Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Wade Kids Academy Celebrates Chuseok

All of the students dressed up in their traditional hanboks the Monday before Chuseok. I loved seeing all of their different outfits with so many colors and accessories.

This is Diego, admittedly my favorite student. He has such a fun sense of humor and which he partly gets from having to put up being in a class full of girls. We are about to make traditional rice cakes called songpyeon. He's apparently a little bored. He and his brother wore matching hanboks.

This is Tony. The male hanbok is just as colorful as the female version. He's holding his songpyeon which are filled with red and black beans, not my favorite holiday treat.

Most of the girls also wore traditional head pieces. In some cases they were barrettes or clips. Most of the time the girls wore these types of headbands as pictured above. They give the illusion that the girls are wearing earrings. Special adornments are attached to the ends of the headband to create this effect. I thought this was quite cleaver.

I asked if the colors meant anything, but it's all personal choice or rather what their mother's pick out which is what one student told me. The skirt were so long on the girls that is was quite dodgy watching them go down the stairs.

One student even had these fancy shoes to match.

Collecting Gingko Nuts

While visiting Kwang's parents I got to prove that I'm just a country girl at heart who loves anything to do with the gathering or preparing of fruits and vegetables. We were headed back in the car from visiting Kwang's grandmother's grave when we stopped along the side of the road near some gingko trees. Some of the tall trees had fruit hanging off of them high above. So what did we do, but shake and kick the trees until the precious fruit fell to the ground. The fruit is about two inches long, is a yellow/orange color and is sort of wrinkly tender on the outside. Oh and it smells awkwardly like feces. But that was the least of our problems. Inside the fruit is a hard nut where when ground gives way to a precious oil that is good for your health. I am finding out everything in Korea is good for your health. It's just the way it is here.
Our method of shucking the nut out of the fruit was by first stepping on the fruit. This made them more tender and helped break the nut free a little from the meat. Kwang's mother used a knife to get the nut free, but I used my finger nails as I am going through a long finger nail stage (a rarity). There were so many nuts to free. I squatted for awhile, but then my unpracticed legs gave out so his aunt brought me a mini stool to sit on. They were so impressed that I was able to help and was efficient too! It was only two days later when we all found out that the ginkgo fruit is actually quite abrasive and caused thin layers of skin to peel off our hands.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Chuseok Traffic

September 20th
Pack up and leave Seoul at 8:00pm
Arrive in Jinhae at 2:30am
Total time on the road 6 1/2 hours

September 23th
Pack up and leave Jinhae at 12:00pm after Kwang sees a TV report saying that the commute should only take 5 hours.
Arrive in Seoul at 8:00pm
Total time on the road 8 hours

On a normal day it takes about 4 1/2 hours to get to Jinhae from Seoul. This year Chuseok fell in the middle of the week and companies typically gave their employees Monday or Friday off so that they would have more flexibility on when to leave or come back from their hometowns.  This also meant that the traffic this year was BETTER than most years as there was not a mass exodus when everyone got out of work.

Can't wait till next year! I think we will be taking the wake up at 2am and leave in the middle of the night approach.                 

Monday, September 20, 2010

Chuseok Gifts

This Wednesday is Chuseok (Korean Thanksgiving) and a big part of holiday is giving gifts. Typically if you are employed you would give gifts to your parents and extended family. Elders are more likely to receive an envelope of money while other relatives are given beautifully wrapped presents. While taking the train home this week from school so many passengers are carrying Chuseok gifts. I love the way they are packaged. A lot of care is given to the presentation of these gifts.

Believe it or not Spam sets are a very common gift. Love it or hate it sets like this can be found at everywhere to the corner store to giant mega marts. I haven't experienced much spam in Korean cuisine, but it does make an appearance every so often.

Lucky for me another tradition of Chuseok is that employers give their employees gifts. My school gave us teachers this wine set. I was ecstatic! Wine here is usually very expensive and is often very, very sweet. To find a cab/sav and a merlot in the box made me very happy.

My biggest dilemma was what to give to Kwang's 2 sets of aunts and uncles. Ginseng, seaweed, cooking oils and honey are all popular Chuseok gifts. Kwang was of no real help so I consulted our friend Sunjeong. We went to Costco to look for something special and she made the excellent point that it would be a little strange or lack luster for me, a westerner, to give a typical Korean gift. So we decided that Pepperidge Farm cookies would be an excellent representative of my American self. This box comes with 4 packages so Kwang's aunts and uncles can share them with their neighbors and brag about how their nephew's American girlfriend gave them these for Chuseok.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Need New Customers, Rent a Creepy Clown

When a new store opens up here street entertainment is key to luring in new customers. On my walk home from school the other day I found this creepy clown performing outside of a newly opened cell phone store. Often instead of a clown there might be scantily clad girls singing and dancing around an archway of balloons. I don't really understand how this is culturally accepted when modesty is a big part of female culture here.

For some odd reason clowns on stilts are primarily used for cell phone and electronic store openings. What does that say about the demographic, huh.  I wonder how lucrative being a promo clown is...

Thursday, September 16, 2010

I Guess I Would Stare Too

Kwang and I went hiking a couple of weekends ago with the idea of trying to find a  refreshing pool of water to lounge by. We've been on a couple of hikes where swimming holes have made us regretful of not bringing out bathing suits. This time I was determined to find something that would allow us to lounge and be refreshed. Well as you can see above, the available pool of water we found was refreshing though sort of a tight squeeze. Additionally, it didn't help that we were  right next to the hiking trail. Kwang tells me I get stared at normaling just walking around Seoul (I rarely notice because I'm checking everyone else out!). I think being in my bathsuit while squatting in a shallow pool of water which was in the direct path of a busy hiking trail tripled my gawking exposure. I made some friends though with an elderly couple who was in a similar pool of water a couple meters away. As I plunged in I the old woman  pointed and smiled at me. Then her husband started to do some intensive hand clapping exercises over his head. I was tempted to join along, but I didn't want to make a scene.

Monday, September 13, 2010

The Dividing Line that is the JSA

Here it is, the Joint Security Area. That white building is in North Korea. The building I'm standing in is in South Korea. Those sky blue buildings in between are where joint talks take place. We could not point nor use a camera that had a powerful zoom. It was tense to say the least. Strangest of all how this war zone was now a tourist attraction.

Here I am, taking in the tension as well as the weird shoot photo moment.

This soldier's job is to always keep one eye on North Korea. He stands on the corner so that he can not only know what's happening in front of him, but also what's happening to the right side of him. Kwang's brother was chosen to work in this position during his two years of military duty. I asked Kwang why Changwoo was placed here and he told me it was because he was tall, had 20/20 eyesight, had a father who worked as a high ranked Navy officer and was able to stand straight with his legs together with no space between. It was a dangerous position, but the barracks were extremely cushy. Changwoo only had three roommates where Kwang shared a space with 80 other soldiers. Yikes! Also most Koreans are not given permission to visit the JSA. However, Kwang and his family were given special permission to visit Changwoo there.

If you look closely at the pillar the third in from the left you will see a North Korean solider. He was holding binoculars and every so often would look up at us. On this part of the tour we were not allowed to wear t-shirts with large logos, flip-flops, shorts, jeans with holes or military/gang looking clothing. North Korea is known to take pictures of westerners dressed in this sort of clothing and use it as propaganda. 

"Look at these westerners dressed in flip-flops and ripped jeans. They are so poor that they must go around wearing ripped clothing and can only afford sandals you would wear in the bathroom. Can you believe it?!"

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Imjingak: Freedom Bridge

This is the freedom bridge. It's used as a place for people to come to and remember family or friends from the North. Chuseok (Korean Thanksgiving) is coming up and typically people go back to their family's homes to honor their ancestors. South Koreans who's family escaped from the North during the war will come to the Freedom Bridge to pay their respect. 

The bridge is located in a large park that has lots of modern art, open space, monuments and in sort of tacky tradition an amusement park.

 This is the remnants of a train that was caught in the middle of an ambush in the DMZ during the Korean War. The conductor of the train made it out and is still alive today. 

A fence of prayer ribbons written with hopes of peace and unification line the parameter. The colors really contrast against the other parts of the park. I think it's a beautiful way to express the heartache many families have had to go through from division. 

I Dream of Taking the Train from Seoul to London

Part of the tour I took of the DMZ included a stop at Dorasan Station. It is the closest train station to North Korea and is currently only being used to transport materials to the Kaesong industrial region which is located in North Korea. South Korean companies own factories in Kaesong that use North Korean labor. We were told that typically North Korean workers receive 1USD per month after taxes and government fees. However, in Kaesong that amount is doubled to 2USD. Taking North Korea's  recent currency reforms this gain really doesn't amount to much anymore.

What's fascinating about Dorasan Station besides the fact that it's this huge vacant building is that all of the tracks are in place for mass transportation to North Korea and beyond. Being there reminded me that the majority of South Koreans feel that without a doubt reunification is going to happen. South Korea is prepared too. In the station there were even metal detectors in place for passenger security screening. The government has spent a lot of money on this station that has minimal use. The current government is also talking about imposing an unification tax on the people of S. Korea so that the country is financial prepared when reunification happens. However, it's very controversial and nothing has been put into law yet.

I love the idea of taking the train from Seoul all the way to London. For now it is just a dream though the map at the Dorasan Station makes it seem more like a reality. 

There was a faux passport stamp counter at the station. Something that my co-worker Dustin pointed out was that the station has a high possibility of becoming outdated as the years pass by. I like the intention the government had with this station and I hope it's able to become a place of welcoming in the future.

Monday, September 6, 2010

There it is...North Korea

I finally broke down and went on a DMZ tour with my co-worker Dustin. We did a full day tour which included stops at the 3rd tunnel, Freedom Bridge, Dorasan Station, and the JSA (Joint Security Area). Here's a picture taken from the Dora Observatory. Does my camera have a weak zoom you ask? Or did I just choose to stand far away?

Nope, this was a forced act of shotty photography. They were very strict about where you could and couldn't take photos. In this particular spot it seemed rather ridiculous.  We could barely see Gaesung City, which interestingly enough is a propaganda city where windowless buildings line the streets. A huge North Korea flag flies bigger and taller than the opposing South Korean flag that's only meters away. We were told in our DMZ debriefing that the North Korean flag pole may be taller, but South Korea's flag pole is sturdier. Always a competition.

Quite the Job

I caught these guys in the action at Yongsan Station. I'd never seen something like this in action. I thought it was very organized of them to place the sticker rolls in order along the side as to not mistake the order. So many stairs, though. I suspect the first two stairs are sort of fun to unroll and apply, but by the 20th roll it gets old.

Here's another view of how many steps are at this train station. Yongsan is the electronics area of Seoul. Inside this building is not only a subway stop, inter-Korea train station, a movie theater, clothing stores, restaurants,  a gigantic grocery store, but also a huge electronic mart where each floor specializes in a certain product. There's a camera floor, a computer floor, kitchen appliances floor and a phone/MPG player floor. It's pretty impressive and you can get quite the deal.

A New Kind of Urban Gardening

I stumbled upon this unique urban gardening along the roof top of an outside mall in Insadong (the arts and crafts area of Seoul). I love that you can grow a pepper plant out of a sand bag. If I ever get a roof top patio, which is on top of my apartment wish list for next year, I'm going to try this out. Many apartments have patio areas so I'm keeping my fingers crossed.

I'm so impressed by the eggplant plant. The corn on the other hand doesn't look so hot. The brightly colored sandbags definitely add to the display.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Yum, Yep That's an Ashtray

I passed by this ashtray and just had to get a photo. After seeing the tobacco brown liquid inside this ashtray/sculpture I don't know what could deter people more from smoking. You can smoke just about any where here, in bars, elevators, bathrooms, I've seen it all. Some restaurants, like at Taco Bell that just opened here, have a glass partitioned room for smoking.

Something to note, often it is not socially acceptable for women to smoke by themselves. It is more acceptable if they are in the company of men. With that said, I've seen lots of men and women smoking especially high school/college kids.

This was on the base of the ashtray. A pack of cigarettes in Korea costs between $2-$3. I wonder where the tobacco comes from. Maybe it is grown here since the price is so cheap.

My Boss Gets Married

This weekend was my boss Suzie's wedding. I was pretty excited to experience my first Korean wedding. It took place at a church and there were definitely unique Korean elements. The ceremony starts out with the mothers holding hands walking down the isle. They were both dressed in their traditional hanboks. I think hanboks are absolutely beautiful. I love the colors. The mothers went and each lit a candle and then sat facing each other where bridesmaids and groomsmen would stand in a Western ceremony. Suzie walked down the aisle with her father and then the minister spoke in a lot of Korean that I didn't understand. At one point everyone laughed out loud. My co-worker later told me that at this point the minister was talking about how much patience is needed when being married. He then turned to Suzie and told her that she did not look like a woman with much patience. Ohhh Korean humor. I don't quite get it.
        After some songs were sang and the couple went and bowed to each set of parents. I thought this was really nice. Then I think some I do's were said, the crowd clapped and they walked back down the aisle. They did not kiss until they had reached the end and the photographer requested that they do so.

Money is what is given at a wedding. My co-workers and I pooled our together and put it in one of these festive wedding envelopes. At the back of the church there were two tables, one representing the bride, one for the groom. Two men were each table taking envelopes for either the bride or groom. When I handed our envelope in to Suzie's table we each received tickets for lunch. I found some humor in that interaction.

Before the wedding is picture time with the bride. Here are all of my female co-workers and I posing with Suzie. Also at the end of the ceremony there were more pictures taken with friends and family. The bride also gets to choose who gets the bouquet and they do a photo of the toss which was pretty funny.

Here is my Korean co-teacher Cathy (she's fantastic) and my other foreign teachers, Michael and Dustin. They had been to other Korean weddings before so they were able to fill me in on everything.

A Typhoon Hits Seoul

We woke up to violent gusts of winds Thursday morning at 6:30am. The dreaded Typhoon had finally hit Seoul. The wind lasted about 2 hours at full strength. My friend Laura was visiting and her flight was scheduled to take off at 12:30pm that afternoon. Everything was still being reported on schedule as she got on her bus to the airport. Come to find out the flight was delayed 14 hours. Luckily for her the airline comped her a hotel room for the day, lunch and dinner. Wow. Note to self fly Luftansa when ever possible.
There was some debris outside from the windstorm, but nothing major in my neighborhood. I was sort of unimpressed by the whole thing until I saw this neon sign hanging from a wire, feet above the sidewalk. Yikes! This was much the scene all the way to the subway.

Near my school the trees had really suffered a beating. Piles of leaves lined the street. As a note of storm lingo a typhoon is technically the same thing as a hurricane. Asia Pacific just happens to refer to such a storm as a typhoon and frankly I like it.

This bicycle had managed to stay standing though it was the centerfold for a pile of leaves and random trash. My co-worker's neighborhood suffered more damaged with whole walls falling down from the force of the wind. Windows were smashed out with glass all over the street. Supposedly this isn't the last of the late summer storms as another typhoon is headed our way this week.