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Monday, August 31, 2009

Busan: Beomeosa Temple

Korea is filled with Buddhist temples and after having visited quite a few of them, I'm ready to call Busan's Beomeosa Temple the most stunning. With the backdrop of forest-draped mountains, the site is tranquil and gorgeous.

The temple has ancient origins:

"There is a well on the top of Mt. Geumjeongsan and the water of that well is gold. The golden fish in the well rode the colorful clouds and came down from the sky. This is why the mountain is named Geumsaem (gold well) and the temple is named 'fish from heaven'."

Founded in 678, the original temple was destroyed but the present buildings date from the 18th century and are constantly undergoing restoration. I actually preferred the un-restored, faded paintings and buildings to the newer and brighter sections.

During the Joseon Dynasty, Korean Buddhism was suppressed and many temples were established in remote regions to hide away from authorities, hence the reason so many places of worship are located in mountains and forests.

Beomeosa was filled with worshippers and I'm never quite sure what proper etiquette is when visiting as a tourist. There were certainly other people toting cameras wandering around, so I knew it was okay to be there and take pictures, but I never know what the "rules" are.

For instance, I was photographing prayer slabs when the woman inscribing them yelled something out in Korean and waved with a smile. I couldn't tell whether she was telling me not to take photographs or if she was just saying "hello."

Lonely Planet calls Beomeosa Busan's only must-see sight and I agree. It's easy to reach from the subway and a quick bus ride, and if you're a hiker, there are a plethora of trails that begin at the temple. A quiet place for reflection, visiting Beomoesa is a requirement if you're in Busan.

Tomorrow: Haeundae Beach, Korea's most popular beach

Do you ever feel unsure visiting religious sites that aren't your own?

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Being in Busan

I've always considered myself a city girl but Seoul is just a little too city for me. Missing are the leafy parks and tree-lined streets that made Washington and London livable.

As the weather slowly fades into autumn -- stress on slowly -- I realized time was running out to visit one of the must-see places in Korea: Busan.

Busan (or Pusan) is the second-largest city in Korea and one of the most active ports in the world. To say that Seoul and Busan are different is to compare New York City and San Diego. One is a cosmopolitan city of the world, filled with flashing lights and a huge swath of diversity (or, as much diversity as exists in Seoul...). The other is a laid-back beach town, perfect for relaxation and lazy meandering.

Neither is better than the other. They are just irrevocably dissimilar.

It's apparent immediately after stepping off the train that Busan is a world away from Seoul. Absent are the stampede of stilettos stamping down Seoul's sidewalks. Flats, sneakers and even -- gasp -- flip flops are everywhere.

Thanks to KTX -- the same high-speed train as France's TGV -- the trip to Busan now takes under three hours if you're willing to pay premium price (51,000 KRW one way). There are cheaper, albeit slower, ways to get there, too. Hotels are expensive across-the-board, however, so I opted to go down and back in one day, thereby justifying a KTX ticket. It may be a big city but there really is only one must-see sight besides the beach.

Inside Seoul Station

Most people were horrified that I would dream to go "all the way" to Busan just for a day but honestly, three hours isn't that ridiculously far for a day trip. My friends and I have day tripped to New York before and that's more than 4 hours from Washington.

The train ride flew by and by 10 AM, I was hopping onto Busan's simple, three-line subway. After consulting Lonely Planet on the train -- absolutely no pre-planning or forethought went into this trip -- I had a tentative agenda for the day.

One of the best things to happen over the past year is becoming a more independent traveler. If someone had said a year ago that I'd journey across Korea by myself, able to read the language but certainly not speak it, I'd never have believed it. But while there are plenty of times it's difficult to get by -- even a simple transaction like a ordering coffee can be a struggle -- almost everything important is well-labeled in English and Korean. (Except buses -- why, oh why, aren't bus signs bilingual?)

Sure, it would be more difficult to travel in China or an Arabic country where the language isn't as easy to read, but the confidence I've gained is invaluable.

Tomorrow: Busan's stunning Beomeosa Temple
Tuesday: Haeundae Beach, the most popular beach in Korea

Are you a city person or do you crave the country?

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Stereotypes are all hype

Just like any group, Asians are defined by a lot of stereotypes. Think back to high school. I guarantee that if asked to sum up a racial or cultural group with one adjective, many of the descriptions would be the same.

Stereotypes, like it or not, exist. And they're pretty difficult to dispel.

There's a lengthy Wikipedia page called "Stereotypes of East Asians in the Western world." Websites like Asian Fanatics have compiled lists of "81 stereotypes for korean" (sic), setting off a firestorm of angry responses. Included:
- good at math
- narrow-minded
- always angry
- look hot and break dance

Couldn't those describe anyone? Who says Koreans have a lock on being good at math? And if anything, a person perpetuating some of the more unpleasant stereotypes (which I won't print here) is more narrow-minded than the average Korean.

Then there's AllLookSame, which offers a recognition quiz on the differences among Chinese, Japanese and Korean faces. Try it. Don't be ashamed if you do badly, though; many times, country of origin is obvious but there have been situations when even my Korean friends can't tell if another person is Chinese, Japanese or, yes, Korean.

The most common Asian stereotype, from my experience, is that they are quiet, shy and smart.

Well, yes. So are hundreds of millions of other people from every cultural group.

Are Koreans smart? Definitely. Korea has a 97.9% literacy rate and higher math and science scores than Canada and the United States.

During a conversation about relationships in Korean culture last week, Chloe said with a coy smile, "Highly intelligent women don't get married young."

So yes, Koreans can be quiet, shy and smart.

But they can also be funny, kind, crazy, friendly, loud, affectionate and confident.

One of my good Korean friends told me that before she started working with Americans, she had a negative impression. She assumed we were all loud, rude and brash. It wasn't until she got to know Americans -- both on a personal and professional level -- that she realized every individual is different.

I hope that I helped her view Americans more positively... and we owe it to everyone to do the same in return.

(Oh, and the facial recognition quiz? After living in Korea for a year, I still only scored "normal," just a few points higher than average.)

Do you think stereotypes are hype or are they based in truth?

Friday, August 28, 2009

Take a look, it's in a book, a reading rainbow

It's the end of an era.

Today marks the last broadcast of my favorite childhood show, "Reading Rainbow." Although it stopped production in 2006 when funding ran out, the program continued airing reruns on PBS.

It's sad to see educational children's shows like this fade away. Yes, "Reading Rainbow" lasted 26 years, which is far longer than most TV shows, but what about my children?

Growing up in a house without cable, if we wanted to watch television, it was PBS. It was -- and still is -- the best place to find educational, entertaining children's programming.

Not that plopping your kids down in front of the TV is a substitute for parenting. But spending half an hour with a show like "Reading Rainbow" can help motivate a kid to want to read. And reading has been shown to correlate strongly with a child's verbal and cognitive skills.

By the age of 2, children who are read to regularly display greater language comprehension, larger vocabularies and higher cognitive skills than their peers. [...] In addition, being read to aids in the socioemotional development of young children...."

Did you know that just talking to your toddler can have a profound influence of his future literacy and verbal skills?

"[R]esearch has shown that by age five, a child from an impoverished background will hear 32 million fewer words than a middle-class child.

And once a child has the foundations of language, reading is just a step away.

A chart from Pearson Education Canada shows that a child who reads books on his or her own for 21 minutes per day will read 1.8 million words per year; at 14 minutes, it will equal one million words per year; and at three minutes, only 200,000 words per year — leading to an immense discrepancy in vocabulary.

By recommending books and showing reading as a fun activity, "Reading Rainbow" no doubt helped foster a lifelong love of literacy in millions of American children. I know it did for me.

Goodbye, "Reading Rainbow." Thanks for the memories. And thanks for making a music video promoting libraries.

What was your favorite show as a child?

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Korea eco-win

You may consider yourself proficient at chopstick use but that's when dealing with the relatively simple wooden or plastic variety.

It's not until you master the infinitely more difficult metal chopsticks that you truly become a chopstick pro -- or, to Koreans, 선생님 ("sonsaengnim," teacher/expert).

China, Japan, Thailand and the rest of Asia mainly use chopsticks made of plastic, wood or bamboo. These allow for a more secure grip and make it easier to pick up food. There's a reason that the chopsticks in your Chinese takeaway bag are wooden.

But stainless steel chopsticks are a whole different ball game. Not only do they occasionally slide out of your hand, it's trickier to pick up slippery foods like noodles and mandoo. To add to the struggle, Korean chopsticks are completely flat, not rounded or squared off like you might be used to from other Asian countries.

Once you've gotten the hang of these suckers, wooden chopsticks are child's play. A truly talented Korean -- aka the average seven-year-old -- even uses chopsticks to tear apart meat. Who needs a knife?!

Many street food vendors offer toothpicks as an acceptable substitute utensil. Why struggle to eat your 떡볶이 ("ddukbokki")?

Why is Korea the only country that primarily uses metal chopsticks? There are different theories:

1. Wikipedia gives credit to former President Park Chung-hee, who mandated metal utensils as "part of an economic reform policy that intended to cut down on wood usage."

2. An unnamed "ancient king" used silver chopsticks, which would turn black if they came in contact with poison. The tradition continues today with stainless steel instead of silver.

Actually, metal is the eco-friendly way to go. As landfills overflow with disposable utensils in China, leading to the imposition of a chopsticks tax, some people have begun carrying the reusable metal kind instead.

Take note, perpetual orderers of Asian food. Just say no to disposable utensils.

(I could write a whole 'nother post about the dangers of plastic utensils -- both on a health and environmental level -- but that's for another day.)

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Swine flu sensationalism

Daily temperature checks are part of the swine flu prevention procedure for teachers around South Korea.

As swine flu cases are predicted to dramatically increase in the USA -- and around the world -- schools in Korea are taking extra precautions.

Some parents are keeping their children home from public school or after-school programs (hagwons). And in some cases, entire schools have stopped taking field trips to English villages, like the one I work at. After the largest English village in Korea was forced to temporarily close when several teachers contracted swine flu, the already-strict precautions at my school reached new levels.

Just yesterday, this email was sent out to all teachers:

Due to swine flu precautions, the students from Wolgye Elementary School (teams 11-18) canceled this week. Therefore, we will not have any students here this Friday. All teachers will be asked to use one of their mandatory vacation days and have Friday off.

Then just a few hours ago:

All Kindy classes have been canceled for tomorrow.

This news is good and bad. Good because I don't mind programming -- which has been assigned in place of teaching -- and actually prefer that most of the time.

Bad because if students continue to cancel, the school could temporarily shut down, resulting in a week or more of unpaid leave for teachers. An easy schedule and lesson planning is one thing; being forced to take unpaid vacation is another.

Add that to the request at Monday's staff meeting that we not take any international trips for risk of being quarantined upon arriving back in Korea. So even if I did get a week of vacation, I wouldn't be able to go anywhere exciting outside of the country.

Signs are all over school imploring students to wash their hands and covering sneezes and coughs. The message doesn't seem to be sinking in though -- it would take more than two hands to count the number of times a kid has coughed directly in my face. Maybe they should be less concerned about foreign teachers giving swine flu to the students and more worried that the students are going to infect us.

I know who my money's on.

Are you nervous about swine flu? I'm really not worried at all -- if it happens, it happens. The odds are pretty strongly in favor of surviving.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Boys will be be boys

Let's go ahead and add Art to the list of classes I shouldn't be allowed to teach.

The lesson plan is about pointillism, showing examples of Seurat's work before teaching the kids how to make nametags using this technique. As cliché as it is, Un dimanche après-midi à l'Île de la Grande Jatte is my all-time favorite painting. There's an amazing an abundance of detail to keep the eyes captivated for hours.

Just call me Cameron Frye:

With higher-level students, this is probably a fantastic lesson. But all of the kids today spoke zero English. Asking simply, "How are you?" led to a roomful of blank stares. It was hard enough getting through attendance; teaching a class on pointillism seemed a bit out of reach.

I relaxed the rules and, while emphasizing this dot technique, said they could draw anything they wanted. Most students drew pictures of Mickey Mouse, Keroro and Tamama, or colorful landscapes.

But when I noticed two seven-year-old boys giggling in that fiendish way little boys do, I migrated over to their table to find a stack of drawings like this:

Oh, boy.

Even after I confiscated the drawings and used an elaborate game of Charades to explain that they could draw absolutely anything EXCEPT that, they continued to make those pictures. Why?!

Happily, that's my last class for the week. The scheduled Wednesday-to-Friday students canceled over swine flu fears, resulting in two days of lesson plan writing before a mandatory vacation day Friday.

I'm going to Busan for a day trip -- any recommendations while I'm down there? Decided against a full weekend when I realized it's only 3.5 hours each way and the only things on my agenda are to eat some fish and lie on the beach. We used to go a longer distance to New York for the day, so why not do the same here?

Monday, August 24, 2009

Hamburgers in Pyongyang

- North Korea has opened its first US-style fast food restaurant. But if you're craving a Big Mac, make sure you know its proper name. Hamburgers are nowhere to be found on the menu but a suspiciously similar-sounding "minced beef with bread" is an option.

- How about a beer to go along with that minced beef? Pyongyang now brews its own Taedong River Beer and has even created this fun commercial:

- "Naked News Korea" is no more. After only a month in operation, the CEO has absconded with all of the company's finances. Funny that showing shoulders here is taboo but being naked on TV, no problem.

- First the South Korean government pledged that every home will have a robot by 2020. THen they announced the creation of two "robot cities"; the first, in Incheon, features a Robot Zoo. The cities themselves are scheduled to open by 2013.

- Love animals? Move to Seoul, where you can become the proud owner of a red fluorescent puppy or cloned fluorescent cat.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

The art of shopping

In Seoul, if you can't find it for sale on the streets, it probably doesn't exist.

Everything from socks and shoes to bug spray and cleaning supplies is available for purchase from thousands of vendors lining Seoul's streets and sidewalks. Vendors even come onto busy subway cars wielding wheeled baskets and hawking a variety of goods -- most popular seem to be shoe inserts to alleviate high heel pain. These vendors do a good business, too, using cheap prices (1,000 won seems to be the norm) to facilitate impulse buys.

Besides the usual knickknacks, the street is also a great place to buy handmade crafts. Sure, the usual tchotkes are widely available. If you want anything emblazoned with "Korea" on it -- t-shirt, key ring, chopsticks, fan -- that's an easy find.

But there are also many stands, especially in artsy neighborhoods like Insadong, featuring local artisans crafting and selling unique pieces.It's be fun to stop and watch for a few minutes as (like in the picture above) a man take an ordinary piece of wire and transforms it into an intricate piece of jewelry or decorative piece.

The New York Times recently ran a short piece about shopping in Korea and while the story featured upscale boutiques -- obligatory street food mention notwithstanding -- it was nice to see stores unique to Korea featured.

American stores are slowly dominating the marketplace here, pushing Korean retailers out of business. In the Myeongdong neighborhood alone, the past couple of years have seen the opening of a GAP, Forever 21, American Apparel and Zara, among others.

Right now the must-have fashion item is a Ralph Lauren polo shirt with a twice-as-large emblem. Want to leave Korea sporting a shirt with Hangeul? Good luck finding one. I've been looking, thinking it would make a cool souvenir, but English is all the rage.

Many traditional marts are having trouble competing with larger retailers, both Western and Korean, and seeing a steady drop-off in traffic. Why spend hours haggling in a crowded market when it's easier to pop into Lotte and grab exactly what you need?

At least at the marketplace, you can find things original to this country. Watching someone actually craft a piece of jewelry and then buying that exact piece from the artist -- now that is an authentic shopping experience.

What's your favorite kind of souvenir?

Saturday, August 22, 2009

I get paid to sit by the pool

Literally, I can SIT by the pool. We're not required to even get in the water. Pretty sweet deal... although one of the day camp teachers came over and asked why I wasn't playing with kids in the water. She wanted a nice photo-op of the token white female teacher interacting with her students.

I obliged.

It's actually more exhausting than it looks -- pity party! -- spending five hours tossing kids in the water, having balls flung at your head and roasting in the sun. Still, there are plenty of worse ways to spend a workday.

(And in my defense, I do spend most of the time playing in the water but even teachers need a break now and then. So stop throwing balls at my face. Um, that's what she said?)

Notice that a lot of the kids are wearing swim caps. My Korean co-workers were surprised when I said that only racers wear swim caps in the US. Here in Korea, it's required at most public pools for everyone to wear a cap over their hair to keep the pool clean. Even big water parks like Caribbean Bay make caps mandatory.

The kids get so jazzed being able to interact with their teachers in the water. Suddenly in the pool, we're all equals. They're not afraid to jump on your back, cling to every extremity and lob balls at your head, ignoring the "No headshot!" rule.

Yesterday we got a pretty good game of water volleyball going. It's a lot more fun to organize a group game than just randomly bob around the pool.

One of the funniest things about swimming class is the mini boot camp the kids undergo before being allowed in the water. It's almost ridiculously intense considering they're facing three feet of water. And then it's time for... aqua aerobics: "YMCA," "Hey Mickey" and "Cha Cha Slide" yield some pretty fantastic dance moves.

Our lifeguards crack me up, too. Some of them have dark tans from spending every single day poolside. Others wear protective sun sleeves, jackets, hats, long pants, etc. to guard against the sun's rays. White skin is very in here. Students and teachers alike complain about their freckles, seeing them as ugly imperfections. I tried to explain that when I was a kid, I always wanted to have freckles, but that argument just got some strange looks.

Swimming class is canceled tomorrow (H1N1 fears) and then Monday is the last day before the pool closes for the year. It's amazing that summer is already almost over and that next week is the last week of August. Time truly does fly by...

What's the biggest perk at your job?

Friday, August 21, 2009

A taste of autumn... and processed chemicals

You can talk for hours to your students about the dangers of processed foods, and they might pretend to agree, but at the end of the day, all anyone wants is a good party. So to celebrate finishing three weeks of intensive English camp, that's exactly what we had.

My students were actually were a little surprised when I mentioned having a party and asked them to bring in their favorite snacks. "But teacher, processed foods?"

I countered with the suggestion of bringing in fruit, instead.

"No teacher, pizza!"

Bear in mind that the lesson about not eating processed junk centered around the hidden additives in foods like... pizza. Lesson = not learned.

At least everyone had fun, plus I got to try a ton of Korean snacks that I've seen kids eat but never actually tried myself.


Autumn is on the wind. Today was the first day all summer that the humidity abated and a lazy breeze drifted through the city. It was still hot in the sun but walking in the shade was perfectly pleasant. Shopping for produce at the market this afternoon, I even smelled a wood fire (although where it was coming from, I have no idea).

At the orchard during my last autumn in DC -- ah, memories!

I'm SO looking forward to my first fall at home since 2006 -- crunchy orange and red leaves, heading out to Homestead Farm to pick apples and pumpkins, long walks through the crisp autumn air, spending hours at Caribou with a steaming chai and good book... okay, that one is good any time of year!

That said, I'm teaching swimming all day tomorrow and Sunday. And then the pool closes -- yes, already! -- and summer will really feel like it's fading away.

40 days.

What's the best way to teach kids about healthy living?