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Thursday, April 30, 2009

Unintentionally sad/funny

Cooking class, while making chocolate chip cupcakes:

"Teacher, I make cookies."
"You're making cookies?"
"No. When I was 9, I made cookies at my house."
"Just one time?"
"Yes."

The one-time cookie story wasn't as sad as the girl who said she had used baking powder once before to make oatmeal. Ah, Korea, the baking-less country.

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There was a boy today wearing a red-and-white striped shirt. Not knowing his name, I instead called him Waldo all day. Strangely, he answered to this.

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"My name is Erin and I'm from the USA."
"Oooohhhh...."
"I live in Washington, DC. Do you know Washington?"
"Yes! Obama! Teacher, is Obama your brother?"

The best response to a "Do you know Obama" - slash - "Is Obama your brother/father/husband" is just: "Do you know Lee Myung-Bak? Is he your father?"

This cracks up at the class at least.

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It's hard to take wannabe rebels seriously when they sport mullets and rattails, donning synthetic track suits to complement the socks-with-sandals look. I have to laugh as they pretend to be too-cool-for-school while entwining fingers with their same-sex seatmate and playing a passionate game of footsie under the table.

For a violently homophobic country, it's not uncommon to see men of all ages walking down the street hand-in-hand. It seems like the more homophobic a country is, the more publicly affectionate members of the same sex are toward each other.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

An after-work hike? Sounds good!

This is just two neighborhoods, Suyu (where I live) and Mia. Seoul is HUGE!

Seoul may not be endowed with green, leafy parks like the great cities of Europe, but it does have some spectacular mountains right in the city. Fortunately for me, my backyard is Bukhansan National Park (literally -- my porch overlooks trees and the base of a mountain).

To burn off the stress of hump day, a few of us took a casual hike to one of the closest look-out points. It always amazes me to climb up and realize how massive just my neighborhood is. The mind reels to try to imagine Seoul as a whole.

Buddhist temple in the woods

Koreans love hiking. Even just for short treks, they come fully-equipped with proper hiking attire, walking sticks, heavy-duty backpacks, Swiss Army knives, etc etc etc. It's pretty funny to see a group of ajummas charging up the mountain in their color-coordinated outfits. Then again, it's admirable that so many older people are active.

Koreans also, however, love their steps. That's the killer. The hike itself is easy. But almost every path is lined with uneven stone steps, making the going even more difficult.


I wonder if the younger generation will love hiking as much as their elders. I don't think so. Even during hiking class -- a short jaunt through the woods behind school that makes the Billy Goat Trail seem like Mount Everest -- almost the entire class complains of being exhausted and on the verge of collapse. I've had entire teams panting, "Teacher! Teacher! Tired!" after the first two-minute incline. Pathetic.

Exercise stations like this one are all along the trail. It's not uncommon to see them absolutely packed with people.


Steps are a killer going uphill. Going downhill, there's nothing but steep and slippery gravel.





Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Mysteries of Korea: fan death

Of all the fascinating things about Korea, very few intrigue me more than the random superstitions and urban legends. The United States certainly has its own but none seem to grip the nation the way fan death does here.

For those not in the know, fan death is a widely-held belief that if you go to sleep with a fan running, you will die during the night. The most common theory is that the circulating air lowers the room temperature, causing death by hypothermia. Korea's largest fan manufacturer prints a warning on its products: "This product may cause suffocation or hypothermia."

The Korean Consumer Protection Board even issued a press release in 2006 citing "asphysixation from electric fans and air conditioners" as one of the top five hazards of summer. Um, what?!

Now, I have no medical proof that fan death doesn't exist. I don't have any facts or charts or numbers to substantiate my claims.

What I do have is the presumably millions of people around the world who go to sleep with fans on at night and don't die. There's also the fact that Korea is the only country in the world that believes in fan death, yet many other countries routinely use electric fans. If this really was an issue, wouldn't it be more prevalent around the world?

Urban legends always give interesting insight into a country's culture. Whether its a belief in Bigfood or the Loch Ness Monster (I saw her!), it's a little something to add spice to the otherwise dull routine of life.

I wanted to ask some of my co-workers if they believe in fan death, but felt uncomfortable bringing it up just to turn around and trash it. So I didn't mention it.

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Just a few days after saying there hadn't been a thunderstorm in the 7 months I've lived here, we've had two in as many days. I guess we're heading into the rainy season.... Darn.

Monday, April 27, 2009

More fun with Google

Yet again, I'm fascinated by the keywords bringing people to my blog.

What disappointment, I imagine, for the people Googling "my boobs are okay," "huge boobs world" and, simply but eloquently, "boobs," to instead stumble onto a post about an encounter with one of my students.

The most popular search word by far was "octomom," which led to another story from the classroom. I guess Nadya Suleman fever hasn't died down yet, eh?

Strangely, one American Googled the name of Lauren's dad and ended up at my site. Considering I've never mentioned him on this blog and have only even met him briefly, it's an odd find.

"Mercado's," the Brazilian steakhouse in Apujeong, was a popular query -- hope people found what they are looking for! I've now re-banned red meat, so no more trips out there, unfortunately.

"The smell of burritos," "my Mexican heritage" and "El Panzon Camden" just go to show you how often I blog about Mexican food. Really, really often.


The creepiest ones are variations on my name or school: "erinteacher," "Erin English teacher Seoul," "Erin postcards from the world," "Irish Erin Korea"... I wonder how many hits down the list I am with these.

Oh Google, always interesting, always informative. Thanks.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Lotus Lantern Festival


I'd been looking forward to the Lotus Lantern Festival for a while now and it certainly didn't disappoint today. Held to celebrate Buddha's birthday, the festival unfolds over an entire weekend and includes a parade through the the heart of Seoul.


Besides just walking around seeing the sights and collecting freebies (wooo tissues and a plastic, lotus-shaped piggy bank!) I also got the chance to make my own lotus lantern from tissue paper. Volunteers helped hundreds of foreigners create these delicate lanterns. And while mine looks like something a spastic 5-year-old made, there's a certain amount of pleasure that I actually made something with my own two hands. It might not survive the move back to the States, but it's at least a nice touch to my current apartment.

The materials: white lantern, tissue paper, glue.

First you have to separate each individual sheet of paper.

Then twist the ends of the paper. This forms petals.


It's a slow, tedious process -- but the end result is worth it.

The finished product!

Like a sweatshop of waegook lotus lantern makers.

Buddhist sects from around the world were represented and displayed local crafts and goods. Korea was also represented by artists doing traditional crafts. At one table, old people wrote family prophecies in hanja, a form of Chinese writing used in old Korean. This is a dying art and it's nice to see it preserved here -- my paper says something about good words coming from the heart.


All in all, a fantastic day. Now that spring is here, there are more outdoor festivals and chances to visit different parts of the city. It's always fun to learn about new aspects of Korean culture and, even better, do some serious people-watching.

Lanterns floating on the river.


Get a lot of foreigners in one place and out come the paparazzi.




They are really strict about this event being only for foreigners.

I had to strongly resist the urge not to grab this child and run. Precious!

Traditional tea ceremony.


Anime Buddha?

Kids are a lot cuter when I'm NOT teaching them.






Saturday, April 25, 2009

Some thoughts on Korean culture

Warning: ranting ahead. If you want to hear beautiful sentiments about loving Korea, skip this post. Overall, I DO like it here, but this post doesn't touch on those reasons.

You've been warned.

Well, no ranting right away. There are some fantastic aspects of Korean culture. Their attitude toward the elderly, for instance. It's a rare case where three generations of a family don't live together -- when asked to give a run-down of who lives in their house, most of my students include grandparents as part of the total.

No one complains or has to be asked twice to give up his/her seat for an older person on the subway. You rarely see healthy, young people sitting in the seats designated for the elderly. It's a wonderful thing.

But -- there are just some things about Korea I don't understand.

A) You think No Child Left Behind is bad? Schools here leaves plenty of children behind with nothing more than a brush-off.

Last night I had dinner with two friends teaching English in the public school system. One teaches two advanced classes but requested a remedial English class as well to help the students falling behind. The answer from her principal: Nope. Those kids don't matter. You're job is to help the ones who are succeeding succeed further, and forget about the rest.

Other teachers have said the same thing. Korea passes its students on to the next level regardless of whether or not they fail classes, so what's the point in unmotivated students getting motivated or helping failing students? There's not one. As a result, many students are drowning while everyone else watches calmly from the shore.

It's a disgrace. We've had students here before with "high" English levels, meaning they did well on an English test. But try to have a conversation with these kids and -- nothing. Rote learning is the norm, conversation class is the rarity. It's a shame.

B) I abhor (trying not to use the word "hate" here) many older Koreans attitudes toward foreigners. Yes, there are plenty of people who are kind and helpful, but the way middle-aged Korean men treat me and my friends really bothers me.

How would they feel if it was their daughter or sister in a foreign country and everywhere they went, creepy middle-aged men made sexualized comments or kissing noises. I've had men pet my hair. Yesterday while waiting for a friend, a guy came over and said "hello," then stuck his hand out for me to shake. I did. He then said something in Korean, winked at me and walked away.

Something like this has happened almost every single day I've lived in Korea. And why?! What makes these men think it's okay to treat women this way?

Whew! Okay, I just had to get that off my chest. Sorry for being a total Debbie Downer -- happier post tomorrow, I promise.

Friday, April 24, 2009

The power of smell

It's funny how certain smells instantly bring back memories. I can recognize my mom's perfume anywhere, even thousands of miles away, and immediately think of her.

Sometimes it's not a specific memory but the idea of a place. Wood-burning fires always remind me of autumn at home, even though we haven't lived in a house with a wood fireplace in almost a decade. Maybe it's less my home I'm thinking of and more the smell of other peoples' fires burning in the crisp fall air. Mix in some crunchy red leaves and it's a perfect fall day.

Autumn: scarves, crunchy leaves and crisp air.

Today, my memory center was instantly triggered by a mixture of the aforemented wood-burning fire and the clean scent of rain.

Ah, rain. Brings me back to living in London and seeing rain nearly daily -- usually not more than a brief shower but enough to compel me to carry an umbrella every day. The entire city smelled clean and fresh after a rainstorm.

Just after a rainstorm in London -- view from my flat.

Storms turned the sky a gorgeous shade of purpley-gray.

There actually is a scientific explanation behind smells triggering memory:

Because the olfactory bulb is part of the brain's limbic system, an area so closely associated with memory and feeling it's sometimes called the "emotional brain," smell can call up memories and powerful responses almost instantaneously.

So far, the smells I associate with Korea are a mixed bag. There's one specific street food so rank, I'll hold my breath to walk past the cart. It might be delicious but I'll never know. And there's the odor of kids' feet when they take their shoes off during class. (Why do they do this?! What makes a student think that because they are sitting down in Talk Show for 45 minutes, they need to remove their shoes?!)

But then there's the cinnamony smell of ho dduk and the scent of ginseng wafting out of pharmacies. Those are pleasant.

What about you? What do you smell and instantly associate with your past?

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Boobs = Boooo

Teaching Physician's class today, I had an interesting encounter with one little girl.

Physician's is all about physical exertion -- testing grip and back strength, flexibility, the number of push-ups and sit-ups you can do, vision tests and measuring height and weight. It's a pretty fun and easy class to teach and one I always enjoy seeing on my schedule.

At the beginning of class, I demonstrate all of the machines and how to use them properly. This usually doesn't stop the students from hurting themselves/breaking something/swinging the metal back strength chain around the room, but it at least gives an idea of what to do.

Mistake #1: Writing my height and weight on the board. Being at least a head taller than these third graders, and about twice their weight, instantly gave me the label of "giant." Or, as one girl (Sally #3) preferred, "pig." Gee, thanks. (At least it gives me motivation to let Jillian kick my ass again tonight.)

So that didn't bother me but what she said next left me laughing nearly to tears. Pointing at my boobs, she said, "This is ... " and made the thumbs-down sign. Boooo.

"What?" I asked.

Thumbs-down. "Bad."

I'm still not sure what the thumbs-down is for. Are my boobs so small that Sally #3 pitied me and my un-fabulous rack? Are they so large by Asian standards that I've become a freak?

Not sure.

Of course, another student (could it be the same? must investigate!) told Heather this week that her boobs were sad and I just don't know what to make of that one. Who knew breasts had emotions?!

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Konglish Cleaning?

Back to writing lesson plans this week, at least for a few hours. Rather than teaching kindys to spell "napkin" or making sure 8-year-olds know the proper terminology for an airplane crash, I'm writing about Konglish. Konglish is English words that have been adopted (and slightly modified) by Korean language.

Some are obvious: "choco" is Konglish for "chocolate," "hand phone" is "cell phone" and "sunglass" is "sunglasses."

Others are more fun: "MacGyver knife" for "Swiss Army knife," "punk tire" for "flat tire" and "eye shopping" for "window shopping."

And then there are those Konglish words where I can see absolutely NO English root. Do you know what "arbeit," "hotchikiss" and "klaxon" are? ("part-time job," "stapler" and "horn," respectively)

It's good to teach students the correct English words so no one is confused during a visit to America when they want to play a game of "pocketball" (pool), but I can't help but think they would be better off just taking normal English classes. Using "choco" and "sunglass" may not be correct but they will get the point across. It seems like a waste of 45 minutes but hey, I'm just doing my job.

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Just a few days after joking with a friend that the gossip column in The Washington Post consisted mostly of Congressional sightings ("Ooh, Dianne Feinstein at Whole Foods. She brought reusable bags!"), Washingtonian unveiled the cover of its May issue:


Yep, that's a damn good reason to live in Washington.

Rain will make the flowers grow


After an absolutely stunning weekend, the past two days have been cold and rainy. I know the saying is that April showers bring May flowers but after enjoying so many nice days these past weeks, the cold is a rude reminder that it's not summer yet.


When the rain stopped this afternoon, however, I noticed how bright all the flowers around school are. Red, pink, purple, magenta, white. The campus is colored rainbow lately. The cherry blossoms may be gone but these slowly-developing flowers are a sign that it is spring, no matter what the thermometer says.


Random observation: Does Korea not have thunderstorms? Yesterday it was raging outside, wind whipping, rain pelting down from all directions. And yet, no thunder or lightning. So I started to think back and sure enough, in the seven months I've lived in Seoul, I can't recall ever experiencing a thunderstorm.

A quick Google search reveals that there have been thunderstorms in Korea (duh!) but doesn't it seem strange to have had none for such a long time? Maybe it's just me....

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Still Shredding, day 15. Took a day off yesterday from sheer exhaustion and, frankly, laziness, but I'm back on today and happy to be halfway finished. Level 2 is definitely a butt-kicker and 10x harder than Level 1, but it also feels like a much better workout.

I'm afraid that when someone finally moves into the apartment under me, they're going to wonder what the heck is happening in my apartment for 20 minutes every night....

Monday, April 20, 2009

Monday Musings


- I loved the newest episode of "This American Life" -- the theme, "This I Used to Believe," is a collection of four fascinating stories about belief and how it shapes our lives.

- How journalism schools are being forced to adapt: "Fundamentally, J-schools are about teaching students how to be storytellers."

- Wise words from Bono on saving our souls.

- 10 great places on Earth you don't want to miss. I've been to one. Better get going.

- Forgotten novels that won the Pulitzer.

- A good thought, poorly executed -- special glasses to wear at the zoo so animals don't feel "threatened or challenged." Oh, Korea.

- Has Susan Boyle already been eclipsed?

- Premature deaths from London pollution are higher than reported. I was congested almost the entire time I lived there, but it wasn't nearly as bad as Seoul.