Tag Archives: Tales of South Korea

Letter from Anyang, South Korea: February 8th, 2011

It’s gray outside, looks as if it could rain, but the temperature is 40 degrees Fahrenheit, which feels positively balmy after the weeks of below freezing temperatures.  I hear chainsaws in the distance and know this to mean there are crews working in Pyeongchon Central Park at this hour, trimming trees around the perimeter. I will note their progress and compare it to yesterday’s as I walk through the park on my way to Hagwonga and Chung Dahm later today.

There have been two interruptions this morning: First, Fed-ex with package from home – a box of mail and  Valentines gifts from my mother. Second, the pesticide lady, who comes around about once a month or so and sprays something odorless around the nooks and crannies of our officetel.

Yesterday I held a small scale writers workshop for a few of the newly arrived instructors interested in same. We found a spot at the local Paris Baguette, a Korean bakery chain, near Holly’s coffee shop and spent about two hours working from writing prompts. I provided prompts for poetry, fiction and memoir. Everyone seemed to enjoy the experience and they are all eager for the next meeting. After our workshop, the six of us went out for dinner at “Chicken and Beer.” It was delicious.

Anyang Library: Pyeongchon Branch (South Korea)

Recently I decided to explore the Peyongchon library. It’s only a block away, so an easy walk. It has five stories, including the basement level, where there is  a cafeteria with standard snack bar type food, an outdoor “lounge” on the second floor, which will be a great place to hang out and read when the weather gets a little warmer, and five reading rooms for adults (not including the reading room for children and parents on the ground level). There is also a “wireless internet corner,” a periodicals sections and what looked like a computer classroom (it was empty so I assumed it wasn’t for public use).

As it was Saturday afternoon, the library was very busy and all of the reading rooms were pretty full. Really, they are more like study rooms equipped with cubby-like desks. I took my time browsing around and found a room that was less full than the others. I went in and found a desk to sit at and began reading. About ten minutes later a young Korean girl came down my aisle – I assumed she was going to sit at the empty cubby-desk next to mine. She approached me with a piece of paper. She had her thumb on it and wanted to show me something…I looked closer…everything was in Korean, but I recognized the number ten just above the spot where tip of her thumb was pressed. I looked at her in question and she pointed to the top of my cubby, which had the number ten on it. “ooohhhhhhhh” I said, and got my things together. I told her “sorry,” laughed a little, and made my way out of the room. I was a little embarrassed, could feel my cheeks blushing, but I was not daunted.

I wasn’t sure what to do next, so I left the library and headed to the Acro-Towers Starbucks, where at least I know the rules: buy a chai, wait for a seat, race to acquire it. Under no circumstances be polite and allow others who were there first get the next available seat. It just doesn’t work that way here.

On my way to Starbucks I reflected on my library visit. I thought, “I have no idea of how one goes about reserving a cubby in a study room at the library.” I had noticed an information desk at the front entrance, but the man sitting there looked more like a security officer than someone who would arrange for reservations, and since I really don’t know any Korean, I don’t know how I would even begin to ask him where I could get more information. How does one gesture the words “reservations,” and “cubby?” I didn’t even have the phone with me, which has a dictionary in it. And of course, the signs are primarily in Korean.  I did recall, however, one reading room that had large tables in it rather than cubbies and wondered if that isn’t a general reading room for which one does not need “reservations” to sit and read in. In any event, now that I have collected myself and thought it over, I will have to go back and investigate further.

Funny, every time I mention the library to other foreigners, they all seem surprised and state they did not even know there was a library in the ‘hood, even from those who have lived here for a couple of years. Unfortunate for me because that means they don’t know how it works either and can’t explain it to me. Well, I guess I will have to figure it out myself and be the one to inform them.

Third Term Masters Class, Chung Dahm (South Korea)

It’s hard to believe that I have teaching for Chung Dahm for six months now. I am much busier than expected and have barely enough time keep up with my blog. Everyone I ever talked to before coming to Korea who had taught here said they had a lot of extra time on their hands. All I can say is that they must not have worked for Chung Dahm. Either that, or they were here before the Hogwong industry really took off and became so competitive and high pressure.

With that said, I have to say that my second term here has been considerably less stressful than the first. For one thing, I am more settled  and established now than before, am no longer a newbie, and  feel like I am hitting my stride in terms of teaching. Track “B” is also a considerably more manageable curriculum than Track “A.” It didn’t hurt that I had a great schedule – half-days on Mondays and Fridays. I will miss that.

In other news, next week is the beginning of the new term (no break between terms here) and I will have a new schedule. Though I’ve not received confirmation yet, its about 99% certain that I will be teaching a Saturday class this term from 2:30 to 5:30 PM. But, it is a Master’s Reading class, so I will get to teach literature to high-level reading students, and I look forward to the opportunity. So far, there are only five students enrolled, so I really think it’s going to be worth the trade off. It also means I will get a day off during the week, and it’s so much easier to get to places like Itaewon on the weekdays. Saturdays on the subway is always mayhem. The image of sardines always comes to mind when I consider riding the subway during the weekends, because that’s usually what I feel like when standing in a cram-packed metal subway car.

The Master’s Reading class is in addition to the Master’s Writing class I was asked to teach earlier, so I will need to go through some additional training. Master’s Classes instructor training is scheduled for this Wednesday in Gangnam, which means getting up early to travel on the a fore mentioned sardine container. After training, I will  need to rush back to my branch by 3:00 PM, then teach until 10:00 PM. In other words, it will be a long day.  Since Gary has to attend the first training session with me (he will be teaching a Master’s Writing class next term), and doesn’t teach until 7:00 PM Wednesday, he said he’d wait for me to finish the second training session so we can take the subway back together, as sardines (yea!).

In any event, as I will be teaching what I have know how best to teach, writing and literature, I am very excited about teaching Master’s Level classes this term.

I am thinking of everyone back home and unfortunately blogging is the best way for me to keep in touch at the moment, and even that (I know) is spotty. Please keep checking in whenever you have a minute and always feel free to leave a comment.

The Unexpected in South Korea

1. Dunkin’ Donuts: There’s one on just about every block, and while the donuts look like the ones in America, they are not as sweet. The chocolate frosting is closer to semi-sweet than fudge-y. On Christmas Eve, the Dunkin’ Donuts near Chung Dahm was having a promotion – free hat with purchase of a cake (eating cake is how Christmas is observed here – seriously). I couldn’t resist and bought a strawberry cake (a very delicious strawberry cake, I might add) and got a free, pink fuzzy hat. It has a huge, white pom-pom on top and the ear-flaps feature polar bear faces. As it was extremely cold that night, I wore the thing home.

2. Smoking: People can smoke almost anywhere here, though it is somewhat expected that smokers do so outside. This does not mean people don’t smoke inside, however, and it is not at all uncommon for people to light up in restaurants in the booth or table right next to yours. (Cigarettes are very inexpensive – less than $2.00 USD a pack). I have noticed “no-smoking” signs in public restrooms (which are largely ignored), some non-food businesses, the movie theater, academies and the subway.

3. Easy access to alcohol: Seriously, a person can walk into a convenience store, by a bottle of beer, soju (rice wine) or wine, sit outside sit at the tables and chairs that are in front of most convenience stores here, open the bottle and drink it right out in the open. A person can even do this on his/her lunch hour and return to work. I’ve never, ever, never once been carded.  Further, you can by alcohol any day of the week at any time of day. If the store is open, it’s for sale (and if you there to buy something, the store is be open).

4. No business zones: What I mean is, many different types of businesses inhabit the same city block or even the same building. And when I say different, I mean drastically. For example, in the building where I teach,  several floors are occupied by academies, but there is also a restaurant on second floor, a PC room on the ground floor, and a bar (“Modern Zen Bar”) in the basement. There are “barber” poles advertising “massages” on the same street as all the academies (do not go into a place that has a barber pole and expect a haircut – and if you want a ” normal massage,” make sure to go to a place that advertises SPORTS massage). In the building where we received our training, there was a maternity ward on the fourth floor. The clinic down the street from our office-tel is in the same building as a cell-phone store. Conversely, sometimes identical businesses are located right next to each other. Seriously, there may be a “Buy the Way” convenience store next to a “Family Mart” convenience store,  and both will carry nearly the same merchandise.

5. Speaking of business zones, even though prostitution is illegal, it is highly tolerated. In our small neighborhood alone there are a number barber poles, live bars and hostess bars. In Yongsung, just across the street from  the I-park mall, there is a “red-light district” where one can find several blocks of women standing in glass cases, many wearing provocative clothing – though I saw one woman in a bath robe, slipper and curlers in her hair. From the right angle, you can see bedrooms behind the back walls. I hear that in Iteawon, a district populated largely by foreigners, there is a place called “hooker hill.”

6. Chicken. Yes, chicken. The Colonel has nothing on Korea when it comes to fried chicken – or barbecue chicken or roast chicken, or any other kind of chicken you might think of. Favorite chicken places in our neighborhood include “Chicken and Beer,” where they have the crispest, most delicious fried chicken in the world – and several different flavors – at that. My favorite is “teri-que,” which tastes like they found some way to turn teryaki sauce into a batter to dip chicken in and fry. Their golden fried chicken has just the right amount of curry flavoring and their barbecue is sweet and spicy all at once.

Hot Barbecue

Best Chicken in PC

Another favorite is a place called “Hof and barbecue,” (Hof is German for beer) though we call it “hot barbecue” Their barbecue chicken is savory and spicy and is served with a pan-baked macaroni and cheese. Who’d have thought macaroni would taste so yummy with barbecue sauce? Finally, there’s a place down the road called “Half and” we like to go to when we want chicken to go. It’s a little cheaper than our other two favorite places and a little faster too. We think it’s called “Half and” because each order is one-half of a whole chicken. Another interesting thing about the chicken here is that it is cut into many more pieces than in the states. On average in the states, you get 10 pieces out of a whole chicken (two legs, two thighs, two wings, two halves of the breast, the back and bony piece). Here, chicken is cut into maybe 15 or 20 pieces. And while this might seem like the ideal size for finger food, here in Korea, chicken is served with two forks (and a bucket for the bones). While I am getting better at eating chicken with two forks, I almost always wind up using my fingers before I’ve finished my meal. Still, with all that, there is a KFC in our neighborhood too.

7. Another interesting phenomenon about businesses is that they are apt to change overnight. There will be no “going out of business” sales or even any signs posted to suggest that a business might be closing. Rather it is there one day and gone the next – quite literally. There used to be a place called “Western Hot Dog” a few doors down from Chung Dahm. It was a great place to grab a meal on the go, either on your way to work or home. I tried it one Friday. It’s rather amazing how tasty a run-of-the-mill hot-dog tastes when you haven’t had access to one in a while. The following Monday, on our way to work, Gary and I noticed that “Western Hot-Dog” was emptied and some Korean men were putting up a new sign, “Victory Food.” It was open for business by Wednesday that week and has been busy ever since (busier that Western Hot Dog ever was). We were astounded at how quickly the turn-around was, and a little disappointed to lose something we had just discovered. Anytime I notice a new sign on a building, I can never be sure if it is a sign I have simply overlooked or if a new business has moved in.

8. Street Vendors: Most of the street vendors in our neighborhood(s) (Peyongchon and Beomgye) sell a variety of food from the back of their small-sized pick-ups or wheeled carts.  Available cuisine from street vendors include fruit that is in season, myriads of popped corn and rice snacks, pancakes filled with red bean sauce, waffles, fried squid and octopi, fish and rice cakes, ears of roasted corn, ice cream, milk, peanuts and, if you are at the park during the flea market, cotton candy.  Sometimes vendors set up tables near the public school and along the walkways of the residential areas to sell toys, earrings, socks, brand name knock-off clothing and shoes and other miscellaneous non-food items. In addition to these portable food stands, most restaurants on ground level have a walk up window or table where they sell food to go. In our area we can buy mandoo (dumplings) fried potatoes, squid, octopus and sweet potatoes, rice noodle in red chili sauce and waffles.

Tenacious is a word often used to describe Korean people, and this especially true when describing street vendors. Portable vendors get out there and sell their wares no matter the temperature, no matter the time of day. While the recent record snows did seem to force many away, the walk-up windows were still open and ready for business. Now that the snow is beginning to melt, many vendors are returning to their favorite corners and neighborhoods.

9. LG: I recognize L.G. as a manufacturer of electronics such as televisions and cell phones, and I am aware that they are headquartered in Korea. But what I am surprised by is that there are many other kinds of items with the LG label, like furniture. Take my couch as an example. If you look closely, you can see the LG logo imprinted in its simulated leather-like texture.

10. CCTV is everywhere. The only place it’s not is inside our office-tel, but I can’t be 100% certain about that. There is CCTV in the hallways of our office-tel building, CCTV on the path that cuts through the residential area that we take to get to Chung Dahm, there is CCTV in the building where we work, in the hallways of our floor and in our classrooms. At Chung Dahm, CCTV is monitored closely to gauge how teachers are doing. Until recently, instructors were shown their tapes during meetings with head instructors. CCTV tapes are also used in cases where students have misbehaved. Many teachers threaten to show these tapes to parents as a way to get students to behave in the classroom. CCTV is also in the classrooms of public schools, only they are live, and parents can tune in anytime to see how their child is doing in class. Parents can also tune into the CCTV that are present in the play areas around residential areas.

Record Snowfall In South Korea – Chung Dahm Classes Cancelled!

Gary standing in the snow in PC Central Part

Seoul and surrounding areas received a 70 year record accumulation of snow earlier this week, causing many traffic jams and accidents. The government departments responsible for snow clearing were grossly unprepared for the event. Military personnel and local police were called upon to clear roads and sidewalks, using plastic snow shovels. Apparently local governments do not own snow plows.There was even a group of Korean men shoveling the croquet court at Pyeonchong central park yesterday.

In response to the heavy snowfall and resulting traffic problems, Chung Dahm actually canceled classes Monday. Most of the instructors were already at the building or well on their way by the time they received the text message. Still,  everyone was very excited to have an unexpected evening off. Several instructors went to PC central park to play touch football in the snow (it was a dry snow and perfect for such an activity), while others of us found warmer, drier ways to enjoy the extra few hours of free time (Gary and I went to a coffee shop to read and write).

Unfortunately, because Chung Dahm is a corporation first and an educational institution second, Monday’s canceled classes (which parents have paid for) must be made up. As a result, all instructors and staff  are expected to work this Sunday from 12:00 pm to 6:00 PM to make up the missing classes. This, of course, is not something foreigners are used to doing, and it is a hard reality; Chungdahm is a a company that insists people work weekends and on a Sunday to make up classes canceled for a snow day. Even those branches that took Friday off for New Year’s day had to make up for it by having classes on Saturday.

Loosing a Sunday is rather brutal, especially at this time of the year. Christmas and New Year’s are over, the winter cold is paralyzing, and the last two weekends were lost to nasty head-colds; Spring can not get here soon enough.

Trip to Dongdaemun Fabric Market (South Korea)

City Gate

A couple of weeks ago I went up to Dongdaemun (pronounced dong-day-moon) to visit the Dongdaemun fabric markets; a five-story fabric, yarn and craft mall. I’d heard about this place through the Soul Stitch and Bitch group and have been trying to get out there since I arrived.

Anyway, it was late on a Saturday, and unlike most places in Korea, the Fabric Market has relatively “normal” business hours that run from 9 to 5 Monday through Saturday, so though many of the shops were disappointingly beginning to close, there were enough shops open for browsing pleasure.

There are probably thousands of individual vendors set up in small “shops” that are anywhere between a 10×10 to 20×20 square feet. There is every kind of fabric imaginable and the prices are amazing. The pathways are very narrow and I can imagine that in the middle of the business day it is probably louder and crazier than the stock market.

I was there to find fabric to make a curtain of sorts to hang in the opening between our “bedroom” and “kitchen” areas (to help keep out the light when one of us is sleeping and the other is up late working). I found a beautiful gold-colored fabric with a deep red leaf

“Hanbuk,” Korean Traditional Clothing

pattern that I think will be lovely, though wish I’d purchased twice as much. I wonder if I’ll ever find the same vendor again.

Besides every kind of fabric imaginable, we saw literally miles of buttons, and I am NOT exaggerating. If ever you needed a button, I’m positive you could find an exact match among these vendors. There were also amazing quantities of tassels and other embellishments, not to mention bulk tread at a pittance for what one would pay in the states, and in every color.

Fabric Market

Miles of buttons!

I was also there to find yarn with which to make an afghan and found an overwhelming supply of same. Very nice wool yarn can be had for 5000 won a skein – that’s about 5 bucks for something as nice as merino wool. I only wish I could have found a wool/silk blend. Anyway, I found what I needed and bought eight skeins. The woman threw in two pair of circular knitting needles (part of the service).

I can’t wait to back again!