Tuesday, November 17, 2009

A touch of the cold wind from the other side

A stay in Korea wouldn't be complete if I didn't get a chance to see its other half. That “other half” happens to be one of the most reclusive state in the world. I recently got a chance to see the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone) border that separates the two Koreas, and I can assure you, that it was one of the most memorable places I have ever visited.

The DMZ has been created along the 38th parallel after Japan surrendered at the end of World War II. Japan had occupied Korea for 40 years, and had relinquished its control to both the US and the Soviet Union. So, the country was divided up “temporarily”, and after subsequent conflicts between different political ideologies between the US and Soviet, it became a divided nation. Soon afterwards on June 25th, 1950, North Korea made a surprise attack in Seoul, and pushed South Korea to the brink of losing. The US intervened and pushed them past the 38th parallel before China was involved, and for the next 2 years, there were more fighting which ended in a bloody withdrawal. There was a cease-fire agreement, but a peace treaty was never signed which means that both Koreas are technically still at war.

The DMZ is 4 km wide, and split for both sides. It is the most heavily security tight area in the world, and the last remaining stronghold from the Cold War.

North Korea, long separated from its brother since the end of the Korean War in 1953, has managed to continue its totalitarian control over its population despite the estimated 4 million people that have died from the famine during the 90s, the power cuts they have experienced, the economic collapse that has plagued the country for the last 20 years, and an unknown number of people who have been put to death either by execution or through the hard labor camps. There are also an untold number, possibly in the tens of thousands that are currently in the labor camps around the country.

North Korea is such a reclusive state that many in the international community have called it an intelligence blackhole. It is also perhaps one of the hardest countries to visit in, as you are only allowed to visit Pyongyang, the capital, and a few other select places around the country with the accompaniment of a tour guide. A person's stay there goes no longer than a week, and you're freedom as a visitor is nearly non-existent as you are only allowed to go to select places under the watchful eye of your tour guide. Currently, tours in North Korea are far, few in between, and their government randomly allows certain times where visitors can make a trip to their land. As it stands now, the country is not allowing any foreign tourists at the moment, but instead, my friends and I were given a rare chance to see a bird's eye view of Korea's rebellious, pesky little brother.

Much like the weather during my DMZ trip, North Korea's future outlook is cold, grim, and foggy. Despite the depressed and failed state that its currently in, North Korea refuses to let go of its military-first policy, and take on new reforms the way China and Russia did. The nuclear weapons that they possessed are the only leverage they have against the international community. They are isolated from the world as China remains their only ally, though its alliance has diminished significantly over the years due to China's strengthening partnership with South Korea, Japan, and the US.

I have longed held a strong, curious interest in the history of both Koreas, especially the North. Since the Korean War, South Korea has rapidly ascended from being a war-torn, 3rd world country, to one of the world's largest economies in a short period of time. Their rapid economic strength earned them the nickname, “The Miracle of the Han.” Meanwhile, North Korea recovered very quickly from the war due to the aid of the former Soviet Union and China. However, the collapse of Eastern Europe and the diminishing relationship with China, North Korea has experienced a steep fall that it has yet to climb out of. Both these countries draw such polarizing contrasts that if these two would ever reunite, it would be one complicated, hot mess.

However, there is still that hope that one day these two halves would come together.

I planned my DMZ trip in late September. I had always wanted to visit the DMZ border since my arrival to Korea in February. Many months later, I finally had the opportunity to make that visit. I talked with a travel agent, and was able to book a full-day tour with 11 of my friends. It was about 120,000 W ($140 USD) which covered several places: The Dorasan Railroad Station, the Dora Observatory, the 3rd Tunnel, Unification Village, Imjingak Station, and Panmunjom (Joint Security Area). This was the best of the best DMZ package we got, and we would be able to see almost all of the sites at the DMZ. The tour nearly didn't happen because of the H1N1 outbreak, but luckily, we found out at the last minute that it would continue to proceed.

Our friends and I arrived in Seoul the night before. We stayed at a nice, cozy hostel, and had to get up quite early to confirm our reservation by 8 am, and catch our tour bus. We went to the grand Lotte Hotel which was about 10 minutes from our hostel, and soon headed for the DMZ. The bus ride went smooth, and had a tour guide sharing us some stories about the history of the DMZ right after the Korean War. As the highway soon became narrow, and devoid of traffic, we can see the Han River to our left side. The Han River now becomes the Imjin River as we head into the border. The bus ride from Seoul to the DMZ line is only 45 minutes, 50 km (35 miles); a surprisingly short distance between normality and danger. All of us were eagerly excited when we saw our first sight of barb wires surrounding the Imjin River. Once we arrived at the checkpoint, we were asked for our passport (this would happen a few more times) and were specifically told not to take pictures without their discretion due to military confidentiality, and alarming the North Koreans that the UN is spying on them. The road became an obstacle course, as our bus zig-zagged our way through. We can see the large wildlife, the mountainous background lurking in the North, and the endangered animals that have sought refuge in the landmine-filled wilderness. The entire wildlife there, though despite its seemingly tranquil nature, is filled with land-mines, and barbed wires.

We made our first stop to the Dorasan Station. This station was recently rebuilt as the railway link between the two countries. It would link it to two of the biggest North Korean cities, Kaesong and Pyongyang, its capital. Currently, the train station is closed, and it will never open until both sides can come to peaceful agreements regarding unification. As the train station sits idle, and devoid of any commuters, it is treated as a historical site, and a symbol for its reunification efforts. The train station is in top, brand-new condition. We took several photos of the station, and saw entrance signs that says “To Pyongyang.” Quite surreal to think that one day, you can take the express train into the North Korean capital, which is hardly ever visited by any foreigners, and the rest of the country being closed off to the entire world. What was most astounding was the map of the future Trans EurAsian Railway Network. This railway will start from Busan (Southwest of the S.K.), into Seoul, through Dorasan, then into North Korea. Then, it will connect throughout almost all of Russia, and then into the European countries like Germany, France, and even England. At this time, North Korea has not granted permission to open its railroad track for this international network. A great, big shame indeed. However, I can imagine what a backpacking adventure it would be to travel throughout Europe from Korea.

We were told on the bus to not point any gestures towards the North Korean side, and not to take pictures in that direction from Dorasan Station. In the meantime, I bought three souvenirs from Dorasan Station; one is a limited edition set of an old barb wire from the DMZ, memorabilia stamps of South Korea, and a DMZ keychain. We headed back onto the bus, and headed towards the Dora Observatory. The observatory allowed us to view North Korea through a telescope. Most of the view from that side are only mountains that are left barren, the tall North Korean flag which is adjacent to the South Korean flag. You can see “Propaganda Village” otherwise known as Kijong-dong which is a village with several small to medium sized buildings. However, these buildings are hardly ever occupied at all. It is suggested that no one even lives in that village, save for a few people. It's purpose is to blast propaganda speech about the greatness of North Korea, its leader, and condemning the US, South Korea, and Japan for nearly the entire day, everyday, hence the nickname. The other side, South Korea has its own village by the DMZ. That village is called Daesong. Only 230 South Koreans live in this village. Those people that have lived in this security tight area have ancestors in this village prior to the Korean War. Most of them are farmers, as they work in the rice field there with soldiers protecting them. There is a church, a school, a few shops. We were not allowed to take photographs of the Unification Village, its nickname. The advantages of living in this remote area are its residents do not have to pay taxes, their income ranges from $80,000-$100,000 a year, they are not required to do their military service. However, they must be living in their village 240 days out of the year, and must be home by 11 pm. They also must lock their own homes for fear that North Korean spies would abduct them.

Our view in the observatory was somewhat obstructed as the fog kind of hampered over the Kaesong area. We were not allowed to take photographs from a certain distance as there was a yellow line several feet away from the telescope. The weather coming from the north side was incredibly cold. The wind was howling in, and I felt like we were in the middle of Siberia.

We headed for our next destination. We visited the 3rd tunnel. During the 1970's, UN intelligence discovered that North Koreans were building secret underground tunnels as a surprise attack on the South. There have been 4 tunnels found, the last one discovered in 1990. All of them lead into Seoul. Though the North Korean government has continually denied any involvement with the tunnels, it has alarmed both the US and the South to the point where they have hired tunnel-detection teams to find more secret tunnels. As of now, there could possibly be 20 tunnels altogether, and they have yet to find the 5th tunnel. These tunnels that the North Koreans dug up can move up to 10,000 soldiers an hour, and fit tanks and other artillery through. This has given the UN such a headache that there were rumors that they have hired psychics to find the location of the missing tunnels.

We were not allowed to take pictures inside the tunnel. The tunnel is about several kilometers deep and very narrow. We were told to put on our hardhats to protect our head from the sharp rocks. We took the monorail inside the tunnel. It was surreal. Inside, the walls were jagged and uneven. I was sitting on the edge of the monorail, and can sometimes feel my jacket brushing up against the wall. The tunnel was dimly lit, and you can spot the dynamite holes that was left on the walls. We got off the monorail, and started walking a kilometer to the halfway point where it reaches the North Korean side. The path is very narrow, and for a tall guy like me, I was bending my back as I walking. This was a killer walk, as my back was killing me. Drops of water were dripping from the cave as we were walking. We finally reached the center of the tunnel which was closed off. There were barb wires that surrounded the sealed off area. There, you can get a brief glimpse of the other side in the tunnel.

We walked back to the monorail, and back into solid land. Outside of the entrance, there are trees and grass behind it. It seems more like a typical forest that you can take a nice stroll into. However, looks are deceiving. There are a gazillion land-mines buried here. I was able to get as close to the mines, and make some silly poses by it. Right next to it, is a badminton court. Quite convenient.

We walked into the DMZ exhibition hall right next to it. It's fairly new. We were watching a short 10 minute film about the history of the DMZ. It also focuses on the wildlife and the species that inhibit the area. There have been many discussions about keeping the wildlife preserved, if and when Korea is united. We walked into the gallery, and there, we saw photographs of the Korean War, the large design of the DMZ map, and several other artifacts from the war.

We got back on the bus for lunch, and temporarily left the DMZ. We had a great lunch as they served us hot beef noodle soup with rice and vegetable dishes. The restaurant was very cozy and delightful.

We headed back into the DMZ, and again, we had to show our passports. We were instructed to not take photos inside the Panmunjom area, until we reached Imjingak. We headed into the Imjingak area to see the Freedom Bridge and another observatory. It's a rather beautiful area, and it even has a small amusement theme park for the little kids. The Imjingak building is about 4 stories high, and they have another set of telescopes you can use to peer closer to the North. This time, we had no photo restrictions from that area. From a short distance, you can see the train bridge over the Imjin River that was built several years ago which connects both countries. Next to the right, was a bridge that was torn apart during the Korean War with only the pillars still standing. Right by the train bridge is a memorial called the “Freedom Bridge.” People can walk on the bridge which abruptly stops right at the border. The gate is covered up as a shrine as there are pictures, letters, and well wishes for a reunification, and for many South Koreans or former North Koreans who have been separated from their loved ones. This is such a tragedy to see so many Koreans separated from their loved ones, and displaced from their hometown for so many decades now, and counting. Recently, both governments have allowed temporary reunions for separated families during the Chuseok and Memorial holiday weekend, but that's only those can do the reunion are picked out by the North Korean government in cooperation with the South.

In the park, there was an old freight train that is left standing at the DMZ line. It was left behind after the Korean War, and now serves as an important symbol of that separation. The train has bullet holes ridden all over its body. I got myself some postcards from Imjingak, and as we finally headed our way to the JSA building.

JSA stands for (Joint Security Area). This is the most highly coveted area of the DMZ/Panmunjom region, and for any DMZ tour. For the most part, they do not allow any South Korean citizens to enter into this area for security reasons, but for other nationalities including US citizens, they are granted permission to enter. We got back on the bus, and this time, we changed buses. We had a South Korean soldier as our bus driver, and a US soldier taking over as our new tour guide. As we waited patiently for our bus to be given the green light, the gates to the JSA opened up. There, on the narrow road, you can see soldier patrolling the road, and you can see the anti-tank barriers that’s in place in case there is an attack.

There have been a number of incidents since the DMZ was created. There had been some isolated gunfights along the border, the capture of North Korean spies, abductions, the secret tunnels. The most telling story of all was the Axe Murder Incident in 1976. A US captain named Arthur Bonifas was instructed to chop down the tall, poplar tree that was hampering the North Korean view. As he and a few soldiers were cutting down the tree, North Korean soldiers soon came and confronted them. Soon afterwards, Captain Bonifas was struck down with an axe and died instantly. After what the murder, the US military came down and cut down the tree without incident. Since then, the DMZ which was once a neutral zone where both military sides can roam freely is now completely separate.

We arrived at the JSA and Freedom Building. We were instructed to not take photos until we reached the 2nd floor of the Pagoda that is next to the Freedom Building. We also had to be in two single file lines under a military escort. The Freedom Building is where many of the family reunions take place. It sits across from North Korea’s security building. In the JSA, this is where both sides are split across. There are 3 blue building at the center of the DMZ. They are split off into two. They are called the MAC Conference Building. This is where the armistice agreement talks were held and signed. You can actually cross over into North Korea in that building, but unfortunately, we were not allowed to go in at that time as there are H1N1 issues. That killed me, especially since I can’t do that toe-stepping dance between the two lines (I’m joking!  ). However, we went to the 2nd floor, and were told to not point at the North Korean direction especially with their soldiers being present since this will give them more propaganda tools to tell their population about how evil and imperialistic the Americans are. Just imagine being in one of those North Korean films, and you are portrayed as the evil American. I can only imagine what those North Korean citizens go through everyday watching, hearing, and seeing everything propaganda that is used against Americans, South Koreans, and the Japanese. We were allowed to take pictures from there, and we can see a North Korean soldier standing there motionlessly. He was looking at us with his binoculars. Quite a telling moment as he saw our presence there. Sometimes, I wonder what is going through his head, and what he thinks about our appearance, our motives for being there, and what he really thinks of the world outside his homeland.

We came inside the Freedom Building, and we were not allowed to go outside to the JSA patrol area, but we did get a much closer look at the North Korean soldier who was looking at us, and the R.O.K. soldiers who were keeping an eye out on the North. It was a calm, but tense showdown between two sides. We were able to once again take photos. It was priceless, and I can’t wait to have the opportunity to see it more up close the next time around. We soon left, and headed for the DMZ gift shop in Panmunjom. In passing, we saw a golf course which Sports Illustrated called the “most dangerous golf course in the world.” There shouldn’t be an explanation as to why, but I pose this question to you, if you hit the ball out, are you going to get it?

I got myself a replica of the JSA builing and vintage North Korean money. I don’t ever recall being this ecstatic since my visit to Vietnam this past summer. I am a witness to the current, everyday tension between these two borders, and realizing how valuable our freedom really is. It is quite surreal that only less than 40 miles away, you’re in one of the most heavily populated, cosmopolitan, technology-driven cities in the world compared to the eery, prison-like, windy, mountainous nature that lies straight ahead to the North.

It was already evening, and we were done with our full day tour. We got a closer look at the Unification Village, and soon departed back home. As we left the checkpoint, and the view of the Imjin River away from our sight, we slept knowing that we have our freedom, and hoping the same can be said for those up North who never knew such an important thing.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Vietnam, A Summer Worth Remembering

Before the journey…. My English Summer Camp

August 4th, 2009

As I am struggling to sleep, I decided to read my old diary entries from the beginning of my arrival to Korea nearly 7 months ago. I realized that I’ve already accomplished many of my early goals thus far I have been able to make wonderful friends, I have established a solid rapport with my school and students, I am learning more and more Korean, and now starting to travel outside of Busan, and having the opportunity to finally visit my family homeland for the first time ever.

My English summer camp was a personal success for me. It got off to an uneasy start as many of my students were too uncomfortable speaking in front of the class, and because students from different grade levels were in the class, this caused a lot of anxiety due to the class difference. Not to mention, summer camp started immediately after school had just ended the day before. This meant a lack of classroom motivation and classroom management issues for me. Both these issues became an ongoing problem since June. So to counter these issues, I added some games which this semester I had largely avoided because of the time it takes to explain the directions, place more time on my lesson plans, and figure out how to implement it from our English textbook. All of these can get rather chaotic. However, games are the kinds of activities that can stimulate students’ positive behavior, subject motivation, and encourage students to use their English skills amongst each other.

For classroom management, I had no co-teacher to watch over me during class. My co-teachers would normally serve as the disciplinarian, but this time, there was no need for them to be there because of the smaller class size, and the fact that I felt confident in managing the classroom. First, I selected a captain for my class. Sang-Min, who I chose as captain, is not only from the 3rd year group, but the most proficient English speaker in the classroom. It also helps the fact that he has a respectful, yet commanding presence that would grab his peers’ attention. I would often have him be my translator if the class could not understand my speaking, and he can also police the classroom when necessary. Other ideas I chose to implement are cutting break time, and making a student do a leg squats for several minutes. Both of these have worked very well, and the leg squats have provided me with quite a bit of entertainment. 

If there was a favorite summer camp moment, I would say the fashion show lesson, and music day would stand out for me the most. For the fashion show, I created a mini-runway in my classroom, and had students grouped into 4’s. Two students would be the supermodels. The other two would serve as the speakers and describe what their partners are wearing. I would even cue up the music, and help them choreograph the runway walk. Silly, indeed, but each group did very well with this lesson, and I couldn’t be more proud that day.

For music day, I had students do Beatles songs, and Michael Jackson’s “You Are Not Alone”. I also had them dance to the “Cha-Cha Slide” which they had dreaded for days prior to the lesson. Eventually, they gave in as they always do! I had them do various activities like charades, Guess Who?, Truth or Lie, Simon Says, and even had an activity using a basketball. I’d be happy to share my ideas with all of the other English teachers.

I believe that experience rejuvenated my enthusiasm as a teacher, and being around my students. I became very close with all 20 of my students during those two weeks. As I have been running into my students outside of school, I have felt comfortable being noticed for the first time in awhile. I think with school on break, it has helped me relax, and of course, be completely myself with my students.

Sunday, August 9th, 2009 8:50 am

I had just hopped aboard the KTX train several minutes ago. It’s heading towards Seoul from Gupo. The ride will last approximately 2 1/2 hours which is fast considering from Seoul to Busan by bus or a commuter train, it would take about 6 hours. I have all my stuff ready for my weeklong getaway to Vietnam. Once I arrive at Seoul Station, I will have my lunch, and then take the subway to Incheon International Airport. The subway ride will take about an hour and a half with a few transfers. So all in all, I will have a 5 hour commute. My uncle will arrive around 4 pm, and we will leave for Saigon at 7 pm aboard Korean Air Flight 682.

My summer break so far has been relatively peaceful and relaxing. The torrential downpours that was plaguing Korea throughout July has about reached its end. With school over, I am more comfortable seeing my students around the Deokcheon-Sukdeung neighborhood, and even been able to hang around with them.

There was one particular memory that stood out for me. I was on my way to Nakdong High School to play basketball, and ran into my students who were playing soccer. They, of course, wanted to play basketball with me instead. Later on, a group of high school boys came over and started picking on them. One of them issued a challenge to me to play against them with my students. It was a challenge I couldn’t refuse. By the time we started playing, I knew I wasn’t going to let those high schoolers bask in the glory of my defeat especially in front of my own students. I was taking it to the rim at every opportunity, and my kids were playing some tenacious defense. When it was said and done, the high school kids were mercilessly smoked, and we celebrated our win. I bought my kids ice cream afterwards, and of course, I became the hero. So there’s my little narcissistic, feel-good “Hoosiers” story for ya’ll.

I was supposed to be in school that first week in August making courtesy phone calls to my students. Thankfully, they gave me the rest of that week off after Tuesday. Construction was going on at my school. The incessant sounds of jackhammers drilling loudly like the sounds of a million cicadas punctured my ear drums. Luckily, my vice-principal understood my concerns, and granted me the entire week off much to my pleasure.

Besides having dinner with my friends on Thursday evening, I spent most of that week preparing and relaxing. Most of my friends have already left Korea on vacation.

I am finally excited that it’s my turn to leave Korea for a week, and take advantage of the time I have to travel abroad. Since starting school back at the beginning of March, I have only been outside of Busan twice. Korea’s been the only country I have traveled to. Unfortunately, I have never been to Vietnam or Cambodia, the family motherland. 26 years later, I will finally have that opportunity to see Vietnam in a matter of hours. I will reunite with my uncle who is flying from Florida. He recently remarried after my aunt’s death a few years ago. I will meet his new wife for the first time. It will be a surreal moment as I have always held the memory of my aunt near and dear to my heart. I hadn’t seen my uncle in two years, and it will finally be nice to see him again. I have plenty of relatives, many of them unknown to me, whom I’ll be soon visiting. I have another uncle who is the youngest of my dad’s siblings, as well as my aunt who is the oldest in the family that live there. I have many cousins and 2nd cousins there also. My youngest uncle is unfortunately not doing too well health-wise. From what I heard, my uncle’s condition has been deteriorating to the point where this could be the only opportunity I’ll ever have seeing him. I think all in all, this will be an emotional visit, and a lot of nerves will be running high, probably more so since the time I left Chicago. I wish I could stay in Vietnam longer, but my school can only allow me a certain amount of days. Due to my fairly brief stay in Vietnam, I think my travel opportunities are quite limited there since it’s a rather long country. The transportation infrastructure there is a far cry from Korea’s highly coveted Korail system. It’s very weak, lacks a subway, the traffic is highly congested, the roads and bridges are highly neglected, and in need of an overhaul. The economy there, however, is growing rapidly since the fall of Soviet communism, but it’s still in 3rd world poverty throughout much of the country. Saigon, otherwise known as Ho Chi Minh City today, will have its vices and glaring environmental/health concerns, a much larger contrast than what I’m accustomed to in Korea and Chicago. I won’t be able to visit the tourist hotspot, Nha Trang or Hoi An because of the time constraints. My family village which is by the Mekong Delta, is a 6-7 hour bus ride from Saigon. Despite the time limitations I will have, I believe that any time you get to visit a land that you have yet to discover, anything that you do and encounter will be an adventure and an opportunity. I do miss my family back home in the states, but at least having my favorite uncle with me will make things much easier, and of course, having real Vietnamese food for the first time in months will give me a euphoric spark. Lately, it has been a bit sad not eating dinner with my family when everyone in Korea around me has family to eat with. Sometimes, my students will ask me if I eat alone, and when I tell them that I do, they cannot fathom that idea because many Koreans almost never eat alone.

With the school semester ready to begin son, I can honestly hope that I will have more preparation, better activities for my students, and get along with my new co-teachers. Though I see my students from time-to-time, I do miss being around all of them. I am also eager to see what my school will look like once the construction has concluded.

In the meantime, it’s very sunny outside, and I’m sitting comfortably on the KTX train overlooking the beautiful landscape near Daejeon (대전) with less than an hour to go. Only a couple more hours before I arrive at the airport.

Sunday, August 9th, 2009. 4:00 pm

I arrived at the airport about half an hour ago. My KTX ride plus the subway ride was long, yet very peaceful. I did, however, have an unfortunate mishap. I briefly left my passport in front of the check-out counter, but thankfully the airline personnel alerted me. That would have been a disastrous way to begin my vacation. I had a huge lunch at Bennigans by Seoul Station. Though Bennigans no longer has any restaurant chains functioning in the U.S, there are still plenty in Korea. Despite the chaos that is normally associated with the Seoul subway system, I had little trouble getting to my destination. The trains were lightly-packed, and the airport is relatively quiet on a Sunday afternoon. I am waiting for m uncle who should be arriving momentarily. Right now, the weather in Incheon is about 90 F, much hotter when I left Busan, which their high was 77 F. I reckon Vietnam will be just as hot, if not hotter than at Incheon/Seoul. I’ll be wearing jeans or long pants during my vacation stay because of the mosquitoes that plague all of Southeast Asia around this time of year. I bought some Buddhism bracelets for my uncle’s family, and hopefully looking to buy a few souvenirs for my friends, family, school, and for myself to take back from Vietnam.

August 9th, 2009. 6:40 pm

As I was waiting for my uncle, I had a conversation with one of the waiting passengers, who is Vietnamese, and from Ft. Worth, Texas. The airport is incredible and filled with amenities. It’s not as overpriced as other countries. I met up with my uncle around 5 pm, and had a quick dinner with him. It’s nice to see him looking much more relaxed than in recent years when he was taking care of my aunt. The plane will arrive at midnight which translates to 10 pm, Vietnam local time, which then translates to…..well sometime in the early afternoon CST in the U.S. As my plane is ready to take off, I am eagerly awaiting what I’ll see once I get off the plane. Right now, I’m a little worn out from the train ride and wonder if I can even sleep on the plane. Chances are, given my history of plane rides, it’s unlikely that it’ll happen. Last time out, I couldn’t even sleep for a second on a 17-hour plane ride.

Ready for takeoff!!!! 

August 9th, 2009. 11:15 pm

My flight is ready to land at Tan Son Nhat airport at any given moment. Taking Korean Air was a pretty darn good decision (well in credit to my uncle who booked his flight first). They served us free wine, a halfway decent dinner, a decent selection of English/Korean music, and more importantly, the plane ride was very smooth. I’m not a fan of flying but this is one of the few times I’ve been this satisfied.

During the flight, they’ve made us fill out the customs form, and a brief health questionnaire in response to the current H1N1 epidemic. Korea is 2 hours ahead of Vietnam.

August 10th, 2009 Vietnam: An Oxymoronic Culture

After my arrival in Saigon on Friday night, I find myself in deep solitude, in awe of the hectic, oxymoronic city that lies right in front of me. Historic landmarks, such as communist hero, Ho Chi Minh are surrounded by recently new urban/commercial developments. Companies from Japan, China, Korea, and the US have invested their businesses in this bustling city. Businesses such as Samsung, Sony, Yamaha, Pizza Hut, KFC, and even Korea’s fast food chain, Lotteria are easily visible in a city that was taken over by the North Vietnamese over 30 years ago.

State-of-the-art traffic lights are put in use, yet all commuters especially the motorcyclists are oblivious to it. A population nearly in the double-digit millions have yet to embrace the pedestrian lifestyle, and abandoned the bicycle life, but instead, adopt a nice Yamaha to get them from place to place. The fumes emanating from the motorbikes are an unfortunate reminder of the deteriorating state that the environment is in today, and how suffocating it is for many tourists that visit there. Strangely enough, the motorbike sounds are very harmonic, and follow a rhythmic pattern, much in the way that motorcyclists seemingly drive together in collaboration. Think of it as synchronized motorbike riding. The madness of the city streets filled with the soundtrack of the motorbikes and vehicles can also be weirdly soothing, nothing that evokes confrontation and fear.

During my stay at Saigon, I would sit inside the taxi watching our drivers maneuver around motorbikes crossing our paths. 99% of the times, the motorcyclists are almost always within an inch or two from each other. Frightening as that may sound to others back home, and even in Korea, there are hardly any speed demons. They drive at about the same speed in unison.

On the first night after arriving from the airport, it was surprisingly breezy. My step-aunt, and her niece forgot about our arrival that night. What makes it more significant about their no-show was the fact that they live 6 hours away from the city. This didn’t ease my uncle’s growing impatience that night. He was on the phone giving them a hard time about it, while I stood around in awe knowing that I am finally at the motherland, and soaking in the first few moments of this revelation. Despite my step-aunt and her niece’s obvious late arrival, my uncle and I went into an SUV to take us to our hotel at Nhu Phuong. I quietly observed the night scene around the districts, watching the packs of motorcyclists gather around at a gas station, locals chatting with outdoor vendors. Most of the stores have already closed for the night. Our driver wanted to start a conversation with me, but I nervously cracked a few Vietnamese words. I was much too intimidated already by the city, and its culture, a culture that shouldn’t be foreign to me.

Finally after arriving at the hotel, we settled in. My dad’s friend swung on by, and got us some banh bao. Banh Bao is ground beef with onions stuffed inside a white flour dough. It was my first real Vietnamese food in 7 months. I was able to sleep in, and the next morning, my uncle’s new wife and her niece had arrived. It was a bit strange at first to see the two together for the first time after being used to seeing my uncle with my aunt for years and years. However, it was the first time in years that my uncle has felt this happy and relaxed. Coming into Vietnam had long eluded me my entire life. Money, school, my father’s reluctance, and my own apprehension prevented me from going. The opportunity luckily presented itself with my uncle choosing the departure date at a convenient time that my school is on vacation, and the fact that it’s only a 5 hour plane ride from Korea, opposed to a 20+hour flight from Chicago. There would be no excuse to miss this grand opportunity.

We went to a Pho restaurant first thing in the morning, and the Pho soup tasted great. We later took a taxi as we explored different districts in the city. The traffic was severely congested as motorbikes clogged the small, narrow avenues. Crossing the street was another adventure. Tip: Don’t run or even wait for them to stop. Walk one step at a time and give the motorcyclists enough time to change direction and speed. We later went to a travel agent so they could book my uncle’s upcoming flight to Beijing. In the meantime, I was scoping out the area and taking many pictures as I could. We then drove around some more, and visited one of my uncle’s friend right outside the city. It was there that I saw the heavy-ridden urban poverty. Shacks barely holding up, garbage strewn about along the busy streets, shirtless old men exposing their dark skin to the penetrating UV rays, kids are scattered everywhere wearing tattered shirts and shorts walking barefoot. The urban countryside is even more glaring with poverty, not surprisingly. It’s very common to see kids there as young as 4 selling lotto tickets. It’s a sad sight to see my fellow brothers and sisters be tied down to this oppressive lifestyle. We arrived at the house, and we were served a cornucopia of wonderful Vietnamese food (fried shrimp, shrimp fried rice, beef and vegetable noodles, chips, dried fish, and papayas). It was amazingly delicious, and it certainly continued to make up for the lack of authentic Viet food in months We later came back to the hotel, and my uncle needed me to help him write a petition to the Vietnamese immigration service to get his new wife sponsored to the US. I had spent the rest of the evening trying to get that done for him, albeit a little frustrating on my end. I took advantage of the Internet from the hotel, and checked my emails that my students have sent me for their summer homework. My uncle rented a hotel for himself and his wife, and I was thankfully able to have a room to myself.

August 11, 2009

The next morning, we had breakfast. We ate at a trendy restaurant near the Pham Ngo Lam district. We had “Banh Mi” sandwich, one of my personal favorites. This was my #1 craving that I had since being in Korea. Unfortunately in the days that would soon lie ahead, it was my ultimate undoing. This one that we had in particular wasn’t so great. Even my uncle was grumbling about it, saying that the ones he had in Chicago were far more superior. We went through another part of the Saigon district. My step-aunt’s niece kept making sure I was alright, and kept assisting me whenever we sat down to eat. I felt like a little boy, and it would only continue that way when I met my family. In the meantime, my uncle needed to have his marriage documentation faxed over to his lawyer. While waiting for it to get done, I decided to brave the congested area and take a look for myself. The lack of clear sidewalks made it tougher to simply have a brisk walk, let alone the combination of carbon monoxide fumes and humidity permeating the air. I walked around a few blocks, and glanced briefly at the open air shops. I was carrying my backpack and wore clothes that would make many Vietnamese locals there insist I am rich. With that said, I attracted a lot of long stares, and motorcycle taxi drivers kept asking me if I needed a lift, or shop clerks standing within an eyelash away from me while I was attempting to shop. Needless to say, I didn’t feel confident about going any further. Oftentimes, I feel like a foreigner despite my family’s heritage. It reinforced a lot of my past frustrations with the language barrier, and needless to say, I found it deeply embarrassing when I can’t properly communicate with the native speakers, and more importantly with several members of my family.

However, by making this visit, I believe it will at least give me a small, yet important step in making myself more immerse with the culture. We headed out to lunch to grab some tasty fried rice. We later came back to the hotel to freshen up. My uncle and step-aunt had gone out of the way to take care of me at that point, and almost wouldn’t let me pay a dime. Most of the time that was spent in Saigon was sight-seeing. I had no need for any new clothes or electronics, but just added curiosity about the cultural behavior. My step-aunt and her niece decided to take us out to one of the best buffets in town. It was about $10 per person which is far expensive than the average Vietnamese person could afford. Upon entering the restaurant, many Vietnamese were well-dressed, and wore shoes (most locals only wear sandals), and it was a pretty lively atmosphere. The food was quite disappointing, as some of the fried shrimps and scallops, and banh xeo tasted fairly dry. I was being cautious in not drinking the water, or the ice. Many of the beverages are unfortunately served warm, and almost always come with a cup of ice which doesn’t help my cause. After our dinner, we took a cab and drove around the higher-end district in Saigon. I was amazed to see the higher-end 5 star hotels, luxury department stores, a huge movie cinema, and some of the fancy French architecture along the way. In some ways, Saigon reminds me a little like Busan, and if things continue to grow rapidly in the next 15-20 years, I believe that it can turn into Busan or Bangkok, especially if they have a subway up and running by then.

August 12, 2009

The next morning, we had breakfast at a café. I had some delicious orange smoothie called “Sinh To Cam,” and got ready for our 6-7 hour journey to the family village. I wasn’t necessarily eager about being on a bus for this long of a time. We left our hotel around 1 pm. We had a bus taxi take us to the bus station. Unfortunately, the bus taxi happened to be a mid-1980s Toyota van which was ready to break down. My uncle was muttering himself in displeasure. They were picking up other people along the way. We got there in about 15 minutes. The bus station was a complete, disheveled mess. Potholes were the size of South Korea. Trash was purposely thrown into the ground. The station looked like it had already fallen apart. It was like the messy aftermath of a rodeo show there. There were people trying to sell fruit and goods to us. We got inside our bus, which was actually an older Korean Hyundai bus used for the Kumgangsan Tour. It’s a bit of a relic. The seats were small, and banged up. The window curtains were torn and discolored. There was air conditioning though. We were jam-packed on the bus, as there were a few little kids that also hopped aboard. The bus soon departed, and I was eager enough to have my camera ready and snap any random shots that come to mind. We passed smaller cities like Ben Luc, My Tho, Long Xuyen. The bright, green grass and tiny river banks captured my imagination. The broken, down shacks were visible, but every now and then, you would see a well-designed house, or a recently-built government building. As we got further away from the urban cities, the highway roads that we were on became narrower, rougher, and somewhat reclusive. We were crossing smaller bridges, and by the small river banks, there were floating houses, if you will, sitting alongside the banks. The rivers are virtually muddied up. The bridges are not necessarily deemed safe, as the metal clanking sounds could be heard ricocheting off the bus’ tires.
Our bus driver made two rest stops along the way. The second that the bus driver swung the door open, a group of vendors stormed into the bus selling fruits and baked goods. The vendors were young boys and middle-aged women. They were fairly aggressive in trying to sell their products. A few passengers finally bit the bullet. I chose not to purchase anything as I was more concerned about getting food poisoning during the bus ride. I opted to stay inside the bus for a little bit, while my uncle went with my step-aunt to purchase some fruit. After about an hour, we headed off. My step-aunt’s niece was busy making sure I was comfortable during the ride, offering me fruit and water. As I will soon notice, my family made sure I was taken care of, sometimes to the point of extremity.

About an hour after we left the 2nd time, we finally crossed the ferry point. It was already 7 pm, and the sun had been long gone for the past hour. We were waiting about half an hour before we were allowed to cross into the ferry boat. There were numerous motorcyclists waiting at the checkpoint. Meanwhile, we had more fruit vendors storming into the bus during the wait. Our bus finally entered inside the ferry. It was unusual. I had never taken a ferry ride, let alone being on a vehicle that’s inside one. We crossed the dark, Mekong River. I decided to record the little ferry ride. Crossing the river took about 15 minutes. Once we landed, we continued our journey. We finally reached the An-giang province. The downtown area looked beautiful as there were colorful flags on top of the bridge. It was beautifully lit, and it looked fairly modernized with a few fashion stores, cell phone and electronic stores. My uncle had told me that our family lives in the An-giang province, so I had thought that this would be our stop. Unfortunately, that was not the case. We had about another 2 hours before we would reach our destination. I became increasingly impatient. The bus ride was an eternity. I found it impossible to sleep, it was hard to see at night, it was very noisy inside the bus, and we were going through a path that was seemingly rougher and more rugged. The bridges that we were crossing seemed quite dangerous and possibly unable to withhold any gravitational pressure. Also, what concerned me was the fact that the pathway was very close to the riverbanks. This can cause possible flooding, and may make it much harder to come back home. Of course, despite those concerns, I was nonetheless interested in seeing what was in front of me. As we got further and further away from the downtown area, I saw people living in broken-down shacks. Villages were mostly dark, and low-lit. We were in the heart of the rural countryside. One place caught my attention; I saw a PC room with several kids inside. I was astonished to see that this kind of technology can somehow reach into the deep jungle of the countryside.

As we got closer to our destination, passengers were getting dropped off at their respective locations. I was eagerly awaiting our stop. We had finally reached our destination. The ride was about a good 7 1/2 hours. We were clearly exhausted. We walked towards the gate of my relatives’ house, and was amazed at the beautiful, French-styled architecture of their home. I nervously followed my uncle into the house, and there, I would meet my long-lost relatives. I saw my aunt first. I gave her a hug, and did not realize how diminutive she was until now. She was walking gingerly with her back hunched up. She was in awe of how tall I was, and the fact that she doesn’t have to rely on old photos to see how I look like. Shortly afterwards, I would soon meet my two older male cousins, and pretty much the rest of my family that night. My younger uncle who is sick was standing outside in the corner, silently greeting me. He said very little. I noticed that he was also walking gingerly, and exchanged very few words with anyone that night.

My aunt had prepared a little dinner for me to eat. I was walking around the house, and looked at all the family photo frames they had on the wall. I saw old photos of me and my brothers when we were little. There were quite a few photos of my relatives back in Florida that reminded me of the good times. I saw many photos of my late-aunt, and it became a little emotional for me. This was the place that my uncle and aunt were to retire in. This neighborhood had meant so much to her, and her presence in those photos kept her spirit alive in this house. We had arrived at their house around 10 pm that night, so I was pretty exhausted. Since one of the rooms did not have air-conditioning, they decided to take me to a nearby hotel down the street and stay overnight during my stay. My cousins took me there. It was more of a guesthouse. Walking into the hotel room, there was the basic necessities. The bathroom wasn’t necessarily something to brag about. There were dead mosquitoes on top of the toilet head. The bathroom looked terribly aged, yet the room wasn’t bad for the fact that it’s in a small, busy village out in the rural countryside. So after making due with what was in front of me, I bid goodnight.

The next morning I woke up, my older cousin picked me up, and I hopped aboard his motorcycle. It was my first experience being on a motorcycle. I had trouble getting my helmet on until my cousin nicely adjusted it for me. Once I had gotten on, I could feel the smooth, low vibrating sound beneath the seat. As it took off, I instantly felt the excitement building up. This is fun….a lot of fun. I saw the village in action. Villagers are out and about on their motorbikes, or on foot on a sunny, light breeze morning. I came back into the house, and had some tasty Vietnamese sandwiches (notice the plural in sandwich). Vietnamese sandwiches are my absolute favorite from back home. I would oftentimes go to Bale Sandwich in Chicago to get my quick fix there. These sandwiches that my step-aunt brought over tasted better than the one I had in Saigon.

My uncle took me to the Buddhist village cemetery where my aunt’s ashes lie. My aunt had passed away 2 years ago, and her ashes were brought to our family hometown. We took a 15 minute walk to the cemetery, and by the time we arrived, I saw the steps that reminded me of Beomeosa Temple back in Busan. The Khmer-writing engraved on the entrance, along with the Cambodian-style painting and design made it seem more like I was in Cambodia, rather than Vietnam.

My uncle greeted one of the monks who happen to be working on the landscape. I looked around, and noticed the beautiful scenery. We were on top of a hill that was overlooking the mountains, the family village, and the rice fields. This is the kind of place that my aunt can finally rest in peace, and more fitting for the kind of person she was in my life and everybody else’s. My uncle and I said a small prayer, and as we laid the incense, it started to rain for a good 30 seconds. What made it awkward was the sunshine that hovered over us the entire time. Perhaps, it was a good omen, but whatever it was, that moment felt reassuring, and I knew my late aunt would have been happy with what she is seeing right now.

I went with my uncle to visit one of my cousin’s parents. My cousin, Khiem lives in Chicago, and I met his mom a year ago when she made a visit there. I had never met his dad before. It was nice to see them again.

After getting back, I went with my cousin, Phuong, and my uncle and step-aunt to eat at various restaurants along the way. We got on the motorbikes, and I got to see and feel the countryside. There were mountains to look at, the greener pastures, farmers working on the rice crops, little kids walking out of school, and villagers roaming out and about on wagons, mules, and oxen. The roads were a bit bumpy, but offered the kind of view that is truly authentic, and untouched by tourists.

We visited various family friends, and each way, I was able to stop by and took additional photos of the countryside. I was quite exhausted as the evening began. I visited my step-aunt’s home and store shop. The mosquitoes were in full spread, and the insect repellent failed to do its job at keeping them from attacking me. So, I found myself itching constantly. On our way to the family house, I met up with one of my cousin, Sang for the first time. He is 16 years old, and is the son of my youngest uncle in the family. He is a bright student, and is currently at one of the top high schools in the An Giang Province.

I came back to the hotel, and called it a night.

The next morning, my step-aunt provided me with more food to eat for lunch. By this point, she has been very generous towards me. She wanted to make me a nice dress shirt as a souvenir, so she had me visit one of the tailors. She is actually a co-owner of a clothing store there. I went to her store, and visited the crowded marketplace. There were handcraft souvenir shops, drug store, bakery shops, and meat market. It was intensely condensed, but it was rather lively and friendly. There was one point where I saw a rooster (there are many of them) wailing in agony as it’s being taken somewhere, perhaps to a slaughterhouse. Quite depressing to hear that. I bought some tiny cup souvenirs along the way.

After spending the entire morning and part of the afternoon in the marketplace, we came back to the house. I met up with my cousin Sang and his two sisters. I had never met any of them before, and to be quite honest, I had very little knowledge about all of my cousins there. So, I was very shy when it came to initiating conversation with them. My Vietnamese speaking is broken, and oftentimes, I found myself feeling very embarrassed about not being able to speak fluently Ironically, my cousins tried to attempt to speak to me English at the same time. It was quite amusing to say the least. We were trading English/Viet dictionaries back and forth as we were trying to find the appropriate word to convey our message to each other. Despite the communication barrier, it was truly a great moment for me as I was really connecting with my relatives for the first time ever.

I started to have some stomach issues throughout the trip. I had avoided getting sick in Saigon, but in my family hometown, it was a bit of a struggle. I was already being vigilant with what I was eating, but soon afterwards, it got to the point where I was turning down more food for fear that I would become even sicker. This was a major concern of mine since the Korean public schools have enforced new rules and regulations regarding teachers traveling in and out of Korea due to the H1N1 Influenza. Several of my colleagues had to undergo a weeklong quarantine, and I didn’t really want to go through that kind of hassle.

Later in the evening, my cousins took me to the family temple behind our house. There, I saw the tombstones of my grandma, grandpa, great-grandpa, great-grandma, and other long-lost relatives. Their tombstones were built like royalty. They looked like miniature temples, a shrine if you will. There was a large Buddhist statue overlooking the man-made water pool. It’s inexplicably beautiful, and it’s quite hard to conjure up the appropriate words to describe this place. I said my prayers, and was taken inside the temple. It was there that I saw another large Buddha statue. I snapped photos inside, including the gorgeous mural paintings inside. There were young Buddhist monks, presumably no older than 12 years old, together. My cousin had me greet them, and I was able to take snapshots of them. I visited some of the elder monks by the temple. I was taken aback by their pleasant spirit, their generosity and kindness. Again, I was much too shy to initiate further dialogue with them, but was enamored to be in their presence.

I went back to the house. I ran into the neighborhood kids. They were incredibly adorable and cunning. They were giggling and curiously watching my every move. I went back with my uncle to have dinner at my step-aunt’s house. When the night was over, my cousin Phuong took me back to the hotel. After taking a quick shower, my cousin Sang knocked on my door, and wanted to hop right into my bed.

With that said, I noticed the lack of privacy I had the entire time I was in Vietnam. I think the fact that this was my first visit to the homeland, let alone the fact that my relatives had never seen me before, nor are familiar with the way Westerners are, made them more conscious about how I would view them. My relatives and family friends went out of their way to make sure that I was alright. I found it very endearing, and it made me feel comfortable knowing that they are helpful and accommodating. I could not help but feel as if they have to go to such lengths to please me. There are times when the only privacy I had was in the bathroom! Still, I had to convince them that I was okay, and that despite the luxuries I’ve been given from living in the US and Korea, I am more than content with what’s in front of me.

The next morning, one of my cousins took me out for coffee. It was delicious. The café shop was in a large wooden hut. It was really cozy and hidden in the jungle. It started to rain somewhat. My face was already covered in dirt from being on the motorbike all morning.
Afterwards, I joined my younger cousins to visit one of the famous battlegrounds near the family village. I went with Phuong, Sang, and Sacl. The battleground we were visiting holds an important meaning for my family, not only because of how close it was to my family village, but also this is where my dad was battling at when he was a young soldier.

Once we had arrived, I took notice of the long, mountainous hill of rocks close-by. It was a small, low-key park that did not resemble anything of a battleground. Walking into the park, I saw a small pond which had a tiny zoo of alligators. The park was beautiful as there were flowers, hammocks, and a large pond. We climbed on the tall rocks. It was a bit dangerous as they were all un-even, and I found myself having to assist one of my cousins up there a few times. I snapped photo shots of the country view. It was more beautiful than the one I took near my aunt’s grave. The large rice fields, the mountains from an adjacent angle, the forest and pond captured the beauty essence of Vietnam. “Natural” is the key word, no sign of the province being oversaturated with, or even a trace of commercial tourism. The rain clouds were hovering over, and we soon climbed down from the rocks. In the rocks, we went underneath a very narrow tunnel where it was known for hideouts. We then walked into a war museum which held military artifacts and photos from the battle site. There were leftover mini missiles, AK-47s, and booby traps.

As we walked into the gazebo by the pond, it started to rain, which later turned into a downpour. For the next hour and a half, we were inside the gazebo seeking shelter from the endless rain. I was beginning to wonder how long the rain was going to last because in Vietnam, we were in the middle of the rainy season. It also became a little windy which pushed the rain into our direction. There was a wagon conveniently inside the gazebo. It was one of the museum artifacts, and it didn’t cross our minds when we huddled inside there during the duration of our refuge. In the meantime, we were busy talking to each other, and I was showing pictures to my cousins about my life in Korea, my school, and students. Despite being in the least economically developed part of Busan, this type of life is almost like paradise to my relatives and for many Vietnamese inhabitants. They looked at envy as they saw the clothes that my students were wearing, the places I visited throughout Korea. Being in Vietnam has made me appreciate my life so much more in both Korea and in the US. I was given a very special privilege to have lived in two countries where the standard of living is much higher, and the opportunities quite limitless. Yet at the same time, I was blessed to have family that lived in such a beautiful, natural countryside, and knowing that I wouldn’t have to rely on tour operators to take me through the most desired, and popular places in that country.

After the rain ended, we went over to the shooting range where you can shoot off an AK-47. It was dirt cheap ($1 USD per bullet). My cousin Phuong took the first dibs. My other two cousins were frightened by the explosive sounds. The gunshots could probably be heard for a good mile, and it nearly blew my eardrums out. We were not given any earphones, or even a small earplug. I decided to give it my first try. I was staring at the bullseye target for a minute before pulling the trigger. I warned everybody to stay behind me for fear that the force of the AK will drag me into a different direction. The millisecond that I pulled the trigger, my right arm lifted the gun halfway in the air as my body jerked back. It was quite difficult to grasp, but what made it more difficult was the lack of earplugs to soften the violent force of that weaponry.

Afterwards, we headed back to the village. During the ride back, the roads were often muddy and bumpier. My pants were nearly soaked in mud, my face covered in soot, and my shirt stained with sweat and dirt. I was in dire need of a good shower, not to mention, a good laundry time.

Heading back to the house, I hopped along with my uncle for dinner at my step-aunt’s house. We had another cornucopia round of Vietnamese seafood. We were served “Can Chui” which is a tangerine-flavored catfish soup with bean sprouts, tomatoes, and rice. It was delicious. It’s also one of my favorites. We were also served fried fish and fresh fruit. The mosquitoes were out in full force that night so I spent a good majority of the evening swatting away the little, blood-sucking creatures. We came home later that night, and I was packing my things up to leave the next morning to Saigon. I sent some money to my relatives, including my sick uncle. I had my uncle tell him about how concerned I was for his health, and urged him to take care of himself. I told my cousins to make sure that the money I gave him was to be used for his medical treatment.

I slept at the hotel that night, and got ready for the next morning. I said my goodbyes to my relatives. It was bittersweet that my time with them had already concluded, but I was determined to see them again, and not wait another 26 years to be there. Our bus had arrived to pick us up, and we were off and running. The morning was beautiful, and I took photos of the mountains and the creek along the way. We arrived at the ferry dock again, and I had a daytime view of the Mekong. The water is brown and polluted, but the beauty is still hardly unnoticeable. The mountains and forest that provide the background to this river is dreamy and exotic.

We arrived in Saigon in the early afternoon. We went back to the same hotel we stayed in. I checked my email and Facebook in the meantime. We relaxed for a little bit before we went out and had some Pho. We went around the marketplace to get some fruit and fresh roast barbecue and duck. My stomach had been hurting me throughout the remainder of the trip so I opted not to go out any further.

It was almost time for me to leave. It started to rain that night. We got in the cab and headed to the airport. My flight was to leave right at midnight. Once we had arrived, I said my goodbyes and went to the check-out desk. There, I met a Vietnam veteran who was visiting there for the 2nd time since the war. I had a great discussion with him, and his younger daughter. He was there for a month, and visited throughout the country meeting with former South Vietnamese soldiers, even some North Vietnamese soldiers who were once their enemies. I envied the fact that he came back to visit a country which had been under so much violence and turmoil, and then to see the progress and peace that the country has now made in the last 20 years.

I bought some souvenirs for my vice-principal, and a few of my friends at the tax-free duty shop. I got myself some snacks before I headed to my gate. I was pretty sad that I won’t be having real Vietnamese cuisine for a little while, but in the meantime, I was happy that I got a chance to spend time with my family. It does beat eating alone at dinner sometimes.

Once my flight had arrived in Incheon, reality finally settled in. All the craziness I’ve had experienced in Vietnam has now turned into a “business as usual” world in Korea. Through it all, I managed to reconnect my roots, and more ready to plant the seeds for my next trip there.

Sunday, July 5, 2009


I didn't realize it had been months since I've posted a blog, but I have caught myself in the eye of the hurricane the last several weeks as many things have been going on. I am currently preparing for my summer English camp which starts tomorrow. The school semester had just concluded a mere hour ago, and now I'm sitting here in an empty school now. How surreal that only 6 months ago that I started my first day with my students. Not to mention, I had a few chaotic things that happened from my school laptop issues, losing my cell phone before a nice Korean found it and called my school, andbroke, and losing my USB disk, so I've had re-create all my documents that I had lost. Oh, and that terrible fever that's been bothering me, as well as the great monsoon weather I'm in. :-)

But things can't all be that bad, right? Oh, and I found out that two of my Korean co-teachers will not be here for next semester. One of them is my head co-teacher, and the other, recently left for another school, thus creating a mess with the 1st year classroom alignment. Both of them have been very helpful and supportive since my first day at Deokcheon Middle School. I am incredibly grateful for their support, and at the same time, I am also sad that I will not continue working with them. I can only hope that whoever replaces them will be just as kind and welcoming the way those two have been to me.

Okay, so now let's focus on the positives. Things really have been better than I expected. My school has been generally supportive of me and my teaching, as well as my students. There have been rocky moments though, as the semester grew on, I found myself trying harder to motivate my students. I also had to change the way I communicate with my students. The biggest problem that I swore I would never do was making myself very accessible to my students. I would visit them during their break time, thus making myself more of a friend to them. This, however, has given students the idea that I'm an easy pushover, and as the "fun teacher." As a result, I've had classroom management issues, especially during lunch time when students visit the English-only zone. So, I had reached a boiling point several weeks ago, and discussed these issues with my co-teachers.

Since then, I've made my presence far less visible in the hallways. I've established some new and consistent punishments, and have reached a consensus agreement with my teachers in terms of classroom management and student-centered learning. In the end, it has worked to everyone's advantage, though the last 2 weeks have been a bit difficult because students are done with their finals. So, my first semester has hit its bumps, but nowhere near enough to break my spirits.

With the first semester about done, I am looking forward to a stronger 2nd half. Hard to fathom that I've been here for nearly 6 months, and enjoying my new life abroad. The weather has been quite abysmal this month because of monsoon season. Just about everyday, it has been pouring, and not to mention, the unbearable humidity that has blanketed the southern part of Korea. But really, with my students, I never realized both how much fun and hard work that is included with this opportunity. Though as I lamented above about my students' rowdiness, they have been incredible, and they've become more and more like little brothers to me. I find myself shooting some hoops with them, or running into them near my neighborhood. So there are times when the "Teacher Randy" name comes off, and I'm simply being me.

Since my blog, I celebrated my 26th birthday at Jagalchi fish market with my new friends which was an unforgettable time. I am trying to get back into shape by playing basketball, and restricting my diet just a bit :-). I am hoping to hit the gym once summer break is over, and even join some clubs now that my Korean classes have concluded.

Speaking of Korean classes, I am picking up the language pretty slowly. I can read the letters, though I don't know what most of it means LOL. However, I can read my students' names, read subway stops, and other essential things. In fact, my Korean skills will probably no doubt surpass both my Viet and Cambodian speaking skills (which isn't much to begin with).

I recently bought my airplane tickets to Vietnam. I am definitely excited about this upcoming adventure. I will go with my uncle who will fly into Incheon airport from Florida. This will be the first time that I will visit my family homeland. It is rather nerve-racking to say the least because I am heading into unchartered territory, let alone a country still in 3rd world poverty. However, as far as I've been told by others, Vietnam is quickly developing into a tourist destination, and it will be great once and for all to revisit my family roots. I can only imagine at how emotional this trip could serve for both me and my family. I will be gone from August 9th to August 17th.

Well I hope you guys are doing well back home. Thanks again for keeping tabs with me, and I will look forward to our future correspondences. Have a great summer folks!즐거운 시간 보내세요!

Randy 김 랜디

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Why I Do What I Do (May 1st, 2009)

It's nearly midnight, and I'm sitting here realizing that in about 30 minutes, it'll be the first day of May. Granted, it would be the start of what would be a 4-day weekend, but it holds a little more sentimental value this time. It only felt like yesterday when I first got on that emotional long flight by myself to Korea, a place I had known little about, yet felt very drawn to. Arriving after 17 hours of being on an airplane, I quickly realized that for the first time in my life, I am alone by myself with no one directly looking after me, and being in a land where I cannot easily conjure up random conversations, or have the always dependable English signs and speakers to quickly ease any little to major concern. Though the latter statement, I can find quite a few English signs, but not so much the English-speakers unless I run across a foreigner. Yet more importantly, I was ready to start a job that I never thought I could do a couple of years back, and here I was, trying to give it another shot and doing it in a foreign land. Yes, those summed up many of massive concerns as I left O'Hare airport on that cold February day.

Yet as I write this, I feel like my life before Korea is eons ago. Unlike some of my fellow foreigner friends, I have yet to feel the homesickness that has gotten the best out of other people. In fact, I feel strangely detached from my homelife. I haven't been emotionally invested in my Chicago sports team. I haven't been listening to the latest music from the underground rock scene. I am not missing the fact that I am not going to any concerts/shows in America. I do miss the food here and there, but I've been more than content with the food that's accessible to me right now. My friends back home, I do miss, yet having Facebook and Skype has allowed me to soften the distant friendship blues. Granted, there obviously has been some disappointment and discontent with certain people, but I enjoy using the opportunity to be in a foreign land to wipe my slate clean, and make many more new friends.

I've been in Korea for two months, and never did I realize how much I have gained from being there. To say that it has been a life-changing experience is a severe understatement. I had spent most of 2008, and part of 2007 in the doldrums, and unfortunately feeling sorry for myself. That latter part was something that I had never succumbed to for the longest time. Last summer, being out of work and going through another round of unsuccessful interviews nearly drove me clinically-insane. I had yearned for the longest time to finally move out of my parents' home, and have a job that I can at least be proud of. So when the idea of traveling abroad came about, I listened and researched carefully. I knew that I had never done anything like this before, but I was sick and tired of feeling restrained, unproductive, and watching other people be able to live independently. So when I finally got on that airplane, I realized how much work I had done to prepare myself for what would be a long and rewarding adventure.

With my family, especially my parents, I have had many contentious moments with them for as long as I can remember, and I found myself having my worst fights with them during my job-hunt. Looking back, I am very thankful that my parents, especially my brothers, for being very supportive of me while I'm away. I never realized the magnitude that my presence had on them until I left. So, I left knowing that I am making them proud, and it is definitely an inexplicably great feeling that I carry with me to this day.

After visiting the EPIK booth to check in at Incheon International Airport, I found a few fellow EPIK people that were waiting for the charter bus to take us to our orientation venue. There, I found what would be two of my good friends, Melissa Smith and Ife Afolayan. To put this in a nutshell, I quickly became fast friends with them, and from that point on, I knew that I was going to be okay. I talked to Rob and Kate Cooke on the bus as well, and knew that I would be meeting many cool people from then on during my stay, and not as isolated as I had originally feared. In a nutshell, the orientation was everything that I could have hoped for, and then some. I left with such greater confidence being around a lot of unique individuals, and hearing many terrific speakers, and working closely with our orientation leaders who have helped many of us around the clock.

After leaving our orientation, we had a jolt of culture shock when we finally met our Korean co-teachers on a wet, cloudy afternoon. Luckily, those concerns were soon eased when I met Teacher Kim Eeunji, and the staff. Kim Euunji had never managed a native English teacher before, but I was quickly impressed at how kind and knowledgeable she was at helping me. I have heard horror stories about how native English teachers have clashed with their Korean co-teachers and school. Thankfully, this was not the case. My principal, vice-principal, my fellow Korean English co-teachers, and the entire school staff have embraced me with open arms, and I am eternally thankful for that.

I will never forget the first day when we had our assembly outside. They were introducing new Korean teachers, but being that I was the only foreign English teacher, I was given a special introduction. The students outside were clapping, but soon afterwards, I heard quite a bit of laughing and snickering. For a second, it really worried me, but then I realized that I either let the vultures in, or I find a way to take charge. From my very first class, I quickly took center stage and found myself earning the love and respect from my students. I'm no miracle worker, and in fact, I still feel like I have ways to go to becoming a better English teacher; however, I am more than pleased about how much confidence I've gained from working with my students and teachers.

Aside from watching my brothers when they were very little, as well as babysitting my younger relatives, I had never really gained any experience having a parental role with anyone. Teachers in Korea view their students as part of their own. We discipline them, we teach them, we encourage them, we listen to them, but most importantly, we love them. So I find myself taking on this new role, and learning to place my students ahead of myself. To me, it's not about just trying to earn a living, it's about having a job that benefits you as a person, and those are affected by your contributions. Though, I'm not old enough to be my students' parent, I do see them as more like my baby brothers as I mentioned quite often to a lot of people. I can joke with them, yet I command respect from them. Some moments, it's an epic battle; other moments, I feel like my school has made me feel like a kid all over again.

Before my camera broke :-(, I noticed how many videos and photos I have posted since leaving America. It's amazing how much I've been documenting my time since being here. Though all of this video blogging and such may make my Facebook profile look pretentious, I am not doing it to show it off though I was bragging about the good weather to all you Chicago folks back home LOL. The purpose of me doing all those vids/pics was to show what Korea looks like. I hear so many stories from people about where they want to travel. People that are interested in Asia talk about how they want to visit China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan, Thailand, Singapore, Vietnam, but oftentimes, Korea gets overlooked quite a bit. Korea is like smackdab in the middle between China and Japan, and unfortunately, it never seems to stand out as the country that everyone wants to visit. So, I have unintentionally become this unofficial spokesperson for the Korean tourist industry. A lot of my friends, and many other people are unaware of what goes on in a country like Korea. Heck, a year ago, the only thing I knew about Korea is bulgogi, kimchi, and Seoul being their capital. I knew nothing about Busan, it's 2nd largest city, nor was I really familiar with the culture, language, and history. So I felt compelled to capture a lot of unique moments, and to hopefully give a better impression about the wonderful qualities that Korea has to offer. The videos give you an idea about the encounters that a lot of my friends and myself experience on a daily basis, and how we are all in this together to make our experiences work positively for us.

I look back at my friends back home, and my friends that I've made here, and I want to say once again how truly thankful I am to have your support and encouragement. I don't recall ever being this happy for this long of a time, and I give all of you the credit for contributing to this euphoric feeling. I am thankful that my life in the US has helped me get to where I am now. I am eternally grateful that my family's survival in Cambodia and Vietnam have taught me a thing or two about giving back and understanding the importance of having a survivor mentality, and I am completely thankful that being in a country like Korea has given me a chance to resurrect my life, and the much needed ammunition I need to get myself going again.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Long overdue

My apologies once again for ignoring my fellow readers. Hard to imagine, but it's been a month and a half since my arrival in Korea. As my days are getting fuller, and going by rather quickly, I find myself in a situation where my free time will be rather limited very soon.

Recently, I am taking up a Korean language class that meets every Monday and Thursday nights, and I will be teaching English Conversation classes every other Saturday mornings. This will keep me rather occupied for the most part. However, I am excited to take on both of these responsibilities. I can't tell you how vital learning the Korean language is to my daily survival in this country. The city of Busan, despite being the 2nd largest city in Korea, has far fewer Korean-English speakers, compared to, say, Seoul. Despite the obvious language barrier, I've managed to survive fairly well, and utilize my Charlie Chaplin-like body language to communicate with many Koreans. So, I am definitely hoping that this class will allow me to expand my Korean vocabulary. As of now, I am picking up the language very slowly, but surely. Just the other day, I got a haircut, and was able to communicate to the stylist what I wanted. It went something like this, "Eebahl...Choguum mahn kah-hah juseyo." Translation: Haircut. Just a trim, please." I couldn't have felt any better when she completely understood what I was saying. The feeling you get when you are able to use the native language to a native speaker ia inexplicable.

With my Saturday morning classes, many people thought I was crazy to add this onto my list of responsibilities. There are obvious benefits to this: I am getting paid overtime, I love working with my students and school. I will get to use the brand new English-Only Zone classroom which is state-of-the art, and a change of pace from my standard classrooms, and I wanted to show my appreciation towards my school for being very helpful and supportive to me since Day 1. I am definitely looking forward to this new challenge. I will work with 15 students; thus giving me more leverage and creative freedom to work with my students in a greater capacity.

The other weekend, I had the opportunity to travel to Seoul. I took the KTX bullet train which only took less than 3 hours, whereas, it would have taken 6-8 hours by bus or regular train. The train ride was incredibly smooth. It felt like being on an airplane. There was plenty of space for your bags, the bathrooms were clean, and the ride was fairly quiet for the most part.

Seoul is quite an intense, but rewarding experience. I experienced culture shock like nothing before. I had never seen so many foreigners since arriving in Korea. It's a utopia of Western paradise; there are many Western shops and restaurants all over Seoul, specifically in Itaewon, affectionately known as "Little America." There, you can find Bennigans (it's still in business in Korea), Burger King (they do have one in Busan), Subway, Quiznos, and plenty of Western bars and Hofs. There are plenty of international markets, as well as flea markets which carries Western imports for dirt cheap. There are international stores like Tommy Hilfiger, Calvin Klein in the Myongdong area. I can go on and on about the craziness that is Seoul. However, I will say this, their subway map is like looking at a bowl of spaghetti. There are about 12-14 subway lines all scattered around Seoul. Google Seoul Subway map and you'll understand why. Luckily, Busan only has 3 major subway lines and is much easier to navigate around. All in all, I would go back to Seoul in a heartbeat, but in the end, I would prefer to have my bed in Busan any day. A place like Seoul can be quite stressful on the soul (no pun intended). It's a great place to visit, but I can never assimilate into the intense city life there.

Well I will try to post some links to my Facebook videos if I can. This will be a little tricky. I hope you get to see what I've been experiencing the last month and a half. Thank you again for your support and for keeping me in touch.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Hello all

My apologies for not updating my blog site recently. I've been keeping myself very busy with my new school, as well as creating and updating my lesson plan for my students, and hanging out with my close friends on the weekends. Also, I've been having a recent bout with the cold that has yet to disappear. I was walking around today wearing my health mask, so I promise I will show you a photo of me wearing one.

I am already entering my 3rd week of teaching, and have been in South Korea for about a month now. I find myself shocked each day as to how well I have adjusted to being a foreigner. Many Koreans I have encountered in Busan are very pleasant and kind. I am quickly familiarizing myself with the subway system, and of course, with the daily life grind such as buying groceries, going to the bank, and communicating with Koreans especially with taxi cab drivers (more on that later). My teaching experience has been both a rewarding and challenging experience. I enjoy teaching my middle school boys as they are very entertaining, lively, and the majority of them wanting to participate during class. However, they can also be a challenge. They are attention-seekers and will do anything to grab my attention in a very distracting manner. So far, I have remained consistent with my rules and policy in class, and have for the most part, gotten a better grip on my students. To establish your stance means being focused, consistent, and having swagger. I make sure I provide myself with a backup lesson plan in case there is a situation where my school laptop would not connect with the TV. I would do my best not to show nervousness and confusion as this can open up the door for students to use class time as a recess hour. Of course, a lesson plan will not always go over well with students, but it's about making those adjustments and taking notes of student progress after class that can lessen those errors. Case in point, my Monday and Tuesday classes tend to be a bit of a struggle because I'm testing a new lesson plan out, and this also means having to consult with 4 different Korean co-teachers as to what their role is during class time. This can become a headache, and my students can sometimes get a little restless if certain parts of the lesson plan is not motivating them. I make those adjustments afterwards, and see where certain activities may need further exploration. By then, my week tends to be much easier as my students are more attentive with the activities. However, this can get frustrating as I hate having to use my Monday and Tuesday classes as my rehearsal time, so this is something that I'm currently working on hammering out.

My co-teachers up to this point have been very supportive, and have given me more creative freedom to work on my lesson plans. I have been treated quite kindly by them as I usually see a snack or drink left on my desk whenever I get back from class. My co-teacher and her colleagues took me out for dinner at a traditional Korean restaurant in which I also tried stingray which was delicious.

This week, my school will set up my English Zone space for me which will allow students to come in during their lunch time to practice their one-on-one English skills with me. I am definitely excited about this opportunity as this will not only lighten the load on my class hours, but also give me more time to work with students on a more personal basis as this can help me determine my next criteria when working on my lesson plana.

Lately, I have been feeling quite confident in my daily life as a foreigner. Yes, there are some imperfections that go along the way, like missing the last train which leaves at 12 am (WHAT?!?!?!) twice already, my cab driver taking me to Haeundae Beach instead of Gwangalli Beach, and a few other clumsy situations, but those are bound to happen. As a rule of thumb as I've been making myself learn; be flexible, know that things are bound to change at the last second. Despite my class being 45 minutes, it's very common for Korean teachers to show up about a few minutes after class starts. I am beginning to learn more and more that Asians in general tend to arrive fashionably late. Another example, I was supposed to teach my one class on Friday, only to find out within minutes that I didn't have to show up to my class. Korea, as I've been told during orientation, is dynamic. Nothing is ever set in stone until the very last second. Learn it, live it, and accept it (or embrace it for that matter).

There are plenty more I can discuss, but I'm running out of time. Kamsa Hamnida!!!

Monday, March 2, 2009

Good Morning

Annyong Haseyo!!!

My apologies to everyone for keeping everyone waiting the last week or so since my last blog entry. I have been extremely busy since my last blog. I have been in and out of orientation classes, hanging out with my new friends, traveling around Busan and Cheonan, getting situated in my new apartment, and of course, keeping myself prepared to teach. So I'll start from today and work myself backwards, and this could end up being a longer blog, but I may have to cut it short since I have to wake up early in the morning for school.

Monday, March 2nd, 2009
Today, I started my first day in school. I am teaching English in Dukcheon Middle School which is about 30 minutes walking distance from my apartment. It's an all-boys middle school which generally spell mischief and testosterone galore. One of the school board members gave me a ride to the school. There, I met up with Kim Euun-Yi, my main co-teacher. I put on my indoor sandals on (you must wear sandals/slippers inside a school building). We met with my other co-teachers whom I'll be working with in some of their English classes. I spent some of my free time working on my introductory lesson plan for my first two classes. One is for 3rd year English students, and the other, 2nd year.

I was introduced as a new faculty member in front of my new colleagues by the new principal. He even made a little joke reminding teachers that I'm not Korean despite my last name. Soon afterwards, we headed outside for the opening school ceremony. During that time, students were a little out of order, and this is where it got fairly interesting. The principal made finger gestures towards the crowd on numerous occasions during the ceremony, and signaled to one of the teachers to take care of one student. As she reached toward one of the students, she whacked him across the head. Yes, so to answer any of your questions, corporal punishments still exist in the Korean public schools. Not too long afterward, my principal gestured one student to come over in front of him, and made him do push-ups in front of the school. During the assembly, we listened to the Korean national anthem as well as the school anthem. The weather was freezing cold that morning, and I was still recovering from the recent cold I've been getting. When it was time to introduce the new faculty, the principal introduced me in front of the students and I was given a very rowdy reception. Several students were clapping, others were laughing, and I had this feeling that the vultures were hovering over me. Either, I will let them eat me alive, or I'll just load up my shotgun. :)

I met with 3 of my other co-teachers, and they wanted me to plan an introductory lesson plan. During my free time, I spent some time coming up with some ideas and ice-breakers to get students to utilize the English language. Prior to teaching my two classes that day, I was told by my teacher that despite their previous experience taking English classes, their English-speaking level is still very low. I was headed off to my first class, and I quickly noticed the curious looks on my students' faces. After having them recite my four rules, and telling them where I'm from, I noticed that students were still struggling with basic key phrases. So, much of my time was spent trying to re-enact key words like "soccer", "singing", and other basic terminology. I was able to get one student to respond to "Do you like dancing?" He responded by saying "Yes, I like to dance." and I asked him if he can show me how he dances. We were able to get him in front of the class, and he busted out a break dance move. So, that moment somehow loosened some students up. I worked on getting students to work with each other on "how to greet people." I, then, would pick random students to demonstrate their greetings in front of the class.

The 2nd class, however, was night and day compared to my first class. The second I walked into the classroom, students were already trying to talk to me simultaneously. I was a little taken aback by their enthusiasm. I noticed that they have had some troubles much like the first class with their English-speaking skills, but they had more desire to speak in class. There were a few class clowns in that class, as my co-teacher threatened one student with a ruler. I had them do the same role-playing activity that the previous class did with a greater success. As I was going around the classroom working with each pair of students, I couldn't help but notice that one student was particularly happy to see me. He kept wanting to shake my hand which was a better feedback than having a student cuss me out; however, it was rather uncomfortable considering that I'm a teacher that needs to be firm and consistent with appropriate school conduct. By then, school was already over. I went over to the bank to get my check card, and headed back to school to get my belongings. On my way, I noticed that one of my students said "hello" to me. So, I realized after an interesting first day, I came away knowing that not all of my students think I'm some evil or dorky teacher from America.

Also, what I've come to realize after being in Korea for two weeks is that the Engish-speaking in their country is far lower than expected. They rank 134th out of 147 countries in English-speaking. Even going around a huge city like Busan, my friends and I encountered very little English speaking interaction. This experience as well as what I've seen in my first day at school strike home an important point that there is a real reason why the Korean government spends so much money on teachers like myself to improve their L2 abilities. I can only hope that I can justify a little of what many Koreans hope to accomplish in the near-future.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

First Day in Korea

February 19, 2009; 8:30 am

I am in my first full day in Korea. I hadn't really slept at all the night before. My mind is still swirling with brain hyper-activity since my departure. I think I'll end up pulling the Guinness World Record for insomnia. I am quite excited about spending my first night in my new country. I enjoyed my hotel stay except the bizarre toilet experience. I took the shuttle van back to Incheon Airport. The weather this morning is rather dreary: cloudy and chilly. It's like I never left Chicago. I really enjoyed passing through the city of Incheon, and seeing the mini mountainous landscape. The streets are clean; however the pollution seems to be a problem considering that it's near a heavily-populated city such as Seoul, and by a busy airport. There were plenty of people walking around with their mask on. Plus, I happened to see a stray cat walking on the street. After arriving to the airport, I returned my rented phone, and headed over to the EPIK booth. They gave me a schedule of the orientation, and the exit gate for the bus departure. Right now, I'm waiting for the 10 am EPIK bus to arrive. I can only hope that there are no goofy surprises. It seems like I'll have a temporary roommate and orientation will seem quite intimidating, if not overwhelming, on top of the plethora of things going on.

February 20th, 2009; 3 pm

To continue where I left off, I started meeting up new colleagues when we were awaiting our bus. I met different folks from all over the English-speaking countries including Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Canada just to name some predominant ones. I met a few Chicagoans with EPIk as well. My recruiter came out of nowhere to greet me while I was waiting for the bus. Our bus ride to Dankook University; Cheonan campus in the Chungnam province was about a 2 hour ride. Getting our luggage was a phenomenal pain in the rear end. There were hardly any room so we had to sit next to our baggage. Outbound traffic was running smoothly , and the roads are very similar to Chicago. You have your tollways, but without the IPass though I don't know if they do it electronically. The tunnels are similar to lower Wacker Drive. Despite some of the similarities that Seoul shares with Chicago, the people there are quite polite, low-key, and pleasant for the most part, not to mention, the abundance of beautiful Korean women that lurks around the area especially in this campus. :-).

Our coordinator gave us directions during the bus ride. Meanwhile, I was talking to my new friend Ife who lived in southern Illinois, and Melissa who came from Wyoming, and shared our experiences and ambitions with our teaching abroad goals. We stopped by the Social Science building to pick up our gift bag. In it, we received an EPIK hoodie, a croissant, a small orange, two towels (they reeked of gasoline smell), a converter plug, and our orientation books. I walked into my dorm room, and I must say it was quite pleasant. The bathroom is normal, and the toilet is not what I came across from the night before, except one small thing. The shower is on the same floor so the entire bathroom gets very wet when you're taking a shower. We had our lunch and dinner in the cafeteria. The food was fairly interesting though they take their kimchi very seriously. Heck, they even serve it for breakfast. Korea 101: Kimchi is spicy cabbage, and it's their popular specialty. I will hopefully post photos on here, as I've been posting them on my Facebook. I definitely enjoy having Logan as my roommate as we've shared our interest in hockey (he's a Canadian), and of course, shared our experiences and goals just like what we've been doing with other new colleagues.

I woke up this morning still having issues falling asleep. They were announcing the schedule reminders through the intercom this morning, although rather pleasantly unlike the military-like reminders that people associate with intercoms. So far, the orienation has been nothing but pleasant. The view around the campus is beautiful. Mountains, snow-covered hills, and statues dwarf your typical American campus. I attended our first orientation session in which they discussed opening up a new bank account, handling culture shock, Korean mannerisms, and a preview of what the next few days would be like. Tonight, I'll be attending the opening ceremony in the auditorium, and this weekend, we will head out to a Korean Folk Village. Tomorrow, I have to go through a medical physical exam. Until then, thank you for reading my recent adventures. I hope to make this an exciting read for all of you. On a special note, thank you to the newcomers for reading my blog. I appreciate your comments. I am looking forward to posting more entries, photos, and video clips.