Support in Seoul, Hiking Buddies and Chuseok

My last couple weekends have been completely full, and so are the next few weekends ahead of me. While it’s been a bit tiring, especially right after recovering from a cold – I’m hopefully now fully adjusted to the Korean fall, which will turn into winter in no time – I also feel a sense of satisfaction. If this is my last year in Korea, I want to fit in as much as I possibly can!

Support Network Training and Friends in Seoul

Two weekends ago, I attended and led a training for Support Network in Seoul. Sadly in my placement this year, getting to Seoul is a little more of a hassle. In order to get to the Fulbright Building by 9:30am I left my homestay Saturday morning at 5:10, took a taxi to Busan Station, and hopped on a KTX (high speed train) to Seoul.

The Support Network – a group of volunteers ETAs can call for and about anything difficult they run into during their grant year – is smaller this year, but I think this will make for a more tight-knit group. Due to some scheduling issues, we couldn’t get the professionally trained social worker to lead our training, so the other head coordinator and I tackled the training on our own. For once, I was grateful for my packrat tendencies; I was able to reference the handout and notes I took from the previous year. While initially I didn’t expect to take up this leadership position, I’m glad to be involved in what I really do see as necessary resource for ETAs to have. Leading the training and hearing fresh ideas and opinions from new advocates joining the Support Network was motivating, and also a reminder of how much we have to improve upon…or alternatively, how much we can do! There are so many initiatives and programs within Fulbright Korea, all run primarily or exclusively by ETAs, which means the effectiveness and scope of these programs are really in our hands. Although we are here to teach English, I’m finally realizing what it means to be in Korea on a grant, and not just a job. At times, Fulbrighters really seem to be a different breed…but one that I’m happy to be a part of.

While in Seoul, I stayed the night with my friend Arria and met with my long-time friend Hannah – who I’ve known since fourth grade, but haven’t seen since high school! It’s amazing that we both ended up in Korea at the same time. We went out for shabu shabu and bingsu and it was Hannah’s first time trying both. Why didn’t we take pictures? I guess this means there’ll have to be next time soon…

Lonely Saturday No More

After a week of school that was a blur, next came a long holiday weekend! This past Sunday was Chuseok, or the Korean equivalent of Thanksgiving, based on the lunar calendar. Unfortunately I couldn’t see the “blood moon” from Korea. Chuseok is a big family holiday in Korea, and now aware of how my family celebrates major holidays, I knew to just show up to my grandparents’ house the day of. Otherwise, no one is around and I think my grandparents feel compelled to entertain me somehow (or call my oldest aunt over to do so). So the Saturday before Chuseok, I took a lazy day, waking up late, doing my laundry and setting out for a walk. I tucked my small sketchbook into my purse, thinking I might find a quiet place to draw or stop by a cafe afterwards.

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But when I headed down the coastal “walking path” that my homestay and coteachers had often told me about, I found myself on a light hike with way more stairs than I’d anticipated. I didn’t really mind though, as it felt good to get some exercise and sunlight. Soon I was sweating and accumulating an unfortunate number of mosquito bites. (So that’s why everyone was in long sleeves and pants.) Worn out, I stopped at a convenience stand to take a water break. The little convenience stand wasn’t busy so the owner was outside chatting with her friends, who hassled her when they saw me standing there before she did. I chatted with them a bit, a middle-aged woman and an elderly man, and the woman expressed loud surprise about how good my Korean was. I’d been worrying that my Korean was getting worse since my new homestay doesn’t really want me speaking Korean, so this stranger’s compliment gave me a little confidence boost. Rather than thinking about how much I still can’t understand, I was able to accept her compliment and feel good about it.

I continued my hike but before long, heard a fast-moving group coming up behind me. They were still behind me when we reached a brightly colored bridge, so I stepped to one side because I wanted to stop and take pictures. Instead of passing, the group – two men and one woman – offered to take pictures for me. We then took one together, and I took pictures of their group as well.

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Then one of the guys asked if I enjoyed makgeolli, a Korean rice wine, and invited me to join the group. Having already hiked alone for a while and with no plans for the day, I decided, why not? I’ve heard this story a lot from friends in Korea – strangers they meet while hiking will invite them to drink and eat together – but this is the first time it’s happened to me. Foreigner rite-of-passage: complete.

We ended up not only having a drink and anju (snacks intended to be eaten with alcohol) together, but hiking all the way to the end of the trail, taking a taxi to Nampo and having coffee together afterwards. It turns out, they’re a hiking group that usually meets on Saturdays. They added me to their Band group, an app that’s like Facebook but just for scheduling group hangouts. Not wanting them to think I’m blowing them off, I let them know that unfortunately my next three weekends are full, but that I hope we can meet again! I could use the exercise and the company.

Chuseok with My Family

Sunday it was time to head over to my grandparents’ house for Chuseok. Most of my family doesn’t show up until the evening, so I still had plenty of time to attend church in the morning. After the service and fellowship, I headed over, intentionally getting off the subway early, and walked through Nampo-dong, a popular downtown-esque area, and Jagalchi market on the way there. I’m enjoying the process of familiarizing myself with different areas in the city, just wandering leisurely, rather than rushing to the next thing on my schedule. I can finally remember all the buses that go to my grandparents’ house/Gamcheon Cultural Village. (There are only two *cough cough* but in my defense, I only forgot because the numbers were all 1 or 1-1 or 1-2 or 2 or 2-2. The correct buses are 1-1 and 2-2, by the way.) While waiting for the bus, I was even able to direct some lost Koreans in Korean; another milestone down.

When I arrived at my grandparents house, I was still the first one there – by several hours. Together we ate snacks, and I had lots of things to show them, like pictures on my phone and postcards from Colorado. Out of the blue, my grandmother said, “why don’t you do sebae and we’ll give you money?” Sebae is a traditional bow (or set of bows) intended for your elders or ancestors. I’d only witnessed my cousins doing sebae once last Chuseok, when I was meeting my family for the first time and really had no idea what was going on. Typically, children do sebae to their grandparents and receive money on Chuseok, or Korea’s other major holiday, Seollal/Lunar New Years. Since I’m not married, I’m still considered a child, I guess. So with only my grandparents as witnesses, I did a two bows for good measure, relying only on that one time I’d watched my cousins and scenes from dramas I’ve watched, and received 50,000 won. They didn’t comment on any aspect of my bows, so I guess that means success! Later, it struck me that the whole ordeal wasn’t unlike receiving birthday money from my American grandparents. But it seems like a funny parallel to be making.

Finally, I got tired and went up to the second floor to lie down, and almost immediately, my first aunt, cousin YeRim and her husband showed up…with their 3-month old baby girl Bon-Seol! It was my first time meeting Bon-Seol, or rather, I should say it was our first time meeting each other. She seemed fascinated by my face, a new face, and smiled at me a lot. I tried peek-a-boo with her, but she didn’t seem to get it, or care.

Little by little, more family trickled in. My youngest aunt from Seoul arrived with her husband and my two youngest cousins. YeJi, my oldest aunt’s first daughter arrived, and after waiting for a long time, we had dinner without my second aunt’s family from Suncheon. With holiday traffic it took them almost twice as long driving from Suncheon as my family who came from Seoul on the KTX. We didn’t do anything particularly special for Chuseok; as some of my family is Christian, they don’t do any of the ancestral rites that some other Korean families do. But I get the sense that no one in my family is particularly eager or interested in upholding that tradition, regardless of religion.

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The Monday after Chuseok, everyone stuck around to relax and spend time with family. A big group of us went to Gamcheon Cultural Village, Ami-dong – the neighborhood where my mom grew up – and then walked all the way to Nampo-dong! The point was to tire out my youngest cousins who kept complaining they were bored. It definitely worked…but also on me.

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Tuesday – yes, I still had Tuesday off from school! – my family from Seoul and I tidied up the house, said farewell and left together. It was a relaxing, relatively-peaceful weekend and I didn’t want to leave. When the time comes for me to go back to America, I’ll be sad to be missing out on family times like this.

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That Catch-up Post and Gyeongju Conference

Hello. I haven’t blogged for almost a month. Here are some highlights before we get into last weekend’s conference:

BIFF! Or the Busan International Film Festival. While many ETAs went the opening weekend, I didn’t make any efforts to get tickets at that time. But I still spent a fun day with friends in Busan, complete with chicken on the beach (which may or  may not have been complemented with a sprinkling of sand), fabulous nails (which I tragically chipped less than a couple hours later), and a dinner with my aunt! While it’s been exciting meeting with my family and starting a relationship with them, I’m realizing that I need to be intentional in building/growing these relationships.

But that was the weekend I didn’t go to BIFF. I didn’t think I would go at all, as tickets quickly sold out online, but lucky for me, 20% were reserved for day-of purchases, the following Thursday was a(n awkwardly-in-the-middle-of-the-week) national holiday, and another ETA reached out looking for someone who wanted to go together. Zoe came down from Daegu (that’s dedication!) and we had a blast, not only seeing THREE movies, but hanging out around Busan and checking out BIFF village at Haeundae beach.

We saw The Dinner (Italy), The Barber (US) and The Boss, Anatomy of a Crime (Argentina/Venezuela). For some reason they were all psychological thrillers involving murder…but they were all great!

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The following weekend, my host family had activities planned. Although I’d intended to blog about
this, I never did. (Luckily I’ve got one of those half-written blog posts I can insert here).

My host family volunteers with an organization that helps people with mental disabilities. They’ve “adopted” two women who don’t (seem to) have families of their own to take care of them – 태히TaeHee and 두옥 DuOk. Every month my host family meets them to do activities. Last month we went on a trip to Mount Jiri 지리, Korea’s the third largest mountain, in South Jeolla Province, which was beautiful.

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We were joined by two other families who are part of the program, as well as a social worker for
each family. Together we all stayed at a pension – everyone was excited about the second floor having a bed – had a cooking competition among the families, and went hiking at Jiri the next day.

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For this month’s activity, DuOk and TaeHee spent the night at my homestay’s apartment. Saturday we went to a ceramics studio. The man there makes and sells his own ceramics, but also holds short 1-2 hour “classes” for the public. I say “classes” because there isn’t really any teaching going on, just correcting. He started us off with slabs of clay, had us decide what we wanted to make, and then came around to make the base for each of us. I chose to make a mug. We then got to build up the work with coils, which the artist later smoothed out with on a pottery wheel (read: remade everything so it looked nice). The artist in me wasn’t satisfied, but I am curious to see how they turn out when we pick our fired cups and dishes up next month.

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After our sleepover Saturday night, Sunday the family went to Yonggungsa 용궁사, a famous temple in Busan. In previous posts I’ve been saying things like Bulguksa Temple, but I learned from my students that “sa” means temple. So from now on I’ll choose one or the other: Yonggung Temple or Yonggungsa. Anyway, Yonggungsa is right next to the ocean and has a beautiful view. I definitely didn’t get to spend as much time there as I would have liked.

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This was also the first maiden voyage of my selca stick, which my host dad spontaneously bought for my host sisters and myself a few days before. I’d say it was a success, although I’m definitely a novice.

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Next stop was the aquarium. The most memorable exhibition: the “doctor fish” room, where you could stick your fingers into the tanks and let fish nibble on them. My fingers weren’t as popular as my host dad’s. After a massive lunch at the “Korean Traditional Restaurant” we headed home and parted ways with DuOk and TaeHee.

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Fall Conference at Gyeongju

This past weekend was Gyeongju conference! Fulbright Korea holds two annual conferences, one in fall, the other in spring. Fall conference was held in Gyeongju, which is famous for its historical sites, having once been the capital of the Silla dynasty. While we stayed in Gyeongju Friday aftternoon through Monday morning, the conference itself was really only Friday afternoon and Saturday. Sunday was our free day, with the exception of a final banquet (during which I took a picture with Ms Shim! More on this to follow).

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While the workshops I attended were good, parts of the trip felt like we were back at orientation, which only made me cringe. However the most meaningful parts of the weekend were the regular conversations I had with friends.

It’s hard to explain what it’s like to suddenly be around 100+ people who speak your native language again. While I speak English with my coteachers and Konglish with my host family, it’s not the same. I can’t always communicate the nuances of what I’m feeling or clearly articulate my thoughts. While chatting with a fellow ETA Friday afternoon, I found myself thinking, “oh no I’m talking too fast,” before remembering that I was talking to a friend who could understand me perfectly well.

We arrived at Commodore Hotel to a beautiful view from our window and a comfortable room (though not nearly as swanky as Seoul. #spoiled). And of course, no Fulbright gathering would be complete without bulgogi and bibimbap.

The view from and of our hotel room:

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Dinner! Featuring bulgogi, Micia and Jessica:

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Sunday I spent time some much needed with friends. It was impossible to completely catch up over the course of only a few days, but between our scenic walks, selca stick selfies, ridiculously long waits for the bus and adventures around the city, I think we got somewhere.

Our hotel in the distance:

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As a cultural ambassador, I work hard to stay in touch with my host country. I am hoping to be fluent in selca stick use by the end of the year:

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More than anything, I appreciated the chance to delve into our beliefs about teaching philosophies, and how these may or may not conflict with the messages we’re getting from Fulbright programs and past ETAs. But I think this will be part of a later post on teaching that I’ve been putting off. It’s not just that I’ve been procrastinating, but that I don’t know exactly what I think or feel about teaching. As another ETA put it, it’s changing all the time. What I thought was true last week might no longer stand. And I can’t even predict how I’ll feel next week.

But the crowning achievement of fall conference was my picture with Ms. Shim. I am so proud.

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Ms. Shim is the executive director of the Fulbright Korean-American Educational Commission.

There’s a strange culture around Ms. Shim here at Fulbright Korea. During orientation, it seems there is a fear of Shim that is passed down through successive Fulbright generations. We taught to only use the deepest of bows with her (90 degee only), and even practiced (several times) before meeting her. I think some of us have come to realize that she is very sweet, and not nearly as scary as she’s made out to be, but few ETAs approach her other than to give greetings (인사) and say thanks after meals.

But I’ve broken through the wall of fear! A couple times during conference I had casual conversations with her. Instead of fearful, I am fascinated. I actually remember my first time reading her name after my acceptance into the Fulbright Korea program, and being excited to see that the director was a woman. I’d forgotten about this with all the hype and extensive bowing. Ms. Shim is every bit as legit as I first expected, and I’m looking forward to inching my way along to knowing her this year.

My progress thus far: When I first asked if she would take a picture with me, aware of her reputation with ETAs, she joked “You don’t have the right!” and then turned away to talk to someone else. I was bewildered for a few moments, beginning to wonder if she had actually turned me down. Oh, Ms. Shim.