Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Korean TV Star

Imagine this scenario (which I'm pretty sure most of us have experienced a few times):
It's 1 AM and you can't sleep.
You saunter downstairs (or lazily locate the remote next to your bed) and flip on the TV.
An infomercial for an amazingly sharp set of knives that will cut through anything (cinder blocks included) catches your eye and sucks you in.
Next thing you know, you've got the phone in one hand, credit card in the other and your knives will be delivered in 4-6 weeks.
Sound familiar?

These type of infomercials don't only exist in the US - they're also super prevalent here in Korea as well. I am starring in one of them!

Two weeks ago, my friend Ruth sent me a text asking me if I wanted to make some pretty quick and easy cash. I of course did not hesitate in saying "YES!" and was given the details for our endeavor:

- Interacting with a "robot" while using a language acquisition program
- Interacting with Korean actors in showcasing how the product can be helpful
- Answering questions on camera in regards to the usefulness of the program

I was all in for this and agreed on the spot! Definitely don't regret this decision!

Ruth and I met a friend of hers, Angie, and headed up to northern Seoul for the shoot. Angie and Ruth met at a meditation-type retreat awhile back and have stayed friends since. One of the people in charge of the commercial was Angie's cousin, hence the connecting piece to this whole project. Once we got to the studio (following a dodgy cab ride through some interesting neighborhoods), Ruth and I were both pretty blown away!

The commercial was being shot in a large warehouse that had about 10 different home scenes set up for use to take pictures at. So while things were getting set up, Ruth and I had a good time just taking pictures in the different "rooms" until we were needed.

The program that we were interacting at is an English language program. There is a microphone (looks like a little robot guy - hence the "robot" interaction) that hooks up to a computer and corresponds with a software program. This program has two different avatars, Julia and James, and the user is able to interact with them by asking them questions. The avatars provide an answer back (sometimes they don't line up with the question) and you can have a pretty simple conversation. It's a pretty cool tool to help someone who's trying to master English practice. You can see what was picked up in the microphone, so if you are making mistakes, they're easy to spot out.

Ruth and I had a great time interacting with this new software and doing the acting scenes with the Koreans. At one point, I was told that I was talking with my hands TOO much (hard to believe, huh?), so I had to tone that down. But it was really neat to be on "set" and "under the lights" to put this commercial together. Also, they are considering using my face for James. So in essence, if this pans out, anyone who interacts with James (ironically also my middle name!) would be talking to me! Cool, huh?

Still waiting to see if we get to see a copy of it when it's all finished. I'm keeping my fingers crossed that we do because I don't have a TV here in Korea to see it when the commercial airs.

Who knows - maybe we'll inspire some Koreans at 1 am to pick up that phone and in a month's time, interact with our new friends Julia and James!

On set, using the software

Asking for the time - and getting no where...

Having a blast!

Part of the studio that we were shooting at

That's my face on the avatar! Dashing, huh??

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Farewell Doesn't Always Mean Goodbye

Goodbye's are hard.
We've all had our fair share of experiences in which we've had to leave loved ones behind.
It's never pleasant and it definitely does not get easier the more you do it.

These past few weekends have been super bittersweet for me. I've had amazing experiences, but have had to end the day by saying goodbye to people that I've gotten to know really well and will miss terribly. However, I know that this is not a permanent separation - just a temporary goodbye.

The first goodbye occurred last weekend. Everywhere I go, I seem to gain "motherly" figures. It happened during high school, college, heck - even while I was student teaching! This trip has been no less of an exception. Donna and I first met at a Mannam orientation event. I was super excited to find out that she worked on the military base here in Seoul because DODS (Department of Defense Schools) is something that has interested me since my days with Camp Adventure. Not only was she an easy person to talk with, she was an absolute sweetheart and we instantly connected.

Her apartment was the scene for some pretty epic social gatherings. Each one had a different theme - Italian, Mexican, Jamaican, Indian, even American Breakfast! So many laughs and memories were shared and created in that "mansion" of a place! We even found amazing ways to make the clean-up process fun and entertaining!

Not only was she an amazing hostess, Donna is always up for an adventure. Whether that means hiking up a blasted mountain in flip-flops and a sun dress or staying out late at night with us crazy cats, it was never a dull moment with her and her quick-wit around. Go to movies, out to eat, and Wicked were some of the most memorable times that I shared with her during her time here in Seoul.

Last weekend (6/16-17) was no exception. Saturday night, a group of 8 of us went and saw the hit Broadway show Wicked!! I saw it in Des Moines and was just as impressed with it a second time around! I still get chills just thinking about the amazing performance! That night, Myheshni, Alex, and I kept Mama (our nickname for Donna) company on base as she was staying at the hotel on base! The morning brought about an amazing American breakfast and a great start to the day!

We then headed to Mount Ansan and met up with Rahul and Ayman to do some planned hiking. While not quite as adventurous as our first hike together, we still shared plenty of laughs, near spills, and wipe outs!

Following our hike, we headed to Itaewon and ate some amazingly delicious Middle Eastern food. This was a treat for me because I'd never had any of this cuisine before! The spread was magnificent and everyone left super full and content!

The next stop was Yeoido park, a popular hangout place for not only us, but also the Koreans. It was definitely warm so Naz, Alex, Tae Hooie, and I decided to go and play in the pools of water that were at the park. The goal of staying relatively dry was quickly abandoned as some got wetter than others (ahem - Alex - ahem). Even some of the local kids joined in on the fun!

We ended our day by eating some amazingly wonderful Indian food and sharing some Hagen-Daaz ice cream treats!

It was gut wrenching when the goodbyes finally became real. The past few months have just been so magical and knowing that one of the main cogs of that magic was going to be leaving was hard to swallow. However, Donna has a new job in Japan and is getting to spend some well-deserved quality time with her son and daughter-in-law.

I know that I'll be seeing Donna in the near near future and can't wait for those adventures to begin again!

As if one goodbye wasn't enough, this past weekend (6/23-24) brought another parting of ways. Rahul has been someone that I've gotten to know pretty well over these past few months, also through Mannam. He was a student studying at Seoul National University (the university that I live near) and is just an all around great guy! His sense of humor and quirkiness always liven up any gathering that we have and this weekend was not different!

Yesterday was quite the experience. Alex, Ruth, Myhesni, and I met up with Rahul and a few of his friends from Canada at Hongdae, then hopped on the subway and headed out towards Incheon, the island that the main international airport is located on. We got off a few stops before the airport, met up with Alex's friend Rianna, and headed to some islands nearby. The ferry ride was super short and we were on our way in no time!

Along the way, we met a girl from the Netherlands that ended up joining our group for the day! She was also a student and is heading back to Holland on Tuesday. It was great getting to know her a bit and sharing the day with her. We made our way to a beach to hang out at for the majority of the day. It was low tide, meaning we had to walk a good ways to reach the water. The meant a trek through some muddy streams and riverbanks. This felt amazing as the day was pretty hot and humid. It was all fun and games until we started sinking into the mud. Before we could even reach the water, we decided to turn around before we got sucked in!

The next hour or so was spent throwing around the frisbee, napping, and just relaxing. Around 6 we decided to head back towards the ferry port to catch a ferry back to Incheon. One problem - the last ferry left the port at 6:10 pm (according to the map that we had). We of course realize this at 6:30 pm. There was a shuttle bus that traveled around the island and we were all pretty sure that it ran until about 7:30 pm, so we started walking back towards the ferry port, hoping to catch the bus along the way.

We were rewarded as the bus came by, on it's last round of the island, and picked us up! The driver high-tailed it back to the port. Once we arrived at the port, the driver sprinted into the ferry terminal and started talking and gesturing wildly in Korean to see if there were any boats left that were out and about and that could make a pit stop to get us. As luck would have it, there was one LAST boat making it's way back to the main port in Incheon! The people in the terminal made a phone call to the ferry, which made a brief pit stop and picked us up! Karma was definitely on our side this day!

Excited that we were going to be rescued!
We made it back to the main port, grabbed a bus back to the subway stop, and enjoyed some well deserved pizza! During dinner, we were able to Skype with Donna, which was absolutely amazing and made the meal so much more enjoyable. It was so good to see her and talk with her about our crazy day.

Following dinner, we hopped back onto the subway, but not before I managed to hurt myself bounding up the escalator in an attempt to beat Rahul. Once some minor bandaging and patch work had been completed, we boarded the train and headed back towards Seoul.

Saying goodbye to Rahul on the train was another gut wrenching experience. But seeing that he is from near Toronto, I know that this will definitely not be the last time that I see him.

As my time here in Korea winds down (I head back to the US August 4th), these goodbyes are going to get harder and harder. But, knowing that we WILL be seeing each other in the near future definitely helps dull the pain...a little.

Friday, June 1, 2012

A Much Needed Breather

Long weekends are always welcomed sights to teachers and the working class as a whole.
This past weekend, thanks to the birth of Buddha, I had a nice three day weekend and took full advantage of this opportunity.

Not only was this Buddha's birthday, but it was also my friend Steve's birthday. To celebrate, Steve, Mitch, and myself headed to Taipei, Taiwan for the weekend. We met up with Mitch's friend, Kevin and had a great weekend enjoying all the city had to offer.

The adventure started before we even left Seoul. Turns out we had booked ourselves onto the Hello Kitty airlines. Our airline provider, Eva Air, must have some sort of obsession/deal with Hello Kitty because we were instantly immersed in a sea of Hello Kitty ammenities. Our boarding passes had Hello Kitty on them. The side of the plane was plastered with Hello Kitty and her friends. The pillows were Hello Kitty. The screen saver for the TV screen in the back of the headrest had Hello Kitty scenes. Dinner was served with Hello Kitty silverware, napkin, dental floss, and wetnap. And to top everything off, we were treated to Hello Kitty ice cream, complete with a Hello Kitty small "ice cream spoon." It was quite a sight to behold.

Upon arriving around 10:00 pm Friday night, we met up with Kevin and bussed into Taipei. We stayed right near the main train and bus station and had an ideal location to get around the city. We checked into our hostel and then headed out to check out the night scene of Taipei. It was quite the experience - and not at all what I expected. The streets were EMPTY! I'm used to the night life in Seoul, which is always popping, no matter the day of the week. Come to find out, there is not real central area for all the bars and clubs in Taipei. They are spread out all ove the city, hence the lack of physical bodies roaming about. We ended up grabbing a drink at a place that seemed rather lively, headed to the Taipei 101 building, had another drink, then headed back to our hostel.

The next day, we rolled out of our hostel around noon and headed back to the Taipei 101 building. It was an absolutely gorgeous day and we wanted to take advantage of the good weather by checking out the city of Taipei from 90 stories in the air. The 101 building is currently the second tallest building in the world, coming in just behind the Burj Khalifa building in Dubai. We grabbed lunch in the basement of the building, then headed up to the observation deck on the 88th floor.

Now I've been in my fair share of tall buildings (from the Sears (Willis) Tower in Chicago to the Tokyo Tower to the Eiffel Tower in Paris, among others), so I kind of knew what to expect. But after taking the world's fastest elevator to the observation area, I was thoroughly impressed with the view. There was also an outdoor observation area that we checked out before heading back down to ground level. Visit one of the top 5 tallest buildings in the world: CHECK!

Once we returned back to the streets of Taipei, we headed to a shrine that was built to honor one of the founding fathers of Taiwan. While there, we were able to also witness a portion of a changing of the guard ceremony. It reminded me a lot of the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetary in Washington D.C. It was a bit more drawn out and elaborate than the one in D.C., but still neat to be able the see and take in.

Our next stop was a Buddhist temple settled on top of one of the many mountains that surround the Taipei area. Before we made it to the temple, we stumbled across another shrine and had a 15 minute conversation with a city council representative of the area we were in. We trekked up the mountain and found the temple. It was very different than the temples here in Seoul. There are a lot more decorations and intricate woodwork involved in the Taipei temples. It was really cool to be able to see something a tad bit different from what we're used to here in Seoul.

All of our wandering and exploring left us pretty hungry, so we decided to head down to the night market and boy was it a good time! This trip was about trying new things and I was able to cross a few things off of my list: chicken heart, chicken butt, stinky tofu (which litterally tasted like a hot, pile of garbage/hog lot), pigs blood, and bubble tea. I was not a fan of the stinky tofu or bubble tea, but really enjoyed the rest of the food that we tried. We then treated ourselves to some carnival style games, with Mitch and Kevin cleaning up at the shooting range, popping a combined 80 balloons between the two of them to gain a large, stuffed Angry Bird.

Stinky Tofu - Disgusting Stuff

That night, once we had returned back to the hostel and cleaned up, we headed out to Club Luxy for a night out on the town and a celebration of the beginning of Steve's 23rd year on this planet. It was by far the most fancy and largest club that I had ever been to. We had a lot of fun, even though clubs really aren't my scene. The music was pumping and the dance floor was packed with tons of people.

Sunday morning brought overcast skies (good thing we did the 101 building the day before), so we decided to head to a national park that promised to have some awesome views of the city. Only problem was that the clouds decided to roll in over the mountains as we ventured and weaved our way up the winding roads. We attempted to check out some waterfalls, but found out that we would have to practically be standing on top of them to see them. So we headed back down to the base of the mountain and did some exploring on our own. We stumbled across some pretty interesting sites, including a waterfall that we could see, a mountain stream, and some more shrines.

To end our trip, we headed to a restaurant and had some amazing Chinese inspired food! Dumplings, duck, beef, and noodles were all devoured and enjoyed by everyone. Kevin headed back to his city of residence, which is located about 2 1/2 hours south of Taipei, while Steve, Mitch, and I stayed in for the night, seeing that we had an early flight back to Seoul the next morning.

Sadly, the flight home was not as decked out as the one going to Taipei, but we landed safely in Seoul and I spent the rest of the day catching up on some much needed sleep. All in all, it was a great little break from the hustle and bustle of Seoul. I can now add Taiwan to countries I've been to. That raises my country total up to 17.

Thank you Buddha for having a birthday. It was much appreciated!