Tuesday, 24 March 2015

3 Things I Wish I Knew Before Coming To Korea

I recently was asked by my TESOL course instructor if I could Skype in to talk to a new group of students, since there are some interested in going to Korea. Of course I immediately said yes, and we worked on figuring out a time-  a somewhat difficult task given the time difference. Her e-mail brought back a flood of memories, since it wasn't that long ago that I was also a student in her class. I got to thinking of any insight I could provide them- useful information going further than covering simply the basics. I started making a mental list of things I could possibly say, but I figured I would organize my thoughts while also turning it into a blog post!

1. It's Okay To Be Scared (Shitless)

Moving to a foreign country, away from all things familiar to you, is a scary thing. Especially due to the uncertainty of it all. It wasn't until I broke down one semi-drunken night, that I realized it was OK to be scared. People kept coming up to me, asking how excited I must be for my big adventure. Of course I was excited, but at this point, fear was taking over, and I couldn't keep putting on the fake smile. I ended up breaking down in front of some of my roommates, telling them everything I had been feeling. They had no idea! How were they supposed to help, when they didn't know I needed it in the first place? After opening up to them, my one roommate who did a full school year exchange to Ghana the previous year, shared some wisdom that honestly changed my whole outlook on the situation. I am forever grateful for that (and her!) She validated my feelings, and shared how she experienced the same feelings before leaving for Ghana. Of course you'll be scared! It is a huge change. Talking through my anxieties really helped me through this process, since at one point I was seriously second guessing the whole thing. Putting yourself in scary situations is actually as it sounds, it's scary. However, it's important to remind yourself that these opportunities are also the same ones that help you grow as an individual. If we never did things that gave us some anxiety, or induced some sense of risk or fear within us, how stagnant would we be as a species? Despite experiencing plenty of anxious and fearful thoughts, ultimately what lead me to stick with my decision, was knowing in my gut that I would forever regret it if I didn't at least try. 

2. Believe People When They Say "Someone Will Help You With That"

Most of my fears stemmed from the uncertainty of things once I would get there. How would I open a bank account? How would I get a phone? How would I know how to get to school? How would I get my Alien Registration Card? Of course it is good to ask questions, and I'm glad I did (probably more than I should have). But my problem was, I wasn't satisfied with the answers. The answer was most often "your co-teacher will help you". I didn't trust this. That answer wasn't good enough. I needed to know exactly how I would obtain a bank account. What I wish I knew, was to believe these people. I haven't heard of anyone who had to set up a bank account by themselves. The people at your school are clearly aware that a foreigner is arriving at their school. They will help you. Trust me.

3. Embrace The Uncertainty Of Everything

Many of the questions I had, I thought they could be 100% answered during the 10 day orientation. The orientation did help ease the transition TREMENDOUSLY, however even during orientation, there are still things that you won't find out until arriving at your school. Every co-teacher, school, and city, has enormous variability. There is no one answer to everything. "It all depends". It was almost like an ongoing joke the whole week! We would have so many questions, and more often than not, that was the answer. You would have to wait and see. Although it can be frustrating at times, try to embrace it. Eventually you will learn to laugh it off, and soon enough you will realize this is a general trend in Korea. Nothing is set in stone, and things can change pretty quickly. I learned pretty quickly to just laugh and brush things off, without getting too stressed about it. People who know me might be a little shocked at this, since I generally like to know EVERY possible detail. But I think Korea has allowed me to become less stressed and more easygoing. So, embrace the uncertainty! Soon enough you'll be having those "Oh, Korea" moments.

A lot of the time we want to know the outcome of certain situations. Will it work out? What if it doesn't? While this would be potentially useful and a time saver, we are all here to create our own destinies and learn from every experience. I strongly believe you can always learn at least one thing about yourself in any new situation, good or bad. That is the truth. I hope this post can find anyone needs it, and hopefully it is somewhat useful.

Now be fearful, fearless, trust others, and embrace the uncertainty of it all!


Saturday, 21 March 2015

Lunar New Year: Seoul Style

Ok, I think that's the longest I've gone without posting! Almost one month since I graced the internet with my last blog post. Things have been a little crazy over here with the new school year starting, so let's blame it on that, and not the fact that I've been too lazy to write anything.

Lunar New Year was now a month ago, but the memories are still fresh (....somewhat....). I decided to take advantage of this amazing five day weekend and head to Seoul- my first visit there since arriving in Korea! After hopping on our 8:00 AM train Wednesday morning, we were Seoul bound within three and a half hours. Luckily, Mokpo is connected to the KTX (high speed train line) that goes right to Seoul! Easy-peasy.

Day 1- Wednesday February 18, 2015: Hongdae/Namsan Tower

After getting off the KTX, my two friends and I ambitiously tried to navigate the subway system to our hostel in Hongdae. Seoul's subway system is actually pretty straightforward, however we somehow managed to take the subway in the wrong direction, our first time using it. This cause a little detour in getting to the hostel, but not by much. Upon arriving at Hongdae Guesthouse, we were greeted by the lovely owner and staff, who treated us like family for the rest of the week. The owner even made us the traditional Korean Lunar New Yeae dish- ddeokguk! I would highly recommend this guesthouse to anyone looking to travel to Seoul. Not just for the friendly staff, but also for it's location. You are right next to the subway station, and are within walking distance of endless possibilities. Cat cafes, dog cafes, sheep cafes, korean restaurants, western style restaurants, shopping, you name it. Yes, you read that correctly- a sheep cafe, and yes, of course we went! Unfortunately they keep the sheep outside the cafe, and only bring them into the cafe when the cafe is quiet. I say unfortunately, but I guess that is best for the sheep. We spent the rest of the day exploring what the area had to offer, and at night we decided to head to Namsan tower- the highest point in Seoul. Korea comes alive at night; the colourful city lights and neon signs unlike any other place I've seen. For this reason, we thought it was best to go at night. After waiting almost 2 hours in never ending lines (ticket booth, cable car, elevator), in all honesty, the main attraction was a disappointment. There is no outdoor viewpoint at the top of the tower, and the glare of the lights on the glass windows makes it extremely difficult to see anything. With that being said, since the base of the tower is on a high mountain top, you can still get great views of the city without paying to go up to the tower. That would be my suggestion for anyone wanting to visit Namsan tower, although I can't attest to the views during the day. You can also see the famous "love locks" at the base of the mountain.

 Nature's Cafe- Sheep Cafe

View from the base of the mountain, not the top of the tower. See what I mean?! Great view!

Day 2- Thursday February 19, 2015: Gyeongbokgung Palace, Insadong, Itaewon

After getting our Egg McMuffin breakfast fuel, we headed for Gyeongbokgung Palace- the biggest and most famous palace in Seoul. We spent the morning roaming around the grounds of the palace and also got to see the changing of the guard ceremony. Our stomachs then decided it was time for lunch, so we headed to Insadong, a short walk from the palace. Insadong is a large market with many traditional Korean goods and crafts. Simply walking around this area was such a treat- it was unlike any area I've ever seen in Korea so far. Filled with unique items everywhere you look- fans, traditional paper, calligraphy pens, pottery, and more. Unfortunately however, our stomachs we're far from satisfied after our lunch. When I say it was the worst food I've ever had since being in Korea, I really mean it. Everything was also way overpriced since we were in a super touristy area. I ordered bibimbap- my go-to meal. I didn't think it was possible to mess up rice and veggies that badly, but somehow, it happened. I wasn't the only one who didn't enjoy their meal. My friends ordered "chicken thighs".....or so they thought. The look on all of our faces when they actually brought out chicken feet, was priceless. We even warned the next foreigners who walked in to go somewhere else- it was that bad. Anyways, the terrible meal only meant we could eat more street food! After doing some more roaming around Insadong, we headed back to the hostel to drop off all of our goodies, and then headed to Itaewon- the foreigner district in Seoul. As soon as we exited the subway station (subway experts after two days in), you could sense the foreigner influence. Kebab houses, pub signs, international flags- this area had a lot of character. Our first stop: The Rocky Mountain Tavern- the Canadian restaurant and bar! I was beyond excited to say the least, and had to photograph document the entire thing. The first thing I see when I walk in- my two friends from my TESOL course that I completed in Ottawa. How much more Canadian could that get?! We hadn't even planned to meet! It was great to see them and catch up over some Moosehead. The menu was pretty typical of what you would find at an average chain restaurant (think Kelsey's). I ordered the pulled pork sandwich- very satisfying! They even had poutine- but it was pretty disappointing compared to back home. After the Canadian bar, we decided we should make that the theme of the night- bars of everyones home country! Since there were 2 Brits and 1 American, we then headed to a British Pub, followed by an American Bar. We ended the night at a Turkish Kebab house, which was delicious!

Inside a temple at the Palace 

Changing of the guard- traditional palace meets modern cityscape

Chicken feet lunch
Some much needed street food- the new way to eat french fries!

Tea House- Chrysanthemum tea 

First glimpse of back home

 Inside the bar- Canadian goodies galore (spot the Quebec license plate)

British Pub- very cool decor on the inside

American bar!

Day 3- Friday February 20: Namdaemun Market, War Memorial/Museum, Gangnam

After our "busy" night the night before, we took our time getting out of bed. Craving a traditional Western style breakfast propelled our bodies into motion, and lucky for us there was one just around the corner from us! I enjoyed a French toast breakfast served with scrambled eggs, bacon, homefries, salad, and of course some caffeine on the side. How satisfying!! We then headed for Namdaemun market- the largest market in Korea! Since it was Korea's biggest holiday, it was a little quieter than expected, and some of the shops were closed, however this was a trend throughout the whole trip that we didn't seem to mind. It was pretty cool being in the big busy city and having it not be so "busy". Many people go back to their hometown's outside of Seoul for Lunar New Year to be with their family. After the market, we took a taxi to the National Museum of Korea and War Memorial. This was a pretty special experience. Upon walking in, we were approached by an older Korean man who spoke excellent English, and started telling us about the statue we were looking at. The man was a hero from the Korean War, whom he actually knew. We talked for several minutes, until he then proceeded to guide us to the 3rd floor of the museum, where he gave us a private tour. He shared many interesting stories about the time during the war, and kept expressing the gratitude he felt towards our countries for helping Korea during this time. This was one of those rare times when a stranger truly touches your heart. We exchanged names, said our goodbyes and he gave us his business card, insisting to contact him if we ever needed anything. We continued to explore the other parts of the museum, but when it was time to leave for good, I heard my name being called. It was him, Mr. Moon calling me over to give me a memorial book on the Korean War. It was such a nice gesture! Although it's all in Korean, it's filled with many pictures and will be something I will treasure forever. After a moving experience at the museum, we hopped on the subway and headed for Gangnam- yes, the same one from Psy's famous "Gangnam Style!" It looks like the area was quite influenced by the song, since one of the first things we saw was a big bright sign saying "Gangnam Style". We explored the streets for a while and ended up deciding on Vietnamese food for dinner- yum!

Our delicious Western style breakfast at Cafe Burano

War Memorial + Namsan tower in the background

A very moving quote

Oppa Gangnam Style!

Day 4- Saturday February 21: DMZ tour

Bright n' early Saturday morning (ok, 8AM) we boarded our tour bus and headed to the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ)- the most heavily militarized border in the world. It was a rainy and foggy day, and that seemed to match the ambience of the journey. Our first stop was the Freedom Bridge- where soldiers would return to the South from the North during the war. We noticed many flags and ribbons with writings on them, which our guide later informed us were prayers and messages from South Korean people who have family trapped in North Korea. This really struck a chord with me. We then went down to the Third Infiltration Tunnel, one of the many tunnels North Korea constructed during the war in attempt to attack Seoul, the capital. They actually disguised the tunnel as a coal mine, so there are still traces of coal on the walls. Our next stop was Unification Hill Lookout, where on sunny days, you can actually see buildings and statues of the Kim family, and sometimes even North Korean people walking around. The last stop was Dorasan Station- "Not the last station from the South, but the first station toward the North". This train station used to connect North and South Korea when the country was unified. It has since been restored, mostly for symbolic purposes. It was quite an informative and somewhat emotional day, and I'm glad I got the opportunity to learn and experience more of the history of North and South Korea during my time here.

 Freedom Bridge

 View of North Korea from Unification Hill Lookout

 Dorasan Station

North Korean Products

And there you have it- how I spent my five day Lunar New Year weekend. Again, I feel so lucky to be here and to get the opportunities to do and see so many amazing things. These blog posts really help me pause and reflect on not taking any of this for granted. Thank you to those who read them, and maybe even enjoy them (a little bit!)

Also, fun fact about Korean Lunar New Year: everyone turns 1 year older. On your actual birthday, you don't turn a year older. Not until Lunar New Year! So, back home I would be 22 for the first half of the year, then come my birthday, I would be 23 for the rest of the year. Whereas in Korea, you are one age the whole year. Another fun fact: I am already 24 in Korea, and when people ask how old I am, that is my answer! This is due to Lunar New Year and the fact that when you are born in Korea, your age is 1, not 0, like back home. This took me a while to wrap my head around, and let's just say I will be one confused individual at the end of all this.