Tuesday, April 22, 2014

A Trip to the Dentist

Today I had my first and hopefully last experience at the dentist here in Korea. I don’t think that anyone can say that they really enjoy a trip to the dentist's office (sorry Uncle Alan!). It’s bad enough going in your own country but imagine being far from home and having to go to the dentist where you can’t fully communicate with them. I’m used to going to the dentist every 6 months back home so after being here for almost 9 months now, I felt that I was overdue for a cleaning.

One of my friends recently had to make several trips to the dentist including having a wisdom tooth pulled (with just local anaesthetic I might add, she was totally awake). The place that she went was relatively close to my apartment and the dentist spoke a reasonable amount of English so I decided to go there for my cleaning and check-up.

I got there right on time today and filled out a brief dental history form and was told to remove all of my jewellery for an x-ray first. All the while the dentist was making small talk about the weather and work. After the x-ray, I was ushered to a chair where I was promptly inverted. They then placed this green dish cloth looking thing over my face with just a hole where my mouth was to stop water from spraying on my face they said. It was kind of terrifying not being able to see what they were doing.

The hygienist had less English, so in the darkness of the green dish cloth that was covering my face, I could just hear her say “air”, “water”, “cotton”, as she shoved different things in my mouth. Forty minutes and $100 later, I was finished. 

Taekwondo and Other Things

I’ve now passed my 8 month anniversary with Korea.  It feels good to be on the home stretch, but I never thought I’d get to the point where I’m thinking about things and people that I’m actually going to miss when I leave. I definitely still feel that 1 year here was enough for me. I don’t think I could do it again but it’s been a great experience, I’ve learned a lot about myself and I don’t regret anything. There were plenty of times that I was ready to pack up and go home.  I have 3 pieces of advice for anybody that is thinking of living abroad or anyone who is abroad and is struggling with missing home.

1)      If you can’t change your circumstances, change your attitude. I complained a lot about this job. Obviously I drew the short straw for hagwons and I am stuck at a school with a fascist director most days for 11 hours. I used to have 2 breaks during the day but recently, due to a staff shortage they changed the schedule so that it’s now jam packed with no breaks. Once I made the decision that I was going to tough it out til the end, I just decided to find ways to endure. Make the best of your situation, it’s not forever.
2)      Remember why you did it in the first place. What was your original motivation? Are you trying to save money? Pay down student loans? Experience another culture? Whatever it was, you have to keep that big picture in mind. It will get you through the shitty days when you’re ready to throw in the towel.
3)      Find something to do that you enjoy. My saving grace these past few months has been taekwondo. I’ve never tried martial arts before but always wanted to. I’m proud of myself for sticking this out because it’s a big commitment to go to the gym 3x/week to train after 11 hour days at work. It’s worth it though. I always end up having a good laugh at the ridiculousness of me trying to punch and kick.

Speaking of taekwondo, this post is long overdue. Remember way back in December when I wrote about how the grand master stopped his car in the middle of the street and chased me down to join his gym? Well it was actually another couple of months before anything became of that. A lot of the public school teachers who had long breaks over the holidays went home, so classes were put on hold. It was the end of January and I had nearly forgotten all about taekwondo since it had been so long since that first meeting. I was walking to the cafĂ© near my work when I heard someone shouting “hello” from across the street. I turned around and saw Master Park jogging toward me. He demanded to know why he hadn’t heard anything from me about starting classes.

I sheepishly informed him that most of the teachers had gone travelling for the Christmas break and I had temporarily forgotten about it. I promised to send out another message and get back to him the next day. The number of people interested had dwindled from about 12 to 5 by then but we were determined to do it anyway. I had my Japan trip planned for the end of January so it was decided that we would start first week of February.

I was nervous for the first class. Master Park had asked two of his young black belts to come and help out the first couple of weeks since he had a leg injury and couldn’t demonstrate the kicks. The first two weeks were kind of frustrating because I’m really not the most coordinated person. I was always the one turning the wrong way or punching with the wrong hand. I just nervous giggled through the whole first week. But slowly, slowly I started to get the hang of the forms and the kicks.

Master Park is an interesting story. He’s been living in the US for the last 15 years teaching taekwondo. It’s not really clear how he ended up back here but he makes it known every day that he doesn’t like this country (even though he was born here) and that he’s extremely lonely here. He’s drunk more nights than not. But he is a good person and an interesting character. The other night, the group met for dinner and he told us that if he hadn’t met us and starting teaching us, he wouldn’t have stayed here this long. It’s funny because I feel the same way. So I guess we’ve all kept each other going.

Last month we had our first test for the belt promotion early on a Saturday morning. Since we are all only here for a short while, we actually tested for two belts in one day. Master Park showed up still drunk from his previous Friday night out and he kept pausing the test to go on these inspirational tangents about life and motivation. It was pretty funny. We all passed the tests that day so we were promoted to green belts. It was a good feeling because whenever I told my students that I was doing Taekwondo and then had to tell them I was a white belt, it was an instant loss of credibility.

My time here in Korea is coming to an end, but first our TKD group is headed to the Phillipines for the first weekend of May. We are going to see a taekwondo demonstration and then we will have a couple of days to explore. I am excited to get one more stamp in my passport before heading home.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Giggle Syndrome and the Blame Game

I know this has been touched on in other blogs but I just wanted to share some of my own experiences about the Korean way of dealing with uncomfortable situations, mistakes or confrontation.

In general, Koreans are not comfortable with confrontation as a way to resolve conflict or miscommunication. Back home, when there is an issue at work or you’re not clear on something, you go directly to the source and ask questions. Problem solved. Miscommunication cleared. For whatever reason, my guess is insecurity; my experience has been that my Korean coworkers feel extremely uncomfortable talking about certain issues particularly if it involves the possibility that they made a mistake somewhere along the line or could somehow be blamed for something.

It’s very interesting to me to see such a dichotomy in this society where, they have become extremely efficient in some ways (technology, construction), but cannot grasp basic problem solving techniques. It is frustrating to say the least. I know that “saving face” happens everywhere and in every country, but in Korea it happens to the extent that not looking bad in someone’s eyes takes priority over just admitting that you made a mistake and then looking for a way to fix it.

The biggest example I can give of this phenomenon is a schedule change or a special event that is suddenly added and they forget to inform the foreign teachers. This is common. It happens at least once a week and it is beyond frustrating. There have been so many changes to our classes and schedules lately due to a bunch of staff quitting and being replaced. Yesterday I went in and prepared for my classes as normal. In the afternoon I went to one of my classrooms, lesson in hand, only to run into my Korean co-teacher for that class who informed me that she would be teaching them for that period. Nobody had told me about this schedule change, and I now had no idea where I was supposed to be and was unprepared to teach a different class.

I wouldn’t have minded so much if this hadn’t been maybe the third time that this happened this week. Generally when a problem occurs more than once, a light bulb would go on and someone would say “hmm…how can we deal more efficiently with this problem that keeps coming up?” I feel sad to say that my terrible working environment has left me feeling more and more bitter and jaded about my experience here. I probably would have felt entirely different had I been placed in a public school, which has a government funded English program and is therefore regulated.

Anyways, when I approached the woman who is in charge of making the schedules, the one who keeps failing to inform me of these changes, she kind of just giggled and didn’t even apologize. The giggle is one way that they deal with an uncomfortable situation. The other is to turn around and point the finger at someone else.

Unfortunately, foreigners often serve as the scapegoat here. Whenever something goes wrong at my school it must be the foreigners fault. Oh we’re losing a lot of kindergarteners? It must be that the foreign teachers don’t play enough and laugh enough with the children. They must just be sitting there with the kids working on the pile of books and worksheets that we told them to do. It couldn’t have anything to do with the fact that since I’ve arrived here in July, the entire Korean staff has quit and been replaced because they can’t deal with the tyrant of a director.

The other really disturbing instance in which I’ve noticed the giggle syndrome and the blame game coming into play is whenever I try to talk to my co-teachers about a child who I’ve noticed is really struggling and who may possibly have a learning disability. Learning disabilities and special needs are often not recognized here. I am not sure if it is denial on the part of the parents’, who again, want to save face and don’t want their child to be treated any differently, but they are really doing a disservice to their child and it deeply saddens me. I have one student who very clearly needs to be seen by a doctor. Obviously I cannot diagnose what the issue is but I strongly suspect he has ADD. The first time I pulled my co-teacher into the hallway to suggest that I noticed this student was struggling and that she should speak to his mother about this, she started laughing uncontrollably.

When I spoke to her about it a couple of weeks later, she again giggled (giggle syndrome) and said that she had spoken to his mother about it and the mother became very angry and suggested that his teachers just weren’t helping him enough (blame game) and weren’t paying enough attention to him. I pray for his future.
Unfortunately, there is no solution to this. It is deeply ingrained in their culture, this notion of not accepting responsibility and saving face. Does anyone else have insight or experiences to share? Please share them in the comments.


Sunday, March 2, 2014

Lunar New Year in JAPAN

So I went to Japan in January. Yep. The Lunar New Year happened to coincide with my birthday this year. The stars ALIGNED so that I could have a long weekend and do something epic. I am not really big into birthdays and the holidays hit hard this year, being so far from home. SO I wanted to distract from the fact that I am thousands of miles from my loved ones and do something special. Plus, Japan was always high on my list of places I had to visit. There are a bunch of tour groups that do organized trips and I am a terrible deal finder/planner. I figured that the cheaper and easier option would be to go with a group. Plus, we would be taking the ferry instead of flying and since airports tend to stress me out, this seemed like a safe bet.

So I had to get down to Busan to catch the ferry, and the fastest way to do that is to take the KTX bullet train. I had not been on one yet, so that was exciting. If you take the normal train, it’s a little over 4 hours to get from my city to Busan in the south. On the bullet train, it’s a 2 hour trip. I got to Busan pretty early and had the whole day to explore there. It was kind of exciting because I haven’t been there yet. It’s a popular place to go in the summer because it has a nice beach. I will definitely go back when it gets a bit warmer.

The boat ride over to Fukuoka was interesting. We had to board the ship at 7:30pm but it didn’t actually leave the port until 10:30pm. I have no idea why. We were divided into 5 person rooms that were equipped with floor mats and pillows for sleeping. The boat docked in Fukuoka the next morning at 6am, I went to the bathroom to shower before we got off the boat. The showers were in a jimjilbang-type setting. Basically it was a communal bathing experience-obviously gender segregated (which I am quite accustomed to now). I just wandered in without putting on my glasses or contacts so I have no idea if people were staring at the blond foreigner. I just got ready quickly and went back to my room to grab my bag.  Stepping off the boat in Fukuoka, I couldn’t believe how warm it was compared to Korea. I felt silly wearing my heavy winter jacket when all of the locals were in sweaters.

Ironically our first stop after getting off the boat and boarding our coach bus was Mcdonalds for breakfast. It’s the same in every country, yes. It was on the way to the castle that we were going to visit. Kumamoto Castle, upon pulling up was beautiful. One thing that I have noticed about Korea is that when I go to historic sites, everything has been restored so much to the point that it doesn’t feel like an authentic experience. Obviously a big reason for this was that the war destroyed so much. There was a lot that had to be rebuilt quickly after. But even when there is some semblance of genuine history, it somehow always feels out of reach. This was how Kumamoto Castle felt to me. I was expecting to walk in and feel like I could get a sense of the lives spent there. I wanted to see the living quarters and be able to differentiate the rooms. But walking in, there were only artifacts in glass cases, and pictures. It was a tad disappointing.

After that, we had lunch and then headed for Aso Volcano. We drove for what felt like forever through the mountains, and I had a nap because I was exhausted from the tumultuous boat ride the night before.  We were supposed to take a gondola ride up the mountain to the volcano and be able to walk around the rim. However, the volcano was extremely smoky that day and the gondola was shut down. So we got as close as we could and took some pictures from afar and bought some postcards before piling back on the bus. On the way to the hostel, the sun was going down in the mountains and the view was breathtaking. I couldn’t believe that I was in Japan riding through the mountains as the sun went down, it felt surreal. We finally arrived at our hostel in middleofnowhere, mountains, Japan. It was SO quaint and perfect. I had never stayed in a hostel prior to this trip and this was a great first experience. As we pulled up and brought our stuff in, dinner was already artfully arranged on the table waiting for us.

That night I had a less than adequate sleep because there was a man sleeping in the bunk beside mine who snored for most of the night and the only way that I can describe it is like the sound that a horse makes when it exhales through its mouth.

The next morning we woke up at 7am and had time to shower (another communal shower) and had breakfast before leaving the hostel and heading for the hot springs. This was the part of the trip that I was most looking forward to and it surpassed my expectations. It was so serene and idyllic. I didn’t even mind that I once again, had to disrobe in the presence of relative strangers. The hot springs were in this little village type setting with tiny shops and bakeries. You could pay to get a pass for 3 different hot springs and then choose which ones you wanted to try.

After the hot springs, we loaded back onto our bus and headed for a shrine in Fukuoka. This is a beautiful time to visit temples and shrines because during the Lunar New Year, there is a lot happening. It was so nice to wander around the shops and see the gardens. People were lined up for miles, waiting their turn to make their wishes and prayers for the new year.

The final stop was a ryokan- a traditional Japanese guesthouse- where we would be spending the night. This was by far the coolest place I’ve ever stayed. It was so beautiful inside and had really gorgeous zen gardens all around it. It was pouring rain that night but I borrowed an umbrella and set out in search of sushi, which took a little longer to find than I expected but was totally worth the trek.
Japan is absolutely beautiful and I only wish I could have stayed there longer. I can’t even put into words how I felt. People are so polite and welcoming, the streets are very clean, there is more vegetation and pretty gardens, there were minimal neon signs, the air smells cleaner and most importantly, the food is so delicious. I could go on and on…

I am happy that I chose to do a more rural trip first. I would still like to see Tokyo and some of the bigger cities, but this was the experience that I was looking for this time around and it was great. The only bad thing I can say about this trip was that it was way too short. Suddenly it was Sunday and we were heading back to the ferry port. But first, I pretty much bought the whole supply of traditional guest robes (called yukata) from the ryokan to send home as souvenirs. I am pretty sure the woman at the desk thought I had a screw loose but they made for really cool gifts. Wherever you are in the world, Japan is worth the trek. Do it.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Korean Style :)

So I know this is something I’ve touched on briefly in another post about why Korea reminds me of the 90’s. But I don’t think I really did justice to the style that Korea has. People really put effort into their appearance here. Not just the girls but also the men. The only thing that I will say is that the style is pretty homogenous here, particularly men’s style. It is pretty much what is known as “hipster”. And girls’ style ranges from super girly- frills, bows and polka dots- to hipster. 

In some ways a lot of things I see are outdated. Not in a cool throwback/ironic kind of way but in a “we never moved on from that decade” sense. For example, I see a lot of young women wearing fitted high waisted pencil skirts and/or dresses with puffy shoulders. They just scream 80’s in all the wrong ways. Since I have the clothes taste of an 8 year old, I think that I fit in perfectly here. I will never outgrow bows and polka dots. With that said, here are some of my favorite trends here:


Short, Puffy Skirts

Mixing girly dresses with chunky sweaters

Oversize Cable Knit Sweater

Prairie inspired tent dresses


HUGE Scarves a la Lenny Kravitz

Fitted Blazers

Obnoxiously Big Glasses

Funky Patterned Shirts

Thursday, December 26, 2013


As the year end approaches, I am feeling particularly reflective. This year has been intense in so many
ways. There has been so much personal growth that it’s overwhelming to think about all that has
happened. The biggest thing for me this year was struggling to let go of my need to control everything
that happens. It’s given me so much peace to realize that the only thing I can control is what I do and
how I feel. I spent a lot of time thinking that I could change certain outcomes and felt personally
responsible for any kind of “failure.”

I’ve always prided myself on the thought that I march to the beat of my own drum and try not to give in to societal pressures to live a certain way or do things in a certain order. But I must admit that one thing that’s really freaking me out about being in South Korea is watching loved one’s lives carry on as usual and milestones come and go and I am not there to witness them. I sometimes have to remind myself that everything and everyone will still be there waiting for me when I get back. It’s just scary to think about how fast time is going and how things are changing. But the worst thing to feel is fear. I don’t want to be fearful of what is to come, I just know that things are unfolding as they should. I’ve never felt so loved and supported as I have this past year. It helps to know that I have a strong safety net and I feel incredibly blessed to have people in my life who care so much.

If we open our minds and our hearts, we realize that we encounter people and situations all the time that can teach us more about ourselves and about life. I have three particular people in mind that really shaped experiences this year and changed my worldview. If they are reading this they will know exactly who they are. The first individual, I had the privilege to meet last December. This person was unlike anyone I’d met before and probably will ever meet. I feel lucky to know someone who I connected with on a different level. It’s very rare to meet someone who understands the very core of your being and can introduce you to parts of yourself that you never knew were there.

The second is someone that I have known for a while that resurfaced this year. This person also knows me quite well and knows that occasionally I need a little push to leap at the opportunities that present themselves. We have the utmost respect for each other, and I probably owe my undergrad degree to this individual. We had many conversations leading up to my departure that gave me the extra bit of courage to pursue this opportunity. Saying goodbye was bittersweet because it felt like closing the door to the past.

The third person was someone that has known me since I was a baby and is very close to my family. We had one of those epic, life changing talks in a pub in Toronto on a rainy day a few months before I left. Essentially, this individual gave me permission to start living my own life and to take chances. I will forever be grateful for that conversation. Sometimes you can hear the same words many times but when it comes from the right person, something finally clicks.

I look forward to starting 2014 and hope that it is full of happiness, love, and growth. Thank you all for being part of my journey. Your e-mails and skype calls have meant the world. What has your year been like? 


Friday, December 13, 2013

Master Park

It’s hard to believe that I’ve been here for 5 months now. It’s weird to think that when I got here, the heat and humidity were so high that I thought I wouldn’t make it through the summer. And now there is snow on the ground and we’re into the negative temperatures. I have been given fair warning about Korean winters. Everybody says “Oh you’re Canadian…you’ll be fine.” But I’m not so sure.

What I wanted to talk about in this post is fitness. I’ve always been an active person. Being healthy and eating well is something that’s always been important to me. Prior to leaving for Korea I was doing hot yoga 3 or 4 times per week and was on a pretty much carb free diet. When I first got here, I was really stressed out and everything-including the food-was so foreign to me. I ended up dropping 3 pounds. I was eating like a prisoner of war and surviving on eggs, kimchi and seaweed.

It’s hard to say when the turning point was but I think I can pin it down to this one weekend in Seoul back in October. I love to read other people’s blogs and one of my favorite ones is “A Fat Girl’s Guide to Eating in Korea.” I would read her posts and cry a little on the inside because I don’t have an oven and/or access to an abundance of ingredients. So, making anything delicious and elaborate in my kitchen is out of the question.

Then one fateful day, she posted about the existence of a Dean and Deluca (a fancy gourmet American food chain) in Gangnam. You can bet the first thing I did the following Saturday was to hop on a bus to Gangnam to check it out. Let’s just say it was like letting a hungry child loose in a candy store. I made a beeline for the cheese section like I was a contestant on the Amazing Race. I think I left with close to $100 worth of food that day. Pecan tarts, cheese, cornbread, kettle chips, a small $24 bag of coffee (prior to that I was living off of instant coffee after I ran out of the bag from home, so I probably would have donated an organ for real coffee.)

Along with the discovery of that store, I was beginning to actually develop a taste for Korean food. I have found some things that I really enjoy. I think the real kicker though was the introduction of daily rice consumption coupled with the lack of exercise especially now that it’s getting colder and I’m walking a lot less. Needless to say, I have put on a few pounds in the past two months. Five to be exact. It’s not about the numbers really, I just feel like a useless blob. All I want to do now that it’s getting colder is hide in my apartment and watch movies
Last week I was walking home from work when I heard a car honking. I turned around and this bus driver, an older Korean man was frantically motioning for me to stop. He left the bus in the middle of a lane and jumped out. He came over and said something in Korean and then started guiding me in the direction that this group of kids was going. I followed them up two flights of stairs and arrived at the door of a Taekwondo gym. The bus driver motioned for the master to come over and said something to him in Korean. The master then turned to me and asked if he could help me (in perfect English). I told him I didn’t know a thing, I was just brought in by the bus driver. They then exchanged more words in Korean and finally he explained to me that the bus driver was the owner of the gym and he wanted him (Master Park) to start teaching classes in English. He had previously taught Taekwondo in the US for 20 years and his English was perfect.

He asked if I had any friends or coworkers who would be interested and I said that I would ask around. Long story short, I got great response from other expats and I will be starting Taekwondo soon. I am REALLY excited because I have always wanted to try it and what better place to train than its country of origin?!?! Apparently it’s good exercise and it’s also very close to my work, so I will have no excuse not to go when its -20 degrees outside.

It must have been a sign from someone, somewhere since I was chased down the sidewalk and dragged into a Taekwondo gym.  Maybe one day I will be a blackbelt ; ) This is going to be interesting. It’s a far cry from yoga. Challenge accepted.