Category Archives: Travel Journal: Korea

Photography Portfolio: Korea

Korea: September 1, 2009 – October 2, 2010

South Korea is a country of many extremes. From K-Pop obsession to identical high rises, to hagwon-ridden suburbia and road-side shacks, the country continues to baffle and surprise anyone who hopes to look for its secrets. (And there are many of them, for certain.) Rich in history, beauty, and (quite often) absurdity, Korea is a land worth exploring.

Well… today is my last day at work.

I’ve been woefully absent on my blog, but that’s because I’ve had so much to do. And, in some ways, Korea has really become regular, daily life that doesn’t really require a ‘blog.’

These days I’ve been training in the new teacher, Lauren, who is really competent. She has more training at this than either Emily or I had, and I know she’ll do just fine. She’s taught in the States, so she’ll have a huge heads up on both of us.

Right now, I feel a lot like I felt right before I moved to college. There’s a huge, exciting adventure ahead of me, but I don’t know how it will be, and I can’t imagine it at all. I don’t know if I’ll be ready. I don’t know if I’ll be able to handle it, but I do know that I want to do it, so that’s all I have right now.

It’s really hard to say goodbye to my baby students. I’m the only foreign teacher they’ve known, and they are 100% mine. They were really starting to drive me crazy, but they’re mine and only mine, so it’s hard to pass them on to someone else. As my first class, the one I like to call “Squirrel Kindergarten” left yesterday, telltale tears welled up in my eyes and I looked away, shooing them out before they saw me–because then I would have been DONE.

I try not to gloat. I try not to make it clear just how hard I worked to make these children love me–to be a good teacher, to teach them and help them and do what I thought was right. I try not to tell everyone how hard I worked to keep loving them even though everything around me told me that I shouldn’t. Everything around me said: “You are temporary, you don’t matter, this is just a business.” But I tried my best to make sure that even though that attitude got into me sometimes, that it never corrupted the reason I came into my classes every day. At least my babies. At least for my babies, I felt like I could do the best job I could do.

But there is a big difference between how things were then, and how they are now. The students’ parents know me. The students know I can speak Korean, at least a little bit, and that I care about their language. The teachers and the boss trusts me, and even the desk teachers are kind to me. I used to loathe how hard it was. Now I feel proud of the fact that I made it all this way. I dealt with kids with violent learning disabilities, kids with severe ADD, and all kinds strange and wonderful other things. I had virtually no training, and absolutely no warning. I worked hard. And I pulled through, and in the end, I’d say the vast majority of these kids are better off, or at least just not thoroughly damaged. I worked really hard for something positive, and I think I got it.

That said, I am really happy to be turning to the next thing in my life. This was in many ways the hardest thing I have ever done. Luckily, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, and after these last few days, I am sure that I have not been killed.

On Saturday, October 1, this blog will become Maggie Cube Goes to India! Stay tuned for the next exciting episode….

I have twenty four days left in Korea.

And I have some major goals to achieve.

1. Black Belt Test, September 19
Some of my students will be there, and that’s going to be pretty funny. They’re also testing, because it’s a nation-wide test date, and all the schools with students qualifying with be there. I’m super nervous. I’m really not that good, and I’m going to stand out like a sore thumb, watching people who I probably don’t know.

2. Visit Haeinsa Temple
I wanted to do a full out Temple Stay at Haeinsa, but it looks like that won’t be possible now–especially with my rigorous Taekwondo training schedule. (Training/playing, I must admit.) So I’m visiting the temple this weekend, hopefully getting in on Temple Stay, but otherwise, I’ll just get a cheap hotel, or make it a day trip. We’ll see.

3. Have a few really good Jjimjilbang nights.
My favorite Jjimjilbang has been closed for quite some time, but I’m looking forward to its triumphant return with a new set of saunas. I really hope that includes a new set of massage chairs–but the same set of people, who don’t complain or look at me funny when I use them. I want to go to Daejeon’s popular Rodeo Town spa, which is where doctor fish come around and eat the dead skin off your feet. Hopefully will be encountering that strange phenomenon tomorrow with Kristen.

4. Have a smashing good going away party.
Tentatively planned for Saturday the 25th, so all of you who I know and are on this list should keep it in mind. The plan is to eat at TGI Fridays, so that I can get some serious American food into me before I go to India and eat nothing but vegetarian for quite a while.

I’ll be planning snack and pizza parties for my students, and making them little cards… that process is going to be Chuseok, probably. Then the last week I’ll be training the new teacher. It seems like the year itself has flown by, but each day and each month has been really slow. I’ve got both my suitcases sitting out open right now, so that I can put things in them for donation and potentially mailing home. The donation one is full, but the mailing home is mostly full of winter things. Now that it’s almost two AM, and I’ve spent the whole night playing Civ 4, I feel a weird desire to do this kind of organization.

Passport Photos: Achieved!

Torturous task, but you feel a real sense of accomplishment once it is finished.

I went to go get passport photos taken at a small photo shop where I had printed photos before, and where I had my artwork once scanned. However, upon arrival, I discovered that the place was no longer a photo shop, and was in fact a pharmacy in the making. Frustrated, I tooled around on my bike until I found a little place that had the HP logo and the word Photo somewhere in its title. They didn’t look open, and had a sign that seemed to say “Be back in 15.” I came back in 15 (after trying to explain what I wanted at the post office, which was clearly not the place to go) but the sign remained. So. Nothing.

A few days later, after talking to my boss (she was also quite surprised that the photo shop was gone), Kim teacher told me to go to the baby photo place on the 3rd (or 4th) floor. I went. It was also closed–pretty empty, but I wasn’t sure if it was closed for lunch or closed forever. So, infuriated, I just went to the bank and turned in all my coins. (60,000 won, baby!) That was one task completed. However, they couldn’t transfer my visa money because I didn’t have proper identification. (American ID doesn’t cut it, and Korean Immigration had my passport and Alien ID card.) She kept saying: “Use the atm.” And I tried to insist that I couldn’t do it that way, because I needed the BANK receipt. Sigh. Uber frustration.

So I met up with Kristen and Emily, ate delicious Vietnamese food, and then returned to the HP place. As it turns out, it was NOT closed, but that was the back door, soo… I walked in and he was there, and he could do it, and for only 10,000 won (for six of them!). I collected them today–and he gave me a “wallet size” as “service”, but it’s pretty silly because I’m not smiling, have my hair shoved back, and couldn’t care less about my appearance. But hey! It works.

So that’s one visa task down. Next week I need to send the money, call the courier, and actually send the materials in. Then, within the week, I should have a visa for India. That will save me a lot of worry trouble. In the mean time, I continue to research graduate schools, instead of researching India–and doing the reading I promised myself.

Currently working my way through “The Valley of the Assassins, and Other Persian Travels” by Freya Stark. It’s kind of… classic Romantic travel, though it is a little later than the Romantic Period. (1920s, I think.) Regardless of how I am SUPPOSED to feel as an academic about Romanticized travel, I do love it. She uses flourishy language, big words, and describes the women like they were in movies. It’s a delightful break from over-analyzing and the constant desire in the modern day to not offend anybody.

Trying to arrange some kind of Temple Stay in the next month, but it’s annoyingly difficult. Blah.

Rushing through the red tape–in a different language.

This past week has been consumed with visa questions and stuff related to India. It’s all a little complicated, and not a little bit of it really frustrating.

In the end I know it’ll be worth it, but currently it makes me feel really powerless. At first, the travel agent with whom I booked the ticket had spelled my name wrong. This was causing problems because maybe the Korean government wouldn’t take that as proof that I was leaving the country. (Since my Korean visa is expiring on 9/2. They’re giving me an extension until 10/2, the date of my flight.)

The India visa process is very complicated. That on its own is causing consternation. I went to get passport photos only to discover that the photo shop was missing. That was pretty disappointing. I’d had some nice photos made there. That’s how things are in Korea, though–here one day, gone the next. And I do literally mean, gone the NEXT. Changed into something completely different.

Right now my passport is in the hands of the Korean government. As soon as I get it back, I have to send it to the hands of the Indian government in Seoul. I have to deposit a large sum of money into their account, and then I have to sit on my hands and wait until I get my visa.

In between that time, I have to study for my black belt test, which is rapidly approaching. Today, the sun is out and it’s cool–which is one of the best things to happen to us over here in several months. I’m hoping that the weather keeps this up so I can go to the beach tomorrow. There’s a nice one about two hours away from us, where I can relax, draw, and recoup from the extraordinary “Korea frustration” that I am feeling right now. It’s really hard to give a place any leeway when you’re about to leave. Everything is too difficult to deal with, or makes you furious.

The good news, though, is that I’m laughing a lot more with my kids, and I’m a lot more lenient with them these days. We’re giggling over silly things, having good fun with coloring and other things, and they seem to be enjoying class more often. Next week, I start another baby class, so I get to give some more students English names and introduce them to the first words of their second language. That’s always fun and adorable.

Some notes, and some things about vacation

I never finished my vacation chronicle, but there wasn’t really much to say. Sokcho was interesting, but a little weird–things had really exploded there and so it turned into a resort town that my meager wallet wasn’t happy with. I wandered through fish restaurant street, saw a beautiful temple on the sea, and went up to the top of one of Seoraksan’s famous mountains–mostly to see nothing because it was raining and I was, hence, in a cloud. I stayed in a creepy, but cheap yeogwan with sweet old ladies. The room had no window and no fan, so it was quite stuffy, but they did have air con and a regular style bed. The elevator was the freakiest part–and because I didn’t want to climb up five flights in a rickety, blinking metal box–I decided to take the stairs. That was scarier still, I realized (though not enclosed–except by darkness) as I found my way up five flights of stairs in the dark. The rest of the building’s floors were empty, you see, and being behind the fish market at midnight was, well, rather frightening. Luckily, though I wasn’t worried–Only that it would be too expensive–and I enjoyed two nights at a price I wanted.

Here’s a picture of the beautiful temple in Sokcho–Naksansa. I recommend it to any temple enthusiast. It’s on the ocean and it’s BEAUTIFUL. Anyway, I’m saving up my words because I’m going to write about it in my next article for Teach ESL Korea.

In other news–I have two kindergarten students who are in love. It’s absolutely amazing. They have the same absurd “I love my life” personality. He has the most intoxicating laugh. Neither of them have their front teeth. She is always in her taekwondo uniform, with enormous eyes and this squirrely squiggily disposition. They talk to each other with this unbelievable authenticity, completely engrossed in each other without any concern for the outside world. I’m not even sure that it’s occurred to them that they’re in love, and that’s why it’s so great. On Friday, I was teaching the class, and they were twitching out as usual, but the whole time they were just talking seriously, and he was curling her hand into a little fist–the hand that only has three fingers. The Korean coteacher told me that lately the kids are realizing that she only has three fingers on one hand, and that they’re teasing her about it.  But not him. He’s just curious. And like someone who’s head over heals in love in a 100% healthy way, he’s just interested in everything about her, including the things that other people think are faults.

Makes me believe in love again, I’ll tell you that.

New Artwork!

Well, after a long time of chasing down a “boksa” shop, or photocopy shop, I ended up at this small place near Chungnam University, where the employees allowed me to scan my art (in English Photoshop, no less!) for a mere 3,000 won. It was great. So I have a few new images–and some higher quality scans of the old ones.
(Clicking on an image will take you to a full sized one.)

This one is called “You can’t stop this.” I scanned it back in January, but the quality was weak. This is a much better scan, despite the water damage, which is almost invisible.

This one is called “Keep it in Perspective”, and it was actually the last one I did from my old sketchbook. It remained unfinished for a really long time because of the water damage, but then I came back to it, fixed it up, and now I think it’s going to be a prize–as a print, of course, but the original might sell someday, despite the discoloration that I took out of the corner.

I have three more that I’ll share at a later date, and a lot more left to scan as well, but that’s a job for a different weekend, I think.

I’m taking off tomorrow for a long travel trip, bopping around various places that are on my list. I don’t have to work for seven days–which is the longest I’ve gone without working since I got here. I’m a little overwhelmed by the sheer amount of free time. In fact, one of my Korean coworkers said to me: “I don’t WANT vacation–I don’t want to deal with my son! He drives me crazy!”