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It’s a Small World

22 Jun

It’s a Saturday afternoon in Paju and I have to say… I feel lighter today than I did just a week ago.  Why is that you ask?  Well, I recently took a two-day journey to Busan and a quick escape was just what the doctor ordered!  This wasn’t just any excursion, however.  I met up with a friend from elementary school who I haven’t seen since about the 6th grade!  She is Korean-American and her parents recently returned to South Korea after living in the US for 40 years!  We reconnected through the magic of Facebook and the rest is now all history.

Busan is located in the Southern-most part of South Korea.  The “B” in Busan actually sounds more like a combination between a “B” and a “P” but because of the limitations of the English language in expressing Korean sounds, “Busan” is the best we can do.  I was told it is the second largest city in South Korea, but it’s less crowded, more easy and laid back than Seoul.  Still, it has a population of three million people! Despite it’s more Southern location, it has a breezier and lighter temperature then the now thick humidity moving into Seoul and Paju with cool breezes moving in off the coast.

My elementary school friend was traveling for two weeks in a quick visit with her and her husband’s family living here in South Korea.  I was lucky enough to connect with her at the tail end of the journey and spent two days with her and her parents at their new apartment home in Busan.  I received stellar Korean-style hospitality and got the special  “mom and dad” tour of Busan.  It was great!

I took the KTX from Seoul to Busan, Korea’s high-speed train.  I read that it reaches speeds of 300 km/hr (190 mph) but to me it didn’t feel as fast as the bullet trains I traveled in Europe.  But it was fast enough as it only took me three hours  to make a journey that by car would take at least five.  I read a little, took a nap, listened to some music and before you knew it… I was there!

When I arrived off the train, my friend and her son and mother were there waiting for me at the bottom of the stairs.  After nearly 30 years I could still see reflections of my fun young friend in the grown Korean woman standing before me.  Her mother, who I instantly recognized, whisked away my bag and led us in the direction of the parked car.  As she lead the way she called out “bali bali,” Korean for “hurry, hurry”.  We quickly made our way to the parked car with my friend’s dad at the wheel and within seconds we were off on our quick adventure.

As my trip was to be short, they wasted no time in beginning the tour.  First stop was Haedong Yonggunsa Temple, a beautiful temple by the sea.  It was a maze of winding stairs, beautiful colors and patterns, and lovely views.  It’s known for its large gold Buddha and a place where many still come to pray.  We stayed long enough to explore a bit, begin to reconnect, take some pictures and then we were off to our next destination, Haeundae Beach!

At the beach we took in the sand and the beach nestled in the busy scenes of the city.  My friend’s father told me that the beach used to be much larger than it is now, but over the years has gotten smaller and smaller.  Today sand has to be imported from Vietnam just to fill up the beach.  My friend’s son enjoyed a little wading and playing in the water while we did our best to stay clean and dry.  When we had our fill of the sand, we cleaned up a bit and soon made our way to dinner.

My friend and her family were so generous and gracious with my “no-sugar” needs and general diet concerns.  We decided on a Korean family style barbecue restaurant.  Her parents were wonderfully thorough in being sure that everything we ate didn’t have any sugar in it. We all ate and talked till our hearts content and then we went home.

Her parent’s apartment is in an apartment complex in what seems to be modern Korean style – a collection of high-rise apartments.  They were very proud of the beautiful landscaping in the complex with green space and fountains intertwined in the pathways beneath the towering buildings.  When we arrived at their 19th floor apartment I was impressed by its simplicity and spaciousness.  It is a four bedroom apartment home with a spacious kitchen and a view in the living room looking away from the city to the  surrounding green hills. I was generously offered my own room for the night and slept deep and restfully in the graciousness of their hospitality.

The next day was an early start with a tour of the apartment complex grounds and then back in the car to travel to “the best rest-stop in South Korea”.  My friend’s parents are just mesmerized with the contemporary rest stops in South Korea.  They are complete with plenty of places to eat traditional Korean-style snacks and foods and comfortable places to rest and relax… way beyond the standards in the States.  This particular rest area was indeed beautiful, nestled above expansive scenes of the water and islands in the distance.  There was even live musical entertainment!

Next on the tour, we took the worlds “deepest immersed roadway tunnel” and bridge on our way to Geoje Island.  Within minutes we arrived on the island and made our way through the small island villages to pebble beach.  At pebble beach we spent a little time collecting the beautiful stones and pebbles and tossed some of them into the water.  There was still a cool breeze in the air and it seemed it wasn’t tourist beach season just yet.  By late July when Korean students have a break from school the beach will be filled with guests indulging in the warmer summer air.

We continued to wander by car through the hills of the island, stopped and enjoyed a few scenic views and then once again we were off.  We returned to Busan and stopped at a local store with traditional Korean food for lunch.  I haven’t eaten much Korean food as much of it has sugar added to it.  I am still uncertain which Korean foods are okay for me to eat.  With the help of my friend and her family, I selected bibimbap (with no added chili paste) and happily enjoyed the popular Korean dish.

My elementary school friend and I had a good time catching up… recollecting childhood stories, our grade school teachers and classmates.  She told me that the first time she ever had french toast was when my mom prepared it for her at our house and that today it is still one of her favorite breakfast dishes.  She also shared that I gave her first record album, Stix Mr. Robato.  A true classic.  I told her she was the inspiration for me beginning to take piano lessons.  When we were children she played Fur Elise on the piano and I thought it was so beautiful I just had to take piano lessons and learn how to play it.  She confessed that every Korean child learns how to play Fur Elise.

It’s been a long time since we’ve seen each other… but as we talked I saw glimpses of the familiar friend of 30 years ago.  She currently lives in LA close to the large Korean community there, Koreatown.  She had some interesting and helpful perspectives to share on Korean life, culture and beauty.  Raised by Korean parents who moved to the US, she clearly identifies herself as American… but also has obvious close ties and connections with Korean culture.

In no time at all… it was time to leave!  It was so great to reconnect with a childhood friend, receive a little ‘taste of home’ here in Korea and be hosted by the generosity of her parents.  It was a relief to spend a few days where I had to make no plans or decisions and just go with the flow.  We nearly lost track of time before we departed for the train station.  The KTX arrived in timely fashion and in the next minute I was off!  A good visit with a childhood friend… in South Korea!  Who knew?  Indeed, it is a small world!

On the Road to Nowon

26 May

It’s late May and its hard to believe that I have been in South Korea for 5 months already.  In some ways this seems like a long time, in other ways it seems like the blink of an eye.  After 5 months I have settled into some ease with my life and ways here in Paju City and English Village.  I no longer sit on the subway in Seoul frantic that I will miss my stop, attracting attention and usually assistance from concerned Koreans also on the subway.  I can now relax and join the regular rhythm of other passengers using my smart phone until my destination arrives.  When in class students often ask how long I have been here.  I ask them to guess which usually starts at 5 years, 3 years, 2 years.  When I share I have been here for only 5 months their eyes gape open and the mouths drop.  There are some teachers from US and other English-speaking countries who have been in South Korea for years and some have invested the time and energy required to learn the language.

This past week was a great respite from my recent steady pace of teaching many and sometimes challenging middle school students.  I spent my week teaching in an area called Special Programs.  The beginning of the week I taught a small group of middle school students visiting from a rural area of S. Korea here at English Village for only two days.  There were only 30 students and I was told that was their entire school.  Wow!  The students were friendly, kind, and generally well-behaved, with English levels above our typical student here.  There were just a few English Village teachers working with them and it was a nice break to work with a small group of teachers and interact with this easy and engaging group of students.

Later in the week I taught a program of high school students visiting from a prestigious language school here in S. Korea.  When I first met some of them it was an immediate treat to meet mature students with a near fluent capacity with the English language. We were able to connect a bit and talk in a way that is often unavailable with students.  I also found some ease slipped into my teaching and the emphasis, while still on learning English, was more relaxed and conversational.  My concern was less on being understood and more on teaching the lesson at hand.

I learned some of these students had studied and lived in the US or Canada for a year or longer.  I asked them how they liked it and their faces lit up and they said “we loved it!”  I asked them what they liked about it and their response was “it was relaxing!”  Here in South Korea there is such an emphasis on education, students hardly have time for anything else.  Many students are literally in school all day, often attending English schools call Hagwans into the evening as late as 10pm.  It’s not unusual for students to fall asleep in class because… they’re tired.  This pace is currently deeply meshed into Korean culture and I can understand how studying in the States or elsewhere would be a welcome break!

The weather in Paju is a well-formed Spring beginning to slip into Summer.  I had a wonderful day yesterday enjoying the warmth on my body and spending a little time in Seoul.  I began with my morning chiropractor appointment and then grabbed a quick bite to eat at Tomatillos, a taco and burrito type joint in Itaewon.  Itaewon is an area of Seoul that tends to cater more to English-speaking foreigners and is the part of town where one of the US military bases is located.  It was such a treat to enjoy the simple pleasures of a day out and a bite to eat.

Later that day I went to an area of Seoul called the Nowon District. I went their to meet someone for a purchase — some new to me speakers for my iPod/smart phone, courtesy of Craigslist.  The benefit of this outing, in addition to the speakers, was the simple joy of traveling to a new area of the city.  Nowon is on the outskirts of Seoul and is the highest population density in Seoul, with 619,509 people living there.  It is surrounded by the mountains Suraksan and Bukhansan which you can see in the distance beyond the walls of people and commerce. It was fun to continue my experience of saturating myself in a country so new and different from my life in the States.

On the subway yesterday I was sitting down and there was a seat open next to me.  A grandmother motioned for her youngish grandson, about 7, to take the seat next to me.  I saw him look at me then look at her and shake his head.  I had flashbacks of my own shyness when I was a child and hesitancy towards things and people who seemed different.  Also many Korean children have little to no experience with people who look and speak different from them.  I tried to bridge the gap and patted the seat next to me inviting him to take a seat.  He did and easily settled in to playing his video games.  When they got up to leave the grandmother smiled and grabbed my hands and said something to me, I don’t know what.  Then she motioned to the grandson to say good-bye to me and we waved and smiled and they departed the train.

Today is a day of chanting with my SGI Buddhist group in Seoul.  The group is chanting for five-hours today!  Quite a long time but also a very powerful practice.  As members we can come and stay for as long as we like.  I imagine I will stay for nearly the whole time.  Then afterwards run a few more errands in Seoul.

This week we have a refreshing break with no programs on Monday or Tuesday.  What a treat and also a time to catch up on some of the English lessons I am developing for future programs.

Happy Sunday from South Korea!  My best to all of you and feel free to write.  It’s always good to hear from you!

Stop the Bus!

19 May

It’s a quiet rainy Sunday at English Village.  I am sneaking in a little time to write my blog before I head off to Seoul.  There is a district meeting today for my SGI Buddhist group.  Our meeting is at 1pm but I generally allow about two hours for the journey.  This includes waiting for bus 2200 traveling directly to Seoul, the 50 minutes bus-ride, then catching the subway and any miscellaneous walking involved.  I spent part of my morning today preparing a simple dish for the potluck lunch after the meeting.  It was a good reminder to me how grounding it is to spend a little simple time preparing food.  Cutting vegetables, adding seasonings, mixing ingredients and preparing it to share with others is a simple ceremony that feels like it honors my soul.

I am glad for the rainy weather this weekend.  It somehow gives me permission to have a quiet steady pace after the preceding hectic workweek.  This weekend has been a gentle rhythm of spending time on my own reading and tidying up a bit, traveling to Seoul for a chiropractor appointment and doing a little grocery shopping.  Then yesterday afternoon there was a staff barbecue at English Village.  And last night, I made some homemade tomato soup.  I have never done this before.  It was just wonderful and seemed to feed something in me deeply in need of nourishment and comfort.  Here is the recipe I used!

My second visit to the chiropractor continues the journey of healing my left ankle from my fall in France.  As he works on it, with his friendly and comical “bedside manner”  he gently scolds me as he points out the many different places and ways that my ankle is in need of adjusting.  I have also talked with him a bit about my persistent back and neck pain.  He has concluded that this problem is a hereditary thing and suggest that I sue my parents and we split it 70% for me 30% for me.  Then, he says, I can quit my job and sit at the beach and drink beer.

This past work week was a different rhythm from the sometimes frantic pace of teaching busloads of visiting middle school children.  I worked Monday – Wednesday with a group of college students here from Japan.   It was fun to connect with them and explore the distinctness of being Japanese, the different sounds of their language and names.  I was grateful for some of the simple benefits of teaching college students.  You don’t have to collect them or herd them like disgruntled cats to get them to class.  Generally in class they are well-behaved.  And you don’t have to worry that they might randomly run out of class or hit their friend if you don’t have your eye on them.  That said, upon returning to my regular middle school appointment on Thursday, I was genuinely happy to reconnect with the younger students.  Although challenging at times, it is fun for me to be around their lightness, sometimes shenanigans, and fun spirit.

The greatest challenge lately and this past week has been… how to teach English to students who speak very little if any English.  As I have mentioned before, English Village is a teach English in English organization.  Even the Korean teachers here are encouraged to teach only in English.  English Village even trains teachers how to teach English in English.  And as I continue to develop this skill and refine how to simplify a lesson or express something in its most simplest terms, sometimes I am at a loss of what to do.

Earlier this week I had a class of Japanese college students who spoke and understood only the simplest of English.  My class to teach them was Idioms.  An idiom, if you’ve forgotten, is a phrase commonly used that has its own distinct meaning that is often very different from what the words literally mean.  An example is ” a chip on your shoulder” or “high as a kite”.  Quite difficult to explain to students who don’t have a grasp on the basics of the English language.  But I went into the class with good intentions and did my best to explore it and simply.  After about five minutes as I looked out into a class of totally blank faces, I stopped and said “just one minute!”.  I snuck out of the classroom and quickly made my way to my supervisors down the hall.  I desperately told them my situation and we quickly decided to change the lesson to a word game using English called “Stop the Bus”.  In this game each team has to think of words for different categories beginning with whatever letter is offered for that round…. B, S, T.  When their team has written words for all categories they have to shout “Stop the Bus!”, hence the name. I returned to the class and smiled and announced that we will do a new lesson.  They smiled and laughed and then were fully engaged in the game.

This coming week I will work again with a special visiting group.  They are high school students from a language school.  It is likely that their English level will be high and their behavior a bit more mature as they are in high school.  I am looking forward to it and we will see how it goes!

I must depart now as the bus to Seoul is calling my name.  The bus driver is unforgiving if you are even a few seconds late and will not stop the bus…  Enjoy your weekend!  And of course, feel free to write and share what’s up in your world or even just say hello.  It’s always good to hear from you!

Photo at top, another view of the hills and land surrounding English Village.  Those stone pillars you see on the right… yes those are the giant replica of Stonehenge that greets you as enter English Village.

Sweet Potato Muffins and the Chicken Dance

20 Apr

It’s been a full week for me here in South Korea.  My activities have crossed the spectrum from baking Apple Sweet Potato muffins to doing the Chicken Dance with young Korean children.  I even took a little time to stop by Severance Hospital in Seoul and get my ankle x-rayed… and no, my ankle, still sore after falling down some stairs in France nearly a year ago, thankfully isn’t broken.

Let’s start with the Apple Sweet Potato muffins.  If you are a regular reader of my blog, you know my search continues for yummy satisfying food with no sugar added.  Refined sugar is definitely not an option for me, but sometimes too much sweet from fruit and honey does me no good as well.  So I adapted a recipe I found recently and baked a muffin with only apples and sweet potatoes for sweetener (no honey or other sweetener added).  Here is the recipe I used:

2 cups almond flour1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp cinnemon
1/2 tsp vanilla
2 eggs
1/4 cup sunflower oil
1/2 cup unsweetened Greek yogurt
1 cup shredded sweet potato
1 cup shredded apple

I combined all of the dry ingredients (flour, salt, baking soda) and then all the wet ingredients (vanilla, eggs, oil, yogurt).  Next I combined them both and finally added in the uncooked shredded sweet potato and apple.

I baked them at about 350 degrees F (that’s about 175 degrees C) for 25-30 minutes.

The results were satisfying flavorful muffins with just a touch of sweet.  They were especially tasty with a little butter or with a smear of creamy organic peanut butter (no sugar added!)  If I were to make any changes to the recipe, I might try a little less Greek yogurt as when finished the muffins were a little wet.  I also would liked to have added some nutmeg, but didn’t have any on hand. But just the same, they were a moist and satisfying treat.  Hurray!

And what’s next… yes of course.. the chicken dance!  Who can forget.  Why was I dancing the chicken dance you may ask?  The simple answer is… it’s part of my job.  On the weekends, when we’re not teaching middle school students, we teach fun classes that are open to the public at English Village.  One of our weekend lessons is called Dance Party.  It’s pretty simple… we dance and lead the Korean visitors in a variety of fun and well-known dances.  YMCA, Disco, the Hustle and… the Chicken Dance!  Often our guests are little children who enjoy dressing up in our costumes and doing a little dancing.  Sometimes we get older students… like today.  We had a visiting quartet of early twenty-somethings who put our dancing to shame.  It only took a few dances for my co-worker/dance partner to suggest…” I think they’re professional dancers…”  and…as it turns out…indeed they were.

As I mentioned, earlier this week I took a little sojourn into neighboring Seoul to visit the doctor at the local Severance Hospital.  I learned they have an international clinic from a colleague here at English Village.  It was a welcoming first-class experience all the way.  The hospital itself  had a professional, open and inviting feel.  It didn’t feel really like… a hospital. When I arrived at the clinic I was greeted by friendly English-speaking staff who quickly and easily assisted me with my needs… which was to make sure the my ankle wasn’t broken.  I speedily received an x-ray and soon after I learned, happily, it is not.  After my appointment was complete, I made a stop by the Smoothie King located in the food court inside the hospital. Next I was delighted to find a health food store in the hospital.  I did a little browsing and discovered one of my favorite American brands – Amy’s organic foods.  This is the first time I have seen this brand since I left the States.  They only had a few items, all pizzas, looking somewhat misplaced in the freezer section tossed next to items that were unidentifiable to me.  And what did I do, you may ask?  I bought one of each… yes three different types of frozen pizzas.  What can I say, there is nothing like some good old-fashioned “healthy junk food” for a little comfort like home.  I spent more money on them then I care to say, then made my trek back to the land of Paju.

Earlier, en route to the hospital I encountered what in America we might begrudgingly call a busy intersection.  In South Korea these sticky situations are handled with a little finesse courtesy of the traffic director.  Pictured below in a cowboy hat, the local traffic director displayed an almost choreographed array of moves and ushered traffic with some style and flair.

Well, my laid back day of work is coming to a close…. a real treat today after the past few busy weeks.  Tomorrow is  Sunday, my day of rest, and then once again a new week will unfold.

Spring continues to tempt us with a few days of weather in the 60s this week. But even so, I can’t quite declare it Spring weather even though April continues to fade away.  There are, however, some blossoms showing their face in the surrounding Korean hills among the still barren and dead trees of winter.

Good-bye for now from my world and life in S. Korea.  Feel free to write. It’s always good to hear from you!

Taking Time to Smell the Flowers

13 Apr

Its been another full week of teaching here at English Village in South Korea. Once again we have hosted hundreds of middle school S. Korean students. Once again we have spun in a maze of  English classes ranging from “Survival English” to Badminton (a favorite with Korean girl students, but not so much English taught here) to classes about Movies, Science, Drama, Culture.  I have handed out more stickers (a tool we use to increase student participation) than I can count.  And now it’s the weekend.

Teaching at English Village is a good challenge for me with the practice of being a good, interesting and compassionate teacher in the face of  many and varied new Korean students.  Some days, some classes I think… I am a pretty good teacher… and other classes with more challenging behavior… I feel less confident.

The volume dial of our work week has been turned up with the steady flow of hundreds of South Korean students. Generally we receive groups of good kids here at English Village but the fact remains that they are young adolescents (a phenomenon that has no cultural boundaries), they outnumber the teachers, we don’t speak the same language, and they are here at English Village as a field trip to have some fun… which is sometimes fun for the teachers, sometimes not.

As Friday drops in I find myself depleted from the week.  Once again, I find myself receiving the thank-you letters from the students at the end of the week which automatically lifts my spirits.  In the spin of so many students and the mixed behavior and challenges throughout the week, it makes a difference to be acknowledged and to be seen by the students as a “good and kind teacher.”

In the midst of the blessings and challenges of this week, I find it is important to return to the basics and take time to smell the metaphorical flowers.  For me that begins with gratitude. As I write from the chilly Winter-like Spring of Paju, South Korea pretty darn close to N. Korea, here is my ode to gratitude… and the simple things in life that I will now give my attention and thanks…  I am grateful for…

1.  Chocolate “pudding” made with greek yogurt.  This may sound a bit callous and overly simply, but as someone who is sensitive to sugar and must stay away from it, chocolate has typically been something I have to go without. Lately I have been purchasing homemade Greek yogurt from a local business in Seoul.  Their website is  I recently acquired a new treasure from the local “foreigners” market… unsweetened Hershey’s cocoa for the bargain price of about 7.50 USD. The other night relaxing after work a new idea popped in… Greek yogurt, Hershey’s cocoa… Greek yogurt, Hershey’s cocoa… is it possible there is a place where the two can come harmoniously together?  And so I googled… and found a simple recipe of just Greek yogurt, cocoa, and a little natural sweetener (I used just a touch of honey).  Without hesitation, I went for it and easily created a simple and satisfying chocolate snack.  Did I mention I added fresh strawberries?  Ah, delish!

2.  I have mentioned them in my blog before.  They are a recent find that sources organic foods grown not far outside of Seoul.  What a treat it is to easily order my food online and have it shipped to my door.  Not only does this free up a little more time in my life, but it provides me with chemical-free vegetables that you just can’t find in the grocery store. The vegetables I receive look ten times better than what I see in the stores and taste great.  Hooray!!

3.  Quiet Relaxing Evenings.  I’m a sensitive soul and after the big energy of teaching dynamic middle school kids during the day it is highly needed and satisfying to have some quiet and private down time in the evenings.  I often treat myself to a good meal, an extended Reiki treatment, a little yoga.  Ah, just what the doctor ordered!  And before I go to bed?  Usually, a little shameless video watching… my recent pleasure is watching old episodes of House then some chanting before bed.  How grateful I am for this time and my spiritual practices to balance my being and my day and prepare me for the day to come.

4.  I am teaching a yoga class!  Wow, it is amazing to me that I am teaching a yoga class at English Village.  As someone who has practiced yoga for over 8 years, relying on it as a spiritual tool to move my body, mind and spirit through many challenging circumstances, it is a real treat to share it with others.  The situation sort of found me…it began with one of the head teachers at English Village asking if I would teach one yoga classes during the work week for teachers.  After that many teachers asked when the next yoga class would be… so we planned it.  Our first weekly yoga class was this past Monday evening.  We had a great turnout!  So many teachers were there that we almost need a bigger room.  Fabulous.

5.  I am at home.  This may sound overly simple, and isn’t necessarily referring to S. Korea or English Village… but it’s a growing sense in me that no matter where I am or what I am doing, I am at home.  Not that I don’t sometimes feel “homesick” or  long for a life that might be more rooted…  But the challenges and blessings of life – losing all of my belongings to Hurricane Katrina, being dramatically uprooted, deciding to travel and the challenges and blessings of that life, have supported the development of my home within. It’s a spiritual place really and even thought I still feel and experiences successes and challenges daily, it is ever apparent in my life.

And with that… gratitude in the midst of challenges, growth and new opportunities in South Korea, I will say good bye for now.

In the meantime I am curious, what are you grateful for in your life?  I’d love to hear from you!

Photo above is a snapshot taken in Seoul of a road barrier… that has planters on it  filled with flowers.  Finding beauty in the most unexpected of places.

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