Korea 2011

Day 60: Flight Home

Woke up on Monday at 3.30 am and instead of tossing and turning decided to get up, shower and vacate the apartment. It took me about an hour to complete the packing and go through the apartment but then I hit the street, wheeling my two bags and carrying my backpack through the quiet streets. There were a few taxis out and several restaurants still open, but I decided to walk to the Intercontinental rather than take a cab for the short distance. I could walk in the street safely and could avoid the sidewalks and curbs. I made it to the hotel, bought my ticket on the shuttle bus, and waited for the first bus at 5.05. The bus had only about four other passengers and we stopped at two other hotels before heading to Incheon, about an hour drive south of Seoul. I was in the terminal by 6.15, had a coffee, and ate some of my Paris Baquette treats. The terminal was crowded that early with morning vacation flights all over Asia and beyond. The Koreans who otherwise are so polite and decorous, revert a bit in the airport. They are louder and a bit less likely to respect personal space. Delta was not yet set up for check in and I waited until around 7.40 to get my boarding pass. Poked around the various shops, spend my remaining wons, and waited for the 10.40 flight to Tokyo/Narita.

After chatting with an air force officer going home to move his family to his new assignment, I boarded a smaller Delta plane (a bit bigger than the ones they use on the East Coast to go from Boston to New York for example). They served a nice snack of sushi and gimbap and we landed on time in Narita. My first impressions of Japan from the air: green and orderly fields. Narita could be any international airport: sleek, clean, but a bit colorless. It’s hard to conjure up Japan. Everyone speaks English and English signs dominate (the Japanese is in tiny letters beside). I bought a bottle of Sake in duty free for about $35, and began to confront how expensive things were here. There’s about 75 yen to the dollar. Had lunch at McDonald’s (only place I could eat and run) for 840 yens (about $12 for a burger, fries, and soda). I bought other items at Duty Free: magnets, ornaments, some cookies, sandals for Debby, before finding my gate for the 3.05 departure. The flight was delayed because they were awaiting the arrival of a flight from Shanghai and there was a typhoon there. So, I had more time to walk around and try to soak in Japanese culture. Like trying to conjure America at Logan airport: not easy.

We finally boarded and took off an hour and a half late, putting my connection to Boston in Detroit at risk. It was a 747 that had only a few empty seats. I, luckily, had an emergency exit row seat.

No in seat screens, just the old overheads. They showed four unwatchable films and several shorts. I relied on the iPad. The actual flight was about thirteen hours. It seems unimaginable at the beginning, and pretty unimaginable during. I can’t really sleep on planes very well, never finding a comfortable spot for long, so it was long. I got up and walked many times. They fed us a dinner, a snack, and a breakfast.

We touched down 4.00 pm EST, about two hours late. My flight to Boston was at 5.40, so I needed to clear immigration, get my bags through customs, re-check the bags and get to my flight. The first hurdle was immigration where a really long line snaked about World Fair-like with only 3-4 agents on duty. They finally put on a few more but it took a good 30 minutes to make my way to baggage claim. There, the bags were on two adjoining carousels and piled up between, so finding your bags was insane. I found the first bag relatively quickly. Then had to really hunt for the other. I finally was away about 5.00. Went through security but they wouldn’t let me take my Sake. I was given the option of either surrending it or going back through security and checking it. I first opted just to give it up, but a nice agent convinced me to check the bag and he ran interference for me, letting me jump lines to do it. I had about 30 minutes to get to the flight. The gate was the furthest you could be in the airport from where I was, and I booted it for what seemed a half mile. When I got there: flight had been delayed and hour because of a storm in Boston. I spoke to Debby who confirmed that it was raining terribly and they were advising folks not to use the roads unless they had to. Now the question was: how was I going to get picked up, should I take the bus, or even stay over in Boston?

We finally took off at 8.00 pm, two and a half hours late. Debby and Joe had already left for the airport and the rain was lessening but still awful. We landed at 10 pm. From take off to touch down in Boston: 25 hours. We got home around 12.30, putting the final time from leaving the apartment to entering the Cape house: 33.5 hours! 

Day 59: Last Sunday in Seoul

Last night we celebrated the end of classes by going to a "Korean Family Seafood Buffet" near us. It is only open for dinner from 7.30 to 9.30, and a little after 7.00 we queued with many Korean families: parents, kids, and grandparents, before they opened up. At 7.30, there was a bit of a stage rush to tables. We eventually got ours with the help of the hostess. There was a large central island of every conceivable sushi/sashimi, as well as king crab legs, mussels, and shrimp. There was a soup and salad island, a long hot food line of both seafood and meats, including some made to order stations. Finally, there was a desert station with cakes and fruits and a chocolate fountain. It was quite the show and the feast. We made multiple forays and wound up leaving about 9.00, filled to the gills.

On Sunday morning, I got up early to do some packing and correct papers and complete our evaluations. We headed into work at 9.30 for a final walk to hand in the evaluations. There we said a final goodbye to John, Jae, and Lisa before heading off. I went to the downstairs cafe to work out my plan; Dean headed directly to the subway. I eventually followed and took a train across the river to Dongdaemun, the second big market area in Seoul. It’s mainly fashion and mostly indoors in several vertical molls, sort of like department stores stuffed with many, many smaller boutiques. I did some final shopping and left. It was pouring, so I abandoned my plan to explore other neighborhoods and instead had a light lunch at the "Irish Potato," a chip shop. Made it back around 3.30 for a nap and completion of packing.

Tonight we are planning a final Korean barbecue at our local before an early evening and an equally early departure: around 6.00 am to catch the airport bus at the Intercontinental. I will try to update from the trip, but it may be a summary once I get home. It’s been an amazing stay, but I’m very ready to head home.

Further Evidence that the Koreans are the Irish of Asia

Day 58: Last Class

Well, after 58 days, I have finally reached my final class this morning. It’s been long, but I think the eight weeks actually went faster than the five weeks las summer. This week flew by, as I anticipated, doing the countdown: "last Monday classes," "last Tuesday classes" . . . . Did my farewell to the gym yesterday with a celebratory scrub and rub-down. Last night, Dean and I had dinner in a tuna sushi restaurant near us. Walked home in the driving rain: what else is new? The weather has been awful basically the entire two months. At least we avoided the blazing heat for the most part. Tonight we are feasting at a Korean buffet restaurant. Tomorrow, we hand in our evaluations, and then I hope to have the afternoon for a final excursion (weather dependant).

Day 52: Second to Last Sunday in Seoul

I am officially a week from returning home, and on this Sunday off I decided to relax a bit. My teaching colleague Dean and I began the day early at 8.00 am with a walk to the Intercontinental for the breakfast buffet. We stayed for more than two hours feasting on eggs and bacon, fruit and juices. After, we parted. I took a taxi to the subway and then across the river to Namdemun, the outdoor market area of Seoul. I strolled a bit there and then walked up toward Insadong, stopping at Shinsegae, a high-end department store for a peek inside. On the way up the hot, sunny streets, I stopped off at the stream running through town that has been turned into kind of water park. I took off my shoes and joined the Seoulites in a cooling foot bath. Cooled down I made it to Insadong where I bought some gifts to take home. I rested from shopping at one of the oldest teahouses in Seoul where I had a large bowl of cool, pear tea and some rice cakes. I then headed home around 3.30, totally exhausted but feeling good: I’m in the final week and the countdown can begin.

Pear tea

Day 50: Homestretch

I celebrated being almost finished with the seventh week of classes by getting a full body scrub at the Fitness Center. It was not quite as thorough as the previous time at the hot spring bathhouse in Seoraksan, but it included a selection of massage moves. I have never had a massage before, so this was a revelation and a treat.

I needed it since this week has proven to be the "wall": time has slowed down considerably and it seems the tank is running low. I’m much more conscious of the time and much more skeptical about being able to fill each four hour class block. Just one more class until the weekend, and then the official countdown will begin to my return on the 15th.

Otherwise, a good week. Dean and I had good dinners: at a Vietnamese restaurant, at our local Korean barbecue, and last night at Helen’s Kitchen, a small restaurant that features several kinds of the Korean rice wine called Ma-koli. They don’t have an English menu, so Helen herself and another waiter who speaks English have assisted us, choosing different dishes and pitchers of the wine to accompany. Each week they get a new delivery of the more than 800-kinds of ma-koli available from all over the country. Each is slightly different based on the kind of rice grown, the water, and what is added. Some are sweeter, some darker, and taste smokier. The food is homestyle Korean: potato pancake with seafood, tofu and mushrooms: very tasty, but the ma-koli is the real star of the show. We plan to go back next week for a final sampling. 

The photo is of Dean and me with our main TA, Ryan, who left on Monday to go to school at Penn State. 

Day 46: Sunday Travel to Gyeongju

This Sunday, my teaching colleague Dean and I hopped the KTX, Korea’s version of hte bullet train and went to the town of Gyeongju in the southeast. Two hours later we had arrived at the bottom of Korea, going as fast as 200 mph in spots. Gyeongju was the former capital of the Silla Empire which ruled Korea for centuries before giving way to the Joseon Dynasty and its capital in Seoul. It is a much smaller city with none of the high rise apartment buildings of Seoul and dozens of tombs of the former emperors: grassy barrows in parkland in the center of the city. After arriving at the brand new train station and a quick cab ride into the city we set out on foot for the city centre, spotting our first tomb and going from there. It was sort of like walking through Central Park with bumbs! One part of the park was fields of wildflowers and most of the time the biggest distraction was the racket made by the cicadas. The weather was a bit overcast but dry. It got hot so we were glad that the sun was not beating down. After several hours of touring and walking, we sought out a restaurant for lunch. Unfortunately, unlike Seoul, restaurants were not as plentiful and they were all packed. Instead we began to walk back the way we came, through the park and on the other side, near where we began we finally found an excellent (and cheap) restaurant and had a leisurely and delicious meal: bibipap, a kind of rice-based dish in which you add items like mushrooms and dried seaweed, to your taste.

We bought to take home the regional speciality of Gyeongju: little cakes like a Danish with a chocolate, rice paste filling: really delicious. We bought an extra box to give to the folks at work.

We made it back to Seoul about 7.15 and took the subway home. It was raining and apparently had been most of the day, so we not only had a nice break from the city but missed another rainy day. I’m not counting yet, but it’s now exactly 14 days until I come home.

Among the wildflowers

In the park at Gyeongju

Tombs in Gyeongju

Day 44: Korean Baseball

Last night (Friday) we took in a baseball game at Jamsil Stadium, the site of the Olympics. We were scheduled to go on Thursday to see the two Seoul teams play--the Twins and the Bears. But it was canceled because of the rain and damage to the field. However, Friday was clear and sunny and we decided to try to get tickets to the Twins playing the Samsung Lions. Jamsil is just a subway stop from our apartment and we arrived around 5.30, an hour before game time. We managed to get tickets near the right field fence, which were pretty good in the stadium. What’s different about Korean baseball is that it’s a bit like American football, with cheerleaders and organized chanting by the fans. Each player has a theme song that the home fans all know and they are vocal in singing away and clapping their thunder sticks. There are cheerleaders performing between innings and all sorts of excitement broadcast on the immense video display in center field. The food of choice among the fans is chicken and beer, with KFC the reigning vendor. We got a box of hot wings and a couple of beers and soaked in the atmosphere. It seems both unlike Koreans: letting their hair down to sing and shout and very Korean: doing all this uniformly, in a group. The game was pretty exciting, with homeruns, good pitching and defense. The Twins lost but it didn’t really dampen the atmosphere which was fun and friendly. It was a real window on Korean culture and well-worth the price of admission (about $10 a ticket).

Day 42: Monsoon Returns

It’s Wednesday, hump day for my six week. Home stretch of two weeks to go on Saturday. Just to let us know it won’t be smooth sailing, the monsoon came back with a vengeance. Heaving rain from yesterday afternoon, all night, and into the morning. We sensibly decided to take a taxi rather than the usual walk, and we were absolutely drenched just in the short walk and wait for a free cab. We were let off opposite our office in an ankle deep flash flood. It kept raining all day long. Students had great trouble getting to class. The subway closed stations due to flooding. An hour drive into the city became 3 hours as traffic snarled and intersections were flooded. It was just damp and drizzling when we headed home, so hopefully it will pass. Hope so. We have tickets to a Korean baseball game tomorrow night.

Swimming to Work

Day 38: Another Sunday in Seoul

For my sixth Sunday in Seoul, I served my soul, stomach, and sight. First I went down to the nearby Intercontinental Hotel. Across the street from it is a Buddhist temple complex, Bongeunsa, which was filling up with Sunday morning worshippers. I toured there first, and it was fascinating to see everyone at prayers, the monks chanting, bells and gongs sounding. Afterwards, I went back to the hotel for the breakfast buffet and stuffed myself on things I have not had in awhile, particularly eggs and fruit. After that, I headed by taxi to a ferry terminal on the Han River and took the hour-long cruise up the river with its sights of the city. I then made it back to the apartment for a nap and course prep. It was a little quieter day off than past ones but restful and needed.

Bongeunsa Buddhist Temples

Looking inside one of the temple buildings

Seoul from the Han River

Seoul's Olympic Stadium

Days 32-37: First Week of the Second Session

On Monday we began our second session with my new colleague, Dean Easton. He arrived last week and has settled in nicely. He has taught in China and Japan and has ESL training so should be excellent. We have two sections of 8th and 9th graders (about the same number as session one) but also two section of 5th and 6th graders. These are really young kids, and Dean has been channeling Mr. Rogers to teach them, while I have sat back to observe mostly and get the right pitch in my voice so I don’t scare them! They are actually really sweet: totally uncensored, saying whatever comes in their head and addreassing us as "Teacher, teacher." 

The week went pretty quickly. I went to the gym every day this week and felt good. I’ve noticed that with the exercise I don’t feel so in need of a nap to recover from the stress and strain. I guess it is true what they have been saying about exercise that I have ignored all these years! Had dinner with Dean once at a Shabu-shabu restuarant (a Korean style Japanese hot pot), then back to our local barbecue place, then to the nearby Vietnamese restaurant. In the middle I had a farewell dinner with Tom at an Indian restuarant near the gym. Finally, met Jee-Won and her two kids for coffee on Tuesday, probably for the last time since they are off to California shortly.

So, one week down in the four remaining. Next week probably will be the true hump week and after that the countdown to returning home begins.

Day 31: Returning to Seoul

After checking out, we headed to a warm spring bathhouse. The custom is after hiking you soak and sooth those weary bones. The bathhouse was amazing: men upstairs and women down, huge changing room and then the pool area with multiple hot, warm, and cold pools, both inside and outside. Paik-Kwon asked us if we wanted a scrub, and we were both game. We went to massage tables where every part (and I do mean every part) of your body was thoroughly scrapped with a abrasive towel. Every once and awhile you would be washed with a bucket of warm water. It was amazing. You came away feeling totally relaxed and cleaner than you have ever been! 

Afterwards we drove to the beach to see the East Sea (Sea of Japan). We vetoed swimming since we didn’t want to mess up our freshly cleaned skin! I can at least say that I have been to both the West and East Seas on the opposite sides of the country.

On our way out of town we stopped off at a roadside restaurant for a late lunch. The place featured another local speciality: to-fu, and, although I’m not the biggest fan, this was amazing: multiple dishes of vegetables featuring to-fu in different ways. The main course was a great seafood stew with to-fu that was really delicious.

On the way back to Seoul we hit traffic almost immediately and what should have taken about two hours took more than three. Driving across the mountains, we finally saw the sun in all its glory, signalling the end of the monsoon season. Let’s hope so. We got back to the city around 8.00 and the Lees dropped us off at our respective apartments. It was simply a perfect weekend. So generous of them and so refreshing and rejuvenating for us. A real highpoint of the trip. 

Hot Springs Bathhouse

Inside the Bathhouse


Touching the East Sea

Wending Our Way Back to Seoul

Day 31: Assault on Seoraksan

The next morning we met for breakfast at the second floor buffet where they had both western and Korean fare. I made a beeline for the western and had things like scrambled eggs and bacon that I haven’t seen in a month. Loaded up on fruit as well. Afterwards we headed out to the park by foot since the Kensington is the closest hotel to the entrance. Tom and Paik-Won chose a trail to hike; JeeWon and I went in the cable car. It was still misty/cloudy and as we ascended with literally disappeared into the clouds, coming out at an observation post that offered very fews. We hiked up, however, about 200 yards, up stairs and along a trail to a higher observation point, still mostly covered with clouds. But we sat patiently and after about 20 minutes the clouds lifted to reveal amazing mountain views. The mountains have a reddish tinge to them and remind me of landscape in the American west. We admired the view for awhile and then descended in the cable car. We had time before meeting up with the hikers, so JeeWon and I walked over to an immense Buddha statue and a monastery, and then JeeWon treated me to the local delicacy at an outdoor restaurant: potato pancakes. I haven’t really had potatoes either for a month and these tasted great: perfectly brown and light. We linked up with Tom and Paik-Kwon and headed back to the hotel to check out: a perfect outing.

At the Top but still in the Clouds

Cable Car to the Peaks

Jee-Won at the top

Out of the Clouds

The Clouds Lift

Back Down on the Ground

The Zen Has Descended

Day 30: Departure for Seorak Mountain

After nine weeks in Seoul (five week last summer and four weeks this summer), and other than the two trips to the DMZ, today is my first adventure really outside of Seoul. The Lees--Jee Won and Paik Kwon--who took us out this summer for a Japanese meal and to two memorable dinners last summer, continue to astound us with their generosity and friendship by taking Tom and I across the country to Seoraksan, a mountain range on the east coast of Korea, not far from the border with the north. At our dinner at the Japanese restaurant, Paik-Kwon said that he would like us to join them at a hotel at Seorak for an overnight. It couldn’t have come at a better time: the halfway point and needed relaxation and activities to break up the routine.

We left from Tom’s apartment, picked up in the Lee’s oversized BMW sedan. The trip across the country to the East Sea (don’t refer to it as the Sea of Japan or Koreans will correct you) takes only about 2 1/2 hours. It is uniformly mountainous, reminding me of New Hampshire or Vermont. It is not surprising form the landscape how brutal conditions must have been during the Korean war. We arrived at our hotel--The Kensington Stars--around 6.30. The hotel is "super deluxe," in the European style: a homage to all things English with red double-deckers outside and portraits of Queen Elizabeth and the other royals inside. It is a famous hotel, the closest to the entrance to the park, and consequently virtually everyone has stayed here. Between rooms there are display cases for seemingly every Korean actor, performer, and celebrity, including personal items like a famous suit or dress, awards, records, etc. The room was really nice with a stunning view overlooking the peaks just beyond.

We headed out at 7.00 into the nearby coastal town for a seafood meal. Paik Kwong negotiated with the owner pointing out the fish in the various tanks outside which fish he wanted. We headed inside to our table and a seat on the floor (for the second night in a row)! It’s hard for me to find a comfortable spot. Also to be close enough to the table to actually reach the food, but I tried manfully and finally contorted myself enough to get a grip on the amazing number of dishes that filled our table: all appetizers: fried fish, baked fish, crab legs, shrimps, sea urchins, live, still wriggling worm-like creatures, and all sorts of exotic sea-related tastes: seaweed, roe, etc. All a prelude to a huge platter of sushi made from flounder and a particular fish that only eats abalone. Its rather grumpy head was mounted underneath an abalone shell, filled with slices. There was a soup to finish. All was washed down with beer and so-ju. What a feast. We left the restaurant around 11! A truly memorable meal and a great introduction to the joys to come. Part two to follow.

Jee-Won and Paik Kwon as the dishes begin to arrive

Standing in the fog beside the East Sea on the other side of Korea

The boys feasting

The view from our hotel window

Day 29: Friday Night Dinner at Insadong

Friday after class, nearly the end of our fourth week, and the end of session 1, the CEO of Kaplan Korea invited the Book Club teachers--Chuck Timlin who will be ending and Dean Easton who will be beginning with me in the next session on Monday (Dean arrived on Tuesday and has been getting acclimated as well as recovering from jetlag)--to dinner at Insadong. We left the office with Jae Seoung, our teaching colleague, by subway to a vegetarian restaurant that specializes in Buddhist Temple food. The owner was a former Buddhist monk, and the restaurant has a temple feel to it. Mrs. Choo, the Kaplan CEO, was our host and we sat on the floor. They proceeded to bring out bowl after bowl of amazing vegetarian dishes of every description, very flavorful and tasty. The meal included a musical and dance performance by several people in costume. They were graceful and stylized but still hard on the knees on a marble floor! Mrs. Choo took us home by car afterwards through the traffic-clogged streets and the rain. But a great evening out and way to end our fourth week.

Buddhist Temple food

Dance performance

Dancer interpreting a bird

Dancer with fans

Finale by the entire troupe

Selection of vegetarian dishes

Day 24: Sunday in Seoul at Changdeokgung Palace

Finally made it to one of the five Confucian palaces of the Joseon Dynasty in Seoul--Changdeokgung Palace. It’s right in the center of Seoul and palace is somewhat misleading. It’s actually like a royal Central Park with multiple palace buildings, most from the 15th century and earlier. It’s a bit like the Forbidden City, a complex of buildings the further along the more important you had to be to be there. It’s somewhat like that now in that you buy a basic entrance fee (about $4) and then another to go to an inner set of palace buildings, and then another entrance to go to the "Secret Garden." Again, this is a misnomer. It’s actually a secret set of palace buildings in a beautifully landscaped wilderness area, right in the center of Seoul! 

I went with Tom and his Korean colleague, JK, who served as our tour guide. It went from overcast to blazing sun, and we spent a good 4 hours touring. It was all impressive but exhausting. Glad to have done it, but I think I have done the Korean palace experience!

Afterwards, JK took us to his favorite restaurant in Insadong, a North Korean dumpling restaurant that was definitely Seoul soul food: a delicious seafood pancake and then individual bowls of soup with huge dumplings with great filling, and in the bottom little rice balls that looked like little plastic eights. It was delicious. Afterwards, I took the subway home, and, of course, it started to rain on my 20-minute walk home. All in all a great Sunday afternoon. 

Views from the palace tour

Day 23: Saturday Night at the Mall

After finishing our third teaching week (one more to go to get to the halfway mark), I had only one thing on my mind: an American burger. This craving I had successfully resisted my entire five weeks last year, but for some reason, the itch had to be scratched. So, I headed with my colleague Chuck to the huge mall near us (Coex), all multi-leveled, disorienting with neon and glass and searched out Kraze Burgers, an American diner-type place featuring: burgers, fries, and onion rings. I had my first potatoes in a month (fried) and a reasonable facsimile of a Big Boy Burger: small patty but plenty of lettuce, tomato, mayonaise, etc. It’s shocking how after a month of Korean food, the stomach resists American portions and diet. I was stuffed after the meal in ways I never am when eating Korean.

Anyway, itch scratched we exited a crowded Coex satisfied. 

Days 18-20

Just a quick reporting in. It’s Wednesday of our third week of classes. Nothing exciting to mention, just the grind of walking to work, teaching in the morning, then either afternoon classes or out by 1,00. I have gone to the gym every day this week, which helps keep me sane. Have a great deal of work to do: correcting papers and getting things organized for the next session, so apologies in advance if the next few days don’t include much that is newsworthy. The weather is distinctly better. After the torrential rain of Sunday, it has cleared out, and the air quality, usually choked with smog, is clear and fresh. Monday felt like California weather. I’m sure we will be back into the muggy soon enough. Will check in later in the week with an update.

Dragon's head in the National Museum

Sunday at the National Museum and in the Monsoon

Today, the rains returned with a vengeance, almost continual downpours. I took a taxi to Tom’s apartment and we had brunch in the restaurant in his building. It was a Korean idea of a Western breakfast: eggs, bacon, and pancakes, but, of course, with cucumbers and tomatoes! We took the subway after to the National Museum of Korea, an immense, modern national history museum and proceeded from neolithic times to the end of the Joseon Dynasty at the beginning of the 20th century with the Japanese invasion. It was impressive, but as we observed, it needed editing and more dioramas. It was mainly (I’m sure priceless) pots and bits of daggers. It did give you a sense of how difficult it has been for Korea to maintain itself in between the giants of China and Japan, and it’s history seems to be continual war with invaders and with each other, so the division between North and South isn’t very surprising.

It continued to rain buckets when we were done, and we got soaked on our way back to the subway. We split up for the return journey and I took the subway to Songleung Station, near the gym and work, the closest stop to the apartment. When I came out, the street was virtually underwater with cars plowing through and creating waves that spilled over the curb and onto the sidewalk. Crossing the street meant up to nearly your upper calf in water. Made it home and hunkered down for a quiet Sunday evening in the apartment before teaching starts up again on the 4th of July. I am jealous of all the barbecues and beach time missed at home, but I’m planning to teach the Declaration of Independence tomorrow as an example of persuasive prose.

Effects of the monsoon.

This is on my regular walking route to class

Day 16: Saturday Lunch in Seoul

Our teaching colleague, Seh

ee Han, took us out to lunch today. After our class at 1.00, we jumped into a taxi and drove up near where I taught last summer to a restaurant that offered what only can be described as a Korean buffet brought to your table. They had only four items, determined by price and the number of dishes offered. We opted for the one with about 35 small bowls of various Korean foods, from cold crab, to sliced beef and pork, to every conceivable kind of vegetable/salad, noodles, fish, and kimchis. It was wonderful to have Sehee there to "translate" everything, and we had a great time working away at all our dishes. We finally left the restaurant after 3.00, a great way to start our short weekend.

Class picture of the combined 8th and 9th grade classes

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Days 13-16: End of Week Two of Classes

Well, it’s Saturday morning before classes and the end of our second week teaching. As opposed to last year when time seemed to stand still at times, this time, it has flown by. It could be the early days on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturday (finished by 1.00) or the students who seem less resentful to being in class and are more engaged. Whatever reason, I am 1/4 finished and we turn from Dickens to Hemingway next week.

On Friday, we celebrated completing Dickens’s Christmas Carol by a full-length staged reading using Dickens’s own reading script that I turned into a play. We combined the two morning classes and had a rollicking and fun performance. Everyone took parts and the characteristically reluctant Koreans got into it. I purchased donut holes from Dunkin Donuts, and sugar is always a good catalyst! The afternoon class, which is smaller, was more of an effort, but still we managed. It was a good day all round and a great way to finish up the week (except there’s still class today). 

Days 11 &12: Sunday in Insadong and Monday Back in Class

On Sunday, the tropical storm was due to hit. It has been cloudy and rainy since Monday, starting with just a drizzle to Friday and Saturday downpour. The night was wild and in the morning it was still blowing. I can’t see much from my apartment, but a bamboo tree outside my window was bending almost to the ground and swaying back and forth. Spoke to Tom Solter, my partner from last summer who is teaching at a different school this summer, and we arranged to meet around 1.00, giving us both time to do class work in the morning. I set out a little before 1.00 for the 20 minute walk to Tom’s upscale, 15th floor apartment. It looks like an executive suite, much bigger and better appointed than my more humble dorm-like pad, but I prefer my neighborhood. He doesn’t even have a local grocery and few restaurants. It’s a high end shopping area. He is the 15th floor with a great view north of the river. We headed out first by taxi to Apugeong and then by subway to Insadong, the arts and crafty area.

We first made it to a restaurant where we had a fine meal: a combo plater of roast pork, seasoned carrots, duck breast, and shrimp in jellyfish. That’s right jellyfish. I don’t think it was literal. It was more a suit, viscuous sauce. All was very tasty. Afterwards we strolled and window-shopped the little craft places. At one stage a group of teenage girls approached me saying "Santa, Santa," and insisted I pose with them for photos. What can I say: I’ve grown into the role. After our stroll, we headed back on the subway, a very pleasant Sunday afternoon.

Monday, we started our second class week. It’s still rainy and overcast. It’s getting a bit much that way. Haven’t seen the sun for over a week now. Class in the morning went fast. The afternoon dragged. Let’s see how the rest of the week goes. 

Dinner with the Lees

Last night, Friday night, Paik Won and Jee Won Lee, the parents of our former student Yu-Na took Tom and me out to an amazing Japanese restaurant. We had a private room up several flights. With shoes off we settled into the low table with a dug out area for our legs and a backrest on the floor. It was all seafood. First, an elaborate and beautiful platter of sushi, then another platter of fish-related innards. It was all exquisitely presented and delicious: sushi that tasted just fishy enough but amazing flavors and textures. Multiple courses followed: soup, noodles with shrimp, a beautiful fried fish cut in four portions in an amazing sauce. The chef arrived to bring a very special, and we were told, very expensive crab dish: a dollop of crab meat and thin wires of vegetable in a broth. The crab came from a remote part of Korea, highly prized and rare. It was delectable. Cold noodles, a bowl of rice and fish eggs, fruit and fruity tea followed. I had beer and warm saki to wash it all down. Really a remarkable meal and a wonderful evening in which our hosts made us feel relaxed, welcomed, and valued. 

Last summer, the Lees provided us with two of the best nights we had, definitely highpoints, and now we started off in the same direction.

Paik Won Lee in front of our first course

Sushi platter

Day 9 and the End of Week One of Teaching

So, it’s Saturday--a grey and rainy day like the last three. We are under a threat of a tropical storm arriving later and on Saturday--a typhoon some are saying. Basically, it has just been rainy but cooler. We are finished at 1.00 pm and have such a small class that we divide it in two two hour blocks, so it’s a light day. Actually, that’s true on Tuesdays and Thursdays as well. This is a huge break compared to last summer in which we basically worked 8 hours a day for six days running. We are well into the routine that we will follow at least for the next three weeks until we finish session 1: up around 6.00 am, leave the apartment after breakfast at 7.40 for the 25 minute walk to work, 8.05 - 9.00 prep time, and then morning classes from 9.00 - 1.00. We have an hour for lunch, just enough time to grab a quick bite at a local restaurant. Afternoon classes on MWF are 2.00 - 6.00. Then, usually, a 10 minute walk to the gym, dinner, and an early night. I’m usually in bed and asleep by 10.00. 

The students are generally good: willing and interested. Somewhat more animated than last summer’s group. We are doing Dickens’s Christmas Carol, so that helps: it’s short and lends itself to class discussion. All told, the week past went pretty smoothly and quickly. 

Days 7 & 8

Two more teaching days in the books and well along to finish our first week. We managed to settle into our classrooms and get the AV equipment up and running. Last night we got an ominous text message from our colleague, John Kye: "monsoon coming, be prepared." Not sure what exactly we should do to prepare: head for high ground, sandbag? It turned out he meant bring an umbrella. Overcast descended on Seoul and a drizzle was pretty constant, not an downpour that you would expect with the word monsoon. But this is the rainy season when they get most of their rain, other than winter snow. 

I have caught a cold from sleeping with the air conditioner and have now lost my voice almost totally. Should be a teaching challenge. I may try and seek out a doctor today to see what might help get me back. Otherwise, I may have to mime the classes for the next few days!

Day 6: First Day of Classes

On Monday we met our first class at 9.00 am. It was a combined class of 15 that we will divide into two smaller groups. There are both 9th and 8th graders with a similar range of skill and English proficiency as last summer. Chuck and I basically team taught, having them fill out a Course "Passport" of information, had them take a grammar diagnostic, and a writing sample. Chuck processed the writing sample and I did the final hour on the art of reading. Four hours is a LONG class, but it went by fairly quickly.

For lunch we went to the small restaurant near my old apartment that I had eaten in on Sunday for lunch. I had gimbap and fried dumplings: for 4500 Won or about $4.25.

In the afternoon, we had a smaller class of 5, so there was no point in breaking it up and we teamed taught the same sequence with them. Afternoon is harder. The students are less talkative, more lethargic. We also were in a tiny classroom, which didn’t help.

At 6.00 we left, and went to the Fitness Club for the first session. I did the bike and the treadmill before hitting the hot tub. Afterwards, we had dinner at the barbecue place near our old apartment. Walked home and literally collapsed at 9.30. 

Return to the DMZ and the JSA (Joint Security Area) in Panmungeon

Since we had Saturday off before beginning classes on Monday, I was able to book the USO tour to Panmungeon, which I couldn’t do last summer because it isn’t open on Sundays. We left from the USO office by the US Army base in Itewon at 7.30 am, having taken a taxi across the river. By 8.40 we had arrived at Camp Bonifas, the U.S. base in Panmungeon where we moved over to an army bus to be transported to the conference area. First a briefing in which we had to sign an agreement, the first sentence of which stated that we were were entering an area in which death was possible due to enemy action! The G.I. guides were no nonsense and told us that if approached by North Korean soldiers we should make no eye contact and no verbal contact whatsoever. We were put in two single-file lines and entered a building (Peace House) that led out to the famous conference rooms bisected by the border between North and South Korea. Inside, as Korean troops stood guard, we could walk around the table and enter North Korea. Outside, a single North Korean soldier kept continual watch on us, and we were asked not to point or gesture in any way that might be construed as provocation. Leaving the area, we went to the most forward observation post where we were surrounding by North Korean territory on three sides. From there we could see the North Korean Propaganda Village, in which the buildings have painted windows and no floors. An immense North Korean flag is flying: 600 lbs. and requires 50 soldiers to hoist and lower. We then saw the Bridge of No Return and the spot where Captain Bonifas was murdered by North Korean troops objecting to tree trimming in the area. It was all very intense and sobering. The rest of the tour were things I had seen and done already: the 3rd Infiltration Tunnel, Dora Observatory, and Dorasan Train Station (the ghost station) in the DMZ with no trains north. We had lunch near the station in a cafeteria and then headed back to Seoul, arriving a little after 3.30. We took a taxi back to the apartment and collapsed, exhausted from all the intensity of the experience.

Briefing inside the Conference Room (those on the left of the soldier are in North Korea)


In front of the Evil Empire

North Korean Flag Flying

North Korean guard

Outside the Conference Room

Surrounded on Three Sides by North Korea

The Bridge of No Return

Thoughts on Returning to Seoul

Before the main event: our trip to the DMZ and the JSA (Joint Security Area) in Panmungeon, a few thoughts on what it feels like to be back. On one hand, Korea and Seoul are as exotic and at times as exasperating as the first time. The city is so immense with a scale that boggles the mind and a kind of relentlessness that has little time to cushion your blow in cultural immersion. However, the almost six weeks spent here last summer has made it so, so much easier for me. Moreover, Kaplan is near my old neighborhood, and the apartment is not far from it, so I know where to find things and a lot of the initial exploration anxiety has already been overcome. Not that I am blase about it all. I still can’t figure out how to tell the taxi driver how to get to the apartment since it’s not that close to a subway stop: the best way to get the message to the driver. And there are countless other examples of newness and unfamiliarity, but there’s also a healthy dose of "been there/done that" that makes it so much easier to cope and keep the anxiety level in check. I think I should be able to use more of my energy from the start with the teaching. Seoul doesn’t yet feel like home, far from it, but it is feeling like an old friend: trustworthy and reliable, if unpredictable and flighty.


Inside Kaplan

Kaplan Korea

Here’s where I will be working for the next two months.

Outside the Kaplan Korea building

Day 3: Settling in

Today, Friday, June 17th, was our day for settling into the apartment and our place of work. Got up early after a desperately-needed night’s rest. Made a short circuit of the neighborhood. We are living on a very quick middle-class, family neighborhood of small apartments and single homes (a rarity in Seoul), off a main street that buzzes with traffic and shops. Went out and found the nearest market for things like milk, paper towels, bottled water, etc. The apartment is small but nicely equipped: a single L-shaped room. There’s a funky purple sofa, more like a Victorian Lady’s fainting divan, so no real place to comfortably sit. There is an immense flat-screen TV and a bathroom that doubles as a shower stall. There are also strange wall decorations like cartoons exhorting me to "Eat Your Greens" and "Brush Your Teeth." It is very quite and more than adequate and comfortable.

Around 9.00 Chuck and I headed off for the 20-25 minute walk to work, into my former neighborhood from last summer, so to familiar sights. We stopped at the local Paris Baguette chain for breakfast, then on to the school. It did take about 20 minutes and an easy walk. The school is really well equipped and everyone was very welcoming and helpful. Lisa Kim, one of the office managers took us to the bank to open an account (a long process that would have been hopelessly complicated without her), then we had lunch with the Kaplan staff--John Kye, another teacher named Jae, Lisa, and Mrs. Choi, the CEO and founder of Kaplan. We went to a Korean Italian restaurant for a very pleasant lunch of salad and pasta. After lunch, we went with Lisa to the E-Mart, sort of like Wallmart where we bought essentials for the apartment: towels, sheets, cutlery, bowls, etc. With our purchases we headed home on foot, stopping off at the Fitness Club from last summer where both of us joined. Dinner was at a Vietnamese noodle restaurant, and an early night. All together, a very satisfying day getting both home and work sorted out and ready for business.

Entrance to apartment (not my car)

Apartment inside

Our street

The "bedroom"

The "living room"

Day 1 & 2: Departure and Arrival

I’m sitting in my apartme

nt in Seoul, having my first cup of coffee in my sparsely furnished, student-dorm-like room, able after a solid night’s sleep to collect my thoughts on traveling half-way around the world in just hours (though it didn’t like a few!).

On Wednesday, 15 June, up at 1.00 am after about 4 hours sleep to finish packing, shower, and change. Debby and I left the house at 2.30 am to drive to Barnstable to get the Logan bus at 3.20. We counted 12 cars on the road at that hour in the twenty-or-so minute drive. Bus arrived on time and collected about a half dozen passengers. A few more were picked up on the way, but mostly we had an empty bus and I dozed a bit in the speedy ride to Boston, arriving around 4.40.

The Delta Terminal at that hour was packed with early departure passengers, and I first had to negotiate the new style check-in on the computer terminal to print out my boarding pass. I was useless at it and was rescued by an attendant who basically did it all for me. Checked my bags (103 lbs. so overweight, but no comment), x-ray screening and then the long hike down and up escalators and horizontal walk ways to the gate. I met my teaching colleague, Chuck Timlin, at Dunkin Donuts where I bought a breakfast sandwich and coffee. We chatted the time away until departing at 6.45. The flight was crowded but not packed and we made it ahead of schedule and entered the Detroit airport around 8.30. The airport is space-age sleek, with a monorail system and horizontal walkways. We set up base camp by the gate for the Seoul flight and explored: visiting Duty Free for some gifts to our Korean hosts, had a snack (a Chicago dog, Detroit style with peppers and celery salt). We asked at the gate if we could sit together and whether there were any emergency row seats. Eventually, as we were getting ready to get on board, they called us and gave us two emergency row seats together. Nice. The flight was mostly packed, a few empty seats, but not many, mainly with Korean families and some US servicemen. At take-off we sat next to the stewardess from first class and she took a shine to us, eventually bringing us glasses of red wine from first class to sample, and an ice cream desert with our meal. Nice again. So far, so great: leg-room, easy access to the loue, wined and dined. The flight, any way you sliced it was still 13 hours plus long and it seemed an eternity. The first six hours you are in European air travel mode, but then, when you think you can’t go on, you have more than another 6 hours to go! To distract, there was the video console. I watched It May Get Loud, the documentary with Jimmy Page, the Edge, and Jack White, The Eagle, a Roman Empire adventure, and Julia and Julie, which I had never seen. They had an amazing selection of films, old and new (Ben Hur!), but at some stage I became videoed out, though I did watch a few episodes of Curb Your Enthusiasm on the iPad. Food was: First Service: a Korean beef dish, then a mid-flight snack of a turkey sandwich, then a pre-arrival meal: a weird choice of a cheese omelet and sausage or fried cod, peppers, and noodles. So the stewardess had to go down the rows asking, "Eggs or Fish?" Neither seemed attractive to me at this stage. It didn’t seem like breakfast, since it was around noon Seoul time so I opted for the fish, but then realized my stomach wanted the bland eggs so I ate little.

We landed a bit early at 3.00 pm KST and entered the gleaming (though empty in the afternoon) Incheon airport. Cleared immigration quickly, got our bags, a bit longer, then customs and into arrivals. I changed money and then sought out the bus ticket office for the ride into Seoul (about an hour). After buying tickets, I went looking for a phone to call our contact who was to pick us up at the City Bus Terminal. No payphones in sight, so I went to Tourist Info and then kindly let me use their phone. Around 4.30 we were off for Seoul. It was in the 80s and sunny. We had left cold/damp New England and were firmly in the summer. Tried to look out the window of the bus but it was too soothing in the comfy seat and I was soon sleeping away. We arrived at the station around 5.30 and were met and whisked off to our new apartment. What seemed like internity, eventually passed and we survived the flight.

En route

Chuck Timlin, my colleague, hoisting our first class wine glasses.

Outside the terminal and Incheon awaiting the bus

My Flight

Here’s how it’s supposed to work:

Depart Wednesday, June 15 from Boston at 6.45 am Delta 1635 to Detroit, arriving 9.01.
Depart from Detroit at 12.15 pm Delta 159, arriving Seoul June 16, 3.10 pm (KST).

That’s a little over 18 hours from leaving Boston.

However, to make my morning flight out of Logan, I will need to take the bus from Hyannis at 3.20 am. So, it will be just under 22 hours from leaving my door on the Cape until touching down at Incheon International.

Stay tuned to see how I fare.

Overlooking the DMZ

Korea Summer 2011 Preliminaries

I head out to Korea on Wednesday, June 15th, for eight weeks, returning on August 15th. Like last summer, I int

end to describe my experiences regularly. This summer will be different: different school, different apartment/neighborhood, different teaching colleagues, so I hope I will have new and different things to report. In one sense, I feel less daunted by the prospect since I am returning to a place I spent six weeks in just a year ago. There should be less of the full culture shock experienced in 2010, though I hope that I will see more and perhaps more clearly this time.

For those of you who will be following me, I hope I can make this interesting enough to sustain your interest. It becomes a predictable grind once teaching starts, so bear with me. I’m looking forward to seeing more and doing more, so let’s hope that there will be new things to talk about. I have really valued this journal as a way of recording my day-to-day activities lest they be lost in the rush of days and weeks, so I might be the only one who truly values all of this, but you are all very welcome to join me.