A Travellerspoint blog

Believe it or Not

by gabrielle

sunny 10 °F

Bad news: Seoul is still freezing. As in, we consider any day above 20 degrees a serious treat.
Good news: the days are getting longer and we now leave work before it gets dark.
Even better news: Swhite is done teaching on February 29th and I am done on March 14th. Which means, believe it or not, we are about to finish this thing (Korea) and get the heck outta here!

As Swhite mentioned in her Tokyo post I have a lot of observations about Japan from the 5 days we spent there. Particularly observations about Japan vs. Korea as it pertains to the people and their attitudes. Japan and China are kind of the "Big 2" when you think of Asia but most people seem to sort of forget about Korea altogether. However, living in Korea for this past year it is plain to see that Koreans feel Korea is just as important and great as Japan and they don't seem too concerned with China at all. The competition, whether admitted or otherwise is fierce and stems from years and years of ugly and complicated history. Speaking purely of attitudes and way of life, Japan opened its doors to Western cultures, ideas and technologies about 100 years before Korea and has thrived because of it. At this point, Korea is still just desperately trying to catch up. Regardless of where you think my loyalty should lie, I gotta say it, Japan is just so much cooler than Korea.

Japan is so diverse. There are all sorts of styles and attitudes in they way people dress, act and conduct themselves. You could easily describe a typical Korean guy or a typical Korean girl but you'd be hard pressed to do so for the Japanese. There is just so much more variety. Japanese girls are willing to be thin, curvy or even chubby, wear lots of makeup, fake eyelashes daily, wear no makeup, tight clothes, loose clothes, daring fashions, colorful clothes, colorful hair, edgy cuts etc. The women are willing to talk loudly, laugh without covering their mouths and they walk tall and confident and proud. Korean girls have a definite ideal they all seem to be shooting for and no one seems very willing or maybe even interested to stand out or be an individual. From one packed, busy city perfect for people watching to another these differences were apparent immediately. Another glaring difference was stranger interaction. Strangers smiled, greeted each other and struck up random conversations instead of just putting in their headphones and watching TV on their smart phones. People were much more polite too. If a subway was full, people wait for the next one instead of cramming onto an already full car so everyone is extra uncomfortable. People also acknowledge you when they bump into you and apologize which is absolutely unheard of in Korea. People even hold the door open! The most important difference of all, in my opinion is that Japanese people seem happy. If they have stressful jobs and lives they do not let it show or affect them as much as Koreans do. Maybe the culture doesn't put the same kind of pressure on them as they do in Korea but regardless, it was nice to see people on their way to and from work who don't look exhausted, stressed and miserable. I truly hope the Koreans catch up sooner rather than later and start doing more things "the Japanese way." Even if they hate to admit it, it would greatly improve their quality of life.

Now back to Korea. Things at work have been extra rough lately which is unfortunate but I am not letting it bring me down because I only have 17 work days left and then I'm DONE! However the kids are still as cute as ever and practicing songs for their graduation ceremony at the end of the month. It's a pretty big ordeal actually. The two oldest classes are performing "Pinocchio" with costumes and everything and all of the younger classes are performing two songs each. My kids are singing, "My Favorite Things" from the Sound of music and "Brush Your Teeth" a super catchy Raffi tune. I hear all the kids wear caps and gowns and the oldest ones get year book type things professionally made to commemorate their first 3 years of pre-kindergarten. The two oldest classes are graduating and moving on to various prestigious elementary schools and all the other kids are moving up to the next level. I'll be sure to take a picture of of some of the kids' workbook pages from the beginning of the semester until now, their progress is incredible!

One of the baby classes downstairs has kids that are not quite two years old and three of them happen to be the younger siblings of three of my students. I am down there to babysit essentially once a week and though it's overwhelming to keep track of all of them they are pretty darn cute! It's hard to believe there are kids in school all day that are even younger than mine! The kids call their younger siblings "my baby" instead of "my sister" or "my brother.' Try to guess which "big kid" goes with which baby! Here are my three students (after a few attempts), Joy, Katie and Leo:
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And here are "their babies" Hyun, Leo and Chu-Nu:
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If you guessed Hyun is Joy's sister, Leo is Katie's brother and Chu-Nu is older Leo's brother you're right! We are all pretty obsessed with some of the kids in the youngest "baby class." Here are a few others:
More Hyun: Seriously just LOOK at that face!!
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This is Euna:
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This is June:
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This is Alejandro or The Queen of Hearts: the resemblance is striking, isn't it?
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And this is a new student we all really like in the upstairs class named Vinnie. Yes, his English name is Vinnie. Awesome right?
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And this is Vinnie's baby, Lucy: Lucy is still a bit afraid of foreigners but is warming up to us!
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My kids have been so funny lately so my "Kids Say the Darndest Thing" award is a tough one! But... I think I need to give it to Aiden. For some reason the Korean kids don't know what to call their boogers so if they just did some digging and need a tissue they just hold up their finger and ask for one. I don't know how I never noticed before but now I am trying to teacher them the word, "boogie" so they will say,"I have a boogie." instead of just waving an icky finger in the air. The kids think the word, "boogie" is hilarious and the giggle fits whenever anyone says it are a little outta control. One day as I was getting Aiden ready to go home he said, "Teacher I boogie word! Boogie I love you!" I think he wanted me to know his favorite word now is, "boogie."
Here is Aiden:
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Leo had another Aiden related gem worthy of note. As little kids do, my student love dancing and shaking their bottoms. When they do this I have gotten in the habit of singing, "Shake your groove thang, shake your groove thang yeah yeah!" They love it and have since started signing it too! One day last week Aiden said while scratching his bottom, "Teacher this itchy!" And I said, "Oh, you're bottom is itchy?" And Leo said, "No! Groove thing!"
Ahh darling!

Now onto some more serious things...
Yesterday I went to the DMZ or the Demilitarized Zone that separates North and South Korea. The MDL (Military Demarcation Line) is in the middle and each side has a 1.24 mile stretch of no man's land essentially to separate them from their neighbor.
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I went on the USO tour with two military friends of mine. Before coming to Korea I read a book about the conflict and obviously have learned a lot more since living here. I don't know how things are portrayed in the Western media but here in Seoul, just 30 miles south of the border life goes on as usual without much concern to North Korea and what they may or may not be up to. I was a tad nervous when Kim Jong Il died that something would change but if it weren't for all of the news coverage, nothing happening in Seoul would have indicated that something big had happened. No one in South Korea is worried (from the people I have talked to) and everyone seems to have accepted the arrangement of sticking to their side of the 38th parallel and leaving the other side to do the same.
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The tour started with a video/brief overview of the DMZ then we went through a museum with more details and saw a helpful timeline outlining all of the events that had contributed to the conflict. Then, we got to go down into the 3rd tunnel. Four tunnels have been discovered along the DMZ and there are believed to be many more. The North Koreans dug them in order to infiltrate the South. Once they were discovered, the North Koreans claimed they were just coal mines but no coal has been found in them and not all of the walls are even black. We were not allowed to take pictures inside the tunnel but it was 239 feet underground, about 6 feet tall and wide and about a mile long. There were marks on the wall where the dynamite had blown it up to make the tunnel and it was very hot and humid down there. After the tunnel we went to Dorasan Station which used to connect the two countries by rail. You used to be able to take a train from South Korea all the way to Germany in 10 days! The last train ran in 2007 when the South Korean President was making some headway with reunification efforts but the next president had other ideas. Even though the station is new and in great condition it is essentially a useless building. Two trains a day run between Seoul and Dorasan Station purely for tourism.
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Here we are with some friendly ROK soldiers outside the station:
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Next we went to the Dora observatory where you can pay about 50 cents to look into North Korea with those binocular things. You are not allowed to take pictures right from the edge and must stand back about 20 feet which is pretty useless but here is what I got:
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After the observatory we went to the actual Military Demarcation Line where the Armistice Agreement took place after the Korean War and the meetings for reunification efforts still take place. Most importantly, this is the place where the North Korean soldiers and the ROK (Republic of Korea/South Korean) soldiers stand face to face to guard their side of the line.

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When we were there, the North Korean Solider was up on the steps in front of the North Korean Visitor Center looking at us through his binoculars. Our guide said they only come down and face the ROK soldier so close when they are particularly interested in the tour group or when there are meetings taking place in the UN building in the middle or MAC (Military Armistice Commission) building that straddles the actual MDL line. Here are my pics:
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Here I am inside the MAC building, technically in North Korea: The ROK soldier is standing at Tae Kwon-do first position at the ready and does not move at all! We couldn't even see his chest rising!
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The building on the South Korean side of the MDL is called the Freedom House and was built with the intention of reuniting families from both sides who were separated during the war. This is another unused building though because North Korea has refused to let people leave. We were not allowed to take pictures of the Freedom House or any pics in the direction of South Korea. We were also not allowed to point or wave when standing on the MDL for fear of the North Koreans using anything as propaganda.

After leaving the MDL we drove to a guard post that is surrounded by North Korea on three sides. From this post you can see Kij┼Ćng-dong called Propaganda Village because it is uninhabited and all for show. The town has a 524 foot flag pole and one of the biggest flags in the world. Our guide said it rips in the rain sometimes because it is so huge. The flag pole used to be shorter but once South Korea put one up on their side that was taller, North Korean replaced theirs with this one:
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Our last stop on the tour was a quick drive by of the "Bridge of No Return" where the two sides exchanged prisoners at the end of the Korean War in 1953.
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All in all it was a good day and I'm really glad I went. I had been meaning to get up there all year. It's pretty amazing how much intensity is going on between the two countries just 30 miles away from Seoul. There is a lot of history there and I am so curious how it will all play out. I have heard the US military is planning to start pulling back and handing over the reigns to ROK army completely but who knows? Even though I have lived so close to a hostile conflict for so long, I can honestly say that I have never felt afraid and I'm grateful for that.

Update on the High-5 crew? The girls are all fine and doing well. We are starting to freak out a bit about separating in the near future but have made pacts and promises to keep our bond strong no matter where we are! Last night we celebrated Amy's 26th birthday by going to an 80's party at a bar in Itaewon. It was a blast!
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Swhite and I plan to each do one more post to wrap up our time here in Korea so look forward to those coming SOON!

Posted by 3ifBySEA 03:18 Archived in South Korea

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