Japan: From Tokyo to Kyoto

Marge: C’mon, Homer, Japan will be fun. You like Rashoman.

Homer: That’s not how I remember it. Besides, if we wanted to see Japanese people we could have gone to the zoo.

Marge: Homer!

Homer: What? The guy who washes the elephants is Japanese. His name is Takashi. He’s in my book club.

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I love experiences that are difficult to transmute into language; they recede before my fingers when I try to write about them and escape through the edges of my mouth when I try to talk about them. Pictures, too, can flatten the vibrancy and texture of a truly surreal encounter, as if compressing it into the second dimension deflates it like air from a balloon. Sometimes after a brush with the bizarre there’s a conspiratorial element with those involved, as if my dad and I would only be confirming that we’re certifiably insane if we tried to tell anyone about our evening. Okay…enough with the obnoxiously cryptic introduction! Check out one of Shinjuku’s primary nightlife attractions: Robot Restaurant.

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“Restaurant” is a relative (and in this case, generous) term; dinner consists of a cold bento box that remained untouched on most tables. The sensory overload escalates gradually, and the show begins with a fairly tame traditional dance sequence involving immodestly dressed women, samurai weapons and orchestral music. The slow simmer of insanity begins with the second dance, where the women wield shields and swords that proudly bear the emblem of the Knight’s Templar (as if the show weren’t anachronistic enough already). Several mystifying minutes later, the craziness reaches a crescendo when spears of neon light cascade from the rafters, robots lurch awkwardly around the dance floor, and for the first time, Gangnam Style is an appropriate choice for background music.

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A hybridization of a burlesque show, nightclub, and a futuristic theme park ride, the Robot Restaurant is peppered with cameos from one non sequitur after another. A dancing panda emerges casually from an entrance gates strangely reminiscent of King Kong.  Giant, mechanical, robotic women (I’m somehow satisfied at being able to type those words in that order) sitting in ornate thrones-on-wheels roll around while scantily clad women dangle off their sides. Men in white lab coats plastered in glow sticks cruise around on Segways (the sole practical application of the Segway since their creation). At one point, two robotic samurai engage in a battle to the death with a woman in animal furs riding a stegosaurus while video game sound effects provide musical accompaniment, a testament to the gleefully, self-consciously simulated nature of the entire production. When you gaze into the abyss, a parade of dancing pandas gaze back.

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Ever since I was a little kid, I’ve felt a magnetic pull towards Japan. Maybe it was partially prompted by my parents introducing me to sushi when I was much younger (leading to the realization that raw tuna and salmon, shrimp tempura rolls and grilled eel with barbeque sauce are some of the greatest gifts given to humanity). I’m sure being exposed to Japanese entertainment in the form of video games (if my nostalgia for Ocarina of Time and my continuing devotion to Super Smash Brothers are any indication) when I was growing up and movies later on (from Myazaki to Kurosawa) permeated my subconscious on some level. At the same time, it resonates on a deeper level than that; Western fetishization of Japan as an odd, enigmatic country has become a cultural cliché. In science fiction ranging from William Gibson to Phillip K Dick, Western artists have emphasized that Japan represents “the future,” equating them with technological superiority and a penchant for the bizarre.

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Many Americans seem fascinated with Japanese culture, gawking at the mysterious, foreign “Other” that represents the incomprehensible and the gleefully surreal. Even one of my favorite episodes of the Simpsons (see above) relishes the opportunity to paint Japan with vibrant brushstrokes that emphasize a strange vision of the future (in one scene, a sentient toilet talks to Homer). Hell, all of this rambling, self-indulgent philosophizing on my part is immediately following three paragraphs of hyperbolizing the Robot Restaurant. Actually I take that last part back…cultural sensitivity is great but I feel like I’ve still barely skimmed the surface of our surreal experience that night (and awesome. Did I mention awesome?) To bring things back down to Earth, Japan is more than distilled weirdness, technological ability and futuristic toilets (although the toilet seat opening for me automatically thanks to a sensor on the floor was fairly magical) and I’m very grateful I had a chance to experience it firsthand.

Image After a relatively painless Saturday morning flight from Busan to Tokyo, my parents and I reunited at our hotel room, which almost necessitated a crowbar to pry off my mom’s hug. Apparently they missed me? As we munched on a traditional Japanese breakfast of assorted sushi, pickles and miso soup while staring out at the Tokyo skyline, I was forced to admit that I had missed the hell out of them too. Embarking on our first adventure, a trip to Meiji Shrine, solidified Tokyo’s status as a place with one foot in a world of antiquity while simultaneously plunging headfirst into modernity. Neon is the city’s primary color, technobabble is a common dialect and modern buildings built during reconstruction efforts following the Second World War dominate the city. At the same time, places like the Meiji Shrine, the Shinjuku Gardens, and the Imperial Palace (although you could only see the massive moat and stone walls surrounding the palace…entrance inside involves a bunch of annoying bureaucratic hoops to jump through) are reminders of the rich historical heritage threaded throughout the shiny exterior of the city.

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I’m juggling a bunch of adjectives around in my head to try and do justice to our culinary adventures in Japan. Transcendent? Nah…somehow not complimentary enough. Divine? Hmm…too spiritual. Orgasmic? Getting closer… I’ll let The Simpsons take the reins: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KSwS-Ax_pL8 . In short, I’ll never be able to eat sushi, beef, tempura, yakitori or ramen again without feeling a pang of remorse and an urge to turn my nose up smugly and internally scoff while cataloguing all the ways that it pales in comparison (yep, I’m occasionally obnoxious). That night we ate at an Izakaya restaurant, essentially Japanese bar food composed of small dishes, and gorged on Kobe beef, sashimi and other Oriental om-noms. Kobe beef, marbled slabs of waygu meat with incredible tenderness and flavor, is like some Platonic ideal, relegating all other kinds of beef to a lower level on the totem pole. Throughout the rest of the week we ate early morning sashimi at Tsujiki Fish Market (the worlds largest and most hectic fish market), nibbled on yakitori at a restaurant that specializes solely in skewers and gasped as flames danced around steak and shrimp at a Teppanyaki (Hibachi) restaurant in Kyoto. During one particularly memorable night, once again perched amidst the Tokyo skyline, my dad and I had an incredible kaseiki dinner (multiple courses composed of small, artistically designed dishes) before hanging out in the lounge sipping on whiskey and peering out at the faint outline of Mount Fuji in the distance. Doesn’t get much better than that.

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The several days we spent in Kyoto felt remote from the soft glow of neon and the manic (yet somehow orderly) energy pulsating in Tokyo. Providing a refreshing dose of antiquity, it works as the cultural yin to the sensory stimulation of Tokyo’s yang. Our trip was definitely a spiritual palate cleanser, from the reflective sheen of the Golden Pavillion projected upon a crystalline lake to the meticulously manicured rock garden at Ryonji Temple. The temples in Japan are very distinct from those in Korea; while in Korea the focus is on monolithic and stunning (though often gaudy), buildings, Japan is about the overall aesthetic. Ponds and trees are strategically placed, bridges serve as visual connective tissue for the landscape and the temples are seamlessly woven into the surrounding environment.  The feeling that everything is in its proper place contributes to the vibe of contentment. Zen seems like an appropriate word here. Let’s go with “Zen.” Image

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My Temple Stay: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Buddha

Bwoooooooong. 4:35 am. As I attempted to cocoon myself in the folds of my fleece jacket and stifle an inclement yawn, the first strike of the morning bell began to fade into the pre-dawn chill. Bwooooooooooooong. Before the vacuum of silence could envelop it fully, another ring rose as it caught hold of the tail of the preceding bell and climbed atop it, rising and falling with a deliberate cadence. The oscillations of sound crashed around me like reverberant waves while I tried not to think of how silly I looked in my pink robe, the hair on the back of my head sprouting out awkwardly in a tuft of sleep depravation. I wiped the last remnants of my four-hour nap (yes, “nap” is a necessary qualifier; no way in hell does that constitute a full night’s sleep) from the corners of my eyelids. A group of fifteen of us was walking in single file, following the temple rule encouraging silence out of sheer fatigue rather than obedience. Stumbling gracelessly up the steps, we entered one of the temples where I found myself staring into a series of gilded statues of Buddha.

Blinking rapidly as if half-expecting the image to dissolve, like some sort of psychosomatic etch-a-sketch, several monks kneeled down in front of us, facing the statues. We followed their lead (but not without prompting one of the monks to rearrange the positioning of my feet while chuckling to himself) and engaged in a session of intense bowing. “Intense bowing? Is that a thing?” Absofuckinglutely.  I’ve always associated Buddhism with a kind of spiritual flexibility, the ability to fluctuate in order to embody reverence and humility. Finding “the middle path” and all that. Before that weekend I had no idea that Buddhists were so goddamn literal; if you’re bowing in a Buddhist temple, you really do need to bend before you break. A complete bow involves bending at the waist with your hands clasped before you, kneeling to the floor in one seamless motion, touching your head, hands and feet to the ground (humility), raising your palms upward to create a figurative space for Buddha to stand (reverence) and rising upwards with complete fluidity. After several minutes of continuous bowing punctuated by the throaty chanting of the morning ritual, my legs were beginning to wobble when I rose. My sigh of relief as I walked out into the morning darkness was a bit premature. That was just the trial run for the real test of spiritual and physical endurance: prayer beads.

Looking at the simple bracelet made of one hundred and eight wooden beads lying next to my bedside table, I still feel a swell of pride. In Buddhism, the number 108 is spiritually significant. The number is reached by multiplying the senses smell, touch, taste, hearing, sight, and consciousness by whether they are painful, pleasant or neutral, and then again by whether these are internally generated or externally occurring, and yet again by past present and future to culminate the total number of possible feelings. 6 x 3 x 2 x 3 = 108. Phew, just typing that out is exhausting. Remember the arduous process for bowing in the preceding paragraph? Yeah. For each bow, while on your hands and knees, you have to carefully thread a wooden bead onto the string before rising. In unison with the other members of the group. While the monk leading the ceremony methodically bangs a wooden gourd to signify when to rise, when to kneel, and when to fumble frantically to thread each bead onto the string. One hundred and eight times. In a hypothetical Buddhist boot camp, this would definitely be a rite of initiation. As sweat trickled down my forehead before beading attractively beneath my chin, I had already lost count. When my kneeling constituted of sinking into the floor with a dignified “thud,” I prayed for the sweet embrace of death. By the moment only a few pathetic looking beads remained, I felt cleansed, triumphant and euphoric (a pleasant mix of exhaustion and endorphins). My friend Michael turned to me as we walked outside. “Fuck, man. I feel like I’ve just been in a car wreck.”

We arrived at Dwanghasa temple on Friday, March 8th.  After introducing ourselves to the temple stay coordinator (a delightful woman named Sunny who I’ve managed to keep in touch with over the past month) and donning our traditional Buddhist robes (they sound more refined on paper…see the dorky pink uniforms below), we waited for the rest of our group. Michael and I had piggybacked onto a corporate retreat of thirty or so employees from LG (yup, that LG) and I was curious to see how two waegooks (foreigners) would be perceived. We were adopted into the fold almost instantly. A few of the more proficient English speakers made it their personal responsibility to translate and explain the onslaught of Korean coming our way from the monks and temple employees, giving us an abridged version of Buddhist practices and norms. I was beyond grateful, and feel truly, erm, humbled (appropriate, right?) by the level of compassion and guidance that was directed our way to ensure we had a positive experience.

After a brief orientation establishing the rules of the temple (exchanging bows with tourists outside was strangely gratifying, and we gleefully disregarded the rule about keeping conversation to a minimum to get to know our new Korean friends), I was reacquainted with the giant statue of Buddha that had made such a powerful impression on my last visit.  As a temple stay participant, there is a feeling of awe and delicacy at occupying such a privileged position, even temporarily; as a representative of Dwanghasa, tourists regard you with a certain level of admiration. Returning to the main hall, we gathered around a massive table on the floor to make paper lanterns. Before my visit, I was a bit dismissive about doing anything arts and craftsy, but it turned out to be refreshingly meditative and therapeutic (at a Buddhist temple…who woulda thunk it?) While we were absorbed in delicately twisting the bits of translucent paper to make our lanterns, MJ and I were embraced with enthusiasm by one of the monks as he wrapped us in a huge bear hug. “I love you!” he beamed. Despite coming from a (relative) stranger, the statement felt totally sincere. As he started rubbing Michael’s shaved head and nodding approvingly (“Monk haircut!”), I burst out laughing. The atmosphere of contentedness was contagious.

Over the course of our 30 hour adventure (arrived on Friday afternoon and left Saturday afternoon), we had the opportunity to listen to three lectures on Korean Buddhism. At first, when one of the monks was gesturing effusively, giddily drawing on a whiteboard and speaking rapidly in Korean, a sense of unfairness and disappointment began to fester. This looks so fascinating and badass! I don’t want to miss out on an enlightening experience because of something as trivial as a language barrier. As the gulf of miscommunication began to widen along with a surge of frustration, one of the younger Korean men who spoke English turned sideways: “The monk is saying that through respect and generosity we can fight the cycle of negativity,” he whispered, turning his fingers over in his hands to emphasize the concept. Shocked by his kindness in translating for me as well as the simple profundity of the idea, I nodded silently, urging him to continue. “The best way to be generous and respect others is to put yourself aside. He talks about the importance of humility.” Throughout the next day and a half, Chan translated nearly everything, from distilling the Monk’s lectures on Buddhism to detailing the rules of propriety at a traditional Korean tea ceremony.  Even with the occasional linguistic snags of translating dense spiritual ideas into a foreign language, the lectures on Korean Buddhism were fascinating. Below are some of the more inspiring, profound or interesting snippets that I took away from the experience. If my understanding of any of this comes across as overly simplistic or reductive, well, tough shit. You can cram your theological understanding up whatever orifice people cram things of that nature. (Nah, just kidding. Feel free to correct me, I love learning about this stuff!)

-Although it isn’t practical for everyone to live a monastic life, He Moon Sunim advised us to “become a monk!” Not literally, but as a metaphor for decreasing the arbitrary value we impose on money, housing and clothing. The importance lies in giving up the aspiration for material based desires and focusing on the acquisition of spiritual and introspective knowledge.

-Learn to love yourself! Value yourself and keep continuing to contribute to the value, but tread carefully because overemphasis is another vehicle for suffering.

-Happiness was explained in mathematical terms: Happiness= achievement/desire. Desire can never truly be satiated, and is a series of constantly shifting goalposts. If you remove the obsession with desire from the equation, you can be infinitely happy. Buddhism is focused on minimizing desire.

-Hedonism to escape life is temporal; the true avenue to happiness and healing is love (both of yourself and others).

Sorry for the schmaltzy spiritual harmonizing! I can’t help myself and this was a fun way to process all the information I was bombarded with over the weekend. As Michael and I left on Sunday afternoon, after He Moon Sunim insisted we take pictures in traditional Buddhist robes (see below) and entrusted us with parting gifts of incense and an aromatherapy necklace, we wandered around the temple as tourists, snapping photographs and blending into the fabric of other people. Sunny had invited us to come the following Sunday and give English lessons to Do Min Sunim, another one of the monks at Dwanghasa. In return, Do Min Sunim would instruct us in Buddhist meditation; pretty awesome exchange, right? I won’t belabor our return visit in excruciating detail (this post is long enough as it is), but I will emphasize how fascinated I was by Do Min Sunim’s modesty and subtle self-depprecation about his lack of English skills. Sitting before us with perfect posture, serenely poised in a way that showed immense strength and discipline, he looked almost apologetic and bashful as he worked through our lesson. The insecurity of an uncertain student was seeping through the cracks of his exterior of reserve and conviction. Admittedly language is a tricky beast to conquer, but the disconnect was humbling; a testament to one of my favorite quotes from American poetry. I’ll just leave this here…

“Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.”

-Walt Whitman, A Song of Myself

Bathhouses and Buddhist Temples

       The other night, I was wandering back to my room after spending some time in the gym. Disheveled, sweaty and wearing gym shorts and a t-shirt, I looked decidedly unprofessional and probably wasn’t in a position to solidify my status as a teacher and “authority” figure (yes, the quotation marks are necessary). Luckily, two girls chose that moment to pounce out of the woodwork like miniature feral tigers, tugging on my sleeves and eagerly presenting me with Hello Kitty lollypops and other snacks. Laughing and joking with them for a few minutes, it was an endearingly sincere moment and I waved goodbye while echoes of “Goodbye teacher!” reverberated throughout the halls. As I walked back to my room, a mere two floors above the overly-caffeinated and sleep-deprived masses of children racing gleefully throughout the halls (hey, they’re at English camp, I encourage them to go nuts), a vague sense of disquiet crept into the back of my mind. At the risk of sounding like a grouchy curmudgeon, let me emphasize how awesome, polite and respectful these kids are; it’s a delight to teach them and absolutely heartwarming to find yourself surrounded by mobs of little people’s squeaking “Alex teacher!” whenever I leave the enclave of my room or classroom during the work week. At the same time, the lack of differentiation between my personal and professional life can be a bit emotionally exhausting; whether I’m going outside for a drink of water or doing laundry, the kids are a constant presence, and lately I’ve been actively pursuing more ways to push back against feelings of tedium and confinement. Drinking deep from experiential pockets of Korean culture have been therapeutic and necessary, a vehicle for fulfilling my desire to have an adventure that extends beyond the daily oscillations of my job and life at the village.  

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A few weeks ago, several of my colleagues invited me to join them while they relaxed at a jimjibang (sprawling, gender-segregated Korean bathhouses, complete with steam rooms, saunas, hot tubs and massage parlors). Despite my initial hesitance and trepidation (“I have to be completely naked in front of a room full of Koreans gawking at the foreigner sticking out like a sore thumb? This doesn’t fit in with my delicate American sensibilities!”) I decided to take the plunge. Jimjibang’s are ubiquitous, dotting the landscape from the density of Korean’s mega-cities like Seoul and Busan to even the most rural towns and villages. After a five minute interlude of heightened self-consciousness and feelings of exposure (“Shit! Why isn’t anyone wearing a towel in here), any sense of self-awareness dissolved as I entered the steam room, where my eyes began to water thanks to a billowing onslaught of steam and hot air. Drawing in slow, methodical breaths of concentrated humidity while beads of sweat began to trickle across my forehead, I embraced the discomfort of the heat and allowed myself to relax. An hour and a half later, as I walked out the front door, feeling both refreshed and ravenously hungry (thanks to the metric ton of water weight I had lost in the steam room and sauna), I was grateful that I had ignored the nagging threads of unease that were nipping at me a few hours before.

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Although I’m tempted to write a few self-indulgent, long-winded, and obnoxiously tantalizing paragraphs about my love of Korean BBQ (Seriously. It’s a relationship that keeps on giving), I’ll take a break from my gravitation towards food centric writing (sigh….) and share a bit about my limited (yet incredibly rewarding) experiences with Korean Buddhist Temples. Last Sunday, my friend Amanda and I decided to make the trek into the southern foothills of Palgongsan, about 45 minutes from downtown Daegu courtesy of the ridiculously convenient bus system. After stepping out into the center of a network of various trails and signs pointing away from the conglomerate of shops and restaurants at the base of Palgong, we gradually made our way up towards the temple itself. Perfectly aligned with the escalation of my wide-eyed wonder and increasingly intense internal gasps of, “Fuck! That’s so cool,” the progression from the artifice of the tourist center to the gorgeous seclusion and cultural texture of the temple itself was incredible.  Words can’t do it justice, and neither can pictures, but here’s an admittedly halfhearted attempt to recapture the experience, courtesy of my Iphone camera:

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Some remnants of civilization

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Deeper into the abyss

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“You! Shall not! Pass!”

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Main temple hall

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Paper lanterns

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Dat’s one Big Buddha

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Zen shit

As a luminescent harvest moon basked us in a dim, orange glow, stepping around the corner and being confronted by the placidly serene smile of a 50 foot statue of Buddha made a lump well up in the back of my throat. Walking around the statue while the fading sunlight was transmuted into dusk (apologies, I swear I’ll lay off the nauseatingly cheesy romanticism in a few sentences), I felt an incredibly powerful, magnetic connection towards Korea that I hadn’t experienced until that point. Before, my appreciation and experiences have been punctuated by a degree of detachment, and even eating live octopus or seeing a royal palace amongst the chaotic density of Seoul hadn’t instilled a completely sincere sensation of magic or whimsy. Thankfully, I’ll be returning to Gwangha temple this Friday for a templestay: I’ll spend two days living, eating, sleeping, meditating and praying with the monks in an attempt to simulate their lifestyle. I’m really looking forward to it! In the meantime, have some more pictures from our excursion yesterday…

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Winter Seoulstice

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            The tentacles undulated on the plate with a slow, deliberate rhythm…almost like a pulsating heart. A few attempt to crawl across the plate, twisting and writhing in a possible attempt at freedom. Seemingly sluggish and unresponsive, an enthusiastic jab with a pair of chopsticks creates a frenzy of movement. The garnish of scallions and sesame oil seems oddly out of place among the carnage. Trying to pick up an individual, moving tentacle with a pair of chopsticks is a maddening experience; the suction cups cling to the plate in a desperate bid for survival. After finally prying my first bite off the plate, I pause for a second. The tentacle had wrapped itself firmly around the chopstick, oblivious to the fact that it was a willing participant in the tragic journey from the plate to my stomach. Possessed by a feeling of omnipotence, I take my first bite. Before chomping down, I let the suction cups attach to my teeth and the side of my mouth (seriously, one of the strangest sensations I’ve experienced). With slow, deliberate theatricality I bring my back molars together. Expecting the octopus to be chewy and tough, I was surprised to discover it was tender and flavorful (the nuttiness from the sesame oil was shockingly delicious). The movement stops. All I’m left with is a slightly briny, subtle aftertaste. I survey the remaining tentacles on the plate with the harsh, pragmatic judgment of a vengeful God. “Who’s next?”

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Hungry yet?               

            Okay, hyperbole and over-dramatization aside, it was a pretty fun experience! My friends and I had just ridden the subway (public transportation was remarkably clean and efficient in Seoul) to the Noryangjin Fish Market, a public market lined with endless rows of tanks full of various aquatic critters from live shrimp to snapper. After choosing your victim, you take your purchase upstairs where various restaurants and vendors slice the fresh seafood right onto your plate. For the meek, they’ll even grill the fish and serve it with an assortment of side dishes. It was an overwhelming experience, but also a rare moment of whimsy among the grind of the past few months. As enjoyable as my work often is at the village, it can be very culturally isolating living and working on the same campus all week. My adventure at the Noryangin Fish Market injected some much needed magic into my overseas travel, a reminder that a fascinating, new world does exists outside of the bubble of the Daegu Gyeongbuk English Village. In retrospect, a shot of cultural adrenaline courtesy of a week in Seoul was just what the doctor ordered. Here are some brief snippets!

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                Alternating between shivering from the cold and gasping in awe at the Changdeokgung Palace (originally built in 1405, the high walls and open grounds offer the illusion of serenity among the chaos of Seoul).

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Repeatedly gorging on excessive plates of meat (spleen was a personal favorite) at a Korean Barbeque joint a block away from our hostel (seriously, we went there five times over six days).

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The doctor is in

Dipping our feet in tanks filled with doctor fish (little symbiotic critters that nibble away at your dead skin to provide a very organic pedicure…it tickles like hell and I lost all semblance of composure as I giggled madly for five minutes).

Retreating from the cold as often as we could, finding refuge in DvD rooms (after purchasing a movie, you rent out a private home theatre), museums and aquariums (went to the Tim Burton exhibit at the Samsung Museum of Art, the National Museum of Korea and the Coex Aquarium).

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Basking in the bliss of awesome music, fantastic company and a White Russian at a jazz bar on Christmas Eve while snowflakes fell outside.

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Salvaging some Christmas tradition and solidarity by having a gift exchange with my friends on the floor of our hostel before warming up with a bubbling bowl of ginseng chicken soup.

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Strolling around Insadong (the artsy, cultural section of Seoul), Itaewon (an international area where I was able to get my paws on the first bacon cheeseburger I’ve had in months) and Gangnam (see: Psy and/or Gangnam Style. Oh, also the home to an incredible breakfast restaurant). Do most of my favorite moments revolve around food? Of course. A man’s gotta have his priorities.

All in all, a wildly successful trip and I’m eager to return as soon as possible. The return to normalcy at the village was a bit jarring and disheartening, but I’m starting to really hit my stride as I search for a balance between work and my desire to have adventures beyond DGEV. With the prospect of weekend trips to Seoul and Busan, as well as a week in Japan in April looming on the horizon (a week with my parents in a country I’ve always wanted to visit? During cherry blossom season? Fuck yes), there’s a lot to look forward to…and a lot of new experiences to absorb.

“Home is behind you now… the world is ahead.”

“Bless us and splash us, my preciousss! I guess it’s a choice feast, at least a tasty morsel it’d make us, gollum,” I crooned eerily to a group of entranced 11 year olds surrounding me on the floor. A flicker of recognition crept across the face of one boy before he mimicked “my precious” and was rendered helpless by a fit of giggles. Soon afterwards, everyone in the class was attempting their best Gollum impersonation. One of the funniest things I’ve heard in recent memory was this group of kids whispering “my precious” in unison… like some bizarre religious ritual punctuated by lots and lots of giggles.  The girl next to the boy who had unknowingly disrupting the story was clearly all business; she elbowed him in the shoulder before “Shhh”-ing him with the severity of a practiced librarian. “Teacher…what happens next?”

Forty-five minutes beforehand, I found myself in a state of panic. I had prepared a flashy power point presentation for my Hobbit lesson plan complete with visuals, clips from the movies, vocabulary/grammar exercises and an array of riddles I was going to have the students solve. Technology wasn’t my ally that morning, and after an extended period of fumbling with the projector and cursing I under my breath I heard a knock on the door. Noses pressed eagerly against the window and smiling expectantly, my students were ready to invade the classroom. (Seriously, if you want to simulate the experience of a zombie apocalypse, just stand in an empty classroom and wait for these kids to arrive. Replace shuffling cannibalism with cheery smiles and protestations of “Teacher! Can we come in?” and it’s pretty damn close. They’d probably find a battering ram and break down the door if I ignored them long enough). The board was totally blank and the smart board hookup for my computer was defiantly unresponsive. Shit. What now? 

A bunch of flashcards with riddles on them. Pictures for prompting Tolkein related fantasy vocabulary, from wizard to wolves. A copy of the Hobbit graphic novel. With a carefully crafted lesson plan that I couldn’t access, that’s all I had in my arsenal when the kids got there. After a microsecond of concentrated internal panic, I took a deep breath and opened the door. Several minutes later, after buying some time by establishing the classroom rules (1. Listen carefully 2. Speak English 3. When the teacher is talking, be quiet) I had everyone push their desks back against the wall and sit in a circle around me on the floor. I was starting to get excited. I loved being read to as a kid, and even with the language barrier, I had pictures from the graphic novel version as reinforcement. Surprisingly, every student was in a state of hushed reverence, looking up at me and waiting for the story to begin. “In a hole in the ground, there lived a Hobbit…”

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After two weeks of teaching my English Literature lesson plan (thankfully I gave my course a broad title so I can switch to a different book whenever I want. I’m thinking of doing Where the Wild Things Are or Charlie and the Chocolate Factory next) I’ve learned a few things:

a) Storytelling is still a powerful thing. Even when I fixed the technology, for the most part, the kids are listless and bored with the power point; they’re much more engaged, respectful and entertained when I read to them aloud.

b) I do a pretty badass Gandalf impression

c) Fantasy and escapism are perfect ways to bridge language and cultural barriers

d) If all else fails in terms of classroom management, stickers truly are the great equalizer

All things considered, my first academic lesson plan has been wildly successful and I can’t wait to branch out into other subjects. I’m considering developing a Greek Mythology course for after Christmas break.

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Although the routine of daily teaching has dominated the majority of my time the past few weeks, there have been a bunch of fantastic adventures interspersed among the grind. The other week I was craving some food from the outside world and ventured to Chilgok to wander aimlessly and see what culinary adventures were in store. After an almost magnetic attraction compelled me to enter a Korean seafood restaurant (okay, it was the live tuna and yellowtail swimming in a tank by the window), I gorged myself on a plate of raw fish that you wrapped up in mint leaves and ate with hot sauce. There’s still a feeling of exposure and self-consciousness about being the only foreigner in a traditional Korean restaurant, but if you power through that, you’ll be rewarded with something truly special. Behold!

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This past Sunday I went down to Daegu where I had a bowl of piping hot (both in terms of temperature and spiciness) tofu soup and an assortment of banchan (Korean side dishes, usually an arrangement of different types of Kimchi). In terms of cost efficiency ($7 for the above feast and a beer), you can’t beat the more low key Korean establishments. I might enforce a personal boycott against international foods for a little while; I’ve loved indulging in all of these new dishes and flavors. Bibimbap, kimbap (Korean sushi) and kimchi are definitely gifts from the gods.

Other reflections and experiences since my last update:

–       Successfully led my first night activity! Once in a while, teachers are assigned to entertain the kids in the evening for around an hour. Although the activity on my schedule simply said, “Quiz,” a title that mundane and academic fails to do justice to the glorious, barely contained chaos that would follow. Let’s set the scene: 200 students gleefully running around the auditorium while I stood on stage with only a microphone to suppress any potential revolts. A PowerPoint containing 50 multiple-choice questions (gems include “How tall is a giraffe’s neck” and “How hot is the sun”) cycled on a projector behind me while I read the questions with the slow, deliberate theatricality of a game show host.  Next, the kids would run to appropriately labeled corner (a,b,c or d) to signify their answer to the question. When I finally read the answer (after some suspenseful pauses on my end), you’d think I was giving out the Stanley Cup after a particularly grueling season. Hugging. Screaming. Cheering. Running around in circles. Repeat for the next 53 minutes. It was pretty fucking fantastic.

–       Consistently surprising myself with how well I’m able to navigate downtown Daegu: its’ becoming totally intuitive and second nature. Now to solidify my knowledge of public transportation around these parts!

–       Snow!!! Despite being trapped at the village for a night or two (avoiding a harrowing bus ride through the windy mountain pass seemed like a wise judgment call. Just take a glance down at my first blog post: bus drivers here will induce motion sickness on a good day), it was absolutely gorgeous and a tantalizing reminder of winter, the holidays and New England in general.

As the 25th looms closer and closer, I’m reminded of the fact that this is my first Christmas in 22 years not being celebrated at 25 Drumlin Road. A few friends and myself are leaving for a week Seoul tomorrow, and I’m incredibly excited to celebrate in one of the world’s great cities style but it won’t be without a tinge of wistfulness and nostalgia. Sending much love to everyone reading this back home; you guys are in my thoughts very often and will be sorely missed around the holidays. Courtesy of my awesome aunt, uncle and cousin, I’m eating some Christmas cookies (that taste even better after making the voyage across the Pacific) right this second, so that always helps. I have a new phone with internet access so Skype (Aorlando123), Twitter (teamned) and Facebook messenger are all available to me while I’m adventuring in Seoul. Be easy and stay in touch!!

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Uncharted Waters: Teaching

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Saturday, November 17th. 2:05 PM. I’m sitting in the fifth floor lobby of the CGV movie theatre in downtown Daegu, waiting to see Skyfall, the new Bond movie. Entirely by myself after following a stubborn impulse to have a solo adventure only a week after my arrival and not knowing a word of Korean (I’m being hyperbolic here….I knew two words of Korean! 1. hello= anyong ha se yo 2. thank you= kahm sa ham ni da), I felt a tinge of self-consciousness. Okay, more than a tinge. The creeping suspicion that everyone was staring at the only non-Korean in a forty-foot radius gets even worse courtesy of the man sitting next to me on the bench. After shooting me a few furtive glances, he turns directly towards me and has a staring contest with the left side of my face. I give a subtle bow, flash him a smile and mumble out a quick “anyong ha se yo”  (butchering the pronunciation most likely) before getting ready to go into the theatre. As I’m standing up, he taps me on the shoulder. I look over and the guy is positively beaming, offering an outstretched hand with a puffed rice square. “Eat! Very good snack!” Reacting instinctively, I trade him and his wife some popcorn for the puffed rice as we talk in stilted, staccato English and have an endearingly genuine cultural exchange. Shaking his hand before we march into the theatre, his wife reminds me insistently, “Enjoy Korea, Okay??” I’ve been doing my best!

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 My first solo trip to downtown Daegu was a totally empowering experience. I went shopping for some stickers for my students (seriously, these kids love stickers almost as much as they love hi-fives…and they love hi-fives more than a bro at a frat party), had octopus and chicken cooked in a wok in front of me after smiling and pointing at a totally random item on the menu, saw a movie and successfully took a cab back to campus. Apart from sporadic bursts of adventure in Daegu and Chilgok, classes have dominated the majority of the past two weeks. Operating on a spectrum from demonic to angelic, the kids here will spit out an exhausted (and, admittedly, slightly relieved) husk of a human being at 5:30. Some highlights from my first week of teaching 5th graders:

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The Good:

-Playing hangman during break time with a group of adorably persuasive students

-Hearing cries of “Alex teacher!” and being bombarded with hugs and requests for hi-fives as I walk through the halls

-Having students who remember me poke their heads into my classroom, occasionally demanding a sticker for their efforts

-Hearing sighs of “Oh wow” with the awe and reverence of an archeologist finding the Ark of the Covenant when I reward groups with 10 points (the maximum they can achieve during a 45 minute lesson)

-Giving 5th year olds the opportunity to hit pictures on the wall with flyswatters is rewarding as hell, so long as you can suppress any fighting or outbreaks of chaos

-Realizing that your lesson has at least a little educational content, and catching glimpses of your students remembering certain words and phrases

-Improving each day as a teacher

The Bad:

-Students staring at you with the engagement and vivacity of a cow chewing cud after you give them an assignment or instructions

-Having your attempts to maintain order and control fail miserably (I’m getting better at this each day!)

-Trying not to show or vocalize your frustration when Satan manifests himself in the body of an 11 year old determined to make your next half hour a living hell

-Hearing enough whining and complaining (“Teacher! This so hard!”) to convince yourself that you demanded your students to scale Mount Everest rather than asking them to repeat their name and favorite color

-Miming clumsily and drawing stick figures on the board when your students don’t know enough English to process directions

The Ugly:

-Consoling a crying student whose classmate decided it would be a delight to kick him in the shins while you’re bombarded with frivolous questions and requests for more stickers

-Fighting, name-calling and poor sportsmanship (I’m frequently oblivious to the specifics of these…another incentive to keep learning Korean!)

Phew. I’m tired just typing all that out. All things considered, this week was pretty damn awesome and I learned a ton despite the occasional moments of self-doubt and frustration that manage to bubble to the surface. Most of the kids are sweet, sincere and eager to learn, and I’m excited to get a whole new batch on Monday (tempered by the naïve hope that I won’t have to suppress any revolts or call in an exorcist).

Some more fun stuff! Last week I went out with a bunch of co-workers to an awesome little Korean coffee shop; I challenge anybody with some remnants of a soul to look at the pictures below and not say “D’aaaaaaaaaaw” at all the cuteness.

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At the moment I’m preparing a lesson plan for my first “academic” course, a 45-minute lesson covering any topic imaginable (at least one that teaches vocabulary and involves activities or games).  My current lesson is a presentation on The Hobbit! My students will get to read an excerpt from the story, watch clips from the cartoon, solve riddles and have a race around the room trying to go “there and back again” (holy shit I am the biggest dork). At least it’s topical with the movie coming out soon!

Thanks for reading and sorry for the gap between the last post and this one. Hopefully as the clusterfuck of the past few weeks simmers to a low boil and I get more in the swing of a daily routine, you can expect more frequent (and less tediously lengthy) entries. Drop me a line on email (Aorlando@mail.smcvt.edu) or Skype (aorlando123) if you feel compelled… I miss everyone and hope you’re all living easy!! 

“Trust, and Enjoy”

A mere 72 hours after my arrival, I found myself barreling down a windy mountain path on the way back to the Daegu Gyengbuk English Village, clutching my armrest with the ferocity of a Vulcan death grip. Just having completed an emotionally exhausting trip to the medical facilities in Chilgok (the town closest to our campus), where the new arrivals (myself and five other fellow teachers) were poked and prodded as we were ushered through various stations to assess our health and vitality, I was oddly disconnected from my surroundings. All of us seemed to be in a state of delirious euphoria, certainly enhanced by jetlag and exhaustion, laughing madly as we jostled around inside the cramped van.  It was surreal. Our guide for the day, a Korean college student who adopted the English name Messi (after soccer player Lionel Messi), looked back at us quizzically from his vantage point in the front seat. In response to our nervous laughing, Messi tried to reassure us that a fiery crash wasn’t looming in our future. “Trust, and enjoy!” As I sit here trying to process the past six days, that sounds like damn good advice.

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My first, “We’re not in Kansas anymore,” moment hit me when I boarded my flight from Chicago that would take us on a fourteen-hour odyssey to Seoul. Dragging my carry on behind me as I made my way to my seat, I stopped for a second to let an older man put his luggage away. During my momentary pause, I found myself pummeled by a barrage of tiny, yet furiously insistent, punches: a much older Korean woman was clearly not happy with my efforts at social delicacy. In Korea, respect comes with age, and in terms of status, both are the name of the game. Older woman are very high on the totem pole. Whether it’s the last seat on the subway or a fleeting, almost illusory gap in a supermarket line demanding to be filled, many older woman women will adopt selective tunnel vision and force their way through any unfortunate bystanders; either you get run over or you get the hell out of their way.

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Okay, enough anecdotes. Let’s talk about where I’m living and working! I was hired at the Daegu Gyeongbuk English Village, right outside of Chilgok-goon and 30 minutes from Daegu, the third largest city in South Korea. If any of you lovely people feel like sending me something over the next year, you can mail me at:

744, Yeonhwa-ri, Jichun-meon, Chilgok-goon,

Gyeongbuk Province, 718-821, South Korea

So here’s how the village works: from Monday through Friday our campus is teeming with masses of kids, mostly 4th, 5th, and 6th graders who comprise what is known as our 5 day/4 night program. Completely separate from their normal private or public school education, these kids take a week off to immerse themselves in both academic courses and interactive situational classes. The atmosphere radiates “sleep-away camp” more than anything, and the kids treat it as an English language-themed vacation. Apart from being allowed to create and teach academic courses in anything from percussion to cooking (I’m considering an intro-to-film type course), the main focus is the situational classes, which include Restaurant, Post-Office, Police Station, and Video Store, along with a bunch of others.

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The majority of the week consisted of staving off jet lag and yawning through new teacher orientation, where we got a tour of the campus, some quick-and-dirty teacher training, and the opportunity to observe different kinds of classes. There were a few bureaucratic hoops that we had to jump through, such as the previously mentioned medical examination at the hospital (being ordered around a hospital room in a foreign language is just as intimidating as it sounds) and a trip to the immigration office, which made for a very tiring week. Even with how awesome and exciting this whole experience has been so far (the campus tour, for instance, left me with a feeling of whimsy and utter contentedness at how gorgeous the village is), there’s definitely some uneasiness and anxiety that comes from culture shock hitting you in the face with the delicacy and grace of a cinder block.

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That being said, this weekend was absolutely incredible and provided a taste of the kind of adventures that I can expect over the next twelve months. In the past 48 hours, I’ve:

-Eaten wings and beer with our Korean driver after his adorably persistent invitation (“Chicken? Beer? Possibly?” repeat five times in the course of an hour)

-Gotten to know a bunch of my fellow teachers over drinks and pool at an ex-pat bar in Daegu

-Had shabu shabu in downtown Daegu (a Japanese hot-pot where you cook meat and vegetables at your own table)

-Walked through the controlled chaos of downtown Daegu while reveling in the experience of sensory overload

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-Had vegetable bibimbap (a signature Korean dish of rice, meat and assorted vegetables) at an authentic Korean restaurant, sitting cross legged on the floor

-Navigated the campus shuttle, subway system and ridden a train

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Needless to say, I’m absolutely wiped but am so so stoked to be here. Tomorrow is my first day of teaching (in the Police Situational classroom), a challenge I’m meeting with a excitement and a dash of nervousness, but I can’t wait to get in the swing of things. More to come!

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