Wow I've been in South Korea for over a month already! It really seems like just a few days ago I came in on the big plane! So I'll start around week 3 or 4 and go from there...
Work got a little stressful because there was so much to do and just not enough time to do it. The last week in July would begin the summer vacation. Teachers (well me and Jenn, my American colleague) would be on vacation but the kiddies still had to go Monday and Tuesday. My supervisor would "teach" them. And by teach I mean give them tests. Every afternoon class (5) had a test both days. No bid deal, right? Wrong. I had to search and find all 10 tests, make sure they were correct and make copies. It actually doesn't seem like THAT big of a deal but it was really challenging because a lot of stuff was very unorganized. And I couldn't stay organized either... But now it's over and done with (I'll just have to grade all of those tests when I get in on Monday...).
Before I left for vacation, Pohang hosted the "International Fireworks Festival." They had soo much to do on the beach and at the river. People apparently came from all over to see the fireworks. And three countries (Japan, Canada and Poland - I think) competed for the best pyrotechnic show. The festivities began on Saturday though. Went to the beach and it was amazing. They had (FREE) speed boat rides, wind surfing, tubing, jet skis, row boating, kayaking, blow up water slides and probably more. It was so much fun. And even though the water is quite polluted (sticking out from the beach on the peninsula is the 4th largest steel mill in the world, POSCO) but I didn't care the whole weekend. It was hot and sunny. So I was in the water. And I enjoyed it. I just didn't put my head under.
Then Saturday night was the big fireworks! First I had dinner with a friend - traditional Korean BBQ. They bring out a bunch of side dishes to munch on, first. And then bring out the meat, that you grill on your table. When the meat is done, you make a taco-like thing with lettuce and other fillers (marinated onions, garlic, bean sprouts, bean paste, etc). It's delicious. We ate beef but really traditional Korean BBQ uses pork. It's called samgyopsal (sahm-gip-saw). It appears to be thick bacon that isn't cured but it's definitely one of my top favorite Korean foods. Ok so THEN the fireworks!! It was a challenge getting there. ALL of the taxis were full and heading to the river so we had to walk (not a big deal. It wasn't far, just super hot!) There were just fields and fields of Koreans and they basically had a mini carnival set up. Only where the funnel cake stand should be, there's a raw seafood stand and a bowl full of bugs to eat (silk worm larvae. I refuse to try it.). The fireworks show was literately an entire hour of finale fireworks. I have a lot of video footage actually. I'll post some. You would see a "finale" and think that was it. Some people would leave. Then more fireworks would start. It was really exciting.
Then on Sunday I hung out at the beach again. Rented a tube and floated in the water for hours! I saw one of my students. I think I see a little girl I know then she starts waving madly and yelling "Heather Teacher! Heather Teacher!" (only it sounds like He-tha Tee-cha). Then later I see her swimming up to my tube with something in her hand. Her grandma bought me a popsicle! So sweet. I love treats!
Then Sunday evening I left to go to Seoul for a week to visit my friend Gina from Missouri (we both went to SEMO and have a mutual friend. We technically only met once before I went to stay with her for a week but she's great and I had a blast!)
My bus left at 8 p.m. I think. Maybe 9... But the ride was pretty uneventful. I slept. And since I got into Seoul so late (like 1:30 or so...) I had to take a taxi to Ilsan, about 30 minutes north of the city. I walk out of the bus terminal and no one is around. I can kind of see the street but don't exactly know how to get to it. A taxi driver approaches me and asks if I need a ride. Well, I do... So I get in and show him the text from Gina saying where I need to be dropped off. Halfway through the ride he tells me it will be $40. I didn't know if that was normal or not. Finally gets me to my destination, with Gina's help and her Korean boyfriend tries to talk to him and get me a better price. No luck. The guy's a D-bag and says he's a "special kind of taxi." So I fork over $40 for a 30 minute ride. (Completely outrageous. He probably took advantage of me because I'm white. No, I guarantee it.)
The next day we (eventually) leave for Muuido Island, off Incheon. [Seoul is the capitol of Korea. Incheon is an island north of Seoul and that's where the major airport is - The main way in and out of South Korea. Then there are smaller islands off of Incheon with beaches and stuff.] Takes us forever to get there because we have to catch this bus and go here then get on this buss and go there. Then a bus driver said I didn't pay my $8 fare when I really had already paid twice. So we tried to find out how I can get that money back, unsuccessfully... Then we wait 45 minutes for the bus that's supposed to take us to the ferry to take us to the island. Bus ride is long. We get off. It's the wrong ferry. We traveled the length of the island when actually, Muuido ferry is really close to where we started. So we take a taxi BACK up the island to our ferry.
Things are good until we go to rent our beach hut with a bathroom. They're under construction. Cool. But we could rent a pension with a bathroom, bed, AC for $15/night. GREAT! Not great... we misunderstood. $150/night. AND the $30 beach huts (that Gina's friend stayed in) are now $50/night because it's vacation season. A rip off but what else could we do...? So we get to our beach hut and quickly see that it's a metal shed with a window, on stilts. Still, it was a place to sleep and had pillows and blankets.
The water is too cold to swim in at this point (6 p.m.) and the sun is going down. So we just hang out on the beach and walk out with the tide as it's going out. This didn't seem strange at all because it makes sense that the tide would leave when it gets dark because of gravity and stuff... So then we eat a delicious and make some friends at the little beach restaurant. Gina's friend John is Korean (and speaks fluent English) so he was deemed our translator pretty quickly.
Next day we wake up early, thanks to the sound of waves and this huge tractor thing. We eat ice cream for breakfast because they didn't have American-type breakfast food. And at the beach the tide was semi-in but appeared to be going out again. Weird... And it keeps going out and out and out... Hmmmm? We go to the little store to have John ask and he finds a calendar that shows the tides. We came during low tide season. Therefore, the tide is low ALL the time except for a 2 or 3 hour period starting at 4 p.m. every day. Great! So we walk 3 miles several times to reach water up to our ankles. It was kind of cool to see the marine life come out of the ocean floor. But we were at the beach. We wanted water. We end up waiting 9 hours for the tide to come in. Then once it's high tide, we leave because the water is too cold to swim in! We quickly find out that everyone got BURNT, in spite of the sunscreen we put on like every hour... Oh well...
The next day (Wednesday) we go to Seoul to hang out. Ate some good food that day. Discovered Kimbop (kind of like a sushi roll basically), my new favorite Korean food. And ate a Doner (a Turkish gyro-type wrap thing. I ate them all the time in Germany. They're DELICOUS!) in Itaewon. Itaewon is the main "foreigner district" in Seoul. There are a lot of military and teachers that live and go there.
I found out that Koreans in Itaewon are REALLY prejudice. We're walking down the street and a police officer comes up to me and introduces himself and asks to see my purse. Then John catches up and translates for me. The officer wants to search my purse because a Korean man left a folder on a bench that we walked by and he thinks I put it in my purse (which actually isn't big enough to hide a folder with documents I wouldn't be interested in.). At first I didn't understand what was going on but then I realized they're discriminating against me because I'm white! Gina is furious and asks the officer if he checked her purse and her purse and her purse (pointing to Korean women). That gets me mad and I refuse and tell the officer he can take me to the US Embassy and they can search my purse. (Afterall, I am an American citizen and am still entitled to my American rights, even in South Korea). I finally walk across the street to cross somewhere else and I see the accuser man look at me and give me a head nod. I give him the finger in return.
Once my blood pressure went back down we had some beer and fries at a pub and I won at darts! We made a pretty early night because the next day we had to get up and travel East to where John's grandpa lives. We didn't get going as early as we would have liked but we got to Kangwon-do (Eastern state) before dinner.
John's grandpa owns a (Korean-famous) fish restaurant that serves raw and cooked trout. Twenty years ago he built the restaurant and HUGE holding tanks that use water from the mountains. He breeds and raises the trout (there are about 20,000 living trout at any given moment) and then serves them up to guests! It was really cool and the area was beautiful. It was a little town in the country/mountains. The food was just DELICIOUS and everyone at the restaurant (and the area in general) was so sweet and welcoming (unlike Seoul!). Gina and I stayed at a hotel in the town (a really nice room for $40 by the way. Cheaper than a shed and had amenities...) and went back for breakfast the next morning where we were served a ton more food. (Oh and John's grandpa gave us "allowance" while we were there. To take a taxi back in the morning, which didn't use even a quarter of the stipend he donated!) Everyone was just SUPER sweet and I decided I need to marry into a Korean family. That's my new goal! Haha!
We got back to Seoul and did some shopping. I bought some books and stationary. I decided I'm going learn Korean and got a self-teach listening workbook. Haven't started yet but I'm really excited. I think that if I can semi-understand and communicate in their language, I'd be less likely to be taken advantage of because I'm a waygook (Korean word for "foreigner" and often used as a racial slur when you hear Koreans say it mixed in with a bunch of Korean you don't understand and looking and pointing...).
BACK TO POHANG, BACK TO REALITY...
Now I'm back in my Pohang and I decided it's where I belong. Gina (who is actually going home to Missouri in a week but has decided to find a new job in Korea and come back!) told me to come to Seoul. That it's better. But I decided I'm just not cut out for a big city like that. It takes FOREVER to get anywhere and you have to constantly be surrounded by thousands of people. [Note: 40% of the Korean population lives IN Seoul, and 10% or 20% lives in it's "suburbs" - which are quickly just being considered SEOUL, thanks to urban expansion. This means that over half of the entire Korean population lives in Seoul. That's A LOT OF people. We're talking like 25 million people. New York City has 8.5 million residents.
Today (Sunday) is just a lazy, cleaning day. I need to mentally prepare myself for the next week/month/year! My birthday is in a few weeks! Pretty excited. If I were in America I would use my 22nd birthday as a 21 + 1 and as an excuse to binge drink but I am officially the youngest teacher in Pohang so I'll just say I'm 22 (and I can't make any guarantees against the binge drinking part).
Oh and if you feel so inclined, you can totally get my address and send me stuff! I have pretty stationary now so I promise I'll write you back. Maybe send you pictures. I love getting stickers, American gum, spice packets and mac and cheese. (Spice packets like taco seasoning, fajita seasoning, enchilada sauce mix and the instant noodle packs!) Email me or facebook message me to get my address!
I want to take a moment to address the safety of Korea. Most of you know before I left, there was concern about, well, another war between North and South Korea. I won't deny that it's ALWAYS a threat. The Korean war did not end with a peace treaty, just a truce, so there are still hard feelings and tension. But first of all, I'm registered with the US Embassy. If there is an emergency evacuation for some reason, I will be found and accounted for and shipped home immediately. From what I've heard from Koreans in Pohang, the conflict wasn't THAT big of a deal. In Seoul, the threat was a little higher just because it's so close to North Korea and it's the capital. Actually, the town where Gina lives (Ilsan) was built as a blockade of sorts between the north and Seoul. So if they attack, they can take Ilsan while Seoul has time to prepare.
But all violence aside, Korea is a VERY safe place. Especially where I live. I have NEVER felt threatened to walk by myself (even at night). You can set your purse at a table at a bar and walk around all night and not be concerned that someone's going to steal it. After going out at night in America, I always make sure I'm with my friends. There's always the concern that a friend will get drugged and... well killed. You just can't trust anyone in America. That's totally not the case here. I can talk to strangers at the bar leave alone at 3 am (or sometimes 5 or 6!) and catch a taxi to go home. After work in the evenings I like to walk to the beach (about 6 miles round trip probably) and it's dark halfway there. I never feel unsafe. There are always other people out walking about.
Going home is going to be strange, having to watch out for strange people at all times. Here I AM the strange person! And in Pohang, by the way, I am not discriminated against. More like treated like a celebrity. Little kids and high schoolers point and smile and say "Hello!! Nice to meet you!!"
And that's about it for now. Sorry this was so long. I'll try to blog more often rather than longer posts.