo hike was peaceful but passing the many groups of middle-aged hikers gave me an insight of hiking culture in Korea.  First off, hikers are almost always over the age of 40 here.  Hiking is very much a social activity, and what you wear is almost as important as who you're with.  Both men and women alike outfit themselves in very flashy, expensive gear and are decked out in top-of-the-line day packs, trekking poles, down jackets, hiking boots, dry-fit layers, etc.  The women, or ajummas, just love the fluorescent jackets.  While they look impressive, that amount of gear is not necessary for a 15 km intermediate day hike.  

  I was shocked that some people brought all of their electronics with them on the trail.  People were talking on their cellphones, conducting business, while another pair were listening to their MP3 player.  An elderly couple had brought a radio with them, and they were singing songs all the way down the mountain.  Music is wonderful to hear, but it's pretty inconsiderate to blast the music so that other hikers on the trail HAVE to hear everything.  I did find the bottle of soju in the side pocket of their backpack amusing.  Just as some people eat to live or live to eat, it seems that hikers also hike to eat.  Along the trail, I spotted three restaurants that served traditional rice wine and anju (foods eaten with alcohol).

Located in the Sognisan mountains are several different Buddhist temples.  Beopjusa is the largest temple located closest to the park entrance. I've been wanting to do an overnight temple stay where I can meditate and learn about Buddhist culture, and I think I'll be going back to Beopjusa in early December.  
Speaking of hikes, my school teachers and I went to Jeollado Province earlier this month to see the beautiful colors of the leaves changing color.  In Korean, there is one word 단풍 (dan-pung) to describe this transformation. I wouldn't call it a hiking trip if one spends 4/5 hours in a bus and the remaining hour walking along an asphalt road, but, hey, that's how my school advertised the trip to me. Here are some pictures I took.
Temple Architecture
Faculty of Jeungan Elementary School   

This is what I get for blogging so infrequently.  I have two more pictures to post.  This is from the visit to the Sangdang Sanseong Fortress in Cheongju that I went to with my host family.  I didn't take any pictures of the actual fortress, but I was mesmerized by the reflections in the water.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

To Grandmother's House We Go

November has come, marking my fourth month in Korea.  Simply looking at the calendar, a lot of time has passed, and the amber-shaded leaves of trees lining the boulevards attest that autumn is here. I’m astounded by how beautiful the colors of the leaves are.  This past week, I walked three times to and from the bus terminal, which takes about thirty minutes on foot and five minutes by car, just so that I could watch and hear the tree branches rustle from the gust of wind blowing down the main road. 

I’ve taken my cold weather clothing out of my suitcase, and they’re hanging on my portable closet.  When I showed my host mom my winter coat, she scoffed and said, “That won’t do here in Cheongju.  Don’t you know you’re in one of the coldest parts of the country?”  I’m worried about the snow but not nearly as much as another fellow Angeleno ETA, who didn’t bring anything warmer than a sweatshirt to Korea.  We’re going to have to buy him the most plush down coat and ear muffs to keep him warm.  Lucky for me, I won’t be in Korea during the coldest months of winter.  I’m returning to LA on December 20 (mark your calendars!) for ACL surgery and staying two months to start the arduous physical therapy, which I will continue in Cheongju once I fly back to Korea in late February.

“What have I been up to these past months,” you may be wondering. Flip the calendar back to September, shall we?  

My grandmothe
During the third week of September, I celebrated Chuseok, Korea’s equivalent of Thanksgiving, in Daegu with my paternal relatives. Daegu is located in North Gyeongsang province in the southeastern corner of South Korea.  I barely found bus and train tickets to/from Daegu three weeks prior to Chuseok day.  Apparently, one has to book tickets months in advance. 

After having celebrated both the US and Korean Thanksgiving, I’d reason that Chuseok is an even bigger deal.  Albeit there is no pumpkin pie involved, but the entire country takes a break from its work-centric schedule as Koreans travel to their hometowns to celebrate Chuseok.  Not only does one visit his/her grandparents, he/she must also visit all the ancestral homes and graves to pay respect to his/her ancestors. In each home, songpyeon (traditional rice cakes) and other prepared food is set on a large table as offering to ancestors. 
    I hate to rely on Wikipedia as a source, but click here to find out more. Chuseok - Korean Thanksgiving

Koreans say that Daegu remains a conservative corner of the country, and they weren’t joking.  My dad instructed me to visit the Big House (the Suh family’s ancestral compound) and make the rounds, but my grandma and aunts told me that that’s a man’s job. No female above the age of five ever goes to these events, so don’t bother is what they told me.  During Chuseok, the women of the family will traditionally spend days cooking all the food that will be served to the ancestors and eaten by the family.  On the day of Chuseok, when men visit homes and gravesites, women stand on the sidelines quietly.  Important to note is that my family still observes the most traditional practices of Korea, and that my aunts and uncles come from a different generation of Koreans.  I don't even know if I could call them a typical Korean family. 

It is interesting to me how Confucian ideals are rooted even deeper in Korea than Confucius’s home country. Instead of getting all worked up about the inequalities of patriarchal societies and why men and women eat at different tables in my paternal family, I’ll just accept it.  I'm not here to change Korean culture nor to extract the causes of why things are the way they are.  Most definitely, I will not impose my Western values upon my relatives.  It would be so biased of me to state whether these practices are good, bad, unfair, or discriminatory.  Who am I to judge?  I'm hear to learn and to observe.  

I came to Korea with the desire of experiencing contemporary, secular Korean culture, but in seeking only that, I may be missing out on experiencing the many subcultures and strains of Korean culture that make life in this country seem so dynamic and puzzling to me.  

Thursday, September 30, 2010


I’ve been teaching for four weeks now at Jeungan Elementary School, and while I’m starting to get the hang of things, this is an entirely new environment.  Over 1,500 students attend my elementary school, making it the second largest one in Cheongju. That’s comparable to a liberal arts college’s entire student population.  For the first time in my life, I’m not a student at the school I go to every morning.  It’s a bit daunting to think that I’m responsible for a child’s education.   I underestimated how much energy it takes to teach children and to do that effectively while capturing their attention and motivating them to try their best. I have so much more respect for public schoolteachers, especially those who teach middle school boys.

My 3rd graders are watching "You Can Fly!" from Peter Pan right now. You see the di? They are the reason my lesson rocked.

  I teach over 1,000 students in grades 3-6 alongside three different English teachers, each of whom are assigned one entire grade (4,5,6).  They split up the seven sections of 3rd grade classes amongst themselves. Though my co-teachers see their classes twice a week, but I rotate classrooms so I see individual classes once every three weeks.  While this system guarantees that every 3rd, 4th, 5th, and 6th grader gets some exposure to the native English speaker (that’s me), it makes it very difficult for me to build a strong rapport with all of my students.  I will meet each class less than fifteen times by the time the school  year ends. (In Korea, the school year begins in March and ends in December).  I can barely remember their faces let alone their names.  

Let me introduce my co-teachers Mimi, Mrs. Na, and Min.  Mimi teaches the 4th grade, and she just returned to Korea after teaching English in China for two years.  Her daughter Lina is one of my students, and her English is phenomenal because she attended international English school while abroad.  Mimi is my primary co-teacher and helps me adjust to life in Korea, i.e. creating a bank account, paying my phone bills, and reserving plane tickets.  

Mrs. Na is the 6th grade English teacher, and I’m getting to know her very well.  She’s been married for seven years already, but she looks and sounds no older than twenty-five.  During the weeks that I teach with Mrs. Na, she always makes coffee for the two of us before our classes start.  We’re allies when it comes to handling the misbehaving students who are curse at and hit other students, purposely don’t bring their textbooks and/or disinterested in English class.  Surprisingly, they’re either very high level students who find class boring or have such low English proficiency that they don’t understand a word that I say.  Mrs. Na is so gentle to the students and never raises her voice, which is why I was surprised to hear her play Ke$ha, Snoop Dog, and Ludacris in her classroom  this afternoon.  She was genuinely appalled when I told her what the lyrics of Rihanna’s “Rude Boy” meant today.

My final English co-teacher is Min, one of the very few male teachers at my elementary school.  Min also looks very young, especially on the days he wears his hoodie and T.  (One of the perks of being an elementary school teacher is the casual dress code, though I am envious of the many days secondary ETAs have off because of midterm and final exams.) My desk is in his classroom, which is the largest English classroom equipped with a smart board, computer corner, and two stages for skits.  

I was really impressed with Min’s setting skills this week when our entire school faculty played volleyball per our principal’s request. My principal is a particular man, who loves to sing karaoke, play volleyball, and drink 막걸리 (Korean rice wine) almost as much as he loves his eight grandchildren. What a jolly man he is! I love the crystal-studded ties he wears.

3rd grade boys

My students treat me like a celebrity every day, and I dare say it feels good.  I’m also wondering how long it will last.  Whenever I enter the school cafeteria or walk down the hallways during cleaning period, I hear “Clara! TEACHER!!!” from all around me.  One 4th grader even hit me on the back today because she was so excited to see me. I’ve been held captive in two 4th grade classrooms by swarms of 4th graders trying to hold a conversation with me by screaming over the voices of their other classmates.  During the staff volleyball game earlier this week, students brought me 떡복기 (Dduk-bok-gi) and chocolate.  At the same time, there are some students who are so shy that they just greet me and run away. 

These sweatshirts zip all the way up!

I’ve been pretending NOT to understand Korean, and it’s so HARD.  Some of the younger students fall for my act when I feign ignorance and confusion when they address me in Korean.   I must admit that many of them just assumed I was a non-Korean American simply from watching me write in English at lightning speed on the chalkboard.  The older students can see right through my act and they’re just waiting for me to crack.  It’s already starting to crack, too.  It’s impossible not to say “Thank you” to the lunch ladies who serve me so much food everyday that I’m putting on rice pounds daily.

It’s not that my school has asked me not to speak Korean in front of the students, but rather that I want to establish myself as the English-speaking American teacher.  I don’t want my students to find an excuse to speak only Korean in their English classes. My Korean and German improved the most when I lived in places where I had to speak the host languages in order to do simple things, like buying groceries.  While in Korea, my students won’t have that element of necessity in their classes if they know that I can understand Korean.   Chances are that they will be less motivated to try to communicate with me in English. 

At the same time, I could have such richer conversations with my students.  I’m going to Seoul on a field trip with my host mom and twenty girls in several weeks.  I’m going to be so tempted to talk in Korean with them, especially when we go to Lotte World.  I don’t know what I’ll do.  If one girl finds out, news will spread like wildfire the following Monday.  

That's it for now, folks.  You should pat yourself on the back for making it to the end.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

News Update

While an update on life in Korea is overdue, here are some links to news of what's going on in the world. 

Talks of flood relief and family reunions between North Korea and South Korea are taking place currently.

Protesters in Stuttgart oppose Stuttgart 21, the hi-speed rail project that would connect the German city with Europe's hi-speed rail system.    

Think twice about "good" study habits as The New York Times sheds new light on the impact of study environments and behavior on knowledge retention.

Efforts to make California a greener state through global warming legislation and solar projects are underway and stirring up controversy. 

Read about Proposition 23, the ballot initiative seeking to suspend California's global warming legislation Assembly Bill 32 (AB 32):,0,75571.story
No news yet about what will happen in Owens Valley, but a new solar plant will be built in the Mojave Desert.