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):
No news yet about what will happen in Owens Valley, but a new solar plant will be built in the Mojave Desert.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Making Kimbab

Last weekend, our host family made kimbab together for lunch.  I think I'm on my way to becoming a great Korean housewife...NOT. Nonetheless, I had fun learning something new.  Even though my kimbab rolls were either too triangular or rectangular in shape, they tasted delicious.
Kimbab (김밥)

1.) Place sheet of seaweed flat on bamboo mat.
2.) Spread rice onto bottom half of seaweed sheet.  
    note: sticky rice does not spread well.
3.) Stack sliced ingredients 
    (egg, pickled radish, cucumber, imitation crab meat, etc).
Che-yoon a.k.a. "Mary" (my host sister)


Min-hyeok a.k.a. "Harry" (my host brother)
4.) Roll up all ingredients with bamboo mat to assemble 
    kimbab. Apply even pressure to ensure that kimbab stays 
    intact, does not look triangular or square in shape. 
5.) Dab oil on seaweed edge of kimbab roll and knife blade 
    before carefully slicing kimbab roll into individual 
Kimbab should not be this triangular :(
6.)Enjoy with kimchi and pickled radishes!
There you have it!

Meet the Family

Living with a host family is one of the best ways of immersing myself in Korean culture while I’m here, and I’m really excited about my own host family.  I’ve been living with the Lim family for a little over a week now, and I couldn’t have been placed with a more ideal family!
Spending a rainy Sunday afternoon with my host family at Daechong Dam

I think my host mom is the coolest Korean woman I’ve met.  My host mom is a fourth grade homeroom teacher at my elementary school, so she’s been really helpful giving me the scoop on school dynamics and introducing me to her group of friends who also teach.  She and I both swear that we must have met during some other lifetime because we are very similar in personality and interests.  We both like to eat, drink, and live fully.  She’s very outgoing and sociable, so I’ve felt welcome in her home this entire time.  We both sleep when we’re stressed and are much quieter at home than in public.  She’s very athletic and goes swimming at 5:30 am three times a week.  In fact, the entire family does this together, and I managed to roll out of bed once this week to tag along.  During college, she told me that she hiked up to the peaks of all of Korea’s mountains.  Art is another one of her passions, and her watercolor paintings are hanging in the apartment.  Half of the bowls we eat out of were made by my mom, and she’s going to help me register for ceramics courses.  To top it off, her name is 은정 (Eun-jeong), while my Korean name is 정은 (Jeong-eun). 

There are three more members in my host family, starting with my host dad.  My host dad has a masters in chemical engineering, but in recent years, he’s been operating his own real estate business.  He is so devoted to his children and wife, and he also helps out a lot at home.  He cooks breakfasts, washes the dishes, and cleans around the house! I didn’t grow up with a father who did these things, so I’m still getting used to it.  We practice English together during meal times, but one would hear more Konglish than anything else.

My host siblings have chosen English names for themselves, though I generally call them by their given Korean names.  Harry or Min-hyeok (민혁) is a 7th grader who is quite studious and loves to play soccer and swim, which is pretty typical of many Korean boys.  He’s extremely sweet and slightly protective of me.  When I went on a walk one evening, my host mom told me that he was pacing around the apartment worried that I’d get lost. My host sister’s name is Che-yoon (채윤) or Marry, and this cutie is in the 4th grade.  I keep telling her that she should change her name to Mary, but she wants to emulate her older brother, so I think that second “r” is here to stay.  She’s pretty shy and her English is not as good as her brother’s, so she generally will pop by my room several times a day to see what I’m up to.  She’ll smile a lot without saying much.  She’s been opening up a lot more, and we even watched Kung Fu Panda together recently.

While it’s nice to come home to a family, it’s strange to be living under somebody’s roof again and abiding by my host parents’ wishes.  For the past four years in college, I’ve come and gone as I pleased without any attention to curfews or family meal times.   I’m still figuring out the appropriate time to be coming home at night and just how much time I’m expected to spend with the family.  In this respect, I feel like I’m back in high school. 

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Busted Knee 2.0

Here's to being straightforward about my time in Korea, beginning with my health.  I've been struggling with a torn ACL since late June, but I haven't notified all of my friends and family back home in the States.  Tending to my knee injury has consumed much of my energy during the short time I've already spent in Korea, and it will probably continue to do so until I can receive complete treatment. I'm working diligently to receive permission from my elementary school and my program to return to Los Angeles for a full two months during winter break for ACL reconstruction surgery and initial physical therapy.  The first two weeks I would spend bedridden with an ice machine and range-of-machine machine.  Within 3 months, I'll be able to run.  Overall, I'd need 6-8 months of PT following surgery for 95% recovery.  

This is ACL tear #2, so I already have a surgeon and physical therapist lined up. My surgeon is Dr. Tibone from USC, and he treats the Trojan football team.  I'm wearing the same athletic knee brace that the linebackers wear on the field.  Kinda cool, no? 

If this news is new to you, I'll start from the top.  I fell off of my skateboard riding downhill late at night three weeks ago before coming to Korea.  I was trying to blow off some steam about lost pictures on my external hard drive. I was with my younger brother, Kevin, and we were just coastin' down Descanso Drive with my headlamp and longboard.  Come hill #2 and I felt uneasy as I gained speed and a parked car came into view.  In anticipation of running into the car, I stuck out my left leg to halt myself and my ACL tore in response to the impact.  I continued to fall off of my board and soar until I landed with a thud on the ground. I've got a mad scar on my hip to prove it.

Surprisingly, I've had more difficulty emotionally dealing with all of this.  Physically, I can operate at 75% of my health, which is enough to get by for a year. But I can't run or play sports. There's a volleyball league in Cheong-ju and my principal was so excited to hear that I played, but I won't be able to take part in any of that.  At least until I get a new ACL, and that could be months.  It's hard to fully accept my physical capacities, especially since my desire to stay active hasn't subsided one bit.  I have to be patient with myself all the time and stop myself from taking on more than I can handle, and it's difficult to feel so uncomfortable in my own skin. Probably more so because I take, or rather took, so much pride in my health and strength.  Luckily, I have the support of my family back home, my host family, and the other ETAs in Korea who are my emotional backbone lately.

More to come, I promise.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Prey or Predator?

Check out this sick mural I saw in Hongdae:

Hongdae (홍대) is the neighborhood surrounding Hongik University (홍익대학교) in Seoul.  Hongik University has one of the best art departments in Korea, and Hongdae is known for its art and music scene as well as its bumpin' nightlife.  Granted that an exact duplicate is impossible considering its urban and cultural context, I'd say that the closest equivalent of Hongdae in Los Angeles is a fusion of Echo Park and Silver Lake.

This makes me think of Scoops! in LA and how happy the ice cream makes me. It's going to be a longggg year...


My mother named me 정은 (Jeong-on) when I was born, but nobody ever calls me by this name, not even when I’m in trouble.  Lately, though, I’ve been hearing about 정 (Jeong), a concept permeating Korean interpersonal relationships, and am curious if my mother had this in mind in giving me a name to grow into.  

Jeong (정) has no direct English translation and is an ambiguous term to begin with, but I’ll do my best to explain it.  

Jeong refers to a strong personal bond that isn’t necessarily grounded in shared interests or experiences as friendships are in Western culture.  Jeong can exist between two or more individuals as can it develop between a person and an object, for example a hometown or house.  Jeong can be a collective emotion that encompasses loyalty, commitment, and reciprocity that transcends logic or reason.  Jeong can exist in both platonic and romantic relationships, though it isn’t an essential component to them.  I don’t think one chooses to enter into a Jeong relationship, but rather it finds us.  It may develop over time, but it could also be an instantaneous connection.  In strengthening jeong, there is the tendency of preserving interdependency and the collective, perhaps at the sake of the individual. 

Even though this concept of Jeong is new to me, I think I already have it in my life.  It explains the unbelievable, almost unsettling affinity I feel with my closest friends, some of whom I’ve known for a relatively short amount of time.  Somehow they seem to understand what I am feeling and trying to express in so much fewer words than others.       I am beginning to experience Jeong here in Goesan, South Korea and I hope for it to develop even more during the next year. 

Friday, August 6, 2010


전서 (Zuan style)
The bottom right arc represents the dragon's tail.

I took an introductory calligraphy course during orientation, and here is a glimpse of the art I been created on my last day. I learned how to write dragon (룡) in five different styles of Chinese. The written styles progress from literal expressions of characters to abstract forms and reflect different periods in Chinese history.

My calligraphy instructor chose the dragon because of its traditional figure as a mystical creature that welcomed good spirits into one’s home. Let’s hope that the dragon blesses me in my homestay situation. The dragon was also hailed as a bringer of rain, which there is plenty of in Korea right now due to monsoon season.

P.S. The three small characters below the dragon are my Korean name (서정은 or Suh Jeong-eun) written in Chinese.

예서 (Li style)
above: 해서 (Kai style)
below: 행서 (Hsin style)
초서 (Tsao style)
The upper right dot represents a water droplet from the dragon's tail flick.

Entry #1

I finally did it. Here is the blog that I’ve been promising to create since I graduated three months ago. I just found out where I will be living and teaching English for the next year, and I think it’s fitting that I write my first entry today.

Currently I'm in Goesan, a rural town in central South Korea famous for its chili peppers. Beginning in August 19, I will be teaching Korean elementary schoolchildren in the city of Cheong-ju until July 2011. Cheong-ju, a city of over 600,000 residents, is the 9th largest city in Korea and the provincial city of Cheung-chung Buk-do Province in central Korea.

For the past month, I’ve been taking intensive Korean language courses while attending countless (and often seemingly never-ending) cultural and teaching workshops. It’s training for my first real job, though I often forget that’s the purpose for me being here since I’m in a bubble of 72 other Americans who are quickly becoming my new family and friends. 

My Korean is improving daily, and I sometimes answer English questions in Korean without thinking. I still write like a second grader, but there’s been a 300% increase on my quiz scores since Day 1. Hopefully I make enough progress to pass my Korean final next week. By the end of this year, I hope to be able to write an academic paper in Korean without having my language teachers mark up every line in red ink.

This being my first blog, I expect it to be a hodgepodge of posts on my daily experiences living in Korea as an English teacher, Korean-American (or 교포 which is pronounced gyopo in Korean), and cultural ambassador (which we’re reminded of daily). Not to worry, though, I don’t want to bore anybody with my personal life. Expect some posts on Korean culture, architecture, public transportation, and urban development (plus anything that suits my fancy). I may no longer be a college student, but the learning never ends.