EPIK in Review

At some point I realized that my EPIK Orientation post is one of the top 5 on this site and I thought, now that I’m leaving, it might be useful to some people to see what I learned about EPIK in the last 2 years. Like everything I write here, it is my experience and my story, not some definitive article, but it is my hope that my perspective can help a few of the hundreds of new EPIK recruits who enter Korea every February. It may seem a bit negative, but this isn’t a rag on EPIK post, it’s a look back: Things I experienced. Things I learned. Things I wish someone had told me. Things there were no way to know until they happened.

I’m not writing every good experience here because I’m trying to focus on things that I learned the hard way, that were not good surprises, or that could have made my life easier if I’d known sooner. And also because I wrote a lot of my good experiences as blog posts or Facebook updates or even Instagram photos while they were happening.

I chose to stay a second year. I think EPIK is a great opportunity. It’s generally agreed that with few exceptions the quality of job here in Korea for ESL teaching is 1) University, 2) EPIK, 3) Hagwon. EPIK offers reasonable working and teaching hours. It offers paid holiday leave on top of the national holidays that is 2-3x what hagwon teachers get (if they get any), and it offers paid sick leave which most hagwons also don’t offer. There’s far more of a support structure for newly arrived teachers as well. 4 stars: would recommend.

Public School in Korea

Schools are graded: A-D, the A schools are the richest and best performing schools while the D are the poorest and lowest performing. The “good” news is that the Korean government seems to be interested in putting extra money into the lower grade schools, but there’s only so much the money can do.

Teachers don’t work for a school, they work for an office of education: Here in Busan, that’s BMOE. My contract is with them, and they get to decide what school(s) I work at in their district. But even Korean teachers are at the whim of the Office of Education within a structure. Korean teachers go to special teaching universities and pass rigorous exams to become teachers. Once they are placed with a district, they will stay there unless there is some extenuating reason to move and they apply for transfer. Korean teachers stay at a school for 3 years and then move to a new school in the district. Preference is given to teachers on a points system. Years of experience count toward their points, but they also get more points for a class D school than class A, so even younger teachers have a chance at getting a “good school” after they serve 3 years at a “bad school”.

No one bids to go to a class D school, which means working here I’ve been mostly surrounded by teachers who do not want to be here and are just biding their time until their 3 years are up and they can go back to a decent school. This is insanely discouraging for me, and I can only imagine how much more so for the students who have no choice. At best, I have a co-teacher who doesn’t want to be here, but out of a sense of duty will do her best while she is here. At worst, I have a co-teacher who complains about the students every day, who cancels class or ends early at any excuse, and who goes to her doctor to try and get medical leave for “stress” because the students are “just so awful”… spoilers, they’re not actually that bad.

In elementary (I can’t speak for middle and high, sorry) the students spend most of their time in “homeroom” where they learn most subjects from a single teacher. The homeroom teacher is almost exclusively responsible for discipline and is the only point of contact with parents. English teachers are “subject teachers” which means even the Korean English teachers are second class teachers, looked way down on by homeroom teachers, and generally given crap. Somehow, homeroom teachers don’t think subject teachers actually DO anything. Which is by and large a load of hooey, since subject teachers often have to do more lesson planning on a tighter schedule and are often assigned additional administrative tasks for the school.

The Principal Principle

main-qimg-84ba5eb5ec8a91c7ec0873bb8a036012-c-e1517966951546.jpgNot only are the schools massively different depending on if it’s A-D, elementary, middle, or high, all the schools have drastically different policies that come from the principal. Many of them will push to see how much extra work they can get you to do. You could try to force the letter of the contract (although it’s best to do that only as a very last resort because people will resent it), but it’s wiser to find culturally sensitive ways to stand up for yourself at work. Politeness will go a long way to smoothing the trail, but how you’re treated is going to be wildly different from everyone else in your intake because the principals make 70% of the rules, and the CTs make another 10-20%.

Your contract is very vague on school responsibilities. I personally found that I was expected to operate a “morning greeting” program 6 months of the year where I would stand at the school gates with some of the older students and make every student arriving read one English sentence form a signboard before proceeding to their homeroom. Other teachers have to run reading clubs. Some are required to participate in teacher volleyball, while I’ve never even been invited. This is all based on the principal and the CTs.

It depends on how your CT and principal get on with each other too! My first year CT had a great relationship with the principal. I’m fairly sure he thought she could do no wrong. She got away with all KINDS of stuff. But my principal does not like my second year head CT. He yells at her, embarrasses her in front of other staff, belittles her, and generally doesn’t trust her. Because of this, she’s far less willing to ask for things on my behalf (not because she doesn’t care about me, but because she doesn’t want to get yelled at by him), and he’s far more likely to jump down her throat if something isn’t done perfectly.

That first year head CT lost most of my intake paperwork. We still don’t know where my checklist for the apartment move in is. We had to redo several things. She filed my Korean tax exemption a year late… just, NOT good at paperwork. But now that I’m leaving, the principal is mad at the current head CT for not having these things, and is making her chase down the first year head CT to get her to sign new versions of 2 year old paperwork. That’s how much he likes one and hates the other. And it definitely impacts my experience at the school.

By the way, keep copies of everything for yourself, just in case.

Your Role as the Guest English Teacher

For myself and the other EPIK teachers I talk with regularly, the sense I got was “you’re not a real teacher”. Because all the Korean teachers went to a special university and are constantly undergoing training updates to be public school teachers, they are certified in a way you are not. Your basic job is to be an English speaker. A living recording. I felt far more like a department resource similar to a computer lab or library than I felt like a teacher. Eventually, my CTs came to realize I had actual skills and we did more collaborating, but I was lucky and it still took time and effort.

It all depends on your principal and your CT (co-teacher). English subject classes are run by a Korean teacher who may or may not actually speak English. They teach the English class alone when you aren’t there. They might plan all the lessons, or they might only plan lessons they teach without you. They might teach with you, or they might disappear on days you’re in their classroom (even though they legally aren’t allowed to do that for student safety reasons). I’ve personally had one CT who mostly liked to plan her own stuff, but close to half the time when she’d talk with me about it, she was open to changes I suggested. I had a CT who did all the planning and told me exactly what she wanted me to do. I’ve had a CT who wanted to plan and run the “lesson” portion but have me plan and run the “game” portions. And I’ve had a CT who didn’t seem to understand what lesson planning was at all, so I eventually just started telling her what I was going to do and letting her work around me.

I have friends who only speak as a kind of classroom demonstration and never run lessons themselves. I have friends who are expected to plan and run the second half of a lesson without attending the first half. I have friends who are expected to plan and run the entire lesson without the aid of their CT.

They cannot prepare you for this at orientation. They try, but it’s not going to really sink in until you’re doing it.

Remember, you are not their equal. You will never be treated as such. If you are temporarily made to feel like you are, there will come a time when you run into the wall of foreignerness and there will be times when, for better or worse, you know your role in this school system is purely for show.

Speaking of things being for show… a lot of what you, your CT, your students, and your school do are all for show. Most of orientation is for show, so that the schools can say their foreign teachers completed so many hours of training. Any activities you do beyond class are strictly for impressing parents or the school board.  You will have “open classes” where parents and the admin staff can attend, but those will be carefully orchestrated performances that bear little resemblance to a daily classroom experience. I had people from the school board come to my class twice during winter camp this year… to… see…. I’m still not sure.

That morning greeting thing I had to do? Solely so that parents would see my very white face smiling at their little ones every morning. We tried our best to make the sentences relevant to something they were doing in class, but I actually had to argue with the Vice-principal because she thought it would be better if I personally said “good morning” to every single student instead, and I couldn’t get her to understand how useless that would be because her focus was on how great it would look to see the foreigner talking with kids where their parents could see them rather than on the learning benefit to the students.

The Chain of Command

Respect flows in order from job title to age to nationality. You are pretty much at the bottom of this. (you’re lower down than the Koreans who are younger than you… ) You shouldn’t object, or say no, or in any way be direct about any negative feedback.  You get a little latitude because most of them know you don’t know the Korean WAY, but it’s easy to step on a cultural landmine or simply be confused as to why things are done this way.

Interruptions are going to be a way of life. In the authority structure of Korean work environments, when the boss says jump, you say how high from the air. They will not ask you to come see them when you finish what you’re doing, they will just expect you to stop whatever it is and attend. They will interrupt your conversations with other teachers, maybe for 20-30 minutes. Trying to talk about your lesson tomorrow? Well, if the Vice-principal calls your co-teacher, she’ll answer and pretend you don’t exist until the VP says goodbye, not even so much as a, “this could be a moment, sorry, I’ll let you know when I’m done.

I managed to have a conversation about this with my CT and while she can’t do much about the people above her, she has at least been willing to work with me so that if she calls me to talk about our next lesson and I’m working on something else, I can ask for a few minutes to get to a stopping point. But before we had this cultural heart to heart, we both felt disrespected. Her because as my supervisor, she expected Korean style obedience. Me because I feel like the only reason to not let an employee get to a natural stopping point while working on something is because they’re in deep trouble.

And yes, I did just say I argued with the Vice-principal. There is often a workaround for the foreign teachers, but I only talked with my CT’s bosses after talking to her and having her ask me to go to the Principal or Vice-principal myself. She did this in part because of the problems I mentioned earlier of her getting yelled at, and in part because she knew I could be more direct and get away with it. But please, don’t go around your CT or behind their back, as that is a recipe for disaster.

Your Co-Teacher and You

20170526_085942.jpgYour CT is the most important person to have a good relationship with at your school, and possibly in Korea. This is the difference between a good work life and a shitty one.

My first year here, I had an amazing head CT (except for paperwork, she was terrible at paperwork). She spoke excellent English, we loved the same books and TV shows, she was energetic and happy most of the time and she liked her classroom to be fun. She also liked to read books or do yoga in the afternoons, and generally did minimal lesson planning so she’d have more free time. She had been teaching English for ages, so that worked for her because she knew what she wanted to do already 80% of the time.

We chatted regularly, shared cookies and coffee in the afternoons, gossiped about K-pop stars or scandals in the news. And I had a lot of free time, too. Which was great. I taught 21 hours a week, and spent about 5 hours doing other class related work at my desk, and the other 14 hours a week in the office, I could work on personal stuff.

That first year, I didn’t always get on with my second CT. She was new, nervous, and very strict. But by the end of the first year we had worked most of that out and were doing ok.

I decided to stay a second year. I knew my primary CT was changing schools, but that secondary CT would become my handler and we already had a good working relationship. I knew the second year wouldn’t be the same, but I had no idea how much it would change.

Cue dramatic music.

Not only did I lose the fun CT, but I gained a second school. We’re office of education employees after all, and we have to go where they send us. In this case, they decided to split me between 2 schools, giving me a horrible schedule, increasing the number of students I spent time with, and decreasing the amount of time I spent with any given student. I need a job where I can have rapport with my students. Jobs where I can’t connect with my students are soul crushing to me… so this was a major disappointment. I’ve done my best to connect with the more than 300 students I see this year, but I don’t know most of their names, and I really only have any idea of the ability of the outliers (best and worst). It makes me feel like I can’t be an effective teacher, and then I remember that’s not really my job at EPIK.

Other than sheer overwhelming schedule nonsense, the second school was fine. The CT was new but she was young and energetic and very glad to have me because she knew I had experience teaching English and she did not.

Meanwhile, at my primary school, the new head CT was losing her shit because suddenly she was “in charge” and our entire co-worker dynamic was changing. Everything I thought we’d worked out and gotten comfortable with was suddenly quicksand because all that happened when she wasn’t my “boss”. I know I just laid out the hierarchy, but to me, she’s still not my boss… technically our CT is above us in rank, but I’m also older than her with more English teaching experience, and while I was happy to do as she was asking in most cases, I wasn’t down with the jumping part of the boss-worker relationship. So we had to go through a whole new series of fairly stressful bouts to find our work dynamic again. Which, by the way, is good now… it just sucked having to do it twice with the same person.

Remember when I said no one wants to work at a class D school? Well, that means all the new teaching staff we got in my second year didn’t want to be here. It was a penance because they were too low on the totem pole to get any of their top 10 choices. On top of that, when it came time for the staff to divvy up the jobs between homeroom and subject teachers, no one wanted to be the new English teacher either! One woman heard that subject teaching was easier than homeroom (remember that dirty rumor?) so she volunteered, and even though she could barely say 3 words of English, they gave her the job.

Also remember how I said all the teachers go to special universities with rigorus testing? Well, it hasn’t always been that way. It turns out that while nowadays teaching universities only accept the very best, back in the day they took the dregs. So depending on the age of your CT, they might have come from an era where academic proficiency was not required to become a teacher.

I went from a year of singing the lego theme song (everything is awesome!) to a year of crying at my desk at least one day a week. Because my CTs changed and I could not make it work. (Although, the nearly year long ordeal of two intractable root canal procedures that required dozens of trips to a variety of dentists and endodontic specialists could not have helped things)

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It took me about 9 months to finally get a plan for really dealing with her and it was “don’t deal with her”. Now I just make my materials and tell her what I’m going to do while I’m in her room. She doesn’t get a vote anymore. I’m not suggesting you handle a difficult CT this way. I think my case was extreme. At some point my head CT actually suggested that I simply not do anything for this problem teacher unless I was directly asked. I couldn’t bring myself to do that because I just cared about the kids too much. Because my head CT saw how hard I worked on finding a mutual solution, she eventually backed my decision to do it my way and appealed to the Vice-principal to select a different English teacher next year.

I’ve worked with 6 Korean co-teachers in the past 2 years and 5 of them were great. No it wasn’t all lollipops and rainbows, but the other 5 I could at least communicate with and they cared about the students and classes and me, so we could hash it out when things got rough.

You are stuck with your CTs. They are not going away until the school board sends one of you to another school, which only happens in March. 5/6 we cover for each other when one is sick (I mean, it’s Korea, so we still come to work, but the well one will pick up the slack so the sick one can do less). 5/6 I can ask for help with things outside of school (advice, translating, calling stores or doctors offices that don’t speak English, stuff they don’t have to do). 5/6 have my back with the students and the admin staff.

6 isn’t a lot either. I’ve never had more than 3 at a time, but I have friends who have had as many as 11 co-teachers at once. When I think about how different all my CTs are in teaching style and in what they want from me, I get a little dizzy at the idea of trying to do that across 11 people. But it happens.

Plus, you’re the only native speaker at your job, so you don’t get to have foreigner friends lunchtime like the hagwon teachers do, if you don’t enjoy your CTs company, it gets very lonely.

The experiences of myself and my friends at BMOE is not universal, though. Ask 2 EPIK teachers about their CTs and you’ll get 5 different descriptions.

I found this article written by a teacher in Korea who finds himself constantly abandoned by CTs and left alone in the classroom. I want to point out that is a) illegal because you as a foreigner are not certified to handle safety and discipline issues.  I asked my Office of Education about it, and while it’s ok for us to be alone with kids during camp time (and for the occasional few moments a CT might need to step out to deal with pressing issues), the children are required to be overseen by someone with the right certifications and that’s not us. b) the Koreans who are assigned English classes are being paid for the English classes, so if they ditch you, goof off on their phone, etc. they’re basically not working when they should be. It’s up to you if you want to complain or not, but at least now you know the rules.

Last Minute Everything

The schedule is never what it says it will be. Ever. You will be told about events when they happen, or if you’re lucky, the day before.

I joined the monthly dinner club my first year (teachers pay into a fund and then go to a nice restaurant as a group once a month). Most of the time I found out when that one day was the day before or morning of.

Classes can be moved or cancelled or rearranged with zero notice. I will sometimes walk into an empty classroom only to be told by the CT that class was moved to another time. There’s a school wide phone system, they could call, but they don’t. I was told today that the class I just finished was actually the last time I would see my 3rd graders because she decided not to have class next week after all. Now I don’t even get to say goodbye…

Planning your holidays can be rough. You can easily look up the federal holidays and I recommend you book any trips you want for things like Chuseok as soon as possible because all the Koreans booked that 3 years ago. But your school holidays are dependent on camp, and often the principal won’t decide when camp is going to be until a week or two before the end of the semester. You can ask them to, but there’s no way to force them. And if you buy plane tickets before your time off is set, you could be very disappointed.

Speaking of camp. You won’t know how many or what level students you get until about a week before go time. But you need a lesson plan and materials list way before that.

Desk Warming and Other Kiddie BS

20170303_082606There is an expectation in Korean culture about your body being at work = you are working. Public schools are actually better than private companies because most of the time the Korean staff can actually show up and leave at designated times instead of trying to beat the boss in and wait until the boss leaves to go. As the foreigner teacher, you have a strict time in and time out and if they ask you to do more they have to agree to OT. Don’t agree to stay late until you get that OT approved, because they WILL try to get you to “volunteer”, and according to your contract, if you volunteer, they don’t have to pay you more.

I have a friend who has been teaching more than her maximum 22 hours for 2 years because when she showed up, the Korean teachers told her “the last foreign teacher did it” and she didn’t stand up for herself. Public schools are infinitely better than hagwons about your hours and time, but it’s still important not to get taken advantage of. But also, don’t be totally stingy about a few extra minutes on occasion when you’re trying to finish some work for the next morning.

However, while you’re busy watching them to make sure you’re not overworked, they’re watching you to make sure you’re body is in that school every second they paid for. I know they mentioned desk warming in orientation, but it still drives us all crazy. It’s not just that I have to sit around when my work is done. Or that I have to come to school when there are no students. It’s that I have to sit around when there’s no heat or a/c AND no students… It’s that I’m not allowed to decide which of my two schools I’d like to be working at so when the internet is down during desk warming, I can’t go to the other place. Or if I have work to do at school A but I’m scheduled to desk warm at school B, I can’t change that to get my work done at school A…. it’s obstructive.

I also had to sign in and out during winter camp this year because my new VP thought I couldn’t be trusted to show up if a Korean teacher wasn’t there to see it… I know there are newbies out there who might try to take advantage and skive off, but after 2 years of being at the same school, it was insulting to be suddenly treated as untrustworthy.

Paid Time Off

20170126_081916Your holidays and sick leave aren’t exactly what you think they are. EPIK teachers get 11 sick days, and it says in your contract that for more than 3 days you need a doctor’s note. BUT. That actually means any non-consecutive 24 hours.

Unless your CT and principal don’t care… because that CT who was bad at paperwork my first year? Yeah, I only brought a sick note for my 5 day quarantine, and I was never asked for another one the rest of the year.

My second year with the more rules focused CT, I had a million dentist appointments for which I often left school only 1 hour early, but those added up and soon I was having to bring a note for every visit. Which also costs 3,000 won at the doctors office. On the other hand, one day I was actually too sick to get out of bed, I was told I could not use my sick time because I didn’t get a doctors note despite the fact that I had food poisoning and could barely drag myself to the bathroom, forget the hospital.

I explained later to my CT why I wasn’t able to go (no car, no family/friends to drive me, no ability to even call a taxi, and unwilling to call an ambulance for non-emergency illness because while the ER costs are low if they deem it necessary, if they think you’re wasting time, you get a bigger bill). She sympathized with me, and could tell how awful I still felt the day I returned to school, but there was nothing anyone could do, and I had to use a vacation day instead of a sick day.

Those doctor notes are only good for the day they are issued. Unless you have something like a surgery or a highly contagious flu, they can’t issue a multi-day note. So if you want to miss more than one day, be prepare to schlep back to the hospital every single day, or else not get paid time off. More than one teacher has gone to a doctor thinking that note will cover the duration of an illness and returned to work only to find they’re burning vacation days or not getting paid for the missed days.

The holidays are also restricted to use for summer and winter break, so unless your principal feels benevolent, there is no way you can make them give you time off during other studentless days. I originally wanted to use my winter vacation days to end early this February. There are no English classes in the last week of the school year and desk warming at the end of my contract when I had so many things to do to get ready to move my life seemed silly. I asked before winter break if I could be allowed to do this and was told flatly “no” because it wasn’t official holiday time. Even though I also was told I had to use a paid holiday for my sick day… outside of official holiday time. They said I could use the paid leave to have short days, but not full days off. Yet, it turns out, I’m actually taking the last two days of my final week completely off anyway. As circumstances changed, I have an appointment on that Thursday morning, and I think my principals finally decided it was a reasonable request to just have the last two days off rather than to try and juggle half days all week.

School Computers

The school computers are all awful. Get a VPN. I can only erratically access my Google Drive from school because of the network’s security features. Sometimes, I can’t even copy images off the internet which is bad when you’re trying to make a PowerPoint and need that clip art. Sometimes one program will only work with the VPN and another will only work without it, so I have to keep turning it off and on. One day Drive needs the VPN, but the next day it won’t work with the VPN on. Some days, I have to turn the VPN off and on again every few minutes because the school’s network keeps blocking me… I swear I’m not trying to watch porn, I’m usually just trying to get to a picture of a cat eating a hamburger.

They are also sloooooooowwww. Like dial up modem slow. Like, are you sure there’s not malware on this machine slow. It’s because they have so many redundant security programs running that it eats the processor speed to nothing. And they also never clean them out. The IT person is only at your school for one day a week, so it’s best if you can manage a minimum of your own tech support… change that windows desktop into English for a start. Basically, try not to run anything too demanding and be patient.

Everyone hates the messenger program. That penguin is a thing you will come to hate. You can turn it off, but then you miss messages from your CTs. Most of the time, I leave it on with the sound disabled (god it was hell before I got that fixed). Sometimes when I’m working on a thing where the pop-ups get in my way I turn it all the way off. I’ve also asked my CTs to verbally tell me if they send a message on this thing because I get a notification for every single all-staff message. I’ve gotten 3 while writing this paragraph. I ignore them. All of them are in Korean and most of them do not apply to you. Some teachers say we should try to copy and paste every message into translate because sometimes there is relevant information. That’s… true-ish. Information about school events that might include or affect you are there, and your CT might not think to tell you about them, but I think if you just talk with them and let them know the situation, you can work something out.

Culture Clash

20170422_204235There will be a lot of cultural misunderstandings. And just because one Korean person explains Korean culture a certain way, doesn’t mean it’s that way for every Korean. I mean, does everyone in your culture represent it the same way? If you feel confused or upset, try to find the specific reason for those feelings, and after you’re calm, ask to talk with your CT about it. Ask about the Korean perspective, and let them know your cultural perspective, not to try to get them to change, but so you can understand each other better and find something that works. One CT does not think a teacher should ever have their hands in their pockets in class. Another CT might have her hands in her pockets regularly. Is that Korean culture? No, but they might tell you it is.

Pick your battles. To me, hands in the pockets was just not that important, but being able to come to a natural stopping point in my work before shifting to another task was.

Remember it’s not about you. This seems obvious, but I have met some people who had a rough time with this idea. Yes, they brought you over from another country to expose their children to native English speaking and a little bit of cultural exchange, but it’s not a “teach your class about your country” kind of experience. Some of the kids I’ve been teaching for 2 years still can’t remember what country I’m from. It’s not personal, I know they love me, but it’s just not a priority for them at this point in their lives. It’s great if you get the chance to share things about your homeland, but it’s not why you’re here.

Not only are you expected to teach things in English that are familiar to your students (not to you), your CTs might not be interested either. Regardless of the innate interest of your students and CTs, the best thing you can do is be curious about Korea. Let them teach you about their language, culture and food. Show appreciation for it. My students love correcting my Korean and it makes them feel better about their English mistakes. They go wild when I use a K-pop star or popular Korean cartoon character in a PowerPoint. And my CTs are far more willing to listen to my cultural concerns if I demonstrate that I respect theirs first.

The Good Stuff

I’ve said a lot of scary stuff, but none of it was a deal breaker for me. In the past I’ve worked at places that were so much worse. Every hagwon teacher I’ve met here has a harder job than me with less vacation time and no sick time. But more than “it could be worse” there are a lot of things to like about working with EPIK.

22 teaching hours: At this point in my career, it’s pretty much my maximum because I believe we should have at least 1 hour of paid working time per hour of paid class time for things like lesson planning, materials prep, and student assessments. More if you’re looking to do career development, too. However, since most private academies ask teachers to do 30-35 teaching hours in a week, I appreciate how great that 22 hour limit really is. Also, it’s not 22 full hours. It’s 22 class hours. I have 4 class hours from 9am to 12:10pm… teacher math.

The good side of desk warming: even though we are forced to sit at these desks for hours of non-productive time, the good news is you’re never given “busy work”. If you’re done with your class prep/homework grading then the time is yours. You can take a nap (some schools have nap rooms for staff), Skype your friends, do yoga, go for a run on the school’s track (it’s generally ok to wander around the school, but best to tell your CT if you’re going somewhere other than the bathroom or your office), shop online, watch Netflix, play video-games, or like me, work on a blog.

Support structure: You are an employee of the Korean government. You are protected by the same workers rights laws as all other government employees here. That is AMAZING. You have at least one (probably more) co-teachers. They can be challenging sometimes, but they are also your best allies. I lost count of how many times I had to ask for fairly simple things, help with finding goods or services, help scheduling repairs for broken technology, help dealing with hospitals and companies that don’t speak English. Advice about Korea. Although the CTs are only required to help us with the things that directly apply to the job, most are willing to do more if you have a good relationship and show your appreciation for their extra effort. I see hagwon people on the Facebook page all the time asking for help because they can’t ask a Korean at their office. We can.

Cultural immersion: Hagwons tend to hire lots of foreigners together, so hagwon teachers see foreigners every day and can hang out between classes or at lunch or after work quite easily. EPIK teachers are the only foreigner at one or more schools. We spend all day entirely surrounded by Koreans. I found that I had to take an interest in Korean things just to have something to talk about at lunch. And yes, sometimes we sit at lunch and they talk rapid Korean and I get lost and tune out, but more than half of the time, I am included in the conversation. Plus, I can just go to my CT and chat. We can talk about classes, and students and lesson plans of course, but we can also talk about our lives and what’s going on in the world around us. It’s a much more involved job opportunity because you really have to work NOT to be exposed to the culture around you.

Paid leave: It’s really good. I mean, university is still better, but EPIK is better than any job in the US. EPIK teachers start with 18 paid holidays and get more if they stay longer than a year. I managed to have a 10 day trip to New Zealand and a 12 day trip to the Malay Peninsula my first year (weekends). Tell me another job you can afford to take two international holidays a year? Plus, there’s a lot of national holidays that give you long weekends when the tour groups run extra trips because they know all the expats are free.

Enforced savings: You pay into the pension plan every month and that’s employer matched. Most countries have an agreement with Korea that allows foreigners to cash in that pension fund when they leave Korea. Plus, severance pay is national law here now, so for every 1 year of work you do, you are entitled to a month’s pay in severance when you leave that company. So even when I do a bad job of saving from my paycheck (no one’s perfect) I’m still getting a little nest egg for every year I’m here. It’s not enough to build a retirement plan on, but it’s nice.

Healthcare: The only people who complain here are Canadians because they are spoiled people who pay nothing to see a doctor. The rest of us are blown away by the high quality and low cost of healthcare. As government employees, we’re on the national plan. But even services that aren’t covered are often far more reasonably priced than in our home countries. I’ve been able to get LASIK and take care of some normally costly dental work here, and I’ve got a list of other minor things I want to take care of next year because I can afford it here but not in the US.

Tiny Koreans: no, it’s not an Asian height joke, I’m talking about the kids. The only thing that can reliably cut through any amount of frustration or culture shock depression any day is the genuine enthusiasm of my students when they see me. I know that I’m extra lucky because I have friends who work at schools and academies that cater to spoiled rich kids and I hear the horror stories. But my kiddos are kind to me. They smile when they see me in the halls or on the streets near the school. They wave. They want hi fives. They are curious and want to share. And their joy is just contagious. I can be having the worst day, but I still smile when I see them smile. They can make me feel like a rock star, and I hope I can do the same for them.

Korea in General

korea-travel-landmarks-vector-illustration-57253225Most of this is EPIK specific, but that “K” does stand for Korea, so…

Shopping: Get into that online delivery as fast as you can. G-market, yogiyo, iherb. Love them. On the ground, basic needs shops are Home Plus, E-mart, and Daiso. Buy things from people on the street. For the love of god, the produce and (at least here in Busan) fresh seafood is much cheaper from the street vendors than any store. Even my Korean coworkers are amazed by the deals I get on fresh seasonal fruit because I am willing to buy it out of the back of a truck.

Pharmacies are only for direct health needs. Not everything needs a prescription, but you will have to ask the pharmacist for what you need because it’s not out on the shelves. From cold medicine to band-aids to hand sanitizer. It’s at the pharmacy. If you don’t know the Korean, ask your CT, use a translating app, or just show a picture of what you need to the pharmacist on your phone.

You can get most of what you need here. Most common medicines (check your prescriptions, and don’t assume they have your favorite birth control options, I had to go to Thailand for mine), hair and skin care, cosmetics, shaving and styling. Easy to find many options. What’s hard to find?

  • There is no toothpaste with fluoride. I don’t know why, the Koreans are obsessed with dental care but don’t use fluoride. You can get it on iherb.
  • They also don’t use deodorant. I did read a study that says they don’t as an ethnic group have as smelly sweat as other ethnic groups… this is mostly true, although I do still run into the occasional case of BO in the hot weather. Beauty shops are the places to find the few brands that exist here, but most expats just bring in a case when they go on holiday or buy it from iherb.
  • Tampons are… just, hard to find. Mostly at Costco, Home Plus, or E-Mart. Pads are easy and in most neighborhood shops.
  • Plus size clothing (both genders, worse for women) and large shoes. I sometimes buy men’s shoes because I’m the largest size ladies shoes are made here. A few places carry larger sizes in store, but online options are easier, and a lot of cities have clothing swaps among the expats to refresh a wardrobe. I have found that bras, underwear, and jeans are the most challenging (read, have never successfully bought in Korea) but everything else is workable.

Socializing: Join the Facebook group for your city. Go to events. Go on tour groups (I like Enjoy Korea best). Go places on your own, the intercity train and bus system is great and cheap. Go to all the festivals. Talk to Koreans. Do not be one of those people who only works and drinks. I mean, if that’s all you want out of life, I can’t stop you, but Korea is amazing and I really feel bad for the people who come here and never experience anything but their school and local expat bar.

Bank/Phone: KEB Hana bank. No really. As my FB admin says, “the least worst option”. Banking here is hard. Make sure your debit card is set for international use (sooooo many people ask every month, “why can’t I use my Korean bank card on my vacation in Bali?”), just ask for the international option when you open the account. You can also get your debit card to act as a bus/subway pass if you ask for it.

You can read more about my experiences with KEB/Hana here.

Make sure your phone can do international SIM cards AND Korean SIM cards… I don’t know if I just had a bad translation, but I think I almost ended up with a phone that would do only one of those things and I had to explain a few times that I live in Korea and vacation abroad,so I need both to work. They got it eventually.

Learn some Korean. Learn to READ at least. You don’t need to be fluent but this will make your life easier. Talk to Me in Korean and Duolingo are my favs that are free.

Google then ask. Foreigners have been moving here in droves every year for a while. It’s an annual migration and they all have the same problems, questions and concerns. Chances are, someone, somewhere has asked before you and had the question answered. As much as experienced expats do like helping the newly arrived, we hate answering the same 5 questions over and over. You will be mocked if you ask a question with an easily Google-able answer. Older expats are not a service you are entitled to, they are helping because they want to, so put in a little effort to show you’re trying and not just lazily hoping someone on Facebook will do it all for you. That said, if you can’t find the answer, DO ASK because someone here knows. I don’t know how it is in other cities, but the Busan expat community is very connected and helpful. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel or figure everything out on your own.

Is It Worth It?

Hell yes.

20170526_100631.jpgI know I wrote some discouraging words, but trust me I’ve written far more about my wonderful experiences here. Korea, like every country on earth, is not perfect, but it’s got a lot going for it, and EPIK public school teaching is a great way to get to experience it all. I hope those of you reading this looking for advice or in anticipation of your upcoming trip to Korea will learn from my experiences, good and bad, and make your own great adventures in the upcoming school years.

If you’re feeling apprehensive about your EPIK experience, just go take a look at all of the wonderful things I’ve shared in the last two years in this remarkable little country.

First Week at EPIK

Jinhae Cherry Blossom Festival 2016 & 2017

Holi Hai, Sailing, first Norebang, Canola Flower Festival

Best desserts & Samgwangsa Lanterns

Taean Tulip Festival

Sand Sculpture Festival 2016 & 2017

PRIDE: Seoul 2016, Seoul 2017, Busan 2017

Boryeong Mud Festival 2016

Busan Tower, Yongdusan Park, UN Memorial, Dadaepo Fountain, Sulbing, Beomeosa Temple, Jinju Lantern Festival

Jeju Island

DMZ & Seoraksan

Boseong Tea Fields (winter), NYE at Yongdusan Park

Daegu Flying Lanterns

Boseong Tea Fields (spring) & Jindo Sea Parting Festival

Gamcheon Culture Village

Gaya Theme Park

Nami Island & Garden of the Morning Calm (winter)

Hwacheon Ice Fishing Festival

I hope this gives some insight into the nitty gritty of being an EPIK teacher. Of all the things I learned while writing this, the biggest one is that no two EPIK teachers have the same experience. I advise you to read as many blogs and watch as many Youtube videos about this as you can if this is something you are planning to do because one perspective, no matter how detailed, is incapable of covering all the possibilities. Above all, when you come to Korea, keep an open heart and an open mind. You will face challenges, but if you persevere, you will have wild and joyful adventures as well.


Hwacheon Sancheoneo Ice Fishing Festival

This winter holiday, I stayed in Korea for … reasons. But amid all my boring yet stressful classwork and job hunting, I managed to squeeze in a trip to the frozen north (not the country) to frolic on a frozen river and try my hand at catching the delicious and famous river trout through the ice. Leave it to Korea to make an ice fishing festival the event of the snowy season.

World’s Largest Indoor Ice Sculptures

It took about an hour to get to the festival from our hotel, but we still arrived early in the day. I had read the pamphlet ahead of time and knew my priorities for the day. First things first, I had to find the ice sculptures. Maybe it’s a holdover from my brief stay in Texas, maybe it’s my American-ness showing through, or maybe they’re just frickin’ awesome, but I love going to see “The World’s Largest”s. Combine something as beautiful as ice carvings with “World’s Largest” and it’s a magnet.

According to the map, I had to leave the river and head in to the city. It seemed like walking distance, but there’s no scale to these festival maps, so I really had no idea. I headed in what seemed like the right direction and soon became disoriented. Lucky for me, I found a helpful parking lot attendant I could ask, and she spoke wonderful English. I don’t expect it. I ask in Korean now because I can, but I think people like practicing their English on me and will often respond in English if they’re able.


It was a bit farther than I thought it would be, but it was not at all hard to find since the main street of the town had been completely decked out in paper mache fish and I only had to follow the decorations straight to the exhibition hall.

My tour group had purchased special “foreigner” passes for us which included free entrance to many activities around the festival, so I simply had to show my pass at the door and I was waved inside. A few twisting hallways and some airlock flaps later, I was standing in a room roughly the size of a small airplane hangar surrounded by towering ice constructions.


Lights had been frozen into the ice so that it glowed from within. Some ice had been colored before freezing to make opaque blocks for flowers and animals. Nearly everything was inviting us to touch and climb on it, with only a few special items having “don’t touch” signs. Children and adults alike wasted no time exploring, climbing, and posing for photos.


Soon I headed into the ice tunnel under the main structure and found myself in the next chamber surrounded by castles, turrets, and SLIDES! Two long slides came down on either side of the structure I had just come through, landing riders into ball pits for fun and safety.


I watched for a while, then mounted the stairs. I was pleased to see the ice stairs were cut with treads for grip to keep us from slipping while climbing up or down. From the top, the view was even more spectacular and I started to realize how big the World’s Biggest actually is.


The most successful sliders had been able to stay on their feet, crouching on the way down without letting their pants touch the ice slide. I tried this technique, but my left foot went out from under me almost immediately and I landed on my bum. Fortunately, I was already crouched down, so it wasn’t far. I tried to slide down the rest of the way on my bottom, but my jeans refused to slide! I had to get back up on my feet about three more times to get to the ball pit, but it was worth it.

As I moved through the display, marveling at the sheer size of these ice buildings, I noticed some signs that indicated each one was a replica of a famous work of architecture from around the world.

St. Vladimir Cathedral (Russia)


The Vancouver Art Gallery (Canada)


The Church of Gran Madre de Dio (Italy)


The Storting (Norway)


Zenko-ji Temple (Japan)


The Temple of Heaven (China)


Utah State Capitol Building (USA)


I spent far too long exploring the beautiful towers of light and ice, admiring the shifting colors, the grand towering replicas that defied me to resort to panorama mode in order to capture their full form, the tiny air bubbles and crystalline formations inside the blocks that caught and played with the light, and the sheer exuberance of everyone in attendance as they ran from place to place trying to take it all in and touch everything with brief pauses for photos in between.


I don’t know why the world’s largest indoor ice sculptures are here in this small town in Korea rather than in someplace like Dubai (which loves indoor snow) or Toronto which has a ready supply of cold, or really anyplace with an international airport. But here it is. And it is marvelous.

*You can see more pictures on the Facebook Album.

Ice Fishing

The next activity on my list was ice fishing. I’ve never done it before and where better to try for the first time than an ice fishing festival. For those of you picturing a lone fisher next to a single hole out on a frozen lake, or even a portable cabin that can be moved from ice hole to ice hole, banish these vast landscape of wilderness images from your minds. In Hwacheon, hundreds of holes were cut in the thick ice of the river at regular intervals where visitors could go to try their hand at catching a trout.20180114_113732.jpg

As I came back up the main road and approached the river, I could see where the flowing water and frozen surface met downstream of the festival proper. I headed upstream and was soon in the midst of crowds of ice fishers. The Koreans all seemed to have their own equipment, and I had been told my equipment rental was included in my entrance pass, but I had no idea where to go to get it. I stopped at one of the entrance gates to inquire, and showed my pass, but was told that this area was not for foreigners, I had to keep going about 10 minutes.


Odd, segregated fishing, but I suppose it might help them to provide better services to the foreigners if we’re all in one place? I walked and walked and walked. I saw many more fishing areas, but none for foreigners. It didn’t help that the brochure map we had been given had simply been translated into English rather than being marked for foreign visitors, so there was no marker for the foreigner fishing area on my map. Finally I was sure I’d gone too far, and so I asked again and was told this time to go back the way I’d come about 10 minutes…

You can imagine I was less than pleased. I explained I’d come from that direction and had not seen it at all. The poor young man was flummoxed because while he understood me well enough, he didn’t quite know a) how to express himself and b) where exactly it was. So we went to the information tent and he called someone and they showed me on the map in the tent where to go. It was the area marked as Children’s Fishing which was also not labeled on my map. I only remembered passing it because it had a huge sign at the entrance.

I said as much and after some linguistic confusion in which both of us forgot the word for children in each other’s languages (vocabulary always abandons you when you need it most), some further rapid Korean with the woman on the phone, and handing the phone to me for far less rapid English, it was determined that the Children’s area and the Foreigner’s area were the same.


I thanked him for his help and headed back towards the kids area. I was starting to have a rough time with the crowd. I sometimes feel like there’s some hidden crowd language in Korea I’m just not getting, but it seems like no matter which way I’m going or which side of the path I’m on, it’s wrong, and people will bash into me and give me dirty looks. It’s not actually something that happens every day (or at least I don’t notice it every day if it does), but it tends to happen more at events and festivals.

I know every culture has it’s own unwritten rules for sharing space, but I can’t seem to figure these out. And on that day, I was getting shoulder checked pretty regularly by people coming toward me. The hard part is, I don’t even know if it’s passive aggressive or if they are really just so different that this bumping doesn’t seem rude to them. But I had been walking a long time with no break. Breakfast was a long time ago. I just wanted to catch a fish for lunch and was struggling to find the one spot I was allowed to fish in of the hundreds of fishing holes around me, and I was getting run into… a lot.


The kids area turned me away, too. Politely. And they did finally manage to tell me that I needed to cross the river to get to the foreigners’ side, which was the first time anyone had done so. However, even though the foreigners’ fishing area was simply on the opposite bank, and the river was frozen solid, there was no way across there.

I looked around debating between trying to find a place on the ice where foot traffic was allowed all the way across or going back up to one of the bridges above. The reason the ice was not passable was that every bit of it was covered in some kind of festival activity. Fishing holes took about half the space (not all in one area), but there was a bobsled, an inner-tube sled, a zip-line, ice skating, hand pushed sledding, curling, ice soccer, and some kind of area with large robots children could ride in and enact mecha-battles, as well as the oh so very famous bare handed trout catching. That river was covered in fun.

I spotted stairs down the far bank and decided the bridge was a better option, so I hoofed it back over to a staircase, across the long suspension bridge, and over to the concrete stairs I’d seen only to find that they were blocked off at the top!


I think I still would have gotten lost even if I hadn’t gone to see the ice sculptures first because our bus parked quite near those blocked steps, and also near the suspension bridge. So near, in fact, that most of us crossed that bridge first thing. Even though all the services for foreigners were practically right under it. I should have just gotten a snack when I started feeling stressed. I should have gotten food and sat down, but I kept thinking I was just a few more minutes away from my goal. I could make it a few more minutes… until I couldn’t. It’s important to me to remember this even though it wasn’t fun because I need to remember to rest, to eat, to give myself space when I start to feel frustrated instead of pushing on.

20180114_143753.jpgWith only one more wrong turn (I foolishly went into the building labeled Foreigner’s Fishing thinking I might pick up my rental rod there, but nope) I at last had my tiny blue fishing rod and my own hole in the ice. As I stood there working out the fishing technique by watching others, I began to relax and look around. I might have a small clue why people enjoy fishing other than eating fish. I was dubious of how this would work because our hooks had no bait, only a lure. It didn’t take long before the first person near me caught a fish and hauled it flopping out of the freezing water and onto the ice.

It’s not fair that fish aren’t cute. I don’t know if I could watch someone catch a chicken or a small mammal and be ok, but fish just don’t phase me. In fact, I felt better about the old men who walloped their fish unconscious or dead quickly than the more squeamish younger people who let them suffocate in the provided plastic bags.

I worked on my technique a little. Trick is to let the lure hit bottom (it’s not far), then reel it in about 5-10 cm as your low point. Jerking the line up toward the surface quickly simulates the darting motion of a real tiny fish which attracts the trout. I tried it a few different ways with no luck as more and more fishers around me caught their own lunches. I knew I didn’t have to catch one to eat one, my foreigner pass entitled me to one free cooked trout whether I caught it myself or not, but I still wanted to try. I gave myself 30 minutes because I did still want to do a couple other things at the festival.


I never even got a nibble. But I did feel better. Even though I was cold and standing on the ice, there was something soothing about the repetitive motion of casting and reeling the line while watching the festival go on around me. I packed it in with only a little regret and went to find the food tent. Like so much at the festival, the foreigners had our very own (there was one for Koreans on the other side of the river, I’m still not sure how I feel about the segregation). Fish that people had caught were dropped off at the window of a field kitchen to be cleaned and wrapped in foil before being cooked.

The cooking method was a huge iron contraption with dozens of drawers that could be pulled out, have a foil wrapped fish inserted, and closed again to seal the fish inside the charcoal heated interior. I found some of my tour-mates inside the restaurant and cashed in my free fish coupon. I received possibly the ugliest presentation of the most delicious fish ever. I was very hungry and cold, but also happy. Maybe my hunger contributed to my perception of the flavor, but it was a damn fine fish. Fresh ice water trout caught only moments before it was cooked and served to me. It also made me feel better about not catching one, since the fish cook rotation meant that no one actually got served the same fish they turned in.


I have been living in Korea long enough now that dissecting the fish with chopsticks didn’t phase me in the slightest and I even managed to pull out the skeleton whole when I was halfway through. I ate that entire fish and thanked it profusely for giving it’s life to me. Despite this fact, my stomach wasn’t quite full from what turned out to be a very late lunch.  I went back to the “restaurant” to see what other ways the trout was being prepared. There were fried cutlets and spicy sauces, but it was the sushi that caught my eye. Fresh trout sushi!? Um, yes please. And everything was so cheap because they were using the fish caught only a few meters away.


After lunch, I ducked into a heated resting area to warm up a bit and met a man who had brought his entire family up from the Philippines just so his kids could see snow. He told me about the places in America he had visited, and I told him about my joys in Bohol. It was amazing to me that tourists were coming from so far to this ice fishing festival. I guess it’s a bigger deal than I knew.

When I could feel my toes again, I headed off to the last free ticket item on my list: the snow slide. This giant built up slide of ice and snow dominated the riverside. It’s top was at the street level and it’s bottom met the frozen river. Riders carried up inflated rings to toboggan downward and see how far out on the ice they could get the momentum to take them. I didn’t have much time left before our bus was leaving, but I figured I could make it at least once.


This time, I crossed the river on the icy surface instead of taking the bridge because I could see that although the slide started at the top, the line started at the bottom. My foreigner pass pinned to my jacket (yeah, they said we had to wear them like that, class field trip style), I was ushered past the ticket line and given a sticker for 3 free slides! I got in the line to collect my inner-tube and watched as the kids ahead were fitted out with helmets. Adults were allowed to take the risk of going bare headed.

We trudged dutifully up the covered ramp. Most of the small children were lugging sleds as big as themselves but managing. One poor girl, maybe 3-4 years old had been sent on by her parents (who I guess were planning to take video from the bottom?) and the inner-tube was actually bigger than she was. Had I been closer in line, I would have carried it for her, but eventually between the bigger kids in line and the staff at the top, she managed to get there.

The slide was wide, 10 or more spaces across with sturdy metal handles for riders to grip as we tried to sit down on the tubes without slipping on the ice. With 3 layers of clothes plus jacket, I wasn’t bending too well, but I made it in time, and when the whistle blew I launched my sled forward and down. The slope was much smoother than the one at Nami Island and I picked up speed immediately, but also never caught any air time.


I don’t know why we scream and holler in roller coasters and fast rides. I don’t know if it’s American, or Western or what. I know that a long time ago, I was scared of roller coasters and when I finally got over that fear, I was taught by my family about the joys of a good loud yell in the thrill of the moment.

I do know that I was the only person trailing a triumphant “WOOOOO HOOO HOOO HOOO!” on the way down the slope. I am not ashamed.

Finally it was time to head back. I barely managed to cross the bridge, find a bathroom and buy some hot cocoa for the road in time. Even still, I was somehow the last person back on the bus, and no matter how much the tour leader assured me that I wasn’t late, it felt weird to be the oldest person there and the last one out having fun. I’m still not ashamed.

Hwacheon Ice Fishing Festival: overall opinion?


As much as I enjoyed the trip to a land of ice and snow and all the fun experiences new and renewed that I was able to have there, I am so ready for winter to end! We’ve had several weeks of below freezing temperatures (-10 C!) with dangerously low humidity (10%). Somewhere, a Canadian is reading this blog and scoffing, but the heater in my classrooms either doesn’t work or barely works and it takes me hours to warm up after sitting in this ice cold building all day. The Ice Festival was actually warmer than Busan is now. The inside of my refrigerator is probably warmer than the inside of my school. Hurry up, Spring!

Winter Wonderland 2018

This winter was full of cold and confusion. My hunt for a new job has been incredibly time consuming, and the uncertainty about my future led me to forgo an out of country winter holiday. Instead I decided to head north (not across the border or anything) to visit the Hwacheon Ice Festival and other snow filled winter activities in case it was my last chance to play in the snow in Korea. It looks like things are working out, and I will be staying in Korea next year after all, but I’ll tell that story after all the details are wrapped up. For now, walk with me into a winter wonderland weekend.

I like going on tour trips with the group Enjoy Korea. They’re by far my favorite organized tour group in Korea: polite, well-organized, helpful, responsive, and fun (without being a total party bus). I highly recommend traveling with them if you’re looking for more things to see in Korea while you’re here. No, they aren’t paying me to say that, or even giving me a discount, I just think they’re cool and deserve more business.

When I realized I wasn’t leaving Korea for the winter holidays, I turned to the upcoming events page of their website and looked for something fun that didn’t involve skiing. Don’t get me wrong, I’d love to learn how to ski, but stress and health concerns over the fall just made it seem like this winter was not going to be the one. Instead, I found the Winter Wonderland Weekender.

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Naminara Republic

While we were on the multi-hour drive up from Busan, our guide handed out pamphlets about our 3 weekend destinations, and being me, I actually read them. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that the tiny river island of Nami was it’s own country! Nami is a small island within the North Han River. Not that long ago, it was only an island for part of the year when the waters ran high. However, when the Cheongpyeong Dam was built in the 1940s, the river level became higher permanently, and Nami was cut off from the mainland year round.


It was said to be the grave-site of General Nami, and the grave was gradually built up and around, turning the island into a nature reserve and kind of amusement park/garden. In 2006 they declared their independence from Korea to become a “fairy-tale nation”. I’m not making that up, it’s in their declaration of independence. They have an immigration office. I didn’t bring my passport because I didn’t know this ahead of time, but apparently they will stamp your passport if you like. Because of their friendly relations with Korea, it’s not required for visitors to do so.

I cannot help but look at this and think of Nami as a precocious 5 year old who really wants to be a grown up. Nami: “We’re independent and we’re gonna have our own country made of fairy tales!” Korea: “Ok, honey, you have fun and make sure to be home in time for dinner.”

It’s cute.

There are 2 ways onto the island of Nami: the ferry and the zipline. I wanted to try the zipline since our guide said it was actually rather slow and more of a scenic experience than an adrenaline rush, but the wait time was over an hour and we only had a few hours to explore that afternoon.


The ferry is not disappointing. It’s small, and mostly standing room, but it’s only about 6 minutes from shore to shore and gives beautiful views of the river on the way over. The water wasn’t frozen solid, but there were floating chunks of ice like green glass floating along the shore where the water was shallower. As we approached the island, we were first greeted with a giant ice formation overshadowing the maid of Nami.


The maid of Nami is a famous statue of a woman standing in the water, but she was nearly obscured and entirely overshadowed by the mountain of ice that had formed from the freezing spray of the nearby fountain. Instead of turning the fountains off for the winter, the Naminarians decided to let their fountains run and turn into fairy-tale castles of long white and blue ice stalactites. Although at first the beautiful structure was overrun with ferry passengers queuing up to take photos, it didn’t take long before they all moved on and I had a chance to get a few of my own.


The island has a multitude of walking trails as well as a “train” (think kiddie ride). I spotted the post office on my way in where a telephone allowed visitors to make international calls or send post cards from the micronation.

At first, I was feeling a little disappointed by the lack of snow. After all, it had snowed in Busan just a few days before, a place that sees snow every 2-3 years, surely Nami which is famous for it’s snow clad beauty would be white from edge to edge. The main entrance and pathways were simply brown, perhaps from lack of snowfall but more likely from an excess of foot traffic. I determined to seek out more frozen fountains and whatever patches of snow I could nonetheless, and soon found a frozen pond which remained snowcovered and I began to feel more in the mood.20180113_140124.jpg

My spirits were lifted completely when I encountered the sledding hill. Snow from all over had been piled together in a large hill that was decorated with ice-men (like snowmen, but made of ice). There was a line to borrow a sled but it wasn’t long and within a few moments I was lugging my luge up the snowy slope. I think it hadn’t snowed in a few days at least because the snow was quite packed and hard. Many sledders fell over sideways the first time their sled hit a bump. I watched as the line grew shorter, determining my best strategy for not suffering a wipe out and when it was my turn, I tried to center myself as much as possible and took a firm hold of the rope that formed the handle at the front of the sled.

When the countdown ended and the whistle blew, 3 of us took off at once. The slope wasn’t too high, but I soon picked up speed and when I hit the first bump my sled and I were launched into the air. I managed to land without falling over and kept my seat all the way down, whooping in a very American way at the thrill of speed and snow and winter wind whipping my skin.

Next to the snow hill was an ice village. There were sculptures of animals and fish, but also houses and castles built from carved ice blocks where visitors could climb around and take silly photos. I was impressed by the size and scope of these ice constructions, but oh wait until tomorrow.


While I was finishing up my photos of the ice sculptures at a particularly large ice shark, I looked up and noticed there were ostriches running around in a field across the road. Nami island is very proud of it’s animal population, but apparently the ostriches are the stars of the show. It was a bit surprising to me how curious of visitors the birds were, spending most of their time right up at the fences despite having plenty of roaming room. I bet there’s food involved somewhere. Still it was odd to see these African savanna birds in the snow.

After the arctic ostrich experience, I meandered to the far bank of the island where the river was completely frozen over and dusted white with snow. It was quiet and serene. The emptiness was a stark contrast to the crowds I had left behind only 5 minutes before. It is a function of Korea that will never cease to amaze me, but no matter how crowded it is at an event, all you have to do is walk away for 5-10 minutes to be totally alone.

20180113_144230.jpgNext I headed back towards the center of the island to the arts and crafts village where handmade goods can be viewed, created, and purchased. My favorite was a metal tree dripping glass globes that caught the winter afternoon sunlight. There were also plenty of places to grab a hot drink, a snack or a meal.


I went on a search for the glass blowing studio because I’d read in the pamphlet that there was an activity where visitors could make a small ornament, but alas it was only for groups of 8 or more who had booked in advance. My foray into molten glass will have to wait for another time.

While I was meandering around the statues and shops, I found a pottery shop with two peacocks perched on the rooftop, and I found a lone snow bunny hopping around on one of the frozen ponds. Great place for him since humans were kept back by the fear of falling in the ice. Great spot for me since I got to take photos of him against the snow. He was pretty fearless though and didn’t seem to mind when even more visitors noticed him and rushed over to take photos.

The weather was so cold that my phone battery was struggling more than normal and my phone actually shut down right in the middle of this bunny photo shoot, but it was still special. I suppose I’ll always have a soft spot for bunnies after having one of my own as a furbaby.

I found that while many of the restaurants were quite expensive (surprise, we’re on an island) there was a place called the Asian Family Restaurant that had decent prices and a wide range of foods. I ended up with a giant bowl of hot and spicy soup in a Chinese style, and by the time I was full, I was warm enough to head back into the snow.


I decided to walk around the other side of the island on my way back toward the ferries to see what I hadn’t seen, I found more frozen ponds, sculptures, trees covered in a light snow, and the further I went, the fewer people I had to share it with. Coming out of a small birch grove, I spotted the oddest piece of art adorning an unused picnic area. Alone with this, the sounds of distant tourists muffled to silence by the blanket of snow around me, it felt more than a little creepy.


Heading back to the riverside path, I found some other members of the Enjoy Korea group who were skipping stones on the frozen water to hear the odd laser blaster sound that it makes. I tried it myself, there’s literally no technique involved, just toss a rock on a frozen body of water and pew pew pew! Lot’s of people saw that guy on YouTube be very dude-bro about it, but here’s another guy who actually explains it.


Finally, the short winter day began to wind down and my last bit of trail gave the ice, river and sky some beautiful twilight colors. I got back to the bus just a few minutes early and discovered that someone had participated in the ice carving craft. She made a hefty stein from ice, and since it couldn’t possibly last in the heat of the bus, she was offering to let anyone who liked have a shot of Korean soju from the frozen chalice. I think it was probably the best soju I’ve ever had, even though it was the same stuff that’s in every convenience store. Bonus, I can safely say in retrospect that either I got in on it early enough or the combo of ice and alcohol did the trick, but I didn’t get anyone else’s cold!


Go check out the rest of the photos on Facebook.

Garden of the Morning Calm

After dark, we headed over to view a special winter lights show at a nearby botanical garden. The Koreans are, as always, just spectacular at light displays. This large garden usually makes it’s living showing off plants and flowers, but in the dead of winter when everything is brown and brittle, it opens up at night for a whole other color spectacle.

My first few months in Korea, I saw the biggest and most amazing light show when I went to the Taean Tulip Festival, and while I enjoyed every other light show I’ve been to since then, none have been able to take the title from Tulips until now. I did not realize what I was getting myself into. The entry way had trees and bushes wrapped in lights and the almost obligatory tunnel of lights (still not tired of those). I expected it to be similar to the one at Boseong, and I was happy with that idea.

I especially liked the lights glowing on the snow and ice, creating fun reflections and pastel color splashes. I dawdled far more than I should have, but the maps in Korean parks are notoriously bad for scale, and I just did not understand how BIG this place really is. I got to the (also obligatory) suspension bridge and noticed it led back to the entrance, so I turned to head down another path, even though it appeared to lead into darkness. Just to check.

I found another tunnel of light. I found a frozen pond that had been covered entirely in blue lights with a glowing sailboat and dolphins frolicking in the blue. I found a path covered in umbrellas made of tiny lights. I found giant vines and leaves of light that made me feel like Alice when she shrank small and talked to the flowers.

Then I turned a corner and saw the stars.


Not really the stars, but huge balls made from clusters of tiny lights high in the tall trees looking like the night stars in the blackness. Fiber-optic cables flowed down from the branches like willow trees and waterfalls. Giant leaves wrapped around the trunks of trees climbing to meet the falling fronds of light above. Silhouettes of animals were picked out in life size golden glowing sculptures: reindeer which made sense, and a giraffe I suppose because why not? At the far end of this wonderland was a neon pink church that the King would have been pleased to see in his Vegas days, fronted by two pure white glowing angels. I could have probably done without the extra religion, but as I headed down the hill toward the next display, the church shrank into the background and I was left with a final stunning view of the immersive forest of light.

The theme of over sized plants continued a bit with giant mushrooms and trees wrapped in lights to an almost fractal level of detail. Faced with another fork in the road to go on into darkness or return to the glow of lights at the entrance, I checked the time and decided to forge ahead. I pondered what could be left after that wonderful wood. I took some photos of creative path lanterns and more trees draped in shifting colors, casting a glow on the snow beneath them, content and not expecting very much more when…

A viewing platform is always a good sign. Korean tourism departments everywhere have thoughtfully created a viewing platform at the optimum viewing place. They are hardly ever wrong, and everyone knows the etiquette, so you might have to wait a few moments, but you will get your turn. And when I did…

Usually, I like to describe things I see and experience, but in this instance, it might just be better to shut up and show you. You can see the whole roll on the Facebook album.

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Stay tuned for part 2 when I get to spend Sunday at the Hwacheon Seoncheoneo Ice Fishing Festival… I know, a festival for ice fishing? but it turns out the city of Hwacheon, and really Korea in general, knows how to turn anything into a great time. They can even do up an anchovy festival right, so something as exotic as ice fishing should be no problem! And if for some reason the prospect of catching trout through a hole in the ice isn’t your cup of soju, it’s also the home to the world’s largest indoor ice sculpture, so there’s more photos of beautiful lights to come as well. Thanks for reading!


Marching Forward in Busan

Last weekend, the city of Busan, South Korea had it’s very first Pride march. Although the capital city of Seoul has been having LGBTQIA+ events since 2000, it’s been a little slow to spread beyond the dense urban hub of Korean counter culture. Korea did not get a second city to participate in this part of the civil rights movement until Daegu joined in 2009. And after another 8 years, Busan has become the third Korean city to host a Queer Pride event.

Of course, since Busan has been my home for the last 18 months, I had to go. I knew it was going to be much smaller than the events I attended in Seoul over the last 2 summers, but it was still exciting to imagine being part of a historical first. 

The Run Up

21458019_1738461163115256_947757470217525866_o.pngIn the weeks leading up to the event, Facebook groups circulated ads, support, rumors and questions as it became murky as to whether the festival’s organizers were in fact granted the required permits to host vendors, performers and the ever important march through the crowded streets of Haeundae. There was some fear that the vendors would be denied a permit and a rallying cry for them to show up anyway and risk arrest for the cause. (Thankfully, that didn’t seem to be necessary).

And as news of the event spread, the inevitable groups of Christian fundamentalists tried to demand the government to deny permission, and worked to organize a mass counter-protest movement. Police released a statement to the media advising that plenty of officers would be on site to make sure that no violence ensued.

I think it’s important to note that these Christians really are counter-protesters, because here in Korea, there are no gay rights, and so the queer community are actually doing the original protest against the current government and social policies that exclude and endanger them. The Christian groups just want to maintain the status quo (or even it roll back to make homosexuality illegal again.)

Solidarity on the Subway

It’s about a 45 minute subway ride from my house to the beach where the festival was to be held, and while I was killing time scrolling through Facebook, I happened to look up and notice a very genderfluid individual standing nearby with a “LGBTQIA Rights Are Human Rights” bag. I caught their eye and smiled, pointing to the bag and giving a big thumbs up before tapping my own rainbow pin. Their eyes lit up as they asked in thick Korean phonemes, “pride?” (pu-rai-du). I nodded, still smiling and we had a high five.

I can only imagine the courage it took to get on the subway sporting such a mix of gender role presentation. They were a little chubby (which is already almost a sin in Korea), wearing just black shorts and a hoodie with white trainers. They had short hair and glasses, but beautifully done makeup. Gender roles are enforced hardcore in Korea, so it must have been a little scary to leave the house and know that you still might be harassed on your way to the only event in town where you can be yourself.

Although we both went back to scrolling our phones after the high five, we did happen to look up at the same time once or twice more on the long ride and shared big grins every time we made eye contact. Although I saw many more flamboyantly dressed Koreans at the event, I am fairly sure they didn’t ride a subway in their Pride outfits.

The Vendors

Haeundae is the most famous beach in Busan and while the festival didn’t get to set up right on the beach, the main stage was just inland of the waterfront road. We arrived a little early with plans to get some brunch before checking the booths, but ended up walking through the tent area anyway. It was significantly smaller than Seoul’s event, and I’d venture to say that at least half of the booths were dedicated folks who came down from Seoul to support the Busan march, but hey, you gotta start somewhere.

20170923_132553We passed booths promoting awareness, selling pride pins, flags, t-shirts, art and books. We bought a few small things, more to support the vendors than anything else. One booth was just for birth control awareness, which is a major issue in Korea since it is still very stigmatized and difficult for women to use it regularly without facing harsh judgement from friends, family and even medical professionals.

One booth was allowing people to make their own buttons and taking pictures of the results. The majority of the volunteers there were middle aged people who didn’t quite know all the colors and symbols, but every time they saw something new they would ask about it and try to learn. It was heartwarming to see the older generation not only involved in promoting LGBTQIA rights in Korea, but genuinely interested in learning all the jargon and labeling that can seem so foreign to allies, but is so vital to people struggling with identity.

The Protesters

20170923_131018.jpgWhile the booth selection was not as big as the Seoul event, the protesters weren’t as bad as their Seoul counterparts. There were far fewer of them, and they didn’t have any giant trailers with loudspeakers or competing musical performances. Most of them simply held their signs quietly. A few shouted slogans, but the only one shouted at me was “Jesus is love” which is not bad as protest slogans go… I mean, really it’s the same reason why enlightened Christians think marriage equality is right… love is love, man.

On the other hand, I’m slightly perverse from time to time, and so I chanted back to her “Buddha is love”… because I’ve had just about all the conversion talks I need for the next few lifetimes.

20170923_131053.jpgWhen the sign wavers got too close, the police gently moved them back. There was no force or violence, but the police would form a blockade and firmly move the problem folks back out of range. One man was so transported by his prayer, he knelt as close to the event as he could get, clutching his sign and praying feverishly, eyes screwed shut and knuckles white.

Many of the Christian counter-protesters hid their faces, although it’s unclear if this was some kind of copying of Antifa, or an actual desire to hide their identity for fear of … I’m really not sure what, or if they’re just that breed of middle aged Korean person that wears a face mask and sunglasses and big hat any time they go outside when it’s even a little sunny. Because that happens too.

The March

It hardly took us any time at all to finish exploring the booths, and we had a couple hours to kill before the march was scheduled to begin, so we hopped over a block or two to have a rest in a friend’s apartment. We came back around parade start time, expecting it to be a little late, honestly, and we couldn’t find it anywhere!

20170923_163214.jpgFrantically trying to IM another friend in the parade to figure out which way to go, we walked up and down the street lined with protesters holding signs about sin and Jesus and homosexuals out out out. When the marchers finally arrived, we found ourselves on the wrong side of the police line! We stood among the protesters who waved their fists and signs and chanted their message of opposition. From this vantage point we saw the giant rainbow flag at the head of the procession and we cheered as loud as we could to drown the voices of those around us and support the marchers we had been unable to join in time.

20170923_163257.jpgAs the parade moved closer to us, the police moved the line of protesters further and further back to prevent clashes. We pointed somewhat frantically at our own rainbow pins and flags as we asked the officers if we could cross the line and join the group inside. Finally, realizing we were not a threat, they let us through and we joined the group of hundreds (possibly thousands) dancing and singing along to the K-Pop blaring from the backs of the trucks that had lead them on the brief march around the block.

20170923_163316I’m not sure what the actual parade route was, but I know it must have been short for it was scheduled to start at 4, and was more or less over by 4:30. By 4:45 everyone had dissipated and the plaza was being swiftly converted for whatever event had reserved the space for the evening hours. I also cannot report on the turn out at this time, as there has not been any English language media follow-up reporting on the numbers of attendees, counter-protesters, or police. If I get some information later, I’ll update it here.


The Sights

TBH, I fell off the photojournalism ladder that day. There was no “press booth” and I felt a bit uncomfortable running around snapping pics without credentials. I try to use my own photos when I can, but I highly recommend viewing the photo album on the Busan Pride Facebook page, because they had a wonderful professional photographer and it’s a great collection of images. These are a few more of my photos below.

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The Issues

In countries where gay rights are protected by law, Pride is more a celebration, or a victory march. However, in places where the people are still fighting for equality under the law, it’s more a mix of celebration and protest. Pride events in Korea are festive, no doubt. It’s one of the few times when queer folk can come out in the light of day and BE. There is art, and music, and hugs and laughter, and singing and dancing with K-Pop and sparkly costumes. But alongside this joy, there are some very serious issues that can affect the life and livelihood of the people impacted by them.

The Busan Pride festival coincided with international Bisexual Awareness Day (September 23), and it did not go unnoticed. Although flags and emblems for most if not all gender/sexual identities made an appearance at least once somewhere at the event, the pink, purple, and blue of the bisexual flag was clearly the dominant color scheme (competing even with the rainbow itself for top billing).

I don’t really know how bi-phobia and bi-erasure stack up as issues in South Korea. I know in many places, bi people suffer exclusion from both hetero and queer communities because they won’t “pick a side” (I cannot roll my eyes hard enough). I actually had a bisexual male friend of mine tell me the other day he doesn’t know that many women who like women, and I was like… uh, we’re friends with all these same people, right? Yes you do! But bi women have become hesitant to talk about it for fear of being “not queer enough” or of being fetishized by dudes who want threesomes (gak).

Look, really, the point is, if someone tells you that they identify as bi, or ace, or pan, or agender, or non-binary… or any one of the list of other sexual/gender identities that seem to be perceived as fictional… just believe them. It’s not hurting you to let them be themselves but it sure as heck hurts them when friends and family tell them they are wrong or worse, lying.

The other hot issue for LGBTQIA rights in Korea this year is the military shenanigans. I talked about this a bit in my post about Seoul Pride, but it’s still going on. Recap: Military participation is mandatory for all men in Korea (maybe barring serious illness/disability). Being gay while in the military is a criminal offense punishable by up to 2 years in prison. Some dingo’s kidney of a military leader decided to use Grindr and/or some other hookup apps to trap some young servicemen and they are now in jail. The UN, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the Military Human Rights Centre for Korea are pissed off and calling this a human rights violation.

I found an article that says the Korean government may be looking into possibly maybe changing the policy in response to UN and international pressure, or they could just be preparing to double down on their anti-gay policy. To be clear, there is NO WAY for young gay men to avoid this. Service is not optional. However much I may disdain a ban on gays in a military (*cough*Trumpisanassholeforthetransban*cough*), at least in countries like the US, they can simply choose not to join. It’s still discriminatory, but not actually entrapping. Korean men do not have a choice on military service and we all know, sexuality is not a choice either.

I’m sure with Trump and Kim going at it like schoolyard bullies, most of the concerns of the world with respect to Korea are about nuclear annihilation, but if you could spare a moment to urge your representatives, to contact your favorite international human rights organization, to donate, to speak out, to put pressure on Moon and his government to protect gay Korean men from imprisonment merely for being who they are while serving their nation, that would be great.

Because when it comes to human rights, the slogan of this year’s Pride events in Korea got it spot on…20170923_181931

I know I got a little political there, but frankly, I’m just tired to my bones about having to read every day about how some human somewhere is being treated as less because of a trait they cannot choose, whether that is skin color, ethnicity, national origin, gender, gender identity, or sexuality. I’m weary to my soul that I keep seeing humans being physically attacked for this. And I am exhausted on a cellular level of seeing oppressors claiming victimhood as they smash the faces of those humans figuratively and literally. In some ways, I wish I was only talking about America, but it’s everywhere. It’s not going away if we ignore it or just “don’t get political”. And while I can’t go out on the streets and fight it every day, I am not that strong; I can act, do, and speak as much as my strength allows. I hope you will, too.


Queer Up! Pride 2017

This week more than usual it is apparent to me how much I am not like journalists. I came back from Seoul feeling happy but tired and spent Sunday resting and doing laundry so I could go back to work Monday morning. I watched article after article come out online about the event while my own writing languished in rough draft state and my photos sat unedited. I sometimes wish I could be more timely, but then I remind myself that this is my hobby. No one pays me, and no one sets the deadlines but me. So, here it is, a week later: Queer Pride in Korea. Don’t forget to check out the full photo album on Facebook!

Late For a Very Important Date

20170715_134128I wasn’t sure I was going to make it this year. Some people weren’t sure there was even going to be a Pride this year. Of course, every single year since the first festival/march in Seoul in 2000 the conservative religious zealots have tried to stop the Korean Queen Culture Festival (KQCF aka Pride) from happening. They try to file legal objections. They try to file use of space applications for the same day. They throw temper tantrums and accuse foreigners of bringing homosexuality and AIDS into Korea (because there would of course never be any gay Koreans if we hadn’t infected them!). This year, the issue was with the grass.

During the impeachment of former president Park, a small but dedicated group of her supporters camped out illegally on the lawn at Seoul Plaza to protest the totally unanimous vote to oust her from office. They were mostly old people, so the government didn’t want to force them out. There is a serious cultural value of respecting the elderly here and no one in power wanted the optics of police forcing old folks to move along. Although they did eventually leave after 4 months, they ruined the grass on the plaza and it had to be replanted and allowed to grow before another group could use the area.

Thus KQCF was turned down for the usual June date. The community waited anxiously to see if a new date could be agreed upon or if the grass was going to be the final straw. So to speak. As you can guess by the existence of this post, they did secure July 15th as this years festival date, and I marked my calendar with mixed feelings.

Examine Your Feelings

Part of my feelings were of course excitement; however, I could not help but remember the rise and crash emotions of my first Seoul Pride last year when I woke up the next day to the news of the Pulse shooting in Florida. Additionally, the two people I had most looked forward to attending with left Korea in March. And finally, I was worried that the postponement and battle would dampen participation (boy, was I wrong about that one). Finally, I found a friend to invite who had never been to a Pride in any country, and her excitement reinvigorated me.


20170715_152825We woke up in our slightly fancy downtown hotel, lounged around, had a leisurely breakfast and finally headed over to the plaza a little after the 11am start time. We passed rows and rows of police buses parked along the side streets. Last year, I came up from the subway and the first sight that greeted me was a veritable army of uniformed officers lining the street and crosswalk. This year, we walked in from another direction and saw a little of the behind the scenes police preparation as well as walking through some of the protesters who were stationed next to the festival exit and a subway station. I knew what to expect going in from last year, but my friend said that walking past all the police and protesters made her feel anxious about the day. The reported police presence was about 6,000 officers.


Booths For Everyone!

Once inside the temporary walls, we hit up the press booth first. Even though I don’t work for a press outlet, the sensitive nature of the KQCF means that everyone who wants to publish pictures has to register with the press booth and sign an agreement about respecting the sexual minorities present. Especially not taking pictures without permission and about not showing any faces that might out someone who isn’t ready. You might think that being at Pride is already outing, but many people here can’t come out to family or employers without being disowned and unemployed, so coming to Pride is one of the few times they can really be themselves without having to worry about the anti-queer culture ruining their lives. Many people even wore masks (fun and fancy masks, but still) to protect themselves while marching.


The booths, much like last year, were marvelous. There is almost no corporate sponsorship for KQCF. Most of the booths were run by charities or other small organizations with some funding from small local businesses. The only big companies I saw there were Google and LUSH. There were several embassies representing their countries as well. Although last year the US had great representation, I wasn’t able to find them on “embassy row” this time around. I read another article that said they were there, but I visited every booth and never saw them. (I did see Australia, The Netherlands, Ireland, Canada, Germany, U.K., and “the Nordic countries” 4 together as a group).

The Issues


In the absence of corporate sponsorship, each booth was run by a small organization raising money for LGBTQIA awareness and rights in Korea. And that umbrella was generously huge. In addition to lesbian, gay, bi, trans, queer, intersex, and asexual I also found a wealth of other issues: AIDS/HIV health, at risk youth, abortion rights, toxic masculinity, gender discrimination in the workplace, sexual awareness/pleasure/safety, children’s sex education, parents of sexual minority children, feminism, gender non-conformity, and even armpit hair. (this group of ladies spent the day holding up their posters to show their unshaven underarms, and when they prompted me to show my armpit too, they seemed a little sad it was bare. However, I apologized in Korean and they quickly burst into smiles and told me it was ok)


This sign held by a smiling grey haired older man (who I cropped out to protect his identity) is calling for parents meetings for parents of sexual minority youth. Another sign holding group had one in Korean I was struggling to read, when a young man came to my rescue with an English translation. They told me to imagine that the sign was “mansplaining” and hit it with their huge toy hammer. I made such a face posing for their photos I think I scared the guy holding the sign! Later on I tried to read the poster and got the gist it was about workplace discrimination as well.


Another woman had made a cut out sign simulating a newspaper headline, but since she didn’t speak English we had to wait until later on to find out what it said. Unsurprisingly, it was an issue we could get behind, that of improving sex education in school and to stop treating children so differently based on gender roles.

Literal Translation:

  • Education Hope (news.eduhope.net)
  • juvenile sex minority exclusion
  • “school sex education” finally discarded!
  • binary gender: students are not divided into boys and girls

The organization is a teachers group committed to a wide array of educational issue in Korea. The complaint is about sexual and gender minorities being excluded in school education programs. The headline calling for the elimination of school sex education does not mean they don’t want any, it’s a reference to the government policy that excludes education on sexual minorities and has been criticized by the UN and Human Right’s Watch. The issue of students being divided is that in Korean schools, kids are divided by gender for everything, which could be very painful for trans or genderqueer students, as well as reinforcing damaging gender stereotypes for cisgendered kids.

Come to Jesus

20170715_133630(1)The protesters outside are entirely Christian, but there are plenty of Korean Christian churches that came inside too, eager to point out their own perspective on the Bible and love (hint: it’s about inclusion, acceptance, and more love!). One group had even made a pamphlet that deconstructed the most common biblical arguments against homosexuality and explained the verses in historical context. But mostly they just wanted to show that the church can be accepting too. There was more than one Jesus costume at the event as well, and while the one making the rounds in the media seems to be a white guy (*sigh), I found this Korean one first. His sign is surprisingly excellent when you look closely at the comparison of Christianity hope.ver and armageddon.ver.



Speaking of white people at Seoul Pride. I noticed that looking over the media in the days afterward, there are way more pics of white people than Koreans. Don’t be fooled into thinking this means there were more white people actually there. It’s just that foreigners tend to be more open about being in the Queer Community and are far less likely to lose friends, family or jobs for appearing in a news article supporting gay rights in Korea. Plus, they (we?) are way more exhibitionist and while there were plenty of Koreans in costumes, a larger percentage of the white people were dressed up in visually interesting (read photographer’s dream) clothing. These things combined mean that more pictures of white people get published. I probably had more foreigners in my photo roll last year than Koreans, and this year I tried to focus more on the Korean attendees and promoters. After all, this is their fight and I’m just an ally and supporter since I don’t get to vote here.

Buddhist Queer Dogma and the Dancing Monk

20170715_134723There was also spiritual representation from the Buddhists! I accepted a pamphlet from one nun, which after some time spent translating seems to give the following basic message: while Buddhism condemns sex in general as being one of the things that ties you to the material world (monks and nuns are supposed to refrain entirely, but lay people are expected to do it in moderation, like alcohol consumption or meat eating) that there is no specific teaching about who you have have sex with or what type of sex you have (they listed 3 choices: vaginal, anal, and oral). The takeaway for me was that Buddhists should not condemn queer sex because of it’s queerness. One should regard all types of sex equally (while still bearing in mind things like adultery and unchecked lust are bad for everyone, too). If you’re going to accept that regular folks get into loving relationships and have sex while straight, you have to accept the same for all other flavors too. This was the first year a representation from any Buddhist temple came to the festival. It was glorious.

One the one hand, it was heartwarming to see monks and nuns there smiling, dancing and sharing love, but one monk in particular completely stole the show. Dressed in gauzy flowing ivory robes, he danced ecstatically while the rock music was blasting from the stage during Kucia Diamant’s performance. Kucia is possibly the most famous Drag performer in Korea (Hurricane Kimchi gets love too but the art styles are very different). I’ve seen Kucia twice in Korea and enjoyed her shows, but I don’t mind at all that I missed her performance for this wonderful dancing Buddhist gay monk. Sometime during the second song, he was joined by a member of the press. The interloper tried to bow out after his aide had taken some video, but the monk wouldn’t let him leave and they danced wildly in a circle of cheering admirers.


More On Stage

20170715_141013Later on, we spotted Wonder Woman and a jedi (maybe young Aniken?) facing off on the stage, but I only made it close enough for a couple pictures at the end. I’m still not sure what they were doing, because that’s a serious genre clash. Once I was up near the stage, surrounded by people with much nicer cameras than mine, I got lumped in with the more official press (since our press badges weren’t different) and was ushered right up to the edge of a small clearing where I got a front row seat to watch the LGBTQIA traditional Korean drum performance. This is the classic drum and cymbal parade that accompanies every event and festival in Korea and it’s great to see the traditional cultural arts merging into the new cultural milieu.

Get Your March On

Shortly after the performance ended, we took a break to get some lunch, missing out on the worst of the rain that the day had. Mostly, it had been cloudy with some occasional showers that caused every Korean to pop an umbrella at the first drop. More than once I was afraid of loosing an eye to an umbrella spike as the press of bodies and umbrellas became impassable. I often didn’t need to open my own umbrella since I could shelter under those around me! The lunchtime rains were a serious downpour and when we returned to the plaza, the grass that the festival had been postponed to regrow was a big muddy squish.

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We herded over to the far side where the march would soon begin. Like all events in Korea, nothing starts quite on time and we waited for a while watching the decorated trucks over the fence and speculating on how many people would try to squeeze past us while there was still nowhere to go. Between us and the main stage was a field of flags, ready to take to the streets. Outside the begining of the parade route was lined with protestors, signs in Korean and English to tell us off.


Nonetheless, the rain seemed to have worn itself out and we marched the 4km around downtown Seoul in rainless if humid conditions. It was the first time I actually needed the little rechargeable hand fan I bought for the summer. I took lots of pictures of people at the parade. Korean drag queens, camping and vamping every time a lens was pointed at them. Floats from various organizations. Random sights around Seoul, and one really adorable international couple (US/Korean) with the sign “Seoul mate” because they met in Seoul.

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Military Entrapment

It was hot hot hot and I was starting to lose my drive toward the last km. We were walking slower than the procession as a whole and were gradually passed by more floats and people, but that was ok because it just meant I got to see more. At the finish, we found ourselves directly behind a truck displaying against the military ban. Military participation is not optional for young men in Korea, and yet it is illegal to be gay while in the military. A high ranking military officer started a sting operation recently to entrap soldiers with Grindr (popular gay dating app) and several were arrested. I am personally outraged by this situation because there is literally no way for the men to avoid breaking the law. Of course I want it to be ok to be openly gay, but I was a fairly socially aware teen when “don’t ask don’t tell” passed in the US and although eventually we found that to be not enough, it was a huge step at the time… and the US doesn’t have mandatory military service. So, I’m not expecting Korea to do it all in one giant leap, but the current situation boils my blood.

Unlike the other floats we’d marched behind that were dancing and cheering, the young people on this float were wearing uniforms and speaking passionately about the political injustice. It looked like something out of a revolutionary film plot. Every so often the speaker would pause in his oration and do a call and response with the crowd where we would repeat his last word three times while hammering the air with our fists. It was very powerful and a strong reminder that Korea hasn’t reached a point where Pride can truly be a celebration, but instead must continue to be a protest.

Wrap Up

With the plaza in sight, we pulled off to one side and took shelter from the sweltering heat in the cool air conditioning of a Starbucks. Not usually my place of choice, but I promised a friend I’d pick her up a Starbucks mug in Seoul and it seemed like this would make a fun story.


Last year the KQCF had 50,000 attendees and beat all previous records. This year there were an estimated 85,000. I read elsewhere that the Korean police estimated the attendance to only be 9,000 and had to go searching for an explanation of this discrepancy.  

“Police count heads at the festival by calculating the size of the land used and a density of eight people per 3.3 square-meters (35.5 square-feet). Organizers do the same, but also acknowledge the population density could rise up to 20 people per 3.3 square-meter space during peak hours.” (source)

I don’t know what event police were attending, but there were WAY more than 8 people per 3.3 m². That place was so packed at times we could hardly move. I didn’t need to open my umbrella because I was protected by the umbrellas of those around me. On the other hand, I saw a photo of the same location during a Psy concert with 80,000 attending and it looked more packed than the plaza felt. It’s hard to take an accurate head count when there are no tickets, no registration, people coming and going throughout the day, a 4km long march, and a strong political adgenda.

Regardless, it was obvious to me that the event was much more crowded than last year, even with the delays and heavy rains. Every year the attendance grows, the media coverage grows and the protesters voices are heard less. The new president, although a moderate, was cornered into denouncing homosexuality during the debates and no one knows if he’ll feel more pressured by the conservative voices or by keeping Korea’s international good standing. Taiwan became the first Asian country to legalize gay marriage and now we all wait to see if Korea will become a leader in human rights, or fall behind.

This year’s slogan?

There is no later. We demand change now.


Gaya Kingdom: Myth and History

A couple weeks ago, I had the opportunity to go on a school field trip to the Gaya Theme Park in Gimhae (near the Busan airport). I had never been on a school field trip before, and while some of you may be thinking, ugh a day of corralling screaming kids outside, my unenviable position as foreigner gave me a bit of a pass on kid wrangling and a lot more freedom to indulge my sightseeing urges.

The Gaya Theme Park is a strange combination of history, mythology and recreation. Let’s start with the history part.

What is the Gaya Confederacy?

Korea has not always been a single unified nation. I was not taught Korean history beyond the US involvement in the Korean war at any point during my education, which is vastly disappointing since I studied East Asia at University. I’ve been trying to fill in the gaps since arriving here. There’s not much history in any part of the BCE. There’s some fossils and pottery and a legend about a kingdom that dates back to more than 2000 BCE. The first records seem to be from a Chinese encounter in the 7th century CE, but the seat of that Kingdom and most of it’s stuff was in what is now North Korea, so we may never know any more than what we find in the Chinese records.

china mapSkipping ahead to the first century CE, we get what is known as the Three Kingdoms Period. The three kingdoms were Goguryeo (purple) controlled huge swaths of the north including what is now North Korea and parts of China (it is also where we get the English word “Korea” from, since their word for their own country is hanguk) The south was divided between Baekje (yellow) on the west, and Silla (blue) on the east. Except, there were more than three. The Gaya confederacy wedged it’s way between Baekje and Silla for almost 500 years. And let’s not forget the Tamna, who were a whole other Kingdom until the 1400’s! But, sure, it’s the Three Kingdoms Period.

UntitledBetween it’s mythic founding 42 CE and it’s surrender to Silla in 562 CE, the Gaya confederate existed in the south central area of the Korean peninsula, just barely missing Busan (where I live) but keeping it’s capital in the nearby Gimhae (where our airport lives). They did some fishing and agriculture, but were most famous for their ironwork. It was a rough confederation of 6-12 different Gayas. When they Japanese invaded Korea in 1910, they claimed that Gaya had been a Japanese military outpost from 300-710 to justify their “return”, but no scholars take this claim seriously today.

Ok. History part done. Let’s get colorful.

6 Golden Eggs

The theme park is located in Gimhae because that is thought to be the historical capital of the biggest baddest Gaya of the confederacy, the Geumgwan Gaya. I was worried about the weather since the heat had been bad a couple of days during the week, but between happy weather gods and the fact that the theme park was up at a higher elevation, it was a stunningly sunny day with blue skies, fluffy clouds and cool breezes.

20170526_140450As we entered the park, the first statue was of a giant golden egg with 5 smaller eggs around it’s base. I was taking pictures of absolutely everything, hoping to figure it out later, so I snapped a shot and kept walking with the group. My co-teacher saw me take the picture and told me that the egg was there because the founding king of Gaya was hatched from an egg that fell from the sky. She also referred to this as “history” although I’m hopeful the last part was just a linguistics flub and that no one here seriously thinks that kings really hatched from sky eggs in the good old days. I could not figure out how to ask this without sounding rude, tho, so I let it go.

The Palace & The Indian Princess

20170526_100351.jpgWe made our way deeper into the park heading directly for the palace. It’s a replica palace. Very little archaeological evidence of Gaya has been found, although the tomb of Suro (first king of Gaya) is maintained in Gimhae as well. The palace grounds are reminiscent of Chinese palace architecture with familiar canted roofs and wide open courtyards between buildings. The colors and designs are quite unique to Korea, being less the scarlet and gold of China and more earth toned versions of dusty rose, pink, taupe yellow and pea green.

The kids ran eagerly around the courtyards and explored the buildings inside and out. Within each open building were some museum like decorations showing the furniture, art, history and stories of the Gaya king and his Indian queen.

What? Yes, that’s right. His queen was said to be from India. While the king’s building was full of pottery, iron work, carvings and paintings, the queen’s building was a more wistful romance story including a wall where visitors could tie wishes written on paper, a love throne for two, a hall of stars (using mirrors and LED lights to create the illusion of a blue star filled eternity), and the “pasa stone pagoda”. The pasa stones, the sign said in broken English, were red stones from India used to appease the sea gods during her voyage, and later erected in the palace. I have no idea if these stones are actually from an archaeological dig, or from India, or if it’s just a collection of rocks from the area stacked up to look like the ritual rock stacks common all over Asia.

20170526_101605One room had a huge map along a wall showing the queen’s “romance road of Asia”, paths from India to Korea picked out in red and blue. Another sign seemed to imply that the queen had brought Buddhism into Korea, however that is highly unlikely. I suppose she may have brought hers to Gaya (assuming that she was actually Indian) but the northern Kingdom of Goguryeo got it from their Chinese neighbors. I question her Indian origin story because the myth (written originally in the Samguk Yusa in the 13th century, it’s a kind of history/mythology mashup of the Three Kingdoms period) refers to her as being from Ayuta, a “distant kingdom across the sea”, but the name doesn’t correspond to the name of any country or city from that time period in India or any other country.

However, in the 21st century a gaggle of historians and diplomats (including the North Korean ambassador to India) went and did a statue of the queen in Ayodhya, India, believing it to be the “Ayuta” refered to in the Samguk Yusa account of the tale. Although the statue was accepted, the Indian government says there is no evidence of any such person in their historical records or mythology. (citation BBC)

EDIT: Thank you Varuna for sending me more information about Heo Hwang Ok, also called Seembavalam in Tamil. Present day Kanyakumari was called Ayuta in the past. Although there is still no academic consensus, so wonderful to keep learning about this legendary Queen from people around the world. Check out this Quora for more details on her Tamil Nadu origins!

The Story of Miracle Love

20170526_100403We took our time around the palace complex, letting the kids run off some of their excitement after the long bus ride. There were plenty of historical things of interest, but no teachers tried to make the kids focus on learning, nor was there a guided tour where kids were shuffled from one room to another while someone explained things. They did separate out the grades so that no one building became too full, but on the whole, the kids were on their own to enjoy the space.

20170526_103748After a while, we headed out of the palace complex and back toward the main entrance to the theater. Turtle imagery was everywhere. A large mountain with an artificial waterfall towered over the theater building. A gray stone turtle lurked in the pond below and another golden one perched precariously on an outcropping halfway up the mountain! I asked about the turtles, but my co-teacher didn’t know (don’t worry, there’s an answer later).

The theater offered a showing of a musical rendition of the love story of King Suro and Queen Heo (alternatively Hur) called “Miracle Love”. I was a bit nervous of going to see a musical in Korean. I didn’t want to pester my co-teacher to translate while we were watching, so I figured I’d just enjoy the music, costumes and dancing. However, the theater thoughtfully had installed some large screens on either side of the stage where English translations were displayed. It was immensely helpful, if still a little grammatically imprecise.

20170526_110511The story began with two archaeologists stumbling onto a large cache of relics from the Gaya period. Their song explained with some lament how little was known of Gaya before this discovery. Then a cave in knocked our archaeologists unconscious and a hazy dream fantasy of the mythstory of King Suro began in earnest. Dancers dressed as the zodiac animals performed intricate dances on stage as some kind of high priest or shaman character sang of the strife, war and drought in the land, praying to the heavens for deliverance which arrived in the form of 6 eggs. (although all 6 eggs hatched out kings, 5 of them were elsewhere being kings of other parts of Gaya, so aren’t in this story)

20170526_110923The glowing egg hatched to reveal the full grown form of Suro who is proclaimed king on the spot and is expected to wield the power to heal the land. Yay! But it’s not easy being king. The drought continues and his people begin to resent him for not living up to the promise of his celestial birth.

20170526_111433Meanwhile in Ayuta (India?), the princess Heo has a dream that her destined love is in a land far away, and that she must set sail to reach him and fulfill her destiny (lots of destiny). The dancers costumes were reminiscent of saris and there were certainly hints of Indian Bollywood style music and dance moves that were obviously meant to place the princess and her handmaidens in India.

20170526_112151But OH! The villain! Satal, a god of war and a gleefully over the top villain dressed in a skull mask and rough furs and accompanied by evil temptresses dressed in black and red gauzy costumes came on to sing his number about how he would defeat Suro and become the king of Gaya, keeping the kingdom forever in a state of greed, hate, and famine. His musical style was that of classic hard rock and the stage was lit by enormous flames as he and his minions sang and danced.

20170526_112450The princess’s ship is caught in a deadly storm and she is washed ashore in the wreck. It seems the moon itself has saved her just in time to be found by king Suro and they sing a touching love duet in the style of popular Korean ballads. But their happiness cannot last. Satal and his minions kidnap the princess and beat Suro nearly to death in battle. He wants to give up. He didn’t expect this to be so difficult. Where are the heavenly powers he’s supposed to have, after all? But his loyal servant reminds him of the plight of his people and the love of his princess and his resolve is bolstered.

20170526_113408During a rallying all cast dance number, new armor is forged for the king, turning him from a dandy to a warrior. He is told he can receive the remainder of his heavenly powers upon the mountaintop and so newly armored he ascends to greet the powers of heaven, represented on stage as a white dragon flying around Suro to strengthen him. However Suro fights, Satal holds his own and the soaring duet of hero and villain waxes lyrical about the evils of greed, selfishness and divisiveness being defeated by the power of love. In the end, it is not the armor or the power of heaven that gives Suro the strength to defeat Satal, it is the love of Heo, her voice joining the song to call back to their duet and the fact that their love was made in heaven.

Strengthened by love, the king defeats Satal and restores peace, harmony and prosperity to Gaya. Everyone celebrates with this all cast finale that I managed to get a video of. There’s no direct translation, but it’s basically yay we won, isn’t love awesome? Love, love, love.

I haven’t read the Samguk Yusa, but synopses online seem to indicate that the creators of the musical may have taken a few romantic liberties with the story. I also could not help but look at this story of a man who arrives on earth in a giant egg, is nearly defeated by his enemy (another godlike being), retires to his fortress in disgrace before being reminded he has to rescue his true love and re-emerging stronger than ever to defeat General Zod… I mean Satal… and wonder if maybe he’s related to Kal’el?

What’s Up With the Turtles?

20170526_123913After the musical, we escorted the kids back over to the palace where they unpacked tiny picnic blankets and box lunches under the watchful eye of the staff while we enjoyed the cool, fresh mountain air. When the kids were all done eating, they were turned loose in the playground section of the park while the grownups had a lazy lunch of fried chicken next to the lake surrounded by heaps of purple pansies.

20170526_140416On our way out of the park, I spotted a turtle garden with empty shells that kids could climb in and around, as well as a happy, smiling gray stone turtle overlooking the scene. The sign near the stone turtle informed us that the mountain where King Suro’s egg landed and hatched looked so much like a laying turtle that it was named Gujibong (gu meaning “turtle” in Korean). Which explained the mystery of why there were so many turtles around the park.

I also spotted the naked turtles who had apparently left their empty shells for kids to play in. These pink and white polka dotted creatures were caught in embarrassed poses of disrobing and we all got a pretty good chuckle about it on the way back to the buses.



I had never heard of Gaya Theme Park and would not have even known to put it on my list of things to do if the school hadn’t taken me there. Looking at it now, public transit would still only get me to within 2km, though I suppose one could hire a taxi to get up the mountain, I’m not sure how the best way to get back down. My point is, it’s not a hotspot for foreign tourists.

On top of that, Gaya’s history isn’t well known even by Koreans, perhaps because so much of the archaeological evidence was lost until recently. It’s things like this that truly highlight the differences in experience between living and working in a foreign country and merely visiting one. It’s so easy for us to take for granted that our history and culture are spread across the world (first by colonialism and now by commerce and entertainment) that we can forget that every country has a rich historical and mythological tradition of it’s own. I’m grateful to have had this chance to learn about Gaya, and I hope you enjoyed learning about it with me. Please enjoy the rest of the photos of this beautiful day on the Facebook page. Thanks!



Food Fight

Trigger Warning: Eating Disorders. This post is not fun. It’s not about travel or adventure. It is relevant to these because by living in other cultures, and experiencing culture shock, we uncover things about our own culture and about ourselves that may have otherwise never come to light. This is about how food culture in Korea made me face a tiny portion of my own food wars and the treatment of food in American culture. I thought about making it private, but aside from the fact that I just don’t have that many readers, I think that there are others who have their own food fights who need to know they aren’t alone.

I don’t want to say I have an eating disorder, but I think that it’s reasonable to say I have a very good view of eating disorders from where I stand. As a child, my father made it clear to me that my grandmother (his mother) was morbidly obese, diabetic and wheelchair bound because she ate her feelings. I saw this trope in movies and TV shows, as well as in PSA style warnings in health class, so it sunk in pretty deep. So deep that when faced with feelings of sadness, grief, anger, shame, guilt, etc. my throat closes down making swallowing nigh impossible and my stomach rejects everything with a vicious roiling nausea. There are some negative emotions like insecurity, stress and anxiety which do not trigger this response, so I still stress eat from time to time, but far more common for me to fail to eat while emotional and then eat too much when I recover and realize how hungry I am.

When I lost a close friend to suicide, I was so sad for so long that I couldn’t eat anything other than plain crackers and chicken broth with white rice for about a month. Most of the time, this isn’t actually a problem, since I’ve gotten decent at being able to take some time out and bring the emotions back around and postpone the healthy meal until I finish crying myself clear. (oh, yeah, I also believe we have to experience our sadness rather than suppress it). I haven’t actually gagged or thrown up over food from emotion since I was a kid. Which is probably the source of this whole mess.

Korea has been a battle ground over this usually innocuous problem. In the US and a lot of other places, if a fat girl turns down food in public, no one really pushes. Heck, even skinny girls are nervous to be seen eating too much or the wrong thing. A lot fat shaming is placed on overweight people eating anything in public, like they’re supposed to just hide from the world and never visit restaurants. America is like one giant overbearing parent criticizing all your food choices while also being the worst frat boy bro and offering deep fried everything and sandwiches made of fried chicken “buns” with bacon in the middle. Do you want fries with that?

Korea is not the only country I’ve lived in or traveled to where eating is a social activity, but it is the only one I’ve lived in where I felt so pressured to eat more. I sit at lunch with my skinny Korean coworkers and watch them shovel mounds of food in record time. I cannot eat that fast. I think maybe when I was in high school we had to eat that fast because there was no time, but I’ve become a slow eater since then. It’s better for you. It gives you time to enjoy the food, and gives your body the time it needs for the messages to get from the stomach to the brain that you’re satisfied. Not only can I not eat as fast as these women, I can’t eat as much as they do.

Last summer, I found myself in the very awkward situation of sharing an office with a group of administrative staffers that I otherwise never see. They brought treats basically every day to share and would insist that I come away from my desk to the table to join them. Even if I wasn’t hungry. Even if I was right in the middle of working on something and didn’t want to break my train of thought. I felt like I had no choice. And that made me feel a stinging combination of anger and shame that caused my throat to close against the swallowing of the snack.

I know, it sounds silly, why have such a strong emotional response to someone offering you food? It’s not about the food. It’s about the agency. It’s about food as weapon of control. If I can’t politely decline, it’s not my choice anymore, and there is nothing that flips all my trigger switches like having my agency over my own body removed.

I made it through the awkward summer often by simply holding onto a single piece of something to make it look like I was eating more. When school started and I was once again back in the company of my regulars who were all on diets all the time. One ate a huge lunch because she planned to eat nothing else that day, while another did so because she’d skipped breakfast. I survived lunch awkwardness by simply taking less food on to my tray, but this year with the new cafeteria, the very kind lunch staff love giving me big portions. And this year there are new teachers around me who are not on diets and love bringing and sharing snacks morning and afternoon.

When the substitute had her last day with us, the music teacher ordered a whole bunch of “Mom’s Touch”, a fast food fried chicken and burgers kind of place I ate at once and only once because there was nothing else around where I was at the time I was hungover and starving. But she ordered this smorgasbord after lunch, and everyone just kept eating! Even though I’d just had lunch, even though I really don’t like Mom’s Touch, and even though fried fast food is so unhealthy, I felt solidly pressured to eat some of it.

A few weeks ago, one brought me an ice cream right after lunch. Usually when people bring me snacks, I can politely accept and just say, oh I’m still full from lunch but I’ll enjoy this later. But ice cream melts… so I ate that. And that just runs counter to everything I ever learned about food. Eating ice cream just to be polite and not because I wanted it? What!?

After a whole puberty of diets and exercise plans, calorie counting and measuring ( and an early 20s rebellion of eating all the worst things, and part of the 30s doing fad diets and more measuring), I finally came to terms with listening to my body. Eat when hungry, stop -not when full, but when no longer hungry. When craving food, think about why. Go in craving steps where you try the healthy option and wait 10-15 minutes: water, protein, fiber, fruits/veggies, lastly chocolate. This has done basically zero for my scale, but I think it makes me feel better, and it’s certainly not unhealthy.

This chronic battle with food and emotion is unlikely to ever stop entirely in my life, but I felt like it was more of a cold war in the last few years. And then today, at lunch, one of my coworkers explained that the school was doing a “food waste awareness” program and that everyone was supposed to clean their plates.

Food waste is terrible. People in wealthy countries throw away so much food, it’s insane. I am sure Korea’s waste is less than it is in America. I remember learning the weight-loss mantra “Better to waste than to waist.”, meaning better to throw it away than get fat. But of course, really it’s better to not buy it, not cook it, not put it on your plate.

The point is, I am all for food waste awareness. But here we all are in a setting with very little control over how much of what food is put on the tray (I suppose kids can ask for less of something, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen it happen) and this “clean your plate” suggestion (not even a mandate, since of course I am an adult and they aren’t actually forcing me to finish, only asking me to set a good example for the kids) this suggestion reaches all the way back into my psyche and flips every last food autonomy switch I’ve got.

I’m sitting at the table in my dad’s kitchen in California. I don’t remember exactly when, but I’m not more than 10 years old. His wife has made some kind of Hawaiian stir fry for dinner, and I’ve been told I have to clear my plate to earn a slice of the delectable chocolate layer cake resting under glass atop the fridge. I try, I eat everything but the onions, which I hated back then. But it’s not good enough. No onions, no cake. I struggle to choke down the onions I hate so much, the cake taunting me from across the kitchen. My father is going to have his piece in front of me. I force onions in sweet and sour sauce into my mouth, trying to chew and swallow, trying to hold back tears. But my throat closes and my stomach rebels and the onions, peppers, beef, and pineapple comeback up and onto my plate.

Now there is no dinner in my stomach, and I am scolded and shamed for vomiting, for wasting, for making a mess. Dinner, cake and dignity all revoked.

This is far from the only time that food was used as a weapon or a reward, but it is the one that came back to me today when my co-teacher innocently asked me to set a good example to the students during this food waste awareness campaign. And suddenly, my stomach turns upside-down. Food is repellent and I can feel the beginnings of the clenching throat that will make swallowing impossible.

I was hungry when I sat down and we were having curry rice for lunch which I particularly enjoy.  And yet, after that I picked listlessly at my food, waiting for the others to finish first, which they always do, and to leave me alone at the table where I could nibble until nearly everyone was gone and I could dispose of the rest of my lunch as unobserved as possible. Now I am ashamed to waste food and to let the children see me do so.

I love food. I don’t understand how it is that we create in ourselves this kind of conflict, guilt and shame over food. Shame over eating, shame over not eating. I can’t help but think back to my brief time in France, a country that takes pride in food preparation and spends time to eat and enjoy it. Maybe I’m being wishful in believing that somewhere there is a culture that does not have the complex love-hate relationship with food that I grew up into. Until I find it, though, I just have to keep digging the shrapnel out of the scars of my past, hoping they’ll heal more completely each time.


In the Merry Month of May

As the fine spring weather draws to a close, and the deeply oppressive heat and humidity of Korean summer loom on the horizon,  I tried to make the most of my final outdoor shenanigans before I’m consigned to the AC or at least the after dark until October. This May, I visited 3 festivals and a historical theme park. The later truly deserves it’s own blog post, so I’ll come back to it another time. For now, let me share a few of the marvelous spring festivals I made it to this year.

May 13th: Gamcheon Culture Village and Festival


Gamcheon is a famous little neighborhood in Busan that has been on my bucket list of things to visit while living here, and somehow I made it a whole year without going! Lucky for me they decided to hold a festival this spring, which I found out about a whopping 2 days before it was set to take place. It is referred to (by the Korean tourism industry) as the “Machu Pichu of Korea”, but actually dates back to the Korean war.

20170513_141043During the war, Busan was the only city in Korea that was not taken over at some point by the invading northern army. While elsewhere all over the peninsula, whole towns were being leveled to the ground, Busan was becoming a haven for refugees as well as US and other foreign aid troops. The population crisis caused the unique housing style of Busan, which involves building houses and apartments right up the side of the mountains that weave in and out of the city.

I’ve often found this blend of urban and natural to be beautiful and a great improvement over flat concrete, but nowhere is it more on display than in Gamcheon. According to the sign, “The virtue of building a house so that it does not block the view of the house behind it demonstrates how this village preserves traditions of national culture in which people care about one another and live together in close proximity and intimacy.”

20170513_135839The houses are painted a cheerful array of bright colors that make for a stunning view from the ridge above. However, once you descend into the neighborhood, there is no end of quaint surprises in the form of beautiful murals, surprising statues, and wandering flower planters. The neighborhood is not only adorable, it’s become a hot spot for bohemian culture, local artists, musicians and other experimental creations.

As we walked down the main road, we were surrounded at once by the festival tents and lanterns overhead. Soldiers in uniform were having a blast dancing along to a local live music performance while shops offered multicolored balloons and delicious iced treats. There were about a million places for kids to try their hand at various types of arts and crafts. A section of the festival showcased historical culture with backdrops, costumes and traditional games. At the top of the hill, the local school kids put on a talent show, and a wandering parade of traditional dancers could be heard wending around the twisting and narrow roads.


There were famous photo op stops where we took turns waiting to get the best view, or take a picture with the famous landmark. My friend and I went into the mock up lighthouse, but decided the line to sit next to the statue of Little Prince was just too long for such a hot day. Instead we wandered around admiring the variety of murals and other decorations. My favorites included a flight of stairs painted to look like a stack of books, some old pants that had been turned into a walking flowerpot, and the very creepy baby faced birds that watched us from up on the rooftops.

I realized I put off visiting Gamcheon for so long because I thought it was just a bunch of colorful buildings on the mountainside. Everyone says it’s a must see, but not enough people talk about what’s inside those buildings. I found Gamcheon to be a wonderfully unique neighborhood, not only because of it’s architectural design, but also it’s dedication to art and freedom of expression. Certainly a must see for both long term residents and short term vacationers.

Follow this link for more photos from Gamcheon.

May 20th: Busan Global Gathering

This was another last minute arrival. As good as the tourism websites are in Korea, there is so much going on, I shouldn’t be surprised that it’s hard to create a single comprehensive list. Even my native Korean co-workers are astonished that I know about all these events they’ve never heard of. At least I know it’s not just a language barrier?

20160521_194154I went to this festival last year when it was held at the citizen’s park, which a beautiful grassy park with trees, a beach, and a big fountain. I had a great time visiting all the booths from other countries and sampling goodies they brought. There was a large space in the middle of all the tents where we could flop down in the grass when we needed a rest and I ran into lots of fun people (most of whom have since returned to their own countries) and sat on the lawn drinking the German beer and Spanish sangria until the sun went down.

Looking back, I realize I didn’t even write about this event last year because it was so small compared to the other things going on around me last spring. Despite my lack of blog-love, I did have fond memories of the event and was looking forward to going when I heard it was being put on again this year. For unknown reasons, the organizers decided to put the festival in a different location this year. A location of dirt. Gaze upon the contrasting images of last year and this. One looks like a great day out at the park, while the other looks like a flea market in an abandoned sandlot.

Appearances and lack of picnic space aside, the festival was still fun. There was a new twist this year of stamp collecting. We got our guide pamphlets when we arrived and were told that a few booths around the festival were offering stamps. If we collected 5, we could register for the raffle. The booths giving stamps require us to complete some mini-quest. At the first one, we put on mittens with Korean letters and lined up to make a sentence that we read out one syllable at a time. Israel’s booth implored us all to put on a yarmulke and have our photo taken. It seemed a bit odd, since I don’t think women usually wear those, but presumably someone in the booth was from the Israeli cultural delegation, soooo…. not offensive?

Another booth required us to take a try on a stationary bike to generate electricity used to power the blender making the smoothies. The Indonesian booth was giving out prizes for a plastic archery game. I managed to score the second ring from center. I went back to the Spanish booth for more sangria and got talked into adding on some amazing seafood paella. When I came back by to compliment the chef and take some photos, he came out to meet me. It turns out he’s a teacher at the the culinary department of Yonsan University, so I guess I shouldn’t be surprised it was so delicious.

After perusing all the booths, which seemed to be more numerous and more varied than the event last year, we wandered a ways away to find some grass to sit on while we waited for the raffle drawing. We’d been told the drawing was at 4, however around 3:30 they started calling numbers from the stage, and we didn’t even notice for ages because it was all in Korean and the grass was so far away. By the time we got back to the stage, there were only a few more numbers before the raffle ended and we decided to head back to the main road in search of some Sulbing. Then as we were leaving, we heard more numbers being called! The raffle was fairly strict about winners claiming their prize within only a few seconds of being called, so we knew there was no point in heading back, but it was still rough.


On the whole, I think the Global Gathering is a wonderful event and I hope the city keeps doing it, but it would be more enjoyable with plenty of places to sit and enjoy the food on offer or just take a rest as well as a more reliable time table for advertised events like performances or raffles.

Follow this link for more photos from Global Gatherings 2016 & 2017.

Haeundae Sandsculpture Festival


I don’t know if I’m feeling jaded because it’s my second year in Busan or if the festivals this spring really were not as awesome as last year. Expectations can ruin just about anything, and maybe it was a good thing I didn’t try to recreate my entire itinerary from last year. One of the things I did revisit was the Sandsculpture festival at Haeundae Beach. Not only is a day at the beach a nice way to greet the summer, the main attraction of the festival, the sandsculptures, would be all new works of art made fresh for this event.

I also wanted an excuse to go back to the fancy secret bar in Haeundae that I discovered at the sand festival last year. My friends and I agreed to meet in the late afternoon for a leisurely stroll up the beach to take in the sculptures before having dinner in one of Haeundae’s multitude of foreign cuisine restaurants, only to stroll back down the beach at night at take in the night-lit sculptures before changing shoes and heading back inland for craft cocktails.


There’s no way to be disappointed by giant sand sculptures. The amount of effort and planning required to create this beautiful and transient artform is impressive no matter what the subject matter is. Last year the theme was nautical liturature, and sculptures from stories like the Odessey (above), Gulliver’s Travel’s, and The Voyage of the Dawn Treader among others were scattered around the beach like very artsy mountains. Many of the sand mounds were covered in art all the way around, with hidden gems that made us want to explore every inch.

20170527_170816This year… I’m not really sure what the theme was. Each mound only had art on one side, yet despite the fact that there was a temporary walkway between the two rows of mounds (because walking in sand is hard), the art all faced the shorefront buildings, leaving only half facing the walkway and the other half showing their backs. The backs of the mounds remained smooth but for a single word that was presumably the inspiration for the art on the front.

In no way do I wish to denegrate the work of the artists. There were several very impressive sculptures. Merely that unlike last year, the art did not seem especially cohesive, and I was a little disappointed that there wasn’t more of it. As I meandered in and out of the mountains of sand, trying to capture everything with my phone, I found one very special piece about travel. Amid the representations of world famous landmarks and the couple taking a selfie (of course I took a selfie with the statue taking a selfie, what kind of person do you take me for?), there was a giant postcard expressing greetings from Busan and sent to Seattle, WA (which, as the city I have spent more years in than any other this life is the one I tend to call “home”).

I also enjoyed the “couple” piece, which was of an elderly pair expressing the growing old together dream, as well as the “rest” piece which was simply a mosaic of sleeping and dreaming (some of my favorite things).


There were far fewer works this year, since not only were there fewer sand mounds, but each one bore art on one side only. I still had a lovely time, but we finished much faster than expected and spent some time just chilling out with cool drinks before leaving the beach in search of dinner.


Even though it didn’t offer the stunning art display I was hoping for, the day still managed to give a one-two punch for my brain. Part one was the shock and reminder that other white people exist in such large numbers. I’m the only foreigner at my job, and I can spend days not seeing another one while commuting between home and work and doing regular errands. Sometimes I go out and I’ll see a handful at whatever expat bar I go to, but since most 7627aab3b42cac8b205bb627a6521eaeof the festivals I go to are Korean, I’m still in the minority almost wherever I go. Almost. I don’t know what Haeundae looks like on a regular day because it’s so far from me that I usually go to Gwangan when I need a beach fix. On this day, it was like that scene from Lilo and Stitch where Lilo goes down to the beach to stare at pale tourists. Only most of them were fairly fit being recent college grads or military folks on leave. But so much white people!

The restaurants were full of us, too. Which brings me to part two of the brain punch: just because I’m suddenly in the minority here, doesn’t mean the struggle to stop my privileged thinking is over. The place with a menu that my whole group could agree on told us there was a 30 minute wait… not to be seated, just to order. We took up seats around a table and pontificated on what could lead to a restaurant having enough tables to seat but not serve everyone. At which point, my lifelong Americanness reared it’s head. We have some bizarre cultural assumptions about the service industry I’m still trying to break free of. They told 5745331-customer-service-memeus the wait ahead of time, and we agreed. That should be enough, but part of me was still, “how did they not staff more people on a festival day, the restaurant should be doing something to make up for this inconvenience”… Woah, ‘Murica brain. You didn’t have to come here. They did everything reasonable to make sure you knew what was going on. Check your entitlement! PS. There’s no tipping here, so when waitstaff are nice to you it’s just their job and not because they’re livelihood depends on the whims of customer satisfaction.

Living abroad is a non-stop self-evaluation and learning process.

20170527_214612After dinner, we headed over to The Back Room, a secret speakeasy style bar that I visited last year and loved. I had an old favorite (real whiskey sour), and tried a brand new concoction tried an Aviation, which is gin based cocktail with creme de violet, lemon and cherry. Fancy and delicious. We stayed out way too late drinking and chatting, which only served to remind me that every event can be made special with friends.

Check here to read about last year’s Sandsculpture festival and TBR visit, and to see the sand castle pics from last year and this year.

I had some hard times in the hot weather last summer, and again this year in the heat of SE Asia. It seems however much the heart is willing, the flesh is not down with heat+humidity. I’ll be putting up one more Korean spring adventure (for the Gaya Theme Park), and of course working to finish the stories from the Malay Peninsula. However, I plan to use the summer to work on a new project about teaching (the other part of my life). Even if you’re not an English teacher, I hope to give some insight into what it is we do out here for the curious and those considering the career. And don’t worry, I’ve already got a fall trip to the Philippines planned, so the travel stories aren’t stopping any time soon. As always, thanks for reading!


Golden Week: Jindo Miracle Sea Parting, Beoseong & Staycations?

The beginning of May where holidays like Labor Day, Buddha’s Day, and Children’s day come close is often referred to as Golden week because of all the days off work/school together. Last year, I got a long weekend and went to the Namhae Anchovy Festival and Taean Tulip Festival. Spring is the time of endless festivals in Korea, and last year I wasn’t able to catch them all. This has been a chance for me to go back and get the highlights I missed last time. Of course the Daegu Lanterns were a part of that, but I also finally made it to the “miraculous” sea parting at Jindo in time to walk across the narrow land bridge that leads to the island of Modo (jokingly now referred to as Mordor after the LOTR movies because the Korean pronunciation is so similar).

Busan to JindoWe set off from Busan (blue dot) in the morning to drive all the way across the southern end of the Korean peninsula to Jindo (red dot). Although Korea is small compared to, say, the US, it was still almost 5 hours of driving with the occasional pit stop. (By the way, in case you’re curious, you can see Daegu on this map as well).  Fortunately, I went with a tour group (my stand by Enjoy Korea) and the bus ride was comfortable. I even got mostly through a Vonnegut audiobook, which is the only way I can consume books on a bus.

The Festival & Traditions

We arrived at the tiny festival grounds in the early afternoon and had the chance to wander around, take in the sights and enjoy the beach. The weather was lovely, and we spent about an hour just sitting in the grass above the sea enjoying some 막걸리 (makgeoli). Although many Korean festivals now have a sameness about them to me, it’s become something to look forward to rather than to be curious about. Favorite festival foods that are hard to find elsewhere, like 동동주 (dong dong ju) or fresh 해물파전 (seafood pajeon). I couldn’t find anyone selling 동동주 in Jindo. Vendors there insisted it was the same as 막걸리, but I didn’t believe them, and did more research. If you’re curious, this blog does a great English language explanation of the two. Koreans also love to invite international vendors to even the smallest festival, and this was no exception. I saw booths selling food from at least 10 other countries, including one doing the cumin spiced mutton skewers from China that I love so much.

20170429_152224The Jindo festival had at least one feature I’ve never seen before: a traditional Korean wrestling ring. A pile of sand was placed in a large circle where two contestants could wrestle in the traditional style. 씨름 (ssireum) is Korea’s wrestling, just like sumo is Japan’s. Each wrestler had a sash of cloth wrapped in a specific pattern around their waist and one thigh. The wrestlers would kneel and lean in to each other for a moment before the bout started to give them a chance to get a good firm grip on the cloth. Then they would stand up together and the referee would call start, whereupon they attempted to dump their opponent in the sand. The holds never changed. Each wrestler maintained their grip on the sashes at the designated waist and thigh position. Working to topple the proponent meant pulling and pushing and moving the center of gravity around. It was different from any other style of wrestling I’ve ever seen. Both men and women participated, though not against each other.

Cultural appropriation or good old fun?

There was also a “festival of color”, similar to Holi Hai. Only, unlike the one at Haeundae beach which was held by the Indian expat community in honor of their holy day, this was a totally Korean run secular affair. I start getting really tangled up in cultural appropriation when two post-colonial cultures are involved. I suspect the Koreans had no real idea about the religious significance and just thought it would attract more tourists. In the end, the only people covered in colored powders were young, party-driven Westerners. As far as I can tell, a group of Koreans cottoned on to the fact that white kids like this dancing with colored powder thing and did it for the fun and the money.

20170429_172837Even more bizarrely, after the color throwing was over, the festival organizers gave each participant a “toga” to wear. The togas were long white robes with red sashes that could have evoked a Roman senate or Jesus. Considering we were about to “part the seas” it was hard not to see it with Judeo-Christian overtones, but the rather drunk person I asked about it just said “toga party!” The entire thing seemed like the festival organizers were trying to find a way to appeal to the expat crowd. I’m glad they had fun, but I would have preferred some more traditional activities, like someone to teach us about collecting clams and seaweed the way the locals were doing as the tide went out. It’s hard to go do local culture festivals when the locals are busy trying to white-wash everything for cash.

The Magic Math of Tides

20170429_175222Finally, the real “reason for the season” was upon us and we muddled our way down the road to the rainbow steps beneath the watchful eye of the grandmother and the tiger. We paused at a bench to don our thigh high rubber boots and got some advice from the locals on how to attach the rubber garters through belt loops to hold up the boots, or failing that, to wrap them tight around our thighs and snap them in place. Thus clad in bright orange and yellow wellies, we made our way down the steps and into the shallow tide pools to wait for the tide to recede.

ModoIf you look at the area on Google Maps you will simply see the beach and the islands, but on Korea’s own Naver Maps, there is a thin line connecting the rainbow steps to the island of Modo. Although this path is only usable twice a year (at most), the Korean map makers consider it important enough to draw in.

The effect is caused by an extreme low tide. Tides are caused by the relative position of the Earth, Moon and Sun and are fairly regular and predictable because astronomy is math. Despite this, I heard no less than five people declare knowingly that “no one could predict” when the low tide would occur. I guess these are the same body of “no ones” that could have known health care is complicated? Science education is important, people. In fact, here’s some now. This cute little website does a basic introduction to tidal prediction methods, with pictures and everything.

laplaceThe history of tidal prediction starts with Kepler (total nobody) in 1609 to theorize that the moon’s gravity caused the ocean tides. He was followed by other such no-ones as Galileo and Newton. It was in 1776 that the first big complex equations came from a man called Laplace. Harmonic analysis was added in the 1860s and polished off by 1921 in the form that Navies all over the world still use today. Although the math hasn’t changed in almost a hundred years, computers make the math easier and the information more widespread so now instead of just ships in harbor– surfers, beachcombers, and clam hunters can go online to see the local low and high tides at their favorite beach.

Tidal harmonics are the reason why low tide gets extra low once or twice a year (if someone reading this is a scientist with a better way of explaining it, PLEASE chime in) All the different factors that affect tides are like a ‘lil wave pattern (think sound amplitude). When the ups and downs of different factors are opposite, they can cancel each other out, but when they align, they can magnify the effect. Because they’re all beating at different tempos, they interact differently over a cycle (year), but in a totally mathematically predictable way, line up all at once and create this “super tide”. Thus it is that the seas part, and we can walk over to the island. Sufficiently advanced math really is indistinguishable from magic.

The Legend of the Tigers

20170429_180517On a more mystical note, the local legend of the tigers explains why there’s a statue of a grandmother and a tiger overlooking the sea. Long long ago, the villagers who lived on Jindo were plagued by man-eating tigers. The whole village packed up and sailed over to the neighboring island of Modo to escape the threat, but one woman was left behind. The woman was Grandmother Bbyong, and she prayed to the Dragon King, the god of the sea, to help her. Finally the Dragon King came to her in a dream and told her he would build a rainbow brigde across the sea for her.  The next day when Bbyong went down to the sea, the waters parted to let her cross and her family came out from Modo to meet her. This also explains the rainbow stairs that lead down to the landbridge, but not why her family couldn’t have just sailed back for her in the first place.

Walk on the Ocean


Finally, the event saftey team declared it was safe to head out into the water and we began to wade as a huge human conga-line through the shallow waves. I’m told that in some years, the bridge rises completely above the water, and indeed the most famous picture used in every promotional website in Korea is one of a wide and distinct stone pathway through the sea. My experience was a bit more damp.

20170429_183234While math can now easily tell us the time of the lowest tides, it does not yet advance to tell us what the actual lowest level of the water will be. Not that it couldn’t, but there are more variables involved, so it’s not a thing now. While we can say with certainty, the lowest tide of the year on this beach will occur at 18:38 on April 29 (or whatever), we can’t say for sure if that will expose the land bridge or simply be lower than every other tide around it.

20170429_185231We tromped along the path, watching parasailers overhead and rainbow colored lanterns being released in to the air from the beach behind us. It was clear the path was quite narrow because going too far from the group to one side or the other to get a picture resulted in a severe deepening of water level. At the time, my friends and I theorized it might be man-made, or at least man-maintained, however, I have since then found that the build up of rock and sand in this twisty line is a natural result of the currents around the islands.

20170429_184104Before long the golden light of the sunset combined with the swish-swishing of hundreds of feet through water to create a trance-like state. I could not judge how far the island was, nor tell which way the path twisted. The rocks below us rose and fell, bringing the waves treacherously close to the top of my boots and then back down to barely splash over my toes. The whole path is nearly 3km long. I suspect a determined person could make it out to the island and back in the hour or so the path is clear to walk, but I wasn’t racing, and soon we were greeted by the sounds of Korean drums and the distant flags waving as the procession from Modo came out to greet us.

Get Back

Tides are bonkers. When we went to Thor’s Well in Oregon, we had to check the tide charts to see the show, yet practically had to run to get back when the tide turned on us. In New Zealand, my lovely soak in the hot water beach went from peaceful to sea-soaked in minutes. Once the tide is returning, there is not a lot of time to get out of the way before the ocean reclaims what is hers. We had been told, when the big parade starts heading back to Jindo, go with them or you’ll be swimming back.

20170429_191328The walk outward had been slow, trepedatious, as though we were nervous the land could drop away at any moment, but the trip back was much more celebratory as well as much more damp. The parade of drum bangers, cymbal crashers, gong ringers and flag bearers danced merrily in their traditional garb, urging us all back to the larger island of Jindo. Our pace quickened and our legs swung to the rhythm causing much larger splashes. Waves came in from both sides of the path making us nervous, but excited. The water finally breached the top of my boots and sent an icy chill down my shins, but I found I did not mind.

By the time we returned to land, the sun was long gone and we picked our way up the tidal flats to the main road by the bright halogen lights of the festival. Desptite wet knees and sore legs, I felt elated. Participating in huge group rituals does interesting things to the human brain, but a big one is bonding. It raises hormones like oxytocin and dopamine which make you feel good about life and the people around you. I especially like doing them in huge anonymous groups because it fills me with the love and connectedness but there’s no social group to attach it to, so I get this big whole-world love.


We doffed our boots and made our weary way back to the buses, pausing long enough to scrounge some dinner. Practically everyone fell asleep on the bus ride to our hotel, and I don’t think I stayed concious more than a few minutes after laying down on my little floor mat, content and sleepy and looking forward to the next day’s adventure.


Why every white-anglo blogger I’ve read is scared of these is a giant tragedy. I’d say mystery, but I think I understand it. They are terrified of nudity. Prudish Victorian and Puritanical values passed down from our anglo ancestors have made us associate all nudity with sex, which is itself an activity with much shame, blame and whispered scandal about it. But, oh my god, strangers (of the same gender) might see my naked body in a non-sexual context while they are equally naked… this is scary to the anglo-mind.

I too held this prohibition for part of my life. Theater and dance classes took some away, because you can only be so modest while changing in the dressing room. At some time, I fell in with a group of rabid exhibitionists in St. Louis who were often non-sexually naked around each other. I went to public hot springs in the mountains of Washington where total strangers stripped down to soak, but it was never awkward. Over many years of various levels of friendships, intimate relationships, and gym memberships in multi-cultural parts of town, I eventually unhooked my nakedness=sexuality link and can now comfortably enjoy the jimjilbang experience.

This particular morning, at 7am, I headed downstairs to get a bracing shower and some good soaking in after my muscle straining ocean walk and never-as-fun-as-it-looks sleeping on the floor. After washing up in the shower, I got into the mid-warm pool and enjoyed the hard water massages to pound out my stiff back. I graduated up in heat until I was able to get into the super hot pool which was made of an herbal infusion that turned the water a deep smokey topaz black. For the next hour, I bounced between the super hot and super cold, bringing all the inflammation in my unhappy muscles back down and getting me all set for the next adventure. Why anyone would let a little nudity interfere with such glorious bathing, I will never know.

Boseong and the Green Tea

I visited Boseong last winter for a midwinter lights festival. We spent some time in the green tea fields and I was surprised at the time how beautiful they were, even in the bleak austerity of winter. Now at the end of April, I had the chance to see the fields in their spring colors.

20170430_115224Before heading to the fields, we walked up a long road past the area of the light festival where a few wire frames from reindeer and dragons could still be seen. The road up the hill was painted with fun perspective illustrations of a stream, complete with little camera icons to show the best places to stand to see the visual effect. Optical illusions are fun.

20170430_105220At the top of the hill, far beyond the little pagoda that had marked the highest point of the lights, we finally came upon the green tea museum where we were treated to a special showing of the Korean green tea ceremony (complete with English translation by our awesome guide). The ceremony involves a process of several containers: a water pot, a cooling bowl, a tea pot, and the drinking cup. The hot water pot is filled with boiling water, which is then poured into the bowl, and from the bowl into the tea pot and finally into the cups. The instruments are warmed up in this way. Then more boiling water is poured into the cooling bowl. Tea leaves are scooped into the warm but empty tea pot and the ideal temperature water is poured from the bowl over the leaves. While the tea steeps, each cup is emptied of it’s hot water into another bowl on the floor and wiped dry on the outside. The tea is then poured into the pre-warmed cups by pouring only a half a portion into each and the other half in reverse order on the way back. The tea is then served, 4 cups to the guest and one to the host.

20170430_110142The hostess tried to tell us a bit about green tea, red tea and black tea but her translated explainations seemed off to me, since she said it had to do with the age of the leaf when it was picked from the plant. I don’t know if this was her or the translation, but the real story follows: In any country with Chinese roots in it’s culture and language, the three colors of tea are a bit different in meaning that in the West. Red tea is not Rooibos, in fact all three come from the same plant. And it’s not the age of the leaf at picking that determines the difference, but rather the post picking, pre-drying process. (although especially young and tender tea leaves are sometimes referred to as “monkey picked” and do make a delightful tea).

Green tea is picked, cut and dried. It doesn’t stay fresh long (no more than 2 years) so don’t let it sit around in your cupboard forever. 紅茶 Red tea is how Chinese and their linguistic relatives refer to what the British call “black tea” (confusing, yeah?). It is also picked from the same tea plant and cut, but then it is oxidized, which I am not going to try to explain the chemical process of, but you’ve all seen it because rust is what happens when iron oxidizes. Red tea is what happens when tea oxidizes. When the desired level of oxidation is achieved, the tea is dried and the oxidation stops in the absence of moisture. This is your standard English teatime tea and when stored properly stays good for a loooong time (making it ideal for trade and trans continental shipping in the days before FedEx). 黑茶 Black tea is fermented or post-fermented tea that is both oxidized and fermented over a period of months or even years. Pu-erh is the most widely known of these. There is a lot more about tea, but I’m stopping here.

20170430_130215After we conducted our own tea ceremonies, I drifted lazily back down the hill, examining the spring flowers and the grounds that had been lit up beautifully last December. When I finally got back to the tea fields, I took off on the same route I’d walked before and was happily greeted by many blooming apple trees and a small army of busy bees who were so focused on the brief blossoms that they paid no mind to all the humans fussing around. In fact, I think it was the only time I’ve seen Koreans in the presence of a bee not totally freaking out. I guess the selfie with the tree is worth it.


The tea fields were much more crowded than in the winter, but people were still fairly polite about taking turns at the best view spots. One kind man noticed I had been framing up a photo of an especially stunning tree with the tea as a background when some more photo seekers stepped in front of me. I had been prepared to simply wait them out, but the gentleman spoke to them in Korean and pointed out they were in my way. 감사합니다!

20170430_131911In addition to the blooming fruit trees, there were cascades of purple flowers covering the rocks wherever tea was not growing. It made the whole place feel like a still frame of a rushing river in shades of pink, purple and green. Besides the tourists, there were also tea pickers at work. Each ajuma looking lady had her sun guards on, gloves and a mesh basket to place the leaves. They were not picking the bushes bare, but selecting only some growth. It seemed to me to be the newer, brighter green leaves that they were after, but I couldn’t tell for sure. In the age of automation it was strange to see people picking by hand. I know that it’s still the way for many crops in the world, but sometimes it gets driven home that there’s a human on the other end of my tea or strawberries or carrots, and then I’m carried off by sociological musings on how we came to value people who sit at desks manipulating imaginary money so much more than people who make our food.


Speaking of food


photo credit: honjatravel

Of course I had to go back to the everything green tea cafe. It was a warm day, and walking for hours in the sun (even with my sunbrella) meant that I was all set to try some cold green tea noodles. Cold noodle soup is one of the best ways to survive the summer in Korea because it’s served with chunks of ice floating in the broth along with the filling noodles and crisp pickled veggies. I managed to pick up a lunch companion from a whole other tour group, too. Boseong was a target of opportunity following the Jindo festival, so multiple tour agencies were out in force.

I pilfered the gift shop for more green tea latte packets that had gone over well as gifts then impulse purchased a bag of green tea caramels to share with my co-teachers too. I think they remind me more of green tea salt water taffy than caramel, but still delicious.

My last treat was over at the ice cream shop. No visit is complete without some green tea ice cream, but this time I opted for the green tea affogato. I have to admit, I did not know what an affogato was before I came to Korea. I guess it’s just not popular in the parts of the US I lived, and I’ve never been to Italy. But it is on the menu of nearly every cafe in Korea. In case you, like me, spent your life in an affogato black hole, it’s a scoop of vanilla gelato (or ice cream) topped with espresso. Yum!


photo credit: Annemone

I somehow expected the green tea affogato to be vanilla or green tea ice cream topped with a shot of green tea. Makes sense? Not what happened. It was green tea ice cream topped with espresso. Don’t make an ick face. It was insanely delicious. Even one South African girl who hated green tea said that it was nice. I’ve had the tea/coffee blended drink that’s popular in Asia and enjoyed it, so it shouldn’t surprise me that this was delightful, too. Now I’m on the hunt to bring home some green tea ice cream and some espresso to reproduce the experience.

On the way back, I discovered my unintentional link to @shmaymee and her art, bringing the whole weekend around into one small world ride of awesome fun.

Golden Week

This beautiful conflagration of holidays that resulted in me only working 2 days out of 10 during the end of April/beginning of May was the first time in over a year that I spent any real time off just relaxing at home. Of course, some weekends I don’t make it out on an adventure, and some adventures are just going down to the beach for a market or karaoke night. I’m not a non-stop sightseeing extravaganza, but I realized I haven’t had more than one day in a row of slothing at home in over a year. I pounded thru the entire Magician’s trilogy, fixed my friend’s computer, celebrated another friend’s birthday, watched the new Guardians movie and finished Iron Fist. I can’t say I want to binge watch Netflix and read fantasy trilogies with all my free time, but it felt good. I love traveling, but if my latest trip to Thailand taught me anything it’s that rest is important too. Even when my job is easy, it’s not restful and even when my adventures are amazing (or perhaps especially when they are amazing), they are not restful.

Life can be full of wonder or dull as dirt almost no matter where you live (I admit it’s easier to be wonderful when you live in someplace like Busan as opposed to any small town where Wal-Mart is the most interesting store), but I’ve seen so many expats who go abroad and after a year or less they become blasé, falling into habits of the same bar, same hobbies, same expat friends, and no more magic about the experience of living abroad. I saw those people from the very first time I went out and I could NOT understand how it happens. I fought against it and fought hard. I didn’t join the expat gaming group or theater troupe, I spent at least one weekend a month but usually more going out and doing something unique. I sometimes wore myself out doing that. And while I still don’t want to become one of the blasé, I think I’ve come to peace with the idea of a middle ground. So, maybe once or twice a year, in addition to my big out of town adventures, I can have an around the house staycation, too.

Yesterday was the first instance of air conditioning on the bus this year. It heralds the end of so brief spring and the beginning of … the Hot. It will probably be ok for another month, but soon, too soon, the summer will be upon us. Hopefully I’ll get in a few more good adventures before the heat becomes unbearable, but I have at least finally purchased my tickets for the Philippines this October. Whatever else happens, I have that to look forward to. In the mean time, I’ll be pumping out some more of the Malay adventures as the emotional and experiential roller coaster gets revved for some serious ups and downs. Don’t forget to check out all the photos from Jindo and Boseong. Thanks for reading!


Artists & Expats: It’s a Small World Afterall

What happens when you use a random image from the internet for your own work? Mostly, nothing. Sometimes, if it’s owned by a big, rich corporation, you’ll get a cease and desist order and then you just have to take it down. Some images are in the realm of creative commons, which means they are made to be used by whoever wants to. But tons and tons of content is added to the internet by people like you and me, who are not corporations or even sole-proprietorships, just people who like to create and share.

Remember that pic I used to talk about the ajuma in the Lanterns of Daegu?

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The friend I went to Daegu (from here on “D”) with sent me that pic a few weeks earlier after a conversation in which we’d been sharing “worst ajuma” stories (the one that shoved you out of the way so she could stand one person closer to the subway door you are already walking out of, the one who plowed into you despite the fact that there was plenty of room on either side, or the one who shoved you while you were dripping wet from the rainstorm, then got mad you made her wet, too). I liked the pic so much, I decided to use it as my example, relying on the artist’s signature to credit the art.

To understand the next part, you’ll need a little background on the EPIK program. Every spring, a few hundred new teachers arrive, get oriented, and are released into the wilds of Korea. In order to help them adjust, EPIK assigns the new recruits in a mentor/mentee system to any of us who were not scared away after the first year. I had a mentor last year (who was 22 and at her first job out of university, but hey), and this year I am a mentor. It ensures that new folks have at least one experienced expat they can turn to for advice.

Less than a week after posting this picture, I found myself on a trip where I met some of this year’s crop of EPIK teachers, and as I was exchanging FB and Instagram contact info, one of them was revealed to be this very artist, @shmamee. She asked how I’d gotten introduced to her art and I explained the IM from a friend (“D”).

“D” is a second year EPIK teacher and therefore also a mentor. If you have any sense of narrative prediction, you’ll see where this is going… “D” is @shmaymee’s mentor! @shmaymee and I thought that “D” must have gotten the art that way, but when I asked, it was not so. “D” had simply found the art randomly on the internet and decided to share it with me, not knowing that the artist was her own mentee.

The internet does a great job anonymizing us, turning each work of art or each written story into some distant and impersonal thing. However, the person who introduced me to @shmaymee was none other than Annemone, a blogger who found my page when she was planning her own move to Busan. A simple comment on one post enabled us to see the invisible threads of connection that united us all in this crazy little expat world.

It got me thinking, too. I do my best to use my own content on this blog. I write my own stories from my own experiences and thoughts. I share my own photographs unless I have no other way. I have tried to become more aware of permission and credit when I do use someone else’s content. Is this copywritten? Is it creative commons? Did I make it easy for my readers to find the original artist?

I don’t make any money off of my content (photos or writing), in fact, I pay an annual fee for the privilege of putting it online. If you see ads on my blog, it’s because I buy the cheapest web-hosting service I can and that comes with ads not of my choosing. This got me thinking how important it is that hobby content creators support each other, and that everyone supports artist/content creators who do this for a living (ie pay them). When my friends publish a book, I don’t ask to borrow it or (god forbid) to be given a free copy, I buy a copy. Bcard1When I wanted art for my calling cards (left), I paid the asking price to Seth of 4sacrowd because I like their work and because we pay people for work. Google image search makes it so easy to find a picture of anything, but unless there’s a watermark, we often have no idea of the legal status of the image or of reproducing it. I don’t know the perfect solution, but I hope we can all do our best to remember that artist, writers and content creators of all stripes are humans, creating things that fill our lives with joy and meaning and that whether they are asking for praise, credit, money, or all of the above, that they (we) deserve it.

Check out these artists @shmaymee and 4sacrowd, look around your own friends and family to see who is creating and deserves your support. Make art not war! … or something like that.