Everybody Loves Taekwondo Fighting!

I think I may have mentioned a few times that I am taking a Taekwondo class here at Yonsei. (Okay, maybe more than a few times, because I’m really excited about it!) I’m taking an international class so we have people from all over the world and of all belt levels. In case you don’t know anything about Taekwondo (and I didn’t either until 3 months ago) here’s the basics:

1. It’s pronounced “tay-kwon-do”, not “tai-kwon-do”

2. The main purpose of Taekwondo is to stretch your legs as ridiculously high in the air as you possibly can and kick the crap out the other guy. When you fight it looks a lot like this:

3. The secondary purpose of Taekwondo is not to let the other guy kick the crap out of you. Follow these three rules and you’ll be a martial arts master in no time!

I came in with no experience (as did many students) so I started with a white belt. I looked something like this:

However, last Friday I finally took my belt test to show I can do the basic blocks, punches, and kicks, so I am now officially a yellow-belt! That means I am one step closer to mastering all four elements!

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Besides the regular exchange program (that’s the one I’m doing), Yonsei University has an intensive Korean language program where you can take Korean classes all day for 3 month sessions. The spring session started a little over a month ago, and so we got lots of new students a while back, including half a dozen of these adorable little Japanese girls. No, really, they are soooo cute. Like little dolls. Or like characters from a Hayao Miyazaki movie (think “Kiki’s Delivery Service” or “Whisper of the Heart”, not “Princess Mononoke”. Yikes, that would be scary!) Though I found out not too long ago that even though they don’t look like it, most of the Japanese girls are actually older than me, so they think am the cute one because I’m the youngest.

Anyway, the good thing is they’re here specifically to learn Korean, so I have people at my level to practice with! The bad thing is I’m expected to kick them during practice but they’re so little and cute that I just can’t bring myself to do it.

Our Taekwondo master, Master Kim (or “김 관장님”) is a pretty cool dude. He’s been doing and teaching Taekwondo for decades so he’s a 500th degree blackbelt or something. He is also into biking and mountain climbing and all sorts of other stuff so he likes to arrange weekend day-trips for us sometimes. Two weekends ago he took our class hiking on Ansan Mountain, which is normally an easy hike, but it just happened to be like 2 days after I climbed Bukhansan, so that was a struggle. Turns out Master Kim also has this thing for taking pictures. He organizes the same trips every semester (or sometimes twice a semester) and when we get to very specific spots on the mountain he makes everyone stop and pose for a picture. Later he showed us the photos from the previous trips and they were literally all the same, just with different students.

Even when we went out for lunch afterwards he snapped the SAME picture of his lunch, which was the SAME kalbi stew he has every time after a student trip to Ansan. Oh well, it’s not like I would ever complain to him about it because he can totally beat the crap out of me if he wanted to. I’ve already suffered an accidental kick from Master Kim during training and let me tell you, that was NOT pleasant. (Though, it was kind of my fault: we had an odd number of students that day and so I was paired with Master Kim for kicking exercises and we were facing each other and he specifically said that he would kick first and then I was supposed to kick second but I totally blanked and kicked anyway and so naturally we collided and Master Kim almost took out my kneecap but luckily he hit me about an inch to the left, which is the only reason I’m not confined to a wheelchair right now. For a practice kick, it was pretty painful.)

Anyway, here’s the pics from Ansan:

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In case you can’t tell, I’m the very pale person in the blue shirt. And fun fact: the woman in the hat and the guy to her right were just random hikers that Master Kim pulled into our picture!

Then last weekend we went biking along the Han River, which is one of those things you’re supposed to do as a tourist in Seoul so I was pretty excited. But again, Master Kim had to get those perfect photos so sometimes he would stop us just so he could run ahead and stand on a specific hill and snap a photo as we all rode by.

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We rode out for about 2 hours before stopping at a noodle shop for lunch. On the way back we were supposed to stop off at Seoul’s World Cup Stadium for another photo shoot, but one unlucky student fell off his bike in a particularly gravelly area and got really cut up, so we had to cut our trip a little short. On the bright side, I learned how to say “there is a lot of blood!” in Korean.

That’s all I have about Taekwondo for now. It’s been getting really hot lately so class hasn’t been as much fun when the gym you practice in feels like a greenhouse. It looks like the soul-crushingly hot Korean summer weather has finally arrived! I’ve heard it gets even more hot and humid and then July and August are monsoon season, where it just rains constantly (I am NOT looking forward to that!) It also doesn’t help that Yonsei has this “no air conditioning until June” policy, so the classrooms are really hot as well, and everyone in my Korean class is practically asleep by the end of the two hours. I think the lack of air conditioning has something to do with trying to save energy but honestly, I’ve seen how they crank up the heating during winter so if they’re looking to save energy I know where they could start…

Starting next week I only have two more weeks of class left, and during the second week we have two days off from school for a local election day and Memorial day, so really, school is pretty much over (at least, in my head it is.) I’m even soooo done with this semester that I’m leaving the country early next week! Bye Korea!

Did I scare you? Let me explain: when I got my student visa, the embassy gave me 4 months starting from my arrival date, which is the standard amount of time for a single-semester study abroad student. However, I came to Korea two weeks earlier than the average student (remember I took that language class?) so my visa actually expires right in the middle of final exams. I figured it was probably best not to get deported in the middle of finals so I had two options: either go through the immigration office and fill out lots of paperwork and pay some fees and possibly have major translation problems and then get a 30-day extension, or fly to Japan for a day, give up my alien registration card, and come back on a 90-day tourist visa. Hmmm… paperwork or weekend trip to Japan…

Surprise: I’m flying to Osaka next Sunday!

I won’t be gone long (only about 24 hours) but I’ll have enough time to spend a long afternoon in Japan and be back the next day in time for Korean class. I kind of wish I had more time to spend there but the only words I know in Japanese are “domo-arigato”, “wasabi” and “kobayashi maru” and I don’t even have a travel buddy so I’m going to play it safe this time. (Okay, I also know “konichiwa”, “sushi”, “bonsai” and “bonzai!” for a grand total of 7 words, so I should be able to get by: I don’t believe in no-win situations.) I will tell you all about my trip when I get back!

Then after that I’ve got a few final exams and then summer vacation! I’m planning on spending the summer doing a work-stay in Busan (more on that later) so I should keep this blog updated through mid-August. For now, here’s a Konglish pun:

In what country do people have 4 arms?

네팔!

(Hint: copy and past “네팔” into an online translator. Read result. Then add a new line (not just a space) between “네” and “팔”. Read result. Realize I made a really clever pun. Laugh until you pee!)

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Skipping School With My Parents, Part 4: Of Patbingsu and Mountain Climbs, Of Cabbages and Kings

Previously: my parents and I spent the weekend in Korea’s Jeju Island eating oranges, enjoying the scenery, and crashing a Buddhist temple. Now we’re back in Seoul!

I don’t know if any of you remember, but during my first week in Korea I went to a palace in Seoul called Gyeongbokgung Palace. Unfortunately, on that day I got there just a little bit too late, so two of the three main gates were open, but the actual palace was closed. Finally I got to go back with my parents and see the whole thing, but we ended up going during Children’s Day (the holiday that’s like a second Christmas for Korean kids), so the whole rest of the country had the day off and it was crazy crowded. Even so, it was fun all the same.

Just as a little reminder, here’s what Gyeongbokgung looked like back in February when it was cold and miserable…

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Brrr! These days it’s much nicer. (Please, don’t mind all the random people.)

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The building below is called Gyeonghoeru (경회루), but I call it the Party Plaza. It’s a large pavilion that one of the kings built out in the middle of that large pond for the sole purpose of holding really impressive state banquets. Unless you want to swim out there in your party clothes, if you’re not invited, you are NOT getting into that party. Also, I can’t remember if it’s true for this particular pavilion, but in most of the palaces the floors in the meeting halls had several levels, each one a step above the last, and if you were less important than your fellow nobles then you had to hang out on the lower levels. The king sat at the top level surrounded by rice cakes and bonbons, naturally.

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Turns out that when Seoul has the day off, everyone goes to the same place: Gwanghwamun Square (the large area right outside the palace.) You know how you always see those pictures of cities (usually in Asia) where the streets are just packed with people and cars and bikes and rickshaws and cows and who-know-what else and you can’t imagine how people can even move? Seoul was a little bit like that today, except everyone was so polite and my family can all see over everyone’s heads so it wasn’t really that claustrophobic. But maybe this pic will give you an idea of how crowded it was. This was taken just crossing the street.

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That evening we had tickets to see Nanta. Have you ever heard of Nanta? It’s probably the only show in the world where there’s a cabbage “splash zone”.

Nanta is a (mostly) non-verbal performance that’s a mix between a cooking show and Stomp. Sounds weird, right? It tells the story of three chefs (along with their boss’ completely incompetent nephew) who have to cook an extravagant wedding banquet in a very short time. However, Nanta is also a musical! Throughout the entire show the chefs play traditional Korean percussion beats with improvised instruments that they find in the kitchen (knives and cutting boards, metal bowls, trash cans, etc.) Throw in some action scenes, a little romance, acrobatics, magic tricks, some audience participation, and a whole lot of comedy and you have Nanta! The performers were very talented (the beats were super catchy and nobody ended up impaled on a cutting knife, so I’d call that a win), and they also made us laugh a lot.

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Oh yeah, and things get pretty crazy when you try and chop vegetables and play percussion on the cutting board so if you sit in the front at a Nanta show watch out for flying food!

Earlier during the day my parents and I had seen a “Texas” bar near Gwanghwamun. Curious about Korean Texan fusion? So were we, so we went back there for dinner after the show. Instead of steak and hamburgers like you might expect, they seemed to be under the impression that Texan food consists mainly of sweet potato. We had sweet potato quesadillas (yum!) and sweet potato balls with a dollop of peanut butter on top. I know it sounds really weird but it was surprisingly delicious!

The next day was finally Buddha’s actual birthday so we wanted to do something really memorable and very typical Korean… and boy did we! Read any guidebook and it will tell you that Koreans’ favorite pastime (besides drinking soju) is hiking, so my parents and I decided what better way to spend the day than by spending it like the natives. Early that morning we took the subway out of the main Seoul and up to Bukhansan (북한산) National Park, just north of the city.

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The view from the bottom. Bukhansan National Park is apparently the most visited national park in the world, with 5 million visitors annually.

Everything started out pretty good. Once we got to the mountain we just followed the signs toward Baekundae Peak (백운대). They said it was only about 4 kilometers to the top, which we figured wouldn’t be too bad.

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*sigh* We started out so naive…

Yeah, we were SO wrong.

Koreans take their hiking very seriously. Any time you go to a park or a hiking trail there are always a bazillion people all dressed in super fancy hiking clothes and carrying the very best gear… and now I know why. It turns out that when Koreans say “hiking” they really mean “a very strenuous hike over rough terrain for the first half of the trail, then mountain climbing over large boulders for the second half, and then just when you think you’re done, you have to literally haul yourself up the bare-rock mountainside with a rope.” I don’t have that many pictures of the way up because I was too busy dying from exhaustion, but to give you an idea of how steep it was, just know that the average “hike” has about a 10-15 degree incline. The path to Baekundae has a 30 degree incline. It was like climbing stairs the whole way… if those stairs were uneven and slippery and made of large boulders.

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The worst part was that pretty much every other hiker on the whole mountain passed us on the way up. There we were trudging along, huffing and puffing, and these people just breeze right on by.

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Note: this are not the people passing us on the mountain. This are people at the bottom waiting to get on their tour bus. The people on the mountain were moving way too fast to get a good photo.

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I swear the obnoxiously bright colors must be mandatory or something. And notice how most of the hikers are middle-aged or older? Now THAT is embarrassing when you’re barely able to pull yourself up over the next boulder and a dozen 60 year-old women go breezing by on little short legs while carrying heavy backpacks. The only consolation we had was that once we finally got to the top, we didn’t see many older ladies, so they must have given up somewhere along the way (ha ha ha!) And speaking of the very tip top, the only way to get there is to pull yourself by a rope for the last couple hundred meters.

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The entire hike to the top took us about 3 hours. We had no idea it would take that long so all we brought with us was some water, three oranges (hallabong we brought back from Jeju) and three small granola bars. Thankfully we were spared from having to resort to Donner-party tactics by some fellow hikers who took pity on us poor, unprepared foreigners and shared their kimbap with us. We were able to have a small picnic and enjoy the view.

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There are no guard rails or anything over there. People are just super careful not to fall off.

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837 meters up, 4.2 kilometers (though I’m 99% sure that was a lie. It was at least twice that!) I hated every minute of the way up, but just being able to stand on the top like that made it worth it!

Getting down took us at least another 2 hours. Starving, dehydrated, and physically exhausted, we finally made it back without dying, which I would say is a pretty good accomplishment. We immediately went straight back to the hotel where we fell in a vegetative state for several hours.

Oh, let me just backtrack for a second. The day before we went hiking my parents were like, “Oh, Dana, why don’t you ask your host family which mountain they recommend for hiking,” and I was like, “Yeah, good idea. I’ll ask.” But then when I got home that night my host parents had friends over and they were drinking and by that point everyone was kind of drunk and so I decided it might be a better idea to just take a look and see what the guidebook recommended, which is how we ended up picking Bukhansan. The next day, after I got back from hiking, K-mom was all like, “What? Are you crazy??? Bukhansan? That’s like the steepest mountain in all of Korea why in the world would you hike Bukhansan?”

Thanks K-mom. You got drunk and now I’ve developed an irrational fear of stairs. Thanks a lot.

Anyway, we rewarded ourselves with a fabulous dinner of grilled kalbi (beef ribs), which was quite possibly the most satisfying meal I’ve ever had in my life, and then some patbingsu for dessert.

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Oh my gosh have I told you about patbingsu yet!? Patbingsu (팥빙수) is like the Korean version of shaved ice, but it’s sooooo much better. It’s a bowl of really finely shaved ice with red bean paste on top, along with whatever other toppings you want, like fruit or chocolate. The ice has a little bit of milk in it which keeps it from freezing as hard as regular ice, so it’s really soft and almost like ice cream. If you ever find patbingsu back home you MUST try some!

The next day I actually had to go back to school (I was still pretty exhausted from our mountain climbing the day before, so that was a rough day) and then the day after that was my parents’ final day in Korea. We spent the morning hanging around the Insadong market and eating our favorite street foods before saying our farewells. Mom and Dad, thank you for a fantastic time!

And just a few final pictures…

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The Bestest Buddhist Temple

I promised I’d tell you guys about Yakcheonsa, so here we go.

Yakcheonsa (약천사) is the main Buddhist temple in Jeju. I guess there are other Buddhist temples that are bigger, but Yakcheonsa is supposed to have the largest main hall out of all the temples in Asia: five stories full of beautiful and elaborate decorations.

Remember, this is still back during the weekend right before Buddha’s birthday, so there are lanterns and people everywhere. And this is Jeju, so the temple grounds are covered in palm trees and hallabong orange trees. It looked and smelled absolutely beautiful. Honestly, if I were to become a Buddhist monk and I had to pick a temple in which to spend the rest of my robed life, it would be here, in Yakcheonsa. Oh, did I mention it faces the ocean? We kill for that kind of waterfront property back home.

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On either side of the main temple plaza are towers (one houses a large bell, the other, a drum, which they use for certain rituals) and also little mini-shrines, including the Hall of 500 Arahan. (I had to look this up, but an “Arhat”, in the traditional Sanskrit, is someone who has achieved nirvana, but didn’t quite reach Buddha-level enlightenment.)

In the center of the Hall of 500 Arahan is a statue of Buddha, naturally.

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But the rest of the hall is filled with these little guys. I’m not sure if there were actually 500 of them, but each one is supposed to represent a real-life enlightened person from back in the day.

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Just like those Chinese terracotta statues, each one is completely unique. They ranged from the majestic dragon tamers…

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…to the whimsically facial-haired…

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I don’t always surf the internet but when I do eyebrows.

… to the slightly confused about the purpose of chopsticks. (I wonder if he found anything interesting in there.)

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Look at that face! Pure bliss. Oh yeah… that hits the spot.

And then we entered the main hall.

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Buddha and his mini-me’s.

There was no one on the upper levels, but we snuck up there anyway.

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The walls are covered with murals that show scenes from Buddha’s life. I’m not sure what is happening in any of them, but my parents could probably tell you. The next week they were visiting a temple in Seoul and a random passerby took them aside and explained the whole story of Buddha’s life.

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Such detail! They even remembered to put the little butt-cracks in Buddha’s feet!

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This is Buddha’s entourage (aka, the warriors who protected Buddha.)

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For some reason this guy always got watch duty…

There were some really creative characters in some of the murals.

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I wouldn’t normally mess with a vicious-looking snake, but I DEFINITELY wouldn’t mess with a vicious-looking snake with arms! Yeah, nope.

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And don’t forget the girls from the Mickey Mouse club.

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And my personal favorite picture:

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Ooh! Something shiny!

Bam! 끝!

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Stay tuned for Skipping School with my Parents, Part 4: Would you pay someone to throw cabbage at you? We did!

Skipping School With My Parents, Part 3: Jiving in Jeju

Riddle me this: what is approximately the same size as Maui, covered in volcanoes, and smells like citrus?

It’s Jeju Island!

Jeju (제주도) is South Korea’s most famous island; partly because it’s pleasantly warm and tropical, partly because it’s got lots of cool volcanoes and lava formations, partly because it’s got lots of open space for doing things you can’t do on mainland Korea (like riding horses!) but mostly because of bellybutton oranges.

The oranges are called Hallabong, after the most famous (and largest) volcano in Jeju, Hallasan (한라산, or Halla mountain.) Hallabongs look like regular oranges except that they taste way better and they have large outie bellybuttons. This makes hallabongs surprisingly easy to peel and inspired their unusual name. See the resemblance?

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Uncanny, right? Jeju is also known for these “grandfather” statues. They’re everywhere. Some were made by ancient Koreans and some were made just last week to stick next to the tourist stops, but they’re all carved out of the same volcanic stone.

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My parents and I flew into Jeju early on a Friday morning, ready for a nice, relaxing weekend. You can get there via a short, one-hour flight from Seoul, which is really convenient. Trying to rent a car in Jeju… not so convenient. The rent-a-car guy apparently thought it was a better idea to communicate via translator app than by just speaking a little bit slower in Korean (he was trying to translate whole sentences at a time, which is never a good idea between Korean and English). We finally did get a car… but then we had to drive it. Or rather, my dad had to drive it. In Jeju. Where traffic laws don’t exist, apparently. Once you get out of Jeju City, every so often along the highway there are just blinking red lights at the intersections and we never really figured out what that meant because half the time the other cars would stop and half the time the other cars would just speed right through. We’re kind of afraid that the Jeju police will track us down and in a few months we’ll have millions of won worth of traffic tickets to pay.

Jeju is not a big island, so we managed to drive around half of it and stop for plenty of excursions along the way to our final destination – the city of Seogwipo (서귀포, pronounced “saw-gwee-po”) on the island’s southern coast. Here are some of the highlights from our weekend:

Manjanggol (만장굴) Caves. Jeju is actually made up of several (hopefully dormant) volcanoes, which created these cool lava tubes that run for miles under the island. You know how in the states there are a bazillion rules protecting every single little stalactite and stalagmite and you’re not even allowed to shine bright lights on certain rocks for too long because you might accidentally scare some poor piece of algae? Well, Koreans don’t have that problem. They set up a system of lights in the cave so that you could actually see everything when you walked through. Lava makes some really cool formations when it cools: at the very end of the tunnel is a place where the ceiling broke while lava was still flowing, so hot lava poured through the roof and made a… well, I guess you would call it a lavafall.

Ilchulbong (일출봉) is probably the second-most famous volcano on Jeju. While Hallasan is in the center of Jeju, Ilchulbong started off separated from the main island until it erupted and made itself a nice little lava land-bridge. Ilchulbong is quite impressive when standing at the bottom. The photos don’t really do it justice, but here you go.

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We thought it would take us forever to get to the top, but again, the Koreans went and made everything really convenient by building stairs all the way to the top. I guess it was a nice day for hiking because we were joined by several busloads of tourists. (Did I mention Jeju is like the Hawaii of Korea? It’s everyone’s favorite tropical getaway spot.)

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Hey there, Mom!

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At the top is a giant crater. Because, you know, volcano!

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Wow, Mom sure likes taking pictures. Say “kimchi!”

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The Jeju inhabitants used to have this annual tradition of throwing maidens off the top of Ilchulbong as a human sacrifice to appease their capricious and impressively-bearded sea god, but now they have a tradition of not doing that.

Okay… you got me. They didn’t really do that. But the mountains and lava-cliffs do inspire that kind of “god of chaos” feeling.

By the evening of the first day, my parents and I finally made it to Seogwipo and checked into the hotel. We were completely exhausted, but we had to go into town to find dinner, and then we ended up taking a walk to Saeyeongyo Bridge (새연교). At night it lights up like this:

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On the other side is the tiny Saeseom Island (새섬도). We took a nighttime stroll through the woods and snacked on hallabong oranges in the moonlight. The kind of thing that would have made a romantic date… if there weren’t three of us. And two of us weren’t my parents.

The next day was our busiest. First we checked out two waterfalls, Cheongjiyeon (청지연) and Jangbang (장방.)

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Aww. So picturesque!

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I think we liked Cheongjiyeon better. It’s in the middle of a forest and it’s very pleasant, while Jangbang falls over beach-side cliffs into the ocean, and you have to climb over a bunch of rocks to get there. Note: Cheongjiyeon is not to be confused with the nearby Cheongjeyeon, which is known as the “Pond of Heaven’s Emperor”. Legend tells that the Emperor of Heaven’s seven sexy nymph handmaidens used to sneak down to the falls in the middle of the night to bathe. You know, ‘cause taking a bath outdoors amongst the curious mortals is so much more fun when you do it with six of your closest friends. We did come across the handmaidens’ bridge though.

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“Oh, la la la. Isn’t this lovely? I just happened to forget my seashell bikini but good thing I brought my mini harp!”

If you like museums, Jeju Island is the place for you! There’s a museum for everything here: The Ripley’s Believe it or Not Museum, the African Art Museum, the Body Museum, the Greek Mythology Museum, the Trick Art Museum, the Sex Museum (yes, that’s actually a thing.) However, if you like cuddly, tacky and slightly bizarre (okay, really bizarre), the Teddy Bear Museum is a must see. I think I’ll just let the pictures do most of the talking on this one, but basically they had recreated everything from historical events to celebrities to famous works of art all with teddy bears.

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The “teddycotta” soldiers

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Knocking down the “bearlin” wall

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I think, therefore, I bear.

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“Bearfast” at Tiffany’s

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After the Teddy Bear Museum the three of us felt like we needed to do something a little more cultured (and a lot less cheesy), so we finished off the day at the magnificent Yakcheonsa Temple. However, this post is already too long and I have a lot of pictures from the temple, so I’m going to put it in the next post (very soon, I promise.) So in the meantime…

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Cool lava formations. Though, I’m pretty sure this is where Leonardo DiCaprio washes up on shore in that first scene in “Inception.”

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Mom actually drowned while posing for this photo. You won’t be seeing her in any more posts.

This guy is called Yongduam, or Dragon Head Rock, because the Jeju-ians believe it looks like a dragon. There’s a whole legend (and I’m paraphrasing) about how the dragon stole some pearl from somebody important but he didn’t quite make it to the sea before he was cursed and turned into stone.

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I don’t know… to me it doesn’t look that much like a dragon, but it does remind me of this:

That’s all folks!

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Skipping School With My Parents, Part 2: Trolling in the DMZ

Previously: two weeks ago my parents came to visit me in Korea. We spent a busy day seeing half the stuff in the Seoul tour book, and then I sent them off by themselves on a 4-day countryside tour. Now they’re back in Seoul. What kind of crazy adventures will we get into this time???

We started with a tour of the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea (affectionately known as the “DMZ”.) There’s not a lot of comic relief going on up in the DMZ, so I’ll keep it light by throwing in a few Kim Jong-Un memes:

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Unfortunately, my parents and I were not in a joking mode that morning either. You see, we had to get up at 0 o’clock in the morning after spending the night on beds like this:

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That is a room in a traditional Korean house (called a “hanok” house) that’s been turned into a bed-and-breakfast. The beds are basically mats on the floor. My parents had a hard time, but I was actually pretty comfortable. Maybe I’ve finally fully adjusted to Korean life!

The tour was in English, so most of the other tourists were American or Canadian, and for me that was the first time hearing that much fluent English in over two months and it was reeaaalllly weird. After a whole day like that I was really starting to miss the bad Konglish I’m used to hearing.

The DMZ is about an hour drive north of Seoul, and it refers to the 2 kilometer buffer on either side of the border between North and South Korea. In the DMZ there is a military base for both sides, but they’re only manned by a few guards (at least that we saw.) On our side are U.S. and South Korean soldiers, and on the other side are North Korean soldiers. After a quick info session (where they tell you not to acknowledge the North Korean soldiers, or wave to them, or point at them, or make silly faces, or hand gestures, or suggestive winks, or any other kind of nonverbal communication that might be considered fraternizing with the enemy), they took us to these buildings:

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The tall building in the background is the North Korean clubhouse. (No girls allowed!) The blue buildings in the front are used for talks between the two sides. Each one sits directly on the border, exactly half in South Korea and half in North Korea. I actually got to step onto the North Korean side, so technically I’ve crossed into North Korea! I even took pictures on the North Korean side:

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Aw man! I just realized I didn’t get my passport stamped! Bummer.

But what’s up with those soldier guys, right?

Those are the South Korean soldiers. They’re known as the ROK, which stands for the Republic of Korea (the official name of South Korea.) By law, all men in South Korea have to spend two years in the ROK sometime between the ages of 18 and 35. Typically, most guys will wait until they’ve completed 1 or 2 years at college (just to get the prerequisites out of the way), and then enlist. After 2 years they come back (super buff and now a much bigger hit with the ladies!) and finish their degrees. Everyone in the army takes an aptitude test that helps decide where they get posted and if you happen to be a black belt in Taekwondo and you have the right aptitude, you get placed in the DMZ. Lucky you!

These guys stand like that for hours at a time. I never saw them move. Not once. They stand in the same spot every day and watch North Korea.

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The two soldiers on the side stand half-exposed and half-behind the building so they can signal to their superiors with their hidden hand in case they see anything suspicious. And also to make themselves less of a sniper target (though apparently they don’t care too much about the guy right in the middle.) Yeah, not a high-stress job at all.

(When our American soldier tour guide first told us about the “rock” soldiers I thought he was referring to the way they stand there all day without moving, but apparently he was talking about the “ROK” instead. I still think of them as the “rock” soldiers. Doesn’t that just sound so much tougher?)

That small concrete line you see in the picture above is the official border line. Oh, in case you were wondering what would happen if you tried to run north: basically, the ROK soldiers could stop you if they wanted (they are Taekwondo black belts, after all) but most likely they won’t bother with that and they would just shoot you instead. Though it’s not like you’d be much better off in North Korea, anyway.

Whoa, that was dark. Sorry. Here, have a laugh:

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We only saw one or two North Korean soldiers standing outside, but apparently there are more that hide out in their club headquarters just across the border. The American soldier giving us our tour said that sometimes the North Korean guys will stand by the windows and make rude gestures. Also, sometimes they creep through the woods and do the hokey pokey over the border (one foot in, one foot out…) while singing “na na na na na na” as well as other, non-G-rated taunts (the American soldiers said they’ve learned lots of good Korean insults this way.) North Koreans are pretty much trying to provoke our guys into starting a skirmish so that they have an excuse for a full-scale retaliation. The American and South Korean soldiers have orders not to start an international incident so we’re probably all safe for now, but it gets pretty boring up there so it’s a good bet that on any given day all the soldiers are just sitting around insulting each other’s mothers.

We actually got to see into North Korea, too. A while back they built a town they call “Victory Village”, which was really just for propaganda to show how fine and dandy everything is over there. Apparently up until a few years ago there were enormous loudspeakers set up in the town that broadcasted North Korean propaganda 24 hours a day. It was supposedly so loud you could hear it on our side of the DMZ. Nobody actually lives in this village though, and most of the buildings are fake, like movie sets.

What surprised me most was that South Korea has a village in the DMZ too. It’s called Daeseong-dong (대성동) and the main difference between its northern counterpart is that this village existed here before the Korean War and there are actually people living in it. The villagers are mostly rice farmers, and although they’re a bit isolated from the rest of South Korea, they have this great flagpole that’s 320 feet tall and a flag that’s almost 300 pounds. The flag was donated to Korea by the Olympic committee after the 1988 Olympics in Seoul. However, North Korea decided they didn’t like to be one-upped so they built their own flagpole… that’s 525 feet tall and carries a 600 lb North Korean flag. The flag is literally so heavy that they have to take it down when it rains, otherwise it will be torn in half by its own weight. A bit of a nuisance for a town with no people in it but hey, at least it looks good, right?

We learned from the tour guides that most Koreans these days don’t actually care too much about reunification. It’s just not a priority for them. The people who still have family in the North would like to see the two Koreas united, but their numbers are dwindling. Also, the people in charge of the DMZ are kind of hopeful as well. If you pay attention to the news at all you’ve probably heard of the joint Korean factory? Well there’s also a train line that runs north that would theoretically take passengers between Seoul and Pyeongyang. They built the last station as close to the border as they could, but it’s never been used. We bought tickets though, just in case:

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Finally, the last thing we saw was the tunnel. Back in the 70’s and 80’s the North Koreans tried tunneling across the border and they would have put troops through them except that the tunnels were discovered and barricaded. We got to walk down part of tunnel #3, but we weren’t allowed to take pictures there, just in case they were leaked and the North Koreans get to see of what kind of barricades are down there (hint: a series of moats with live crocodiles, electric eels, and those fish from the Amazon that swim up your pee-pee!) The scary thing is that even though 4 tunnels have been found, they suspect that there are many more they haven’t found yet!

Anyway, like I said before, although the South Koreans are cautious (hence the mandatory military service) nobody is really worried about a North Korean invasion. Korean students here have told me that (and I’m paraphrasing a little) “oh, we can totally take them.” Also, my Dad read somewhere that although North Korea’s army makes up 40% of their population, their economy is so trashed they could only afford to feed their troops for a week or two.

Oh, and every time we finished seeing some part of the DMZ, there was always a gift shop. Leave it to the Koreans to take a secret North Korean assault tunnel and turn it into a shopping experience. You could buy anything from your basic “someone who loves me went to the DMZ and all I got was this lousy t-shirt” to Kim Jong-Un bobble-heads.

Dont worry, I got you all t-shirts!

Stay tuned for part 3: Jeju Island – if you can dream it, they’ve probably already built a museum for it. Also, belly-button citrus!

(P.S. I got my parents to send me their photos from that first day, and I’ve added them to my previous post. My dad only takes photos in raw format or something so once he emailed them to me I had to download them as .dat files, open them in a pdf viewer in order to convert them to jpg, and then use Internet Explorer to upload them to WordPress. When I used Chrome the browser would freeze up and I had to restart my computer at least 3 times. Anyway, it was a pain in the butt so the least you could do is go check out the photos.)

Skipping School With My Parents, Part 1: Tour Guide For A Day

When I first told my parents I wanted to study abroad in Korea their first reaction was “um… why???”

Their second reaction was “um… what about Kim Jung-Un???”

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If you think it’s hard being the only fat kid in the second grade, try being the only fat kid in your whole country!

(In case you were wondering, South Koreans are’t the slightest bit worried at all about North Korea, and if they’re not worried, I’m not worried. They’re more concerned with taking over the world with subconscious messages hidden in popular K-pop songs, but that’s a topic for another time.)

Once I convinced my parents and started planning out my trip, they started to look into Korea too. Turns out there was a lot of stuff they were interested in seeing and doing and then they were more like “ooh! We’re coming too!”

And that’s how my parents came to visit me in Seoul for two weeks.

Let me tell you, it’s a lot of pressure being someone’s personal tour guide, especially if that someone is your parents. I kind of went into Mother Hen mode for a while. I worried a bit about setting them loose in a foreign country where they don’t speak the language and where they can’t even read anything, but mostly I worried about feeding them. I didn’t want to make them eat anything too weird, but I also didn’t want to feed them just bibimbap and bulgogi for every meal. When someone comes to visit you in a foreign country for a short time you only have a limited number of meals to impress them with the local cuisine so you really have to work hard to make each one count (especially since Seoulites are crazy drivers and you could die pretty much anytime you cross the street so each meal literally could be your last. Choosing what could be another person’s last meal is a big responsibility! )

Food-wise everything turned out pretty good. But the trip my parents planned was so busy we actually had to take a vacation from our vacation on Jeju Island. This was their basic itinerary: arrive in Seoul, spend one day in Seoul, take a 4-day bus tour through the Korean countryside, come back to Seoul, spend 3 more days in Seoul (with a DMZ tour thrown in, just for fun), then hop a plane to Jeju Island, spend 3 days in Jeju, fly back to Seoul, spend 3 more days in Seoul and then fly home the next day. Whew. No problem, right?

Luckily, the Jeju Island weekend was a 5-day weekend for Koreans: Monday off for Children’s Day (which is basically like Christmas but without the tree or Santa and with just the presents), and Tuesday off for Buddha’s Birthday (lots of Buddhist chanting, no tree, no presents.) I didn’t join my parents for the countryside tour, and there were one or two other days when I was like; “yeah, I should probably go to class today,” but other than that I got to play hooky with my parents!

Let’s start with Day One.

My mission (which I accepted with gusto!): tire my parents out so they adjust to Korean time. First we went to Namsan Tower (남산탑), which is like the Space Needle of Seoul but it’s built on a mountain (fortunately you can take a cable car to the top) and nobody wears socks-and-sandals (ugh, Seattlites.) After just a short elevator ride to the observatory you can look out and see the whole city from the top, which is awesome. However, Namsan has become the go-to spot for Korean couples, so it’s basically a monument to cheesy high school dating. On the patio at the bottom of the tower, couples can write their names on a padlock, clip it to the railing, and then throw away the key to signify their everlasting love (yuck!) The entire length of the railing is covered in layers and layers of padlocks. Like, a bazillion padlocks. If you’ve ever watched a Korean drama, you’ve probably seen a cheesy Namsan date (though not “Boys Over Flowers”, where the male and female leads don’t actually like each other and then they get locked outside of Namsan Tower after it closes. And by the way, there is totally a path down to the bottom of mountain so it’s kind of their own fault they stayed up there all night in the middle of winter. Just saying.)

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Like I said: cheesy high school dating.

And that wasn’t even close to the end of our day. My parents and I also checked out the famous Namdaemun Market (kind of sketchy, not our favorite), Myeongdong neighborhood (a bit more swanky), and Deoksugung Palace. Deoksugung is the smallest of the 5 major palaces in Seoul, but it was the most peaceful, and we got to see the guard-changing ceremony, which was kind of cool. There were all these guys in traditional Joseon era (Korea’s medieval period) costumes and they’re a bit like the guards at Buckingham Palace in London, so they won’t move no matter what goofy faces you make at them. Koreas are generally too polite to mess with the guards. Though it may have been because these guys were carrying swords and longbows, I don’t know.

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A dude in traditional Korean costume… and my mom doing a traditional Korean pose (you’ll see a lot of that in our pictures.)

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My parents’ hotel was in Myeongdong, so we hung out there that evening. Myeongdong is a really popular shopping district, so there’s lots of boutiques and makeup shops and yummy street-food carts. The makeup stores all sell escargot cream and from what we could tell from the badly translated English on the package, it’s either made from snails or snail slime and you’re supposed to rub it on your face for smooth, healthy skin.

No thanks. I think I’d rather look like the wrinkly, watery backside of an elephant than put that on my skin. Anyone who’s spent their childhood accidentally stepping on slugs with their bare feet (ME!) knows you definitely don’t want to put that on your face.

So, after that brief introduction to Korea, I bid farewell to my folks and sent them off on their countryside tour, where they actually were fed bibimbap and bulgogi for pretty much every meal. Even so, I got occasional texts messages from them saying how beautiful the countryside is…

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That’s a tea farm, I think.

… and how nice the people are. My parents kept getting approached by Korean university students who needed to interview foreigners for a class project.

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My parents are so evil: they made all the shy Korean students take photos with them.

Welcome to Korea, guys!

Stay tuned for Skipping School With My Parents Part 2: How I stepped over the yellow line at the DMZ and caused an international incident!

A Very Merry Buddhist Birthday

Here’s a riddle for you: Who’s been dead for 2000 years but still has birthday parties?

Answer: Buddha!

(Edit: So, apparently when most people read this they thought of Jesus, which actually makes more sense. I’ll just clarify then: Jesus is 2014 years old. Buddha is a little over 2500 years old. Though technically this is only his 6th birthday, if you start from his latest reincarnation as a wild and carefree Shetland pony.)

Whether you picture Buddha like this:buddha4

Like this:

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Or even like this…

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Ermagherd! Berhdda!

…it’s time to break out the cake and presents because Buddha’s birthday is less than a week away!

Yay!!! Are you excited? I’m excited! Koreans are so excited they held a lantern festival last weekend, because a week of celebrations is soooo much better than just a single day, right?

The lantern festival parade was in the evening, but I went early with some friends just to make sure we would get a good spot. Actually, we got there like 6 hours early and ended up hanging around the local neighborhood, Insadong (which is a major touristy shopping street), and creeping on people in Tapgol Park (탑골 공원), like these brightly dressed park-goers:IMG_0185

And these fine gentlemen of the swanky hat club:IMG_0187

And this guy on a picnic with his granddaughter:IMG_0217

And also this dapper old fella:IMG_0199

The whole city is decorated with these lanterns right now:IMG_0194IMG_0196IMG_0197

And this is Insadong. Eventually there were so many people you could barely move! We saw quite a few fun characters this afternoon; a few monks, lots of people in traditional Korean clothes (한복, “hanbok”), and even a few nuns. I think there must be extra karma floating around on Buddha’s Birthday because as I was taking pictures of random people on the street, there were photographers taking pictures of me and my friends too. It may have been for tourist sites or something, because they often like to show foreigners having fun at Korean events, but I’d like to think I’m just that charismatic.IMG_0226IMG_0233IMG_0237IMG_0240

Yum! Traditional Korean iced tea (from Starbucks!)IMG_0234

And then the parade! Some parade people had already set up rows of seating and they just let us sit down wherever we wanted. We ended up in the second row.

There were hundreds of participants in the parade, each with at least one handheld lantern. Some people were in modern clothes, but there were a lot of traditional outfits as well. And a lot of monks too.IMG_0266 IMG_0285IMG_0268IMG_0283IMG_0318

But the best part was the floats!

(In order from “okay, that’s kind of cool, I guess” to “Oooh! Aaah! Special!”)IMG_0345IMG_0290IMG_0271IMG_0270IMG_0357IMG_0288IMG_0263

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(In case you can’t tell, that’s a baby riding a large, fanged fishy thing. Because that electronic toy that makes farm animal noises is too lame.)

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The peacock moved its head, open and closed its beak, flapped its wings, and moved its tail feathers!

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This dragon breathes fire!!!

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Omg seriously! It freaking breathes fire!!!

Ha! And you thought YOUR birthday party was cool because you rented a bouncy house!

Until next time 🙂