Archive | October, 2011
October 25, 2011

JLS English Academy

My first month here really had me “Jonesing” for my favorite foods back home. From mom’s fried chicken and desserts to Tommy’s pizza and just about everything on the menu at El Vaquero, I was always on the lookout for a suitable replacement here in Korea. However, the high quality, affordable prices and amazing variety of the restaurants here has quickly changed my mind for the better. Another experience that shifted my perception of dining here was the search for a new joint called Takorea Mexican Grill. I had read good things about it on the Facebook group “Daejeon Peeps,” which keeps expats like me connected, informed, and organized into an invaluable online community. Finding establishments in Korea is a challenge all its own, as street addresses are not sequential and instead are numbered are in the order the buildings were built. Having what I believe is a strong sense of direction and the typical male stubbornness about such things, I was never one to ask for help or directions. I felt confident I knew “roughly” where Takorea was located and then spent almost 2 hungry hours circling Daeheung Dong to no avail. After surrendering in a Roberto Duran-like whimper of “No Mas,” I returned home and got back on the web – printing out the correct path to follow for my destination.

Getting on the subway again the next day with turn-by-turn directions in hand, I found it in about five short minutes. This, I have since learned, is the ONLY way to find businesses and addresses here if you do not have a smart phone or GPS. Specific written instructions or faxed directions to a location from the subway exit and/or major landmarks to the front door is for me now the only way to travel here. Simply too much time and effort can be wasted otherwise, unless you just enjoy taking it all in. Also, some businesses may have multiple locations in the same small area. For example, there are three 7/11 stores in one building near my home. This freaked me out recently as I wondered how I had actually crossed a major street without remembering it. Turns out this is pretty common given the high density population of most areas.

Actually eating at Takorea was also further proof that finding my favorites from home is just not a good way to spend time here either. The owner and his staff were very friendly and accommodating during my visit, but the overall experience taught me a lot. The chicken chimi I had was decent, as was the assortment of different salsas, including a kimchi salsa, and I scarfed down the entire lot. However, I left feeling still hungry and somehow not fully satisfied. I fully realize that even the so-called mexican food I have in the States is not truly authentic, so Takorea’s translation was like mexican food twice removed. For the price, nearly 20,000 KRW (about $20.00 U.S.), I guess I was expecting much more in both portions and quality. I might go back for another try sometime with a bigger group, but the lesson seems to be that I am in Korea and should try to embrace all that makes it unique and special. I can have El Vaquero when I get home or just Rock Travel my way to Mexico, Spain or Latin America instead next time.

With that adventure firmly racked up to good experience, I decided to focus instead on my job here in Daejeon. The sensory overload and cultural transition slowed down just enough after a month for me to really spend time being the best English teacher I could. My Aunt Margo has always encouraged me to really use my skills and be a teacher. So, with my Master’s degree and substitute teaching experience in hand, I was anxious and excited to find out if I really had the chops for it here. The Daejeon branch of Jeong Sang Language School (JLS) is a for-profit chain of academies (or hagwons) like many throughout the country. Korean students of all ages spend the first part of the day in Korean public schools and then their afternoons and evenings are reserved for learning English (or other subjects) at these hagwons.  Some can be in school 10-12 hours a day and even go on the weekends, attending multiple hagwons for Math, Science and Music, as well. It seems to be a highly competitive and rapidly growing industry as high importance, respect, and pressure is placed on kids receiving a proper education. My hagwon has about 600 students and a typical day for me runs from 1:00 to 10:00 P.M. – Monday through Friday. I start with younger kids first and usually finish with Middle School students. The kids can be wild and highly excitable or can be very polite, quite and reserved.  It is basically a surprise with each day and on a class-by-class basis. The school has a terrific staff and roughly a dozen highly talented bi-lingual Korean teachers. There are then two Native Teachers like myself and co-worker Susan and a few grammar-only teachers to round out the faculty. My primary focus is on reviewing reading assignments and then practicing vocabulary and writing sentences on each subject. After quickly grading their work with my trusty red pen, the students correct their assignments and then present them for the entire class.

(Click on each photo below to view full size)

The curriculum is already set and is terrific for the most part, especially the National Geographic books for the older students. Keeping the lessons straight and organized each day was a different matter. Each class has review questions and a corresponding PowerPoint presentation to make things interesting and interactive. Luckily Susan had already figured out a way to make sense of it all and now, with her help,  I am finally getting more comfortable with the lessons and  as a teacher. I have found that I really enjoy my class time and that the more theatrical and animated you make it, the more fun the kids have and the more they participate and learn. Being the perennial smart-alec and joke-maker as a student myself, I now have a newfound respect for the teachers that endured my wisecracks back home in Pickerington. There is usually one or more comedian like me in every class and I am learning how to wrangle them all. The kids are actually very cute, smart, and curious about me and American culture. They are expected to “Speak Only English” at JLS, so hearing me butcher Korean phrases is always hilarious to them. After my first week of outright panic and terror in the classroom, I have settled into an exciting and rewarding profession that I think suits me well.  I am now confident that the year ahead will be challenging and fun while also being rewarding and educational for me, too. Thanks Aunt Margo!

Frank Burns from Matthew M. Vacca on Vimeo.

Check back next time to hear about my weekend in the capital city, Seoul!


Teacher Matthew


October 15, 2011

Gyeryong Mountain

After recovering and regrouping from my visit to Gyeryong National Park the previous week, I attempted an ascent of the summit of its highest peak again by myself on Monday, yet another Korean public holiday, Gaecheonjeol, or National Foundation Day. I set out early – properly equipped this time – with enough provisions to get me to the top. I also brought along a change of clothes so that I could visit the Hot Springs after my hike. The temple at the Buddhist Nunnery at the base of the mountain has a terrific natural spring that provides water to hikers on the trail. After topping off with fresh H2O, I set out to reach the top.

Being in the minority for the first time in my life, there is a kind of funny acknowledgement when you see someone who appears to be from Europe or the U.S, or simply from somewhere other than Korea. The reactions are usually similar, depending on how long you have been in Korea. From polite, knowing nods to all out relief and euphoria – these encounters are few and far between, but always reassuring. I saw a few small groups of Americans that said “Hello!” on the way up and spotted a couple around my age with an interesting sense of style just as I set out. The couple, Daniel and Alice, were in terrific shape and turned out to be on holiday from Leipzig, Germany. Daniel was sporting a goatee and an Australian “Crocodile Dundee” hat that threw me at first as I tried to avoid a traveling form of racial profiling. After chatting a bit and a quick break we decided to climb together for the first hour. They eventually continued on ahead of me after checking out the observation deck halfway up, as I exchanged numbers with another friendly couple I met on the trail. Hiking clearly is very social as well, and has a culture all its own. I had read an article on The Matador Network that said, that because of the natural high, it is like a healthy version of the “Rave” culture back in the states and throughout the world. You really become bonded to those around you and to the natural environment in a deep and powerful way. The feeling lasts long after you leave and begs you to return again.

The last bit of hiking was brutal, yet full of many philosophical parallels to my own life and adventures recently. Instead of focusing on the ultimate goal at the top, I decided to just enjoy the park and path before me by just climbing, being patient and taking each step confidently. It was almost straight up at points and potentially very dangerous in some tight spots during this stretch. This is really climbing and not just hiking at this point, but when you see grandmothers and young kids coming down smiling and unfazed – you press on bravely. After another hour and an endless number of rocky twists and turns later, I saw Daniel in that Australian hat chilling out on the summit -eating white rice and seaweed with Alice. We spent an hour at the top enjoying the beautiful view on both sides of the mountain and taking quite a lot of scenic photos. Having dragged a copy of The Columbus Dispatch “Travel” section all the way there, I had Daniel snap a few shots with it, as has been the custom in the Dispatch for years. I was thrilled to finally be one of those travelers in the pictures I had seen for so long each Sunday  morning- enjoying the sites in another country far from home. I will submit my photos for publication, too, and hope for the best.

The trip down the mountain was only a little bit easier than the journey up and not much faster, as my legs wobbled frequently and burned from exhaustion. As I had planned, a trip to the healing waters of Hanjin Sauna in Yuseong was just the ticket as a hot soak, shower, shave and nice hot sauna almost completed my beautiful day in Daejeon. The kicker was some fresh and light Bibimbap (literally “mixed meal”) from the restaurant BonManJu right next to my apartment building. This tasty combination varies wildly but generally includes rice, seaweed, and fresh vegetables. The whole thing is topped with a fried egg sunny-side up and is best when topped with red pepper sauce and thoroughly mixed, as the name implies. The seafood stew (Sujebi) is terrific there, too.

 (Click on each image below to enlarge)

The abundance of diverse restaurants in and around the Rich Town & Vill Apartments is amazing. Somehow, because of the smaller size of each unit and the unbelievably proud work ethic of Korean business owners, new shops are able to sprout up in just a few weeks versus months back home. One such welcome addition to the dong (neighborhood) has been Yummi Yummi. The tireless work of owner Kim Na-Kyung (Kasey) and her family  has paid off as people are flocking to her cute little shop. Yummi Yummi serves Jumuk-Bap (rock rice) filled with your choice of Chamchi (tuna), Kimchi, and fish eggs, as well as Eomuk-Guk (fishcake soup) and Janchi-Guksu, or Party Noodle soup. Having eaten there regularly since they opened, I can highly recommend any combination of these dishes for a light lunch or especially to help fight off the cold and sore throat bug that has hit everyone, including me, in our dong during the last 2 weeks. The recipe for the kimchi there is from her grandmother, and is some of the best I have had yet.

More on the food in my next post, including an update on my attempt to find Mexican food here in the Republic of Korea as I visit Takorea Mexican Grill.

Cheers and An-nyŏng-hi ga-se-yo!


October 6, 2011

Daejeon Market

Week 3 in Korea proved to be a nice turning point in my Korean adventure. After 7 months of planning, research and working out the logistics of the trip stateside, I am now faced with the reality of  the year ahead of me here. Surprisingly, the transition has been relatively easy. Language has been a small obstacle, but not insurmountable. You would be surprised at how much you can get by with body language and hand gestures. (Restrooms and toilet paper are a different story.) I think I was running on pure adrenaline the first 2 weeks and I finally crashed in week 3. I was not necessarily homesick, but all the things that I find comfort in back home are gone or are just very different here. (Pizza Hut is considered gourmet pizza!) Thankfully, good music has saved me yet again. I highly recommend picking up the new Bell X1 album Bloodless Coup.

Last week, fellow Native Teacher, Susan, and I decided to venture to the west of Daejeon and explore Gyeryongsan National Park. Susan is from St. Louis and has a fearless, pioneering spirit, and is always up for a new experience. We took the Metro to the National Cemetery Station and the crowded 102 bus to the park, all in about 30 minutes. The park features Gyeryongsan Mountain (the Rooster-Dragon Mountain), a sacred mountain said to possess the most qi or life force in Korea. The park is beautiful and is flanked by two Buddhist Temples and a Nunnery, all over 1000 years old!

On the way up, we remarked how serious all the Korean hikers were. Hiking outranks even Tae Kwon Do as the nation’s favorite sport, so it is nothing to see whole families out for a hike, or climb, as was the case at Gyeryongsan. Not only do they take is seriously, they get decked out in expensive and fashionable hiking gear from The North Face, K2 and local fair trade favorite, Black Yak, from head to toe. Sparing no expense to look their best from base to summit, most also carry elaborate hiking poles resembling ski poles, which you can hear clanking all over the mountain. Edmund Hillary and Reinhold Messner would both be very proud, if not grossly underdressed.

Most people on the trail also take a full picnic to the top in their designer backpacks, so we were beginning to understand the method to their madness. I began to see why everyone was so fanatical about the gear and proper attire, too, because the steep trails were a real challenge. Our intention was to climb the seemingly easy 848 meters to the top of the highest peak, Cheon-hwang-bong (Heavenly-King Peak). This proved to be harder than it initially appeared and we turned back after reaching the first observation point about halfway up. Not only were we both completely gassed, we were truly unprepared to continue. We decided to call it a day and head back down after a beautiful hike and use what we had learned for our next visit.

The following morning I met Susan and Alice from Coffee Nori to explore Daejeon Market properly. Having been duped on our previous visit on some bad boochimgae (bean cakes), Alice agreed to give us a tour and to translate where needed. Nori regulars Hun and Hyorim joined us with their son, Geo. The market is a loose group of buildings, shops and stands downtown near Daejeon Station where you can find foods, produce, clothes and goods from around the world. The sight and smells were unlike anything I have ever seen, especially fresh produce that I would be hard pressed to name. We decided on some delicious mondoo (dumplings) and a much better boochimgae and headed back to the coffee shop to chow down with the owner, Soon. Aside from the music making me feel better, Korean food is very comforting and readily available everywhere around the clock and very cheaply.

Next week’s post will include my visit to Takorea Mexican Grill and the grand opening of Yummi Yummi in my apartment building…