Tag Archives: Korea

2010: things I did and saw in Korea

Here’s a brief video review of the things that I did and saw during my (almost) year in Korea.

Merry Christmas to everyone and happy 2011!


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And now I begin to slowly make my way back to Kanada

Well, I’m finished my Korean chapter.  My last day of teaching was Thursday and it went pretty smoothly.  Some of my students made cards for me and a few gave me small gifts. So that was nice and it made me feel like I’d made some kind of impact. But then one of my more advanced students wrote “You will go back to Kanada now.” So . . .  maybe not that big of an impact.

The other teachers got me a cake and we had a little goodbye gathering before they went to teach the rest of their classes for the night (I only had three classes on Thursday.) I’ll really miss a lot of the people I worked with and a lot of the students. For the most part, however, I’m glad to be done the contract and able to move on to new adventures.

Speaking of new adventures, I’m in Taiwan!  I made it to Hualien on Saturday and I took a trip to Taroko Gorge on Sunday. I had been feeling wary of going because it’s such a large tourist draw, but I suppose some things draw lots of people for a reason. The Gorge was beautiful. I was really excited to see it, and even  more so when I realised how few people there were. (Apparently a lot of people are scared to visit the Gorge because there was a bus accident a few months ago.)


Safety first!



I was really hoping to see a monkey and was somewhat successful. We saw a monkey when we were in the van. Also, there was a statue of the Macaque at the visitor’s centre.  It wasn’t an up close encounter, but I guess it might have to do.


The closest I got to having my camera stolen by a monkey. Some day . . .



Now I’m in Tainan, where I spent the day touring some cool and some not-so-cool historical sights.  But more about Tainan later . I’ll leave you with a view of the Shakadang River, as seen through the holes in the walls of Taroko Gorge.



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Turning back the clock

Candles spell out the traditional English birt...

Image via Wikipedia

Fun fact: this year I will knock a year off my age on my birthday.

I only got to be 25 for 10 days. When I moved to Korea I had to start telling people my Korean age, 27.

Confused? Allow me to break it down for you:  In Canada, when we are born our age is measured in weeks and months until our first birthday.  In Korea, when children are born they turn one.  Then, they gain a year every January 1st. So, had I been born in Korea, I would have turned 2 on January 1st, 1985. In Canada I was barely 2 weeks old.

Still confused? Don’t worry; it took me a long time and some help from co-workers before I figured out how old I was. I would have gladly just ignored it, but age is very important in Korean society. It’s one of the first thing that anyone asks when meeting new people.

Anyhow, I will be leaving Korea on my birthday this year. This means that instead of going from 25 to 26, I will be regressing from 27 to 26.  Take THAT, mother nature!

EDIT: WordPress wants me to tag this post with “Hillary Rodham Clinton,” which cracks me up.

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216 bows

Geumsansa Temple (A) is located about 4 hours from Seoul, in South Korea's Jeollabuk-do.

I’ve started serious preparations to leave Korea: packing, cleaning, paperwork, etc.  I feel like I’ve done a lot here and I’ve learned a lot about Korean culture.  Still, there are some things about which I know embarrassingly little. Like religion.

About 23 per cent of Korea’s population is Buddhist.  Unfortunately, I know very little about Buddhism and even less about Korean Buddhism.  Luckily for me, Korea knows that this is the situation for a lot of Westerners.

During the 2002 world cup some Korean temples started hosting a TempleStay program. The program is exactly what is sounds: an opportunity for foreigners to stay at a temple and experience the lifestyle of a Buddhist monk for a brief time.

I signed up for a TempleStay at Geumsansa Temple, in the southern province of Jeollabuk-do. After the 4-hour bus ride, we were greeted by English-speaking volunteers, who gave us our outfits to be worn during our stay. They are loose fitting pants and shirts. We changed into our temple clothing, but thankfully we were allowed to wear extra clothing underneath and even jackets on top to keep warm.

Once we were in our Temple-appropriate garb, we met the monk who would be our guide for the stay, “Stone Head.”  He was one of the most charming people I have ever met and he instantly managed to put us at ease, even though he was working through a translator. Stone Head welcomed us and explained the temple rules and etiquette. He taught us how to walk, bow, and greet others in the temple grounds.

After we met the monk we made lotus lanterns. They were really easy to make (at least, our dumbed-down version was easy to make) but I had some challenges.  My fingers became so sticky that by the end I could no longer make the paper leaves stick to the lantern. Thankfully, Stone Head came and helped me. Actually, he took pictures of me struggling and then he hijacked my glue stick and started laughing at me while he helped me fix my mucked-up lantern.  When we posed for a picture together he said “new friend.” I think that’s one of only a few English phrases he knows.  It has since occurred to me that it’s a good phrase to learn in any language.

After we made the lotus lanterns we went to dinner. Meals are eaten in complete silence and there is zero food waste. You have to eat every last grain of rice. The food was delicious. It was standard Korean food: kimchi, soup, and rice, but with LOTS of vegetables, which is not always the case in Korean cuisine.

After we finished washing our bowls, we participated in the evening service. This mostly consisted of bows and chanting. Or, for most of us, bows and watching the monks chant. We had booklets with the chants printed in roman letters, but it was really difficult to bow and keep up with the chanting.

When the evening service was done we had a tea ceremony with our monk.  We learned how to properly serve and drink the tea and we were served snacks.

The ceremony was also an opportunity to ask Stone Head any questions about his life or about Buddhism.  It was during the tea ceremony that we learned the importance of the number 108 and the significance of the lotus flower.

The thing that stuck with me most, however, had nothing to do with Buddhism itself. Someone asked the monk what he had been like as a child and he laughed. He said that he was notorious in his neighborhood. Everyone knew him because he was such a troublemaker. I thought of a few of my students, the ones who are responsible for my few grey hairs, and imagined them as future monks. It’s a thought that still makes me wonder and laugh.

After the tea ceremony was complete we had a bit of free time before lights out at 9:30. Wake up the next morning was at 3:00.  We awoke and prepared for the pre-dawn morning service. This time there was more chanting (or listening to the chanting) and then we did 108 bows.

A note on the bows: these are not simple “standing and bending your waist” bows. They are “get down on your knees and put your forehead to the ground before you stand up” bows. They are exhausting, particularly at 3:00 am. The bows were followed by a quick 10 minutes of meditation and then a bit of rest time before breakfast.


Geumsansa Temple grounds, as seen through the surrounding bamboo forest

At 5:30 we reconvened ate a formal Buddhist breakfast.  I don’t have any pictures of this part of the day because I left my camera in our room. However, the breakfast ceremony consisted placing four bowls of different sizes on the corners of the placemat. Then we poured water from one bowl to the next, in a particular order. Once all of the bowls were clean, we were served rice, soup and side dishes. When we ate we held the bowl very close to our faces, so that the others could not see our mouths.  When we finished eating once again poured the water from bowl to bowl, cleaning them with water and a yellow radish slice. Then we drank the water.

After breakfast we participated in community work, which was just raking some leaves for about 30 minutes. After our “work” we went for a “walking meditation.” It was really more of a walk in the woods while we chatted with one another. I should mention that the monk was one of the chattiest, so we didn’t feel like we were breaking any rules.

Next up: 108 prayer beads. Stone Head taught us how to make them.

Step 1: Bow.

Step 2: String one bead.

Step 3: Stand up.

Repeat 108 times.

Once we had our instructions we were on our own. We went to the prayer hall of our choosing and made our beads.  If your keeping count, this brings us to 216 formal bows so far. (This does not count the 3 bows taken upon entering and exiting the hall.)

After finishing our beads, we walked back to the meal hall and had one last lunch before it was time to change back into our everyday clothes and go home.  It was not a particularly restful weekend. My legs are still a little sore from the bowing and I was a bit tired while teaching Monday’s classes. Regardless, it was one of the best experiences of my year in Korea. I highly recommend the TempleStay program in general and I especially recommend the program at Geumsansa, where the monks and volunteers are absolutely lovely.

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November 11th

The cover of a Pepero box

Image via Wikipedia

This is my first poppy-free November 11th.

Today is not a day of remembrance in Korea. Instead, Novemeber 11th is Pepero Day.  What’s Pepero? Pepero is a candy.  It’s a bit like a chocolate-covered cracker and a lot like Pocky, the more popular Japanese Candy.  November 11th is a day when children and young couples exchange Pepero sticks.

There are conflicting rumours about just how Pepero Day got started. A lot of people believe that it was started by Lotte, the company that produces the candy.  The other story is that it was started by a few school girls in Busan who gave each other Pepero on 11/11 because they all wished to grow tall and thin, like Pepero sticks.

Regardless of how it got started, it feels strange that November 11th, a day which I associate with more solemn traditions, is a completely commercial day in Korea.  I feels so odd that ceremonies are being held in Canada to honour those who have fallen while fighting for their countries, and for Korea, but in Korea we are eating candy.  Weird.

I am not condemning Pepero Day, nor am I condemning commercial holidays. I see no real difference between Pepero Day and modern  Halloween celebrations.  Also, it would make no sense to celebrate on November 11th,  since Korea played no official role in World War I. (Korea observes Memorial Day on June 6th.)

It just feels strange to me. Let’s call it part of culture shock. I cannot begin to understand Korea’s relationship with war. It has been occupied by foreign countries several times and is still technically at war with North Korea. That, and the fact that every Korean male must serve in the military, means that Koreans are generally  more connected to their country’s military endeavors than most Canadians.  Most Canadians need Remembrance Day  as a reminder to pay tribute to the men and women who fought for their country.  Who am I to judge if Koreans give each other candy on the same day?

At the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month I will have my own personal moment of silence, 12 1/2 hours ahead of any part of Canada. Then I will go to work, without a poppy, and collect boxes and boxes of chocolate-covered crackers.  And I guess that’s just life as an expat.

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Weekends in Seoul

I’ve been taking it easy since I returned from Taiwan.  However, I am not taking for granted that I live so close to Seoul, a completely awesome city. A few weeks ago I hiked part of the city walls with some friends. The portion of the wall that we hiked offers some nice views of Gyeongbokgung and Gwanghwamun Square. In the center of the foreground (well, behind the shrubs)  you can see the corner of a square; that’s Gyeongbokgung Palace.  A little further, you can see a strip of grass in the middle of big roads; that’s Gwangwhamun Square, probably one of the most recognisable places in Seoul. Last, but not least, N Seoul Tower is near the top left.

4/5 of the hiking group. Missing: Heidi, photog extraordinaire.


The next weekend I took another trip into Seoul to visit Gyeongbokgung Palace.  I’m not sure why I waited almost ten months to visit the Palace; it’s usually one of the first stops for visitors to Seoul.  If you want to see pictures of the palace’s buildings then a Google image search is worthwhile, but here are some of the sights on a smaller scale.

Gyeongbokgung guards

Later that same day I took the bus to the base of N Seoul Tower, atop Namsan Mountain. (Side note: the English name for Namsan is Namsan Mountain, even though “san” means mountain. So really, it’s Nam Mountain Mountain. Same goes with every other mountain in Korea: Bukhan Mountain Mountain, Jiri Mountain Mountain, etc.)  At the base of N Seoul Tower there are fences where the fad of “love locks” is becoming more and more popular. Couples put the locks on the fences to symbolize the eternity of their love. I know. I just threw up in my brain too.  Cringing aside, it can be fun to take pictures of the locks.

I have no major travels planned until I leave Korea, but I’m hoping to make use of the few weekends that I have left to take more mini trips.  My year in Korea is quickly winding down and I’m starting to feel those familiar bittersweet emotions.  I know that leaving Korea is the right decision for me, but it is hard to know that I will be leaving a place and a lot people that I have grown to love. Still, I have six weeks left in Korea and I plan on making the most of my time here.

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Halloween is a scary time

Last Thursday and Friday we celebrated Halloween at my school. Halloween is not a common holiday in Korea. Kids know what it is because of Western media and they learn about it in school, but they don’t trick-or-treat or celebrate Halloween outside of English class. This means that Korean children and North American children have very different perceptions of the holiday.

When I was a kid there was always a build up to Halloween. It involved making Halloween crafts in school, agonizing over what the perfect costume would be, trying to convince my parents that we needed WAY more halloween candy than we really did, and picking out the perfect pumpkin.  By the time October 31st finally arrived, the Halloween energy in the air was almost palpable. Sure, Halloween was about candy, but it was also about trick-or-treating: the one night of the year when kids are given the freedom to run around  the neighborhood after dark, in crazy costumes, with their friends,  on a school night. Candy is a very important part of Halloween – perhaps even the most important part for a lot of kids- but in North America it is not the only part.

In Korea, however, where trick-or-treating does not exist, Halloween ought to be renamed  END OF OCTOBER CANDY DAY!!!!!  In caps, with five exclamation marks.

On Thursday I had a three-hour period with three first graders (two boys and a girl.) This class is a long one on regular days, since three hours is a long time for beginners in a second language, especially for first-grade boys. This week, however, we didn’t even have the structure of regular classes; it was Halloween day.   Since there are only three kids in the class and they are very low-level, we were not participating in the spelling bee-type activity that the rest of the classes were doing. Instead, I had  planned several Halloween-themed activities.  Throughout the class I gave candy as rewards, but before I handed out the candy I made the kids go outside, knock on the door and say “Trick or treat!”  They got the hang of it pretty quickly.  Pavlov would have been proud.

There was one big rule though: No eating candy until the end of class. I’m no dummy; I wasn’t about to feed sugar to children and then try to contain them in a classroom.

An artist's interpretation of two Thursday students, titled "Cute Kids, Right?"

The grand finale of Thursday’s class  was a pinata. I originally was going to make a pumpkin pinata, but I was unable to find orange poster paint. Instead, I wrapped the pinata in toilet paper, glued on a mouth and some googly eyes, and called it a mummy’s head. After I explained the concept of a pinata and the rules, I turned around to grab the plastic baseball bat the kids would be using to hit the pinata. In the split second that I had my back turned, I heard the very distinct crinkling of a candy wrapper. I whipped around to see one of the boys looking at me sheepishly. He had the same expression as my dog when I catch her steeling a loaf of bread off the counter.  I didn’t want to be Teacher McGrumpypants at the end of an otherwise  well-behaved party, so instead of punishing the student I allowed the other students to eat one piece of candy also.

You know how in monster movies after the monster has its first taste of blood it will stop at nothing to get more blood? Well, that’s what this was like, only instead of blood, these little monsters were after sugar.  All that stood between them and another hit of sugar were a few layers of paper mache and some googly eyes.

Unfortunately for the three little monsters, the mummy was difficult to kill. For some reason, rather than cracking, the paper mache just became more and more pliable with every hit. Eventually, the pinata fell off  its string and lost all of its tissue, eyes, and mouth. All that remained was a bare and dented mummy head rolling around on the floor. The children took turns chasing the mummy’s head around the class, beating it mercilessly. I have never seen such looks of crazed determination in my life.  See for yourself:

Image captured using technology borrowed from NASA, because Earth cameras cannot record HCW (Halloween-Child-Wavelengths.)

In the end, I grabbed the mummy’s head and put him out of his misery by stabbing him with a pair of scissors.  I let the kids tear him open and as soon as they had their bags of candy in hand they collapsed into their chairs, exhausted from a hard fifteen minutes of mummy-slaying.

Looking back on the event, I think that I succeeded in introducing the kids to Halloween. I mean Halloween is about running around, being something you’re not for a short period, having fun with your friends, and sometimes things get a bit scary.  These kids ran around as Mummy-hunters, had a ton of fun, and scared their teacher. So, mission accomplished, right?

Happy Halloween!


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