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 here...my 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 pleasant...you hear the taxis hooting, the music blaring and the language surrounding you that you know so little about...you feel the humidity or cold flush against your skin - the air feels different here...you 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.