culture shock

This is Korea

02 Mar 2009
Posted by Marisa
Marisa's picture

I was just admiring the picture from Antalya, those days when we were on vacation. It now seems like 5 billion years ago. Those days when I was "working hard." Not much has changed in that respect, I'm currently sitting at my desk (still in the giant office, no private office for me it turns out) with nothing to do because no one has made a schedule for me. It is I guess "the busiest day of the year" or so Ms Park tells me. And Jordan and I have already exchanged comments that we sure were naive to believe we could just walk into this year with no surprises. As if there has ever been a day with no surprises, and I think that even if we stayed in Korea forever, it would never stop surprising us.

So first I walk into school, where I think my new office is, to find Ms Park and she tells me that someone (she actually said "my friend" but I don't know who that is) has decided it's back to the giant office for us. Actually, just for me, since Ms Park used to be in a smaller office. Surprise Number 1. I start to wonder if we'll have class in there or if they'll just use it as a fancy showpiece, when she starts to answer my question, "Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday you have class here" (she points to the room and I assume this means the classroom) "Thursday, Friday you go to new school." Wait, what was that? A new school? Surprise Number 2. No more is said about this issue as Ms Park now starts telling me about how this is the busiest day and I have to pass out papers. So we have a teacher meeting and about 10 new teachers have arrived (at this point I realize both Miss Kim and Miss Doo, my favorite, are missing, likely gone to different schools and replaced by these newcomers, Surprise Number 3). Then we go to a school meeting, where one of my conversation ladies whispers to me that she's heard that I'm going to a school in the country. Surprise Number 4. I try and express that this is all news to me, but this just confuses her (perhaps she thinks I should know where I'm going, this thought has occurred to me, but only briefly, when since I've gotten to Korea have I known what's going on?) At the school meeting the new seventh graders bow to the older students and they all whoop and holler for the new teachers. Ms Park confides to me that since today is so busy, no one has yet made me a schedule, so I can "prepare." (No surprise here) What, however, should I prepare for I wonder. What grades am I teaching, who am I teaching with, what do they want me to do, and perhaps the greatest question, where am I teaching? This feels rather philosophic since I've only been at school for two hours and already I'm questioning the nature of the universe (the Korean school universe that is).

I think you know you've arrived, or perhaps that you've been here too long, when a day like this seems pretty normal. After all, I say to myself, this is Korea, what else do you expect?

Young Octopus Delight

08 Dec 2008
Posted by Jordan
Jordan's picture


I have to leave in a few minutes to find out how much "vacation school" I'm going to be teaching during the upcoming winter break, but just wanted to share a hosik experience I had last week, which included:

  1. Making a quick stop with Mr. Song at his Secret Garden. He owns a couple acres of land in Gunsan (close to our apartment) that he has turned into a wildflower extravaganza... he is apparently one of the leading wildflower experts in Korea (he's the head of a sizable internet group), and grows over 300 varieties throughout his garden. Of course everything is pretty much dormant now, but the garden still offers a nice retreat, and I can't wait to see it in Spring.
  2. Hiking straight up a mountain for 3 hours (yes, don't ask me how, but the mountain was uphill both ways--more like up-cliff, actually).
  3. Feasting at a raw seafood restaurant.

Now the raw seafood restaurant works like this: you walk in, take your shoes off, and look at the fish and eel and octopus and squid and jellyfish you are about to eat, swimming around in a tank. Then you think "nice fishtank." Then you realize that those are actually the fish you are about to eat. And then you eat them.

And yes, when I say fish I do mean octopus and squid and jellyfish and eel and oysters, and eveyr other kind of seafood you can imagine. All raw.

My basic rule of thumb is if a Korean eats it, I eat it. I kept my rule, but not easily. I mean, the raw fish was nothing, and the raw squid was actually pretty tasty. But when it came time to eat a thing they called "young octopus," I had to hold my stomach down. "Young octopus" is a whole octopus that is very slimy, and looks half-formed, and has large eyeballs that stare up at you and say "Why? WHY? WHY?"

More photos from the hike.

On a different note entirely, some of you may have noticed that we've switched over to Flickr for our photo hosting... not quite as integrated with our website, but our lousy hosting plan just wasn't handling the images very well. Anyway, the "Photos" link at the top of the blog will now take you to our flickr "photostream."

Posted by Jordan
Jordan's picture

An email we got today from Matthew:

Forgot to say this before... I guess that this is mostly for Marisa, since I couldn't dissuade Jordan, but here goes anyway:

Don't eat jellyfish.

(In my case, I had no idea what it was---it was whitish, translucent, stringy, and sort of viscous-looking, but that description applied to half of the things on the table, and I assumed that like the others it was some kind of plant starch or obscure vegetable or fruit or even ginseng with something funny done to it. But it was actually jellyfish.)

Um. In Korea it's only considered good if it still stings.


So don't eat it.

(Intentionally burning yourself with spicy foods is odd enough to me, but intentionally stinging yourself with jellyfish poison? No matter how mild the poison is, this seems weird.)


PS: The Koreans told me that it was a Japanese dish. That's true, but I have never ever heard of the Japanese leaving bits of the tentacles in so that it stings you... they just spice it with miso and stuff.

I'm not kidding here. In Korea, don't eat jellyfish.

Posted by Marisa
Marisa's picture

When living in Korea (or really anywhere, if we're going to be honest) one comes across many absurdities in day to day life. Here are the ones I experienced today.

So we're not going to dwell too much on this because I'm in the middle of dealing with it (so is Jordan) and it's best not to think too hard about it. But the province we are in has created a contest for all the foreign English teachers. We are supposed to create a star lesson plan, video it, and send it in to a panel who might award us about $500 (although it's not clear if we get the money, or the school, I'm guessing it's not likely to be us). So, my co-teacher Ms Park says my Halloween lesson was a good one, why don't I do that. I type it up, making it look much fancier than it is and then this morning we video it in class (keep in mind the class has already had this class, back when it was actually Halloween). So we watch all the same video clips, do the same crossword puzzle and then, to top it all off, I give them fake homework (because the directions are that I assign homework, but in actuality I do not assign homework). I did draw a nice princess on the board, though. We finished a bit early (I wonder why, could it be that everyone is bored out of their minds and knows the answers?) so I improvised, quite well I might add, about Thanksgiving (since it's next week, unlike Halloween which was a month ago).

So we finish the class, the bell rings, and I think Hallelujah! no more of that nonsense (unless by some strange act of God my lesson enters the semifinals and then we have to do it again in front of judges), but then Ms Park comes and says, "I think we will have to do it again, the camera wasn't working." I smile, everyone knows I am very diplomatic, and say, "sure, no problem, I love this lesson, let's do it everyday forever." I was somewhat prepared for this eventuality because the same thing happened to Jordan, but I think to myself, at least we'll be taping again with a different class so it's not so boring that the students will likely jump out the window. But later I discover, for reasons unknown to me, we are filming with the same class on the same day during last period (to happen in about an hour). And then I begin to suspect that the camera was working fine, Ms Park just didn't like my ad lib about Thanksgiving (the only part during which the students acknowledged my presence) because she came down and gave me some pointers. "Talk slowly, make it go longer until the bell rings." Sure, right after I jump out the window with the students.

In the midst of this drama I've also been trying to discover the dates for my winter break. I knew the school was on vacation from December 25 until February 2, but sometime in there I am supposed to have vacation school. When exactly no one seems to know, although we're trying to make plans so I go and ask Ms Park if she can please find out so I can buy a ferry ticket to Japan. In the course of this discussion I discover that when we come back to school on February 2 we only have school for one week and then we have "spring vacation" which is the rest of February. At this knew piece of knowledge I stare at Ms Park like she has three heads and try and contemplate what good one week in the middle of a two month vacation could possibly do. I still don't know, it boggles the mind.

Although perhaps the most absurd part of the day was when I asked Jordan if absurd started with a 'U' or an 'O.' Why anyone thinks we should all learn English is beyond me.

Pepero Day

11 Nov 2008
Posted by Jordan
Jordan's picture

Today is Pepero Day. So you give people Pepero.


Posted by Jordan
Jordan's picture

Fall Festival

I don't even know where to start describing my day of craziness. Okay, so yesterday I learn that Napo Middle School is having a festival today (Friday), and so there won't be any classes... so if I want I can stay at home. Stay home? Heck, here's a chance for me to experience the culture and demonstrate my school spirit at the same time. "No way!" I say. "I'm coming!" I don't know if it was a test, but I think I earned major points for not staying home. The festival basically went all day, and was a Spectacular Spectacular in its own right, considering there are only thirty-two students at this school--I think all but five of them are in one of the school's three bands. We had lunch, pizza break, plays, singing, elimination quiz games and more: Mr. Sam said that had they been a bigger school they would have rented out a venue.

I think I used up all of my good luck for the year, because I was the last one standing in the elimination quiz game. And they had invited me to play as a joke. Because all the questions were in Korean, and I couldn't understand a word. I roughly calculated my odds of winning afterward to be about 1 in 1000 - 10,000. I'm not kidding. Anyway, I'll stop talking now; here's the highlight reel (sadly my battery ran out towards the end and I didn't capture the best show of the day: the school's most talented and flamboyant band):


So after the festival the school faculty invites me to join them for some Hosik: "food together," in the Korean tradition. The experience was simply amazing: all the food I've had here has been good, but the duck feast that we had at this traditional Korean restaurant blew everything else away.

Okay, first of all, traditional Korean restaurants work like this: every group of diners has their own individual room in the restaurant off of a main hall, with a sliding door; you leave your shoes at the sliding door (as you always do when entering any place of dining or habitation in Korea), and then proceed to sit cross-legged on a small cushion at a very low table. The way the food works is you've got many small dishes all around the table filled with things like garlic, fresh jalapenos, green onions, sprouts, hot sauce, soybean sauce, etc. The servers then bring in huge platters of duck, prepared in an incredibly delicious hot sauce with onions, mushrooms, and other vegetables. You put these platters over burners at the table, and cook them there while you snack on peanuts and talk.Once the duck cooks you proceed to take bits of it with your chopsticks and put them in a lettuce leaf with any combination of sides you desire: usually at least a huge chunk of garlic (they cut the cloves in half and expect you to eat them that way) and some jalapeno; roll up the lettuce leaf and pop it in your mouth: it's to die for. After the duck is finished, they bring rice out and mix it with what's left of the sauce from the duck, and you then eat that (also incredibly good).

I'm sick that my camera battery died, because I really can't do the meal justice with my description. The picture below is the closest thing I was able to find on the internet; it gives you some idea of how things work, but the dishes are a bit different, the table is much smaller (we were eating with 20 people at one long table), and you've got to imagine the huge cooking duck platters for yourself.

You also drink Soju during all of this (watered down vodka, remember?), and if you really like someone you give them your Soju glass to drink from (kind of like the peace pipe or something). Anyway, after I had proven once again that I really could eat ever spicy thing in Korea (they tested me incrementally throughout the meal), the top man at the table--the Napo principal--gave me his glass, so I figure I'm in... or something.

Karaoke Extreme

Hm... so I think this is the second time in one week of being in Korea that I've said "Karaoke Extreme." Well, you don't know Karaoke until you go with your boss and all your colleagues to a Korean "Singing Room." The Koreans like to sing. I mean, they really like to sing. Once again I am thoroughly bummed that I didn't have my camera; picture the scene below, but with 15 people in business suits (and they do this all the time). I have to say, though, singing "Dancing Queen" with all my coworkers dancing and clapping around me gave me a bigger high than I expected--I passed my final test of the day with flying colors.

Posted by Marisa
Marisa's picture

So my Dad always used to tell me before traveling that I should always travel with $200 cash, just in case. Me, in my wise generational wisdom, thought this was somewhat useless advice, since I have a credit card, and a debit card, where could I possibly go that would not be able to access my money? Afterall, "MasterCard, it's everywhere you want to be" right? Normally I travel with $20 so I can buy a hamburger at the airport.

But this post is to let everyone like me know that my Dad was right. You can travel to places that won't be able to access your money. Even places as seemingly advanced as South Korea. After being rejected from several ATMs around town, we learned that most of the Korean ATMs aren't hooked up to the international network. Suddenly, Jordan and I found ourselves with no money. I had to go to school one morning with only 2000 won (about $2) which needed to get me to and from school. Life is a bit different when you suddenly realize that you have no money.

The situation isn't as bad as I'm making it seem. Despite the one day when I only had $2 to my name, our credit cards do work in Korea and most places where we spend our money will accept them (the grocery store, the dollar store, and many restaurants). For the small things like the bus and taxis, we were lucky enough, despite my disbelief in my Dad's advice, to travel with a decent amount of cash, which we were able to convert and have been using stingily until we manage to get a Korean bank account, where all our hard earned money will be deposited and easily accessed by even the most Korean of the Korean ATMs.

The Hood at Night


First Impressions

29 Oct 2008
Posted by Marisa
Marisa's picture

We've been here for a few days now and these are the things that have impressed me the most:
I cannot believe this country exists. On one hand they are totally developed and part of the modern, western world. You can clearly see the western influence in the way they dress, the entertainment they watch, and even in some of the food they eat. However, they are often in complete shock to see an actual western person walking around. And it's not just the kids who act like crazy people when we're around, but the adults too. They will say hi to me and the run off giggling back to their friends, people who are older than I am! I don't know how they can be so westernized, yet completely unaware that we actually exist.

Everyone is very friendly, even if they may stop, point, stare and laugh at us as we walk by. Everyone tries whatever English they may know, and then talks away in Korean in hopes that we'll understand. Bus drivers have helped me to get on and off at the right place, customers have motioned us from inside the restaurant inviting us in and then helped us to get seated. Our landlord invited us over for dinner. Our co-teachers have driven us all over the city helping us to find the things we need.

First Day 01

Our apartment reminds me of Ma Hang, a big government subsidized housing complex near our home in Hong Kong. Despite having a relative large amount of space, all the Koreans still prefer to live on top of each other in giant high rise apartment buildings. Luckily, it's easy to find your way home because the only tall buildings are the apartments. So you can just look up and find your number. Just like Ma Hang, all the apartments are the same ugly, cement housing blocks that are definitely uninviting. But once you're inside it is very pleasant. I could not believe how large our apartment was. After living in Hong Kong and having a bedroom the size of a closet, I was prepared to have very little space. But we have enough room that we could play hide and seek (if we had some furniture, that is).

There are bakeries. I have never moved anywhere outside the States that has had tasty bakeries. I had determined from this that I would never move anywhere where there were tasty bakeries. Even when we went to North Carolina I was disappointed. To me there is nothing like a doughnut from Cub. In fact the Cub bakery is the standard that I hold all bakeries to. And few have compared. Here in Korea, while they don't perhaps have the same selection as Cub, I think the bakeries may still stand a chance in competing with Cub. (And despite my desire to move away from doughnuts, there is a dunkin' doughnuts right around the corner from our apartment).

There is no McDonalds. I thought all Asians loved McDonalds. I guess I will have to change this assumption to all Chinese love McDonalds. You couldn't go half a block in Hong Kong without coming upon McDonalds. And it was so good too, much better than any McDonalds in the States. Here we have Lotteria, the McDonalds stand in. But they don't have the popularity of McDonalds in China.
My parents would love it here. As I sit here writing, it's "cleaning time." There is a twenty minute break during which all the students get brooms and mops and things and clean the school. I'm not sure what the point of this is, since I think we still have janitors. I guess it's to instill good cleaning skills in the students. Some of them use it as an excuse though to come say hi to me (and tell me I'm pretty, which I guess is just as good a way to spend your time as cleaning).

Bowing has already become ingrained in my very being. It was practically instantaneous upon landing in Korea. I think there was one awkward time when I tried to shake someone's hand (thank goodness I didn't try to kiss them), but otherwise bowing seems to me to be perfectly natural. I don't know how I'll ever stop.
They have the perfect recycling method here. They have free recycling and really expensive garbage bags you have to buy for your garbage. Anyone with a brain then will recycle as much as possible. Now that I've experienced it, it seems like the perfect method for encouraging recycling.