Sunday, December 30, 2012

And that's a wrap!

Goodbye 2012!
So 2012 is about 24 hours away from being completed.  Presently, all seems calm as I sit in my tiny little Seoul apartment, but looking back, this year has certainly kept me on my toes. In the last 364 days...

-Visited the US after 1.5 years

-Packed up and said good-bye to family, friends and students in NUE

-Moved to Seoul, South Korea, became an expert at using chopsticks & started teaching some of the cutest and greatest kids in Korea right here in Banghwa with EPIK

-My first niece was born with news of two nephews on the way in 2013

-Took Korean classes

-Applied for and successfully completed the Visa/Green Card Interview & process at the US Embassy

-Experienced the beauty and extreme weather that comes with each of Korea's four seasons

-Explored green tea fields, walked through bamboo forests, looked straight across the 38th parallel into North Korea, experienced my first Typhoon season, visited the Yeosu World Expo, celebrated Buddha's birthday, lived the life of a monk for 24 hours, climbed mountains all over Korea, ate too many new and delicious foods to even start to name, visited the beautiful island of Jeju as well as making Seoul feel like home.

-and lastly but not least, celebrated seven years with David :)

Phew.  Thank you 2012! Wishing you all a wonderful, healthy and fulfilling New Year in 2013.

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Friday, December 28, 2012

Jeju: Where to Stay and Visiting in the Winter

Jeju is feeling more like a dream with each passing day, now that we're back here in freezing Seoul -.-. Before all the details completely elude me, I wanted to post a few things we experienced there for future Jeju visitors.

One of the questions I had before visiting was whether Jeju would be worth a winter visit.  While it is a good deal further south, it isn't a tropical island. Jackets were necessary (no beach lounging this time of year) but we were pleasantly surprised that the weather was so agreeable.  We had sunshine Monday and Wednesday while we were roaming around the other parts of the island, and Tuesday, at Hallasan, it was covered in snow, which was a pretty nice setting for our Christmas Day hike.  And a plus, there were no crowds anywhere (which is a pretty huge plus when you're talking about visiting anywhere in Korea).

We stayed two nights in  Jeju-si and it worked out for us well.  We used buses to get around for long distance and taxis to get us in between to locations that were out of the way or a hassle to get to with public transport.  

We were really pleased with our hotel/parktel, the Goodstay Nulsong Parktel.  It was superbly clean and the staff super nice.  We arrived around 9am and they allowed us to check in already, which was great so we didn't have to lug around our bags.  The two nights there cost us $100, so $50 bucks a night, not bad.  It's just off the main street with an E-mart/Lotte Mart/McD's nearby for budget eating, for those who don't want to eat all your meals out at restaurants.

First day, we hit up the East side of the island visiting Seongsan Ilchulbong (Sunrise Peak) and Seopjikoji.  We used public transportation to get there.  It cost 3,000 KRW o/w--but the ride is a bit long (about 1.5 hours).  We didn't mind it too much though, as it was nice to look out the window and also to catch up on some sleep^^.  I want to recommend printing out this blog post on The Lost Wanderer.  The writer took great care in explaining public transport on the island and we found it really helpful. We didn't have enough time for Udo Island and we skipped the caves because 1) it's winter and we didn't want to go down into colder temperatures and 2) we've both seen caves before.  Day 1 was my favorite day to be honest.  I loved the blue skies, the sunshine and the vast and beautiful sea crashing against the coastline. The Sunrise Peak was beautiful and it was really interesting to watch the women divers.

Day 2 was meant to be our hike up Hallasan.  It was easy to get to from Jeju-si, only about a 35 minute ride, but we got there around 9:30am, which didn't give us enough time to get to the peak.  We only made it about half way up, which was a bit disappointing.  They close access to the peak from 12:00 in the Winter to give hikers enough time to get back before dark.  However, we did manage to reach one of the two craters on the mountain.  The thing is, the weather was so snowy, that you couldn't see anything, which makes me think, even if we got to the top, the view would have been similar.  The wintery scenery was beautiful though.

What we were supposed to see.

What we saw.  If it wasn't for the sign, I would have had no clue what we were looking at.
So, we didn't make it to the top, but Christmas Day was still enjoyable.  We had a nice meal and hit up a cafe and played some card games and ended the night with a movie on our huge TV in the hotel room.

Day 3, our last day, we checked out of the hotel and took a taxi to the airport.  We dropped off our stuff at the luggage holding area (it cost us 7,000 KRW for 12 hours) and then we took the airport shuttle 600 to the south side of the island to Seogwipo.  It was a super comfy, convenient ride.  It cost 3,000 KRW to take us to the Convention Center, which is where we could see the Jungsangjeolli Cliffs.  The south side of the island definitely has a more tropical feel to it, with clementine trees everywhere and warmer temperatures than Jeju-si, but to be honest, the three waterfalls that they advertise in the area are overrated.  I've seen much better ones in other places.  I'd skip them my second time around and just enjoy time walking along the coastline.

We took the airport shuttle back to Jeju-si, had some lunch and still had time to check out the much talked about Loveland, the erotic theme park.  For those who are curious what it is, here's a more detailed post by another blogger.  Personally, we found it disappointing.  For 9,000 KRW per person, it wasn't worth the money or time.  What I found more curious than the exhibits themselves, were the other people visiting.  I expected to see young people and/or couples, but there were whole families visiting with grandma and grandpa in tow, not to mention a group of six older Ajusshis in their 60s hanging out there together. 

After that we took a taxi back to the city and had a cup of coffee in a cafe before heading to the airport.  

There are loads of touristy things to do on Jeju, we chose to focus more on nature and taking it easy.  We had a great time and would love to go back again and hike some more of their Olle Trails and experience Jeju in the spring or summer.  You can find cheap tickets on budget airlines such as Air Busan, Jeju Airlines & East Star Jet, especially if you book in advance and during the week, so your trip doesn't have to be costly if you don't want it to be.  Actually, we budgeted for a lot more than we actually spent.  For the two of us, we spent around 250,000 KRW for food, transport, entrance fees and whatever else we bought for the three days, add to that our 100,000 KRW for our hotel, and around 150,000 for our tickets and we had a three day vacation on Jeju Island for around 500,000 KRW. 

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Wednesday, December 26, 2012

A Jeju Christmas

Last night we arrived home from three days on the southern island of Jeju.  We snagged this deal back at the end of August when we saw that tickets were about $75 per person R/T, taxes included.  What's more is it only takes an hour by plane, and truth be told, we got to Jeju faster than it takes us to get to the other side of Seoul by subway!

Jeju Island is yet another much-talked about location among Koreans, one I wasn't sure would hold up to its nick-name "The Hawaii of Korea", but I have to admit, it is a uniquely beautiful place.  I'm planning to post more details about the trip/hotel/transportation/what the island is like in December in my next entry, but for now some pictures for your viewing pleasure of Christmas on Jeju Island.

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Thursday, December 20, 2012

The last Friday before Winter Break...

I just walk out of the classroom like....


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Merry Christmas Everyone!

Every foreigner in Korea knows about this blog by now, but if you're not up to speed, you'll be doing yourself a favor by taking a look right now:

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

An end in sight...

Last night we booked our tickets home.

We came up with various travel plans, but in the end, the best choice for us was a more direct flight.  We couldn't find reasonably priced tickets for a visit to Germany, therefore Plan Europe got scratched out (although we're sure we'll be back there sooner or later).  Plan B, which we tried formulating involved a few days stay in Bangkok, Thailand, where my brother and his wife will be traveling through in the beginning of March.  It also fell through as not only were the prices high, but there were two very lengthy layovers on the ticket and we thought it could potentially cause problems with all our luggage and with DH carrying such important paperwork (aka his Visa to the US).  So, in the end, Air Canada got our money and the privilege of escorting us home.

Our days here are really numbered now!  It makes me want to go out and explore all the more--I think I'm really going to miss you Korea.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Gettin' a Green Card and all that Jazz

So as mentioned in my last entry, our Green Card interview and process has successfully been completed. As promised, here is a detailed account for anyone scourging the web looking for information. This post is written by my husband, who dealt with most of the paperwork when applying. Hope it's useful to someone!

1) How long does it take? 

This is our timeline:
Jul 27 - turned in petition I-130 Jul 31 - petition approved, received packet 3* Nov 22 - medical exam Nov 23 - scheduled interview appointment online Dec 10 - interview Dec 12 - received visa

*Since the petition was filed so quickly, we waited about two months before starting the rest of the process because we didn't want to get the Green Card too early. Also, Link to packet 3 instructions and interview preparation instructions here:

2) What about the criminal record check?

You need a criminal record check for any country you've lived in for over 6 months since the age of 16. For my application I needed a German and a Korean CR. Note that you will need certified English translations for all criminal records.

2.1) Korean Criminal Record

For the Korean CR, make sure to get the "whole criminal and investigation history including expunged records". To get it, I recommend going to the Jongno police station, which is a 10 minute walk from the US Embassy in Ganghwamun Station.
Direction: Subway line 3, Anguk station, exit 6, it will be right next to the exit.

You don't need an appointment, just walk inside and go to the counter near the entrance (after the first door, just turn to your left). Tell them you need a CR for the US embassy and they will provide you with the correct version. It's free and only takes about 5-10 minutes. Just be aware, the Korean CR will expire after a month, so make sure it's up to date when you go for your interview.

2.2) German Criminal Record

To get the German CR, I had to print out a request form from the Bundesamt fuer Justiz and send it to Bonn. (For further instructions, forms and more details (specifically for Germans living abroad), click here.)

The filled out form needs to be certified before sending it to Bonn. You can do that at the German embassy. Don't forget to bring your passport along. The embassy charges around 21,000 won, depending on the current exchange rate.

Directions: Subway line 6, Itaewon, exit 3 or 4. For more details on how to get there and opening hours, click here. 
Time: It took around 2 weeks for it to get to Bonn from Seoul and another 2 weeks until I got it back. The Bundesamt fuer Justiz charges 13 for this service. I am not sure how long the German CR is valid, but I assume it's ok for several months. I submitted a CR which was 5 months old at the interview, and there were no problems.

3) How and where to get the medical exam?

The validity of the medical exam will determine the validity of your visa. The results of the medical exam are usually valid for 6 months once you get it, so don't wait too long with scheduling the interview after you've had the medical check. See interview preparation instructions for more details (link above).

There are three hospitals in Seoul who do this. They are listed in the visa preparation instructions (link above). I went to the hospital in Yeouido, as it was the closest one to me. Click here for their website. (In the section "internationl health service" you will find a link to the visa section where more details are given.)

You can make an appointment over phone. I got mine the next day. Appointments usually are in the mornings but it can take until the afternoon to actually get the results, as there are long waiting hours in between the actual physical exam and them finishing the documents/results. Plan for it taking the whole day.

Directions: Subway line 9, Saetgang Station, exit 3. Check with Google maps on how to get there from the subway station. There is an entrance to the hospital specifically for visa cases. The entrance is labeled in English but is kind of hidden. It is right next to the roofed parking lot of the hospital on the opposite side of the main entrance to the hospital, so on the back side of the building. At the main entrance you will be able to get a map of the building in case you get lost.

4) Where can I get translations in Seoul?

You will need translations for all documents that are not in English. In addition, I needed certification/notarization for the translations. All my translations were done by NYtrans, which I can highly recommendThey were able to give me valuable advice on the green-card process and generally were very helpful. I was able to get English translations for Korean and German documents, but they translate other languages as well. They are situated near the US embassy.

Directions: Subway line 5, Ganghwamun, exit 2, turn right around first corner, US embassy should be on your left, walk straight along the main road until you see a block with many translation offices. NYtrans has a yellow-black logo and the office is situated on the second floor.

5) All about the I-864 (and I-864A)...

As there are many details to this form, make sure to read through all the official government websites that offer information on this topic. As always, it will appear confusing at first and bits of information will have to be assembled from different websites to create the whole picture. Take time reading and understanding the whole material.

We actually made one (rather big) mistake by using the wrong form for an additional sponsor. We wanted to include my wife's mother as a household member (using form I-864A) as we wanted to move back in with her once we were in the US. So we thought we could all be counted as household members of the same domicile. But only at the embassy did we find out that that was incorrect and we should have filed her as a joint-sponsor, using another form I-864. The problem was that her mother was not a member of our household here in Seoul. Fortunately my wife's current income was enough to get us above the poverty line, hence a joint sponsor was not needed in the first place and the officer that lead the interview let it slide (SO LUCKY!!!). He was kind enough to correct the mistake and it caused no further problems.

Here are some more links you might find useful for this form: - general info - scheduling appointment - visa fees - visa application forms

6) So how much did it cost?

As listed on the above link, the visa interview fee for category CR-1 (on the basis of an approved I-130) comes to $230. This is in addition to the petition fee ($420), translations and certifications, medial exam ($180) and various other forms/expenses we needed to gather along the way. My guess is that it cost us around $1000 total for the whole Green Card process.

7) The Interview

We were pretty lucky concerning the efficiency of the US embassy here in Seoul. As can be seen on our timeline, our petition I-130 was approved within 2 working days, same for the delivery of the visa after it got approved through the interview. The interview itself only took a couple of minutes with only a short waiting time as more applicants were scheduled on the same day, so in total our interview appointment came to about one and a half hours only. We had worked out a lot of questions we thought might be asked of us, but really hardly any were. Both reviews looked over our forms and just asked some general questions about what we will do in the US next year.

**DISCLAIMER: The experiences stated above of applying for a green-card in Seoul only reflect our unique situation which is that of a German married for less than two years to a US citizen (Visa Category CR1). Your experience may vary depending on the country or even time of the year you are applying. We hope our experiences can help someone somewhere along the line. We felt the whole process was pretty painless. It did take time to organize everything from three countries, but overall wasn't too bad. Good Luck to you!

For Part I: The Petition, see here.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

What Happens Next

This past week, DH and I completed the green card/visa interview at the US Embassy in Seoul.  There was a moment or two, where it seemed like we may not be granted permission, that all our paper-gathering would be in vain, that perhaps, after all,  we may not be able to move back to the US next year.  I was surprised how nervous the interview made me, but luckily, with the help and understanding of another employee, we passed.  DH has his visa in hand and we're all set.  Sort of.

My time in Korea is getting further from the beginning and closer to an end.  I have less than 6 days left of the semester, and what follows after is vacation, mixed in with a trip to Jeju, winter camps, desk warming, two more weeks of the academic school year (although I don't know how much teaching will get done then) and goodbyes.

I've started searching for tickets back home to the US and even sent off a handful of resumes.

But I'm not in a rush.  I am happy to enjoy my last 2.5 months here in Asia with the kids, with this country (despite the freezing cold).  I feel grateful to Korea for all the many chances it has given me to learn and see and feel things that were out of my scope for the first 26 years of my life. It has helped shape me in a unique way that staying in Germany couldn't have done for me.

Yesterday, my husband said he felt something different this time when reading the words, The United States of America, on his visa.  He said, "For the first time, I realized I'm really moving to America".

As for myself, I'm not sure it's hit me yet.  Life will of course continue in the States, but I feel like I'm coming to a close on a particular chapter in my life, with still two months to go, I have time to make an ending I feel suited to it.

A magical view of Namsan Tower in the snow.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Temple Stay

Snow everywhere on the temple grounds.
Orientation and Temple Etiquette--teaching us Chasu hand position.
One of two Yebul services we partook in at the temple. 
Food offerings to the Buddha.
Usually the statues in temples are gold, however in this modern temple hall, the artist chose white.  These particular ones were designed by the same guy who made the King Sejong statue in Ganghwamun Square.
Striking the temple bell after sunset. 
Greeted by a beautiful new day after our 4am service and 108 prostrations were completed.

Pre-meal chant of gratitude before eating our monastic meal.
Food is eaten in silence by the monks so as to show appreciation for every grain of rice.  There was quite a ritual involved in distributing the food and cleaning up afterwards.  Not a single morsel of food should be left over.

Hiking up the fortress during our walking meditation Sunday morning.
Group photo of all the KEB Temple Stay participants.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Living like a monk for 24 hours

This past weekend I had the opportunity to live like the monks of South Korea.

A photo with our Seunim after a morning walking meditation around the fortress.
KEB Bank (once again) gave its customers a chance to explore Korea on their dime and offered a weekend Temple Stay at Jeongdeungsa Temple on Ganghwa Island, located on the north western coast of the ROK.  Even though I was super excited to get chosen to participate, it was really David's strong interest in Buddhism that got me to sign up. 

After the excitement of winning passed, I had mixed feeling. The weather in Seoul has been brutally cold, in the negatives and snowing for the last couple days and this temple, located in the mountains even further north than Seoul, was guaranteeing a frigid weekend ahead.  I had been sick the week before and on top of that, from reading several blog entries, I knew that it wasn't necessarily a relaxing weekend that we had signed up for.  We were going to be expected to participate in the full program, which included going early to bed (9 pm) and waking up early (4 am), 108 prostrations (special bowing technique), keeping a silence code during monastic meals and community works.  Not to mention several sessions of meditation, which I don't know if you've ever tried meditating, but  it ain't that easy.  

I wasn't ready to be so devote but I was curious. And as it was a FREE opportunity and likely a rare one considering my days in Korea are limited, I decided to shake off the doubts and just go for it.  And I'm so glad I did.

The temple grounds were so beautiful covered in a clean and sparkly snow.  And our rooms were super warm (so much warmer than my apartment in Seoul!) and the food organically grown and delicious.  Every experience was new and without getting all cliché here, I have to say, I could truly enjoy this weekend and left the temple grounds feeling lighter and yes, more peaceful.  I didn't go there expecting to be enlightened, but it opened my eyes to a very different kind of life.

Jeongdeungsa Temple is the oldest temple in Korea dating back to 381 AD.  It's a beautiful place made even more beautiful by the newly fallen snow.

 The only downside to the experience, in my opinion, was some explanations were lacking. I would have liked a little more background information about Buddhism itself and the meaning behind certain ceremonies that we partook in. All in all though, the experience is definitely recommended for anyone who is curious about Buddhism, even just the cultural aspect of it, as well as people looking to escape to a secluded place in nature.   I'll probably put up another post with more pictures and details from the temple stay shortly but for now you can check out the following link for more info on Temple Stays (in English) in Korea:

Sunrise at the temple during our Community Works time.

Monday, December 3, 2012

It's that time of year again

It's December again.  Having spent the last three in beautiful Deutschland, where the Christmas season seems to start way back in September/beginning of October I wondered how the spirit of this city would unfold. Surprisingly, Seoul is decked out a bit more than I would have expected.  The 'bakeries' have Christmas cakes, the subway stations have trees and lights and there are Salvation Army Santas ringing their bells throughout the city.  Who would have guessed?

Two quite exciting things happening this month:

-Our first overnight Temple Stay (December 8-9)

-And Christmas on Jeju Island (December 24-26)

In additon to a few more celebrations dotted throughout the month, DH has his Visa/Green Card Interview on December 10th at 8am at the US Embassy.  Hoping it goes smoothly and we can celebrate the end of a semester and the holiday season in good spirits.

Wishing you all a happy December!