Attention Followers: All blogs posts are moving to www.gritsandrice.com

Hello Readers! I have decided to delete this blog and keep all my articles on Grits and Rice. Grits and Rice is focussed on traveling all over Asia, rather than being centralized on just Korea. I felt it was better to move all the traffic to one site, rather than dividing the entries between the two.

If you are a follower of “Adventures of the Seoul”, I hope you will continue to read my articles at www.gritsandrice.com 

Thanks so much!

-Caroline

Seollal, Korean Lunar New Year

This past Seollal (Korean Lunar New Year) , was one of the most memorable experiences I have had in Korea. Just before the holiday, my school had an event day for the kindergarten students where we were able to participate in traditional games and activities.

 For the actual holiday, I was invited to visit the home of one of my dear Korean friends.  This was my first time having an inside view to Korean home life, and I will never forget the kindness and hospitality of my hosts. I was able to have the chance to prepare traditional dishes, learn the customs of honoring ancestors and elders, and I even went to a jjimjilbang (Korean bathhouse) with YuJin’s family!

This post is to share my experiences. However, if you are looking for some suggested ways to spend the holiday, please scroll down to the bottom of this article to see my recommendations.

Lunar New Year Event Day @Poly School:

I work for POLY, which is an English kindergarten with an afternoon academy. My students were given a day to celebrate and take a break from their rigorous studies. It was a delightful sight to see all the students dressed in their Hanboks as they arrived in the early morning. One of the little girls had such an impressive headpiece, that it looked like it must have taken hours to prepare.

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 We started the day with a craft activity where we made decorative coin purses. Our craft was meant to look like a “Sonjjang”which is a traditional lucky pouch that goes with Hanbok. On Lunar New Year, the children generally receive money as a gift after they bow to the older members in the family. This special type of bow is called a “sabae”, and it is only performed during formal occasions.

In order to perform a sabae a woman places her right hand above the left hand while men would do the opposite. The hands are then raised to chest level. Next the person should place both hands on the floor as they bend their knees. Then, one would bend the upper body and bow their head. Once their head touches the back of their hand, they stand up by raising their right knee first. Finally, one raises both hands up to their chest before returning their  hands to their natural position.

I tried doing this bow, and I must say that it takes some practice to get right. My students were quick to tease me for my attempts as they demonstrated the proper form.

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After making the coin purses, we took our students to the library to play traditional games. The first game we played was called “Tuho” which is translated to “pitch pot” in English. Tuho is a traditional East Asian game that requires players to throw sticks from a set distance into a barrel or pot. The second game we played was a Korean version of hopscotch. It was really nice to see the students having a such a good time.

 

No activity day or field trip is ever complete without a photo shoot.  My school can get a little excessive about photos when we have event days or field trips. Many times they have professional photographers there, or the Korean teachers are required to document the whole day through their smart phone cameras.  We even have 2 field trips a year, that are designated for only taking the student’s pictures. Its a bit much if you ask me, however, I must admit that I was thrilled to snap a few shots of my class in their adorable Hanboks.

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Celebrating with YuJin’s  Family in Icheon 

After our busy celebration at school, I was excited to spend the next few days on vacation. As I mentioned previously, I had been invited to visit the home of my Korean friend, YuJin. I was eager with anticipation, as I have always yearned for the experience to visit a family’s home while living abroad.

First, let me mention that if you are planning on visiting the home of a Korean family, it is customary to bring a gift. Some popular gifts include ginseng, honey, dried meat or fish, toiletries, and gift basket sets. I decided to bring a box donuts, to kind of make my contribution have a bit of a  western flare while still honoring the customs.

Also, If you are a teacher in Korea, your company could possibly give you a SPAM gift set. For some reason SPAM is treated as a delicacy in Korea, and box sets are actually quite expensive. However, this can come in handy, as it is totally okay to regift it. In my first Lunar New Year, I actually had some Korean friends begging me to spare some of my SPAM before I dropped it off in a donation box. Luckily this year my company gave us wine, so I did not have to worry about how to distribute any boxes of processed mystery meat.

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 I met YuJin at Express Bus Terminal station along with another friend named Jeremy. YuJin made everything very simple, by booking the bus tickets for us in advance. Buses and trains sell out quickly, so it is VERY important to book early.

YuJin’s family is from Icheon which is located in the Geyonggi Province. It is about 90 minutes outside of Seoul, and it is a small town that specializes in ceramics and growing rice. The town is most popular for the Icheon Ceramic’s Village which features over 300 ceramic making firms. I enjoyed the quaint and slower atmosphere of the town. It was a pleasant contrast to the bustle of Seoul.

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YuJin’s mother picked us up at the local bus terminal. Before heading to her house, we stopped by a local market to pick up some fresh produce and meat. I was very curious while watching her mom select the finest cuts of pork meat. Everyone in the town knew each other, so the butcher happily greeted her mother as he assisted her in her selections.

After selecting the meat, YuJin’s mother requested that we help her select some “Gochu” (peppers) for making Ggochi Jeon which is skewered meat and vegetables cooked in savory pancake batter. Her mother told us to select the smallest peppers, as those would work best for the dish we were preparing. As we dug through the barrels of peppers, YuJin told me that the word “Gochu” in Korean has two meaning: penis and pepper. I laughed out loud and was thankful that her mother’s English was limited as we joked about finding the smallest “Gochu.”

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Once we finished at the market, we piled in the car and headed to a neighbor’s house. Yujin and her mother spoke rapidly in Korean while I took the time to zone out and admire the scenery of the rice paddies. While Yujin’s mother went inside the neighbor’s house, we stayed in the car. YuJin explained that the neighbors trade produce during the holidays, so we were there to pick up some chestnuts.

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The rest of the drive was quick after our brief stops at the neighbor’s house. YuJin’s home was cozy and the aromas of the delicious Korea food wafted through the entire house.

YuJin let us put our bags in her brother’s room. Before I could I ask what was next, we were summoned to the living room to begin preparing the food. We began by peeling chestnuts. YuJin warned us that sometimes you might find worms or bugs inside. As soon as the words came out of her mouth, there was a little worm squirming behind the freshly peeled chesnut. I was glad I hadn’t decapitated the poor little guy.

The chesnuts purpose were to be part of the GalbiJim recipe. GalbiJim is a stew made from steamed short ribs, green onions, soy sauce, and other vegetables. It is a popular dish that is generally served to guests during major holidays. The meat and vegetables have a soft texture, almost like a pot roast, while the broth is rich in savory flavors. I have tried this stew in a variety of restaurants, but nothing beat the taste of home cooked food.

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While Jeremy and I busily peeled chestnuts, YuJin’s mother prepared the filling for mandu (Korean dumplings), and Joy chopped the ingredients to make the ggochi jeon. I found it fascinating how her family utilized the floor space for preparing the food. They laid newspapers on the floor and set up portable gas stoves in the living room. It was quite different to the way holidays are prepared  back home. If you watch Korean Dramas or other TV programs, you will noticed that cooking on the living room or dining room floor is very common, especially when making Samgyupsal or grilled meat.

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We spent the entire afternoon preparing one dish after another. My favorite was when we made the mandu. I have always wondered how to make dumplings, so I watched carefully as YuJin’s mother carefully showed me how to press the dough. I spooned the correct mixture of kimchi and pork filling into the dough’s center, then I folded the dough over, while pressing the edges together firmly. My first few attempts looked a little rough, but eventually I got the hang of it. My stomach was beginning to intensely growl as we finished pressing the last dumplings.

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Finally dinner was served. We enjoyed the GalbiJim which had been cooking all day, along with some traditional sides, and of course some steamed mandu! The meal was rewarding after a long day of cooking.

After our meal, YuJin suggested that we go to a jjimjilbang. A jjimjilbang is a Korean bath house and sauna. It is a very relaxing experience, and it is also good for health. At first I thought that only YuJin, Jeremy, and I would go, but then I realized her mom was joining us too.  At first I felt a little awkward about being nude around her mother, but as soon as my tired body hit the warm water, I felt quite relaxed. It was a much smaller jjimjilbang that I am used to, so I was probably one of the first foreigners to ever visit.  At first the other Koreans stared in bewilderment at my presence, but after a while the gave me only smiles and welcoming nods. Luckily I had YuJin to chat with, while Jeremy had to go solo to the Men’s area.

The next day, YuJin’s family came over to share the main celebratory meal. While the woman in the family prepared the dishes. The men gathered to perform the ancestral rites. Korean society is based on Confucian ideals, so it was the duty of the men to honor the ancestors. Food was set on a special table that had incense burning in the center. Inside of the incense box were prayers and messages for the spirits. The purpose of the incense was to call the spirits into the home. Next the men poured Korean rice wine into a cup and moved the cup in a circular motion two times before taking a deep bow.

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The men also took turns reading messages to the spirits. When they were finished, they burned the papers with the messages to send the spirits back home. The purpose of this custom is to express respect and gratitude to the ancestors while also praying for a prosperous new year.  Once this practice was finished, it was time to eat.

The arrangements of the food was a spectacular sight to see. YuJin explained to me that meats and foods with a white color such as pears, rice cakes, and peeled chestnuts were placed to the west end of the table. In contrast, sea food dishes and red items such as kimchi, apples, and dried fruit  placed to the east. Also each plate could only have an odd number of items. It was fascinating to see how the arrangement followed the Confucian ideas of balance and harmony.

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Once it was time to eat, we all sat on the floor around the table. The main dish served was called “tteokguk” which is a soup made with rice cakes, beef, eggs, and vegetables. It is said that eating this soup adds one year to your age. Koreans determine age differently than the rest of the world. When you are born, you are one years old, and then you age again on the Lunar New Year. Though I am 27 in the regular world, I would be 29 “Korean Age”.  Age is an essential part of Korean culture as it determines how you must act towards another.  The year the person is born determines how you must speak and act to that person. There are also terms of endearment that you call friends depending on their age.

It is important to not starting eating, until the older members in the family begin. It is also polite to keep the same pace as the elders, as it is rude to demonstrate that you have finished eating before the older relatives have finished. Even if you are full, you should nibble slowly, until they have established that they are satisfied.

In Korea, it is common to share foods in a communal dish, rather than serving on individual plates. This is because Korean people believe that sharing the food makes relationships closer. Chopsticks are used to eat the side dishes and meat, while spoons are provided for soups and rice.

Finally, many meals are accompanied with soju or some kind of rice wine. It is impolite to serve yourself, so  you should wait for your glass to be filled. If your fellow table member’s glass is empty, you should refill it, especially if you are drinking with someone older. There is actually a superstition that if you pour your own drink, you will be single for three years, so I guess nobody wants to date someone with improper table etiquette. If the members of the table are much older, you should turn to the side when sipping the beverage or taking a shot. Also, to show respect, you should pour and receive drinks by using both hands. Many Koreans do not expect foreigners to abide by these rules, however making the effort is generally highly appreciated.

Having the experience to celebrate a holiday in a Korean home is an experience I will never forget. YuJin and her family were such gracious hosts, and I will forever appreciate their warmness and hospitality.

TRAVEL TIPS AND WAYS TO ENJOY THE HOLIDAY:

Lunar New year, or Seollal, is one of the most anticipated and celebrated holidays in Korea. It is a time for families to gather together to honor their ancestors and share delicious foods.  The holiday demands a lot of preparation, so the Korean peninsula is bustling with activity in the days and weeks before the celebration. If you plan on traveling outside of Seoul, make sure to book tickets in advance as buses, planes, and trains all book up fast. Most local businesses and restaurants close during the holiday. However, amusement parks, national parks, and major business will be open.

If you are looking for something to do around Seoul I suggest checking out Lotte World, wander around Insadong or Geyongbokgung Palace, or head slightly out of the Seoul to Everland. Both Lotte World and Everland offer discount tickets during this time, and crowds are diminished significantly. If you are the outdoorsy type, many foreigners head to the ski slopes or join hiking groups for local mountain adventures. In my first year, I went skiing in  Yangpeyong and checked out the Ice Fishing Festival .  Both were a blast, and I highly recommend either. Check out the facebook groups “When in Korea (WINK)” or “Seoul Hiking Group” to easily book your excursions.

If you have any questions, please leave your comments below! Thanks for reading!

Namsan —The Heart of Seoul

Seoul tower is a must see for any tourist, expat, or even local. It is the icon of Seoul, and it captures many aspects of Seoul’s culture and people. It is also bustling with travelers from around the world, so it’s a great place to experience how Seoul is quickly becoming an international metropolis.

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There are many ways to get to the top of Seoul tower. You can take a bus, taxi, cable car, or hike. However, I generally prefer to hike the various trails so I can take my time to appreciate the scenery. (If you are searching for directions, scroll to the bottom of this article.)

The trails are stunning year round. In the spring the roads are covered in cherry blossoms, which creates a very romantic atmosphere if you are going with a loved one. In the summer the leaves are lush and green, and you can listen to the birds chirping in the trees. In the fall, the leaves change to vibrant hues of red and orange. And the fallen leaves decorate the trails. Some people even take the fallen leaves to create designs and art. Though the trees are bare in the winter, it makes the cities landscape easier to see, since there is no foliage to block the view.

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Seoul tower first opened on October 15, 1980, but in 2005 it underwent a 15 billion won (about 14million USD) remodeling project. It was renamed “N Seoul Tower”, the “N” Symbolizing “new look”. The tower stands at 236.7 meters tall on top of Namsan Mountain, and offers panoramic views of he city sprawl, Han River, and surrounding mountain landscapes.

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The observation deck is open from 10am-11pm Sunday – Thursday, and 10am-midnight on Saturday and Sunday. Throughout the day there are martial arts presentations along with other Korean folk performances in the plaza facing the tower. Viewers can enjoy an array of colorful costumes, and listen to the sound of the beating drums and Korean folk instruments. The martial arts presentations are quite impressive as they demonstrate customary swordsmanship and exquisite spear fighting techniques. They also select audience members to try various activities or games.

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After checking out the folk performances, I usually go for a snack from one of the restaurants or cafes on the main levels. There are quite a few options, but I have a few routine favorites. I’m a big fan of movie-style popcorn, so I usually go for a popcorn/soda set from the snack shop in the B1 level. I also enjoy grabbing a coffee from Twosome Place cafe.

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However if you are there around lunch or dinner, there are some great places to grab a meal too! There is a place called “The Best Burger in Seoul” where you can have delicious, handmade burgers. They also serve hotdogs, nachos, fries, and some chicken dishes. Their burgers are quite decent, but if you are looking for the actual “best burger” in Seoul, you might want to save your appetite for one of the restaurants in the Haebangchon (HBC) neighborhood. If your tastebuds are requiring a more local flavor, check out “HanCook” which is also on the main level. HanCook features classic Korean dishes such as bulgogi, braised short ribs, and delicious seafood courses. The price for lunch is around 30,000 won and 43,000 for dinner. Personally, I feel this is a bit pricey for Korean food, but I guess you have to consider that the location and atmosphere are fantastic. Finally, you can also try an Italian restaurant called ” The Place” on the second level, or if you want a fine dining option, consider “N. Grill” for top notch French cuisine with a stunning view. N. Grill is located on the top level (5F) of the tower, and it is highly recommended to make reservations in advance.

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After grabbing a snack, I generally enjoy checking out the roof terrace which features the famous love locks. The love locks started after a popular Korean drama featured a couple who chained two locks to a fence to show their undying love for one another. Today there are tens of thousands of love locks attached to the safety fences around the tower. The love locks gained such popularity, that they have even created sculptures for couples to attach their locks.

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If the love locks are not enough PDA for you, there are also benches that are slanted in the middle, so couples and friends can sit closer together. Expect lines of people waiting their turn to snap a selfie, as Asian culture really loves taking photos. Furthermore, inside the tower there are tiles with couple’s photos and love notes.

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Finally, the last thing you should do is stand in the geographical center of Seoul. The spot is on the far side of the plaza facing away from the tower. It is kind of tucked away in the back corner, so it is easy to miss. However, it is a great place to snap some photos, because it is less crowded than the other areas. Also there are stunning views of the cityscape from that direction.

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HOW TO GET THERE:

Now I imagine you are wondering how exactly to get to Namsan. I’m going to first tell you my favorite hiking trail, then I’ll post the other routes and useful information below.

My favorite trail starts at Donguk University station on Line 3. You walk out of exit 6 and head towards the left through the park. The park itself has a stream flowing through it and some pagodas to add to the scenery. At the edge of the park there is a small man-made waterfall, and it’s a fun place to take a picture before getting sweaty from the hike.

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Next you will see a building that is built to model traditional Korean architecture. It has a public bathroom if you need to use it before starting the hike. I’m not actually sure what the purpose of the building is for, as I never go inside, but maybe it’s worth checking out if you are curious.

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Across from the park will be a set of stairs. Once you find the stairs you are on your way. Follow the signs along the path, as there are a variety of trails you can try. Along the road, there is an archery field where people shoot arrows from long distances. It’s a pretty incredible spectacle to watch, because the targets are placed very far from the shooters. My eyesight is pretty good, but I’m unable to even see if they actually hit their targets. However it’s a nice little pitstop during the hike.

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If hiking isn’t your thing here is a list of the bus routes and cable car directions:

[Cable Car]
-Boarding point: Upon getting off from Myeong-dong Station (Seoul Subway Line 4), Walk out of exit 3 and continue for about 15 minutes to reach the street laying next to Pacific Hotel. The boarding place should be seen.
-Operating hours: 10:00 – 23:00

[Bus – Namsan Sunhwan Shuttle Bus]
1. Namsan Sunhwan Shuttle Bus No. 02
-Take the bus from the closest subway station: Chungmuro Station (Seoul Subway Line 3, 4), Exit 2 (in front of Daehan Cinema) or Dongguk University Station (Seoul Subway Line), Exit 6.
-Interval: every 15 min.
-Operating hours: 07:00 – 24:00

2. Namsan Sunhwan Shuttle Bus No. 03
-Take the bus from the closest subway station: Seoul Station, Seoul Square (Seoul Subway Line 1, 4), Exit 9 or Itaewon Station (Seoul Subway Line 6), Exit 4 or / Hangangjin Station (Seoul Subway Line 6), Exit 2.
-Interval: every 20 min.
-Operating hours: 07:30 – 23:30

3. Namsan Sunhwan Shuttle Bus No. 05
-Take the bus from the closest subway station: Myeong-dong Station (Seoul Subway Line 4), Exit 3 or Chungmuro Station (Seoul Subway Line 3), Exit 2 (in front of Daehan Cinema). -Interval: every 15 min.
-Operating hours: 07:30 – 23:30

I hope this helps anyone interested in visiting Namsan. I feel that in order to experience the heart of Seoul, this is a must-see stop! Please leave questions or comments below if you need any suggestions or want to share your experiences.

One Year Reflection– Teaching in Korea

Hello readers. Sorry I have been MIA for a while. With the new year coming soon, I am making a resolution to write more. I  finally have my first DSLR camera (thanks Dad), so I am excited to start sharing some better quality photos as well. Since I have not been writing much I want to catch everyone up on what its been like teaching in Korea.

 

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In Korea,  modern society is focused on extreme competition, and its foundation starts in the school system. Korean students are some of the most hard working and ambitious in the world.  When I first moved here, I expected English teaching to be more hands on with activities and games. A lot of my friends had taught in schools in Thailand, Taiwan, and China, and I heard that teaching was a breeze. Well Korea is a different ball game. Korean society thrives off competition. There is pressure from every aspect of life to be the best. This pressure comes with a price, as Korea has the highest suicide rate in the world, with many of them being high school students. Students start learning English in kindergarden, and sometimes even before that if the parents are wealthy enough. Once children are in elementary school, parents enroll them into various academies, so students can study subjects such as math or English.

I worked at a franchise academy that focused on teaching a debate and an integrated English curriculum. Each student studied at my academy for 6 hours a week, and most of them attended at least one or two other academies on top of that. My work hours were from 2-10pm. When I first heard that, I figured I stayed late for office work, but students actually come until 10pm. Honestly I think they would stay later if Korean law did not enforce academies to close by 10. Many of my students did not want to be at Topia, which caused a lot more behavioral problems than I had anticipated. But how can you blame them? I remember when I was forced to do ballet for a few years, I would sometimes pitch a fit too. Observing these children’s work ethic is heartbreaking. Many of them hardly get a chance to just imagine and play freely, and this intense and methodic way of living will continue into the rest of their lives.

There is one moment that really demonstrated how intense the daily life of a Korean child can be. There was this one student in particular, that I admired because of his hard work and dedication.  I remember I was checking homework and I got to this student’s desk, in a very embarrassed and ashamed voice he told me, ” Teacher I am so tired, so please forgive me, I do not have my homework”.  I looked at his face, and it looked like he had not slept at all. I asked him, “Teddy, why can’t you sleep?” And he told me that he was attending two academies a day, then had to go home to finish homework. He then told me his mother would be angry that he did not do his Topia homework and he was very worried to show her his bad word test score. As I saw the anxiety on this 11 year olds face, I did not even know what to say to him. I told him not to worry about it, and that I was not angry at him, but that did not cure the fear he had of disappointing his mother.  Eventually this student somehow broke his collar bone, which may have been the best thing that ever happened to him, because he was able to take a break and rest for once.

 

 

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As I got to know my students, my heart ached for them. I knew they hated being forced to learn English. I felt as if I was trapped between the expectations of my boss and the emotional needs of my students. Instead of letting this pressure get to me, I decided to be creative. I found ways to put on a show for my boss, while still creating a more fun and relaxed environment for my students. Unfortunately I was watched like a hawk on CCTV monitors in every classroom, so I had to be cautious.  One way I decided to connect with my students was having them teach me Korean. They would laugh at my foolish attempts to try to pronounce words, and they were so proud to make me say it correctly. I showed them my vulnerable side and that I was not “all knowledgeable”. I felt they appreciated the fact that I was willing to learn as much from them as they learned from me.

I decided to leave Topia, because I don’t agree with the academy system. Forcing children to study English until 10:00 at night is impractical and just absurd. Though I am not fond of the academy system, I am thankful for my experience. I think it was exactly where I needed to be, because it helped me understand Korean culture on an intrinsic level.  Next year I will fortunately be working day time hours in a really fun and interactive camp program. I am very excited about my new opportunity, because the program emphasizes creativity, and I will also have a lot more freedom to teach as I choose.

I already miss my students. One of them has even been calling me every time he is at Topia, asking me if I will come back. Many students send me cute text messages and left me notes on my last days.  Here are some photos of some of my classes . . .

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I want to conclude this entry with one more thought. When I was first considered teaching I was inspired by this particular quote from Emerson:

“The great teacher is not the man who supplies the most facts, but the one in whose presence we become different people.”

As the time my aspirations was to be this type of teacher, however I think Emerson forgot to mention how the teacher also grows and changes from the students as well. I hope that as a teacher I can play a positive role and guide my students to be the best they can be, but I also want to acknowledge that they do the same for me. I am so grateful that I found where I need to be, and I look forward to the lessons that lay ahead.

 

Innertrip Festival — A Korean Music Festival Experience

As summer arrived in Korea, I got my first real feelings of homesickness. As my facebook news feed got flooded with posts about upcoming shows and festival line-ups, I began to notice the distance between myself and best friends back home. It truly has been amazing to be so connected through skype  and social networking, but as my friends statuses showed excitement for the festival season, I finally began to feel the distance between myself and home.

I am a jam band fanatic (or maybe I should say phanatic haha), so generally during the summer I meet up with friends and hit up various shows and festivals. Last summer (summer 2011) my best friends and I did the North Carolina Phish shows in Charlotte and Raleigh.

At this time I was just finishing my TEFL course and was submitting all my documents for jobs in Korea. I knew that once I went abroad, I would have to temporarily close the door on this part of my life. Well that was what I thought until .  . .

I discovered a music scene in Korea!!!!

Facebook really has been my saving grace in Korea. It has not only connected me to my friends and family back home, but it has allowed me to establish so many connections here in Korea as well. I have been able to find hiking groups, volunteering, and then best of all … A music scene!!!

The Electronic scene is booming in Seoul. Seoul hosts “The world DJ Festival” and “Ultra Music Festival Korea”. Acts such as Tiesto and Skrillex headlined in some of the festivals in Seoul this summer. Also, Korea hosted Jisan Festival with headliners such as Radiohead, James Blake, and the Stone Roses. Unfortunately due to money and my lack of days off, I was not able to attend any of these three festivals. I was beginning to get bummed out that I missed my only chance of actually embracing a music scene abroad, but then I suddenly found one last glimmer of hope . . . Innertrip festival!

Innertrip festival is a small festival held in Chuncheon right on the Sinyeongang River. It was a beautiful location tucked right along the river next to beautiful luscious green mountains.

To get there I took the subway to the Gyeonchun Line which takes you East out of Seoul. Since I live in the North East part of Seoul, the trip only took about an hour and a half. At first I traveled alone, but as soon as I transferred to the Geyonchun line I found a fellow hippie chick from England to accompany me on the train ride. We both could immediately tell we were heading in the same direction, as she was dressed in tie-dye, and I was carting my hula hoops. Finding her reminded me of the times that my friends and I would travel to a show or festival, and see cars that were obviously going in the same direction. We would get excited when we saw a car covered in grateful dead and peace stickers, and we would always honk and wave. Seeing other friendly faces only made the anticipation and excitement of seeing the show that much greater.

After we arrived at Gangchon station, we instantly saw other festival attendees waiting for the next shuttle. The organizers of the festival generously provided an hourly free shuttle to take people from the train station to the festival. This definitely made the trip there simple and painless.

As the shuttle dropped us off at the festival entrance, bass notes filled the air. My heart began to beat fast with excitement. There is nothing I love more than losing myself in the energy of a dancing crowd.

When I first arrived I had no tent or anything to set up. My plan was to meet a friend of a friend of mine to camp with. While I waited for her to arrive, some hilarious guys from England and Canada let me stash my bags in their tent, so I could go dance without worrying about my things.

The girl who I was meeting (Tessa) and her friends arrived about an hour later. Tessa is a friend of my friend Kara, who I know from Charleston and some music friends back in Atlanta. Tessa also lived in Charleston, so it was really cool to connect with her for the first time at this festival, when all along we had been running in the same circles back home.  She came with some other awesome folks who graciously shared their tents and soju drinks with me. I instantly felt like I was friends and part of their crew.

As the sun went down the craziness began. The festival had two stages that were placed back to back. One stage was designated for only electronic DJ’s while the other one hosted Reggae bands. At first I was confused and thought the stages sounds would clash being so close together, but it actually worked perfectly.Generally festival goers have to trek from one stage to another at festivals back home, so having them back to back made it very easy and convenient.

The last part of the festival that made me feel whole again was being able to hula hoop dance and spin fire.  Though I am able to occasionally break out my hoops at parks in Korea, hooping alone is not the same as sharing and appreciating it with others. I miss teaching people tricks and sharing ideas with fellow hoopers; but most of all, I miss being able to lose myself. There is something magical about stage lights, heavy bass beats, and just completely losing all thought while dancing in a hoop. It makes all distractions and worries disappear. It is my favorite way to dip into a meditative trance. 

Also at the festival, I decided to invest in my first set of LED poi. There are not very many hoopers in Seoul, but there is a poi scene. I had not spun poi in a long time, but I guess the movements are like riding a bike, because as soon as I picked them up, the moves came back to me. I was even allowed to play with the fire poi which made me VERY excited! I wish I could articulate the feeling I receive when spinning fire. Its almost like nothing else exists except you and the fire. The light of the fire makes everything else around you a faded blur. The whooshing sound of the fire balls moving sends a rush of excitement through every bone in your body, and the slight fear of burning yourself sends adrenaline that just leaves you feeling energized. It is an amazing experience that I have greatly missed. Now if I can only find a fire hula hoop, my life in Korea will be complete . . .

Buddha’s Birthday and the Lotus Lantern Festival

Buddha’s Birthday is a national holiday in Seoul, where most of the population gets to take a relaxing break from work, school, and daily pressures. Many temples invite guests to visit and learn about Buddhist traditions. The temples invite visitors to attend tea and lunch ceremonies. There is also a Lotus Lantern Festival the weekend before the holiday to kick off the festivities.

The Lotus Lantern Festival is a must see event for anyone who is interested in traveling through Seoul. The streets are adorned with vibrant lanterns and the city is bustling with exciting exhibits and chances to experience Buddhist culture. It truly is a spectacular sight to see! The lighting of the lotus lanterns is a significant Buddhist tradition, because it symbolizes a devotion to performing good deeds. It also represents bringing light to areas of the world that are filled with agony and despair.

Thousands of foreigners and Seoul natives gather for the festival’s events. The main events include an opening ceremony, an exhibition of traditional lanterns, a lotus lantern parade, a post parade party and celebration, and a street festival filled with cultural exhibits and events. A second smaller parade is held on Sunday evening to end the festivities.

The lantern parade is the highlight of the festivals activities. The parade route starts in Jongno in front of the Dongdaemun gate to the Jogyesa temple. To arrive in Jongno you can take subway line 1 to Jonggak station, or Jongno 5-ga station. You can also take lines 1,3, or 5 to Jongno3-ga station. The parade runs from Dongdaeumun History and Culture Park, through Jongno, and then ends back at the Jogyesa temple. The parade lasts approximately 2 ½ hours.

One other option is to arrive in Insadong by taking line 3 to Anguk station. If you arrive early in the day, Insadong is one of the most famous traditional neighborhoods to explore. It is filled with tons of shopping, amazing food, traditional architecture, and two famous palaces. It is my favorite district in Seoul to spend the day walking around.

Each temple is represented by various costumes and floats. As soon as the sun goes down, the streets become alive with music and tens of thousands of unique lantern designs. Each temple is dressed in distinctive costumes and robes. Korean traditional music and drums fill the air.

At Bonguensa Temple there is an exhibition of traditional lanterns. The lanterns are handcrafted from silk and traditional Korean paper (Hanji). The lanterns take many shapes such as animals, fruits, flowers, or anything you can imagine! Each shape and pattern is symbolic for different wishes such as health, longevity, and a bountiful harvest.

On the last day of the festival, a street festival is held right in the heart of the Insadong district. If you have an interest in Buddhist traditions and culture, this is definitely a great opportunity to dive right in. The entire street is divided into stages, booths, and tents. They are exhibits that represent each Buddhist tradition from various countries all over the world, guided meditations, lotus lantern making, buddhist monk sand art sculptures, and dance and music performances.

My favorite exhibit at the street festival was being able to watch the Buddhist monks create spectacular sand mandalas. Creating sand mandalas is a Tibetan Buddhist tradition where monks create ornate detailed artwork from colored sand. Every grain of sand is meticulously placed to create a beautiful and perfectly symmetrical art piece. When the monks finish the art piece, they ritualistically destroy  it to symbolize the transitory and impermanent nature of human life. Watching these monks brought back memories from my University. The Dali Lama is a presidential distinguished professor at Emory University , and I was fortunate to have him and fellow Tibetan monks visit while I was a student. I remember watching with utter fascination as the monks created the sand mandalas then dumped them into the creek that flows through campus. I found it to be an incredibly moving experience; so seeing it again in Korea brought not only a sense of admiration and appreciation, but a sense of nostalgia as well.

Hiking in Korea

I have been blessed to be able to get back into hiking while here in Korea, though unfortunately I will be taking a hiatus while my ankle heals. Luckily I have found some kayaking and beach trips to occupy my adventurous spirit for a while! Here are some photos and stories from some of my hiking adventures so far!

Korea’s landscape is approximately 70% mountainous terrain. Seoul’s geography is actually a basin, and it is surrounded by mountains on all sides.  Most mountains have arranged trails with stairs and maps, so it is very easy to find your way.  So far I have done four hikes in Korea: Inwangson, Bukhansan, Jagged Ridge at Sa Rayang Do Island, and a local backyard hike in my district.

Inwangsan was my first hike, which I did on Christmas Eve, right after arriving in Korea. Inwangsan is a fairly easy hike. It  has well arranged trails and only takes about three hours. It is located in the north western part of Seoul, so it has great views of the city, and you can even see the presidents house! (Check the January 2012 archive for the full story on this hiking adventure)

Mount Bukhansan was a very fun adventure! My friend Rachel and I joined this hike through Seoul Hiking Group. There are many different adventure groups in Korea that help foreigners organize trips and hikes. It is a fantastic way to meet likeminded people, and also get some quality time outdoors!

The Mount Bukhansan hike started in Dongdaemun, which is in a busy shopping district in Seoul. The trail followed the Seoul Fortress. The Seoul fortress was originally built in 1396 during the Joseon Dynasty. As you walk along the wall, you can tell from the size and shape of the stones which era in which it was built. The original walls, built in the late 14th century, were constructed of medium-sized round stones held together by mud. The next major expansion, which took place during King Sejong the Great’s reign in the mid 15th century, are marked by rectangular stones closely fit together. Another major restoration in 1704 was when King Sukjong rebuilt sections of the wall using large, uniform stone slabs.

The last hiking adventure I want to share is my trip to Sa Ryang Do Island on the southern western coast of Korea. I found this particular trip through a group called “When In Korea”. Spring time was just emerging so I was hunting for either a  beach trip or an interesting hike outside of Seoul. As I perused facebook, I suddenly found a trip that encompassed both! The trip advertised an island hike with ocean views the entire time.  As soon as I saw it I was hooked! Little did I know that this would be the most challenging hike of my life, as nowhere in the advertisement warned be about what would lay ahead.

After an all night bus ride we arrived at the harbor, just as the sun was rising over the mountains. Even though I did not get much sleep on the bus, I was filled with a rush of energy and excitement as soon as I breathed in the fresh air. It was quite refreshing after constantly being burdened by the pollution in Seoul. We then took a 30 minute ferry ride to Sa Ryang Do Island.

As we arrived at the island, our guide started making comments that this hike was going to be a challenge, and that we may hate him at the end of the day. Of course no warning of any kind was given until we were 20 minutes from starting our hike. I looked at my friend Rachel apprehensively, and wondered what her thoughts were about our guides comments. She assured me I would be be fine, but I still began to get slightly nervous.

As we began the hike, I found it to be a steep climb, but nothing that I could not handle. I was relieved and thought to myself, Oh this is not bad at all . . . Let’s just say I was quite unprepared for what was coming next!

All of the sudden, the rocks became very jagged and steep. Maneuvering began to get very tricky. In order to descend, I literally had to slide down in a crab walk position, so I would not go tumbling down.  I was very nervous, but I was glad to meet two other people that were feeling the same as I was. As we crabbed walked down the rocks dug into my hands and was slightly painful, but the stunning views and our comic attitude made the pain less intense. As we carefully maneuvered each ledge with great caution, I kept thinking to myself, “well it can’t get any more challenging than this . . .”

All of the sudden an enormous boulder emerged at the peak. People were using a rope to scale up the rock. I could feel my heart sink into the depths of my stomach.  I honestly considered giving up. There was no way I was going to scale a mountain on a rope! Even in my younger days, rock-climbing was never really my thing. My guide guaranteed, that once I got closer I would see that it was not as intimidating as it looked. I took a deep breath and decided, “alright, it’s now or never”. I said a prayer to myself and began the ascent. Half way up, I accidentally looked down, and had a small internal panic attack. My breathing began to get rapid, as fear shot through every vein in my body. I took a deep breath, and then I continued the climb. Reaching the top was the most exhilarating feeling. I was full of adrenalin and had an incredible sense of accomplishment. I thought that I had conquered the most challenging feat of my life, but then I remembered, “Uh-oh, I have to climb down”.  Luckily my adrenalin rush had not subsided, so I was able to use this newfound energy to conquer the rest of the hike.

After the epic rock climb, the hike continued to be a challenge, but the beauty that surrounded me distracted any negative thinking.  After coming home from this hike I was filled with a new energy, that I can accomplish anything I put my mind to.