Thursday, April 23, 2015

Taekgyeon, and an exciting announcement!

My friend and fellow blogger Eleanor writes books, and as such she also reads plenty of them. The other day, she sent me a link to a blog post about a YA series called Prophecy in which the Korean martial art taekgyeon (택견*) is featured. Here's the blog post; it's a great primer on this unique and relatively unknown sport!

My taekgyeon black belt!
For about a year and a half, I studied taekgyeon in Changwon. I went to the dojang (gym) almost every weeknight and learned about roundhouse kicks and trips, poomsae, and a smattering of hapkido skills. I became very close with my gwanjangnim (master), and I think I made him proud when I achieved my first-degree black belt before I left Korea.

(Gwanjangnim mailed it overseas to me, and I received it a few months ago. That, along with my former students' Christmas cards last winter, are among the best packages I have ever received. A photo of the black belt, certificate, and special dobok (uniform) are on the left.)

About a week ago, gwanjangnim emailed me to ask if I could help him translate a few articles he needed to present on for a class. He's working on a PhD, too, in exercise psychology. As bizarre as it may sound, a lot of the instruction in Korean graduate schools is done in English, and many programs expect a certain level of fluency in English from their students, whether or not English factors at all into their future careers. Anyway, I did this favor for gwanjangnim, and then I broke the news that I'm about to tell all of you dear readers:

I received a scholarship that will allow me to spend this summer in Korea. I'm going back!

The scholarship is from Berkeley, and the funding will allow me to participate in a language program of my choice. Of course, my choice is the Language Education Institute at Seoul National University, so that's where I'll be for the duration of June and July. While I'm there, I hope to connect with some linguists at that university and conduct some of my own research on the Korean language.

Also while I'm there, I will make frequent trips to Insadong, Seoul's famous "traditional" neighborhood, where weekly taekgyeon performances and demonstrations are held. I hope to be able to find a good dojang in Seoul and show gwanjangnim what I've learned when I visit Changwon. Obviously, I've lost a lot of my skill in the nine months since I returned to the United States.

But anyway, this is good news! I will of course revive this blog to update everyone on what I'm up to in Seoul this summer. Thanks for reading; you will hear back from me again soon! (In the meantime, you can check out my grad school blog here.)

*Because of differences in romanization styles, 택견 can be written as taekkyon, taekkyeon, taekgyeon, or even t'aekkyŏn. I write it the way I do because that's how it's spelled on my uniform.

P.S. Happy Earth Day! 지구의 날 축하해!
Blogger Tricks

Saturday, September 27, 2014


I forget things easily, and I'm sad to admit it. The other day I was browsing my Facebook news feed when I saw that one of my former students had changed his cover photo to a cute picture of his entire class. I smiled when I saw the picture, then clicked on it to take a closer look. I saw three rows of familiar faces smiling for the camera, hands in the familiar "V"-sign I'd even begun to use after living in Korea for two years.

Nobody was tagged in the photo yet, so I tried to remember the names of the students in that particular homeroom class. And that's when I realized that I couldn't. Many names came back to me easily, but others escaped me completely. I had iterations of various Korean names floating around in my head, but I couldn't attach them to faces. I almost panicked because it dawned on me that my attachment to Korea has already begun to weaken and fade. I've been home for almost two months, haven't seen my students in nearly three, and despite all the messages I send on Facebook or the photos and status updates they post every day, I am beginning to forget who they are.

On one hand, this is only natural. We can pour our hearts out onto people and connect in life-changing ways, but when it's time to move on, the old links break while new ones form; the empty jar gets filled with other people. Social media and other forms of technology can only sustain it for so long. Maybe we just wern't meant to keep in touch with everyone forever.

Which do I fear more, forgetting or being forgotten? I hope that I left a lasting legacy on my students, at my school. But I know full well that I will eventually become nothing more than a memory, maybe also a photo. Courtney, who is now teaching at my school, has been doing an amazing job with my old students, as far as I can tell. And I'm happy about it. If they have so much fun in her class that they forget all the (boring) things that I ever taught them, I'll have peace of mind. But the jealous litle devil in me also wants them to miss me. To think, "I wish Andrew Teacher were still around," even though it's just a pipe dream.

Well, Courtney messaged me the other day with a photo she took of a second-year student's journal entry. And when I read what JH had written, I felt all warm inside. It really made my day.
"Since I have lived quiet good life, I have a lot of great memories. First, it is meeting teacher Andrew in CSHS. Andrew teacher is the most intelligent and kind teacher who I have ever met include Korean and foreigns. He always cheer us and keep us think optimistically. After I graduate BS in university, I'm going to meet him in US."

If you look carefully, you'll see that JH's second great memory is meeting Courtney at CSHS. I'm just so thrilled that English educators are making an impact on this young person's life. Maybe five or ten years down the road, he won't remember much of anything about either of us. (And maybe five or ten days for now I'll have forgotten what he looks like again.) But at least for now, we can know that we've done some good.

- - -

On another note, I will be closing this blog at the end of September. This is probably going to be my last post. There are some other things I've had sitting around in my drafts for a while, but it's unlikely that I'll ever get to them. If something does come up in my future that brings me back to Korea, then I see no reason why I wouldn't write again. But in the meantime, I'm starting up a new blog, this time on WordPress, that will document my adventures in graduate school. You can find it here.

I have loved writing and photographing my time in Korea, and I thank all my readers for having joined me at one time or another. If you were a friend from home, or the random parents of friends, or a complete stranger who stumbled across this by accident, thank you all the same! I hope you learned a thing or two and were inspired, possibly, to think or write or create in some way for yourself.

안녕히계세요. Peace.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge has reached Korea

They're using the hashtag #아이스버킷챌린지, and their videos having been popping up on my NewsFeed all week. Yes, the Internet's most viral meme of the moment has hopped across the Pacific from the US to Korea. I've watched dozens of videos of my friends and students dumping (very large) buckets of water on their heads, and it's entertaining every single time! It's the funniest when I see my students sitting cross-legged in the school showers, flinching right before their friends gleefully drench them. I'm very happy to see them doing their part to raise awareness for ALS (Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig's Disease/루게릭병) and for the Korean ALS Association.

In addition to my students, at least one fellow CSHS teacher has risen to the challenge -- his Facebook video was Liked by basically the entire population of the school, including me. I have also seen a few of my Taiwanese friends jump on the bandwagon, and now I wonder if the Ice Bucket Challenge has successfully made it all the way around the globe yet?
Well, I guess it was only a matter of time before someone nominated me. To my surprise, however, it was one of my Korean students, not an American friend! There are just two problems, though...

The first is that California is suffering from an extreme and devastating drought, and to fill and immediately empty a bucket of water for no reason other than to make a thirty-second video is a senseless waste of resources.

The second is a bit more trivial, but I maintain a bit of my teaching persona with my students even though I am Facebook friends with them and no longer even their teacher. So, I asked JH to translate her challenge into English so that I could understand it, first. ;)

Whatever your views on the Ice Bucket Challenge -- there are a dozen different ways to spin it -- I'm a fan. If you've otherwise been ignoring the fad, at least educate yourself and look up what ALS is, and donate if you can.

Oh, and if you want to watch a bunch of Korean celebrities get soaked... here's a fun collection of videos. (Makes me wish I could turn my friends' Facebook videos into gifs...)

Monday, August 25, 2014

Korean Snack Fix

Skatewing is 홍어, better known as "fish fermented in its own pee." They also have radish kimchi, which I really like! All of these side dishes are in a huge bar in the Han Kook Supermarket, but no tasting, please!
Welcome to the Bay Area, where those who are nostalgic about the great food they had in Asia never have to travel far to find it again. I helped my brother and sister-in-law move into their new place in the South Bay. Luckily for them, not ten minutes away there are a huge number of Asian markets and restaurants, including the enormous Han Kook Supermarket (한국슈퍼마켓) in Sunnyvale. I went to check it out with my aunt and uncle, who told me they like to get Korean side dishes (반찬) there.

The place is like a miniature E-Mart. Most of it is groceries with goods imported from Korea, Japan, and possibly Taiwan, but there are also small sections for accessories, beauty products, and electronics, just like in a typical department store. I amused myself by reading the English translations of snacks and foods that I'd learned only in Korean.
Everyone knows Choco Pie, right? It doesn't need an explanation in Korea. But in America, they have to make sure you know that the stuff in the middle is marshmallow filling, and also that "IT'S FLUFFY." 
My absolute favorite milk shake in a bag, 설레임, has been translated as "snow ice." Well, 설 does mean "snow," but I never really understood what "레임" meant. It certainly doesn't mean "ice," since that would be the more recognizable (and more delicious) 설빙 (Sulbing)! Anyway, I succeeded in getting my family hooked on 설레임.
My family also went to a Korean barbecue place for dinner last night, and it made me more than a bit nostalgic. I got to practice a bit of Korean with the waitstaff and explained what I knew about the different foods we ordered. I'm certainly going to look for my local Korean markets and restaurants in Berkeley; I'm very lucky indeed that I get to spend the next five years in Northern California.

On a related note, I thought this was really cute:

Monday, August 18, 2014

Paris Baguette (파리바게뜨) in Berkeley!

Can we take a minute to chuckle at how excited 1) all my Korean friends and 2) all my friends in Korea are over the discovery of the Korean bakery chain Paris Baguette in California? They're actually popping every in the Bay Area (and Los Angeles/Orange County), due in no small part to the ever-increasing number of Asian immigrants and Asian-American communities. I found one in Berkeley, right next to the Downtown Berkeley BART Station! It's like a taste of Korea (but definitely not like a taste of France, let's be real).

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Disappearing Languages and Other Things

Interesting stats about the language imbalance in the world and current efforts to translate the Bible into indigenous languages, shared with me by a friend who did two years of missions in western Afria.

About four years ago, my dream was to become a linguist for Wycliffe who would go to remote areas of the world to translate the Bible into indigenous languages. That's changed, and a part of me regrets that my life has taken a different direction. Of course, I say that I will do whatever and go wherever God calls me, but I wonder if I backed down from the idea of working with Wycliffe because I was intimidated by the notion of actually being a missionary?

When people from my Christian community back home learn that I've been in Korea teaching English, their first assumption is that I went abroad to do missions work and taught on the side. Actually, I went abroad to teach English, and didn't do any missions work on the side. To reiterate: not a finger did I lift to contribute to this great cause for which I purport to live. And when I clarify this, well, it becomes a bit awkward. I wonder if I've let them down in some sense.

Now, my time in Korea is over. Memories are starting to be replaced by photos and blog entries, people are losing reasons to stay in touch. I've been home for one week, and in two more, classes will begin: my first steps toward obtaining a PhD in linguistics. Five years down the road, I'll be a "doctor"... and then what? What will I do after that? Where will I go? God only knows. (And does anything I'd ever had planned even matter to Him?)

A new chapter begins... But the book of life metaphor isn't perfect, I must admit. In a book, I can always turn back to an earlier page, read it again, maybe add an annotation. Seems more like I'm reading a message I'd scratched in wet sand at the beach, only to have the water wash it away.

It's hard to remember things.

- - -

P.S. Unrelated: I found out recently that a friend and fellow Fulbrighter in my year is the granddaughter of WC Townsend, the founder of Wycliffe Bible Translators and SIL International! Wow! Also, one of the Fulbright Korea grantees this year is the grandson of Noam Chomsky. It's like the heirs of linguistic royalty are partying up in Seoul right now. Haha.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Home and Hair

When I returned home last week, it took a few days for everyone to get used to me, because I looked quite different from the last time they'd seen me. In particular, comments were made about my hair, which I'd had bleached to a sandy blond color. While I was expecting some adverse reactions, I didn't think my family's responses would make me laugh so much:

Said my grandfather, in Taiwanese, "Your hair is whiter than mine!"
Said my grandmother, "Andrew wants to look like a famous Korean singer!"
Said my mom's younger sister, "Wow, so cooool!" When she speaks in English, I can't tell if she is being sarcastic or not.
Said my 11-year-old cousin, visiting from overseas, in Chinese, "At first, I thought you were wearing a towel on your head. I thought you were grandma!"

My brother and sister-and-law and their dog are temporarily staying in the house, too, and Hoagie the 3-year-old beagle-basset hound mix wouldn't stop growling and barking at me when we met for the first time.

Said my father, "He doesn't like your hair."
Said my mother, "Why is your hair that color?"
Said my uncle, to my mother, in Chinese, "Wow, you have a 外國人 (foreigner) in your house now!"

Well, all I had to say to all of them was, essentially, "When in Rome, do as the Romans do." Or, "입향순속(入鄉隨俗)."

I then went off to a family wedding in Southern California, where the rest of my extended family commented on my hair, then greeted me, then wondered if I would be mistaken for a member of my cousin's fiance's family, who are Korean. As it turns out, while I had plenty of opportunity to practice Korean with the Kim family, I stuck to my own for the evening. It was a wonderful family reunion, the first time that everyone had been together at the same time since our grandfather's funeral last September (and probably the last time for another year or longer).
All nine cousins, plus spouses, plus A-ma! Such a happy reunion! :) Congratulations to Johanna and the newest family addition, Daniel! Photo taken by Jen Lee.
Now, I'm home and apartment-hunting full-time until school begins in a week and a half. It's lovely being back in California. I get to enjoy home-cooked meals, sunny, dry weather every day (although there is a drought...), and the freedom of having no plans and no responsibilities. But it won't be long before this awesome vacation ends...

Monday, August 11, 2014

"Enter Pyongyang" Hyperlapse Video Review

A friend shared this video on Facebook, and I had to take a look. First impression: it's well-crafted and beautiful as a film. No surprise there, since Vimeo is the video sharing site to go to if you have something pretty to share! I'm a sucker for timelapse and hyperlapse (that is, timelapse + shifts in perspective) videos anyway, so simply watching this was a treat.

I'm a little concerned about the message it's sending, however. The pros are that the video will dispel myths that Pyongyang is completely destitute, crumbling to pieces, and cut off from the outside world. These are pretty much untrue, but that doesn't mean it's, like, a nice place to live. So the cons are that the video can easily give a false idea of what Pyongyang, or even all of North Korea, is like.

Here's what I thought as I watched the video: where is all that light coming from? There is so little electricity available in the city. The cityscape is not that bright at night. The computeres in the grand library are only on for a few hours each day. And where is all that color coming from? Maybe my camera is not as nice as the equipment used for this video, but the dominant color in every photo I took in North Korea is gray.

The subway is exactly how I remembered it, though. Like my tour group, the filmmakers were only allowed to see the few nicest and busiest stations of the two-line system. Even though the platform was grand and lit up, the train was dated and dark inside. I was caught by surprise by a tender moment when the sped-up footage slowed down to show an old man entering the station, and again when it paused to let a traffic cop stop and chat with a lady pushing a stroller, again when a little girl at the roller-skating rink spotted the camera. These brief moments that revealed ordinary human actions and interactions did make me smile.

But again, that does not mean North Korean society is harmonious or normal by any standard. The filmmakers worked closely with Koryo Tours, a North Korean tourism company, so it's not surprising that the footage shown was neat, aesthetic, and even attractive. It's the image a tourism company wants you to see. It's also the fabricated facade that the DPRK's totalitarian regime wants you to see. They don't want you to see that the inside of the gorgeous pyramidal Ryugyong Hotel is skeletal and unfinished, only that the lawns on the outside are green. They don't want you to see the dilapidated apartments in the western parts of the city that have no glass in their windows, only the newly-constructed ones (that, despite their appearances, have their electricity shut off at night just like every other building in the city besides the monuments). They don't want you to see anything outside of the capital city, either: none of the concentration camps, the starving gangs of orphan children in the northeast, the abandoned factories that have produced nothing for decades, the hills stripped completely bare of their forests, the desperate men and women who smuggle food, drugs, and people across the border to China. None of these things are supposed to exist in the Kim dynasty's sterilized image of the Victorious Fatherland. It's not that I expect them to show up in what is essentially a three-minute advertisement, but I'll be frank: the North Korea that you have just seen is not the North Korea that you need to see.

This video used awesome technology and uplifting music to reinforce the idealized image of Pyongyang. I wouldn't call it propaganda, and it's not like anything shown in the video is actually fake. But it's easy for pretty things to convince the world that pretty is all that exists, and I caution any viewer from drawing the conclusion that because a couple of professional filmmakers were allowed to tour the capital of North Korea with their cameras, the entire country is actually brimming with "dynamism and [a] sense of potential."

North Korea is a long way away from really opening up to the outside world, but when it does, I hope that someone with the same advanced equipment as well as a heart for millions of oppressed and suffering people can enter and show us more than this.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

From Incheon Airport

On July 4th, 2012, I wrote:

"환영합니다! That means, 'Welcome!' I'm in Korea! That's all, bye!"

Lots of exclamation points.

It's August 7th, 2014.

잘 다녀오세요. That means, "Have a good trip." Literally, it means, "Go and come back well."

I'm leaving Korea! But I'll come back well.

Boarding now, bye!

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Last Night in Korea

And all of a sudden, it's my last night in Korea. Wait, what? In twelve hours, I'll be on my way to Incheon Airport with two suitcases and a backpack, and in twenty-four, I'll be landing in San Francisco. I'll be home so very soon.

I haven't gotten around to blogging as much as I'd intended to this past week, so here are a few quick updates:

1. After bumming around in Seoul for a few days, I went to Goesan for Fulbright Orientation where I led four workshops over a few days. Two workshops were for discussing identity: one to support LGBTQ-identifying ETAs and another to support Asian-Americans. The next workshop was to introduce different methods and resources for people who want to continue studying Korean on their own throughout the year. Many ETAs showed up to this talk, which was very encouraging. The last workshop was for all fifty secondary school ETAs; it was a crash course on how to plan a unit. Honestly, if there's one thing I can say about teaching, it's that one hour-long lesson isn't nearly enough for any topic in education. But just as important as preparation is practice, plain and simple. I've been pretty encouraged by the enthusiasm and earnestness I've seen in the new ETA class. I'm confident that they'll do a great job this coming year.
Katelyn, Tracey, Seijin, and Jemarley taking a break from Fulbright duties to play Bananagrams at a local makkeoli bar!
Judith's and my unknown reunion!
And I know I've already said this, but I'm especially excited about the teacher who will replace me at CSHS, Courtney, because she is determined to be exactly the kind of teacher I think is most effective: passionate, accessible, and involved in students' lives.

Unrelated: to my great surprise, one of the new ETAs, Judith, is actually a family friend! Her parents have been good friends with my parents ever since my family lived in Philadelphia (nearly thirty years ago)! And, awkwardly enough, we've even met. Four years ago, our parents' church had a reunion in Philadelphia, both Judith and I attended. So we met, took photos, and even played Bananagrams together! We obviously didn't leave very lasting impressions on each other, since both of us thought we were meeting for the first time last week. I think it's hilarious! The world of Taiwanese-Americans can be very small, indeed.

2. During the weekend, a typhoon was sweeping by Korea, and it brought a lot of rain with it. I'd planned to go hiking with a friend, but instead, we went to Cheongju, a smallish-city with not too much to do. However, it was still bigger than rural Goesan. (Aside from a new cafe/jam space on the outskirts of town, where I karaoke-d for hours on Friday night with new friends, there's nothing to do in Goesan.) Katelyn and I watched a movie, ate great 칼국수 and 빙수 and explored Cheongju's own "mural village", Suamgol, in the midst of a drizzle. It wasn't the most exciting thing to do, but after being cooped up in the marble halls of Jungwon University for four days, it was excellent.
Katelyn and me in the colorful Suamgol, Cheongju. Brownie points if you can spot what's wrong with this picture...
4. I spent a good chunk of my last full day in Seoul running errands, and it was more than a little frustrating. I had to cancel my phone contract and my bank account. Long story short, it was more of a hassle than I'd expected, mostly because I had to do almost every transaction in Korean! I'd thought that big branches of phone stores and banks would have some competent English speakers in the capital city, but that was not the case. Even the resident English speaker at the bank tried explaining the procedure to me for about five minutes before switching back to Korean. Ugh, Koreal life. I managed to get these two simple tasks done in three hours, and in the meantime I picked up a few useful vocabulary words, such as 계좌 ("account") and 해지하다 ("to cancel"). Whew.

Catan! Photo taken by Katelyn
5. And as for my last night in South Korea? I hung out in Hongdae and played Settlers of Catan with my friends (역시... I mean, what else? It's what I did on my "last night" in the US two years ago.). Ooh, we also got dessert from Ben's Cookies. Their milk chocolate-orange cookies are amazing!

It was a chill and really enjoyable evening. There's nothing else I'd have rather done!

Hm... so how do I feel? In all honesty, this night doesn't feel at all different from any other night I've spent hanging out with friends in Seoul. I have a feeling that the reality of leaving won't hit me until I'm en route to the airport, or maybe not even until I've boarded the plane. Nostalgia doesn't kick in as early for me as it seems to for other people. But that's not to say I'm not cherishing every last moment I have here. Even though those moments are dwindling, why waste any of them dwelling on the very fact that they are? Too meta and unproductive for me.

Next time you hear from me, I'll either be at the airport or at home.