Monday, December 28, 2009

Lucky Girl, Awesome City

I finally escaped the madness that is holidays in Gurye. Last Sunday I made the 4+hour trek to Seoul to begin my internship at the Fulbright office. Note, when I left Gurye, it was 50-degrees and sunny. When I surfaced from the subway (toting a huge bag) it was a blizzard.

Nevermind that. I was in Seoul. I moved into my apartment (located in the Fulbright building). It's beautiful. Coming from an apartment shared by 5 people to an apartment to myself was stunning. Here are some pictures.

Ah! A bed!

So, yeah. It's really nice. I just finished my first day in the office. I'm working here until January 15th. It's going to be BUSY. Wish me luck!

This is actually quite normal

This was taken at the teacher dinner after my school talent show. I post it because it really does accurately reflect what I deal with on a day to day basis. Maybe slightly extreme, but only slightly.


Biology teacher (BT): Ellie [previous female ETA from two years ago]
History teacher: mumbling my name
BT: You!
Me: Oh [you should stop now]
HT: Clarinet
Me: Clarinet?
HT: Clarinet.
Me: Did you like it
HT: No, that's not what I meant
Gym Teacher: [I have NO idea, but it's funny!]

Friday, December 25, 2009

A Very Merry Gurye Christmas

For 21 years, I have spent Christmas just about the same way. This Christmas was probably the most surreal Christmas I have ever had, and probably ever will have again. So, here's how it went down:

Christmas Eve
It all started at breakfast. I kept hearing my mom say "pancake." Now, there's a Korean 'pancake' made out of egg, vegetables and seafood - usually octopus and shrimp, so I was careful to keep my hopes down. When I got to the table, there were three, large, American pancakes waiting for me. And. And. A bottle of maple syrup from Canada. (don't ask.) I haven't seen syrup since the States. I almost cried out of joy.

From 2pm until 7:30 pm was our school talent show. There's a whole other post about the talent show, for it was quite an event. I was positively elated the whole time to see my students (1) not in uniforms and (2) doing something they actually enjoy. At the end of the talent show, they called me up to the stage and gave me my Christmas gift - (take a guess) a huge jar of honey. This one was bigger than the one I got from the marathon. And it was in an expensive celadon jar. I have now stuffed both host families full of honey.

After the talent show, the teachers went out for dinner. Since the school year is over, it was kind of our last hurrah together. I was really sad to say goodbye to my favorite co-teacher, Ms. Seo. She is transferring to another school next year. The next semester looks bleak.

From left to right: Ms. Seo, Mr. Jeong (AKA: hot chemistry teacher), Mr. Lee (physics), ?? father of a student, and Mr. History Teacher.

After dinner, I walked to meet my host parents, their Mongolian friends and some other friends at a bar. Along the way, I came across a quintet saxophone group playing Christmas music by the city Christmas tree. Had it been snowing, rather than 50-degrees, I would have thought I was home.

At the bar, my parents' friend bought a Christmas cake, so we had cake. They wanted me to sing a "traditional American Christmas song" before they blew out the candles. (I think they think that, whenever Americans have cake, we have to sing and blow out candles, no matter the occasion) Not really knowing what to do, I sang a shortened version of "We wish you a Merry Christmas" while they clapped and bounced. Nothing like a 'traditional American' Christmas cake ceremony.
Jaejin Pa + Ahn Oh-nee (Father and Mother)

Some Mongolian man... And Cake!

You-sung: The cutest 5-year ever
(son of good family friends, so we see a lot of him)

We slept in and had tofu kimchi for breakfast (one of my favorite Korean dishes). Family Kong - my first host family - picked me up around 11 to go to Suncheon for our last lunch. However, before going to lunch, we stopped at a light fixture store to buy lighting for their new apartment. Why did they bring me? Well, because I have blond hair, blue eyes, an all-American smile and an arsenal of cute Korean phrases sprinkled with a slight foreign accent. I earned them a $70 discount on a bill of $600. It was the least I could do. Merry Christmas. *^^*

We had lunch at Mr. Pizza - a Korean Pizza Hut-like place - before saying our goodbyes. My heart almost broke when, as I was leaving the car, Oh-chahn said, "Oh, Amy. My very sad," ran his finger in a tear-like fashion down his face, and then, without further ado, returned to his video game. That's my Oh-chahn.

I met up with Scott and Jason in Suncheon, where we hung out and went to see Avatar in 3D. I love movies because they make me forget that I'm halfway around the world. The movie was fantastic, by the way. Especially in 3D. Before booking it back to Gurye, we had dinner at an "Italian" restaurant. Never mind that they didn't have bread or wine or salad dressing. Or that I ate a rice dish. It was all good in our book. Back in Gurye we went to Noraebang (the Karaokee room) where we sang the night away. It was probably the last time I'll see Jason. In Korea, that is.

So that was my Christmas. Kind of different. Christmas is just so different here. It's more like Valentine's Day. It's a day where couples spend the entire day together, dressed up in the same clothes. Yep. Couples outfits.

So, while visions of sugar plums were dancing in your heads, I was fighting back the urge to laugh at every couple I saw, eating rice at an Italian restaurant and singing the night away. Merry Christmas, thanks for reading and I miss you all!

School Talent Show

Here are a few videos from the school talent show. It was a blast; my students are so talented (and adorable).

The end of one of my first grade classes. They are dancing to "Hot Issue" by 4Minute. The one in the middle wearing yellow tights is a dude, so the school went a little nuts when they saw him in a skirt and Minnie Mouse ears.

The "cool" clique of 1st grade boys performing a comedy act. (Reminder, 1st grade = sophomore in high school) This is absolutely ridiculous. Actually, the kid singing is a very talented singer. The one in the leotard (yeah, leotard) is one of my nicest students.

Watch the beginning again. The singer throws the flower out into the audience. What you don't see is that the judging panel (Principal, Vice Principal and 2 non-school guests) are sitting right there. Imagine. This prankster student throwing a flower that hits the stoic, frowning face of the principal, right before a lewd comedy act. Takes guts, I guess.

The "cool" 2nd grade boys dancing to "Heartbeat" by SHINee. One of the members of the actual band, SHINee, wears a pony tail on the top of his head...hence the recreation here.

My band - Elysian - performing "Last Christmas." The school thought that the John Deere sweatshirts were festive (because of the reindeer), so that's why we had those. Everyone's 2nd grade except the guitar on the right and the drummer. Oh. And me.

For those of you that know Megan, yes. I stole her screen name for the band name. One day, the band leaders begged me to name their band. They wanted a name that meant "free" (like a prisoner out of prison. that's what they said. I do not lie), and for some reason, elysian just popped into my head. So, elysian doesn't exactly mean "free," but they liked the idea of using a Greek word that not even the English teachers knew what it meant.

This took place on Christmas Eve, so, yeah. I'll let you continue on to the next post for more details on that fun night. ^^

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

New Address

Amy Benes
봉동리 289-1
혜미원 4 층
전남 구례군 구례읍

I don't have an English translation, but I would suspect that it is something like:

Amy Benes
Bongtong-ri 289-1
Hyeme-won 4 cheong
Guyre-eup Guyre-gun, Jeollonam-do

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

My New Crib

Sorry for the delay in posts. I have been really busy preparing to move. I said my goodbyes to the Kong family. I was surprised, I was actually much more sad than I expected to be. It just kind of hit me, at the end, how much they were my protectors until this point in time. And being without them while not really knowing my new family made me feel a little alone.

My co-teacher recruited two of my smallest male students to help with the move. Somehow these tiny freshman were stuck lugging 50-pound bags up 4 flights of stairs. My new family, the Ahn family, is much different. On paper, I have a mom, dad and two brothers (ages 11 and 14). But Father Ahn is a CEO of some company in Mongolia, so he's only home December through half of March. Mother Ahn is an after-school tutor for elementary students. The 11-year old, Jae Gyeong (or Tyler), is in 4th grade but so was Oh-chahn. But Jae Gyeong looks like he could snap Oh-chahn in two just by looking at him. The 14-year old, Jae Jin, attends middle school in Gwangju - an hour and a half away. He commutes by bus there and back every day.

The apartment is much bigger, my room is easily twice as big, but there is not a single piece of sitting furniture in the house. No chairs, no couches, no beds.

My new room, including my sleeping mat - called a Yo.

I think it's funny that the house has two desks but no chairs. Still working on that one. In a very strange way, I kind of like the yo. It's like swank camping. The floors are heated (pretty standard in the Korean house), so curling up on the floor after a long, cold day is actually quite nice. I'm even getting use to the bean pillow (pillow stuffed with beans, not cotton/feathers).

Mother Ahn understands a lot of English (still working on the speaking part), so that's helpful. My new bros are at pretty high levels for their ages. They're actually really good for me, in terms of learning Korean. And Father Ahn...well, gosh. Half the time I'm not sure if he's talking in Korea, Mongolian, English or a mix.

The Ahn family is very vegetarian friendly. I've already had a heart-shaped fried egg at each meal. That's another thing. Since Mother Ahn works nights, dinner is on my own. I can either eat at school, eat out or make something at home. But she cooks a wonderful breakfast. Today's breakfast was French toast, my heart-egg, milk and, of course, mini-pecan quiche-looking pastries. Breakfast of champions. :)

My first night with my family, Mother Ahn took the earlier part of the night off to cook a first meal. While waiting for dinner, I busted out the Obama cards (it worked with my last 4th grade host-brother) and played a game of War. It was pretty quiet, pretty relaxed. Then the door opened and in came the cutest 5-year old in the world, complete with an animal hat (see picture) and fingerless gloves. He stared at me out of the biggest, brownest eyes I'd ever seen and flashed a toothless grin at me (he recently, and very proudly, lost he two front teeth).
Kristin - my real sister - in the animal hat I sent her for Christmas

The toddler was flanked by his parents (maybe family relations, maybe family friends, maybe mom's clients...lost in the translation). He joined our next war game. Mid-way through came in Father Ahn flanked by two Mongolian men. I paused from our war game and just absorbed the scene. What are the odds that I would end up in a small mountain farm village in South Korea with a host family, complete strangers and two Mongolian men? Never write off the impossible, I suppose.

Despite the chaos, it was very fun. Especially handling dinner for 10 around a 3ft long, 3ft wide, 1ft high table. It felt really good to be eating within inches of my new host brother. (literally, sometimes his mouth was an inch from my face) It felt like I was just accepted; I was one with the family. Safe, close, one. Hm. Maybe I'm becoming more Korean than I thought possible.

My wardrobe is coming tomorrow (apparently the one I used at the Kong's was owned by the school), so right now I'm still living out of my suitcases. That's a bummer, but we gotta take some bad with the good, right? I'm just very thankful to be in with a completely different, fun family, closer to school and actually living on Gurye's main "fun" street (complete with the grocery store, bus terminal, billiards hall, PC Room (a room with a lot of computers you can pay to use) and a handful of restaurants).

Very busy next couple of days. Tomorrow is dress rehearsal for my school talent show. I was somehow recruited into a student rock band. Me, on my clarinet, playing a Christmas pop song with two electric guitars, a drum set, keyboard and vocalist. Lordy. I am also playing a solo on my clarinet. The show is on Christmas Eve. Wish me luck! Christmas Eve me, the Mongolians, Father Ahn and some family friends are doing something. Once again, lost in the translation. Christmas will hopefully be with my Gurye friends. We'll see. Anyways, that's what's new with me. Thanks for taking time from the busy holidays to read!

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The Beijing Post

So I made it safely and happily to and from Beijing. The trip was a blast! It was enough to feel like I got away (6 days of traveling, 4.5 days actually in Beijing) but we were glad to arrive back on Korean soil when we did.

Because there is so much, I'm just going to summarize what we did by day.

5:20 a.m. bus from Gwangju to the airport
1:15 p.m. local time, we arrived in Beijing
That afternoon: We went to the Beijing zoo and saw the pandas! After the zoo, we made our way to the Olympic stadiums (water cube and bird's nest). Rachael and I were in awe of the smog. The weather forecast said clear skies, but because of the smog we could barely see the sun. It was really depressing. The weather was between 28 and 35 degrees. By the time we made it to Olympic park, it was night. The cube and nest were really cool at night.

7:00 a.m. Wake-up, get dressed, eat breakfast and go! The weather was slightly warmer than Wednesday, but still smoggy. Even though we did really tourist-y stuff, we didn't have to fight too many crowds. Most of the tourists we ran into were poor, rural Chinese farmers from the west/southwest of the country.
-Tienanmen: Tienanmen sits in front of the Forbidden city and next to China's People's Hall (similar to Capitol Hill). It is the largest "square" in the world. In the middle of the square is a memorial building for Chairmen Mao, the man that first introduced communism and the current political structure of today's China. Inside the memorial is Mao's preserved body. So we all saw his body. Pretty cool, huh?
-Forbidden City: The Forbidden City - across the street from Tienanmen - was once where Emperors and their families (and mistresses) lived. During this time, commoners were forbidden to even approach the 10-meter-tall walls. The full city only opened up to the public during the early 1900's.
-Temple of Heaven: This was pretty cool. The emperor used this temple to talk to God. Since the emperor was considered to be, essentially, a God, this was where he telephoned the big guy. Inside is a large, 3-story pagoda called the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests. This is the largest surviving wooden structure in China and was built without nails. In this hall, the emperor talked to God. Hall is surrounded by other smaller structures and a very extensive garden.
-Pearl Market: huge indoor shopping mall selling the normal fake stuff as well as deeply discounted pearls.
-Chinese Acrobats: we went and saw a semi-professional Chinese acrobat show. I saw semi-professional because they were to join the professional league next year. They were still outstanding. Walking on tight ropes, throwing each other across the stage and doing some incredible tricks with umbrellas, Chinese yo-yo's and bikes. It was awesome.

-The Great Wall: The hostel we stayed at offered a tour of the Wall. It is a 3-hour drive to the Wall. So, at 6:30, we loaded the bus with about 10 other tourists. We hiked the great wall for 4.5-5 hours and then returned home at around 5:30-6pm. It was incredible! For the first hour, farmers that live near the wall followed us along the wall, try to sell us post cards and other stuff. It was annoying, so we were glad when they left. At the end of our Wall trail, we have to walk 25 minutes to the bus...or, ZIP-LINE! So, we zip-lined from the great wall to a spot about 5 minutes from the bus. It was awesome.

7:30 a.m. breakfast/leave
-Summer Palace: The summer palace was built on the outskirts of Beijing as a place for the royal family to go during the hot months. The palace is located around 2 lakes and has very thick groves of trees for shade. There are three main areas of the palace: (1) the Buddhist temple that overlooks Beijing (2) Impress Cixi's (the most influential - and last - leader of China. Probably one of the most powerful women in world history) birthday village (yep, a private village for her birthday parties) and (3) some buildings on an island. I forget why it's important, but it was.
-Silk Market: huge indoor shopping mall, larger than the Pearl Market, selling the normal fake stuff, but specializing in silk products.
-Food Night Market: This is where you can eat anything fried and on a stick. Every insect, animal and sea creature you could imagine. I partook in eating a baby scorpion. I'll stick to being vegetarian, thank you very much. The video proof is on Facebook under "Videos of Me."

5:30 a.m. depart for the airport
6:30 p.m. arrived safely back in Gurye to eat, relax and unpack. Pff. What a trip!

So, overall, the trip was awesome. The hostel we stayed at - China Backpackers - was outstanding. It was clean, they gave us breakfast, spoke fluent English and were ready and willing to help us out (no matter how disorganized and crazy our requests were). If you ever go to Beijing, check out!

For pictures, check out my Facebook page as well as Rachael's. You can access her trip photo album by clicking on pictures of me, finding one Rachael uploaded and then clicking on the album from which the picture came. She also posted some great videos. Thanks, Rachael!

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Christmas in Gurye!

Sunday's in Gurye. Think about a sleep 1950's farming town in rural Iowa. Except minus the church obsession. People stay in. Businesses are closed. The stoplight operates on reduced hours.

Sunday's in Gurye are beyond boring. The first couple were really tough for me, but I'm starting to get the hang of it. I sleep in, go running, sit through 90 minutes of church where I practice Korean and write to-do lists. Honestly, I only go to church just for a change of scenery. My family either goes to church with their friends or go hiking. Whatever suits their mood. But that's all done by 12:30. Then, from 12:30 until bed time, they watch TV. I can only handle so much Korean TV before I start feeling a bit loopy. So, here I am. Counting down the hours until I can go to bed. I decided to get up and stretch my legs and noticed, to my utter excitement, that the church I go to, which is right outside my apartment, had Christmas lights up!

Christmas lights on the church roof
(Picture taken from balcony)

Sorry for the poor-quality. I figure this way you can see my room, too (reflection). So, yeah. That brightened my quiet Sunday. I'll definitely document any other Christmas decorations.

Now, some pictures from Seoul last weekend. Enjoy!

Road outside the Korean "White House" (called the Blue House)

Friends and me after a visit to Forever 21
The guy pictured...his parents are presidents of F21-Asia. He was also our orientation counselor. Now we're great friends. Especially because he gives us a 10% discount. :)

Opposite of the previous picture. Looking down into the throngs of people in Seoul's main shopping district.

I guess I should probably divulge more on my home stay situation. I don't really know much other than my family is moving on December 27th (Monday after Christmas). I start my internship on the 27th, so that works, I guess. They don't want to tell my brothers until after the older one's birthday (December 14), so it's been kind of hard to just pretend that things are fine.

Fulbright is not involved in the home stay stuff; that's left to the school. So my co-teacher, principal, vice principal and financial officer are upturning Gurye in search of another family. That seems easier said than done. My town is so poor that there are very few families that have the room to spare for me. Especially on such short notice. My Fulbright contract requires them to provide me with my own room, bed and dresser. Luxuries. So, as of now, I have no idea where I'm going to be. I pray pray pray that they'll find something. There's a lot more messy drama behind that, but that's the short of it all. Keep your fingers crossed for me!

Nothing I can do by worrying about it.

So Tuesday night I begin my adventure to China with another Fulbright, Rachael. We're going to spend four days in Beijing (Wednesday morning-Sunday morning). I'm so excited! So, yeah. This will probably be the last post for a while. Also, my phone will not work in China, so you won't be able to call.

Believe me, it's so liberating to be out of reach.

I'm secretly hoping that I can find Oreos and M&Ms in China. Or, dare I even think to dream, granola bars. Fingers crossed!

Thanks for reading, and happy Sunday.