Through the City, to the Sea

Having already been in Ulsan for over two weeks without yet making it to the coast, I decided to remedy this situation on Sunday. Having the entire day open, I figured I would walk, and so set off fro my apartment due east-ish, determined not to stop until I got to the ocean. It turns out it’s a bit of a trek from the city center to the coast, but the route is rather interesting…

Leaving my apartment, I came across these guys. I didn’t want to interrupt, but it was just too tempting a photo opportunity…
a couple of grasshoppers...caught in the act?

First, I headed south along the Dongcheongang River.
Fishermen along the river

The Taehwa was lined with fishermen…
Fisherman in the Taehwa

…and cranes…
Leaving city center

…which gave way to the giant Hyundai plant between Jung-gu and Dong-gu. I noticed all of the bicyclists passing me were wearing masks – which isn’t uncommon, but it seemed like even more than normal suddenly. Maybe it was just an effect of seeing the plant and all the masks, but I felt like I could really feel the pollution in the air. Gross.

Approaching Dong-gu (the eastern part of the city), I came across a mountain! And so climbed over it…
Climbing over a 'mountain'
(It was actually a very tiny mountain, at 206m tall – a big hill really. But still! I climbed over Mt. Yeompo!)

On the other side of the mountain was a small reservoir, where yet another fisherman was camped out.
Past a small secret reservoir...

There were some hula hoops near by, just in case…
...where there were some hula hoops...

...and then a bunch of small farms

I exited the mountain through a bunch of small farms, where I was stopped by an old man.
“Hello!” He called.
“Hello! Annyeong haseyo!” I called back.
He then seemed to just repeatedly say “Wo-man-wo-man-wo-man-wo-man” at me, several times. In a very friendly, old man, not really at all creepy way. I just kind of smiled and continued on my way…

…where I came across another one of these awesome spiders! This time in yellow!
Another crazy-looking spider devouring something
I think he has two insects that he’s devouring, right? I can’t tell.

This cute dolphin is Ulsan’s mascot, but I think it’s a sure sign I’m getting close to the ocean.
Cute bricks closer to the ocean

And finally! I arrive at Ilsan Beach, approximately 2 and a half hours after leaving my apartment.

Arriving at the ocean!

The beach is also lined with fishermen.
More fishermen

Hung out to dry?

Ilsan Beach

Looking out from Ilsan Beach, I wonder if I can get to that rocky part covered with trees over there on the right…
Ilsan Beach

…And the answer is yes. I’ve actually made it to one of Ulsan’s 12 ‘scenic attractions’ – Daewangam Songnim, or Pine Forest.

In the forest, I’m greeted by the Talking Heads’ “Psycho Killer” playing out of these two random speakers tied to one of the pines. It’s rather surreal…
'Psycho Killer'

Ilsan Beach
The beach from above (most all of those dots on the beach are fishermen)

Ilsan Beach - Hyundai Plant
Another Hyundai Plant.

A forest of pine trees overlooks the ocean...

The park is absolutely awesome. Stairs and paths lead every which way up and down and around the rocky peninsula. In between these man-made walkways are plenty of opportunities to climb around and find your own path.

Ilsan Beach, Pine Forest

A forest of pine trees overlooks the ocean...

Um, I live here.

Ilsan Beach, Pine Forest

Ilsan Beach, Pine Forest

I suppose it’s not quite the open sea, as Japan is just out of seeing distance. But still – it’s the ocean!

Daewangam (Rock)

Daewangam (Rock) has some historical significance, which I think is why it’s so crowded. According to the sign, it’s something about how one of the earlier Kings wanted his spirit to manifest as a dragon and stay under these rocks, to protect the country against any invaders from the east (…like Japan).

Daewangam (Rock)

Here’s the Ulsan mascot again, telling you not to smoke – wink, wink (?)
I like that he's winking

The pines here seem different from the ones back home.
Pine Forest, Ilsan Beach

As the sun began to set, I made my way out of the forest and started the journey back home (by bus – which was another adventure in itself). This country is so beautiful… I can’t wait to do more exploring!

Pine Forest, Ilsan Beach

A Day at Tongdosa: pretty views and micro brews

On Saturday, I went to a ‘meet-up’ at Tongdosa Temple. The reason ‘meet-up’ is in quotations is because this was an event planned through the website, which makes the meeting-up-ness a bit more official and requires the use of quotations, apparently. For those unfamiliar with the website, it’s essentially a social networking site where you join groups based on mutual interests and plan events for things to do in real life. As my friends’ and my adventures with our meet-up group had more or less made my summer, I was excited to go out and meet some more people on this side of the world.

The plan for the day was to hike around the temple, eat some Korean BBQ and then head to a mountainside micro-brewery. A micro-brewery!!! After three weeks in Korea drinking the national brews (Cass, Hite, and Black Beer Stout), which are universally agreed upon to be far from spectacular, a micro-brewery sounded quite wonderful.

And so tempted by hiking in scenic mountains, and the tasty brews that would follow, I headed out of the city with three fellow native teachers from my EPIK orientation. Tongdosa was only an hour bus ride south-west of Ulsan, reachable by inner-city bus (numbers 817 and 1713, in case anyone from Ulsan stumbles across this and is curious).

The walk to the temple from town is lined with colorful paper lanterns….

Walking to Tongdosa

At a cemetery, several tombs are mounted on the backs of giant turtles. I believe turtles symbolize long life, but what about turtles with dragon heads?
Turtles and dragon-turtle hybrids

Now entering Tongdosa…
Heading into Tongdosa

Tongdosa was full of people selling things in white tents for some sort of fall festival.

Paintings for sale at Tongdosa
(pictures ‘borrowed’ from my friend Vania’s facebook)
Paintings at Tongdosa

The temple is one of the biggest in the country, and we saw many monks wandering around. Which was quite a novelty for me, quite new to the world of Buddhism.

I don’t think Buddha is usually this fat, right?
One Fat Buddha

Here are those four temple guardians again:
Tongdosa's guardians

Tongdosa's other guardians


Tongdosa is a bit crowded

Stepping through the gate and into the temple feels like entering another world. Cement gives way to dirt pathways. Colorful paper lanterns are everywhere. The place is packed with tourists and monks alike. A small choir is singing (probably religious) songs accompanied by electric keyboard, creating an interesting contrast to the ancient architecture.



In the background, of course, are beautiful mountains…

Hanging out in the midst of some paper lanterns with my friend Paul


In Tongdosa


Paper Lanterns, Tongdosa

Paper Lanterns, Tongdosa

I was really excited to finally have an opportunity to discreetly snatch a photo of this phenomenon:
Matching couple at Tongdosa
Couples frequently dress in matching outfits around here. To me, this is kind of disgusting. But also kind of cute, I suppose.

How I'd like to redo my ceiling
Why can’t the ceiling in my apartment be like this?

After exploring the temple, we did a quick hike up a nearby hill. The view was rather magnificent…
Overlooking Tongdosa

Overlooking Tongodsa

On our way down, we came across this guy:
The coolest spider I have ever seen
The coolest spider I’ve ever seen. Decently sized (for a girl from the Michigan suburbs) – about the size of my palm with all its legs. Here’s to hoping I don’t come across any of these guys in my apartment…

Around Tongdosa
Leaving Tongdosa.

From the temple, we headed into town to get some Korean BBQ.

mmmmm! raw meat!
The scissors may make it look less fancy, but serve a very useful purpose.

Grill master

Newly reformed from 4.5 years of vegetarianism, I have to say this tastes kind of awesome.


Korean meals generally come with a vast array of side dishes. It’s all very exciting to me, as I’m still at the point where I’ve never seen or eaten most of the things that show up. But these guys were very unexpected…
a delectable side dish
…and I just couldn’t do it. Especially after seeing other people pull them out of the shells, and how soft and squishy their little bodies looked. Maybe next time…

Proof of an awesome dinner
This what I mean by ‘vast array of side dishes.’

Finally! It was on to the micro-brewery:
The evening concludes with a visit to a local microbrewery

The place had a very ski lodge-y feel about it, and felt just like home. We were the only people there, although it was pretty early for a Saturday.

They had one beer on tap – an IPA. It was poured out of these adorable little wooden kegs…
The bartender pours our drinks out of a small keg

…and it was wonderful.

A perfect ending to a perfect day.
The best beer I've had in weeks

Gum bae!

Culture Shock of the Week: In which I scandalize 15 pairs of young, innocent eyes

Third grade’s lesson this week was on weather and the types of clothing you wear for different kinds of weather. I – of course – made a picture-filled powerpoint to demonstrate the new vocabulary…

Picture 1

Picture 2

Picture 3

On the summer clothing slide, a student in one of my classes guessed ‘bikini’ when I pointed to the swim suit. And so I explained that a bikini is two pieces, and did a quick sketch on the board behind me.

This absolutely scandalized the boys in my class. They covered their eyes and turned away in horror! And wouldn’t even uncover them when I erased the bikini. I had to change the slide and get rid of the swimsuit, too.

I guess they’re 8-year-olds and I should have known better than to put something so ‘suggestive’ in front of them. It’s been quite a while since I’ve really been around eight year-olds (probably about 15 years), so I guess that makes me a bit out of touch. But I was really shocked by the effect my quick sketch of a bikini had. Next time I’ll know better…

My First Field Trip

Last Monday, the fifth graders took an all-day field trip to Gyeongju. For some reason, I got to tag along. Gyeongju was the capital of the Silla kingdom, which ruled the Korean peninsula between the 7th and 9th centuries. The entire area is like a giant open-air museum, full of ancient artifacts, making it one of the most popular tourist destinations (outside of Seoul).

As interesting as it was to learn a bit about Korean history, it was even more interesting to spend the day with 120+ fifth graders…which I haven’t done since I was in fifth grade myself. Lucky for me, I didn’t really have any direct responsibility to monitor students, and more or less just got to go along for the ride.

Our trip started by taking a bus for about 30+ minutes up a mountain, to what felt like (but was later confirmed not to be) the top of Tohamsan.
Atop Tohamsan

On top of Tohamsan we visited Seokguram Grotto, a distant part of Bulguksa Temple that has a giant stone sculpture of Buddha. It was all quite pretty, and I got to see some more of that Korean temple architecture.
Entrance to Seokguram Grotto
Please note that it is mid-October and it is still warm enough here to wear a t-shirt. 🙂

Entrance to Seokguram Grotto
Entering Seokgurum Grotto

Temples at Seokguram Grotto
The temples from below (and an every-energetic fifth grader mid-attack)

Water fountain

Another temple at Seokguram

Inside one of the smaller temples. No photos allowed of the main Buddha, unfortunately…but I grabbed one from the internet:

Famous Buddha sculpture at Seokguram

A bit of history: The Buddha was completed in the year 774. It faces the East Sea, to keep an eye on Japan (I suppose). It’s about 3.5 meters tall, and much more impressive in person. This photo doesn’t really do it justice.

From Seokguram, we took a 50 minute walk down-mountain to the main part of Bulguksa temple. I walked with a couple of fifth grade girls, who introduced themselves by their English names Eugene and Destiny. At least, I think she went by Eugene and not Eugenia. I didn’t have the heart to tell her that Eugene is generally a guy’s name, although maybe I should have. Isn’t that kind of my job, as resident English teacher/Western culture expert? But then again, why should she have to subscribe to cultural norms when she isn’t even in the culture to begin with?

I asked Destiny if she knew Desinty’s Child, but she didn’t. I’m quite excited to turn her on to Destiny’s Child/Beyonce in class this week.

Eugene and Destiny were very curious about my arm hair and under-eye circles. I also amazed the fifth grade girls by putting up my hair (which they said looked much prettier than when it was down) and by wearing earrings. I’m sure this novelty will wear off soon, but for now it’s very fun.

Walking to Bulguksa
Walking to Bulguksa

Watch out for falling rocks!

2 of the 4 guardians of Bulguksa Temple
Two of the four ‘guardians’ of Bulguksa. Apparently every temple has them.

A bit of background on Bulguksa: It was built 751-774, under the Silla kingdom. As the center of Buddhism, it cultivated a lot of the era’s most famous Buddhist art. It was also a ‘center of prayer for the protection of the country from foreign invasion,’ but alas, the entire temple was burned down by Japanese invaders in 1593 (which seems to be an ongoing theme in this country). The temple wasn’t restored until 1973.

Bulguksa Temple

Bronze Buddha statue in a temple
Bronze Buddha statue

In the temple

Bulguksa Temple
All of the dragons take me back to my ninja-aspiring days

Seokgatap and Dabotap
“The contrast between the simplicity of the Seokgatap and the complexity of the Dabotap is designed to represent the dual nature of the Buddha’s contemplation and detachment from the world.” (<- stolen from wikipedia)

Bulguksa Temple

Bulguksa Temple

Bulguksa Temple

Apparently one part of the temple was for making wishes. If you can add a stone to the top of a stack without toppling it, your wish comes true.
Bulguksa Temple

Stones were stacked everywhere! It was nice to be surrounded by so many wishes…
Bulguksa Temple

We had a picnic lunch, where one of the students was munching on some of these:
Silk worm larvae!!! He offered me some….but I just couldn’t do it. The only thing I’ve turned down trying so far. Before I leave, for sure. But that’s something I’ll have to build up to (those and the shrink-wrapped non-refrigerated squid tentacles at HomePlus).

At the end of the day, my co-teacher translated for a group of students who wanted to know how my field trip had been. Getting to see Korean national treasures for free and hang out with a bunch of fun 10 year olds without having to monitor their behavior? “Absolutely perfect.”

Teacher, do you have a lover man?

For the first five minutes of all of my classes my first week, I gave a brief introduction and opened myself up to questions from the students. Below are some of my favorites. These are from 3rd – 6th graders.

–       How old are you? (In Korea, age is very important because it determines your relationship with someone. But for some reason the students were very surprised – shocked even – to hear I was 23. My answer was always greeted by gasps of shock, sometimes even applause.)

–       Are you married? (No.)

–       Do you have a boyfriend? (Nope.)

–       Do you have a lover man? (At first, I couldn’t believe that that was what I had heard. And made the tiny 4th grade girl who had asked me repeat it four times before realizing I had heard correctly and then trying to dodge the question. But, the question of my having a ‘lover’ came up in two other classes. I tried to ask one of my Korean co-teachers about this – were the students really asking me if I had a lover? Apparently, yes, although perhaps the word is used more frequently in Korea. I can’t really imagine a fourth grader back in the US asked about a ‘lover’ – although I haven’t been in fourth grade for a while).

–       Does your sister have a boyfriend? (Nope. Why, are you interested?)

–       Do you like kimchi? (Asked by almost every class)

–       Did you sleep with your shoes on in America?

–       What university did you go to? (NYU)

–       Is it famous? (Lady Gaga went there. – This got applause for some reason.)

–       What elementary school did you go to? What was its name?

–       How old is your dog? (14. – This answer was also met by gasps of shock and awe. As was the idea that my dog was a girl.)

–       Do you want to be in the military?

–       From a third grader – What are your dreams for the future? (had to think about it for a bit, but then said – To travel the world.) Then you’re living your dream! (That made me smile)

Howwhywaz, Howwhyam

I’ve been trying to pinpoint the moment I decided I really wanted to come to South Korea and teach English. This certainly what I thought I’d be doing right now as of a year ago. If someone had been able to explain to me how this all came to be, I would have probably been even less likely to believe it. Because I still find the past year rather hard to believe. It’s just been that kind of year, I guess.

Especially now that I’m in Korea, everything pre-arrival seems very far away, but in time more than in space, like everything happened years and years ago. It’s almost like my brain can’t comprehend the massive distance it traveled, and so it perceives things that happened back in the US and earlier this year as having happened in another life. Or maybe it’s just that starting a life teaching and living here in Ulsan makes ‘the past’ feel like a lifetime ago.

Anyways, a year ago, I was very much focused on New York City and non-fiction filmmaking, gradually starting to drift towards a Portland, Oregon/animation focus. By the end of fall, I found myself working seven days a week and still just barely able to pay off my NYC-rate rent and student loans. New York was quickly losing its appeal.

Things got a bit more interesting just after Thanksgiving, when I decided to move to Istanbul to start a rather serious relationship with an English language learning website. But, two months later, approximately 36 hours before my flight, the language learning website rescinded its offer.

Having already sublet my apartment, quit my job and packed up all my belongings, and not wanting to waste a perfectly good flight – and even more not wanting to face the rather unappealing options of staying in NYC or moving back home to Michigan – I went anyways.

And so I landed in Istanbul with no plans other than six nights booked at a hostel off of Istiklal and a return flight to JFK three months later. I am quite aware that people travel this way all the time, but for me it was all quite terrifying. I really had no idea what I was doing. But, with much encouragement from friends back home, and the excitement of everyone I met at the hostel that week (go to Syria! go to Beirut! go to Greece!), I spent the next three months traveling.

Of course, I learned many things over that time of traveling around Eastern Europe by myself. One of those things was how not into filmmaking I was at the moment. Having felt very passionate about all of these things only a couple of months before, it took a while for me to really realize that the passion just wasn’t there anymore.

The last of my six evenings in Istanbul, I was walking back to the hostel down Istiklal with a Parisian engineer who was 11 months into a bike trek from Beijing to Paris. It was 4am, but the street was still alive with people, the clubs were still going (and promoters still trying to get us in), and our way lit by an endless string of Christmas lights overhead. Istiklal was quite magical.

The engineer asked me what I did before I left for Istanbul. I think I probably tried to glam it up a bit and said I was an animator/amateur filmmaker.

‘Do you miss it?’ he asked.

After six days of exploring one of the most interesting cities in the world, during which time I had seen all manner of fascinating sights, eaten all varieties of new foods, and met all kinds of interesting people, there was no way I missed sitting in front of a computer in NYC.

When I told him this, the engineer replied, ‘Oh, well then, you’re in trouble. If you really liked it, you’d miss it. I can’t wait to get back to my job in Beijing.’

At the time, I didn’t really believe him, because how could I miss anything while I was in such a magical city? But his words kind of stayed in the back of my mind. And over the course of my three months traveling, they seemed to become more and more true.

Filling the void left by this loss of passion to filmmake came a strong desire to travel. Everywhere. Volunteering on farms in Europe or South America, PeaceCorps in Africa, I’ll take it all, please. Perhaps it’s all youthful idealism, but after meeting people of all ages ‘on the road,’ it kind of started to seem like maybe it really could be a plausible lifestyle.

Another thing in particular was about opportunities to teach English abroad. I suppose I always realized this was a possibility, but never really thought about it, until an evening being snowed in at a hostel in Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria. A couple of Australians couldn’t stop raving about this EPIK program to teach English in public schools in Korea, which they had done for three years and managed to save up enough money to be spending traveling around eastern Europe. I was, naturally, very curious, although it didn’t really sound like something I would actually do. Teaching English? To kids? It just wasn’t for me.

But they were really enthusiastic about it. ‘I think they’re still accepting applications for the fall. If you’ve got nothing going on when you’re done traveling here, you should really apply.’

I assured them I would, but was really thinking that there was no way it was happening.

So then, how did I come to apply to teach English in Korea? Through this EPIK program? I believe the decision was thoroughly fueled by the difficulties of moving back in with my parents after traveling (not that there’s anything wrong with my parents – they’re great – but there’s still a rather difficult loss of independence that comes with such a move after living on your own), and the gradual realization that moving to Portland really probably meant spending all of my time on shitty freelance jobs, barely able to support myself and stuck in front of a computer all day. In an ideal scenario. When a recruiting agency contacted me through Monster about teaching English abroad, and had the EPIK program listed on their website, I really didn’t need much convincing.

And so, here I am.

Why South Korea?

This question came up frequently from concerned family members before I left, and has been asked by many Koreans now that I’m actually here. At first, it was really just because the EPIK program seemed so reputable and well-reviewed. They would pay for my flight and apartment, and on top of that enough for me to pay off my loans, all of which were necessary for me to be able to afford the move. Many people travel somewhere and try to pick up English-teaching work on their own, but that really didn’t seem like a possibility without the guarantee of an income.

But beyond the money, there are other reasons I’m excited to be here specifically. I want to practice yoga, learn more about Buddhism, maybe take up Taekwondo or some other martial art, and hike and camp and be out in nature more, all of which are extremely popular here. Buddhist temples are scattered all over the country’s mountains, which seem to be never-ending. Here in Ulsan I’m nearly surrounded by mountains, and the ocean isn’t very far away either. The landscape alone is enough for me to feel quite satisfied with my decision to come here.

As for the tension with North Korea, none of the residents here seem at all concerned. Which is enough for me to feel pretty comfortable.

Maybe being in Korea first will shape my experiences of China and Japan differently, when I get there…

All in all though, South Korea – and Ulsan especially – seems to a pretty easy place to transition to teaching English abroad, because there’s so many other expat English teachers around. And while I’d like to see all of the rest of the world (eventually), Korea seems like a very good place to start.