Wednesday, December 28, 2011

1st year Students

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

November update

Nearly 3 years ago before I left for Korea, I, like, so many expats, thought it would be exciting to keep a blog and inform my friends back home on what life is like on the other side of the world, and in a place where I’m one day ahead of everyone else. However, my blog writing turned into something more than just being an informative piece for the blogging/social network public. It became a reminder of the pre-conceptions I had about the world then vs. now. My blogging has since lay dormant in the last several months, not for the lack of desire to write, but because, I reached a point where I’ve been able to accept, and even embrace a lot of uncertainties or nuances that comes with being a traveler. With many of the blogs I’ve read, a lot of the expat bloggers in some way or another are still coping with those cultural differences. Not to say that I don’t have those moments of expat anxiety, but rather it’s become my own accepted way of this lifestyle, and just quickly moving on from each situation and on to the next.

As the leaves are turning its colors, I find myself ready to change colors. The colors of my leaves that were once so fresh when I came to Korea are getting older and ready to fall off. As each week is ending, the whispering reminders of my coming departure becomes louder and louder. It is the voice that I can’t easily ignore, but a reminder that my future will take on, it’s safe to say, a completely different direction.

As I’m starting to prepare the last few lesson plans I have left of the semester, I can’t help but feel incredibly sentimental. I’m ready to say goodbye to yet another graduating class, but this time, to a class that I’ve been with since Day 1. My relationship with that class is one of love and hate; I’ve been a witness to both their growing pains and their pains in the asses moment. I recently found myself watching many of my old videos from my 1st year, and amazed at how fast they have grown up from the cute, innocent, fresh-out-of elementary school phase to having bad cases of acne, apathy towards society, girl-loving, ready-to-start high school attitude. Having collected a library full of videos from that year, I was able to kindly share them with my students, much to their horror and chagrin, as they are being reminded of how cute and innocent they once were. As I have seen them grow through the turbulent transition of puberty, I have found, for lack of a better phrase, growing both professionally and personally in Korea.

I was already 25 years old when I left Korea, but never had the opportunity to be a “true adult” back home. I was already finished with college the year before, but was struggling with the job search, having to live at home, and not being able to obtain the much-needed independence and personal self-respect I was seeking. It wasn’t until being in Korea allowed me that opportunity to finally make the transition into a late-blooming adult. I can truly say that working with kids has kept me grounded, and pushed me to focus on other opportunities that I had otherwise never considered which would lead me to my next topic.

This year, I’ve spent a considerable amount of time doing volunteer work outside of school. Gone are the days of weekend partying, domestic traveling, and college-like immaturity, and replaced with spending more time visiting orphanages, and women shelters in Busan, raising money and other donations for them, and enlisting new volunteers and organizations that we can lend a helping hand to. In a nutshell, it’s been an eye-opening experience for me as this has made me more aware of the unlucky situation that many of these people in the shelters, and orphanages are in, and how the current political climate has hampered a lot of the goals that these organizations want to achieve for those that are in need. I’ve been fortunate to have a small group of dedicated volunteers who are using their energy and time into doing the kind of work that often gets overlooked for many of the new expats here. With Christmas coming up, I’ve been currently trying to start up a Toy Drive and Christmas party dinner for two of the orphanages in Busan.

As I’m still trying to articulate my feelings about the near end of my contract with my school, I am still struggling to find a way to send the proper goodbye send off to all of my students and faculty. There’s no doubt in my mind that I’m going to miss them tremendously, and all of the memories that I’ve accumulated from being around them. I asked several students from this year’s graduating class about where they think I’ll go next, and NO ONE mentioned me about leaving Korea, but instead, believe that I’ll stay in Korea whether it’s at the same school or somewhere else. It doesn’t make it any easier when I will finally tell them the news, but in all honesty, I will probably miss them much more than they would with me. As I’ve experienced from the last 2 graduating classes, I’ve seen several of my former students, a few I keep in touch with, but by that time, the emotional connection is already distant, and as the cliché goes, life keeps on going no matter how much you want to suspend it. It is that reality that I have made my peace with, knowing that the experience has been worthwhile, and that the stage has been set for newer moments.

Alas, I have a mere few months before I am gone, but the truth is, I’m starting to recognize, and perhaps not fully yet, of the impact that the Korean experience has done for me. Nearly 3 years, the only thing I’ve truly learned is how little I truly know, and how comforting that feeling is.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

August update

As I’m sitting here wasting away hour after hour of office time at my school, I am less than 24 hours away from my flight to Sydney, Australia. The bucket list continues to get a bit smaller as I can cross Australia off the things-to-do list. Australia seems to be that trip on everyone’s bucket list. The allure of kangaroos, koala bears, the scenic view of the Sydney Opera House, the endless adventures that one can dream about. It seems to have it all. Also, it is the very fact that it is isolated from the rest of the world that makes it fairly exotic, and somewhat out of reach for many travelers.

Funny what a mere few years living abroad can do to a person. The places that I thought I’d never be able to visit have been coming into fruition. The weather has been brutally wet and humid in Korea this summer, so to be able to visit Australia during their current winter time (60 F average weather) is a welcome relief. I’ll be taking off from Seoul/Incheon Airport in the afternoon, arrive in Hong Kong for a brief hour layover, and head straight down to Sydney on an overnight flight which will have me arrive there at 7 am. 14 hours total will be the expected time I’ll be in the air. I’m dreading the lack of sleep, but I’m comforted with the fact that I’ll have some good movies and music to watch and listen to courtesy of Cathay Pacific Airways. Guess United Airlines or any American airliner haven’t gotten the memo yet? They’re showing Kung Fu Panda 2 already! (yes!!!). This will preserve my iPod from overuse during my long flight.

In the meantime, my summer camp has already concluded. It was a much better overall experience compared to last year when I struggled, and became increasingly worn out by the time August rolled around. I came up with some new ideas which included a week dedicated to doing video projects which my students had a great time doing. I was quite surprised at the ideas and concepts they came up with which allowed me to focus on the filming and video editing.

Being that this is my 3rd year, I feel like I’m starting to figure things out a little more quickly and confidently as a teacher at my school. Though with every student, there will always be a curveball when you think you’ve got everything covered, but I think that’s where a lot of people get into trouble is the fact that they feel there’s nothing to improve on once they reach their peak. It goes back to the saying that my friend Lisa eloquently said “A wise man knows how truly little he knows, while a fool boasts on what little he knows.”

Halfway into my contract, and with only the next semester ending on Christmas with a few weeks of winter camp, I’m very close to the finish line. I’ve been often reminded from some of my friends who left their schools on how hard it was to say goodbye to their students whom they’ve grown attached to. However, as they all lamented, life goes on. The emails from students and fellow colleagues become fewer and fewer. The kids are growing up and moving on to a different phase in their life, and my friends themselves are preoccupied with their new life back home. I have a feeling I won’t be able to let go right away when that time comes, and knowing that I’ve spent nearly 3 years with the same school, I reckon it’ll be an emotional rollercoaster. I know I have several months before that time comes, but I know that it’s something I’ll have to face eventually.

So far, it’s been a rather quiet journey this year with most of my time dedicated to school and my volunteer work with ATEK. To all Busaners, I encourage you to look into doing some volunteering if the nightlife doesn’t fancy you anymore. To become a member, check out our Facebook group “ATEK Busan Volunteer.” I can’t tell you how rewarding it feels when you’re doing something useful especially when you’re overseas.

Signing off,

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Why I do what I do.....

Since coming back from America over 2 months ago, I looked long and hard at what goals I can accomplish coming into my 3rd year in Korea. The last two years have brought me inexplicable joy, as I have traveled, endured my ups and downs with teaching, tapped into the acting scene, and made many countless journeys with new friends and by myself. However, it wasn't enough for me. I felt my experience was still left unfulfilled until a couple of months ago when I was introduced to my friend Jessica through a mutual friend of ours. She had recently gotten involved with ATEK (Association for Teachers of English in Korea) which is a not-for-profit group which focuses on supporting both the expat community and the local Korean communities in need. ATEK, at that time, was hardly even heard of, but several months later, it's become one of the more prominent groups that many expats here in Busan have come to know.

When Busan Night Live was finished, I decided to get myself involved with ATEK. My goal after Korea would hopefully involve working in non-profit, and ATEK luckily provided the opportunities that I was looking for. Through ATEK, I have been involved with the Boys Orphanage in Nampo-Dong, helped raised money and toys for the Christmas Orphanage Drive, and currently involved in the city-wide collection drive for the Sae-Gil Women's Shelter.

The latter part of what I've been doing with ATEK reaches into the core of my heart. Korea, much like the rest of Asia, has a deep, disturbing issue of domestic abuse towards women and children. Despite the severity of these issues, Korea as a society has yet to confront these issues head on, and with its silence comes the deadly consequences that many abuse victims here have to face, not only from their perpetrator, but from the society that turns a blind eye and deaf ear to. I've written about this issue in one of my previous FB notes. After attending the Vagina Monologues show in Busan two months ago, I became further aware about the desperate situation that these shelters are in, the new laws that have restricted both funding for the shelter, and the victims who had to escape with little to their name. I knew right then and there, that I needed to help out, and seek other people who are also passionate about the cause, and ensure that the shelter(s) will continue to survive and be a place of proper refuge for these victims.

I became enraged and disturbed at the way many of these victims continue to get ignored by their society. Divorced women, and abuse victims (or both) are being discriminated against when trying to find a job because of the perception that they disobeyed their husbands, and often ignored by their own family and friends. Kids that have been abused and neglected at home have no outlet to turn to. Despite the growing globalization that's occurring here in Korea, it remains a society still fixated on Confuscianism, a concept that men with seniority and high status are the ones best at making the decisions while giving very little regard to those beneath them.

I have taught at the same boys middle school for the past 2 years, but in the past month, I slowly began to understand the reality that several of my students are in. As a teacher, and as someone who's unofficially a part of the community, it's easy to take for granted that we think of our students as "just" students, that we often think about making sure our lesson planning will go over well with the students, and to keep them as attentive and motivated as possible. However, it became more than that for me. I would oftentimes come across my students in my neighborhood (I live like 5 minutes away from my school), and they would often approach me and try to start a conversation. Every now and then, my students would join me whenever I am shooting hoops at the local high school, or try to beg me to buy them soda or ice cream (that never works). So, I knew right then and there, that I was more than just a simple foreigner teaching them English, but that I was living in THEIR community.

A student of mine was in my English winter camp during my 1st year. He was one of the quietest students I've ever had. He never spoke a word during my first year at our school, so I never had an opportunity to get to know him. During that first day of camp, he wouldn't do any of the activities, nor interact with his classmates, and there were times when he was late. I found it very puzzling, and soon, it became very frustrating as Ive tried coaxing him, being direct with him but his reactions were the same---very stoic with a silent nod. This would happen all throughout the 3 weeks of winter camp. I knew right then and there that something deep down was troubling him, but it seemed certain that he wasn't about to let himself trust me or anyone else. Several months later, he started to talk a little bit. He started hanging out with his classmates, and I often joke with him whenever he speaks with the gasping reply of "OH MY GOD...HE SPEAKS!!!!" Then, he had a meeting with his homeroom teacher, again another one of my other co-teachers, and finally revealed something that shed some light into his largely-muted psyche. His parents were recently divorced, but his father wouldn't allow him to see nor talk to his mother, and in the meantime, he would frequently abuse him and his sister without rhyme or reason. He's been begging his homeroom teacher to contact his mother, but to no luck from her end.

One day, I heard one of my students sobbing in the teacher's office. He was sitting just a few feet away from me. His homeroom teacher was quietly consoling him, and trying to investigate what had happened to him. I was watching discreetly, yet intently from my desk. I asked his homeroom teacher, who also another fellow co-teacher, about what had happened. She simply replied, "It's a really long story that I'll tell you for another time." During our school field trip a few days later, she confided in me that he has been living mostly alone in his house with his father making a visit or two each month. His mother simply disappeared from him years ago. One day, he tried entering his house but to no avail. He called the cops, and when his dad appeared at the doorstep, he shockingly told them that he had no idea who the boy was. Much to the boy's shock, he was taken to an orphanage overnight, and later sent back to his home. When it came time for art class, students were to draw their own future; however my student couldn't draw, not because of his artistic limitation, but because he felt that his future was too dark.

Another student of mine has gotten a case of identity crisis. He can oftentimes be the most respectful, loyal, hard-working kid you enjoy being around, and he can, at worse, be temperamental, unmotivated, and troublesome. I told my co-teacher "You know? This is what I think. I think he's got a great mother, but I think he's got issues with the men in his life." My co-teacher replied "You're absolutely correct." To me, it's not hard to notice. When you have a student who can often show charisma and sensitivity, (Sensitivity oftentimes strike the balance between humility and being temperamental), and having a side that is emotionally angry and bothered, then there is a conflict between both personalities. Having two parents who are on the polar opposite of one another seem to best illustrate the identity conflict. His mother, as he once confided in me, is his role model, his "angel", and his father and step-father are nothing close to that. His step-father is oftentimes abusive at home, and this might explain some of his recent behavior problems at school. Perhaps, it's my student's frustration at what's happening in his life. The person he loves so dearly is being abused, the society he lives in has no answers for it, his anger at his step-father for the abuse that he never asked for, and the non-parental role his birth father plays, could very well be linked to his anger and hurt.

It's stories like these that frustrate me over the lack of support for women and children in these situations. As a teacher, I have admittedly offered my support in a way where I'm able to provide some kind of help, but oftentimes, I feel incredibly helpless as I knowingly acknowledged that there are very few support systems for these kids and their mothers. It's too easy for me to try to play Batman or Robin Hood, and rescue them from their misery, but soon after, the reality does settle in, it becomes nearly impossible to be a superhero when you're only a mortal. Heck, I find it pretty darn difficult to play Robin, or any other superhero sidekick.

Despite these restraints and limitations, I am still determined to do what I can to be of some supportive outlet. But being a supportive outlet also means trying to find the thin gray line between my role as a teacher, and as someone who cares deeply about human rights. It also involves trying to reach an understanding with that person, and as stated, you can't be the hero, you can't try to make expectations that are above your reach. However, you can be the small little flashlight that can lightly beam through a dark, and empty cave. When you offer those in need a little bit of that light, then you give them some idea that there is hope. Small or large, it's still hope and it can survive. I still struggle with that role as a teacher sometimes because I truly do care about the well-being of my students, and I want them to live, and make their society a safe haven for themselves and for others.

Whenever I think about my involvement with the women's shelter,

I do it for the women in my life that have been abused (both verbally and physically)

I do it to give my middle finger to the government that dares to keep the subject quiet, while punishing the victims for embarrassing them.

I do it for some of my students who see home, not as a place of safe haven, but as a place of bruises and scars

I do it for those who struggle to find an outlet, or someone that will listen to them, instead of judging them for something that they did not do.

I do it for those who bravely dare to stand up, speak out, and take action against domestic violence in an Asian society that considers the topic taboo.

I do it for my friends and strangers who are passionate about working together to make this an important topic.

I do it because I want to live in a society that takes action against violence instead of keeping it under the rug.

I do it because I want to not have to hear the sound of shouting, crying, and abuse taking place outside of my home in the middle of the night, or when I'm walking into the city on said time.

I do it because I hope to never have to hurt someone who tries to attack an innocent victim.

I do it because I have too much love to give, and there are those that feel that they can't be loved.

I don't want this to sound like I'm specifically attacking Korea or Asia in general, but this is everywhere. It's taboo no matter where you go, but it doesn't have to be. It doesn't take a hero to change things for the better, it takes a team of sidekicks. That requires many pocket flashlights. I got mine still working. Does your work? :-)


Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Taiwan pt. 4 (4/4)

After a day full of sunshine and spring-like warmth, I came back to Taipei amidst a dreary, foggy, wet night which would then continue onto the next day. My intention for my last full day was to ride the cable car to the Maokong tea plantation which also overlooks the Taiwan city skyline as well as the surrounding mountains, temples, and tea gardens in Maokong.

Before I went ahead with my planned itinerary, I made a visit to the National Palace Museum. The museum, interestingly enough, is one of the top 5 museums in the world, and located in all places, Taiwan and not mainland China. Its top recognition comes from the many thousands of Chinese artifacts located throughout the mainland, including those from the Forbidden City that it contains. The question is why are they in Taiwan, and not in China? One of the bigger reasons is that during the Cultural Revolution, Mao's political opponent Chiang Kai-shek and his supporters fled to Taiwan, and with it, came along the boxes and boxes of priceless antiques which were left unopened for several years until the Taiwanese government turned it into a museum. Many have argued that without this move, the artifacts would have been either missing, destroyed, or sold off during the Cultural Revolution which was an attempt at erasing the past, and starting a new socialist society from scratch which would later happen in Cambodia during the 70s.

Upon arriving at the museum, there were several older Chinese tourists from the mainland with their cameras ready. The stereotypical behavior of Asian tourists sadly remains the same. Their incessant need to photograph everything in sight takes away the appreciation that one should have when visiting a place of historical meaning, and the understanding of what went on. The palace was huge and imposing. Entering inside, I was overwhelmed with the countless exhibition halls to visit. There were jade rooms, porcelain, Buddha culture, ancient calligraphy, pottery, artwork, and furniture. The museum gave a detailed insight on the meaning of these priceless works, and how each dynasty influenced Chinese art.

Afterwards, I made a 40 minute subway commute to the Maokong cable car, probably the smoothest subway commute I've had in all my years of commuting. Very little fanfare and fewer people. It was raining which would hinder my ability to get a good view of Taipei from Maokong. I took the 30 minute cable car ride which went through 3 stops. There was hardly a line, and it was remarkably inexpensive (NT 50 = $1.75) compared to Hong Kong's cable car ride which was significantly more with the nearly 2 hour wait. The ride itself was somewhat disappointing with the lack of water, trail views, and having to deal with a foggy skyline which almost completely blanketed Taipei 101.

I've been having to deal with sore blisters on my feet during a good part of my trip, and visiting a place that requires walking was a challenge indeed. Despite the rainy weather, I was fortunate to not have to deal with the obvious tourism exploitation that has occurred at this rural plantation since they put the cable car line in. Despite the commercial tourism appeal, Maokong has a very distinct personality that doesn't seem at all affected by the tourism ambush. There were many local teahouses, little tea farms sprinkled everywhere. It was a rather beautiful, scenic walk with the view of the city not too far yet I'm in the arms of nature as I can feel the droplets hitting my head and making my backpack rather moist. It was refreshing, and a world away from the manic nature of urban life. I visited the Jongshan Temple which also offered a direct view of the city from afar. Being in Taiwan and Hong Kong, I have never been as exposed to temples as often as I have until now. I visited a small tea museum which offered different collections of tea art. Coming downstairs, I was beckoned by one of the ladies working there, and she was fixing me some nice oolong tea. I took the mini-bus back to the starting point, and found some great street food which sold some nice dumplings, tofu soup, and noodles.

It was almost getting dark, and I headed back to the guesthouse. I was already fatigued at that point, and was focused on getting my stuff packed to go back to Busan. I was relaxing at the guesthouse for awhile and talked with Doris, and her father Stephen. Her aunt would consistently ask me each day if I was going to be there for breakfast the next day which made me feel as a guest, warmly appreciated. I said my goodbyes to the Belgium couple I had befriended during my visit.

After thinking about calling it a night, I thought about making one last venture outside. I thought about one of the street markets that's several blocks away. I decided to give it a try, and I arrived at the Ningxia Street Market which quickly became one of my favorites. The market was glowing with lanterns, shops, and food ready to sell. It was quite lively, and as I passed each stall, the crowds became more crowded. Each shop was offering a sample to all of their customers. There were many places where you can buy bags of gummy bears, lifesavers, sour candy, Jelly Belly's. Then there were places that sold herbal medicine, fruit mixes, shoes, various kinds of pastry. Around the block, a man or woman would have a megaphone to encourage customers to come in to their store, similar to how it's done in Korea. However, there wasn't any pressure from store vendors to buy their products which was in return a great relief from the previous street market experiences in Vietnam. I came back to the guesthouse feeling more satisfied than ever about my experience in Taiwan, but sad that it would soon have to reach its conclusion.

I readied myself the next morning, and Doris' aunt fixed me one last breakfast. I said my goodbyes to the two Korean people I met, and finally said my goodbyes to Doris' family for the wonderful hospitality they had provided me during my stay.

I took to the HSR along with the shuttle bus to Taoyuan which took about 40 minutes. I arrived at the airport, and as I got into my gate, I noticed how there are few places to eat inside, but how many nice souvenir shops were available. This normally spells trouble for me as I'm an avid collector of souvenir art (not the kind of tacky souvenirs that would say “I love....”). I bought myself a nice Chinese portrait scroll of a mountain and forest with the characters written above it. As I was walking around the terminal, I noticed that there was a prayer room (one for christianity, the other for buddhism, and the other for Islam).

I left Taiwan with an appetite for seconds. There were many places that I have yet to check out such as Kaohsiung, the famous gorge, and the uncharted east coast part of the country. I was awestruck by the generosity of the people, the accessibility around the main cities, and the charming personality that it has. I hope to make another future visit before I leave Korea for good.

Taiwan pt. 3 (3/4)

After having spent the previous evening deciding where I could do my next day trip, I chose the city of Tainan to be my destination of the day.

Tainan is the cultural capitol of Taiwan, much like how Kyoto is to Japan, Siem Reap is to Cambodia, and Gyeongju is to Korea. These cities have centuries of timeless history and culture behind it. They represent the strongest side of their cultural heritage as this sets them apart from the homogenization of Western influences that's been taking part throughout all of Asia.

The fastest way to get to Tainan from Taipei is taking the recently-built HSR (High-Speed Rail). It's currently one of the fastest railway networks in the world. From Taipei to Kaohsiung (approximately the length from Jacksonville to Miami, FL) is only 2 hours, and more importantly, it's a cheaper and less stressful alternative than taking a domestic flight. The station itself is super clean and quite an impressive experience with the layout, comfort, and accessibility. The main drawback would be the fact that it's a bit of a distance from the city centre, but fear not, there's a free shuttle bus (also very impressive and a bit luxurious) that can take you there.

The train ride itself was one of great comfort. The seats are comfortable, reclines well, and has quite a bit of leg room. The ride was smooth, and devoid of any railroad turbulence and delays. The train was squeaky clean, including the bathrooms. This was already a bigger upgrade from Korea's KTX railway network, and something that is sorely missing in the United States.

After arriving at the city centre in Tainan, I noticed how considerably warmer it was. Tainan is located in the southwestern part of the country, and about 15 minutes south of Kaohsiung on HSR. The weather was about 22 C or 72 F, and the skies were beaming with sunshine for the first time on my trip. Sadly, this would be the only day I would have any kind of sunshine and warmth, but it was a great welcome from the coldness of Korea, and the dreary overcast of my first two days in Taiwan. During the bus ride, I noticed that the first part of Tainan is very modern. There are many shopping centres and nicer apartments along the way. The first stop I made was the Confucius temple. This temple carries a significant part of Taiwan as this was the first Confucius temple built in Taiwan. Small, but artfully beautiful, I roamed around the area. Next to it, was an elementary school. I took the opportunity to take up snapshots, and as soon as I did that, I saw two beautiful female models dressed very elaborately and even a little provocatively so to speak. Their face was powdered white, their hair and jewelry, clothing, and their stunning beauty caught my attention. Of course, I had to take a photo op with them. They kindly obliged, and they spent time modeling their shoots by the fountain.

I walked around the beautiful city district, and came across several local stores. The chairs and desks were out, the smell of noodles filled the air, the sidewalks filled with local craft and tool shops. I got myself some roasted duck for lunch. I walked over to the Koxinga shrine which was named after him. His real name was Zheng Chenggong who was a famous commander during the Ming dynasty who drove off the Dutch settlers. His place in Taiwan's history is undisputed, and many of the places in Tainan are named after him.

I continued walking along and found the beautiful Chikhan Building which had several written tablets in front of the building. The place was filled with many Chinese tourists from the mainland. Across the street is another temple. Interestingly enough, outside the building were posters spread in full view in protest of the human right issues concerning China. Note that in mainland China, many residents there are shielded away of what's been going on due to the heavy censorship from the government. Taiwan and Hong Kong, thankfully, are not censored as the rest of China is, so this allows information to reach into the tourists. Whether this can ever be effective remains to be seen. This would happen at some of the main tourist spots.

Walking around the city was quite a pleasant experience. I wasn't constantly suffocated by the exhaust pipes of Taipei, or the claustrophobic nature of “mini Busan” in Keelung. The combination of old vs. new makes Tainan a city still firmly holding onto its tradition, while embracing itself as a city ready to evolve.

I headed over to Anping which is right by the shore, and a short distance from Tainan. I took a short cab ride over there, and found myself walking along the harbor. It was strangely empty and very quiet, but as I was walking on the bridge to the other side, I noticed how laid-back, and charming that district is. I walked around and found some wonderful local shops. They were selling the sword-lion souvenirs which was originally famous for the Taiwanese people who used it as a defense mechanism. The craft shops made me drool endlessly with its beautiful lanterns, buddha statues, local crafts and artwork on display. I had some amazing fried shrimp wantons along the way. I walked along the shores, and found myself never as impressed with my whole day-trip experience.

I headed back to the city centre, and tried to find the bus station that's supposed to take me to the HSR. Unfortunately, I was struggling to find it; however, I noticed a police car parked outside in one of the government buildings. I came over and asked the officer for some assistance, and he gave me a ride to the station. Just another example of being in another foreign country where you can barely speak the local language, but somehow if you have enough patience, understanding, and self-confidence, you'd be surprised how well you can try to communicate and even more surprised at how generous many of the locals are in return.

As I made my way back to Taipei, I left with what I felt was one of my favorite spots to visit in Taiwan

Taiwan pt. 2 (2/4)

After venturing through a good part of Taipei the day before, I decided to do a day trip to Keelung, an hour northeast of Taipei (40-50 minutes by regular train). Keelung is a decent-sized urban port city in the Northeast part of Taiwan that's best known for its fishing and street market, along with its historical significance.

The first glimpse of Keelung as I stepped off the train was how similar it looked compared to Busan, specifically in the Nampo-dong/Jagalchi district, and the urban port of Southern Vietnam. The commonality that these places share are the focus on seafood, vendor stores, cheap clothing, food, local crafts, and accessories, and the condensed, yet laid-back personality that it has. Unlike Busan, Keelung is roughly developed with the exception of the main shopping/street market area, but similar to Vietnam, there were many small villages sprawled out near the harbor. The weather, once again, was dreary with additional overcast throughout the day. It had rained earlier in Keelung, and the streets were wet with muddy soot. The pungent aroma from the harbour permeated the city air which is already mixed in with the unforgiving fumes emanating from the darn motorbikes. Bicycles seem to be a dead form of transportation these days in Asia. I explored the night market streets which took up several blocks. There were many food stalls, and quite a few unsightly ones as whole raw chicken including the head, and feet are on display, fresh seafood lying on the tables, as the water drips from the dead fish and into the sidewalk. There was a beautiful temple in the middle of the market. Several people pay their respect, and the smell of incense can make its presence felt for blocks. In fact, there are generally several temples and shrines every few blocks. It's worth noting that Taiwan has never lost touch with its Confucian/Buddhism heritage, and strongly adheres to its ancient traditon, even more so than Japan and Korea despite the Western modernization that has taken place in all of East Asia.

The choice of food stalls underwhelmed me, and I had difficulty deciding what food I wanted to eat. The biggest challenge facing me was the lack of English signs and photos so it became a hindrance when it came to ordering food. However, I found a great stall that were selling crispy fried dumplings. It was simply delightful. I had myself some nice bubble tea along the way.

I took a walk around the city, and walked up to the top of the hill which allowed me to view Keelung. While I was on top, I visited the Big Buddha park (fairly unremarkable and almost void of Buddhism authenticity due to its sheer tourist commercial appeal). There was also a ghost museum dedicated to keeping the tradition of the ghost festival held every Fall. The purpose of the festival is to offer the dead ancestors to come back into the living world, and not suffer in the afterlife.

As I walked into the tourist office looking to get additional information, the clouds became ominously dark. It looked ripe for a nice thunderstorm, and a nice dent into the rest of my stay in Keelung. I decided to risk it and hop on the bus to see more of the harbour. During the bus ride, I got a closer look at the working-class villages near the bay. The bus signs were in Chinese of course, so I had to keep a close eye on where I was going. The ride was a bit raggedy. I visited the Fairy Buddha Cave which was uniquely impressive because of the carvings, the quiet yet scenic location it was in, and its authenticity.

As raw and honest of a traditional, urban city as Keelung is, I came away feeling underwhelmed by it. Certainly the weather didn't help matters, and I didn't have enough time to visit some of the more popular, out-of-reach areas closer to Keelung. Overall, Keelung certainly is in a much different world than Taipei with its adherence to tradition and focus on the seafood industry.

Taiwan pt. 1 (1/4)

Living in Korea can truly have its advantage. The biggest advantage is having Korea surrounded by many interesting neighouring countries in Asia. Many of them share similar personalities, cultures, and historical ties with one another (for better or worse--generally the latter), but each of these countries have a strong national identity that they take seriously, and that in itself is what set these Asian countries apart from one another.

My initial impression of Taiwan went more along the lines of "just another Korea," Taiwan was a place that never struck me as a vacationing destination unlike places in Thailand and Indonesia which offers plentiful beaches and sunshine, Japan with its culinary delights, Mt. Fuji, and its timeless tradition, China with its centuries-old history, and must-see historical sites, and even Korea with its main attraction, in my opinion, the DMZ that sadly separates the peninsula. However, after hearing from my friends about their experiences in Taiwan, I have heard things about the famous gorge, popular teahouses, hot springs, breath-taking views of the mountains and coastlines, and also having the 2nd tallest building in the world. Though Taiwan's status as a country or province is still up for great debate, there is no doubt that Taiwan has a great national identity that they are genuinely proud of.

After hearing about the exciting testimonies from some of my friends, I decided to make Taiwan my next big travel destination. Interestingly enough, my school had a cross-cultural exchange connection with a school in Taiwan, I believe in Kaoshiung. Two years ago, before I arrived, a few of my students were chosen to travel to Taiwan and meet their new pen-pals there. THen, early last year, the Taiwanese students came to my school and observed my classroom. It was at that point when I first became interested in traveling to Taiwan. Some of my students kept telling me to travel there, and for them, it was most likely their first experience traveling outside of Korea. Then after Hong Kong, Macau, and Japan, I made Taiwan my next priority.

I left Busan later in the evening, and flew on TransAsia Airways. Though unremarkable, the flight went along very smoothly. Our flight landed at Taoyuan International Airport which is about an hour away from Taipei on bus. The airport itself was dreary, and a throwback to the 70s with its outdated colored walls, seats, and plain-looking signs. Getting on the airport bus, I made my way to Taipei. It was already 10:00 pm, and at that point I was a bit fatigued. I was studying the map, and the directions to my hostel. It was during that time, a young couple sitting across from me offered to help me. Though, I wasn't nervous about knowing how to get around Taipei, I was relieved that somebody was willing to help me make my life undoubtedly a little easier. Once I got off the bus, they directed me to the train station, and help me purchase the subway card. I was awestruck at how nice and accessible they were towards a stranger who had just gotten off the plane. After I parted ways with the nice couple, I made my way to Minquan W. Road MRT station. The metro station and format, which closely resembles Hong Kong's, was convenient, clean, and organized. THe passengers, unlike those in Korea and in America, and much like in Japan, have far better public transportation etiquette. No old women hastily shoving you out of the way with their cane which in itself makes for a more pleasant, less entertaining albeit less irritating experience.

It was nearly midnight, and it started to drizzle. I sent an email to the hostel that I was going to arrive close to 11 pm, and it was about 11:30. Normally, check-ins would stop after 11 pm so I was already under a lot of duress. I had problems finding my way to the hostel and I was racing against time. I got some nice help along the way from a few strangers, but as I got closer to the location, the more lost I became. Confused, I was walking around a few more blocks, and studied the map several times. I became frustrated, and worried that I might not be able to have a place to sleep on my first night in Taiwan. Certainly, not the kind of omen was I looking for to start my long-awaited winter vacation. As time was winding down to midnight, I was frantically searching for someone to talk to. The streets were a little quiet. Then, I saw a man sitting on his motorbike talking to his girlfriend. Generally, I am very timid about approaching strangers especially in a foreign country, but despite my apprehensions, I came up to him and asked if he could help me. His English was minimal, but luckily enough, the address was conveniently printed in Chinese. At first, he seemed confused about the address, and then he popped out his iPhone which had the map, and told me to hop on to his motorbike. He drove me a few short blocks, and dropped me off at the hostel. They say first impressions speak volumes, and in that case, I came away in awe of how generous and trustworthy many Taiwanese are towards foreigners. I have had many pleasant experiences in Korea, and places that I've been to, but never in a matter of less than 2 hours have I had that kind of generosity been given to me from people I never even knew. Once I make my home back in Chicago or elsewhere in the US, I look forward to reciprocating that kind of generosity towards any foreigners coming in to my country.

Luckily, the hostel was still open, and Doris, the head person in charge was patiently waiting for me. Walking inside, it was nothing like a hostel. I felt like I was in a really nice hotel with a home environment attached to it. There was a nice communal kitchen, wooden desks, pillows on the chairs. Everything was super clean and cozy. She took me to my room, and it blew me away. I had a nice TV, bed, my own bathroom, big closet, desk, fridge. Granted, I've stayed in nicer hotels before, but doing backpacker hostels/guesthouses, the quality isn't always the greatest. For the price that I was paying for with this guesthouse, it was much lower than I would have paid at any motel. The guesthouse is called Mudan House. You can find it on It's run by Doris' family. Her aunt makes breakfast every morning to all the guests, there's a washer that you could use, and her family have been wonderful. The service is impeccably amazing, and I met some cool travelers who were also staying there. Without question, this has been easily the best experience I've stayed at a hostel/guesthouse, and it gets my big approval.

My first full day in Taiwan was spent exploring through the downtown part of Taipei. I explored the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Palace which was larger than life. The architecture of these buildings, though fairly recent, are nicely put together. Inside, is a mausoleum which has a large bronze statue of the former leader inside. There is the changing of the guard every hour, and in that hour, there's a 10 minute strategic choreography as part of that exercise. When it is done, the two soldiers stand directly opposite from one another, conveniently in between the statue itself, motionless. This routine is also done at the Sun Yat Memorial in honor of said name who was named as the founding father of Taiwan (formerly known as Formosa).

I explored the botanical gardens, and the government buildings in that area. Around the area is a park commemorating the tragic events of 2-18 during the KMT martial law era. Though the streets of Taipei are significantly cleaner than urban Korea and Hong Kong, the pollution is undoubtedly present. The motorbikes which runs the streets, and many cars that were modeled in the 90s spew out fumes worser than Chernobyl itself. This was the kind of experience I had when I was in Vietnam; the undeniably disgusting fumes that make it necessary to wear a health mask.

I was fortunate enough to make my visit to Taipei 101, the 2nd largest building in the world after Dubai. Being from Chicago, I was used to having the Sears Tower (now dreadfully known as Willis Towers) as the largest in the world. Its architecure is piercingly daunting, and an awkward fit with the rest of the supporting skyline, but it still retains its status as the largest in the US and as the heart and soul of Chicago. With Taipei 101, there are hardly any buidlings that don't come anywhere as half as tall as that building. With that said, I also found Taipei 101 to look a lot smaller in person than what I would see with the Sears Tower.

Traveling through one of the main night markets in Taipei was a special treat. During my time in Hong Kong, I had a memorable time with my friend Ikee haggling prices with vendors, looking at a couple of blocks filled with toys, crafts, clothes, street food, supplies, and endless supplies of sex toys. The night market in Taipei is rather less on the quantity, but more on the shock value. There are the unsightly displays of pig intestines, squid, chicken feet, and one stall selling freshly carved up turtles. A few disturbing displays were the snakes. Unfortunately, I wasn't allowed to take any pictures of it, but there was one giant python the size of my studio apartment on display. Apparently, they sell snake blood. What benefits it brings, I have not a clue.

As my first night came to a close, I was comforted knowing how liberating it was to be traveling by myself and experience many new cultural things head on. Not having to negotiate time and places with friends, or be at school dealing with my students, and knowing that I will have less "me" time when I come back for a home visit in February makes traveling that much more enjoyable.

Many more to come.....