Saturday, 31 October 2009

Picking Cheongsong’s (Andeok’s) FAMOUS Apples

I wanted to bite into one…just one. I could just shine it on my shirt, and take a bite


This weekend was the big one. Aunt Kimchi was having her fall apple harvest, and she had already started picking apples yesterday. Her friends and family had come from Pohang City and Daegu City (over an hour’s drive away) just to help her and her son harvest all of their hard work.

Cheongsong’s apples (including Andeok’s) aren’t just famous in Cheongsong, but they’re famous ALL OVER Korea. Apple farmers take pride knowing that their apples are the BEST in the entire country.

We had waited for this moment for weeks now. Not just the arrival of Corey and Ilana (the Andong English Teachers), but getting down and dirty with those apple trees.

At 11:30am this morning, Corey and Ilana arrived on the bus from Andong. After giving them a nice tour of the town (it didn’t take very long…we basically showed them the one main road and Andeok Middle-High School), we ate some homey grilled cheese sandwiches with ketchup, barbecue sauce, and Sriracha chili sauce (from Andeok?...of course not…we purchased these sauces about an hour away from Andeok). We filled our tummies with our wholesome lunch and headed off towards Aunt Kimchi’s orchard. We could tell that our landlord, Aunt Kimchi, was the apple queen in this area of the Cheongsong region. Her trees had about 3-4 baskets worth of apples in each, tripling or quadrupling the number of apples compared to the 1 basket worth of apples from neighbouring orchards.

A group of warm friendly smiles greeted us as we made our way passed the entrance. Aunt Kimchi gave us a quick snack of delicious apples and Korean honey pears, and taught us the technique to picking the apples properly. In order to have a good apple with the stem still attached, she said, “Grab and flick.” We were to grab hold of the apples, flick our wrists gently in an upwards motion, and make sure that the stem was still intact with the top of the apple. Then we were to place the apple gently in the basket to ensure that there was no bruising possible. Then she tossed us our grey, rainbow-speckled work gloves. Time for the hard labour to begin.

We were first given 1/4 of the orchard to start with…it was a lot of trees (thank-goodness we didn’t have to pick the ones at the very top…they had a ladder for those). She must’ve trusted us a lot (…however she did place us pretty far away from the other workers…hmm…). We were naturals. Pros. Aunt Kimchi and her family were quite impressed with how many apples we had picked, and how we were plowing through the responsibility given to us. Let’s just forget all of our “Oops” as each of us would drop an apple and scold one another afterwards. It was a danger zone with apples hidden under rows and rows of laid-out garbage bags, and rotting, dirty pools of water, soaking through our shoes. Corey and Ken would carry 2-3 baskets of apples at one time, clearly trying to impress the old ajummas who were sorting and snipping the apples we were bringing them. The huge pile in front of them held thousands of apples, all picked by us and the workers in just one day.

As a break, Aunt Kimchi’s sister surprised us with ramyun (or ramen) noodles. She then served out sweet potato ddeok (rice cakes), yams, spiced cinnamon ginseng juice, and some apples. It was hard to resist with everyone looking upon us as we ate (clearly, they were impressed with our insensitivity to the spicy ramyun). They also poked fun at the scrapes on Ken’s forehead (a large protruding branch from one of the tree trunks got Ken right in the noggin…he was even bleeding a little). All of the workers ate, had their juice, and were ready to continue on.

There were some very old ajummas who were picking apples and wow, they were pros. They were carrying the baskets of apples against their chests instead of leaving them on the ground, and carried them still as they were reaching their full capacity.

At 5:30pm, Corey, Ilana, Ken and I retired. Although we made a difference to Aunt Kimchi’s orchard, it was nothing compared to the work everyone else did the day before and for the following two days. The remaining apples would have to go through a careful selection process. They would have to be picked, inspected, have their stems snipped, and be kept in a huge pile for a day or two (to keep reddening, getting an even more vibrant colour). Then they would be further sorted by quality, colour, and size (some to be sold as fresh apples, and others to be pressed into apple cider). Futhermore, the apples would have to be lugged over to the massive fridge (large enough to keep several farms’ apples), to be stored for up to five months. During that time, certain ones would be transported all over Korea (thus, Cheongsong’s fame and glory) and others would be pressed into packets of warm pure apple cider, unspiced, unsugared, but perfectly sweet,

Aunt Kimchi couldn’t let us leave without compensation for the work we did. As much as we tried to shake it off, she was persistent. She is the apple queen, after all. What did she give us? Apples, obviously. Two, just-picked-today-or-yesterday bushels of apples, ready to be pushed in our dinky little fridge.

We immediately had to cook down a bushel of apples. Our fridge just couldn’t handle 80 apples, unless Ken and I had planned to eat apples everyday for the next month (we actually another bushel’s worth of apples already in the fridge from my students in Andeok and Hyeonseo). So, with vanilla, cinnamon, and brown sugar at hand, the apples were diced to oblivion, and spiced to perfection so that they could fit into our fridge. Ten to twelve apples could be brought down to a saucy one litre of sweet goodness, just by cooking them.

What a great day. We got to experience our first apple harvest and dove into the heart Cheongsong’s ever-so-famous apples.

- Jess

Andeok Harvest

Thursday, 29 October 2009

Swine Scare...

Today I was sent home early from my hagwon (Korean private school) in Hyeondong. I taught all of my classes, and afterwards, instead of staying and working at the school, he made me leave early so that I wouldn’t catch the “seasonal flu” that many of the students had caught.


(Earlier that day…)

My first class (Middle School Grade 2)…

The students entered the classroom…every student was wearing a green disposable nose-mouth guard or a cutesy cloth mask (they’re sold everywhere, printed on them heart patterns, teddy bears, etc.). It looked like I was at a clinic. The students looked almost indistinguishable from each other with their adorably small heads and masks entirely covering their innocent faces.

Every subsequent class held the same scene.

So, Mr. Yu sent me home early…after I was exposed to all of the Hyeondong students.

He said that twelve students were already sent home on the chance that they might have caught the H1N1 influenza. “Unconfirmed,” he said. “They might have the swine flu, or the seasonal flu. Most of the students you see here in class have the seasonal flu, as do I.”

Oh great. Does that mean I have it now, too?

- Jess

Monday, 26 October 2009

Our Troublesome Boiler

It was freezing last night. It was so cold that even Ken, our natural space heater, was shivering from time to time.

Our original problem with our heating system was that there were in fact, two boilers – a new electric one and an old wood-burning one. Since we had two boilers, we were using double the kerosene (which cost $200/canister…and one canister would last about a month).

Our second problem came about when we started to heat our floors (through a network of water-filled pipes underneath them), which caused us to wait about forty-five minutes to an hour for the shower water to heat up in the morning. The cause of this problem was unknown, even by our landlord.

Our third problem came about when we unplugged the wood boiler (to get hot water faster for morning showers). However, our floors stopped heating, and we had no idea what we could do but plug in the old wood boiler again.

Our fourth problem came about when our lovely friends Corey and Ilana (the Andong English Teachers) visited Andeok. I told our landlord’s son that they were staying and that we needed to heat the floor of the second bedroom. I could’ve just opened up the valve to that room, but he quickly entered the boiler room, pressed buttons, tweaked knobs, and we couldn’t warm our floors for over four days! The temperature went below five degrees Celsius, and we had to use an electric blanket the Andeok teachers lent us one night.

We’ve had several people check out our boilers: my co-teacher (Young-hee), the Andeok Computer Technician, our landlord, our landlord’s son, a repairman from the town, and a repairman from the new boiler’s company.

We’re going to freeze in here…

- Jess

Friday, 23 October 2009

You’re Younger Than You Look

In Korea, you’re one-year old as soon as you’re born, but Koreans always want you to say that they’re ten years younger than they look (well, it is flattering, most of the time). Then I’d have to tell them that they look like teenagers because they tend to look years younger, anyways. It’s always difficult to tell how old Koreans are because they age pretty gracefully.

Today, during my morning at Hyeonseo School, two of the teachers I teach (Mrs. Seo – the Korean Language teacher, and Mrs. Na – the computer technician) came over to my desk, and like little schoolgirls, they started to ask me to guess the ages of the male teachers. She pointed at Mr. Lee, the teacher across from my desk. “Thirty-five?” I responded. Both of them laughed.

“I am forty years old,” Mrs. Na said to me. “Compare his age to mine.”

“Forty-one?” I hesitated. They both laughed again.

“He’s forty-six years old,” she answered. Then she made me guess the age of the male mathematics teacher.

“Look at his pink, sparkly tie, and his skin. How old is he?” asked Mrs Seo.

“Okay…” I said, “…thirty-eight?”

“He’s also forty-six years old, He is trying to hide it with his tie,” Mrs. Seo replied. They both giggled again.

They both told the male teachers what I had guessed, and now, every time I look over at the two male teachers, they blush.

- Jess

Wednesday, 21 October 2009

Principal on Deck

It was another busy morning at Andeok Middle-High School. Most of the teachers were working away on their computers or at their desks. Little did they notice the Principal suddenly materialize into the Teacher’s Lounge. It sounded like he was giving orders to the Vice Principal across the room. Young-hee translated his words for me:

“Why are some of the teachers late? I thought I told you to record their arrival times. Report the latecomers to me. Make sure the teachers are in their homeroom fifteen minutes before the class starts to get their students under control…and the school is dirty. Have the students clean the inside of the school and out. I also want all of the leaves cleared from the yard.

So, the Vice Principal apologetically announced the Principal’s wishes to all of the teachers, and everyone busily gathered their papers and materials together, preparing for an early start to each of their morning classes 


The Principal’s entrances are always mystifying…it’s like he appears out of thin air. His presence is terrifying… You can’t tell if he’s just observing you or critiquing you. His departure is a relief…you don’t have to keep a lookout over your shoulder.

One of the high school teachers couldn’t make it to even one of my teachers’ classes, because she had spent the entire morning cleaning and raking the autumn leaves in the front and back yards of the school. In this cold temperature, she told me during lunch that she and her students were freezing like popsicles outside.

Towards the end of the day, the Principal, once again, returned to the Teacher’s Lounge. He carefully inspected the items on everyone’s desks, and snacked on whatever food or drink was left exposed on them. With his final comment, “Young-hee, why is that computer turned on? There’s no one sitting there.”

“She’s teaching at this time, sir.”

“Is it the desk of one of the teachers who was late this morning?”

I didn’t want to get involved somehow, so I left, out the door, quickly relieving myself from the tornado that was the Principal.

- Jess

Gucheon Middle School

Sunday, 18 October 2009

EPIK In-Service Training, TEMF Hotel and Our Weekend in Gyeongju City

It was a reunion for all of the EPIK teachers and for many, it was the perfect opportunity to share lesson plans, lesson ideas, their newfound experiences and the numerous comments (both praising and negative) that they all had about their Korean co-teachers.

It was saddening to hear that some native English teachers couldn’t bear to be at the schools chosen for them, and it was even further disheartening hearing that some had such a horrible relationship with their Korean co-teachers. I guess Ken and I lucked-out, big-time. Our co-teachers were humble angels, and we both couldn’t have had a better teaching situation thrown at us.

What was fantastic about this conference was that the representatives from the Gyeongbuk Province of Education (Gyeongbuk POE) were able to hear the comments and complaints from both the native English teachers and Korean co-teachers (separately, of course). Possible solutions were also drawn up from all of the teachers alike.


The accommodations that were provided for all of us 300 English and Korean teachers were absolutely spectacular. We were set up in a beautiful hotel (dedicated towards hosting educational conferences) and it was mind-blowing. Gyeongju is a beautiful city, and Ken and I had a breathtaking view from our room: the famous man-made, crystal-clear lake, the city’s towering roller coaster theme park, and the outstanding expo structures that were all around the city. I felt privileged to be treated to one night at such a well-established hotel. The two-day conference was well worth our time (not just because of the buffet lunch and dinner), and I hope that they’ll host another one in the near future.


We were in Gyeongju. It was one of the most recommended cities to visit in Korea. With its unforgettable history in the Silla Dynasty and its beautiful garden city-like landscape, we couldn’t just leave after only one night. We had to stay for the weekend.

Thank-goodness Corey and Illana (once again, the two bestest teachers in the world!) decided to stay in Gyeongju as well, which led to double-biking around the man-made lake, paddle-boating in a lily-white swan, a bus tour of all of the major sightseeing areas in Gyeongju, and finally a chilly outdoor concert in the black inky night, filled with tons of traditional dance and music (no tempting, mouth-watering, tantalizing octopus this time!).

On our first real day in Gyeongju, Corey, Illana, Ken, and I decided to go double-seated biking around the man-made lake (the ATVs caught the boys’ attention, but the double-seated bikes won out in the end…yeah girl power!). The first place we went to was right around the corner from the hotel, and as pushy as the lady was, we decided not to rent bikes from her. Plus, Ken must’ve been put off by the baseball-sized, black dinosaur poop that he his shoe smushed. All of us didn’t know that it was mutated dog feces until the ajumma yelled, “Eee…dohng!” (“Eww…poo!) in Korean, of course.

We walked closer and closer to the lake, until we reached a tourist area filled with small, desolate family restaurants, convenience stores, and a number of bike- and ATV-rental shops. An ajushee pulled us in with his bright and cheery smile, and “I give you good price!” He actually gave us a good price. 6,000 won per double-seated bicycle for an hour-and-a-half. Ken picked out a red-hot double-bike, and Corey’s was slick in silver and chrome-red. They tested their bikes out for their ladies (it almost looked like they were trying to escape from us…) and we were off. Aside from the bruises I got from my knees constantly hitting my handlebars (Ken was peddling so fast…which meant I was peddling fast too…), the scenic ride was quite energizing and enjoyable (especially when I would rest my feet up on the metal bar…it made for some smoother video shots…well, not really). We probably weren’t supposed to go off-trail, but the walking paths just didn’t’ seem to line up.

Just when we were at the highest point around the top of the mountain, and the furthest point we could get from the bike-rental, Ken and I looked back to see Corey and Ilana disappearing into the distance. They were stalled right on the empty crimson-brown sidewalk.

Turns out the rusty chain handling their back wheel snapped, making the bike almost unable to be ridden…almost. With Ilana comfortably sitting on the back seat, Corey powerfully scootered the bike relatively quickly, all the way back to the bike-rental shop, with Ken and I following closely behind.


After returning our one-and-a-half bikes, we watched the radiant scarlet sunset from the side of the lake, with a three-manned band, playing traditional “Tibetan” music. It was beautiful to drown in the music while the sun set, but unfortunately, I don’t think popular 80’s American hits (with bells and chimes played during the songs) exactly captured Tibet’s culture.

Next, we decided upon the swan paddleboat. With the temperature dipping below my comfort level (my fingers were already purple), we set off on the water, the boys with their frosty Hite beer, and Illana and I shivering frostily inside our lifejackets. The sounds of only the cool water gently sweeping passed our boat and the light paddling underneath it, were enough to keep us appreciative and loving of this beautiful area.

Soon, we were getting pretty hungry. We headed back in the direction of the hotel in search of some savoury food. One strip in particular caught our eyes (really, it was closest, most colourful strip of vibrant signs we had encountered in on our walk). We decided to check it out, and took favour upon two fried chicken restaurants. The boys were insistent on having fried chicken with the sauces on the side, so we went back and forth, between the two restaurants, trying to explain that we wanted the sauce ‘on the side or…separate from the chicken’. After some confused words passed back and forth between me and the managers, our final decision came out to the little chicken restaurant on the ground floor, with only the two managers (an ajumma and her husband) dining on an elevated part of the floor beside us, eating supper and watching their television (the restaurant was almost full with all six of us).

Korean Fried Chicken is amazing. Did you know that? It is so light and perfectly crispy, that Ken and I go crazy for it every time it is ordered.

With a full day over and all four of us, exhausted from actively making something of our day, we retired in our ondol room, deeply asleep on the heated floor.


The next day, we waited anxiously for the bus, which would guide us on our tour of Gyeongju City. Unfortunately, the entire tour was in Korean and the tour guide only spoke Korean (fortunately, the intro CDs provided some info on the sights in English).  Looking to me, she dubbed me the Korean-to-English translator-for-the-day, which was less-than-fantastic, because she kept on using ridiculous terms for which I didn’t know the meaning.

We visited many, many sites, and for a few of them: the Gyeongju Ancient Royal Tombs, the Seokguram Grotto, and the Bulguksa Temple, the most famous in the city, we wouldn’t have been able to see in one single day. The tour was definitely worth it. Before departing from the tour, we made sure to buy Gyeonju’s famous bread (there were these bbang ‘bread’ stores all over Gyeongju), which tasted like sweet cinnamon pancakes sandwiching sugared red-bean paste on the inside. The reason for the bread was that in Gyeongju’s history, there wasn’t very much in terms of meat and produce to make many other foods, so this bread was made in such quantity, and is today, the prized traditional product of Gyeongju.

Our last major event of the night was right in the tourist area beside the lake (where we rented our double-seated bikes). We had heard from some of the other English teachers that there was a show with many traditional Korean performances. We were lucky enough to see traditional dances with large feathery fans, dances with standing drums (reminding me of my lovely mother), music with traditional drums and cymbals, and the shrill sounds of the music sung by young Korean ladies. They were all wearing silky rainbow-coloured hanboks (traditional Korean wear), and we were glad to have caught the show.

Our final supper in Gyeongju was right above the stage, in a restaurant teeming with people who had probably watched the show. The warm, bustling atmosphere was something completely different compared to our supper the night before. It took us about an hour to order, because the waitress/manager kept changing her mind as to what the cooks could make for us that evening, and to what spiciness us Waegooks (Westerners) could possibly handle. Our options were limited and kept on changing, so we made a spur of the moment group decision and ordered one of the spiciest dishes on the menu – yookgaejang (spicy beef stew with hot peppers). Corey asked his to be so spicy that he’d cry, so the ajumma laughed as she carried away our order.

The soups came out nice and steamy, and the meal was quite enjoyable (the ladies were shocked to see Corey enjoying his stew that was so-spicy-that-he-could-cry). Fully satisfied, we walked out into the icy night and back to the TEMP hotel.


The next day, we said our goodbyes (a special thanks to Mr. Lim, who tried to figure out how Ken and I could get back to Andeok). We ended up taking a bus to Pohang (which was in the northeast direction) and then taking a bus to Andeok (which was back in the northwest direction). We thought it would amount to a shorter time than making two or three more stops. A little over an hour later, however, we received a text message from Corey and Ilana (who took a direct bus northward to Andong) that they had stopped briefly in Andeok…sheesh. Thanks Mr. Lim for trying. It must’ve been difficult… Yes, Andeok is just that small.

What a lovely weekend in Gyeongju, the garden city. Ken and I (and the other EPIK teachers) were treated to luxury at the TEMF Hotel, and we couldn’t have made our trip more fulfilling (I got to see Ken step in dinosaur poop…that was the cherry on top of our marvelous weekend).

- Jess

Trip to Gyeongju (Part 2)

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

The Super-Machine and Cultural Poster

I was sitting at my computer working on a lesson plan, when all of a sudden, a message popped up on my screen that said: “Hi! This is nurse teacher! Everybody is gone home, come visit! ^^”

I messaged her back saying that I needed to finish my work, but that I’d visit later in the afternoon (I needed to make sure the teachers weren’t going to leave without me again).

The day neared its end, so I took a quick stroll over to the health room in the adjacent building. I knocked, went in, and was greeted with a cup of coffee and a plate of Oreo cookies. In the middle of the room there was a huge machine (still partially wrapped in plastic), a set of metal handles, and an open instruction manual on the ground. It didn’t take very long to figure out why she wanted me to come over.

I read through the instruction manual, finished setting up the machine, and calibrated the different instruments. It was a state-of-the art medical check-up machine to accurately record the height, weight, BMI, percent body fat, water volume, bone density (and much much more) for each student in the school. The user simply had to stand on the metal plate, and within twenty seconds, the machine would produce a medical assessment that could be saved on a flash memory card, printed, and retained for school records.

Out of curiosity, I stepped up onto the plate and allowed the machine to work its magic.

As soon as the assessment was complete, the nurse immediately took the flash memory card, saved the form onto her computer, and placed a printed a copy into her files…. She’s a sneaky one…

I left her office and was quickly intercepted by another elementary school teacher (who had kidnapped me a couple of weeks ago). She pulled me into her classroom and showed me a project her kids had been working on. It was a huge Bristol board with hand-drawn pictures of people from all over the world illustrating how different cultures greet each other. Naturally, I looked for Canada, and found two Inuit people facing each other with a small caption saying, “In Canada, people greet each other with smiles!” Next I looked for the United States, and found a woman on a bike wearing a short skirt, knee-high socks, pigtails, and a huge brace-filled smile. The caption said, “In America, people greet each other with a wave!” As I looked around the poster, I was thoroughly amused by the skewed cultural stereotypes that were portrayed by the many little cartoon people. All of them seemed strange and entertaining, except for one: Korea. In the Korean box, there were two businessmen (each donning a well-pressed suit, dress shoes, and a briefcase) facing each other in a slight bow with outstretched arms in a handshake. The caption read, “In Korea, people greet each other with a handshake!”

At first, I was slightly bothered by the poster. I thought to myself, “Geeze. Now all the kids are going to think that all Canadians are Inuit… And why the hell are the Koreans the only ones who look civilized? The world doesn’t revolve around Korea!!!”

But then I started thinking of my own Elementary classes…

I remember making a “cultural” poster almost identical to the one I was currently staring at, with a few subtle differences. The first being that the Canadians were the only ones shaking hands in business suits, and well, the Koreans weren’t even on there. They were grouped in with the “Asians” (who were all wearing Vietnamese-style rice hats and bowing with their foreheads to the ground)…

I guess we’re all guilty of being a little self-centered at times.

Teaching students about cultural differences can promote interesting and healthy classroom discussions. It also helps encourage them to open their minds to understanding human differences from a global perspective.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to ride my polar bear to the depanneur to pick up some beer and maple syrup before the hockey game.

Take it easy eh!

- Ken

Tea with the Bus Stop Lady

The temperature this morning was well below zero. The rooftops had frost, I was shivering uncontrollably, and I could see my breath as I waited for the bus.

The ticket lady opened her window and called me inside.

I happily obliged, walked in, and sat down (the ticket booth is simply an extension of her living room).

She handed me a nice steamy cup of tea, and we talked (as best as we could) until the bus arrived.

This world still has hope.

- Ken

Tuesday, 13 October 2009

The Bus Driver from Hell

Today, I almost got in a fist-fight with a bus driver.

For the record, he started it.

Let me explain…

I finished my last class of the day, packed up my bags, and prepared to go to the bus stop with Mrs. Jeon. Instead of driving me to the Bunam Station, she suggested that I try flagging down the bus as it drove past the school. I had seen countless students do this in the past, so I didn’t think it would be a big deal.

Mrs. Jeon stood beside me, and we flagged down the bus together. I bid her farewell, sat down, and quickly fell asleep (this is my new tried-and-true method of overcoming the nausea that accompanies my hellish trip through the mountains). When I opened my eyes, we were in Andeok.

I stood up, handed the bus driver my ticket, and prepared to step down off the bus. He immediately turned to face me and began blasting Korean at me at the top of his lungs. He was furious about something that I did, but in the whirlwind of confusion, I couldn’t understand what was going on. I tried my best to pick out familiar words, but all I could understand was something about the “pyo” (ticket) I had just handed him. I reached into my pocket to grab another one just to shut him up, but before I could pull it out he ripped up my ticket in a fit of rage and threw it out of the door. I calmly tried to tell him that I don’t speak Korean, but this just infuriated him even more. At a loss for what to do, I politely wished him farewell and took the first step to get off the bus. His arm jetted out and he clamped onto my wrist. Instinctively, I ripped my arm free, and I stumbled backwards into the hand rail. He tried to reach for me again (with his other hand firmly clenched in a fist), and I hopped backwards out of his reach and off the bus. He continued to scream at me as he closed the door, made a series of unrecognizable gestures, and drove away.

Luckily, one of my students was on the bus and was able to explain everything to my co-teacher the next day.

As it turns out, he was pissed that I didn’t give him cash.

The students who only have tickets must make the 10 minute walk to Bunam Station. Those that don’t want to make the walk (or don’t have tickets) can simply flag down the bus as it passes the school. But when they get on board, they must pay cash (which the bus driver illegally pockets).

For all the good that this country has to offer, you can’t escape corruption.

- Ken

Monday, 12 October 2009

The Persistent Principal

"Is Wednesday okay? We’re kind of busy today and tomorrow.”

“No. Don’t be ridiculous. Tuesday. Mr. Lee, tell her Tuesday after dinner.


The Principal at Andeok came over to my desk and motioned swinging a badminton racquet. Oh god. I knew exactly what he wanted to do. Badminton. “After dinner?” he asked.

“Umm, I’m actually kind of busy,” I replied. It wasn’t a lie. Ken and I had planned to put up our first Korea photo album online.

He protested, “What could you possibly be doing after dinner that can’t wait a couple of hours?”

I knew I had no chance in changing his mind…maybe I could change the date. “How about this Wednesday?”

“No. Tuesday. Mr. Lee, tell her Tuesday…and that’s that.”

Even Lee (my Korean co-teacher for Andeok High School) wasn’t able to convince the Principal otherwise.

He grabbed the last of the Ghana chocolates Lee had given me (I was saving it for Ken), unwrapped it, and started to snack. No one messes with him.

I guess I’m playing badminton tomorrow…

- Jess

Saturday, 10 October 2009

The Worst Death You Could EVER Imagine

Farewell little one, farewell…


Ken and I were in the kitchen, trying to decide what we were going to eat, when I saw it. There was a despicable little black fly, giving me the finger and mocking me from our marble-like kitchen countertop. I quickly pointed out the tiny bugger to Ken, and handed him a dishcloth (the usual way Ken kills flies – quickly and almost painlessly). However, tonight was different. With his swatter-like hand, he attempted catch the fly, swiping the air, back and forth, strategically moving around the kitchen. It would constantly disappear and reappear, again and again. Then he spotted it, right beside our pearly white refrigerator. With one foul swoop, he swung his hand before the fridge, turned around, and sucked on the open end of his fist (like he usually does as a joke)…and then his face turned pale green.

He madly started to cough. Of course, I though he was kidding, as usual…but as he lifted his head to face me, I realized that that wasn’t the case.

“Oh Jess…I think I ate it.”

“Stop it Ken. I know you’re joking. You always are.”

“No. Seriously. I ate the fly. I can feel it moving down my throat right now.”

He tried kiss me, pulling me closer and closer. My fear that he actually ate one eventually got to me and I used all of my Korean strength and force to pull away from him. He let me go and I was finally convinced that he actually ate the fly.

What an atrociously horrible and terrifying way to die. Being caught mid-flight in the air, squeezed with insurmountable force, sucked through a dark tunnel, being found in a slimy wet environment, and being swallowed. To make things worse, concluding your death by being slowly burned alive in hydrochloric acid.

Rest in peace, little bugger. R.I.P.

- Jess

Friday, 9 October 2009

Puppies to Eat in the Andeok Market

Of course I’m kidding.

I was walking out of our Andeok home’s dusty concrete driveway, when spotted an ajumma with a squeaky wheelbarrow, walking towards the main street. I thought, “Oh no, I don’t have time this morning for another crazy conversation with an ajumma…”

I had to catch the bus heading westward towards Hyeonseo Middle High School, but a curious sound caught my attention. Other than the high-pitched, eardrum-popping squeaking coming from the wheelbarrow’s one wheel, I heard a faint whimpering. Fearing for some poor creature’s life, I was ready to defend it against the ajumma.

To my surprise, there were about seven of the cutest puppies I had ever seen in a yellow plastic storage box, placed in the wheelbarrow which the ajumma was carefully pushing towards the Andeok market area. Of course I asked her the first question that popped into my mind, “Aaaare you selling those dogs for meat?” I tried to be as innocent as I could possibly be. I didn’t want her to throw a dog at me…but that wasn’t the case. She just laughed haughtily and told me she was selling them as pets. Looking like golden baby huskies, I had to take photos – even though I ended up running to catch my bus. “It was worth it, I thought, as I huffed breathlessly towards the bus stop.

- Jess

Wednesday, 7 October 2009

The Korean Teacher’s Nuts

“Ken. Come taste my nuts. They are a little bit salty, but delicious!”

The Korean teacher was referring to some chestnuts that he had picked and boiled in salt water earlier in the day, but I couldn’t help myself from giggling.

I suffered from spontaneous giggle-fits throughout the day, and the more I’d try to hold it in, the more I’d giggle.

It was a good day today.

- Ken

Monday, 5 October 2009

Corporal Punishment

We’ve all heard stories from our parents. They usually begin with, “Back in the day…,” or “When I was your age…,” and end with a statement about hardships, respect, or my personal favourite, corporal punishment.

First of all, I’ve never been subjected to any form of corporal punishment (at school or at home). I’ve never felt the sting of a wooden spoon, a stick, or belt, but I sure have been entertained on several occasions hearing about the 160 year old nun who mercilessly hit my dads’ hands with a ruler when he was a kid.

Corporal punishment, to me, was something of the past. Something I only heard about in stories and something I never expected to witness. Well, today I got front row seats.

I was walking back to my English room after lunch when I heard yells from a student in the distance. As I got closer, I realized he was crouched over with his hands extended onto the windowsill as a teacher stood over him with a bamboo stick.

My first thought was, “Holy crap. I hope he’s ok.”

I had read about the abundance of corporal punishment in Korea, but I never thought I’d see it with my own eyes. I wasn’t comfortable with this method of punishment, but I certainly wasn’t going to try and tell a Korean teacher to stop.

As I walked past the student, his yells became louder and louder.

When they finally came to an end, he ran past me with a pained look on his face and swerved around the corner in front of me.

When I reached the corner, I was completely shocked with what I found.

He was standing with a group of his friends (who were all laughing hysterically), giving them high-fives, and showing them his reddened knuckles.

It was all an act. The whole thing was an act. The yells, his face, his submissive posture… the whole thing was a show for his friends. And now they were going to spend the rest of their lunch hour laughing about how loudly he yelled, complimenting him on his acting skills, and taking pictures of his knuckles with their cell-phone cameras.

Seeing this “show” made me wonder how many of my dads stories reflected genuine traumatic experiences. If I had to guess, I’d say it was pretty close to 0%.

I’m going to buy a stick.

- Ken

Sunday, 4 October 2009

First Trip to Seoul – Sunday and Monday


Today, Sticky fought back. Do you remember Sticky? He was the octopus who was chopped to bits and was fighting in our mouths as we barbarically chewed and swallowed him. Ken, Illana, and I were feeling pretty sick today (except with Corey, with whom Sticky was quite agreeable).


At the subway station, we waved Corey and Illana goodbye and headed back to our hotel. We still had one more night in Seoul, and we weren’t going to waste it. Or so we thought.

Let this be a lesson to everyone out there. Soju, chicken hearts, and squiggling octopus pieces might seem irresistible at first, but trust me, they don’t stay down without a fight.


Unfortunately, Ken and I couldn’t meet my relatives today, because we couldn’t last on the subway to Incheon. We had only had a bowl of rice to eat that day. (Thanks, Sticky. You’ve done quite enough.) 



My relatives wanted to meet me so badly yesterday, that today, some of them scheduled a reunion (12 years in the making) at a Starbucks in Seoul. Ken and I woke up to an unexpected call from my uncle, who wanted to meet us earlier to have breakfast. We had fifteen minutes to get ready, and pack up all of our gear. We then sped down the sidewalks to City Hall. I wasn’t going to miss my uncle this time.


After some ice coffee at Starbucks (which didn’t go down well for Ken…he was still sick :(), my uncles and great aunts drove us to the bus terminal. Worried about Ken, they headed straight for a small pharmacy that was located right in the terminal, and got some magic medicine for him. He drank down an appetizing yeast-like powder, with two white tablets and a peppermint elixir. Amazingly enough, twenty minutes later he was well enough to eat a meal of jook (glutinous, overcooked mixed rice). My relatives wouldn’t let us go without having Ken eat something.


Our bus back home to Andeok was peaceful (our stomach acids had finally conquered Sticky), but our adventure wouldn’t have been complete without our transfer at Andong, Jinbo, Cheongsong (we caught the last bus), and finally to Andeok, putting a nice cherry on top of our memorable, remarkable Seoul experience.

- Jess

First Trip to Seoul – Saturday


Today, I was so excited and delightfully antsy (more so than usual). Why? Corey and Illana were coming to Seoul! We would party it up like born-again teenagers in the Korean city that never sleeps.

Ken and I decided to wisely kill some time before they were to arrive, so we came upon the Gyeongbokgung Palace (the largest palace in Seoul) in Ken’s Lonely Planet’s Guide to Seoul. As we were walking towards the palace (only minutes away), we could see many families enjoying the beautiful bright day that was given to us. There were many fathers trying to tire out their children by letting them run free, and all over the place, on the luscious, carpety grass field in front of City Hall.

Once near the grand, gated palace, I saw an old ajumma with some large light brown lollipops next to her (I know…brown?…but I couldn’t resist…it was candy). I walked up to her tiny little stool on the ground and what did I see? She was pouring a sugar-baking soda concoction that my mother used to make for me in Canada! She even had stars etched into them! (When my mother was young, she used to buy these sugar candies at school, and students could get a 2nd one if they could eat the candy without breaking the etched shape…that’s probably where I got my sweet tooth). I bought one to mail back to my mom, put it in my bag, and it broke into a million pieces. However, the star was left intact! I guess I could’ve sent it to my mother, but seconds later, the star was already in my mouth. Oh well.

We toured Gyeongbokgung Palace for a few hours, and headed back to City Hall to meet Corey and Illana (yay!). While we snacked on some Kentucky Fried Chicken (yes, the Colonel’s chicken) on the emerald grassy blanket in front of City Hall, and I couldn’t help but notice a father, pulling down his tiny daughter’s pants for everyone to see, lifting her up off the ground by her arms, and letting her pee on the grass – the grass that Ken, I, and lots of others, were comfortably laying upon. I continued to eat and enjoy my chicken wrap.


Ring. Ring. It was Corey and Illana. They were in Seoul! We met them right away and decided upon Lotte World (an indoor theme park and skating rink) as our first adventure. Ken and Corey gracefully skated in their flashy (and stylish, might I add) hot pink gloves, and Ilana and I kept it cool in our sky blue ones. I was confidently recovering my younger years of CanSkate, dodging the some of the skaters who were wobbling like jello around me. I felt like a champion afterwards because I hadn’t fallen once the entire evening. Ken, of course, was gliding past me, Corey, and Illana with his years and years of experience.

After we could no longer bear the lack of feeling in our feet, we called it quits and left to feed our bellies (dinner). However, before that, the Lotte World Shooting Range (yes, a shooting range with real guns at a children’s indoor theme park) couldn’t help but present itself as eye-candy to both Ken and Corey (men, eh?).


Back at City Hall, all four of us hungry travelers zombishly walked around with our grumbling tummies. Where would we eat? Would we dare challenge our stomachs to the various delicacies that were calling out to us from the Namdaemun Market? We dared.

At the Namdaemun Market, we began our meal with starters of soju and fruit sticks. After beer and almost an uncountable number of soju shots, we challenged ourselves to what was next on our menu – chicken hearts. Of course, we hadn’t known what they were when we first bought them, but Ken saw the ventricles and atria, right before we were to take our first bites. Luckily, the soju shots we took, one after another, helped to ease our minds (at least my neurotic mind). With an additional purchase of fruit sticks (the ripest and richest emerald honey dew and golden pineapple that I’d ever tasted), the soju went down like water in our gullets. That’s when we decided to eat Sticky.

Sticky (R.I.P) was the octopus that we had seen hours earlier, but were too afraid to try. Now, however, his suctionny tentacles twisted and turned, luring us in with their mesmerizing movements. The stand owner saw our drunken interest in his prize piece of meat, and he quickly took Sticky, washed him with a cup of (dirty) water, tore off Sticky’s head with his hand, and brutally chopped him up with his silver executioner’s blade. Thank-goodness for the tasteful red sauce in which we could dip Sticky. It really helped with the slimy texture and Sticky’s tentacles that were holding on to our tongues and teeth. I would do it again in an instant:). The thunder, lightning and heavy rain made for a solemn atmosphere as we mourned Sticky’s untimely death, and patted our stomachs with satisfaction.

The next couple of hours were a blur. Soju death really does exist, and Corey, Illana, Ken and I remembered different parts of the night. What we got from piecing it together was an image of Ilana and I, asleep on a tarp at the end of the Namdaemun Market, Ken, across the street, happily asleep on some cold, wet steps, and finally, Corey, who was running around the major streets (still not sober), looking for our hidden hotel in the blackness of the night. We woke up the next morning, confused, with massive headaches, and nauseous (probably from the chicken hearts…and sticky…oh yes, and the soju). We had to look at photos and videos to find out what childish and outrageous things we did the previous night.

- Jess

First Trip to Seoul - Friday


Our first full day in Seoul, and what did Ken and I do? We slept-in. No alarms, no nothing. With a full night of rest, we were ready at noon to have our breakfast (ok…brunch). Where did we go? Of course, we went to explore the Namdaemun Market! One of the many branches of the market was dedicated to food and small restaurants, so we took a gander. Lots of friendly ajummas gave us widespread smiles (which were a little creepy…), attempting to lure us inside with their bubbly and pushy attitudes. All of their colourful dishes were laid out before us, in a plasticized form, almost undistinguishable from the real ones. Finally, one ajumma was just so cute (she reminded me of a pixie) that we just had to go into her restaurant (plus, we were poking at her plastic food, so we felt sorry). I had my mixed spicy red noodles, and Ken had some soothing homey rice-cake-dumpling soup.

After our brunch, we went out to really explore the Namdaemun Market. There were so many people (in general…hey, we live in Andeok) and so many Westerners … Shops lined and made-up the market’s outdoor walls, and stands of every kind (produce, food, tie, etc.) were filling up the market’s insides. The items for sale, the rainbow-coloured stands, and the many people made for a lot of beautiful, shifting colours. The place was so popular that there were even people walking around in red t-shirts, handing out maps and information pamphlets specifically about the market. We heard that this place was the place to be in order to practice bargaining, and Ken really wanted to give it a try. We walked into a purse store and casually looked around. Suddenly, something caught my eye - the perfect purse. I had spent all day looking for a new purse, and I desperately wanted this one. This one didn’t have any tacky red and green stripes on it like all of the other ones. It hung like a shiny piece of gold ribbon and I felt like a kitten propelled into snatching it. “Excuse me,” I asked the employee, how much for this purse?”

ssa-sheep-pal-man won ($48),” he said.

“Oh,” I sadly replied. I hadn’t planned on spending that much money on a purse, so I was going to let it go…

That’s when Ken stepped in and started bargaining like a natural. Korean numbers were flowing out of his mouth like he had known them his entire life.

Ee-sheep-oh-man won ($25),” he started.

The employee shook his head. “Ssa-sheep-oh-man won ($45).”

Sam-sheep-oh-man won ($35),” Ken challenged.

Sa-sheep-man won ($40),” the employee said.

Sam-sheep-pal-man won ($38),” Ken said, solidly.

That was it. The employee gave up and nodded his head. I don’t think I could’ve ever bargained like that. So that was it. Just like a pro, Ken bargained down the price of a purse I loved, and bought it for me :).

As we walked through the market, we got a call from the Pohang City English Teachers who were visiting Seoul as well. We told them which cross-streets to meet us on, but everyone was lost in communication – that is, until they realized that they were in the Dongdaemun Market and not the Namdaemun Market. They were planning on going to Seoul Tower (as were Ken and I), and we decided to meet them up there in the evening.

Ken and I moseyed through the market and decided to spend some time out of the massive crowds of people. Pushing through the waves, Ken eyed some chocolate rock candy that reminded him of his younger days. We purchased a large bag for 2,000 Won ($2) and sat by the statue in front of city hall. I could see why young kids would love these pieces of chocolaty goodness. The inside of the pastel-coloured, candy-coated rocks were filled with the most buttery chocolate filling you would ever taste in your life. It just didn’t seem to dissolve.

Next, Ken and I decided to call Corey and Illana (both English Teachers in Andong City…and the best people in the world!) to try and convince them to come to Seoul. It was a long shot, but we had to try.

So we called them up and found out they had no plans for Chuseok. No plans?! Ken and I craftily convinced Corey and Illana to get their butts to Seoul for one weekend of mind-numbing fun. They got their bus tickets for tomorrow morning and we couldn’t wait.


After supper, Ken and I went up to Seoul Tower (on the Namsan mountain). We had heard that there was a cable car connecting the bottom of the mountain to the front of the tower. So, we headed straight for it…or so we thought.

On our way to the tower, from our lovely hotel to the top, we walked and asked around as to where the bottom of the cable car could possibly be. We were pointed further up the mountain by several ajushees smoking on the sidewalk. As we continued to ask around, we were given the same directions. Go up. So we kept walking up the winding road, upwards towards the supposed base of the cable car. Turns out we had passed it…by a long shot.

We saw the cable car glide guiltlessly passed us as we were walking, up above our heads, and towards the tower. We cringed. Jeez. Well, we were too tired to head back down and around the mountain, just to ride the cable car half the distance more…

Thank-goodness we got lost. Our only instruction was to head upwards, and after climbing two thousand painful steps, we managed to catch a captivating and exquisite sunset atop the lookout (just below Seoul Tower). It was breathtaking. The gold and shades of yellow, orange, red, and crimson were draping the city, and for a few minutes, Ken and I breathlessly took hundreds of snapshots as the sun melted into the ground. We checked-in with the Pohang teachers from time to time on our cell phones, and managed to make it to the top on time (although a 2000-step stairmaster cycle wasn’t quite planned in our schedule).

We arrived at the top of the mountain early, so we walked up to another lookout at the base of the tower. What an extraordinary sight! There were combination- and key-locks of all kinds pasted with notes, secured all along the wire fence that was guarding the lookout over the city. They were to represent a couple’s security and ‘lock’ on love. Too bad I left my combination-lock in my backpack at the hotel (seriously, I had one in there, unknowing of what was at the base of the Seoul Tower). We watched the very end of the sunset on that lookout and listened to the jazzy urban music coming from the foot of the tower.

Minutes later, the Pohang teachers arrived, and we bought our tickets to go up to the top of the tower. There were the typical touristy stands and shops set up – gift shops, cafes, ice cream parlours, and photo-taking stands (kind of reminded me of Niagara Falls). At the very top of the tower, you could see a 360-degree view of Seoul, and there wasn’t a single unlit spot all around. Seoul was a city on fire with its lamp lights, cars, and many, many skyscrapers. On each glass pane listed a major city and its population. I just had to go in front of the Toronto pane (even though I’m not a native Torontonian) and spend a few moments of silence with my face pressed to it.


For supper, Ken and I ate alone at The Place restaurant, which had a grand view of Seoul below it (so romantic!). They even had a specific time at which they turned off most of their indoor lights so the city lights could pool-in. There, we devoured two gourmet pizzas (one with prosciutto and the other with barbecue chicken). It had been a while since we ate pizza, and I had to control ourselves (for fear of being kicked out) since this was a pretty classy restaurant.

On our way down from the tower, we took the smart approach. We took the cable car. 2000 steps in midnight’s darkness would’ve made any person a little uneasy.

- Jess

First Trip to Seoul - Thursday

Seoul - the place to be in Korea. A modern city, reminiscent of the fast-paced New York.

I was waiting for Chuseok (a Korean ‘Thanksgiving’). It was the one long weekend, where I would be able to go to the one Korean city I had been to when I was just eleven years old…



I had a free-day to myself. The students in Hyeondong School were taking practice tests, so my co-teacher told me to ‘take some time to rest’. Obviously, I did everything but that.

I woke up this morning with a set schedule in mind. I would scrub the house down, wash the sauce-covered dishes, vacuum the spiders away, pack my gear, and finally, take a much needed shower. Little did I know that I would be receiving a call from Ken only three hours after he left for the bus, pushing me to get to Bunam in one hour (he had only found out minutes beforehand). I had to squish all of my chores together…and because Ken left his packsack at home, I had to finish stuffing his bag, too. Suffice to say, I was quite the manic for one long hour. Clothes and toiletries were being thrown in the air… I was washing dishes impressively with one hand and aggressively vacuuming with the other.

Finally finishing everything I had to do, I set out on the bus to Bunam School, where Ken’s ever-so-kind co-worker, Jeff (the Bunam Computer Science teacher), graciously offered us a ride to Andong city. We would be taking the bus from Andong city to the heart of Seoul, and Jeff would guide us throughout our entire journey.


The ride from Bunam to Andong was quite relaxing. Jeff even stopped on the side of the road to buy us a ginormous bag of Cheongsong’s famous apples. I think I embarrassingly nodded off (like I usually do in the back seat of cars) towards the end of the ride, but not before seeing Andong’s city billboard, pasted onto it, a large red apple (I’ve heard Cheongsong’s are way better :)).

Once we arrived in Andong, we entered the bustling downtown terminal. Most people were heading to the countryside (where family tombs are usually located) for Chuseok. It was the perfect opportunity for Ken and I to visit the city that usually raged with a population of 25 million people.


The bus ride to Seoul was a fleeting three-hours. That’s all the time it took to get from one corner of this dynamic jewel of a country to the other. And as we watched the automobiles piling up on the other side of the road, we were cruisin’ towards the one city with more than half of South Korea’s total population of people.

The bright city lights were almost too much for my Andeok-adjusted eyes. Even the bridges entering the great city were lit up with blazing white lights, lining the structures’ cables. As the bus pulled into downtown East Seoul (Dong Seoul) we ended up exiting our bus onto the congested street. The bus wasn’t even able to get into the terminal because it was blocked by outgoing buses and cars. Yes, Chuseok is that big.

The next quick decision that Ken and I had to make was to find out where we were going to stay (we were two little birdies, who hadn’t even thought of where we were going to sleep). Jeff, reflecting perfectly the extremely generous nature of Koreans, wanted to buy us dinner, but after the twentieth time we insisted that he go home to his awaiting family, he left us in the subway station (the infamous but reliable Korean subway system, which has so many lines and stops, they become a blur when looking on a map!).

After much deliberation, we finally settled on City Hall (Shee-Cheong) in the center of downtown Seoul. We didn’t know it at the time, but it would turn out to be the perfect place to locate ourselves. We were at the heart of Seoul.

After the subway (it was so comfortable!), Ken and I ventured out in search of a hotel. We wandered around the downtown streets that almost seemed abandoned as people were scarce. We walked through some sketchy alleyways which were filled with sharply-dressed men in clean-pressed navy and black suits. They all had the same jagged haircut, jagged hair, and it seemed as though they were trying to convince men walking through the street to go into their businessmen’s clubs. Each club entranceway looked like a hotel, so of course, Ken and I got confused and walked right into one. Luckily, we got the opportunity to meet a very nice gentleman, indeed. His name was Tommy, and he was a photographer for that particular gentlemen’s club (I wonder what he photographs). We were about to leave the building, when he generously offered to find us a reasonably-priced hotel (some of the pricier hotels can offer rooms for up to $500!). As we twisted and turned around corners, he finally came to the Alps Hotel. He bargained our room for a fair $40 a night, and he couldn’t have found a better place. The room was clean, the building was quiet, and once again, we were right in the middle of everything Seoul had to offer.

By this time, it was about 9:30pm. Ken and I were hungry. First, we wanted to check out the famous Namdaemun Market, and from what we read, it had everything. The alleys were fairly empty except for a few Koreans and Westerners walking about, and some rainbow-umbrella-d outdoor food stands with lovely bits of exceptional, albeit, unusual meats. Skipping on the adventurous types of meals for our supper (who knows, it could have ruined our weekend…diarrhea, anyone?), Ken bought an appetizer of five sugar-rolled doughnut-twists. While munching on them, we headed out to the main road. We were about to split the last one in the bag, when suddenly an ajumma from a snack stand scurried over to us, and without saying anything, pulled the black plastic bag open, and said, “Never mind, there’s only one left.” She started to walk away with her head down…

Ken and I headed stopped her in her tracks. “Do you want the last one?” we offered. “It’s okay, you can have it.” We opened the bag for her. She took the last doughnut and bowed ever so fiercely, as if we had made her night.

“Oh, thank-you, thank-you!” she exclaimed.

All in a day’s work, I thought, and Ken and I continued our search for our supper.

We looked around for quite a bit, and finally found a small eatery (it looked like a chain restaurant) with a blazing red sign above it. Turns out it was an Australian chain restaurant (specializing in salads) and of course, most of the meals had a Korean twist to them. Ken and I each had a boxed bulgogi (Korean marinated beef) salad with a spicy crimson chili dressing (Ken’s) and a sweet chili dressing (mine). The tangy sour cream mixed in with the sweet chili, over strips of marinated beef and salad was exactly what we were looking for.

Satisfied, but not full, Ken and I decided to get some beer at one of the closer pubs. We both had our share of two litres of Hite beer and happily left for our hotel.

- Jess