Professor Gallivantrix 2: The Winter Applicant

It’s been both hectic and great getting used to this new job. Learning the ins and outs of my office, my classes, my students, and my new town has taken up a lot of my time, but I’m hoping to have more writing time soon. I’m also hoping to have more adventures to write about now that spring is springing and nature is more welcoming. For the moment, content yourselves with continuing the harrowing tale of my months long hunt and eventual capture of the elusive Korean University Teaching Job. 


Related imageInterviews

It wasn’t until November 17th I got my first positive response, and it was still a soul-crushing nightmare. I didn’t realize it at the time, but Korean universities all want to do face to face interviews… for the first round of shortlisted candidates… during school hours.

This school wanted me to travel 4+ hours to have a 15-minute interview and then travel back. I would miss an entire day of work, including class time, which is just not possible with EPIK. I could arrange to use my PTO to leave the building early (after classes but before “end of work”) or on a desk warming day when there are no classes, but the only reason to miss out on time in front of the students is being in the hospital. Yes, ok, I could possibly fake being sick and head to an interview, but this was the initial round of the application process not a final formality and there was no guarantee that I’d be offered this position, or accept it. How many more interviews would I have to attend during this process? I couldn’t burn my school out either because I still needed the CT and principal to be good references.

I had to turn down the interview. My first “real” interview was a week later when I managed to schedule a phone interview with another school.

12 December 2017

What is with the schools who want me to get on a bus for 4 hours to have an interview on a work day? If your foreign candidate is living in your country, they are probably here on a work visa, which means they’re working… probably as a teacher… which you are hiring for… would you let your teachers take off a day to go interview at another school? no? then WHY do you think we can come to you?

Midway through December, I had to turn down another face to face interview because of scheduling and travel. I had the flu, and even though the university was willing to work with me to change the time so that I could come on a Friday evening (leaving Busan after my last class at 12:30 to get there in time), I felt that pushing through the school day, and a 4 hour bus ride, with a flu that had me barely able to talk and totally unable to stop sipping tea and blowing my nose every 3 minutes was not going to make me a good candidate at the interview.

I managed another phone interview and one more skype interview a few days before Christmas. I was briefly feeling confident that I’d be able to make this happen without having to take time off work or spend tons of time and money bussing across the country.

Christmas Eve Blacklist

Going more than a little crazy, I made myself this promissory list on Facebook to help me through the holidays.

24 December 2017
Plans:

  • Get a good uni job in Korea
  • Get a spring start job elsewhere
  • Leave this apartment by Feb 25th no matter what
  • Move to Penang and keep applying for a uni job with a fall start
  • If no uni job presents itself, take any decent job and get into PhD program earlier than planned
  • online teaching
  • vietnam short term contracts
  • If this whole mess falls apart like crazy, go back to Seattle for a few months and then get into the PhD program
  • Do not falter.
  • Do not accept a job that will make you miserable (at least not until you’re down to airfaire money)
  • Do not give up.
  • Do not go crazy.

I was actually offered a job that day. I thought I’d succeeded in only applying for positions I would actually accept. I mean, there’s no point in applying for a job that obviously doesn’t work for you. I had already limited my search to universities. I rejected ads that had too many teaching hours or questionable lists of extra duties. And I rejected places that were too far out in the boonies because I know that about myself. So when I got this offer, it was like, “Merry Christmas to ME!”

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Then I looked at the contract, and it was not even close to what the ad had said or what was said in the interview. The work hours were all over the map. A teacher could be expected to have a class anywhere from 8am to 9:30pm. The 16 hours “average” was based on a semester total, and overtime was only paid by the semester, so it was possible to work 27 hours in one week and 8 in another but still not get OT. Moreover, I don’t do split schedules anymore. Some people might like that, I do not.  I really don’t trust someone who says, “but in reality, it works this way” when the contract goes on to specify how I’ll be getting screwed in hours and pay.

 

My suspicions firmly aroused, I looked up the school on teacher review websites and found that it was one of two universities in Korea to be on the blacklist… with two negative reviews from the most recent school year about exactly the things I was concerned about. It was disappointing, but my experience taught me that it’s better to say no than end up in a job that would make me miserable. I had my back up plans and I had to stick to my guns, so I turned them down.

The New Year

Somewhere in early January, I started getting more into schools in China. I was feeling very hopeless about Korea and discovered that several cities in China have boosted their air quality back to a level I feel comfortable living with, so I expanded my horizons. I’m not going into a lot of detail because this is a post about a job in Korea, but it is still part of the picture that I was hurling resumes out left right and sideways and scheduling phone or skype interviews as often as possible.

During this time, I also caved in and started going to interviews in person. It helped that one finally offered a Saturday option so I didn’t have to miss work, even though I did spend 12 hours traveling for 20 minutes worth of interview. And no, I didn’t get that job either, although they were very kind and reassured me that I was on a very short list of candidates invited to interview and was encouraged to try again in the future…

6 January · Gwangju ·

Trying not to be nervous. Arrived 1 hr 15 min early. Spent 30 min waiting for a taxi. I really don’t want to ruin this cross country journey by being 5 min late because of taxis.

Then a weird thing happened. A school I’d applied for and not even heard a peep from back in November put up another hiring ad. I emailed to be sure it was real and not some scheduled ad they’d paid for and forgotten about and was told yes, the school was doing another round of hiring after all. So I submitted my credentials again. A couple days later I get an email asking me to call them and after verifying I am the person matching the paperwork. Yes, I’m really me.

They politely tell me how sorry they are but the Dean will not approve an interview because they don’t accept “private academy experience”. “I’ve never worked at an academy. What are you talking about?”

After some misunderstandings, we realized the name of the company that hired me to teach in Saudi looks too much like a private English Academy and they disregarded the part where it said the name of the University I worked in over there. If the kind gentleman who received my email asking if the ad was real hadn’t felt bad and wanted to personally apologize, they would never have thought twice and I would never have known why.

I have since updated my resume to showcase the UNIVERSITY part first and the name of the employment company second, but all this stems from the fact that I got hired by a private company to work at a university which has been a thorn in my resume ever since. Getting experience to translate from country standard to country standard is not easy.

All this clarification happened the night before the interviews were scheduled, but it was in a town only one hour away, so I was barely able to squeak in getting to leave early from work to catch the intercity bus and the very last interview of the afternoon. To highlight how ridiculous this permission thing is: my classes finished at 12:20, I asked if I could leave at 12:30, I was told, no you have to wait until 12:40. I have no idea why, but this kind of insane scheduling nonsense was just one more stressful addition to my plight to attend interviews.

Plus, they wanted yet something else for the interview, because everyone wants to make their candidates create unique original content just for them. So I had to make a whole new Powerpoint presentation about my educational style and lesson plans with handouts. The only advantage of having to make slightly different versions of application and interview materials is that over time it does get easier to assemble the custom build from parts you’ve already made before.

Choices! 

While all this was going on, I was offered another position. It wasn’t as blatantly awful as the first but it was less than ideal. It was a few more hours and a less than great schedule, in a large city that I happen to know is too hot, but no clear deal breakers. I could be okay there. Not happy, not miserable, just okay. Which isn’t bad when you’re on a path to level up your career. The hard part was, they needed an answer while I was being invited to this interview at a school I really liked, and one other that was at least close to Busan (allowing me to keep my social life here). Do I take the mediocre and totally palatable bird in the hand or do I let it go and risk losing everything in pursuit of a much better bird?

I turned them down too and went to more interviews instead.

Winter Not-Vacation

The next week was my winter vacation. I didn’t go anywhere at all. Not only because it was a shorter holiday than I usually take, but because not knowing if the end of February would find me hopping off to Penang, moving to my new job in Korea, or moving to my new job in China, I couldn’t justify spending the money on a holiday if I was going to have to spend it on living without a job for 5 months or relocating to my new job site. Instead, I went to more interviews.

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I went to another near Busan, less than an hour away. I discovered there were 8 people interviewing and only 2 open positions. I wondered how common this was. I wondered how many times I would be invited to round one, beating out 100+ paper applications to make it to the top 10 or 8, then not be good enough to be the top 2. I got a rejection text later that same day.

15 January · Busan ·

I hate job hunting. I hate the fact that everyone wants something different but you never know what and are treated like an idiot for asking. I hate investing hours and hours and getting my hopes up only to be told I came in second place, really great candidate but there was just one person better. I hate the emotional rollercoaster of hope and rejection.

Too Much Winning

Then suddenly it happened. I got an email from THE JOB, the one I really wanted, the one I applied for twice, the one that almost didn’t interview me because they misread or I miswrote my CV. It seemed provisional, they said they were recommending me to be hired and had to wait for permission. I was almost sure it was a formality but it seemed so strange. I had one more interview scheduled for the next afternoon and I almost didn’t go, I was so thrilled to be leaving the emotional nightmare of job hunting behind me.

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Instead, I got on the bus and headed up to the next big city down the road. I found the campus easily enough and I had the best interview I think I’ve ever had. I was so relaxed and apparently the hiring committee had had some terrible interviews before me so they were relieved to hear that I had reasonable answers to their questions. We cracked jokes and laughed at each other’s silly comments and they told me about the job and it sounded magical. Like, everything I ever wanted magical. Low teaching hours, no crazy staff meetings, no office hours, no writing classes, huge paid holidays, and it seemed like I really got on with these people.

I went from feeling worthless in despair to having 2 great jobs in front of me. They emailed me the very next day to offer me the position. My emotional switches were all over the map. I couldn’t make up my mind which was better. There were no clear advantages to either place and nothing even close to a deal breaker. It was like I’d arrived at the next level of career and had no idea what to do now that I was there.

*Oh, yeah, and one of those Universities in China offered me a position as well. But with two great options in Korea, moving just didn’t seem appealing. No matter how great a story teaching Political Science courses in Communist China might be.

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In the end, my choice was almost entirely emotional. I spent as long as I could putting off committing to one university and I feel bad that I had to withdraw from one of them because I truly believe I could have been happy at either place. In the end, one of the new hires at the school I chose withdrew at the last minute too. I’m told it happens with regularity because basically everyone is doing what I did: interviewing everywhere and then going with the best offer rather than the first. When I showed up for orientation, I was the only new person at the university I chose because everyone else they had hired had backed out at the last minute.

What did I learn?

Image result for apply to all the jobs memeApply like mad, but weigh your investment. There is something to the idea of applying for jobs even if you don’t meet all the requirements, but in the case of jobs abroad make sure you do meet the visa requirements (set by the government) and there can be some flexibility of the school’s requirements (set by the Dean). However, when employing the scattershot application tactic, be sure to draw the line at applying for jobs that will waste time and energy for too little potential return.

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Don’t be afraid to say “no”. Of course, if you get your dream job on the first try, like my friend who applied to one university in Japan, interviewed and was hired (what is the word when you’re happy and jealous at the same time?), if that happens, there’s no need to say anything but “yes”. In my case though, I got offers that weren’t great and if I had accepted them, I would have missed out.

Practice. Practice. Practice the paperwork and the interviews. The more versions of your cover letter you write, the easier it gets. The more variations of lesson plan you compose, the easier it becomes. The more interviews you do, the more you get used to answering the questions that will be asked. I won’t say it’s never a waste of time, but a lot of these failed applications and interviews helped me get better.

Image result for never give up memeDon’t give up. Cry, eat too much chocolate, put that Will Smith inspirational video about failure on a loop, call your mom in the middle of the night. Do whatever you need to do to push through the horrible feelings of failure. I wrote a 3-page essay on my feelings of failure and posted to Facebook thinking “oh, no one is going to read this” and I got a massive amount of support from people who either do or have felt exactly the same way.

Being in 7th place is ok when there are more than 7 prizes. Okay, 7 is arbitrary, but I have this theory that the reason I got only crappy responses in December and way better offers in January is that all the people who were more qualified or better at interviews got those good jobs in December and were off the market by January, giving those top spots up to me. I feel no shame. My elementary school Korean coworkers were all jealous as hell of my new job, so I know I did good.

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There is no “ultimate guide” to getting a university job in Korea. I read dozens of articles and blogs and listicles and they all have things that can help guide you, but nothing is really definitive. You don’t have to have an MA. You don’t have to be published. You don’t have to know someone who already works there. You probably don’t even really have to be in Korea. I had two offers from places I did phone/skype interviews with. All you have to do is qualify for the visa, apply like mad, and play the game of chicken: keep applying and going to interviews as long as possible because this country is still made of last-minute actions.


I’ve been at my new job for a month now, and so far I’m really happy with it. I know there will be things about this and every job I have in my life that I do not like or that I will complain about. I don’t expect it to be perfect. But I think it’s going to be a good step upward in my quality of life as well as in building my future. Only time will tell. In the meantime, I get to explore a new part of Korea (Gyeongju) and I get to have students who are forming adult thoughts, plus some generous vacation time this summer for more international adventures. Year of the Dog, here I come!

Run Corgi Run GIF by McIdea

©2013-2018 McIdea

 

 

Letters From China (Holidays 2007)

As the year slides to it’s final months, let’s take a look back a whole decade and see what my very first holiday season overseas was like. In many ways it seemed like western holidays were a bit of a novelty in China (not unlike how Chinese New Year is in the West?). Thanksgiving Dinner specials at expat restaurants were the only place to find turkey and cranberry sauce; and Christmas was entirely bereft of religious overtones (not a single nativity, angel, or baby Jesus anywhere!) focusing instead on Santa, beautiful lights, and fun gatherings, which since I’m not actually Christian are really my favorite parts. Happy Holidays!


Nov 23, 2007 at 10:21pm [American Thanksgiving]

It was strange to celebrate this holiday so far from home, but it turned out pretty good.

I had a class in the early morning, so we headed into Beijing after lunch. We did some shopping, and stopped for coffee in a shop that was playing Christmas muzak, which was vaguely cool.

We had reservations at a place called Grandma’s Kitchen, and we had a small map to it on the back of thier card. The interesting thing here is that it was in a Soho compound, and there are about 80 of those in the city, and the girl who made the reservations thought it was the one at Dawanglu, when it was actually at Yong’anli, 2 subway stops over. I managed to figure out what part of the city it was in from the map, but even in that complex there were like 7 Soho buildings, labeled by giant letters in front (I should have thought to take a pic, but we were lost). It took us quite a while, and three times asking directions (in Chinese) to get there, and then one of us (Kevin) had to go back to the subway station to meet Michelle, because she was meeting us there and went to the wrong place.

After much adventure, we all arrived. The place was empty at first, although by the middle of our meal it was packed. I was really surprised to see so many Chinese people there for the holiday dinner. The menu included a full 5 course dinner, not all of which was traditional American T-day stuff, but it was all tasty.

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The first course was a choice of bacon wrapped shrimp or stuffed mushroom, I ordered the shrimp, but traded one out for a mushroom. Both were good. The second course was salad, I got the spinach and pear, it was also nice. The third course was awesome, a rich pumpkin soup.

The main course included turkey with gravey, sweet potatoes which were mixed with a touch of cinnamon and the white thing on top is a marshmallow with a little lemony bit in the middle, which was a really nice combo with the cinnamoned yams, carrots (mediocre), bread stuffing that I avoided, cranberry sauce which was quite nice, and for no apparent reason, baked beans (they were out of mashed potatoes). And I chose the pumpkin pie for dessert, which was almost, but not quite, as good as mom’s.

Over dessert we went around and said what we were thankful for, and for me this included my friends and family at home who support me in my crazy life, finding a decent job here in China, and finding good people here to share the experience with. We told stories of Thanksgivings past, and generally had a really good night. I took some pictures of us, and had some pics taken so you could see the people as well as the food.

From left to right its Bill, Kevin, Michelle, Erwin and me.

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I love and miss you all, I hope you had wonderful Thanksgivings wherever you were.

Dec 4, 2007 at 9:28pm

Although I have actually seen a couple Christmas trees around town (amazing though that is), I decided the only real way to have my fill of Christmas spirit was to decorate!

So I went to Wal-Mart and got a little plastic tree (20 kuai), and a string of lights to put on it… (16 Kuai), and some cute little painted pine cone ornaments (honestly the most tasteful ones available, most were gawdawful plastic do-dads, there were some nicer glass ball types, but they were too big for my mini-tree), and a Santa topper (ok, not really a topper, its really an ornament that I cut the string off of and poked a hole in the bottom of so I could shove it on the top of the tree, but hey…14 kuai)

However, the lights were blinkey, and not in a nice way, in a terribly erratic way, and like so many Chinese things, they were broken 5 minutes after I got them, and the middle of the strand stopped lighting at all, I have no idea why. So I went to the local store and bought new lights in the shape of little presents, which I like much better. (10 kuai)

And so as not to waste my blinky lights, I hung them in my window which faces the street to spread my Christmas cheer to all passers by.

Dec 16, 2007 at 7:21pm

Its been strange, building up to Christmas in a place where every street isn’t lined with decorations, houses aren’t competing for the biggest, brightest light show, department stores aren’t spouting Christmas carols 24/7 and there are no bell ringing Santas out front of the grocery stores. Some days it seems like it must still be November.

There are a few trees and decorations here and there, plastic trees and paper Santas. I’ve got a tree, of course, and my window lights, which are the only Christmas lights on display I’ve seen in Yanjiao.

I went to Wal-mart in Beijing today, though and there are bigger trees. It looked like some workers were setting up a light display, and there was even a store that had reindeer out front.

I treated myself to a gingerbread latte at Starbucks, and sat amid the Christmas music and decorations and almost felt like I was just in another city in America… almost.

But one of the amazing things I noticed in the middle of all this complete lack of Christmasosity (I can’t even find candy canes), was that my students, 20+ tho they may be, are like little children about Christmas. Its still magical and amazing to them, because they haven’t done it every year of their lives.

I downloaded some classic Christmas tv, like Charlie Brown, Frosty, Rudolph and of course the Grinch (the good cartoon version), and as I sat in the darkened classroom, watching these cartoons for the umpteenth time and taking some solace in the sameness and familiarity of them, I realized something really amazing.

As I sat there listening to my students laughing out loud at the Grinch’s dog Max *for the first time in thier lives*, it was an amazing experience for me to hear that laughter and realize that these young adults were enjoying Christmas tv for the first time.

Say whatever you want about Americanization, cultural pollution or even the evils of Christianity, but the fact is, I’m not Christian, and Christmas is older than America, and whatever these kids have in their own culture, there isn’t a winter holiday that’s getting pushed aside to make room for Christmas, so if they can find out from me that Christmas is joy, and cheer and goodwill and cookies, then that makes me pretty darn happy.

Dec 17, 2007 at 9:37pm

Despite the fact that most of you seem to have forgotten I’m in the future, and that today was my birthday… and more gruelingly the fact that I’ve got a horrible cold, and that I’ve finally broken into my third decade, as my mother was so kind to point out, and its freezing cold and I had to start giving finals today… it turned out to be a good birthday after all.

The morning was ok, I woke up too early, but it gave me some extra time to chat online. All my students wished me a happy birthday at the exam this morning, and a couple even gave me presents. One boy gave me some dried fruit snacks and a girl gave me a lovely Peiking opera mask miniature of the monkey king.

100_0693After the exams I went to lunch and enjoyed some hot soup, then came home to grade papers, not really thinking much of the day. The school sent over a cute little cake which i decided to hold on to until I could share it with some folks at dinner tomorrow. I graded papers, looked at more evil forms and watched some X-files, all the while becoming more icky feeling and more cold.

Finally it got to be time to go to my evening class, which I didn’t want to go to cause I’m tired and sick and have to be up super early tomorrow for another final. But I drag myself across campus in the cold, I get up to the 9th floor and see one of my students going into the classroom and closing the door behind her.

I thought, ‘well that’s odd, I could swear she saw me’. Then when I tried to go into the room, another student asked me to wait outside, and when they finally let me in, they had prepared a birthday cake with candles and everything, and they sang me “happy birthday” in English and Chinese.

I couldn’t blow out the candle on the first try (probably because of my cold) but on the second try I actually blew it over (fortunately it was out first). The cake said “We ❤ U” with a picture of a heart, and was decorated with a huge frosting Santa. The cake was quite large enough for everyone in class to have a big piece. I didn’t have my camera, but several of the students took pictures on their phones and I asked them to email the pics to me, which I’ll post once they do. *(they never did)*

I honestly don’t remember the last time I had a surprise party. I’ve been organizing my own birthday parties for so long I figured here I am so far from home and I haven’t invited anyone to celebrate with me, so nothing will happen. It was so sweet and thoughtful of these students to organize even a simple cake and singalong that I feel like I really have had a happy birthday, in spite of some pretty overwhelming odds.

If this is anything to go on, I hope the whole decade is full of such happy surprises.

Dec 19, 2007 at 11:17pm

Wow. I have just gotten back after 4 hours of dinner and party.  The dinner was held in the hotel next door, in a huge room decorated with a Christmas tree and other festive decorations. We had so much good food, most of which was far less oily than my usual, and they even had french fries, which were fun to eat with chopsticks. They also had lots of booze, wine, beer and baijiu, as well as a homemade “wine” from one of the women there.

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It actually turned out to be pretty fun, as every 2-3 minutes someone else came by our table to make a toast, so we all got pretty toasty. We sang a Christmas song, and the Chinese sang us a song about friendship, then we went across campus to see the show the students had prepared.

The show was put on by the business department, so none of my students were there (there’s another party on Sunday night for that, I hear). There was singing, dancing, and performances by many unique instrumentalists (both the instruments and the players were unique).

There was a student dressed up as Santa Claus who gave us all Christmas cards and candy (I even got a Santa hat!).

I’m going to have to buy more batteries so I can take pictures of the parties in my classes and the one on Sunday night, as well as our ‘teachers only’ dinner on Christmas eve.

I thought for a while that I would miss out on Christmas by being here in China, but the faculty and students have gone out of their way to make us have a good Christmas, and even though the traditions aren’t quite the same, I definitely feel full of Christmas cheer.

Here’s the show: dancing girls, rapping guys, singers, a traditional Chinese stringed instrument, accordion player, and a whole crowd of audience.

 

The students threw glitter and spray snow all over the teachers.

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Dec 26, 2007 at 5:20pm

I had 6 parties in all, one you’ve already seen was the department party, then there were 3 class parties and a school dance, and our teacher dinner. This post will have 2 of the class parties (the third one wasn’t much to look at), and the school dance.

Here’s the first class, they’re advanced conversation. They went to town decorating the room.

Here’s the school dance, I was warned it was going to be like a middle school dance with the girls on one side and the boys on the other, but there was a performance, which I missed most of because Kevin wanted to get drinks first.. the VP of the college asked me to sing. I couldn’t exactly refuse, so I sang one verse of silent night. And I got dragged out to dance quite a bit, and I noticed how much the smog affects me, since my lungs stayed on fire way worse than even at the Merc [a Seattle dance club]. But it was fun, and there was certainly lots of dancing.

And here is the last class party, once again, there was an abundance of decorating. In both cases the class monitors brought speakers to hook up an MP3 player to so we had music, people brought snacks and decorations, I brought Christmas bingo, a puzzle game and taught them some Christmas carols, including the 12 days, which was hilarious, at least for me. There was also dancing in the classes as well. They really like singing and dancing.

Merry Christmas from all the Chinese kids!

Dec 29, 2007 at 2:53am

The long awaited Christmas Eve Dinner. We went to a place called Cafe Europa, it was in the same giant shopping complex as Grandma’s Kitchen, but a totally different atmosphere. It was elegant, but not overstated, which was nice, since so many Chinese Christmas decorations are like 5 yr old meets raver kid style. There were 9 of us, and 9 is an auspicious number in China, so who knows, maybe we get some good luck.

Erwin, Michelle, Rebecca, Jonathan, Bill, Peter, Terry, Louise and myself.

It was a pleasant evening, the restaurant never got too crowded or noisy, but we weren’t the only people celebrating. We had some champagne and beer, and a (mostly) pleasant conversation, tho toward the end it devolved into “first date deal breakers” thanks to Peter.

The menu was very nice. We started off with a small foie gras appetizer, served over a tomato vinaigrette salad, entirely too many people were hesitant about the paté, but I thought it was lovely. This was followed by a salmon appetizer with a quail egg and salmon roe in addition to the normal onions and capers. This was my first salmon since leaving Seattle and I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed it. Then there was a lobster bisque, nice and rich.

Followed by I think the biggest pile of prime rib I’ve ever been served, huge thick slices, tender and well seasoned. YUM! It made me glad I hadn’t eaten much all day. Dessert was a mousse plate, there’s a white chocolate mousse which tasted a lot like devonshire cream, in a chocolate dish, and a milk chocolate mousse with raspberry sauce.

On our way back to the main road toward a taxi, we passed these pretty lights and Peter redeemed himself by singing Christmas carols in harmony with me, which was fun.

Christmas (11)

When we got back to Yanjiao, we went to a local bar and stayed out drinking until 4am. (the people working there kept going to sleep behind the bar between rounds, but they never asked us to leave) I somehow got roped into doing tarot readings with a deck of playing cards, which amused everyone, and we finished off the evening with a rousing game of “I never”. Maybe not the most Christmassy ever, but there was a big tree decorated and lit up in the bar, and we had a toast at midnight to welcome Christmas in.

I won’t say that it hasn’t been hard to be away from you all during the holidays, but given the circumstances, I had a pretty good Christmas.


It makes me cringe just a little bit to read how totally Americentric and culturally illiterate I was back then, but on the other hand, it was having experiences like these that helped me grow into the person I am now. We all have to start somewhere. Who knows, maybe in another ten years I’ll look back on my current blog entries and groan.

I can also see the slow detachment I’m having from Western holidays. I still like going to expat dinners, and I definitely still like decorating my home for Christmas, but every year it’s easier to focus on the holidays that the country I’m in is celebrating rather than pine for the celebrations I’m missing. Buddha’s Birthday has been one of my favorites here in Korea when everyone decorates in beautiful lanterns.

However you celebrate, and whoever you celebrate with, I hope you have some very happy holidays this year!

Good Bye 2016

As the year drew to an end (finally), I found myself in the land of festivals (Korea) for some super holiday times. While nothing on Earth is likely to oust the Dubai December for birthday/Christmas spectaculars, I have to say that I had a pretty good December here in Busan. Commence countdown to 2017: T minus 2 weeks.


Two Weeks Till 2017: Boseong Tea Fields

Starting with my birthday (also known as Saturnalia), we decided to take a day trip down to the Boseong Tea Feilds. I personally didn’t put tea fields high on my to do list but there was a big ol’ light festival going on and that sounded like fun. So we piled onto the bus around noon for a three hour drive. It’s not as agonizing as it sounds. I had good company and the seats are comfy. When we arrived, it was still light and although we could see the framework of part of the light show, it wasn’t quite time yet, so we headed into the tea field area first. This area is a small farm that was about half shut down for the winter (the fountains were drained and many of the shops were closed), but once we got past the tourist buildings and onto the path, it was far more beautiful than I ever could have expected.

20161217_150819Green tea looks like very well kept English hedge,.
and because Korea is 70% mountains, the tea bushes are grown up the side of steep hills, creating a beautiful terraced landscape. As we wandered up one side of the hill, I had the chance to munch a tea leaf right off the branch. It was a robust flavor and while different from the drink that it makes, still pleasant. I even found one lone tea flower to admire in the winter greenery.


We found a small waterfall on the way up, but the winter dry season meant it was barely a trickle. The best part turned out to be that since we’d gone up the opposite side from nearly everyone else we had the shaded little path to ourselves. A rare treat in Korea!

When we emerged onto the main path across the hill, I was totally swept away by the view of the tea around us. I admit that from the bottom looking up, it had been.. well ok, but not spectacular, and even from the high points looking down it was only so-so, but right there in the middle of the hill, with the winding, whirling rows of green tea hedges making patterns all around us, the sun barely above the line of trees and mountains to the west casting long golden rays into the valley, it was breathtaking.

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Of course we took our turn to stand on the picture spot (which did have an amazing view), but it wasn’t too crowded. We had plenty of time to admire the scenery and take lots of silly selfies. We passed a wide variety of blossoming fruit trees (that is to say, fruit trees with beautiful blossoms in the spring), so I can only imagine how beautiful the scene is when both the trees and the tea are in bloom. In addition, we were surrounded by tall evergreens similar to the cedars of the PNW makingj us feel a little more like we were in the Cascades and a little more Christmassy, since pines and firs are scarce in Busan.

We stopped in at the local Green Tea restaurant, where every dish is made with green tea in some way. I had a bowl of jajangmyeon with green tea noodles, and a friend got some bibimbap with green tea rice, but my other poor companion is allergic to caffeine and couldn’t eat anything there! (don’t worry, she didn’t starve).Even though it was cold, and even though I’ve had it more times than I could count, I still got myself some green tea ice cream, cause why not?

20161217_171556.jpgOn our way back to the main entrance we took a quick side detour to the bamboo forest. After a short walk through some more evergreens, we emerged into an open space facing a dark and mysterious bamboo forest. The sun was low and the shadows were long so we couldn’t see far into the mass of stalks. Once we entered, it was as though a twilight had encompassed us, the lush leaves cutting out nearly all the late afternoon sunlight. The birds went bananas, screaming like jabber jays, making us feel as though we were in an arena from the Hunger Games or at very least in an ominous Korean horror movie. I wasn’t sure if we should expect kung fu masters or monsters. (click for more pictures of Boseong tea fields and lights)

A Beam of Hope

20161217_175826We left the tea fields behind and headed back down to the main parking lot that would lead to the lights. There were plenty of stalls with a wide variety of food (green tea added and regular) so my allergic friend was able to find something tasty, too. The light show wasn’t quite as spectacular as Taean (seriously that light show), but it was loads of fun. There were animal shapes, dragons and dinosaurs. There were scenes depicted on the hillside. There was a cupid’s arrow that when “fired” by guests shot a beam of light up the wires to the distant target. There was a beautiful rainbow display of that year’s theme, “A Beam of Hope”, and my favorite was the tunnel of lights that went from the bottom to the top of the whole shebang.

We wandered up through the smaller displays, posing with 20161217_174926.jpgdragons and hatching out of giant glowing eggs along the way. Like most lantern displays here, everything was meant to be posed with and interacted with, so it was easy to walk up to any set and play around. It’s a small and childlike pleasure, but after so long in the US being forced to stay behind the railing, it is fun to get a little more hands on. On the way back down, we took the tunnel of lights, pausing every time the colors shifted to take more pictures and pose in the rainbow glows. We didn’t feel rushed at all, and got back to the bottom in time to grab a hot drink and warm up by the fire before hopping on the bus to our third location.

A word on keeping warm in Korea in the winter. It gets cold, not Canada cold, but often around freezing temperatures. The buses and subways are super warm, but office buildings and of course outdoor festivals don’t get so much heat. Koreans rely on the “hot-pak” to solve this problem. This is a chemical warmer that last for about 15 hours once activated. There are small ones you can tuck in a pocket (I like to slip one in a glove or under a sleeve just over my wrist where all the blood flowing to my fingers gets warm), and there are ones you can put in your shoes, or stick to your inner layer of clothing. I bought a 6 pack for about 5$, it was an absolute life saver for enjoying the wintry outdoors after dark.

20161217_191948.jpgOur third and final location was near the beach where another tunnel of lights and light decorations had been put up. One large tree had been colored in white and green to make it look like it still had leaves. There were reindeer and Christmas trees, but also a giant chicken floating just off shore. I’m not sure why a chicken, but I saw another similar giant chicken in the sea back in Busan the next day.

(Eventually I realized that the next animal on the zodiac is Rooster, so it’s less a Christmas Chicken and more a New Year’s Cock.)

We oohed and aaaahed some more, posing with giant glowing horses, and peeking out from between light wrapped branches. There was a light maze, but it was only about a foot off the ground, so we didn’t get lost. Finally we popped back into the food tents one last time before calling it a night and heading back.

One Week Till 2017: Christmas Eve

20161212_185531The next Saturday was Christmas Eve, and we decided we needed to do a blending of American and Korean activities. We spent the afternoon inside making eggnog and gingerbread houses. I have never made eggnog before. I thought about it a lot, especially when I wasn’t doing dairy. I thought there had to be a better tasting nog than Silknog. But somehow, I never got around to it. This year, although I seem to have no health issues with milk here, there was a complete absence of nog… everywhere… Koreans either have never heard of it, or they are all in the hate eggnog camp.

I turned to Alton Brown, my culinary hero, who provided me with a super simple recipe. It took me about 15 minutes to make, and I added a leeetle bit more brandy, but it was quite possibly the best nog I have ever put in my face. The secret is separating the eggs and beating the yolks and whites separately, then adding the whites at the very end to a cold mixture.

Btw, 20161224_152318.jpgbased on past non-dairy culinary experiments, I’d say if you’re a dairy free nog fan go with unsweetened almond milk and coconut milk– the stuff in the can that is dense and creamy, not the stuff that is a regular milk sub.– Use 2c almond milk to 1 c coconut milk, otherwise just follow Alton’s instructions. If you’re a vegan who wants eggnog… well, one of us is confused about what those words mean. May I suggest a Brandy Alexander made with non-dairy milk or some vegan Irish Cream? (I have some recipes for those if you ask).

Anyway, eggnog which is fresh, creamy, rich and frothy is my new best thing about Christmas Eve.

20161224_173459While we imbibed our culinary delight, we worked on assembling a gingerbread house. Every month here in Busan there is a foreigner’s market where expats sell things they make (or sometimes import) to give us all a taste of “home”. During November and December, one lovely lass was selling her homemade gingerbread cookies and gingerbread house kits. That’s right, no factory made house kit for us, but a local small business! #supportlocal #smallbusinesssaturdays The kit was originally meant to be just a house, but my friend decided to turn the foil wrapped base into a frozen lake and make some green corn-flake treat trees to decorate the grounds, so our house turned into a cabin by the lake before we knew it. Who says you need kids to do fun Christmas crafts?

Christmas Dinner

After our crafting, we headed out to find the French restaurant we’d made dinner plans for. Both of us looooove French food (still trying to figure out how to live there!), and decided that we were ok bypassing “traditional” Christmas dinner (which was exactly the same as Thanksgiving dinner) in favor of a nice restaurant. We opted for Le Jardin which is a small French place near KSU. They had some extra set menus for the holiday and were very accommodating about my friend’s allergies. They were quick to respond to emails and both the service and the food were excellent. We also splurged on a bottle of Viognier since there were 3 of us. I got to try this nice little white for the first time in a French restaurant in NZ this summer and fell in love. I’m not a sommelier or anything. I’m not going to try to describe it, but it’s distinctive and delicious. I recommend if you have a chance to try it.

20161224_191643.jpgIn addition to our delightful wine, I enjoyed pumpkin soup, a goat cheese/bacon/honey pastry for entree, a superbly well cooked slice of salmon with a light lemon flavor and a unique mushroom risotto which had been made into a breaded patty and lightly fried, and finally a chocolate pear cake that tasted more like it was a ganache or very dense ice cream rather than a cake, too decadent! Nothing will compare to the food in France, but Le Jardin made an admirable effort and gave us all a taste of Western flavors with just a hint of haute cuisine that was perfect for a holiday feast.

More Lights!
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Although we lingered perhaps too long over the meal, we made it out in time to get to our final Holiday outing: the Busan Christmas Tree Festival. This year’s theme was the Three Wise Men, and many in Korea felt it turned the holiday tradition “too religious”, which is a marked contrast from the US’s annual war on the Starbuck’s holiday cup not being religious enough. The highlight of the tree festival is a tiered wedding cake looking tree made of thousands of LED lights changing to different colors and patterns as we watched. The main streets were overhung with a veritable river of lights and fun Christmas themed decorations adorned the street waiting for passersby to pose for photos or tie paper wishes for the coming year on them. 

20161224_233656.jpgToward one end of the festival, I found an old man with a traditional candy game called ppopgi. It’s a simple candy made from sugar and baking soda, but a shape is pressed into the candy. Kids (and a few adults) can use a little pin to try to break the candy around the shape without shattering the brittle sugar. If they succeed, they win a prize (often more candy). The vendor was using a tiny copper pot to melt sugar over an open flame, adeptly pouring out the steaming satiny brown concoction, pressing it flat onto a popsicle stick and letting his fares choose their shape before pressing a cookie cutter down on the hot surface. I noticed that while adults had to be perfect to win, the little kids were often awarded a prize for a good effort.

After a few hours of glowing fun, we made our way home and fell asleep to the less spectacular but still very holidayesque glow of my own modest 2d Christmas tree. (click here for more pictures of the Busan Christmas Tree Festival)

Christmas day abroad is always an interesting challenge. Traditions that hinge around friends and family must be abandoned or at least altered, but this year I was fortunate to have one friend from home here with me and our Christmas adventures enabled us to both enjoy some of the traditions our host country had to offer while still enjoying our own cultural holiday.

One Day to 2017: New Year’s Eve

20161231_141930.jpgA mere week later, the New Year celebrations were upon us. I had done some research and found that here in Busan there is a bell ringing ceremony in Yongdusan Park at the large bell at the foot of the Busan Tower. It’s a big event with musical performers and guest speakers that is televised much the way that the New York Time’s Square ball drop is. Yongdusan park is nowhere near as big as Time’s Square, and the majority of people don’t ascend the multiple flights of stairs until 11pm. Knowing we had plenty of time, we spent the day reveling in some seasonal sulbing, a screening of Rogue One, and a totally accidental Japanese dinner. 

20161231_225932.jpgNonetheless, it was a wonderful day and at 5 minutes before 11, we found ourselves in a long line of people patiently trudging up the stairs to the peak of Yongdu Mountain. Normally, this pathway has a series of escalators going up so that anyone can access the park, but tonight the escalator had been closed down and reserved as a dedicated emergency access stairwell. When we arrived at the top, we saw many TV vans and we shuffled with the crowd into the standing space behind the VIP seating. To my surprise, through crowd motion, we soon found ourselves close enough to the bell to get a decent view of the proceedings, and there was a jumbo-tron screen off to one side that allowed us to view the performances.

Despite the bitter cold of the night air, the press of bodies meant that I was soon warm enough to take off my jacket, and we joined in the crowd enjoyment of the music. Koreans are a very reserved people and it was strange to be in such a large crowd that greeted each song with polite applause rather than raucus cheering, but as the musical numbers progressed from Annie’s “Tomorrow” through some Korean favorites and the ever popular “Uptown Funk”, more of the people around us began dancing in place and singing along while holding up phones to snap pictures of the bell and of course lots of selfies.

As the minutes drew to a close, the announcer came back to guide the crowd in the traditional countdown (which I almost managed in Korean, it’s hard to count backwards in a foreign language). At the stroke of midnight, the crowd erupted in cheers and hundreds of golden balloons with wishes written on them were released into the night sky. The bell began it’s 33 tolls, 11 strikes for each of the 3 blessings. As we quite literally rang in the new year, confetti cannons blasted the crowd with fluttering white squares, reminiscent at once of snow and cherry blossoms. My compatriots popped a bottle of bubbly (the benefits of an open container country) and we toasted the New Year with pink ‘champagne’, the cheers of the crowd ringing in our ears even louder than the blessing bell. When the tolling finally fell silent, the MC directed our attention behind us where we were treated to a stunning fireworks display.

Welcome to 2017

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The final Korean tradition we decided to indulge in was to head down to the beach to watch the first sunrise of the new year over the eastern sea. After a few hours of sleep, we woke in the pre-dawn dark and walked down to the shore where tents and stages had been set up for the sunrise celebrations. Although the beach was crowded, we managed to get down to the water line where we could sit in the chilly sand and watch the sky redden behind the beautiful Gwangan Bridge. Many in the crowd were holding colorful balloons in anticipation of the first sign of the sun, and several floating lanterns already drifted through the blue and pink sky out over the ocean.

( I know that releasing balloons results in an unfortunate amount of damage to animals and birds as well as litter in the environment. I myself did not partake in the release and I hope that one day soon Korea will find a way to celebrate these events with less environmental impact)

 

All eyes were on the horizon when I heard a series of ooohs and gasps ripple through the crowd. The first deep red sliver of light had crested the sea and as we watched the rising orb, the sky was flooded with the colorful array of wishes for the new year floating on hundreds of multi-colored orbs. We scampered along the shoreline following the arcing rise of the sun as it bloomed into a full sphere and soon laced through the steel cables of the gracefully arching bridge. A drum performance welcomed the new day and the crowd surged from the sea to long and twisting lines to partake of the traditional Korean new year soup. (click here for more pictures of the first sunrise)


My first year in Korea has been full of adventure, lights, festivals and new experiences. Although I didn’t expect it, and despite the country’s recent political upheaval, I am not ready leave. With the signing of my new contract, I look forward to another year of adventure in “Creative Korea”. Happy New Year, and may your 2017 be full of hope, peace and joy.

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So This Is Christmas…

Christmas, like all other non-Muslim holidays, is banned in Saudi Arabia. It is illegal to celebrate the holiday.

20141212_144325So what will I do today? Having returned from a regular day of teaching at the office, a day unmarked by any event, any well-wishes, or any holiday office celebrations, I will sit down with a traditional Chinese Christmas dinner of fried chicken because it’s the only traditional Christmas meal I can find here. I will find the Grinch on Hulu or Youtube. I will light the beautifully scented candles that my lovely friend sent me as the only Christmas themed item deemed safe to pass through customs. I will look at my paper decorations of red and green and long for a real tree. I will eat dates and dream of my family’s traditional date-ball Christmas cookie, which I cannot make because there are no rice-krispies in the stores here. And I will talk to my friends and family on Skype.

It’s all I can do.

I’ve celebrated Christmas every year of my life. My mother has given me an angel ornament every Christmas since I was born. We have traditional family Christmas cookie recipes that I had to re-invent when I went gluten-free and took me forever to remaster, but I did. We used to bake fruit bread and take it around to the neighbors while singing carols. I was in choir and band, so probably know every carol by heart. And it’s not even a religious holiday for me. I just love it.

I love the decorations, the tree, the food, the music, the lights, the parties, the special clothes. I loved waking up early as a kid to open my stocking, and I love staying up late as a grown-up to fill someone else’s stocking. I love wrapping presents. I love seeing everyone smile and forget that the world sucks for a while.

The only reason we had a nativity when I was a kid was that my grandmother was Catholic. Which is cool.

I have friends who have returned the traditions to their Northern European pre-Christian roots, celebrating Solstice or Yule with a neo-pagan religious flair. And that’s cool too.

The year I lived in China, it was like the perfect Christmas ideology. All the decorations, music, parties and food, with none of the controversy about how to “properly” celebrate a once pagan winter renewal festival turned Christian.

This year, it’s empty. It’s nothing.

I keep reading stories about people being offended about “Merry Christmas” if they’re not Christian, or by “Happy Holidays” if they are. I’m watching cities fight over holiday displays, a zombie nativity scene ordered removed, a Satanist display at the Florida capital vandalized, and Christians all over declaring that there is a “War on Christmas” in America. And I just can’t believe how each and every angry offended person has completely lost sight of what they have.

It is illegal to celebrate Christmas in any form in Saudi. If one chooses to try to celebrate one does so at the risk of being arrested and even deported.

That is a war on Christmas folks.

Someone else celebrating an alternative form of Mid-Winter festivities is not.

So stop being angry that someone else wants to celebrate, and be joyful that you can. Be joyful that you can find a fresh scented evergreen tree at a lot near your home. Be grateful that you can see beautiful decorations in shops and on homes all around you. Be ebullient that radio stations pipe free carols to you whenever you wish. Be in awe if you are lucky enough to be surrounded by friends or family. And when someone wishes you joy, wish it back.

Merry Christmas

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