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Jack Brown: Blog

Three weeks, three pages

Posted on October 2, 2012 with 4 comments

The weekend that has just passed marks two months in Korea.  What a change from where I was last year!  Last year, I was tired of being in the office doing lesson plans every weekend; I was preparing for ACDA Sun Valley retreat; Kevin had started the college search and we’d planned our southern visit; and the Saints were one of the best teams in the NFL.  Now -- well, I’m on Chuseok break (more below); I’ve been to one music teacher conference, but because I’m new I didn’t do much except put posters up and take posters down; Kevin is a freshman at LSU (again, more below); and the Saints are 0-4.  Some ups, some downs.


Pardon the play-by-play that comes up, but it’s been a while since I blogged.  I have a lot to cram in!  I have photos of some of these events on facebook and will have more as soon as I can figure out the Mac, so feel free to look there if you want pictures.


Chuseok is sort of a Korean Thanksgiving, but it also incorporates elements of Mothers Day, Fathers Day, and remembrance of all ancestors, both dead and living.  It even has a Christmasy feel in some ways.  We’re out all week at school to allow families time to travel to ancestral home towns and see loved ones.  Lest you get too jealous, we get no time off in November for Thanksgiving, so that’s break-even.  (We do have a big American Thanksgiving dinner on the last weekend of November though.)  I’ve learned many of the Chuseok customs and have enjoyed some time off to sight-see in the Seoul area.  Most of the teachers are traveling abroad, but this being my first year in Korea, I chose to stay local and see all the wonders of Seoul.  I won’t get to all of them, but Sunday I went with Annette (a teacher friend) to a Louvre exhibit at the big art museum here.  The theme was ancient Greek and Roman mythology, and the paintings and sculptures were jaw-dropping beautiful.  Monday I went with Kimberly (another teacher friend) and her 2-year-old daughter to Jogyesa, a beautiful Buddhist temple in Seoul (see facebook photos).  Today (Tuesday) I’m seeing the sights of Gangnam -- yes, that Gangnam, the one of “Gangnam Style”.  I’m in Gangnam for the week dog-sitting for a teacher couple who went abroad for the week, so I’ll catch a Buddhist temple here, then COEX (one of the world’s largest malls), then the bridge over the Han river that has a huge colored light/water jet show after dark, then a jazz bar here.  Wednesday I’m going with a group of teachers to visit a couple of palaces near the temple I visited Monday.  I’ll probably relax with Khumbu (the dog) for most of the rest of the week, with some workout time today, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday.   I’m checking out a local music gig Thursday night in Itaewon, so I might do a couple of sights on the way there -- we’ll see.  And Saturday I’m helping administer the SAT at my school.  It’ll be a fun week!  But I’m glad to have the down-time too.


Last week I organized a group to go to the touring Moscow City Ballet production of “Swan Lake”, and it was awesome.  Last Thursday night I enjoyed a concert of Korean traditional music, in which one of the performers was the older sister of one of my choir students.  She’s a music student at a local university.  And Friday night I kicked off Chuseok with Jon and Li Dan, a teacher couple here.  He’s a 4th-grade teacher from New Zealand; she’s from China and teaches Chinese.  I’ve learned to enjoy one particular Korean custom -- the notion that all quick-stop type stores are also bars.  Outside every 7-11 equivalent (and they do actually have 7-11’s here, but GS25 is the biggest chain), they have plastic tables and chairs for customers.  People go in and buy beer, cigarettes, whatever, and come out and drink and party on the sidewalk.  I had my guitar with me Friday night, so Jon, Li Dan and I sang songs and had a blast.  A 65-year-old (yes, he told us) Korean guy came by and joined us -- he asked in broken English for classic tunes, so I played “I Want To Hold Your Hand”, “Take It Easy”, “Take Me Home, Country Roads”, “Moonshadow” and others -- and he sang along!  It was a blast.


Speaking of Korean customs, many have asked me what’s different here.  I’ve described some in previous blog entries, but it’s the little things that sneak up on you.  No critical western culture commentary intended here -- I realize it’s just different, not better/worse, and I’m not in Rome anymore so I can’t expect Koreans to do as the Romans do.  So, to wit, a few of those little things:


Cars and traffic.  You learn quickly here that cars have the right-of-way.  They will stop and wait if you have the walk sign in a crosswalk, but otherwise they expect you to move, wait, etc.  Oh, and that includes sidewalks.  I’m convinced that “sidewalk” and “parking lot” are the same word in Korean -- never again will I let my Boise friends make fun of my southern habit of putting tires up on the curb when street parking, or parking on the front lawn.  I mean, literally, in Korea, cars park completely on the sidewalk, taking the entire sidewalk, and that’s normal business.  People walk out into the street to go around them . . . and remember, cars have the right-of-way in the street.  Motorcycles and motor scooters use sidewalks as frequently as they do streets.  And while we’re talking traffic vocabulary, I’m also convinced that there is no Korean word or phrase for “stop sign” -- I have seen exactly one stop sign (near Sunae) since arriving, and it’s one direction at a busy four-way intersection.  When drivers approach a non-lighted intersection, they slow down a bit, look a bit, then go -- or often, if then can tell they’re the first car at the intersection, they don’t even slow down except to execute a turn.  But what’s most amazing about all of this is that it works.  I have seen far fewer traffic accidents here than in the US.  So I guess they’re used to it.


Subways and buses.  The public transit system here is extensive and convenient and bilingual (English/Korean), but I’ve already written about that in a previous entry.  The only reason I add something now is: if you visit with an iPhone anytime in the next bit, revert to the old iOS.  I’m doing that tomorrow.  When Apple decided to use their own map system and ditch googlemaps, it caused all the subway and bus apps to default to Apple maps -- and apparently there is no way (as of yet) to revert to google maps.  Apple maps does NOT show subway stations or routes, which makes the bus app a lot less useful (most of the time it’s handy to know where your bus stop is relative to a subway station) and makes the maps function in general barely useful at all beyond your immediate neighborhood.  It also impacts the subway app, but less so -- it’s still useful as long as you’re wanting to see where you are on the subway system and don’t care where you are in the city.


Bike paths and green spaces: The yin and yang of development and recreation areas is apparently a central feature of urban planning here.  No matter where you live, there’s somewhere to go hiking within a 15-minute walk (usually less).  No exaggeration -- that’s literally the truth.  And it’s mostly forested areas with trails, not just urban paths (although those exist too).  Every river (and there are many) has a bike/hike path next to it, paved or covered with that plastic-rubber stuff they put on running tracks.  It’s a cyclist’s paradise -- pretty soon, when my bike is ready to rock, I’ll be biking to work 45-60 minutes each direction and spending less than 10 of those minutes on city streets.  The rest is river paths.


Let’s get away from transit, to food:


Kimchi.  Yes, it’s really a part of every Korean meal, for those who eat traditionally most of the time.  And yes, it’s spicier than hell -- makes my nose run like crazy, much worse than Cajun food or Mexican food.  But apparently it’s good for you -- rare indeed is the Korean who is overweight, and truly obese Koreans are non-existent (well, I haven’t seen any).  And, on average, their younger generation outlives the American younger generation.


American food.  It’s everywhere -- pizza, fried chicken, Starbucks and Starbucks knockoffs, McDonalds, Burger King, Quiznos, KFC, and many more -- they’re all here.  I haven’t visited any of them yet.  But then I don’t eat out much anyway -- I prefer cooking.


Bread.  Good bread is hard to find here.  Often you see something that looks delicious, only to get it home and find out it’s been sweetened with quite a sugar kick.  Even garlic bread is sugared up.  Sandwich bread at the grocery store is almost all white bread, rarely wheat or multi-grain.  I get most of my bread from CostCo (the world’s largest is a 20-minute bus ride from my place) and usually shun the Korean stuff, but every now and then I find a few good breadsticks that aren’t too sugary.


And a quick word about personal interactions.  In general, Koreans are incredibly polite.  “Kam saha mi da” (probably spelled that wrong -- but it’s “thank you”) seems to permeate nearly every other sentence.  But you do have to get used to the New Yorker thing of people pushing and shoving -- not out of rudeness, but just simply because there are a lot of people and they’re all going different directions.  CostCo in particular is a great experience for those who want to grow accustomed to being rammed in the rear repeatedly with shopping carts.  The subway is another place where you’ll get elbowed -- not out of rudeness, but just because that’s what happens when you’re in close quarters with a lot of people.  So don’t take it as rudeness if you visit -- in fact, you will likely be offered someone’s seat on the subway, no matter what your age.  And if you try to offer your seat to an elderly person or a woman (if you’re a man), you’ll likely be thanked and refused kindly.  But go ahead and offer.  It makes us Americans look less silly. :-)


Finally, a quick word or two on Kevin: He’s loving LSU, getting better grades than he expected, and he has a girlfriend.  In other words, college is everything I’d hoped it would be for him!  Let’s just hope the good grades thing keeps up.  More about him as the situation develops.


Okay, that was far too long!  But it’s also been far too long since I’ve updated you.  Heck, we’ve had another typhoon since then too!  I can truly say after two months that, although I miss friends, family, and co-workers, I really like this country and its people.  I really want to learn the language though -- we’ll see how much time I have.



Ann Elston

October 23, 2012

Hello Ojdishe,

So glad to hear that you have landed well and are enjoying Korea.

Did not get to spend much time in Seoul as I was in Dom-Teaugue.

Let me know what you think of the winter weather. That is the only time that really I disliked being there.

Hank say "Hi and wish you well."

Thanks for "blogging"

Take care,

Ann & Hank Elston


October 8, 2012

I read the whole thing in one sitting :)
You are so active. I wish i had your energy! You know im not a FB'er so I must wait until you return to the South to see pictures. We'll plan another lunch!
I'm glad Kevin is doing so well @ LSU. Too bad about their loss on Saturday but yay for Saints' win yesterday!
Keep blogging....


October 2, 2012

Thanks so much for the update! Glad to learn more about the customs and food.

Nancy Brown Allen

October 2, 2012

I miss you brother! Jess and I had a great time with Kevin this past weekend and Megan is a sweetheart. I am very much enjoying your blogs so please do not stop. I am going to try Skype so we can talk face-to-face. I will let you know. Love you!