Thursday, November 29, 2012

The Bizarrest of Things

I found this documentary on a topic I never would have thought existed.  It's a story about an American (actually four) who CHOSE to defect to North Korea back in the 1950s.  Joe Dresnok, who the documentary follows, walked right across the DMZ during the height of the Korean War into the arms of North Korean soldiers and has never left the DPRK since.  After 40+ years inside the Hermit Kingdom, the Kim regime finally allowed his story to be documented in a Daniel Gordon Film called, Crossing the Line.

It was a fascinating story to watch, but I couldn't help but feel like I wasn't getting the whole story.   Despite this, it's a glimpse into a world many know little about.  Definitely worth a watch if you've got an interest in North Korea or psychology.

The full documentary is available on YouTube or you can click the links below.  Each link is about 15 minutes, so its running time is 1.5 hours in total.

Part I: Crossing the Line
Part II: Crossing the Line
Part III: Crossing the Line
Part IV: Crossing the Line
Part V: Crossing the Line
Part VI: Crossing the Line

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

How Not to Forget

From afar, he looks like another Korean grandpa, but as the old saying goes, looks can be deceiving.

In the United States, the Korean War is sometimes tagged 'the Forgotten War'. I realized this past week,  it would be impossible to forget this war if we could only put a face to it.  On November 25th, Mr. Yoo Young Bok, author of the memoir "Tears of Blood", became that face for me.   I had the privilege of meeting and hearing Mr. Yoo speak at the 10 Magazine's Book Club Event in Seoul this past weekend.

Mr Yoo is one of hundreds of thousands detained by North Korea as a prisoner of war. Only two months before the ceasefire was announced in 1953, Mr. Yoo was captured by Chinese soldiers, who then turned him over to the north.  He then spent 50+ years mistreated and abused in the Stalinist state until his escape over the China-NK border at 72 years old.  

Since his return to South Korea, he has dedicated the remainder of his life to bringing awareness to the injustice experienced by the POWs in the North.  Although the majority have already passed away, the remaining POWs would be in their 80s now. Mr. Yoo hopes the South Korean government will take a stand and demand that these soldiers who are still alive to be released, as is required by international law, and can be returned once and for all back to their homeland.

This book was recently translated into English by a Mr. Paul T. Kim and is now available on in the US
It is amazing to me the will power this man had to survive despite all the tragedy he experienced.   Separated from his family, shamed by society for being 'one of the enemy', mistreated and forgotten by the South, it's a story that is almost too incredible to believe.

If you're interested at all in North Korea, the Korean War or human rights issues, I would highly recommend picking up this book.  Since 1994, 80 POWs have returned to South Korea, none of them through the help of the SK government.  The profits of this book, go to help fundinging these courageous people and their families.

If you'd like to read more about Mr. Yoo, here's another article.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Thanksgiving Abroad

Yesterday was my fourth consecutive Thanksgiving, and my fifth Thanksgiving collectively that I've celebrated outside of the US.

My first Thanksgiving abroad back in 2004, I spent sitting in an office with other fellow Americans who were traveling with me at the time and eating home made chocolate chip cookies and going around the table and saying what we were grateful for.  Skip ahead to 2009, my first Thanksgiving abroad on my own and I remember how much I really wanted to cook and share the holiday with my new family.  All the effort of hunting down food items that were not easily found in German supermarkets and cooking a way too expensive turkey whom we named Tod.  The food was gobbled down happily by my now in-laws, but never the less, it didn't quite feel like the holiday I had hoped to create, because to them it wasn't a tradition that had any back story or memories attached to.  

The next year, I decided to downsize and opt for a chicken instead of turkey and cook potatoes and carrots instead of any fancy sides.  Last year in 2011, I cooked a pumpkin pie from scratch (because canned pumpkin is impossible to find), and skipped the meal altogether.   This year, with my limited kitchen (a hot plate and a microwave) I decided there would be no pies and no bird of any kind -- just a grateful, happy heart.    

The American I was five years ago would never have imagined myself spending Thanksgiving day eating Vietnamese noodles in a Korean shopping mall while being serenaded by Mariah Carey and other pop versions of Christmas songs as I did this year.

 I do miss Thanksgiving and the atmosphere of the holidays in the US, but being abroad has given me a chance to celebrate holidays in different ways.  In Germany I got to experience a Christmas season that feels like it lasts from September to December, including a month long celebration of Christmas markets.  In Korea, I got to celebrate holidays that I never knew existed, like Buddha's birthday, Children's Day and Chuseok with holidays still to come like Lunar New Year.

So I missed out on a fifth American Thanksgiving, but I'll be back next year.  Until then, wishing everyone a happy holidays in the US and in Germany, as they  kick off the Christmas Market season.

My Thanksgiving meal 2012 at Little Saigon, Vietnamese Pho--(photo property of

Sunday, November 18, 2012

These are a few of my favorite things... (Korea Edition)

Some things I love about Korea...

1)  Korean kids 
Although I loved working with adults when I was in Germany, working with Korean kids has been an unexpected joy for me.  Maybe I'd be singing a different tune if I had been placed in a middle school, but elementary school kids are so much fun to work with.  They are curious and open and give you so much undeserved love.  I adore the kids at my school and I think that leaving them will be one of the hardest parts about saying goodbye in February.

2)  The work day
Despite having to be at school from 8:40 - 4:40 each day, my contract requires me to work only 22 teaching hours (of 40 minutes) per week. That leaves you with a lot of time to prepare classes in school (and not have to worry about taking work home with you) as well as plenty of free time to study, work on personal projects, play board games with fellow teachers and/or zone out on Facebook.  This is clearly a borderline good thing, but overall this job is pretty low-stress.

3)  Soups & Stews Galore
This is not a job perk, however it is a huge and wonderful being-in-Korea advantage.  I love all the different Korean soups and jiggaes.  They are satisfying and intensely flavorful.  They are also totally within budget.  You can make a cheap meal of it for 5,000-7,000 won.  You can attempt cooking them cheaper at home if you like, but I think it's a pretty good deal.  Two people can eat a very filling meal for about 10,000 won or $10, 8 euros.

The stews are served boiling hot and are a welcome relief from the cold weather.  Yummy.
4)  Seoul Subway
Seoul has the very best subway system I have ever used, hands down.  NYC, Nuremberg, Berlin, Munich, Frankfurt, Athens, Rome, Paris, London--some come close, but none of them has the accesibility, the cleanliness AND the cheap ticket factor.  You can get anywhere in Seoul using one of  7-8 lines.  Best part of it all, a ride costs only 1,050 won (less than $1/1Euro).

Get from one side of Seoul to other for about a $1.
5)  Service aka Free Things
The Koreans call it Ser-bi-suh, we call it free stuff.  Korean shops and restaurants like to treat their customers and their foreign guests to free things.  Whether it be face masks and samples at the numerous skin care/make-up shops, or free soups or dumplings to accompany a meal, or free trips to the DMZ for foreign customers at their bank, Korean customer service is pretty top notch.

6)  The cuteness factor
Some foreigners despise it, but I really like all the cute things you can find here in Korea, particularly in the stationary shops.  My style of dress hasn't conformed to Korean-ness but I do find myself taking a liking to it.  While I probably wouldn't actually wear a matching couple outfit, they are fun to spot Korean couples wearing.  
A blog with some cuter couple clothing:
7)  Convenience
I can't speak for the rest of Korea, but Seoul is convenience capital of the world in my book.  The subways run every five minutes, many shops are open late hours, 24 hour convenient stores are literally EVERYWHERE--(I kid you not, there are four 7-11's, and two Mini-Marts within a two block radius from my apt.).  And while language is definitely a barrier, it isn't one that can't be overcome.  The Korean government has supported the efforts of a 24-hour volunteer translators service that you can call at any time to help you find directions and/or translate in a situation if you can't get your point across.  1330, a number every foreigner needs in their phone.

8) Autumn
Spring brings an explosion of cherry blossoms, Summer brings waves of humidity and unbearable heat and Autumn brings a cool breeze and trees flooding the streets with amazing yellows and reds and oranges.  I've missed the intensities of the colors back in DE.

Autumn in Banghwa.
 "So, if Korea's so great Diana, why aren't you staying another year?" 

Fair question.  There are a lot of great things about living in Korea but let's be honest, there isn't any place on earth that's a field of daisies, so next post I'll talk about the unpleasant, unexpected aspects of living and teaching here in the ROK.

PS.  For anyone browsing here on my blog, feel free to message me or leave a comment if you have any questions about teaching with EPIK.  I'd be happy to help.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Konglish 101

When I was in Germany, I thought the amount of English words used in advertising was excessive, but Korea it seems, takes it one step further.  Konglish, the use of English in a Korean form/way, is pretty rampant here as well. A perfect example, take a look at this carton of milk below.

Goot Mo-Ning
If you could read Korean, you would read the name like this: Goot Mo-Ning Oo You.  That's right, this is Good Morning milk.  I was pretty pleased the first time I realized that, but for a lot of older Koreans and for North Koreans trying to assimilate here, it must be totally baffling trying to wade through and make sense of cutesy Konglishized English.  I even saw a sign which used Konglish, and then proceeded to italicize in English letters which word they were trying to use, in case it wasn't clear to those reading it.  

Konglish can be found everywhere here and while it is a huge help for English speakers, as long as you can read the Korean, there is one catch: you have to learn to say it in the Korean way.  Otherwise they will have a hell of a time trying to understand you.  As I learned while repeatedly trying to tell the restaurant downstairs I want my food for Take Out, instead of Tay-Ik Ow-Tuh.

Want to learn some more 'Korean'?  Here are a few words you'll likely already know:   “romance” (로맨스/romance), “telebijeon” (텔레비전/television), “keompyuteo” (컴퓨터/computer), “keopi” (커피/coffee), “diary” (다이어리/planner) and “handphone” (핸드폰/cellphone).  With a few more that you'll likely know the words, but may not know what the Koreans mean when they use them:

searching for a mate
Pronounced 'Hun-Ting'*, rather than it being about shooting animals, it means going out to look for a guy or a girl, being on the 'prowl' so to speak.

blind date
This word, which we normally use for business, in Korea is meant as a date, or a blind date.

throw up; vomit
This one threw me for a while, because the Korean spelling doesn't sound so close to the English at first listen.  O-ba- Ee-T, sounds like overeat, however the Konglish meaning is to throw up, or vomit.

There's one even for the Germans, Ah-luh-by-tuh (아르바이트) or 'arbeit', means p/t job in Korean.  They also say 'all-ba' for short.

For a complete list, have a look here.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Visiting the Other Korea: Our trip to the DMZ

Visiting the DMZ was on my bucket list for my time here in Korea and this past week KEB (Korean Foreign Exchange Bank) helped me make it happen.  When I saw the offer on their Facebook page about a free trip to the DMZ for its customers,  I quickly sent an e-mail.  Although we weren't selected initially, we got the good news the next day that two others who had been selected couldn't make it, so we were in!

The tour was supposed to start at 8:00am Saturday morning and our first official stop after getting tickets and passing through the security check was the 3rd infiltration tunnel, one of three massive tunnels dug by the North Korean army. It was discovered at the end of the 70's (?) when a North Korean, upon escaping informed the ROK army.  Even though it was initially intended to be used to hurt South Korea, as our guide put it so gracefully, through tourism "we've made a lot of money thanks to the North Koreans, so thank you."

Mr. So, our funny tour guide.  "Did you say hello to the worms?"

Descending into the tunnel.  It's the height of a 25-story building below ground. And it was damp.

The hard hats aren't just to look cool, some parts of the tunnel are pretty low and we both hit our heads a couple of times.

It took a while to gather our group back together, but after that we were off to the Dora Observatory, and in my opinion the most interesting part of the tour.  From there, we could see into North Korea.  

"End of separation, beginning of unification."

Tourists looking out into the Hermit Kingdom, aka North Korea.

Taken from, this image shows you the view from the observatory.  My camera couldn't capture it nearly as well, but you can see the huge North Korean flag flying above a city/town.

After that we headed to Dora Station, a deserted train station that connects North & South Korea via rail.  According to our tour guide, a train used to run along the track once a day, Monday - Friday, during the last president's term, however the current president Myung-Bak Lee, put an end to that and many other factions of the Sunshine Policy, which encouraged trade between the two Koreas.

Poor soldier whose job is to take hundreds of pictures a day with annoying tourists. 

Considered the 'First Station to the North' rather than the last station in the south.
I can't go a post without showing off how gorgeous fall in Korea is.  Despite being in a sombre place that weather was amazing and the colors of the trees just incredible.
Although we ran out of time and couldn't view a movie about the DMZ nor tour the Imjingak Park (although it was okay because DH and I had seen it before), the tour ended well with an organic buffet lunch provided free for us in Paju.  Thank you KEB Bank and Grace Travel for the chance and for helping me add another great memory of Korea to my list.  

Sunday, November 4, 2012

East Side of the ROK

Seorak mountain, like Nami Island, were places I heard were 'must visits' in Korea.  This particular mountain, while not the tallest in Korea, is an incredibly beautiful one, especially during Autumn.  Apparently droves of 135,000+ Koreans hit the trails EVERY weekend during peak season at this one mountain alone.  As Autumn is dwindling to an end, and the leaves are becoming sparser and weather colder, we decided to  make our way there before it was too late.  Seorak is one of those places you have to see to believe.  An awe-inspiring place that despite the pounding of thousands upon thousands of Korean and foreign feet that trample on its ground yearly manages to keep its astounding natural beauty.

We woke up at 4:30 am to prepare for and get ourselves to the Express Bus Terminal to catch the first bus from Seoul to Sokcho, a small seaside town.  The ride took about 2.5 hours, much shorter than is advertised on the bus schedule on the internet (they said 4+ hours!).  From there we took a taxi (although buses are available) for 20 minutes to get to the base of the mountain.  The taxi ride cost us 4,000 won ($4) and I had my first real-life Korean 'conversation'!  Normally, I practice Korean with people who speak English well or in a classroom setting, but I decided to test the waters with my non-English speaking taxi driver.  He was pretty nice.  I tried asking how long the trails were to hike and some other small talk which resulted in me understanding only 30-40% of what he responded, but never-the-less, still felt pretty proud of myself^^.

Below are some pictures from our Seorak experience.  I highly recommend it to anyone in Korea and I want to let people know it is worth the trip even if you can only stay one day like we could.

The entrance to the park with loads of Koreans posing with the bear.

The Unification Statue of Buddha: he's huge!  Just look at the size of that woman underneath him.

Even though many leaves have already fallen, there were still splotches of vibrant color  everywhere.  Amazing!

A view from one of the peaks:  DH standing proudly.

If you look closely those green  patches are very tiny trees.  I'm scared stiff on a cliff!

Korean flag flying high on a cold windy peak.  A park ranger chilling in his parka on top.

The biggest 'miracle' of this trip was finding a secluded area virtually people-free.  We hiked a short trail to a series of water falls and there was almost nobody there.  If you have ever been to Korea, you know that solitude is a rare commodity here.

Before leaving the park, clouds covering some of the jagged peaks.  Seoraksan, gorgeous rain or shine.
Just some advice for fellow travellers: Book your return ticket when you get to the station! Our trip was fairly smooth all the way around, but one thing we didn't forsee was that buses going from Sokcho back to Seoul would be sold out.  We arrived at the bus station at 5:00pm, but couldn't get a ticket for a bus until 8:00pm.  We managed to make it back to Seoul, but it could have been tricky if we had shown up any later.