Thursday, August 11, 2011

Thoughts on Home-stay in Korea

A bajillion lotus flowers grow next to the Han River at 두물머리.

Recently, a commenter on another post asked if I really recommend staying with my host family. So today, I'm going to talk a little more about my home-stay experience. To begin with, I found my host family through korea-homestay.com. (There are other home-stay companies in Korea, including the confusingly similar-sounding homestaykorea.com, but I haven't had any personal experience with them. My dealings with the korea-homestay staff, at any rate, have been pleasant and satisfactory; their English is less than perfect, but that usually doesn't cause problems.) I don't know whether I got lucky or my experience is typical for a home-stay guest, but I have been living very comfortably and getting along very well with my hosts. My family consists of a host mom, host dad, and their middle-school aged daughter, besides which a couple of other home-stay guests have also joined us at various times. I get plenty of privacy in my own bedroom, and I interact with the family mostly around mealtimes, but I also have been studying Korean/teaching English with the daughter for an hour or so most nights. Speaking of meals, breakfast is included in the regular home-stay price, but since I also have dinner with the family almost every day, I paid for that in a lump sum at the beginning of my stay (assuming an average of $10 per dinner). 

The two rivers meeting at 두물머리
For me, one of the perks of doing home-stay was that it gave me a place to practice violin. More generally, unless you are the super-social type who makes friends easily wherever you go, having a home-stay family can help plug you into a Korean community from the get-go, and give you connections you wouldn't have otherwise. For example, I've also been hanging out with another family from the same apartment building, who are friends my host family. I've had dinner and lunch at their place, read Harry Potter with their daughter, and even tagged along on a car trip to 두물머리 (the place where the North Han River and South Han River meet).  My hosts are also happy to help me out with my language study and homework whenever I ask (which helps me not to feel the lack of the tutor that Ewha said it would provide and never did).
My host family also happens to be in a very nice neighborhood, which is safe at night, has a library and shopping mall within easy walking distance, a subway station 5 minutes away by foot, and great views of mountains and the Han River (which like the subway station is just a 5 minute walk away from the apartment). The only disadvantage to the location, for me, is that it is a pretty good distance from Ewha - I have to give myself 50 minutes to an hour to get to school (though the actual subway ride is only 20ish minutes). 

So far, home-stay probably sounds like a great deal, and for the most part, it is. For those who are wondering if they should go for it, though, I do have a couple of caveats/things to keep in mind. First, it might be difficult to find a suitable family in the first place - I got lucky in that my host found me first and turned out to be great, but one of my friends had to give up on finding a host and ended up living (very happily) in a hasukjib. So don't forget about other living options. Second, don't underestimate commuting distance. I've gotten used to my commute, but I won't deny that I've often wished I lived closer to school (and the rest of my friends). Third, it's best if you come with at least a basic command of Korean to begin with; that'll make life easier for everyone involved (unless you happen to find a host with an excellent command of English or your native language). 

Home-stay is also more expensive than a typical hasukjib or other student accommodation. The baseline fee for me (with a student discount) was $550/month, not counting the $700 lump sum I paid in addition for 70 days' worth of dinners. If you're okay with the pricing, though, I definitely encourage you to look into doing home-stay. It's totally free to sign-up for korea-homestay.com, and you can then browse through hosts' profiles. You have to communicate with prospective hosts via the korea-homestay staff until you pay a $40 deposit to stay with a particular host; then you'll get their direct contact info. Also, this probably is obvious, but if you do pick a host and you're staying for several months, don't pay the fees all at once; pay monthly in case something goes wrong during your stay and you have to cancel. One of the other guests who was staying with my host, for example, planned to stay for two months but had to leave after just one, because she was suddenly called back to her university in Russia.  

Well, I think that's all I have to say on the subject of home-stay... but if anyone has any more questions, feel free to ask in the comments!

ETA: By the way, if you're not a long-term student and are just a traveler looking to stay for a week or two, then I definitely think home-stay is a great idea. It's way cheaper than a hotel, with better accommodations than a motel or similar lodging place, and you can get a lot more exposure to real, everyday Korean culture and customs. Plus you can ask your hosts for local sightseeing tips. Again, though, being able to speak and understand basic Korean would be a huge plus. 

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

My Review of the Ewha Language Center

Somehow, it's already become my last full week of classes at Ewha. Next week, we have Monday off because of 광복절 (Liberation Day), then our final exam starts two days later on Wednesday, and then the program ends the following Wednesday (the 24th). The first couple of weeks of the program did feel very slow, but now I very much have the cliched feeling that time flies...

Anyway, it seemed like it's about time I follow up on my initial impressions of Ewha (and Ewha vs. Sogang), now that everything is nearly wrapped up. Having had plenty of time to settle into the groove of the ELC, I still have mostly good things to say about it - with some caveats. (Warning: This post turned out to be pretty long, so if you just want my summary/overall thoughts, skip to the last two paragraphs.)

To start with, I have a few more things to say about the Ewha textbooks as compared to the Sogang textbooks (for my earlier thoughts, see my First Impressions post). One feature I really appreciate about the Ewha textbooks is that every chapter has a page on a category of related vocab terms/expressions, e.g. expressions to do with 마음, 시간, –적, or –스럽다. I also like that writing practice is also integrated into the main textbook as well as the workbook. The dialogues for speaking practice are relevant to real life (some more so than others), and I appreciate how they provide several alternative ways of saying key expressions. They also have a page that just provides cues or an outline of the dialogue, so we can test ourselves on how well we can either remember the dialogue or make up a similar one. 

That being said, what I don’t like about the Ewha textbooks as much as the Sogang books is that there is no companion book focusing on the grammar and vocabulary. This hasn’t proved to be a serious problem for me, but the Sogang companion books (which are in English at least through level 3) do explain the subtleties of certain grammar patterns in a way that the Ewha books really fail to do (our teachers have to fill in the holes, which for the most part is adequate, but it'd be nice to have it in the books...). At the very least, I wish there was a consolidated list of vocabulary at the end of each chapter. It would also be really nice if they had definitions of the vocabulary in Korean (I don’t know if Sogang does that at the higher levels), the way they have the grammar patterns explained in Korean. To do that, they would probably have to make a companion book, otherwise that would take a lot of extra space in the main textbook. 

In addition to the main textbook and workbook, we also get handouts for practicing every new grammar pattern. On these handouts, we write down notes for different scenarios and turn them into dialogues using the new grammar. It’s a pretty useful way to drill the grammar while also practicing speaking.

The workbook is perfectly useful; I especially like how there is section for every chapter focusing on vocab usage. I think it could be useful if a dictation section were added, but you can also test your dictation skills on your own anyway, using the textbook CD and the scripts for the listening dialogues.

I like that we don’t spend time in class working on writing articles/essays; that’s for homework, which I think is appropriate. At Sogang, they have to write every day in class, which must be very useful too, but I feel we still get a reasonable amount of writing practice at Ewha via the homework assignments, and the teachers give plenty of feedback on our writing. As I mentioned above, I also like that for speaking practice, we have to make up our own dialogues using new grammar patterns, while still being able to refer to example dialogues and alternative expressions for help. We spend more than an hour on speaking in class every day, whether we are making short dialogues to drill the new grammar, or practicing the longer “말해 봅시다” dialogues. 

The articles for reading practice are appropriately challenging for our level. We have to answer reading comprehension questions, write summaries of the most important points, and also practice reading the passages aloud. The articles on Korean culture at the end of every chapter tend to be more challenging to read, but we don’t have to answer questions about them; we do discuss them in class if there is time, however.

The listening practice is also pretty effective. Compared to the Sogang CDs (at least for levels 1 and 2), the speakers on the Ewha CDs speak much more quickly, fairly similar to the average real Korean speaker (although of course they enunciate much more carefully than the average person on the street does). Speaking practice is a bit rote, but I think that cannot be escaped when learning any foreign language, and free-topic speaking practice is something that is better reserved for language-partner or tutoring sessions anyway (to make the most of the class time).

In the end, I am satisfied with my Ewha experience for the most part. My biggest disappointment was that they decided not to provide tutors for Level 3 and above. They originally said they were going to give us tutors, and we even signed up for them. But when we didn’t receive introductions for a few weeks, I finally asked my teacher and she said that not enough Ewha students were available, so levels 1 and 2 got priority. If they weren’t going to be able to provide us with tutors, they should at least have told us as soon as they realized that. The lack of a 개인 수업 is definitely a weakness compared to the Sogang program (although one-on-one tutoring is free for the lower levels, unlike the Sogang one-on-one classes). I also do have to admit that the classes at Ewha get kind of boring after a few weeks (I really started to feel this after midterms, and I wasn't the only one). It's okay when we have our peppy Monday-Wednesday-Friday teacher, but even then, we still do basically the exact same things day after day after day, just substituting in the new grammar patterns, reading passages, or whatever. Based on hearsay, I'm under the impression that Sogang tends to be a bit more interactive/engaging, but maybe the grass is always greener on the other side.

I placed into a higher level at Ewha than I’m sure I would have at Sogang, and I have really appreciated the accompanying challenges without ever feeling overwhelmed. I don’t know if my speaking would have improved much more at Sogang, but overall I am not disappointed that I chose Ewha for this summer. That being said, if I come back to study in Korea again (and I hope I do), I’m not confident I’ll choose Ewha again at first. Don't take this the wrong way - I didn't dislike Ewha. It’s just that I want to experience another program, most likely Sogang, at least for one semester.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Out-of-Class Cultural Experiences via the Ewha Language Center

In this post I'd like to catch up on a couple of "cultural experiences" I've participated in through the ELC. The first was the program-wide field trip to Lotte World; the second was an optional trip to the National Museum of Korea.

The Lotte World trip happened just a couple of weeks after classes started. We first spent the morning at the Folk Museum that's next to the amusement park. There, we got to decorate dolls with traditional Korean outfits. It was pretty simple, but still fun, and the dolls looked cute.

The doll I decorated.
After the dolls, we toured the museum exhibitions, which mainly consist of miniature reproductions of various aspects of traditional Korean villages, plus one huge room that contained a pretty comprehensive diorama of an entire village region. I actually found it quite interesting, and the extent of the reproductions was impressive. If you're planning on going to Lotte World, definitely stop by the museum as well if you have any interest in what Korea used to be like.

One of the village dioramas.
In the afternoon, we had a few hours of free time in the amusement park, which is half indoors and half outdoors. I especially liked the "French Revolution" roller coaster (although it can give you a bit of a headache). Lotte World is no Six Flags or Disney World, but it was a nice getaway for the day (even though rain prevented us from enjoying the outdoor portion very much). As long as you don't go expecting someplace really amazing, it's a fun outing if you're into rides and such. (Just don't waste your time on the "haunted house" - most boring thing ever!)

Walking down the bridge to the outside portion of Lotte World.
The trip to the National Museum took place after class on a recent Friday. Once we arrived at the museum, we were divided into small groups to follow tour guides around the exhibitions. Our tour guide spoke only in Korean, of course, and even though he was aware that our language level wasn't terribly high, it was still hard to follow much of what he said (I mean, there's only so far that you can only simplify information about historical artifacts). Fortunately for me, I had visited the museum before with my mom and we'd had an English-speaking guide then, so I already knew a lot of the basic information about the artifacts we were shown. The tour was way too short to cover much of the (huge) museum, though, as we had an appointment afterwards for a make-your-own-Korean-paper-fan at the museum's cultural education center.

The fan I painted.
At the cultural center, we got to learn a bit about the traditional subjects, categories, and techniques of Korean ink paintings, and we watched an example video of someone painting on a paper fan (it looks deceptively easy, but it demands a lot of skill!). We then each got a blank paper fan and had an hour to experiment with the watercolors and paint our fan. Mine turned out okay-ish, but I never quite got the hang of balancing between having not enough water in the paint and having too much...

In the end, both "cultural experiences" were worth attending, and I got nice souvenirs out of them. Unfortunately, the doll I made at Lotte World ended up turning moldy because I forgot to take it out of its container to dry fully... but that's another story. At least I still have my fan ^_^.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Ridiculous Quantities of Rain

The mini-river I crossed on the way to Severance Hospital.

So, it's been over a month since I last posted... I guess I got bitten by the lazy bug again. Things have been happening, some more interesting than the rest, so I'll be catching up on the highlights in some future posts. For today, though, just a (relatively) brief update now that there's some respite from the staggering, debilitating rains that have poured down on Seoul and neighboring regions since Tuesday. 

For those who haven't seen the news, the Seoul area received 536mm of rain over a three-day period. That's just over 21 inches of rain (12 of which fell on Wednesday alone) - something I've certainly never come close to experiencing before. I mean, seriously, that's more than half the average annual rainfall of my hometown, Washington DC. It's definitely out of the ordinary for Seoul, too, being the highest rainfall for a single-day and three-day period in July since records started in 1907.

Thanks to the rain, not only were major roads and subway stations flooded and closed, but there have also been a number of serious landslides. The Seoul region (as with the rest of the country) is mountainous, which was the first factor leading to the landslides. The second factor was that many mountains have been developed as parks and such, or have been altered in order to construct tunnels under them, thus undermining natural erosion control. The death toll from the floods and landslides is at least 59 (and counting), not to mention the 11,000+ people who have been rendered homeless.

I haven't been affected as seriously, but the rainfall made for some memorable experiences nonetheless. On my way to a doctor's appointment on Wednesday morning, it was raining so hard (probably the hardest I've ever seen) that the rain literally came through my umbrella. Within 5 minutes of walking, I got completely soaked almost up to my waist, to the point where I might just as well have been wading through a lake or swimming pool. I managed to take shelter in the Sinchon train station next to the Ewha campus for a few minutes, hoping the rain would lighten up - utterly futile, in retrospect. Then, when I came out of the station to cross the major road between me and the hospital... well, there was a slight problem. Literally a river of mud water was gushing down the road, completely blocking my path to the pedestrian bridge. I tried to skirt around it by walking back through the Ewha campus to hit the main road higher up the hill, but the river went as far as I could see. For most of the way back towards the pedestrian bridge, I was able to stay at the very edge of the sidewalk to avoid most of the water, but in the end I had no choice but to wade through the river for a 15-20 foot stretch.

View of the flooded Han River from my apartment
Having seen the TV and newspaper reports on the damage done in other parts of Seoul and Gyeonggi-do, I feel very lucky that that was about the worst of my encounters with the rain. It certainly was a sight, though, to come home to my apartment, look down on the Han River, and realize that the water had risen probably a good 20 feet to be a nearly the same level of the highway and train station along the banks. Normally, there's a biking/walking path right next to the river, but the water was so high that only the very tops of the trees along that path were visible.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Ewha Intensive Language Program: First Impressions

A view inside the new Ewha textbook for level 3-1
I've had four days of class at Ewha by now, so I figured it was time to post some of my thoughts about the program. I was a bit surprised to be placed into Level 3, but I guess some of my self-study over the past month paid off. On the other hand, I'd been warned by my home professor that Ewha is tougher at the low levels than Sogang is (and I'd only learned from the Sogang curriculum), so I was kind of worried I wouldn't be able to keep up. Plus, the classes would of course be entirely in Korean (as they are from Level 1 when taught at probably any university in Korea), which I expected to be potentially problematic.

Fortunately, my worries have proved groundless so far. I was pleasantly surprised to find that I could understand everything the teacher said in class, including Korean-only explanations of new vocab and grammar. I also have found the lessons so far to be reasonably paced and, while definitely challenging, not so intimidating that I feel like I was placed into the wrong level. 

However, because I placed into Level 3 only based on a 90-minute written test and a short interview, and because I am coming from the Sogang curriculum, I do definitely have major gaps in my knowledge of grammar and vocab compared to what the Ewha curriculum expects of students entering Level 3. I don't want to drop a level since I feel that I am nevertheless keeping up well with my current class and homework, but I went ahead and bought the textbooks for Level 2 as well as Level 3 so that I can do some catching up on the weekends (at least sometime before our midterm).         

As far as the more logistical stuff: The Ewha program is larger than I thought it might be, though I don't know how it compares to Sogang and Yonsei (I expect it is somewhat smaller than those two, since it is less talked about). There are currently 7 levels (even though the website only advertised 6 last time I checked). Levels 1-4 have four to five classes of about 10-15 people each (my class is 15 people). There are three or so classes in level 5, two (I think) classes in level 6, and one small class in level 7. Almost every class, except one or two upper level classes, is tag-taught by two teachers. One teacher takes MWF, and the other teacher is TTh. Class starts at 9:10. We have a 10 minute break from 10:20 to 10:30, a 20 minute break from 11:40 to 12:00, and class ends for the day at 1:00. I haven't had a large amount of homework yet (about 1 hour per day).

The Ewha Language Center building is also fairly new and is a very pleasant space. It has a large atrium, an open-air study area, a convenience store, an internet lounge, and 6 or so floors of air conditioned classrooms. The classrooms are a good size, with enough room for all the students but not so large that you are ever too far away from the teacher.

The textbooks for all levels have been revised as of this year and are brand new. They've addressed comments and complaints about the previous versions, seemingly quite effectively. Apparently people wanted more emphasis on speaking practice, and this is now incorporated as an integral part of the textbooks. There are also workbooks for each level at least through Level 3 (I'm not sure about higher levels), and levels 1-3 have two-part textbooks (e.g. 3-1 and 3-2, similar to the way Sogang splits Level 3 into 3A and 3B). The grammar and directions are explained in English, Chinese, or Japanese for levels 1-2, and in Korean from Level 3 onward. Also, there is a short article about Korean culture at the end of each chapter, plus a poem or song. The textbooks are pleasant to look at and easy to navigate. They aren't as picture-dominated as the Sogang textbooks, but I think I actually prefer the look of the Ewha books.

So far, I enjoy both of my class's teachers. One of them (the MWF one) is younger and more peppy than the other, but both are very nice and helpful, and are very good teachers. I also really like the other students in my class. I believe 8 of them are Japanese, and there are several Chinese students, plus one from Singapore and a fellow American - a grad student who is the only guy in our class. Speaking of which, there are actually a good handful of guys in the Ewha language program (though only one teacher in the whole program is male). I'm told that the Ewha program historically attracted mostly Japanese and Chinese students, but I'd say that the current student body overall is slightly more than 1/3 Japanese and Chinese each, and slightly less than 1/3 "other" (some Americans, a New Zealander, a few Eastern Europeans, a Dane, etc.) 

That's it for now, I think. I'll probably also make a short post with more of my thoughts about Ewha vs. Sogang as far as curriculum goes. For those of you who might study in Korea in the future, I hope this was helpful!               

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Music Professors and My First Non-Subbed Korean Movie

Today, I finally got to meet a music professor at Hanyang University. The story of how I got in touch with him in the first place is pretty wacky insofar as how many coincidences it involved... really feels like the workings of fate, God, or something ^^.

Back when I was corresponding by email with my Korean host mom, I asked if I could bring a violin to practice at her home. She said that her older daughter (currently in the US) actually had left behind a violin that I could use, but she suggested that I bring my own strings in case the violin's strings were too old. Well, I had never actually changed a violin's strings before (lazy me always got it done at a shop), so I decided that rather than accidentally destroy their violin, I should probably learn how to change strings first. So during the two days between coming home from college and leaving for Korea, I took my violin to the local shop (Potter's Violins) and asked them to teach me. The guy who was assigned to change my violin's strings was a nice, young-looking Asian man I hadn't seen there before. My mom, as she told me later, had a sneaking suspicion that he looked Korean, so as he was finishing up, she casually mentioned that I was going to Korea over the summer. Immediately, he said, "Oh, are you Korean? So am I." As in Korean-Korean (born and raised in Korea) - and his father just happens to be a professor of trombone at Hanyang University, which just happens to be a 15 minute walk from my host family's apartment O.O Being the super nice and helpful guy that he was (really), he gave us his contact info and offered to put us in touch with his dad if I was interested in finding a good violin teacher for the summer. Yep, I feel pretty lucky...

Anyway, so I met his dad today, and he in turn kind of blew my mind with his own genorosity. Not only did he take half an hour to have tea with me (and my language-partner-turned-temporary-translator, the high school boy I met through my host mom - let's just call him DH), but he also called a colleague of his right then and there, a violin professor whom I'll meet on Thursday. Plus, he offered to pick me up from my apartment building and drive me to her studio since I don't know that part of the city. Plus, he mentioned that he's the conductor of the university church's choir and instrumental ensemble, and that I'd be welcome to join the ensemble if I wanted to (which of course I do; I was wondering how I could find an ensemble to join in Korea). Plus, he took DH and me out to lunch, at a really delicious restaurant (with the cheesy name of Bulgogi Brothers - it's a chain, but a good one). And then drove me back to my apartment. I don't think I could say kamsamnida enough times. 

Later in the day, I also decided to stop by the neighborhood gym to register as a member. My host mom had told me that there is an English-speaking trainer there every day until mid-afternoon, and she called ahead to tip him off that I was coming, thinking that it would be good if he could explain the machines to me in English. When I entered the gym, however, the guy behind the desk didn't seem to have any expectation of who I was, so I just did the registration transactions in Korean and left, figuring he must be a different guy. About half a block away from the building, though, someone came running after me, and it turned out to be the "English-speaking" trainer (whom I hadn't noticed in the gym). He explained to me (in rather difficult to understand English - eventually we switched to Korean instead) that he wanted someone to practice English with while exercising, so we traded phone numbers and we'll meet up at the gym again in the future.

This kind of thing, IMHO, is one very real advantage of doing homestay (which I hadn't necessarily expected): it's like I'm automatically being plugged into this great network of human connections. I feel like I'm meeting and interacting with a much broader slice of Korean society than I would if I were only living with and hanging out with other students (foreign or not). And it's probably extra-advantageous for someone who tends to be kind of quiet and shy like me... I usually don't "put myself out there" very much, so I might not have met all these people if I were left solely to my own devices. 

As a last note on today, I saw my first non-subbed Korean movie. I went along with my host family to the Lotte Cinema at Cheongnyangni train station (I think it's the one on the Jungang line), and we saw White: The Melody of the Curse (화이트: 저주의 멜로디). It's a horror flick, which is honestly my least favorite kind of film. But I was happy to understand perhaps 10% of the movie (and the key plot points that I couldn't follow were explained to me afterwards by my host mom). The movie probably wasn't bad as far as horror films go, but it wasn't exactly anything especially groundbreaking or fresh; the "horror" aspect was pretty standard, with sudden loud noises, eerie music, hyperventilating breaths, screams, gouged eyeballs... yeah, you get the point. Not the kind of thing I personally would ever want to see again, but if you're into horror and happen to be in Korea, give it a try.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

5/20/11: Buyeo and Jeonju

Today was the first day of our 7-day tour of the mainland with HanaTour. We’ll be making a circuit of the country mostly along (or close to) the coast, starting from Seoul and going counterclockwise. To start off, we headed south to Buyeo, where we visited Busosan Fortress (부소산성) and Nakhwaam Cliff (낙화암). Busosan Fortress is thought to have been constructed in 538 CE to protect Sabi, the capital of the Baekje Kingdom. There isn’t much left of the original fortress, but we did climb up to Baekhwajeong Pavilion (백화정) at the top of Nakhwaam Cliff. Nakhwaam itself is most famous as the “rock of falling flowers,” so named because the women of Baekje jumped to their deaths when the kingdom was defeated by the Shilla-Tang Alliance. Hiking down from the cliff, you can also visit the small Goran Temple (고란사), named after a local medicinal herb. Legend has it that consuming a cup of water from the spring behind the temple will make you three years younger, but of course it really isn’t different from any other drinking water.

After Buyeo, we continued on to Jeonju, Jeollabuk-do, where we visited the Jeondong Cathedral, dedicated to Korea’s first martyrs (from the 18th century). The cathedral itself dates back to 1913 and is the largest Western-style building in the Jeollabuk-do and Jeollanam-do provinces. Designed by a Norman priest, it features a beautiful combination of Byzantine and Romanesque architecture and is definitely worth a visit. We also had a brief tour of the Hanok Village (한옥마을) in Jeonju, which features more than 800 traditional Korean hanok houses. The roofs in this village are unique, being slightly curved up towards the sky. Other features common to all hanok houses are the traditional sub-floor heating system, ondol, and the division of the houses into sarangchae (where the men live) and anchae (the secluded part where the women live).

While in Jeonju, we also learned how to make a traditional Korean “fragrance pocket” – basically a form of potpourri. We filled pouches with dried plant materials such as cinnamon bark, cedar wood, and cloves (there were many others, but I can’t remember all the names, as they were in Korean). The pouches smelled quite nice (almost like curry, which is odd since no curry was involved), but I ended up leaving them behind when I packed tonight, since I don’t want all of my luggage to smell like an herb shop ;)

Thursday, June 9, 2011

The Yale Club of Korea, Alley Cats, and an Adventure...

Once again, I've fallen woefully behind on blogging... somehow it's hard to find the motivation after a long day of walking till I'm ready to collapse (as has tended to happen in recent days). Plus, I'm still figuring out the quirks of Blogger and how to work around them. As of now, however, I'm more permanently settled down in Seoul for the rest of the summer, so I hope to catch up on my posts over the next several days now that I'm not traveling so much. 

At any rate, a couple of things that happened today will be particuarly memorable for me, whether because they were awesome, hilarious, painful, or just kind of strange....

In the morning, we took a trip to Daejeon (about an hour away from Seoul by train). "We" includes my mom, me, and also a new acquaintance of ours: a highschooler who is a family friend of my homestay host family. He'll be moving to the U.S. in the fall for the rest of high school, so we're hoping to meet regularly as language partners until then - a win-win situation. Anyway, the reason I came up with this day trip was that Hyechon College in Daejeon has the world's biggest carillon, with 77 bells. For those who don't know, I'm a member of the Yale University Guild of Carillonneurs, so naturally I was pretty interested in seeing the instrument for myself. We managed to show up just in time to climb the tower as the 12:00 ring happened. I didn't get to play the carillon because they usually only play a single automated piece, but the carillon sounded great. I'll write more about it in a separate post for those who might be interested.

We didn't have much time in Daejeon, but we managed to squeeze in a visit to the National Museum of Science located in the Expo Park. It was pretty interesting, but I think it's mainly fitting as a great place to have an elementary school trip... It was kind of like all the Smithsonian museums in Washington DC crammed into one building, with corresponding less in-depth exhibitions and several odd juxtapositions (e.g. a mammoth skeleton next to a display on nano technology). 

Anyway, after that, we had to rush back to Seoul so that I could get to the Yale Club of Korea's annual summer dinner reunion. Even though my host mom went to the trouble of hand-drawing a (good) map of the area around the building I was headed for, I still managed to get lost and walked probably a good two miles in foot-torturing dress sandals before I managed to find the place (after asking someone on the street for directions). It was totally worth it though; it was so much great to meet up with my school friends at last, and also meet other students I didn't know well, plus a couple of awesome alumni. One of them is married the manager of BEAST and 4minute (!). After the reception, there was a superb performance by the Yale Alley Cats. It was not only side-splittingly hilarious (they're really gifted at physical comedy, not just singing), but also unexpectedly moving: it turned out that one of their former members, originally class of 2012 until he was drafted by the South Korean military, managed to get three days of leave and make a surprise appearance tonight. All around, it made for an unforgettable night. 

On the way home, even though I now knew where I was going, it was a long walk to the subway station and my feet were killing me, and it started to rain on top of it all. Thankfully I managed to make it underground without falling or getting soaked. When I finally got to my home subway station 11 stops later, though, I nearly got lost finding the exit (coming from a line I haven't used much yet). Then, just when I finally figured out where I was, someone tapped me on my shoulder from behind.

Thinking what a coincidence it would be if I had just run into someone I knew, I turned around... only to see a Korean ahjusshi I had never seen before in my life. He asked in English if I could speak Korean, and I answered yes... a little... and he started going on in Korean about how he wants someone to speak English with, where was I from, what am I doing in Korea, etc. Long story short, he didn't seem like a total creeper (I'm hoping he's just really friendly), so I let him walk and talk with me most of the way home (he apparently lives in a nearby complex). We traded basic contact info, so I might meet him again sometime if he still seems okay and wants to practice English or something.

What I really got out of this strange experience for now, though, was the feeling that I hit a really nice milestone tonight: I understood at least 95% of his side of the 15 minute conversation. I knew my listening comprehension has improved a LOT in last few weeks, but that honestly surprised me. Of course, the quality of my answers in Korean undoubtedly left something to be desired (and the conversation topics were fairly mundane)... but I'll be working on that ^_^. Can't wait for Ewha to start!

Sunday, May 29, 2011

A Brief Review of HanaTour of Jeju

In the background is the faint outline of Hallasan,
the main volcano of Jeju.
The tour with HanaTour wasn’t quite what I had in mind when I thought of visiting Jeju. I would prefer more of visiting the natural/environmental attractions (e.g. Sunrise Peak, the Olle trail, etc.), and left to my own devices, I’d skip the circuses, glass museum, and horseback riding (which all screamed “tourist trap”). But in the end, it wasn’t a bad tour; the guide was talkative and nice, the whole trip was well-organized, and we managed to pack a lot of stuff into just two and a half days (arguably too much stuff, as I often just wanted a break in the middle of the day). The real problem, I think, was just that I clearly was not the intended customer: a Korean who wants to get away from the mainland for a couple of days and do some fun stuff he or she normally doesn’t get to do, besides just hiking around in the fresh air. For those who don’t fit this description, like me, there are undoubtedly more suitable tour packages out there. As a final note on my experience, I don’t think that Jeju Island itself is overrated at all. The tourism industry is front and center in Jeju for a reason: there are truly some spectacular works of nature here, and the historical culture is likewise unique.  

Saturday, May 28, 2011

5/18/11: Tour of Jeju-do Continued

We started off today with an elephant show. Similar to the glass museum and yesterday’s circus, it was basically a tourist trap with no relation to the historic or natural assets of Jeju, but it was engineered for a good crowd reaction. I do tend to question the use of animals in circuses, but I can also see the viewpoint that when done well, it’s not more objectionable than, say, training horses to compete in dressage. The elephants did seem well-cared-for and relaxed, and they definitely liked receiving bananas from the audience (if you gave the elephants money instead, they passed it on to their riders).
A couple of cranes at EcoLand.
Can you tell they aren't real? ;)

We then took a forest train tour of the EcoLand theme park. Some of the scenery was nice, but as the tour was only in Korean, I missed the explanations of the features of the preserved forest. There wasn’t much to speak of in terms of fauna, and it seems the park management tried to compensate by putting in fake animal models (!).

After EcoLand, we visited a horseback riding operation, where members of our tour group got to ride a few laps around a small field. The horses seemed to know their job extremely well, going automatically in a group around the same track that they always did, but I had to feel bad for their rather rote existence. At least they all appeared to be in good condition physically. Perhaps to differentiate between the tourists and staff, all tourists had to wear bright red vests and black cowboy-style hats, which were pretty silly looking (and had no protective value whatsoever; I was very surprised they had no helmet requirement, but perhaps Korean culture isn’t as sue-happy as American culture). 

An original dol hareubang
After the horseback riding, we headed to a preserved traditional Jeju village, including thatched buildings and original, several-hundred-years-old basalt statues known as dol hareubang ( 하르방); the name means “stone grandfather” in Jeju dialect. The statues were intended to protect against demons, and similar dol hareubang are still found commonly throughout the island, to the point of being an iconic feature. While at the village, we also got to try a drink prepared from ohmija (오미자), the berries of Schisandra chinensis. The drink supposedly has health benefits, but at any rate, it was delicious – somewhere between cranberry juice, grape juice, and honey.
A painting inside
Micheon Cave.
(I like the reflection.)

We also visited Micheon Cave (미천굴), a lava tube of which only 365m (out of 1.7km) is open to the public. Though not quite pristine and secluded (having been well-developed as a tourist attraction), it was a pleasant walk, especially as the cave was a cool refuge from the increasingly warm and humid weather outside. The surroundings above ground had also been developed with various gardens and a collection of interesting stone statues, including a ~5m tall dol hareubang.

A view from near the top of Sunrise Peak.

Our last main stop of the day was Seongsan Ilchubon (성산 일추본), aka “Sunrise Peak” (it offers a spectacular view of the sunrise, which we unfortunately didn’t get to witness). Sunrise Peak features a large crater at the top and nearly vertical cliffs. The climb is fairly steep and takes about 20 minutes at a good clip, but it has a good staircase all the way up – no real hiking or rock climbing. The view from the top is breathtaking in every sense of the word, and more than worth the exercise it takes to get there.

Dinner was at a seafood shack right next to the ocean. The main dish was a kind of seafood rice porridge, which might not sound particularly interesting, but was actually very delicious and hearty. 


5/17/11: Tour of Jeju-do

Beautiful Jeju! Taken from the deck of the submarine Jiah.
On our first full day in Jeju, HanaTour first took us to a glass museum. It turned out to be a kind of theme park with outdoor displays of glass trees, flowers, animals, sculptures, etc., as well as a few indoor exhibits of glasswork from around the world (e.g. Venetian glass and Bohemian glass). To be honest, the whole place felt rather on the kitschy side, but most people seemed to enjoy the photo-ops. Afterwards, we went to another event that I was surprised to find on our itinerary: a circus. The main attraction was the final act, in which up to six men at once rode motorbikes at high speed in a spherical cage with a diameter of perhaps 20 feet. I really don’t know how they learned/rehearsed the moves without suffering debilitating accidents…

Green tea plantation.
 Following the circus, we went to the O'Sulloc Tea Plantation. It was a sunny day, so the rows of green tea bushes were quite beautiful. Per our tour guide’s recommendation, we each tasted a leaf picked straight from the bushes; it was very bitter.

After lunch, we headed to the Cheonjiyeon waterfalls (천지연폭포). The bridge to the waterfalls offered spectacular views of the surrounding landscape, and the main waterfall, while not exactly Niagara Falls, was still worth the visit.


The main waterfall at Cheonjihyeon.
We then had a tour of an orchard, where several Jeju specialties were grown: a seedless orange-like citrus fruit known as hallabong (한라봉), kumquats (called 금귤 [geumgyul]), and sanghwang mushrooms (상황버섯). The flowers of the hallabong trees smelled absolutely heavenly; the fragrance was very similar to that of acacia blossoms. The mushrooms were also very interesting: they grow on tree stumps and take three years of cultivation to be harvest-ready. Within the Eastern medicine tradition, it has long been thought to have medicinal properties, and those claims may have some truth to them: a Boston University School of Medicine study in 2006 found that extracts of the mushroom boosted the efficacy of a chemotherapy drug.  

Geumgyul, aka kumquats.
Sanghwang mushrooms being
cultivated on chunks of trees.

The diver following the submarine.
After the orchard, we were treated to a ride on the Jiah submarine, which went to a depth of about 40 meters. A diver followed the submarine and fed the fish, which clearly knew to expect dinner. Lastly, we took a short walk along a portion of the Olle trail (a 200-km walking path, much of which is along the pristine coastline) to see the Oedolgae Rock (외돌개), a 20m high volcanic basalt pillar. K-drama tidbit: a little further along the trail is the place where the death of the character Han Sang Gung was filmed for the popular 2003 drama Jewel in the Palace, aka Daejanggeum (대장금).     

Oedolgae. Some say it resembles a
grandmother's head...

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

5/16/11: Welcome to Jeju-do

Sleeping dragon?
Volcanic rocks along the coast of Jeju.
We transferred to Jeju this afternoon via a 50-minute flight from Gimpo International Airport. Jeju is a volcanic island south of the mainland, and it’s an extremely popular tourist destination, especially for honeymoons. After meeting up with our tour group (in which there actually was a young couple on their honeymoon), we got started with sightseeing right away, climbing Yongnuni Oreum (용눈이오름). The name literally means “Dragon Eye Mountain”; apparently, some say that the crater on top looks like a dragon’s eye from above, while others say that the mountain (really a parasitic volcano) looks like a sleeping dragon. The climb was a bit steep at times, particularly on the descent, and it would have been quite slippery in the damp weather were it not for the strips of rope pressed into the trail. The cool, wet weather didn’t offer the most picturesque conditions (the view was mostly obscured by mist), but it was very refreshing after being on a plane and a bus. By the time we made it down from the mountain, it was already dinnertime (for which we went to a shabu-shabu restaurant), so that was about it for today.  

Monday, May 23, 2011

Changdeok Palace

Here are some more pictures and trivia from our visit to the rear garden of Changdeok Palace in Seoul:
Can you see the small gates on either side of the main gate? (You can enlarge
the picture.) Those forced visitors to bow when approaching the king.
There's a myth that 10 years are added to your life if you walk through this arch.
One of the beautiful paintings on the pavilion ceilings.
Another unique pavilion, viewed from what some claim is the most scenic
vantage point in the garden.
Animal figures on the pavilion roofs protect against evil spirits.
Bonus picture from Korea House: So many dishes! You don't order them
individually; they all come as part of a traditional meal.

5/15/11: The First Day

Not surprisingly, jetlag and tight travel schedules combined to make me fall behind on posting right from the start, so I apologize if the chronology of these first few catch-up posts is a bit confusing. The posts are written according to the dates I’ve put in the titles, not according to the dates they were actually posted.
**
We arrived in Seoul yesterday afternoon after a 14-hour flight with Korean Air. The flight was surprisingly comfortable, with the most leg-room I’ve ever seen in economy class, but we were all extremely tired by the time we got to the Lotte City Hotel in Gongdeok-dong. Of course, thanks to our internal clocks, we nevertheless woke up bright and early today (5:30am).

A peaceful path at Ewha, on the way to the language center.
Around mid-morning, we took a shuttle to Ewha Womans University to see the campus where I’ll be studying later this summer. The Ewha campus is famously beautiful, and I think it lived up to our expectations. It was very peaceful and refreshing to walk around; it probably was especially quiet because it was a Sunday morning. The flowerbeds were all in full bloom as well along the main walkways. Although we didn’t make it all the way around the whole campus, we did find the building where the Ewha Language Center is based. Conveniently, Severance Hospital (where I’ll be receiving allergy treatments) is literally right across the street from the ELC building.

Just across from the Ewha main gate, we popped into a FamilyMart (a ubiquitous chain convenience store) to buy T-money cards for the subway. (It turns out that you can also use T-money to buy snacks and drinks at FamilyMart.) We then headed to Changdeok Palace (창덕궁) for a tour of the secret garden (비원), also known as the rear garden (후원). I'll have a separate post about Changdeok Palace so that I can better do it justice with plenty of captioned photos. For now, here's a teaser ;)

According to the tour guide, this is Korea's (and maybe the
world's?) only pavilion with a double, hexagonal roof.
After Changdeok Palace, we took the subway to meet my future home-stay host. She drove us to her apartment in Eungbong-dong, Seongdong-gu, where she lives with her husband and 16-year-old daughter (who I think may actually be 14 or 15 by American counting; Koreans often count age from conception, and sometimes also add a year on January 1st instead of on one’s actual birthday). She also has an older daughter studying abroad in an American high school. The family lives in an 18th floor apartment with a truly spectacular view of the Han River – I was amazed when I stepped into their living room! Thanks to my host’s generosity, I was able to drop off my violin and a small extra bag for safekeeping so I won’t have to lug them around while touring the country. My host also lent us two Korean cellphones – I’m so happy to be able to text in Hangeul ^_^.

In the evening, we went to Korea House (한국의집) for dinner. Korea House, which features traditional Joseon architecture, was originally the private home of a famous Joseon scholar-politician, Bak Paeng-Nyeon. Nowadays, it is a popular tourist destination because it offers traditional meals followed by a performance of traditional Korean music and dances. In classic Korean fashion, meal was quite elaborate, with a large variety of small dishes. The music and dance performance showcased several traditions, but unfortunately we were all so jetlagged that we kept nodding off throughout the whole thing – except for during the pungmul (풍물) performance, in which the handheld gongs kept us wide awake. The intricate patterns created by the long ribbon attached to the sangmo (상모) headdress were also fascinating to watch.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Introduction

안녕하세요! I’m a U.S. student who just completed my freshman year in college. In this blog, I will chronicle my experiences and observations as I travel and study in South Korea this summer, from May through August. My mother is Korean, but I don’t consider myself to have had a great deal of exposure to Korean culture, and I’ve never visited Korea before. This past school year, however, I started studying the Korean language and also watching Korean dramas (I think I’m an official K-drama addict now). As I became increasingly fascinated with the language, culture, and history of my mother’s homeland, going to Korea as soon as possible became one of my principal goals.

For the latter half of May, I will be traveling around Korea with my parents, starting with Jeju-do and then completing a circuit of the mainland with HanaTour. By the middle of June, my parents will leave and I’ll begin the Intensive Language Program at the Ewha Language Center, which is run by Ewha Womans University [sic]. While studying at Ewha, I’ll be staying with a Korean family I found through Korea Homestay (korea-homestay.com) – more on that later.

If there’s any Korea-related subject that you are particularly interested in reading about (e.g. famous sites, cuisine, music, dramas, etc.), just let me know by commenting on a post, and I’ll do my best to follow up!