Sunday, March 31, 2013

And Finally! My ARC and Cell Phone

My old and new Korean ID card, passport and my Colombian ID, which turned out to be just a piece of paper!
Yay! After waiting for 1 1/2 months, I finally received my new Alien Registration Card (or ARC) from the immigration office. Now, I can do some critical things such as:

  • Get Internet at home
  • Get cable for my TV
  • Sign up for a cell phone plan
  • Get a debit card from my bank
  • Sign up for online banking
  • Get my airfare to Korea reimbursed
  • Sign up for health insurance

After a long and frustrating process, I was finally able to obtain a cell phone with a pre-paid plan. I first went to a cell phone company to purchase a pre-paid SIM, then went to a subway station to buy a phone. When I was looking at phones, the phone appeared to work and I called the cell phone company to be sure. When the phone still didn't work, I was worried that I might have been possibly scammed by the cell phone vendor. Turns out, I was able to go back and the problem was fixed.

Now that I have these critical items, I can move forward with the rest of my settlement process.

Friday, March 29, 2013

My Teaching Experience in Colombia

The city of Bogotá on a beautiful day
Even though I'm currently in Korea, I still feel drawn to Latin America. I, along with a group of people are contemplating going to a Latin club this weekend. It reminded me of my 7 month stint in Colombia.

After being in Korea the first time, I knew I needed a break from the culture, which is very different from my own. I decided to go to Colombia to teach.

I had done all of this research, and one day, I just booked my flight to the South American country. My goal was originally to stay there for a couple of years and get my teacher's license when I was there. I arrived in April.
The institute where I completed my CELTA

The first thing I did was that I signed up for a CELTA course. It's a month long course that teaches mostly native speakers how to teach English. Since the CELTA carries a lot of weight in Colombia, I wanted to make sure I had that. I decided to do it at an institute in Bogotá. While it was a tough and extremely time-consuming course, I made it through and got the best marks of the class.

After getting that certificate, I went job hunting. Due to the timing issues with my university program, I decided against teaching at a high school, or colegio. Getting a university job was possible, but difficult since I had few connections. I did some interviews and took up a job at an institute. This time, I was teaching adults, latino adults, which was very different that what I was used to. Asian adults and South American adults have different needs, and come from wildly different cultures. So, I had to get used to teaching Colombians.

I also took up some private classes on the side, which was an interesting experience. Unlike in Korea, this is legal in Colombia. It was also a rather dynamic experience altogether because students and classes were always coming and going. This came with its own complications.

On a typical day, I worked on split shifts. I would wake up early in the morning to teach classes as early as 7:00 am. I would probably teach again around lunch time and finally teach for the last time in the evening. It involved using public transport to travel all around the great city of Bogota.

I stayed in a residencia with mostly Colombian students during my time in Bogota. Oh, that was its own adventure all by itself.
One of my Colombian students invited me over for a party

Overall, I was really able to enjoy myself and relax for the most part. While Bogota wasn't a very exciting city in my opinion, it was still within reach of other cities in Colombia, and traveling was a blast since the country was so diverse. I was able to get to know some really warm people. I got the chance to travel to Colombia's coffee region, Cartagena, Villa de Leyva, Medellin and a bit of Ecuador too.

Are you interested in teaching in Colombia too? Follow this link to find out how to make it happen.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Another Saturday on Yeouido

At the Cherry Blossom Festival
So, this weekend I went on a date to Yeouido, which is an island along the Han River in Seoul. The first time I went there was for their annual Cherry Blossom festival with friends. The blossoms aren't out yet though. It's best known for being home to Seoul's investment banking district.

Well, we didn't go there to invest anything, but rather hang out and enjoy the nice weather. Spring's technically here, and we can sense that the actual warm weather will be coming one of these days.

The 63 Building
The 63 Building from the Outside

First, we went to the 63 Building. Up until about 10 years ago, it was South Korea's tallest building. It's still impressive today and its main attraction is the view that it offers from the 60th floor on top. On a clear day, you're supposed to be able to see pretty far. However, when we went, it was just a bit cloudy. It was still clear enough to see how Seoul is surrounded by mountains. There was also a little museum up there showcasing some rather strange paintings, with plenty of "paintbrush art" consisting of brushes on canvases.

The 63 building is home to a few businesses and there's a bit of a mall inside. Aside of the views from the top of the building, it hosts other attractions such as an aquarium, an IMAX theater, and a wax museum.
Not a wax figure, but it was cute!

We skipped the IMAX and went to the wax museum next. It was an entertaining place full of props that you could use for pictures. They made sure to put up plenty of warnings letting us know that we were financially responsible for any figures we damaged! It wasn't amazing or anything, but the figures were still recognizable. They had different sections for things like political figures, horror themes and sports stars.

After that, we went to the aquarium. Again, not amazing, but good enough for a fun day. Colorful fish, seals, penguins, etc. They host little shows there often and we happened to catch a "synchronized swimming" show. It was a woman creatively moving about a large tank with fish inside. The fish just swam around the tank without a care in the world.

Noryangjin Fish Market 
Some fish on display

We then decided we were hungry and stopped at the convenience store for a bottle of wine. We took that wine to Noryangjin Fish Market. I had been to fish markets before, but mainly to gawk at the fish. This time was quite different, because this time I was shopping for dinner!

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

The Curious Case of Lauren's Locks

So... how do I deal with my hair while overseas?

It helps that I have been doing my own hair since I was 17 years-old. I haven't stepped into a hair salon in years. 

My hair's not usually like this, but it's fun when it is!

However, some folks with hair like mine aren't as lucky and need a professional's help. Those can be particularly hard to find, especially when you're in a country where few look like you. The good news is that girls and women can usually find a way to solve their problems. They either learn to do their own hair, or find at least one person willing to take them on ... although that usually involves paying a premium.

As for me, what has my experience been?

The majority of my issues have to do with how people react to my hair, believe it or not.

  • In just about every country, including Argentina, Korea, Colombia and China, I had people simply stare at me. This is especially so whenever I wore my hair out in an afro. Even though there are lots of people of African decent in Colombia, all of them straightened their hair.
  • Sometimes I have to deal with comments. Some of these are positive and some are negative. These can be something nice, like, "Oh, your hair is so pretty!" However, in Korea I have had kids tell me that my hair was bad and ugly. Korean youngsters and old people love to ask me whether I wash my hair. Yes, not "How often do you wash your hair?" but "Do you wash your hair??" 
  • Then, there's the touching. If I'm lucky, someone would ask first. Unfortunately, folks usually just reach out and put their dirty fingers in my hair. Older women and men in Korea are sneaky, they'll inspect my locks and most of the time I won't even notice. The worst experience was when a woman in Bogota, Colombia, grabbed my arm, pulled me toward her and exclaimed that she just needed to touch my hair. I can't stand it when people touch me when it's not appropriate!
There are other challenges I face. While I usually bring enough product to last my stay, sometimes other people are a bit careless. At my home stay in Argentina, someone used up all my shampoo. Today, I have to warn folks who sleep over to not use my hair products. That's because it's not easy for me to get more of them. I've also had to work with bureaucratic types who don't have equipment designed for curly hair. I once went to a swimming pool where everyone was required to wear a swimming cap, and none of them fit on my head. Another time I had to wear a helmet, but all of them were too small.

But that is all. In the grand scheme of things, I adore my hair and just try to make the best of the situation.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Korea's Gmarket: A Shopper's Paradise

My last weekend was great.

The weather was lovely and I was able to do a few activities. I had a date, nice dinners, and had the perfect kiwi martini at a bar. I also set out to do some shopping.

The problem was that I had trouble finding what I was looking for. Now, shopping in Korea is pretty good. I'm just a little picky. I wanted flat sandals, but most Korean women want heels. I wanted a large black purse, but wanted one within my budget. So I first hit the underground subway mall in Gangnam, then went to the Coex mall at Samseong station. I didn't find what I was looking for, but still found other things. It wasn't too bad.

On the other hand, I am satisfied now. That's because I found what I needed elsewhere -- on Gmarket.
Gmarket's English homepage with the original Korean site
 It's part of Ebay, but it's more like Amazon. You're not bidding, but buying. And you can do your regular shopping on this website. I'll say that Gmarket has its own appeal.

If, say, you want to buy a new outfit, some new makeup, a new camera, or a new watch, you can come here and do it. It's a good place to shop because you can find just about anything you want. The prices are competitive with additional discounts abound. It's straight to the point, and more thorough than Amazon in my opinion. Products are displayed neatly, with plenty of detailed pictures and descriptions. There is a good, standard sizing system. I've never ordered something that was too big or too small. That's more difficult in America where every brand seems to have their own sizing guidelines. Here, I don't have to memorize which stores have clothes/shoes that run big or small.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

My Life at an Elementary Hagwon

The new semester (really a quarter) has begun, and I have finished teaching the first week of my own classes. Before it started, I had simply taken over the classes of the teacher I replaced.

My very first gift from a student!

So far, so good. The children are very sweet. I'm not having trouble teaching the classes. And my coworkers, both Korean and foreign are cool. My school has four other foreign teachers and about six Korean teachers. I'm working at a campus of a successful chain.

I used to teach kindergarten, but not anymore
I'm not at a public school, but at what's called a hagwon (Korean: 학원), or a for-profit cram school. They have them in all subjects, such as math, science, art, music and of course, languages such as English or Chinese. I have also taught in hagwons in my first and second years in Korea. In my current school, I'm teaching both elementary and middle school students. They attend a regular school in the morning, then head to my school 2 or 3 times a week to study English. However, the first two schools I worked for were a bit different, because they were kindergarten or "kindy" hagwons. Korean parents may pay to send their children to a kindergarten to get a head start on learning, since it's not compulsory. Some of these kindergartens have classes taught in English. I used to work in schools like that.

Working at an elementary hagwon is different in a few ways. The hours are different. You report for work at a kindy hagwon in the morning, around 8:30-9:00 am. However, now I show up for work sometime around 2:00 pm. At both types of schools, I still worked around 8 hours a day. Also, the kids I teach are much older, which is an adjustment. I still need to get used to teaching middle school kids, who have much less interesting materials and really aren't excited about being there. They're also tired because Korean students, as they get older, are often out studying at hagwons until as late as 10:00 pm! Lastly, I miss getting fed by the school. Nowadays I have to seek or cook my own food. The good thing is, I just found out that I'm reimbursed for this?

There are some new, positive changes, however:

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

The Beginning of a Healthier Lifestyle?

So, I have been making some efforts to eat better. It's not a new years resolution or anything like that, but something I started at some point within the last year since I knew I wasn't really eating the right things.

It's not a weight issue either, since I have never been overweight.

However, I know that I had always been in love with all of the bad foods. In my college days, I ate lots of fatty beef, lots of meat and hardly any vegetables. I also loved to fry my food and eat lots of grease. Sometimes when I made tacos, I didn't even drain the beef because I thought it made it taste better!

I had one particular ex who was a food snob, and I learned about different ways of eating and I learned to cook more. In college, I also met folks with dietary restrictions for the first time. Being say, vegan or even vegetarian was unheard of in my hometown when I was growing up. Well, we knew it existed, but it was surely something for wussies.

As a result, I grew up in an environment that valued lots of fat and junk. I loved junk food! And meat. But now I know it's not really good for you.

I've been making small efforts, although it's been difficult. For example, you're not supposed to eat red meat more than once a week, and even that is considered too much. However, last Wednesday I cooked a beef curry, and went out with coworkers on Thursday and ate ribs. On Friday, I ate dinner with a friend at an all-you-can eat Indian place and ate red meat again. The social pressures are pretty high. But I'll try anyway.

Umm...blueberry, cheese & tuna salad with kiwi dressing?
I'm proud of myself for making a simple salad this morning. I'm not good at putting them together yet, but it tasted good at least and that's what matters, right? I haven't bought junk food for my apartment for two weeks.

My ultimate goal is to very rarely eat junk food, just like I already rarely drink soda (a natural thing, since I have always preferred water). I want to control my portion sizes, and know when to stop eating when portions are too big. I also want to rarely eat beef and reduce my overall meat intake while increasing vegetables. I made a curry two days ago with more vegetables than meat. On the other hand, last night I made hamburger helper... with just a little beef, but that's still bad!

Anyway, with my efforts, and improved cooking ability, I'm hoping to reach my dietary goals!

Saturday, March 2, 2013

The Korean Medical Check

So, What is this Check and Why is It a Big Deal?

Korea brings in thousands of new teachers each year, and the government wants to make sure that they are in general good health. There is an idea among the locals that if left unchecked, foreigners could easily spread diseases to the Korean population. Also, like in other countries, they don't want the recent arrivals to become a drain on the medical system.

As a result, all those coming to Korea on the foreign language teacher (E2) visa must pass a medical screening in Korea at a government-approved hospital. Then, the results are taken to immigration to apply for the Alien Registration Card (ARC), which is the national ID Card.

Long story short, if the teacher does not pass the exam, their E2 visa is cancelled and they are ordered to leave Korea at their own expense.

So, what sort of things are they looking for? Here is a clue:
Click on the picture to read the form in detail
The above is a snapshot of a form all prospective teachers must fill out while in their home country to apply for the initial visa, which goes in the passport.

If an applicant checks "yes" on any of those questions, they will be denied the visa.

Of course, you could always lie on this form, which is why you must get checked at a hospital within 90 days of your arrival to Korea.

The big things that will certainly get you sent home are: HIV/AIDS, Tuberculosis, Hepatitis and illegal drug use.

There is also a big stigma against emotional issues, such as anxiety. Admitting such a problem will cause a rift, even if it doesn't impact one's teaching ability. They also test for common anxiety medications.

So, last week I completed my own medical check at a local hospital. I did mine at the fancy Ajou University Hospital. It was a fairly large hospital and it was impressive with state-of-the-art facilities. It came with a price tag: 120,000 Korean won or $111 US dollars. Medical checks typically cost around