Saturday, April 7, 2012

First Paycheck!

After (almost) 6 weeks of being in the country, I finally got my first paycheck from work. No one really warns you ahead of time that it will take that long to get paid (or that $200 for three months is going to get taken out of it for your apartment deposit). But regardless it is still a moment to celebrate!

I didn't exactly go crazy, but I started walking around my little area (still need to post pictures, I apologize) and found a lot of expensive stores that I really couldn't afford -- eg. Marc Jacobs, Armani, Prada, etc. People here drive Audi R8s, they can certainly afford it, but on a teacher's salary unfortunately that isn't the case. So I settled on the lovely Daiso, the "dollar" store and stocked up on some cute looking pens and candy I thought the kids would like. Once I exited the store, lo and behold what did I see?

Seeming to call out to me from the distance. Glowing in all it's glory was a little store with a white front.


Dangerous territory.

I walked in expected a small store with a few of the same kind of shoes all over the place and storekeepers who follow you speaking Korean even though it's apparent that you don't understand a word that they are saying, but it was a store that you would see in a magazine about budding entrepreneurs somewhere out in Chicago or Paris. They had a nature motif with heels delicately hanging on branches on the wall. And mountains of shoes places precariously on blocks.

Needless to say I did buy a cute pair of heels.

They gave me a discount :) I'm assuming because I'm a blonde American girl in a shoe store run by three Korean guys. Yes, guys. No women. Score. The three men were all very nice and knew some English so we chatted briefly about where I'm from and what I'm doing here. The girl I sat down next to to try on my awesome shoes was also very interested in trying out her English. 

I'm honestly just excited to have found a little place that wasn't ridiculous over-priced and within walking distance besides Daiso. The one bad thing about living in Bundang, even though it's a very wealthy, clean, and safe area, is that it is really expensive and it takea about an hour to get to most places in Seoul (sometimes longer) which is where more of the affordable shopping is. Now I just have to find some place to get a purse and maybe some jeans that I can afford.

My next stop was treating myself to a nice lunch. I pass this one restaurant on my way home from work all the time so today I thought I'd try it out. I walk in, smile, and put my finger up to indicate "just one please"

"Here or go?" the young Korean waiter asked in broken English.

I point the same finger down to the ground as I say "Here please."

I could tell by his expression he had hoped it would be to go. Now he had to find someone to speak some English. Especially, as I found a few minutes later after finding a place to sit, that there was no English on the menu. Rare for nice restaurants.

After a few minutes of the waiters exchanging glances, one of the chefs or perhaps the owner comes out to help me decipher the menu.

"Oh hello," he says smiling.

Yay! English! I hate to be that person who can't speak a lick of the country's language but if I waited to learn how to speak Korean before I went into a restaurant I would starve. I had learned a few Korean dishes but they sadly did not have of the few meals I could think of.

He explains the menu to me and even suggests a soup to me. Sausage stuffed with beef and pork's head (gross I know, but surprisingly tasty) in a broth with green onions, rice, and clear noodles.

It was delicious :)

He also gave me a little dish with brine and tiny shrimp and said I should put the sausage into it and see if I like it. I did lol.

I paid my bill, chatted to the chef/owner/personal-food-savior, and made my way back home.

Overall, a good way to spend (part of) my saturday and first paycheck.

Friday, March 9, 2012


Thank God It's Saturday.

My first week of classes went really well but I'm still happy for the weekend. My hours are from 2:30 to 8:45 Monday through Friday (though I get to leave an hour earlier on fridays!) and I teach anywhere from five to seven classes a day for 40 minutes each. Time thankfully goes by really quickly when teaching so the work days feel short.

The most challenging part is probably getting control of the kids -- some are better than others. This is a really wealthy area so some of the students can be a little spoiled. You'll see some of the kids running around in Armani or Ralph Lauren (brand name clothing here is probably 50% more than what it is in the states) while still acting how kids act. But there is a part of me that feels bad for how much they have to do.

Parents take their kids' education very seriously in Korea. It's estimated that they spend 20% of their salary just on their kid's education. The type of school (or Hogwan as it's called here) that I work at is an English institution where the students spend roughly an hour and a half at three days a week after their normal school day. Their day also most likely consists of piano/violin lessons, taekwondo, math tutoring, and speech class. So they wake up at 6 or 7am and don't get home until around 9pm. And then they still have to do homework.

Subsequently education is also very competitive and puts a lot of stress on the students. To make things worse the test to get into university occurs once a year and is taken very seriously. If a student is running late for the test, they can call the police who will come pick them up, divert traffic, and drop the kid off at the test. Airplanes are diverted around Seoul so the noise doesn't affect the test takers. This is viewed as being the test that these kids have been working towards their whole lives.

Most of the subway stations here have a protective casing between the train and the platform. It was marketed to be for safety for accidents but most people refer to them as the "suicide doors" because there is a spike in suicides right after the test and then another spike after the results are received. Someone was telling me a story of how someone was giving one-on-one tutoring for a young girl, maybe around 7 years old, in their classroom on the 8th floor. The guy looked out the window and saw a teenage girl sitting on the edge of a window in the building opposite to him, looking down and sobbing with a mass of papers in her hand. He covered the students's eyes so she wouldn't see the girl jump. Thankfully a friend of the girl's pulled her back into the building, as papers flew everywhere, so she didn't commit suicide, but the teacher asked his student why she thought the girl in the building wanted to kill herself.

She simply said "Oh I understand. She probably got a bad grade."

Education in the United States is certainly sub par and it's amazing how much the kids I teach really know about the world -- they're more intelligent than a lot of college students I've met -- but the intensity is unbelievable. There are some kids who do enjoy the business though and now a lot of schools got rid of having to go to class on Saturdays.

I'm just thankful I don't have to teach on Saturdays too.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Gyeongbokgung Palace

Thursday was a national holiday so the co-workers invited me to show me around Seoul in a kind of tourist way. Bundang, where we live, is very new and Western so it's almost as if living in any American city. Very easy to get around and convenient amenities. They had decided to show me a palace within the city as well as some more traditional areas. The palace was from the very last royal family in Korea which was the Joseon Dynasty.
 This is the main palace area. You first walk into a huge courtyard and then make your way here.
 Every building was painted in very bright vivid colors. I'm assuming it was redone but I'm not quite sure when or why.
 The king's throne.
 I believe this was inside the queen's and princess' house. Nice living space.
 I really liked the roofs and how everything was decorated. I visited one other palace and it was pretty much identical. Someone told me that once you see one you've kind of seen them all. But they're all still unique in their own ways.
 This passage way door was tiny! I could walk through it just fine but the guys had to duck down quite a bit.
 We weren't quite sure what this building's purpose was but we figured it must have been important since we couldn't even go inside.
 A little pagoda and boat on the same water.
 I love this picture. This is what I imagined when I thought about going to South Korea.
 A shrine in the same complex. The area spanned quite a distance. Mainly consisted of the buildings and lots of garden areas.
 This building was turned into a history museum which we walked around.

The neighborhood around the palace is called Insadong which has been kept to look more traditional than other parts of Seoul. Lots of street vendors, pottery shops, calligraphy stores, lots and lots of cafes. It's a really cute place to walk around.
Starbucks are everywhere here (surprise surprise) but this one is the only one which is written out in the Korean letters so as to stay with the traditional theme.

After walking around we got some food at a Korean BBQ place back in Bundang and it was the cutest little restaurant ever. I wish I could have taken some pictures but I thought it might be a little rude. They have these round tables everywhere with holes to put hot coals inside of. They then place a grate over the coals so you can cook your meat on it. And they have vents coming down from the ceiling to the middle of the table to get rid of most of the smoke. It was so good. I would highly recommend going.

I also tried Soju for the first time which is a Korean rice or corn alcohol. It's about as strong as wine and doesn't have a whole lot of flavor, but it's dirt cheap so a lot of people drink it. I didn't have much though as I'm still on antibiotics.

The Apartment!

A few more things that I forgot to mention. It took me forever to figure out how to get the kitchen sink to work. But apparently here there's a bar under sinks that you kick to turn on and kick to turn off. Then you can turn the water on.

I also have a keyless entry.
And here's a better picture of the nighttime view I have.

Yay apartment! :)

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Real Medical Issue

Ok so this might be too much information, but ever since I got here I've had a bad urinary tract infection. I've gotten them before and I figured it must have sprung up with all the travelling and the stress. I knew I would need antibiotics at some point. I really didn't want it to turn into a kidney infection like I had last summer. The thing is, I technically don't have insurance here until I get my Alien Registration Card which I most likely will not have for another month or so. I didn't think I could afford a doctor's visit without insurance nor did I even know where to go. I didn't want to be in debt already in a foreign country or be a burden to my boss/coworkers.

I was just going to wait it out, try to drink plenty of water, and hope that it went away on its own. But it only got worse. Only the second day being here it was to the point where it was incredibly painful, I would have to go every half hour, and I was starting to see blood. I knew I couldn't wait any longer but I had no idea what I was going to do.

So I'm at work and Min is showing me what lesson plans she would like me to read and simulate. "Alright, I know this is all a little overwhelming, but don't be scared. Do you have any questions that you need to ask?"

"Um, I hate to ask, and this really has nothing to do with the work, but I think I have a urinary infection. You know, caused by bacteria. And it's painful when... I.. um... pee..." I really did hate to ask her. Everyone is so nice but I also don't want to take advantage or ask something that may be too personal of a fact. "I don't have insurance yet or my ARC... Can I just get anti-biotics for it or do I need a prescription? I'm not sure how it works here..."

She looked at me for a moment, processing everything and simply said "I will research it for you." She left the room and I went to my observation. 40 minutes later she said "well I can take you up to the clinic, but since you don't have insurance it's going to be about 20,000 won to see the doctor, do you still want to go?"

I took a moment to process the amount she had said. That can't be right. That's less than $20.

I reiterated the price just to make sure "20,000?"


"That is more than fine," I said almost with a disbelieving smile. That's how much my co-pay is in the US WITH insurance.

So we made the trip over to the women's clinic (which just so happened to be in the same building) and Min translated everything at the clinic so I could get the prescription from the doctor. Simple, easy, and painless.

"Now," Min said looking at me fairly seriously, "the pharmacist I've been to her before," we walked outside towards the building next door and got into the elevator to go up to the pharmacy, "she's not a very nice person. She can be mean."

Min hands the pharmacist my prescription and they talk back and forth a bit and the pharmacist beams at me "US, right?" Her English is not very good but she seems to know some words. I nod politely in response.

"What state?"

I say where and she nods approvingly, not sure if she recognized it or not, but gives me a huge smile and my beloved antibiotics. "Anyong ha se yo!"

I paid, by the way, less than $15 for my prescription as well. A five day supply of anti-biotics. It's amazing to me how cheap medical care is. I can barely afford medical visits or prescriptions in the states with insurance. Now if only I could read and speak Korean.

After leaving the office Min looks at me and says "She was so nice to you! You are picking up every prescription for all of us from now on."

Seoul Subway

Before my Subway fiasco took place, I moseyed along the one block before going down into the station and took in a little bit of Seoul.

 This is a little flower shop that was right beside the subway entrance. It was a lot cuter in person. The weather is a little cold right now (around the 30's) so she probably has to take her plants in before nighttime.

 This is a picture I caught of Seoul's streetlife. When I was walking down the sidewalk it reminded me a lot of being in Chicago, but I suppose you could say that of any big westernized city.

And this is where my adventure begins.

The subways stations here have large underground areas which house a bunch of markets as well. Between that and a bevy of commuters rushing to and fro, the subway can get a little hectic. Needless to say I got lost. I kept asking people where I was to go -- mainly because I didn't know, but I kept asking different people because I was a little paranoid that they would send me purposefully in the wrong direction -- and still ended up going the wrong way. Twice. Simplicity became a nightmare.The simple green line to red line didn't work since I didn't know which way on the green line I needed to go on, and honestly, the pink line on the map does not look much different from the red line. 

Once I figured my mistake, continuously staring at the map, clutching onto my brown paper bag, and tears welling up in my eyes, I realized I was lost. In Seoul. I was tired. And frustrated. And honestly a little scared. I had no idea how I was getting home. And all I wanted to do was eat my food, drink my fancy drink, and sleep until I could magically learn Korean.

People kept walking past me on both sides as I aimlessly wandered from sign to sign hoping that it would somehow make sense. But in a panic, it never seems to anyway.

I decided I would take a chance on a young kid walking by (young as in my age, but Koreans always look younger than they are) and asked him if he could help me. He said he was going the same way so he would show me where I needed to transfer. Kom sa ham ni da!

After chatting with him for a bit, we got to the transfer point and gave him a huge hug. I was so thankful to be in familiar territory, and even though I had to go back to the school to do observations for the next six hours, one of the best moments was just sitting down and finally eating my chicken salad and sandwich in the faculty room.

One good thing is that now I can navigate the Seoul Subway system like a pro.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Medical Leave

As part of the conditions of the job all foreigners have to go through a medical check-up as soon as you get to South Korea.  I'm not sure if there are more scattered around the country (I'm sure at least Busan has one) but our closest hospital for employment purposes is in Seoul and since I work in Bundang it's a little bit of a trek to get there (approx. 30-40 minutes on the subway). I'm the only new teacher in YBM LIA but there are two new teachers in YBM PSA (Pre School Academy) which is just up a few flights of stairs from us so the schools made an agreement that I would go up to the 8th floor at meet them at 9am and we would make our way there together.

Quick side note about YBM: this is considered an umbrella organization that offers private schooling with a focus on English. For our school, we have three blocks of classes so after the students complete their day at public school they come over to YBM LIA in either Block A, B, or C which meet on certain days and times. Confusing?

So 8:50am I get into the building and go up to the 8th floor. No one is there yet so I just sit and wait. 9am. Still nothing. 9:10am, well, maybe they're just late. So I ask around the school if they know where the new teachers are. No one has any idea. And no one knows why I'm even there or what medical stuff we have to take care of. 9:20 I finally decide to call someone (Min, the educational director at LIA) from the PSA phone to let her know what was going on.

I'm really wishing that something could just go as planned at this point. I also forgot to mention that I had been fasting since midnight so no food or water and all I had wanted was a little cup of water or something. Anything. And amidst the frustration it seemed as though food and, more importantly, water would be an oasis in my desert of Korean frustration. A little dramatic? Lol, well that's certainly how I felt at that moment. Living in a foreign country where you don't speak the language is a lot more daunting than I had anticipated.

After some explaining of where I was and who I was not with (the other teachers) followed by a Korean conversation between Min and the PSA receptionist (who does not speak English) we finally figured out that the principal from LIA would take me down to the hospital rather than doing it by myself. Thank you thank you thank you.

And so my day begins.

We make it on the red line out to Gagnam station, and then transfer to the green line out to Seullong (sp?) Station. We then walk about a block to the hospital. Nice and easy. I should be able to remember that for the way back.

So Kay drops me off at the hospital and they tell me to take of my shirt and "brassiere" and put on a hospital gown. Now this thing is not like the scratchy, back-opened-to-the-world kind of shirt. They give you a nice, cottony-soft robe that ties around the waist -- similar to something you'd keep at home. Then at this point you get bounced around from one heath station to the next.

This building, or at least a few floors, offer what seems to be an entire conglomeration of all things medical, and we have to be poked and prodded by them all. Being an extremely careful and paranoid person -- my boyfriend would definitely agree that I'm a worrier -- I took as many tests and as many shots as I could possibly do in the US in order to pass any medical exam here with confidence, but all the hub bub did make me nervous. They took blood, did my blood pressure which was "high" they said (gee, I wonder why), did my height and weight, hearing and visual, took chest x-rays, and finally, and the most intrusive thing that did make me feel like a horse being sold, was that they had a dental set-up in which they checked your teeth. Let me also say that all these stations took less than 2 minutes each. So you'd go to a station, get checked up, sit down, wait, repeat. They also re-did my blood pressure which I guess had normalized by the end of the chaos.

The final point where you see the doctor who asks you the normal questions which seemed to be programmed into her mind. She didn't know enough English for me to ask any questions though.I'll, or I should say the school will, get my results in about a week and then after than I need to get my Alien Registration Card. One step at a time.

And then it was over. Simple, fast, and a little dehumanizing. 

When I make my way downstairs -- the elevators have a touch screen for which floor you want rather than pushing a button -- I see a little "Parisian Cafe" to my right. "Perfect" growled my stomach.

As my eyes went down the line of all the pristinely kept bottles of various assortments of mineral water and juices, illuminated by a backdrop of light and hunger, I knew, I chose wisely.

I guess these little cafes are normal in Seoul. Lots of foreigners, especially French ex-pats live in the area so bakeries are commonplace. I really wanted to take a picture of all the cute pastries they had but the girl working was adamant about me not doing so. Tourists must try to do that a lot. Pfft, dumb tourists. Glad I'm not one. ;)

I happily picked up a bottle of sparkling pomegranate flavored water and a little chicken salad and sandwich combo, purchased it with 10,000 won (a little less than ten dollars), got my change, and took the brown paper bag I would later consume back at the school. I could handle this!

Apparently not, as I tried to make my way back.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Hotel Novios

So the hotel I'm staying at looks like any old corporate building from the outside and has the kind of ambiance of a youth hostel, but I was really surprised at the character as well as the technology on the inside.

When you put the key into the door, you're welcome to a small room... with another door. This is where you're supposed to take off and leave your shoes before you come into the main living area. I did take off my shoes, but the idea of wearing the slippers bothered me a little bit, so barefoot I go! Also the heating is under the floors so it actually feels good to walk around with bare feet. 

This is my main living area. I've already covered it with all my stuff. You've got the bed which is about a double bed with a window above it where the shutters can close at night if you don't want the city lights coming in. To the left in the photo is my monster checked bag and then even further to the left is a little couch and table. In front of the bed is a huge TV that I haven't figured out how to work yet since all the instructions are in Korean as I'm sure the channels are in as well.
My little couch and table (with lots of food). I forgot to mention that Mr. Choi even got me a Quiznos sandwich. It was BBQ Chicken. Delicious.
 Here's the TV and computer that I've hidden in place of a picture collage that Nick gave me before I left.
 The bathrooms here are interesting. Most of the showers don't have curtains or even tubs so when you take a shower water gets all over everything, which is the idea. There's a drain in the floor for excess water and everything in the bathroom is made to get wet. It makes cleaning it really easy, but getting water on the floor still bothers me so I put a towel down where most of the water lands.
 The view from my window. There are lots of apartments in Bundang so I'm thinking that's what most of the buildings to the left are. The ones in the center and to the right are mainly offices.
Time to enjoy my "Korean" num nums and get started at work!

Welcome to Korea

Well after a painful visa experience (that I'll probably talk more about later) along with a flight that was approximately 15hrs total coupled with a one hour bus ride -- where I, like a child, had to carry around the words saying Jeong Ja Station so the bus driver would know where to take me -- to my temporary living situation the Hotel Novios in Bundang South Korea. I'm finally here.

I was terrified with the thought of going in to customs. With all the issues I've had just getting a visa I kept thinking on that flight (because there's all the time in the world to dwell on minutiae) that I'm going to get there and they're going to find something in my bag, like a can of pringles or something dumb, and then kick me out of the country for trying to bring in salacious goods into their country. After waiting, no joke, an hour in immigration my visa was (thank God) accepted without a problem and I finally figured out the signs to pick up my checked baggage. To my dismay my bottle of laundry detergent had exploded in my checked bag making one side of the duffle bag sticky and discolored. "Oh God, now the customs people are really going to think that I'm bringing something weird into the country. I'll have to explain to everyone back home why I got sent back."

For a sticky bag.

I walk up to customs and hand over my card that I filled out saying that I had nothing to declare, kept walking waiting for some TSA people to spring out and strip search me. "Should have thrown out that Kashi bar!" and nothing. I was out of it. No one even searched my bag.

One thing that I can say about South Korea so far is that everyone is so nice. This is not to say that I wouldn't be on my guard constantly just in case, but from the airport to my hotel I had met people who were very eager to help me, the girl whose extensive Korean begins and ends with "anyong ha se yo." Being the last person to get a seat on the bus to Bundang (score!) and as tired as I was, I basically straddled this poor Korean man while pushing my monster of a backpack into the seat next to him, constantly apologizing the whole time until I finally finagled my way into it.

The issue at this point was how I was to meet with my contact Mr. Choi (pronounced 'Che' in Korean) at Jeong Ja station. I did have his phone number but that did little to help me as I do not have a phone. So the man I molested and I begin talking and I tell him how I'm here to teach English and he asked me if I knew anyone in the area and if I had a way of getting in contact with Mr. Choi. When I told him I did not have a way he not only called Mr. Choi that I would be arriving at such and such time, he also called him again when he got off on the first stop (my stop was 3rd) just so he would be positive that I would get picked up. I have also been invited to dinner with him, his wife, and his two little kids.

When I finally got off the bus and looked around me it finally sunk in that I was in a foreign city and as that bus took off I thought "Man, I'm really screwed if I can't find this guy." I was lugging my bags around trying to find exit 1 (where I was to meet Mr. Choi) of the Jeong Ja station and was at a loss so I asked someone walking down the street who was intently looking at his iPad.

"Excuse me, do you know where station 1 is? At JEONG JA" as I hold up one finger to denote what I wanted and then pointed to the sign to show where and mouth the words I knew I instantly butchered.

"Oh yeah, no problem," he responded in perfect English "it's right across the street." He was apparently from LA visiting his relatives in Korea. "Good luck and peace bro" as he tapped his fist to his chest and then peaced me out with his fingers. Why thank you kind sir!

Mr. Choi was not what I had expected. I was thinking someone older and a chauffeur looking man with a little hat would be picking me up. But as I crossed the street he looked at me with my bags and said "YBM LIA?" This guy was probably no older than myself and wearing a simple green jacket with jeans. Apparently he and I are both new to the company. He's only been working with them for 3 months. He took my huge goliath of a checked bag and we made our way back across the street and into my little hotel I now call home. He helped me bring all my stuff up into the room and also brought me groceries: some milk and cereal (Special K!), a big bottle of water, and some utensils which included spoons and chopsticks.

Ended my night by skyping with my boyfriend to the glow of Korean business lights through my window. Jetlag is definitely my enemy, but man do I love to travel.