Posts Tagged Daegu
Recently, I came (back) to America after completing a one-year teaching arrangement in Daegu, South Korea. I had a great time in the peninsula known for its spicy food, loud diners, and myriad singing rooms. There are many stories I plan on sharing now that I have some free time (yeah, I’m unemployed). I also spent a week in Japan, close to a month in India, and a whopping 18 hours in Egypt, so I will fill you in on some of those adventures as well.
A lot has changed since I last had American soil under my feet:
My Grandpop got remarried to his former high school football coach’s daughter. Well played.
Revolutions have occurred and persist in the Arab world…
…Hell, even Americans have joined in with the Occupy Movements. If I don’t land a job in the next month I might join the party … if only for the free food.
I now practice yoga.
Osama bin Laden no longer haunts the American psyche.
The NBA is not in business (dejected sigh).
My bro moved to New York City.
Another friend tied the knot. Congratulations BD and Cynthia.
Harley, the family German shepherd, is now hobbling around due to pain in his hind quarters. Eventually all of our biological clocks submit to the force of time. Poor guy.
And this is all just at the surface!
When I was in Korea I didn’t really get homesick at all except for the holidays. It was only the last month when the finish line was in sight did I really begin to yearn for chicken parmigiana. I thought about teaching for another year, not at the same hagwon (academy) but at a different school. I learned that work life can really improve after your first year of teaching because you know the lay of the land. You get a better idea of what academies are top drawer, what area is nicest and, of course, you are more comfortable with the culture. Plus, you establish a social network of people. I met some great people during my time in Korea.
About a month before I left Korea, I had a meeting with the manager of the academy where I worked. His English name is Kenny. His user login name at work is Brad Pitt. What Kenny lacks in mental stability he makes up for in emotional immaturity. In the one year that I knew Kenny I think I accumulated enough material to write an entire book series based on all of his idiosyncrasies.
First day back from summer vacation Kenny and a female foreign teacher have an exchange.
“Hey, how was vacation?”
“It was brilliant.”
[motioning to his face] “Did you get the plastic surgery?”
In the meeting, right off the bat, Kenny made it perfectly clear the reason why he wanted me to resign for another year.
“Daniel I can’t find a replacement for you.”
“Sorry to hear that, Kenny.”
“You know, I got to find a replacement because your leaving and [sucking his teeth] right now it’s not easy to find a teacher in a month.”
“Yeah, I can imagine.”
An uncomfortably long silence follows in which Kenny leans back in his chair and gazes at the ceiling.
“You’re not coming back to Korea, are you?”
“No. It’s not my plan.”
Another long uncomfortable silence ensues.
“So, what will you do?”
“I’m going to look for work in New York.”
“You know Daniel, I’m from New York.”
At every conceivable opportunity he slips in that he is from New York. Nobody is sure how many years he actually spent in NY because the number changes so frequently, but apparently he spent some time living in NYC. He is from South Korea.
“You’ve said that.”
“My dream is to go back and be a sushi chef (I have also heard this many times) …you know I understand American culture … I know Americans don’t like working hard.”
“That isn’t true.”
“You know, you’ve done a good job here.”
“So what do you think?”
“About what, extending my contract?”
“I told you, I’m going back to New York.”
This is more or less how the conversation ended. Even if I thought about extending my contract before the meeting the manner in which he asked me would have changed my mind. Not surprisingly I was forced to make a threat that I was going to file a complaint with the labor board in order to get paid on time before I left.
After leaving Korea I spent almost a month in India. It was quite the experience. A real jolt to your senses.
I’ve been back in the US for two weeks now catching up with family and friends and getting re-acclimated with American culture. Being separated from the life that I knew really has allowed me to appreciate everything I have, especially my family. Also, eating NY pizza again was a glorious moment.
I went to my first Korean wedding over 3 weeks ago.
When Mijin asked me if I wanted to join her for her friend’s wedding my response was an emphatic “obvi”. During my stay, I have experienced many parts of Korean life and I figured this would be a good opportunity to bolster my cultural traditions resume. Plus, Mijin is good company. And, who doesn’t like a wedding? My favorite wedding moment came when my mom was getting remarried during the time when I had my first signs of armpit hair (an exciting time in my life). My brother Dave, who is one year older, was 16 then. Dave isn’t a big dancer now, and was much less likely to bust a move during this pubescent stage. I forget what relative was feeding him drinks the whole night but before anyone could even do the chicken dance he was out on the dance floor grinding with my mom’s boss’s daughter like they were at a club in Cancun. Great moment. She got grounded as a result. The next afternoon, I stood laughing outside of the bedroom door as he delivered an apology over the phone. I think I was bitter I didn’t get a dance.
The wedding was in Busan so we left Daegu on a rainy Sunday (it’s monsoon season) at 10 am. Mijin messages me that her friend will pick me up at a bank near my apartment before picking her up. I stood underneath the roof awning outside of the bank when I hear a beep from a black SUV. I run toward the car and jump in the back seat. Her friend knows very little English so we basically greet each other, exchange some words, and ride in silence until Mijin hops aboard. Goeun and I get to know each other as Mijin interprets. The roads are slick. We have several close calls with other cars on the road, resulting in Goeun proclaiming, “I am best driver!” I find solace in the green rice patties and rolling mountains.
We arrive at Paradise Hotel in Busan at 12:30, just in time for the start of the ceremony. Paradise Hotel is large, upscale hotel across the street from the beach. Mijin greets her friend, the bride who is sitting in a secluded room. She looks very bride-like: white gown, hair did, the works. The bride, who doesn’t speak English, is talking to her two long-time friends. I look on with a smile. The photographer motions for a photograph. I quickly move out-of-the-way when the photographer signals for me to join the picture. I refuse. She insists. I stand behind the three seated friends. Later Mijin shows me the picture that was taken with her IPhone. I look like a random guy photo-bombing the picture. I regret not giving the peace sign.
The wedding ceremony is in a spacious banquet hall. Because we don’t arrive early and the tables are not specifically designated for the guests, we have to stand along the back wall. I survey the room, estimating about 250 people (Mijin later tells me about 400 people came and went). I am the only westerner. I don’t really feel out-of-place except that I’m wearing brown shoes with black pants. I was always told this is a cardinal sin in fashion, but Mijin assures me that it is in style now. Mijin’s outfit goes together seamlessly.
Apparently, the groom is loaded (rich not drunk).
Up to this point, this wedding doesn’t look or feel any different from a large, upscale wedding in the States except that everyone is speaking Korean and it was a little earlier in the day. The groom walks down the aisle and the bride and her father make the stroll next. A man appearing in his early 30’s with a microphone says some words that were probably much different from what I was imagining in my head unless he was indeed analyzing the looming NBA lockout. Mijin said he was giving something akin to a best man toast. After that, an older guy (ajoshi) has some things to say. I’m not sure if he announced them husband and wife. Next, the microphone is given to a young guy seated at a table. He stands up and serenades the new couple with a song. I recognize some Korean words such as “love”, but my mind is on other things.
I hope filet mignon is being served.
Luckily, some guests leave before lunch is doled out which means we get to sit down. Mijin and Goeun go to the stage to take part in some group photos. I watch with a glass of red wine and a bowl of mushroom soup. I am ecstatic to discover steak on the menu. Haven’t had much steak in Korea. Hard to come by.Later in the meal, the new married couple enter the room each wearing traditional Korean garb.
They go around the room and greet each table in their flashy hanbeoks. Apparently, the couple had a short, private traditional Korean ceremony moments before. Mijin asked if I wanted to go see it. I asked if it would be more exciting than the steak and we stayed put.
At the end of the meal they served Korean wedding soup. It consisted of noodles and kimchi. Tasty.
I well understood beforehand that the wedding would only be for a couple of hours and that there would not be a long drawn out reception ceremony filled with dancing, drinks, and mingling, but as lunch was winding down a melancholy feeling hit me. There will be no dancing.
About a month ago
On a Saturday morning, a couple coworkers and I take the 45 minute KTX ride to Busan with the intention of lounging on the beach for a couple of days. My skin hasn’t seen much sun this year so I kind of look like a vampire. No, I don’t watch True Blood.
Busan, the second largest city in South Korea, is a two-hour car ride south of Daegu. It’s on the southern tip of the peninsula and it is the fifth largest port in the world. There’s more to do there than in Daegu, like going to the beach, so it doesn’t suck. My first time there, back in April, I went to Shinsegae, the world’s largest department store. Shinsegae makes a typical Macy’s look like a kiosk. There is an ice rink, so I went ice skating, nearly killing several young Korean children (stopping on skates isn’t my thing). We make it to Busan Station go outside and immediately look for a cab. A taxi driver who looks to be in his mid 50’s with leathery skin sees us and recruits us into his car. I notice that his car is all black and that it says ‘Deluxe’ on the side, spurring me to voice my concern to my friends. We reason that it can’t be too much more expensive and hop in.
Normally, a meter will start at 2200 won (close to $2), this particular cab is 4600 won out of the gate. It’s clear we are going to pay more for leather seats. I communicate in piece-meal Korean to the driver that this is expensive. The driver replies in a sandpaper voice that its alright, he says something else that I don’t understand, and then he chuckles. At this point I don’t trust him, I don’t necessarily dislike him, but I don’t trust him. My two coworkers are laid back (one reason they are good company) and they aren’t overly concerned with the price. We decide that if the fare seems out of control early on we will get out and hail a new cab.
About 5 minutes pass when we reach a part of the city littered with oil refineries (I think). There is nothing like a steady whiff of oil. My gaze out the window is interrupted by a quick glance at the meter. It reads 17000 won. We aren’t near Haeundae Beach yet and we aren’t in an area to find another cab. A cab ride from the station to Haeundae is normally 15000 won. While this cab is higher in price because there is a decal on the side that boasts that it is deluxe, I think we also fell victim to the take-advantage-of-the-foreigners-traveling-in-a-new-city scheme that some unscrupulous taxi drivers employ. I become irritated and again mumble that it’s too expensive. Our only option is to bite the bullet, continue, and hope the price isn’t too high. At this moment, I regret settling for the deluxe cab and save the experience into my enormous lesson learned file.
When we finally reach an area where we are able to find a more reasonable cab, the meter has jumped to 25700 won. We decide to get out where we are rather than pay this guy over 30000 won. We all throw in our money and I begrudgingly pay the driver. He pops the trunk and gets out of the car to hand us our bags (which must be part of the deluxe experience). I snatch my bag out of the cab drivers hand and we look at one another for a while. I study his face. He studies mine. His eyes narrow and he mutters something to me as he is getting into the driver’s seat. I notice that my friend forgot to shut the backseat passenger door. The three of us look at each other thinking the same thing: should we shut it? Before we know it the driver pulls off with the backdoor still ajar. We watch frozen with our mouths open. The car moves close to the side of the road. So close that the open door is in danger of hitting a pole, tree, or pedestrian. He doesn’t drive more than 10 feet before the door clips a street light on the edge of the sidewalk, slamming the door shut. The cab screeches to a complete stop. We catch a glimpse of the driver looking around frantically not knowing exactly what happened. The three of us erupt in laughter while we search for another taxi.
We jump into a new cab and two minutes later arrive at the beach.
The highlight of the trip came about an hour later at an Indian restaurant called Namaste. Delicious.
The power of beauty
At some point over the last several weeks the increasingly strong, warm spring air triumphed over the last remnants of the cold winter, giving my students something other than homework or my appearance to complain about : the humid weather. The complaints may go from annoying to intolerable as we make our way into the summer heat. I’ll keep you posted. I welcome the high temperatures because I’m not much for wool socks, dry hands and chapped lips. Plus, the cherry blossoms are nice on the eyes, especially when the cherry trees are closely clustered together. Apparently, the Japanese introduced Korea to cherry blossom festivals during their rule over the peninsula. While cherry blossom festivals are popular in Korea today, after Japan surrendered in WWII many cherry trees were destroyed because they reminded some of the Japanese occupation. Whether most know the origins of the tradition or not, everyone I’ve spoken to in Daegu about cherry blossoms only mention their beauty.
Rebirth of the perfectionist
I’m taking a painting class in Lotte Department store with a Korean friend Mijin. You might be wondering why I am taking an art class in a department store, something I’ve asked myself. Lotte is like Macy’s on steroids, featuring a nice food court and grocery store and offering all kinds of classes, like dance, piano, yoga, etc. The class meets every Sunday. I find myself looking forward to going every week even though it has triggered some of my obsessive, self-critical qualities. As a kid I had a knack for drawing and I would spend hours on a single sketch, trying to make every line, every mark perfect. Typically, it would end in me throwing away my work out of frustration. I have made it over a month without snapping a single paint brush, tearing apart a canvass, or unleashing any real emotional outbursts. Can you say growth? Though sometimes it feels like the instructor and I are speaking two totally different languages (hint: we are). According to Mijin, my defacto interpreter, the teacher has concern that I am devoting too much attention and detail to the background. I think she applies to much makeup to her eyebrows. Mijin deserves an award for being the middle(wo)man and bearing the brunt of my neuroticism.
With six months of experience living in Korean under my belt my perspective of the country is starting to take form, rounding like an inflating beach ball. I am proud to say that the unfamiliarity and separation from my culture and traditions has not led to me becoming a xenophobe. Contrarily, the wider the difference, only the more interesting. I’ve compiled a list of my favorite and least favorite things about Korea (so far). In my opinion, the pros substantially outweigh the cons.
1. Friendly people – most people I meet are nice and welcoming. Unfortunately the men are much quicker to strike up conversation with me than the women, which usually entails them saying something like, “Hi! You’re handsome! Where are you from?” Whatever confidence I collect from these kinds of exchanges evaporates when my students begin critiquing every asymmetry on my face.
2. Mountainous region – no shortage of beautiful mountains
3. BBQ restaurants – they supply you with a plate full of raw meat, as well as an array of side dishes, and you cook the meat on a grill at your table.
4. Noraebangs – karaoke room with friends are everywhere. Apparently some places offer “service” something that is missing from my Korean experience.
5. Public transport – the subway and bus systems are top-notch and don’t get me started on the high-speed rail system … the KTX, which spans the entire country from top to bottom goes up to 190 mph (305 kmh). Enough said.
6. Women – I was never a guy with an ‘Asian fetish’ per se (like my good friend Mike professed that he had back in 7th grade), but with every day that I am here I am finding Korean women increasingly more attractive.
1. Lack of cheese
2. Lack of public garbage cans
3. Lack of respect for personal space-I’ve become accustomed to getting bumped, skipped, and on one occasion, massaged.
In the news…
I don’t know what was more shocking Osama bin Laden’s death or the Lakers getting swept.
Miami Heat win NBA title
A few weeks ago a new foreign teacher arrived in Daegu. At our hagwon and from what I understand at every other school, all foreign English teaching positions are for one year. As every teacher has a different start date it is a revolving door of teachers coming and going throughout the year. The new teacher essentially replaced a guy who fulfilled his one-year and is now back home in Hawaii. I’m not jealous or anything…really.
Five out of the six foreign teachers on my floor (elementary) will be leaving in May so there will be a major change in the landscape of the office during that time. I was excited to meet the new teacher because he will be here for the duration of my stay. Right now there are 11 foreign teachers in all at our school and not one female. At our last meeting our manager promised us this would change even using this as a bargaining chip to convince some of the teachers to resign for another year:
“I know some of you have to go, but some of you should think about resign. You know, I can help with international girls. Now that I’m here we will be bringing in more women teachers. That’s part of being happy with a good vive (vibe), you know.”
Even though the latest arrival is not a chic it was still nice to meet someone new. Before he came, at our daily FT (foreign teacher) meeting we crowned him with the moniker “Colonel”. This was not an arbitrary decision. You see, his name is Kevin, but we already have a Kevin. The new Kevin if from Canada-> Kevin From Canada->KFC->Colonel.
I like the Colonel. He is easy-going, friendly and up-beat. His arrival triggered some memories of my first few days here in Korea, like my inability to read anything at all on a restaurant menu, getting lost on a run through the city, and I will never forget the morning after trying soju for the first time. The Colonel had a rough time during his first trip downtown. You easily could have mistaken him for Bernie from Weekend at Bernie’s shortly after he got his first taste of drink in a bag.
This Friday a girl from Texas will touchdown in Daegu. There is mild concern among a few that we may have to tone down the “guy talk” that has become so customary when we go for lunch or dinner. I will be sure to filter what comes out of my mouth her first few days, properly gauge the desired level of appropriateness and then go from there. I get the sense that everyone is looking forward to the new dynamic that will result from adding a female to the mix. Hopefully she grew up in a household with a lot of guys.
Our manager explained that she is attractive and that it why he hired her, pointedly assuring us that appearance is the top criterion in the hiring process.
“Guys I look at everything… beauty is important… I’m talkin’ height … weight… body type … all of that stuff.”
Side note: I am still reeling after my favorite basketball player (Deron Williams) was traded away from my favorite team (Utah Jazz) to the lowly New Jersey Nets last week, but I am starting to come around. I tried to vent my frustration, confusion, and uncertainty about the situation to my students but they didn’t seem concerned or the least bit interested. How NBA player movement is not on these young Korean kids’ minds is beyond me. You should have seen their eyes roll when I began discussing the stagnant collective bargaining negotiations.
Side, side note: I spent a good part of today watching Charlie Sheen’s new interview on 20/20, perusing other random Youtube footage of Charlie talking about how “epic” his lifestyle is, and then reading articles surrounding his career and life. When asked whether he thought that it was possible that he might be bipolar Sheen quickly responded, “I’m bi-winning… I win here, I win there.” I highly recommend you take a few minutes out of your day to watch his interview on Youtube. Epic stuff.
Anyone with some life experience under their belt knows that time seems to speed up as we add more chapters to our narrative. Activity can wash away time like a wave swallowing up a footprint in the sand. Tonight, as I visit my blog, which of late has been more rare than a nun visiting your boss’s favorite porn site, it suddenly hit me, I have now been living in Korea for over 4 months.
Upon arriving to Korea, I told myself I would regularly blog about my experiences and adventures. I honored this pact for the first two months. Then I stopped. Why? Is that really any of your business? The important thing in all of this is that I am rededicating myself to blogging on a more consistent basis. I really mean it this time.
Some things worth mentioning from the past two months:
- Daegu winters are cold. Apparently the spring and fall seasons are both very short and the summer is long and soupy hot.
- The only coat I brought with me to Korea was stolen from a booth at a club when I was building a fan base on the dance floor.
- I celebrated Thanksgiving with a large group of coworkers and other miscellaneous people. We ordered two birds from a western style restaurant and everyone added some type of side dish, drink, or dessert to the feast. Before dinner, while perusing E Mart (think slightly classier Wal-Mart) to decide what to bring, my friend Chris and I decide that a king crab would be the perfect complement to the meal. We thought it was 7,000 won. It was 70,000 won (roughly $65). Our outrage dissipated once we started cracking and eating. The host of the party was not happy that the smell of the giant crab masked the aroma of the turkey.
- Christmas eve landed on a Friday, which meant that we had to work (Christmas is not huge in Korea like it is in the western part of the world). For most of the day, I actually forgot it was the eve of Christmas until I got a nice card from one of my students. She said she loved me. I told her that she was moving too fast. After classes finished up while we were all in the office inputting homework and attendance into our computers our boss surprised us with a cake. He designated me to cut the cake. I don’t particularly like cutting cake, but I don’t particularly dislike it either. He told me I had to select a woman from the office to cut the cake with. He said to “choose wisely”. I hesitated for a bit and finally settled on a Korean teacher that I am friendly with. My boss said that I couldn’t choose her because she is married. I could sense where this was going – I wanted to defuse the situation but unfortunately the comments grew more racy, laced heavily with sexual innuendo: “Who do you want to spend the night with?” To add fuel to the fire my foreign counterparts began to chime in with “Ohhhh” and “Who’s it gonna’ be!?” According to some, my face transformed into the color of a ripened tomato. I finally settled on a quiet teacher new to the school. The cake was decent. And, no, we didn’t spend the night together.
- Leading up to Christmas I was not feeling well. On Christmas day I felt like I had been beaten by two dozen of Santa’s more sinister elves armed with mallets. I slept almost the entire day only waking up at 6pm to head to a nice buffet at a hotel in downtown Daegu called Novatel with some friends.
- January 1 – New Years Resolution: get in Bruce Lee shape and learn Hangul.
- For the entire month of January our school, a private English academy, offered its students more classes. They call it “intensives”, I call it “doubling your class load”. Normally throughout the year we work from 2 pm-10 pm, but for this special month during “intensives” our schedule changed from 8 am – 7:30 pm. Talk about taking your circadian rhythm for a ride.
- I have been taking very informal Hangul lessons with a Korean friend. She rocks.
- One positive borne out of “intensives” was that for January I was back on a more traditional schedule for most working humans. This allowed me to frequent the fitness center after work at 8pm. I am not a morning person, as anybody who has lived with me can attest, so I prefer to workout later in the day. I discovered by way of a coworker that a yoga class is offered for gym members at 8:30pm Monday-Friday. I always wanted to give yoga a go so I found this the perfect opportunity to dabble. I really took a liking to the class (and the instructor) so I began going everyday. I am not flexible by any stretch of the imagination, but I made notable improvement. One major challenge was that the instructor conducted the class exclusively in Korean which required me to look at the person next to me for cues of when to change position. I ensured the amicable, toned girl next to me that I was gawking out of necessity. She said, “sure” in a sarcastic tone with a smile. After one week I managed to do a headstand without any wall support. Everyone clapped and cheered in my mind, in reality it was a rather low-key moment after a Monday class. Now that we are back to our regular work schedule I can no longer attend yoga class. There goes serenity.
- I am enjoying the teaching aspect of my life here. In mid December I took on the role of “senior teacher”, whatever that means.
- For the Chinese Lunar New Year (February 2) I went to Seoul with my boy Nicuation. Due to the cold weather and a penchant for partying our visit lacked the requisite sightseeing that you might do your first time in a new city. We did manage to squeeze in a trip to the 63 Building. The view at the top provided a panoramic picture of the city and the aquarium on the first floor was worth visiting. We went to a popular traditional market called Insadong which consisted of rows and rows of small shops that featured artwork, souvenirs, Korean garb, among other things. I came very close to buying a hanbok. A hanbok, which literally means “Korean clothing” is the traditional Korean dress worn at festivals and celebrations. I guess they are not very popular with the younger crowd. At one shop, I was able to bargain in Hangul to get the price down (they can get very expensive, like a suit), but this hanbok was not flashy enough for my taste. I am still searching for the perfect hanbok.
That is the last two months condensed into a small easily consumed package. Obviously there is a lot missing, but sometimes the most important thing is what you omit.
This morning I awoke at 7 am. My eyelids conceded around 3 am with a Richard Dawkins book in my hands. With only four hours of sleep I should have been tired, but I wasn’t. Conversely, I was rather energized and anxious to start my day like I had already been on my third cup of coffee.
Inspired, I sprung out of bed, turned on Nas, and did some stretching exercises for a good twenty. Subsequently, I studied Hangul for close to an hour and then headed to an eatery aptly referred to as Orange because – you guessed it – it’s Orange. A trip to the gym followed. Did Deron Williams’ recent game-winner impel me to accomplish more? Eager to be productive, I felt fresh, vibrant, and sharp. Perhaps more importantly, I felt grateful for all that I have. I was reminded of an expression my father uses when he is particularly excited about something: “It’s a good-to-be-alive day”. Every breath felt wonderful.
We all have this flame inside of us. Instead of waiting for urgency to make a visit the onus is on us to stoke the flame and compel it to grow.
Blue Team vs. White Team
A week and a half ago, Avalon Academy hosted a sports competition day in which all the Korean and foreign English teachers from all three of the Daegu campuses came together on a Sunday. We were split into two teams, competed and had some fun. Prizes were given out and the MVP took home a laptop computer. Needless to say, I wanted the laptop. As we know, history is narrated by the winning side so instead of giving you an account of the day you can read the story in the words of Chris Justice.