Tuesday, December 25, 2012

'Tis the Season

Merry Christmas everyone :)

For those who spent it at home with family and friends - I hope it was a very special and beautiful holiday.
For those of you who like me, were away from home for whatever reason, I hope you got to spend it with good company and made some awesome memories!

I cannot really believe I'm writing a Christmas post. This year has flown by somehow, and it feels like yesterday that I was concerned about being away from home for the first time but was reassuringly telling myself not to think about it. Now it's come and gone and it really wasn't all that bad :) Let me start at the beginning...

We went to Seoul a few weeks ago for Nicola's birthday, to go and see Phantom of the Opera. It was the first time (other than Lotte World I guess) that I really felt like maybe it was Christmas. Seoul had many decorations up, Starbucks had their Christmas cups out...it was cold and festive. Now I've had this chat with Su, who is from England, and we were saying that there's nothing quite like a cold Christmas. Last year I was in Europe for the time leading up to Christmas and it was magical; I loved having hot chocolate and crepes and all the nice things to warm you up while exploring the Winter Christmas fetes and markets. Coming from SA, the weather at this time is always warm and time is spent by the pool, relaxing and being outside. So that's what I'm used to. But I really love the atmosphere of a Winter Festive Season and being in Korea has been no different.
(Phantom of the Opera was mind-blowingly awesome, by the way).

This is us in a subway in Seoul
So after that weekend, it became apparent that Christmas was coming. I received a box from home from my family packed with presents which helped me get excited! The first real celebration started with girls day last week Wednesday. We had the day off for 'election day' here, so a bunch of us got together at a friends place, brought crafts to make decorations, a ton of junk food and took amazing awkward, awful sweater pictures (an idea Esti got off Imgur). They proved to be a huge success, here is the one of Nic and me:

After that came the Christmas party on Saturday, hosted once again by Adina (the hostess with the mostest) and this was a lot of fun. We had a 'white elephant' present exchange where my penguin hat got stolen but I was rewarded with an awesome wrist warmer, used for napping at your desk! Everyone brought an array of yummy foods, we drank egg nog and were merry. Afterwards we went into town for dinner and some drinks, then went to Jecheon's new "club", King Kong, where one of the Jecheonians was DJ-ing and we danced the night away.

The tree

The hostess

The hat
Now Korea isn't big on Christmas. Yes the decorations go up and sometimes you catch a Korean carol here and there but the spirit of the season definitely never reaches the rice lands as much as it does back home. As such, we only got the 25th off from school. This in itself was really weird for me, and I found myself sitting at my desk on Monday, wondering what I was doing here and wishing for the excitement of home. But my computer has finally been given the power of sound so I sat at my desk, listening to carols on YouTube and doing the best I could to feel like it was Christmas eve. I had worn a red scarf and bow to school which received many an exclamation of "Santa style" and "wow, fantastic"  from kids and teachers alike. I also handed out mini candy canes to my students which they seemed to love. So working on Christmas eve wasn't the end of the world.

Once we were done with school, it was off to Emart to buy all the food stuffs for our big dinner the next day. Afterwards, we went to my place to decorate cookies, listen to carols, and watch a Christmas movie. It was really nice to chill before the storm...we were also treated to some authentic Mexican Hot Chocolate thanks to Jeanette which was delish! I thought it was an excuse to wear my onesie again too, and although I still wasn't feeling all that festive, it was a lovely evening spent in the company of great friends. It had started to lightly snow, which made me super excited as my only wish was for a white Christmas!

Decorating cookies. Esti got really creative...*clears throat*

Onesie cuteness 
I woke up on Christmas morning, looked out the window and saw snowflakes falling - I was done! That was all I wanted, and although the snow was over early and didn't last (it was really just a fresh dusting) I felt like my little wish came true. From then on it was full swing into dinner prep. There were 9 of us coming to dinner and each had a certain task. Our kitchens are small so we prepped in little groups and I was Su's assistant for the day. Really  I was assistant tea drinker (wine later on). I was very grateful to spend the day in her company, and watch the pro at work ;) Everything went really smoothly. We spent most afternoon just getting things ready, putting the roast pork in, all the little things. Only once everyone else arrived and we had to put the meal together and do all the last minute things like gravy did it get a bit crazy.

I must take my hat off to everyone involved. They did the most outstanding job. We had roast chicken and pork, mashed potatoes and sweet potato mash, peas, roast veg, 2 kinds of stuffing, cauliflower and brocolli with cheese sauce, sausage rolls, gravy and yorkshire puddings. For dessert we had pavlova, apple crumble with custard and spiced cream, mince pies and cookies. Angela made egg nog and Esti made mulled wine. It was a feast. I know it sounds like an average Christmas meal to some but everything was done from scratch - pastry, alles. Nothing was pre-made and store bought. The amount of effort that went into this meal is actually making me feel a little emotional typing this out. Su and Esti did a wonderful job of hosting, thank you. And thank you to everyone involved - we pulled off the best Christmas away from our homes that I think any of us could have hoped for. The night was spent chatting, sharing stories, taking a rest after all the food we ate and ended with a Home Alone screening at Tom and Anna's (they have a projector, it is awesome). I got to skype with my family, including my grandparents, which was amazing and the box of presents to open really helped the day seem that much more special.

The meal - minus the yorkshires. 

Su, me and Esti <3 

The beautiful Angela and Estelle 

Angela and Nicola's amazing pavlova 
Some of the cookies: made by Su and decorated by Nic and me

All of us. Merry Christmas 

Being away for Christmas wasn't easy. I felt like I was pushing thoughts of home aside, and focusing more on the fact that I was getting a day off from school rather than the holiday itself. But in the end it was such a beautiful day, spent with my Jecheon family. And who could ask for better? When you live abroad, your friends become so much more than that - they become the family you rely on to make days like these feel special. I am incredibly lucky to be surrounded by such awesome friends.

If I'm sounding sentimental and emotional it's because I am - boxing day blues have hit, feeling exhausted from all the festivities lately and I realise I have a limited time left with these beautiful people. How lucky I am.

To everyone back home who sent messages and wishes, thank you. I appreciated it immensely. I hope you all had a wonderful day.

As we prepare to see the new year in, I am grateful for everything Korea has given me, most of all my little family away from home.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

4 Seasons of Korea

You get a lot of odd questions in Korea. Sometimes you can justify them, sometimes they are just random no matter how you look at it. Being from Africa, I get the "why aren't you black?" question (cue Mean Girls quote). I've been asked if we have rice in South Africa and if our sky is the same (?!?!). But one thing that has been consistently asked of me is if South Africa also has 4 seasons? This usually follows an explanation of how Korea has 4 seasons, like it's something very unusual. At first I really thought this was strange...duh, of course we do. We are 'same same'. But it's taken living here and experiencing all of the seasons to actually understand what they're on about.

Korean seasons are VASTLY different. Like chalk and cheese. Maybe it's because back home we don't get snow in Winter and we have a lot of evergreen vegetation so things never really lose their lushness completely during the colder months, but I never expected to see such noticeable differences throughout the year.

Spring is beautiful...the cherry blossoms bloom and there are new shoots and green buds everywhere. The sky is blue and the air retains a chill, cooling the nights down nicely. Rice paddies begin being prepped for planting, bringing new life to the dull brown fields. As with everywhere, Spring hints at new life and beauty and combined with the cherry blossoms, it was a really pretty time of the year. Temperatures are mild and life is good. (I seem to not have taken many pictures of nature during this time though)

My pictures don't do the blossoms justice
My favourite tree, with blossoms as big as your hand with thick pale leaves 
Summer hits you with a hot and humid slap in the face. I have never been so hot and uncomfortable in my life. I'm used to a dry heat back home, but this was the kind of suffocating heat that made you feel wet all day and never clean. I complained about the heat, a lot. However the landscape during summer is beautiful. I work out in the countryside surrounded my mountains and rice paddies...the drive to and from school each day were stunning. The mountains were vivid colours of lushness, the rice paddies growing green. Later on in the season the apple trees would dot the scenery with rich red patches. Everything was just brightly alive. The summer meant lazy evenings outside 7/11 drinking beer, and not wanting to leave the beauty of my air conditioned room if I didn't need to. School was ghastly when all you do is sweat and want to sleep, but days in the strawberry fields and the beautiful scenery made up for it. Although I expected a ton of rain, I really don't think it rained all that much. We had the odd monsoon type major rainfalls but in general the rain was quite spread out among the seasons and didn't really dampen (pun intended) the Summer fun.

I think it's interesting to note how the rice paddies changed over the year...starting off dead when I arrived, they were being turned and prepped and planted in Spring and really looked like big ponds, and throughout the Summer, as they grew, the water got less, the shoots got bigger and they looked like real plants!

Strawberries and beer to keep the Summer heat at bay

Hiking in Summer was hot as hell but very rewarding too

Jecheon rice paddies from up high

Watery rice paddies

Autumn came and took my breath away. The days finally got a bit cooler and slowly the leaves began to change, setting Korea ablaze in reds, oranges and yellows. Koreans say that Spring and Autumn are the best seasons as they carry the mildest temperatures but that they don't last long. They don't lie. It didn't felt like we had much of an Autumn...it got pretty chilly pretty quickly, and by chilly I mean South African Winter temperatures. My teachers laughed at me as I brought my coats out pretty early but I was cold dammit! But back to the colours...I got really carried away with taking pictures of the leaves as I really wanted to try and capture what this looked like. I failed. You have to be here. It literally looked as though the mountains were on fire...reds richer than I've ever seen in nature, yellows so golden they glow. I tried to get some pictures of the mountains but my camera wasn't giving it justice. The rice paddies were now ready for harvest and held bright, golden yellow plants that seemed to reflect the light. The apple orchards were ripe and big red apples were being picked daily. Everywhere you looked there were changes in colour that I've never seen before and I was captivated by it all. The changes seemed to begin slowly but it got to a point just before the temperatures really turned cold where everything was changing. It was around this time that I went on a hike with my main school teachers, and spent ages taking pictures of the leaves. It was beautiful (have I made my point yet? haha). Autumn in Korea is something I will never forget.

Rice paddy colurs - pic courtesy of a fellow Jecheonian, Jamie

Rice paddy colurs - pic courtesy of a fellow Jecheonian, Jamie
And now we have Winter...it's only the beginning and already I can tell it's going to be rough. Korea is expecting its coldest Winter in something like 15 years...trust me to be here when this happens. We've had a number of snowfalls already, which is very unusual, and my teachers love reminding me that Jecheon is the coldest city in Korea. Eish. But it's magical! I've always considered myself more of a Winter than Summer person as I hate being hot, and although I might eat my words come January (the coldest month), right now I'm coping with the cold and in love with the snow! I've done a post on the snow so not going to repeat my self, but Winter in Korea is apparently not something to joke about. Going anywhere in this weather is a mission and it's really just making me want to become a recluse. But I'm grateful for the snow as Winter in Korea can be really ugly. When I arrived in Feb, we hit the tail end of the cold and everything just looked dead and dreary. I wont lie, I was rather disappointed, and wasn't all that enthralled with what I saw. The same happened before our first proper snow: the rice paddies were now dead and brown, laying bare until the next season of planting; the leaves have fallen and the colours have been drained from the landscape. But then the snow came and covered it all in a blanket of powdery whiteness and my faith in Winter was renewed. The rice paddies are now pockets of what I call 'virgin snow', untouched beauty that I just want to roll around in, and it sounds as though one will be turned into an ice-rink of sorts in Jecheon!! We'll see if I actually survive my first 'real' Winter without losing a limb to the elements, but for now, Winter aint that bad.

So okay Korea...maybe South Africa does have 4 seasons but they are nowhere near as diverse as yours..I'll give you that. South Africa may change its coat or put on some fancy jewelry to dress up, but Korea goes all out with 4 different outfits each time the seasons change. I dunno why I used that imagery, let's just go with it.

Thursday, December 6, 2012


*Note: I started writing this a week ago but only finished today :P *

I'm sure I'm not the only one currently suffering from year end blues. I've seen some posts on Facebook and it sounds as though there are a few of us who are over work and just want some time to put our feet up. It hit me the other day that this is the first time in my life that I have not had a December/Summer holiday to look forward to. And it's the first time in 4 years that I've worked so late into the year (tough life I led I tell you). So maybe it's my body telling me that it should be time to shut down, but I'm finding myself exhausted and demotivated a lot these days. As they say here though, FIGHTING! We can do it teachers, the end is in sight :)

I started this blog with the idea that it might be helpful to others, but those who know me know I'm a thinker and so the blog has taken a more 'diary' type style, consisting of me voicing my opinions and frustrations more than practical information. I like this though, and am happy to see many of you taking this journey with me. But I've been stuck for ideas lately and got some inspiration from a close friend back home who is in the process of applying to teach here next year. Bianca had a few questions for me which I thought I would try to answer as best I could :) If anyone else reading has any questions for me I would love to answer them in the comments section!

Concerns about coming over, where you will be placed and who you will meet

B expressed concerns about moving here alone, and I can completely understand. The new EPIK application requirements do not let you apply with a friend or significant other, unless you are married, like they did before. I applied with 2 friends from home and if I'm completely honest, this was the main reason why I considered coming in the first place. It was my security blanket, and I felt safe under the assurances by my recruiter that I would be so close to Jodie I could see her weekly. What I got though, was left alone in a foreign country, something I had not prepared for. I freaked out, I was resentful...I was supposed to have my friend with me, why did it work out like this? But really, it's all been part of the adventure.

You are lucky that you get an orientation, where you will be grouped with people in the same area as you and although you may not be in the exact same city, it means that from the minute you land, you are surrounded by people just like you...anxious, excited and eager to make friends. It's like Uni, day 1, all over again. Take advantage of that time - get to know the people around you, try avoid connecting with one person and ignoring the rest. And don't be afraid that you wont like people, or make friends. Everyone is in the same boat here; it will be no time before you've made friends. Once you arrive in your city, try making connections, joining Facebook groups and get involved - that's how I did it. Sure there will be people you don't like, that's normal. But you will find yourself making connections with the most unlikely people because that's how it is here. Really, making friends will not be a problem.

With regards to where you are placed: that's the big question isn't it? It's all we worry about until we find out. The best piece of advice I can give you is be prepared for the unexpected. Remember that no matter where you are, travel is cheap, reliable and easy here. If you are put in a little town in the middle of nowhere, don't panic. You can travel out on the weekends. Chances are the foreigner population will be smaller but that's not always a bad thing. There are pros and cons to everything and you really just need to make your situation work. I've heard good and bad things about small and big cities alike and I'm a firm believer in making the most of what you are given. Do I miss the big city? Sometimes, yes. But I've grown to love and appreciate my little town of Jecheon. Unfortunately, with an adventure like this, you need to be prepared to make anything work. Accept now that you cannot prepare for everything, there will be curve-balls thrown at you but you will make it work.

What is the food like?

This is a tough one to try and answer but will try my best. It's spicy...if you don't like spice, chances are you're not going to enjoy the food much. There is kimchi with everything. You will eat a lot of rice, and a lot of vegetables you've never heard of. There are a lot of soups with interesting smells and flavours and plenty of leaves floating around in them. When they do salty it tends to be over-salted. Eating out consists of a lot of sharing...usually you order a dish or 2, and that will come with a variety of side dishes (kimchi, veggies, sometimes pajeon or salads) and everyone shares. Depending on where you are placed, you might find you have access to Western-type restaurants - great, but remember you are here to try out this new culture and that includes its food. I stay away from seafood as a choice but you can get great seafood dishes here. We eat a lot of chicken, often fried but its good. I love Korean barbecue, which can be pork or beef and you cook it over coals in the middle of the table. I don't know what to tell you other than try, try, try. It might look weird or end up tasting disgusting, but I have eaten some things here that have really surprised me, in a good way. It's a bit of an adjustment in the beginning, and ordering out can be overwhelming but you will come to know very quickly what you like and don't like and how to order it.

Let me show you my top 3 meals here:

Dak galbi
Dak-galbi: this is a chicken stir-fry type dish and is one of the meals I crave here. It's spicy, can be served with rice or sometimes noodles and has a mixture of cabbage,  onions, peppers, sweet potato and tteok (Korean rice cake) all mixed in a chili pepper sauce. It is amazing on cold nights and if I could box it up and take it home with me, I would.

Jjimdak from our favourite place in Jecheon 

Jjimdak: another favourite. Damn but this dish is T.A.S.T.E.Y. It's another chicken dish, served with noodles, carrots, onions etc along with a variety of add ins like cheesy tteok (these are my favourite things ever), tteok, mandu, potato and cheese and marinated in a Korean soy sauce. This dish is the business, that's all there is to it.

Typical galbi meal
Galbi: aka Korean barbecue, this is a really popular way to eat out here. You order some meat, pork or beef in different cuts/sauces and grill it yourself at your table. As you can see, it's served with a number of side dishes and is a simple, easy way to eat that also works out super cheap. For me, the sides are what make me keep going back to a restaurant (like Sweetcorn in Jecheon, nicknamed that because they serve you sweetcorn along with everything else!).

So yeah...some people love it, some people hate it but I think you need to keep trying until you find the things you like. Unfortunately you don't really have much of a choice at school, you eat what you're given but give it time!

What would make me stay?

This is also a tough question. I made my mind up pretty early on that this was a 1 year stint for me. A lot of it has to do with the language barrier. I know it's obvious but I was completely unprepared for how difficult it would be to live in a place where you don't speak the language. However I really grew attached to my schools, students, friends and city while I was here and so in the end, it's very bittersweet to be leaving. Other than the money though, what would make me stay?

Maybe if I had a proper coteacher, who supported me and communicated with me and I didn't feel so completely alone at school. If I could speak Korean. I think a lot would need to change at school, from a teaching point of view. I want more control of my classes, I want to be spoken to about things, to be informed and treated like a teacher and not a babysitter.  I have quite a few issues with my school situation and I think that's what convinced me I need to go. I don't feel like I have any support here, at my school and from my coteacher and that makes things a lot harder. I don't feel like I'm being used in the best way to really help these kids and it's really frustrating. There are also many cultural things here I struggle with, and things like the spitting and lack of personal space etc, but I think I really just felt that I got the most out of this experience that I could and that it's time to move on. No hard feelings, I'm just ready.

Money money money

When you first get here, you feel odd paying in thousands. And when the first paycheck comes and you feel like a millionaire, it's awesome. But you really do get the hang of spending really quickly. For the Rand, I usually knock off 2 zeros and that's my estimated price, minus a bit more. You eventually stop converting every little thing though, as soon as you figure out how far the money goes. You begin to recognise that \2000 is cheap and maybe \7000 isn't so bad for meat. It's really no time before you're navigating yourself around the currency like a pro. I still convert big items though, and things like trips etc just for interests sake and to keep me in check, as sometimes it's easy to blow money on unnecessary things.

For me, fruit here is much more expensive than back home. Like R150 for a watermelon expensive. I could be a real cheapskate when it came to buying groceries as I just saw everything as expensive but that's changed now and I cook a lot more at home. Eating out can be cheap, if you consider all you're getting. Clothes vary, just like at home, but in general they are slightly more expensive (because there isn't always the Mr Price option haha). Travel and accommodation is really cheap. You learn what you're willing to spend on certain things. I think in general, things aren't as cheap as I was expecting; eve the technology isn't all that much cheaper. Don't worry. Your paycheck goes REALLY far, and even after all my deductions I am able to live comfortably through the month. I love the won...am not looking forward to going back to my Rands (although that's probably more because my income will come to a halt for a while when I come home haha).

I don't know if this has helped at all. It's so hard to tell people how things are because these are just my experiences, opinions, likes and dislikes. It changes for every person, depending on context and preferences. My biggest piece of advice and the biggest lesson I've learned from being here is just come prepared to make the most of it. Try limit your expectations (although I know this is hard). Know that what you are walking into is the adventure of a life time, but that it wont always be smooth sailing. Expect the unexpected, be willing to adapt and you will be okay.

Korea has so much to offer you, you just have to be willing to embrace it...quirks and all.

Nic and Norb go to Lotte World

I'm on a roll with the posts so not going to stop now. I haven't had much time at school lately to blog so going to get a couple out now while I can :)

For those who are wondering...my nickname, Bron, backwards is Norb and Cola calls me that so hence the title. Moving on. Last weekend (01/12) Nic and I made the trip in the cold to Seoul, to go experience Lotte World. Initially we had planned to go to Everland, but with the colder weather having set in I was worried that it would be unpleasant and that some of the main rides would be closed. So we caught the 07:30 bus from Jecheon, arriving in Seoul around 09:30 and catching the subway to Jamsil Station where Lotte is located. It's really easy to find and we were in the massive line waiting to get in by 10:00. Things really moved smoothly though and we were inside before we knew it, ready to get our rides on.

Now I'm a huge theme park lover. I love the rides and atmosphere and everything that goes along with them. I used to complain that the theme park in Joburg, Gold Reef City was expensive but never again. Lotte cost \34 000 (we got foreigner discount but is usually \40 000) to get in, and although not overly expensive by Korean standards, it was much more than I would be willing to pay at home. The park itself is huge. Multi-level, both indoor and outside, with rides hidden everywhere. The outside part, Magic Island, is definitely more exciting, rides wise. Most of the rides were really short, and some (Sindbad and the Wave) made very little sense. For me, the Gyro Swing, Flume ride and French Revolution roller-coaster were the best rides. The rest were very tame, but still fun. Overall, Lotte is directed towards families with young kids more than those of us looking for a thrill. I wouldn't say this was a bad thing, just don't go there expecting the best rides of your lives. It's an experience, there is plenty to see and do and keep you entertained and although the lines get long, it's all very well run.

The inside

The classic boat ride, always a thrill

Magic Island, the outside part of LW

Gyro Swing - best!

Magic Island 

One of the most awesome things about going now is all the Christmas spirit vibes! There were 'Happy Christmas' banners everywhere, Christmas parades and lights, beautiful Christmas trees...enough to make anyone feel festive. Here are some pictures (bitches love pictures)...

Seeing the place light up at night is definitely beautiful and worth it! 

Beautiful Christmas tree!
A highlight for us was the Christmas Show...I believe it was called Cinderella's Christmas? It began with some monkey/cat/animal costumed gymnastic performers doing some tricks from the roof for us. Then the coolest and thinnest looking Santa I have ever seen came on stage to wish everyone a Happy Christmas before the curtains lifted and there were a bunch of white people. At first I thought they had made the Korean actors look white but there were definite white people, with a few Koreans mixed in (this was the case with the parade too). It was funny because all the carols were in Korean (interesting) and the performers just mouthed the words pretty badly. Back to the point. The show was amazing. They had massive screens at the back depicting different Winter and Christmas scenes, the costumes were really great and it was quite something to watch. An interesting twist of course is that Santa was the fairy godmother in this story, flying from the roof on a reindeer broomstick that had LED glasses, and he proceeded to rock out on stage. Oh Korea. It was certainly the most original take I've ever seen on the Cinderella story and on Father Christmas. They had the Lotte mascots out which was really funny, and as I mentioned, they sang many Korean Christmas carols which we could at least recognize by the tune. All in all it was really great to see, and was worth fighting the ajjummas to get a good spot.


Cool Santa

Awesome props and backdrop 

Santa on a broomstick 

Rocking out 

So much of pictures on this one. But really there isn't much to say, only that we had a blast, made the most of our day and Lotte is worth a visit. I would love to compare it to Everland but I don't think I'm going to get there before I leave. I'm glad we did Lotte though - it was a Nic and Norb adventure for the books ^^