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Friends and Phở: A Week in Saigon

They say you can never go home again. A tricky saying when your home has spanned three countries in six months. Don’t get me wrong, I in no way feel sorry for myself, in fact this popular phrase has freed me up to the fun and challenging task of taking the concept of “home” with me in my backpack. I felt at home in Korea, not that I ever got used to often being the tallest in a room, or that I grew accustom to kimchi for breakfast, but it was my friends who made my home there. Naturally our last day on the way to the Seoul airport is heart wrenching even now to remember, until I realized the advantage of having seriously nomadic friends. Oh the places you’ll go! With six of these bosom buddies having relocated to Saigon and this city being among the 75 cities I want to visit this year (life is short OK!) it was a no brainer that Matt and my first break from the desert would be to re-live our Korea glory days in Vietnam!

Matt and I had just over a week in Vietnam so we chose a very small radius of area to cover, reflective of the pace in which I prefer to travel: leisurely, with enough time to sample traditional cuisine, get tricked into drinking too much with locals, and picking up some truly unique souvenirs along the way. Our base was Saigon where our gracious hosts offered us a bed, a scooter and a place to rest our hookah. I was made aware of the government presence shortly after arriving when the owner of our host’s apartment asked for copies of our passports during our stay. I stepped outside to a stream of scooters decorated with the star of the communist flag and although I spent a year five hours from the North Korean border, this was my first face-to-face with a truly socialist regime. With that said, I think it is impossible to fit Saigon under any one umbrella term. This city beats to a whole new genre from its scooters that outnumber drivers, twenty-four hour pho, expat scene and surrounding green hills laced with the history of a not so distant war.

These nearby, lush hills of Củ Chi set the stage for our first day in Vietnam. It had been six months since we said good-bye to our retro, Korean scooter with its red and orange flames, so the moment we feasted our eyes on a city wall-to-wall in two-wheeled madness, we wanted on! The trip to the tunnels should take under two hours from the city, but characteristic of my preferred pace of travel, I like to stop for drinks, food cart fare, photo opportunities and the occasional flat tire.

The city faded behind us after a quick tire repair and was replaced by the green rice fields so reminiscent of the Vietnam we see in postcards. An occasional ox drawn cart, communist propaganda poster and spring roll stand completed my visual sketch of the countryside. The tunnels presented a chance however to explore a less picturesque history. Our guide, a retired soldier who served in the Vietnam War, led us underground, neglecting to mention the meter tall, dark crawl space we were sharing with the bats that spend their days roaming from one passageway to the next. The network of tunnels and underground meeting rooms were used by the Viet Cong leading up the 1968 Tet offensive and eventually the seizure of Saigon in 1975.

After making it out if the tunnels without turning into the newest member of the Twilight gang, my curiosity for the history of Saigon led me to the War Remnants museum. The museum was a must for me in understanding the city’s transition from Saigon to Ho Chi Minh. Additionally I make a point of taking in at least one natural history museum, or fine art collection on any city stop, as these places tend to provide a few hours of quiet reflection on the bustle I encounter in trying to experience a city on foot.

The entrance is difficult to miss, with left over US tanks and shell casings lining the driveway. I was tapped on the shoulder by the stub of an arm, attached to a man who wanted only to know my citizenship. I hesitated wondering if I could pass as Dutch and then swallowed my pride and whispered “American.” The man looked at me as if he had already known and picked me out of the crowd as someone who carried so much embarrassment and guilt upon seeing the propaganda in the War museum that I would gladly hand over the contents of my wallet. He was right. This living image of the continued suffering brought about by war rang loud inside the museum walls, and for the remainder of my time in the city.

Although the museum left my head in a rebellious cloud of propaganda and uncertainty about my country as well as the one I was traveling, I stepped back out into Saigon for a night out with my Korean comrades. We hit up Pham Ngu Lao, district 1 where I overheard a group of expats talking about Bob Dylan giving a concert after nearly forty years of singing anti-war anthems heavily inspired by the Vietnam war. I wondered if Bob Dylan too felt the same full circle sensation I had as I attempted to come home again, seeing my friends here in this new setting. We found a Korean restaurant and the Hangeul seemed to flow faster than soju as we reminisced on our year together. This group has found a new home in Saigon, a city that has initiated them amidst communist stars, crispy rolls and spider webs of traffic. Just in case our old nomad neighbors had any thoughts of forgetting about us as they acclimate to their new city I made sure to leave a little token of my affection in the form of a stray kitten, once white, and in need of some love from fellow nomads.

Leaving Korea: My Top 10 Experiences

It has been 365 days since I arrived from my home in the Pacific Northwest to South Korea. In this year I have seen and experienced more than I could have hoped for in a lifetime. Living abroad is one of the greatest challenges we can face, and one of the most rewarding experiences. I have, at one time or another felt stripped of my culture, my language, my family, my religion and my personal comforts. But I have also gained a Korean family, friends, a new understanding and appreciation for religion, language, and the comfort of knowing I can meet many of the challenges that have plagued me in the past, head on. With so much gained this year, Matt has helped me to narrow down our top ten Korean experiences. Here they are! :

10. Jim Jil-Bang

Kicking off with number ten is the Jim Jil-Bang. Throughout the year we have spent hours on buses fitting our favorite Korean style bath house to the tune of “YMCA” as an expression of our deep love of the one stop scrub spot. The Jim Jil-Bang is above all else a bath house, where men, women and families go to clean up and relax in soaking tubs, but it also holds another purpose as a 24 hour place to get some shut-eye. We have, on a few occasions slept in one of the 24 hour Jim Jil-Bangs when it is just too late for a motel, and the experience is a truly memorable one. With dozens of Koreans piled on the spa floor, all dressed in jammies provided at the front desk, we always crack up as we step over snoring (and at times, flatulating) snoozers, trying to find a place to lay down and join in. The first time I had my back scrubbed by an unsuspecting adgima, I knew that this experience had to make my year’s top ten.

9. Scooters

Our first day in Korea I thought Matt and I might buy bedding or maybe groceries, but in fact our first outing was to the scooter shop to pick up some wheels for the year. Our scooter has truly become part of our lifestyle here as we rode it through rain and snow this winter and formed a “scooter gang” with friends for long road trips to temples, waterfalls and the beach. I finally got brave the second half of the year and started taking our retro bike on my own and if you have ever stepped into most of Asia you will understand my apprehension. Scooters follow little to none of the road laws present in most countries. In Korea you can witness scooters on sidewalks, parked inside buildings, and zipping around corners at top speed. Delivery drivers balance coolers of bibimbap as they fly between cars and through red lights, making the scooter a unique part of the Korean experience.

8. Sporting Events

You followed along as we cheered Ulsan Mobis basketball team to victory this past March and you mourned the loss of Korea’s defeat in the 2010 world cup. Between baseball games, school sports day and trips to the swimming pool, we have seen another side of Korea, filled with national pride as they support their athletes. Koreans know work ethic like no other culture I have ever seen, and this rings true on the soccer field and basketball court. Americans may be larger than the average Korean, but I guarantee a Korean will spend the night in a lap pool perfecting his stroke long after the western athlete has gone to bed. The athletes are not the only one’s dedicated to their national pride either. To this day I have never experienced a crowd of fans quite like the Korean crowd. There is no “if you can’t beat em’ join em’ ” option here, you either join in or you might as well go home!

7. Nore-Bang
I have been invited out with my principal, several of Matt’s superiors and numerous friends throughout the year to partake in norebang or “singing room” and the experience is never short of amazing. Imagine a karaoke scene, minus the stage, the dive bar backdrop or the hundreds of people whom you have never met booing your version of “Sweet Caroline.” The norebang is for private groups where you and your posse can sing until the wee hours with all the comforts from home, comfy couches, popcorn, beer and a big screen tv flashing some interesting and at times provocative clips. The image of my vice principal getting down to “Hey Jude” still puts a smile on my face, making the norebang experience a highlight to my year in Korea.

6. K-Pop

Back in the Fall we learned that MTV’s “Biggest Bad-ass Star” was a Korean by the name of Rain. With curiosity seriously peaked, we made the weekend trip to Seoul to see for ourselves if this sexy Korean, dancing machine could really deliver. Not only was the “Rainism” concert one of the most entertaining shows I have seen in ANY country, but this experience opened the door to a whole world of K-pop that I didn’t even know existed. Since then I have memorized Korean pop songs, screamed along with my middle school students when Shinee, 2ne1 or Big Bang are mentioned and even joined a K-pop dance class so I could follow along to the music video. With no other popular music genre option in Korea, K-pop stands alone as the dominant music source, and it seems that a new teen heart-throb group pops up weekly. It’s so hard to keep track of all the new talent I have been forced into buying a new pair of K-pop socks to wear on my slipped feet every time an album drops. And sure enough, just as quickly as Wonder Girls or 2PM popped up, they were gone, like magic, magic magic, it’s magic…oma oma oma…

5. Temples

Korea’s temples lie outside of any history or culture I had seen before this year. Standing proudly at the top of most mountains, walking into a temple is a must when visiting Korea. Our hike in Jirisan national park on Buddha’s birthday was the most memorable temple visit this year in Korea, with monks serving bibimbap to hikers at the top and the constant sound of chanting up and down the steep mountain. We stepped into the secret gardens inside Biwon and walked along paths that kings treaded in the 15th century. We visited what is claimed to be the largest central hall in Asia at Yakcheonsa on Jeju island. We ate temple lunch with monks after the lunar new year at Munsu temple and spent an afternoon with the female monks at the all women’s temple Songnamsa at the base of Gagisan mountain. The temple experience has been a highlight of our year in Korea and brought us not only a better understanding of the Korean culture but an appreciation for the preservation of ancient history throughout the world.

4. Korean Food

If there is one thing I will miss about Korea, it will be the food. From kalbi to live octopus we have spent the year putting daring, squirming, delicious food into our mouths and loving almost every morsel. Learning hangul was crucial to ordering food in a restaurant or at the market and we quickly recited our favorite dishes. In the winter we dined on samgye-tan stuffed chicken submerged in a hearty soup. In the spring we feasted on live octopus and fresh catches from the raw seafood market. The family style in which we have eaten this year has brought us close to our friends in Korea and even Matt can now sit comfortably cross-legged on the floor of a Korean restaurant.

3. Hiking

Coming from the Pacific Northwest we have grown-up with green mountains as a backdrop and Korea has certainly not dissapointed us on any of our vertical wanderings this year. We have hiked the tallest mountian in South Korea, picniced on the lip of a volcanic crator and finished up our year of hiking with a trip to neighboring Mt. Fuji in Japan. At the top of every mountian in Korea, your ascent is celebrated with a kimchi feast, toasting other hikers and enjoying a miraculous view. Seeing Korea from the top of dozens of mountains this year has made me appreciate our amazing earth much more and continued to instill a sense of adventure in my travels.

2. The DMZ

With the world’s most secretive country less than six hours away from our home on Korea’s southern coast, Matt and I have been eager to learn more about the relationship between North and South Korea since we arrived last August. In the year we have been here, the ceasefire treaty signed in post war Korea has been claimed not valid by the North, a South Korean warship has been sunk, and as of just recently North Korean leader Kim Jung Il has up and left during a visit by former US president Jimmy Carter. You would think that living in the midst of all this talk of possible war outbreak that we would be better informed than the rest of the world as to what was going on in our backyards…but we are not. Our visit to the demilitarized zone did very little to better understand the continued feud between North and South, but it did cast a hopeful light on future peace talks. We were able to visit and enter the 44km long third tunnel as well as Dorasan train station, the last stop on the rail line before passing over the North Korean border. The train station exists as a hopeful sign that peace will one day be acheived and that backpackers like myself will be able to make the trip of a lifetime by land.

1. Teaching

Ringing in at number one may be a surprise to many. I have spent the last 20 years being educated by teachers that I respect and admire and I was eager to take my place as one of these influential figures to my students in Korea this year. And then I got assigned to my position teaching fifteen year old boys… With class sizes averaging forty-five students I felt completely helpless trying to control, let alone teach English to ESL students. I have struggled and doubted myself more this year than ever before, nearly given up on several occasions and asked “why me?” Truth be told, on the other end this experience has helped me grow as a traveler more than any of the other nine on this list. The confidence I have acquired leading a class has made walking into a hostel and making friends elsewhere a breeze. The acceptance and realization that not all education systems are the same and flaws appear everywhere has helped me to appreciate the uniqueness of culture. The support and encouragement from fellow teachers has helped me remember that even when travelling through barren outback I am never alone. At the end of this year my students brought me more joy, understanding of Korean culture, and unforgettable stories than any other experience. Teaching is the hardest thing I have ever done, but certainly the most rewarding.

A big thanks for following my year in Korea, for your comments and your support, and a very special thanks to Matt for being my one link to home with everything that this has entailed. I am off to Australia for two months to volunteer, swim with sharks, wander through the outback and FINALLY enjoy a bottle of red wine. So stop by and follow this next adventure! Until next time, Anyonghi-kesseyo!

I Saw the Sign.

It is clear to me just how global the English language is, after having been employed fresh from University as an English language teacher in South Korea. Amongst the neon hangul signs that I spend hours on the bus translating, there are just as many English posters and signs catching the attention of foreigners and Koreans alike. And while Korea is making a tremendous effort towards proficiency of the English language, I can’t help but chuckle at grammatical errors, mis-spellings, non-sensical phrases and the occasional, accidental double entendre printed on a t-shirt, a restaurant sign or on the side of a bus. In no particular order, here are some of my favorite “English” signs spotted in Korea this year:

Jeju-do part 2: Jeju-Si

After three sun-drenched days in Jeju’s southern city: Seogwipo, we headed north along the coast toward the more metropolitan city: Jeju-si. There is an island bus that is on a loop route around Jeju, providing the perfect means to hop on and off when a sight, view or orange stand tickles your fancy. There is no all-day ticket from what we gathered so you have to pay the 1,500won fee at every pick-up, which adds up if you are like me and EVERYTHING in Korea tickles your fancy!

Our first stop was the sunrise peak Seongsan Ilchulbong Peak, the result of a volcanic eruption over 100,000 years ago that caused the peak to rise from the sea and form a massive crater spanning 600m in diameter at its top. The steep stairway up to the crater is brutal in Jeju’s muggy July heat, but well worth the buckets of sweat for the fantastic view of the island and sea you are awarded. If you are like us and carrying your packs, the very kind folks at the ticket office will gladly hold them for you while you make your ascent. Stop number two during our trip north to Jeju-si was the lava tubes. At only 2300won for an entrance, the naturally occurring lava tubes provide a mysterious place to cool off in Jeju’s summer heat. A sturdy pair of walking shoes and head-lamp are recommended due to the cave’s slick, dark atmosphere.

Once in the city limits of Jeju-si we spent the evening wandering the harbour and through the fish market. Although not quite comparable to Busan’s fish market, the Heanyeodivers present a fascinating tradition and history making Jeju seafood worth a try. Heanyeo are Korean female divers, a tradition that conflicts with Korea’s strong preference for men and values the ability for these women to provide for their family and continue a long-standing source of cultural pride in Jeju. Ancient shrines indicate that women have been diving off of Jeju’s shore since the beginning of food gathering in Korea, long before a common era.

There are not many options for anything besides Korean food in Jeju-si, not a problem considering the seafood is fresh and delicious, but we did come across an Indian restaurant with outstanding food, great atmosphere and …wine…! In my top three reasons for leaving Korea this coming Fall is the shortage of quality, affordable and available vino, so when this Italian bred girl finds a restaurant fully stocked, chances are she will be back for more. Bagdad cafe is across the street from city hall, tucked in among the boutiques, nore-bangs and PC cafes and certainly worth a hunt. After a leisurely meal our party of six meandered into an underground nore-bang (singing room) and as per usual the night disappeared into a melodic, soju drenched haze.

Our flight back to Busan was late in the afternoon of our last day, giving just enough time for one last dip in the ocean at Geommeollablack sand beach. Although swimmers are not allowed to go out past shoulder deep without frantic life guards pouncing in a whistling fury, the beach is quiet, the water divine and the locals so inviting and friendly that we wished for one more day of island life.

Leaving a vacation is always difficult for me, but that is the wonderful thing about expat life: it’s all an adventure filled vacation! There has been so much travel and play thrown into the mix of this year that my short lived career as a middle school teacher has flown by and I am left with tan toes, a full passport and fulfilled nomad soul….well almost fulfilled.

Off to Japan tomorrow to see for myself if the Korean/Japanese feud really exists and just how different their cultures are. Happy summer vacation to all you teachers, travelers and playahs.

Jeju-Do: Part 1 Seogwipo

Anyone who is a teacher can attest to the fact that we REALLY look forward to and even live for our vacations, and in Korea the options for long weekend getaways are endless! Last week Matt and I jetted off to Korea’s “Honeymoon Island” paradise: Jeju-Do. Jeju is a 45 minute flight from Busan’s Gimhae airport making it the perfect 2 or 6 in our case, day getaway. So with our students in the throws of finals week we took advantage of our days off and reveled in Jeju’s juicy orange breeze, black sand beaches and golden rays.

We opted to hop on the island commuter bus and head as far south as we could after landing in Jeju’s airport on the North of the island. Seogwipo is a lovely beach town in the South with mangroves, a plethora of interesting and corky museums and posh hotels. We stayed in what I will safely claim as my favorite hostel…in the ENTIRE world: Tae Gong Gak. Now I have to briefly sidetrack for a moment to bring attention to the momentous nature of this claim. I began hosteling at age 19 and have stayed in the likes of the Peace and Love hostel/absinthe bar in Paris, a beach bum hammock hangout in Mal Pais Costa Rica, an all night party crash pad just off time’s square and above a rowdy Irish pub, a tiki hut with 5am rooster alarm and 24hr cold San Miguel in the Philippines and I can’t forget the log cabin in the middle of the Olympic national park complete with morning wood chopping and banana pancakes. While each and every hostel has its charms; like Hostel Sol in Naples with their staff led pizza tour and free lasagna night, or Chicago’s HI free architecture tour and impeccably clean and organized facility; Jeju-do’s Tae Gong Gak hotel has it all. Sylvia and Peter who run the hotel make a point of not only remembering your name, your itinerary while on the island and where you have traveled from, but they make themselves available 24/7 with suggestions, tips and general care and concern for the enjoyment and well being of their guests. While the hotel is a bit more expensive than most backpakers at 50,000won a night for an ondol room, the clean facilities, location and standout breakfast (bagels, cream cheese and french press coffee are not easy to come by in Korea) make your stay well worth the price.

On our first day in Seogwipo we bee-lined it to a scooter shop to pick up some wheels for the day. Jeju has ample bus transportation but with so many sights to see and a lot of ground to cover a car, scooter or at least a bicycle are good options unless your itinerary is relaxing on the beach with a good book…not a bad idea either! Neither Matt or I have an international driver’s license, but this didn’t prove to be a problem when renting a scooter on Jeju, although chances are you will need one for a car rental. We payed 30,000won for a full 24hrs with our cute retro bike and off we went to the green tea museum. The museum itself is small, boasting a hallway of tea sets from around the globe and an upscale gift shop but what really drew me was the architecture of the building and its lush, green surroundings. The building is a mix of floor to ceiling glass panels, un-finished wood and cement, translucent enough to blend into the landscape making it look like a modern hobbit hut. The grounds are absolutely breathtaking with green tea plants as far as the eye can see. The museum cafe also has over-priced, but un-avoidably green snacks that were too tempting to pass up.

Our next stop was the chocolate museum, mostly in hopes of free samples. I’m not sure if it was the sign that reads “Christmas every day” or the lack of samples that turned me off, but the museum was a bit of a disappointment, miles from anything and in serious need of some updates, and an overhaul of all Christmas related decor. Admission at only 2,000won including a free cup of coffee made it at least a comical stop on our way to the Sex and Health museum. In our defense, Matt is a certified P.E and health teacher and I, aside from having a perverted sense of humor, was greatly interested in the rumored “Sex sculpture garden.” The museum’s parking lot is larger than the building itself and was packed with cars.*Remember Jeju IS the number one honeymoon destination for Korean newlyweds. Inside is everything you would expect from the museum’s title: a rotating stage of manicans in various sexual positions, statistics of everything from average number of partners, to average time spent on foreplay, and a complete sensory playground with various scents, textures and sounds to delight visitors. I was making a bee-line for the exit after discovering that there were no English options on any wall captions and that someone had accidentally left the Pamela Anderson look alike doll “on” who’s moans could be heard throughout the building. I gave the museum another chance when I came across the Chinese scroll and tapestry room depicting courting traditions of early Chinese emperors. These works of art held my attention long enough for Matt to find me and us to call our museum tour a success.

That evening, after sampling some of Jeju-do’s famous Black pig Sam-gyup sal we visited the Cheonjiyeon waterfall. The waterfall is a sight at night when it is lit up and Korean couple’s in matching clothes stroll romantically through the park’s windy pathways. We hit the hay early in preparation for our early morning ascent to the top of South Korea’s tallest mountain Hallasan.

Hallasan is easy enough to get to from Seogwipo by 30min bus ride. There are two routes commonly taken to get to the crater at the top of the volcano peak and we opted to take the longer but less steep 10K route (Seongpanak) up and the 8.7K steep trail (Gwaneumsa) down. The view from the top is not much on a cloudy day but we were able to see the crater and after nearly seven hours of hiking we felt blissfully exhausted and proud of our accomplishment.

Our last day in Seogwipo we spent on bikes cruising to Jungmun beach. The island is actually great for biking because of its smooth paved roads and limited traffic but I’m not sure I’d recommend the hilly course from Seogwipo to Jungmun the day after hiking Hallasan. Stopping at the Hyat hotel for a glass of wine was an absolute must once we made it to the beach. We spent a glorious afternoon playing in the waves, observing Koreans fully clothed brave the water and truly loving all that Jeju has to offer!

Stay tuned for part two of our trip to Jeju, hope you are all enjoying some vacation time this summer season!

Game 4: And that’s a wrap…crap!

While I will NOT miss attending 3am games mid-week in the pouring rain after a night of watching four hours of play by other teams that I support, the thought that I may never again hear “Dae Hamin-Guk” chanted througout the day or have another chance to dawn my red devils jersey and Park-Ji Sung face mask to work nor will I be able to fill a 45 minute lesson teaching middle schoolers numerous world cup songs from around the globe…makes me wish Korea opperated in world cup mode on a regular basis.

Here’s how it went down: Korea’s tie with Nigeria 2:2 put them through to the next round of 16 teams. Fantastic game to watch! I showed up at 3am to the outdoor stadium in Ulsan with my mug of coffee in one hand and noise maker in another. Even if I decided to try and sleep through this early morning game my efforts would have been in vain, with car horns beep-ing out chants and everyone from my school principal to the old woman who sells me salt on the corner out to support Korean national heros. I was home by 6am with just enough time to re-group and head out for work…what a day!

Game four rolled around with a lot on the line for me as an American living in Korea. South Korea was due to play Uruguay in an automatic elimination round while America was taking on Ghana the same weekend. Everything went sour from here. Uruguay led with a 2:1 win over Korea and Ghana hung on in overtime with a 2:1 win over the USA. The majority of Expats in South Korea are American or English so coupling Korea’s and America’s loss with the defeat of England to Germany has put Ulsan in a funk so deep it will take more than a night of norebang and soju to cheer us up.

The world cup lives on and I am certainly still watching, but I have to wonder: What will become of the chants, the masks and the red devils? Enjoy some wrap up photos and a special congratulations to Spain for their win over Portugal!

Week 1: We Win Some and Sometimes We Get Schooled

Korea is a convenient place to watch the world cup because of the seven hour time difference between South Africa and Seoul. Games play at 8:30pm, 11:30pm and 3:30am daily so for the Korea vs Greece game fans had plenty of time to throw back a few bottles of soju, cover themselves in face paint, put on every piece of red clothing they could muster and make it to the nearest park, stage or pub before the 8:30 kick-off. Walking up to Taewha river park in Ulsan can only be described as what it must look like walking into Hell with thousands of red faced fans wearing glowing devil horns, banging drums and sticks together chanting Korean game cheers. With Jung-Soo Lee’s  first goal against Greece the audience erupted even before the fireworks did and by the second goal Korea was in a state of perpetual celebration. Hite, kimchi and dried squid were passed through the crowd, and nothing but “Dae Hanmin Guk!” could be heard for miles. I drug my cheer weary lungs home at 6am after watching a surprising draw between England and the USA and had sugar plums and Park ji Sung dancing in my head until the next afternoon.

Game two for Korea was an expected but devastating defeat against Argentina. The stadium across the street from my house in Ulsan packed 15,000 people in to watch the game live on a flat screen and dedicated fans cheered right through Higuain’s goal streak. I have always known Korea to be a patriotic country but the extent of their loyalty has not been crystal clear to me until now. It was a rough Friday at school with middle schoolers in tears pleading with me to teach them swears and insults in English that they could hurl at the Argentinian team. The one phrase that I felt appropriate and that I am sure will now never hear the end of is “you got schooled.”

With Korea’s next game to be played against Nigeria at 3am I would expect a smaller crowd this coming week, but something tells me Koreans will be out in full force to stay up through the night to support the Red Devils with unwavering adoration and pride. Stay tuned…

World Cup Fever in South Korea

 

A new and contagious epidemic is sweeping South Korea and the rest of the world and it’s not the swine flu or yellow dust. The upcoming world cup has brought out radical fans, new theme songs and every excuse to party from Seoul to Busan as a red sea of patriotic football fanatics sing praises to the “Red Devils.”

With kick off in less than a week Korea has made sure to clothe every citizen working in hospitality from hotel staff to grocery clerks in red jerseys in support of the South Korean team affectionately called “The Reds” or “The Red Devils.” Korea’s beer “Hite” has changed its label from a generic looking orange and blue motif to a series of football comic strips. Schools have held world cup themed sports days where classes compete in massive football games emulating their favorite players. Little is known about pre-game build up coming from the North Korean fans but NPR recently reported that key Northern player Jong Tae-Se has vowed to score a goal in every one of the team’s scheduled matches. Not an easy task given the tough draw the North Koreans have been stuck with.Jong Tae Se 

The most advantageous aspect of the games for us will be the live broadcast being projected onto an 80′ tall screen in the open-air stadium across the street. With the time difference from South Africa to Korea all games will be played between 8pm and 3:30am Korean time. I can safely forecast three weeks of summer nLonely Planet’s homepage ights tailgating Korean style in the very near future. Stay tuned for world cup updates from Korea and be sure to check out as bloggers from around the globe write in about their world cup experience.

May the Best Dance Crew Win!: Korean Election Season

Not that the 2008 presidential election in the united States wasn’t entertaining enough, because let’s face it, it was; but I have to think it would have been even more so if McCain and Obama had engaged in a dance off to determine who would lead our great nation. This may seem like a far out idea, but for the Koreans it is no stretch at all. It is voting day here in South Korea and for the past month every street corner has been overtaken by a chorus of singing and dancing campaigners, each group with its own color scheme and theme song. By far the most colorful election season I have had the privileged of witnessing!

In total there are about a dozen political parties currently functioning in South Korea with the two major parties being: The Grand National Party and the Democratic party. Conservative Grand national party President Lee Myung-Bak will not be up for re-election until 2013, after serving his five year presidency and most Koreans I have spoken to seem to be in favor of him leaving office in a hurry. With recent investigations of the sinking of a South Korean naval vessel, today’s elections will no doubt undergo protesting against candidates associated with the President’s conservative party. With excess police force out patrolling the streets in fear of riots and thousands of colorful t-shirt wearing campaigners in Ulsan alone, this has been an another exciting cultural experience getting to witness the 2010 local elections from South Korea.

If you would like some more Korea election reading material, check out the

Korea Herald

Korea’s English newspaper. P.S I apologize for the photo quality, these were taken on the back of a scooter😉

A Very Buddha Birthday!

This weekend a month of celebrating  culminates in Korea’s all around favorite guy turning a year older. It’s Buddha’s birthday and the streets are lined with colorful lanterns to mark the special day. Last weekend a group of us went up to Seoul to see how the holiday is celebrated in Korea, as well as kick off our last 3 months in Korea ( I can hardly believe it!)

This is truly the best season to have a birthday and Koreans and foreigners alike were out in this weekend’s sunshine to honor an Asian Icon. Buddhists believe that Buddha died over 2500 years ago, yet walking along the river this evening he seemed very much alive to the Korean people, with the image of his peaceful grin and jolly belly, illuminated by thousands of lanterns lining the walkway. My dear friend at: TIK arranged a weekend full of events including traditional lotus lantern making, a trip to the secret garden inside Changdeokgung palace, and an all night dance party in Seoul’s Hangik University neighborhood. If you are near Insa-Dong and have a few hours to spare I would highly recommend spending them in Changdeokgung’s palace, gardens and green house. There is a beautiful pond with Koi the size of kimchi pots and a greenhouse with ikebana style flower arrangements and exotic plants on display. The secret garden charges a 2,000 Won admission and closes at 5:30PM (make sure you are out in time or you may be scaling the rock wall after dark). Like many Korean monuments, the palace was demolished on numerous occasions by the Japanese after its 1405 construction and what remains is an intimate look into what was once Korea’s center of power.

On Sunday we made our way through Insadong’s busy market street, and to the lantern making festival where not only did we get to participate in the traditional lotus lantern making, but we were in the company of practicing monks. One young man was at the festival with his parents who were visiting him for the first time since he had left his home in Saint Louis to study Buddhism and train to become a monk in Korea. He was gracious enough to share with us a bit about his experience living in a Korean temple, and practicing Buddhism as a foreigner saying that he did between 100-200 bows a day!

Although the festival was filled with monks, all with shaven heads, the same matching robes and peaceful demeanor, there was so much individuality in the lotus lanterns. Each with a different style and color pattern. We managed to carry our delicate lanterns the 5 hours back to Ulsan that evening and they hang now in our bedroom, their significance to us much different than to the monks who hang them in remembrance of a man whose birthday they celebrate this weekend in May. Happy Birthday to all you spring babes!!!