Sunday, January 18, 2009

Catching up blog: Two weeks in Korea

Please be so kind as to overlook tyops and such erroneouses as have been gracious to make. Thank you for kind generous.

Okay, I am going to try to blogar, finally. Just to keep things straight –I left the U.S. on Saturday, January 3 at 9:00 AM and arrived in Seoul on Sunday, January 4 at 3PM.

Today is January 17, 10:00 AM in Korea (15 hours ahead of Austin time)

Old news:

My i-Phone alarm was on silent, so I woke up 10 minutes before we had to leave for the airport. We left on time, but I forgot the really warm down-feather coat Suzanne gave me to bring here. Katherine brought three coats, so I didn’t have to buy something right away.

Korean Airlines are excellent. The impression you first get (or I did) was the perfect grooming of the airline stewardesses, color matching, hair-clip matching, shoes matching, and sweet smiles and lots of bows from all of them. Out in the lobby they had high heels on and on the plane they wore more comfortable shoes, so the heels are only for airport walking.

The flight was fast and relatively easy. Time flew (ha). My introduction (other than Korea House in Austin) to Korean food was on this flight. I had bibim-bap, which is mixed veggies on rice, which you sort of prepare (we had instructions). There is hot sauce that you also add; it comes in a little tube that looks like toothpaste. I watched a couple of movies on this flight: “Vicky Christina Barcelona” with Javier Bardem, Scarlett Johansson, Rebecca Hall (who the heck is that?), and Penelope Cruz, directed by Woody Allen. As far as I am concerned, it’s Woody Allen gone stupid; whatever he was trying to do, he didn’t. The other movie was “Ghost Town” with Rick Gervais (the really funny guy from the British “The Office”). It was good. Rent it. I saw a Mark Twain documentary—interesting.

We arrived in Seoul in the afternoon. I hadn’t slept much on the plane, so by the time we got to the hotel, I was super exhausted. I slept for about two hours and got up later to go to dinner with the UT ESL Services gang: Mike (our boss), Tony (a teacher with lots of experience in Korea), Wanda (teacher with experience in Korea), and Katherine (my co-teacher/colleague here). I had my first meal in Korea that night, but I don’t remember much of it. I think I was still out of it. The next morning Katherine and I went for a walk. Seoul was freezing cold. Katherine is amazing. She remembers places and details and doesn’t get lost! She pays attention. I’ve got to start doing that. I only pay attention to things I’m interested in.

The next morning we had breakfast at the hotel and then headed out for the train station to go to Daegu, sometimes spelled Taegu (see map of Korea).

So, here I am in Daegu at Kyungpook University. We arrived on Monday, January 5th. These first days in Korea were a little stressful—there was a lot to take in, a new place, new people, new unintelligible sounds, new food, and even new work (new in that the setting, the duties, and even the course were new to me). I was worried about not being super prepared for the course I was going to teach, a listening and speaking course, which I had not taught before. That evening we had dinner with our hosts (professors, directors, coordinators of the program). The next day, Tuesday, was placement day. I helped with the oral interviews of the students, which was also “new” for me because I hadn’t done any since my days at The British Council in Tel Aviv! It was a lot, and by Thursday, my second day of classes, I was sick. The newness, the zillion activities, the changes in diet, and probably the jetlag all contributed. On Friday I went to teach feeling pretty lousy, but I survived and by evening I was fine.

Impressions and New Stuff:

I have just completed a full week of teaching. I feel pretty good except for some lingering stomach issues. The students are awesome—their English not so much. I am still trying to figure out the mismatch between Korean studiousness and their level of English. Everyone has an opinion: the test-oriented nature of the educational system, the fact that they are not required to speak in class, the level of their teachers’ English, the differences between Korean and English—it’s probably a little of all of the above.

I’ve started trying to study some Korean online. The only course we could have attended conflicts with our teaching, so it’s us on our own with learning Korean. As far as I can tell, Katherine can get by in survival Korean. This is her third time here, and although she hasn’t formally studied Korean, she is the type of language learner that just jumps in and starts using the language. I can’t do that. I need to understand the parts, the grammar, the logic, the system before even trying to say something. I’m afraid I’ll mispronounce and say something inappropriate—like “Excuse me while I kiss this guy.” I admire Katherine, and it’s kind of cool to be around someone who is such a different language learner from me.

Fun Speaking Activity

Extending a conversation through questions and practicing question intonation was the purpose of the activity. I asked the students to adopt an identity, to research him/her or it (it could be animate or inanimate), and to be ready to answer questions from their peers in class. They were incredible! I had an eraser, a chair, a computer, Diego Maradona, Andrew Wise, Casanova! And many more! The eraser was asked if he didn’t feel abused, and he said, “No, it’s my job. And when I feel the friction I get excited.” Casanova explained that people think that he is just a playboy, but that he isn’t, that he is an artist—a pick-up artist. I wish I had videotaped them. The identities that got the most questions were George W. Bush, Lee Myung-bak, the president of South Korea, and a homeless person. Interesting.


Katherine had told me that Korea was super cheap. It is and it isn’t. Electronics and cars are super expensive, even those produced by Korean companies. Clothes and shoes are expensive, too. Koreans seem to be much more fashion conscious than Americans. There are even matching underwear for couples. Any requests? We went to the market once and downtown another time, so this is what I can say about Korean buying culture based on this vast experience. First, there seem to be as many shops/stores/buying places (booths, stands, etc.) as there are people in the country! It’s like there is a store for every person! I’m not kidding. Zillions of places to buy the same things! How do they stay in business? I think it’s because Koreans buy. It’s that simple, I think. How can Samsung or Kia get away with selling products to Koreans at a higher price than we pay? How can Korean merchants sell Korean and Chinese products sometimes cheaper in the U.S. than in Korea? I think it’s because Koreans will pay more than Americans. One person told me that that it was because Koreans want what they want now, especially electronics. I haven’t figured out the bargaining system here either (which I’m told you can do at the market). My experience is you offer less (and not a lot less); they say no, and it’s over. Are they worried about losing a sale? Probably not—someone else will come along and buy it. Overall, the system must work for them, but I want deals, and I don’t see that many. Vivi, maybe you can ask one of your Korean economics students about all this. And, Steve, Eve’s Korean friend was also right.

The Coat Saga

So, my coat, all this time I had been trying to find a coat. I thought I’d find something reasonable for a reasonable price at the market, Costco, or at place called Home Plus (like Wal-Mart) but I didn’t. The cheapest were knock-off products, often from China, but the quality and the prices didn’t match. In the States you can find a cheap coat at Burlington Coat Factory for $30-$50, and it’s worth $30-50, not $15-$20 like it might be here. I was feeling so bad about using Katherine’s coat for so long that I almost had Maya mail me Suzanne’s coat. In the end I decided that I’d be willing to spend a good sum of money on a good coat, so I decided I’d buy a good Korean wool coat. On Saturday we went downtown to do just that, but I found that “reasonable quality” costs a whole lot…$100, $200, $250, and “really nice” costs in the $300 to $500 range ($1000 for a cashmere coat). (Keep in mind that they specialize in these wool coats.) I found a few coats that were discounted but still pricey (around $100-$150) but like at the cheap end, not worth the money; the cut was not right or the shoulders were off or maybe it was just my body that was off. As far as I could tell, Elsa-fitting coats were over $250. Although I wasn’t finding the perfect coat for the right price, I was getting closer. I figured I’d find it on our next trip. So, we headed home, and wouldn’t you know it, Vivian, I found the Korean thrift stores! I bought a fancy designer black wool coat from Japan (an Izuka Toshio original) for $24. I didn’t bargain. It’s not new, but it’s soft, nice, very warm, and a darn good fit.

Food is cheap in the street and in many restaurants—you can eat gimbap (like a California roll but in one long burrito shape) for less than a dollar. A restaurant meal is can cost between $2.50 (soup) to $6.00—not bad. This is not a good restaurant-eating place for vegetarians, and there is little available cheese, breads, or cream cheese but squid and octopus—all you want!


  1. I'm so glad the coat situation worked out. I'm so glad you finally posted! Now, just post more often. Even if it's just a little story here and there when you get the time.
    Thanks for the warning about the food, it makes me feel a little better about not being able to go with you.
    I miss you so much! Love you!


    P.S.Danny and I want matching underwear!!!

  2. Elsa, I'm really glad you're taking advantage of the blog. Your latest entry made me laugh aloud several times. Hope things are going well.