Escape – Back to Busan Day 1

Okay, I usually do not post things that are inappropriate, but this person I saw on the subway in Seoul the other day represents the way I feel about this big city right now. This guy on the subway and pushed his way through the people so he could position himself in a prime spot. I probably wouldn’t have noticed him because this happens all of the time in South Korea, but his coat brushed up against my hand, and I couldn’t believe that I had felt a fur coat in this day and age. But there it was, and when I saw what was printed on the back of it, I had to chuckle. I do not know if the guy knew what it said, or believed the sentiment. But he did pull out a fan, so he could cool himself off as he took the train back to his neighborhood. He was basically just trying to look good in front of a bunch of strangers. Why else would he show off the amount of money he was willing to blow on a coat that he could have easily taken off to cool down. He also wanted to highlight the fact that he was able to wear the trendy English that is all the rage in Seoul right now. I just shook my head at the absurdity, and realized that I needed to get out of town before the never-stop pace consumed me.

Luckily, there is a city a short two hour train away that has a completely different vibe to it, Busan. I was also given a couple of days off in order to celebrate an American holiday, Thanksgiving. I took this opportunity to get away from the I need to look good, I need to show off my money, and I need to make mark on society attitude that permeates through Seoul. Busan has a feeling to it that is more like a beach. If it happens today that is great, but eventually we will get around to it. In the meantime, let us enjoy the moment.

I am not quite sure if this is always the case here, but both times I have been down here, I have felt like this was the case. I instantly felt it when I got on the subway. Whereas, just two days earlier, I was pushed out of the way by some guy wearing an expensive coat that expressed how much he loved people, I was greeted by a Korean wearing a worn-down hoodie and greeting smile. People are not in a rush here. They are not trying to show everybody how great they are, or how much money they make. My sanity needed this change of attitude, and it allowed me to enjoy Black Friday the way that I know how, ignoring the shoppers, and eating at as many establishments as I can find.

Busan does not really buy into this crazy shopping day anyway, but I feel like I took something back from a society that demands that I spend money to make other people happy. I would rather get together with my friends and enjoy good beer and good food. The best way to do this if you do not have a stove big enough to cook a turkey in, or live in a culture that doesn’t even really sell turkeys in the market anyway is to hop from restaurant to restaurant, grabbing a bite to eat in each one. It allowed me to feel that there are more important things in this world than having a look that makes everybody turn their attention over to me. It is not about what others think about me, but instead of what I think about the moment, and I am going to make sure that it is a great one.

Taking Pictures of People Taking Pictures – Around the World Day 1

It is summertime and for a teacher that means taking a much needed break. For an international teacher that means reconnecting with loved ones, and taking in a little bit of the world in the process. This year, we have gotten really ambitious by taking a trip around the world. It is more exotic than it sounds because in reality I am only stopping at a couple of places, namely Spain, Portugal, Colorado, Oregon, and then back to Seoul for another school year. And even though there are not a lot of stops along the way, it is still literally a trip around the world. We will constantly be traveling west until we reach our original destination.

Of course these means starting some place, and experiencing the wonders of air travel. It is always a weird experience, and there is always something that makes these trips unusual for us. Every day presents us with new stories that we will tell over the years, and those stories came quick this time.

It all started with trying to leave. There is always the fun of making sure that we have cleared out the fridge for the six week trip and that all the appliances are turned off as well as making sure that everything is locked up. This year that job was left up to me because my wife had one more day left before we left. I was to take the car to campus so we could leave it there until school started up again, and then we would grab a cab to the airport bus to our new adventure. Right before I was supposed to leave a moving company came in and parked right in front of our car. It seemed as if fate did not want us to leave, but I had worked hard and I earned this vacation. I went out to the movers and after a strange conversation in broken English/Korean, I was able to get my car out and make my way to the airport.

I thought that this would have been the most exciting part of my day, but little did I know that the airport had another mini-adventure in store for us. We got to the airport in a reasonable time, and we had some time to kill, so we went to America’s favorite place, Starbucks, for some coffee. We got in line waiting for our turn to order when things started to get weird.

It started off with one camera, then two, and soon everybody in the airport had stopped to take our picture for some reason. I thought of being nice by waving to people. Christine told me to put my hand down because they weren’t taking pictures of me. We ordered our coffee, and more people gathered around to take pictures. I didn’t know what they were taking pictures of, so while I took pictures of them taking pictures, Christine asked the person at the counter what was making people so excited. The lady got really flustered because the person who they were taking pictures of was actually standing right behind us.

We were in the presence of somebody famous, but I found the crowd more interesting. Some of them thought I was absolutely crazy for missing the opportunity that was right there next to me. But honestly I do not know enough about Kpop stars to care, and I started to realize the truth about celebrity status. It is only important if the people who are around care. If this celebrity showed up in the States she would be anonymous and she would be able to carry on with her life as any of us. But because of her location, she was hounded by the masses. It would have been like if Dave Matthews showed up in Seoul. Nobody would know who he was because Koreans do not listen to Dave Matthews. Celebrity status is the product of the society, not the other way around.

We eventually got our coffee and moved on, asking people if they knew who it was that was getting her picture taken. The foreigners in the back of the crowd had no idea but they stood by to make sure that they got a picture of the event. As we were making our way to our gate, a nice lady stopped by to tell us that we were in the presence of the Kpop group called Twice. I still do not know who that is, but it was fun to experience what it is like to be a celebrity if only it was second hand, and it was an exciting start to our adventure around the world. I hope that the rest of the trip is as much fun and I can’t wait to see what other stories will come out of it.

If you are interested to follow these stories make sure you to return to this blog over the next six weeks to see what will happen next.

Subway Culture versus Car Culture

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I am sure I will be accused of oversimplifying things again, but I do believe that there might be some truth about my thoughts. These notions bounced around my head over the weekend as I took many different subways to different locations all over Seoul to enjoy the Lunar New Year holiday. Does the mode of transportation that a city encourages its citizens to take help to create the personality of that community? Do we start to have a different mentality because we have chosen to drive a car as opposed to taking a subway?

If you think about it, there is a different point of view citizens have when being forced to travel under the ground as opposed to above on the streets. A strange thing happens when you walk down into those caverns. You leave behind a sunny day in a familiar territory, and take a series of tubes to find yourself emerging somewhere new a half an hour to an hour later in another part of that same sunny day. Where you left is hustling and bustling because it is situated at a subway station, and where you emerge has the same feeling because once again it is at an another important subway station. It makes you feel as if the town is always in motion.

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For some of the bigger cities in the world this might be the case. There might be so many people out there that there will always be somebody that will be wandering around the streets, no matter what time of day or night it is.

You don’t have this same feeling when you travel around in a car. Granted, there are times when you find yourself in the middle of a mad rush hour as you slowly push your car closer to its destination. As you get closer to where it is you are going to, you have to start taking the side streets to get there. The crowds slowly get smaller, and smaller until you find yourself all by your self.

There is also the distinct advantage of finding yourself above ground. There is a whole world around you that you can enjoy. The scenery isn’t just the long tunnel that takes you from one place to another. It give you context to how you got from one place to another. You do not feel like you have been magically transported to some other place in the city; instead, you took a journey to get there.

You are also in control of your route when you take a car. Granted the more complicated subway systems will give you a few options of how to get from point A to point B, but it is still through a tunnel that is as straight as day. There is no option to take a side path if you feel that it might get you there quicker, or make the trip more enjoyable. There is only one path that you can take in a subway.

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With all of these advantages a car has to offer, why would anybody choose to live in a subway community? What could it possibly have to offer that would rival the ones rules by the automobile?

There is a peace of mind that comes from riding on a subway, as opposed to driving a car. You no longer have to worry about how to get to the destination; you just let the train whisk you off to it. And in the meantime you can enjoy the ride there. Whether this is reading a book, or playing your favorite video game on your phone, you are not forced to experience the stress traveling by car can give you. Add on to the fact that traffic can be one of the worst things possible to experience, and you will relish every moment you get to spend on the relaxing subway.

But this is not the best part of a subway society. When you are on a subway, you are forced to interact with your fellow human beings. In a car, you are in isolation. In America, on the rare occasion that you are in the car with another individual, it is still somebody that you are so comfortable with that you usually spend the time in the car in silence. On a subway, you are forced to be right next to complete strangers and try to find a way to get along during the short time you are on the train together.

If you start to think about it, how does this constant connection with our community affect our perspective on life?

In the car culture, do we hide in our automobiles even more? Are we willing to let more people into our lives, or do we only allow the ones we feel comfortable with into our little box? How does the world look from behind a bullet proof windshield?

Or do we engage in the unknown every time we move from one location to another? Do with look with anticipation every time the door of our vehicle opens to see who might enter into our world? Are we willing to let those people into our lives just so we can share the joy of being alive?

How far does this go? Do we scream from our computer screens or do we engage in conversation with our neighbor? Do we hide behind our walls, or do we open our borders to new ideas?

It sometimes strange the things we think about while we are on a subway.

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The Staycation

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Our lives are busy.

I’m sure many of you are screaming at me for wasting those five seconds you spent reading that statement to be told something you already know. I’m sorry to state the obvious, but it is something that we all need to recognize from time to time. The big question is what should we do about it once we admit to ourselves that we need a break from our daily routine.

The conventional wisdom tells us that we should go on a vacation to some place fantastic so we can tell everybody about it. They will be jealous and will start to make plans about going to the same place. How do we know this happens, well, they start to ask us things about what we loved, and the things we would have skipped if we were given the opportunity to do it all over again.

The crazy thing though is we come back from these incredible vacations more exhausted than when we left. It is because we don’t stop with our busy lifestyles while we are on vacation. We just change the focus. We tell ourselves that we need to squeeze in as much fun as we can while we are at these places or the effort of traveling half way around the globe wasn’t worth the experience.

You know this is true. I’m sure many of you have made the statement that you need a vacation after you return from your vacation.

Why do we do this to ourselves? We know we need a break, but yet we go on vacation and run ourselves ragged in order to get it.

There is another option that more people are considering, a staycation.

What exactly is a staycation? It is where you pack a bag, find a hotel in the city you live in, and go and stay there instead of making yourself crazy by rushing to the airport, driving across the country, or making other travel plans that leave you more worn out than when you began.

It might sound like a cop out for really going on a vacation, but I am here to tell you that there are many benefits for enjoying this kind of break. Don’t get me wrong, I love going out and seeing the world, but I find myself not knowing much about the city that I live in. In fact, you probably have said sometime in your life that it take others to come to town for you to really go out and see the sights of where you live.

It also is less expensive than taking a vacation further from your home. You don’t have to pay for that travel expense. You just have to find a way to make it to the downtown area of the city you live in. For most people that means hopping in their car and driving there, and if you live in a big enough city, it means just getting on some public transportation and finding the route that takes you to your destination. The money you save on transportation costs, you can use on getting a little nicer place to stay and still save a bunch of money. It also means splurging on some better food.

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Add into this mix a national holiday, and you have something really special about your staycation. I know you are thinking that the holiday would have to be the Super Bowl, but the city I live in really doesn’t care much for that game (Yes, there are places out there that don’t care). The people of Korea were getting together to celebrate the Year of the Monkey. It was my first Lunar New Year in Asia so I wanted to go out and see how they celebrate this event. We picked a place downtown which we haven’t explored much of, Myeongdong, and got a hotel room right next to the subway entrance.

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It was the perfect place to experience this holiday. There was a huge shopping market right around the corner, which is not something I am usually excited about especially in Korea. They are interested a little too much in fashion which doesn’t excite me as much. It also doesn’t help that the clothes out here are a little small for me. But there was plenty of street vendors offering my favorite Korean cuisine, street food.

Koreans know how to do street food very well. They have a sweet bread that they cook an egg on top of. They will twirl a potato into one log chip and poke a stick through it. They then lightly bread it, fry it and roll it around powdered cheese. They will make a banana pancake, fill it up with Frosted Flakes, and Nutella. It all spells delicious. If you find yourself as one of those guys who have to stand around while your wife or girlfriend looks at shoes or clothes, you can always run out to the streets and partake of some of the local fare that is offered. The Koreans have figured out how to please both genders with the shopping experience. The only real problem was it was still cold, so I wanted to run back inside every moment to warm back up.

But Myeongdong has you covered there as well. There are various restaurants around that will satisfy your hunger that the street fare only tickles. There are offerings that show what Korea has to offer to world culture, such as Korean BBQ, and chicken and beer places. But if  you are in the mood for something else, you can find sushi, Indian, Thai, Italian, burgers, Chinese, and even pizza. My favorite was the Italian place underneath the CGV movie theater called Mad About Garlic. There are two locations that I know of in Seoul, and this is the second time that I have eaten at one. The atmosphere in the one in Myeongdong isn’t as nice as the one in AK Plaza, but the food is just as good. A little warning for those of you who don’t like spice, when Mad About Garlic says something is spicy, they mean it. For those of you who like spice, enjoy.

After you have eaten, are there places where you can enjoy the evening? Yes! What would an outdoor shopping place be like if you couldn’t have a few drinks and enjoy it a little more? The stores like it as well because it makes people spend more money. There are bars that make strong cocktails, and the craft beer movement has even seeped into the streets of Myeongdong. You can find a good IPA, or a hearty stout. And if a beer is not enough for you, you can always go with the traditional Korean drink, soju. It might be a little more expensive to buy it at one of the bars than the dollar fifty you will spend at a convenience store, but it is still a lot less than a beer. It makes the next experience you come across even more fun.

And yes, there is culture down here as well. You can take in the longest running play in South Korea, Nanta. If you don’t speak Korean, you don’t have to worry about it because it is blend of physical comedy, drumming, and audience interaction. It is a lot of fun no matter what your language barrier or your age might be.

Another fun little thing to do if you don’t mind making a fool of yourself in front of your friends is to go to a norabong. This is Korea’s answer to karaoke. You rent a room, and are given a book of songs you can sing. A waiter comes in dropping off cans of cheap beer while you shout into the microphones, and laugh at the scores the computer gives you for your performance. If you have lived in Korea, or just visited, and have not made it to a norabong, you have not lived yet.

If these activities are a little too low brow for you, there are some other places you can go that are more worthy of your sophistication. A short subway stop away is the Korean War Memorial. This museum gives perspective to America’s forgotten war. I will admit that what I know about this conflict comes from the TV show, M.A.S.H., and I don’t think that is very accurate. A visit to this place will clear up what you might have thought happened and what really did happen. So far, with all my experience in South Korea, it is the one museum that has moved me the most.

All of these experiences have made my first ever staycation a wonderful and relaxing experience. I have also learned more about the city I live in. I would recommend to other people that this is something that they should do as well. So the next time you need to recharge your batteries and are thinking about the place that will help you do this, start thinking about it from a different perspective and just…

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Stay.