Sunday, January 27, 2013

The Story of Sketchy Deals and Also of Skiing at Night and Being Cold

The video above is a short one I took during a two-day skiing trip last week in Muju (무주), Korea. It was my first time skiing in Korea, and it was also my first time skiing at night. I didn't even know people skied at night, actually... it's always struck me as kind of dangerous, not to mention freezing. But at Korean ski resorts, there are lift ticket options for evening, late night, and even past midnight. The later it gets, the cheaper the ticket!

Okay, let me backtrack a bit. When Ammy and I arrived in Cheongju on the 13th, we spent the night at Anna's (a fellow Fulbrighter) grandparents' apartment. We also watched Les Mis! This was my second viewing, and it was every bit as good as the first; I came so close to bawling during some scenes this time...

At Deogyusan Resort at night!
The next morning, we took a cab, a bus, another bus, a third bus (which was actually the same bus as the second, but we had to by an additional ticket), and then another cab to get to the Deogyusan Resort (걱유산 리조트) in Muju. The transportation was exhausting and confusing, and we arrived later than expected at the resort. As a result, we spent the afternoon napping and listening to the soundtrack of Les Mis in our hotel room.

When we woke up, it was time to get our skiing and boarding gear and lift tickets. (스키 is yet another genius Korean loanword, pronounced s-ki, and I think the technical term for the type I rented was "carving skis", or 카빙... Also, snowboarding is 스노보드: s-no-bo-duh.)

The task of buying lift tickets turned out to be much more interesting than I expected it to be, on account of a friendly and incredibly embarrassed Korean man who heard us speaking in English while discussing which ticket to buy and came up to us with a bizarre request. He explained that he had been drinking with his friends the night before and ended up with exactly no cash left in his wallet, so he couldn't buy a bus ticket home. On the other hand, he did have four membership cards for the Deogyusan Resort, which meant that he could score us fast-pass lift tickets at the members' rate, if we could pay him back in cash. So, we would save about $20 from what we'd been preparing to pay, and we'd also have shorter lift waiting times, and he would get in return enough money for his bus.

This was, of course, super sketchy. I mean, red flags were popping up everywhere: Where were this guy's friends? (Already left, he said.) Did he not have any credit cards with which to buy a bus ticket? (Nope.) He wanted the four of us to give him $120 in cash. Was he really allowed to buy lift tickets using his friends' membership cards? (Yup.) Factor in the broken English and our heightened cautiousness, as 외국인s ("waygookins", or foreigners), and I could have easily declined. I mean, I was even ready to just give the guy ten bucks to get his bus ticket, if it meant that he wouldn't abscond with hundreds along with our pride.

But then, I thought about his purported situation, and it reminded me of a very similar one that I had been in a few years ago. I was returning to Swarthmore from visiting my brother and parents in Philly, on the platform waiting for the last outbound train. I then realized that the evening fare was a dollar more than the afternoon fare, and that I didn't have enough to buy a ticket. The actual ticketing office was closed (in which case passengers can buy tickets on the train with cash), so I was stuck waiting for the train but without enough money to get on. Long story short, I approached the nicest-looking old gentleman on the platform, explained my situation, and then asked him if he'd like to buy some of the granola bars that my parents had just gifted me with (snacks for an ever-hungry college student) for a dollar. He agreed, gave me what I needed for fare, and I never lived that down with my family. They still make fun of me for it today. But I always argue that I was being resourceful!

So, that is why I sympathized with this man, who had probably spent the entire morning swallowing his pride for the sake of a bus ticket home. And he was indeed being resourceful. I don't know how he got ahold of his friends' resort membership cards, but they were legit, after all. He secured us our members' lift tickets, got a ton of cash, and was really embarrassed and grateful and finally could go home. And my friends and I, in turn, got a great story out of it.
Finally, we went skiing! Anna, Ammy (photo cred), me in my super-tight, completely-not-weather-proof red jeans, and Katelyn, at Deogyusan Resort.
Ammy, Katelyn, and Anna chose snowboarding, and since it was Katelyn's first time, we spent the first part of the early evening going on a bunny hill and teaching Katelyn the basics of boarding, or: how to survive falling on your butt and knees and face over and over and over again. It quickly got dark, and finally our evening tickets were activated for night-time skiing. The slopes had been freshly groomed, too, so I got to ski on some crisp corduroy. It was quite exhilarating. However, the snow (눈/noon) wasn't of the best quality: it was very icy in some spots, which worried me because I was over a year out of practice, and I was also not wearing waterproof pants. If I fell, my pants would get wet, and then they'd freeze, and then I'd freeze, and that would be no good. Fortunately, I didn't fall! I even tried some of the most difficult slopes that were open (I'm not entirely sure if they were blue or black, since the rating system was both inconsistent within the park and not recognized by fellow skiers I tried to ask...), with success. In the meantime, it was also below freezing the entire time, and despite never taking a spill, I was soon very, very, very cold. The long solo lift rides were the worst, and the wind picked up around 9pm... but I kept telling myself, "I've been colder."

I'm a bit sorry to say that I left the girls on the beginner slopes for most of the night, but they reported that they had a great time. We met up later, in fact, to try one of the more difficult trails together; it was a beginner trail, but quite long and windy. The never-ending-ness was hard for Katelyn, but she toughed it out like a trooper, and in the meantime I got to practice my backwards-skiing.

Ski lifts at night. Kind of eerie!
One perk of skiing alone, though, besides being able to cut in front of groups in the lift lines, is the chance to strike up random conversations with other skiers. I was often on a chair with just one other person, and when that happened, I would always use it was a chance to practice my Korean. "얼마나 자주 스키를 합니까? 한국에서 무슨 스키 리조트가 제일 좋아요?" (Hint: not Muju.) "어디에서 왔습니까?"

Even though my Korean is poor, I got an answer every time and even some lengthy conversations sometimes. One skier I met was only a beginner; he seemed surprised that I've been skiing for such a long time. Another man was interested in what I was doing in Korea, and we talked about differences between ski resorts in the US and in Korea. (I've only been to a few in California in Nevada, to be honest... but Colorado and Vermont are on my bucket list!)

That's about it. The first night, though just a few short hours, was fun in unexpected ways, very chill, and a success all around. I have a few more photos, but they're on my phone, which is temporarily powered off while I'm out of the country. I'll upload them as soon as I get back to Korea. Next up: day 2 of skiing, which was fairly disastrous. Stay tuned!

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Andrew goes to Taiwan (and does Linguistic-y stuff!)

We interrupt the jealousy-inducing saga of Andrew's winter travels around Korea for a brief update on what he's actually doing in Taiwan right now...

Every so often I get upset at myself for having left academia. Now, of course I haven't really left; this year is only a temporary hiatus caused primarily by my having graduated. But in choosing to go abroad after college instead of going straight to graduate school, I also chose to leave my studies behind for a while, and I miss them.

It doesn't help, either, that while I know I will eventually go back to school, I'm not sure exactly when, or for what, and I always feel the pressure to figure these things out as soon as possible. This was all very quarter-life crisis-inducing for me toward the end of last semester.

Now, however, perhaps it's safe to say that I've almost decided on pursuing graduate studies in Linguistics. I don't mean to be too certain of anything. But today, I ventured out to see what this field could possibly lead me to in the far future by visiting a linguistics professor and endangered languages specialist at National Taiwan University (台大).

Professor Sung Li-may was recently featured in an Associated Press article that my dad sent to me. As well as being a great read, it made me realize that I had the opportunity to see what the world of endangered language preservation and activism was like in Taiwan. For those who don't know, I majored in Linguistics at Swarthmore and was very involved in Professor K. David Harrison's Endangered Languages Laboratory, where he contributed to the growing field of endangered languages research.

I was excited to hear that there were linguists in Taiwan doing the same kind of work, so I arranged a meeting with Professor Sung and visited her today. I learned some very useful things from the meeting and came away from it feeling pretty positive, although I wouldn't say all my future doubts have been assuaged.

For example, Professor Sung was very clear from the start that in order to do endangered language research in Taiwan, you need to speak Mandarin Chinese. I am considered an "ABC" in Taiwan: American-born Chinese. Increasingly, ABCs are known to speak broken to poor (or even no) Mandarin, due to having grown up in the US and given an English education. I admitted to her that I was not fluent in Mandarin (although my Taiwanese isn't half bad) and that I studied it in college but didn't have enough practice. I definitely wouldn't be able to conduct graduate-level research in Mandarin at my current level, at any rate.

Why is this a problem? While American linguists have a habit of traveling all over the world and using interpreters -- often several layers of them -- in order to do their field work (i.e. English --> Oriya --> Remo --> Oriya --> English), Taiwanese researchers don't allow anything to be lost in translation if they can help it (i.e. Mandarin --> Kanakanavu --> Mandarin). The time and resources are too limited to have someone come along and try to conduct all the fieldwork in English; instead, they'd rather everyone speak this country's lingua franca. I think that a lot of the people interested in Taiwanese aboriginal languages (also called Formosan languages) also have a more personal investment in the welfare of the languages and the tribes that speak them; after all, they are all cohabitants of the same small, tropical island.

In the same way, I'm drawn to studying the Formosan languages because I view it as a part of my own Taiwanese heritage. Professor Sung seemed genuinely pleased at my interest; in Taiwan just as in the rest of the world, there really aren't enough people interested in linguistics! She said that we should keep in touch, introduced me to some of her graduate students, and even invited me to join their group on a fieldwork expedition in April! The invitation came after we switched from English to Mandarin for a bit, and she apparently judged my 國語 as "還可以". That made me feel marginally better about myself. Of course, with the Fulbright, it's impossible for me to make the trip, but the gesture was amazing, and I was quite happy.

Tomorrow afternoon, at least, I'll return to 台大's campus to meet some of the other graduate students and take a quick look at the kind of work they're doing. Mostly, at the moment, it's data segmentation and analysis using Praat. Boy, am I familiar with that program... I hope it'll be interesting, though. I hope that graduate students in linguistics don't turn out to just be zombies hooked to computers listening to unintelligible recordings of human speech. Because that's what I fear I'll be doing for three years if I do go into this field... Ha! I kid.

Did I mention yet that I'd be applying to graduate programs in the fall? NTU's own GIL is out of the question, but I think I ought to start looking for other programs to apply to. I guess I can say that I've been inspired to get this grad school thing on the road. In the end, it only took one hour this morning for me to completely reinvigorate my search for a career. How about that?

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Stopover in Seoul

On the morning of the 12th, all of us who had enjoyed the Ice Fishing Festival came back down from the winter wonderland and returned to Seoul. We played a lot of Contact on the subway.

In the capital, we met up with Jonathan and Liam, two fellow ETAs. It was Jonathan's birthday, and he was going to celebrate by watching a Korean basketball game. I didn't go (but if you want an idea of what that was like, you can read Maggie's blog or Ammy's blog), having planned instead to visit the Yongsan Electronics Market to buy a replacement lens cap. I had lost mine at the festival when I gave my camera to a kind stranger to take photos of me going nuts in a pool of freezing water. He gave the camera back, of course, but both of us forgot about the lens cap; doubtless it is still in his pocket.

A heaven of cameras at I'Park Mall. Photo from this Korea blog.
Anyway, I went with Adam and Katelyn to Yongsan, and upon entering the market (I'Park Mall), I was flabbergasted by the sight before me. There must have been thousands of cameras of all different kinds, and tons of sellers who immediately started calling out to me to try out whatever they had. I'd done my research, though, I knew that these guys on the first floor were the ones most likely to try to rip off customers, especially foreigners. To check, I asked the first merchant I saw how much it would be for a lens cap. He punched some numbers into a calculator and showed me 23,000₩ ($21.50). Heck no! I quickly left that area of the market, even though it was beautiful to behold... and we found a different market.

There are actually several different markets (more like department stores) in the neighborhood, and I decided to try Electronics Land (전자렌드). Luckily, I found my lens cap without too much trouble there. I was looking for anything below ten bucks, and a guy working a videography shop dug in some drawers and found a Canon lens of the right size for me, for 10,000₩ ($9.50). I took his offer.

Later, I saw another camera merchant downstairs and wondered if I'd be able to bargain down. I tried using Korean with limited and awkward success. (Koreal life, people!) So, when this second merchant offered 10,000₩, I said that it was too expensive and asked for 8,000. He didn't miss a beat and lowered the price. I was caught by surprise, because I'd already bought my other lens cap, and obviously I had to find a way out of buying this one, too. So, I said that that was still too expensive and said that I could find it elsewhere for 5,000₩. Then the merchant snapped at me and said that I should just order it online if I wanted it that cheap. (When I checked later, Amazon does indeed have my lens cap for cheaper. Whatever, though!)

At Baskin Robbins
Adam and Katelyn and I went to get ice cream at Baskin Robbins, partly to celebrate and partly because, well, I think that if you don't go to the Yongsan Electronics Market specifically to get a certain item (having done price comparison research beforehand), then it's really too overwhelming for simply browsing. So we weren't interested in looking for anything else. Not even all of the bootleg DVDs being sold on street corners!

The next part of our adventure took place in the mall connected to the Yongsan Train Terminal. With about an hour to kill before Katelyn's train back to Iksan, we decided to do a spontaneous photo scavenger hunt with our handy smart phones. Items to be photographed included: PSY, Engrish, other foreigners, the Korean flag, and groups of people standing in a circle but all on their phones. It was such a perfect time-killer.

At Ho (好) Bar in Hongdae. Photo courtesy Maggie.
Then, Adam and I traveled to Itaewon, Seoul's international neighborhood, to meet up with the others for dinner. For Jonathan's birthday, he wanted to go to a Nigerian restaurant called Mama Africa (he is of Nigerian descent). When we arrived, we discovered that the owner of the restaurant had the same first and last name as Jonathan. It was pretty hilarious. For dinner, I had jollof rice, which was my first taste of Nigerian food.

After dinner, we hung out in the hostel for a bit before going out to some bars in Hongdae. I'm not much of a bar person myself (too much noise and smoke), but I still had a good time with Jonathan, Liam, Maggie, and Ammy. One of the bars we went to had some pool tables, and it was fun! Even though I suck at pool. Like, I'm really, really bad. But that is unimportant when you're having fun with friends, right?

Not only was this a fantastic omelet, they had COLORING PLACEMATS!
The next morning, Ammy and I went to Jubilee Church, a church with English services that I hadn't been to since last summer. I enjoyed the service a lot, mostly because it closely resembled the church services that I was accustomed to growing up and in college. It's been so long since I've sung worship songs with such gusto.

After the service, we headed back to Itaewon for lunch with the rest of them at Suji's. Suji's is an American restaurant with several locations in Asia, and it's very popular with Fulbrighters as the place to get American "diner food" while in Seoul. This was my first time going, and it was well worth the 45-minute wait.

The food was good, as was the birthday cake that Ammy and I got for Jonathan, and the five of us had a great time enjoying a slow afternoon with delicious food and wonderful company. Also, the placemats were colorable and we got crayons. Simply sublime. I tell you.
Birthday boy Jonathan (left) and Liam (right) at Suji's.
I wished that that afternoon could have stretched on longer (and especially that the food could have magically reappeared to be eaten again...), but Ammy and I needed to get to Cheongju that afternoon, so we peaced out and went to the express bus terminal to begin the next part of our adventure: skiing!

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Hwacheon Ice Fishing Festival Pt. 4: The Rest of the Fest

So... you know that willfully-plunging-into-freezing-cold-water thing I wrote about yesterday? Well, I just re-watched Titanic. Having second thoughts about trying it again.

Anyway! Here are some photos from the rest of the Hwacheon Ice Fishing Festival, one of CNN's Seven Wonders of Winter! Besides fishing and more badass fishing, there were snow sculptures, ice slides, ice ATV-ing rinks, and a large "Ice Illumination Plaza" with beautiful ice art.
Katelyn on the outdoor ice slides.
Katelyn and me on the little ATVs. There were little kids driving things around pretty recklessly, and there was no need for a waiver form, even! (I mean, this is Korea.) I was driving pretty recklessly, too... but Katelyn was the one who did donuts on the ice! (Taken by Adam)
Lanterns hung along the town's streets.
Giant snow sculptures. Look, it's Snow White! (Get it?)
In the evening, some figure skating performances.
Inside the Ice Illumination Plaza, with dozens of amazing sculptures. Here's a horse from the Chinese Zodiac! (Taken by Ammy)
Ammy on more ice slides. These things are more fun than they look.
A bunch of terra cotta soldiers made of ice.
Katelyn, me, Ammy, Maggie, and Adam at the Hwacheon Ice Fishing Festival.
As the day drew to a close, my friends and I all went back to Yuchon, pretty drained but having had a very fun and adventurous time. I'd say that the Hwacheon Ice Fishing Festival ranks up there as one of my favorite festivals in Korea so far. Not that I've been to that many, but there was just so much great stuff to do that it kept us entertained and laughing all day long. I was hardly cold, honestly.

But the winter adventures didn't stop there! Next up: a day in Seoul and a skiing trip down south!

Monday, January 21, 2013

Hwacheon Ice Fishing Festival Pt. 3: I've Been Colder

So there was this pool of freezing water with fish in it.
Like so.
For about eight bucks (for foreigners), you could have the once-in-a-lifetime experience of wading into the knee-high water and trying to catch fish with your bare hands. I say once-in-a-lifetime because most people only want to do it once.

Did I want to do it? You bet. Adam, Katelyn, Ammy, Maggie, and I all decided to take the plunge together, so to speak. We went into the locker room to change into the uniform of shorts and an orange t-shirt. We were supposed to tuck the t-shirt into our shorts, I soon learned, because the only method of storing fish after catching them was inside the shirt. Suddenly I began having doubts. And then we stepped outside, onto the ice, and I began having more doubts. And then I put my feet in the water and dang, it was cold.
I gave my camera to a bystander. I'm the one in the orange shirt, yelling something incomprehensible.
It was so cold when I stood on the ice that my feet hurt, so I sat down. And then my butt was so cold I couldn't wait to get off of it and into the water. But the water was so cold that my feet instantly went numb. I couldn't feel them after a few seconds, and it was all I could do to stay standing. My feet felt like blocks of ice, and they suddenly seemed very loathe to move where I wanted them to. The whistle blew and everyone was shouting and splashing around, and very soon people began catching fish. But I was just standing, hunched over and peering into the water but unable to see any fish, let alone catch them.

I felt excited, frustrated, and insane all at the same time (that's adrenaline interacting with the "flight" response). Adam and I kept yelling at each other, "WHERE ARE THE FISH? THERE ARE NO FISH!" Neither of us was successful in snagging anything, although Ammy and Katelyn caught one each. I figured out later that the trick was to "corner" fish up against the wall of the pond and then grab them, while I was out wading in the middle of the pond, looking stupid, no doubt.

Getting out of the pool was probably the worst part, because we had to walk on more ice to get to the hot tub that they'd prepared for the participants. I had to hobble over as if I had stumps for feet. But as soon as I warmed up, I was totally fine. It was too bad I didn't catch any fish, but I had an unforgettable experience all the same. (Plus, I'd already caught three from regular ice fishing before.)
Bare-hands ice fishing: this man caught a few fish. They're in his shirt.
Especially great was the fact that this was a shared insane experience with my friends. For the rest of winter, we decided that we were no longer ever eligible to complain of the cold. Whether we be skiing, stuck outside at night, or shoved into freezer naked, we can now say without uncertainty, "I've been colder." Adam insisted that there was a certain thrill to experiencing the most extreme of anything in one's lifetime, and for us, I guess this was the extreme of cold. You know, what, though... I might do it again. It may or may not have been good for our health, but it was a great way to remind ourselves that we're alive, dangit, and still young. Unlike the fish we caught.

Lastly, I need you all to see the excellent photo captured by the bystander to whom Maggie gave her camera, a moment that really tells you what the water felt like upon entering:
Maggie and Ammy begin their bare hands fishing adventure. Courtesy Maggie.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Hwacheon Ice Fishing Festival Pt. 2: Sancheoneo

Sancheoneo (산천어/山川魚) is the Korean mountain trout. It's the fish for which we all fished at the Ice Fishing Festival. To make a long story short, I caught three! To make a short story long...
This is a Korean mountain trout, freshly caught!
When Adam, Katelyn, Ammy, and I arrived at the festival, we saw hundreds of people standing on a thickly frozen river, jerking small plastic fishing rods up and down over holes bored into the ice. It looked pretty funny, actually, but a lot of families had brought chairs and snacks and were making a picnic out of it.

We made our way up the river; nearly all of the festival activities were taking place on huge fields of ice. One section of the river was specially reserved for foreigners. We located an English-speaking festival guide to help get us oriented, and then got our gear and headed onto the ice.

As it turns out, ice fishing at this festival is quite simple. Pick a hole, drop your line into it, then wait patiently. If you want, you can jerk your line up and down with your rod to attract more fish, but, as we found out later, our frozen section of the river had already been pre-stocked with hundreds of fish, which made landing one almost a guarantee. It wasn't long before Katelyn made the first catch of the afternoon!
Katelyn caught the first fish!
The next catches came pretty soon after: I caught one, then Ammy caught one, then Adam caught one... it was thrilling in part because it was so easy. No real skill required! Just patience. In fact, after the initial harvest, the fish seemed to learn that there were four murderous foreigners on the ice above them, and nothing bit for the next half hour. I eventually caught two more, for a total of seven among the four of us.
Me, Adam, Ammy, and Katelyn with our bounty from the Ice Fishing Festival.
What did we then do with these fish? We ate them, of course! There were stations, or mini-restaurants, located all along the river where you could have your fish grilled in an oven or made into sashimi (eaten raw). My friends and I, hungry for a late lunch, did both. My lunch was literally trout and soju, nothing else. I will admit that I was very excited to be eating food that I had just caught. Yes, a part of me was squeamish or a bit sad that I had ended the short existence of a beautiful animal unceremoniously by eating it. But it was also a rare experience, I'd say, since I almost never go fishing. If you're going to eat meat, it's best to be as close to the source as possible, to handle killing and cooking it yourself if you can. (This way, you'll be convinced to go vegetarian. Haha, I kid.)
My sancheoneo, made into sashimi! It wasn't bad. Not terribly 맛있다, but it's not a typical sashimi fish, so I'm okay with it. The grilled version was better. (I even ate the eyeball...)
Me and the excitable Korean man. (Taken by Katelyn)
Some odd and inexplicable things happened during lunch. A table of loud, drunk Korean men not too far from us noticed this group of foreigners enjoying their fish, and decided to make our acquaintance. A man from their group came by to our table and motioned for me to go over to theirs. Then, he gave me a small paper cup and announced that we would do shots of soju together. What? I was so confused! And embarrassed. But there was no way for me to refuse, so I did a "love shot" (link arms before downing it) with this complete stranger, who seemed very pleased with himself and then said we'd do another. Soju's alcohol content is about four times greater than that of beer. He also fed me a piece of sashimi... By this time, other men in his group of friends had dragged Adam over to the table for shots, as well. All of us were so amused at this. Nothing like this has ever happened to me, not in Korea or anywhere else! Later, I went to get one of my grilled fish, and when I came back, the man had brought a bowl of live minnows over to our table, and he had just finished feeding them to my friends. Ick. But before I knew what was happening, he caught sight of me, grabbed a minnow, dipped it in red pepper sauce, and put it in my mouth, too. Yeah, so I ate a live minnow (and chased it down with more soju).

This man -- this complete stranger -- was a riot. He thought it was hilarious seeing our reactions to everything, and he must have been very excited to meet foreigners, after all, because he wanted to get a photo with Maggie and me before he left. He also gave us all his business card. And for all of us to just smile, laugh, and go along with everything? That's what it takes to build 정. When we are spontaneously thrust into weird cultural experiences, then, as long as there isn't really anything dangerous that could happen, why not, right? This is part of the job description: engage with Korea personally and build connections, even those fueled by soju. I'm sure the man came away with a more positive view of Americans (even though I didn't keep his card).
The poor things... But I did eat another one later.
Fishing! I can see now why my host brother likes it so much. As for myself, I enjoyed myself on the ice but had yet to steel myself for what was to come: bare hands fishing in freezing water... for next time!
Hey, I caught a fish!

Friday, January 18, 2013

Hwacheon Ice Fishing Festival Pt. 1: Welcome to the Middle of Nowhere

I had a fantastic time in Hwacheon last week at the world-famous Ice Fishing Festival. However, before any of that happened, I had to travel to Hwacheon, and that was a day's worth of adventure in and of itself.

Even though I was only going to be at the festival for a day, I had with me all that I would need for a month of travel, since I was going to be (or am currently) living out of a suitcase until February. My trusty gadget-backpack and my little gray suitcase and I made the four-hour bus ride up to Seoul on the 9th, where I crashed for the night with a Swattie friend (more on that later). The next day, I met up with Tracey and Ammy, two Fulbrighters, as well as Tracey's mother, for lunch, and then accompanied Ammy to a dental clinic for a check-up. The dental clinic turned out to be also a plastic surgery clinic, and while I waited in the posh, five-star-hotel-esque lobby, I glanced through pamphlets and advertisements for the dozens of procedures offered. It was weird. Then, finally, Ammy and I got on the road.
Ammy and the snow-covered train tracks. Both real trains and metro trains use these.
The Seoul Metro system is more extensive than I'd imagined. It's possible to take the turquoise line from the center of the city all the way out to Chuncheon, 45 miles northeast. This is roughly equivalent to riding the BART from San Francisco to Union City or Concord. It takes about two hours and costs less than 3,000₩ (super-cheap!). You could also take the ITX (real trains that run north-south) for a faster and more comfortable ride. Ammy and I went for the metro. It was an odd feeling, being inside a subway car, watching the sun set over a starkly rural scene: mountains, old, crumbly buildings, fields of rice.

Around 6:30pm, we arrived in Chucheon, the capital and largest city of Gangwon Province. I saw about five minutes' worth of the city before we had to hop on a bus headed even farther north (and that five minutes was spent running from the train station to the bus terminal). This bus made its way through  windy, completely darkened roads. I dozed off for a bit, and an hour later, I had absolutely no idea where we were. I checked the GPS on my phone, and it showed that we were on a road with nothing but blank white space on either side. I looked outside and saw one building. Behind it, a field. There were no lights.

Sure enough, we were in Yuchon.
A photo of Yuchon (유촌리) that I took on a different day. Let's see... 파로호느릅마을: Paroho (Lake) Elm Village. 농촌관광일번지: Rural Tourism #1 (?). And I can't figure out the right-hand post at all.
Yuchon is the name of the small village where we would be spending the night. A fellow Fulbrighter, Maggie, lives and teaches in this remote location; hers is by far the most rural placement among us. It's all farms, hills, a handful of buildings, and only one street. Fortunately for us, however, Maggie's host family rents out a dormitory (more like cabin) that they built for the seasonal farming students, and we were encouraged to stay there.

When Ammy and I arrived at Yuchon's only bus stop, we got out and found Maggie, as well as our other Fulbright friends Adam and Katelyn, waiting for us. We had dinner and then spent the rest of the evening playing Contact, eating junk food, talking about movies, and getting psyched for all the fun we were going to have at the Ice Fishing festival the next day.
Looks like college! Snacks, computers, lounging.
I'm going to end this post with a fun fact about Yuchon (and Hwacheon and this entire region in general): there are more soldiers than civilians. Yes, Gangwon Province shares a huge border with North Korea, and more than half of the DMZ is in it. Maggie says that she sees soldiers every day, and that sometimes tanks rumble slowly down the road she walks down to get to school. During the harvest season, the tanks are replaced with tractors. In any case, when real tanks aren't around, the village is still given a sense of a security with fake tanks -- made of concrete -- that overlook it from a hill. When I first passed by them, it was dark, and I didn't even realize that they were fake. But the next morning, we saw them in a new light, and it was just so absurd that we had to take a photo.
Katelyn, Ammy, and Adam with a fake tank. A fank.
That's all! In the next post: ice fishing!

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Welcome to Taiwan! Here, have an earthquake.

I've been traveling around Korea for the past week, dabbling in such curious exploits as bare-hands ice fishing, skiing backwards, and going to college reunions in Seoul. I was having so much fun that I didn't have the time to write any posts or upload photos! However, I've since left the peninsula for a two-week stint in Taiwan, and now that I'm comfortably settled into my grandparents apartment in Taipei, I'll have time to gather my thoughts and describe the past whirlwind of a week with the attention it deserves. I will also spend the next day or so recuperating from a nasty stomach bug I caught a few days ago. Taiwan is all about food, my friends, and if I'm not well enough to make the most of every meal here, I'll regret it most ruefully.

Although I proudly call Taiwan my mother country, I've never lived here for more than a few months, and I've also never set foot on the island during the winter. Normally, say my grandparents, it's not that much colder during the koa thi than any other time of the year, but today in particular brought a sudden chill and dismal drizzle that is quite different from my usual welcome: a blast of hot, humid air upon exiting Taoyuan International Airport.

But other things haven't changed. The first thing I did when I got to my A-kong and A-ma's place was take a nap, and a few hours later I was woken up by a small earthquake. Typical. And my grandparents are still as lively and overly-concerned about my health as ever. My younger cousins are still adorable. And I got a mosquito bite within a few hours of settling in. Welcome to Taiwan, indeed!

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Life of Pisces

From tomorrow, I won't see my host family for about a month, so we had a nice dinner out tonight: Korean barbecue! During the meal, we talked a lot about movies (영화/younghwa). I found out that my host parents don't care for musicals but that the family enjoyed Life of Pi. (I did, too!) Then, in an effort to engage my host bro in conversation and take his attention away from his smartphone games, I asked my host brother more about the movie. "Do you think you could live in a boat with a tiger (호랑이/holangi) for two hundred days?" I asked. "If you were Pi, what would you do?"

He replied that it would be very fun. "Fun?!" I exclaimed. "How would it be fun?"

"Fishing," he said.

(By the way, my host brother loves fishing. And sushi.)
Foreground: 육회 (yukhwe), Korean-style raw beef. This was a first. Background: delicious seasoned beef on a charcoal bbq! And also a nub of the 육회 that host bro threw on the grill to try to cook it.
P.S. Another episode of Koreal life today: I had to go to the bank to reset my mobile banking password. I was lucky the clerk who assisted me was patient and very nice. After some time, I realized that she didn't know what I was asking for. I mean, I mumbled my initial request and signed some random forms, and then she instructed me to enter my password. "... But... I've forgotten it. That's why I'm here," I thought, confused. It all got solved in the end, though. Also, she back-handedly complimented my Korean. "Really good for someone who's not taking classes." I WILL TAKE CLASSES. JUST YOU WAIT, KIND, HELPFUL BANK LADY.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Nice proverb~

At the close of last semester, I gave my KakaoTalk ID to my second-years so that they could keep in touch over break and (for those graduating early) in college. KakaoTalk is an Instant Messaging program that essentially everyone in Korea uses. When I returned to Korea  few days ago, I found a chat request from SY, one of my favorite students. He's the one who said to me last September, after maybe a week of classes, "Teacher, we will be friend!" Such a cheerful and friendly kid. He wanted to perform at the school festival (which was last week, and I missed it because I was in California), and I have been more or less keeping tabs on his gig's progress throughout the year. And here's an excerpt from our chat.

SY: sir.. my festival performance was failed ㅠㅠ
Me: Oh no! :( What happened?
SY: I was forgot lyric on stage... And sore throat was noncured because nervous, exercise... Oh... terrible...
Me: I'm sorry to hear that... But it happens to everyone! Including me. Chin up! :)
SY: Thank you~ I think this performance will be good experience. But I am inconvenience little bit. ~_~
Me: It is okay to feel that way. "If at first you don't succeed, try, try again." An English proverb.
SY: Nice proverb~ I try again, again, and again... I will become a great musician & scientist. Thank you~ I miss you so much.
Me: That's the spirit! [thumbs-up emoticon]

(By the way, ㅠㅠ is a Korean emoticon for crying. The vowel "ㅠ" is pronounced yu, but the reason it's used in this way is that it looks like closed eyes with tears flowing from them. To help make this clearer... If (ㅡ_ㅡ) is the face of a chubby guy with his eyes closed, then (ㅠ_ㅠ) is a chubby guy crying. And (~_~) is a chubby guy who is just a tad bit miffed. See it?)

Sunday, January 6, 2013

New Normal

Normal things: Sitting on the couch in the living room with my host brother, watching beautiful people crack stupid jokes on Gag Concert and smiling even though I understand less than 5% of what they're saying. Listening to my host father lament about how he hasn't been able to eat anything all day besides medicine because he has to prepare for a colonoscopy tomorrow and smiling because I understand much more than 5% of what he's saying, but don't know how else to react. Stumbling through an explanation of what these nicely-wrapped boxes are that I brought back from the U.S. and then just letting the host parents figure out that they're gifts from my real parents... realizing that my Korean is in poor shape after two weeks at home. Tip-toeing around the apartment because it has thin floors. Turning on my electric blanket. Absent-mindedly petting Roomy and Tory as they sniff my pants.

These are the "new normal". This Sunday evening is just like any other Sunday evening, and it is strange to me how comfortably I've settled back in.

I was hanging out with Jake and other Fulbrighters this afternoon. Aside from geeking out about Pokémon and berating me for not making the most of my two weeks in California by eating a burrito, Jake also mentioned that Fulbrighters who visit home during winter break often suffer withdrawal symptoms upon their return to Korea. Yes, it's cold here, and yes, I didn't get a chance to see everyone that I wanted to see at home in that short time span, but otherwise, I am totally fine. I'm ready to be in Korea for the next five months. I'm even looking forward to it, and I think that strolling back into my homestay life as if I'd never gone anywhere does reflect that, in a way.

Thanks, Sara. Thara!
On a related note, I had a nice surprise waiting for me on my desk when I arrived at home. Sara sent me a gift all the way from Virginia! How thoughtful. Now I can think about Scrabble while I drink tea at school. As I like to say, there is never too much Scrabble (or Bananagrams, or Contact).

Okay, now it's time to sleep and to find out when jetlag (시차, or time difference) will decide to wake me. This morning, it was 6:00am, long before the sun had risen. Tomorrow, it may be noon, or even later. We shall see!

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Aaand... we're back!

It was sunny this morning, and it was warm. Then, I boarded a plane. Fourteen hours (and three movies and two surprisingly good in-flight meals) later, it was dark and cold, and there was snow crunching beneath my feet as I walked the streets of Seoul. So maybe I will go through a few days of California withdrawal, but hey, I am once again in Korea! And it feels very normal, if not good, to be back.

I'm still on winter break, though! Some things I have planned for the next two months, in between lesson planning: visit the Hwacheon Ice Festival, go skiing, attend a Swarthmore alumni gathering in Seoul, take Korean classes in Seoul, and visit Taiwan for two weeks. This is going to be great!

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

2012 Recap

It's New Year's Eve! 2012 is just about over. It's been one of the most eventful years of my life, relatively speaking (my life is not really that interesting). For the past five months, I've been on a small adventure in Korea. It's nowhere near the epics as told in movies like Les MisérablesThe Hobbit, or Life of Pi -- all three of which I have watched recently -- but it's my own story, and I decided early on that it was one worth telling via this blog. It's a habit of mine to immediately go to Wikipedia after finishing a book or film to read a recap(itulation). Thus, I think I'll do the same for my own story. The following is a quick summary of what I've done, seen, and thought about since January 1st, 2012.
Spring semester, Senior year. I was finished with my thesis and looked forward to my last semester of college -- the first without, I'd assumed, any major academic stress. Boy, was I wrong. Preparations for Honors exams steamrollered me. In the meantime, I spent a lot of time singing (in my a cappella group), dancing (swing, taiko, and tap), and taking photos with a shiny new dSLR camera. I did not spend a lot of time thinking about my future, and I did not apply to any jobs or graduate programs. Instead, I found out in late March that I was accepted to the Fulbright ETA program in South Korea. Hooray! Then, I graduated, my brother got married, and I left the country in July.
Pre-departure. How did I feel about Korea before leaving? The Fulbright Korea program is a very organized one, and they provided lots of reading materials, among other online resources, to help us English Teaching Assistants become as familiar with the country as possible before arriving. Apart from the introductory stuff that I read, I knew nothing about the country. I could only barely introduce myself in the language. Having tons of Korean and Korean-American friends had exposed me to what the people were like, but I still felt unprepared. Yet, I also felt excited. I was about to spend a year in a country I'd never seen before; I hoped that I would learn a lot and try new things and that I might become fluent in Korean by the end. I started this blog.
Goals. People kept asking me why I wanted to go to Korea. Well, for the travel experience (I have a Korea Bucket list!) and partially for the satisfaction of developing a sort of pan-Asian identity. But why the Fulbright specifically? So that I could gain teaching experience but also have a strong support system, government-funded, because I knew that I knew nothing and that I would need all the help I could get. So I set a goal to become a better teacher, to see if I'm really cut out for this as a career. And the verdict? Well, teaching may or may not be in my future (read: no verdict yet), but at the moment I really, really enjoy it. And this is partially because my job isn't so difficult.
What's it like? Pretty easy, to be honest! I really mean it when I say the Fulbright program takes care of us. And I really lucked out in the school placement roulette. Fulbright allowed us to indicate what kind of school and city we wanted to be placed in, but we were not guaranteed any specific placement. Yet I was blessed and fortunate enough to have landed a school and city that almost exactly fit what I had requested. This school turned out to be a small, specialized science high school. This meant smart, hardworking, and polite students, and not a whole lot of them. So while I teach 180 students about eight hours a week total, some of my Fulbright colleagues at larger schools have over 600, and teach up to twenty hours a week, plus weekends. We are on the same scholarship, might I remind you. So again, I lucked out, I love my students, and I love my job.

Be that as it may, there were several moments throughout this fall semester when I felt like I didn't have enough to do. These thoughts collided in a bad way with other feelings of uselessness and unproductiveness that negatively affected my work ethic. A strange paradox, isn't it? Having less work made me less motivated to work. I specifically told my co-teacher (the English teacher at my school whom I "assist", or, more accurately, replace several times a week) that I'd like more to do next semester, and that's very likely going to happen, fortunately.

As for my thoughts on the Korean education system... well, I have plenty of sharp words reserved for it, based solely on what I've seen since August. But I'll save them for another post.
General opinions about Korea. Being able to see the country itself -- I've been to six of the eight largest cities -- would have made this year worth it even if I despised teaching. What I mean is, Korea is really beautiful and fun to visit. If you're the adventurous type and are up for river rafting or bungee jumping, they've got it. If you're totally into history and want to visit monuments, ancient palaces, and the like, you could spend many months here before being satiated. And, of course, the food. Korean barbecue, Korean street food, Korean "Thanksgiving" food: you name it, and I've had it, or will soon try. People often ask me what my favorite Korean dish is. Since you can almost never go wrong with dolsot bibimbap, I usually say that. But the truth is I love most edible things I come across here, so it's difficult to choose. Hotteok is great, and so is rainbow tteok (rice cakes), kimchi jjigae (spicy stew), omurice (fried rice omelette), pajeon (scallion pancake), mandu (dumplings), and everything really. Oh, and Korean fruits: persimmons, pears, peaches, and tangerines could keep me satisfied all year round!

Besides food and tourist spots and other inanimate things, I also have come to appreciate all the Korean people I've met. Koreans really are kind, at least the ones I've met. I can't make any blanket statements about the general character of an entire country; but I, personally, haven't had any particularly negative experiences so far. Just awkward ones. I blend in really well, you see. I could pass as Korean on the street, and when I open my mouth and try to use my (still poor) Korean, then most people tend to assume that I am Korean-American, or maybe Chinese. This usually helps rather than hinders; regardless, it's always fun or amusing to explain that I am Taiwanese but also American and that I'm learning Korean as well as teaching English.
Cultural ambassadorship. And that's the name of the game, despite my having some misgivings about it. Every interaction I have with a Korean who knows that I am an American could become a drop in the bucket of Korean goodwill toward the US, or just the opposite. Or it could miss the scales entirely and amount to nothing. But one of the roles I am meant to play is one of an ambassador, fostering good relationships between members of the two countries I am officially bridging. Have I been doing this job properly? I think so. Now, my students and other Koreans I've met have seen firsthand that not all Americans are white (and/or fat and/or rich and/or fabulously good-looking) -- and that some can be Asian -- and in addition, I've taught them bits and pieces of American culture, though less than I'd have liked. My hope is that in the coming months I'll have more opportunities to bridge any divides, correct any misunderstandings, or inspire any more multi-cultural interactions just by doing what I do. On the other hand, I've also been bringing glimpses of Korean culture to my audience back in the States. Hats off to you, dear readers! Keep on reading.
What have I accomplished? In 2012, I graduated, got a job, relocated to a country on the other side of the planet, made tons of new friends, picked up a new language, went bungee-jumping, voted in one election and closely followed two, wrote one-half of a 50,000-word novel, took the GRE, and had one or two minor panic attacks about the future...

Oh. The future. Have my plans changed? ... Wait, what plans? What are these "future plans" you speak of? Ha. Well, they've narrowed slightly. Right now, I intend to apply to grad school in the fall of 2013, which means a 2014 matriculation. I'm thinking about going into Linguistics to study endangered languages (or phonetics, which is also interesting, but in a different way, and will probably not take me around the world). And between that time, I may renew my grant for an extra year of teaching, or I'll come back to California and find a job. God-willing. That's all I know for now. I ought to make some resolutions for the new year, but... hey, that's still four hours away! I have time.

See you on the other side!