Monday, December 30, 2013

You Serious, Clark?

Christmas has yet again come and gone, this one being, I believe, my fourth away from home. I'm already looking forward to next year when it will actually feel like Christmas and I can easily get the things I want (turkey, proper wrapping paper...) and be able to be with my family.

Christmas is only somewhat of a holiday here. It's been catching on over the past few years so there are decorations on store windows and music playing and trees up in the department stores and a big display of Christmas lights in the Nampo area that people flock to see, so there is a bit of holiday spirit in the's just not, you know, home. It's just not the same and not done to the magnitude that a Westerner is accustomed, so there is a little bit to be desired. Christmas Eve is a working day here, so I spent my day at school making construction paper Christmas trees with the kids.

My mom mailed our box of Christmas gifts and it arrived right on time, so Al and I woke up Christmas morning, put on the Elvis Christmas album (it's what my family always played on Christmas) and opened gifts. I don't care how old I am really, one never tires of opening dozens of Christmas presents. 

I got a new camera, which I'm super stoked about, I just need to figure out how to use it. I wanted a nicer one than what I have so I can get some good pictures on our European vacay, so that was my big gift from my mother. I can set things manually, which I think will allow me to take some much better pictures, I just don't know what I'm doing yet. Help!

We cleaned up all the paper and moved all the furniture around because all of our friends were coming over for Christmas that night. We decided that since we had the room and a good setup for Thanksgiving that we'd also just go ahead and do Christmas. A few weeks prior we had done a Secret Santa drawing, so more presents were to be unwrapped! 

Everyone I love here came and the mood was jolly. We had delicious food (everyone was in agreement it was even better than Thanksgiving) and I made a pumpkin cheesecake that was a huge hit. 

He wanted old man glasses to go with his outfit

Secret Santa!

Tom was Santa and added gift opening commentary



Everyone left about 2am and we had to work at 9 the next morning, which was the start of the kids' winter "vacation", meaning my hours now shift to morning. Which is fine, get in early, get out early. I finish at 2:35 Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and 1:45 on Thursday Friday. Not a bad day. I won't be taking it for granted; it's my last semester. 

It's Monday and I'm off today, tomorrow and the 1st. Not much of a vacation considering I had 7 days straight off last year, but I'll take what I can get. Onward to 2014!

Monday, December 9, 2013

Another Holiday Away

Thanksgiving came and went with about as much excitement as it does back home, just perhaps with a little less cranberry sauce and a lot less family. On Thanksgiving Day, I wasn't about to do any studying at school just for the principal that it was a holiday to me. Al was there at school with me so we got some brown, red and yellow paper and made hand turkeys with our classes, to much delight of the students who neither know nor care that it's Thanksgiving, as long as they don't have to study. The older kids know of Thanksgiving, so they were also just as delighted to do a Thanksgiving crossword puzzle while I sat on the computer and scrolled through Pinterest. Not much of a Thanksgiving Day, but hey! Hand turkeys are better than nothing.

The Sunday after Thanksgiving was the big feast hoorah at our apartment. We squeezed over 30 bodies in our minuscule apartment, though much more comfortably than we imagined. We got three fully-cooked turkey breasts at Costco, I made enough mashed potatoes to feed an army, two pumpkin pies and our friend Jess, who has recently returned, brought stuffing back from America. That covers the basics, plus we had a dish or contribution from every person, including but not limited to: broccoli casserole, curried carrots, sweet potatoes, artichoke dip and some bacon-wrapped rice concoction which Sophie brought that I believe people are now clambering over themselves trying to get the recipe. Everyone had a great time, even though Americans make up maybe only 60% of our group of friends. But who doesn't love getting together and eating, despite the celebration?

Boys peeling potatoes

Full to the brim!

After Thanksgiving is the only appropriate time to put up the Christmas tree if you ask me, so that's what Al and I did Tuesday night. It's the same tree and decorations as last year, but it's cute nonetheless! 

Look at him flexing for the picture

Our friend Will decided on a whim not even a month ago that he was over Korea and wanted to move to Shanghai with some other friends we have there. Get a new start. So that's exactly what he did. Will has been a constant in our lives for nearly two years, so it's really strange that he's not here. I miss him terribly, and I can say it a million times, but it's the worst part of this job. Wednesday night was the last time we saw him and really have no idea when we will ever again. We miss you so much, Will! 

Getting pretty excited for Christmas! My last one in another country. I can't even remember the last Christmas I had with my family in America. Many, many years ago. Well, here's to my last set of holidays abroad! 

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Apparently I Look Like A Russian Hooker

I can't believe I didn't write about this sooner, but I might have just been just too shaken up (slightly) over it. I was also probably so busy telling everyone here about it because they would understand what happened slightly better than an outsider...and then I forgot to write about it.

Before telling you my tale, I'll let you in on a little information about old Korean men, also known as an "ahjussi". An ahjussi is, in nice terms, a way to refer to a Korean man who is much older than you. In more negative (yet accurate) terms, it's a skeezy, drunk old Korean dude reeking of cigs and kimchi. (Or as Al so lovingly says...."they're f*ck heads".)

These guys prowl the streets of Korea all hours of the day, wasted, stumbling around causing ruckus and offending many people along the way. The problem with Korean society is that if someone is older than you, you cannot, under any circumstances, question or challenge them. It does not matter if they say the sky is green, you must just smile, agree and move on. In businesses (and schools), you can never question authority. If someone is older, in a higher position of power, or both, it is a major no-no to debate them. So, because of this unfortunate hierarchy of a belief system they have over here, old people run about like they own the place and can do whatever they want, whenever they want without consequence. (Being drunk here is almost always an actual, legal way to get out of most things...even rape. It's excusable if you had one too many soju shots). For example, a drunk ahjussi (those two words tend to just belong together) would not leave Al and two friends alone one night when they were sitting outside on the patio of our local Family Mart. He was just belligerent and harassing them and, no joke, kept trying to grab Al's friend's crotch. They got tired of it asked a girl our age at the next table if she spoke English, she said yes, so he asked if she could kindly ask him to piss off. She then apologized and said there's no way she can tell him to leave simply because he's older than her. I wish I were joking. I'm all for respecting elders, but it's on a completely different level here.

All that was to tell you of my encounter with my own ahjussi a few months ago. I was walking home from work, which is about a mile one way, and I could sense there was someone walking behind me, keeping pace. My route is on a busy, well lit street so I wasn't too bothered by it. All of a sudden, I felt a person grab my hand. I whipped around and it's a gross man, probably 50 years old. I yanked my hand away, gave him a look like wtf and sped up my walking. He continued to walk next to me and grab my hand several times all while I'm yelling "아니요!" (no!) and giving him dirty looks. I walked much faster thinking I lost the guy when he was back again this time grabbing my arm trying to get me to go with him somewhere. He was patting his heart, pointing down the street somewhere, rambling in Korean. He grabbed my arm again, I shouted in his face, and lucky I was close to Al's school so I went there pronto. By the way, as all this was happening there were many onlookers refusing to help me. This is common here, no one wants to get involved because it's inconvenient for them, so they don't help. They merely watch as if it's some entertaining, ridiculous K-Drama on television. I made it to Al's school just fine, albeit slightly peeved at the whole thing. Al walked me home, of course hoping to run into the guy so he could...I dunno, punch him or something?

Over the next few days, I regaled my story to some friends, one of whom said (like it was the most obvious thing in the world), "He probably thought you were a prostitute."


Why didn't I come to this realization myself? Korean men love hookers. Korea (and Japan) is a country of Love Motels a.k.a. "by the hour" motels. There is one on every block seemingly encouraging this behavior. Guys on motorcycles drive by and throw little cards all over the sidewalks, adorned with pictures of naked women and a phone number, where anyone who walks by can see and pick them up, children included of course. A friend is even collecting them to make some kind of hilarious art piece out of them. Korean men are the #1 customers in Southeast Asia for the sex industry down there. One thing that we foreigners hear a lot about are the "Russians" around these parts. The "Russians" are mostly blonde young women who come down here from like Vladivostok (or other parts of Eastern Europe) or something to make some cash in a society that's more than willing to pay.

As soon as my friend said that, I knew exactly that's what the old guy thought. I get stared at a lot buy old Korean men and it's slightly unnerving, but generally they keep their distance. I've gotten asked before on more than one occasion if I was Russian, knowing exactly what they were implying, but I immediately say I'm American and they don't probe further, unlike that dude.

Here's an interview with a girl here about the situation and her also being thought of as a prostitute all the time, it's a good read!

Four more months and I'm ouutttaaa here!

Monday, November 11, 2013


In the World's Largest Department Store just down the road, there is an incredible place called Spa Land. It's basically just what it sounds like.

In Asia there are numerous public baths. You go in, pay a few bucks, get a key, strip down and enjoy all the different jacuzzis in all your naked glory. It may sound strange to a westerner, but it's perfectly normal to the locals and it's even a past time enjoyed by families who come together. There are old ladies and mothers and teenagers and little girls running all about the place. These places are squeaky clean, beyond relaxing and surprisingly cheap. I went all the time in Japan (where they are called onsens) but I've only been once here in Korea (where they are called jimjilbangs). Our friend's Steph and Andre are leaving in a few weeks so what better way to spend some quality time with a friend than bathing together?

We paid our $14 and walked through the fancy corridors to the men/women's entrance and Al and Andre went one way and Steph and I went the other. They give you an outfit that resembles scrubs to wear in the co-ed areas, so we put that on first and went up to the restaurant to meet the boys and eat. Steph and I made an appointment for a body scrub so after dinner we went back down to the baths area, got naked, and the lady called us in.

There are three Korean women who were working this body scrub/massage area. Their "uniform" was, no joke, a black bra and panties set. I walk into a room that looked like nothing more than a large utility closet, complete with rolling metal shelves and buckets. She instructed I lay down on a pink plastic table and she went to work. She took one of those buckets I saw and doused me in hot water, put some oily stuff on what looked like yellow oven mitts and started scrubbing. She scrubbed every single inch of my body until I was literally laying there in mounds of my own zombie-colored dead skin. It was vile. I was first on my back while she buffed my stomach and boobs and all other parts facing up. She then had me turn on my side where she indicated I spread eagle myself while she got the insides of my legs. I finally got on my stomach so she could do all the back parts, including my buttcrack. I had to turn over once more while she got parts she may have missed, such as my bellybutton and armpits and finally it was over. She threw some more hot water all over to rid me of all the loose dead skin that was now sticking everywhere, rubbed me with some more oil and it was over. After all was said and done, I looked like I had an intense sunburn. I was SO red! Here 24 hours later my skin still feels like a baby, but my hands are having a hard time holding moisture for some reason. Perhaps scrubbing them to death did something? Either way I feel like I can't keep enough lotion on them.

We next went to the outside baths. It has many hot, shallow rock pools and it has a pretty wooden roof while the upper part of the walls are open to the outside. We sat in the foot and a half of hot water and talked while I felt like there needed to be koi fish swimming around me because of the surroundings. Now, perhaps it's my generation, but I don't see how all these women my age can have such hairy hoohas. I get it's more of a western thing, really, but some of these I saw are just out of control. And whoever thinks that Asians have small boobs, it's really not the case. There were lots of old ladies with them hanging past their belly buttons just like your own grandma's.

After we were done with the rock pools, we put back on our scrubs/taekwondo outfits, met the boys and decided to check out all the "rooms". It's somewhat like a hallway of saunas, each one with different healing or relaxation properties and different temperatures. Some scorching hot, some dry and comfortable, some humid, some frigid, some with special hot stones, some shaped like pyramids...take your pick. We sampled a few and then went to the top floor where there are recliners with TVs attached where you can relax or read magazines. I watched a bit of the Nat Geo channel and then Al and I called it a night. I went back to the women's part, got back in one of the tubs one last time and then regretfully put my jeans and coat back on.

Why have I not yet been to Spa Land in two years? There are jimjilbangs everywhere but nothing like this place. I will be back!

Thursday, November 7, 2013

The Kids Are Dropping Like Flies

There have been some recent changes at Nammun Elementary school. As some of you may know, I work for an after school program through a company called Avalon. Korean academies are all various shades of sketchy, and as it turns out, mine is no different. Our Avalon branch owner, let's call him Mr. S, has been getting in loads of trouble lately. Al and I decided on a whim to go check the status of our pension a few months ago and whaddya know, old Mr. S hadn't paid it in three months. It took five unpaid months and a call from the pension office threatening him with the Labor Board to get him to pay it. Over these last few months at the main office where Al works, he hasn't replaced teachers that have finished their contracts, closed down the third floor, and asked the Korean staff to take a pay cut, among other things. Al and I were slightly sweating with worry over what was going on with our school because teachers being thrown out on their rear with no money because their school closed isn't that unusual around here. It turns out, wait for it, that Mr. S is getting sued by Avalon because he was operating under the Avalon name without actually paying for the franchise. To be honest, I'm not that surprised. I'm still unsure whether it was the main office where Al works or only Nammun that was illegal, either way he now has to change everything and will now not be a name-brand academy.

The good news is nothing will change with our job situation. They will continue to stay open and have even talked to another teacher who finishes in January about a replacement for him for a year contract after that, so we're cool in our heels. 

The bad news is the kids are quitting left and right. The thing you have to understand about Korea is that BRAND matters above everything else. Counterfeit is rampant here because they have to be seen with the logo. I constantly see Prada and Hermes shopping bags with groceries in them because they just want to be seen carrying it. If one kid at school buys a $150 special kind of backpack and then all the kids start buying those, the social implications of you as a parent not buying that bag for your child means you could be talked about in social situations or pegged as poor. Good old Mr. S has a Mercedes. The lowest class, cheapest Mercedes. That means that among the rich, Mercedes owning social circles of Busan, he's poor and has the crap Mercedes. So what did Mr. S do? He actually scraped the model code off the back of his car so no one knows that he has the low end car. And that's not even surprising to me anymore. They are constantly trying to one-up the other and it starts as children. The fierce educational competition they are put through for the duration of their schooling carries over into adulthood where they are still just trying to get ahead of the next person. One way they do this through branding. They need to show everyone that they are rich (even though they aren't) by putting on a front. That front is carrying a knockoff Louis, making sure you have what everyone else has despite the fact you can't afford it and yes, even sending your kid to a brand name academy. 

Because we will no longer be associated with a nationwide name, parents are pulling their kids out because they can't tell so-and-so that little Jimmy goes to Avalon. My two favorite girls, whom I've been teaching for two years now, have quit. I actually cried. They said they wanted to stay but their mothers are making them quit. I am 99.9% sure that the sudden drop in our kids this semester is attributed to the recent change and it beyond irks me. I loved those girls. A bunch of others at Nammun and at Al's office will never be seen again all because mommy can't brag to her friends anymore. 

The semester changed this week at Nammun. New books, new classes. Well, the classes get rearranged as the kids level up or down. Their school year starts in March and we get a slew of new kids then, and slowly throughout the year the classes get combined as they all move up or quit and eventually by winter I have a lot of free gaps in my day. I now teach no more than 4 hours on any given day. Mondays and Thursdays I only teach 3 hours and Fridays even less as I go in at 2:00 and leave at 5:45, with only 2 1/2 of that actually in a classroom. Just straight luck. I'm getting paid the same amount as Al who has to be at school 2-10 every day with significantly more class hours. That's just how it works here. 

I had some fun with my little kids the other day and snapped a bunch of pictures, enjoy!

My lesson before we got silly. There's no picture to draw for "brown"...

Friday, November 1, 2013

A Nammun Elementary Halloween

I always like special days at school when we can get away from the mundane daily task of teaching and learning. These kids have no free time whatsoever so any chance I get to have fun with them, I take. Halloween is a holiday made for kids. Adults love it, but kids L-O-V-E it. Asia, on the other hand, sucks at Halloween. It has just not really caught on here and it's nothing like in the US and Canada. There aren't any costume shops per se, nor are there many places to even buy anything Halloween related. Toys R Us and a few of the department stores have a small selection of things like witch hats, swords and fairy wings. I saw a few Iron Man costumes and some other doctor/fireman/police officer pajama like things for boys, but that's really about it. There's definitely no trick-or-treating, it's just more or less a reason to put on a hat or mask and get candy from your teacher at school.

...That's where we come in! I went above and beyond and made tons of decorations and thought of games for the kids because the Korean teachers are useless when it comes to things like that. At the end of every semester (every two months) we have "coupon day" where the kids redeem the coupons they receive from accumulated stamps and stickers for homework and good behavior throughout those two months. Usually it's snacks, pens, notebooks and a movie during class but this coupon day fell on Halloween, so we made it special for them by giving out candy also. I cringed watching the kids who never do homework and therefore have no coupons be handed gobs of candy, but, it's a special day I suppose. Al teaches with me on Thursdays at Nammun so this year, he was there with me and made it much more fun! Despite them not getting a real Halloween experience, we all had buttloads of fun.  

Didn't get too creative, but Al wore his onesie and called himself a bunny

Wayne and Kevin the Mummy
Toilet paper mummy game

Anna looks unimpressed to be swaddled in TP

Al and I had a teacher race. I WON