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Posts Tagged ‘south korea’

Since we have less than a month left in this lovely country, we decided that the time had come to pack our bags, head past Seoul and say hello to our neighbors in the north.

Well…not say hello exactly, seeing as we weren’t allowed to look, gesture to or converse with soldiers from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, but you get the picture. Evan and I — along with fellow tourists and hosts from the United Services Organization (USO) — took an amazing and educational journey to the De-Militarized Zone between North and South Korea.

Our journey began early morning in Seoul, where we rolled out of bed and on to a bus at the U.S. Military Base, Camp Kim. After a short, sleepy bus ride, we arrived to our destination, where our tour guide briefed us on the history of the DMZ and the Korean War.

During the tour, we were given explicit instructions as to not draw any negative attention from the North Koran soldiers who were watching us like hawks through the lens of binoculars. Yikes! No bags were allowed off the bus, and there was no holding our coats just in case it looked like we were concealing weapons. Also, as I mentioned above, absolutely no contact, verbal or otherwise, with said military men. Ironically, we were also informed that despite the area’s name, the DMZ is actually one of the most militarized areas in the world.

Here’s the DPRK soldier, staring.

We visited the Joint Security Area (JSA) first, where we toured a conference room in the Military Armistice Commission building. The Military Demarcation Line (MDL) runs through the room, separating North and South Korea. ROK (Republic of Korea) soldiers guarded the doors as we poked around, standing in Tae Kwon Do ready stance and sporting dark aviators (used to show no emotion). We stepped over the MDL in the room, technically into North Korea! Here’s me with the ROK soldier, on Kim Jong Il’s side of the border.

The outside of the MAC building, showing the concrete slab separating the two countries. The soldiers stood with half of their bodies covered — to make them harder targets if shots were fired, and so that they could give each other hand signals without being seen. ROK soldiers face DRPK soldiers to keep an eye on their enemy, while DRPK soldiers faced each other, so that if one tried to defect to the South, the other could shoot him.

Next, we were able to catch glimpses of the two villages in the DMZ — Taesongdong (Freedom Village) in the South, and Gijungdong (Propaganda Village) in the North. TSD is inhabited by South Korean farmers who abide by a strict set of rules to live in the area — and are well-compensated for their lifestyle by the ROK government. Propaganda Village earned its name by having large loudspeakers set up to blast propaganda glorifying Kim Jung Il at the people of Taesongdong. After a short flagpole-building competition, Propaganda Village, despite being uninhabited, boasts the largest flagpole and flag in the world.

There were lots of observation towers full of people keeping their eyes on us.

We also visited the Bridge of No Return, where prisoners of war were exchanged in 1968. The POWs captured by the United States were given a choice of staying in the south or reentering the north, under the rule that they would never be allowed to go back if they crossed the bridge — hence the name.

There was a monument at the scene of the Axe Murder Incident, where the North and South clashed over the trimming of a tree and three soldiers from the South were hacked to death with axes. The circle around the memorial represents where the stump of the tree stood.

An actual piece of the tree trunk remains in a museum at the JSA.

Next, we visited the Third Tunnel, which runs from North Korea to South Korea and was discovered in 1978 with the help of a defector. This is one of four tunnels that have been found to date, that were intended help the North invade the South. N. Korea denied accusations of “aggression” and claimed the tunnel was used to dig up coal, but the UN and South Korea didn’t buy it. We were able to trek down to the actual tunnel (240 ft below ground) and see blockades set up by South Koreans. Pictures were forbidden, but trust — it was super cool and creepy.

After a bulgogi lunch (which was decent) we headed to Dorasan Train Station, the last stop in the South on the tracks that once connected the two Koreas. It was clean (obviously, since it isn’t used) and celebrated the hope for unification in the future.

The thing that resonated with me the most during this amazing journey was that, despite numerous incidents of violence, defectors and continued aggression, the people of Korea hope for and constantly try to work toward unification with the North. At all of these memorial sites, there were monuments that celebrated joining the two countries, broken families and long-lost friends, again. I was really touched by the humanity shown in bits and pieces along the tour.

To Seoul and back in 24 hours is an exhausting mission to say the least, but experiencing one of the most fascinating and memorable tourist visits to date was well worth the trek. Plus, we were able to run by Insa-dong and pick up some souvenirs (in addition to what we bought on the tour) afterward. I highly recommend this tour to anyone and everyone on this peninsula!

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The babies are all grown up.

Last Friday, my and Evan’s little kid classes donned their adorable cap and gowns, recited their five-sentence speeches about life after kindergarten, and celebrated their transition into elementary school with their teachers, families and fellow students. After weeks of preparation, it was finally their big day!

The school was decked out with lots of blue and white balloons, and a grammatically questionable (but well-intentioned) sign for the graduates.

Even though we had to wear our uniforms, I decided to spruce up the baby blue polo with my fancy headband from Myeongdong. Yoon Jung had to give it a whirl. Perhaps it was slightly pouf-tastic for her tiny dome. She’s such a cutie!

The graduates, along with the babies, sang songs during the ceremony. They did a full run-thru of the show before their parents arrived, all spruced up in their uniforms. The Ants Go Marching, Here We Go Looby Loo and She’ll Be Comin’ Round the Mountain were on the play list for the occasion.

Apparently, one of my students decided he wanted to take the stairs to school instead of following directions and riding in the elevator, so he had to stand against the wall, eyes closed with arms in the air for at least fifteen minutes. He is officially ready for Survivor.

After all the singing and speaking and photo ops and flowers, Evan and I retreated to T.G.I. Fridays for our own celebration of the year we’ve had with our babies. We were starving by the time our burgers arrived, and gobbled them down quickly. Evan went for the regular burger with bacon and American cheese, while I opted for the grilled chicken, bacon and Monterey Jack sandwich.

I actually got a bit teary-eyed after the ceremony, taking pictures with the kids and wishing them well before they start elementary school this week. Some of my little ones aren’t coming back for my school’s after-school program, so it was the last day I was seeing some of them. I guess all I can hope is that I made even the smallest difference for the better…

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Since lately I appear to have devolved into a Debbie Downer who only pines over Thailand or whines about the frost that has settled over my city, I have decided it is time to remind myself — and all of you devoted readers — what it is I truly love about this little peninsula.

I’ll start with the excellent restaurant service. Gone are the days with jaded teenagers bringing me plates like its a chore, grumpy and feeling entitled for a tip out of my hard-earned cash. Oh no. Culturally, the population here has an incredible amount of pride in their job performance, whether they’re on the city council or serving you bibimbap. The service I’ve encountered in restaurants and cafes is quick, efficient, and over-the-top polite. Recently I opted to spend a snowy Saturday night in, and headed to a local Italian joint to score a take-out dinner for one. While I waited for my mushroom risotto, waiters popped over to bring me water, bread, soup and doted on me like I was a dining guest. At every establishment, the staff goes out of their way to make customers comfortable.

In most restaurants and bars in Korea, you will see a small doorbell-type device perched on your table. If you need anything — be it banchan, anju or a couple more mekchus — you simply press the button, hear a faint ding, and a waiter or waitress appears before your eyes, waiting for your order.

Now, this whole process isn’t remotely as rude that it sounds written down — it is just practical and efficient. In America, you expect your servers to check in to your table constantly, even when you don’t need something. Then, of course, when you decide to order, your table help is nowhere to be found! Why waste their time when you’re not ready, and your time when they’re helping someone else?

Enter table bells. It’s not like we expect people to come running when we ring cowbells designed to call over servants — this system just allows the servers to be doing other work until you actually need them. This also takes away wait time at bars, which can be frustrating when you’ve been desperately waving money as every bartender ignores you.

Enjoying cuisine or beverages in Korean, but nary a button in sight? Don’t fret. It is also socially acceptable (and downright necessary) to call “Yogiyo” to get your server’s attention if you are in desperate need of a bottle of soju or another bowl of garlic. Yogiyo translates to a polite way of saying “here” — but again, it is not rude. It would be obnoxious to yell “Yogi” because the addition of -yo to the end is what makes this saying formal and respectful.

Beats the hell outta waiting for your server to finish out their path around the crowded restaurant in the States!

The best thing about the exquisite service in Korea is that it doesn’t cost extra. Waiters don’t dote on you because they want or expect a tip, they do it because it is their job. Period. No lagging on the food, no expectant glances at your purse, no eye rolls — just friendly, helpful service for no charge. I know that when I go home, I will expect much more out of restaurants and their staff. If only American restaurant workers made a decent wage, so that tips can be given for above-and-beyond service and not necessary for the wait staff to have the money to live.

And then there’s the free food with the alcohol. ‘Nuff said.

Not only do Koreans display pride in their workplace, they echo that in their wardrobe. No one leaves their apartment without being immaculately dressed — heels, tapered blazers, not a single hair out of place. Mothers of the children at my school look better picking up their children from kindergarten than I look when I go to the club! Although being surrounded by gorgeous, flawlessly dressed women has had a positive effect on me — I leave the house in sweatpants less frequently, or cover them up with my knee-length winter coat. I’ve also been inspired to pick up pieces at little boutiques to add a little oomph to my tired wardrobe.

And you better make sure you’re looking you’re best, because if you’re not you will definitely hear it. Koreans are honest, brutally at times, because their culture demands it. Not only does everyone follow the rules, but they snitch on people who don’t. The honesty can be painful when your co-worker tells you, unprovoked, that you look tired or hungover, but it can come in handy when you leave your iPod at the gym.

Earlier this week, I walked home in the bitter cold only to realize that was exactly what I had done. I trudged back, and my MP3 player was sitting at the front desk, waiting patiently for me. In America, I had an iPod stolen from my house and one stolen from my car, but Koreans wouldn’t even take my music sanctuary as it sat in front of them at the gym. So there it is — thank goodness for honesty.

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I have been so neglectful of my blog lately. I could blame it on the sickness that has been plaguing me this week, causing me to take medication that makes hours blur together in a foggy haze, but I think I’ll just blame it on the cold.

It’s too cold to think, let alone formulate sentences that my frozen little fingers would have to slowly tap out on my snow-colored keyboard.

Earlier this month, I thought it was cold. Temperatures were hovering around freezing, and I began wearing two layers of socks, two layers of leggings under my jeans, three layers of tops under my big winter coat. No. That wasn’t even the tip of the iceberg.

Now, it’s -3 Celsius outside (26 Fehrenheit). Any exposed epidermis immediately shrivels and stings in the bitter wind, numb and dry as the chill creeps through your clothes and down to your bones. If I wasn’t cold-blooded before, I certainly am now. There are times at home when I feel like I will never be warm again. My ears, toes and fingers feel like they will be the first to call it quits, give up on me when I need them the most, bitter and unprepared for this new weather they’re experiencing.

Did I mention that I’m a warm weather person? I like snow and all, but only during weekend trips full of snowboarding and roaring fires. Did I also mention how fun it is to read how much my family and friends are enjoying the sunny, 80 degree weather in southern California? Hmph.

Oh, and we’re only halfway through December. Don’t be surprised if one day I just turn into a snowman and remain in a remote Jeonju park until I thaw out in spring.

Oddly enough, the coldest days haven’t been the snowy ones. Perhaps the moisture makes the air a bit warmer, or the powdery sky dust simply melts my heart a bit, whatever the reason here’s to hoping it snows even more.

Only 1 1/2 weeks until Thailand

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How has it been six months? Each week is slipping by more quickly than the one before it. We are so settled in our routine, moments of novelty in this captivating country have become more few and far between. It is home.

When we first arrived here in April, I was sure that this experience would affect me in a profound way — even if I wasn’t sure how it would just yet. Six months in… and honestly, I don’t feel too much different. Same interests, same clothes, same hair, same general life views. Same best friends. Same family I miss all the time. Same love and affection for my Boy. A slightly better understanding and appreciation of Korean culture and cuisine, but if that weren’t true I should literally just go home right now.

Same person… minus a huge, unrelenting mountain of stress that I never knew I carried until settling into my new life here.

The stress — this giant mass, which boiled over my body, suffocated my spirit with “what ifs,” and poisoned me with doubt. I was so trapped and didn’t know it until the toxic weight was lifted. Just…gone. Soothed. Quieted by reassurance in myself. The person I am, and already was when I came here.

There are two massive differences between my life in Jeonju and my life at home (other than finally living with the Boy, which has been magical). One — I make more than enough money than I could possibly spend each month, thus allowing me to pay down debt and put away a nest egg for the future (or a Christmas trip to Thailand, whatevs). Two — other than my better half, I am quite alone. Friends and family are an arm’s stretch away, and despite how amazing modern technology is, no Skype session will ever be quite enough when all you need want is to hug your mom. Here, I have been forced to rely on myself during times where I would normally turn to someone else for guidance — situation-imposed self-reliance, if you will.

This kind of independence is new for me. Although I am a self-sufficient twenty-five year old, I have always been quite a social creature. Even when I lived alone in L.A. I made sure to see my sister, friends and Boy as much as possible. My life used to be full of distractions to fill up my empty time — most specifically, a whole lot of electronic gadgets to make it so my free time wasn’t spent just being. My BlackBerry was glued to my hand, as was the Tivo remote, and I never left home without my MacBook. I was always one click away from someone.

Since being forced to fill my time in different ways, I have grown more introspective. Quiet. I allow myself to think about things, daydream for an hour on the couch, get lost in a book, or just take a walk for an hour on my lunch break. Unsurprisingly, shutting myself off from the millions of distractions has allowed me creative room to write again. I never wrote for fun anymore in Los Angeles — here, I’ll think something over and over again while in bed until I drive myself so crazy that I need to get up and write it down that instant. The blog has certainly been a good outlet for me.

I’ve also learned that it is easier to see your world with focused eyes when you step away from it, and as cliched as it may sound, it really allows you to realize how trivial some things really are. No more tossing and turning, going over and over the daily concerns in my head. It is hard, and damaging and utterly pointless. So what if I didn’t have the most money or those shoes or that apartment or the invite to that party? So the fuck what?

I’ve ridden out the waves of self-doubt to a calm acceptance — and appreciation — of the person I am. What my life is, at this moment. And funnily enough, it was when I forced myself to stop looking for greener grass on the other side that I finally realized how truly blessed I am. I like me. The me I am now, not the person I will be when I have everyething on my checklist.  I have the best family. My friends and I are as thick as thieves. I’ve found my soulmate. I am in the middle of a once-in-a-lifetime adventure full of culture and fascinating friends and art and exotic things I never even knew to dream about. I am exactly where I want to be.

So I try to hold on to that. Smile I catch students gossiping with their besties. Stop mid-walk and inhale the autumn air. Sip strong coffee slowly. People watch. Those moments are so rare when I am so present and aware that I can absorb it all in the blink of an eye. Appreciate the small stuff when I’m fortunate enough to remember to. I feel the same, but my eyes have opened just a little bit wider.

There will always be moments of anxiety, sleepless nights — times when the “have nots” seem to overwhelm. Our biggest challenge is accepting that. Instead of kicking, screaming and fighting the uncertainty, I try to ride it out. Let myself feel it, then move on. The feeling always passes when I am once again reminded of how amazing my life is. Even when I struggle, knowing that things will be Okay soon is the best I can do for me.

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After months of waiting, the 2010 Boryeong Mud Festival — Korea’s answer to Spring Break —  finally arrived last weekend. Ev, Smiley, Matt, Kristie and I hopped on a bus early Saturday morning, ready for our dirty weekend.

It is tradition for it to rain at the festival, and this year proved to be no exception. There’s a Dunkin’ Donuts across the street from the bus terminal in Jeonju, and I really wanted a cup of black coffee. Usually, we drink instant coffee — the real stuff you need to get in coffee shops. I made the mistake of ordering an Espresso instead of an Americano, and ended up with this:

No matter though — Evan and I listened to mellow music during our hour-and-a-half bus ride to Daechon Beach, drifting in and out of sleep.

When we arrived to the “bus station” — an outdoor shack with a convenience store and a tin roof — it was pouring outside. Really spitting it down. Not wanting to be foiled by the weather, Ev and I threw on our ponchos we got for Fuji Rock (thanks Mom and Dad!) and braved the rain, while the others struggled with umbrellas. We may have looked like blue whales, but we stayed dry!

Despite the rain, the festival was already going off by the time we arrived. We finally managed to flag a cab, who took us to our hotel — booked by our friend Chris’ Korean girlfriend, Ja Yeon. Our room wasn’t ready, so we — backpacks, ponchos and all — went hunting for a proper lunch.

We found the perfect place a couple blocks from our hotel. Within a half-hour we were warm, somewhat dry, sipping on various fruit juices and munching on delicious fried chicken. Normally, you don’t get side dishes with chicken here, but they brought us a bowl of fresh toast — with whipped cream to top it with! Odd, but the creamy/crunchy combination really worked.

Once lunch was over, we finally got into our hotel room, changed into our swimwear, and tossed back some Hite, Cass and Soju while playing card games. After wetting our whistles, we put on cheapo ponchos we picked up at GS Mart and headed for the beach!

One end of Daechon was picturesque, simply beautiful.

The other end looked like Spring Break in Cancun — and we could not wait to join the party! We hurried over to the festival, which was full of mud pits, mud slides, mud art installations — basically everything mud-related you could think of — and lots of people.

The festival even has mascots — these people who had “mud faces” on. Annnd they looked a lot like black face. Eesh.

After jumping in a mud pit, we headed toward a huge water slide. Naturally, we decided to race in pairs up to the top. Smiley beat out Mike, and I, of course, beat Evan to the top. He hurried past me in the beginning, then slipped and fell the whole way down. Slow and steady wins the race people!

Next, we headed to the mud prison. In jail, people literally hose you down with mud. We went from sprinkled with mud to absolutely drenched. It was fantastic.

We weren’t the only ones soaked. When we headed to the GS Mart on-site, the line was out the door and the store was literally covered in mud from its inebriated patrons. At least they must have made a ton of money to cover clean up expenses!

We met up with our buddies Mark and Hae Yeon, who were still clean. Naturally, they had to be dirtied up to fit in with the masses!

We stayed at the beach until the sun began to set. We all headed back to the hotel to shower, tired and happy, only to find that the water in the room stopped working after one shower. Just one. So Mike and Evan haggled with the hotel owner, who eventually gave us all our money back and W10,000 extra. Mike and Hae Yeon helped us book a room at their hotel, which worked out perfectly because it was about a million times nicer than our original one.

After we washed up and changed, we headed out toward the beach for a dinner of seafood and sam gyeupsal. They were shooting off fireworks down there, and crowds of people huddled under umbrellas to watch.

The beach boardwalk was bustling with out-of-towners looking for fun. We gobbled up dinner — which was excellent — then had a beer before turning in for the night.

All in all, a top-notch weekend. :)

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Twelve weeks have now passed since Evan and I said goodbye to our family, friends and lives in the States to begin our journey in Korea.

I am simultaneously shocked at how quickly time has passed, and feel like I’ve been here in this life for years. Each day’s activities have become etched into a comfortable pattern, filled with school, kids, food, working out, friends, and nightlife. I feel so blessed to have this life, and we grow closer every day because of our expatriate situation.

My life has done a complete 180. In the City of Angels, I’d wake up at 6 AM (before that, 4 AM), already thinking of the tasks ahead of me at work. My days were filled with meetings and crazy deadlines, and my fast-paced job — which I did love — was one I could not ever turn away from. There was no shutting off the BlackBerry, no stopping the e-mails. At times I miss the writing and deadlines, but I never miss the stress of realizing I’ve forgotten my phone, or toting my beloved Mac Book from place to place.

I have discovered a tranquility here that I haven’t felt in a long time. I don’t wake up in the middle of the night from nightmares about dropping the ball on assignments, but dream about people and places I love from home. I open my eyes next to my favorite person every morning, spend my days talking to and playing with children and my evenings cooking, eating, running and talking. When I’m lucky I squeeze in reading and writing.

As a writer, I feel like being in a new place with new experiences and a new perspective has gotten me out of the rut I’ve been in for awhile — it is hard to feel creative motivation when you’re writing for a living! I’ve been trying to set aside time to devote completely to writing. My inspiration is coming back :)

I miss home like crazy, but I know when I go back it will be as a person a bit closer to who I want to be because of this journey.

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