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Summer Vacation 2014

Oh, boy, did we have an exciting summer vacation. We had so greatly looked forward to it in the hectic and stressful weeks that led up to the end of the semester, and we were not disappointed. We spent some time in Michigan with my family and making the rounds to see various people.

But before that, we had to get into the country. That was an interesting set of minor scenarios. The visas in our passports are expired (being for just the first year of our stay in the country), so every time we travel to or out of Korea on round-trip tickets, we also show our Alien Registration Cards to the attendants so they know that we are indeed qualified to re-enter the country. The ARCs have the updated dates of our permitted stay written in with permanent marker and taped over to prevent smearing. The attendant who checked us into our flight out of Korea saw Ashley’s card and exit date, which checked out. Then she looked at mine.

Uh-oh. The most recent date on mine was not April of next year, but April of this year. Yes, as in three months before the events of this story. But after five or six seconds of panic, I looked and saw that it was clearly a clerical error, as the previous date box also listed an exit date in April 2014. So the attendant called immigration and confirmed that my card should have read 2015. Phew.

Fast forward to going through customs and immigration on the American side of things. Remember how I picked blueberries about a month before the start of my vacation? On my immigration card, I checked that I had visited a farm. Well, hey, it was a blueberry farm. In context, the question seems to be worried about livestock and whatnot, but it asked if I visited a farm and I did. So I checked Yes. Well, that made the immigration officers ask me a few extra questions. I explained what kind of farm I visited and how long ago. Since you only need one card per family, Ashley was also interrogated. She just pointed to me and said, “He went to the blueberry farm. I didn’t.” But then we had one more step, and another man, at the very end of the customs process, asked me if I had brought soil back with me from the farm. I told him no, that in fact it had rained so hard a few days ago my shoes were soaked through and I’d washed them.

So that was the hardest it’s been for me to return to my country, but it still wasn’t that bad. Actually, that was the quickest we’ve ever been through the customs and immigration process. I think they’ve streamlined it. Also, there are more self-process kiosks to speed up all of the preliminary procedures.

Well, anyway, we got out of the airport, where my parents were just in time to pick us up and take us home. The rest of the week was great. First we went to the DMV to get Ashley a Michigan drivers’ license and to renew mine, but after that, it was no work and all play. We went with our nieces to Michigan’s Adventure, an amusement and water park. We also went last year, I may have mentioned, but this year we stayed with our nieces for most of the time. They’re tall enough to go on quite a few rides, so we went on several rides with them. The lines were great, too, so that sometimes, our eldest niece told the ride operator, “We’re going to stay on and go again.” And because there was no one waiting, that was okay! Our nieces had a great time and, so did we.

We also went camping. Not in-tents camping, but we went–Mom, Dad, our nieces, Ashley, and I–to a state park campground just beyond the border in Indiana in my parents’ camping trailer. So what if we weren’t “roughin’ it”? We spent some quality time outdoors, eating fire-cooked food, riding bikes, going on paddle boat rides, and enjoying the outdoors with family. That was probably the most relaxing part of my vacation.

We saw lots of my extended families as well. My aunt and uncle in Texas timed their visit well, so we got to see them for a few days before we carried on over to California. We had a few family gatherings here and there. In one of them, I played tag with all the children, including some of the children of my cousins, whom I barely knew before, so that was good.

Who else did we see? We saw our friend Serenity, and that was lucky. We sent out a message to our friends in town and she replied immediately, saying she was about to leave to go to the airport to visit her father for a week, coming back the night before we would be leaving. We had about an hour to visit her, so we quickly did. A couple of our other friends had a baby while we were gone, so we got to meet her for the first time. Also, Justin makes some pretty darn good kimchi, I’d say!

Our friend Tony wanted to see us, so we went to a Japanese restaurant with him with his girlfriend and had a good time. One the way back into town, he mentioned in passing that a particular apartment complex, which we were passing, was where his brother lived. His brother, André, is another good friend of ours, and one we hadn’t had the chance to see in a few years. So we called him and arranged to see him before we left. That was fortunate. I think it may have been the first time we’ve seen him since we moved to Korea. He was the same hilarious, friendly, autumn-loving André we know and love.

We visited the English Department at the university we attended together to say hello to some of our beloved professors. We actually had to make two trips there because our timing wasn’t so great the first time around. We talked to one professor and then no one else was around. So we returned the following day and spoke with a few more. It was great to see them all and hear their encouragement for us. I really appreciated learning from them, and I continue to appreciate them because they really care about their students, past, present, and future. We haven’t attended their classes in over four years, and I imagine I could add another four or more years onto that and still they would know us just as well as the students who visit them three times a week for classes. I guess that’s one of the perks of attending a smallish school.

Oh, and I nearly forgot. My high school’s ten-year reunion happened to take place while we were in town, so we went to that. Not a lot of people showed up, but it wasn’t bad. I was actually worried I’d forget a lot of my classmates’ names, but it didn’t turn out to be a big problem. One guy was talking to us and I couldn’t remember who he was until someone else came up to him and greeted him by name. “Oh yeah!” I thought. I didn’t feel too bad, though, because we’d actually been having a pretty genuine conversation (I was surprised by my social skills in that instant), and I didn’t know him all that well back then. But I got to catch up with a few friends whose names I did remember, so that was awesome, too.

Anyway, eventually, we had to leave. I felt bad. The night before we left, our nieces said goodbye to us and gave us hugs. Hayden, the middle one, said, “I don’t want you to leave!” over and over again, but she wasn’t too shook up about it. The youngest one, Abby, just said goodnight to us and gave us a hug. She was just a baby when we moved away, so this year was probably the first year she’s really known and liked us. Our eldest niece, however, was several years old when we left, and she understands more of what’s going on. She broke down in tears while she hugged me, and didn’t let me go for probably a good eight to ten minutes. I felt bad.

And then we got to visit Ashley’s family in California for a week. That was great, although it was not at all what we expected. We expected to go to her grandparents, where her aunt, uncle, and two youngest cousins live, and also visit her sister and best friend, doing low-key things. Well, the day before we flew to California, Ashley’s aunt informed her that we’d better keep our schedule clear for the day after our arrival. Ashley’s grandparents, aunt, and uncle bought us park hopper passes for Disneyland and California Adventure (so we could visit both theme parks), and they reserved us a room at the Disneyland Hotel (so we could enjoy Disneyland until it closed at midnight and get some rest afterward)! It was such a delightful gift. Unfortunately, we only saw Ashley’s aunt, uncle, and one of the two cousins for a few hours (they left the next day on their own trip, which was already planned before we announced our upcoming visit). Then it was time to sleep so we could wake up and get an early start for the fun-filled day awaiting us. Ashley’s aunt and cousin enthusiastically drew up a plan for us so we could efficiently enjoy the best parts of the parks, and it really did help. We went on thirteen rides (four within the first hour and a half), saw three and a half shows (we went to the wrong one and walked out before it was over; it was for little children), and enjoyed a few other attractions as well (such as the Innoventions building, which featured all kinds of cool, futuristic stuff, and also had on display some of the suits from the Iron Man movies).

It was great to see Ashley’s family. It had been two years, I believe, since we’d last seen her maternal grandparents. They don’t go out much these daysbut we all went out together one day for a drive to see various places in the area. It was Monday, so a lot of stuff we closed (apparently), but it was nice to drive around and hear their stories about these places. If they weren’t going out with us, they were sending us out. Especially Ashley’s grandfather, who knows his stuff when it comes to good food. His active involvement in the restaurant business gave him great insights in where to suggest we eat. I’ll tell you what: I’ve never had soup as good as that of a place, located just a hop away (not even a skip) from Ashley’s grandparents’ house, called Little Flower Candy Company. We ordered extra food to take home, and we went a second time before we left. If you’re ever in Pasadena, I strongly recommend you try Little Flower if you’re in the mood for soup. Their salads and sandwiches are good, too, but their soup will soothe the broken heart of a stomach that didn’t know why it was broken. (The answer, of course, is that it had never enjoyed Little Flower’s soup.)

Anyway, I’m trying to be brief. I’ve gone on for nearly 1900 words and I’ve yet a few more. We saw Ashley’s younger sister, too, when we went to her local church. We also caught up with the pastor who officiated at our wedding. That evening, we went to an expensive movie theater (I think all movie theaters are expensive, as I grew up near a theater where the most expensive tickets cost $5, and I normally pay $8 or $9 in Korea) to see Guardians of the Galaxy. I’ll tell you something else: That’s my favorite Marvel movie. I don’t care how much action The Avengers has. Guardians of the Galaxy has some of the best film characterization of super heroes I’ve seen (although I can’t discredit the other movies on this; it’s just that I especially loved the characters in Guardians of the Galaxy).

I digress again. The next day, we went with Ashley’s sister to see Ashley’s friend Janelle at Manhattan Beach. Ashley’s godson (Janelle’s son) was there, too. Parking at Manhattan Beach is no joke. I wish it were, but it wasn’t. We spent a great number of minutes searching for a lot with a space, but when we finally found one, a hidden little strip of cars about half a mile from the beach, there were no meters! The sign said FREE ALL DAY PUBLIC PARKING. I entered that one-line parking lot hopeful but without true expectation, and after passing a couple dozen vehicles, there it was: a parking spot with my rental car’s name on it. (Here’s an interesting story. Later, when Janelle had to move her car from the two-hour spot she’d found, we tried to see if there would be something in the free lot where we’d parked. While everyone doubted a space would be available, I confidently said, “There’s one spot open, and it’s the spot three spots to the right of where I parked!” We got into Janelle’s car and drove to that lot. We passed the rental car. I counted one. I counted two. And did I count three? No, because that spot was empty! Okay, maybe I wasn’t so confident in my prediction, but it was still fun to pretend that I’d foreseen it.)

Well, anyway, our vacation came to a close. We got on a plane in Los Angeles, had a layover in Tokyo, had more layover in Tokyo as our plane was delayed in order to remove the luggage of no-show passengers and then to reclaim a spot in the takeoff line, and finally arrived at Incheon International Airport.

At the mall with my family on our last day in Michigan.

At the mall with my family on our last day in Michigan.

Ashley poses with some of the Iron Man suits. (Not the actual suits, I think.)

Ashley poses with some of the Iron Man suits. (Not the actual suits, I think.)

We're not good at selfies.

We’re not good at selfies.

We really enjoyed going on kiddie rides with our nieces.

We really enjoyed going on kiddie rides with our nieces.

In this one, you can see the castle, too.

In this one, you can see the castle, too.

Good times with Ashley's best friend and godson.

Good times with Ashley’s best friend and godson.

Today our school had its first* Drama Day. Now in the winter we always have what they call “Cantabile,” which is an Italian word that doesn’t really mean “Christmas English concert” or “winter English concert,” but that’s what it is for us. That is also a day with drama and/or music, but this Drama Day was something completely separate. It was actually for a class.

Owing to some rather complex circumstances in recent government legislation and our school’s curriculum, we found ourselves short one class hour of the ten hours of English immersion education our school advertises. Each student only had nine forty-minute class periods. Our school’s solution was to add “musical” class. So now the students have the standard English course (mandated by the government and using one of the same textbooks public schools in Korea use), language arts, conversation, and musical. After a few changes, this “musical” class turned out to be more of a “drama club” class. The school planned to have a day toward the end of the semester where parents could come and watch the students perform the plays. (First and second grade just sang songs, though.)

These classes were difficult to teach, and it was a nuisance for pretty much everyone involved. We all learned (and should have known) that directing children in a second language to perform a play in that second language as second-class teachers is a game played with a stacked deck, and we’re not the dealers. Remember, also, that this is the tenth class hour for the students, so we taught this class only once a week. If there was a holiday or a national test day, we went two weeks between classes. Finally, not all of our musical classes coincided with times when there wasn’t physical education classes going on. Some of us could use the gymnasium, and some of us could not. (And if we could, the students equate the gym with running around and having fun.)

Anyway, I don’t want to get too negative, so I’ll carry on. I just wanted to lightly mention some of the difficulties to explain some background.

So we all chose plays at the beginning of the semester and made copies of the scripts for our students to memorize. We spent the rest of the semester (well, until today) trying to get our students to memorize their lines, read the lines correctly, speak loudly, and perform the appropriate actions. Some of the students were excited about it, and some couldn’t care less. And it all culminated in today’s Drama Day.

The high level half of the fourth grade class was one of the classes excited about the program. Especially the girls. Last week a large group of them came to the English teachers’ office and asked me if they could wear 한복 (“hanbok,” or traditional Korean clothing). None of the classes had been given costumes or anything, so most of the plays were largely done with imagination. The play for my fourth grade class took place in an unspecified place in a pre-industrial time, so if all the students wore hanbok**, that would make sense. I asked them, “Does everyone have a hanbok?” They said yes. I thought about it, and I decided that even though I was hesitant, the students were really excited about it. So I agreed and said we’d talk more about it on Thursday, which is the day of the week we have our class on.

Thursday was yesterday. I went to class expecting to do one last run-through of the play and to clear up any last concerns. I found out that some of the students didn’t have any hanbok. Also, one student said, “Teacher, I bought hanbok yesterday.” (Now let me tell you something: These clothes are not like going and buying a T-shirt or even a pair of jeans. It’s possible, although barely, to spend around a hundred dollars for one, but it’s more likely to cost two, three, or even seven hundred dollars.)

One student said she wanted to make hanbok with her mom for the students who didn’t have one (out of paper or something, of course, but nonetheless, this girl is adorable and dedicated; she also took it upon herself to make some props for the play before I’d gotten around to the issue of props!).

Alright, this is where it gets really interesting. A few weeks ago, the school told us that Drama Day wouldn’t be an open-school event anymore, but that the students would just perform for the other grades and the school staff. So I told my students that in my drama classes. “Parents aren’t coming anymore. We’re just showing the play to the school.” We also thought that the Korean homeroom teachers had informed the students of the change. Finally, just a day or two before this, we learned that Drama Day wouldn’t even be for all the school. They wanted to minimize canceled classes, so they made a schedule that involved only parts of the school watching at any given time, so that some grades saw certain plays and other grades saw other plays.

So this is when I mentioned to the students the change. I asked them if they still wanted to go through so much knowing that they wouldn’t be performing for the whole school, but just part of it. In the process of explaining this, the issue of the parents not being invited anymore came up.

As it turns out, I either forgot to mention it to this particular class (I had three of these classes) or they weren’t listening when I told them. I really thought I had told them, though (and I felt less guilty when I learned that a few of the other English teachers hadn’t said anything, expecting the Korean homeroom teachers, who normally make such announcements, had covered that base).

Well, some of my students lost it. I had about five or six severely sorrowful students shedding tears left and right. Other students may not have been crying, and some seemed not to care much, but most were so sad. One girl in particular was so upset she could barely express herself in English, but kept switching to Korean (and her English is pretty darn good). She had stayed up late to make sure she had all her lines perfectly memorized. She was excited for her mom to come and watch her because it was the first time that she had a normal class that put on a performance and not just a competition or school-wide concert. And her mom was excited about it. She (the student) went to a city nearly two hours away on the weekend to borrow a hanbok from her cousin. The other girl bought a hanbok. And the girl who had worked so hard by her own meritable initiative, well, she worked so hard. And of course, there were other students who were so upset because they had expected their parents to attend and now they would have to go home and tell their mom and dad not to go to the school.

It was one of the worst moments I’ve faced in the front of the classroom. The students were so distraught that we didn’t get anything accomplished, and I went to get Teacher Heather so they could have a Korean to talk to in their native language. I felt terrible. I apologized to them in case I really had forgotten to tell them, but they said it wasn’t my fault, as they cried their way out the classroom. I didn’t feel any better.

But when I saw them in the hallway later that day, one of the girls said her teacher was planning to film the plays and post them online for the parents to see, so now everyone was happy again. (Praise the LORD that most children know how to bounce back from disappointment!) Then the students made me a little bit upset by apologizing to me. “What for?” I asked them. “For crying in your class.” Sigh.

So today we had the performances. My low level first grade class sang “Peace Like a River“(not the same version my students sang because I can’t find that one) and “Bingo” (yes that version) very cutely. My high level third grade class performed “Little Half Chicken” pretty well. My high level fourth grade wore their hanbok, had lots of props they made themselves (I’m not really that great of a director), and they did an excellent job performing “Mount Semsi.” I was proud of them and still am.

Some other classes did well, too, and some read their lines straight from their scripts. That included a majority of the sixth grade students. When the sixth grade finished, our principal went to the stage and told them that they didn’t take this day seriously. Some of the third, fourth, and fifth grade classes had memorized all their parts, but most of the sixth grade students hadn’t. So she couldn’t praise them for a job well done, she said. And I was really glad she said that. Not because I want the children to feel bad, but it was good for her to be honest with them so that they will know in the future what’s expected of them, and they’ll know that the principal’s praises are always genuine.

Anyway, we’re all glad that Drama Day is over. It was pretty stressful. I can’t even imagine how the kids felt yesterday.

One more thing. The following is a complete change in topic. It could go in another post but then it’d probably never show up. Yesterday I went to a blueberry field and picked a bunch of blueberries. It was a ton of fun. By the end of it, the stress from the terrible time teaching was gone.

Picking blueberries. Photo by Teacher Heather.

Picking blueberries. Photo by Teacher Heather.

Beautiful blueberries. Also by Teacher Heather.

Beautiful blueberries. Also by Teacher Heather.

I went with our vice-principal, Teacher Heather, and a couple of other people I didn’t know. Ashley didn’t want to go. Mr. Mun (pronounced “Moon”; the vice-principal) decided to speak Korean with me instead of English, so it was a little difficult, but I was surprised by how much I could understand him. Usually when he switches to Korean to make us practice, it’s too difficult. He said I learn Korean well because of my beard. He said in the Bible, Samson had long hair and a long beard, and God made him strong. I was glad he said that because I’ve been letting my beard grow (I bet you wouldn’t find such a thing in an American elementary school) and I’ve wondered what the school administrators think of it. Aside from the occasional student who isn’t used to seeing facial hair on men, no one has asked for me to shave or trim it, though (and I keep it clean and tidy), so I didn’t worry that much. But now I have a sort of indirect approval!

In the car before we went to the field, the vice-principal gave me a piece of 떡 (“ddeok”; Korean rice cake). But then he said, “But don’t eat it now. Don’t be a fool like me, who ate a piece. You have to have room for the blueberries.” When we got to the blueberry farm, Mr. Mun told me that for every ten blueberries I pick (to put in the basket for purchase) I should eat one. Then he said, “But I’m going to eat ten blueberries for every one that I pick.” I felt really good because I understand all of that in Korean (not every word, but I was confident of the content).

I don’t really know how many blueberries I picked or ate, but both were “a lot.” I planned to buy one kilogram of blueberries, but I don’t really have good skills at estimating how much things weight. And it was too much fun. I ended up having two and a half kilograms in my basket. Oh well. Now we have a lot of blueberries in our freezer for our smoothies!

__________

* (and, I hope, last, at least if the preparation for it doesn’t change)

** Korean grammar includes a marker for plural nouns, but it’s usually optional, and the word “hanboks” sounds very strange to me, so I’m leaving it as a strictly Korean word, lack of plural form and all. (한복들 is the plural form, but hanbokdeul wouldn’t make any sense to most readers, now, would it?)

It’s Been a While

It’s been a while. What have we been up to?

Well, for one, we just got back from a field trip with our Sabbath school group to Gunsan. Normally, English Adventure Club ends at 11:30, but today we ended at 3:00. Our school booked an entire train car and we went to Gunsan, about an hour away, to have a picnic at a dam. It was good that, even though our group left some of the seats empty, we had the whole car to ourselves. The students had a lot of fun on the train and they were not afraid to let everyone know it. Train rides are usually quieter than that. I can only imagine what other passengers would have felt if they had been stuck with us. 🙂 Just so you know, I loved hearing all that excitement and screaming. In the classrooms it’s not fun to hear, but I loved spending time with the students on the train and outdoors, with no curriculum to get through.

I really enjoy my job. English teachers in Korea often worry that they’ll be stuck here in a job that isn’t their career, but for the time being, I’m not worried about that. Actually I was just telling Ashley last night that even though this semester has been the hardest semester at our school (for reasons related to scheduling, government interference, student placement, and a few other issues I should not express so publicly), I’m actually having some of the best times of my life overall (praise God). For one, I think God has blessed me with better teaching skills. I still have a long way to go before I become a true super teacher like our friends Linda and Courtney, or like our school’s fifth grade teacher, but I’m getting better and I won’t belittle myself with false modesty on that point. I think one of the keys has been getting to know the students more.

One of the things I dislike most about living in South Korea is being away from my family, especially the people in it who are growing the fastest and therefore have leaps and bounds of growing up done between visits home. By that I mean my nieces, who are growing up so fast. The longer I’m here, the less of them I get to see (I’m glad Skype exists, though, and I should use it more often to see them). I’ve realized, though, that what Jesus said about leaving family and receiving it a hundredfold in this life is true. I miss my family back home, but for now I have such a large family. Everyone at work gets along super great, and the children…I love our students. When I first came to this school, it was a job. I did not know these children and I did what I could for the students because that’s what I’m supposed to do. As time has gone by, however, my care for the students has multiplied, and I’m glad that God has blessed me with the chance to know them and to, I hope, be a positive influence for them. And I think that this is one of the reasons I’m a better teacher now.

Another thing that has made life great despite the hardships of crazy work situations is that God has blessed me with more peace than I’ve had. It took me a long time to realize that I wasn’t always accepting the peace God was trying to give me. Lately, I’ve been feeling that peace more often. A large part of it stems from a simple decision to not dwell on negative thoughts unnecessarily, but to submit them to Christ and choose to think instead of things that are better. So if there’s a problem I have no control over and so thinking about it is a waste of my time, or if I’m annoyed, or if I’m tempted to think some other evil, I have to let Christ deal with it instead while I pray for my family, pray for my students, thank God for my blessings, think about my stories, think about what I’d like to do for my next vacation, or even just look forward to the meal Ashley and I had planned to eat. I’m not some expert at this kind of thinking, but even doing it a little is so much better than dealing with the stress that comes from negative thoughts and feelings.

I mentioned my stories, and that’s something else that has made my life great and for which I can thank God. Early this year I decided to add two things to the list of required daily activities (things that are required every day are, for example, breathing, drinking water, praying, reading the Bible, and telling my wife I love her). I added playing bass guitar and writing short stories. I have missed a few days of playing my bass guitar (when I’m away from home for the weekend, for example, or that day I was sick and simply forgot), but I have not missed a day of writing, even if it was only one sentence (which is the daily minimum; five minutes of playing is the minimum for bass guitar). These hobbies have given me more joy in life, especially the writing. I take this hobby seriously. I want to get better at it. And I find, as I said, that thinking about my writing helps improve my mood.

Finally, my wife and I feel like our marriage has been tightened and strengthened over time, and it was already great to begin with. We can only thank the LORD for that.

That was kind of a big tangent. What else have we been up to? We visited some of the tour sites near the DMZ, which is the four kilometer-wide buffer zone that runs along the border between North Korea and South Korea. (A common misconception is that the DMZ is the border line, while it’s actually a zone that takes two kilometers from each country along the border line to make a buffer where no one can go.) One point along the tour was an observation building that was meters from the DMZ. So at that point, we were a little more than two kilometers away from North Korea. It was only too bad that the sky was hazy that day, so we couldn’t see very far into the country, even with the coin-operated binoculars. One of our friends managed to see a Korean farmer walking home, though!

Probably the coolest part of the tour was going into two of the four tunnels that were discovered a few decades ago. These tunnels were dug from North Korea into South Korea in an apparent attempt to plan an attack on Seoul that never happened. It was cool not only because it was neat to see these tunnels and learn about their importance in Korean history, but also because it was underground and therefore much cooler than the hot air there was outside.

We didn’t go to the most famous sites, such as Panmunjeom, which is probably the only place where you can be within meters from the border, where the guards stand watch from both sides all day, and where some people even cross, technically, onto North Korean property in the rarely-if-ever-used conference room set up along the border for meetings. That tour is more expensive and takes more time than the tour we went with, but that’s okay. It’s also much stricter (wear nicer clothing and no pointing, for example, or you might arouse the suspicions of a North Korean officer). We learned quite a bit about Korean history and the DMZ just from the smaller tour sites we visited, and I’m glad we went. Like I said, the only disappointment was the visibility that day. 

Also, we went to a science museum with our school a couple of weeks ago. This field trip was held at the end of May instead of in late April or early May because of the Sewol ferry sinking. Many people in Korea at that time called for an end of all school field trips forever, but thankfully it didn’t come to that. Most schools simply postponed their trips. We’ve also noticed an increase in safety awareness on field trips. Field trips in Korea are very carefree, but now there are more head counts, more buddy systems, and more double-checking. In addition to the field trip postponements, our school’s sports day competition was postponed. It’s usually on or around May 5 at our school, but now we’re having it in October. May 5 was considered too close to the national tragedy to be having fun and games. It was unfortunate and made a lot of people, students and teachers alike, upset, but it’s done now, so it is what it is, I guess.

And finally, one of the things that stressed us out about work was that, to deal with some of the government-mandated transitional curricula changes, our school had nine hours of English-language classes when it advertises ten in its English immersion program. It decided to fill that tenth hour with “musical class.” At first I thought it meant we were getting ready really early for the English Cantabile (an English program in winter that sort of misuses an Italian word as its title and which sometimes involves the students performing a musical). Then we thought it was just a class period of singing English songs with the students. Then, it turned out, “musical” class is “drama” class, so we all had to pick a short play and have our students practice it for an upcoming event on June 27, in which parents will be invited to watch the twelve performances (two for each of the six grades at our school, since grades are divided into high and low level). There were more changes to this class than I’ve mentioned here. The most recent one was actually a relief: parents will no longer be invited to the event, so Ashley and I, who have more musical classes than any other teacher, at three each (it’s just how the scheduling worked out, I guess), won’t have to look incompetent in front of our students’ parents when they see how poor the plays are. We only have this class one forty-minute class period per week, so there’s not much time to prepare, especially when some days are holidays or classes are canceled for other reasons. Also, directing a play in a language your students aren’t 100% comfortable in is not easy at all. So now only the rest of the students will see the plays and it won’t matter as much if the students didn’t memorize their lines or anything. Our head English teacher was rather upset about the news though. He put a lot of effort into his play and now the parents won’t be watching, so that’s a bit of a bummer.

Those are some of the notable things that have been going on in our lives lately. I’m sure there’s more but I can’t think about it right now. And I don’t want to make this rambling blog post any longer. So here’s the end:

The End

Our New Apartment

Our school gave us a new apartment this year. Actually, it’s an old apartment, old enough that one of the outlets fits the same kind of plugs used in the US and Canada. Apparently, as Brad told me when we were hooking up the washing machine in the utility room, where this particular outlet is located, Korea used to use Type A and B plugs a long time ago. (If you’re curious, they use C and F now, which have two round prongs instead of two flat prongs.)

But it’s new to us, and we like it. It started when Brad said, “Brian, Ashley, can I talk to you for a minute?” We didn’t know what he was going to say. We had just returned from winter vacation to work a few days before this. We all went to an empty classroom, where Brad said, “Because you’re renewing for another year, the school has decided to give you a bigger apartment.” Well, we’ve renewed for another year once before and didn’t get a bigger apartment, so I don’t know the full reason, or why this was chosen as the “reward” or “thank you,” but I’m not complaining.

“It’s a three-bedroom apartment,” Brad added.

What?! We couldn’t believe it. We’d been living in a one-room apartment for nearly two years and suddenly we have a three-bedroom apartment. We were given just over a week to pack up our stuff. In fact, English teachers usually only have to pack up their stuff when they leave Korea or move to a different town. The bed, TV, wardrobes, tables, chairs, dishes, utensils, and other things belong to the school. But we had to move all of that, too, because we’re staying at the same school.

Ashley and I felt bad for the movers. In Korea, movers often use a truck with an elevator ladder to take stuff directly through the large front window. Some movers, I learned, will even pack, move, and unpack for you. But the movers our school hired just had a truck. No elevator ladder. Also, there is no elevator at our new apartment, and our new place is on the sixth floor. One of the two movers was angry when he found out and yelled at the school administrator. He carried some of the stuff down to the truck from our old apartment on the third floor, and then he went home. The other mover, however, was up to the challenge. He needed help with some of it, though. It took four of us to carry the large wardrobe down the stairs. (The administrator, his son, and I helped the remaining mover carry it down.)

Then we went to the new apartment. Our school realized they should have hired a lift truck, so they did, and the mover didn’t have to carry anything up the 85 steps to our door. He loaded it on the platform, the platform operator sent it up, and we unloaded it in the room. It was fast and easy.

The problem was that there was a big pile of stuff in the middle of the living room. The previous tenant was supposed to come get it before we moved in, but I guess he didn’t. Allegedly, he said, “Oh, just store it there.” Sorry, sir, but no. Brad told the mover to take it down the platform and…they either threw it away or held it at the school for the man to claim it. Probably the former, though.

There were a few other problems, but most of them were solved. The light switches and doorknobs that needed repairs were repaired that day. The handy man even replaced a screen we hadn’t realized was broken when we were there the week before taking inventory of what needed to be done. We were supposed to get new floors, but in the end the school opted to put in new flooring for one room. We chose the bedroom, since it was to be our bedroom and the linoleum-like flooring common in Korea was warped and wrinkled in that room.

There are a few downsides to our apartment:

  • It takes about five more minutes to walk to school.
  • It’s on the sixth floor and has no elevator.
  • Not all of the floors were fixed, including one room where the floor was “fixed” by throwing another layer of linoleum on top.
  • The walls surrounding the balcony’s sliding doors/windows is visibly not square around the frame, so the doors have to be locked to get a seal, and one side doesn’t quite seal.
  • The utility room could use painting, but it’s only a cosmetic issue.
  • It’s bigger, so we use a lot more gas.
  • The lock on the door is barely set correctly. The door needs to be closed as tight as possible to lock or unlock it.

However, these downsides are usually mitigated:

  • More exercise getting to school. And five more minutes on top of five minutes is only ten minutes.
  • More exercise going up the stairs.
  • It’s closer to the grocery store and train station.
  • The windows are much better. (They were small and high up in our old apartment; we couldn’t really look outside and they didn’t let much light in.)
  • It may cost more to heat, but it’s so much more comfortable.
  • Despite its inconveniences, the door works.
  • The hot water works more consistently. In our old apartment, the water couldn’t decide whether to give hypothermia or third degree burns for about two minutes, and then the temperature would be stuck around just under lukewarm. Here, we have to wait a minute or so before we can make a reliable adjustment to the temperature, but once it’s set, it will stay like that, as far as we can tell, forever.
  • Three burners on the stove instead of the standard two.
  • A larger area to take off and put on shoes. And a cubby for the shoes, too.
  • Three rooms means we have room for our clothes, rather than having half of them in suitcases under the bed. Also, I have a room for playing my bass guitar and writing (since it’s hard for me to concentrate on reading or writing when around other people or noises).
  • More cupboards in our kitchen.
  • A nice, high view of Gwangcheon, including Oseosan (Mt. Oseo, pronounced “Oh-suh”).
  • Our bedroom isn’t cramped.
  • In fact, no space is cramped.
  • We can both prepare dinner at the same time instead of being in each other’s way in a narrow kitchen.
  • We can invite our friends over.
  • And more.

So this is a great, great place. We’re very thankful for it. When we first moved in, I would get out of bed and enter the living room and be confused. “Why aren’t I bumping into anything?” Sometimes we forget we’re in Korea because an apartment this big is just not common for English teachers in Korea. (For comparison, Brad and I estimated our old apartment, including the “balcony,” at around 300 square feet. I measured and calculated this one, and it’s just over 900. That’s about the size Ashley and I think would be good for our settle-down home. The living room itself is more than 400 square feet.)

Here are some pictures of our new place:

So a lot has happened, and it has made me forget about finishing up the posts on our winter vacation. What has happened? Well, we moved into a new apartment. There will be a post about that after we have everything put in place and whatnot. Also, our school had to change its curriculum because of some politics–both the government kind and the not-government kind. So we had to make a few big changes to our schedules and classes. That should be interesting. Also, four of our friends are leaving this month, in less than two weeks, so we’ve been busy trying to see them as much as possible before they go, the Canadians to Thailand to volunteer and take a special course, and the South Africans to Greece and other countries to work on a farm and do other work-travel stuff. Doesn’t that sound cool?

Anyway, we’ve written about Cambodia and Thailand, so that leaves Malaysia. I’ll just say a few things because I have quite a bit to do today, and I fear if I don’t finish this today you won’t see it ever.

Malaysia Malaysia Malaysia. It is hot in Malaysia. Of course, we were only three degrees north of the equator, so that could explain some of it.

What did we eat in Malaysia? I imagine we ate something that was traditionally Malay at one point, but we ate, for the most part, Indian food. We also ate some Western food because we had tried so many others things already and, sometimes, we just wanted to make a quick decision. Malaysia is a very mixed place. There are Malays, Indians, Chinese, and other ethnicities living there. The nation is Islam but it’s a small majority and several other faiths are practiced freely there. But since the government is Islamic, many chain restaurants cater to Muslims. People eat pork in Malaysia, but Muslims don’t. That’s how we ate at a Pizza Hut that served beef or chicken pepperoni, and how I ate a beef bacon burger at Chili’s.

And we love Indian food. Our most interesting experience was walking over to Little India and trying to find a place to eat. We chose the wrong place. We walked into a place full of Indians. There was a buffet bar type thing and it seemed that everyone had a different style plate. We weren’t sure if it was actually a buffet, though, or a cafeteria-style place, where you load your tray and then pay. Observing was only somewhat helpful. We asked the cashier and she told us, but it was hard to hear over all the noise and I still wasn’t sure. We sat down and ordered fried rice and wondered if we were then supposed to add meat and veggies from the bar ourselves. But the rice was delicious!

Anyway, that awkward and confusing experience is why we ate the next day at comfortable, familiar Chili’s.

It was also fun to eat at the Red Garden Food Court. You go, you sit down, someone asks you if you want anything to drink, and then you go to any of the dozens of food stalls that surround the area and order what you want. And because of the high multiculturalism of Malaysia, there’s plenty to choose from.

Also, prices in Malaysia are amazing. Once, when we had eaten lunch late and Ashley wasn’t hungry enough for supper, I went out alone and just went to a place near the hotel. I walked in and a friendly man showed me how to order. I chose a rice and a topping (a chicken curry) and then, if I wanted, I could choose some fruits from a display case. Whatever fruits I chose would be freshly squeezed into juice. The total was the equivalent of about $4 for my entire, filling meal. I thought I’d be lucky to have the fresh fruit juice alone for that price in the States or Korea.

I have a few words to say about shopping in Malaysia. Boy do they like shopping. They must, because their malls are everywhere, and they are huge. We got off the Monorail while going to see a popular area and the platform went straight into the 3rd or 4th floor of a 6-floor mall. Each floor goes in a square around the open middle, but there are also off-chutes that lead, I think, to a second surrounding square. I wasn’t sure. I was rather confused by the layout (probably from the overwhelming vastness of it all).

What else do I have to say about Malaysia before I talk about how beautiful it is? Well, I might as well mention that. We took a train from Thailand to Malaysia, and from one place to another within Malaysia. Now, Cambodia and Thailand are beautiful countries, but on the train in Malaysia, we constantly saw forests made of palm and coconut trees. I have never seen anything like it. Malaysia is so green, and green is my favorite color. As we rode the train and looked out the window, I wondered at how many hundreds, how many thousands, how many hundreds of thousands of trees we must be passing by. Even in the cities, there is a lot of green.

We took the subway and then walked to the Kuala Lumpur Bird Park in the capital city (Kuala Lumpur), which is the world’s largest free-flight walk-in aviary. Tons of birds and beautiful scenery. We really enjoyed it there, although it rained toward the end of our stay so we hurried it along quicker than we probably would have. It was a light rain, though.

A few other tidbits:

Blind people. We saw a lot of them (a lot of them), even crossing the street together, guided by the one in front and the beeping sound of the crosswalk light. I saw a few signs for massage parlors that advertised “blind masseurs,” so that might have something to do with it.

Buses. I don’t like them as much as buses in Korea. They’re cheap, and you only pay by distance, but I never figured out how to figure out my distance. We just paid the lowest rate, so I hope that was okay.

Taxis. It’s illegal for the taxi driver not to use the meter, but they still don’t use the meter. You have to negotiate your price up front. Fortunately, they are usually reasonable. When we stayed on Penang Island, we stayed in a place that’s still kind of in development, so drivers didn’t know where to take us. However, one driver did. He told us up front it would be 20 ringgit (just a bit over $6 US). His meter started automatically and sure enough, when we arrived at our place, it was 20 ringgit.

Also taxis. Or rather not-taxis. We went to the bus terminal to take a bus back to our area. One man was asking if we needed a taxi and offered to take us for 15 ringgit (a very good price from where we were). We said no. Then we asked when bus 11 was next going and they told us another 30 minutes. So we told the man, “Okay, let’s go.” He led us to the street and we passed a cab. We passed another cab. We approached the last cab and I thought, This is his. We passed that cab and then man opened the door of a very old car. We prayed to the LORD for safety and got in the car. It was difficult for him to find, but eventually he took us to where we wanted to go. Praise the LORD we made it! We think he just saw some foreigners and thought, Hey, I can make a few easy bucks! (Or, you know, ringgit.) He was very friendly.

Friendly people. They’re everywhere in Malaysia. Our first night in Penang we got locked out of the apartment complex we were staying at. One of the security guards there taught us how to open the doors. Apparently the locks are different there. If you lock it by turning the key two full times, you have to unlock it will two full turns, and so on. The man’s name was Muru and he gave me his number in case I needed any other help.

Durian. Durian is a Southeast Asian fruit famous for its taste and infamous for its smell. It was forbidden at the hotel way stayed at in Kuala Lumpur.

Languages. English is common in Malaysia, especially in the cities, although it wasn’t hard to hear several other languages as well. We’re pretty certain we heard more than just Malaysian because sometimes what we heard sounded completely different. I heard one man speaking a language that was so fast, I don’t even know. It sounded like the sounds of that language naturally go well together fast, so it’s possible to speak it faster than English. Or he was just a speed-rapper by night. Maybe that’s it.

Leaving the country. Our flight was at 1 AM, so we went to the airport in the evening and then, after checking in, I asked the man checking boarding passes at security if there was anything to eat beyond security. He said only Dunkin’ Donuts, so we waited to go through security. Outside the airport was a food court and several places to eat. Very interesting. Also, when we were boarding our plane, some officials checked our passports and asked us all a few questions before letting us through. One man pulled me aside after another woman checked my passport and was interested in my last name. “Is it an Israeli name?” he asked. I told him it wasn’t and he asked me a few more polite questions before letting me through. That was strange. I know there are passport controversies when talking about Israel and may Muslim countries, but…I don’t know. We were leaving the country, not entering it, but I guess they are still concerned.

So that’s all for now. Soon I hope to tell you about our new apartment and how that all came to be. I’ll be done taking pictures soon. Then I can write about it.

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Preparing to eat my first Thai curry

Now that we’ve returned to our more-or-less normal lives in Korea, I find myself thinking back lovingly to the gorgeous flavors we’ve left behind. Last week during a short trip to Seoul, we decided to try out a Thai restaurant here in Korea to re-experience the delight. Of course I was a bit disappointed. It fell short of what I’d experienced before.

Anyone who knows me well enough should know that Thai food is my favorite. So, as we crossed the border into Thailand, Brian was stressed about immigration but I was anticipating the deliciousness to come. I had had Thai curries and teas in the United States, but I had not yet had “authentic” Thai food in Thailand. Let me just say that it was everything I expected, and much more flavorful and spicy! I loved it.

We only stayed four days in Thailand so it was a whirlwind tour. We were in Hua Hin, Thailand, and so we were able to visit a few sights near that area. We walked on the beach, rode an elephant, saw a pineapple plantation, watched a reptile show, visited a floating market, did some shopping, and ate food at seaside restaurants. It was fantastic. I only wish we had planned to stay longer so that I could have tried a wider range of Thai dishes! Here is a slideshow of some of our other adventures.

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[Note: I wrote this when I wrote the previous entry, but I didn’t want to overwhelm anyone with too many posts. So I didn’t post it, but then I forgot about it. Sorry.]

On Sunday the 29th, we left Cambodia. We woke up early, packed up all our stuff, ate breakfast, and checked out of the hotel. At 8:00, we boarded a bus to Bangkok. (Actually, it was around 8:30 because the first bus got full, so another bus had to come for the remaining travelers.) The bus made a rest stop halfway to the border, and we bought some pineapple and little pastries. Those treats were the last things we ate in Cambodia.

And then we left Cambodia. We stood for quite a while in a line to reach the departure desk, where officials put exit stamps in our passports. That was not the stressful part.

The stressful part was next: getting into Thailand. Remember how I mentioned that the desk attendant at the airport was concerned about how I would leave Cambodia? Well, I had read online that Thailand also has a similar concern. US citizens (and citizens of many other countries) can receive a visa exemption. That means we don’t need a visa to enter the country, we can just enter, and we’ll have 15-30 days (depending on our nationality) to stay in Thailand. There are some rules, however. We have to have proof of onward travel, and we have to have enough money to support our stay.

Online, most people said that immigration officials, who just want to stamp people in so tourists will spend money in the country, wouldn’t really apply the onward travel rule. It’s more enforced by the airlines, who don’t want to foot the bill for someone who has to be ejected from the country. Still, there was the occasional story of someone being denied access.

What really bugged me about the situation, and seemed to be a big concern on the Internet, was that all the information seemed to conflict with each other, that Thai immigration laws are always changing. One embassy’s site will say that proof of onward travel is any plane, bus, train, or boat ticket. Another embassy will say that only air travel is accepted as proof.

Well, we like trains, and we weren’t planning on flying from Thailand to Malaysia. We had our train tickets so that we’d have proof, in case we were asked, but what if the immigration officials enforced the strange rule of air travel only? (It didn’t seem likely, because we were crossing into Thailand by land, but the possibility of it and the absurdity of the rules stressed me out.)

But it was no trouble. They didn’t even ask for proof of onward travel at all.

And we were now in Thailand. First order of business? Find a bathroom. What we learned was that public toilets in Thailand often carry a fee. We would need 3 baht to use the toilet (or about nine cents). That means we’d need some baht. So I had to find a currency exchange booth (which wasn’t hard).

Next order of business? Wait for the next minibus to Bangkok. Right there near our line was a vendor selling fruit. We bought another bag of pineapple (the woman cut it up for us and included two sticks for spearing the fruit). So one of the last things we ate in Cambodia was pineapple, and the first thing we ate in Thailand was pineapple.

Another minibus finally came and we got in. We thought we’d have to wait for yet one more, because we weren’t near the front of the line, but then one of the people who oversees the loading of passengers saw that we were together and had just one bag. “One bag two people? Come with me.” We got the last two seats on that bus, next to the sliding door and the dense pile of luggage. (So actually, we had the best seats, while the other people sat three or four in a row.)

It was a long ride, about four hours, but we made it safely to Bangkok. Next we’d need a cab to our hotel. We saw a small group of tourists talk to a cab driver, who then drove away without the tourists. I spoke up and asked the man what he said to the cab driver. I already read that you need to make sure cab drivers in Bangkok use the meter, because some will try to quote you a higher price. But I didn’t know what way to say these things, so I asked a fellow traveler.

Armed with this information, I hailed a taxi. He rolled down the window and I asked, “Meter?” He said no, so I walked away. I hailed another cab. He rolled down his window and I asked, “Meter?” He said, “Where to?” I pulled out the hotel voucher and pointed at the address, saying, “Here.” He looked at it, trying to read the English (even though the Thai was just beneath it), then said, “Two hundred baht.” I asked for the meter and again he said no.

So I hailed another cab. This time, he was willing to use the meter. Did it come close to 200 baht? No. Once we reached our destination, the meter read 77 (about $2.33). That is cheap. South Korea’s taxis, by what everyone from America or Ireland or the UK or Australia or any other country says, are cheap, but even their starting price is around what we paid for the full trip.

Even 200 baht is only about $6. Why not just take that offer when we need to get from Point A to Point B? For one, that was more than double the fair price. For two, I’d just read the day before that it’s not only bad for tourists, but it’s also bad for locals. Many Thai citizens in Bangkok have a hard time hailing cabs, especially in touristy areas. The cab drivers know that they can get about 200-300% more by carrying foreigners. So the Thai people (except cab drivers) also want foreigners to get the fair price.

So I felt pretty good after that. We’d successfully stood up for ourselves and weakened the grip, however slightly, of scamming greed in the beautiful Kingdom of Thailand. This pride, of course, would be equally countered the next day in Hua Hin. There are only a few metered taxis in that city. Mostly you travel by a small-bed truck version of a tuk tuk. I read that you should haggle the prices of tuk tuks, starting at about 50% of their offer until you reach an agreement. Well, I think that’s mostly for Bangkok, where transportation is more plentiful. I tried to bargain with a tuk tuk driver, offering 120 instead of the 200 he quoted. He refused. Even when I agreed to 200, he wanted nothing to do with me. So we had to find another driver, and I realized then that, especially with our out-of-the-way location, we were in no position to bargain. We’d take whatever prices we could. (And, with one small exception later in the week, they were fair prices anyway.)

So I got a bit ahead of myself there. I talked about our stay in Thailand beyond Day 9 a bit. But that’s okay. I’m going to break from a strictly chronological method of telling you all about our vacation. Instead of doing that, we’ll more likely write things such as “Food in Thailand,” “The Views of Penang Island,” and so on. It’s kind of boring for me to write our vacation entirely chronologically, and I imagine it wouldn’t be good to read it that way, either. So we’ve finished three weeks of traveling in Southeast Asia, and over the next few weeks we’ll write some things about our experiences there.