Thursday, November 25, 2010

Living in South Korea after North Korea attacks (Video)

(Just 3 weeks ago, I was in North Korean territory at the DMZ.  Here's our video, which includes footage of North Korean soldiers.  For my original post, click here.)

All eyes are on the Korean Peninsula this week.  That’s after North Korea shelled tiny Yeongpyeong Island in the South killing four people.

Will this escalate further?  Is war imminent?  That’s what is on everyone’s mind.  Especially if you live here.

Yet in and around Seoul, life continues as normal for residents.  This day is like any other.  After all, what is there to do?  We are at the mercy of world leaders.  I hope they have the strength, knowledge, and foresight necessary to make good decisions.  Then again, when dealing with a regime like the DPRK (North Korea) it’s anyone’s guess what could happen next.

When I arrived in Korea, it was a short time after the Chenoan incident, in which 46 South Korean sailors were killed.  It’s suspected the DPRK attacked, but they have never taken responsibility.  I certainly wasn’t happy about the turn of events, but at that point, my bags were packed and my plane ticket purchased.  I was going to Korea.  Still, there was an undercurrent of anxiety within and I soon realized that people who get nervous in Korea are the foreigners living here.  We’re not use to having North Korea as a neighbor.  It struck me odd when speaking to South Koreans how relaxed they were about the escalating tensions.  Maybe it’s a coping mechanism or that they have never known any different. 

This week I’ve received concerned notes from friends.  Some are wondering if we are now coming home.  No, we’re not.  Currently I’m taking my cues from the US Department of State.  When living abroad, they still keep tabs on their citizens if you register with them.  So, on Tuesday I received an e-mail about the Yeongpyeong Island attacks.  Here’s an excerpt:

"This artillery exchange was isolated to the Northwest Island area of the Republic of Korea and ceased as of 3:30pm.  The embassy is closely monitoring the situation.  Should the security situation change, the Embassy will update this warden message.

U.S. citizens living or traveling in South Korea are encouraged to register with the Embassy through the State Department's travel registration website:  Registration is a voluntary way of telling us that you, as a U.S. citizen, are in Korea, whether for a long-term stay or for a short visit.  In the event of an emergency, we use registration information to communicate with you.”

That was it – and that’s pretty standard fare.  In fact, checking the US Department of State's website today there is no travel alert or warning for South Korea.  So, feel free to visit...I'll be here.

Learn More:  CNN had a special webpage devoted to North Korea.  (Click here)  See video from the recent attacks or learn about the Korean War.  They've done a good job at compiling a variety of stories.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Sumo Wrestling in Japan (Video)

(This blog post is a bit overdue, but I wanted to share a great experience we had on our trip to Japan).

Sumo wrestling is the national sport of Japan.  Only six tournaments or “bashos” are held a year.  The timing of our trip this past September was perfect to attend the basho in Tokyo.  We got off the plane and headed straight for the National Sumo Stadium. 

Now…I wasn’t a sumo fan in advance, and about the only knowledge I had of the sport was strapping on a fat sumo suit in college and wrestling with a roommate.  Big men wearing a diaper-like contraption wrestled each other…oh, and it was a Japanese sport.  Yep, that was the extent of my knowledge.  Well, I’m happy to say I’m now much better educated on the sport of sumo…and I’m also a fan.

First, sumo wrestling is exciting.  The matches are very short.  In seconds one opponent has been knocked down or out of the ring.  These men hit each other like NFL linemen, except without the pads.  Their force and agility is impressive.  There are surprises and upsets that have you shouting with surprise in your seat.

It’s not just the fighting that’s exciting, but the ritual and ceremony before each match. The men throw handfuls of salt into the ring to purify it.  The wrestlers then walk to the center of the ring to squat in the famous sumo stance to stare each other down.  They rise again…and return for several more rounds of intimidation before the fight starts.  There’s the wrestlers ceremonial entrance, the grand champions dance, and the bow dance to call to an end the days fighting; they’re all beautiful time honored traditions. 

The wrestlers have names like Hakuho or Tokusegawa.  The names are foreign to us, but they are sports stars in Japan just like we all know the name Peyton Manning in America.  What I saw was how these stars are revered, but accessible.  I ended up walking beside three giant wrestlers after they got out of a taxi (a taxi!).  Dressed in cotton kimonos known as yukata with their hair slicked back in traditional hairstyles these men are hard to miss.  We passed wrestlers walking in the arena.  I even saw one standing in line with the fans to get some food.  I have to admit…I was a little star struck.

The history and traditions of the sport are fascinating, while the wrestling itself is fun.  It was the first thing we did in Japan, and I instantly knew it would also be a highlight of our trip.  I was right.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Precious Children

(That's Yeajin with some silly boys in the background -- children are the same everywhere!)

I have a few students who always manage to make my days brighter.  They are like little angels – sweet and loving -- pure goodness.

Yeajin is girl with such energy and personality.  She comes to class with a backpack of stuffed animals that either must stay in her backpack – or sometimes I volunteer to watch them during class.  We do acting activities in class and she is the best…all action and poise and personality.  Yeajin waits for me after class so we can walk out holding hands.  Sometimes I get a hug or a kiss.  It lifts my heart.  She is happy to see me and I’m always happy to see her.  Last week I was feeling very sick and she walked up to my desk to ask if I was okay.  Her face was twisted up in concern.  I told her I was sick, but I would be okay.  Yeajin immediately did the sign of the cross, closed her eyes tight and said a little prayer for me.  I actually got choked up.  Children can be so precious.

Jane is girl made of sugar and spice and everything nice – she is all good.  Each day, when I ask Jane how she is doing she has a big grin and responds “I am happy.”  I remember on a day filled with chaos, I was picking up papers spilled on the floor.  While children ran past me into the hall, suddenly a small pair of hands were helping me.  It was Jane.  Of course it was Jane – and her little bit of care lifted my spirits.  When I did a “thinking” exercise on what it truly means to be rich, my students answers were money, cars, and fancy clothing.  Jane’s response...“a happy family.”  Children can be so precious.

Hanna left me a note on her homework the other day.  “I love you Lauren Teacher!”  Well, I can say I love Hanna too and my note told her so.  Hanna has hit me with impromptu hugs that nearly knock me over.  Once, Hanna called me “mom” and asked me to come home with her.  On the same day Yeajin said a prayer for me to feel better – Hanna too approached me concerned that I might be sick.  There’s a compassion in some of these children that is remarkable.  Children can be so precious.

I know that some of these girls have a “crush” on me, and I think that’s natural.   But, now I’ll admit I have a crush on them too!  I’m amazed by how special these children are.  I have the desire to meet their parents to see how they raised such spectacular children.  I’m truly thankful to be their teacher.  I’m also happy to see with my own eyes that in all corners of the world children are generally the same – very special.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Chungju Lake

This weekend we ventured out on our first independent trip outside of Seoul – no tour group and no family to point the way.  It was just us, our new/old car, and some maps.  Cameron was driving and I was navigating.  I’m not going to lie – I was a bit nervous.  I’m navigationally challenged, but after years of reading maps while chasing news in a live truck, I’ve improved and it paid off.

We made it to Chungju Lake in two hours without any missteps or wrong turns.  We arrived just in time for the last ferry.  We bought out tickets and boarded the boat for a scenic tour of the lake.  Although we missed the fall leaves at their peak, the views were still lovely.  The lake is surrounded by soaring peaks and mountains in every direction.  It’s very dramatic.  It was a bit chilly, but we enjoyed the open air on the boat for most of the trip.

There’s a lot to do in the region, and I think we’ll be back to visit some of the national parks.  But, this day was a test run.  We made it – now time to head back.  Unfortunately for us road construction on the return trip turned a 5 lane highway into 2 lanes.  That means our 2 hour journey turned into 4.5 hours.  It was long…too long, but at least we didn’t make any wrong turns!

The sun was beginning to set during our ferry ride.

When the wind kicked up, it was cold on the boat!

Friday, November 12, 2010

License to Korea

When I was 17 nothing mattered more than having my driver’s license.  It was oh, so important.  It was my ticket to freedom.

But, I never had any plans to drive in Korea.  We have the subway a block away from our home…that was my ticket to freedom.  I didn’t want a Korean driver’s license and I certainly didn’t want a car.  Guess what?  I now have both… and the insurance, gas bill, and repairs that are part of the package deal.  Why, you ask?

Our extended family in Korea moved – it was only a 25 minute drive to their new digs, but a hellish two hour bus ride each way.  Without a car, that was our only option to see them.  So, when they decided to sell their beater car…we reluctantly bought it.

Yes, I didn’t want the expense of driving, but more than that; Korean drivers terrify me.  Overall, traffic laws are the same as in the USA.  The problem is people don’t abide them.  It’s common for people to run red lights – they often treat them like stop signs.  Signaling to change lanes is unheard of.  And, apparently you can make a u-turn anywhere you want.  Now let’s throw mopeds into the mix, which abide no rules and even hop up onto the sidewalks if it’s more convenient.  Oh yeah, and then you have to figure out where you’re going!

Fully aware of what we were getting ourselves into – we went to apply for our driver’s license.  It ended up being quite an affair of red tape that included a visit to the US Embassy and lots of paperwork.  You would have thought we were applying for citizenship.  The final step was a written test.  I almost burst out in nervous laughter mid-way through the exam.  I was surely failing.  Well, almost.  I barely passed with a 65. (To make myself feel better I would like to say at 17-years-old I got a 98 on my driver’s test…the highest in the class!)

So, for our inaugural drive, we go out to the car and - drum roll please - the battery is dead.  I’m instantly rolling my eyes wondering again why I have a car.  The next day I bought some jumper cables and a quart of oil to keep in the car…just in case.

The good news is after a jumpstart we made it to our family’s home safely without any wrong turns!  We’ve since ventured into Seoul for shopping and next on the list is a long distance trip.  Cameron has big romantic ideas about driving throughout the country.  I picture us getting lost – but I guess that’s part of the experience.  Hey, it could end up being fun or at the very least it will be memorable!

My Korean Cold

(The ENT office where I went for my first doctor appointment)

Apparently it’s the stuff legends are made of…cue in scary music…it’s the Korean cold.  No, not the weather.  Cold as in sick, coughing, sniffling, and sneezing.

Typically I don’t get colds, but apparently my great immune system was no match to the strain floating around Korea.  My boss tells me, it never goes away and you just get used to it.  Complaining to a friend that I have been sick for three weeks, she responded “Just wait until you’ve been sick for five months.”  Five months – really? 

But, I started to get scared.  First, I had the most painful sore throat of my life.  Then it was laryngitis and swollen vocal chords, and now it’s the coughing that’s driving me crazy and keeping me up at night.  It can’t last for five months….it just can’t!

So, I ventured out to the doctor.  I had once tripped across a medical office where the only English on the door was “E.N.T.”  I had tucked that information away, and now it was coming in handy.  Yes, I needed some help for my ears, nose, and throat.  Amazingly, I walked in and was with the doctor two minutes later.  The staff didn’t speak English, but the doctor did.  Soon I had a prescription, and I walked next store to the conveniently located pharmacy to get my medication.  The entire process set me back about $15.  I thought I was on the way to recovery.

Well, recovery lasted about 3 days and then it was back…the Korean cold.  Could the legend be true?  So, I was back at the doctor.  This time the doctor and medication cost $6.  If this is going to last five months, thank goodness it’s this cheap!  Side note – I haven’t examined the Korean health care system, but overall medical care is extremely affordable.

So, here I am one day into my second dose of medication praying this works.  If not, I may have to opt for the “butt shot.”  That’s what Korean’s do when they get sick…go to the ER and get a shot in their rear end.  As I cough, sniffle, and sneeze,  that’s suddenly starting to sound appealing.

Pharmacies don't doll out prescription medine in bottles, but in little packets like this.  It makes it easy to know exactly what to take at breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Noryangjin Fish Market (Video)

If you’ve watched my blog videos – you know that my taste testing of seafood doesn’t usually end well.  Seafood doesn’t agree with me – the taste, texture, and smell all induce my gag reflex.  So, you may be surprised to hear that I thoroughly enjoyed a recent trip to Seoul’s Noryangjin Fish Market. 

Walk into the Noryangjin Fish Market and you’re senses are instantly on overload.  The market is massive, with more than 700 shops selling sea creatures.  There’s the exotic from small sharks to stingrays and octopuses.  You’ll see them both dead and alive.  Rows of bins of fresh crabs, shrimp, and clams seem to be never-ending.  And, of course you’ll find some fish.  This is the epitome of fresh seafood.  Pick your fish and within minutes you can be having sashimi, as your catch is expertly filleted in front of you.   

The South Korean peninsula is surrounded by the Yellow Sea, the East China Sea, and the Sea of Japan…and fifteen seaports deliver fresh seafood to Seoul daily.  From ocean to table, this is as fresh as it gets.   

So, if you don’t come to Noryangjin to eat fish, you can still enjoy the atmosphere.  It’s the colors and the energy that draw you in – the market is alive.  In fact, this seafood is so fresh… you’ll be surprised there’s not even a seafood scent to turn your nose up at.  So, come to shop or come as a tourist.  Either way, Noryangjin delivers. 

(Directions to Noryangjin Fish Market: Take Subway Line 1 to Noryangjin Station. Exit #1.  After exiting the subway station, turn right and cross the railway tracks on the pedestrian bridge) 

*For market hours and additional details, click here  

Sunday, November 7, 2010

DMZ (Part 2)

(Sign to Pyongyang, North Korea behind me at Dorasan Station)

Dorasan Train Station:

Travel into North Korea isn’t possible for South Koreans.  But, there’s a symbol of hope that this will one day change.  Dorasan Station was built in 2001 to connect the north and the south via rail lines.  Signs in the commuter station show this is the way to Pyongyang, North Korea’s capital city.  But, inside security stations are unmanned and rows of seats remain empty.  The trains are not running.  I bought a train ticket for fifty cents – for now tickets are sold strictly as souvenirs.  With tensions still running high right now, I wonder just how long it will be before this station is ever in use.

(Exterior of Dorasan Station) 

The Third Tunnel of Aggression:

As part of most DMZ tours, you will take a walk underground into the Third Tunnel of Aggression.  Discovered in 1978 this tunnel was dug by North Koreans, evidently as a means for a surprise attack.  After putting on our hard hats, we were able to walk down into the third tunnel which is just over a mile long and runs under the DMZ.  It’s only 30 miles from Seoul.  If completed, the tunnel would have allowed up to 10-thousand armed soldiers to cross into South Korea within an hour.  Three similar tunnels were found, and it’s believed many others exist.  Walking down here was fascinating and eerie.  I will say, walking back above ground was exhausting.

(A view from inside the tunnel.)

Dora Observatory: 

Located on Mt. Dorasan, Dora Observatory allows people to look across the DMZ to get a rare glimpse of North Korea.  I’m told that you can see the North Korean propaganda village, which flies one of the largest flags in the world.  I’m also told you can see an industrial complex in the city of Kaesong.  Unfortunately, I didn’t see any of these things.  The fog on the day of our tour was so dense there was no view of North Korea, even using the observatory binoculars.  This was a disappointment, and may be cause for me to spend another $77 to go on the tour as the general public cannot enter the DMZ area without an escort.

(All I can see is North Korean fog.)


When we decided we would move to South Korea, I knew I wanted to visit the DMZ.  It’s the most heavily fortified boarder in the world…it’s a country divided…it’s the mystery of the North….it’s the threat to our security…it’s living history.  All of this was pulling me toward the DMZ.  I wanted to see this with my own eyes.  Now that I have, I wouldn’t mind going back for another look and some more time to reflect.

(Outside the Third Tunnel of Aggression)

Walking Into North Korea - The DMZ (Video)

I can now say I’ve been to North Korea.  This weekend I walked into North Korean territory, if only for a few minutes.  This odd experience was part of a tour to the DMZ and JSA.

So, first here’s a brief explanation.  The DMZ (Demilitarized Zone) is the most heavily fortified border in the world.  It’s a 4km wide swath of land that cuts across the Korean Peninsula, separating South and North Korea.  It’s essentially a buffer zone to ease tensions between the two countries.  On either side of the DMZ are military installations.  And in the middle of this is the JSA (Joint Security Area).  This is where truce talks were held after the Korean War and where both sides still meet for negotiations.  In July, both US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates were here in a show of solidarity with South Korea. (Read more here on their visit)

The buildings at the JSA are small and somewhat shabby, but their history is impressive.  It’s named the“Joint” Security Area for a reason.  On one side of the room you’re in South Korean territory.  Cross the center line and you’re in North Korea.  So, this is where I ventured into this secretive state.  Our escorts were US soldiers (about 30,000 US forces still remain in South Korea) and we were simultaneously guarded by soldiers from the Republic of Korea (ROK).  The ROK soldiers are dressed in their Class A uniforms.  They wear sunglasses in order to show no emotion and they stand absolutely still, maintaining a Taekwondo fighting stance.  They are facing and watching North Korea.

That means North Korean soldiers were facing us.  In fact, our tour group had a highly unusual experience where more than a dozen soldiers marched right up to the dividing line.  While we were snapping pictures of them, each North Korean soldier posed for a picture with us in the background.  The tour guide said she had never witnessed this behavior before.  ROK soldiers quickly radioed in this unusual behavior.  (see my video posted)

While we don’t know what these pictures were for, we were given strict instructions about our behavior in the JSA.  We were told not to communicate with North Korean soldiers in any way.  It seems obvious, but this also means no nonverbal communication or gesturing.  We were assured that we were being watched and photographed and that ROK/USA forces didn’t want us to do anything that could be used as propaganda for the North.  In fact, a man on our tour who was making the peace sign for a photograph was quickly and harshly scolded by US troops.

This is not a place to joke around.  Tensions still run high.  In fact, about 10 days ago North Korea fired two shots at a ROK/USA military guard post.  The ROK responded by firing two mortars.  This is just the latest violence in a year of rocky relations between the two countries, who are still technically at war.

Being in the JSA was an incredible experience.  This is living history – the danger, the tension, and the negotiations here are still ongoing.  Seeing the troops on both sides made the conflict between this divided nation really hit home.

USO Tour:  My understanding is the USO is the only organization that can take groups into the JSA.  For civilians, the tour is $77.  To book a tour or lean more, click here to go to their website.

Inside Panmunjom, the JSA 

Our US Army guide and ROK soldier in a Taekwondo fighting stance.

 North Korean soldiers posing for pictures at the boarder inside the JSA.

I'm in North Korea.  You can see the concrete dividing line outside the window.