Goodbye Korea

Well, this is it. My final day in Korea. And my final blogpost. I’m not even sure what to write. I feel like I should have something profound and inspiring to say but I still haven’t sorted out how I feel about leaving. Right now I feel ready to go home, get back to my life, and finally stop being a traveler and a foreigner. I’m looking forward to seeing my friends and my family and telling everyone my stories, especially the ones too crazy to publish in this blog (yes, there are a few!) At the moment, I am happy to be going home.

On the other hand I know I am going to miss Korea like crazy when I do. I’m going to miss the friends I made here (especially the ones I made in Busan) and the people (yes, even the ajummas) and the food (especially the food!) and the culture (though not the old guys who spit on the street or the squatter toilets), and Busan (especially the beaches) and Seoul (though slightly less than Busan, sorry!) and real kimchi. I’m even going to miss the crowded traditional markets that smell like fish and the pushy ajummas on the subway. I might even miss being looked at by people on the street and the open-mouthed stares of small children. Who knows.

I’m definitely going to miss Busan a lot. Not only because my friends are here, but also because of the atmosphere. I liked Seoul, but Busan is so much more laid-back and colorful. Hence my photo collection of whimsical street art:

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So… I guess the moral of the story is the nerd always gets the girl? I’m assuming he’s a nerd because of the glasses and the star on his onsie pajamas.

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And don’t forget the mountains!

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And of course, the Konglish.

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I kind of want that shirt. No… I REALLY want that shirt!

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Does this mean the customers are only chaste men or that the clothes so bad that anyone who wears them is subject to involuntary chastity?

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Previously tasted chicken?

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Uh…?

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So… no German women allowed?

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Sounds like a REALLY awesome water park!

I don’t really know how to do a final farewell so I think I might just wrap up with a few highlights from the last six months (wow, has it really been six whole months?!?)

I’ve eaten more new foods in the last few months than I can remember. 99% of it was delicious. The remaining 1% was strange invertebrates whose gummy texture completely overwhelmed any taste benefits they might have had. Most of the food I’ve had here burned away some part of my stomach lining (thank you Korean chili powder!) but it was totally worth it.

I’ve been renamed by the natives. You may now call me Dah-na. Though people in Busan tend to call me “Dina”, or they completely mishear and they call me “Jana” so honestly at this point I’ve almost forgotten my own name so you can call me whatever you want and I’ll probably answer.

I’ve experienced the best Korea has to offer: I’ve biked and picnicked along the Han River in Seoul…

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…climbed Bukhansan Mountain (barely!)…

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…strolled through both Gyeongbokgung and Changdeokgung palaces (as well as several temples)…

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…celebrated Buddha’s Birthday with a traditional lantern parade…

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…seen the view from Namsan Tower, vacationed in Jeju Island…

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Yakcheonsa Temple on Jeju Island: still one of my favorite places in Korea.

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…toured the DMZ…

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… and most importantly, eaten a lot of patbingsu!

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I’ve also experienced the daily life of Korea as well, like the traditional markets…

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…springtime in Seoul…

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…college neighborhood nightlife…

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…and sharing the street, subway, and bus with thousands of other people.

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I’ve learned basic Taekwondo. (And also forgotten much of it over summer break. Oops!)

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I spent a weekend in Japan while only using a grand total of 4 Japanese words.

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I’ve also been up to see the sunrise at Gwangalli Beach in Busan. This was one of my favorite moments in my entire time here.

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And of course, many other things that you’ve already read about. Or maybe you just skimmed it and looked at the pictures. Whatever, I’m not judging. But I do want to say thank you to all my readers. I appreciate you coming along with me on my travels… and for putting up up with a lot of weird humor, geeky pop culture references, and really bad Konglish puns. It’s been a good journey.

I would also like to thank my amazing host family for hosting me this last semester. They were always so kind and wonderful to me. And they put with with my awkward Korean for 4 whole months which is worth like a thousand million brownie points.

And finally, thank you to my friends in Busan who helped me celebrate my last week in Korea. I’ll miss you all, you crazy people.

I’ve heard that after a long time abroad, the returning culture shock can be just as bad as the original one. I know it will take me time to adjust to American life again, but I think I can get through it alright. If I end up a kimchi addict living in my parents’ basement I’ll let you know but I think as long as I cope better than this I’ll be okay:

(Silly Jack. You spent the first 4 seasons trying to get OFF that island!)

I do want to return to Korea someday. I don’t know when I will be able to come back, but who knows, right? So I’m not saying “goodbye”, just “so long for now.”

We’ll meet again, Korea. I know it.

또 만나자!

 

American Werewolf in Busan

It’s been a week since I moved into my workstay in Busan so I think it’s time for an update, don’t you?

Most of you are probably unfamiliar with the concept of a language café, so I’ll start there. Basically, Koreans pay a membership fee (like you would for a gym), and they can come in the café whenever they want and chat with foreign staff members (us.) Members come pretty regularly. usually a few times a week, some almost every day, and they typically stay for several hours. And although most of the members come to practice English there are a few who are learning Japanese or Spanish as well.

Besides the managers, the staff are all traveling volunteers, like me, and they are literally from all over the world (though everybody speaks English.) Out of the dozen or so staff members none of us are from the same country. Many of them have traveled all over and are really fascinating people. I think this job attracts very easy-going, mature people who like to travel and make new friends, so we all seem to get along pretty well so far.

Those of you who know me well know that I am generally an introverted person. Usually after spending a lot of time with other people I need to go home and recharge and avoid all human contact for several hours. So you can imagine that for me, the idea of doing a job where I’m supposed to talk to strange people for 6 hours a day every day was only slightly less mortifying than when there’s a spider in your room and you turn away for like 1/100th of a second to find something to kill it with and when you turn back the spider is gone. I was honestly really worried about how I was going to do this job, but the first day of work it took me about 5 minutes to get in the groove of things. It’s actually a bit like spiders: the Korean students are generally more shy of you than you are of them, so you just have to smile and be friendly and make them feel comfortable. Also, the fact that I can speak Korean is really useful for helping the less experienced students. So far I’ve been having a ton of fun.

Even though my job is great so far, the more I think about it it’s actually a very strange job. Basically I’m being paid (okay, not really paid. Compensated with food and housing) to be friends with random Koreans. Our job is to be super friendly with everyone and make sure that all the café members get to participate as much as they can in the conversation. We usually spend most of our time at a table but the café has board games and foosball and a pool table too if members want to do something else while they chat. Basically we have to be charming and make sure the customers have a good time (and yes, I know how that sounds. Don’t worry, we’re forbidden from dating members.)

The amazing thing is that you actually do become real friends with the Korean members. A few days after I got here two staff members left to continue their travels and both staff and members were very emotional. I think when you spend that much time with someone every day for several weeks it’s hard not to become real friends.

The language café is located in a busy college neighborhood (a lot like Sinchon neighborhood, where I was staying in Seoul), so we’re surrounded by bars and restaurants and loud drunk people at all hours of the night. The owners of the café also own two apartments in a building just around the corner from the café. Both apartments have enough bunk-beds to sleep about 25 people (yeah, it’s crowded. I share a room with 3 other people, though some of the rooms have 8 people.) One of the apartments is the “hostel”, which is used for backpackers and other guests, and the other apartment is for the staff, so that’s where I’m staying. We don’t have enough staff to fill all the beds so there are also Korean students living here for the summer. It’s a good deal for them because they get a cheap place to stay that’s close to school AND free English tutoring all day long, and it’s cool for us because we get to make friends with Koreans who aren’t café members (and maybe be invited out for drinks and karaoke, like I was two nights in a row. It was fun while it lasted, but not a good idea in the long-run: I’m sooo tired.)

The staff also has to clean the hostel and the café, so another part of my job includes cleaning shifts a few times a week, but I don’t mind too much. I get two days off per week, in case you were worried about me working too hard.

And Busan? Oh Busan… I’m pretty acclimated to Korea by now so the biggest shocker for me was the Busan accent. Apparently no one thought it was important to warn me that they speak really different in Busan. It’s so different, in fact, that I actually have a hard time understanding people (good thing my job is to speak in English, right?) Some of my Korean roommates explained to me that they consider the Busan accent to be “manly” and the Seoul accent to be a bit “girly.” They say that Seoul-ites think people in Busan sound too aggressive when they speak. I’ve noticed that the Busan accent is less “sing-songy” than the one in Seoul, so to me (and my English brain) it feels like the difference between a British accent and an American one (except that we all know Americans don’t have an accent.) I think Americans would think of a British accent as more posh and “girly” than ours. As for the culture, Busan-ites seem a bit more boisterous than Seoul-ites. I’ve noticed that people are louder on the subway and they bump into you a lot more. My personal bubble took a beating this week.

Wednesday was actually my first full day off so I got to take a little subway trip and finally see some more of the city. I went to the famous Jagalchi fish market

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Very fresh, obviously, but I opted for lunch at the less-fishy market across the street. I’ve told you about hoddeok pancakes, the fried donut-like cakes filled with nuts and melted brown sugar, but they’re typically a winter treat so I was really surprised when I found them here in Busan. Not only are Busan hoddeok filled with the same brown sugary goodness, but when you order one, the little old lady at the street cart opens up a separate part of the pancake like a pita and scoops in a different, special sugary nut mixture with lots of sweet, crunchy seeds. It was 80 degrees out but I ordered a piping hot hoddeok anyway… no regrets!

Just up the hill was the Bosu Book Street, which is a quaint little alleyway of tiny shops filled with crazy amounts of books.

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I even found a few familiar titles, both in English and Korean.

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That’ would be “Merida and the Forest of Magic”. Sounds a lot more exciting than just “Brave”, if you ask me.

I crept around the neighborhood for a while and then followed some random stairs up to the top of the hill and was able to see a pretty good view of the city. Busan, unlike Seoul which has one city center and is situation between several mountains, is built around several mountains, so it’s sort of divided into several large areas and it’s really throwing off my sense of direction. I miss knowing the lay of the land. Seoul was MY city, you know?

I only have a few weeks here but I suspect I’ll get to know Busan just as well. I still have yet to go to one of the beaches. There are also some great hiking mountains and temples around here as well. And since Busan hosts the Busan International Film Festival in October every year, there are supposed to have some really awesome movie theaters here. If there was anywhere you should spend a rainy day at the movies (and rainy days ARE coming!) it should be Busan.

Though I think I’ll be happy if I just figure out what the heck everyone is saying!

Oh! But I heard this great family joke:

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Ha ha. I’m so funny!

Seoul-long, And Thanks For All The Fun!

Well, the time has finally come: after 4 months I am leaving Seoul. Tomorrow morning I am taking the bullet train to Busan, where I will spend the rest of summer break doing a workstay in a language café/hostel. That means I will be working in the café in exchange for accommodation and meals. For those of you who have never heard of a language café, it’s a café where people (usually college students) can go and hang out with native speakers of different languages and practice speaking. They’re pretty popular here in Korea because they’re a good way to try out real conversations outside of a classroom setting. Most (but not all) cafes here are for English-Korean exchange.

And Busan!!! Busan, the second largest city in Korea, is located on the southeast coast, all the way across the country from Seoul. By bus it takes about 4 hours, but the bullet train can make it in 2.5 hours.

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From what I’ve heard, Busan is like the smaller, more relaxed version of Seoul. Okay, when I say “small” I mean only 4 million people live there, instead of 10 million, so it’s still pretty big. Also, Busan has a lot of beaches. Beaches! Based on their reputations I kind of have this mental image of the two cities as neighbors in similar houses, except Seoul would be the guy who hosts sophisticated dinner parties, and Busan would be that guy who has awesome barbeques on the weekends. I don’t know how accurate that is, but that’s just how I imagine it. I will be able to tell you for sure after I move there.

The best part, though? This is Seoul’s subway map:

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And this is Busan’s subway map:

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It’s so quaint!

Also, Busan is supposed to be milder than Seoul, weather-wise. I’m sure I’ve mentioned this already but Korean summers are hot, humid, and tend to be sort of monsoon-y. I’ve already started to experience some of that heat and humidity and it is NOT fun. Korean summer weather is so crappy that the 1988 “summer” Olympics in Seoul were actually held in September. And although we’re not into full monsoon season, there have already been some of what K-mom calls “showers”, which are basically torrential downpours that last for several hours. I honestly have never seen harder rainfall in my life (it rained through my umbrella last night!) and the streets are practically flooded in minutes so I can’t imagine how the monsoon can be any worse. Unfortunately, it looks like I’m going to find out the hard way.

Anyway, as a goodbye to Seoul, I’ll just wrap up with a few highlights. Okay, maybe just a few last things I haven’t shared with you yet. Oh! Like some of the weird questions I’ve been asked over the last few months. My first week I was here I was approached by a 100-year-old man in the subway who told me (in English); “you are beautiful. Just like my baby”, and then just walked away. Another time a guy in the school cafeteria told me he was impressed with my “eating habits”, as I was eating some doenjang jjigae. Thanks, I guess? A few times Korean students asked me if I am married, because they say I look older than I am. I think it’s mostly an Asian thing, because even the Japanese girls in my Taekwondo class look like they’re 20 years old when they’re really closer to 30, and they assumed I was older too. Also, the other day in computer graphics class my professor wanted to know the difference in pronunciation between “color” and “colour” and even though I explained it was just a different spelling for the same word, no one was satisfied until I had demonstrated how to say “colour” with a British accent.

Seoul is home to my favorite street foods, like egg-bread (계란 빵, “keran bbang”):

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Note: not my picture. I stole this from the internets. I seriously doubt anyone will sue me for copyright, but there you go.

It’s really just an egg cooked in a sweet bread but it is soooo good. I also like the corn-on-the-cob, (it’s special glutinous corn, so it kind of tastes like rice but everything in Korea, by law, has to have some rice in it) and the spicy chicken skewers and the little pancakes that are shaped like fish and have red bean paste inside, and the hoddeok pancakes that have brown sugar and nuts inside… oh, so tasty. Seoul has also introduced me to some of the weirdest foods I’ve ever eaten in my life. Mostly squidly things, but also pig’s feet (족발, “jok-bal”), and the deceivingly-named “potato soup” (감자국, “kamja-guk”), which is actually more like pig spine soup. The meat was really good (like soft pot-roast) but eating it reminded me a little like that one scene from “Predator”.

Leaving Seoul also means saying goodbye to my friends. I’ve become close with some of the other foreign students, but I’m really going to miss my Taekwondo classmates. I don’t know if it was the shared exercising, or having to kick each other over and over, or making fun of our instructor when he would do this high-pitched scream every time he kicked (you’re supposed to yell, but his was a little extreme), but we became pretty close. There was this one girl who spoke Chinese, Korean, English, and Japanese, so she started out as our master translator, but kind of turned into the mother of our little group.

And of course, leaving Seoul also means I will be saying goodbye to my host family: Host Dad, K-mom (my tiger-mom of a host mother), and little Host Sisters. I never got to practice taekwondo with them but considering that they could break all the bones in my body with one pinky finger it’s probably for the best. If I’ve been a little silent about my host family so far it’s because I didn’t want to share too much of their personal information on the internet, but we have grown close. Not super super close, but I will miss them when I leave.

I might even miss scary Host Grandma a little too. Have I told you all about Host Grandma? She’s under 4 ft but she’s got an attitude and she’s always ordering me around in Korean with this gravelly old lady voice that I can’t understand so mostly she ends up pushing me around until I figure out what the heck she wants. It’s quite frightening when Host Grandma yells at you.

Even though I still can’t understand Host Grandma, my Korean has gotten better, I promise. I can actually have a conversation now! Okay, maybe a really simple, kind of tedious conversation, and maybe I speak better after a little soju (it really all comes down to confidence… or lack of inhibitions), but at least people can understand me and I can sort of understand other people (as long as they don’t talk too fast.) I am able to communicate most of my wants and needs, which is a big improvement from when I first got here and I just sort of blindly followed people around because I didn’t really know what was going on. I couldn’t follow a thing anyone was saying. People would talk at me and I would nod like I understood, but really it was a bit like this:

Yep, pretty much sums up all my attempts to speak to Koreans.

Also, I can understand a little bit of Korean TV now too… except for the “King of Ratings” skits on Gag Concert (it’s an SNL-type show, except that the skits follow the same format every week, so you get to see the same characters each week and they build up really good running jokes.) “The King of Ratings” is about a producer who tries to improve the ratings on his television show by adding more drama. Why don’t you take a look and see how much you can make of it (and make sure you watch until the end to see the special guest stars!)

I watched this with my family on TV a few weeks ago and later I had to search like crazy to find a version with subtitles because I had to know what the heck was going on! (If you want a basic translation message me, or check out the subtitled version and skip to minute 41.)

You know how you can be totally surrounded by background conversation and be able to completely tune it all out… until someone says your name? Then you’re instantly alert, right? I’ve gotten like that with a very particular Korean word, “waygook-in” (외국인), which is the Korean word for “foreigner”. You hear this word a lot as a foreigner in Korea, and I’ve gotten really good at picking it out of random background noise. It’s a generally a sign that someone is talking about me and they don’t want me to know. Nowadays though, I can tell when someone is talking about me AND what they’re saying (like the other day when my host sister was telling her friend that I eat watermelon seeds and how weird that was.)

Wow, this has kind of turned into me rambling about random stuff. It’s not like I’m leaving Korea for good yet, just moving on. And I’m ready to be done with school and do something different. So, here’s to Seoul. May we meet again someday!

And a pun: What do you call a motorcycle you can’t ride?

못타사이클!

Ha ha ha ha ha!

그리고…

줄리엣: 이 글을 읽고 있으면 한국에 즐거운 시간을 보내세요! 우리는 서울에서 만나지 못 해서 아쉬워요!

Japan Without A Plan

I’m back from my 30-hour excursion to Osaka! In case you’re just joining me (or if you just forgot), I had to leave South Korea before my student visa expired so I could come back as a tourist and have 90 more days. (Good thing too, because my original student visa expired right in the middle of final exams and being deported does NOT look good on your student transcript!) The thing is, Japan has this reputation of being sort of crazy…

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Joint locks don’t work on invertebrates!

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Here’s the funny part: only one of those people is a Japanese girl in a wig and excessive makeup. The other five are Pokemon.

…okay, make that really crazy! But I figured as long as my vacation didn’t turn into Battle Royale, I could handle any kind of adventure!

I flew out Sunday morning on a little Japanese airline called Peach. It was super cute and everything was decorated in pink (though thankfully not Hello Kitty, because I know there is a Hello Kitty airline in Japan and to say they’ve gone overboard in their decorating is a serious understatement.) I got in to Kansai airport around noon and then I had to take the train into Osaka proper. This is when I started to notice something.

I can’t speak Japanese.

I can’t even READ Japanese!

Holy fish out of water Batman! What the heck have I gotten myself into?

Fortunately the ticket machines at the airport had an English setting (some of the machines in Osaka, I later found out, did not!) so I was able to buy a ticket and somehow I managed to get on the correct train. I also bought some mochi (squishy, delicious Japanese rice cakes with yummy bean paste in the middle) from a convenience store and that made everything a little bit better. Generally I find sweet bean paste makes everything a little better. The train ride itself took a little over an hour, and I even managed to transfer halfway through. Looks like all that subway riding in Seoul has paid off!

My first stop was at Osaka Castle (or “Osaka-jo”. I don’t know how to spell it in Japanese though.) It’s basically the main attraction in Osaka and it looks like this:

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Pretty impressive, right? The castle itself sits on a gigantic stone base and it’s surrounded by two large moats. Even the biggest Korean palaces have several walls but they don’t have moats. I think this tells you a lot about Korean and Japanese culture, at least historically. The Koreans wanted you to be impressed when you walked through the gates on your way to meet the king. The Japanese wanted you to be impressed when you stood far away and wished you could meet the king.

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The view of Osaka. Notice how it’s a lot flatter than Seoul. I wouldn’t mind that.

The inside of Osaka castle has been turned into a museum dedicated to the history of the castle. Basically there was a king inside the castle with an army, and some dude outside the castle with a bigger army and he really wanted the castle and so there was a super huge battle with lots of samurai and dragons and orcs and even some of those flying monkeys from The Wizard of Oz.

The castle is in the center of a huge public park, which is full of nice biking paths and ponds and plum orchards and old gates and secret shrines. It also seemed like the popular place for street food vendors, struggling musicians, and street magicians. And also the local bird-of-prey enthusiast club, apparently. I have no explanation for why these guys were just chilling in the park with large carnivorous birds, other than that Japan is crazy.

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My favorite part is that kid in the background!

Though those were not the weirdest pets I saw in that park. Do you see what this guy has on the end of that leash?

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It’s a chipmunk!

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This guy was walking his pet chipmunk! You know what, if I had a pet chipmunk that was leash-trained, I would probably go show it off in the park too. But I would stay away from the guy with the owl.

After touring the castle and the park I hopped back on the train and headed toward the main Osaka station. I figured if anywhere was supposed to be the main part of town that would be it. Turns out it was more like the breeding ground for overly large department stores. You come out of the train station and all of a sudden you’re in this hive of enormous, multi-storied department stores all connected by skybridges and completely packed with people. Seoul can be pretty crowded but in Osaka there were definitely a LOT more people so it was a lot crazier. I’d say if a Seoul train station was controlled chaos, this was barely controlled chaos! Even so, I still felt that safe-ness that I feel in Seoul. There are probably only three countries in the whole world were you can be a woman traveling alone who doesn’t speak a word of the language and those countries are South Korea, Japan, and the magical land with the dancing penguins from Mary Poppins.

Anyway, I took a look in maybe like two stores before I realized that I couldn’t afford anything, even if I spent all the cash I had on me (which was yen, by the way. Also, to go from Korean won to dollars you divide by 1000. To go from yen to dollars you divide by 100. For a while I was really thrown off and I kept thinking that everything cost 10X less than it actually did.) Everything was soooo expensive! I honestly don’t know how the Japanese clothe themselves without going broke. I decided I would rather be fed than fashionable, so I found my way down to the main street and started looking for something to eat.

Before I went to Osaka I did some internet searching and the one thing that kept coming up as a must-eat was this thing called “okonomiyaki.” Okonomiyaki is like a mix between a pancake and a latke, and it’s sort of like the Japanese version of a Korean jeon (pancake). However, unlike the Korean version, which uses green onion as the main stuffing ingredient, okonomiyaki is made with shredded cabbage instead. Then the chef puts in whatever other little tasty morsels he wants (usually other veggies or sometimes squid or bacon pieces), fries it on a stove top, spreads super-secret special okonomiyaki sauce on top, adds a few swirls of mayonnaise, and then sprinkles some more secret spices to top it off. Another typical topping is shredded dried fish, which mostly just adds a little salty flavor. It’s basically the most delicious thing in the whole world and it looks like this:

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The cabbage in the batter makes the whole thing a bit puffier than a regular pancake, so it stays nice and soft in the middle and doesn’t get fried all the way through. Also, you’d think mayonnaise would be gross but it’s a special Japanese mayo that’s much tastier (I think we would call it aioli). Also, if you go specifically to an okonomiyaki restaurant (yes, such a thing exists!) all the tables have little metal hot-pads in the middle of the table that are there for the sole purpose of keeping your okonomiyaki hot while you eat it. That way, each piece is literally hot off the grill.

I loved it so much that I even ate it again for lunch the next day, meaning half the meals I ate in Japan were okonomiyaki. No regrets!

That night I took the train back from Osaka to a little town called Izumisano. Originally when I planned this trip I was planning on leaving on an earlier flight, so I wanted a hotel that was near the airport. I ended up making a reservation at this little mom’n’pop motel (or in this case, super cute and tiny grandma’n’grandpa motel) near the train station. They hardly spoke any English (and I only spoke 4 words of Japanese: “yes”, “no”, “hello” and “thank you”) but once I showed them the reservation receipt we got it all worked out. I think they were used to dealing with confused foreigners on their way to the airport, so they even had a little homemade brochure about Izumisano showing you where to find food, how to get to the airport, etc.

The next morning I decided to check out the town. If you’ve ever seen a Hayao Miyazaki film (okay, one that actually takes place in the real world) you might have seen scenes like this:

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The weird thing is that many of the houses in Izumisano even had those exact lion handles on their gates. Kudos for attention to detail, Mr. Miyazaki.

After walking around Izumisano all morning, I can see where he gets his inspiration…

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Wouldn’t it just be awesome to live in a house like this?

And those are just regular homes! If anyone thought it was weird that I was just wandering through their neighborhood taking pictures of their houses they certainly didn’t say anything. Sometimes I would come across these shrines (or at least I think they were shrines) and the gates were open so I would just go in and walk around the gardens.

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I looked it up: the inscription on the statue on the right says “Tweedle Dee” and the one on the left says “Tweedle Dum.”

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It was really quiet that morning and the few people I did see were mostly older folks but strangely enough none of them gave me a second glance, as if random white people always come creeping around in little old Izumisano. Also, most of the people I saw were on bicycles. In fact, so many people in Japan ride bicycles that there are parking lots just for bikes.

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Based on my brief experience, the one thing I can say for sure that Japan does better than Korea is pastry snacks. Korea has a lot of coffee shops (including this major chain called Paris Baguette that is everywhere!) where you can get croissants and bagels and “toast” and other breakfast items, but they’re usually kind of dry, the way bread normally is. Japan on the other hand, is really into nice, soft, squishy rice cake treats that usually have sweet been paste in the middle. I already mentioned mochi, but basically you can just walk into any old 7-11 store and find rows and rows of delicious-looking, prettily-decorated pastry snacks. I ended up with these little kabob thingies for breakfast that turned out to be soft, sticky rice balls covered in sweet honey sauce.

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Okay, that’s all the food pictures you guys are getting. This isn’t Instragram or some such nonsense. But I will just add that Japan is really into deep fried street food. One time I ended up snacking on some fried lotus roots and this thing called a “cloud dream” which was basically a ball of soft glutinous rice (like the rice dough mochi is made of) that was fried in batter. Yum, deep-fried rice!

Sadly, two days was about all I could take in Japan. I think mostly it was the language barrier. Even for an introvert like me, who could theoretically spend a whole weekend hiding away watching Netflix in my room without missing human interaction even the slightest bit, it was a little disappointing not being able to communicate with anyone beyond “me Tarzan, you Jane”-level. But I did get to work on my acting skills by practicing exaggerated pointing and facial expressions, which was a plus.

Another weird thing was that I started missing Korea really quickly. When you’re learning a language, the new-language part of your brain kind of goes into hyper drive. I know this because ever since I started learning Korean, I’ve been hearing Korean in other foreign languages. I was at an Indian restaurant one time and my brain kept struggling to interpret the Hindi music playing in the background. I swore I could hear Korean words in there. Also, I went to an Italian restaurant with my family once and I kept reading the Italian words on the menu with Korean pronunciation. My brain assumes all gibberish is Korean and it’s trying to translate for me, bless its little heart, but I just end up with a headache. It’s like listening to this as a native English speaker:

Doesn’t that just hurt your brain? You feel like you should understand it but you just can’t. Japanese really doesn’t sound all that much like Korean, but my brain spent two whole days trying to make sense of it and then getting frustrated when it couldn’t.

That settles it then: as soon as I am fluent in Korean I’m going to learn Japanese. When I do, the first thing I’m going to do is fly right back over there and order me some okonomiyaki!

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Sucky sucky!

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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Surprise Train Trip!

But first, a little history – literally. On Friday my Korean tutors from Kyung Hee U took me and another student to see Gyeongbokgung (경복궁) palace. We made it there too late to get into the palace grounds but we still got to see the famous Gwanghwamun (광화문) gate right outside it.

Edit: So, I guess “gung/궁” already means palace and “mun/문” already means door or gate so “Gyeongbokgung palace” is sort of redundant but you get the idea.

The view from the inside

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The second gate

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And that’s the third gate behind us. The palace is waaaay in the background. I guess the emperor was either not fond of door-to-door salesmen or he was just a big fan of large, impressive gates.

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Gwanghwamun from the outside. Sweet view of the mountains in the background.

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The palace is guarded by several haechi (해치), an imaginary animal that often guards homes and gates.

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Sometimes he also looks like this:

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I don’t really know how to describe this animal; it’s sort of a combination of a dog and a lion and a troll doll. Wikipedia says it’s a “unicorn-lion”, but basically it is a 1700-year-old Pokemon.

If that didn’t scare you away there’s also these guys. They’re a lot like the fuzzy-hat guards in London; they won’t move no matter what you do to them.

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Gwanghwamun gate faces Gwanghwamun Square, which is a ritzy part of town full of glass skyscrapers and banks and important international trade. And also this guy. Look familiar Seattlites?

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Sometimes I almost forgot where I was.

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(That says “Starbucks Coffee” Or 스타벅스 커피)

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Seriously?

In Gwanghwamun square are statues honoring Emperor Sejong and Admiral Yi Sun Shin and underneath the square is a museum where you can learn about them. Emperor Sejong oversaw the invention of the Korean writing system, Hangeul. They even have the first official words written in Hangeul, which is the speech announcing the creation of Hangeul. Apparently Korean children memorize this speech in school, kind of like our Declaration of Independence but several centuries older.

Admiral Yi Sun Shin is also a pretty cool guy. He was in charge of the Korean navy during a war with the Japanese and he noticed that, “gosh, those Japanese sailors are really good at boarding our ships and killing everyone on them. What if our ships didn’t have decks? What if our ships had roofs with metal spikes coming out of them instead, Temple of Doom style? That would be so sweet!”** And thus turtle ships were born!

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(Note: picture stolen from internet)

They’re like regular ships except that everything below the masts is enclosed under a spiked roof. Yi Sun Shin used these ships to fight navy battles with crazy odds – like 70 ships against 30 – but he’d kick enemy butt without losing a single ship. Unfortunately no official portraits of the admiral survive except for one, drawn by yours truly:

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We spent several hours playing around in that museum and then it was time to go home. I moved in with my permanent host family the next day. Weeks ago we arranged to meet at a certain train station at a certain time and after a whole week of train riding I was like, okay, no big deal, I got this. I said goodbye to my current host family, hopped on the train and off I went. I got off at the right station to transfer to the #2 line – so far so good, considering that I was awkwardly hauling two suitcases with me the whole way. I even set off an alarm at one point because I swiped my train card but then took too long to drag my luggage through the little gate.

And…. then I goofed. Okay, I know where Yonsei University is (I’ve been planning this trip for how long?), and I know what the train map looks like (so I didn’t feel a need to check it), and I know I have to get off at Sinchon station…

…but Sinchon (신촌) looks a lot like Sincheon (신천) and both happen to be stops along the #2 line, so off I went, blissfully following the train signs. A little while later I noticed that we crossed the Han River, which runs east-west through Seoul and I thought “oh, that was weird. I’m pretty sure I’m not supposed to be going this direction. Oh well.” (No seriously, total brain fart. I don’t know what was wrong with me.) A few stops later I was in Gangnam. You know how I knew? Not because I was paying attention to the train announcer or any of the posted signs (stupid me!), but because this older gentleman comes up to me and goes “Gangnam, you know?” and then does the Gangnam Style dance off the train. Finally I decided it might be a good idea to check the map. It’s very simple and it looks something like this:

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Surprise! Wrong direction!

Fortunately I happened to be on one of the few train lines that go in a circle, though at this point it would have been no faster if I turned around so I treated myself to a little sightseeing. I borrowed a phone from a fellow passenger to inform my host family that I would be embarrassingly late but I couldn’t get through. They told me later that they assumed I was just lost but not dead or anything, which is a relief I guess.

I finally met up with my family – they are very nice! – and we went to lunch and then back to their apartment where I unpacked and settled in. Tomorrow I have international student orientation but until then I am chilling here and getting to know my two new little sisters. We’ve been watching the Olympics (and rooting for Korean figure skater Kim Yeona!) and they’ve been practicing their English with me but I think they are adorable so I don’t mind. They’ve also beat me at every game we’ve played so far and I don’t know how I feel about that yet.

Also, there is a Kpop group here in Seoul that is very popular. It’s a new band and I guess they made it big by only picking high-profile gigs. They say that they go wherever the money takes them, which inspired the band’s name: Won Direction. You should check them out; they’re pretty good.

Until next time, y’all.

**Actual quote from Admiral Yi Sun Shin and, coincidentally, the second thing written in Hangeul.

5470 Miles

11 hours

10 hours with a runny nose

3 hours of turbulence

17 times the guy across the aisle opened up the window to make sure that, behold! there is still blinding sunlight outside at 36000 feet!

4 “uh oh… what have I gotten myself into? Turn the plane around!” mini-heart-attack moments

1.5 hours on a bus

2 in-flight “meals”

1 hour of sleep

And I only made it as far as Tokyo

Just kidding! I’m in Seoul! And all that was still better than my train ride from Portland last week. (8 hours of lies! Yeah, sure we’ll be in Tacoma in 3 hours. Right…) I even made it here more or less in one piece, though leave it to me to be sick on my first day. I’m hoping that some sleep and some real food will take care of that.

But you know what’s even better than food? Bamboo-salt-flavored toothpaste! Not really, it tasted kind of weird, but they had lots of tiny tubes of it in the airplane bathrooms along with little toothbrushes. What is bamboo salt? Is it salty bamboo or salt made from bamboo? Perhaps we will never know. Alas, the ancient mysteries of the Far East.

Weirdest experience so far: when I got off the plane I was first greeted by the smiling, billboard-ed face of Robert De Niro inviting me to visit Paradise Casino. Why yes, Mr. De Niro, if you say so, then gambling away all my money in a foreign country must be a fabulous idea!

Oh yeah, by the way, Korean currency is called “won” (원) and I have several hundreds of thousands of it in my pocket. Muahahahaha!

It’s been a little harder than I thought to get people to speak Korean to me. I think there is something about me that makes everyone assume I’m a native English speaker, but I can’t imagine what it could be. On the plane I sat next to a girl about my age, but she was more interested in 11 hours of Angry Birds than in friendly conversation. Literally, all 11 hours. She only took breaks to eat or play Candy Crush. Even when I got off the plane, people were pushing in front of me in line to pick up baggage, to buy bus tickets, to get on the bus, etc. Oh well. Communication is not helped much by the fact that I have trouble annunciating through a stuffy nose.

Sorry I don’t have any pictures yet. It is dark out and there really is not much to see right now. I won’t lower myself to taking selfies, and you all wouldn’t want to see them anyway because after 14 hours of travel I look gross, I feel gross, and I’m pretty sure if I checked my passport right now my middle name would legally be changed to “eww gross!” I feel bad that this is how I will meet my host family. I’m actually writing this on the bus from Incheon International Airport to the bus station where they will pick me up. My first words to them will probably be something like: “Hello. I’m Dana. Nice to meet you”, because I am a civilized person and I have manners. And then: “can I go to sleep now?”

And speaking of sleep, the middle-aged couple in the seats behind me are asleep holding hands. And snoring. I think I might take a cue from them and try and get some rest. I will let you all know how my first day goes tomorrow.

Whoa… I just saw a Starbucks!

24 Hours and Counting…

Yeah, I’m actually counting down the hours. No shame!

At this time tomorrow I will be in the air on a plane bound for Seoul, South Korea, where I will spend the next 4 months at Yonsei University learning Korean, living large, partying hard, and engaging in wild merry-making and reckless shenanigans. Ha! Bet you didn’t see that coming, Mom and Dad!

I think that starting school a month later than usual has made me a bit lazy. I am supposed to be getting back in school-mode – taking computer science classes (like, to finish my major, or something? I forget), worrying about grades, writing code at all hours of the night – but I can’t stop thinking about the upcoming semester as one big vacation. Thanks to my enthusiastic parents and several guide books, all I’ve been hearing about for the last several weeks is extravagant festivals and busy shopping markets, modern museums and ancient palaces, mystic mountains and volcano islands, delicious street food and midnight karaoke parties. It still hasn’t really hit me yet that I am MOVING TO A FOREIGN COUNTRY HALFWAY ACROSS THE WORLD OMG WHAT THE HECK AM I DOING?!?! All this is so new and wildly adventurous that I have trouble taking it all in, but I can guarantee you that as soon as my plane takes off tomorrow I will have a sudden “oh crap” moment that is 45% pure joy, 45% pure terror and 10% why-on-earth-didn’t-I-pick-an-aisle-seat-for-a-12-hour-flight??? all at the same time.

You might be wondering if I even speak Korean. Surely that would make things easier, right? Thanks to three semesters of fine tutelage at Washington University, I can, actually (though to what extent is debatable). I’m not fluent, but I should be able to get around alright. I can hold a slow and small-vocabularied conversation akin to that of a very small child. Perhaps pre-kindergarten? I don’t really know, actually. I’m sure my teachers, who have heard me stumble through many painful conversations, might have some idea. My verbal limitations will most likely hit me like a brick wall about 5 minutes after I de-plane in Seoul and I’ll have some very interesting and embarrassing stories to share.

And what comes after that? Well… I don’t start classes at Yonsei right away. Next week I am signed up for an intensive Korean language class at another university. They assigned me a host family for the week, and classes are only in the morning so I have the afternoons free to explore Seoul. Expect lots of pictures! Then, next Saturday I move in with my permanent host family, where I will stay for the next 4 months. I have a week to settle in and do international student orientation-type stuff before classes start at Yonsei on March 3rd.

That’s about all I have for now. It’s not too exciting… yet. I haven’t even finished packing! There’s stuff all over my floor and I know I’m going to forget at least one thing. Probably pajamas. I always forget to bring pajamas. I’m almost tempted not to bring them on purpose so I don’t break this sacred tradition.

So goodbye friends! Goodbye family! Goodbye my mopey dog who has been making sad faces at me while I pack. Goodbye random strangers who may have stumbled across this blog. Goodbye nobody, goodbye mush. Goodbye old lady whispering “hush.”

Goodbye comfort zone! Goodbye America!

Hello Seoul! 안녕하세요!

 

And now, in the spirit of international travel, and as an example of foreign language skills that are (hopefully) much lower than my own, I invite you to enjoy 3 minutes of humorous video, mostly because I find this hilarious: