On A Mission in Ilsan

Music is a great healer. When I am stressed, it calms me. When I am weak, it strengthens me. When I am depressed, it lifts me. Sadly, for the past two weeks, it has been away from me. Recognizing the emotional dearth that I was experiencing being away from my guitar, I resolved to find one. Browsing Craigslist, I found a seller on the other side of the city. Impulsively, I arranged a meeting for this evening. The journey would take me over an hour, but it was worth it for my mental and emotional health to have an instrument with me while here in Korea.

After a grueling day at rugby practice (more on that later), I cleaned up, jammed down some food, and rucked off for my journey. The walk to the subway station is only about a mile, but I was in for the longhaul once I got there. Tales of Tyrian Lannister and his gluttony in Pentos kept me occupied for the hour-long ride. When I emerged from the subway station on the other side, I immediately noticed that this was not the tiny outlying suburb that I had expected. Rows of towering office buildings lined the main thoroughfare, and I quickly found that there was a booming shopping district right around the corner. Outdoor malls and rows of restaurants cut between the giant glass blocks.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

I only had about thirty minutes of wandering before I had to return to the station to meet the seller. His name was Dan, and he was also an English teacher from the U.S. He had moved out to Ilsan to start teaching at a public school. He came to Korea on a contract with a private school, but they struggled with some embezzlement issues, and he left before the end of his contract. Despite the struggles with his employment, he seemed to be thoroughly enjoying his time out here. I asked for his recommendation on finding a good meal, and he pointed me in an educated direction.

I wandered off toward what Dan had termed “meat street” for its preponderance of Korean barbecue restaurants. I’m not sure I found exactly what he described, but on a side street around the corner from a bustling shopping area, something special caught me eye. The storefront was glass floor to ceiling, and the lighting was invitingly warm. There were only two other tables occupied in the 10-table cafe, but the English description of “grilled fish specialty” made me keen. I was not disappointed.

After finding a table and getting settled with my backpack and guitar as my tablemates, the waitress brought over a pot of tea while figuring out if I spoke any Korean. The blank stare on my face told her that language was going to be a problem, but she knew exactly what to do. She grabbed her phone, and pulled up a Google image search and a translator app. The menu, as I later realized, only had five items; the names of which hung on the wall in the form of engraved wooden blocks. She searched images to show me what their dishes looked like and translated the main words so I knew the name of the fish I was ordering. I repeated one of the words she said that I thought I could remember and pronounce best, and she seemed to understand. I believe what I ordered was mackerel, but I don’t remember the word now. She soon brought out a smattering of small dishes, a small bowl of spicy soup, and a grilled mackerel with just about all the meat that fish had to offer.

IMG_0258

I made quick work of the soup (as you’ve probably noticed), and it gave me the first challenge to my resilience with the spicy Korean food. Oddly enough, the wasabi (green smear in the small bowl) was actually more sweet than spicy. It was also delicious, though, and I ended up eating most of it straight. The top left dish, I believe, was a kind of whipped egg. That’s what it tasted like, but it was far lighter and fluffier than any egg dish I have had. The fish was superb. It was a bit fishy, but the chef prepared it just right. The skin was crisp, but not to crunchy. The meat flaked easily, but it was not too dry. The seasoning was light, but it was just enough to keep me digging for more. The meal took some time. After finishing two of the small dishes and the soup, the waitress brought me more, and picking apart the fish challenged my chopstick skills. When I finished, I was satisfied without feeling overfed. That is something I have found common in the Korean fare. It tends to be light yet nourishing. This is one part of living here that I know I will continue to enjoy.

When I got up to pay and leave, I was actually a bit sad that I could not tip this kind woman. She was very attentive and very kind despite my complete lack of inability to communicate in her language. All said, the meal cost me 7,000 won (a little less than $7). I politely said thank you and goodbye (this time in Korean), and set off for home.

After another hour on the train, I have arrived back in my overstuffed apartment. I am now the last one up, as the five others have commenced their rest for the last long day of training that is to come. Monday morning, we will all say our goodbyes and pack our bags for our more permanent homes. I have been assigned to a school near Konkuk University, not far from where I am now. Others are going to the far side of the city, and some are headed to distant parts of the country. I say distant, but they’ll be about as distant as Pueblo is from Fort Collins. There is a different concept of geographic distance in a country the size of Kentucky.

I will try to keep up my writings, but I know that the next couple weeks will be very busy. On Monday, I will get all the details of my work. There is a good chance that I will be teaching classes from 6:00am through the morning as well as afternoon and evening classes stretching to 10:00pm. I am going to try to keep my commitment to the Seoul Survivors Rugby Football Club, and I will try to stay connected socially. However, I believe the greatest demand on my time will be the urge to do something useful in the classroom. Although I am speaking from a perspective of inexperience, I believe that the curriculum I will be teaching falls short of the potential of the students. We have some of the brightest minds in the world over here, and the material I have seen seems to be below them. I have only the faintest idea of how to make the classroom challenging and productive, but that will be my constant challenge over the next year. Discovering the best way to do it, I believe, will be the hardest part of the next few months.

Urban Hiking – Day 1

Happy New Year! I learned earlier this week that the most popular sport in Korea is hiking. In recognition of the local pastime, on the region’s largest holiday, I decided to partake. However, it is year New Year’s Day (if you’re on the lunar calendar), so I wanted to stay in the city. With that, you get to enjoy the first installment of Urban Hiking. I left around around 10:30 this morning after oversleeping and struggling with a shoddy internet connection to talk to my parents. I headed west with no particular destination in mind. Soon enough, I decided that I would like to try to make it to the city center. I didn’t expect to find much, but I was pleasantly surprised! I have no context for most of these photos, so just enjoy the walk through Seoul!

The whole morning felt like wandering an American city on Christmas day; almost every shop was closed, and very few people walked the streets. That persisted until this happened:

IMG_0186

Apparently there was a huge festival at the Namsangol Hanok Village, and that was apparently where the whole city had gone. It was quite the tourist trap, but it was the first place that I found serving any food. I got some chicken on a stick, and quickly found myself in a group of other white people. The sound of English startled me a bit when I heard this quartet of Americans discussing their mystery meat. Turns out they are a group of friends from Oregon on an extended vacation around Asia. They were on their third and final day in Seoul before heading back to the States. When we parted ways, I continued on into the park to watch a performance and view ancient Korean buildings.

Continuing on, I found my way deep in the heart of Seoul, and I found the other half of the population:

I don’t know if Myeongdong is always like this, but it was quite the gathering. I found some great food from the street vendors and continued on my way. I didn’t cover much more ground and ended up coming back here for dinner. I did make one crazy stop at the Lotte department store. I ended up in a line, and I wasn’t sure where it led, so I stayed in it. It led to an elevator that took me to the 11th floor of this skyscraper. This was the “duty free” floor. I wandered in circles, past $30,000 watches, clothes that were too expensive to advertise their price, and store attendants that look like Secret Service agents.

IMG_0224

After circling the 9th, 10th, and 11th floors multiple times, I finally found my way out of that maze. Once back on solid ground, I found my way past the city hall and into an ancient shrine (conveniently free for the holiday).

By this point, I had probably covered nearly 20 miles, and I was wearing out, I wandered my way back to Myeongdong (inadvertently) where I grabbed a couple snacks for dinner and caught a subway home.

An Adventure in Seoul

It was dark when I left the apartment this morning. This is not the first time I have left before the sun, but it was the first time doing it in a foreign city. I was on an mission to Gangnam, and I rode my horse with skill.

The mission was to find the Korean Air office in Gangnam in order to verify the purchase of Luisa’s ticket for Thursday evening from Bangkok. It was the first time out on my own in the Seoul, but it turned out to be a rather simple task. After fighting with some of the ticket machines at the subway, I walked to the next station and found cooperative machines. After that, it was just the ability to read a subway map and locate a building across the street from the station. The actual process was very simple. I’m glad I was able to do it here, though. If not, I may have had to buy another ticket because they would have cancelled this one. I spent a little time in Gangnam surveying the Grand International Hotel (holy Ritz Carlton, Batman; that is one opulent hotel) and getting breakfast at an overpriced chain café. I found my way back in time to meet up with some other new teachers before they headed out to the bank, which we all found out in various ways was closed.

After accepting defeat, I made my way back out into the city to meet up with Joo Sung, my language partner. I met him through a website called italki.com, a community of language learners from around the globe. I started speaking with Joo Sung a couple months ago in preparation for my move, but he doesn’t have a webcam. Until today, he was just a voice emanating from my computer, guiding me through Korean workbooks. Meeting with him felt like bringing a fictional character to life. There was nothing special about the meeting though; just two people using technology to arrange a meeting place. It’s a foreign city to me, but it’s his home town.

IMG_0079

I was fortunate to also meet his girlfriend, Lucille. I immediately picked up on her accent, and I immediately recognized that their relationship was special. Lucille is French. She grew up in a small town near the Normandy coast. She met Joo Sung on the internet and found her way out here teaching French to little Koreans. The most astounding part of all this is that these two communicate almost exclusively in a shared second language. Only through their concentrated effort in learning English did they make their relationship possible.

As many of you know, one of my concurrent goals of this grand adventure is to become multilingual. Joo Sung and Lucille’s relationship is a perfect illustration of my reasons for pursuing new languages. Language is how we communicate information, and creating more pathways for that information to flow increases the chances of learning something truly life-changing. For these two, it was a romantic partner. For many, it is a new way of life. For me, it may be both of these things. If I truly settle outside of the United States, I will certainly need to learn the language of my new home both for citizenship and for building the relationships that will make that life valuable to me.

I joined Joo Sung and Lucille for Lunch at a cozy little restaurant that served samgyeopsal (삼겹살), which is basically less salty, very thickly cut bacon. We then toured Children’s Grand Park, a zoo/history museum/nature walk/amusement park on the southeast side of Seoul. It was a cold day, but the company was good, and the sights were pleasing.

//giphy.com/embed/nYI8SmmChYXK0?html5=true

The rest of the day consisted of perusing a local market that seemed to be completely devoid of rice (I am in Asia, right?) in search of something substantial for dinner. This is reason #2 for needing to learn the language ASAP: I cannot go much longer without being able to read what exactly is in the food I am buying.

Tomorrow is Soelnal (설날), the Lunar New Year, which is the largest holiday throughout East Asia. The city is the least populated it will be all year. I, however, still have exploring to do.

Another day, another adventure. Speak to you soon.

Here we go!

For the first time in nearly three years, I am posting from abroad. I arrived in Korea this afternoon with almost no idea what to expect. If you read one of my last posts on the other blog, you’ll recall my lack of anxiety. That anxiety set in shortly after takeoff from San Francisco as the flight attendant made a series of announcements in Korean, and I suddenly realized that I was wholly unprepared for this.

What I have realized, though, is that I was never going to be prepared. I would never get to the point that I would feel comfortable relocating to a new country. I probably speak enough of the language to get by, but I’m not comfortable with it, yet. Not only that, but I can certainly get around without it. When I arrived today, I easily jumped on the airport wifi, got a new SIM card so I can call in Korea, and I arranged to meet with a fellow teacher. Instead of directing us to the bus across the city, her cousin was so kind as to drive both of us all the way to our temporary residence and coordinate with our recruiter to make sure we were in the right place. Now I am rooming with a guy who was born in Korea and is fluent in Korean, so even getting dinner required no interaction with the locals.

Part of the reason I came over here was to remove the option of staying in my comfort zone. That option is still completely available. It will take continued force of will to expand my horizons and truly learn this culture.

I will leave it there for now. I have not seen enough of this country to share much of anything. I will get to that soon. However, I would like to recap my night in San Francisco.IMG_0037

After a tear-filled, yet hopeful goodbye with my parents, I cast off for California. I had arranged to meet with a local fellow who had offered to host me through the travel community, couchsurfing. I somehow managed to find my way into the downtown from the airport using the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) rail system. It was actually quite simple. Same principle as the D.C. metro: find the stop where you need to get off (provided by Google maps), look for that on a chart posted at the pay station, and buy a ticket for the listed price. After that successful little journey, I found myself outside Union Station, which was surrounded by gawking tourists, nagging street performers, and doomsday preachers. Failing to locate the famous cable car that was supposed to take me to within a block of my host’s house, I decided to just trek it. It turned out to be nearly three miles, almost entirely uphill. California may not have mountains like Colorado, but they have some serious hills. The fifty pounds of luggage strapped to my shoulders didn’t help the situation, but I eventually made it.

I met two of my host’s roommates who were working from home before dropping my stuff, changing out of a sweat-soaked t-shirt, and heading back out to meet my second cousin, twice removed (I think? We’re related somehow), Rosemary. That, in itself, turned into quite the adventure. A couple blocks short of where we were to meet up, I ran into a road block buttressed by reporters. A member of the news crew informed me that they were waiting for President Obama’s motorcade to pass by. Of course rumors of when that would actually occur were far from accurate, and I ended up spending about 45 minutes waiting catch a glimpse of the President. I never did, but the frenzy surrounding it was entertaining.

IMG_0034

While waiting, I decided to try to make some friends. The young man in the maroon shirt in the center of this photo is a UCSB film student named Marten. Spending the weekend up in San Francisco to get some still shots, Marten took the time out to potentially get some freelance shots of the President. It wasn’t until he revealed that he had grown up in Sweden that I even picked up on an accent. After sharing a little bit of our stories, he asked for the title of my blog so that he could follow my adventures around the world. I was greatly honored, but I should have gotten his information as well. Marten, if you find this, please comment. I hope to hear of your adventures and your future career in Hollywood.

After the grand disappointment that was the motorcade, I ran down to the next block to meet Rosemary. We walked along the bay, past Ghirardelli Park to the old Fort Mason, which has been converted into an arts center. Her boyfriend operates a theater out on the pier, which regularly hosts the likes of Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, and Ken Burns. The theater is in a fabulous location. Here’s a view from the backstage door:

IMG_0040

He gave us a fascinating tour of the theater before we continued on down toward the Golden Gate bridge. We wound our way back around toward my host’s house, admiring the views of the bay and the high class residences in the area. We got distracted briefly by the sounds of youth baseball. A confident and inspirational coach was hosting batting practice for some audacious youngsters.

IMG_0049

After parting with Rosemary, I found my way hesitantly back to my host’s house. I was a bit confused when I saw a group of guys standing in front of what I thought was his door. Turns out it was. Ben and his friends were actually waiting for me, who had taken the keys. The timing could not have been more perfect. A quick game of some dice game and a couple shots later, we headed out to dinner.

Unfortunately for you (a mistake I will not make again) I forgot my bag and my camera, so I didn’t get any pictures from the rest of the evening.

Quick rundown: We ate at a fantastic Lebanese restaurant called Mazzat in Hayes Valley. It turned out that I was with a group of very classy people. They were all a year my senior and most knew each other from a prep school they had attended in Massachusetts. They had all gone on to Ivy league schools like Penn, Stanford, and Harvard. A few had studied abroad, and one earned his masters from the London School of Economics. I had the pleasure of sitting next to and picking the brain of Alexander Heffner, the host of PBS’s The Open Mind. In an attempt to provide a media outlet that represents fairness and legitimacy, Alex interviews prominent leaders in politics, culture, and technology. Having just binge-watched the entire third season of The Newsroom, I can’t help but think of Alex as a young Will McAvoy on a mission to civilize. You can find his interviews here: http://www.thirteen.org/openmind/.

I also got to meet some other great people like Lambrose, a native-born American citizen who has close family ties with Greece. His views on the situation in Greece are rather pessimistic. He opened my eyes to the lack of sympathy much of the EU has for Greece and the rising extremist sentiments in Erdogan’s Turkey that could threaten Greek sovereignty. His views on this country seemed to be far more optimistic, particularly in his field, renewable energy. On a slightly different not, in discussion of social programs, he mentioned that he wouldn’t do anything if he weren’t required to work for a living. Having recently written a paper claiming that 99% of people would continue to work on a guaranteed income, I found this quite surprising. However, given his position in and passion (that I sensed) for his career developing projects in renewable energy, I simply don’t believe it. He, and his Ivy friends, seem far too Type-A to stop doing great things even if it weren’t for a paycheck.

The night ended relatively early, which was good because I wanted to get on the road early. After stopping at the coffee shop, at which I posted my Goodbye, I caught an Uber cab ($15 flat rate to SFO), with a Korean university student visiting the U.S. for winter break. Conveniently, Jung and I were on the same flight.

How do I get so wordy? I must take after someone who has put me up to all this.

Talk of Korea and my first day at work tomorrow.

안녕히 계세요!