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Saturday, February 28, 2009

Packing perils

Packing for a trip, no matter how long or short, is always a struggle. Even when the weather will be the same every day -- HOT -- the same questions exist. To bring this shirt or that one? How many sundresses? Do I need more than one bathing suit? Do I even own more than one bathing suit?

Everything I could potentially want to bring to the Philippines is in a massive pile on my bed, upon which I'm currently lying. The usual pre-travel excited butterflies haven't even hit yet, and they usually descend like clockwork 24 hours before any departure. I guess working straight through the weekend and being so busy besides that has given the entire trip an unreal feeling. It certainly doesn't feel like I'll be at Incheon in less than 24 hours, much less that I'll be in Cebu in 30-ish hours.


The weather forecast has improved to now show only one day with thunderstorms, and the rest either sunny or partly sunny with a chance of rain. I'll take those odds. Hey, I'd still rather be in warm but rainy Cebu than freezing but sunny Seoul. A girl needs some warmth once in awhile.

Camera = charging. Hopefully I'll come home with some good pictures.

Now I just need to somehow transform the chaos on my bed into a neat bundle to fit inside my backpack. It's only a 5-day trip -- how much stuff can I need?! (Answer: very little. I'm actually low-maintenance but incredibly lazy.)

I should probably be more like this:

Friday, February 27, 2009

A lesson in bus etiquette

It's taken me nearly five months to learn one of Korea's most vital public transportation lessons: which way to stand on the bus/subway.

At home, there's no "correct" way to stand -- or if there is, I've been oblivious to it for 23 years. But as I took the bus home from Hyewha recently, one of my Korean friends immediately said, "You're standing the wrong way!"

Who knew there was a wrong way to stand on the bus?

It turns out that Koreans always stand facing out, toward the windows, rather than facing either the front or back of the bus/subway car. After Chloe pointed this out to me, I began realizing it everywhere. People might be crammed into the subway car like a pack of sardines, but everyone still faces the same way.

It goes against logic to me. For one, I like seeing the exit and following the bus route. And when I'm sitting down, there's nothing worse than someone's crotch directly in my line of sight. Having someone boxing me into the seat makes me claustrophobic.

It's also unspeakably rude, apparently, to talk on cell phones or sometimes even to talk period. Several of my friends have been berated for talking too loudly, including by one older man who said (in Korean), "This isn't New York! Be quiet!"

They ignored him and kept talking, maintaining that they weren't exactly shouting and hey, it's public transport, what do you expect?!

The loud talking I can understand -- Americans, especially, seem to speak several decibels louder than any other nationality. No matter where you go in the world, you can hear Americans coming. I'll never forget walking around Florence late one night, enjoying the peace and solitude, and suddenly hearing the unmistakable screeching of American girls from several streets away.

But the "right" way to stand on a bus? That's one cultural norm I feel perfectly comfortable ignoring. I'm just a rebel without a cause.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Happy to say farewell to February

February has been an insanely busy month of working so I feel absolutely no guilt about taking a 5-day tropical vacation next week -- although the latest forecast predicts more storms than sunshine. Ah well, I'll take what I can get.

The teachers have had fewer breaks this entire month than we normally get in a single week, so you can hopefully understand the exhaustion. And yes, we get breaks in our schedules -- the workday is divided into seven 45-minute classes and it's only February that has seen us working every single period, day after day.

Six days for me this week, as I recklessly volunteered for overtime to fund this Philippines excursion. There's hope that March will be quieter and a chance to relax and regroup before the madness of late spring and summer begin.

I'm definitely not cut out to be a teacher in the long-term, though. I mostly like my kids, school is great, but there are also days like today where seemingly all of students are in ridiculous moods, as if someone told them, "Okay, it's Thursday, which means it's time to annoy your teachers. Go!"

After spending a year as a teacher, I'm not sure whether I'm now more or less likely to want children. Or whether I'll be any good as a mother, anyway. After all, we get to give these students back to their parents at the end of the week. But if your own child annoys you, there's nothing you can do...

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

A little piece of Paris in Seoul

France is one of my favorite vacation destinations if for no other reason than the incredible food. No matter which tiny café you visit, you're guaranteed fresh bread, a delicious latte and perfect pastries.

Natalie had told me before about a fantastic French bistro in the heart of Itaewon, so that's where we went for brunch straight after church on Sunday.

Le Saint-Ex has both a French owner and French chef, so the authenticity is spot-on. A set brunch menu includes eggs and bacon, a selection of fresh-baked breads, yummy salad, roasted potatoes and an icy watermelon palate cleanser.

It was honestly as good as any breakfast I've had in France and fresh ingredients made all the difference between this meal and those at "fake" French restaurants. It's clear that the chef knows what he's doing -- this place can definitely compete with my all-time favorite brunch spot, the impeccable Bistro Français in Georgetown.

The decor at Le Saint-Ex is also adorable, especially a bookshelf filled with French books, including a number of French-language Seoul guidebooks, and some French grocery products. It is the kind of cozy bistro that is ideal for a rainy day or simply people-watching.

There are a few different breakfast places in the area that I'm excited to try. I never mind trekking over to Itaewon because it means a) a wide variety of international restaurants and b) an excuse to visit What the Book.

**5 days until the Philippines**

Sunday, February 22, 2009

I sense a challenge

In more strange news from the peninsula:

A South Korean housewife on Saturday broke a world record in marathon singing after crooning for more than 76 hours without stopping at a Seoul karaoke bar, local record verifiers said.

Kim Sun-Ok, 54, broke the 75-hour Guinness World Record held by Marcus Lapratt of the United States, the private Korea Record Institute said.

She started singing at 11:14 am Thursday (0214 GMT) and sang a total of 1,283 tunes before she gave up at 3:21 pm Saturday following her family's appeal for her to quit for the sake of her health, it said.

Koreans are certainly competitive so it doesn't surprise me that someone here would spend 76 hours singing karaoke just to be in the Guinness Book of World Records.

Now I just want to see a playlist -- how many times do we think "Nobody" and the unintentionally hilarious Big Bang cover of "This Love" showed up?

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Food shopping in a foreign land

One of the questions friends from home ask is: What do you eat?

The obvious answer is "Korean food," but for those of us who don't eat a ton of Korean food, what's a girl to do?

Eat out a lot. Seriously. I've always loved restaurants and dining out so, why not? We (me, Melissa and whomever we can coerce to go with us) go to a lot of restaurants -- every Monday night is Indian at Everest in Dongdaemun. Yum.

But occasionally I am forced to cook and the menu at Casa Erin never varies for two reasons:

1. Sheer laziness and lack of planning
2. The limited number of identifiable products at the local grocery store

Twice a month, I walk to Orange Mart and buy almost the same items:

Lunch: Scrambled eggs with tuna and broccoli

Dinner: Either grilled chicken salad, deliciously seasoned thanks to spices sent from the USA by my lovely mother, or plain and simple spaghetti.

Foods I miss being able to buy at an average/non-foreign grocery: black beans, cheese, whole wheat bread, skim milk, hummus and pita bread, baby carrots, Annie's macaroni & cheese, peppermint patties and good peanut butter.

Foods that are surprisingly better at Korean grocery stores: many organic foods are cheaper than in the US, especially chicken breasts and eggs with beautiful orange yolks -- healthier and more delicious -- although unfortunately according to this article, 88% of organic foods in Korea are fake.

I miss Whole Foods. Variety and being able to read food packaging = heaven.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Leave it to the Japanese to invent my dream bedroom

My ideal bedroom involves coziness, warm lighting, lots of pillows and a massive bookshelf. So imagine my excitement when I read about the latest custom-made bedset available from Japan, Uroko House. Or, the name I prefer, "Igloo of Books."

Uroko House is meant as a child's space but it's perfect for an avid reader of any age. You would need a fairly large bedroom to fit this unit but I'd even prop it up in the backyard if it meant living here.

Once a nerd, always a nerd but as I always say, better to be addicted to books than heroin. (Actually, I've never said that, but I'm going to start now because it's a wise sentiment.)

Photos from Point Tokyo, the masterminds of this haven.

**10 days until the Philippines**

To answer people's questions about blog stats: Install Blog Tracker, which tracks hits per day/week/month, search keywords and referral sites. Really interesting to see what posts are popular and how people get here.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Google: Bringing people together one keyword at a time

I'm always interested to see what Google keywords bring people to this blog. Some make sense, like people looking up my name or Postcards from the World.

But others... well, just take a look:
  • ages of meryl streep and pierce bosman (who is Pierce Bosman?)
  • asian fanatic hey say jump
  • what has been the coldest day in 2009 so far in cambridge, md. (Lauren, is this you?)
  • pay bribes to be released from thai jails
  • my own private idaho (apparently this is a Gus Van Sant movie, who knew?!)
  • postcard hobo heart stick
  • cuties galore
  • salvador adult images (Alia, I'm holding you responsible for this one)
And, of course, my personal favorite:
  • anna massage crotch
Makes sense my little blog would just pop right up for that one.

**11 days until the Phillipines**

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Bake me a cake as fast as you can

One of the classes I regularly teach at SEV is Cooking where we make chocolate chip cupcakes -- they definitely don't taste as delicious as they sound, but mediocre cupcakes are still better than no cupcakes. It's not a bad way to spend the afternoon.

What amazed me from the beginning is that almost none of the kids have ever baked before. Measuring cups and measuring spoons are foreign objects, and the spatula becomes a fantastic weapon. An accidental dusting of flour on a student's hand is treated like a 3rd degree burn: "Teacher! Teacher!" followed by vigorous hand-shaking and a good soak in the sink.

It's just flour.

Part of the problem is that although 65 percent of Korean homes have kimchi refrigerators, most don't have ovens. So while there are plenty of traditional Korean pastries, many are either bought at the store or don't require an oven, which means kids miss out on this vital part of growing up.

I loved helping my mom bake when I was a kid -- actually, I still love it now. I'm not sure that "helping" is the right word because mostly I just licked batter from the bowl and spatula, but it is a vivid memory from childhood.

My favorites were always Christmas sugar cookies. Mixing the ingredients and rolling the dough flat to cut shapes took hours but never got boring. Eventually, the cookie cutters were pushed aside and we carved our own designs in the dough, usually our initials.

When I lived at home, my mom baked me a birthday cake every year and it was always more delicious than any storebought cake.

Request to Mom: Will you bake a cake when I move back to the US in October? Just planning ahead here... Dad, you can make one too if you want, but I don't think I've ever seen you bake anything besides lasagne.

Cooking is by far one of the most popular classes at school, and for good reason. Who wouldn't love a class where you get to make a mess, be active and eat chocolate at the end?! It's just too bad students can't take their new-found baking skills home.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

I'm never as productive on weekends as I intend to be

Weekends always start with such promise, Friday night with two full days of nothingness in front of you. And yet Sunday evening creeps up so quickly every week and before you know it, Monday morning is staring you straight in the face.

It was a pretty relaxing weekend. Yesterday, I had lunch with Joyce, Alice and some other friends before Joyce and Kana flew back to Canada. It's been sad to see Joyce leave since we became good friends while she was here for winter camp, but I'm sure she'll be back before I leave Korea and it's great to finally know people in Vancouver (which is by far one of the world's best cities).

Lunch was shabu-shabu and silly Erin forgot her camera to document this key culinary experience. It's basically Asian comfort food of boiled meat and vegetable soup. After the first soup is finished, you add noodles to the broth and eat soup #2.

Once that is gone, rice and vegetables are combined to make a delicious congee (rice porridge). The whole meal is fairly bland but still tasty; as Wikipedia puts it, "It is also the dish of choice to serve the ill or elderly, as it is easily consumed and digested."

Today was bitterly cold, definitely one of the most frigid in the past month or so. Went for a short walk around the neighborhood after church but I quickly became too frozen to stay out long. There's a little park in the residential area near campus and I managed to take a few pictures before losing my fingers to frostbite.

**Two weeks until the Philippines**

Friday, February 13, 2009

Oh rainy day, come 'round, sometimes I just want it to slow down

All day, it looked like this:

Which meant that directly after work, all I wanted to do was throw on sweats and do this:

Freshly made potato soup? Check. Full mug of hot chocolate? Check. A good book? Check. (Aloft by Chang-Rae Lee) A cozy neighborhood café playing a totally random mix of Mandy Moore's Wild Hope and '80s power ballads? Check.

I love rainy days.

Mission for tomorrow: do something productive. I was supposed to meet up with Bree, whom I haven't seen since she moved to Korea more than a month ago, but she's sick unfortunately.

Right now, I'm just SO ready for spring and being able to at least walk around outside without freezing my buns off.

**16 days until the Philippines**

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Going for the title of World's Happiest Person

Is it more important to HAVE stuff or to DO stuff?

As someone who moved to the other side of the world with nothing but two suitcases, my answer to that question should be clear. Who needs things when you can have a round-the-world plane ticket?

(Full disclosure: My mom had to send a box to Korea full of spring and summer clothes.)

(Full disclosure 2: Allie describes herself as a "materialistic hippie." I'm closer to a "materialistic nomad" than anything.)

So a new study from San Francisco State University really caught my interest this week. It concluded that "in the long run, experiences make people happier than possessions.":

That's in part because the initial joy of acquiring a new object, such as a new car, fades over time as people become accustomed to seeing it every day, experts said. Experiences, on the other hand, continue to provide happiness through memories long after the event occurred.

... Another reason for increased happiness in experiences, the researchers found, was that people felt a greater sense of vitality or "being alive" during the experience and in reflection, Howell said.

"As nice as your new computer is, it's not going to make you feel alive," he said.

I'm definitely not without materialistic tendencies. My iPod and MacBook are absolutely necessary, there are way too many clothes in my closet even here in Seoul, and I have a compulsive scarf-buying habit. Without a public library, I've become a regular patron of What the Book -- but justify it by buying only used books, thereby "saving" money.

As a 23-year-old, I have my entire life to settle down, buy a house and collect stuff, but who knows how many years I'll be able to travel freely with nothing to tie me down.

Settle down? Not for a few years. At this moment, there's nothing to make me feel bad about spending money on trips to the Philippines and Australia later this year, or making plans to visit friends abroad in the fall, or pondering another overseas job in 2010.

Carpe diem and bon voyage!

Tuesday, February 10, 2009


It's vacation time again!

Well, not quite, but in less than three weeks my school is closed for another week, and Melissa and I are jetting off to the warm (if not always sunny) Philippines. Cebu, one of the main islands, to be exact.

map from cnn.com

If I knew very little about Thailand before visiting, I know even less about the Philippines. One of my coworkers lived there for two months and gave me some basic info, and I have a few Filipino friends back in the States, but otherwise we're just playing it by ear.

Planning to spend a couple of days in Cebu City before getting out of town and spending the rest of the vacation lounging on the beach.

photo from pbase.com

The food sounds delicious too, with its strong Spanish and Mexican influences. Curries and paella? Yum yum yum.

The thought of escaping to the Philippines is getting me through the next three super-busy, super-hectic weeks at work.

photo from flickr.com

Oh, and do you remember that video circulating the Internet last year of the Filipino prisoners dancing to Michael Jackson's "Thriller"? Yep, it happened at a prison on Cebu!

Sunday, February 8, 2009

The Daily Show has good taste

Look how cool my church is! The Daily Show did a hilarious piece on where the Obamas should worship in Washington and featured my home church, Foundry United Methodist.

Rev. Snyder did a fantastic job representing the church and congregation -- what was the pastor from the Church of the Epiphany thinking when he did the "white person" clap?

Judging from this piece, the Obamas' choice should be clear. There are already so many people accusing Obama of emulating Bill Clinton too closely, however, that he probably won't want to worship at the same church as well.

(If you're interested, Bill Clinton delivered the sermon at Foundry on one of his last Sundays as President. He's always been a fantastic speaker and his words are worth reading.)


One of the most interesting things about a Korean grocery store is how many cross-promotions products have. Buy one thing, get something completely unrelated free. This is called "service" (pronounced service-uh).

Yesterday at E-Mart, Jeanette bought a box of healthy, whole grain cereal. It conveniently was accompanied by a box of Oreos. And I'm not using "conveniently" sarcastically, either. She was actually looking for Oreos and there weren't any on the shelves -- how perfect that the cereal had them.

Two bottles of wine for ₩6,000? A bargain. Getting free lotion and chapstick, too? What a steal!

The service on my laundry detergent was pretty lame, though. Just a mini box of the same detergent. Boooring.

The concept of service applies to a lot of things in Korea. Restaurants often offer service tea after a meal and norebang also sometimes gives service sodas and snacks.

A little hospitality goes a long way, that's for sure.

(The highlight of the trip, however, was locating the organic food section in E-Mart's basement. Antibiotic-free chicken breast, free-range eggs, organic fruits and veggies, whole wheat pasta... Finally, after more than four months, some decent food!)

Friday, February 6, 2009

A terrible loss

My first day at the University of Maryland, I was nervous. A huge school, thousands of new classmates, the feeling of being one tiny fish swimming in a massive ocean.

Cue our first Media Scholars colloquium. Walking into class that day, Dr. Chadha and Ken Joseph greeted each student by name: "Hi Jenna, hi Allie, hi Erin..."

It meant the world at that moment. To know that someone knew my name in this sea of faces instantly made me feel accepted and comfortable. Being part of Media Scholars was a key reason I was so happy at Maryland. I met some of my best friends there, and formed indelible bonds with our advisers.

Ken had a heart attack and died last night. Right now, I feel numb. He always had a smile and a laugh, ready to make a joke despite admitting to being devastatingly shy. His legendary emails were usually random and pages long, yet we read each word and laughed out loud.

From encouraging each Scholar to play in the annual softball tournament -- "It's for the kids!" -- to offering career advice and a sympathetic ear to bitch to, Ken was a constant presence in my life for four years.

At graduation, he went out of his way to find former Media Scholars and offer congratulations. He and Dr. Chadha hosted a seniors happy hour at Santa Fe last May, even though Ken said he hated college bars. Open houses were his least favorite days of the year, yet he pasted on a smile and gave his presentation again and again with minimal complaint.

Ken once told me that I could do anything in life: that it didn't matter what professors or parents said, but what I wanted to do and be.

Scholars won't be the same. Maryland won't. And I won't be the same for the lasting impression that Ken left on my life.

You know what they say: 772nd time is the charm!

Have you seen this story out of South Korea?:

A 68-year-old South Korean woman this week signed up to take her driving test once again -- after failing to earn a license the first 771 times.

The woman, identified only as Cha, first took the written portion of the exam in April 2005, said Choi Young-cheol of the Driver's License Agency in the southwestern city of Jeonju.

At the time, she made her living selling goods door-to-door and figured she would need a car to help her get around, Choi told CNN.

She failed the test. She retook the test the next day and failed again. And again. And again.

"You have to get at least 60 points to pass the written part," said Kim Rahn, who wrote about the unflappable woman in the Korea Times, an English-language daily. "She usually gets under 50."

Must be a slow news day if this made the front page of CNN.com's international edition. Hey, at least it's not another threat from the north. I'd rather read this kind of news any day....

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Sometimes it takes a 7-year-old to remind you of your position

You might recall that I've blogged before about the stresses of teaching orphans. They manage to simultaneously break my heart, frustrate beyond words and create an intense desire to adopt a Korean child. It's an odd trifecta of emotions.

This week they are back and cuter, if not more mischievous, than ever. About 120 first graders, full of gap-toothed smiles, raggedy hair and way more energy in their little fingers than I have in my entire body. It's like running a marathon every day just trying to keep up with these whirlwinds.

As usual, it's hard to find the proper balance between compassion and discipline. It's difficult to remember to be kind when there are fights breaking out left and right, children crying for seemingly no reason all over the place and sharp objects flying across the room and hitting other kids in the face. Yep, it takes some self-restraint not to start screaming sometimes.

But then there are moments that make me smile. Like the kids who whenever they see me, come over and hold my hand. It doesn't matter if it's break time or the middle of class, their vise-like grip requires force if I need/want to disentangle my hand from their sweaty fingers. It's a human connection that orphans crave.

And there have been moments when I can't stop laughing, like today during a rousing game of duck-duck-goose. Instead of duck-duck-goose, in an effort to teach anything during Talk Show, I've renamed the game TV-TV-camera. Surprisingly, this works.

Anyway... the game is going well, everyone is having fun, no blood or tears so far. Molly, a tiny girl who alternates between hysterical tantrums and maniacal giggling, makes her way around the circle:

"TV. TV. TV. Hanguk. Hanguk. Waegook. Hanguk...."

Hanguk is Korean for "Korean." Waegook means "foreigner."

The entire class found this hilarious and the game quickly devolved into hanguk-hanguk-waegook.

Hey, they might not have been learning English but at least no one was crying.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Asia adventures

Has anyone been to either Indonesia or the Philippines and have any recommendations on where to go or what to do there?

Melissa and I are trying to decide where to spend our week off in March (yes, we get another week of vacation. It's just unfortunate they are all clumped together...).

Right now, we're looking at either Indonesia or the Philippines depending on flight costs and other expenses. Trying not to spend too much so I can really go all-out in Australia this summer.

Sometimes, I really love my life.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Life is a runaway train you can't wait to jump on

Back from Thailand and what it a transition it is: from hot and humid Bangkok to freezing and dry Seoul. At least it's not snowing. Be thankful for small blessings.

Thailand was everything I expected and a million times more. Although I didn't love Bangkok and probably won't return there, I'm so excited to explore more of Thailand in the future. The gorgeous north was one of the most extraordinary places I've ever visited, and the islands certainly lived up to all the hype.

The trip from Koh Samui to Bangkok was certainly an adventure, at least. It was sad to leave the beautiful ocean and sandy beach, knowing that we'd be back in the cold in just over 24 hours.

Rather than fly, as we did on the way down, we opted for the ferry/bus/train combo. Hmmm... Well, couldn't hurt, right?

The expressions on our faces as train after train pulled into Suratthani Station might have told a different story. Each train looked more run down than the next, crammed with seemingly hundreds of people in each car, lights flickering intermittedly, the windows permanently open. Like my worst third-world country travel nightmare. That sounds terrible, but it's true.

Luckily our car, a second-class sleeper, wasn't nearly that bad. Unfortunately, Thai people live in such constant heat that they keep their aircon cranked up (or down, whatever) to sub-zero temperatures. Jeanette and I (and our Taiwanese cabinmate) froze through the night, barely able to sleep between getting up to put on more clothes and shivering in our thin, terrycloth blanket.

My bottom bunk neighbor seemed to have no such problems. He happily sawed logs from about 9 pm to the morning. Lucky guy.

Jeanette and I spent our last day in Bangkok exploring the Weekend Market. If you can dream it, it's for sale here. Everything from priceless antiques and hand-carved furniture to cheap Rolex knockoffs and $1 dresses. A bargain hunter's paradise. We were both quickly running short on funds but managed to scoop up some great deals, plus a last taste of curry and one final fruit shake. Gosh, I'm going to miss fruit shakes. So simple, yet so nonexistent here.

Woke up bright and early this morning at 4 AM -- well, not quite so bright since it was dark and hazy outside, but certainly early -- and headed to the airport for a long day of travel. First a flight from Bangkok to Taipei, then another leg from Taipei to Seoul.

What was ridiculous was that although we were staying on the same aircraft, and on the same seats even, everyone was forced off the airplane with all their bags and made to sit at the gate for a pointless 45-minute interval. At least we didn't have to go through security again, which is what happened to Mark on his way to Thailand.

Now that I'm back in Seoul, I've both started mentally preparing to go back to work tomorrow and planning my next trip. Besides Australia in July (which is a definite), I'd really like to go somewhere for our week off in March. Cheap ideas?

Thailand pictures will be up tonight on Facebook and tomorrow, hopefully, on the blog. It takes forever for me to upload them here.