Monday, November 30, 2009

Address update


My host father got a job transfer to another city about 2 hours away, so it looks like I will be changing families. As of now, my school does not have another family lined up, so I don't know the new address.

But if you are planning to send something (not meaning to sound presumptuous) do so before December 14th. After that date, I'm not sure where I'll be. My current address is still

Amy Benes
Myeong-gi Apartment 101-607 Baengyeon-ri 575
Gurye-eup Gurye-gun, Jeollanam-do

Okay, that's all for now.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

The Man in the Subway

For Thanksgiving, all Fulbright ETAs were invited to have (American) thanksgiving dinner at the U.S. embassy. So, most of us, from all parts of Korea, packed our bags and met up for dinner.

I'm still trying to decide if the dinner was the best thing in my life or the worst. The food was excellent. Real vegetarian stuffing, green bean casserole, salad, fruit, bread (with real butter) and pumpkin, apple and cherry pies. For the meat-eaters, there was also real turkey and ham. I've never seen so many happy people in one room before.

On the bad side, it made me realize how much I wish I was home. But, what can you do? This is my home. This is my family. You can't spend your life wishing for something else. That just makes you sad.

Anyways. It was great to be united, once again. After dinner on Friday, we mostly hung out at the hostel, just catching up. Saturday morning I had a meeting for a winter camp my school will participate in, followed by lunch. After lunch I met up with one of my non-Fulbright friends from Gurye who happened to be in Seoul as well. The rest of Saturday was shopping.

After my friend went back to Gurye, I decided to catch back up with my Fulbright friends (to continue shopping...ugh. I'm SICK of shopping!) Transportation in Seoul is amazing. It has probably the best subway system I've ever been on. But it's also the primary means of transportation for most people, so it's always packed. Especially on Saturdays. Especially around Myeong-dong - the center of the shopping part of Seoul, which, of course, was where my friends were.

So I made my way to the nearest subway station, figured out where to go (happily, I didn't have to make any transfers!) and climbed on the next train that pulled up. It was packed, being only three stops away from Myeong-dong. I made my way onto the train car, gently pushing past people to allow the stream of people behind me to fit in. When I came to a point where I couldn't squeeze in anymore, I turned around to brace for the car's movement. Next to me, packed just as tightly, was a man towering at least four-and-a-half feet tall and not a day younger than 75, peering at me under his orange golfing hat through eye slits sunken into a wrinkly face.

Living in a very rural place, I see the best of the best when it comes to old people. And I'm pretty good at telling which of the oldies are harmlessly old and which are mentally unstable. This character had all the makings of a crazy, but his eyes were pretty alert. So I assumed that he was just another old man. Probably wondering why there are so many of these weird looking people in his city.

He didn't break his stare, which made me kind of uncomfortable (perhaps a tad irritated). So I did the only thing that I know how to do when it comes to strange people. I flashed him a little half smile and head bow. And then he did something surprising.

He somehow got even closer to me, reached into his pocket and took out a little scrap of hanji paper (brightly patterned paper with a little rougher consistency than normal paper) and started folding. By the next stop, he placed the smallest origami turtle in my hand. Completely shocked, I muttered my thank-you's and my beautiful's as I studied the turtle.

Now a few people were turned toward us (I mean, seriously, a foreigner just spoke their language!).

Delighted, the man reached, yet again, into his pocket and took out another scrap of hanji paper. With great care, he started folding. All eyes in the car were on this little man folding little paper for this single American. He then produced a tiny origami flower and placed it in my hand. I did my best to express my interest, gratitude, etc. But we came to my stop. I told my little friend that this is where we must part.

Well, back to reality. It's a crowded train (of which I was in the middle) and there's only a small amount of time that the doors open at each stop. My little origami friend moved for me, but the boys next to him did not. To make matters worse, another group of boys were pushing to get out, causing my exit route to be even more blocked. As I was getting nervous about getting out, my origami friend pushed past me and, with a deceptively strong arm, pushed both the standing boys and the fast-exiting boys out of the way, making a very clear way for me.

What can you do? Do you get down on your knees and bow? Do you stand there thanking the guy? Or do you just walk out? Here was this little man, who probably remembers a Seoul without the subway and remembers a time when there was a Seoul without the foreigners. How much has this man seen? He also probably remembers a time when young people were deeply respectful to the elderly rather than now, where most young people ignore them.

And here he was. Entertaining a foreigner who tossed him a smile. And making sure she didn't get lost in this huge city.

So what can I do? I started toward the door and gave him a little wave as I walked away (and gave a head-nod of acknowledgement toward the surprised boys). Still holding my turtle and flower in my open hand and feeling a renewed sense of faith in the world.

Even though I was in Seoul for three days, that's still the first thing I think about the trip. I'll try to post some pictures later. Thanks for reading!

Monday, November 23, 2009

The School Magazine

The school magazine came out today. There was an article about my life in Gurye (it was really cute) and a picture of me next to the top English student (senior who I do not teach). So that was kind of a nice little memento.

But, what really caught my eye was this comic activity. It had me laughing the entire afternoon. Every activity for baby is just hilarious. Hope you enjoy it, too!

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Last Saturday! I can't believe I forgot!

I was so exhausted from the Suncheon half marathon update that I completely forgot to tell you about my Saturday! A week before Saturday, Oh-nee said that her and "her family" were going to take a tour around Gurye and that I was to invite my Gurye English teacher friends. Not really knowing more than that, I invited my buddies. The brave souls, Scott and Jason, agreed to do this tour. Honestly, we were all a little confused as to how someone could spend an entire day touring Gurye. And Scott's been here three years, so he was especially interested.

I'm not really sure what I was expecting. I guess I was expecting my mom's family I met at Chuseok to come in, all of us to pile into a bus and go to temples and stuff. Maybe some light hiking.

Well, I climbed onto the bus Saturday morning and found it stuffed to the brim with elementary school kids, seven miserable-looking parents and my two fellow Americans looking unsure. Oh goodness.

Even after everything's said and done, I'm not exactly sure what the event was. It reminded me of my days in girl scouts when we went on some tour to earn a badge. But, obviously, there were boys there.

The day was actually really good for me. We went to Hwaeomsa, the largest/oldest Buddhist establishment in Korea (at the base of Jiri mountain), to a bear conservation center and a sea otter learning center. Since Scott's been to all those places, he explained things to me that my family never could. And Jason's a history teacher in the states, so he filled us in on the history sections. We were a dynamic team, we were.

Scott at Hwaeomsa Welcome Center
(Children? What children?)

Jason putting on a brave face at the welcome center
(Most of the kids were his students)

There's something I should probably tell you about Korea. Most wildlife - from the very little that was there to begin with - has been killed off between wars, population growth and industrialization. Now, Koreans are fascinated with anything that moves in the wild. Anything. You should have seen my co-teachers when we walked around Jiri mountain; they spent five minutes (honestly, 5 minutes) watching a chipmunk. (I gave up after 2 minutes)

So, as part of their wilderness conservation, they have been trying to reintroduce Korean black bears to Jiri mountain. Hence the bear conservation center. The center houses one bear that failed to be released in the mountains (she figured out that people feed her, so, of course, she just hung around people). It was cute to see the kids so excited over a bear in a small enclosure. It also made me wish I could pick them up and plant them in Brookfield Zoo. I'm pretty sure they'd never leave.

The otter education center is the same idea. There's an education center and an observation center. So, we didn't see any actual otters at the education center. We just listened to some guy talk about otters. By this point in the day, Jason was done. I mean, it was like another day at work for him; all the same students doing all the same things. So he was re-grouping outside while Scott and I pretended to (a) be interested in and (b) understand the man speaking in Korean about otters.

Well, next thing you know, the guide is passing out this dirt-like stuff and having the kids say "Dong." I haven't lived with two elementary school brothers for three months to not know what dong is. It's poop. So, when the guy handed a dirt clump to me, I buried my hands deep in my pocket and shook my head. But Scott wasn't so quick-moving with his hands. Next thing you know, he's holding petrified otter poop. With a forced smile plastered across his face.

Scott holding petrified poop

Needless to say, Scott was very thankful for my hand sanitizer. And Jason was the happiest person in the world to have missed that part of the educational seminar.

We ended the day by dying handkerchiefs in a special dye found in the mud around Jiri mountain. Yeah. 30 elementary school kids playing with orange dye around their English teachers. We were all a little nervous but came out unblemished.

By the end of the day, we were happy to see the end of the tour. But, while Scott and Jason went back to their quiet apartments, I returned to mine with two hyper brothers, an exhausted mom and a dad who didn't participate in the day's activities.

Honestly, I would not have it any other way.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Suncheon Half


Immediately, I felt a stab of irritation. Here we were at kilometer 8 out of 21, and there was, no doubt, another runner anxious to slam me with all of the English that he knew. Jeesh. But, I plastered on that good 'ol foreign ambassador smile and turned to greet my new "friend."

Friend: You America?
Me: Yes.
Friend: Ah, why you run slow?
Me [with gritted teeth, trying to keep myself from pointing out he's barely keeping up with a woman]: Race long.
Friend: Because you wear this! [as he pinched a bit of my under armor and let it slap back against my skin]
Me: No. Because I want to run slow.
Friend: Because your body... [didn't catch what he was trying to say]
Me: Yes. Very fat. [I've given up adding in the sarcasm. It never translates]
Friend: Laughs and jogs to the side to get water.

At least he only stuck around for a few minutes, I thought. How on earth did I get involved in this on a cold, windy Sunday? Well, my friends, let's start from the beginning.

7:30 a.m. I arrive at a parking lot to meet with Gurye Marathon and the other three members of the Gurye Running Club. We pile into a car and make our way south of Gurye to Suncheon. Me and one other are running the half, the remaining three are running the full. I listened to them talk about times and race logistics on the way. And then argue about where to park, etc.

8:15 a.m. I climb out of the car and come face to face with hundreds of runners. The race begins and ends at a track stadium outside of Suncheon National University. SNU students, wearing very American letter jackets, were passing out water and hand sanitizer, directing people traffic and organizing the bag drop off. As we made our way through the crowd of men slathering each other in Vaseline (that's an attractive sight in the morning), the local politician shaking hands and the speakers blasting Korean pop music, I decided that this was going to be epic.

8:40 a.m. I met Red Jumpsuit. A woman running the 10-k that has some connection with Gurye Running and/or the running club, who took me by the arm and would not let go. We spent the next 20 minutes running across the field so she could introduce me to her husband, daughter, daughter's friend, husband's friend, friend from the office and about a dozen others. At 8:59, I decided to remind Red Jumpsuit that the race was about to start.

9:02 a.m. The half marathon lines up for take-off. I'm immediately pushed to the front by running club members. As a group, we count down from 10. Then the politician rings a gong and we're off. Everyone takes off at a sprint. Except for me. I'm like a rock when I run. I know exactly how fast I need to go. And so I went at my own pace as people dressed in shorts, racing tank tops and throw-away gloves zoomed around me. It was cold and the wind had a bite, so I was in under armor, shorts, top and gloves. I may as well have been in a snow suit.

The course was pleasantly flat, but rather dull. It was entirely on a closed highway through the country. I live in Gurye. I've seen enough farm fields and mountains to last a lifetime. But the water stations were well placed, and the SNU volunteers at these water stations screamed at the top of their lungs as we passed, so that was good. Of course, I had many awkward conversations along the way. One man from the running club was trying to get me to go faster. I politely told him "Goodbye" and played the stupid card.

But then I found my running angel. It's weird, but every major race I've ran, it seems that I find someone, somehow, who runs just a tad faster than me, who always shows up right before I start feeling defeated. And somehow, this someone, pushes me throughout the rest of the race. And even though we cross the finish at the same time, they're not to be found after the race. I'm not going to go into the whole fate/religion thing; let's just call it magic. By magic, I met White Hat just before the halfway/turn-around point.

White Hat didn't say much. Just the occasional straight/right/left ahead stuff. He even let me draft a bit. As I was turning around (at the halfway point, you just, literally, went through a chip timer and turned around), White Hat grabbed my arm and said, "Wait." as a race volunteer gave me a brown hair tie. "Uh, thanks." Not sure what to do with it (because my hair tie was working beautifully) I slipped it on my wrist. Maybe it's a little bonus for being in the top 10 women at the halfway point.

With the help of White Hat, my last half of the race was fast. Eventually we caught up to another woman. With my eyes locked on her broad back, I muttered 여자 (woman). White Hat understood. We crept up behind her and then blasted past. But the woman was a fighter and fought back, re-passing me. Then, in a very stealthy way, White Hat put his hand out and said, "Wait." We stalked her. Me, completely exhausted from the fast pace, started to falter. But White Hat would have none of that.

I think it was the fact that he was sacrificing his time for me that did it. For sure, he could have taken off, leaving me to finish the last 2km by myself. But he didn't. So, somehow, somewhere I found some more energy and tried desperately to hold on. Eyes still locked on Broad Back.

The race finish was back in the stadium. We had to run about 2/3's of a lap. Broad Back, with her coach next to her, sensed the danger in my position. (Taking people from behind is a lot easier than holding leads) He did a call-response thing (Coach: "Ya" Broad Back: "Geun"). Ya - Geun, Ya - Geun. Back and forth. Jeesh. This was getting ridiculous. If it's that important, you can have it.

But, at that moment, White Hat said, "Go." And Red Jumpsuit hopped out of the crowd and was urging me on. I couldn't let White Hat's time sacrifice be in vain! Somewhere, somehow, I found a gap, squeezed through and sprinted past Broad Back. I didn't stop once I passed her. I kept going. Fearful of her response. And I forced my exhausted legs to push and kept my depleted torso tall. And that's how I finished the Suncheon Half Marathon. Sprinting at "full" speed across the line. With the crowd in uproar at the intense finish.

Red Jumpsuit was there faster than I gave her credit. I gave Broad Back a hug and muttered 미안합니다 (I'm sorry!). But, when I looked around for White Hat, I couldn't find him. And Red Jumpsuit was tugging on my arm (no doubt anxious to introduce me to someone). I had to give up. That's just how my running angels work, I guess.

I finished 7th of 60 women, which earned me a jar of honey. I think 1st - 5th places got jars of kimchi. Darn. Missed that one. Oh Korea. My time was 1:37:40 according to the text message the race sent me. (Probably the most organized race I've ever been to) My goal had been 1:45:00, so I was very pleased.

Me with my Honey

My Honey Jar in a Box

Monday, November 9, 2009

Continued from Previous Post

**Note: This is the second entry. Don't miss this first below!**

Cue Monday.

I received my race packet for my half marathon next Sunday. The packet included my chip-activated bib number (#2860), the race booklet and, of course, two huge bags of special Suncheon Kimchi. I rolled my eyes on the inside, stuck the stuff in the fridge and went to class. Well, I thought I was going nuts, because I kept hearing the word for marathon. When the bell rang and I asked the students to quiet down, the class captain said, "Amy marathon kimchi?" Sigh. The entire school was talking about my kimchi delivery.

I brought the kimchi home, showed it to my mom who gave me a "really?-they-really-gave-you-kimchi?" look, laughed and thanked me for my donation. She then told me that we were going out for dinner with dad's "Gurye Marathon" friend. I love these kinds of events. It's like, the few strange words I am given are a riddle for something great.

Around dinner time, we picked up a man and drove to dinner. This man, Gurye Marathon, would be escorting me from my Gurye apartment to the Suncheon starting line next Sunday. I focused real hard in the car ride, trying to catch as much as I could (but, gosh, they talk so fast!). Gurye Marathon, it would seem, is president of the Gurye running club. There are currently three other members.

I heaved a big sigh of relief when he started asking me about my running times. Finally! A conversation that is the same across cultures! After questioning my 5k, 10k, marathon and half marathon times, he decided that I, too, could join Gurye running club. We meet Tuesdays and Thursdays at 6:50 pm at the stadium. He said that they run an hour in the stadium. I hope that that was a mis-translation. 60-minutes on a 400 meter track is one of my nightmares. Honestly. But, who knows.

Once home, I decided that maybe it would be best if I browsed the booklet they gave me. Here's what I found.

Of 3700 participants, 60 are females running the half.
There are four foreigners, including me, throughout all events.
The fastest expected pace for 1st-place finisher in the half is my goal time.

The picture from last year's start shows a group of runners. None of which are wearing t-shirts. They're all wearing high-performance sports wear. (typical. You should see these people hike. They have more money in their gear than I have in my bank account)

If there was any shred of doubt that this was going to be the race to remember, it's gone. I can picture it now: people pressed close together, everyone cramming to the front of the line no matter their distance or ability (or the fact that it's chip timing, so starting with the gun doesn't really matter). And me. In the middle of it all. In my cotton shorts, cotton T-shirt and bouncing blond pony tail, waiting patiently for the madness to cease before I do my thing.

I'll be sure to notice as much as I can so as to relay it to you when I finish. Wish me luck!

Awkward Teacher Outings, Pottery and More!

Last Wednesday I was told that today was teacher day! (Fantastic. Why are we still at school?) Well, teacher day in Korea means that school ends early (3pm instead of 10pm) and the school pays for a dinner out.

My co-teacher took me to Jiri Mountain (the mountain that gives Gurye a reason to exist). I thought we'd be hiking. Well, the hike lasted about three minutes. Then we stopped at a vendor and drank a lot Korean wine. I like teacher day.

Anyway, my co-teacher is awkward, so I took a lot of pictures of the damn mountain to avoid conversation. I only posted one here for practicality's sake. It is a tomb of some sort and Korea National Treasure 54. Most of old Korea was destroyed and the remaining artifacts are numbered in order of importance. There are currently 307 National Treasures, five of which are in Gurye.

After the hiking party, we went to dinner. For some reason unknown to me (probably just for the amusement of the entire staff at Gurye High School) I was placed at a table with three teachers I've never spoken to before. I was later informed that they are the three heaviest drinkers on staff. That means that I entertained three gently sloshed men while I had free reign over the food (the men were there to drink, not eat). It's a rarity that I don't have to fight for the non-meat and non-fish dishes at a table of hungry men. So dinner was good. I decided that I like teacher day.

On Thursday I received the most wonderful care package in the world: my clarinet! I nearly cried when I took it out. I never realized how much I would miss it. And Dad's note was the perfect cherry on top. [Hint: the random scribbles on top is "my name" according to Gordon Benes)

Ah. Love you, Dad.

This past weekend I went to Gangjin with another Gurye English teacher, Jason. Gangjin is known for being the birthplace of Celadon pottery. I didn't know what celadon was (I knew it was green), so here's a picture for those of you unsure.

80% of all Celadon pottery found in Korea came from Gangjin. Celadon pottery pieces make up a good chunk of the National Treasures list. We started in the museum.

Pretty standard pottery museum. Beautiful stuff. The detail was amazing. Then we walked around the grounds.

These suckers are how kimchi is made. The cabbage, once slathered in red pepper sauce, is placed in the pot to ferment. Yum.

Next stop: The traditional celadon kiln.
Jason heading into the kiln.
The Kiln
Pretty intense oven. Basically, there are mini doors on the side of the kiln. Some poor soul feeds the oven fire at the mouth (pictured), which heats the length of the oven. The stuff to be cooked is placed inside via the side doors, which are then sealed by bricks. Once the fire goes out and the place cools, another poor soul climbs inside of the oven via a back door/vent to claim the pottery.

We went shopping. Jason found a really cool bowl and I bought a place setting set (2 x rice bowl, lid, soup bowl) for my family. My mom loved it.

Good weekend. Continued with newer post.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Gosh Darn it

I have a class that makes me want to be mean.

They're the most disobedient, loud, destructive students I teach. They're also one of the lower English levels in the school. At the end of every class with them, I tell myself they're not worth my effort. I swear that, from now on, I'm going to make them work silently on the most dull, worthless assignment of their lives.

But I don't. Because there is that one girl that stays behind every class to ask questions and keeps every worksheet I give in a pink Hello Kitty folder. I guess I do it for her.

Monday, November 2, 2009

A Worst Day for the Books

Boy, have I got a day for you, my readers.

I'm still kind of in shock, looking back on it. I think I'm mostly in shock about how not-upset I am. I mean, this was a worst day that someone could make a movie on. It all started this weekend, when my scooter broke down.

I came back from Halloween in Gwangju on Sunday. I was ready to go home, relax and lesson plan. I hopped on my scooter, turned the key and hit the ignition. I made it about 10 feet before I knew something was wrong. It wouldn't accelerate. So, I brought it to my school (a very slow trip, but I made it), which is a mile closer than my apartment. I talked to the guard and explained that it was broken (after assuring him that, yes, there was gas in it and, no, I did not put gas in the oil tank and oil in the gas tank). No problem. Someone will look at it on Monday.

But that means I have to walk to school. No problem. Only a mile.

Cue Monday morning: unseasonably cold, windy weather and rain. The second day of rain since my arrival to Gurye. Perfect. Of course. But, with my happy yellow umbrella, I walked to school. Braving the cold, the wet and the flocks of students.

I sit down at my desk and realize that I left my PowerPoints at home. Not really wanting to devote 40 minutes to walking back, I told my co-teacher I would just take a taxi (probably $5 round-trip) to which he said that he would take me after 1st period. But I had 2nd period class...

So, I was late to my 2nd period class. My lessons were fun but all fell short about 10 minutes. Entertaining students on the fly when lessons run short is the most anxious experience of my life. But I did it. Three times.

A group of six boys in my second class (which is always a nightmare) were being uncooperative and disrespectful. I'm usually not a fan on physical punishment, but perhaps the cold rain walk, my scooter woes and my first class lateness put me a little on edge. I made the boys stand for the rest of the 15 minutes of class in the back holding their chairs over their heads. And I punched the back of another student who was causing mayhem in the class. Both punishments are (a) standard and (b) not that bad.

Lunch was meat, fish, meat soup, fish kimchee, rice and seaweed (I LOVE rice and seaweed, so I was okay with that). Due to organizational problems, I was late to lunch and missed out on a glass of wine.

My co-teacher told me after my last class that I would need to bring the scooter to a special mechanic (who was cheap). I told him that I'm pretty sure the scooter wouldn't make it there (the mechanic is on top of a hill on the other side of town). But he didn't quite get it. So, I hopped on the scooter, revved it up and started out.

The scooter made it 10 feet before dying completely. Excellent.

So I pushed the scooter the mile to the mechanic. I pushed the scooter around honking cars, screaming children, mocking old men and up up up some steep steep steep hills. Not really knowing where this mechanic was (the directions were: between your apartment and the Tae Kwon Doe center a quarter mile away), I took a wrong turn and found myself pushing this heavy, resistant scooter up the steepest hill I've ever seen. Finally, I crashed.

But instead of doing the kicking and screaming thing, I just broke down laughing. I laughed so hard that I lost control of the scooter and just let it slide to the ground on it's side. I kept laughing, unable to breathe until tears were streaming down my face (where the icy wind dried them raw). I laughed and laughed and laughed, sitting on the broken heap of my scooter until a nice farmer in his Korean pick-up pulled over and asked me what I imagine was something along the lines of, "What the hell are you doing laughing like a crazy person with a dead motorcycle on the steepest hill in Gurye?"

The nicest man ever called a mechanic who came and replaced a bulb of some sort from my scooter. The nicest man ever talked to my co-teacher and explained what was going on. The nicest man ever wouldn't let me pay for the mechanic. The nicest man ever is the reason why I'm not still insanely laughing on the steepest hill in Gurye and the reason why my scooter (knock on wood) works for now.

I made my way back home, ran 10 miles in the icy wind and finally felt ready to relax.

I think it's terrifying that, despite everything that happened today, I never felt like I was having a bad day. I think I realized it on Steepest Hill Ever; that's when everything came together. But before that, it was just an ordinary day. I would even say that I thought it was an unusually happy day for me. (One of my favorite students demonstrated that he could shoot his gum into the air and catch it upon landing, which entertained me and my class for a solid 5 minutes. Another student told me he liked my pants and another student told me she liked my shirt.) As far as I'm concerned, my bad day wasn't that bad at all.

I guess it just goes to show that some days, you feel like fighting. Other days, you don't. So you take what you can get and let life happen accordingly.

Okay, here are some pictures from Gwangju.

Where's Waldo!?

Lauren went as an Ahjummah (old woman). Her costume was perfect. $5 pants that looked like they were probably once curtains, two tacky sweaters, an e-mart bag carrying random items and, the cherry on top, a glittery visor.

Posing like an ahjummah