Jinhae Cherry Blossom Festival

The first weekend in April was a crazy amazing busy awesome one. It turned out that April 1st was our school’s birthday, and so the school was closed for the day, granting us a 3 day weekend. On top of that, the cherry blossoms had started to bloom that week, promising a flower-filled weekend. In researching top blossom viewing spots near me, I learned about the Jinhae Festival, hailed as the largest cherry blossom festival in all of Korea. It lasts 10 days, takes up several city blocks, and ends with a military parade and fireworks show. Then on Sunday, the Indian (yeah, from India) expat populace would be celebrating the spring festival of colors, Holi, and I had a ticket for that as well. It’s taken me a week to write this, and I’m only just now starting to recover some energy from the blast(s) I treated myself to last weekend. Here we go.


It recently came to my attention that there are Westerners who do not know or understand this obsession with cherry blossom viewing. It actually confounded me a little, because I can’t remember a time in my life when I didn’t think that the magical snow and lace blooms were anything other than an event to be anticipated and cherished, but then again, I got to live in Japan as a kid, and in (or at least very near in one case) two of the very few cities in the US that boast large populations of blossoming cherries for public view. 890400420circles202620squares-lI’m also spoiled rotten by the UW campus quad which boasts 40 old and giant cherries that put on a spectacular show for the students every spring. It seems, however, that large portions of the Western population have simply never experienced the joy of standing in a huge grove of cherry trees in full bloom as the wind teases the frail petals loose and swirls them through the air around you. I am sad for these people because as beautiful as the paintings and photographs are, they cannot do the experience justice. So please, find your nearest cherry blossom viewing spot and GO.

The city of Jinhae has the largest cherry blossom festival in Korea, which probably makes it one of the biggest in the world (Japan wins). It is also purported to have more than 340,000 cherry trees. I told my Korean co-teacher that I was thinking of going, and she strongly recommended it, even though there would big crowds and long lines for the buses. That said, while I have experienced the joy that is the spring blooming of the cherries in several places and have always had my breath taken away, I had yet to experience anything close to Jinhae.

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Jinhae is about an hour away from Busan by bus, and the tickets are less than $5 one way. I showed up at the intercity bus terminal around 9:30 am to purchase my ticket and immediately noticed a long queue and began to worry. Then, as I stood in line to buy the ticket, I heard person after person requesting a ticket to Jinhae. Bear in mind, this is 9:30am on a Friday morning. My school was closed for it’s birthday, but it wasn’t a city wide holiday. Most people should have been at work at this time. Or so I thought. Turns out, a whole bunch of other people had the same thought. The line was doubled back on itself when I joined it, and by the time I got to the front a little more than an hour later, it had turned into five rows. Disneyland has nothing on the bus to Jinhae for lines.

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While in line, I met a nice young man named Lucas who was vacationing in Korea from Singapore (where he had moved from Malaysia, yay international people!). Lucas started chatting with me to pass the time in line, and we enjoyed each other’s company enough that we decided to sit together on the bus ride as well. Those of you who read my blog regularly know that I’m exceptionally fond of meeting new people whenever I travel, so it made me quite happy to have a fun companion 20160401_121251for the day. As the bus drew nearer to Jinhae, our windows became filled with blossoms, as the roadside and mountains were simply covered in the blooming trees. And once we arrived, I began to get an understanding of what 340,000 cherry trees might actually look like. Every street we walked on was lined by trees, planted every 3-4 meters on both sides. No matter where we turned, we were walking under a blossom bower. The main festival stage isn’t a far walk from the bus terminal and soon we were greeted with streets closed to traffic and covered with tents offering traditional fair foods and souvenirs. Lucky me, my companion was just as interested in sampling all the unique foods as I was. The first thing we were greeted with was a whole pig roasting on a spit, and we resolved to try that for sure, but he had ice cream on his mind first, so we kept looking.

20160401_121910Following the sound of some flute music, we turned a corner and were greeted by a most unexpected sight. Two men in what seemed to be traditional Native American dress. Lucas had no idea what they were dressed as, and I had to try to explain while being totally bewildered myself as to why Koreans would kit out in feathered headdresses.  I’ve since done a little research and it could be one (or a mix) of two things: 1) Korea really enjoys using other cultures’ stereotypes in pop-culture and they aren’t always sensitive about it, and/or 2) they were actually trying to honor the culture because Native Americans did help to defend Korea during the Korean War and have gone largely unappreciated for it. Either way, it was quite a shock for me to see these costumes at a cherry blossom festival, and further on I noticed that the souvenirs in that area consisted of a lot of dream catchers and other stereotypical Native American tribal art and jewelry (although in a real hodgepodge of tribal styles).

One of the main attractions in Jinhae is the small stream or canal called Yeojwacheon that runs through the city and is much more densely crowded with cherry trees, think every 1-2 meters instead of 3-4). Not only is the canal a beautiful walk, but there are several famous bridges including the “Romance Bridge” which was made popular as the meeting place of the two leading characters in the TV Drama “Romance”. 20160401_124307As we made our way toward the stream, we finally found our ice cream vendor. I’d done some reading on the Jinhae experience before I went, so I had a few things to look out for and this was one of them. This odd confection is a “J” shaped corn crisp shell that’s filled to both brims with soft serve vanilla ice cream. The flavor is about what you’d expect, although the cone was a serious improvement on the standard American cake cone, it’s also a far cry from those waffle cones I got in Prague. But the experience is the thing, and as soon as he spotted the vendor, Lucas swept down and bought us two. The man at the booth was having fun clowning around, pretending to drop the ice cream, and in the end, he turned both cones upside down to form a heart with the two of them for us. Korean culture is big on dating and romance, and he had no way to know Lucas and I had only just met a few hours ago, but it was cute and we took it in good humor.

Ice cream confections in hand, we continued on and soon came to the first of many bridges that spanned the stream. It was crowded to be sure, but Korean’s (like most Asians) are good about taking turns at photo-op spots, so it didn’t take long for us to be able to get up to the railing of the bridge for a few good photos. Then we continued on, looking for the decorations that our internet research had promised. The first decorated section we came across was lined with artificial white roses, and real yellow flowers tucked in among the fresh green spring grasses. It was pretty enough, but following this was possibly my favorite section: the beautiful red umbrellas. I don’t know if it was the contrast of the red umbrellas with the green grass and pale pink blossoms, or if it was the whimsical notion that the umbrellas stood guard against the “rain” of falling petals, but this section just struck me as especially magical among all of the decorations I saw.

The third section contained cut out silhouettes of people in various poses under paper lantern stars, and the final section contained rows of bicycles that I predicted would be luminescent once the sun set. After the decorated sections ended, there were some stairs leading down to the stream bed itself where people could stand in or near the water to pose with the stunning backdrop. We went down too, of course. As whimsical as the blossoms had been from above, suddenly being cut off from the crowds, with only a handful of other people nearby, and looking up up up at the trees blocking the sky… well, to avoid overusing some of my fairy-tale adjectives here, it was bibbity boppity boo, and probably as far as supercalifragilistic.

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After returning to the surface, we dodged back and forth between the wooden planked walkway that lined the stream and the street that was in turn lined with more booths of food and souvenirs, some high arches set with tiny lights for the night time, and of course, more cherry trees. 20160401_132852.jpgAfter a little bit, Lucas became enamored with the grapefruit drinks we had seen other tourists enjoying, so we found a vendor and ordered two of those. We watched, fascinated as the vendor cut a neat hole in the top of the fruit, then held it up to a machine which quickly reduced the insides to pulpy juice. Finally, he popped in a straw, and set the sticky globe into a plastic drink top to keep our hands clean. Ah, fair food. I love grapefruit juice, but nowhere else do I know anyone who would say, “sure, let’s drink that right out of the peel!”. I felt 5 and it was awesome.

We decided to tough it out and walk all the way to the end of the stream to see where the festival “ended” (at least in this direction). We stopped a lot for pictures and to look at the booths, but it was still a serious trek. Our diligence was rewarded, however, because when we came to the end, we found a lovely park that had shady wooded walks and a small lake. Even though the park wasn’t solely dedicated to cherry blossoms the way that the stream was, it was still a very worthwhile walk around the lake that ended up yielding my second favorite photo of the whole day. Cherry blossoms alone are beautiful. Cherry blossoms with mountains and lakes are magniflorious. 20160401_141325On our way back through the streets alongside the stream, we were lucky enough to get caught in a strong gust of wind that tugged thousands of petals loose from the trees above us, covering us in pink, soft snow. Everyone there burst into surprised and happy cheers and gasps as we felt the warm wind and watched the whirlwind of flowers in awe.

jinhae-festival-map1By this point we were starting to sense the layout of the festival (plus we’d seen a map) which had the central stage at it’s hub in the largest roundabout in town. Streets came off the roundabout like bicycle spokes, each one lined with blossoms and tents, and each one leading to a different destination for viewing and exploring. Out of the 8 possible directions, we probably only went in 4-5 and I missed out on at least half of the festival’s activities and sites even though I spent nearly 9 hours there that day. Taking a look at our options, we headed back toward the center of the festival to try to find the mountain observatory.

Jehwangsan Mountain overlooks the whole city, and is topped by a pagoda style observation tower, giving visitors extra elevation. It was one of the things on my to-do list, but when we arrived, the line for the tram was very long, and the climb is a daunting 365 stairs. I like physical activity, but I’m not the best athlete. I’ve done huge stairs before, Great Wall, Petra Monastery, etc. However, this was only one of many activities we wanted to do, and the smog alert was in the orange that day. Chances are, climbing (at least for me) would have taken just as long as standing in the line, and I would have felt worse afterward. Lucas wanted to catch a bus back by 4, so instead we opted to go find lunch.

20160401_121818You may remember that upon arriving, one of the first foods of interest we saw was this whole roasting pig? Well, that was what we wanted for lunch. Thus we hiked back towards the center of the festival, scanning the booths around us for that telltale swine-flesh until we found one. Neither Lucas nor I had any real amount of Korean language ability, but pointing works well enough, and it turns out “Barbecue” sounds the same in Korean as it does in English. Lucas tried to order some soup to go with it, but through the hilarity of charades and cultural differences, we actually ended up with a bowl of local rice wine instead. Yes, a bowl. It turns out that dongdongju is served this way traditionally and is a common fair drink alongside the barbecue, so our server can certainly be forgiven for assuming we wanted the popular choice.

20160401_153024Despite it’s somewhat dubious opacity, the wine was tasty and refreshing after our long walk. And when the single dish of barbecue showed up, suddenly my erstwhile companion understood why I hadn’t ordered a second dish myself. The heaping pile of pig had been cut into chopstick friendly cubes and was served alongside a piquant chili sauce, some tiny brined shrimp, sliced onions, mixed salt and pepper, and green hot peppers (and of course there was kimchi). We were free to mix and mingle the flavors as we pleased from there, and I quite enjoyed the experience. Even the brined shrimp went well with the pork, much to my surprise. We chatted, ate and drank for almost an hour but were unable to finish either the pork or the wine between just the two of us.

After the meal, Lucas had to head back to the bus station. W said our farewells and I set off into the maze of the fair to see what else there was to do. I still wanted to go up the mountain, but the food, wine and walking had made me more than a little tired. I knew I wanted to stay until after dark to see the lanterns, so I headed over to a local cafe for a little pick me up and a soft seat. The first time I came over to Asia as an adult, I was deeply saddened by the lack of coffee options. Nescafe or similar instant coffee was and still is popular in most Asian countries. In some cases, it’s even preferred to the real beans. Fortunately, for reasons that probably stem from colonialism, Korea has taken a strong love to the French pastry/cafe idea and it is now common to find small coffee shops all over the place offering an array of espresso based drinks and flaky pastries. I was still too full from lunch for a pastry, but an iced latte and a seat by the open window looking out on the cherry blossom filled road was quite welcome.

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Once the food coma and wine haze were chased away, I decided to head out to see what the line at the mountain looked like now. I had about an hour until sunset and the night light shows and wanted to get in a little more viewing if I could. There was still a long line for the tram up the mountain, but it was much shorter than when we’d looked before lunch, so I joined in. It turns out one of the small advantages of being a single traveler in Korea is that, because many of them go in large groups, there is often a single space left on any form of conveyance that no one else will take because they don’t want to split up. As a result, I was shuffled forward in line to fill the gap, and got to the top in time to walk around and climb up the pagoda to watch the sun set over the city from the very top. The view was truly stunning, despite the smoggy haze in the air, and I realized that some of the surrounding mountains were blanketed in groves of blooming cherries too. Watching the mountains, trees, city and water from the sky, it left me in no doubt that I get to live in a stunningly beautiful place this year.

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The sun itself looked like nothing so much as the Japanese flag, a red orb in a white/pink sky. The haze was strong enough that I could look straight at it even without sunglasses. Unfortunately, I don’t own pro-grade camera equipment, and alsas my pictures don’t even come close to doing it justice. Once the last sliver of red dipped behind the mountains, I made my way back down to ground level and struck out once again toward the stream to see the display lit up.

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It did not disappoint. The festival had become even more crowded since I went up the mountain, and I had to jink and dodge along the roads to try to make decent time from one landmark to the other. The last bus was set to leave at 9:30 and I knew that there was going to be another long line. I had to try my best to get back to the bus station by 8pm. But even standing at the crosswalk looking at the blossoms lit up by the street lights, I knew I’d made the right decision in staying. I’ve done night viewing before, because the UW campus isn’t closed off after dark and I was able to take walks around the quad with the orange lamps reflecting off of the blossoms and the dark city sky above. But here, I was treated to a whole range of colored lights and the night sky of Jinhae had far less light pollution than Seattle, so it was a good black velvety night dark rather than the orange-grey color of big city night skies.

As I passed by the train station, I noticed that some of the trees I had overlooked by day were now glowing with 20160401_192130LED cherry blossoms in shifting colors. Despite my rush to see the real flowers, I took a quick detour to watch the light show. When I got to the road by the stream I was overwhelmed by the number of people. During the day, I had to wait my turn to get up onto the bridges for photos, but now the bridges were so crammed that even people trying to get away from the railings to make way for the next visitors had to push their way physically through the crowd. It wasn’t a lack of politeness, just the sheer volume of humans in such a tiny space made it impossible to get out of someone’s way without pushing into another person. At one point someone backed into me and leaned on me, and only realized I wasn’t the railing when I moved. They were, of course, apologetic, but that’s how crowded it was!

I could more easily access the railing on the sides of the stream, and it was well worth doing just that. However, I knew from my daytime exploration how different the view from the center of those bridges was from the sides, so I valiantly squeezed my way through the crowds to have my turn. Despite the fact that my phone does not sport the best night camera, most of my bridge pictures turned out well, and only one area did my camera get jostled to the point that I had only side views in the end.

20160401_195507The area of the yellow flowers and fake white roses was first. Although we’d spotted the roses were fakes, I had thought at the time it was just about making a pretty pattern, which is harder to do with living flowers. Now at night I realized that each false flower was connected to a hidden wire because they glowed magnificently, casting a pure white light up on the blossoms above them.

Next, my favorite one, the red umbrellas, revealed small lights under each of the umbrellas making them glow as brightly as they had in the sunshine. The umbrellas were followed by the stars and silhouettes, which may have taken over first place for the night version if for no other reason than the stars were more color shifting soft LEDs and caused the blossoms above them to go through a rainbow of reflected colors, creating dazzling combinations and effects. Finally came the bicycles, which were more or less what I expected: tube lighting in a variety of colors, reflecting up into the trees.

I didn’t go any further down the stream since there hadn’t been anything in the daytime that looked like it would be a night display past the bicycles. I had spotted a night light walking area on the map, but it was simply too far away for me to get to without missing my bus and being stranded in Jinhae with no hotel reservation, so I headed back toward the bus terminal, admiring the lighted arches and glowing blossoms on my way.

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Once I was back in the tented area, I started questing for my last fair food goal, the spiral potato. 20160401_201741This was another tempting snack I’d read about online and decided I wanted to try. Plus, it had been 4 hours since lunch and I knew I had a few more hours of standing in line and bus riding before I would be back in Busan.  It was time to grab a snack anyway. On my way through the stalls, I came across these clear glass-like treats. They were served with a kind of powder that stuck to them, and many Koreans seemed quite taken with them. I decided to pass because I have an aversion to all things gelatin (there is no room for Jell-o), and the Asian desert culture is heavy on foods that have a gelatinous, jellyfish kind of texture. Which is not to say that I don’t have love for other Asian desserts. I enjoy the glutinous rice and sweet red bean paste concoctions. You can see from the picture this stuff looks like it could go either way: gelatinous or glutinous, and in a situation where I had more time, I might 20160401_200327have given it a shot just to find out, but as it was already after 8pm and I was not yet near the bus station, I had to forgo the mystery in favor of a more well known potato based snack. This turned out to be dusted with cheese powder and was a lot like eating very thick cut, fresh potato chips, yum!

When I arrived at the small bus terminal, I was greeted with another Disneylandesque line that took a little over an hour to get to the top of. The buses normally run every 15-20 minutes, but during the festival, they were running as fast as they could get them loaded. Once again, I got to bump up in line because I was a lone traveler and could fill the single empty seat on the bus. As it turned out, I ended up sitting next to another friendly lone explorer. Jinju introduced herself, and I learned she was from Kazakhstan, although ethnically Korean. She’d been living in Korea for years, but still had some trouble due to the confusion of her appearance versus her cultural upbringing. We chatted on the long bus ride back to Busan, and on the subway as well, since she lives near me. I love making new travel friends, and hopefully we’ll get to hang out again soon.

By the time I got home, it was well after 11pm. I was so sore and tired, even rolling over in bed seemed like too much effort. However, as I’ve watched the cherry blossoms in Busan fall to the rain in the last week, I can’t help but be grateful that I had the chance to go to the festival at it’s very peak. Although the parade and fireworks shows were set to take place in the second weekend, I can tell that the blooms were definitely on display for only the first few days. By the time I was heading home from work on Friday just one week later, the cherry trees were sporting only a few last flowers and the green leaves were filling in all the gaps.


I spent Saturday at home, recovering and doing my regular weekly chores, plus assembling my photos from the amazing journey to Jinhae. It was tempting to go out to see some more cherry blossoms in Busan, but I had booked a spot at the Holi Hai festival for Sunday and I really wanted to make sure that I had enough energy to enjoy it. So, please enjoy the rest of the pictures, and stay tuned for the next installment of the crazy busy amazing weekend where I tell the story of Holi on the Beach. As always, thanks for reading! 🙂

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Settling In: My First Week of School

UPDATE: Something happened to the pictures the first time I published, I’m assuming something to do with using my work computer instead of my personal one? Anyway, it should be all fixed now. Thanks for your patience and enjoy!


Despite the best efforts of the flu, I managed to both make it to and survive my first week of elementary school teaching in Korea. The week was less than normal for several reasons, but it gives me a pretty good idea of what I’ve gotten myself into, and it appears to be good news.


First, let me explain a little about Korean education as I was led to expect it from EPIK orientation and online research:

Typical Korean Students

Korean kids study from about 9 am to about 11 pm (later for the high-schoolers). They start with public school, then do after school programs, private English schools, and subject tutors before going home to do more hours of homework. I think this speech was given to me a half a dozen times at orientation as a way of helping us understand what our students go through, and to give us some sympathy for them in our classes. English class is often the only “fun” class they will have all day (even the little kids), and kids will often end up falling asleep in your class because they were up past midnight studying. Also, your class is only one of 3-4 places they study English.

Next, let me explain a little about my school:

I guess recently the Korean government decided to pour some foreigner money into the lower income schools around the cities, so I work in a neighborhood that one of the locals described as a “slum”. OK, Korean slums aren’t really as bad as say American ones, there aren’t any metal detectors and no cops are roaming the hallways,

Not actually one of mine, but…

but the kids are from economically disadvantaged homes and often receive little to no positive attention from their parents, let alone the costly private after school programs. In the first week, I’ve already encountered several special needs children, and heard horror stories of abusive parents. Social services isn’t really a thing here yet, so kids aren’t protected unless the home life is Jim Jones levels of bad. As such, my kids don’t have a lot of advantages that I was led to believe Korean students have. They don’t have a very high English level and my class is most likely the only place they will get to study English (or possibly get positive feedback).

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My “office” / English resource room.

Do not mistake this for a horrible situation, however.We may not have the best facilities, but we have computers, TVs, and about a million English books. Our main textbooks come with lots of cut out activities and interactive DVD-Roms. And my “office” is the English play room/ library which is full of stories and even a short row of student accessible computers. On top of that, the kids aren’t little hellions of bad attitude or behavioral problems. Most of them are really cheerful, well behaved, respectful and pretty happy to see me. I don’t know if they’re happy to see their other teachers as well, but I get lots of greetings and big smiles in the hallways and the classroom.

20160316_075209In the morning, I wake up before 7 am to get ready. My neighborhood is still quiet then, and when I step out onto the cold spring sidewalk, everything except the 24hr stores are closed up tight. Because I live in a pretty ritzy neighborhood, I have a bit of a bus ride to school, but it’s a nice time to wake up and see what’s in the city through the windows.

20160316_081753Because it’s still so early, the bus isn’t too crowded and I can usually get a seat.
Walking from the bus stop to the school is really peaceful. There are a million tiny shops selling fruit, sweets, snacks, and various household goods, but it’s still too early, so the little alleyways are silent. When I round the corner and my school comes in sight, I suddenly become a superstar. Kids recognize me and are happy to say hello or practice the most recent English phrase they learned in class. They call my name from across the street and run up to get high fives. It really is a great way to start the day.
20160316_082107My first week was actually the second week of school because I spent the first week in quarantine, so you can imagine the kids were surprised to see me after their first week with no native English speaker. There were lots of curious glances and furtive shy peeking in the window. Some brave students even came up to ask what day I would be in their class. Monday wasn’t especially a typical day, but I made it through my classes with minimal technical difficulties, and learned that there are three other teachers I’ll be spending most of my time with. The other two English teachers, who I will refer to as co-teacher 1 and co-teacher 2, as well as a music teacher that is in our hallway. They’re all really sweet ladies, and did their best to make me feel included, sitting with me at lunch and chatting with me in the hallways or after class.

MONDAY

I had to go back to the doctor on Monday after class, which is the boring part. Then I found out that we were having our first teacher’s dinner that night. EPIK orienters advised us to get in on any teacher activities to make our stay easier, but this one sounded like fun anyway. Apparently, every month, the teachers pay into a pot fund and then once in a while we all go out for a great dinner. 20160307_170141This one was our year start dinner, and we went to a traditional Korean barbecue place. Every 4 people shared a table with it’s own grill and assortment of banchan (반찬 : the side dishes served at every Korean meal). It was the duty of the youngest at the table to cook, which is our music teacher, so she set to grilling the pork belly (Samgyeopsal 삼겹살) which we ate with the various spices, sauces and side dishes to change the flavor of every bite.

I was mostly watching and following along, but it was delicious. We ate two plates full and then the waiters came by to ask us what we wanted for dinner! In Korea, after the plate of meat is all cooked and shared, people order some soup or a noodle dish to finish off. I was stuffed, but the ladies ordered a single bowl of a cold noodle soup, which I tried a bite of because they told me that most foreigners don’t like that kind of soup… so of course I had to try. It actually wasn’t bad. The noodles were a little chewy, but the flavor was nice. I think if I hadn’t been so full of pork belly I might have eaten more.

My Korean co-teachers don’t drink much, so we toasted with cider. It’s not what you think. In the west, cider is made from apples, either a spiced apple juice or a hard (alcoholic) apple juice. In Korea (and Japan), cider is a clear, carbonated, sweet, non-alcoholic beverage. I have no idea why it’s called cider. Think Sprite/7Up. It was my first real day out after the flu, and I’d already had a long day at school, and the doctor, and dinner, but it was soooo good. Then they asked if I wanted to go get some dessert afterward. Imagine how sick I have to be to turn down dessert. I wasn’t that sick.

They started describing this kind of frozen dessert,

snow-cone-cup

American Sno-Kone

but didn’t know the English name. After a while, I realized they were talking about shaved ice. Now, Americans (49 states anyway) don’t know from shaved ice. We have this thing called a sno-cone, which is small chips of ice covered bright colored sugary artificial flavored syrup. Hawaiians know a little better. They actually shave the ice instead of chipping it, resulting in a fluffy, fresh snow texture. Some of them even use real fruit in the syrups! I also had the chance to eat some Japanese shaved ice last summer in Yokohama.

yokohama ice

Japanese shaved ice

It was really good… compared to the only thing I’d ever known, which was of course the American sno-cone. When I tried to describe these to the Koreans however, they got looks of disbelief mixed with pity. I even showed them some pictures on my phone to get the point across. They smiled a little knowingly at one another and said that Korean shaved ice was really the best.

I’m used to most people thinking their own culture is the best at xyz, so I take it with a grain of salt. But then they started showing me pictures on their phones, and one told me about the seasonal strawberry flavor that had strawberries, whipped cream and cheesecake! WHAT! So, yeah, we’re going to get dessert.

We walked a long way, it might have been faster to take the bus or subway, but it happened to be a warm night while we had an early taste of spring, so I didn’t mind too much. Heck, if not for the lingering cough, it would have been idyllic. Finally, we arrived.

We picked up another teacher on the way, so there were five of us, and  co-teacher 1 offered to treat us all, so she headed up to the counter to order.I can’t even. Just look at it. It’s better than it looks. And it looks amazing, right?

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Korean shaved milk ice

So, instead of shaved water ice, this is made with shaved milk ice. Making it way more creamy than a mere shaved ice. The bowl is filled with this fluffy frozen milk, then topped with fresh berries, cream and a slice of cheesecake! It’s served with a little dish of sweet condensed milk in case it’s not sweet and creamy enough for you. The five of us shared 2 of these monstrous creations. I’m an addict, but I can’t go alone. Even if I did manage to finish a whole one, I’d feel guilty for days.

We had some great conversation too as we learned more and more about each other. I’d answered a lot of questions about myself in class for the students, but not all of them were as … honest? as possible. I mean, I didn’t lie, but when asked my favorite food/video game/tv show/book, I tried to answer things that I really do like, but that would be more familiar to them than my actual favorites. Good thing for me I like Harry Potter and the Avengers. But, at dessert, with just the teachers, we started talking about other things, and it turns out that  co-teacher 1 and I are both avid Whovians. I’m pretty psyched about that.

They’ve sort of decided I’m the font of all things English, which I don’t mind, but they did ask a lot of questions. The music teacher told me a story about how when she was travelling in Japan, she met an Englishman who, dressed in many layers in the warm weather, she figured must have been uncomfortable, so she told him he looked hot. Apparently this caused his face and ears to turn red, much to her surprise. I had to explain the other meaning of the word hot, and a few social context norms as to why this man would be so embarrassed to have a pretty young Korean woman tell him he was hot. This led to a comparison of our favorite stars, and it turns out we had a lot of overlap in our tastes in men too. I really can’t remember the last time I had so much fun with “girl talk”. Or teaching anyone to say “Cumberbatch”.

“Hot” in any language.

Co-teacher 2 seems constantly surprised that I’m not a more stereotypical American. She was surprised that I could read Korean (and wanted to learn more), surprised I could use chopsticks at dinner, and surprised I was comfortable sharing a common dish while eating. I guess those aren’t normal American traits, but it was strange to run across someone with such strongly ingrained stereotypes of us. I tried to reassure her that she wasn’t necessarily wrong, that of course many Americans do live up to those ideas, but that I’d been fortunate enough to have lots of international experiences, and a group of friends at home who are way more comfortable with things like affection between platonic friends and sharing stuff like food, drinks, clothes or whatever.

TO FRIDAY

The rest of the week was me introducing myself to the students class after class, and having lunches with the other teachers, and hanging out after classes finishing our lesson plans or just drinking coffee and sharing snacks. One day, we took off early again to get me registered with the immigration office and start my Korean bank account. It was a lot of walking around down by the waterfront, so I got to see and explore another part of town and the weather was cool and sunny, so it was a good day for it. When we finished our errands, co-teacher 1 and I went over to Starbucks to celebrate and had so much fun sharing stories that we didn’t even realize how much time had passed and she had to run off quickly to pick up her son.

Thursday was an evaluation day for the students. In Korean schools, there are two kinds of teachers/classes: homeroom and subject. In elementary school, the students spend most of their day with the homeroom teacher who covers most things like Korean, Math, Science, PE, etc. The subject teachers are English, Music and Ethics (as far as I can tell). The homeroom teachers actually look down a little on subject teachers, which in turn frustrates the subject teachers who feel like they work just as hard (if not harder) because they have such a narrow focus. Anyway, evaluation day meant that there would be no subject classes, so we had nothing to do and spent the whole morning in one empty classroom, making a huge mess with our combined piles of drinks and snacks. There’s a lot of “desk-warming” time for Guest English Teachers, but it looks like sometimes at least, I’ll get to spend it having fun with the other subject teachers and not just stuck at my desk alone.

Friday is my shortest class day, because we only have 3 classes, and we can finish our planning early. However, there’s no early leaving, so I hung out on my computer until 4:30 playing games and chatting with friends on Facebook. I’m really hoping to start using this time more constructively, like studying my Korean or (as I am doing now) working on this blog. But it was my first week, so I gave myself some permission to slack.

WTF DUDE?

Then, on my way out, the kookiest thing happened to me. I decided to buy a pizza from the local shop on my way home (that’s not the kooky part), but as I was walking toward the shop, a young man approached me to say hello. Now, I’m a little bit used to being a minor celebrity when I’m abroad. Really, unless you’re in a high tourist area, the chances are there aren’t a lot of white folks (or whatever the non-native ethnicity happens to be). Europe was nice, because as long as I kept my mouth shut, no one could spot me out by sight. But in the Middle East and Asia, I kind of stand out with my glowing white skin (this is not a brag, btw, I’d love some melanin to protect me from the sun’s harsh rays, it’s just not in the genes). As such, it does not freak me out when random people come up and get very curious or friendly. I watch out for signs of scams or aggression, but most of the time, it’s really just honest curiosity and a chance to see if that English they learned in school really works.

So, when this guy came up to me to say hello, I was friendly back. I know in a way I represent my country when I’m out, so I try to be a good example. Plus, I’m actually a pretty friendly person and probably talk to strangers more than is strictly good for me. He asked my name, and also my age, but I’d been warned that asking someone’s age at first meeting is normal in Korea because they use age as part of the system of address (how you speak to someone older/younger than you changes). He also introduced himself and his own age. His English was shaky, but I try to be encouraging (I am a teacher, it’s a good habit). I thought that might be the end of it, since the light changed and I could cross the street, but he followed along, continuing to try to communicate. I thought maybe he lived or worked nearby and wanted to be friends, OK. We took a selfie together and I gave him my public Facebook page (not personal), then said goodbye and went into the pizza shop.

Still not the kooky part. So far this has been a pretty normal cultural exchange, and I felt safe and happy. I order my pizza (a sweet potato pizza, which I have been told is a popular Korean variant and a must-try for all visitors, with a “gold” crust, I’ll come back to the pizza later), and am told it will take about 10 minutes to cook. Then the guy spots me through the window and waves me back out into the street.

This is where it gets weird.

He then confesses his love.

And asks if we can be a couple. “Couple” sounds like “cup-oo-roo”, but I know what he’s saying anyway.

A thing you may or may not know, depending on your own gender and nationality, but girls hate having to turn dudes down. It’s awkward and can be scary. Often when a guy is rejected, he can become hostile, insulting us or even attacking us. It’s not a joke, it’s not an overstatement. It happens all the time. I’ve seen the police called on guys in my own regular hangout places because they got hostile that some girl wouldn’t kiss them. I’ve had plenty of dudes call me all manner of unpleasant things. So most of us learn the delicate art of the gentle turn down/de-escalation. This usually involves flattery, humor, and the inevitable presence of another man in the girl’s life. I often had to pretend to be married in the Middle East just to get away from amorous dudes. Not fun. And it’s even harder when you’re facing a language barrier. Plus, this was my first time dealing with this in Korea (every culture is different), and the whole conversation had started as normal.

I was flummoxed, but tried to stay light, smiling at his compliments and saying no, no, I’m too old for you. (10 year age difference). But he kept insisting! “I love you”, “Couple”. He took off my glasses and held them away from me. I’m pretty blind, and while I have extras in my apartment, I don’t like being unable to see well. He was trying to tell me how pretty my face was without glasses, and that I shouldn’t wear them. Which is a line I don’t think I’ve heard since the early 90’s. I like my hipster argyle frames, I own contacts too, but it’s a choice… my choice. I retrieved my glasses and put them back on. I was still trying to keep it light. I’m not really sure if that was the right choice, but I was nervous about making a scene in a neighborhood that my co-teachers had described as a “slum”, and I started thinking back to the lecture on sexual assault that the US Embassy rep had given us at orientation. I didn’t really want to believe this young man was violent, he just seemed desperate, but desperation can be scary too.

This went on for what felt like an eternity, back and forth. He also took my phone at one point and added himself to my private Facebook contact list (I have removed him, now, of course), and tried to get my Kakao Talk and phone numbers as well. He kept touching me, taking off my glasses and stroking my hair and face. And I kept pulling away, and saying no as politely as I could. I never let myself get angry. Looking back, I know that was a learned response to avoid conflict with males at all costs, but that upsets me too, because how the heck am I supposed to say no if a nice no doesn’t work and a firm no is attacked? Ugh. Consent issues.

I finally fled back into the pizza shop, which is how I know it wasn’t actually as long as it felt, because my pizza wasn’t even ready. When I went back out and started heading to the bus stop, he caught up with me again to give me a little can of lemonade he’d clearly just purchased in the shop nearby. I tried to decline, but he tucked it into my bag anyway. In the end, he got a kind of cold fish hug, but took the opportunity to smell my hair. Leaving me totally creepified.

I spent the whole way home looking like a crazy person, muttering to myself and going over and over the experience trying to figure out where it went from normal to nuts and what I could have done differently. Even then, it took talking to three different girl-friends online about it to calm down enough to enjoy my pizza.

THE POTATO PIZZA

Most countries have imported the pizza over time. It doesn’t always look like what we think of pizza as in America. Sometimes the crust is a totally different texture, sometimes the sauce is sweet or spicy, or not made of tomatoes at all. The toppings can be anything, literally. In China, I saw pizza that used mayonnaise instead of cheese because they’d only seen pictures and didn’t know what it was. So, when I came to Korea, and my instructors told us about the sweet potato pizza, I was very curious. I really like sweet potatoes. And pizza. So this seemed like a match made in heaven.

20160311_175843My pizza was cold by the time I got home, but my apartment has a microwave, so that was ok. It turns out that sweet potato pizza is one of the ones without tomato sauce. The box declared proudly that the crust was made from organic flour (kind of surprised that’s a thing here) and Korean rice. There are small diced vegetables like onions, green peppers and roasted corn, as well as some kind of sausage reminiscent of Italian. Then, placed like a crowning jewel on each slice, is a single chunk of roasted sweet potato (or possibly yam), and the whole thing was covered in mozzarella cheese. The “gold” crust turned out to be a satellite rim of mashed sweet potatoes, topped with cheddar cheese that had toasted in the oven. Not really like anything I’d have described as “pizza”, but quite delicious nonetheless.

SATURDAY NIGHT

Finally, on Saturday, a large group of EPIK teachers organized a March Birthday party. It just so happened they chose to meet right in my neighborhood, so even though I was still recovering from the flu, I decided I could go out for an hour or two. We met just outside the subway station to gather everyone from all parts of Busan together, then marched off in seach of our destination. With a group as large as 30-40 people, it can be hard to find a place, but apparently Korea has these kind of “bar cafeteria” things, where you pull up a table (or group of tables), then you walk around the area getting your food and drink from various stands around the large room, a little like fair booths. One booth has the booze, another has grilled meat, another stir fry, etc. When you pick up your goodies, you tell them your table number and they log it into the computer. Then, at the end of the night, you pay for what you got.

When we arrived, the escalators didn’t go all the way up, and there wasn’t any stairwell access, so we had to take the single elevator up in small groups. I ended up being the first one to arrive, and the host asked how many people we would have. I have learned enough Korean to count, so I told him 30. I’m sure he must have thought I was not speaking Korean correctly, because he asked again with some serious disbelief. After all, I was standing there alone. I kept affirming my estimation, and several more hosts were gathered together until they found one who spoke English and he checked the number again. Yep, that many, really. They put together about 10 tables for us and showed me to the area, taught me about our table pager that would track our orders and buzz when food was ready to be picked up, and finally more of the group started to arrive, preventing me from looking like a serious fool.

It was strange but nice seeing familiar faces, even if we’d only met for a week in orientation. We tried so many flavors of soju and tried to find a local beer that wasn’t totally awful. I tried a dish of kimchi fried rice topped with mozzarella cheese which turned out to be MUCH tastier than it sounded, and I even met some new people to connect with on Facebook and here in Busan. Of course, I want to hang out with my new Korean friends too, but it’s nice to know that there are lots of events where I can catch up with expats and stop speaking ESL or broken Korean for a few hours at a time.


That about wraps up my first week of school. As I write this, it’s the one month anniversary of my most recent departure from the US. It’s really hard to believe I’ve already been gone a month, what with Orientation and the Quarantine, the first two weeks were barely real, and this is the first week I’ve started to feel like I’m adapting to my new life here. The good news is, my health is improving and the weather is getting nicer every day. I really like my job, and my co-workers, and my students, so I walk home every day with a silly grin on my face while I try to decide what new delicious food to try for dinner that night. As always, thanks for reading and don’t forget to check out more photos and daily updates on the Facebook page! 🙂