Monday, December 27, 2010

Two Worlds

Two Worlds

The day is sunny and hot
Not as oppressive as a sauna
but more oppressive than an apartment with no air conditioning.
We twelve wade out to the catamaran 50 meters apart from shore
holding our towels and knapsacks high to protect them from the
azure blue lapping at our knees.
We carefully mount the boat, flanked by Filipinos extending hands to help
as the rickety stepladder sways to the rhythm of the water.

"It's hot,"  I say.  "Almost unbearably so."
Four men with dark skin and hair and friendly smiles take their positions
on the bark having done this a thousand times.
But this is our first time and we chatter "This is so cool!"
"I'm so glad we waited for good weather."
The sound of the engine suddenly drowns our musings,
it is working hard to back out of the shallow water at Boracay.  The sails flick int the wind
We silence ourselves and secure our bright orange well-worn life preservers.
"Isn't this fun?" someone asks Anna.  She interrupts her singing long enough to smile and nod
head full of braids flopping around in the breeze.

The wind is intense on the Sibuyan Sea.  I hold my hat with one hand and the boat with the other.
Our group is talking again, laughing at the sea spray hitting and soaking us.
Alec holds tight to the boat and his blue eyes squinting lest more salt water splash in.
After refueling, we head to a small uninhabited island.  Again, we wade in.
The sand is brown and rough, not nearly as soft as the white sand on Boracay Island.
The palm trees and sand welcome us. But it is quiet,
and only a few straw huts sit about empty
like a forgotten set for Jurassic Park.

We follow our leader around the island to two caves and two lookout points.
The waves are crashing quite violently on the ocean side of the island.
I decide not to descend the narrow spiral staircase to the tiny rock platform below.
My view is just fine.
I breathe in the deep blue of the water and the foamy white of the caps and spray.
The breeze threatens to snatch my sarong and hand it to the ocean as a gift.
I clutch it tighter and explore further, pondering what a tsunami must be like.
This place makes me think of shows like Lost or Cast Away or Survivor.
I wonder for a moment which of we twelve would be voted off of the island first
if stranded here by our guides to fend for ourselves.

Off again to the next leg of our outing, the part we've all been waiting for-
snorkeling around the coral.
The waves are too high to take us to the usual spot, so we hold tight as we move with the 6-foot powerhouses to another, quieter spot.
The kids are brave and excited to snorkel for real
Someone wonders aloud what we'll see "down there."

I secure the mask and fit the breathing tube snugly in my mouth then
Jump feet first into the sea.
The water is a rich sapphire blue and feels warm and refreshing
The mask forces me to breathe through my mouth and trust that
I'm not sucking in salt water.
I see the others are already floating away, discovering the treasures below.

As soon as I begin floating on my stomach with my face in the water
I know I've entered another world.
Even my ears are attuned only to the sounds of my breathing - like some sort of Darth Vader -
all sounds of the world above are blocked
The world below is primal.
We are visitors - or invaders, in the case of our anchor wedged in the coral below.
It is simply our privilege to view the life teeming beneath the floating human vessels.
Brown, green, blue coral, black spiky sea urchins, Nemos and Dories,
and a school of fish that swim upright and look like seaweed floating near the bottom.
Someone spots a blue starfish and we all make our way over to admire it.
No need to swim here, the current of the waves takes me to one exotic coral to another.
Fish with neon colors swim alone while others swim as a school.
This is the world under our very noses and we'd no idea it was here.

I muse about the existence of these two widely diverse worlds
and the thin membrane of water that separates the two.
Lift up my head - man's world full of sails and ships and coke bottles used as markers of waterways
full of poverty, and 16 hour days, threats of war, and unfinished grading
Lower my head - Triton's world of coral, fish, seaweed, starfish, and urchins.
Head up - creatures breathe air for oxygen
Head down - creatures breathe water.
Head up - airplanes, boat engines, men mumbling at a distance.
Head down - water, only muffled water.

I wonder if this is what it is like to enter the world of souls.
Head down.  Earth, land, sea, and sky.
Head up. (Who knows?)
But if Life after Death is even a smidge as wondrous as the sea below us
I think I'm gonna like it there.

By B-
Dec. 27, 2010

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Welcoming the Messiah

Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Emmanuel, God with us.

In this time of Advent, preparation for the Lord's coming in both remembrance and reality, I was delighted when Handel's Messiah was to be performed at a Methodist church in Seoul.  The Messiah runs deep in my family's blood.  I grew up making the pilgrimage to Luther College in Decorah, Iowa,  many years with my family to hear the 3 hours performance at my parents' alma mater.  The director back in those days was Weston Noble.  The chorus numbered in the 100's.  My dad would join the chorus as an alum and my sister and I would sit with mom in the bleachers.  I remember in those early days groaning about how boring and long it was.

Thus saith the Lord of Hosts; yet once a little while and I will shake the heavens, and the earth, and the sea, and the dry land. And I will shake all nations, and the desire of all nations shall come.

Now I'm an adult living near Seoul where a divided peninsula has been a bit shaky.  The words of the bass recitative ring a bit differently in my ears - words about God shaking "all nations."  Here I sit amongst 400 Koreans and Westerners listening to another 3-hour performance of the Messiah.  There are about 70 in the chorus and another 30 or 40 in the orchestra.  Believe it or not, the director is Weston Noble, now in his mid-80's.

For unto us a child is born,  unto us a son is given;  and the government shall be upon his shoulder:  and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counselor,  Almighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace.

When I attended Luther College (like everyone else in my family), I sang in the Messiah under Weston Noble's direction each of the four Christmases.  It was a highlight of my winters.  I remember him teaching all 700 - 800 singers about the text and how it interacted with the music.  During Wonderful, Counselor, Almighty God, and Prince of Peace, he would close his eyes and drink in the magnificence of the moment.  So did I.

And suddenly, there was with the angel a heavenly host praising God and saying, "Glory to God in the highest and Peace on Earth, goodwill toward men."

I remember Dr. Noble making us believe WE were the heavenly host.  The soprano would announce our coming and suddenly we'd be singing "Glory to God. . ."  At the end of the piece, the strings play lighter and lighter the same few measures.  Dr. Noble would tell the strings players WHY they did that; they were playing the part of the last little angel rising to heaven and disappearing.  Sitting in the upper balcony of the Methodist Church, I could see him direct the strings the same way and I could HEAR that last little angel disappearing.

Why do the nations rage so furiously together. . . 

These words to the bass air held a new significance in the wake of the recent trouble between North and South Korea.  I sit here marveling at how loudly and meaningful the words of such ancient texts ring today.  My husband and I are sitting behind the US Ambassador to Korea and other dignitaries in the VIP section.  I pray that the leaders can find ways to Peace,  and I marvel at how so much of the Messiah is about bringing Peace to Peoples and Nations.

Hallelujah!  Hallelujah!  Hallelujah!

The booming Hallelujah Chorus is the most familiar song of the Messiah by the general population. Heck!  Even Anna walks around the house singing it at random times.  (When I was a little kid this was about the time I'd wake up again from dozing on the hard bleachers in the Luther College gym.)  It is tradition for the audience to stand during this chorus.  Rumor has it that the King himself stood upon hearing it and thus everyone else in the joint did the same.  To this day audiences stand when the Hallelujah Chorus begins.  I wonder how sophisticated this group is.  As expected, everyone rises to their feet.  The chorus and orchestra sound glorious.  We are transported to another place and time.  Chills.

Shortly will be my favorite of all the pieces: Worthy is the Lamb and the Amen Chorus.  One leads right into the next.  When I was a child I hated the Amen Chorus.  I would make fun of it saying, "They just repeat Amen over and over for 5 minutes, what's the point?"  Now it is the point where for decades I have waited for Weston Noble, a man of impeccable character and faith, to ascend directly into heaven.  My senior year at Luther we had 1000 people praising God through the Messiah.  Imagine 800 singers and 200 musicians playing and singing "Amen!"  I simply love the glory of the Amens overlapping one into the next Soprano, Tenor, Bass, Alto.  They weave and flow and rise to heaven in a glory fit for God himself.  My heart fills with the music.

It is Christmas in Seoul!

Worthy is the Lamb; Amen!

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Recycling Nation

I had a nice conversation with my parents the other day about


I know it's an odd thing to think about, but I've noticed some differences here in Korea from my community in Wisconsin that are worth highlighting.

We do a lot more recycling here.  Even at the restaurants.  Typically real plates, cups and silverware are used for everything except take out.  Any eat in restaurant will use the real thing, even the food courts!  When you finish with your meal you'll take your dishes and sort them for cleaning.  At our school we use real plates, silverware, and cups.  Anyone from my previous school will know I was a fanatic about using real silverware; I brought real forks to the teacher's lounge so my colleagues wouldn't use plasticware every day. 

So far this may not seem so unusual, but what about this?  Let's say you order delivery from a Chinese restaurant here.  I've been told they will bring your meal on real plates!  So, when you're done eating you are supposed to put the dishes outside your door; the delivery person will come back and pick them up later!

Still not impressed?  Well, the fast food places (Western)  DO use paper products HOWEVER when you are finished eating and are about to throw your waste away you will notice that everything is recycled.  First, empty your cups one place, then put the cup on one place for recycling, the lid goes in another pile, other paper waste may have another recepticle and food garbage in another.

Still not impressed?  I've noticed that products made here are designed for easy recycling.  Products that in the States might have metal attached to cardboard (difficult to recycle) aren't made that way here.  Different materials are easily detached fo recycling purposes.  Styrofoam products and "other" are recycled.

At the grocery store or shops you must pay for every bag you use; therefore, most everyone brings their own canvas bags shopping.  When I need a paper or plastic bag I need to ask for it.  This is not true for the street vendors, however.  They are rather liberal with the plastic bags.

Even napkins are at a premium.  I haven't found napkins in the store yet; so we don't have any.  Napkins at the cafeteria and restaurants are small 1-ply squares that barely do the trick, but certainly trees are being saved.

I know I've mentioned this before, but I'll say it again almost everything we generate in our apartment has a home other than the landfill: paper, plastic, glass, cans, newspapers, styrofoam, batteries, clothes and food for compost have their place.  Each week we actually generate only about a 3 gallon bag's worth of garbage for 4 people!  According to International Environmental Law Committee-Newsletter Archive, Vol. 5, No. 1 - Feb. 2003 (internet), "in 1994, the Ministry of Environment introduced a so-called 'volume-based waste collection fee system.' After Jan. 1, 1995, all households and commercial building owners were required to purchase specially designed plastic bags for waste collection. Waste collection trucks only collect waste put in these bags. Under this system, people who generate more waste pay more."  So we pay for our waste removal, but removal of recyclables is free. Big items like furniture sometimes find their way to the garbage area; residents have to pay to have them removed (not sure where they go) BUT lots of times those items that are in good enough shape end up picked up by someone else (dumpster diving!  No Problem!)

 It seems all of this is a part of a recycling initiative and laws put into place by Korea about 1992.  Apparently, the system isn't perfect, but it sure seems better than what I'm used to!

Friday, December 10, 2010

First Snow at School 12-6-10

Winter Wonderland

Perhaps you've been wondering about winter in Seoul.
Well, it is December 11th and so far we've gotten two small snowfalls; both have burned off. I'd say we've made 3/4 inch total. I know our friends in the Midwest are bracing for a second snow of 6 - 10 inches. I've seen your pictures; the landscape looks beautiful.

Signs of winter are much more subtle here. The temps have lingered at about freezing the past few days. But so far we've seen more of 40's than 30's (Fahrenheit). We've secured our winter gear and wear it faithfully when we venture out, but so far, no biting wind to deal with.

I'd have to say, I'm liking winter so far! Also, not driving has its advantages. Someone else has to worry about slick roads. This brings me to the first of two stories.

The other night on the day of a snowfall equaling about 1/2 inch, our family missed the school bus home. It had snowed that day and there was a bit of slush on the road. Our school sits quite a ways up a small mountain/large hill. If we ever hit icy weather the hill will be quite treacherous and maybe impossible to mount. But at this time - just a little slush. ANYHOW, I asked the guard at the guardhouse to call a taxi (something I've done many times with no problem). He looks at me and says, "No. No taxi. Impossible." What? Apparently the taxis must not want to drive up our hill in the slush.
I thought it was funny, coming from Wisconsin winters.

Second story. This is a cultural difference we've noticed. It has to do with the heating. At our school, the rooms are cooled and heated individually. This means that in hot weather the rooms cool down but the halls are sticky and hot. Likewise, in the winter the rooms are warmed but the halls and skybridges are cold! Result? The students always wear their coats. They wear them through the halls and into the classes and during class - even though the room is comfortable. Interestingly, this spills over into winter fashion here. Cool long boots are all the rage as are circle scarves that are constantly worn around the women's and men's necks. I find it interesting that the way heating works around here drives the fashion!

See the accompanying post to enjoy a bit of video of the winter snow at our school. Winter wonderland!

Friday, November 26, 2010


Well, perhaps my regular readers are anxious to hear news from Korea about the recent attack on the South by the North and the return fire. I'm not a journalist or a politician or military, so my perspective is very limited. Keep that in mind as you read on.

Tuesday afternoon in the midst of searching for my daughter who had been MIA on campus for nearly an hour, a colleague stopped and gave me two pieces of vital information. 1. She knew where my daughter was! 2. She told me that about an hour previously, the North had fired "missiles" on the South and that I should go home right away.

Now that's a bit unsettling. Of course I didn't know what to think of it all, but as far as I could tell the skies were clear of aircraft and all seemed as usual. I decided the best plan was not to panic and wait to see some news for more reliable information, so I proceeded to find my daughter and head home with the kids via public transportation.

Nothing seemed unusual on the ride home. Once there I checked the news, which in fact seemed to be all about the unwarranted attack on a small island that lies on the tense border between North and South Korea. At that time one S. Korean soldier was reported killed, homes on the island on fire and evacuations of the civilians taking place. There were also reports of injured soldiers and civilians on the island.

No air raid sirens, no email from the embassy, no email from the school calling off PD day the next day. Brent was away in India and I was alone for a week with the kids. Still sticking with plan A: Don't Panic. That night I felt a bit nervous, said a special prayer for our safety and slept soundly.

Wednesday staff talked on and off about the attack and how weird it was and how we all hoped there'd be a quick cool down. I heard a few stories of how employers sent their employees home early on Tuesday to be with their families. But life went on as usual and we still had our Thanksgiving Dinner together - all 200 of us! Wonderful "traditional" American Thanksgiving Feast. Yum! So much to be thankful for!

The day proceeded as usual, I watched the news when I could or checked for updates. You all probably saw more in-depth news coverage than I did. At night I said a special prayer for our safety and slept peacefully.

Let me digress for a moment and just talk about the USUAL response of the Koreans to living next door to Mr. KJ-Il. Although it may surprise you, the Koreans generally don't worry about the North. They live their daily lives as anyone might expect. They sort of see him as an ornery cousin who "goes off" every now and then, but they don't take him too seriously. The rest of us take our cues from the natives. This time there seems to be some real unease, however. Afterall, the S. Koreans were attacked and homes on fire and people injured and TWO soldiers killed.

Thursday didn't seem much different. I noticed more military helicopter activity overhead than usual. We usually will see a few helicopters each day. This day there were a few more with more frequency; however, I glanced at the Koreans in my vicinity and no one looked up or seemed to take notice. So, again, I took my cue from them. At night I said my special prayer for our safety and slept peacefully.

Today I headed in to Seoul to the American Embassy for some business. Heading off of the subway toward the embassy, we met up with an American soldier on his way with his girlfriend to get married. He told us that while they are on 1-hour alert and he normally wouldn't be able to be in Seoul, his commander let him leave to get married. It seems that if there is a need for evacuation, the girlfriend (Korean) would only be able to leave if they were already married. He also mentioned that one of the first groups to be evacuated (should that ever be necessary) would be teachers. That makes me feel better - sort of. There were several police vehicles and a SWAT vehicle just outside the embassy. Lots of Korean guards outside the embassy. A tad unsettling to see all the police presence. . . but for all I know it is always like that. I imagine it is.

Tonight, the markets seem viable, as far as I know there haven't been further incidents. So, I'll say my special prayer for our safety and hope to sleep peacefully. I hope you all do the same.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Korean Health Care

Dear Readers,

The time has come to write about health care.  Now that Brent and I have both experienced the health care system, I've got a few stories to share.

First of all, a tad bit of research tells me that in Korea participation is compulsory, health coverage is universal, insurance benefits are standardized, the government is primarily responsible for paying, and doctor's fees are standardized.  We have international coverage through our employer.

Having said that, our recent trips to the doctor for various ailments has been quite the education.  First, we both battled some sort of infections for several weeks.  We didn't have time nor an inclination to head to the doctor.  Too much of a pain to coordinate, right?  Yes, but after 3 weeks of illness we finally gave up and went to the doctor to see about getting antibiotics.  We took the family by cab to a place about 20 minutes away.  I saw a doctor, received a diagnosis of sinus infection and a prescription for 4 drugs, and headed to the desk to pay upfront (money will go toward my deductible).  All told, less that $100 total.

Yes.  Less than $100 for my doctor visit and my drugs!  Brent's fees were similar.

Just over a week later I made another visit to an allergy clinic for an allergic reaction to something unknown that resulted in another prescription of 3 days of 3 drugs.  Doctor's visit?  $16.  Drugs? $7

Brent ended up making a quick visit to another doctor for wax in his ear that he needed cleaned out.  Again, the doctor visit and treatment were incredibly cheap - but effective.

We stopped in a mall last week to see about eye exam and new glasses for Brent.  The optometrist was able to see him immediately.  The visit was short; he found some glasses; we were done in 1.5 hours.  The bill was $200 for everything.

So, we're pretty impressed overall.  I've heard that some people are dissatisfied with some of the prescriptions as being too weak to really tackle the problem, so we've heeded the advice of those who have doctor recommendations.   On the other hand, I know that some people make sure they get all their dental work taken care of here as it is so much cheaper.  I see why.

Of course, language can be an issue.  Our school nurse is helpful with calling and setting up appointments.  Taxi drivers are helpful pointing out the right building. 

At any rate, I now understand why our Korean exchange student was so shocked by a $68 prescription for eyedrop treatment!

Here's to your health!

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Pepero Day

No, not Pepperoni Day. . .
Pepero day. [peh-peh-roh]

See picture Link

We were recently introduced to a "holiday" in Korea called Pepero day. Pepero Day is like a Valentine's Day in Korea where young people exchange pepero and small gifts. It's celebrated every year on 11/11 (Nov. 11) since the 1's resemble the Pepero sticks.  What is Pepero? It's a chocolate on a bread stick. We get chocolate sticks on Pepero day. Alec got chocolate sticks, a chocolate bar and a strawberry top from his teacher. His friend Elka gave him the chocolate sticks, too. All the teachers got Peperos from Elka! You should see how many Peperos they sell every year!

In the high school I hauled in 5 boxes of Pepero from various students as did Brent. Yum. At lunch home made Pepero was on sale (Dixie cup with chocolate sauce and two flaky twisty buttery sticks.) A few students were even providing entertainment with singing telegrams - dressed as Pepero, of course!

Where does this "holiday" come from? There are two rumors. First - Lotte Confectionary company. You've perhaps already read mention of Lotte World and Lotte Mart. It seems this brilliant marketing gimmick has worked wonders. Create Pepero day and, guess what, everyone buys Pepero! (Does this sound familiar? Seems to me Hallmark did the same thing with Sweetest Day. . . and Grandparent's day)

Second - Rumor has it that a group of middle school girls in Busan began it as an exchange of gifts to grow strong and tall like Pepero.

Either way, it's a fairly recent holiday that seems to have taken the young people by storm.  Next year is 11/11/11, so I guess it will be even a bigger blowout!

Viva Pepero!

(Alec and Anna contributed to this article.  If you liked it, please leave a comment on the post!)

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Rubbing Elbows with the Neighbors

Well, it's a lazy day here in Dongchun-dong. We're allowing ourselves to be a bit lowkey. But the weather is gorgeous - bright blue sky and mid-sixties, so we had to venture outside. The kids and I ended up spending much of the day just outside our apartment complex where the kids play. I thought I'd get some reading done, but I ended up enjoying watching Anna interact with the kids.

Alec was off playing with some of the kids from our school while Anna and I were playing a bit of badmitten. Pretty soon a bunch of Korean girls came walking toward us from a distance. "Anna!" they called. They know her from dragonfly catching days, I think. I thought it would be nice if they played badmitten with her, so I handed mine over. Pretty soon she ended up playing several volleys with four different girls. A few girls know a little bit of English. Pretty soon I hear one say, "Anna, do you want to play... (whisper in Korean to friend) dodgeball?" Anna agreed. The next thing I know, the group of girls are choosing sides and Anna's playing with them. Cool, I thought.

After a bit, the girls drift off to do something else. Some time passes. Anna and Alec end up hanging out with the group of expats from our school. By this time a colleague/friend who lives here has joined me. The kids are in a huge group talking about something. What? Craig comes over, "We're going to play Americans versus Koreans." Well, it never quite developed, but at least the kids were leaning in a slight way toward interacting with one another.

A bit of time passes. Pretty soon a young boy of 12 comes over to talk to me. I've met him before. He's a bit fascinated with Anna and works real hard to use his bit of English, more than most other Koreans do. "Anna?" he asks. "She went up to the apartment," I say. "Aparti." "Oh. She is going home?" "Yes. She is home. . . in the aparti," I say. He looks a bit disappointed. He has a friend with him, a young man probably 13 or 14. "She is going home?" he asks again. By this time I'm getting the notion he wants to go knock on the door and see if she'll come down, so I try to explain where she is. "She's in o-pek-gu dong, chun-o-pek-sam ho," I say slowly. At first he looks confused, trying to figure out what I said in English. Then he realizes I'm giving him directions in Korean. His face lights up. "Oh! Thank you!" he says. He and his friend head out.

A bit later I take leave of my friend to see if the kids made it up to the apartment and if they are still there. Sure enough. Two sets of strange shoes are in the entryway indicating our guests. Anna and Alec are showing them the apartment, or rather they are snooping around, a very Anna-ish thing to do. They are giggling and dial a friend on their phone. They have a cellphone with built-in video (like Skype). They're talking and giggling with their friend, taking pictures with Anna and Alec to prove they are in our apartment. I hear "waygukin" whiz by in conversation, one of my new vocabulary words - meaning foreigner. They stay a bit longer, then politely head out saying their good-byes.

Moments later, the door buzzer rings. It's the boys. Anna lets them in. Now they're with two girls about 13 - 14 years old. They're all giggling. "I'm sorry. I'm sorry," the younger boy says. It seems his older friend wanted the girls to see our place, too. They all take off their shoes again and follow Anna around giggling. The oldest girl comes to talk to me briefly in decent and fluent English. I ask her how she knows English and if she's ever been out of the country. She says she's learned her English at an English Academy close by. The kids head out again saying their thankyous.

I hope these are the beginnings of friendship. I know it's hard to move beyond the "sideshow entertainment" phase, especially with a language barrier. We'll see. But I have to give Anna credit; she's making more progress than the rest of us getting to know our Korean neighbors.

"And a little child shall lead them."

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Pusan and High School Musical 3

Here I sit watching High School Musical 3 on TV, because it's in English, and I do like it. High School! I've been living that since 1982. But I digress. . .

The family traveled by speed train to Busan/Pusan (same thing) this weekend. We left school a bit early on Friday, having taken 1/2 personal day. We took a bus to Seoul and then the KTX train to Pusan, a three hour ride. I've ridden on one once, but it was the first time for the rest of the family to be on a train! Very fun. Once we arrive we took a cab to our hotel. We had about a 15 minute scare while the hotel seemed to have trouble realizing we had a room booked. But they got it figured it out and all was well. The weather cooperated Friday night and Saturday. Highlights included seeing the Pacific Ocean (only a five minute walk away), seeing the hour-long fireworks display off the Wangali Bridge, watching Anna ice skate on the 7th floor of Shinsigae (the largest Department Store in the World), eating out for both traditional Korean BBQ and at TGIF's and visiting the UN Cemetery. A few unusual things happened too: we saw several tiny hummingbirds and walked past the windows of the ladies of the evening!

A great part of the trip was getting to spend the day with Mary. She was a student of mine 17 years ago! Now she teaches English in Pusan. She was brave enough to spend Saturday with us as we toured the city using the City Bus Tour. She also sweated out ice skating with Anna and listening to her prattle on about this and that. All of that and a nice walk on the beach and brunch at the Weston made for a great weekend.

There's always a few misadventures. The only thing this time happened to be the temperature of our hotel room - 29 degrees C, which is. . . HOT. We didn't know how to turn it down. Thankfully there was a fan in the room. We managed, though. Saturday evening was PERFECT! Mary and her boyfriend took us out for bulgogi (yummy!) before watching the fireworks. The walk back to the hotel was a lot of fun on such a gorgeous night - as we walked along the sidewalk next to the ocean. (sigh)

I'll post pics and videos on FB for friends to see.

Enjoy your week. We will now that we are refreshed and rested.

(For those of you interested - the cast of HSM 3 are now singing about Prom.)

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Alec's Blog

Alec has agreed to let me share his emergent writing. He's got a small notepad now that he has carried with him for a few days. He's writing what he thinks. Here's what he says,

"I'm happy today We got money for being good yesterday. We are going to a new park We are going to lotte world. We are having a nice walk We all exersid. We played dogs We are going to apple mall. We are getting a smoothie. We got jenga. We saw a white crane. we're eating out 10/16

"We're going on the subway intill a long time. We are going to suhhun we are in town. We are in Dos tacos. I am getting my third qaseadea. This is good. We cleanned the house. 10/16 We got doughnuts. I got a new balloon dog. we are watching a movie. I got bugs silly bands. 10/16

"We're going to church. I drawed Puke the Pirate island. We are going to Burger King. I am mad at Anna. We ate at Burger King. This is good. We are doing Wii. We are in Ori. We are at Home Plus. We are playing Wii at home with dad."

How could I say it any better?

Sunday, October 10, 2010


Dear Readers,

It is getting harder to think of new things to write. In a way that is a good thing; it means that what was once new and exciting and different at every turn is becoming more normal.

I still have moments of clarity when I say to myself, "Are you kidding? You're in Korea! Far from home living an entirely different life!" I had such a moment last evening. The staff social committee had arranged for a kickball tournament/BBQ Saturday afternoon for all of the staff and their families. We attended. The kickball portion took place on the soccer field. This happens to be a similar spot to the picture on our school's website. For months I saw that picture from that particular angle - with the skyscrapers and mountains in the background and the soccer field and school buildings in the foreground. Well, sitting in the stands watching kickball I had the same view. How odd! To suddenly realize I was living inside that picture! Living it, not just looking at it. In those moments life isn't normal at all. But otherwise, the apartment is feeling even more like home. And routines are in place. We're becoming more accustomed to riding public transportation, bumming rides from friends, shopping for products by the picture only, etc.

Some things still aren't routine - like exercise and working out. I miss my dog and his insistence on walking every day. However, we did take a short hike today in the mountains. It reminded me of walks with Boomer in GB at Ted Fritsch Park. The difference here was that there was much more of an incline. Also, while there were trees along the hike, there was very little undergrowth and no critters! We neither heard nor saw squirrels, chipmunks, snakes or mice. It was quite quiet.

Other things are routine now. I've mentioned them before. School ad work, church and activities with kids. This is all good.

Speaking of kids, our kids were interviewed yesterday. Yes - interviewed. Our school has a media class that posts on our website and youtube. Two students decided to cover adoption as their in-depth story. As I've been quite open about our adopted children, they decided to interview them. It was quite an exciting morning as they asked us all questions and took video of the kids playing outside and in their rooms. In a few days they should have the story posted. Those interested in more can leave a post or email and I'll let you know how to find the final story.

To end, I must say what I am most looking forward to. Those of you from GB will know how much we all love our Seroogy's chocolate. Well, Wayne L. returned home for a bit and I begged him (via Facebook) to bring me some Seroogy's chocolate. And he DID! Now I just have to meet up with him in Seoul and get a hold of it. There's nothing like a taste of home.

As always,

Saturday, October 2, 2010

School Reflection

Time again to reflect on school. First, let me say that I am thoroughly enjoying my year so far. What a blessing to have such little job-related stress. I give my students the credit for that. They are terrific.

First, a little demographics. The school I teach at in Korea is a K-12 international school with about 1200 total students. We are celebrating a decade of educating. Families are primarily Korean by ethnicity. Students often have lived abroad in an English speaking country or school for several years prior to attending our high school. Families are professional and expect a world-class education. The campus has a 1 to 1 laptop program fro students between 6th and 12th grade, so technology is a central component in learning.

Back to my students. I am still enjoying my students tremendously. They continue to be upbeat, prepared, polite, and engaged in learning. I find we do a lot of laughing, which is nice. Disciplining naughty children in my class is practically a non-issue. The biggest distraction for them is their computer. It is quite easy to simply ask them to close their computers in order to regain their attention. I continue to be amazed at their respect for each other and for me. This makes for stressless class periods.

Small class sizes play a role. Previously when I would have 28 - 32 students in a class as an English teacher, I would dream of small class sizes. I, and everyone else in my position, did the best we could to offer a tremendous education to our students. And we did. And they continue to do so. However, there really is something to be said for smaller class sizes. I now have between 9 and 19 students in my classes and have just 4 classes. Smaller class sizes means that I can expect all students to contribute to class discussion; individual project presentations takes fewer class periods to complete, students are able to get more individual attention from me, the general feeling in the classroom is less congested and rushed. And I have more time for planning because I'm taking less time for correcting.

Collaboration plays a role. As I have found in the past, life is easier as a teacher when you have colleagues with which to collaborate. I am so thankful that my new department members are willing to give their time to my questions and needs to make my courses successful. For instance, another teacher and I have the same preparation (course) and a common planning time. As needed, we can and DO meet for course planning and reflection. I'm doubly blessed because she and I seem to have similar teaching styles and views on what is important for the curriculum. Having TIME to collaborate can be and usually is an issue. What a difference it makes.

A supportive administration plays a role. I so appreciate that the culture in our building is healthy and supportive of staff. You see it in the class sizes. You see it in the encouragement of the social committee to keep the feeling of "family" through outside activities for staff. You see it in the way they address the teachers and present new ideas or tasks. There is a respect for who we are as professionals and people. One of the things I most worried about coming to a new school would be if the building would be a healthy and happy one. It is. Another blessing that keeps me balanced.

Technology usage in a 1-1 program keeps things fresh. I am absolutely loving the computers in the classroom. Students are responsible for buying and having their computer with them all the time. And they do. It is available for personal and school use and generally maintained by our IT department, which consists of 5 people for the entire district (3 buildings). Having computers at their fingertips has changed my teaching in some liberating ways. I post my lesson plans on my wiki now, along with links to documents, assignments, or websites used for instruction. Rather than print off all of these things, I tell students to "go to the wiki." Having access to the internet means they can easily navigate through parts of a website on their own and explore more than before. They can research topics right as we are discussing them. They also have access to a variety of resources for presentations like i-movie, keynote, youtube, etc. It is easier for students to communicate with one another through school email, chats, blogs, and postings on the wiki. Students have been able to post or download their assignments for me to correct. At first I didn't think I would like this feature, but it turns out that I do. I can usually use the editing feature to still write my "teacher comments" and I don't have a pile of papers to take home. Additionally, students can comment on one another's work this way for peer critiques outside of class. In the near future I hope to do a collaborative project with a former colleague and her students. We're hoping to have our students from half-way around the world read and critique each other's papers. To keep students on task in class with computers in use, we use a program called Apple Remote Desktop. This allows me to see what students are doing and know if they are off task. I can speak to them directly or shoot a message electronically reminding them of the class expectations.

So, for the most part I would say the transition to my new school in my new country is going quite well. There isn't too much to stress over. The things that do cause stress are those to be expected, preparing for two new courses, creating curriculum, learning the routines, getting to know colleagues personally, and forming deep, lasting friendships. These things will come with time, effort, and patience. In the meantime, I shall continue enjoying each day as it unfolds with all its ups and downs.

Friday, September 24, 2010


Chusok break is winding down.  We've been making the most of our week off of work and school.  The weather has finally cleared up.   The rain and heat and humidity are GONE.  Sunny, clear skies, cool mornings and evenings and warm days have set in.  Finally!  I saw on the weather news that we've had almost 4x the normal amount of rain - recording setting. 

So, the break in the weather has made for wonderful sight seeing.  We celebrated two special occasions this week: my birthday and Anna's adoption day.  Make that three special occasions; our new couch and chair arrived after a 3 week set of delays.  Halleluia! 

Mexican food makes a felix cumpleanos
For my birthday we headed back to Itaewon, the Global Village area with a plethora of shops and ethnic eateries.  I have been hankering good Mexican food, and I knew I could find it there.   What an eclectic place.  We met Mr. Jokeman, a tailor who accosted Brent on the street insisting he could custom make him a suit and tell jokes "for free."  We've got his card to prove it.  (Tailored suits ARE a big thing here, and Itaewon is a good place to go since you have a better chance of finding an English speaking taylor.)  We also had a street artist create a banner with our last name on it with amazing artwork!  Can't wait to frame it and put it up in the apartment.  For lunch we walked Restaurant Row and found Amigos at the very end.  This was just what the doctor ordered - great Mexican food.  I had a burrito and a taco, rice and beans.  The mango margarita was on the house as a birthday present.  Cool.  Later I was told the Mexican embassy orders from them as it is the closest to home cookin' they can get.  After a few more purchases, we headed back home.

Drum and Dance show at Korean Folk Village
Dressed as guards for the Governor's Palace
 For Anna's birthday we made our way to the Korean Folk Village.  I got directions through a phone service here for foreigners, learning which buses would take us the 35 minutes to the Village.  It is sort of a Heritage Hill crossed with a Bay Beach Amusement park attached.  The grounds are huge, housing all kinds of authentic buildings, a few different museums, and various areas for entertainment.  Workers and artisans dress in the traditional hanbok, so the kids wore theirs, too!  (A lot of heads turned seeing two little blond headed kids in hanbok!)  While there, we saw a horsemanship show, a tightwire act, a concert of traditional Korean music, awesome drumming and dancing in bright costumes, and a traditional wedding recreation.  The kids both got to ride a horse led by one of the professional riders; a highlight of their day.  For supper we ate at the "foodcourt," an outdoor area where you order and pay for your food at a central ticket booth then take the tickets to the booths to pick up your order.  We had a marvelous noodle soup, pork kabobs, rice, kimchi, and water.  (By the way, most all places expect you to drink water with your meals, not milk, juice, pop, or alcohol.)  At the amusement area we took a relaxing trip on a little boat ride, rode a small rollercoaster (which the kids loved) among other things.  The nailbiting part of the day was when I lost my Flip for about 10 minutes until we retraced our steps twice and found it.

Enjoying a ride down the river at Korean Folk Village
Today our new couch and chair (cushy and reclining) arrived.  Wonderful!  The couch and chair provided would only seat three of the four of us and not very comfortable (too HARD).  So, now all that is left is a bit larger TV and we'll be set.  Don't expect anymore fabulous adventures for awhile - we'll be too busy lounging around as couch potatoes!

Monday, September 20, 2010

Lost in Translation

Happy Chusok!

Wednesday is a special holiday for the Koreans.  To the locals it is a sort of Thanksgiving/Day of the Dead combo that is celebrated for several days.  This is a time to be with family, wear traditional clothing, eat special foods just for this occasion, a visit the cemetery to honor the deceased.  To expats such as ourselves, it mostly means vacation at an unusual time - September!  Most people return to families, which means that Seoul more or less empties out and lots of businesses close for the holidays.  Many of the teachers at our school (foreigners) head out of the country for the week.  We did not.  We headed to a resort in another area of Korea where we cashed in on some timeshare.  At least, that is what we WANTED to do. 

Turns out that Cheongju and Chungju are not the same place.  Just try pronouncing both of those names aloud once and see if you hear a difference.  I didn't, but apparently the guy at the bus terminal did, because when I asked for 4 tickets to Chungju, it was heard as Cheongju.  Both cost about the same fare and lasted about the same amount of time, so I didn't know the difference.  Our family happily boarded the bus and settled in for a 2 hour ride beginning at about 7:10 PM on Friday night and ending at 9:00 PM on Friday night.  Perhaps we should have been suspicious when the first taxi driver we came to refused us service.  Instead, he indicated the guy behind him who promptly KICKED out some poor schmuck in the back who thought he was going to get somewhere!  We apologized, put our luggage in the trunk and got in the cab with "John Denver."  (You'll understand in a minute.)  He knew a little English.  I showed him the resort address, carefully sounding it out with him.  He punched it into his GPS and we were off.  I expected a 5 minute ride and a 6000 Won fare (as promised by the Resort paperwork).  He was a pretty good conversationalist and began making small talk.  Pretty soon we were out of the city.  After 15 minutes I felt suspicious.  What had gone wrong?  Our driver helped us to understand: we had arrived in Cheongju, a happy 84 km from Chungju and he was taking us there!  We were in for a long ride - literally!

Chalk that one up to experience!

Thankfully our driver was a good guy.  He asked questions about the US and spoke of how he would love to travel all over the US some day, but he was just a poor taxi driver.  He spoke about how all American women are seen as "movie stars."  (I guess that makes me a sort of movie star!)  He told us he knew a little John Denver and began singing "Country Road Take Me Home."  Brent and I joined in.  We had some regular karaoke going on!  Eventually we saw it.  Our place was near the top of a mountain.  The taxi began the long ascent.  We passed some poor young young guy walking up the sidewalk that lined the road.  I wanted to pick him up, but there was no room in the car.  "What a long walk that would be," I thought.  At last we arrived.  We were elated!  It was about 10:00 PM.  So, 1 hour, 84 km and 100,000 Won ($100) later we were saying THANK YOU to John Denver.

It doesn't end there, of course.

We plopped into bed (as a one bedroom, one kid slept on the floor and the other on the couch) and drifted happily to sleep.  The next morning we discovered what a beautiful, remote setting our place was in.  Lovely!  The mountains were misted over in the distance and looked 2 dimensional - just like in the Korean artwork you see.  We made our way down to breakfast - a traditional Korean breakfast - our first.  Korean breakfast is just like Korean lunch or supper; essentially there is no differentiation.  We were served rice, soup, kimchi, a fried egg, and a few other side dishes.  Much of it was quite good.  Next up - doing something fun!

One problem.  No car and no public transportation meant taking another taxi into town - yes, Chungju.  It turns out we were still 20 minutes from Chungju!  Yet another long and costly taxi ride into town.  No worries, though.  We were determined to have a good time.  So, we headed toward the Visitor Information Center.  What luck.  The minute we walked in, a kind, local English speaking couple came in too.  "What are you doing here?" Matt asked.  "We're here for Chusok, just exploring."  "Really?"  "Yes, what is there to do around here?"  Well, the couple proceeded to give about 30 minutes of their time explaining what might be good to do in the area with the kids.  Very kind of them!  Unfortunately, the thing we most wanted to do was take a ferry around the big lake there, but they were only running the short route due to Chusok and we wouldn't make their departure that day.  Another day, perhaps.

Finally, we took off for our adventure.  Taxied to a nice park with lots of monuments, statuary, and a beautiful view of the river as well as a lovely lookout tower.  We also discovered a forgotten Buddhist Temple tucked in the hillside.
Next, we taxied to another park that held a 7 story pagoda marking the very center of the Korean peninsula.  Cool.
Wandered into a small museum, again looked at the river and generally wandered around.  Taxied back into town to seek out public transportation back to the resort (as it would be much cheaper).  We had a bit of supper at Pizza Hut (no the pizza does not taste quite the same.) As usual, we met people who adored our children and wanted to talk to them and touch their hair.

Eventually we got on the 365 bus to the country.  It was a 45 minute ride to our stop.  We watched the lovely red sunset.  As we really didn't know where to get off, the bus driver kindly stopped at the bottom of our mountain and waited for us to disembark.  So, there we were - 7:10 PM, dusk, at the bottom of a mountain in the middle of nowhere.  No chance of getting a taxi now.  We had only one choice - hoof it to the top of the mountain!

The kids were great.  All in all, I imagine it was a 1.5 - 2 mile hike from the bus stop to the front door.  Anna was the first to make it, then Alec, then Brent (who only hung back on my account).  I brought up the rear, feeling like the guy who comes in last in a Biggest Loser challenge.  But, we made it!  We climbed a mountain!  Once again, we plopped into bed very weary travelers.

The following day it rained.  All day.  Just plain rained.  We had no ambition to walk down the mountain to catch a bus nor pay the price of riding into town to do activities in the rain, so we simply "hung out."  The highlight of the day consisted of experiencing a Korean Sauna (or public bath).  There was one on the resort - kids welcome.  Yahoo!  Boys go one way, girls the other.  Why?  Because public baths are enjoyed nude.  Thankfully, there was only one other woman in the bathhouse.  This made the whole experience a bit more comfortable for me.  Anna, of course, has no problem with nudity; she never has.  So she happily trotted from one hot bath to the next in her birthday suit.  The room itself was amazing - 4 different bath areas (the size of huge hottubs without jets).  One at about 105 degrees F, another at about 100 F, another about the same but with some sort of medicinal herbs in the water, another cold bath (75 F?), and two dry saunas.  The room also contained several standing showers, and seated showers for soaking feet, for example.  It was an amazing facility built to easily hold 50 - 60 people in the baths themselves.  The locker room had over 100 lockers, but there were only 3 of us!  We soaked in one, and then another, and then another several times over.  Lovely and relaxing.

So, were entertained ourselves for the rest of the day as best we could.  No restaurant was open, so we ate convenience store food for lunch and ordered take out "chicken" (which here means fried chicken) for supper.  A nice movie before bedtime and all was well.

Next day.  Rain again.  Drat!  Well, as you could imagine, this did not sit well with us.  Essentially all services were halted at the resort (because of Chusok?) and we had no wheels of our own.  Patience had run out.  So, we called it a day, hopped in a taxi to the bus station in CHUNGJU and made our way back to Seoul for the very reasonable price of 32000 Won total (about $30) for our 2 hour ride.

Now we are back at our apartment and couldn't be happier.  I AM sad that we never made it to the lake there.  We were looking forward to it.  But sometimes you just got to deal with the hand given you.

Think of us on Wednesday; it'll be Chusok and we'll be sure to dress our kids up in their traditional hanbok clothes for the occasion.  Now. . . if we can just find an open restaurant . . .

Wednesday, September 15, 2010


Hello all!

This is a quick note.  I just checked my "statistics" for my blog.  This includes a glance at my demographics.  I'm quite excited because my blog now includes hits from 10 different countries!  Isn't technology wonderful?

Peace.  Pax.  Paix.


Saturday, September 11, 2010

Prices and Products

Hi Readers,

How much is a loaf of bread?  How much for milk? or gas? or a night out?
I remember wondering these questions before I came to Korea.  As a matter of fact, I remember one night on Facebook pounding Yunji with question after question about her home country days before we were to leave.  I was especially worried about finding cheese.  Good old Wisconsin cheese.  And milk.  She assured me I could find "everything."

So, I thought I'd take this time to talk about prices and products - shopping in general.

I'm not a huge shopper.  Never have been and never will be.  But I can offer this: in general clothes and shoes and eating out at a Korean restaurant are quite a bit cheaper than in the US.  Groceries, especially fresh fruits and vegetables and meat, is much more expensive.

First, clothes.   The fashion here is wide-ranging but chic.  It's almost impossible for me to find clothes that fit due to my size versus the normal female Korean sizes.  But I did by a nice pair of shoes today for 17000 Won (about 15.50 US).  Shoe stores are EVERYWHERE.  Most shop keepers of all kinds put at least some of their wares out on the street in front of their place.  So it looks like Maxwell Street Days all the time here.  T-shirts abound for 5000 Won.  In fact, Brent bought a short sleeved button up shirt for 5000 Won one day (about $3)  So clothes are to be found easily and at good prices.  There are also an abundance of up-scale shops to be found in certain shopping malls.  Prices in these places are as you would expect - way beyond my budget.  In general, Koreans love to have the brand name sort of stuff, so there are also quite a few knock off brands to be found. 

Next, food.  Food is everywhere.  In one city block you will easily find clothing shops, a salon, a stationery store, a pool hall, a convenience store, a pharmacy, a PC Bong (internet arcade) one or two small grocery stores (always with icecream machines outside), a Baskin Robbins, and several eateries.  Some of the restaurants make their food right in their front window facing the street so you don't even have to walk in to buy their products.  These places sell tempura, spicy meat dishes, vegetable pancakes, waffles, or candies.  Their prices are very reasonable, usually ranging from 1000 - 4000 Won.  No tipping is expected.  The Korean restaurants usually specialize.  They might sell primarily spicy chicken or pork dishes or rice dishes with pork cutlets, or sushi-like options or soups, depending upon where you go.  Prices usually range from 4000 Won - 10000 Won.  No tipping expected.  At Western chain restaurants, like Outback Steakhouse the prices are rather comparable to what we'd pay in the US.  The menus are slightly different, but still a good place to find beef, which is rare here.  Tipping is expected and included in the bill.   Same for Italian restaurants, we've found.  Baskin Robbins and Dunkin' Donuts abound here - almost one on every other street!  We can get an icecream cone for 1500 - 2000 Won.

Now for grocery shopping.  I have yet to find anything like ye-olde-gallon of skim milk.  However, the litre-plus milk we find (probably closer to 2%) costs about 3300 Won (about $3)  I consider that pricey.  Cheese can be found in bulk at Costco for a somewhat reasonable price.  But in a regular grocery store, we've paid what amounted to $7 for 1 pound of Colby from Wisconsin.  The cost of any vegetable or fruit is generally almost twice what we'd pay in the States.  I haven't adjusted to the metric system yet either, which causes some problems.  A big cereal box?  About $4 -$5.  Diet Coke?  Well, I'm more likely to find Coke Zero and pay about twice the cost at Festival for a similar amount.  I haven't found sour cream yet.  Beef roast?  Impossible!  Beef prices are astronomical - including hamburger.  Most beef comes from Australia.  So there are some things that are nearly impossible to find (or maybe they're here and I just can't read the labels!)  But there are certainly a wide range of products in the grocery store that I've never seen or eaten before.  Seafood and fish are found in abundance.  I wouldn't know what to do with them!  Also, there are a number of vegetables and fruits that are new to me.  At one grocery store we saw a kimchi-bar (sort of like a salad bar, only with all different varieties of kimchi!)

Many Koreans simply eat out most of the time because it is cheaper than buying at the grocery store and making it yourself.  We're doing a bit of both - so far.  So it is always an adventure shopping for food!

:) B

Saturday, September 4, 2010


 Politeness wins the confidence of princes” - Chinese Proverb

I want to take this time to comment on the concept of politeness.  People are people and kids are kids, but there seems to be a level of politeness in Korea that has surprised me. 

I imagine it has to do with the hierarchical nature of the culture here.  Each day as we walk past the guardhouse on the way to school, the guard stands, nods his head and says hello (in Korean, of course) to us.  We smile, nod our heads, and say hello back (in Korean, of course).  Each day as we get on the bus, the busdriver greets us, and we him.  In class as students enter many of them say hello to me, and later say good-bye.  During class when I hand papers back or they hand them in, custom dictates that two hands be used for the transaction as a sign of respect to me.  (I've decided I know which students are American and which are Korean by home-culture by the way they turn in their papers.)

I enjoy the civility here in the greetings of bus drivers, cab drivers, shop keepers, and students.  It is not something I expected.  My preconceived notions had to do with large cities with lots of people bumping into each other and not saying excuse me.  While this is true, I've found that in general, the Korean people are quite polite and good-natured.

All of this sounds wonderful, of course, until you see the driving. . . but that is a story for another day.

Sunday, August 29, 2010


The movie Inception is all the rage.  It is a movie that blurs the lines of dream and reality and explores dreams within dreams.  I've seen it twice now.  Perhaps that movie, along with a novel which explores a similar theme, After Dark by H. Murakami, has influenced my perceptions.  Perhaps the simple fact of living in a different culture for one month is all it takes.  At any rate, every now and then I wonder if it is all a dream.

New routines have replaced old routines.  Rather than getting ready for school and driving alone 5 minutes to work in a car, now the family walks 5 minutes to be picked up by a school bus filled with 35 chattering staff and their kids for a 10 minute ride to school.  Rather than walk the halls of NDA listening to Carolyn's joyful laugh in the hall or popping in on Jean or Bob or Steven for a quick chat in the morning or between classes, I say goodbye to my husband at the teacher's lounge, ride an elevator to the fourth floor of the high school, and pop in to say hello to Helen or Brian, or Dow, or Karen.  Rather than eat my instant lunch in the teacher's lounge, laughing and chatting for 40 minutes, I go through the Western or Korean lunch line and sit in the cafeteria in the STAFF section next to my husband and others.   Instead of facing a room of 30 happy, energetic freshmen to discuss a lit survey curriculum for 45 minutes, I face a room of 21 focused juniors to discuss American Literature for 75 minutes.  Instead of a sea of blond hair, a sea of black hair.  Instead of prep time consumed with IB work :), my prep time (sometimes 150 minutes in a day) is filled with correcting papers or planning curriculum.

It has become routine to explore a new area of Seoul on Saturdays.  What did we used to do on Saturdays?  Often we'd find family events in the Green Bay area.  Green Bay was good about having different events at Shopko Hall or other venues to keep us entertained for a few hours.  Now our Saturdays are filled with all-day excursions.  This usually consists of 1 - 1.5 hours on public transportation to get to a new area to explore.  Over the weeks we've explored Lotte World (Disneyland-ish theme park), Itaewon (the World Village), the Grand Palace, and yesterday - Insa-dong.  (Note:  See previous posts for further details.)

Insa-dong is an area of the city north of the center of Seoul.  It is known for it's traditional shops along a walking district, street vendors, antique shops, and a myriad of art galleries.  We explored much of this during an on-off drizzle.  Then we probed further and had a snack at Top Cloud, a nice restaurant on the 33rd floor of a building which overlooks the city - tremendous view!  We also found a Buddhist Temple in the area where worshipers were praying and monks were chanting.  How fascinating!  The little shops in that area all had religious wares like tiny to huge Buddhas, lanterns, gray shoes and clothing for the monks and religious, etc. 

And Sundays?  Sundays have been the most difficult for me - to be drift-less without a church home and church community.  Sundays used to mean 2-3 hours at church for service and Sunday School and social time.  Then home to spend time with family and correct papers.  Until today, Sundays have been family time or group time at the playground on the apartment complex, maybe a trip to the store for more goods and correcting papers.  Today we finally made it to church!  The Director's family told us about the place they found and invited us along this week.  It is only about 10 minutes away by bus and an English speaking inter-denominational church with praise band and Baptist/Assemblies of God roots.  Several of the students from our new school attend there and the people are quite welcoming.  Our daughter sang with gusto and said "this isn't so bad," which is a good thing, considering her usual reluctance.  Afterward, the Director's family invited us to their home for lunch. 

So these new routines are replacing old ones, but I still have this nagging feeling that, like Bob Newhart, I'm going to "wake up" one day only to find it was all a dream.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Beginning to feel like home

Hello readers and friends,

It's beginning to feel like home.  Yet home is elsewhere, as well.  Paradoxical, I suppose. (My students like the phrase "a juxtaposition" and would use that here.)

Home because. . . well, frankly, because the fridge and pantry are finally full.  That and the fact that we have a few pictures of family up on the wall and around the apartment.  What a difference it makes to open up the refrigerator or the cupboards and be able to make a meal.  Other things are making it feel like home, too.  I'm getting used to the bus ride to school in the morning - all the chatter of fellow colleagues and our kids for the 10 minute ride.  I know several different routes to get to the bus now.  Also, if I need to get home on my own from school, I can do it.  I know how to use the appliances in the apartment (even though all the buttons are labeled in Korean).  Certain things are becoming routine - walking through certain subway stations to certain queues or certain exit gates to get on a certain bus to go home, for example.

AK Plaza - my spot of exploration today
Today I explored a little ON MY OWN.  Brent stayed at home with the kids.  We finally have a babysitter (an American student) so that we can go and see Inception.  I've been told by me seniors that it has similar overtones to a summer reading novel for AP Lit, After Dark (Murakami).  So I decided to scope out the theater we'd heard about, see if I could find it on my own, buy tickets, explore, and return home safely without any wrong turns.  And I did it!  Yeah for me!  How fabulous to travel by myself by bus, subway, and on foot (got my 10,000 steps in today).  It brought back long buried memories of France.  I'm sure it was because back in '89 I was on my own, too, riding the subway and exploring the big city of Paris.  Perhaps connecting something in the present to something in my past also helps this feel more like home.

6 hours later. . . 

Okay.  This strays from the usual ESSAY structure, but I'm going to do it anyway.  I'm going to entirely change the subject.


Freaky.  Wow.  Loved it.  Woah.  If you haven't seen it, go see it. Holy WAH!
And by the way, seeing a moving with Leonardo DiCaprio in it, in ENGLISH, and eating at BURGER KING afterward also contributes to the feeling of HOME.

Even so. . . I miss my friends back in GB.  More so today because I know they've begun returning to school and to the life I used to live.

Thinking of you all!


Saturday, August 14, 2010

First Impressions: My school

This post is for all my educator friends who are wondering about my new school in Korea.  Here are my first impressions with a whopping 3 days of teaching the students under my belt. . .

Frankly, so far I'm loving it.

That's good news, right, considering I traveled half way around the world to be here and to teach here.  I don't want to make blanket statements about international schools in general OR international schools in Korea OR schools in Korea, in general ; I don't think that would be fair.  So I'll keep my comments specific to the two weeks I've spent at my school and the three days I've spent with students.

As many of you know, I had been teaching at a private, Catholic high school in Wisconsin for 17 years.  I loved a lot of things about it - especially my colleagues and my students.  I think I will be able to say the same thing about this new school.

Many aspects are similar as far as the demographic is concerned.  Like my school in the US, families are primarily professional and wealthy and expect a solid education for their children.  Parents and students expect to go to excellent US colleges and universities when they are finished.   At my new school, the student population is almost entirely Korean with a few caucasians just to keep it "diverse."  I've told my students this is the exact opposite of my previous school, which is true.

Differences are that this school is K-12.  Emphasis is almost entirely on academics; it is hard to get students to go out for sports and stick with it all through high school.  The student population is primarily Korean by ethnicity; however, students have been born in either the US or Korea.  We have about 300 students in the high school versus 750.  But, whereas my previous school had about 45 teachers to service the 750 students, we have 35 teachers to service the 300.  More about that in a bit.

Here are the things that I have found pleasantly surprising about the students. . .
1.  They are so polite!  I've never had half of the students say "Good bye" or "have a nice weekend."  My husband even got a "Thanks for the great lesson today" comment.       . . . What???
2.  The students appreciate my sense of humor.  No, really! 
3.  The students are engaged in learning. I've always dreamed  of having rapt attention from my classes without having to keep reminding them to pay attention.  It happens here!  (Well, for three days, anyway.)
4.  The students are prepared for class.  You won't believe this, but the kids had summer reading AND summer writing.  And I mean serious writing!  The students had 3 books to read and about 3 or 4 pages of typed writing to do prior to school and due ON THE FIRST DAY!  All students were prepared.  That's right!  All students who had been enrolled on time brought their assignment with them on the first day of school.  CRAZY!

Here are the things that I have found pleasantly surprising about the staff and administration. . .
1.  The administrators have the teachers' backs.  They work to keep the class sizes down to no more than 20.  When a sizable influx of students enrolled the week school started, the principal apologized profusely to the entire high school staff that some of us would have to teach sections of 22.  (In my four sections I have a total of 70 students.)
2.  The staff are friendly and patient, going out of their way to help the new staff when we have questions.  They have a whole team of people at school designed to support staff both on AND OFF campus.
3.  The administration values professional development and field trips abroad.  The school prides itself on all of trips students make to various countries to further global citizenship.
 4.  The culture of the building is very inclusive and celebratory.  It's a healthy building!  Yeah!  We've already had 3 social gatherings - 1 on campus and 2 off campus.  One of the off campus gatherings was at a local establishment with a pool table, restaurant and bar area.  The school paid for all of the appetizers for the evening.  How cool is that?  And during the opening in-service, there were streamers and balloons dropped from the ceiling in celebration of their re-accreditation as a school!
5.  The staff is much more diverse than the student population.  We've got teachers from the US, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, China, and Korea.  We have teachers who have already taught in international schools around the world including Poland, Kuwait, and Tobago.

So, that is all of the amazing stuff.  There are some interesting things to adjust to, too.  For example, rather than getting after students about dress code violations, here we have "English only" violations.  So many students speak Korean at home that the school needs to monitor that English is spoken at all times.  As the school is pretty young, they still have a lot of work to do with putting effective policies and curriculum in place.  So, that means that we get to. . . (drum roll, please) work on scope and sequence aligning curriculum both vertically and horizontally (curriculum mapping) this year.  Woohoo!

Here's another interesting tidbit. . .
Wonder why the US is falling behind in educational statistics?  Well, in Korea, education is Number 1!  Students aren't working at Target to earn extra cash.  Instead, they are attending hogwon (night school) for extra education to "get ahead" and compete against other students to get into the best universities (which allow them access to the best jobs).  Many students even attend this "extra" school on Saturday.
Such a competitive view of education is likely a bit unhealthy, but the result is heaven for a teacher who has always dreamed of having a class full of driven students.  Now. . . to just get them interested in learning for learnings' sake.  (Right!)

Saturday, August 7, 2010

My Illiteracy

I know it may seem ironic for an English teacher to call herself illiterate, but that's the reality here in Korea.  This is what I'm learning about illiteracy.

It isn't fun or easy.  It is often frustrating.  It causes mistakes and mix-ups and it makes many things take longer than they should.  Here's what I mean.

My Korean speaking skills at present are VERY minimal, but better than anyone else in my family.  Therefore, when any sort of transaction needs to take place with a Korean-speaking national, I'm elected.  The bus stops are a particular place of enigma for us.  Much of the information at the bus stop is only in Korean.  Kindly, numbers are readable.  Buses are available on one side of the street going in one direction and the other side of the street going in the other direction.  Public transportation is wonderful here but you have to know certain things: where you are, where you want to go, the bus numbers that will take you there, the direction to go in.  Without the ability to read, we are at a bit of a loss.  What is the name of our bus stop?  How do we know the names of the bus stops that would be our destination?  How would we know when we have arrived? (for example).

The other day, as our troupe of KIS staff were waiting for our school bus at a public bus stop (as usual),  I decided to begin to figure this out.  I am getting a bit better on pronouncing the Korean letters and thought I would tackle the name of our bus stop as seen on the sign.  I spent a minute or two sounding it out (badly).  Ha- oon- dah - ee  Ah-paht.  Over and over.  Finally, the light went on.  Right below the bus stop name in small English letters was written Hyundai Apartments.  Hyundai!  That was the word I was trying to sound out!  So the bus stop name is Hyundai Apartments!  I did it!

However, it did take me a long time to read one little word, and the English translation was available.

Another fun little anecdote.  We were in Seoul at the Dunkin' Donuts with Sein.  Brent passed by a small clear pump/bottle.  Thinking it was hand sanitizer, he pumped some into his hand.  Turns out it was SYRUP.  Sein got a big kick out of that, and Brent got a sticky hand.

Let's talk about the market and grocery store.  As someone who is illiterate, I rely heavily on the pictures on containers, boxes, and bottles.  Since we are trying to set up our household, we need a lot of various cleaning supplies: toilet bowl cleaner, dishwasher soap, laundry soap, shampoo, conditioner, hand soap, kitchen cleaner, bathroom cleaner, floor cleaner.  Imagine going to Target to the cleanser section and seeking all these things only being able to use the pictures on the labels!  Got any questions?  You can't ask very easily.  Most people won't understand your English.  You could be creative and take a picture of a similar product and show someone, or go to a dictionary first and look it up and sound it out.  You could ask someone who is bi-lingual to tell you ahead of time, write it down and then ask someone.  You could do any number of creative and wonderful things, but none of them are easy or quick.

This is the world of the illiterate.

So, until my Korean gets better. . .

goo dah bah yee

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Seoul Train - still rolling

Okay, we didn't exactly take a train to Seoul, but I couldn't pass up the homonym (or whatever it is called).

July 31st found the Braykos making their way to Seoul in the first ever excursion as a family using public transit and venturing into the capital city of Seoul, a city of over 10 million and the fifth largest in the world.  We weren't quite sure where the busstop was, but eventually found it and headed on the red 5500 express bus to Seoul.  The trip was 45 minutes in.  It was airconditioned, clean, and packed.  The Koreans enjoy watching us and sometimes engage in conversation.  So that is fun.  We sailed past congested traffic in our very own express bus lane - sweet!

With a little help, we got off at the right stop - Seoul Station (the trains and subway comes into this spot, too, so it is HUGE).  We were so excited to finally see our exchange student, Sein, who proved to be a marvelous tour guide!  First stop - Dunkin' Donuts!  They're everywhere here.  Brent mistook a bottle of clear syrup for hand sanitizer :) (That's what happens when you can't read things.)

Next, Sein navigated us through the subway system, teaching us along the way how to use it.  We headed toward the Ancient Royal Palace called Gyeonbokgung in the heart of Seoul (  (the ancient surrounded by the modern skyscrapers and mountains).  I'll get some of my own pics in here eventually. . .  Unfortunately, it was still very hot and humid, which made touring a bit difficult for us and the kids, but we did okay.  We saw guards in traditional costume, heard the drums, walked the expansive grounds (back in the day the palace consisted of 330 buildings and had up to 3000 staff, including 140 eunuchs, all serving the royal family).  We saw the beautiful ponds and took our shoes off to go in the crowning room.  All this preserved and currently under restoration to its previous glory, in the center of Seoul.  What a contrast of old to new.  Alec was a bit grumpy and clingy and tired until we got him a map.  Then, suddenly, he became our tour guide, trying (and mostly succeeding) to read the map.  Very cute!

From there, subway again to a very traditional part of Seoul to their market called Gwangjang.  In this crowded length of street are many merchants selling inexpensive items like clothes, pottery, toys, stationery, food, etc. along with street vendors selling various food they make before your eyes.  Every now and then we would come across a street musician, one playing on his panpipe "Dust in the Wind."  Alec got his new toy, Tigress, a tiger that sings and dances (and entertained many-a-Korean on the subway trip home).  We watched the "show" as 3 young men made a candy sweet from honey and cornstarch, demonstrating in English.  They had great enthusiasm in their memorized show (much like going to Cold Stone Creamery) including  "Wow!", "Oh my God," and my favorite, "Jesus Christ!"

The highlight for me, however, was the very traditional Korean restaurant Sein found for us to experience bulgogi (Korean barbeque - NOT BBQ as a Wisconsinite would see it).    We weaved our way through an alley past tiny shops with garbage rotting outside the doors and entered what seemed to be an unmarked home with worn wood flooring, no air conditioning, and about 4 different rooms for customers to sit around a low table on cushions on the floor.  This place came highly recommended.  There were no other customers (hmmm).  We were awed by our experience that could only happen with a Korean "tour guide."  How would we ever find the place or know what to do or how to order, on our own?  Anyhow,  the five of us were seated at the low table just slightly bigger than your standard coffee table.  We got our cushions and made ourselves comfortable.  The wall paper was old and peeling and some young child (of the house many years ago, no doubt) had written on the walls!  Sein told us that the traditional restaurants are run out of the home; the proprietors live in the other part of the building and make the meals in their own kitchen.

Sein ordered bulgogi.

And then the most amazing thing happened.  Our hostess, a middle aged woman in a common house clothes, began to bring out food.  Side dishes, they are called.  Side dishes come with every Korean meal.  Side dishes and side dishes and side dishes.  Our whole table filled with side dishes until there was no more room.  Pretty soon she brought each of us a bowl of white rice (no room for that).  Next she brought out the meat - sizzling beef strips on a platter, enough for all 5 of us.  That and water, water, and more water (as it was hot and humid), and a little Soju (watered down vodka-type drink).  And so we began to eat.  And try.  Taste and marvel at all of the various flavors and colors and textures.  Sein would describe each dish and what it was made from and perhaps its history in the culture.  We ate kimchi, cucumbers the shape of pickles prepared like kimchi, seaweed, a seaweed-filled soup that tasted like sweet and sour. Also stringed potatoes- crunchy and strong, a tofu-ish thing, boiled cabbage (Anna likes that) and lettuce leaves (to serve as the "taco shell" - lettuce, rice, meat and bean paste).  Near the end a soup made of water and overly cooked rice (yuck), this being a traditional dish made from these ingredients because the poor families needed to use the crusty rice from the pot.  Then a sweet drink- also with rice.  Looked like the bottom of the dishwater with floating and sinking rice in it, but sugary sweet.  More later. . . .

Friday, July 30, 2010

Welcome to our home.

Hello readers!

It has taken almost a week to get up and running in Yongin-si, but we're here and I'm writing my first blog.  It's hot and humid here, much like Wisconsin.   The difference is the smell in the air; it's hard to nail it, but I think it is like sea salt (not pollution) that permeates the humidity.

I'm sitting at our desk in the sunroom on the 15th floor of our 25 story apartment building.  There are 10 apartment buildings in all in our complex.  Each apartment is 25 stories and contains 4 apartments on each floor.  The apartment buildings create a big square with a courtyard in the center.  Cars are forbidden on the very interior of the courtyard area.  Our interior walls are all windows - floor to ceiling, so we have a fabulous view and lots of sunlight.  All the windows open and have screens and railing so we can get "fresh" air.  There are 3 playgrounds on the premises.  In the main courtyard area there is a playground, a fountain, a badmitten court, trees, sitting spaces, and lots of cobblestone.  There are some nifty lights that light up for part of the evening, changing colors constantly.  It's a gated community with 2 guardhouses, so we feel very safe.  No keys to the apartment building - just a key card for entry into the building and a keypad with code for entry into the apartment.

When you enter the apartment, first take off your shoes!  There is a small enclosed entryway for taking off shoes and hanging up coats, etc.  Tan storage cupboards to the right and a mirror to the left.  Go through the door and step up slightly.  Directly in front of you is Anna's room.  She has a bed and a closet bureau and a desk and chair.  Her back wall isn't a wall at all.   It is all glass sliding doors which take you to a small area looking over the courtyard (all windows).  Her room, as all the rooms, is a combination of tans and whites, with a linoleum floor.

Next to her room and to the direct right of the entrance to the apartment is a full bathroom.  Think Europe - fixtures, white tile, toilet, all very European.  There is a bathtub with shower capabilities (if we get a rod and curtain).  It's pretty small, but functional.  Nice, big mirror.

From the main entrance hang a left and you will enter our living room.  It is a good size - 15 ft x 18 ft with wood floor laminate.  It's interior wall is a continuation of Anna's - all sliding glass that goes out to the "sunroom" portion overlooking the courtyard (desk and chair, where I am now, small table with two chairs and a plant).  Lots of natural light!   In the living room we have a small couch (tans/brown) a chair (same), a coffee table (dark brown wood), a TV and stand, and a shelving unit (that we purchased ourselves).  The living room also houses the air conditioning unit, a stand alone piece about 6 ft. tall.  Right now Brent is sitting on the couch on his computer (we're both on borrowed wireless until the cable guy comes today) and Alec is playing Wii.  Our TV came with the place and is pretty small for a family that had a 50 inch TV!  It's probably a 26incher.  Ouch!  (So far mostly just Korean available; that should change with our cable package, though.)

Keep walking to the left through the living room and you'll hit the open entrance to the kitchen.  Again, neutral colors with tan linoleum, white countertops, white and silver appliances.  A small dark brown table with four chairs completes the kitchen.  Happily, the appliances are full size and the sink is huge!  Lots of cupboard space for our needs.  We have a stove, dishwasher and a microwave with all labels and manuals in Korean only.  Have fun figuring out how to use them!  (This is true for all the electronics in the apartment  - security panel, air conditioner, washing machine, light fixtures, thermostat, everything! But I digress.)

Behind the kitchen, running parallel on the backside of the apartment to the "sunroom" on the interior is a similar concept.  A length of hallway is divided into three parts - a small room holding the washing machine (no dryer), a laundry room with entrance from the kitchen, and a storage space.

Okay, go back to the living room and turn left (away from the front door).  To your left is Alec's room.  Tan linoleum floor, bed and dresser.  His backwall is also sliding glass door.  Open it and you've entered that stretch of hallway with the storage area.  Again, lots of natural light everywhere as we essentially have windows on both the length of the interior (courtyard) and exterior.  Opposite Alec's room is our bedroom.  It is a great size, probably 15 ft x 15 ft. with it's own full bathroom (sink, toilet, shower - all white tile).  Again, tan linoleum in the bedroom.  A queen size bed, dresser, 2 standing bureaus for hanging clothes.   Also, a small built-in desk.  Our far wall is also all sliding glass doors (2 sets, 1 for privacy).  Behind it lies the rest of that length of "sunroom" overlooking the courtyard.  This space has a linen closet built in and is designed for drying clothes.  Lots of clothes drying racks here.  More windows with screens for air.

The last thing to mention are the sounds in the apartment.  First, it is very quiet.  We barely hear any sound from outside if all the windows are closed.  If they are open to the courtyard we can hear the children playing below and a bit of traffic or the barking dogs (some lady who wouldn't sell out when the apartment buildings went up and now keep LOTS of dogs just to piss everyone off with their incessant barking).  Inside the apartment we only hear footprints from upstairs occasionally.  However, the most unusual thing is that everything here dings or talks to you!  The voice on the elevator speaks.  The entry keypad has a certain melody upon opening and closing.  The air conditioner has its own set of tunes when turned up or down, on or off.  The microwave, stove, washing machine - all different dings.

All told, I believe we stand at about 1000 ft sq.  We like it a lot and are happy to be in a place only 2 years old.  We just need COLOR.  We can't really hang things on the walls, so that's an issue.  It's slowly becoming home.  I think we need to host a game night!  Get some other people in here and it won't feel so much like a condo, right?

PS  Suggestions:  I'll try to get video on FB or YOUTUBE of our apartment soon.  Also, go ahead and google Yongin-si to learn more about our city of 300,000!

Lastly, don't be afraid to leave a comment, even just to say hi!