Monday, June 10, 2013

Life post-Korea

Man, it feels good to be posting again. I should have done this post a month ago at least but I've been putting it off for some reason. It feels like I've opened an old diary filled with all the little memories I may have forgotten or stories that I still think about often. I'm once again so grateful that I kept this record of all Korea had to offer me.

I've been home for about 2.5 months now and it honestly feels like Korea was a life-time away. When I see people who I haven't seen since I've been home and they ask the inevitable "how was it?" question I tend to think - how was what? My lunch? My weekend? Ooooh, you mean Korea. It was great. It is so difficult to explain what that year meant to me and all that was after all completely life changing and often people ask out of obligation and not because they're really interested which makes it hard to get into the real nitty gritty stuff. I have had many an interesting conversation about the North/South drama though, and I've thoroughly enjoyed being able to tell the people that care to listen about this weird little country I spent a year of my life immersed in. But no matter how long the conversation lasts, it's impossible to cover everything. 

It's been harder to readjust than I imagined. Friendships have drifted, people changed, routines were no longer familiar and I've found myself floating through the days, feeling like I have no control over things and hoping that my life will eventually start to be productive once more. I miss Korea. I miss my friends, I miss the food IMMENSELY and I miss the routines I had gotten used to...walking though the streets to visit friends and getting my feet wet when entering the bathroom. Okay no, I do not miss that. I walked into my shower wall the other day while trying to get the shampoo out of my hair (and keep it out my eyes) because I wasn't used to having a shower with limits. I still sometimes have to beat the urge to bow to new, older people I meet and throw in some Korean words here and there that have just become habit. But generally I've managed to put my Korea life behind me and am trying to move forward with my life here. There are definitely times I sit back and wonder whether or not I made the right decision to come home when I did but I think that's normal. I'm really happy that I've managed to keep in touch with my friends I made over there and we try to make regular Skype dates or send voice notes and pictures back and forth which keeps me in the loop. I really hope to meet up with them in the future. What I predicted before I left has turned out to be true...once you live in another country, a part of your heart will always belong there. 

Despite the doubts and difficulties, it really is amazing to be home. The first thing I did when I got home was have a Mugg and Bean breakfast and then a bath. I was in heaven. I've loved being in the culture again, surrounded by diverse smiling faces with the unmistakable South African charm and good spirits. It's been so good to catch up with family and friends again and I'm so grateful for the few who have really embraced me since being home. I've spent a lot of time with Jodie, the friend I went over to Korea with originally and we often find ourselves relying on each other to understand what it is we're going through. I spent an awesome few days at my Uncle's holiday farm, Wyndford, which is very possibly my favourite place in the world. While there I hiked a part of the Drakensburg with my Dad, where we did the chain ladder and it was the most incredible experience with him. See, all the pain and suffering hiking in Korea paid off ;) I’m still waiting to go see some wildlife in Pilansburg which will hopefully happen in the July holidays. Work wise, I have started working at a local high school as a substitute and PT teacher, which is less than satisfying but I’m grateful to be busy. I also have some au-pairing lined up, am tutoring and just trying to keep busy. My plan is to start my Masters in Development Studies next year so am really just working towards that and will see what happens from there. NGO work is definitely where I want to be getting involved.


Right. So that part of my blog was written about 6 weeks ago. My bad. In my defense though, half way through the post we lost our internet connection which forced me to stop and then life got in the way. So it is now 4 months since I came home and things are much better. I've found my feet and my happiness here once more and although not in the ideal work situation, I have some exciting prospects on the horizon and am very positive about my future - beginning with Masters next year (if I get in). I've made a bunch of new friends so my Saturday nights spent alone and wondering what on earth I'm doing back here have thankfully ceased to exist. I've joined a gym, am back in the habit of driving on the crazy Jozi roads and after having my cellphone stolen in the first 2 weeks of being home - I'm back to being a fully functioning South African citizen :)

I manged to cook some Korean food the other night...Jjimdak - my favourite!! And it wasn't half bad (well I don't think it was). I'm very excited to try out the few Korean restaurants that we have and cannot wait to see what the Korean Supermarket has in store for me. I do get very jealous of all the pictures I see of my friends still there and all their adventures but if being away from home has taught me anything, it's taught me to make the most of where you are. My heart has swelled with love for my home town and I'm trying my best to make the most of all we have on offer here. Funny how when you're away, you miss everything but as soon as you're back, you begin to take it all for granted again. 

I feel as though coming home, and these short 4 months since, have taught me almost as much as being away last year did. I've grown so much and am learning new things all the time. I'm forcing myself out of my comfort zones and refuse to say no to any opportunity I feel will be worth it. I've had to cut certain things out of my life that were harmful to me, and have tried to adopt a range of better habits. The pre-Korea Bron wouldn't be so brave. I've found faith again and a church to call home - which in itself has opened my eyes to a million things I've been missing. Life is good here in Africa, it cannot be denied. 

I plan to keep writing, although about what I'm not sure. I'm no longer falling off mountains or eating strange food so what can I entertain you with? We all know my jokes aint that funny. I will be posting on my brother's blog - so you can find me there but I'll also be starting a new blog, 'The Ramblings of a Day Dreamer' as soon as I get someone to help me design it.

Looking back on my year abroad, it seems almost surreal. I read my old posts and sometimes I cringe at the self-centeredness of it all, sometimes I smile at a memory I had forgotten but mostly I am so incredibly grateful for the opportunity I had to live in such an amazing country. Life lessons learned, some hard and some harder still since getting home. For all the struggles and frustrations, I wouldn't have changed that year for anything. If anyone is thinking about doing something like this - do it. Make sure you're doing it for the right reasons and be prepared to make the most of anything and everything thrown your way. You'll never regret it.

And so I guess this is it friends. Thank you for taking this journey with me. Thank you for all the support, love and encouragement from all parts of the world. I hope this post hasn't been as disjointed as I feel it has...maybe I've lost my touch! I'm off to look through my scrapbook and the AWESOME quotes book my friends in Korea made for me before I left. Winter has come to South Africa, and so I'll be doing this all in front of a roaring fire. Did I mention it's good to be home?

Peace, love and happiness - Bronners out.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

안녕히 계세요 - Goodbye ㅠㅠ

How did I get here so quickly? On the way to school today I was just taking in the scenery, thinking - damn, it's actually last day of teaching in Korea. Although I've been ready to leave for a while now, the fact that it's time to go has tugged on my heart strings much harder than I ever expected. I've addressed my schools and said goodbye, had many letters passed and awkward goodbye exchanges. It's here. It's time to go home.

I don't even know how I'm going to convey everything I want to in this last post. This year in Korea has been life changing. I am going back a changed, matured, stronger woman. I think differently, I want different things. I can never quite explain what living here has done for me - you'll just have to see it I guess. My very good friend, Su, also leaves this weekend and we've both been struck by how emotional we are (okay her more than me, we all knew I was the cheesy one but Su's surprising herself a bit too ㅋㅋㅋ). I have learned so much this year. I've learned what it means to be different, to be the outsider. I've learned what it means to put yourself in others shoes and accept that your way of seeing things is not the only one and is sometimes very wrong. I've learned to be patient - goodness knows my kids have tested that. I have realised more and more here how this is the time of my life to be a little selfish, to really live and take chances because it's not worth looking back and thinking "I should have"...fear cannot hold me back from spreading my wings. I've learned above all to suck it up. No one cares about your bad days, your homesickness and your tears. I don't mean this in a 'Koreans are so cold and heartless way', not at all. It's just different here and I had to accept that. It's made me stronger, it's taught me to rely on myself more. I had a job to do, I had to forget about all the other stuff going on. I feel like I know who I am now more than I did before I came. I know this is common for people going into the work place after college but I will always credit Korea for helping mold the person I am today. I learned how to teach - my kids and teachers have given me so much without even knowing it. Saying goodbye to them has been a challenge. These kids are the hardest working ones I know and I just want them to be happy. It breaks my heart to see and hear how many Koreans, old and young, are not satisfied with their lives.

Korea is the most incredible country. It's had to build itself up from a pretty dark past and has worked as hard as possible to get to where it is today. The people are determined - even if that determination comes in the form of an aggro ajjuma who feels your existence is merely there to annoy her. It is a county full of contradictions: you cannot blow your nose in public but can spit the most disgusting balls on the floor at any time, and fart and burp like it's nothing; Westerners are seen as being too 'out there' and dress too provocatively but K-pop encourages young kids to dance and dress like they're 35 year old private dancers and it's seen as okay; you have to recycle and heaven forbid if you don't but finding a public trash can is close to impossible; they celebrate traditions and things as old as patriarchy and yet have some of the most modern facets of society that I've ever seen. Bullet trains and bicycles. I don't know if I'll ever come back here to visit (teaching here again will always be an option should other things not work out) but I am so happy I got to experience this culture first hand. The people are interesting and I really wish I could have gotten to know more of them on a personal basis. I'm no longer satisfied with simply seeing places, ticking off countries on a map. I want to learn more and become fully immersed in different cultures, including my own back home - it's eye opening. Everyday has been an adventure here! Some good, some bad, but an adventure nonetheless. Oh Korea, we say with a smile. I will never forget you.

I had the most wonderful weekend this past one, spending time with the Jecheonians, friends who I've made over the year who up until now, I never really thought of saying goodbye to. I've said it before; the friendships you make while living abroad are like nothing you have at home. Friends here become your support base, your sounding board, your family away from home and for me, often the only source of conversation. We share our lives, our good days and our bad days. They understand what you're going through because chances are, they're going through it too. These bonds created are strong enough to stretch out over the time and space that is bound to come at some point. And saying goodbye sucks. It sucks because we're sprinkled all over the world and chances are high we'll never see each other again. I don't want to let go just yet. And so thank you, everyone, for being there for me when I needed you most. For the laughs, the advice, the tears and the nights spent drinking and talking about nothing and everything at the same time. Thank you for supporting me and my blog, my teaching struggles, my homesickness. I will miss each and every one of you.

Su: Thank you for everything, always. All the happiness in the world for your next adventure - I have no doubt that you will have the most amazing time traveling and every student who gets you as a teacher will be very lucky indeed ^^

My friends and family back home have also been a huge source of support and I could not have done it without them. I don't want to get too 'shout out-y' but I've been amazed at how much I have gained from my relationships back home, even from across the miles that separate us. Coming home is that much sweeter when you know people are excited to see you again. I will always feel like by living in two places, a piece of me belongs to both. Once home, I know I will never feel completely whole again because a part of me will continue to see Korea as home, as part of who I am. A friend who has recently returned home remarked that she felt more homesick once in SA than she ever did in Korea - I expect I'll have those days too. It's scary to be walking into the unknown...for those who are wondering, I really don't have a solid plan for this year. Travel. Study. Rest. Work. I don't know what lies ahead but I know my adventure is not over yet; I refuse to let it end here.

I have some videos and things I might try to upload in the next few days and I'd like to do a post or 2 once home, but this is kind of the end of this blog too. I have so enjoyed keeping it, and getting feedback on my posts. It's been a record of the year and I have been overwhelmed by all the people supporting it! Thank you for caring about what I have to say ;). I hope I can start another blog if I find I have interesting things to talk about!

And so this is it. Almost time to enjoy my last meal at school, and get my apartment packed up and ready to go. I don't think I could ever find the words to properly say goodbye, so for now I'll just say see you later. It's sure been real :)

Monday, February 11, 2013

Changing Habits

When you first arrive in Korea, it feels like everything is foreign - because it is. The language, the people, the skyline. You are accosted with a hundred different sensory experiences and it can feel overwhelming. I remember wondering how I would ever adapt, get used to all these news things. Korea really is an adventure for your senses: your eyes find the flashing lights and colours that abound every street..your nose picks up the amalgamation of Korean cooking and sometimes street sewers which is not hear the taxis hooting, the music blaring and the language surrounding you that you know so little feel the humidity or cold flush against your skin - the air feels different taste the many flavours of new foods and drinks which linger with you long after the meal is over. It's an explosion for your senses. There are new customs you need to learn and new habits you form while leaving old ones neatly packed inside your suitcase, waiting to be reopened when the time is right. I was thinking how I have changed this year, not just in the way I am but in the things I do. I thought I'd make a list (gotta love the lists) of some of the habits I've picked up here and some which I have had to leave behind.
  • Taking off my shoes at school and home has become second nature to me and I actually think this is something I might continue to do at home. It's clean and it feels unnatural to walk inside a house with shoes on now.
  • Walking through swinging doors in Korea has been interesting. When I first got here, I would wait if it looked like someone was coming out, I would hold the door open for the person behind me (and expect the same in return) and would just be courteous about how I navigated in and out. What that got me was a whole lot of doors in my face and weird looks. Now, I just walk. The door swings closed and I don't worry about whether or not someone was behind me (unless I'm with foreigners obviously). Each one for themselves out here. 
  • I also have learned that lines in Korea are a loose concept and pushing in is not something frowned upon. The number of times I've been blatantly pushed out of the way (and I mean shoved) or had someone cut a line is ridiculous. I've had to forget about personal space and stand right behind the person in front of me if I want to ever make it to the front. 
This is what getting to the front of anything looks like
  • I tend to wave with both hands, especially around my kids.
  • I have learned to speak slowly, and add a little American twang when needed if I'm trying to talk to someone Korean. Maybe my way of speaking has changed completely? I also accentuate my speech with lots of hand gestures.
  • I can use chopsticks like a pro and actually prefer them to a knife and fork sometimes. 
Maybe I'll start feeding my cat like this? 
  • I don't tip - something I need to remember to do when I get home.
  • The bowing - I bow to anyone older than me and sometimes my kids if I forget. I just bow, all day every day as I'd rather be the foreigner who bows too much than the rude girl. This I know I'll struggle to stop doing at home; it's become such second nature.
This is how we do! 
  • I've become used to not worrying about my belongings - at dinner, out and about, wherever we are it is not a concern to leave my bag around. I don't really worry about walking alone at night. I'm used to living in a country where burglar bars, electric fencing and barbed wire are not a necessity. I need to get my act together when I get home or I'll be penniless. 
  • I've tried to pick up the taking/giving things with 2 hands but I do forget that sometimes, so I've failed a bit there
  • Not saying 'bless you' when someone sneezes, and not being surprised when no one says it to me. This was a hard one to break. 
  • Speaking softly, or at least more quietly (is that even English?) in public. I've had enough dirty looks and we've been told to be quiet enough for me to just shut up on public transport. 
Every ajjuma, on every train. 
  • Swiping my card for as little as \1000. No card charges here means I very seldom carry cash (a pain in the ass for everyone when it comes to splitting dinner). 
  • Using a squatter toilet and not having a mini panic attack when I see one.
  • Picking up on social cues and body language, mixed with the words I do know, to try and understand what's going on around me. I've gotten pretty good at this I think. 
  • Sitting on the floor to eat - although something quite normal now, I still really don't like it. 
  • I've picked up some sayings and words from my foreign friends and Koreans alike, which now colour my speech. Includes things like the Korean words for hello and thank you which have become my go to greetings. 
  • I've also had to change some of the words I use: traffic lights, sweater, garbage etc. It's not uncommon for me to use a word that no one understands which I then need to "Americanize'.
  • I've gotten into the habit of expecting fast, free, easy internet access everywhere. It's going to be quite an adjustment coming home to the connection problems that are inevitable.
  • Drinking coffee through a little straw - so weird at first, and still an odd concept but I enjoy my coffee with a straw. Go figure. 
  • Using public transport, or my legs, to get everywhere. 
  • Eating quickly and not worrying about stretching over people, having people eat off my plate or try to feed me. 
  • Using scissors to cut meat - chopsticks don't cut (duh) so often we use scissors to cut the meat into bite sized pieces. 
  • I've managed to get the hang of the roads and don't freak out when a bus nearly takes me out or we seem to just drive through red lights. Okay that's a lie. I will never understand/be comfortable with the Korean roads.
This is how I feel on the roads of Korea 
  • On that note - I check every where several times before crossing any roads. You need your wits about you if you're going to survive. 
  • I've picked up the bad habit of simply zoning out. So much goes on around me that I just don't understand so often that I've gotten pretty good at just 'checking out'. I better snap out of that once I get home and am expected to be aware of what's being said around me. This includes just smiling, nodding and saying 너ㅣ (yes) even when I have no idea what was said. 
All. The. Time. 
  • This is more a 'I'm a worker now' and less a Korea thing but earning money and living with such a comfy salary has made me spend before thinking on a number of occasions. I need to get that under control, soon. 
When in Korea...
  • Learning to keep your emotions in check. Aint nobody got time for tears little girl, suck it up. Lesson #1 in Korea. 
I have to send with dear Sweet Brown. 

Did you enjoy my little motivation GIFs? Wanted to keep you entertained!! I think I could keep going for ages but these are the main ones. I've really just learned to not be surprised by a lot of what goes on around me. We adapt, we change, we learn to fit in where we are. I'm sure I'll pick up my old habits pretty quickly and slip into the way things are back home but I've really loved being immersed in a completely foreign space this year. There's something exciting about it and as my time here draws to an end, I'm a little sad about going back to what's 'normal'. 

Do you have any habits you've acquired or had to leave behind? Let me know in the comments section! 

Thursday, February 7, 2013

DMZ - hey North Korea, hey!

I've been meaning to blog about my DMZ experience for the whole week but I'll admit it...I've been lazy! And then the realization hit me that if I don't do it now, I'm going to run out of time, because my Korea chapter is closing much quicker than I'm ready for it seems.

I love history. When I travel, I love including historical sites or museums in my itinerary. I love the feeling of walking down paths that I've learned so much about. So you would think the DMZ would have been the first item on my Korea bucket list. But I actually almost never made it. Life got away with me here and I accepted that the DMZ was not going to happen for me. I just had no time, and it was Winter - apparently that's not a good time to go. But after speaking to some friends one night who convinced me this was something I needed to do, and when my friend Jeanette offered to join me, I went ahead and booked it! And boy am I glad I did. It's something I highly recommend everyone doing. I didn't know all that much about the DMZ and its history before I went but once on the tour, I was so happy I sucked it up and went. A part of me has been putting this post off because there is SO much information I could try and put down but I think I'll alternate my take on things with links to other sites - or else we'll all be here till next week. Also, Wikipedia did help refresh my memory on a lot of things so there's my reference ;)

Okay so what exactly is the DMZ? I hope I don't have to be the first to tell you that North and South Korea are divided. As much as I'd love to give a more thorough lesson on their history, I'd encourage you to read up on it. The DMZ or Demilitarized Zone is the buffer/border that cuts the Korean peninsula in half and is the most heavily militarized border in the world. Fun place. I don't know the specifics but I do know that it is INCREDIBLY difficult to get into the North, and almost impossible to do so from the South. These two are not friends. After the Korean War (1950 - 1953), an armistice was signed, causing a cease fire but no actual peace treaty was signed. The Korean war was a really dark time in Korea's history and it's been really interesting reading up on it. The Military Demarcation Line (MDL) is the line that divides the Koreas according to agreements at the time of the armistice  The DMZ runs 2km from that line into the North and 2km into the South. I know we look down on it but Wikipedia has everything you need to know about this all so I'd rather direct you there.

The actual tour starts in Seoul, at the USO Camp Kim base. We took the USO tour as I'd heard great things about it and I would recommend them to others too. It's expensive but it includes the JSA which a lot of other tours don't, and our guide was really clued up! From there we drove for about an hour to our first stop - the 3rd Tunnel. South Korea has found 4 tunnels believed to have been made by the North in order to plan a surprise attack. Although only 4 have been found, it is believed that more may exist. We are able to see the 3rd tunnel which was discovered thanks to a North Korean defector. There is a museum on site as well as the famous DMZ sign, but we did not have time to look around too much. The trip into the tunnel is an intense 350m walk down at an 11degree angle. Once at the bottom you duck (who am I kidding - you all duck while I walk straight through) through a long tunnel leading to the first blockade of concrete wall, as insurance that none of us and none of them can wonder through onto the wrong side. Walking back up is quite a feat, and although the tunnel was less than exciting, it was interesting to see.

A diagram of the tunnel
From there we got back on our bus and went to the Dora Observatory and Dorasan Station. The Dora Observatory is where you get the first real glimpse out over the DMZ and into North Korea. You can use the binoculars (500won) to get a closer look and are only allowed to take pictures behind a certain line. They are very strict on this (there are Korean soldiers there to enforce it all) and I think I heard it has something to do with ensuring no pictures are taken of the ROK soldiers on their rounds. In fact throughout the tour we were only allowed to take pictures in certain areas and many times we had to take them facing the North, and none of the South. Safety I guess. We went on a beautifully clear day so could see right into the North, and could really appreciate just how barren everything is. North Korea is a country in crisis. The mountains are dead and the trees stripped of their bark, which was cooked and eaten by starving North Koreans. It's just a dead land, sprinkled with odd buildings - many of which are fake (will talk about that later).

Unification is a big theme throughout 

The observation area behind me - you can see the yellow demarcation line for pictures.

From there we hopped back on the bus and took a trip to the Dorasan Station. Here we saw the border gate between North and South (though it's really just for show and very special exceptions - you cannot just pop over into the North). The Dorasan Station is this huge, beautiful, modern, deserted building. It once connected North and South Korea and was at one point used to take industrial goods to the industrial region within the DMZ but the North put a stop to that. The station has been restored and is now used for tourist purposes only (although we did see a train come in and drop people off - I think it must be part of some kind of tour). It's amazing to see all this going to waste, but I think the hope is that one day it will run between the two countries once more. We got to walk along the tracks and it truly felt like we were right in the middle of these two contrasting countries. We had lunch in the area too which was over -priced but quite delicious! Oh also - between the 3rd tunnel and the Dorasan areas we drove past what are supposed to be live mine fields, and lots of security. You cannot escape the feeling that you are walking on a forbidden kind of land. It's uneasy, but captivating. Jeanette also bought a lovely bottle of North Korean beer but it met its end on the bus terminal floor during a mad dash to make a bus (we don't like to talk about it) ;)

To the left, North Korea's capital and to the right, Seoul. 

Deserted train tracks leading to the North

It's really quite strange to be in a quiet Korean train station

Live mine fields and security blockades 
Then it was off to the place I was really looking forward to - the Joint Security Area or JSA. This is where sh*t got real, to put it the only way I know how. Jeanette and I were really nervous. This area is within the village of Panmunjom and is the only place within the DMZ where North and South Korean soldiers stand face to face. The JSA is where the North and South come to meet over any diplomatic issues and was previously used as the site for military negotiations as well. We pull up to Camp Bonifas, the area where US and ROK military were stationed to monitor the armistice agreement, but is now where 'security escorts' (the soldiers) conduct the United Nations Command DMZ Orientation Program tours of the JSA and surrounding areas. We are greeted by a US solider who comes on board and checks all of our passports before we are allowed off and directed to the main building for a 20 minute briefing. Look, I'm sure a lot of this is for show and the 'briefing' is just a 20 minute history lesson but it's damn exciting. You are also surrounded by armed soldiers whose guns are not just for show. It's exhilarating whether it's aimed at us or at the North. Before we can leave, we are made to sign a document which includes lines like: "The visit to the Joint Security Area at Panmunjom will entail entry into a hostile area and possibility of injury or death as a direct result of enemy action". Makes you feel all warm and fuzzy doesn't it?

From there we have to get onto a special blue bus, driven by another soldier, and are taken around the JSA. Our first stop is the the New Freedom House. We're instructed to form two single file lines, and to make sure we have our badges on display so the "North can't catch us and keep us" (nervous giggle). We are then led to the front of the building where we are literally right across from North Korea. My heart kinda stopped and I was too scared to look anywhere. There are cameras on the North side recording our every move and we were told not to gesture in any way towards the North. I was too nervous to even look there never mind gesture. We walk down onto conference row and into the little blue houses that stand there. The atmosphere is tense and we all feel a bit nervous. Jeanette and I along with half of our group walk to the back end of the room while the others file in. We are now divided by a big conference table in the middle. We are told that in fact those of us at the back are standing in North Korea - whoa! We are perfectly safe though (it's all in our heads) and are free to take pictures as long as we face the North. There are 2 ROK soldiers inside, both standing at attention in a modified taekwondo stance, looking very intimidating with their aviator sunglasses (this is done on purpose, to intimidate the North. ROK soldiers actually have to be a certain height to be given these stations). When North and South come together here, they are split even within - each sitting on their own side. There are microphones running along the table which record everything at all times. Once we've taken our nervous photos with the soldiers, we are led back out and stand on the top steps outside Freedom House, facing the North. It's really quiet and we can see the North Korean soldier on the other side get out his binoculars to watch us. I felt really exposed, I didn't enjoy the feeling but was an amazing thing to do. We were given some history on the place and the US soldiers joke that because the North monitor us so closely and take pictures of us, we should return the favour. There are ROK soldiers on the outside too, in the same intimidating position, facing the North only partially exposed in order to minimize themselves as targets. We did learn that they only stand like that when people are coming in, and when we leave they are able to walk around more freely. If you do a tour, make sure it includes the JSA as it made the experience for me.

Looking nervous with the ROK soldier 

The main North Korean building in the background - the Panmungak

Standing in North Korea

North Korean soldier
After that we are taken to more places, and are able to get clear views of North Korea and their propaganda village. This is basically a village created by the North to make themselves look prosperous. What it actually is, is a fake village made up of empty shell buildings, with windows and doors painted on and only the side that faces the South kept looking good. A massive North Korea flag pole waves in the distance and we are told that there used to be speakers spewing North Korean propaganda directed at the South but that has stopped. It's just such a fascinating thing to know about and makes you understand just how bad the North are at telling lies. We are also taken to the Bridge of No Return where after the Korean War, Prisoners of War from each side were brought and told to 'pick a side'. Once they crossed into their country of choice, they could never return. So many families are split between these 2 sides; it's really heart-breaking. Found there is also the site of the Ax Murder Incident - in 1976, a group of United Nations Command workers who were pruning a tree by the bridge were attacked by North Korea soldiers. 2 of the soliders were killed and most injured. It is because of that incident that security is so tight at the JSA. Prior to that, guards from both sides were allowed to move much more freely within it. All of this is seen from the bus and we are only allowed to take pictures in specific spots.

The bridge of no return and location of the Ax Murder incident 

Propaganda Village with their impractical massive flag
Our US guide

And that was the tour. It was such a great experience  The guides were clued up, there was a sense of danger that, although maybe in my head, made it that much more exciting. The soldiers say that things at the JSA rarely get tense and the media often hypes up the actions of the North - they don't feel threatened by them at all. It was just something so different for me; being in a militarized zone with real soldiers and weapons. It was very eye-opening to hear the stories about the war and how North Korea operates (I knew a bit already but the tour is very informative). Do it guys. Forget about whether all of this is aimed at tourists or not and allow yourself to just go and feel the atmosphere of this place. That's really what it was about for me. I think it was a great way to end my time here.

I do not claim to know much about the relationship between these two countries but for the sake of the North Korean innocent population, I hope something can be done about this division soon. It's mind-blowing to me that in a modern world, the atrocities that happen in the North are allowed to continue. I know there are politics involved that go way above my head but if the South are as serious about reunification as they seem, then there is maybe some hope.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

It's a cultural thing

Coming to Korea has been eye opening in so many ways. I have been exposed to people from all backgrounds, from all over the world, as well as being immersed in Korean culture. It has been so amazing learning about cultures and traditions from different parts of the world - not just Korea but England, Ireland, America, Australia, New Zealand and the subcultures that exist within those countries, like Mexican traditions for example. Hours have been spent this year discussing culture, traditions, politics and things unique to our home countries and Korea. Often when faced with problems in Korea, the words "it's a cultural thing" slip out. Because how else can we explain most of what goes on here?

Coming from South Africa has been really cool for me (not just because I love my country) because of the reactions I get when I tell people where I'm from. Koreans will always assume you are American first - "migook saram?" they'll say. When saying I'm from Africa, they immediately act surprised and will either say "Mandela, good man", "Word Cup" or "Why you white?". I've had foreigners and Koreans alike ask why I'm white...

...what we eat, if there really are animals in the streets, what we drink, what our currency is, how the African language 'clicks' sound, and again - are there really white people there? It's provided me with many a laugh but also an awesome opportunity to tell people about South Africa and try to rectify some wrongs. We joke that I have to kill a deer from my window for dinner, and I know I freak people out sometimes when talking about the safety (let's be real, they don't need me to freak them out, they just need to Google South Africa). But it's been really great talking about my home; people are genuinely interested. I might even have convinced a few to come visit. And in turn, I've loved learning more about their worlds. Like how chav culture affects people in England, the dynamics within the United Kingdom and just how MASSIVE the US is (seriously though, it's huge). It's been a learning experience for all. It's also really made me think about myself as a South African, and what that means to me. This post might be a bit all over the place as I try to explain the thoughts in my head about this all, so please bear with me :)

As mentioned, I get a lot of questions about where I'm from. One of the first questions to strike me as a difficult one to answer was something really simple - what is a traditional South African food? Now in Korea, there are very specific foods that EVERYONE will eat. Korea is a mono-cultural country in many ways (let's not get too deep into this, it's a sweeping generalization I know, but allow it). Kimchi for one is famous for being a Korean food. In fact most things I eat in Korea, unless it's 'Western', are very Korean. So it should be an easy question to answer: the Koreans have their Kimchi, the English have tea and scones and the Mexicans have their delicious foods (more generalizations). What do I have? Now let me try and explain my thoughts here. South Africa is so diverse and has so many subcultures, religions, languages and traditions that there are a number of 'South African' foods. So do I say borewors? Do I say pap, chicken, potjiekos, koeksusters, bunny chow or fish and chips? What is symbolic of South Africa? I tend to say a braai then, because it's simple. But the truth is a braai does not mean the same to everyone in SA. What one person sees as authentic SA food, another may never have tried. I know this is the case for many countries as we live in a world where people are able to relocate to wherever they want, causing many cultures to live under one flag. For me this isn't the issue. The issue I'm struggling with is what about me? My roots?

I'm a White South African. My ancestors came from Europe most likely, and I know I have some Dutch, Scottish and probably English blood in me. But all I've ever known is South Africa. I consider myself to be African, and I'm passionate about this. So what is my culture? The traditions I celebrate because they are important to ME? This is what has been playing on my mind a lot as I struggle to answer basic questions like what is my traditional food. I feel a bit cultureless. And it's hard. Am I thinking about things the wrong way? I'd really love to hear some feedback from people. When it comes to traditions, I feel like I celebrate religious traditions, such as Christmas and Easter more than cultural ones. What do we do on big holidays? Things like Freedom Day and Youth Day? Days unique to South Africa, not ones like St Paddy's or New Years Eve. Well, I don't know. Is it enough to say I live in a multi-cultural country and so do a number of different things, I don't have any one cultural identification? That's good, and I'm so lucky to live around such diversity - I miss it, I thrive off of it. But it makes me sad that I feel a little lost within my own country. The Afrikaans population have their specific cultural practices within the scope of being 'South African', as do the Zulu, the Xhosa, the Ndebele etc. Their histories are rich in culture and tradition which are carried through to this day. Granted it wasn't always pretty and there is a lot of hurt and destruction in their history but they seem so sure of who they are culturally. I hope I'm making sense here. Traditions are different; they can be created within families, friendship groups, cultures, religions, or countries. They may stem from some kind of background or for a specific reason but let me separate that from culture, as it is culture that I'm struggling with.

I think that until this year, even though I'm a Sociology Major with an interest in everything social, me as having a culture was not something I really ever questioned. But being in Korea has made me ask a lot of questions, and really think about things. I'm not Afrikaans, I'm not Zulu, I connect to no other language rich in African history. I am English, and it feels like it means nothing. I know that often people who relocate to other countries, say the Chinese moving to South Africa, keep identifying with their culture even though they are living in a different place. They can tell you what their cultures is like, what they eat and do for special occasions. I have realised that a lot of the food I eat and things I do come from places spread all over the world. So where does that leave me? I feel a bit like a mixed-breed, like the pavement special dog with a bit of everything mixed in who is really cute but a few seeds short of a watermelon. I really do love my country, its people, the richness of the cultures that surround me. I just want to find my own place within it, where I fit in.

I could keep talking in circles but I think I should try wrap this up. This post was just about trying to voice my feelings about this matter in the hope that someone wants to discuss it with me. Maybe I'm missing the bigger picture, or have completely misinterpreted the meaning of culture. This is what living abroad does I guess...makes you change your way of thinking and forces you to see things differently. Maybe I should do a genealogy exercise and try to trace my roots, find out where I come from. I will always see myself as African but I'd like to know where my ancestors came from and what was important to them.

Eish but this post has been a bit odd. But this is part of my journey here, share it with me. Feel free to leave comments and start a discussion, I'd love to know if other people feel the same or if I'm just crazy ;)

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Oh my Seoul

It feels good to be blogging again :) Was meant to write this post last week but time got away from me. I sit here with 2 and half weeks of school left and am not quite sure where the time has gone - feels really surreal that this is all coming to an end. Part of the 'lasts' was my trip to Seoul with Nicola which was my time to say goodbye to the vibrant city. Technically I'm going back this upcoming weekend to visit the DMZ but that's going to be very different. Seoul trips have definitely been a highlight for me this year; the city has so much to offer and is just so completely different to anything I have ever experienced. I never leave Seoul feeling refreshed and rested - weekends there are busy and packed with trips on the stuffy subways, but I love it. I say that after a weekend there I suffer from a Seoul hangover on the Monday, and need another rest day! But I'm really going to miss this crazy city. Anyway, let me tell you about my last weekend there.

Nic and I left Jecheon early, to make sure we could try and fit everything in. We had planned the weekend out completely which in hindsight was the best idea; we had goals to reach and that helped fit everything in! We started off in Insadong, one of my favourite places to visit. It's pretty and calm, filled with loads of little curio shops which abound in Korean trinkets, and I managed to get some last minute gifts for friends (and me). Insadong is a must see if you're looking for gifts or showing guests from home around. From there we made our way to the Gangnam area. Initially we were meant to have lunch there but I had an appointment we needed to make - my tattoo!!

I have one tattoo already and what they say is true - after your first one, you just want more. I love tattoo culture; the idea of your body telling a story. I've always been attracted to it and although I never thought I would get one, I knew coming to Korea that I wanted something done to represent my year here. So after almost a year of thinking and planning, I went ahead and booked with Tattoo Korea in Seoul, and arrived at their offices excited but a little nervous. I had a vague picture of what I wanted in my mind: I had spoken to a friend back home about designing something but I kept changing my mind and so thought it was better to take some ideas to the artist and let them draw it up. I had emailed the main guy, Aerok, to make the booking and had specifically asked for San Lee, who I had heard great things about. After re-confirming the booking, I thought I was sorted. When we arrived though, it wasn't quite what I was expecting. Aerok speaks fluent English but my impression of him wasn't all that amazing...he seemed a bit impatient and not all that involved. Which would be fine, except he hadn't booked me with San Lee, but deposited me with a young Korean guy named Memo, who spoke little/no English. At this point I started freaking out as he was told I wanted a feather, which I didn't, and started searching for feather images. I managed to put a stop to that and awkwardly got the pictures up that I wanted but the whole process could have been better facilitated had Aerok actually stayed to help. I understand I'm in Korea but I just expected to be put with someone I could talk with (from what I had read on the internet). I had to quickly accept that the whole design process I was hoping for needed to be thrown out the window. I was able to type the wording out, and he helped me choose a font etc, and we then sat at the computer playing around with an image until I was happy. As with everything, looking back on it I know this was the right thing to idea was a little complicated and I might have ended up feeling pressured to get something I would later regret. And then it was go time - I was quoted a price (heads up, you will pay a LOT more in Korea than back home because they import their instruments) and we had decided on a position (Nic was very helpful here, I couldn't have done it without her), so I sat in the chair, ready to end my year in a symbolic way. The pain, as with the first one, was minimal; people have different experiences but for me, tattoos are not all that painful (keep in mind I got simple things done). Memo was such a cute guy, very helpful and professional - I'm glad I got him. The whole place was clean and warm - I really would recommend their studio, as long as you have realistic expectations. Their work is top notch as are their facilities's just the design process that was a bit disappointing for me. Here are some pictures of the process (Nic was in control of the camera and got a little trigger happy haha).

Feeling nervous as I wait

The room where I was inked

Focus on both our faces haha

The finished product - the next day
Memo the cutie 
I am thrilled with my new ink - it represents my time in Korea and life in general. I feel like I've really learned to spread my wings over the past 2 years and the birds are symbolic of that. I would highly recommend Tattoo Korea, and I'm happy I went with them. It was all part of the experience for me :)

After that was done, we had some time to venture into Gangnam. We had hoped to take a picture with the Gangnam subway sign, but we came out at the wrong stop. No worries, we found the Rodeo Drive of Korea (in Cheongdam-dong) and stood gawking at all the branded stores. There is a definite swanky feel to the area - shops offer valet parking, there is very little trash around and all the cars seem bigger and more expensive. We had a funny experience outside Louis Vuitton where we saw a Rolls Royce parked and went up to it to try take some pictures, all the time exclaiming how we can't believe it's a Rolls etc etc...the shop assistants were looking at us like we were homeless people though and one came out to keep an eye while the other one walked up to the car, to hand a women's jacket to the man SITTING INSIDE THE CAR. The whole time we were messing around, there was someone inside the car. Typical. We had a good chuckle :)


Standing on Rodeo Drive, with Gucci in the background and awesome balloon lights in the trees.

It was cold and I was tired, so off we went to Myeongdong for a final shopping spree! We met up with some friends for dinner and took advantage of all the big sales going on. Myeongdong is my favourite place to shop here and I will miss all the clothing stores like Forever 21 and UniQlo. It was nice to be there at night, with all the lights. I managed to not blow all my money, something which is way too easy to do in Seoul! After that we had decided to go and try find somewhere to sleep in Hongdae, as we wanted to visit the Hello Kitty Cafe in the morning. We were banking on finding a love motel but what no one told us is that there are no love motels in Hongdae. Fail. By this time we were both really tired from a long day, so hopped in a taxi to the neighboring area, Sinchon, where we found a beautiful motel to stay in. It had a big flat screen TV, was so clean, a nice big bed (there is nothing worse than walking into your hotel/hostel/motel/pension at the end of a long day and seeing you have mats to sleep on, no bed) and a BATH! A hot bubble bath to rest my aching body was the perfect way to end my day :) We didn't rush the next day, so took our time waking up and watching some weird Kpop concert before trekking back to Hongdae to find the Hello Kitty Cafe. The internet lied to us, and so after walking around aimlessly for too long, we tried to find the cafe on our own. It's really easy to find: it's close to TGI Fridays in Hongdae - just up the road and right at Tony Moly and you can ask someone to direct you (sorry, I should be better at giving directions). I had read on a blog that it was quite disappointing so we didn't know what to expect...I was so pleasantly surprised! It's an overwhelmingly cute pink building, and the whole place is pink enough to make you sick. We got there close to 12, so it was open but not too busy...we ordered our coffees and went upstairs to take a bazillions photos. The coffee was god enough and came with Hello Kitty faces. The chairs had pink bows on them, Hello Kitty pictures and paintings were everywhere, it was all sweet enough to give you diabetes. If you are a Kitty fan - go there. It is TOTALLY worth it, and we spent a really nice hour or so soaking up the kittyness.

The outside
The coffee

Pink, pink everywhere! 


We grabbed a burrito from a little Mexican place before going to do some admin stuff for Nic, and that was our weekend. It was probably one of the best weekends I've had in Seoul. Although exhausted, we managed to fit everything in, we had some amazing experiences and I felt like I left Seoul on a high note.

On this note, it's time to say goodbye to my crazy China, Nicola. She is renewing and staying in Korea so leaves to go home this week for a months vacation, meaning I won't see her again before I leave. I know blogs aren't the place for too much mush but she has been a supporter of my blog the whole year so I think it's appropriate. I never expected to find someone here who would be as silly and crazy as me, and have really had the most amazing year getting to know Nic. I will miss her dearly, but she promises to come and visit SA next year where I can hopefully put to rest a lot of her totally absurd ideas of my home country ;)
This year would NEVER have been the same without you Nic, for reals. Thank you for everything.

And I'm out amigos - have a great week!

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

The awkwardness of Korea

I've been quiet lately, and I've missed having something to write about. As of late, the cold weather and need to save every penny for home has meant fairly uneventful days here in Jecheon. We did go to the local Winter festival at Uirimji to walk on the frozen lake which was AWESOME! I felt a little uneasy at first but soon got caught up in the magic of sledding and 'chair skiing' around the ice, watching the ice-fishing and taking lots of pictures :) I'm off to Seoul this weekend with Nicola, and we have a jam packed weekend planned as it's probably the last time I'll be there and want to soak up as much as I can. I also have an appointment with one of Asia's best tattoo artists, San Lee at Tattoo Korea to get some ink to commemorate my year here. I'm excited!

My 2 weeks of Winter Camp are coming to an end tomorrow, and it's also the last day I'll be spending at Baegun. This makes me sad as I've grown to love a lot of these kids, and hope I can pop back in to say goodbye before I leave. Both camps have gone relatively well and although I'm relieved they're over, the prospect of about a month of desk warming here on out is doing nothing to help my Winter blues. I doubt I'll teach again until I leave, and with nothing productive to do for the hours on end I spend at my desk, I can literally feel myself losing my mind. Don't get me wrong - a day or 2 of desk warming during term time is much appreciated and anticipated. But days on end spent trying to look busy get old very quickly. And if like me you have some friends who get to finish early or don't have to go in to school at all, it's hard to keep the optimism up as they nap away their afternoons at home and you're stuck trying to digest the river snails you had for lunch and reminding yourself that you're getting paid for this ;) Thank goodness for sites like Imgur, BuzzFeed, Thought Catelog, Stumble Upon and Pinterest - they are awesome time wasters.

I plan on writing a few reflective posts during the up coming weeks, and thought I'd kick that off on a light - hearted note with a list of awkward experiences I have either had personally or have heard about from friends in Korea. We all have to deal with a certain amount of awkwardness in everyday life but there is something about being in a foreign country, especially one like Korea with all its quirks, that makes some mundane experiences that much more cringe-worthy. I'm going to keep all the stories anonymous and will try my hardest to give these stories the awkwardness they deserve. If you have any stories of your own, I'd love to hear about them in the comments section :)

1. No matter how many times you say "I don't speak Korean" IN Korean, the person confronting you wont stop talking to you like you know what's going on.

2. Getting into a taxi which starts driving before the driver knows where to go, and trying to explain as best you can where exactly you need to be. This sometimes results in a Korean lesson from the driver or Vice Principal.

3. The "I love you"s and "wow, beautiful"s you get from inappropriate people. Like the school bus driver.

4. Forgetting that you're in Korea and flushing your toilet paper down, only to have the toilet overflow, causing you to flee school and call your friend once home for advice before going back to try and explain the situation.

5. When anyone tries to feed you.

6. Using squatter toilets.

7. This story I heard about from Waygook: a male teacher was called aside by his co-worker who told him he has a "handsome bulge" (groin area) and it's "very good" but it makes some teachers and students uncomfortable. This story is my best.

8. When a woman on the bus LICKS your hair.

9. Being around when an ajjoshi decides to let rip in a BIG way.

10. Being burped in the face by an ajjuma while getting change for your cola.

11. Wondering aloud to your friends about whether or not the shop teller is a girl or a boy, only to have them say "me? I am girl" while you try remove the foot from your mouth.

12. Having students give you a massage.

13. When your co-teacher stares at the hair on your arm for a while, before rubbing it and saying "beautiful woman".

14. Trying to find cream for your heat rash only to be asked if you are Russian by the Pharmacist (as a girl, being Russian is usually related to being a prostitute). In fact, add to this anytime you're asked if you're Russian.

15. Having people stop what they're doing, turn around in their chairs, stop their cars or pull out their cameras because you are a foreigner. Often followed by many exclamations of surprise and disbelief.

16. School dinners where you're like the white elephant in the room (like, literally) that everyone is trying to avoid while you watch the Principal get so drunk he needs to be carried out.

17. Having to address staff or parents when you know they don't understand you or getting long speeches from the Principal in Korean.

18. Using a YouTube video to explain a concept to your 5th graders, only to have an incredibly inappropriate advert for women's underwear pop up when you close it. This happened twice. My kids nearly died, and so did I.

19. Trying to play Volleyball in front of ALL of your staff when you suck.

20. When students dance and gyrate inappropriately because that's supposed to be 'cute' and it's what their k-pop idols do.

21. Having to eat anything gross in front of people while trying to keep a straight face and not offend anyone. Cue pork stomach and seaweed soup experiences.

22. Buying the things that women need only to see a coworker at the till in front of you which of course causes you to flee in the opposite direction.

23. When Koreans do what they do best: talk about you in front of your face but you have no idea what they're saying. It's worse when there's laughter.

24. Having the bus driver at school tell you constantly he loves you and you must take him home with you (to South Africa, not bed. I think). He has a weird finger thing which makes this more awkward, and more creepy.

25. When you drop your chopsticks at school. Don't let them see your weakness. For heaven's sake don't drop the chopsticks!

26. When girls are asked if they are 'cold', usually in Summer, implying that your neck line is too low. Or any comments on your body parts/clothing/love life/blood type deemed appropriate by the the offending (emphasis on the offending) individual.

For the OCD in all of you, I know there should be an even number of points and that would be great but alas I cannot think of anymore now. There are plenty other moments, like trying to order anything at a new restaurant, but these were my top awkward moments experienced or heard about in Korea.

If there's one thing this wonderful place has definitely given me, it's an endless supply of stories.