Tuesday, 29 September 2009


It's almost Chuseok weekend here in Korea. Which means families across the country are getting ready to celebrate their thanksgiving by preparing hearty, homemade meals and practicing centuries-old traditions.

One of the traditions, I've learned, is that families give each other gifts of food during Chuseok. These gifts are either homemade or purchased at local stores... and they come in a variety of styles and packages.

Last week I was wandering around E-Mart... which, for those of you who don't know, can be compared to Wal-Mart.... except that in Korea, E-Mart has much higher prices. Department stores here are pretty popular and, if you're not careful, they can be quite expensive.

C and I were looking for some wine, when she pointed out a bunch of young Korean women dressed in traditional hanboks, standing around a giant display of what looked like gift sets.

Question is.... what kind of gift sets are worthy enough to give to families over the holidays?

These kinds of gift sets:

The SPAM gift set
A lifetime supply of mystery meat... or the best present ever?

The Tuna Fish gift set
Tuna is used in a lot of delicious Korean snacks, like Kimbap.

These gifts are pretty practical if you really think about it, I suppose. They range from anywhere between 25,000 wons to 65,000 wons... depending on how big the packs are. The sets even come as vinegar packs and Canola oil packs.

Wonder why the west hasn't thought of this yet... ... ...


Photos courtesy of Journals at WorldNomads and Zen Kimchi

Monday, 28 September 2009

Exam Influenza

It's that time here at my middle school. In the weeks leading up to this mid-term examination period, I never would have guessed how stressful and anxious the air around the school would feel. I did notice, however, that students had become quieter, and that more of them were picking up some sort of cold or fever. Definitely not H1N1... more like Exam Influenza.

Dear readers in every part of the world except Asia, please count your blessing that you weren't and (aren't) pushed as hard to study and ace your exams as the students are on this continent.

Here's an example.

Last week, after I wrapped up my after-school English class, I was walking home when I bumped into one of my most hard-working students. Within the first week at the school, this student had come up to me with a book she had ordered online, in anticipation of our meeting. It was a 300-page, soft-cover book on Canada. I swear, she knew more about the country I lived in than me.

As we walked in the direction of my apartment, I couldn't help but ask her a few questions about herself... about her goals, dreams, future... She is in her last semester of middle school, and come January 2010, she will be starting a new section of her life in high school. I figured she had a lot on her mind.

"I'm on my way to this place... that's sort of a library... but not really a library," she said, quietly.

I told her I didn't understand and asked her to explain a bit more.

"Well, it's called (DukSaJee?)," she said. "I pay some money and I get to go inside and sit in a cubicle for however long I want to, and study."

"How long will you study today?" I asked.

She looked at her watch quickly and said, "It's 4:30 now... I will be there till midnight."

I was shell-shocked.

She had just spent the last eight hours at school and was now heading over for another session in this solitary cubicle. My heart broke hearing this.


In the days after that incident, I realized quickly how important studies are in this culture. The teachers expect the students to do well... and the students expect themselves to do well. They will do whatever it takes, even if it means confining themselves in a building designed specifically for the purpose of voluntary isolation and seclusion - just so they can focus.

I admire them... but I also can't help but feel terrible. Between school, after school classes, academies after the after school classes, (DukSaJee) and so on... what's left?

Today, while I was on the bus, I heard someone speaking English with an over-pronounced American accent. Eager to see another foreigner in my area, I did a quick scan of the bus to see where the chatter was coming from. What I didn't expect to see was a young Korean student with a paper in her hand, talking to herself. It looked as though she was practicing for some kind of presentation, and was memorizing her words. She didn't care that a bus full of people could hear her. All that mattered was that her words were pronounced and that her accent was on par... or better.


I just finished invigilating my first exam here in the middle school. It was an English exam for the eighth graders. The two exam sheets with questions on them were in Korean. The students answered these questions about English lessons that they've studied in English... in Korean.

They don't think this is strange at all.


Photo courtesy of Google Images

Wednesday, 23 September 2009

LOVE locked down

Some friends and I visited Namsan Tower and the Teddy Bear Museum in Seoul this past weekend, to celebrate our one-month anniversary in Korea. We were pretty thrilled about the perfect weather that Saturday brought us, and were absolutely entertained by all the sights and sounds that greeted us during our trip. Everything from cotton-candy (in cups, no less) booths and dried/smoked fish in paper bags were available as treats.

It was my first experience watching the seniors in Korea trudge up and down the hill with no sense of physical ailment or age. I was fascinated and humbled all the same. My friends who climbed Suraksan mountain in Seoul, said they've witnessed older Korean men and women climb the mountain as though it were a relaxed Sunday stroll through an even park... except the mountain is rocky and almost at a 90 degree angle.

This country and its people never cease to amaze me.

On that note, here's my thoughts about one of the many things that stood out during my trip. The following are a series of photos I took while around the Namsan Tower grounds. These are the Locks of Love that can be found on the fences, stairs and railings that surround the tower grounds.

From what I've read, these are locks that visitors to the tower grounds have purchased or brought and attached to the various areas of the grounds. They're meant to symbolize 'forever' kind of love and the idea is that if you attach the lock and dispose of the key... you're bound forever. But... just don't throw the key away, off the cliff.

This is just one of the many sections of locks. They went on forever, in all sorts of directions. There's locks upon locks of people from all over the world... couples who've left messages for each other, and some, with messages to the world. It's kind of neat. I wish some of you could see the real deal!

That's the Hangang river in the distance. This river flows right across Seoul, and it's truly majestic, as it winds it's way from east to west. I hope to see it at night soon. I've only seen it while taking the subway across town to get my Mac fixed. The view from the Namsan Tower grounds is truly humbling.

After we got over our initial shock at seeing all the locks, we decided to dig deeper and check out some of the messages. This is the first one I found. It reads: "I was lucky to come to Korea... It was a destiny to meet you... I LOVE YOU! Tyler + Jieun Forever."

I'm not quite sure why, but I feel this pronouncement of love is being made to the TTC in Toronto. I think it might be the way the bow is designed. Needless to say that after seeing the Seoul subway system, I don't share this lover's sentiments.

This one reads: ":) Yay! 4 months we've been together. I don't know when we are gonna come back to see this, haha, but I know I'll still feel the same way about you :) I really care about you and I really can't stop thinking about u (you!) :)." Annoying.... must be puppy love!

This was too cute to pass up. There were many locks on these fences, varying in sizes, shapes and styles. This pair was cute.

I saw this one and thought about SK's obsession with the H1N1 virus... Perhaps the key to happiness amidst the chaos caused by the virus is inside this lock/capsule?

This one seems classy and traditional... but almost sad. These love locks are all holding on to this one simple lock. A blend of modern combination locks and padlocks... I think I'm also amazed that heart-shaped combination locks exist.

This one was also kind of nice. It reads: "Joel, Mahal Na Mahal (which, I believe is in Tagalog). I wait for you. I will always love you. I will always keep you here inside my heart. Thanks for loving me."

I loved this one. The pink lock with the red heart stands out so simply despite it's small size. It doesn't have any messages on it or anything else. I wonder what the person's thoughts were as they attached it to the fence. I hope that they were either in absolute love... or absolutely hopeful.

I fell in love with the romance that this lock showcased... it was rusty and worn out. It caught my eye from a distance, and I decided I needed a closer look to get a sense of how long it had been up on the fence... June 27, 2009. Hmm.... well, depending on how you look at it, three months can be a long time, I guess...

I think this one is definitely one of my favourites... not because of the big, obvious, red heart, but because of the message. It reads: "Babe - I love you more 2day (ugh!) than I did yesterday. But less today (yay!) than I will tomorrow." The hopeless romantic inside me wished this was original... but I felt I'd heard these words before. A quick Google search when I got home showed that these are actually lyrics from Ku-U-i-Po; a song sung by Elvis Presley in Blue Hawaii. It still warmed my heart.

Then there was this one... It turned out blurry for a reason, I guess. It reads: "Hi Ella! I feel so happy to be with you here right now. Even though I might be getting angry, I hope you don't thik I am changing. :) You have no idea how thankful I am to have you in my life. Whenever I look at you I think that I love you so much more." ... Hmm... don't be angry, buddy! You're surrounded by love locks!

Talk about a locked fence! But just in case you didn't get the message... don't try to enter through the Love Lock Fence!

I hope you enjoyed these photos as much as I enjoyed experiencing them. Please share your thoughts with me when you have a moment.


Friday, 18 September 2009

Blue jeaned baby

After spending three weeks at my school, I dared to wear blue jeans to work today. If there was a problem, I figured I could use the "It's Casual Friday in North America" excuse.

And it was fine. I was eating lunch in the cafeteria with Mrs. P today, when she leaned over to me and said, "I like your style right now."

With a mouth full of rice and this delicious fish I've come to love and look forward to, I smiled at her and mumbled, "What?"

"I like your look today," she said, with her trademark smile plastered across her face. "You look young and cool."

Young and cool. Awesome!

I asked her if it was OK to wear jeans henceforth to school, and she said it would be fine.

What a relief. I am starting to float in the new pair of black pants I purchased before leaving Toronto.


On another note, you'll notice I haven't blogged all week. To say this week has been emotionally and physically draining would be an understatement. (Cue my mother reading this and freaking out.... don't worry, Mum, I'm fine!)

But it has been a busy week and I'm thankful it is Friday. Not only that -- it's Friday and there isn't a jackhammer banging above my ceiling. Yes. The noise and demolition has finally stopped. I think the construction workers are now either putting together what it is they've broken, or replacing it. All I hear now are distant sounds of scraping and patching. The building is still a disaster zone, but Mr. S says they should be done work by October 1... this is before the Korean Thanksgiving weekend, so I am praying that he speaks the truth. Otherwise I am pretty sure I will have nothing to be thankful about.

Well, that's a mild exaggeration, but, you know.

I'm exhausted because this was my first official week of teaching. It's early Friday evening as I write this, and I'm so tired. Last week was easy because I spent it talking about myself... so the kids were interested. This week I had to jazzify a lesson from their textbooks and at least 4 out of my 19 classes couldn't...care...less. Seriously! Which sucks, because there are at least a few students in each class who really do try, and these other kids ruin it for them.

Today ended with this student in one of my grade 7 classes coming up to my desk in the staffroom and handing me a letter in a pink envelope with white polka dots on it. In the letter she introduced herself to me... in English that surprised me. She never talks in class. She told me about her hopes and dreams, and also about how she has a lot on her mind. She asked if I would write back to her... which I did... but I felt bad for not having the cute stationary that she handed me. I told her my little piece of diary paper would have to do. She didn't mind... she was simply thrilled that I wrote back to her. I told her that she shouldn't feel like she needs to change her name to an 'English' name... and that I'd feel happier calling her by her birth name.

(She introduced herself and then said, "... but you can call me Chloe.")

That's what's been pretty surprising for me. I was warned about people in Korea having their Korean names and also an English name. But... why? I mean, it's one thing if it's a joke... but instilling in these kids that in order to be more in tuned with the west, they need to anglicize their names... well, that's just wrong. All names were switched back to Korean in my English classes, right after one student told me to call her Paris Hilton.

Nope. Definitely not even in North America.

All in all, I'm simply looking forward to this weekend to veg, do some sightseeing and lesson planning. I'm absolutely starting to love Power Point!


Monday, 14 September 2009

Bert's back!

After a week apart, I've been reunited with my Mac... with a new hard drive... I couldn't get my old hard drive back because the service center people said they sent it back to Apple. Apparently it was broken in two.

I'm not going to freak out.

I've downloaded the essentials again... but I'm missing my copy of Office Mac terribly! Open Office will have to do for now.

I also need to invest in an external hard drive asap.

A brand new hard drive begs for a fresh start.

Here I go.


Details in the Fabric

Another video message. This time via the one and only Jason Mraz with James Morrison.
Love the lyrics, love the song.


Sunday, 13 September 2009

Cleanse my soul

... in Seoul.

J and I finally made it to the Bikram yoga studio she kept talking about. Our goal was to attend the 11 a.m. class on Saturday morning, but due to some unforeseen circumstances and despite our pre-planning, we ended up missing that class. (Read: we got lost in Seoul.)

We made it to the 2 p.m. class, however, and what I experienced in the 90 minutes that followed is something that might take days to process.

I'd never done Bikram yoga before. J is pro at it, having practiced it regularly back in the States. I, however, had always wanted to try it but never worked up the nerve to do so. When she brought up the fact that she would be attending this drop-in class at the Yoga Palace, I couldn't help but ask to tag along.

Bikram yoga, for those of you who don't know, is essentially 'hot yoga'. The process involves doing a series of 26 different poses (standing and sitting), over the course of a 90-minute class. The catch? The poses are done in a room that's heated to about 40.5 degrees celsius, with a humidity level of about 40 per cent.

You sweat after about five minutes of simply sitting in the room. Can you imagine what it's like while doing the strong yoga poses for 90 minutes?

The class started off simply... a series of poses to begin the intense workout. About 20 minutes into the class, my head started to spin. The instructor said this was normal for new students, because the heat combined with the exercises made for a high-pressured situation.

I was losing my breath, so I asked if I could leave the class to get some air. The instructor and J simply suggested that I lay on my mat to recover for a little while. Which I did... and it helped.

It was a lot easier to get through the second set of poses than it was to do the standing set. The second series included poses that used the mat more, so I was pretty happy.

Throughout all this, I was sweating buckets. Literally... drenched, soaked and dizzy. I looked to my left to see J in poses that I can only imagine being able to perform one day. This is one strong chick. I made a mental note never to get into a physical fight with J. Ever.

I was proud of myself for finishing the 90-minute class without leaving the room. Apparently a lot of people leave during their first try at Bikram yoga.

Some thoughts through this process:

I started off very intimidated and stressed. It looked as though the class was filled with pros. I had to keep reminding myself that I was trying this for the first time and that I didn't need to pressure myself to be perfect. The instructor also gently reminded me of this. "Do the best you can and thank your body for trying," he said. Amazing words that truly resonated.

The second series of poses allowed me to focus on breathing and meditation. I was grateful for this time to myself. My thoughts were grateful. My head felt chaotic going into the class. When I left, I felt relaxed, relieved and thankful.

I came to Seoul to experience newness: new feelings, new emotions, new hopes and to meet new people. This journey has been anything but predictable so far. But like my brother always says, "If life were linear, it would be boring." And he's right.

Bikram yoga is definitely an art, a craft, and, if done continuously, it can be a blessing to your body.

But for now, I'll have to settle for the drop-in class until I find out where I can squeeze it into my budget.

Thanks, J!


Friday, 11 September 2009

Unknown Scares

If we can see it, we know we can fight it.

It is the unknown that terrifies us. At least that's how I feel. I know I can devise a plan of action if I can see what I am battling. And watching it progress or regress is a helpful visual... it can strengthen morale and make things clear.

But what happens when you can't see your battle? What if the only way you can understand how the enemy is making it's move against you is through big machines and scanners, with reports that take days to come through?

It's a whole other battlefield... one without guns and grenades. It is one that doesn't require a divisive strategy, but, rather, a mental, physical and emotional sense of oneness, filled with unending hope and optimism.

I read on the news today that Canadian actress Lisa Ray has incurable Multiple Myeloma. She is 37-years-old, and is a constant figure on the Toronto International Film Festival red carpet. She mentioned not too long ago that her goal after making movies such as Deepa Mehta's "Water" and "Bollywood/Hollywood", was to go into action films...

... I guess now she has a bigger battle on her hands.

It's terrifying, isn't it? One minute you're on top of the world, where it seems as though all the stars are aligned in your favour. You know your place on this earth and things just seem... right.

Then, in one fleeting moment, reality kicks in and you realize it's time to stop floating in the clouds and come down to earth to battle the unknown.

Ray said she didn't want to make her battle with the disease public, but, given that very few people know about the severity of Multiple Melanoma, she said she wanted to help draw awareness.

I'm not quite certain why this news affected me so much. I can only hope that her hopes and prayers turn a positive corner.


Thursday, 10 September 2009

Drilling and Banging

It seems as though the city of Seoul is undergoing a face lift... or something like it. Well, maybe not all of Seoul... just the parts that I have to work and live in.

I moved into my apartment two weeks ago. When i moved in, the building was pristine and immaculate. I kid you not... I could see my reflection in the lobby tiles.

I was pretty happy with everything when I moved in. My building is brand new and very close to Korea university. But as the week progressed, the building almost started to unravel.

Seriously... every floor with the exception of the one I live on has been gutted. It started off with the daily screetching of jackhammers and drilling in the units above and below me. They would start every morning at 7 a.m. and go on till dusk.

Then, last night, the power was out when I cam home at 5 p.m. and it didn't come back till about 7 p.m.

It's so bizarre... it's as though my floor has been given some veto from the chaos that surrounds the building.

Although I'm not quite sure what's going on, I do hope they end soon. I am so tired when I get home, that the last thing I want to listen to is a concerto of drilling and um... banging.

At the same time...

My school is also undergoing a face lift. They celebrated their 101st anniversary last week. So now there's this 2010 plan in place to jazz up the exterior of the school with some new tiles, a fresh coat of paint and trimming.

This also asks for drilling and banging at school. I can't escape it.


Monday, 7 September 2009

Remember to back it up!

Ladies, remember that Sex and the City episode where Carrie lost all her work because she didn't back up her hard drive before her computer crashed?


Yea, well that episode has been playing on loop in my mind over the past 24 hours.

After two years of cruising by with my Macbook, Bert finally decided to call it quits... in SEOUL!

I don't understand why he couldn't have just gone ape$h!t in Toronto where people spoke English and I knew my warranty meant something.

But that's besides the point.

Tomorrow I will be venturing out into Seoul to find this magnificent Apple service centre that everyone keeps talking about.

I am trying to have no regrets about not backing up any of my stuff. Trying REALLY hard not to regret it. Especially all my photos. Yes. No regrets.


Except for maybe those 500+ photos I took just about everywhere.


Sorry, Donald!

"Have you ever had Beijing Duck?" my co-teacher asked me as we drove to our staff dinner on Monday night.

"No," I replied. "In fact, I don't think I've ever had duck."

After Mrs. P recovered from her shock, we walked into the restaurant to be greeted with the pungent spices of red pepper garnished on cabbage - Kimchi - a staple, here in Korea.

I took my seat at the dinner table as waiters rushed in and out of the private party room my school had rented for the occassion. It was the school's 101st birthday, so they were celebrating in style.

As I looked around me I took in the scene: side dishes that ranged from coldslaw and bean sprouts to kimchi and kimchi lined the tables.

Yes, if I haven't mentioned it before, Koreans LOVE their Kimchi. I've even been forced to have it for breakfast while here. The thing about it is that it's not bad. It's actually quite tasty. But I don't get the savoury way they indulge in it. Literally, chomping, lip-smacking goodness, if you watch them closely while they eat.

Mrs. K makes it a point to announce how delicious it is everytime I eat lunch in the staffroom with them. "Deeeeleeeeciiiooous," she says, as she digs her chopsticks into a bowl-full.

Sitting at the table was quite the adventure. As I waited for the other teachers to take their places around me, I was educated on the reasons why Koreans love taking time to eat together.

"This is how we socialize," said Mrs. C. "Koreans always take time to eat together."

I realized this very quickly after entering the country. Barely anyone eats alone. And eating is a ritual. I truly think Babs would love it here... no one ever stops feeding you.

Anyway, I was already apprehensive about eating duck. I'd never tried it before so I wasn't quite sure what I was in for.

Just as I watched the pieces of meat sizzle and fry on the hot plate in front of me, one of the science teachers piped in with a big smile on her face: "S! DONALD DUCK!" she shouted over the table, as she pointed her chopsticks towards the meat.

Donald Duck.


What a way to go.

But on the other side, I must admit - Beijing Duck is rather delicous... and pretty damn fatty too.
Sorry, Donald!


Thursday, 3 September 2009

A block around my Seoul

Well, I've officially been in the Land of Morning Calm for two weeks. Can you believe that? I can't! It seems like so much longer, but in many ways, it feels as though I just stepped onto that plane at Pearson International.

My first solo, international flight. I never thought I'd see the day. It wasn't so bad though... I lucked out and got the most direct flight across the world to my home for at least the next one year.

My 10-day orientation is officially over and I'm inching on the one-week mark of living at my new home.

I should probably give you all a visual of what my friends have come to know as my "Livable Manolo Shoebox".

Yes, I think my apartment for the next year defines the notion that South Korea is shy on space and is a mostly vertical-neighbourhoods community.

I live in a teeny-tiny apartment... but it has everything I need. If you imagine a shoe box and place all the amenities, a bed, a study table, a shelf, a closet, a window and a bathroom in it, you'll pretty much be able to visualize it.

Here's a photo if you need some help. What you don't see is the washroom (I'm taking the photo from there) and the front door, which is to the left of my fridge, at the bottom left of this photo. It may be small, but I'm thankful to have a space that I can call my own.

I live in a brand new apartment building in Anam district. Directly to the north of me, Korea University (a private university) shows off it's large buildings and brilliant architecture. It's quite parallel to my neighbourhood, which is just across the street.

For all my fellow Torontonians, I suppose you could say I live in what we know as The Annex. It's the cool place to be for young, hip university students. It's loud at night, and the neon lights never stop shinning through my window. Actually, now that I think of it, I don't think any of the stores in South Korea turn their neon signs off at any point.

My building, which is still under construction, is off an alleyway. It's gated and has a coded entry, but once past the gate, I come face to face with the back ends of overpriced coffee houses (or caffés) and restaurants.

When I walk along the street to the east of my building, I sometimes feel as though brand-chains came by and threw up two of each on the street.

Examples? Well, I have two 7-eleven's warring across one another, a Starbucks, a 24-hour McDonald's, a Dunkin' Donut's, a Holly's Caffé (which ended up being my kryptonite during the days without Internet)... and the list goes on.

On the same street there's also a handful of PC-bangs (Internet cafes) and about six coffee shops, each filled to the brink with cool and trendy university students. Oh, and I also lost count of all the Italian restaurants. True story.

Flip to the street on the west side of my building. It's kind of scary because of all the bars and open patios that are filled with students and older Korean men, alike. I think this part gets excessively loud at night, but I've begun to drown them out.

All the neon signs in my area have had me walking around in circles a lot. Everything tends to look the same after a while. I've started to look for landmarks to remind me where I am. It's pretty interesting, though, because if I walk through the alleys and side streets between the large neon signs and brand powered chains, I find cute older Korean women selling fruit and items in stores at a much lesser price than the ones that cater specifically to Waegooks (foreigners).

I've also begun to become immune to the three (yes, THREE) billiard halls that I can see directly out my window. I'm on the 5th floor of a six-storey building, so I'm at eye-level with these rooms, which exist on top of cafés and restaurants.

I walk to and from school. It's about a 20-minute walk each way, but I don't mind it. I think overall I lucked out with a pretty good area in the sense of proximity.

I'll have more on my first two weeks in Seoul in upcoming posts.

Till then, thank you for reading!


Tuesday, 1 September 2009

Noraebang Queen

I don’t know what it is about these singing rooms in South Korea, but a few minutes in one and you’re certain to morph into someone you never imagined being.

Take for instance my last night of orientation with the other guest English teachers. We went out to a seafood buffet and came back to our dorms to get ready for a night out on the town. The staff was nice enough to extend our 1 a.m. curfew by an hour and we intended to take full advantage of it.

We headed out to Wa Bar – our nightly watering hole for the past week – and then, to a Noraebang (singing room) in the building next door. Perhaps it had something to do with the fact that everyone was happy to have finally completed the nine-day orientation, or maybe it had something to do with the mass consumption of soju… but everyone seemed euphoric.

I think we must have taken over four rooms, with at least 15 people in each room at a time. If any of you have seen these rooms before, you’ll know that they’re not spacious. Cozy, but definitely not large.

And as for me, I’m not sure what happened. I just remember hopping from one room to the next, singing one song here, and jumping to another one there… and smiling from ear to ear the entire time. Even the most reserved of those in the group were belting out Pearl Jam and Journey. One of the staff members even asked to sing “2 become 1” by the Spice Girls. I played the tambourine for that one.

I am starting to understand why noraebangs are so popular in South Korea. In fact I think we need them in North America. They offer a sense of liberation from all that weighs you down and stresses you out. People who don’t normally talk in everyday life can perform amazing duets when in the confines of these tiny rooms. I guess you can liken it to the “what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas” phrase. No one talks about what happens at the noraebang, once outside the noraebang.

Oh! An added bonus? You’ll be sweating up a storm while performing, so you’re certain to shed a mass amount of calories. By far the funnest workout!

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