The Korea Effect

South Korea has an almost indescribable knack of drawing you right back in after it pushes you to the very edge. Take yesterday for example, I went to school as usual and got settled at my desk and half an hour later the heating broke, I got stung with a substantial, unexpected tax bill and got the first of five angry phone calls from my landlord asking about a payment I’d already made. I wasn’t too happy by the end of the day and there was no resolution in sight for any of those three problems.

As I walked home, muttering furiously to myself about how foreigners never get told anything, how unfair life is and other melodramatic things that I’m too embarrassed to repeat, I got an instant pick-me-up. A much older man stopped me in the street to ask for directions to the bus station, I replied, he thanked me for the directions and proceeded to give me all the compliments under the sun and could not thank me enough for visiting his country. As he walked away, my runaway thoughts changed their tune and I walked the rest of the way home debating whether I was being stupid to even consider leaving a country full of people who are so welcoming and sincere. And, just like that I’d done a complete U-turn and was head over heels again for a country that only an hour earlier had seemed impossible. It happens time and time again and the turn always comes when you least expect it. The Korea Effect is a powerful thing.

(Did I mention that my whole conversation with the man on his way to the bus station was in Korean? It was so satisfying. It’s moments like that when you feel that you should be living here in Korea and it all makes perfect sense).

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An interesting insight into a trip to North Korea. He clears some things up and dispels a few rumours but also confirms a few speculations. An interview worth reading if you’re interested in the North.

American in North Korea

My friend Simon Cockerell, General Manager of Koryo Tours, just did a reddit AMA (ask me anything).

I have been to North Korea over 100 times. AMA

I’m the GM of Koryo Tours.  The leading North Korea travel company.  In this capacity I have been to the country 118 times thus far. Glad to answer any questions about what it’s like to visit North Korea.

Simon from Koryo

Simon from Koryo Tours at the Mt. Myohyangsan Friendship Exhibition – photo by Joseph A Ferris III

I have pulled the best questions and answers from the session:

Please note that the grammar and punctuation reflect the nature of the real time Q&A format. 

Do you know why Americans (and only Americans) are not allowed to leave the country by train? (Assuming that rule is still in force.)

That rule is still in force and honestly I have no idea why. After all many…

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Why Do Foreigners Always Look Sick?

Do we? Maybe we do because this was the first thing anyone said to me yesterday morning as I walked through the school doors. I must have looked terrible. I told myself otherwise, went into the office and convinced myself they must be due a visit to the optician. After sitting at my desk for a few minutes, paranoia kicked in. I remembered looking in the mirror before I left the house that morning and thinking I looked alright. Apparently my efforts were overshadowed by my persistent sickly look.

This isn’t the first time I’ve been told this when I felt great so I wasn’t overly surprised, but this was the first time that it wasn’t just about me. This time is was about all foreigners. Is it to do with having pale, midwinter skin? It can’t be because I have plenty of friends who have wonderful, healthy looking skin tones who could not be mistaken for dishcloths so it can’t be that. In addition, the average foreigner in Korea also takes as many holidays abroad as possible and so year round tans aren’t that uncommon. It can’t be related to Saturday’s late night because today is Friday and I’ve been getting my eight hours of sleep a night, and drinking fluids like they’re going out of fashion (mainly in green tea form to keep warm while we wait for a socially acceptable time to turn on the heating, I have no idea when this will be).

Do foreigners always look sick to Koreans? I did a poll of my Korean co workers and they established that yes, foreigners do often look sick, but that so did Koreans so I shouldn’t worry. It was just that foreigners looked sick more often. After my morning of wasted, obsessive vanity it turned out that it wasn’t just me, or the foreign community that always looked sickly. Oh no, it’s everyone, from everywhere. Lesson of the week: no matter what you think you look like there’s a 50/50 chance that you look ill to everyone else.

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The Noodles That Will Make You Beautiful

Prepare yourselves. You may not recognise us after dinner tomorrow night. These noodles are on the menu and we are ready to be beautified. We’re even going to try the ‘perfecting’ grain bars I got as a gift for our dessert. The effects should be momentous.

Beauty Calorie Noodles

Beauty Calorie Noodles

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School Tripping

Sledding

This is why I love my job. Living and working in Korea is non stop hilarity. Just before this photo was taken we made cheese, that’s right, we made cheese. Any school trip where you get to make cheese is a winner in my book.

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Afternoon Adventures: Munsu Folk Village

We were lucky enough to have an afternoon to spare during summer classes and not wanting to waste the sunshine (and unexpected free time) we decided to take our bikes out and go exploring. We’d often seen a brown sign for Munsu folk village and never given it much thought, but today we decided to give it our full attention. We headed out, with water bottles full to the brim to combat the disgustingly, high summer humidity, at full speed. Our enthusiasm served us well to begin with as we flew along the riverside and country roads, we even took on a couple of decent hills and managed to keep our pace up. Our bikes do have gears but more often than not they don’t work and this was one of those days so our ascent was even more impressive. I would say it all went wrong when we stopped at a tiny shop for a pit stop, after this there was no speeding up hills for us. Embarassingly we were overtaken by a man on a mobility scooter and only just managed to stay ahead of some eratically driven, crawling farm machinery. I like to blame it on the bikes/fizzy drinks/humidity and so on, but deep down I know it was more to do with laziness kicking in.

Taking a breather from the humidity/bring lazy.

Luckily for us the last stretch towards the village was a beast of a downhill and we soared in like champions. I’d like to give a shout out at this point to the scenery, the farms were ever so pretty and made for a lovely bike ride. Both of us were more interested in the bike ride than the village itself when we set out but when we crossed the bridge into the village that changed a little bit. We’ve been to plenty of historical sights since moving to Korea and thought it would be, ‘just another Korean folk village,’ but we stand corrected. This one was a bit different, it was not just another tourist spot but a living, breathing village full of life. It was nice to see the village in action, and it was honestly just a really pretty setting by the river. The river also had a very cool, little bridge which gave the village a lot of bonus points.

Bridgelicious

Remember that epic downhill on the way there? Well, that was just as unenjoyable as it was enjoyable on the way back. They always seem so much bigger on the way up than on the way down and by the time we made it back up we were racing back home before nightfall. All in all, an afternoon off very well spent.

Also, we saw this sign and didn’t know whether to be terrified or amused, I find the illustration to be overly descriptive.

Aaaaaaaaaaaah.

Should you be in the area and want to visit this lovely, little village by bike or by bus here’s some info.

http://english.visitkorea.or.kr/enu/SI/SI_EN_3_1_1_1.jsp?cid=1039958

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English on T-Shirts Round Two

I’ve posted some of my favourite (clean) English on T-shirts before and luckily there is no shortage of them here in Korea so it’s time for some more.

Boston? I heard they were a great team…

Self promotion at its best.

Just plain confusing.

Interestingly enough I recently had a conversation about how little Korean writing we see on clothing. Perhaps then it is a blessing in disguise because then we would be the ones sporting tops with writing that we didn’t quite understand and someone would be whispering to their friends, taking sneaky photographs and uploading them to the world wide web.

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When the Lights Go Out

This isn’t an experience of my own but it is still well worth sharing because it is absolutely hilarious. Recently I worked at an English camp for the weekend and my boyfriend went alone to Daegu, the nearest big city to us, to run a 10km race for Breast Cancer Awareness (what a legend). As the race start was an early one he had the good sense to travel down the night before and stay in a motel. Before he left the motel in the morning he asked what time he needed to check out and was reassured that he had the room until noon. That being the case, he headed out to the race venue bright and early and left his bag in the room. After running a super fast race in the rain, what could be more desirable than a nice, long, hot shower? Well, he was out of luck. As soon as he jumped in the shower, well before noon, and reached for the shampoo, the hot water was switched off and the lights went out. It seems that he had most definitely outstayed his welcome! Lesson learned: check out at noon does not necessarily mean check out is at noon.

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Do you belly dance for Christmas?

Teaching English in Korea is never boring. Sometimes the desk time can be a little tedious but the teaching part is anything but dull. My students are always non-stop entertainment but there are some moments that really stand out above the rest in terms of comedy value. Today, I had one of those moments with a group of second grade students. Five or six girls lingered after class and shyly made their way to the front, giggling and egging one another on. Already bemused by their routine, I asked them if I could help them with something. First they asked me if I could belly dance using a range of hilarious dance moves to illustrate where English words had failed them. Eventually I caught on and to their great disappointment I informed them, I could not. They went on to ask if I could teach them how. Again, I told them I didn’t know how to but perhaps they could look online and teach themselves or something. It still wasn’t good enough and they were starting to get frustrated, ‘No teacher, UK people can belly dance. Always Christmas belly dance.’ I’m not sure when this tradition began back home but it must have been fairly recent because I’ve only been out of the country for 18 months. They proceeded to show me something akin to Father Christmas rubbing his large belly while moving their hips from side to side. As far as I’m aware it wasn’t belly dancing or a festive British tradition but, it was flipping hilarious.

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Please, no fire. Really, no fire. No fire. No fire. No fire. You understand? No fire.

Our most recent camping trip in Korea was an overwhelming success. Not only did we hike our hearts (and legs) out, we also found Korea’s best National Park camp site, bar none. As far as I am aware Chiaksan National Park is the only park where you can camp inside the park entrance. Outside of Korea this camp site would have been packed to the hilt, after all it was pretty, right by a gentle river and was less than a mile from the entrance. As an added bonus it even boasted clean (ish) toilets and a drinks vending machine a couple of hundred feet’s walk away. As it turned out we had the whole place to ourselves until much later in the evening when we were joined by solo camper who was gone by the time we crawled out of our tent the next morning. After great speculation we decided that the site’s lack of popularity was owing to the average Korean camper’s love of camping stuff. You can imagine the set up, a big table, comfortable chairs, a washing up station, a generator, a badminton net and the list goes on. While a mile isn’t far, it’s not close either if you’re carrying all of that.

Picture the scene, you’ve lived in Korea for the best part of eighteen months and love camping and for the first time you show up somewhere and there are no people! It was a moment of elation. Our previous night’s campsite was overrun by people, lovely people it’s safe to say but it was most definitely not a peaceful, relaxing experience. You get the point, we were excited. We found the rangers who were more concerned with watching the TV than us, paid them the paltry pound or two camping fee and left them to it. As soon as we turned our backs, we were given a few words of warning,

Please, no fire. You no fire. Fire here is bad. No fire. Thank you. please no fire. yes? no fire camping, no fire….

We did our best to reassure the three uniformed men that we would not make a fire under any circumstances (although it would’ve been nice, there was nobody around and it was a beautiful, dry night…) Obviously we didn’t sound convincing enough because the onslaught continued in broken English for a very long time. A very, very long time.

It took all my strength not to make fire that night, partly because I wanted to and partly because the teenager inside me wanted to rebel against the nagging lecture we’d just had. We resisted and it was for the best, I’m not sure what would have happened if we had made a fire but if three fully grown, park rangers are that terrified, I’m not sure that we mere mortals were up to the challenge!

Top of Chiak Mountain. 26km + day!

You can access Chiaksan National Park by local bus or tax from Wonju. The campsite is a mile from the park entrance and is easily spotted as it’s by the nature trail area which can be fairly busy during the day. The majority of the trail is quiet, we saw very few people in peak season and you can hike from the main entrance along the length of the park comfortably in a day. It is about 26km and took us between 8 and 9 hours at a relaxed pace. There are campsites at both ends.

For more information: http://english.knps.or.kr/Knp/Chiaksan/Intro/Introduction.aspx?MenuNum=1&Submenu=Npp

 

 

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Big Fat Gypsy…Pork Cutlet?

Following a weekend of hiking and camping in the beautiful Mureung Valley in Gangwon Province, we found ourselves with a couple of hours to kill and stomachs to fill (the terrible rhyming was unintentional, it just happened). We had time to go for lunch in downtown Donghae while we waited for the train home. Any initial cravings for pizza were met with hostility, the surrounding area had nothing of the sort on offer. We were forced to branch out and look for an alternative. Having feasted on nothing but Korean food between school outings, lunches and weekend travel around the country we were looking for something more familiar, some comfort food that tasted more like home.

Walking In

Having trawled the streets for at least, a minute or two we realised our options were limited. However, as luck would have it, we stumbled upon a dirt track that led us away from the main drag and tempted by a faded, slighty dishevelled sign that read, ‘Kafe’, we took the dusty route. I don’t know what we expected but what we found certainly  wasn’t  it. The cafe in question, was not what we had expected to see in the slightest.

Finally taking off those walking boots

 

Backing onto a loading dock of sorts was a collection of carriages decked out with awnings and colourful paint jobs. A small, equally kitsch, house tied the stepping stone-style pathways together and was home to the most wonderful lady who cooked us homemade pork cutlet, complete with countless sides. The best part was of course, our lunch table, laid to perfection in our choice of carriage. We opted for a classy black and white affair.

Waiting for lunch

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Making Moving Easy – The Outdoor Elevator

When the majority of the population lives in apartment buildings and are constantly moving house (at least it seems that way), Korea needs a sensible moving solution. And so, they have completely mastered the outdoor elevator. The outdoor elevator compacts nicely into the back of a truck, saves a whole lot of people power and it looks like a ‘Transformer’ in action. This may well be a worldwide phenomena but Korea has introduced it to us and thank goodness it has, it makes for excellent viewing. Sadly when we moved apartments our budget only allowed for two old men and an older pick up truck, but there’s always next time!

The New Neighbours

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Does the Queen Eat Corgis?

The Queen’s Diamond Jubilee provided me with another excuse to force encourage my Korean middle school students to learn more about the UK because, let’s be honest, who doesn’t want to talk this wonderful nation more? It’s that good. As usual whenever I teach a cultural class and push any serious English study aside for the week the students got excited. They stopped playing with their hair/looking in their hand held mirrors/doodling about their deep, deep love for the latest K-Pop singer on the desks and moved their eyes towards the TV. Their faces alternated between sheer bafflement and downright amusement as I showed them pictures of Britain’s finest, The Royal Family. Prince Phillip’s mug caused a riot, partly because he’s ninety years old and old people are hilarious to young Korean teenagers and partly because, and I quote, ‘He looks like a crazy man.’ These kids are pretty switched on. This process continued as I showed them some footage of the Jubilee celebrations in London, priceless observations poured out such as, ‘Those people have red faces, all people, maybe drunken,’ at photos of street parties and ‘Royal people look so sad and ugly?’ at the flotilla.

Mostly though, they were interested in the events and the people. It’s different, they liked seeing another culture and learning about the lives of the ‘chosen ones.’ One particular photo caught their attention more than the rest because of my commentary. Here it is.

The Queen and her Corgis

I told my students that the Queen really likes Corgis and she has a lot of them. Some students gasped, a couple laughed, some looked very confused and one student even stood up to protest at how disgusting she thought the Queen was. It only got worse, students started asking me why people judged Korea so harshly for liking dog Corgi when the Queen of England herself liked Corgi so much. I was starting to get fairly confused myself, and then it clicked, they hadn’t heard ‘Corgi,’ they had heard ‘고기’ (kogi) which is Korean for meat. I had essentially told them that Queen Elizabeth II eats dog meat and wasn’t it just splendid that she did. Once it was all cleared up and clarified that the Queen does not eat her Corgis, they lost interest and went back to doing whatever it is teenage girls do when they think you’re boring and they can’t be bothered to listen anymore. For them, the UK’s culture had lost it’s edge.

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‘Teacher, you cross the road wrong’

I was informed yesterday that I have a road crossing problem. Apparently I’m doing it all wrong. Of all the things I do on a daily basis in Korea, this wasn’t the one I was worried about not getting right. I was under the impression that crossing the road in England was on par with Korea (aside from the whole driving on the left side of the road thing in the UK). The revelation came during the end of semester speaking tests. The test began like any other with a friendly and predictable,

Me: How are you?

Student: I’m fine thank you, and you?

Me: I’m well, thanks. You’re fine?

Student: No teacher, I’m very bad. I have many study.

Me: So you’re not fine.

Nothing unusual there. I have a conversation very similar to this a hundred times a day but then this one took a strange turn.

Student: Teacher, you cross the road wrong. I saw you many times and you have big problem.

Me: Uh….I do?

Student: Big problem. Your walking is too fast. Stone in the road you can’t see and maybe you…. (demonstrates falling and then being run over by a car by rolling around the floor and making horrendous noises) and die. Or maybe your leg tired and your leg will die. Then you…. (she then repeats the ‘falling to the death scene’ once again).

Me: I think I’ll be ok.

Student: No teacher, it is very dangerous. More dangerous than car. And casino.

Me: And casino?

Student: Yes, casino make you die faster than car. First your heart die, then your head and then your angel soul. And your family send you to Japan. Bad person go there.

So there you have it. Casinos and crossings are not to be taken lightly. We never did have much time for the test after those revelations, but based on sheer comedy this was the best test yet. And, it did make me walk a little slower on the walk home from school that day, until I had to run to make a green light when I threw caution into the wind and let my legs get tired!

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Urban Camping

Every useable piece of flat land is either heavily farmed or turned into an apartment building in Korea. Finding good spots to camp is akin to searching for gold on the beach (you’ve seen them, with their metal detectors, spending most of their day painfully digging up drinks cans). So, this is how we found ourselves driving at 11pm, out of a good sized city in search of a rare grassy spot, hoping to pitch our tent for the night. The lack of grass wasn’t our only problem, being the experienced campers we are, we of course forgot batteries for our headlights. This left us without the option of going too far from the houses and keeping a low profile. After some serious deliberation and pacing of our shortlisted areas we decided on a narrow strip of grass rocks by the side of the road. Less low profile, more glaringly obvious. An outstretched banner and the nearby pagoda gave just enough cover to shield us from passing headlights and any passing objectors, at least until daylight. The tents went up and we crawled in to get some shut eye. I remember hearing running water and thinking that our choice can’t be too bad if there’s a stream. There’s nothing like being outdoors.

It turned out that the ‘stream’ I had envisaged was nothing more than a drainage pipe for irrigation of the fields. By morning the field next to the tent had also gained working farm machinery, and a band of farm workers who looked bemused to say the least when we poked our heads through the tent fly. However the best reaction to our unexpected presence came from a suited, older resident of the village we had called home for the night, who gingerly circled us on his way to the bus stop on the opposite side of the road. His big, beaming smile didn’t leave his friendly, albeit inquisitive, face for the full twenty minutes he watched us pack up our gear and drive away. Someone was clearly a morning person.

Crashing the Farm/Bus Stop/Recreation Area of the Village

Packing Up

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