Saturday, March 7, 2015

A Recap of My First 6 Months in Korea

I have not been as active with my blog as I had hoped to be when I created it.  Instead of creating a bunch of individual posts, I thought I would just briefly describe some of the interesting things I have been up to in Korea and then be a little better about updating the blog from here on out.

LG Twins games
I am so thankful to finally be back in a country that appreciates baseball and is big enough to have a league with multiple teams.  Two years prior to moving to Korea, I visited Korea and really wanted to witness what an Asian baseball game was like, and I was blown away by the atmosphere.  Moving here I knew I would have to align my allegiance with a team, and decided to choose the team I had already seen and cheered for (it probably helped that I had already bought a team jersey with a random player's name on it, 정성훈), the LG Twins.  Teams here are named after corporate sponsors, not the cities they play in.  Imagine the Coca-Cola Braves!  When I moved to Korea in August it was towards the end of the season but I was still able to make it to 4 Twins games, 2 of which were playoff games thanks to the help of a co-worker who is a die hard life long fan of the Twins.  Although the competition might not be as great as it is in America and their might be fewer spectacular plays, the atmosphere of Korean baseball knocks the MLB out of the ballpark.

Sticking with sporting events, another cool event I attended was something known as 고연전 Koyonjon (or 연고전 Yonkojon depending on who you ask).  It is an annual two day event where Korea University (ko) and Yonsei University (yon) play each other in 5 separate sporting events: baseball, basketball, hockey, rugby, and soccer (they also have an unofficial Starcraft/League of Legends computer game competition which is sometimes sarcastically referred to as the national sport of Korea).  One of my Korean colleagues who attended Korea University invited me for the second day of the events which is when they play rugby and soccer.  Getting to watch these two universities play each other in rugby in a massive stadium filled with thousands of cheering fans, music, cheerleaders, and pyrotechnic special effects mostly made me filled with envy as I took a nostalgic reflection back to my university rugby career and remember playing on old converted parking lot that barely grew grass and in front of maybe 50-70 spectators on a good weekend.  Ah...if only our games had been like that.  In the end, Korea University not only won the rugby game, and not only the soccer game that followed, but that had actually won the three sports contests the day before, making it the first time in history that either school was swept the entire competition by winning all of the events!

K-Pop Expo
Although where I live is not nearly as exciting as Seoul, I was fortunate to have a few special events hosted in my city of Incheon this year.  The first was this K-pop Expo.  Now I am not really a fan of K-pop, but I do find it amusing and entertaining when I happen to catch a video of a new song from time to time.  Really what inspired me and one of my coworkers going to this event was pure boredom and the fact that it was practically in our backyard.  We were actually walking to the subway station to just go explore Seoul when we saw the buses at the station.  After finding out that it was free transportation, we thought we would check it out.  We were there for hours and hadn't heard any K-pop!  Mostly just cultural music from other Asian countries, not even Korea.  Just when we were walking out, some of the volunteers at the expo told us that we should stay because a very famous band was coming on in one hour.  The band was named Girl's Day and we had never heard of them, but after watching them, which was admittedly very entertaining (they aren't so bad on the eyes or the ears), I made a comment about the experience on my facebook account.  Immediately Korean students from Singapore began commenting about how jealous they were and how Girl's Day is one of their favorite groups.  I had no idea they were that big and we kind of saw their live concert by accident.

Asian Games
The second cool event that was in Incheon was the Asian Games.  Basically the olympics, but only Asian countries.  I really wanted to go see a sport I had never seen before but looked interesting and so me and some coworkers went and watched Judo.  It reminded me a lot of my wrestling days.  One interesting moment was when there was a matchup for the championship in one of the women weight classes between North and South Korea.  South Korea won and the place went nuts!  Although I unfortunately did not get to watch this, a friend I made on one of my flights home from Singapore that went through Korea was a Korean olympian in the modern pentathlon.  She participated in the games and individually won a silver medal, but her team won gold!  I was able to eventually meet her afterwards and congratulate her.

Taiwan Trip
For Thanksgiving break I satisfied my drug addiction of traveling.  It was a short break so I chose a place that I felt could be adequately toured in 4-5 days.  For this trip I went to Taiwan.  From my friends that had been to Taiwan, and from one of my students that lived in Taiwan, the common theme I heard between all of them was how good the food is.  I arrived in Taiwan late the first night and there was a group of Taiwanese people having a party in my hostel room.  They were very friendly and were only in Taipei (the capital) for a work conference, but they told me that after their work conference ended at 5 they would love to show me around the night market and try lots of the local foods.  Perfect!  I spent most of the day researching all the best foods in Taiwan and when they came back to the hostel had a whole list of foods I wanted to try.  They treated this list as a scavenger hunt, searching throughout the market for every food item on my list.  It is worth noting that I had about 20 items on my list and certainly didn't intend on trying them all in one night. So much for my intentions.  These new friends of mine were able to locate probably around 12 different items on my list and took turns purchasing all of them for me.  I got the true Anthony Bourdain treatment and was absolutely stuffed by the end of the night.  Some of the foods I tried were braised pork rice, stinky tofu (the name is very fitting), iron egg (soak in soy sauce until the outside is really tough and black), taiwanese sausage and sticky rice bun, and many many more.  Other things I did on the trip were take a hike up a mountain to get a beautiful look at what was once the tallest building in the world (until Dubai's Burj Khalifa was finished in 2004), Taipei 101, visit natural hot springs, take a bus up into the mountains of north Taiwan and walk around a small village there, and visit the Chiang Kai Shek memorial.

The Painters Show
On just a random weekend I went to a show called The Painters.  It was a performance art show where 4 guys, who were mimes, performed by making amazing paintings in creative ways.  To start the show they had glass pane painted completely black that was back lit with a green light.  They used a paint scraper, and as they scraped away the paint the green light shown through the glass.  The audience watched as in a span of about 2 minutes the artist scrapped an incredibly accurate portrait of Ludwig Von Beethoven.  Very entertaining and very creative how they made painting in front of a crowd a performance!  Also, during the show they had moments of audience participation.  The audience was primarily filled with Chinese tour groups and for the first time they picked a Chinese girl in the front row who was incredibly shy, didn't do any of the silly things they asked her to do, and made it really lame.  I made a comment to the person I was with how if you get chosen for things like this you just got to own it and confidently have fun with it, otherwise you make it much worse on yourself.  Well, I got an opportunity to practice what I preached.  The next time they were looking for some unsuspecting victim to pull up on the stage and were walking throughout the crowd, I remember thinking "they always pick the people that look like they don't want to be picked", so my strategy...look them straight in the eyes.  It back fired big time.  The guy made eye-contact and came straight at me.  Next thing I knew I had one of their hats on my head and I was dancing my way on stage in front of about a 700 people to the tune of "Don't Worry".  On stage I was expected to participate in some game, but recalling the fact that they are MIMES I was not given any instructions on how to play this game.  All I saw was that we were standing in a line facing forward and I was in the back of the line.  One artist who was not in the line was drawing something behind my back.  Still confused, I turned around and the artist quickly hid the drawing, which made the whole crowd laugh.  Wanting to be a crowd pleaser, and also not knowing what on earth else I was supposed to do, I would occasionally turn back around to try and catch a peek at what he was drawing.  Eventually he tapped me on the shoulder and showed me that his super secretive drawing was just a circle. and then he traced a circle in the air like the aliens from "When Mars Attacks".  Now I am super confused, so I trace a circle in the air right back at him, to which he shakes his head in disappointment and the crowd erupts in laughter.  Next, he points to the artist that was standing in front of me in the line, whose back was turned to all this failed communication, and I finally figured out that I was supposed to relay the shape to him in a "telephone" style game.  So I showed him the circle, and he showed the last artist who drew the circle on a canvas at the other end of the line.  That was round 1 of the game.  After a short dance break to "Don't Worry', it was time for round two.  This time I was in the middle of the line, which meant the first artist would get to see the drawing, act out the illustration, and then I would have to emulate those same actions.  When it came time for me to get my clue for the drawing I had no idea what the mime was trying to act out, it was just a bunch of silly motions and antics, which I tried my best to copy when relaying the clue to the third mime.  Somehow he got out of my actions that the original drawing was a star.  It had to have been rehearsed because there was nothing in my actions that indicated a star!  Well after yet another dance break to "Don't Worry", which will forever be associated to this memory now, it was time for the third and final round.  This time I was going to get the clue relayed to me and it was my job to determine the drawing and then paint it on the canvas.  Being the sharp thinker that I am, I already knew what was going to happen.  They were going to draw some impossibly difficult drawing as the original that I would never be able to paint even if I knew what it was.  When I finally got tapped on the shoulder to have the clue revealed to me, the mime just did a bunch of karate moves.  Not knowing what to paint I just started painting a stick figure ninja.  As I was painting this, a magic image started to appear through the canvas.  I then covered the canvas with ink so to fully reveal the secret image, which turned out to be...Kung Fu Panda.  The original artist showed the drawing he had drawn, which unsurprisingly matched the image of Kung Fu Panda.  Everyone applauded and I could finally take my seat and remove myself from the spotlight and my embarrassment. I do have to say, I did practice what I preached and totally owned it and had fun, which made it way more entertaining than the first Chinese girl.  She was lame.  At the end of the show I had Chinese tourists walking by giving me thumbs up, and the artists from the show gave me an autographed t-shirt as a thank you for being a good sport.

Pyeongchang Ski Trip
After returning home from what will go down as one of my all time favorite Christmases, where I successfully surprised each and everyone of my family members, I went on a ski trip in Korea.  It was a short 2 hour bus ride from Seoul, so it was very convenient.  The place I went is called Pyeongchang, and the ski place was called Phoenix Park.  I mention this because it is the site of what will be the 2018 Winter Olympic Games, so remember the name.  I consider myself a pretty experienced and competent skier, and it is definitely a hobby of mine.  However, I had never tried snowboarding and, due to the infrequency in which I get to enjoy this hobby of mine, I have never wanted to risk trading something I know I am good at and enjoy for something I could potentially suck at and have a horrible time.  But now that I live in a place where ski trips are more readily available I felt comfortable giving it a shot.  People had always told me how hard it is, how many times I will fall down, and how sore I will be after my first time, so I didn't really have high expectations.  Although I will admit it was very tricky right out of the gate, it was not long before I picked it up and looked like a natural going down the slopes.  By the end of the first day I was doing "S" turns on the front and back of the board without falling at all!  I was proud of myself and I think I can attribute most of my success to my experience in wake-boarding.  And although I do still love skiing very much and feel much more confident and in control with skies, I do believe I have been converted to snowboarding now.

The year before I left Singapore I made really good friends with this Korean girl named Ga-Hye who was doing a 6 month study program in Singapore.  We ended up doing many fun things while in Singapore, and both of us were excited about the opportunity to do more fun things together in Korea after I found out that I got a job there.  Well unfortunately Ga-Hye lives all the way at the bottom of the Korean peninsula in a city called Busan, and that, along with the real world restricting me once I moved to Korea, meant that we hadn't gotten to see each other for the 5 months I had been in Korea.  So one weekend at the end of January, when I had nothing to do, I decided to book a four hour train ride down to Busan and have her show me around her city.  She was able to borrow her mother's car and picked me up from my hostel Saturday morning and we drove all over the city.  She took me to this nice temple by the ocean, to the popular beach in Busan, although not nearly as popular in the winter time, and then lastly to the top of this mountain where we watched the sun set over the city.  It was a wonderful weekend get away from Seoul and a great time to see a good friend.

DMZ Field Trip
During February in my 8th grade World History class, we were covering the subject of the Korean War.  It was very humbling to teach the Korean War to a classroom full of Koreans who are daily exposed to the threat of a North Korea attack and have very strong opinions about North Korea.  To bring the classroom material to life, and to illustrate just how history shapes our current world, I planned a field trip to the Demilitarized Zone, the heavily guarded and defended border between North and South Korea that was established after the war.  Here I hoped students would be able to see the ramifications of the conflict that we studied in class, and the impact that the division has had on their neighbours to the North.  For the first part of the trip we visited the Third Tunnel.  Named such because this was the third tunnel built by North Korea for a possible invasion that South Korea had discovered.  The tunnel was 25 stories underground, and upon discovery, North Korea denied the breach of the ceasefire agreed to by both nations and tried to comically disguise the tunnel as a coal mine by painting the walls with coal dust.  I simple geological test proved that there was no coal in the area, yet North Korea still sticks to their story.  It's a mine.  Next we went to what is known as the Dora Observatory, my personal most highly anticipated part of the trip.  Here you are able to see into parts of North Korea across the DMZ.  We were fortunate to have an English speaking soldier give us a private lecture about all the different things we could see, such as a propaganda village that North Korea built to give off the impression that they are economically successful, which includes the only Guiness World Record held by North Korea for the highest flag pole at 525 feet tall and carries a flag that weighs almost 600 pounds!  You can also see the expressway which is the main road in North Korea and is today used to transport goods from South Korea into north Korea, and Kaesong industrial complex, a small breakthrough in the relations between the two bitter neighbours where select South Korean corporations are allowed to employ North Korean cheap labour.  The next stop was Dorasan Train Station.  This is a still fully operating train station that is the northern most train station in South Korea and still connects to Pyeongong (capital of North Korea) although obviously no trains currently go there.  The last stop was Imjingak Park where you can see the Peace Bell, which was supposedly molded of weapons used during the war, Freedom Bridge, which was used to exchange prisoners of war at the end of the conflict, a train that was decommissioned after being shot to pieces and destroyed by shrapnel from bombings, and a fence covered with ribbons from people separated from their families after the war.  It was a very educational and very fun field trip, even if my students are reluctant to admit it, I know that they had a fun time.