"Words have no wings, but they can travel a thousand miles" (Korean Proverb)

Welcome to Flying Words, Jon and Aileen's blog of our adventures in South Korea! We will be in South Korea for a year, starting in mid-July, teaching English in a private school. We just graduated from college this past May, and are looking forward to having some adventures before continuing our education. 
We started this blog to keep all our family and friends updated and to share our photos and stories. We hope this is entertaining for you! We will miss you all, and are very thankful to have the internet to keep us in touch. 

Friday, September 26, 2008

Some Observations (Actual Substance....)

    So, we've been here for about two months, and I think its time I write about my impressions of Korea and Korean culture, beyond just narrating my life. There are two main things that stand out to me here that I want to expand on-- work ethic and coffee shops.

The work ethic here is intense, especially among the students. Just the fact that there are so many English teachers here is telling when it comes to how much everyone wants to learn English. But it's not limited to English. Most, if not all, of my students are also currently attending probably 3-4 extra classes, which meet multiple times a week. They go to science, math, music, Japanese and/or Chinese academies in addition to their normal school and, of course, English classes. I have at least two students who are attending TWO English academies at once. And my students are from 7-14 years old, most of them between 10 and 13. Most are up until midnight doing homework. Katy, one of my most advanced students, told me she had to spend Chuseok (Korean Thanksgiving) in her room studying for the huge tests middle school students have next week. She missed all the family celebrations and didn't even get to see her grandparents or cousins. 
While this may seem depressing, and certainly I think kids need free time, I can tell you that this is going to help them, and give them a huge advantage over American students when they all compete for jobs, which they will most definitely have to do. It makes me want to go home and tell kids to wake up! Maybe not so young, but I definitely think that a lot of high school and college kids need a wake up call, to stop messing around and not taking school seriously, or there won't be jobs for them. Especially college students. 
      I don't know much about college student here, but I do spend some time in the university area, which is full of restaurants and bars and shops. At the coffeehouses and restaurants you can see groups of students huddled over notebooks and textbooks. Not to say that they don't know how to relax. The bar and karaoke scene here is hopping every day of the week. I have found Koreans to be hard workers, and hard partiers. Proof to the American college student that you can do both. Even the adults go out drinking, and on the weekends grandparents hang out under bridges with cases of soju (rice liquor). As for the kids, they seem well-adjusted enough. They're still kids, they still goof off and complain about homework, and I always see them hanging out around town, giggling and acting like, well, kids. And the college students can be seen wandering the streets socializing, looking relaxed and happy as any college students. 

This brings me to my next observation. There are more coffeehouses here than I could have imagined, even if this were an American city. They're nice, too, and most aren't franchise. I haven't seen a Starbucks, though I saw where one was being put in. It amazes me how coffeeshops can survive when they're surrounded by others. In Jeonbuk-de (the university area) there are probably 4 per block consistently throughout the 10-15 blocks of pedestrian shops. And they are all always pretty busy. A few weekends ago, the coffeeshop Jon and I went to to hang out and read in was packed, people were searching in vain for tables, yet it still didn't seem too bustling or annoying. 
I read somewhere once that coffeeshops are crucial to the intellectual and political development of a society. I'm not sure how true that is, but I do know that public spaces, where people can interact outside of work or family institutions and where they sit around and talk, are very important to development of community. And I also know that coffeeshops were the epicenter of much revolutionary and reformist discussion and debate in very different societies at very different times. Cafes in Paris, Argentina, Russia and India teem with discussion. It's the very nature of coffeehouses. In this vein, the coffeehouse trend I am witnessing here in Korea is good, for a private society, one who prides itself on putting on a good face. Since I don't speak Korean, I can't attest to any intellectual conversations at coffeehouses, but I'm sure there are some, or that they will at least develop. People can only sit around, relax and talk about superficial issues for so long before they broach larger, deeper topics. 
I did some research into the connection between coffeeshops and intellectual development, and I found some interesting ideas. Some of these ideas went a little too far, in my opinion, in crediting coffee with about every political, economic and social reform during the Enlightenment. Some, however, seem quite interesting. Here are some passages I found most interesting:

This one is from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution: 

"Over the centuries, 'cafes became places where informed men, some educated and some not, could come together and talk about stuff,' including literature, plays, poems, economics and politics...'Having a place to do that enriches a culture,' Weston said. 'It takes us out of the cocoon of private life and into the public world. Cafes are important for creating a public life, particularly in a democracy. It becomes a place where the town, or, in the big city, where the neighborhood develops.'"

This one is from a review of the book "Coffee: A Dark History" in the Washington Post:

The role of the coffeehouse, he argues, simply cannot be underestimated. In the Arab world it "was, other than the reviled tavern, the only place to meet friends outside the home, discuss politics and literature..."and thus is became "an integral part of the imperial system, providing a forum for the coming together and dissemination of news and ideas." ... "It has been argued that, until the arrival of coffee, the population of Europe had existed in a constant state of mild intoxication, since the quality of water was such that many people drank the weak beers of the time morning, noon and night. By switching to coffee, they were not only reducing the muddle-headedness resulting from alcohol consumption, but also ingesting a powerful new drug. Indeed, it could be said that the introduction of coffee to England led to a ... 'brain explosion.'"

The author of the book, Anthony Wild, continues to cite Lloyds of London, the Stock Exchange, the East India Company and the Royal Society as among those British institutions having their origins in coffeehouses. 

Certainly food for thought, isn't it? Or at least 'drink for thought.' 

Thursday, September 18, 2008

It's been a while........

(look! new pictures!)

Hey guys, how's it going? I know it's been a while since I've written. It's a combination of the fact that I've gotten a lot more busy at work and the fact that we still haven't gotten internet in our apartment. When we tell people that last one, they look at us like we just said we.....I don't even know....I guess like we just said we had never seen an electric lightbulb. 

Anyway, last weekend was a Korean holiday called Chuseok. It's essentially a harvest celebration, much like American Thanksgiving. Traditionally, families get together, get up really early to bow to their ancestors and offer them food, and then eat a huge meal and play traditional games the rest of the day. And, I'm sure, drink a lot of soju (traditional rice liquor).

We had this Monday and Tuesday off for the holiday, and one of our 2 directors invited us to his house. We weren't really sure for how long, or what was going on, because he barely speaks English. He just kind of pointed at the calendar and said "my house" and pointed at Friday and said "train." 

So, accordingly, Friday night, right after classes, we took a train to Suncheon where Mr. Kim and his family live. He has a wife and three sons, two of which are currently in private Christian schools in the US (one in Colombia, South Carolina...small world. We saw pictures of him and his friends at Carowinds :) ). His youngest son Eric (that's his English name) is 9 and in third grade. He is a lot of fun-- he speaks some English, and was teaching us some Korean. But mostly he wanted to play games, which Jon was more than happy to oblige. Mrs. Kim is very nice and fun. We had met them both when they picked us up at the airport back in August and then helped us settle in the next day. 

We ended up staying until Monday morning, and seeing a lot of the surrounding area. On Saturday we went to Mr. Kim's father's apartment in a town about an hour away and dropped off the food for Chuseok, then left Eric with Mr Kim's father and went to a seaside park where we walked across a bridge to an island, walked around the island and watched a really cool musical fountain. It was gorgeous. There were caves around the island, and steep rock cliffs. The coast of Korea is dotted with islands but also very mountainous. All the islands are mountains, and there are mountains all along the coast. 

That night we went out to eat with Mr. Kim the elder and Eric. We ate grilled eel...it was really surprisingly good! Then we visited Mr Kim's sister and her family. She had just had a baby 2 weeks ago...she was adorable. 

The next day we drove to visit Mrs Kim's uncle at the church where he is the senior pastor. We stayed there for a while because the Kims wanted to meet a friend of the uncle's who lives in Seattle, near where their other son goes to school. I take it they were talking about college in America because I kept hearing "SAT," "Community College" and other such words. 

After that most educational visit (of which we couldn't understand a word and during which Eric crawled under the table because he got bored), we went to a....(drumroll please)....green tea plantation!!!! It was sooooooooo gorgeous and amazing. I felt like I was in a movie (coincidentally, that plantation is used a lot for filming movies). Jon and I bought lots of tea and two mugs. We all had green tea ice cream, and ate homemade noodles made using green tea powder. There was even green tea salt to better season the noodle soup if you wanted. 

That night, we saw Mama Mia. That movie is a huge hit here. The Kims absolutely loved it, and were singing all the songs afterwards (in that kind of phoenetical way you sing songs when you don't actually speak the language they're written in). 

Monday, September 8, 2008

Korean Salsa Dancers?!

Leave it to me to find just about the only vestige of Latin America in Korea. Or at least in Jeonju.

On Friday night, Jon, Laura (one of the Korean teachers at our school) and I went to Deep In, one of the foreigner hangout bars in Jeonju. We hung out there for a while, but then decided we were hungry (well, mostly Jon was), so we left in search of something to eat. The area around Deep In isn't really a bar neighborhood, it's the downtown area where there's a lot of shops and restaurants, but nothing's really open late. So as we wandered the empty streets looking for food, I heard salsa music coming from down the street. When we got closer to the source, we realized the music was coming down some stairs from what looked like a restaurant that seemed to be open. Yes! Finally, food. And the added bonus, and mystery, of salsa music at a Korean restaurant in Jeonju. 

We went upstairs and ascertained that they were, in fact, still open. Laura ordered for us, and after a few minutes of sitting the music was too much for me. I had to dance. So Jon and I salsa danced for a song. Then the other, large party across the restaurant started clapping. When we looked their way, we realized that some of them were dancing too. Then one guy came and asked me to dance...he was really good. Laura went over and talked to them, to find out why they randomly knew salsa and what they were doing there. It turned out they were the Jeonju Salsa Club, and they were having a celebratory dinner after a workshop with a salsa teacher/events planner from Seoul. 

It turned out the teacher/planner was the only one among them who could speak English. He came over and spoke with us about the club, and what he was doing there. He told us he was organizing a World Salsa Congress in Seoul in October! Crazy! He was really nice, and talked to us for a while about salsa, and life. His name was Spin, and he used to dance but he got hurt, so now he teaches and plans. He gave us his number and told us to call him when we go to the Salsa Congress, which we definitely will. There are going to be dancers from all over the world, including Columbia.  

All in all, it was a really random experience. The restaurant wasn't even normally a salsa-playing establishment. The Club had just asked them to play the music that night, for their dinner. There is a salsa club down the street, that we saw one night but haven't gone to yet. Now I'm especially excited to. 

It's really a good thing I have salsa radar. :) 

Monday, September 1, 2008

Kimchi the Hedgehog (Don't act like you're surprised :) )

Well, I finally gave in to my years of wanting a hedgehog. It all happened at Homever, a big supermarket/department store in Jeonju where we went to scout out the food choices, since we had heard you could find things there you couldn't find anywhere else. Which was true. We found things like actual spaghetti sauce, tortillas, and good spices. And a hedgehog. Which was very cute. 
I didn't really consider buying her until the second time we saw her. I figured, since 
hedgehogs are hard to find, and I've been wanting one, I should check out the procedure for bringi
ng her back to the States to see if we should get her. Turns out, there's
 not really any requirements for pet rodents/small mammals. So, after some research into how to take care of a hedgehog, we went to Homever after work last night and bought her. Of course, we took our Korean friend to ask about its health, age, a guarantee and other things. Turns out, the guy who sold her to us owns a hedgehog too, so he was helpful. 

Kimchi, as we named her, is about 3 months old but fully grown. (For those 
who don't know, kimchi is Korean fermented/pickled vegetables, usually cabb
age, that are buried underground in pots for months with an ungodly amount of chili powder. Its served with about every meal he
re.) Hedgehogs are nocturnal, which is good since we work all day but get home at around 9 and usually stay up until about 1am. Kimchi is very curious, and adorable. She is not really afraid of us-- hedgehogs curl up in a ball when they are afraid, and she lets us pick her up without pause and spent all her time in transit and getting used to her new home exploring rather than being scared. 

Last night I didn't sleep too well, being nervous about every strange noise, and the few times I checked on her after a particularly strange noise, I found her rearranging the things in her cage, climbing the wire walls and otherwise playing. We had cut a shoebox in half
 and put it in her cage to make a shelter for her to hide in, but we found her asleep this morning underneath her flipped-over shelter. It didn't look too comfortable, but obviously she thought it was. You could see it moving up and down with her breathing. :) 

(The pictures are from when we put her into a cardboard box while arranging her cage...she didn't really like it in there, and escaped as soon as she could)