5 Things to Do in Preparation for a Year in Korea

In anticipation of my fast-approaching return to the peninsula, I thought I’d put together a list of things I’m doing to prepare. Going back for a second time, it’s nice to know a bit more of what to expect. While some of the things below may be a bit me-specific, I figured my list could be of help to any of the thousands of other westerners out there preparing for their year of English teaching in Korea, who happen to find this.

Should anyone stumble across this who’s been to Korea or happens to be there now, please feel free to add your suggestions in the comments!

1. Learn some Korean.

Hangeul

Hangeul, the Korean alphabet, only has 24 letters and very few pronunciation exceptions (unlike that other language I know). Do yourself a favor and learn it in advance, so you can read bus schedules and beer menus as soon as you step off the plane. It’ll only take an hour or two, so no excuses.

The best place you could possibly start is here:

Talk to Me In Korean
Hyunwoo Sun came to my EPIK Orientation in Seoul in 2010 and blew us all away with a Prezi presentation on Korean culture. I started studying with ‘TTMIK’ shortly thereafter and it’s still my #1 resource. The amount of awesomely helpful material they have available FREE on their website is mind-boggling. Go now!

Korean-Flashcards.com
I subscribed to their daily sentence/vocabulary emails nearly 2 years ago and have yet to receive any repeats. Their sentences can be a bit textbook, but the vocabulary is always helpful. They’ve even got audio to help with pronunciation. A word a day can never hurt.

2. Bring these things (especially if you’re a lady).

packing

Things may have changed in Ulsan with its recent addition of Costco, but as of last year these were all hard to find and frequently requested in care packages from home.

– Shoes –
Unless you have a small, narrow foot. My 8-1/2 (US) sized foot was very frustratingly one size too big for all Korean women’s shoes. Should you happen to have a Korean-sized foot, you’ll be able to find street stalls full of cute, cheap shoes in nearly every city. Lucky you.

– Bras –
There are plenty of cute bras, but bigger band and cup sizes are in short supply and cheaper to buy at home.

– Make-up –
Your non-Asian skin tone will probably not be available, unless perhaps you’re in Seoul. However, Korea does have tons of make-up and beauty stores, where you’ll be able to get all kinds of products like BB Cream. While I’ve never tried it, apparently BB Cream is a thing worldwide, so maybe I should.

– Tampons –
They’re not very popular, so don’t expect to find many.

– Deodorant –
There’s definitely deodorant available, but nothing I could find that lived up to my sweaty American standards. I’ve heard from a few sources that once you stop wearing deodorant your body will adjust and stop being smelly. I’ve also heard that that’s definitely not true, so I’m not about to test it out for myself.

– Clothes –
I was almost tempted to put this into the “things not to bother bringing” category, because there are so many cheap clothing stores everywhere, and Seoul has Myeongdong. Ulsan even has a “big size” store for us of non-Korean proportions. But trips to Seoul are expensive, so I’ll be stocking up on jeans and some work clothes before leaving. I will however keep my t-shirt supply minimal as I’m always on the look-out for only-in-Asia finds such as this.

– Pictures –
Bring pictures of your family, your hometown, and you doing some of your favorite things and your first day of teaching is already set.

– Small gifts from your hometown or home country –
You are probably going to meet a co-teacher, who will have to do a ridiculous number of things for you to help you get functioning in a foreign country. This is a nice way to say thank you for all the trouble you’re about to put them through.

3. Don’t bother bringing these things:

– Basic Medications –
Korean pharmacies are awesome, and doctor visits are super cheap.

– Stationary –
It’s so prevalent, it’s inescapable.

– Hiking and camping gear –
Hiking is extremely popular in Korea, so there’s brand name and rip-off gear readily available. My personal favorites are ‘Red Face’ and ‘Black Face’ but there’s plenty to choose from!

– A Computer –
Thanks to an obsessive gaming culture, ‘PC bangs’ are on every corner, and you will more than likely have 2-10 that never close within steps from your apartment. They can however be a bit smokey and/or over-crowded with adolescent boys, so I’ll be bringing my laptop. Although not having internet would save quite a bit of money.

4. Work on your singing voice

After-festival noraebang-ing

It is more than likely that you will end up in a ‘noraebang’, or Korean singing room, with all of your co-workers and colleagues within your first few weeks in the country. Someone, probably your boss, will at one point give you the microphone and song book and demand a performance. You may as well be prepared.

On that same note, you could familiarize yourself with the many rules of Korean drinking. However, as a foreigner no one will expect you to know these anyways.

5. Get your fill of these things before you go, because you won’t be getting them in Korea.

CHEEZ
Oh salty, cheesy, non-fish flavored snacks, how I will miss you.

This is probably more me-specific, as I really like food, but I will definitely be trying to enjoy all of these at least one last time before I go:
— International cuisine, especially burritos
— Good bread, sandwiches, and baked goods
— Good beer
— Cheese, cheesy foods, cheesy snacks, mac & cheese
— Peanut butter
— Granola
— American breakfast
— Pie

While many of these are widely available, they’re generally a bit expensive. $6 for a jar of creamy Jif? No thanks.

Ultimately, the best advice I could give to anyone going to Korea for the first time would be to throw any and all expectations you may have out the window. Because anything could happen, and it probably will …at the last second, without any prior warning. Be prepared!

Duh-ruhnken Tiger

A while back I made a post about what Korean punk music I was listening too, and now it’s time to appreciate another genre: Korean hip hop.

“Monster”

This is Drunken Tiger.

Not only does he have an awesome band name and killer abs, but he’s also a bit of a badass. According to wikipedia, Drunken Tiger’s Korean debut in 1998 was controversial due to its sexy and anti-establishment lyrics. In 2000, he was under criminal investigation for drugs which led to being banned from public performances for 2 years.

But many of his current songs aren’t very controversial at all.

From “Monster”:

Crazy jiujitsu but a hapkido flow
You only throwin hands playin kai-bai-bo

Hapkido (합기도): a traditional Korean martial art that uses weapons like swords and short sticks.
kai-bai-bo: Korean for rock-paper-scissors, ridiculously popular with people of all ages to settle any manner of disputes. Rapping about rock-paper-scissors may seem strange, but anyone who has lived in Korea can tell you it really is that popular over here.

Many of his lyrics are about Korean culture:

Make hits, brung jewels that style perfects
Great swift like the Hangul alphabet
The chosen career, call me king Sejong

Sejong the Great: founder of hangul (the Korean alphabet) and one of the country’s most respected historical figures.

These excerpts are from the English version of “Monster.” Drunken Tiger grew up in Korea and LA and can rap in two languages. I can’t even rap in one, so I find that quite impressive.

“Because I’m a man”

Anyone’s whose spent some time in Korea would appreciate these lyrics:

some squid, red pepper paste, and
11 and 1/2 shots of alcohol
take away the pain
Some hot kimchi soup calms me down from a tough day

Talks about taking shots of soju (one shot (one shot)) and erasing all previous troubles in a friendship, no more betrayal

Kimchi and soju and red pepper paste and squid? All of the finest of Korean cuisine together like that almost seems like a cliche, and I’m not really sure if it’s celebrating the culture or poking fun at it. Although the “one shot! one shot!” mention seems to signal towards the latter. (For those not in the know and can’t figure it out, “one shot” would be shooting or chugging your drink, and is a common repetition among groups of drinking Koreans.) But whatever the intent, I can appreciate his lyrics because they remind me of all my good times English teaching in Korea.

Drunken Tiger

He’s got an English language site, check it out!

EPIK HIGH – Wannabe

EPIK High is my other favorite Korean hip hop group. Their song “Wannabe” criticizes the conformity among KPop bands and their listeners, and the video references the famous Korean horror movie The Host – both things I can appreciate.

The Host

They’ve apparently been on hiatus since 2009 when DJ Tukutz had to serve his mandatory military service. Another member, Mithra Jin, is also in the military until 2012. That compulsory military service can really get in the way of your plans, Rain would know.

If you’d like to see the conclusion of the drama from that first video, just watch this video for the song “Trot + high technology:”

Trot (pronounced “tuh-rot-tuh”) is the oldest form of Korean pop music, developed around WWII (wikipedia). It is traditionally sung by a woman in a sparkly dress and appreciated by ajummas at small festivals and on TV.

The lyric translation I found over here reminds me of many of my visits to noraebangs, with older people who always tend to bust out a super emotional pop number. I can only assume what they’re singing about reflects this sentiment:

my life crying with one glass of alcohol and smiling with one tune
my trot
no matter how much they look down at you or look straight at you
they’re all the same when they’re drunk waves in the stomach
every time they stir riding the glass
legs and arms swaggering holding onto the mic
ddan ddaraddaraddaddadada to the trot rhythm

now – chachacha row that boat jjakjjakjjak
as if you’re wearing sparkly clothes lalala
the intonation is shaky just like my lifestyle

my image reflected in the soju glass is pitiful and bleak
who’ll understand my heart
sing it out loud the life getting soaked in the booze

By the way, this is trot:

Burning in the New Year

Deaborum festival fireworks

Yesterday was the first full moon of the lunar new year, or 정월 대보금 (jeongwol daeborum – New Year Full Moon) as it’s known in Korean. The holiday has many traditions, like cracking peanut shells with your teeth and (possibly) drinking makkoli, Korean rice wine, in the morning for good health in the new year. But the best of the traditions involves a giant bonfire.

This fire, called a 달집 (dalchip – moon house), is supposed to burn away the bad luck from last year and usher in wishes for the new year. People write their wishes on paper and tie them to the firewood to be burned. Burning them sends them up into the heavens so they’ll come true.

dancing around the fire

There were several places in Ulsan holding events, and my friends and I opted to check out Ilsan Beach. Unfortunately the full moon was covered by clouds, but the festival was still on. We arrived in Ilsan to the sound of fireworks and the giant crackling bonfire. Apparently we were a little late, but we weren’t alone, as people kept charging the fire to throw in their wishes and be chased away by security.

dancing around the fire in funny white hats

After the fireworks, the drumming and dancing started. According to my friend, this was the favorite activity for many ajummas who had been drinking makkoli all day (for health). People in funny white hats led everyone dancing around the fire – including me and my friends. Some played traditional Korean drums while a group of women in hanbok sang a song praying for good fortune in the new year:



To me with my limited Korean ability, it sounded like they were singing something about potatoes (kamja, kamja!) but my native-speaking friend assured me that was not the case.

After dancing around the fire and throwing in their wishes, most people left the festival. Some stuck around to drink makkoli and eat kimchi and tofu and odeng. One guy was spinning a can full of fire around on a chain. According to wikipedia, this was originally done on farms to get rid of crop-destroying worms. On the beach, it’s done probably just to look cool. Which it really does! Unfortunately I didn’t get any pictures but it looked something like this:


From Discovering Korea

The biggest celebration in the country seems to be in Jeju, where I heard they light an entire field on fire, so I suppose if you have the opportunity you’d want to be there 15 days after the lunar new year. But no matter where you are in Korea, you’re bound to be near a giant bonfire. I think it’s a pretty fun way to start the ‘new’ year – or at least far more exciting than New Year’s Resolutions.

Jumping in Jecheon

weeeee!
Weeee!

What else is there to do on Thanksgiving weekend when you’re 6000 miles away from home and you can’t find any turkey or pumpkin pie?

It all began several months ago, when I was on an
Adventure Korea trip last spring. Taking a ferry across the beautiful, yellow-dusted waters of Chungju Lake, our peaceful journey was interrupted by terrified screams as we came across ChungPung Land’s bungee jump. I later discovered that this was the biggest jump in Korea at 62 meters (203 feet), which also makes it the third highest jump in Asia. And I immediately vowed not to leave the country until I had made the jump.

Unfortunately, ChungPung Land isn’t very close to Ulsan, and so it was another 6 months or so before I was able to make it back – just in time for the last jump of the season, and my last chance before leaving Korea.

Cheong Pung Land

ChungPung Land is in or just outside of Jecheon, a 4.5-hour, aggravatingly slow train ride from Ulsan. The website had suggested taking a local city bus out to the bungee jump, but other blogs reported the bus could take an hour, a highly unappealing prospect after just getting off the train. Instead we opted for the easy option and got a couple taxis, who probably ripped us off a bit charging 25,000 won, but at least it was quick.

The taxi ride out to the jump was adventurous in itself, down a narrow road with a daring taxi driver, passing in no-pass zones and rounding sharp curves recklessly. It was a good warm-up for the events to come!

When we got there it wasn’t very crowded, with only one other group of foreigners around. We bought tickets for the “big 3″ which included an Ejection Seat, Giant Swing, and the bungee jump. The bungee itself was 40,000 won, and adding the other two for only 20,000 more seemed like a pretty good deal.


The ejection seat was up first. It didn’t look like much at first, but looks can be deceiving. The two-person seat is in a little metal frame suspended between two bungee cords, which is sling-shotted by a giant metal arm, launching you incredibly high into the air and spinning in circles before gradually making your way back to earth.

I felt very secure, with no details being spared in fastening us to the seat. We wore a safety belt and harness, something over our legs and they even had me cross my arms over my chest, harhar. According to my friends, there was a very likely danger of my boobs getting stretched, which I hadn’t found any backing evidence of on the internet but better safe than sorry!


Next we were suited up for the Big Swing, which seemingly required the help of 1-3 staff members per person. The staff was entirely university-aged Korean guys, of whom there seemed to be way more than necessary working for the slow customer-flow of that afternoon. Lucky for us, they spoke some English, which went something like this: “You, here. Step. Catch. Go. Now.” Where they learned this blunt manner of speaking, I have no idea.

As we headed over to the swing, a group of people had gathered to watch. To start, you were hooked in at the shoulder and ankle and suspended at a rather awkward angle as they finished securing everything. Then it was a slow, slow ascent, which suddenly (and terrifyingly) jerked to a halt at the top. But the scariest part was having to pull the release cable yourself to start your fall. Which required a bit more force than expected, and so there were several false starts of tugging and not falling. Quite terrifying. But also ridiculously fun! Although my description may not do the experience justice.

Finally, it was time for the bungee! We changed into bungee gear and were weighed, each of us getting a little card of a different color. We took a very tiny elevator up to the top of the crane, where there were already people waiting. It was a bit cold and windy at the top, and the view looking through the crane beneath our feet did nothing to comfort our nerves. Unfortunately, we had quite a while to wait for everyone in front of us to jump.

The color of our cards determined the order we could jump, which apparently meant I would go last. After watching so many people go, I was incredibly impatient for my turn to come. When it finally came time to strap the giant cables around my ankles, I wasn’t really nervous. It was exciting to finally be doing something I’d been looking forward to for so long. They led me to the edge of the platform, between some hand rails. Even then, I still felt quite secure and ready to go. Then they instructed me to put my feet halfway over the edge of the platform. Ok, no problem. And then I was told to look up. And take my hands off the handrails to hold them above my head while they counted to 5 for me to jump. Which is where the nerves kicked in.

As soon as I’d look away from my feet and took my hands off the handrails, I’d lose my sense of balance and it was as if my feet were on something as thin as a tightrope. Haphazardly flailing over the edge was not the way I wanted to go. After a lot of false starts of putting my hands up and back down, we eventually worked something out where I did a one-arm up kinda dive.

And. it. was. AWESOME!

Safe landing
Actually, as soon as I landed I felt like I forgot everything about what it felt like to bungee jump. And I wanted to go again. The fall was somehow less scary than the fall on the swing. The bouncing around part after the initial bit was strange, as you’re like a ragdoll at the end of the cable being snapped back and forth. But it was also ridiculously fun!

After a while, it got pretty annoying to be upside down. Especially because after you finish bouncing you get lowered very slowly down to the guy in the raft, whose been waiting for you in the ‘safety pool’ under the crane. It felt like I’d been upside down for far too long by the time I made it to the raft, but that was the only negative feeling of the whole experience.

The view from the jump
The calm view from the jump.

Besides Chungpung Land, the area around Chungju Lake is beautiful and must be amazing during the summer. Although it is very resort-y, with prices to match. We went to a cool-looking restaurant for some post-jump dinner where we found dalk kalbi for 20,000 won per serving! Which was a bit much, to me. The owner of the restaurant was a Korean man with impressive English speaking abilities and equally impressive long, wild gray hair – a rather unusual site in the country. He was curious about what we were doing in town and how we had found his restaurant, and then was incredibly considerate in having someone drive us back into town for free. I’d recommend his restaurant but I’ve forgotten the name. It’s the really cool looking place on the way to Jecheon though, and if you ever get the chance you should go.

We found a ridiculously cheap love motel (50,000 for two rooms!) near the train station and headed out in search of the local nightlife. And then we spent about an hour or so wandering around without any luck. There seemed to be a highly disproportionate number of shady-looking girly bars for such a small town, but I guess for the resort season. Eventually we found some young people in a trendy cafe who sent us to the part of town where all the bars were. From there we met some other foreigners who took us to a big party at “Foreigner Bar”, and our night was set.

Unfortunately I didn’t get any good close-ups of my bungee jump, which just means I’ll have to do it again! Perhaps in Macau

How Korea taught me to love singing

노래방 (noraebang) translates literally to ‘song room’ and is Korea’s very popular version of Karaoke. People go in small groups, and are given a private room, bookable by the hour. The usual set-up includes 2 microphones, 2 tambourines, a couple of song books, a giant remote control, a big couch around a table, and 1-3 TVs that show the song lyrics along with a totally irrelevant video of Korean couples breaking up or scenic beaches. Most places charge by the hour, but will add quite a bit more time for free if you start to run out. Some of the fancier establishments require that you buy some alcohol and food, but at most purchasing alcohol is optional (although that may actually be illegal) or you can bring your own. Some places have a pole in the middle of the room (for dancing?) and some have girls you can “order” to come and sing and dance with you! Some are very fancy, and some are in dingy basements.

noraebang with the fatherMost noraebangs seem to be open all night, from early evening til morning, although I can’t be sure because I’ve never found one closed when I wanted to go. I’ve never been one for karaoke, and was quite terrified by noraebangs at first. But visiting noraebangs quickly became one of my favorite evening activities in Korea. I’ve been more times than I can count, and have more than exhausted all of the songs I know in their song books (for myself as well as the friends that usually accompany me, I’m sure).

After-festival noraebang-ing
Picture taken by my friend Ellen.

Noraebangs are much more a part of Korean culture than karaoke is in America. I was pretty surprised when my first school outing went to a noraebang right after dinner, and everyone was expected to sing and dance together in one very cramped room. It was quite unlike any work party I’ve been to back in the US: I danced with the head teacher while the principal sang an old pop song, and then was asked to sing “Poker Face”. My lack of confidence was only made worse by everyone else’s impressive singing abilities. I don’t know if it’s because most Korean people grow up going to noraebangs and get more practice singing, but I think they’re much better than the average American at carrying a tune. After a couple crates full of Hite and Soju, my lack of ability didn’t matter. By the end of the evening, I had sang an ABBA song I’d never heard before with the gym teacher, and “Last Christmas” and “Love Me Tender” arm-in-arm with several less-than-sober colleagues.

As it turns out, this really isn’t anything out of the ordinary when it comes to workplace outings in Korea. At first I thought it was so “unprofessional”, but Korea just has it’s own kind of professionalism. And I have to say I appreciate it quite a bit.

Want to impress your Korean co-workers at the noraebang? Try some ABBA, Michael Jackson, Beatles, “Lemon Tree” by Fool’s Garden, or “I Believe I Can Fly”. Younger audiences will probably appreciate Lady Gaga, Adele (if you can pull that off!), Backstreet Boys, NSYNC or “Bad Case of Loving You” by Robert Palmer. Why some of these songs and groups are popular, I truly don’t understand…

Halloween

DSC06769
One of my students models my Halloween costume. Can you guess what it is?

I had meant to write about Halloween before, but apparently never got around to it. Oops! Nothing like some Halloween in January though, right?

I never really liked Halloween as a kid, I think because I could never come up with good costume ideas. But then in university I discovered the amazingness that is Halloween in New York, and that I really like to make things, and since then I’ve been all about it. And as far as teaching holidays to my students goes, Halloween is definitely the most fun.

Halloween isn’t really celebrated in Korea, although it seems to be gaining popularity from all the foreign English teachers telling kids about it and throwing parties at school. All of the big supermarkets have small Halloween sections with witch hats and devil pitchforks, but it seems most kids don’t dress up unless they have a Halloween party at their private schools. Most of the kids are aware there’s a Halloween-candy connection though, which is all they really care about. Many of my students came by the English room on Halloween to say, “Teacher! Trick-or-treat! Candy, please!” Haha, nice try kids.

Some decorations from home made for a nice festive atmosphere in the classroom–

DSC06738

DSC06740

DSC06741

DSC06747

I hadn’t put little plastic spiders in cotton cobwebs in years! It’s pretty fun.

In my weekly “English Cinema” class we watched The Nightmare Before Christmas and made Halloween masks. I was a little worried about whether they’d be into the movie or not, as they don’t really celebrate Halloween or Christmas, but they seemed to like it. Especially the music.

The Halloween masks came out pretty cute, and gave me a good use for all the disposable chopsticks I’ve accumulated from over a year of take-out kimbaps and delivery.

DSC06773

DSC06772

DSC06771

We should’ve used some paint or something more vivid, but they were still all right. I especially liked this project because I got to spend my “deskwarming” time making samples:

DSC06754
DSC06743

The best part about teaching in a school is getting to wear my costume there, even if I am the only one.

Last year, I had had a rather raucous Halloween exploring downtown Daegu on a bar crawl with mobs of foreigners. This year, I stayed in Ulsan, where there were plenty of parties at the foreigner bars, but nothing quite like Daegu. I was really surprised to find a Korean-hosted party at one of my favorite bars, Showtime, in Ulsan’s old downtown. I was the only foreigner while I was there, and so forced to play the pass-the-paper-mouth-to-mouth game between two ajosshis, but also got a free cocktail. 아싸!

Potatoes are not people!

Last week I was teaching my fourth grade classes a textbook unit that covered the sentences: “What’s for lunch?” “We have fish/salad/rice/chicken.” Which I think is awkward and perhaps entirely incorrect, but was in the textbook and so had to be taught (which is a topic for another post). My students were very interested in what kids ate for lunch in the USA, which prompted me to do some research into school lunches around the world.

This is a typical school lunch for me in Korea:

School Lunch

Every day we have some kind of rice, soup, kimchi, vegetable and protein (usually fish or chicken or tofu) . All of the kids, from pre-K through 6th grade, are expected to eat everything, and to eat enough to satisfy their teachers.

In my research, I came across this great blog What’s for school lunch? And apparently this is what kids are eating for lunch in the US:

Chili dog and fries. Yum!
Chili dogs and fries.

Nachos and fries?!
And nachos and french fries. Wow. Healthy!

Of course, my students were all insanely jealous that they never get french fries or nachos or hot dogs at lunch (although they do sometimes get a fried mandu or rice cake, albeit rarely). I tried to explain that many kids in the US are not very healthy, but of course my 4th grade students couldn’t care less about that aspect.

I know there’s been a lot of reform going on in the US to push for healthier school lunches. But today, I came across this interesting article on Slate: Congress wants the Agriculture Department to rethink its healthy school lunch proposal: it’s just too good.

According to the article, the school lunch legislation going through Congress has been derailed, thanks to the efforts of lobbyists from the National Potato Council and other interest groups. The proposed changes included limiting starchy vegetables and salt, increasing healthy fruits and veggies, and a stipulation that pizza can not be counted as a vegetable (that has to be a law? really?).

All of those changes sound like good ideas to me, but apparently not to everyone:

The Department of Agriculture created a proposal that fit within its budget and pleased nutritionists, public health experts and many school lunch officials, but it didn’t please the American Frozen Food Institute or the companies that provide much of the food served to kids at lunch—companies like Coca-Cola, Del Monte, and the makers of frozen pizza.

The article also sited the NY Times to report food lobbyists have spent $5.6 billion fighting these proposed school lunch changes. And it seems that’s enough to buy legislation away from the best interests of the country’s children.

In Korea, school lunches are planned by the school nutritionist, whose job is to create a healthy and varied menu each month. According to my Korean colleagues, the parents wouldn’t have it any other way.

I was talking to a Korean friend about this, who thought it was pretty crazy that the government would give the kids unhealthy food, which could lead to obesity and other health problems later in life, and then not provide them with the health care they’d need to take care of these problems. She thought it was pretty funny. I think it’d be funnier if it wasn’t actually happening.

It’s pretty hard to explain to my Korean friends that my country puts the interests of its potato industry ahead of its children! How ridiculous can we get? If I were in America right now, I’d take to the streets! I’d join them on Wall Street! And this would be my sign:

Potatoes are not people!

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