Air Quality in Seoul – The Move Day 20 – 21

Any day in Seoul when you can look up into the sky and see a color that might be called blue, it is a clear day, and a great one to go outside. The fact of the matter is there are not many days where you can see a clear blue sky, and even more that you can taste the grime that is clinging to the particles of air floating around. And in the four years that I lived in Seoul, it got worse to the point during my last school year there, we had to call a high pollution day because it was not safe for students to come to school. It makes living in Seoul hard, and it is the most difficult problem that South Koreans face to this day.

Even though this problem does exist in a nation that comes up with new technological advances, they look at this problem as not being of their design. On the other hand, it is trendy to blame somebody else. Many Koreans look to their neighbors to the west as the cause of all of their problems, China. The claim goes that the wind currents take the fine dust and the pollution from the country over the Yellow Sea and dump it strategically on the nation’s capital. Even though there is some truth to this, it is not the major cause for the pollution of Seoul. It is just a way for the citizens to find a scapegoat, so they do not need to do anything to solve the problem, and if they want to have clear skies that highlight the jewel of their nation, they need to quit making this claim, and start doing something themselves to create cleaner air.

The first thing that the nation could do is to make a bigger effort to push for renewable energy. This nation consumes a lot of energy, and according to Reuter’s 70 percent of it comes from coal and nuclear power plants. President Moon at least recognized this part of the problem during the last couple of springs, and when pollution was at its worst, he shut down some of the coal producing plants, and it was amazing to see how the air quality improved overnight. But it can’t be all about the shutting down of power plants if they want to keep up with the energy output that they have become accustomed to, and there is no way they will be able to do that during the bitter cold winter months as people try to warm their homes. The move towards renewable energy needs to happen if this country wishes to be competitive in the future.

There are other things that they can do as well. When I first moved to the country, I was amazed by the amount of recycling that went on because the amount of land in this small, overcrowded country cannot be used to store trash. But as I found out later a lot of the plastic was shipped to China for recycling. When China decided to no longer take this waste, South Korea, the world’s highest per capita consumption rate, needed to think of a way to get rid of this waste. Since its biggest landfill was 80 times over its capacity, they decided to burn the plastic, sending more toxins into the already polluted air. Instead of being a solution to the problem, it just made the problem worse. They need to think of ways of consuming less and recycling their own waste instead of relying on other countries to do so.

The city planning of Seoul has a lot to contribute to this problem as well. Granted, the public transportation system in this country is amazing, and if people would utilize more often, it would cut down on the pollution quite a bit, but like America, Korea has a love fascination with their cars. It has created a big traffic problem in the country’s capital that is part of the big debate going on with the current mayoral race. Part of the reason for this traffic is that traffic lights only let one way through at a time while three other directions sit there idling. They have also created road systems that force people to drive long distances to find a way from one road to another when they could get there in less than a kilometer if they took a more direct route. This would be a bigger problem to solve if they wanted to tackle it, and they would have to focus on one area at a time, but eventually they would find that if they started making these construction choices, the problems of traffic would eventually relieve itself.

Even though it sounds like I am criticizing Korea for this problem, and stating that they are the only one that has it, that is not the intent of this post. I do believe that the ingenuity and determination of these people will allow them to overcome this problem just as long as they first admit that they have a problem. I want to point out this problem to other places in the world, specifically the United States who is also burrowing their heads in the sand thinking that this problem does not apply to them. Granted, the United States has a lot more land, and there was not the pollution in the air during my visit to Colorado that I had become accustomed to in Korea, but the potential for it getting that way is becoming bigger each year. The United States needs to admit that they have a problem as well and take steps to solve it. You want clean air. It makes your standard of living that much better. You do not want to be stuck inside looking out the window hoping the pollution clears so you can see across the street. You want to be the shining example instead of the exception. So please look to the problems of Seoul as your own problem and start to do something to insure the beauty and majesty of this country so it does not look like a dirty ashtray that will become a bigger problem to clean up later.

Some Truth about South Korea – The Move Day 19

I was recently introduced to an individual in my parents’ neighborhood, and he was told that I was living in South Korea, but was making the move to Thailand. His first response was that at least I would be moving some place safer.

Over the four years that I have lived in South Korea, this notion has come up time and time again, that the people of this nation are always on edge because of their neighbor to the north. This couldn’t be further from the truth. The danger that is being discussed in the United States media makes the situation more desperate than it really is. In fact, Seoul is probably one of the safest places on the face of this planet. Yes, there is some discussion about Kim Jung-Eun and the threat that he poses, but it mainly centers around the idea of reunification of the two countries, and the big worry is about what that would do to the economy of South Korea. They are not worried about a nuclear threat, or an invading army coming from the north.

In fact, when I come back to the United States, I need to remind myself that I cannot be living the same life style that I do in Seoul. I need to lock my doors at night, or when I get out of my car. I need to be aware of my possessions when I am out in public so they do not suddenly disappear. I need to make sure that I do not say the wrong thing to the wrong person so they want to pull a gun out to prove that they are correct. These things do not happen in South Korea.

Now don’t get me wrong. There are still some risks involved with living there, but they mainly involve the air quality and the drivers on the road. But as far as somebody getting into a fight with you, it just does not happen. I think I only saw somebody lose their temper a couple of times while I was out there, and one of those times was while I was standing out in the cold at the ski jump during the Olympics, so he might not have even been Korean. But I think he was.

Things do not get stolen either. I have left my phone on the steps of a public building while I coached my cross country runners, and it was picked up and brought to me by some random stranger. My friend left his wallet on a public bus, and waited until the same bus came around again an hour, and it was right where he had left it. People do not steal things in this country unless it is the answers to an SAT test, but that is a subject for a different blog.

They actually did a study where they put random backpacks on the subways seeing if people would take them. At first, they were surprised because all of the trackers showed that somebody had picked up the backpack and were moving with them. But then they all started moving to the same location which happened to be the subway system’s lost and found. I have not found a more honest group of people than the South Koreans that I have come across.

So what I am trying to say is that you have to take the media you watch and be critical of the message that they are trying to present to you. They know that they will gain a greater viewership if they hype up the hysteria a little bit. You can get more accurate more information if you go to the source. Now I know that a lot of people do not know somebody living in South Korea or any of the other places that are under turmoil as presented by the nightly news, but look to what other reports are coming out of the same region. How could a place that promotes huge bands such as BTS and BlackPink be under attack all the time from another country? The pop culture that is coming out of the country might tell you the truth about what is going on there. And finally if you are really curious, see how easy it is to visit. By being there you will see the reality of the situation, and please stop telling me that South Korea is a dangerous place to live in. If you have ever been there you will realize how foolish that statement actually is.

Making Adjustments – The Move Day 16 – 17

I have moved many times in my life, but it was usually just from one apartment, or town home to a new apartment or house. The farthest I had to go was across town, and I did not really need to worry about making the change to a new culture or lifestyle. Even though it was a small move, it still held some sense of the unknown. Would I get along with my neighbors? Would I find nice restaurants and bars in my new corner of town? Would I be safe there? Would my commute to work be affected in any way? Was the place I bought or rented really up to the snuff that the people who sold it to me said it was at? How will I get my stuff from point A to point B?

These are all things that cause stress in somebody’s life as they make these life changing jumps, and this was only across town. Four years ago, I left Colorado for the first time in my life, making a huge change and a huge adjustment by moving to not only a new house, but to a new country, South Korea. The level of stress increased because I would not get to look at the place I was moving into before I got there. Moving stuff across town in a truck can cause stress, but loading all of your personal belongings onto a baggage scale at the airport to make sure that it falls within the weight limit causes even more stress. I not only had to worry about finding food that I would enjoy, but whether or not I would enjoy the cuisine in the first place. I would not only have to worry about getting along with my neighbors, but I also had to worry about getting along with everybody I came into contact with because we would have a hard time communicating if we could communicate at all. Being safe became an even bigger concern when I thought about the madman that lived just north of the city that I would be residing in. How would I not only get back and forth to work, but to any place that I wanted to go without a car, and would it be a good idea to get a car in the first place because I was sure that they drove a little differently out in Korea?

Having this many questions hanging before me would make me reconsider the decision I had made and go running for the hills of Colorado to hide away until the moment it was safe to come out again. But I am glad that I did not do this. It was a little bit of a challenge, but I do think that it was the best decision I had ever made in my life. It forced me to push against my nature, and learn from the process to become a stronger person. It made me look at the world differently and understand more about not only other cultures but the one that I came from as well. It made me grow in my profession, and I have emerged a better teacher than when I went in. All in all, it made me a better person, and why would anyone not want to experience that challenge if presented it? I am glad I went into the field of international teaching, and I do not think I will ever look back.

My experience in Seoul made this next move a lot easier to go through. I am still traveling into the unknown, and there will have to be some adjustments that are made when I arrive, but I have been to Bangkok, and know what life is like there. I also know what it means to be an international teacher, and I will be learning how to make the leap to an IB program, but this is not as big of a leap from going from an alternative program to an AP program. It is still a challenge to move all my important possessions from one part of the world to the next, and it does always cause stress when I have to figure out how to get nine bags on to a commercial flight and make sure that I get them all after making two layovers along the way. But that is just the pain of moving, and I will figure it out along the way.

It is all a part of the experience, and I am now getting to a place where I am comfortable about the move that I will be making. I am looking forward to exploring a new corner of the world, and even though I am still a couple of weeks away from making that final jump, I hope that you will continue to come along with me as I share with you all the new experiences out there on the opposite of this globe.

What I Will Miss about Korea – Harmony with Nature – The Move Day 16

This was probably the hardest adjustment I had to make when I first moved overseas. Coming from a place of great natural beauty, I never believed that man could come in to make adjustments to what nature had made and make improvements on it. It was best in its natural state. All we could do would be to try not to destroy what had already been created.

But then I moved to Korea where there is a different attitude toward nature. I could be wrong about this, but from what I observed, it was man’s duty to shape and mold nature to create a new beauty that could never be achieved on its own. This can be seen all over the place in the hills and rivers of Seoul. On the hikes through the green spaces of the gigantic city, you feel as if you have left the metropolis behind and are now out in the middle of the forest. The city is right around the corner as it weaves its way around these majestic mountains, and Korea did not believe that their living space should invade this natural beauty. Instead they decided to live in harmony with it.

Right when you forget that the city exists, you come to a crest and a clearing where somebody has built a platform and cleared away the trees so you can see a perfect view of the city down below. Nature could not have planned for this moment. It took man working in harmony with nature to make it happen.

When I first arrived to this country, I would take my runs along the river that ran by my house. Seoul is really good about supplying a foot path next to any river, and during the warmer months, it is always filled with people walking, running or biking and enjoying the river, and its surrounding landscapes. I could not enjoy it though because there was a huge crane parked in the middle of one of these waterways picking up rocks and moving them to strategic places. They were not letting the river push into the side of the banks and create the winding path that it wanted to make. I used to look at these moments as a huge mistake that this society was making.

After years of seeing what their meticulous planning and execution brought about and how they created a river that danced and sang while I ran by it, I realized that what they were doing was not such a bad thing. They weren’t trying to destroy nature, but enhance it to work together with it. It is this unique brand of beauty that I will miss. It does not mean that I think that the state of Colorado should do the same thing with the mountains that frame its capital. I’m just saying that it is a different take on something that I can still appreciate for its own style and execution.

I will love both of them for what they have to offer the world, and I thank Korea for showing me a new way to look at nature that I would never have thought of.

What I Will Miss from Korea – Convenience Stores – The Move Day 6

Ah, the good old GS25. From the parking lot of my apartment complex, there were two of these stores that would take less than a minute to get to. The closest one to me was right across the street from my front door and I could make it there and back home as if I had never left. The landscape of Seoul is dominated by these little stores, so if I ever feel in the need for a quick bite, a refreshing drink or a top up of my subway card, I can pop into a GS25, a CU, or a 7-11 and get what I need. It makes life very easy, and I was never at a loss for what I needed.

But this is not the reason that I will miss these stores with the one right across the street from my apartment being the one I will miss the most. It is the cultural experience that goes along with these stores that makes them different than any other convenience store I have seen anywhere else in the world. In most convenience stores, they expect you to pop in, get what you need and then leave. In Seoul, they have a bunch of tables and plastic chairs set up outside, inviting you to sit down and enjoy a little bit of time after you have made you purchase. It has all the charm of Paris cafe with all the class of a dirty Circle K. At first, I looked at it as something that I would never partake in, but eventually, I drank the Kool-Aid and took part of this cultural phenomenon.

Depending on the time of the day, different people can be seen sitting outside of these convenience stores, enjoying them in their own special way. After school, students on their way home will be eating quick ramen bowls while conversing with their friends. In the middle of the day, mothers with their strollers will converge here to enjoy a cold coffee. On the weekends during the summer, families will search through the cooler for individual ice cream cones that they can share quickly to get relief from the heat. And later at night, the older crowd gather to buy beer and soju and drink cheaply for a couple of hours. It makes these places look like they are always packed with people waiting to get in and enjoy the amenities there.

The GS25 outside of my apartment had a big patio and was a big draw for many people in the neighborhood, but mainly for the teachers that worked at my school. It became the center of the whole community without ever really trying to. I ran into many people at this place for a quick conversation, or to enjoy a moment to catch up out on the patio. There were many moments that I had a the GS25 and it was the start of many nights that led to other adventures and noraebang sessions. I was such a regular at my GS25 that the owner of the place would wave to me as I ran by on my runs. I am sure I will find other places in my future travels that will become important to me like this tiny convenience store became, but there will never be a place that will become a staple of my everyday existence.

In a time when convenience becomes a part of everybody’s lifestyle, Korea has found a way to make it a part of their culture, and a place to slow down from the busy lifestyle, if just for a moment, so they can come together as a community. It is because of this that I will miss the convenience stores of South Korea.

The Legacy – The Move Day 1

The last view I had of my classroom over the past four years.

“My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings,
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
– “Ozymandias” by Percy Bysshe Shelley

One of my favorite poems to teach during my tenure at Korea International School was Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Ozymandias” especially during the year where the ones in charge came up with the theme of “Leave a Legacy”. I have always thought this poem gave a truth about life and the legacies that we leave behind, and I have been thinking about these things a lot during my last couple of months as I wrapped up my time there. Is it possible to leave a legacy behind? How long will it be before my name is no longer mentioned in the hallways of the school that I had spent four years at? Should I feel offended that as soon as the last students I taught there, I will quickly be forgotten?

The last view of my apartment I had lived in for the last four years.

It made it even harder as I packed up all of my stuff and took all of artwork off of my bulletin boards that everything was returning back to the way it was when I first arrived in Korea, stark, undecorated, and sanitary. My last look at my classroom, and the last look of my apartment had the same feel, all traces of my impact had been washed away so the next person that came in to take my place could start to make their mark. As I prepared to get ready for my next adventure in Thailand, I couldn’t help but looking at my time here and wonder if it had been worth the time and effort that I had put into it.

Life in Dongcheon-dong continuing on.

As far as the greater impact my presence had to South Korea as whole, it was hard to make me believe that I had actually done something. The society still moves on like a well-oiled machine. People continue to work jobs to try to get a little ahead, and students still work themselves hard to try to become a part of this cycle. Words of a madman to the north passes the lips of the people from time to time as they wonder how their relationships with larger nations from the west affect what is going on. Poor air from the east mingles with the exhaust of the big city to make some days unsafe to venture outside, but on the days you can, it is a beautiful experience to watch the blooming of spring, the green of summer, or the melancholy of autumn. The year comes and the year goes, and we get mixed into the grind.

Knowing all of this, how can I look at the empty classroom and the empty apartment and believe that I had an impact?

The last moment before getting in the cab to depart South Korea forever.

It was while I was riding away in the taxi to the airport, spending those last moments in South Korea that the answer came to me. I could not worry about making a huge change in society. What I did would eventually be returned to a state as if I had never been there. My legacy should not come from the programs I made or the mark I left behind; it should come from the connections I made with the people I came across. This is what made my time in Korea worth every moment. I do believe that every student that went through my class now has a different perspective on the world, and will think about what they witness more instead of just accepting it as the truth, while challenging the truths that I always believed to be true. I do believe that the colleagues that I worked with in my four years grew because of my influence almost as much as I have grown as a teacher because of their influence. And more importantly, I do believe that the society has felt a minor shock wave because of the slightly punk rock hippie that invaded their world for four years, as I learned to look at my world with a more international perspective.

It wasn’t all about my legacy. It was about their legacy as well. I hope the people I came in contact with during these four amazing years have somehow been changed by presence, because I know I have been changed by their presence.

Thank you Korea for four amazing years full of happiness and heartache. Each moment has allowed me to grow as a person, and even though I may no longer be living and working out there anymore, your legacy lives on with me.

The North Seoul Tower – Itaewon Day 3

If you look over the stores and restaurants in Itaewon, you can see one of Seoul’s most iconic structures, the North Seoul Tower. It stands on one of the mountains that surrounds the city and looks over the action from all of its neighborhoods. During the four years I have lived here, I have seen this needle guarding the city, and I have always talked about eventually making it up there one day. I waited until yesterday to finally make that dream become a reality, and I discovered that after all of the palaces and the Buddhist temples, and tall buildings I have been to while out here, that this is, by far, the most touristy thing that I have visited in Seoul.

Getting to the tower is not that difficult. You just take subway to the Myeongdong Station, and get out through exit three. Find the Pacific Hotel, and take the road to the right of it up the hill, and you will eventually find the mountain that the tower is on. There are two ways up the mountain, you can take the stairs up or you can take a cable car. I took the cable car, and I would recommend taking the stairs.

I went to the tower yesterday because I thought that a lot of Koreans would be at home preparing for the Lunar New Year holiday so it would not be that busy, and this might have been the case. It was still really busy though, except not with Koreans. Apparently when people from South-East Asia celebrate this holiday, they decide to go the touristy thing in Seoul. February is not the best time to be in Seoul. It is really cold, and there are no leaves on the trees. Yet they were all here anyways. We stood in line for twenty minutes to buy tickets to stand in another line for forty minutes to get on a cable car that was way overpacked with people to take a ride up a hill to see the views from up top. It would have taken fifteen to twenty minutes just to take the stairs up to the top, and the exercise would have been worth it.

Once up there, the views were really worth it. The North Seoul Tower sits in the perfect spot to walk around and see all the different nooks and crannies of the city. There are also a lot of fun things to do that highlight the Korean culture, from looking at old structures from the Joseon Dynasty to a lot of booths that teach people how to play the traditional games from tuho to yunnori. There were plenty of things to keep me occupied up there.

Of course, it is also a big tourist destination, so there are a lot of companies that wish to take advantage of this fact. There are plenty of restaurants to eat at, and a couple of bars as well. There are numerous statues of Korea’s favorite cartoon characters so they can take pictures of them with their children. And of course there is a whole wall dedicated to love locks. This tradition that started in Paris has found its way all around the world. Young lovers will buy a lock and attach it to this wall then throw away the key. The idea is that the lock represents their love, and by throwing away the key then their love will always be eternal. It is a romantic idea, but it loses its power when their is a vending machine selling locks, and everybody believes that they have to do it. The idea starts to drift over to that love of capitalism idea instead.

Despite it obvious tourist appeal, visiting the North Seoul Tower was worth the adventure, and I am glad that I took the time to go out and do it while I am still living out here.