Thursday, October 13, 2011

Endless Opportunities to Exercise

Even when I'm not walking up and down the big hill to my apartment, there are so many opportunities to exercise here. From walking to the subway, catching the bus (and hanging on! once you're inside), and exploring the many areas of Seoul, my muscles have been getting a workout. I've been trying to eat healthy to get in shape. Thin is in here and the pressure to be super slim is overwhelming to Koreans here. Several teachers in my school skip breakfast and even lunch (or eat a super light meal) to stay figure perfect. For myself, being healthy is a goal-- not to be super slim.

After a meeting in a middle school the other day, I discovered a really awesome outdoor workout area. It's like an adult playground! I'm loving these outdoor workout centers. Why can't the rest of the world have these? I saw some on my trip to China earlier this year... but what about the other countries?? Seriously, it's a great idea!

Outdoor Workout Park in Seoul, Korea

Friday, October 7, 2011

Phone and Fire in the Night

Woke up to the smell of smoke tonight. I did what people are supposed to do... touch the walls to see if they are warm... I was also thinking about what I should grab if the fire alarm were to start blaring any second. Upon opening my apartment door, I saw a smoky hallway... definite cause for alarm. After talking with another resident, I learned that there had been a fire just outside the window. I saw the firetruck outside just as it began to pull away. I'm so glad they got here when they did. Otherwise, who knows what could have happened!

On a brighter note, I got a phone tonight as well. At least I would have been able to dial 119 if I needed to!

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Weekend in Gyeongju

I spent the weekend in Gyeongju, a coastal city located 370 km (230 miles) southeast of Seoul. I travelled with a group organized through which was great, because the organizer bought the train tickets and booked the accommodation in advance. We took the KTX (Korea Train Express) to Gyeongju, which took just over 2 hours. It could have been 2 and a half... I wasn't really paying attention. The nice thing about travelling in a group is that you always have someone to talk to, making it feel like you're not on a train at all. We sat around the table seats in the train that are found in the center of each train car. So, really, it was like chatting with friends in a cafe or something. Note to discount hunters: these middle table seats are available at a 30 percent discount. However, you do need to buy the seats in groups of four... one of the reasons our group had 12 people in it-- a multiple of 4!

There are many sites to see in and around Gyeongju. Bulguksa Temple and Seokguram Grotto, two of the must sees in the area, are designated as World Heritage Sites by UNESCO. Anapji Pond and the oldest observatory in southeast Asia are also worth seeing. While visiting the Confucian School, our group had the privilege of witnessing a real, traditional Korean wedding. The school does host a wedding festival in the afternoons to showcase Korean weddings. However, one of the Koreans in our group confirmed that the wedding we observed was, in fact, real. I'm glad the wedding party weren't offended by us wedding crashers. I guess it's to be expected when getting married in a public venue that isn't closed to the public.
At Bulguksa Temple in Gyeongju, Korea

A bell you can ring at Seokguram Grotto

Wedding Party at Confucian School in Gyeongju

Stairs at Bulguksa Temple

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Baking Soda and Vinegar

A funky smell has been coming from my apartment's sink lately. Luckily, help wasn't far off (the internet is great). After reading various sites and blogs, one person recommended pouring baking soda down the sink and rinsing it down with vinegar. Easy enough, right? Well... not exactly.

Sure, baking soda is relatively easy to find. The Arm and Hammer trademark is easy to spot. Vinegar, on the other hand, is a challenge. The first store I went to only had baking soda. When I asked the clerk if he had vinegar, he said he didn't know what vinegar is? I began gesturing with my hands: "When baking soda and vinegar come together, they bubble." No luck.

I went to a bigger store and had a look around. I found a large clear bottle. But, when I tilted the bottle, the contents were much too thick. A smaller bottle next to it with the same Korean text, had "Korean corn syrup" below it. Whew! Glad I didn't buy a few litres of corn syrup!

After consulting with my phrasebook, I discovered that vinegar is pronounced sheek-cho. And, to say, "Do you have...?" (or, literally, Is there...?) you say innayo. So, putting the two together I asked the clerk at a bigger store sheek-cho innayo? (object comes before verb in Korean) and was taken to a whole selection of vinegar bottles.

Note to those who seek vinegar: Vinegar comes in smaller bottles here that sort of look like canola oil bottles. And, to make the whole process even more confusing, vinegar can be found among an assortment of oils.

Baking Soda and Vinegar in Korea (Doesn't the vinegar bottle look like oil

I would love to report that the smell is completely gone. It's better but I'll try this a few more times.

**Please let me know if you have a technique that has worked for you.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

High School Classes in Seoul

The Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education (aka SMOE) placed me at a high school in Korea's capital. The teachers are all very nice and the students are respectful for the most part. I read on others' blogs that slippers are to be worn in the school. I learned that this is mostly true for the elementary schools, but high school teachers wear professional shoes (e.g., heels, fancy flats, etc.). Appearance is a big deal and you need to look your best. My school is also in one of the wealthier areas of Seoul, so... dress to impress. Heck, you will see women hiking in high heels! Dressing up for the workplace is not really different from casual wear here.

The room I teach in is equipped with a SmartBoard. One major difference compared to the States or Canada, is the common use of a microphone in the classroom. It does save your voice, but it is one more thing you need to have in your hands.

SMOE requires its English teachers to have 22 hours of classroom teaching at the elementary level, or 18 hours at the high school level. I teach 13 classes of grade 2 students and 5 afterschool classes (2X creative writing, 2X TOEFL and book club). In Korea, grade 2 in high school is equivalent to grade 11 in North America. Although I work in a coed school, I have all girl and all boy classes. Because many students attend hagwons or private schools in the evening, many students are so student that they fall asleep in class... not just in my class, but in others' classes, too. I walked past one teacher's classroom and saw half the class asleep! Not sure how much learning happens subconsciously...

I've included a picture of my classroom and of the lock on the classroom door (it was rather difficult to figure out the first few times).

High School Classroom in Seoul, Korea

Lock on a Korean Classroom Door

Friday, September 23, 2011

Settling in

So, you've seen the new apartment... but not much else! So sorry about that. A lot of things have happened in the meantime. Let's try to get you all caught up!

My apartment and school are very nice. I'm extremely lucky. On my first day, my co-teacher took me out to a gourmet-style Korean lunch. Completely unexpected and wonderful.  Other teachers in the school have taken me around Seoul to look for bedding and phones, and other household items that I can't find around my place.

There was a lot to do in the first few days of reaching my placement school. I had to get a medical check done (around 75 000 won, I think) in order to get my ARC card (Alien Registration Card). Without said card, getting a phone and internet is next to impossible, unless you have a friend/co-teacher to help sign off on a contract. Prepaid phones are available, of course, and cafes with wi-fi are available for the times when you get desperate for contact with friends and family. My school has internet, too, which comes in handy when planning get-togethers with other teachers.

A note on the medical check: Get it done ASAP, as it takes a week to get your results. Then, once you apply for the ARC card, you will have to wait at least 2 weeks. When applying at the Seoul Immigration Office, head up to the 2nd floor (?) before submitting your application and purchase a courier service to have your ARC card delivered when ready. The cost of delivery is only 4000 won, which is worth it when you consider the time and transportation costs (a combination of subway or bus, and taxi) to get to the immigration office. Why not save yourself a trip back... especially with business hours coinciding with school hours. Make sure you get to the immigration office before 6 pm, because that's when the delivery service desk closes. The ARC application area on the main floor was open longer. Get a ticket when you enter to make sure your application gets looked at. Officials will look at your passport, take 2 passport sized pictures (get those done in one of the subway instant photo booths--they're cheaper), school contract and your application. Check their website for the most up-to-date information on applying for the ARC card. It's government stuff... it's going to change from time to time.

Korean-style Gourmet-- look at all of those side dishes!

Thursday, September 8, 2011

My Apartment in Seoul

Okay, time for an update! After leaving the orientation, I was taken to my apartment. Aside from a roach and some caked on food in the microwave, my new home is quite impressive. I have a queen-sized bed, a stove, a fridge, couch, plenty of wardrobe space and even a rice cooker. There's a washer and drying rack too. Did I mention the TV? ... Of course, only 2-3 channels are available in English.

I did have to purchase a comforter and mattress cover. I had brought two sheets with me, as well as a pillow and pillow case. Somehow I assumed I would be given bedding, as most people do. Lesson learned... don't assume. Pack a mattress cover at least... a cheap one can be hard to find. I did eventually find one at E-mart (like a Walmart) for 19 000 won (approx. $19 US). The comforter was 29 800 won (approx. $30 US). Lots of comforters, including Korean style, were 90 000 won (approx. $90 US). It pays to look around for deals.

Tips for the Korean apartment:

1) To get hot water, you must turn the water heater on. However, turn the heater off right after you shower to avoid astronomical bills... I have been warned by the landlord that foreigners often face this issue. So, heater on, shower, heater off!

2) You need to purchase bags for garbage and food waste at your local grocery store. Keep in mind that these bags can only be used in your district, so chances are that you will not be able to share bags with friends (unless they live close to you).  

3) Roach spray is your friend. You may need it when you least expect it. The roach I encountered was small (thank goodness!). I'm glad I have yet to find a Madagascar hissing cockroach in my bathroom or kitchen... or eek, around the bed. So far so good :)

4) The Costcos in Seoul are huge-- several stories tall. Bring a friend to keep your sanity while combating the crowds. If you're missing oatmeal or your big boxes of cereal, Costco is worth a visit.

5) Itaewon (aka the foreigner pitstop) is mega expensive. Don't eat Korean food here unless you're willing to pay an arm and a leg for it. Make your way to Hweywa instead, where university students are able to find plenty of food options that don't burn a hole in your wallet.

Note for people leaving their homes in Korea and landlords: It would be nice to toss the old toilet brushes and sponges before the new tenants move in. Just saying...

My Kitchen in Seoul (no oven)

Bed corner of the apartment

There's a TV in front of my bed.

My bathroom in Seoul (shower head is connected to the sink)

Washing machine and drying rack (a balcony, too, but the doors can be hard to close)

Friday, August 26, 2011

Orientation and the Mystery Can

It was quite a long day with breakfast at 7:30 am and the last class ending at 9 pm. The staples of breakfast, lunch and dinner are rice, some soup and, of course, kimchi. It's taking me awhile to get used to kimchi. Who knows... I might end up craving it someday!

Today I had my first official day of orientation. We  discussed classroom management strategies and learned about Korean etiquette and culture. The speaker used an iceberg analogy to describe Korean culture, because much of the culture is "invisible" to outsiders. He emphasized the group mentality of Korea and that a way in to a group often requires an invitation from a group member. This insight will no doubt be helpful in establishing relationships in the school. I have two more days to go before I see my school for the first time... and my apartment. Definitely excited to find out where I'll be placed.

Time for "Guess the Can"...
So, beside the telephone is a rather innocent-looking spray can. I say, innocent, well, because it's the only can in the room. Okay, the red top may be a warning of sorts.

The Mystery Can

When I arrived yesterday, I really didn't think too much of the can. I thought it was a stain remover for your clothes or something. But, I learned today that it is, in fact, cockroach spray. I haven't seen any of those buggers yet, so hopefully that means this stuff really works. I'll keep this picture as a reference for dealing with moving things in the night.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Made it to Korea

After a frantic night of packing... yes, trying to fit a year supply of clothes into two check-in pieces of luggage and two pieces of carry on was by no means easy... I made it onto the plane and am now in Seoul, Korea.

Interesting Tidbits...
 My flight to Incheon departed from gate 52D in Vancouver. I found gate 52, which at the time was 52C but was informed that it magically turns into 52D with the next flight. Who knew? I guess there was a reason the "international" sign ended there and the sign for "US Flights" started.

How was the flight?
The first flight was great. The second was interesting. Let's just say I was surrounded by approx. 50 grade four, five, six Korean students who were returning from a summer camp in Vancouver. You can imagine the chaos with all of the kids before departure. Luckily, things settled down, and I got to chat with one of the grade six students. She attended the English immersion camp with very little English, only one course prior to going. Her fluency was amazing! The two boys sitting beyond me, however, loved to leave their seats and grab the top of my seat. Annoying.

Here are two shots from the drive away from Incheon Airport:

Incheon Airport Bridge over the sea  

The bridge leading away from Incheon Airport only had a few cars. And, according to the taxi driver, this is one of the longest bridges in South Korea, measuring an impressive 15 km! We later drove through a through a mountain via a super long tunnel (by mistake) and drove back through it :) I've never seen a tunnel like that anywhere before. Unfortunately, I didn't take a picture of it.

A city between Incheon and Seoul

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Oh, What to Bring...

The question of what to bring is still on my mind. You read things on posts that say you should bring a year supply of deodorant with you, for it is not only expensive, but hard to find in Korea. I've also heard that if you have a favorite brand of something, you should bring that, too. Lovely, but I still need to pack for 4 seasons. Sure in Canada we get all sorts of weather-- sun, snow, rain, hail, etc.-- but it's different when you're bringing all of this stuff with you. I think I'll end up bringing what I manage to squeeze into two pieces of luggage and some carry-on.

Been busy with appointments and spending money at said appointments. Dentists and eye doctors were never cheap! Appointments-- check. Packing, however, is still on my lengthy To-Do list, as are phoning the credit card company and bank, dealing with insurance, and quite a few other things.

Here are some highlights from my adventures in the Rocky Mountains this weekend:

Hiking Trail in Kananaskis Country

Lambs! Bighorn Sheep babies
Mother Moose
Mountain Frog or Toad: The first one I've ever seen in the Rockies

A day of hiking ended with one of the interpretative programs in Kananaskis Country. The show was called, "GRRR-EASE," a musical show about bears. And, you guessed it-- bear songs to the tunes from the movie Grease with John Travolta. I love going to these shows, as you feel like you're a tourist when you're sitting with your fellow campers. Overall, the hike and show were great (minus the mosquitoes).

"GRRR-EASE"-- An educational musical about bears

Scenic panorama with big, fluffy clouds

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Plane ticket... check!

Okay, just booked my flight into Seoul. With a visa and a plane ticket, the adventure ahead is starting to really sink in. Almost 30 days to lift off!

Monday, July 18, 2011

It's Finally Here!

After what has been a long process ...drumroll...the visa has finally arrived!!! With this E-2 visa, I'll be able to remain in Korea for 13 months. This is great, since the orientation (still no date set...) will extend my stay to just over a year. However, there is a slight complication. The visa is for a single entry into the country. I still need to figure out if there is a way to re-enter the country if I do some exploring in nearby countries... say Cambodia or Thailand or Vietnam or Japan or... well, you get the point. It would be weird to stay in the same country for a year, knowing that the only reason you were doing so was because you couldn't get back in if you were to leave.

Correction: I just found out I need to arrive on August 25th... which means I will be in Korea for exactly one year.

Monday, July 11, 2011

A Royal Stampede

On my quest to embrace all that is Canadian before I depart for Korea, I decided to spend some quality time at the Calgary Stampede. For those of you who aren't familiar with the Stampede-- it's the Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth. Okay, I'm a bit biased being from Calgary, but I do love this outdoor festival. I actually missed it the last two years because I was away travelling. Some highlights so far include watching the annual parade and sighting the Royal couple.

The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge rode through the Calgary Stampede Parade on Friday, July 8, 2011. Will and Kate were sitting in one of the dark vehicles rolling by with windows rolled down just about halfway. However, because of all of the vehicles, it wasn't until their vehicle passed me that I figured out which vehicle they were in. It didn't help that the motorcade went by pretty quickly... approx. 30 km/h for a parade! Needless-to-say, I was disappointed. I stayed to watch a bit of the parade before heading back to the train. Here are some captured moments. Enjoy :)

Calgary Stampede Parade: Cowboy hats are for everyone

A herald announces, "The British are coming!"

After making my way back to the C-train (local city train), I past the Hyatt Hotel. I couldn't believe the large number of people congregating outside. I thought--that's funny--there's no parade here... It took me a few seconds to clue in. I peered between the hedges in front of the hotel. And, there it was: the Royal transport-- flag and all! I waited outside, with many others, camera in hand. Over an hour later, I snapped this photo between the hedges.

Will and Kate leaving the Hyatt Hotel in Calgary, Alberta, Canada.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Mini Get Together

This evening I got together with three other teachers who will be travelling to Korea with the same program as me. My trip with SMOE is being organized through the school board I was subbing with this year. I've gone to several meetings prior to this get together, but didn't really know anyone. When you're about to embark on a year adventure overseas, I reckon it's a good idea to know at least a few faces before I depart. The hardest part was remembering people's faces. It can be quite awkward to walk up to random tables to see if you recognize anyone. Thankfully, I eventually found the group, and we had a delicious dinner together.

I realize a meetup like this isn't a possibility for everybody; however, with the internet, you can arrange some meetups in Korea before leaving your current location. For instance, I've heard is a great site to find clubs and activities to help you meet new people-- including locals, expats, and some tourists. The service is free to use for most clubs, but there is a small startup fee if you want to start a group/club of your own. I've seen marathon clubs, art clubs, language clubs, and more. So, no more excuses not to keep up with another language you've been "trying" to learn. Practicing with expats from different countries could be just the thing to get you back on track. Best thing: many cities around the world are listed on this site. Which means... year abroad or just a short visit across the pond or to the country next door could mean really getting to know local cultures and customs. I'll let you guys know how this site works for me when I get a chance to try it out. I'm quite excited to test it out!

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Road to a Visa

So I checked. The visa application has arrived at the Korean consulate in Vancouver. Now to see what happens... I can't buy my plane ticket until I've got the visa...

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Canada Day Long Weekend

Driving to Vancouver this weekend made me realize how lucky I am to be living in Canada. The mountains were absolutely breathtaking. Perhaps it's the way the light hits them at sunset and sunrise, or perhaps its just their majesty, but driving through them was truly awe-inspiring. It's easy to forget what the other parts of Canada are like when you remain in the same city doing the same job. It's so easy to take the rest of Canada for granted.

I know Korea will be a life-changing experience. The culture and food and customs will all be very different, but the coming year will give me an opportunity to live another lifestyle. It is my hope that my year in Korea will help me more fully appreciate what the world has to offer. But for now... I'm just going to enjoy Canada :)

Canada Day: Person waving Canadian flag in red Beetle

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

In the Mail

The Canada Post strike is over. Actually, it ended yesterday. Thank goodness! It's lovely to finally get mail again... even if that means getting bills in the mail, too.

Anyways, I collected all of the documents I need for my visa application, so I sent everything off today with XpressPost. *Fingers crossed* there aren't any problems with my application. Let's see how long it will take for my passport to return. See you soon, Passport!

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The Contract is Back

I got my contract back today :) Now the visa process can begin…

On June 10th, I sent 3 signed copies of the contract, 1 signed 9-part addenda, 2-35mmx45mm passport photos, 1 official copy of my transcripts (sealed), a notarized copy of my police check and a notarized copy of my education degree.  Luckily, these were sent off right before Canada Post went on strike and thankfully left the country before the strike started. Otherwise, who knows what would have happened… At least my passport wasn’t with this initial batch!

FedEx delivered 2 of the contracts (stamped) today. Note: the SMOE office keeps one contract for its own records. One contract will be for me to hang on to while teaching, the other will get submitted to the Korean consulate for me to apply for a E-2 visa which I will need to teach in Korea. I also received a Notice of Appointment which is to be submitted with my visa application.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Applying to SMOE

Once I decided that I wanted to teach in Korea, the next few steps were pretty easy. I filled out the application form on the SMOE** (Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education) website and wrote a short essay on why I wanted to work in Korea. Then, I sent in my application form and an updated resume. I was contacted shortly after by head office and was given a short phone interview. Basically, the people at SMOE want to make sure that applicants understand what is expected of them during the program and what the program can offer them.

For instance, I was told that I would be teaching 40 students and a winter/summer English camp for students during the holidays. However, I will always be teaching with a Korean teacher, as foreign teachers are not allowed to teach in the classroom by themselves according to Korean law.

What about the perks? I will get 21 days vacation days (most likely 5 to be taken in the winter and 16 in the summer).  Each teacher will be provided with an apartment and a small settling-in allowance. I will have to purchase my plane ticket myself, but will get reimbursed most of the cost on my first payday.  Whether or not the amount given will cover my entire plane ticket will depend on the price of the plane ticket. More on that later…

As a side note, if I end the contract within the first six months, I will need to repay my flight and settling-in allowance. If I finish my contract, I will be given money to help pay for my trip back home, an equivalent amount to my arrival flight. My contract will be a year long, but I will need to attend an orientation session which will be unpaid.

One problem I’m having right now is that I cannot book my plane ticket yet, as I am still unsure when my orientation is going to be, nor do I know how many days it will be. It could be just a few days or up to 10 days. I’ll keep you posted.

**The SMOE program is also known as ETIS (English Teachers in Seoul), but not to be confused with EPIK (English Program in Korea) which places teachers outside of Seoul.

Interested in Korea?

If you would like to teach in Korea, too, you have some decisions to make. Aside from where in Korea you would like to teach and when you want to leave on your teaching adventure, deciding between hagwons (private schools) and public schools is a big first step.

From what I have heard from others who have gone to teach in South Korea, there are advantages and disadvantages to each type of school. Hagwons usually have much smaller class sizes than public schools. Think 15 students versus 40. Hagwons may also have only evening classes, so you will want to know what you are getting yourself into. The way a hagwon is run depends on the owner, so you may have a joyous time abroad or want to go home as soon as you set foot in the place. Stories abound of teachers who have not been paid or of owners who treat their employees very poorly. My advice: Do your research of a hagwon before signing any contracts.

I decided to go the public school route. Yes, there are more students and the pay might be slightly less than a hagwon; however, my contract is through the government which reassures me that I will get paid with regulated hours. The agency I will be working for is called SMOE (Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education). It places teachers in public schools throughout Seoul.

A similar agency, EPIK (English Program in Korea), places English teachers in Busan, South Korea.

Other government-sponsored English teaching opportunities:

Countdown to South Korea

At the end of August, I will be heading to South Korea to teach English. This will be the longest I have ever spent away from home. Once I arrive, my goal is to write at least one posting each week. Check back often for blog updates. I'm looking forward to sharing my teaching adventure with you :)