Gapyeong and more

Trip Start Apr 01, 2007
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of Korea Rep.  ,
Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Hello everyone! It's a rainy night here in Incheon, which is actually a great thing considering two things: first, it forces me indoors to write my next blog entry, which is a long-time coming. Secondly, it will hopefully lessen the harmful effects of the yellow dust that has been annoying my throat since I have been here. For those unaware, yellow dust is the Gobi Desert sand blown from China via the strong easterly winds. This is one of the many Chinese gifts (colonization also) that annoy Koreans. The following experts are from the last three weeks. I'm currently in the middle of week 6 in Korea, time is flying!
Dr. Lee Dinner
During a rather uneventful Saturday a couple weeks back, I received a call to do Saturday school. Having nothing else to do, I agreed to come in. After a humorous cab ride with a driver who spoke little English and a passenger who spoke little Korean (me), I arrived with no idea what to expect. What I got was rather strange. The first class actually felt like teaching. I was using an ESL (English as a Second Language) book to guide kids through short stories and answer corresponding comprehension questions. However, the second class shattered my hopes of feeling like a legitimate teacher again. For a music class, the kids listen to a Michael Jackson song over and over trying to decipher the lyrics in various puzzles, utterly repetitive and horrible on the ears.
The best part about being a Saturday school teacher was the reward. To show his appreciation for the staff Dr. Lee, the owner of the school, took us all out to dinner. Considering he is one of Korea's richest men (a billionaire, though I'm not sure if in won or dollars...the exchange rate is 1000 won to a dollar), he footed the entire bill. We went to a Korean barbeque, where the food is prepared in a personal grill at each individual table, different from the Japanese steakhouse tradition of hibachi. In addition to delicious meat, we were also treated to countless bottles of beer and soju. It is tradition that all guests must pour a shot of soju for the host to recognize his generosity and show respect for his high standing (Confucian culture spin-off). Since there were at least 20 people there, Dr. Lee was no more sober than anyone else during the revelry. In fact, I was so un-sober that I could not make it to the third stop of the evening, though I did manage to sing a couple songs (probably out of tune) at the Noraebong (karaoke bar). I stubbled home, happy to take part in a Korean favorite, eating and drinking among friends.
Soccer Stars in Gapyeong
             Last weekend I had a fabulous weekend in this rural town where my friend form college, Nat, lives. Located on the eastern border of the province I live (Gyeonngi-do), it is a 2.5 hour bus ride or 4 hour subway, train extravangza. Unfortunately, Nat forgot to tell me about the bus on the way out, so I spent lots of time standing in crowded subways (always packed like sardines in the Seoul area) and sitting on the floor in a train (they sell way more tickets than there are seats = not comfortable!). When I finally met Nat, he greeted me with a smile and a question: you ready to go to the bar? Despite a heavy backpack and a desire to relax, I naturally said yes. We met two of his friends and the rest of the night was spent playing drinking games, laughing and going to bed relatively early (around 1ish).
             The sleep served us well for we needed all of it the next day. Nat's soccer team was playing in a soccer festival and I was to be the celebrated foreign guest. From the get-go I realized the perks of being a foreign teacher in a rural Koreign town. For one, Nat's apartment is massive and came completely furnished, and anytime he is hanging out with teachers or other community members, he never has to pay for anything. Breakfast was free, transportation was free, the tournament and all the delicious food and festivities, yeah you guessed it, free of charge. The stadium where the festival was held was as beautiful as it was quirky. Surrounded by mountains and newly bloomed flowers, the carefully groomed grass pitch (most fields are dirt in Korea) was a spectacle for the soccer lover and hater alike. Behind the stadium rose a giant amusement park complete with dinosaurs, rides and strange rock outcropings. The venue definitely lived up to its name: "The Field of Dream," taken from the English Premier League stadium, only lacking in proper grammar.
             Four teams battled it out on the sunny, summer-like afternoon. For the first time since I was in Vegas, I was hot and had to apply some sunscreen. Nat's team from Gapyeong, an older team from Seoul, a quasi-celebrity team and a women's collegiate team rounded out the rag-tag lineup. Because the "celebrities" included the former Korean National coach, an Olympic boxer and ping-pong player, the festival could charge a nominal fee and attract spectators. About 500 military men and 20 random families celebrating Children's Day (elementary-age children get gifts from their parents) were in the stands cheering on the competitive amateur soccer. Nat and I were advertised as foreign professional players, "donating our time" for the good of Children's Day. It was quite the publicity stunt, filmed and to be aired on SBS, one of the main Korean channels. I still have not seen the broadcast yet, but I will let you know.
             After playing three 30-minute games for two different teams, Nat and I were sore and tired. We were also particularly frustrated that we didn't get to play the girls team, who were both skilled and attractive. As a reward for our hard work, we went to a Korean sauna, my first such experience. For a nominal price, you start by showering (all done completely naked) then meandering from pool to pool, all heated at different temperatures ranging from freezing to scalding. We continued the relaxation at Nat's place, watching "Lady Vengeance," a famous Korean movie, the second movie in the "Old Boy" series. If you want to check out a good Korean movie, I recommend it. Supposedly, Tarantino drew a lot of inspiration from the triology for "Kill Bill." Although I may be biased against the title, I think the "Old Boy" movies (I've only seen the one though) are better and more interesting. The day ended at a bar, big surprise.
             Nat and I awoke fairly early the next day to do some hiking. Like the stadium, Gapyeong is surrounded by climable peaks, usually shrouded in clouds. We ate breakfast and gathered supplies on the main drag. It was great to be in a town with only one busy street. Most Korean cities are very confusing, because all the streets look so similar. For this reason, almost all Koreans with cars buy a GPS system, which usually also have TV, DVD and other capabilites. It's amazing how advanced the cell phone, electronics technology is here, though Japan is even better, supposedly. I will get to see for myself in July! Anyway, the hike was short but gruelling, relatively short but steep. Along the way there is exercise equipment that anyone is free to use. These machines are common to most parks and public areas where people go to work out. In most areas of the United States, it would all be stolen or vandalized within a couple weeks, but here the equipment is in immaculate shape and no one would think to damage something made for the public good. Once at the top, we were treated to scenic vistas of the famous Nami Island, a park where famous soap operas were filmed and thus frequently visited. Touristy and carefully landscaped, it free of any motor vehicles and full of bikes and walkers. Also visible was another island (the name escapes me), where a jazz festival is played every year, attracting bands from across the globe. I plan to go in the fall, when it's held.
             The eventful, entertaining weekend was finished with a noodle lunch and a bus trip back to Incheon.
Korean is hard!
             As you all know, Korean has an entirely different alphabet than the comfortable Romanized system we are used to. Eventhough Hangeul appears overwhelming and confusing upon first glance, it is one of the most orderly, sensible and easy languages to learn to read in. All vowels are vertical or horizontal while consonants are variations of a box shape. Invented in the 1400's, it was designed to be learned by the clever in a few hours and for the dull in a couple weeks. Apparently, I'm somewhere in between; it took me about 3-5 days to learn all of the sounds associated with the characters. Although I can read at about a kindergarten pace, I still hae almost absolutely no idea what I am reading, minus my limited vocabulary and scattered cognates.
             On top of a new lettering system, Korean has multiple forms, informal, polite and very polite. You must use different words and conjucations based on who you are and who you are talking to. In order to avoid offending elders it is best to learn the polite form, but when amongst colleagues, which is most often the case, you will get laughed at and told to use the less polite form. In order to be a quality Korean speaker, you really need to be here for awhile to understand the nuances and many forms. So, as much as I will try to learn the language, I am faced with the reality that I probably will leave Korea being no where near a quality Korean speaker.
Despite the challenge, I am getting better. I am being tutored by a Korean teacher (Helen) at my school. We are reading Aladdin in Korean and speaking Korean as often as possible. However, teaching at an English-only school it is hard to get the practice necessary to master anything, let alone even speak Korean. So, wish me luck as I try to communicate in this challenging, subtle language.
             Hey everyone! I just gave you a pretty big update. How about returning the favor with some news on your end? I would love e-mail, facebook, myspace or snail mail messages. Love you all and look forward to hearing from you.
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mlachnik on

Korean Language
Hi Billy,
Guess I'm the first to respond to your 2d blog. Enjoyed it as much as the first. Seeing you and Nat together playing soccer looked like fun. And got to see a bit of the Korean scenery. I agree on the Korean language being difficult. My boss visited Japan for business twice this year and commented on the informal, polite, very polite forms of speaking.
Japan in July will be a great adventure.
Better get going... love, Gail

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