Tuesday, July 31, 2012

A Korean Review: Day 5 – Speaking Korean

One of my biggest regrets about my time here in Seoul is that I never took the opportunity to really sit down and learn Korean. I gave every excuse in the book:

“I don’t have the time.”
“When will I ever use Korean once I leave here?”
“Classes are twice a week? On Saturday? That’s a big time commitment.”

While Korean is not a widely used language outside of the peninsula, I still feel like I let myself down a bit by not trying to learn it more aggressively. I am able to read things written in Korean; I just have no idea what they are saying (most of the time). The reading of the Korean language is actually really very simple and straightforward and can be learned in a couple of days of diligent studying and commitment. (Check out this website which does a good job of introducing the Korean system).

The spelling of "Hangeul" in Korean

There are a few observations that I’ve made regarding Koreans and how the speak. I’m sure that a lot of this can apply to Americans and other Westerners as well, but I’ve definitely picked up on the following tidbits:

  • Koreans are super whiny when they talk. They always seem to be elongating the last syllable of at the end of their sentences. Females are especially guilty of this. Males do it as well, but it’s not quite as annoying/noticeable as females. Of course, I realize that many Americans are whiners. But it’s one thing that many of my friends and I have picked up on and notice when we are out and about with our Korean friends. 
  • When talking on the phone, there is no formal goodbye; just a dial tone. I’ll be at school, in the office, and the teachers around me will be having a phone conversation. At the end, instead of saying goodbye or terminating the conversation with some sort of salutation, they hang up. End of story. I remember the first time that happened to me with one of my Korean friends. I was a bit taken back, but soon learned that a dial tone signaled the end of the conversation – in a polite and non-offensive way of course.
  • The grammatical structure of Korean is a bit different than that of English. The word “is” is inserted at the end of their sentences (signified by the phrase “ib ni da”). Many times, all that I’ll pick up from a conversation between my co-teachers at lunch is “blah blah blah blah ib ni da.” This leads to excessive amounts of chuckling and self-amusement on my part. Gotta do something to entertain myself at the lunch table.
  • Koreans are not afraid to talk about you when they know that you are in earshot. When I first started at Seoul High School, my teachers would be talking in Korean and all of the sudden, I’d hear them say my name. My ears would perk up, I would peer over my cubicle wall, and try to find the culprit. Most of the time, they didn’t actually want to talk TO me, just ABOUT me. It took me a good couple of months to finally just learn to ignore them. If they really wanted to tell me something, they come and tap me on the shoulder. So if when I get back to the states and I ignore you the first couple of times that you say my name, forgive me. I’ve been Korea-fied and mean no offense.

In 5 days’ time, I’ll be back in the States, understanding everything going on around me conversation wise. I’d better make the most out of playing the “foreigner” card while I can!

A Korean Review: Day 6 – Concrete Jungle 101

Gangnam District by night

“Concrete jungle where dreams are made…”
Granted, Alicia Keys and Jay-Z were referring to New York, but Seoul could fit this bill as well. Currently the second largest city in the world, Seoul is a bustling metropolis full of people coming and going. This hustle and bustle gives the city a buzz 24 hours a day. By the light of daytime, cars and buses pack the streets, making travel a nightmare. Under the lights of the neon signs at night, pedestrians take over the streets and sidewalks, making travel a major headache.

Morning traffic in Seoul

I have definitely come to appreciate the things that living in a large city provide it’s populous. I lucked out in the fact that I live in a very up and coming area of Seoul, right near the largest university in the city, Seoul National University. This area is teeming with college aged students coming and going. While this is by far not the only college district in the city, this surplus of 20-something’s gives the area a life of its own. Western style restaurants line the streets. Bars and clubs beckon patrons at every street corner. There’s never a lack of excitement, screaming, or activity where I am.

High rises like this are prevalent throughout Seoul

One of the downfalls of living in such a large city is that space is at a premium. Buildings are built up, not out. Walking down the street, you always find yourself looking up for the restaurant or coffee shop that you are to meet your friends at. This makes it hard to find establishments large enough for bigger parties. Having people over to your apartment is pretty much out of the question. I had a friend that was able to lay down on his bed and touch all four walls at the SAME TIME! Now if that isn’t considered small, then I don’t know what is!

My apartment - all of it!

This lack of space and nature has really made me appreciate what I had growing up. Back in Iowa, my family and I live on a farm. Now I am the furthest thing from a farm kid. That line of work just doesn’t appeal to me. But we have so much space and greenness all around us that I took for granted for so many years. Here in Seoul, being surrounded by grey, monotonous buildings has made me yearn for the open green fields that Iowa has to offer. I honestly never thought that I would miss the openness as much as I do. Finding a patch of luscious, green grass here in Seoul is a chore that sometimes seems impossible.

Despite the obviously adjustments that had to be made, living in this city has given me a taste of city life. I don’t remember my time in Washington DC too much. This has been a bit of a supplement. As I prepare to move to Florida, and live near Miami, I feel better prepared for the twist and turns that I will face there. After surviving in the 2nd largest city in the world, nothing scares me anymore. Bring it on Miami!

Monday, July 30, 2012

A Korean Review: Day 7 - Construction

Construction cranes are rampant throughout the city. They dot the skyline everywhere that you look. Seoul is constantly growing and changing to try and keep up with the latest trends and advancements.

Unlike construction in the United States, here in Korea buildings change face literally over night. Two examples:

Example 1:
Back in October, I visited a coffee shop near the exit at the subway stop near my school. The coffee shop, Angel-in-Us-Coffee, had the most amazing hot chocolate and I was keen on trying another cup the following Monday. However, as I took those final steps out of the subway exit, I was met with an unpleasant surprise: an empty, gutted out building!

Over the weekend, the coffee shop that I had become a fan of had disappeared over the course of a weekend! There was no sign that there had ever been a working coffee shop. The walls were stripped down to the concrete studs. The coffee serving bar was fully removed. Heck, even the sign on the outside was gone. You can imagine my surprise. Within a month, a KFC had moved in, leaving no remnants of the coffee shop behind.

Example 2:
Next to my apartment building is a mall and on the main floor was another coffee shop called Holly's coffee. I'm pretty convinced that pretty close to over night this establishment was replaced by a Korean style restaurant. One day: Holly's. The next: Korean food.

The construction rates in this country are phenomenal. Granted, the amount of building codes that companies have to go through here compared to the United States are much less extensive and evasive, which definitely does help the process. But maybe, just maybe, we should look to employ some Korean construction companies in the states to get those roads, bridges, and other long winded projects completed!

Sunday, July 29, 2012

A Korean Review: Day 8 - Transportation

The transportation here in Korea is ridiculous!
Ridiculously awesome that is (for the most part).
During my year, I've traveled by subway, bus, train, plane, taxi, ferry, and car.
Each option has presented it's own pluses and minuses.

I already wrote about my subway experiences in an earlier post. This post details my feelings about the subway, and while they haven't really changed all the much since December, I still find Seoul's subway system to be one of the best, if not the best, in the world.

The bus system here in Seoul is really very efficient and on point. There are three different colored buses that will take you to various parts of the city:

Blue buses service the city of Seoul itself. They stay within the city limits (for the most part) and are super frequent. I take either the 641 or the 461 home from work everyday to change up my commute to work each day.

Green buses are used to primarily connect major subway and bus terminal stations. They tend to travel a bit farther outside of the city limits of Seoul to achieve these duties.

And finally, red buses connect Seoul to the outlying communities (aka "suburbs"). These buses tend to be a bit more comfortable and more like charter buses in the states.
With all of these various options available to the everyday commuter, getting around Seoul could not be easier. Not only do buses connect the city to the outlying suburbs, but there is also an extensive, well developed country wide bus system. Buses used to travel from city to city (and I've used them to get to Sokcho, Jinhae, Yeongdoek, and Samcheok) are spacious, clean, and super friendly. There is ample leg room, the seats recline, and there are foot rests! Talk about traveling in style!

I have only had the privilege of traveling by train once, but it was a very pleasant and enjoyable experience. Matt and I headed back from MudFest early by train and it was very reminiscent of the many train rides I have taken throughout Europe during my summers with Camp Adventure. While the KTX isn't quite as high class as the Deuschbahn in Germany, it still provided a very smooth and uneventful journey.

The main airport in Seoul, Incheon, is one of the cleanest and best run airports that I have had the opportunity to travel through and use. Trips to Thailand, Taiwan, Jeju, and pick-ups of my parents and brother have allotted me quite a lot to time in this establishment. For it's shear size and daily business, I've been extremely impressed with the quality of service that is provided here. The only drawback is that it is located about an hour outside of Seoul, so the commute there is a bit of a pain. But from the moment that I landed in Korea (and was greeted by the paparazzi), Incheon has always been a very pleasant experience.

The taxis here in Seoul are amazing and horrendous at the same time. The fare is super cheap. A 10 minute cab ride will cost maybe 3-4 bucks at the most. Each cab is equipped with a GPS unit and use their meters. So there's never a debate about the fare, which is a blessing. However, getting a cab to agree to take you to your final destination can be a major pain depending on where you are located.

Hailing a cab from the Gangnam area is an absolute nightmare. One night, Ruth, Alex, and I were turned down by about 20 taxi's in a row! We later found out that certain taxis stay in Seoul, while others are destined to leave the city limits. However, this was still super discouraging and added an extra 30 minutes onto our journey home. There are also cab drivers who attempt to screw you over on the fare. This is by far my least favorite form of transportation here in Seoul, but with the buses and subways shutting down around midnight on the weekends, sacrifices have to be made.

The one time that I boarded a ferry, I almost ended up stranded on a remote island off the coast of Incheon. The ferry schedules are a bit ambiguous and can be hard to decipher sometimes. With that being said, the ride itself was very enjoyable and pleasant. This is one form of transportation that I wish I would've utilized more, as I would've liked to have explored the islands around Korea more.

Traffic in Seoul is hectic! The morning rush hour results in heavy congestion full of stop and go driving and lots of pointless honking. Welcome to the big city! The night time isn't all that much better as business men hurry off to the local hof to meet up with their colleagues, while others make their way home.

When my lead teacher picked me up for the first time following orientation, the first thing that I noticed was how nervous she seemed driving. She was super fidgety and had a hard time sitting still. Honestly, I don't blame her! I'd be a bit of a wreck as well if I had to brave the streets of Seoul in a car. I'm glad that I haven't had to navigate these streets behind the wheel of a vehicle and have been able to rely on others to get me around!

Bottom line is that the public transportation system here in Seoul is one of the best in the world (in my opinion). Of course there are things that could be improved, but at the end of the day, getting around the second largest city in the world is made a fairly easy task thanks to this efficient and well-thought out system.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

A Korean Review: Day 9 - Body Image

The number of rooms in the game of Clue...
The number of reindeer pulling Santa's sleigh...
The number of people that make up the Brady Bunch...
The number of days that I have left here on the peninsula of South Korea!

As a way to wrap up my time here in Seoul, I'm going to recap my past year through 9 final blog posts regarding things I've experienced/learned. Today, the topic is body image.

Koreans are very concerned about the way that they look. Granted, other countries, like the USA, are as well. But it's almost a 24-hour obsession here. Plastic surgery rates are the highest in the world  due to the relatively low costs compared to other countries. Ads, like the following, litter the walls of numerous subway stops in the Gangnam area (the rich, business oriented part of Seoul):

These images send the message that beauty is the key to everything. Pale, white skin is beautiful. Small faces are the most attractive. Little noses and close together eyes are the way to go. Children as young as 15 receive these treatments as birthday presents from their parents!

Another thing is that many Koreans (not all) want to stay as white as possible. They see white as being pure and clean. Summertime brings out the long sleeves, umbrellas, and whitening cream. To Westerners, this is a bit backwards. We utilize summertime as a chance to tan and become a few shades darker. It's very interesting to be battling a hoard of umbrellas on the sidewalk on a clear, sunny day while walking around Seoul.

Being exposed to these images and experiences daily has been quite the eye opening experience for me. It has given me a greater appreciation for cultural differences that exist amongst various groups around the world. It also goes to show that body image carries a lot of weight, even outside of the United States.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Peace is...


Talk about a loaded word.
What does it mean to you?
How can it be achieved around the world?

These questions and more are being currently posed by the World Peace Initiative. This movement is currently challenging the citizens of the world to consider what peace means to them.

Is it no war? Music? Serenity and understanding amongst cultures? Spending time with family and friends?

Currently, volunteers are needed to provide their ideas of what peace is. It is super easy and simple to get involved. All that needs to be done is to take a picture with what your idea of peace is. Submit it and encourage those around you to do the same. (Follow the above link for further details)

In September, there will be a major launching event for this initiative here in South Korea. Parades, performances, and the unveiling of a monument incorporating all of the pictures that have been collected so far will highlight the event.

Check out the website and ask yourself: What is peace?

To me, peace is cultural understanding.

What about you?

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

A Muddy Affair

"Stay out of the mud!"
"Don't get dirty!"
"Keep those muddy feet out of my house!"

All of these are common phrases that any child hears at home growing up. Mud is a substance that is best seen, not played in/worn/digested...unless you're in South Korea in the middle of July!

The 15th Annual Boryeong Mud Festival kicked off last weekend (July 14th) and is rocking until this upcoming Sunday (July 22nd). The mud flats in this area are known for containing minerals that are good for maintaining beautiful, young looking skin. Back in 1996, some cosmetic companies, who used this mud in their products, decided to hold a festival to promote and sell their products to the general public. What started out as a promotional affair was slowly overrun by foreigners and has turned into an all out muddy brawl!

Held overlooking Daechon Beach, the festival has been a huge success! My brother, who was visiting for a few days, myself, and three other friends (Rachel, Tae Hooie, and Mitch) attended the festival with a travel group called Adventure Korea. We left Saturday morning, arriving at the festival grounds around 11:30. We got settled into our pension and headed out to check out the festivities.

The area where the festival was being held was filled with inflatables, body painting stations, and tons of various photo opportunities. I did not have my camera on me (didn't want it to get wet/dirty/ruined), so there aren't many photos. The real fun began when we arrived at the Mud Beach, about a 5 minute bus ride away from the festival grounds!

It was here that we participated in various games, like soccer, mud wrestling, chicken leg, and bounce-around-the-inner-tube-and-try-to-knock-the-other-team-off games. This was definitely the highlight of the trip! We all got caked in mud, ingested a good portion, and had an all around joll (good time)! It was so much fun just being able to play, splash, and throw this gooey, often avoided substance at each other.

After returning back to the festival grounds, clean and de-mudified, we grabbed some dinner and headed out to the opening concert. However, the weather had a different plan and the heavens opened up. Had this happened earlier, it would not have been a big deal. But by this point, we were looking to remain dry. We found shelter in a convenience store. Luckily, the rain passed in time for a magnificent fireworks shore right off the beach. After a late night stroll along the coast, we turned in for the night.

The next morning, Matt and I left before the rest of the group so that we could make it back to Seoul in time for his early evening flight back to the US. The festival was a great time and it was also great to see my brother. With only 2 1/2 weeks left here in Korea, the familiar face was exactly what I needed to get through the rest of my time here.

MudFest 2012 = EPIC FUN!

Enjoying life!
At the baseball game the night before MudFest!
(Check out this link for a video of MudFest 2012!)