And now for a rambling, stream-of-consciousness account of my trip to South Korea. Have fun and be entertained!!
Oh, the charms and advantages of having friends at the jet-set age where we can travel all over the world! We're done with school, we're done with college/university. We don't have kids yet (well, some of us do and they're just as fun to visit!). Megan, one of my best friends from America (incidentally that's where I'm from if you didn't know), is teaching English for a year in South Korea on the Fulbright ETA program. With the last of my "money vacation" funds (that's what my mom called my 6 months of having a real job $$$ and no rent to pay before I started my PhD) I bought a plane ticket to South Korea from Glasgow, planning ahead for when I'd really want a holiday during the grey pre-springtime in Glasgow.
I spent my first weekend in Seoul, then went to Megan's city, Mok'po, for the week--where she lives with a wonderful host family who invited me to stay at their house with her. On Friday I was sad to leave to return to Seoul and fly home to Glasgow on Saturday.
The thing I liked most about Korea is that it's got pretty much all the cool stuff that Japan has, but the people are friendlier and very open, and everything is extremely cheap. T-shirts with English writing on them are very popular this time of year--the best thing about that is that the English doesn't have to make any sense. I got some awesome ones, perhaps some photos of said t-shirts may be posted someday soon: I just need to find a scanner somewhere. One of them says: "Super Unleaded. Great Partoymance, with Eighxty-eight Gasolies." Another says "Engel of a Girl," in big sparkly seventies-style iron on. And who could forget "Bock Me Baby"? There are so many funny things you can buy, I got a whole bunch of stationary with broken-English phrases printed on as well. Little kleenex packets that are scented, with cartoons and phrases about love and friendship on the package--and even cartoon happy-phrase individually packed menstrual pads.
They have "Nori-bong," karaoke where you rent out your own little room with your friends. You pay by the hour and you can program all the songs in yourself, and adjust tempo and key and stuff like that. The songs they have in English are somewhat limited, so you end up singing lots of eighties love ballads and Elvis. We did "Beat It," "Hard to Say I'm Sorry," "Greatest Love of All," "Stand by your Man," "(Can't live if living is) Without You," and many, many similar others. Megan's host brother came with us, and he's really really good. He sang some Jaurim songs for me, ones I hadn't heard before and they were good! I bought another Jaurim CD too, it's pretty good but not as good as the one I have already. Jaurim is one of my favorite bands--they only sing in Korean, so they're not exactly dominating any charts other than their home ones. But they're really brilliant--a great mix of rrrrock and pretty songs. Very fun! You can visit their website at www.jaurim.com, but it's hard to read much of it because it's in Korean.
There's also a thing called "Video-Bong," (bong means room), where you go and pick out a movie and get to watch it with your friends in your own little room, it's kind of like a movie theater but there's a lot more selection, current and classic, as well as plenty of porn for the repressed young Koreans who go there cause it's the only place they can mess around. Me and Megan watched "Quiz Show," it was really good.
The kids she teaches are all so funny! They were beside themselves that a blond American was visiting, and they'd be practically falling out of their seats with excitement when I came into the room. They all asked me silly questions like how old I was, and if I was married, how tall I was. In all their other classes they have to be absolutely silent or they get beaten with a stick, so when they get to Megan's fun class they just lose it. She's taller than most of them, and beautiful and friendly so they all adore her. 17 year old boys, most of whom have never even kissed a girl and go to school for more than 12 hours a day--but they're all so happy and innocent and sweet. They're nothing like jaded, moody, hostile American teenagers. Kids there stay kids for so much longer and doing well in school is so important to them.
Megan has lots of good stories about her kids. One of her students is really smart and good at English, and he likes to talk to her about things. He was telling her about how he wanted a girlfriend, and he'd kissed a girl twice. She showed the class a Mandy Moore video to learn the song, it wasn't even a racy video, just her standing there singing. The kid (who usually is very talkative) just sat there with his jaw hanging down. After the video, he went up to Megan and said, "Teacher, that makes me crazy!" Another time, she was having them do a group activity and was walking around helping people. A group at the back started waving their arms and going, "Teacher, TEACHER!!" She went back to see what they needed help with, and one kids said, "Teacher: why so tall?" She had them fill out little cards at the beginning of the year describing themselves. One of the options was if they had anything else to tell her. Most of them said stuff like, "I like pop music," etc. One kid wrote, "Her leg is long." They're all funny like that.
There's hardly any crime in South Korea, mostly because the kids are all in school until 10 pm, so they don't have time to cause trouble. The cops have nothing to do, their logo-symbol is really funny--it's a little cartoon mouse-looking guy with a police uniform on, giving the thumbs-up. There are lots of protests in Seoul, so they military police there always go overboard because they finally have some activity. The second day I was in Seoul, there was a group of old people protesting against the nationalist history textbooks that Japanese schools are going to use. They had 3 brigades of 18-19 year-old military policemen in full riot gear, including masked helmets and shields, trotting down the street after a group of 10-15 grannies with banners. Nobody got hurt or anything, it was just because the police didn't have anything else to do.
Just after the police passed us, we saw a street fight. A scraggly, homeless-looking guy apparently stole something from a lady street vendor, so she was shouting at him and pushing him. He punched her in the head and chaos broke loose--she started belting him and pulling his hair, and another guy came and started punching him and kicking him too. The thing was, it all looking like it was in slow motion. There was no power behind anybody's punches, they just seemed to bounce off each other and it didn't look like anyone was getting hurt at all. Very strange.
Everyone in Korea has studied English in school, but their conversation skills are usually very limited. People try to practice on westerners all the time, though. Everywhere we went people would come up to us and ask if we were American, then get out their little book and ask us questions and write down our answers. It was funny--especially in Mok'po, where they don't get many westerners, we felt like celebrities. Little kids and even grown-ups would just stare. Koreans are really firendly, so there was no hostility in the staring, just curiosity. However, they are very blunt about physical appearance. Megan's skin broke out when she went travelling and when she got back, her host mother touched her face, shook her head and started feeding her things that were supposed to be good for skin. People she has just met will comment on it, and say, "That's really bad, you should get something done about it. I bet the Chinese medical doctor could help you." But she'd used to it, so it doesn't bother her too much anymore.
They usually aren't used to hearing English spoken with a native speaker's accent, so even if you asked very clearly and slowly where McDonald's was, or if you could use credit cards in a store, they'd just look at you confused--but if said it in a sort of mock Asian accent, "Mahck-doh-nouhlduhs," or "creh-dihtuh carduh," then they'd go "Ahhh!" with recognition and know what you were talking about. Megan's learned through her 8 months of ESL teaching that sometimes that's the only way to do it--it's not offensive or condescending, it's just the way to communicate.
The women are all really well-dressed, I like Korean fashion a lot. It's really hip and elegant, and the clothes are SO CHEAP! I bought a lot of stuff, but I wish I could've bought a lot more! I don't like their shoe fashion, though. The women all wear shoes that are 2-3 sizes too big for them, and they look like clowns. Some shoes are even designed specifically with really long pointy toes, like 6 inches long sometimes. Ick, they look really weird.
The food is not my favorite... everything tastes fishy and is super hot and spicy. There were some things I liked, like seaweed-wrapped rice with peanutty sauce, and other various rice bowl things. I also like kimchee, the standard Korean food. It's a spicy cabbage thing, made by leaving cabbage and hot pepper sauce in a big clay pot underground long enough to ferment. It smells bad, but it tastes pretty good. They eat it with everything, they need it. People who emigrate from Korea have to have it sent to them in bulk. Megan's host family has an entire refrigerator just for kimchee. But there's entirely too much weird seafood involved in Korean food for me. Sea cucumber, squid everywhere, octopus--live or cooked--weird fishy taste, shrimp head soup. I wasn't too excited about any of that. After spending a week eating rice and spicy cabbage, I was just dying for McDonald's (which I normally hate). I think I could get used to it eventually, but the weird seafood was the hardest part. Oh, and the silkworm larvae sold by street vendors. Fried or steamed, it smelled really bad and looked even worse. Megan hates it, but has a sick fascination with it. It repulses her, but she can't look away and she needs to try it before she leaves. Ugh.
The pottery is beautiful!!! I absolutely love the style. I'm a bit of a potter myself, so I was especially keen to examine the great Korean pottery tradition. There's a lot of really fine inlay decoration, as well as scraffito design with lovely green celadon. Then there are rougher, natural looking glazes that do a lot of that drippy-type stuff like I do. The bowls look a lot like the kind I make, too. :) They sell a lot of tea sets, beautiful things. I didn't get to buy any while I was there, but Megan's going to send me some and I'll pay her back. There's also lots of lovely handmade paper that I'd like to have more of.
Altogether, South Korea is a wonderful, delightful, fascinating place. The jet lag was well worth it, and if you ever have enough money for the initial flight over there, everything is so cheap that you can get along with next to nothing--or apply for an English teaching program and spend a year absorbing a different, friendly, open, warm, interesting culture. Go go go!!!!