Monday, April 30, 2012

Field Trip to Gurye - "The Road to Nature"

Now that spring is fully upon us and the weather has warmed up, our school has been having a lot of field trips with the kindergarteners. As teachers, we switch off going with the students. A couple of weeks ago they went to Suncheon Bay and just last Friday we to "The Road to Nature" in Gurye.

Our main goal as teachers is to take as many pictures of the kids having a good time as possible. We are constantly posing the kids for pictures and getting action shots of them running around. It feels like we're the paparazzi, but the parents like to see pictures of their kids having a good time. And at a private English academy in Korea, it's all about what the parents want.

buddy system
Einstein Class - Jay, Suzie, June, Kevin, Lily, and Alice
They were most impressed with the turtle...which is definitely not an insect, but still cool.

As I was taking that last photo, the kids were looking into a small pond filled with bright orange fish. I said, "Look at all the fish! There are so many fish." Then the girl in front turns around and says, "There are so many grandmothers!" hahahaha

Next, we met up with the other classes and ate our lunches: multiple kinds of kimbap, fresh fruit, sticky rice wrapped in tofu, and snacks. 

Notice the Angry Bird drink! They are obsessed.

mini banana!
 All the kids ran around on the grass and then we left to head back to Suncheon.

sunshine and freedom!

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Questions to Ask Before You Sign a Hagwon Contract in Korea

Not all English academies (or hagwons) in Korea are created equal. When deciding on where to sign up to work for a year, you must remember to interview them as much as they are interviewing you. This is where you will work every day and you should have a clear picture of what is expected from you before signing your contract.

 Don't attempt to ask all of these questions during your phone interview. These questions are intended to be used only if you are offered the job and sent a contract. Read the contract carefully and ask questions. It shouldn't be a problem to make amendments or changes to the contract.

Here are some questions you should ask before signing the contract, along with some helpful tips from me in the parenthesis. 

School and Vacation Time

What are the work hours like? Will they ever change? What about Saturdays?

How many Korean/foreign teachers work at the school? How long have the foreign teachers been there? (If lots of people re-new their contracts, you know it's a good place.)

Is lunch provided? Are you expected to eat lunch with the kids every day? (Eating with the kids every day can be tiring, especially if that time is your only break time.)

How much flexibility is allowed in planning lessons? (It's nice to have some structure but it's also nice to be able to reward your kids with games and teach them some useful things that aren't in their books. Being a creative teacher is more fun and rewarding for both you and the kids.)

How many vacation days do you get? (You should get at least all the national holidays off and 10 vacation days.)

What kind of things will you be responsible for other than teaching classes? (ex. writing monthly/weekly/daily report cards, creating a lesson plans to hand out to students, attending meetings, etc. These things are pretty standard at academies but it's good to know what you're getting into.)

How does overtime work? (I have a friend who can be told to work lots of extra hours than her normal work day before she can start earning extra pay. On the other hand, if Spencer and I teach more than our standard number of classes in one day, we get overtime pay.)

How long has the school been open? How many students come to the school? (From this, you can kind of assume if the school is doing well. Private academies are businesses and some of them fail. You don't want to work for a place that will not be able to pay you or close halfway through your contract.)

What's the relationship like between the teachers and management? (Some directors are very involved and take their employees out to dinner often and others are standoffish and can be straight up angry dictators.)

What's the best and worst parts about the job? (Ask a foreign coworker.)

Apartment and City Life

What is the apartment like? Studio? One bedroom? What's the sleeping situation: bed or floor mat? (Many Koreans don't have beds but sleep on floor mats.)

How far away from the school is it?

What utility bills will you be expected to pay? (It's standard to pay your utilities.)

What are the transportation options around town? What can you expect to be using every day? (ex. taxis, subway, walking everywhere, etc.)

Are there lots of other foreigners in the area? (It's nice to have people to hang out with who are experiencing the same things you are. Also, people who have been there a while can help you find things, give you advice, or just listen to you bitch when times are rough. Our city has a couple of Facebook groups where people can connect as well. I would search for those.)

Are there any western restaurants in town? (You're going to want at least one, trust me.)

Monday, April 23, 2012

What to Bring to South Korea

The question I most get asked from people moving to South Korea is, "What should I bring?!?"

For many, the thought of putting your entire life for a year in two suitcases is daunting and extremely difficult. It was for me, too.

I have to be honest, I paid the overweight fee from the airline for at least one of my bags. I just couldn't cut any more things out! I had already sold or donated almost everything I owned and made lots of cuts as the time got closer and closer to leaving. I hit a point where I simply could not take another thing out of my bags.  

First of all, a great resource for you will be someone who is currently working at your school, preferably the person you are replacing. You will probably be living where they are living and taking over their classes so they will know the most about what to expect in your specific situation. You can usually get their email address from your recruiter or school, just ask.

1. sheets - Find out what size bed you'll have from a future coworker/your director/your recruiter and bring them. I know they are heavy in your luggage, but trust me. Good, western style sheets are practically non-existent here. We brought some really nice sheets and, no joke, EVERY night I am so happy we have them.

2. pants - Even if I found a pair of pants that fit me, I probably wouldn't like the style. Of course, if you're living in Seoul, you'll have better access to western clothing stores, which is nice. However, clothes are really expensive here. I heard they are taxed pretty heavily, which brings the price up. I seriously wish I brought more jeans.

3. toothpaste - Most Korean toothpastes don't include fluoride and you won't be able to know which ones have fluoride unless you can read Korean. They do have Arm and Hammer which has fluoride so if you like that one, then you're golden. Or just bring some from home. We brought 4 tubes and alternate Arm and Hammer and some from home. I can't take too much Arm and Hammer.

4. any specific beauty products - I brought face lotion, spray leave in conditioner, and some specific make up products. If you have a darker complexion, you'll need to bring any face make up you'll want to wear. Koreans are white and want to stay that way. There isn't even bronzer here.

5. tampons - They are super pricey here! It sucks. I bought two big boxes at Costco and brought them with me.

5. good bras/underwear - It's hard to shop for something so intimate in a foreign language. Also, most Koreans have small boobs. It's better just to bring nice bras you know fit you and won't fall apart. As for Korean underwear, I guarantee you won't want to wear them, bring some from home (guys, too!).

6. pictures - Bring pictures of your home and your family. The kids will like to see where you live and learn more about you. It's a cultural exchange type-thing and it's fun. Plus, your apartment will probably be bare when you first get there and it will be nice to add a touch of home to your new home.

7. seasonings - Bring any special seasonings you like to cook with. You can buy basil, oregano, and some other general spices at home plus but not spice mixes. I brought taco seasoning, fajita seasoning, chili seasoning, Lawry's season salt, and garlic salt.

8. A kindle or other electronic reading device, if you like to read, that is. It's hard to find good, modern books in English. I absolutely ADORE my kindle and since it has 3G, it can save me in a pinch if I need to use the internet on the go.

9. A bag for weekend or week long trips. We have a friend who only brought two huge suitcases with him and had to buy smaller luggage for all the weekend travel he was doing. Of course, you can buy something here, but if you already have something at home that you love, it might be worth it to bring it as your carry on.

10. deodorant - Deodorant is different here and more expensive. It's possible to find it but it'll mostly be spray.

11. Chapstick - It's more than double the price here.

12. plug adapters - You're going to want to plug in your electronics so this is a must. Think about what you are bringing that has a plug. Account for one possibly dieing on you (one of ours did). I would bring at least three.

13. shoes - If you've got big feet, bring enough shoes to last you a year. Of course, if you need something specific, you can always travel to Seoul to get it but it will probably be expensive. Spencer left his tennis shoes on a bus and had to buy new ones in our city, Suncheon (a medium sized city). He was able to find one pair that wasn't outrageously expensive (they were about $70). He couldn't fit into any of the cheapest Home Plus brand shoes (around $30). 

Things you think you might need but really don't:

1. towel - You can buy "normal" sized towels at Home Plus in a variety of colors.
2. shampoo/conditioner - There's plenty here so don't waste your precious packing space (or weight) on it.
3. razors/shaving cream - It's mostly all the same brands and about the same price.
4. peanut better - It's expensive but available.

Questions?? Comments?? I would love to hear from you! 

Friday, April 20, 2012

The Movies Are Better in South Korea

Going to the movies is one of my favorite ways to curb homesickness.


Movie theaters are great places to escape to when the trials and tribulations of living/traveling in another country are just becoming too much and all you want is something familiar. The basic setup is always the same and most theaters around the world will play movies in English (with their native language in subtitles, of course).

I've gone to the movies in Europe, in the US, and now in Korea and by far the best experience I've had was in Korea.

The ultimate movie experience begins with you being able to pick your seats while you purchase your tickets. Nothing puts a damper on your movie experience like having to sit through 20 minutes of commercials before the movie, just to get a decent seat. In Korea, you have the option to bust in with two minutes until the movie starts and still obtain optimal seating. Eff yeah!

You know how whenever you go to the theater, you wish that no one will sit in front of you so you can put your feet up on the chair in front of you? Well, on our most recent trip to our local theater (a Megabox), we excitedly discovered that every seat came with a footrest. Yes, a footrest!! How awesome is that??!

Spencer enjoying the facilities. (sorry for bad quality! taken with my iPod)
The armrests on the seats are all extra wide so every person has two arm rests and no one has to share or fight over it. The seats leaned back just enough to make it super comfortable but not so inclined that you'd be tempted to fall asleep. Seriously, what more could you ask for?

There are also "couple" seats available for lovers or BFFs. They are loveseat-sized seating on the sides of the main seating area upholstered in red velvet (oh, la la). With the loveseat, you both get your own footrest and the armrest in the middle folds up for snuggle time. How cute is that?? 

The Hunger Games movie poster
Another great part about movie theaters in Korea is that they all have free mini movie posters. They are all in Korean, but that really just adds to the charm. We always snag a few to hang in our apartment.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Cat Cafe in Seoul

I thought it was going to smell terrible and I was going to hate it but I decided to go to the cat cafe anyway. I mean, why the hell not? I'm here, it's here, and it makes me uncomfortable which means I might learn something or grow as a individual, or whatever it is they say.

From the moment you walk in, the cats are everywhere. 

The first thing you do order a drink. The price is more than your average cup of coffee (about $7-8), but you are paying for the experience of seeing/playing with the cats as well as the beverage.

While ordering and waiting for your cups, get a good look at the rules. It was good to know what was allowed and what would cause us to get kicked out. Thankfully, they had an English copy to show us.

It included obvious things like "don't hold the tail please" and not so obvious things like "don't pat cat's bottom" and "don't tease the cat with straws." I thought cats loved getting teased with straws (!) but at this point, I wasn't sure I was even going to touch a cat so I wasn't too bothered.

Katie and me watching the cats
We made our way to a table and sat. Not too sure of what to do, we just sat for a while watching the cats. There were about 30 cats all roaming around the cafe: some sleeping/lounging, some eating, and a few playing.

I saw male cat spray on the window sill near where we were sitting and I about wanted to leave right then! We had just gotten there, so even though I was thoroughly disgusted, we stayed. We later found out that that cat is referred to as the king of the cafe.

The amazing thing was in a few minutes all the spray was gone. It somehow magically seeped into whatever material was covering the window sill, which was simultaneously cool and gross. 

The cats are so well loved by all the attention giving patrons that none were rushing up to us begging to be petted or rubbing on our legs as we sat. In fact, the cats were so lethargic that one of the employees went around handing everyone a few cat treats to get them excited and moving around.

It was only when I was handed a cat treat that I decided I would pet one....just a little scratch. I wasn't getting too crazy or anything.

See how stoked I am? ha!
It was actually a pretty fun experience...until I saw the hairless cat. When I saw that thing stalking around, I was ready to leave. I didn't want that cat anywhere near me. Thankfully, some little Korean girl coaxed it into sitting on a pillow in her lap on the other side of the room.

With our drinks drained and the hairless monster roaming around I was more than happy to leave. It wasn't smelly and I definitely didn't hate it, but I think I'll go to the dog cafe next time and skip the felines. 

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Cherry Blossoms in Suncheon

I don't know if you've heard, but I really love flowers. That's why when we were making our bucket list for our time in South Korea, I knew I wanted to "walk through hella cherry trees in bloom."

blooming cherry trees along the river in Suncheon, South Korea
April is the month for the blooms and trees have been exploding in white and pink for the past two weeks. Standing in the shade of a flowering tree as the cool spring breeze blows the petals around you like the most gorgeous snow you've ever seen is so calming and cheerful. It's beautiful, glorious, and dream-like. How can you not be happy when the world is showcasing this wonder around you?

Directions: There are cherry trees along most of the river in Suncheon. To get the the walkway with the trees on both sides, go downriver. It starts at where the garden expo will be and goes upriver.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Seven Super Shots

We were honored to be nominated for another fun travel blogger meme by our fellow expat in Korea, Tom of Waegook Tom.

Without further ado, here are my Seven Super Shots! :)

1. takes my breath away

This is from the annual Jinju Lantern Festival in South Korea. The river and fortress next to it were filled with thousands of lanterns both big and small. It was incredibly beautiful and magical. It's the best festival we've been to in Korea so far.

2. makes me laugh or smile

At our wedding last May, we had a home made photo booth with tons of props. It was the best decision, EVER! I love all the pictures and laugh every time I look through them. Here they are if you want a laugh.

3. makes me dream

I took this picture of my best friend's feet while exploring the tide pools of Cabrillo National Monument in San Diego, California. Her tattoo of the world really makes the pic, I think. 

4. makes me think

While on our honeymoon in Belize, we visited the ATM cave aka the Mayan Underworld. Mayans would bring offerings to the gods into the caves in times of distress. The skeleton above is a human sacrifice.

5. makes my mouth water

We were wandering around Kyoto, Japan looking for an early dinner after walking around all day. While looking at the menu outside this restaurant, the man pictured came out and started speaking to us in perfect English, telling us about the restaurant and menu.

We decided to try it. At first, there was only us and one Japanese couple there. I was a little skeptical, to be honest. Until we started eating. The food was amazing!

Soon, the restaurant was full of people and they were turning people away if they didn't have a reservation. We struck up a conversation with a couple of nice American women next to us who had made a reservation and they were shocked to hear that we didn't know this restaurant was the number one rated restaurant in Kyoto on Trip Advisor. Lucky us!

6. tells a story

I love Rainbow sandals. The pair on the right were my first pair and I wore them everywhere in San Diego and while traveling with the Semester at Sea program. They have literally been around the world.

7. A photo I'm the most proud of

One of my favorite things to photograph is flowers. I've taken so many pictures of flowers but this is my favorite. I took it at my favorite place in the world, Monet's garden in Giverny, France.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Korean Age

I was born on November 12, 1986. I'm 25 years old but in Korea, I'm 27. Ugh, it's terrible.

Here's the low down on how I magically lost two years just from landing on this peninsula.

When you are born in Korea, you are one year old. When you are one day old, you are one year old. Then, the following January, you are two years old. From then on, your age changes every January, NOT the day you were born.

This offered a lot of confusion between me and my students at first. Whenever a kid told me it was their birthday, I would ask, "Ohhhh, how old are you now?" with a big expectant smile. American kids love when they get a year older and say their new age with pride and a grin. But Korean kids would just look at me like, "What? Why are you asking me that?" and then go on to say the age they had since January, leaving us both confused.

birthday party at our school
Using me as an example, I was born on November 12, 1986 and on that day I was one year old in Korean age. Then on January 1, 1987, I turned two years old, in Korean age. When my birthday rolled around in November of 1987, I was still two years old in Korean age (even though I was just turning one!). Then in January of 1988 (just a month and a half after my first birthday), I turned three years old Korean age.

When kids start kindergarten at our school, they are either five or six years old, in Korean age. I have a five year old class that I teach every day and they are so cute, very active, and tiny. The school year starts in March and so if their birthday is early in the year, they could be four years old but most of them are probably still three (western age).

Here's some videos of them speaking English after learning English for about a month.

How old do you think they are?

Friday, April 6, 2012

Beauty and Plastic Surgery in Korea

In Korea, it's not considered rude to call someone ugly if it's true. In a class of 12-13 year old students, a girl called a boy ugly and I automatically said, "Don't say that; it's mean." The kids all looked at me with surprised looks and one said, "It's not mean. He knows it!" while the boy just smiled at me sheepishly, seemingly unhurt by these accusations.

double eyelid surgery source
With physical appearance so brusquely out in the open in Korea, the way you look really matters.

So, what is considered beautiful in Korea? There seems to be only one right answer: thin body, big eyes/double eyelid (a crease when your eye is open), a high nose (a bridge), good teeth, and a small face.

“Koreans agree on what constitutes a pretty face. The consensus, now, is a smaller, more sharply defined youthful face — a more or less Westernized look.” (The New York Times)

To get this "Westernized look," more and more Koreans are turning to plastic surgery for help, especially women.

In a CNN interview, reporter Kyung Lah talks to a plastic surgeon at one of the busiest clinics in Seoul. "Dr Kim believes in the global economy, investing in plastic surgery to slightly westernize the face will bring a return on the investment of 100 times, through more confidence, a better job and obtaining a better marital partner."

advertisement for plastic surgery on the subway source
 A New York Times article states,"Doctors say their main patients are young women entering the marriage and job markets. 'As it gets harder to find jobs, they’ve come to believe they must look good to survive,' said Choi Set-byol, a sociologist at Ewha Woman’s University."

It's sad that people resort to expensive surgeries to try and be happier and more successful but what's even sadder is that sometimes, it works. Studies have shown that attractive people make more money "than their less comely colleagues." 

With the promise of a happier and more successful life, plastic surgery doesn't seem like a bad option to many Koreans. In fact, the number of people who are willing to have procedures done has increased from 21.5% in 2007 to 31.5% in 2010 (survey of both men and women). In a survey done by Trend Monitor, "one of every five women in Seoul between the ages of 19 and 49 said they had undergone plastic surgery."

Plastic surgery wasn't always so popular or accepted in Korea. In the past, the bad stigma surrounding plastic surgery would keep people from getting procedures done but even that is starting to wane due to more and more Korean celebrities coming out about going undergoing operations.

“It used to be all hush-hush when mothers brought their daughters in for a face-lift before taking them to match-makers,” said Dr. Park Sang-hoon, head of ID Hospital. “Now young women go plastic surgery shopping around here.” (New York Times)

The place to shop around for plastic surgery in Korea is an area called the "beauty belt" in the Gangnam district in Seoul. Plastic surgery clinics line the streets and advertisements showing before and after photos of successful surgeries are everywhere.  

With plastic surgery so accessible and acceptable, will all of Korea one day be surgically altered?? I don't think so. There are some people who disagree with it and warn of procedures gone badly, dubbed "plastic surgery syndrome," and the possibility of getting addicted to it. There have also been a few posters advocating "Against Plastic Surgery" in the Gangnam area.

However there are far more posters on subway cars, in subway stations, and on billboards showing successful surgeries of smiling "perfect" young women.

Would you ever get plastic surgery? What if you were promised a better job and a more successful partner? Would you be tempted even a little? 

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Stuck in a Rut

A couple weeks ago, I realized that I brought five cocktail dresses (yes, five...I know, I know...) with me to Korea and have yet to wear one once. I tried them all on in turn and put on the heels I haven't worn either.

I walked (and spun) around the apartment in them relishing in their adorableness. Maybe it's because I hadn't worn dresses in a while since it was winter or maybe it was because I had no reason to ever dress up in Korea but the whole experience just made me sad.

The past few months have been a downer. I was sick for the entire month of March after only being better for two weeks from a previous illness. Actually, I think it's safe to say I was sick all winter.

I haven't been having a very good time, as of late. I feel like it's all, work, work, work, work.
from my iPod
To try and turn my frown upside down, I made a plan. I thought it would cheer me up to wear my fanciest dress, make Spencer wear a tie, and go out for drinks at the fanciest hotel in town.

I painted my nails. I wore contacts. I spent a good twenty minutes just doing my eyeshadow when usually it takes me all of ten minutes to put all my make up on. I changed my hairstyle three times before I found one I liked. I put on my beloved red party dress and the gorgeous shimmery coat my mom had just sent me. I wore heels outside for the first time on Korean soil.

We took a taxi to the hotel where the very kind employee told us we couldn't go to the bar that overlooks all the sparkling city lights of our town with the fancy drinks and plush chairs, because there was a wedding reception up there.

I was so disappointed.

We walked around for a while and then went to a restaurant we knew nearby that served cocktails. We salvaged the night and had a good time drinking and chatting while sitting in over-sized chairs listening to techno. We didn't have the view and I was totally overdressed but it was still nice to go out.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Travel Photos: Mission Bay, San Diego

The palms of Mission Bay, taken near the roller coaster.
San Diego is beautiful. The sun shines nearly every day and there are plenty of places to lounge in the sun and enjoy the day. One of the best places to do just that is at Mission Bay. Mission Bay is a man made bay where you can do all sorts of fun things including: wake boarding, stand up paddle boarding, biking on the path surrounding the bay, jet skiing, camping, kayaking, sailing, picnicking, or relaxing next to a bonfire at night.

Mission Bay, San Diego
I have an affinity for climbing trees. :)

A sunset over Mission Bay, taken near Crown Point.