Archive | July, 2013
July 23, 2013

EAT-ae-won

Eatawon17One of my previous essays (The Daily Kimchi) mentioned the merits of accepting Korean food as a permanent and prominent part of your diet while living abroad and not trying to duplicate your favorite dishes from home. Native and regional cuisine is delicious, cheap, and abundantly available at all hours of the night here. It may just take a while to grow on you.

However, as time has passed, I have also realized that while Mom’s cooking will surely need to wait for the coming home party, even cheap imitations of your favorite foods are necessary from time to time to maintain your culinary sanity. The best place to feed these cravings seems to be in the cultural melting-pot district of Seoul called Itaewon.

This eclectic district is accessible via Seoul Subway Line 6 at the Noksapyeong, Hanganjin, or Itaewon stations. Home to several foreign embassies, Itaewon is a bustling multi-cultural hub and the go-to area for expats to find English-language books, clothing that actually fits, brand-name knock-offs of everything, and a dense variety of food choices from all around the world. When I say cheap imitations, I am perhaps not being completely fair. Not only are the locals attempting to duplicate or pay homage to the popular dishes you are looking for, they sometimes completely re-imagine staple food items, usually with kimchi.  The best example of this is the killer appetizer of “Kimchi Carnitas Fries” at Vatos or the “Kimchi Reuben” at Suji’s Deli.

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Some of my favorite places over the last 2 years (in addition to Vatos Urban Tacos and Suji’s Deli) include The Pizza Peel, Porchettas, Cottage Cafe Borie, Chili King, and Standing Coffee. A few places were worth a shot but will probably not merit a return trip like Tartine, Too, and El Grecos.

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My ravings and cravings for Vatos have been well documented on this site previously, (Vatos Urban Tacos), so I will not repeat them here. However, I have found two places for a consistent and reasonably priced western-style brunch if Korean-Mexican fusion is not your thing. Both Suji’s Deli and Borie are easy to find, well-staffed, and easy to order from in English (another reason expats flock to the area). I have been to both several times and have been very happy with both restaurant’s take on breakfast; especially Eggs Benedict, typically served with a side salad. Suji’s adds home fries with onions and also has a nice selection of fresh-baked cinnamon rolls to choose from. They also keep real drip-brewed coffee on hand (no watery Americano’s) to top off your morning cup.

Suji’s also features front-facing bar-style window seating for one or more, but also has a huge family-style table for bigger groups. Borie is more of a NY-style bistro and is much better for couples or groups under 4. Brunch at each is in the range of 16-20,000 Korean Won. Suji’s is just around the corner from the big blue archway near the West end of the district (Noksapyeong Exit 3), or you can find out more about it, including hours and directions, at their website, here. To get to Borie take Itaewon Station Exit #1 going straight and then take the fourth alley on your right.

Eatawon04Right across from Borie and up 3 flights is the new location of Canadian-owned and operated Chili King. Recommended by the Serbian staff at SP Guesthouse and featuring heavy doses of the namesake stuff by the bow or on burgers and fries, the Chili King offers a nice, juicy burger and a soundtrack that had me aching for home. I guess there is something about chowing down to a big burger and chili fries set (with Dr. Pepper) while hearing Rush over the speakers that just made me feel comfortable and just a tad homesick for North America.

The Chili King has quite a following and his reputation is well earned, but he could also easily be called “The Bacon King”, as it is available on just about all the menu items, too. Chili King is on the top floor above My Chi Chi and is worth a visit, especially when you are really hungry.

Another neighborhood favorite, The Pizza Peel, is pretty close to Suji’s and is a terrific joint for a quick, fresh, and delicious pizza that will remind you of New York-style pies from back home. While some places get most of the elements right, most fail at either the cheese or the crust. The Pizza Peel’s secret is their hand-stretched crust and the custom gas-fired oven visible right when you enter. The menu is simple and offers all your favorite combination pizzas (or stromboli) or you can build your own creation.

I tend to stick with a simple pepperoni or the Canadian, which also adds bacon and mushroom. The pizza here is always served quickly and I find that I generally eat the entire thing without feeling bloated or disgusting. There is usually a great movie on in the back of the house, too. Last time I happily watched parts of both “E.T” and “Back to The Future”. To get there just go down the main road out of Exit 4 from Itaewon Station. Then pass the Nike Store and RotiBoy shop and enter the small gateway on your left, under the orange Pizza Peel’s sign. The Peel is on the left near the back of this alley market area.

Another of my favorite places in the area to dine at is called Porchetta. Porchetta is an amazing sandwich joint in the area known as Kyunglidan, just down the hill and around the corner from Itaewon. On my first visit there, I had the strange sensation I had seen this place on Guy Fieri’s “Diner’s, Drive-In’s and Dives.” Sure enough, after chatting with the owner, the entire restaurant was inspired by the same episode I had seen featuring a restaurant called “Meat & Bread” in Vancouver.

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The result is a wonderful space with delicious meat sandwiches of pork, chicken or beef served on fresh-baked bread with a terrific view of the street life in the area. I recommend the signature house Porchetta sandwich set (with a side salad and drink) and be sure to save room for the dessert ice cream sandwich version 1.0.

Also, be sure to stop off at Standing Coffee for a great hot drink or a big tasty blue lemonade to keep you cool while exploring the shops and alleyways in the area. The antique district south of Itaewon’s main drag is reminiscent of German Village or the Short North in Columbus, or Soho or Greenwich Village in New York and is perfect for a weekend stroll.

Two places that I would probably avoid the next time around are Ruby Edwards’ Tartine’s, Too, the restaurant/cafe partner to the popular small dessert pie shop, and El Greco’s Greek restaurant. I had a large yet rather bland and tasteless breakfast at Tartine’s and the same goes for the chicken gyro from El Greco’s. Both had big portions that looked appetizing and were each rather steeply priced, but ultimately neither delivered any satisfaction with regards to the taste they were attempting to replicate.

Eatawon11Both misfires may have simply been my menu choices, too. This is the fun part about hunting down your favorites from back home. While you may find it listed or pictured on the menu, what you get may be something completely different than what you are expecting. Such is life…

Next time out, I will continue to help look with Daniel teacher for his current craving: good old-fashioned Mac-N-Cheese. If you know where to find it, drop me a line.

July 9, 2013

Take Two

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This essay was written as a contributing article for Don Suh and HiWorld Recruiting for the launch of their their new website. 

While coming up quickly on the end of my second one-year contract teaching English in South Korea I realized this might be the perfect time to recount the whole experience so far and summarize my experiences over the last 24 months not only for posterity, but for anyone else out there considering moving abroad to teach English. My time in Daejeon has really gone by quickly, but in looking back over pictures from when I first arrived, I certainly feel I have come a long way and that, overall, the experience has not only been mostly positive, but also life-altering.

My decision to come to South Korea and teach English began back in the long, cold winter of 2011. Gas prices were outrageous and the economy had completely tanked. So had the employment market. I was working 3 jobs at the time and still could not really make ends meet. After a long heart-to-heart with my mother over dinner, I asked for her advice and guidance. I was 42 with a good education and a wide range of employment experiences. However, I had no savings, no real investments, and had never really been anywhere exciting. I was substitute teaching part-time at two Career and Technical high schools, working as a Specialist at the Apple Retail store at Easton 30 hours a week, and still working as a mobile DJ with a full calender of bookings for the upcoming wedding season. After my mother and I failed to come up with a logical solution that didn’t involve my borrowing money from her, I retreated with my old friend Patrick to the Donley family hunting cabin for some quiet reading, soul searching, and some more good advice.

The idea to move overseas was always simmering on the back burner since Pat himself returned from his two-year stay in Vietnam in the late 90′s. The prospect, however, never really got any serious consideration from me until some fortuitous events occurred to show me a new path. First, Pat introduced me to a terrific book by Rolf Potts called Vagabonding. The book, subtitled “An Uncommon Guide to the Art of Long-Term World Travel,” was a huge inspiration for me in the reality (and necessity) of a very different lifestyle than the one I was leading at the time. The toll of having three jobs and still barely surviving was no longer a viable option and, in fact, had never really been a good one to begin with. The writings and ideas of Simon Black and his website, www.sovereignman.com, also helped me to really understand the practical necessity of diversifying my finances, my opportunities, as well as my attitude about how I actually intended to survive in the future.

After over 250 gigs as a DJ in seven years (some 200 of those events were wedding receptions), I decided to look at the possibility of a radically different path and one that did not include “The Electric Slide.” Potts’ book outlines the simplicity and rewards of life abroad, as well as specific practical advice in harnessing my independent spirit and desire to travel to create a completely new lifestyle for myself. After opening up to the idea, I began to float a variety of options around to selected co-workers at the Apple store. I was soon informed that back-of-house guru, Mike, had completed a similar adventure in South Korea with terrific results, and so the scene was set for some vagabonding of my own. With Patrick’s encouragement and the support of my wonderful family and friends, the transformation and exodus into a prospective English teacher and future world traveler took a mere 7 months.

I quickly contacted Mike’s recruiter in Daejeon and began an online job search that became a daily obsession. The rest of my time was spent selling, scrapping, or donating some 75% of my worldly belongings in a cathartic, minimalistic process of having more through owning less. Once I stopped to really evaluate why I had so much “stuff” and why I was seemingly so attached to creating and maintaining a space for all of it, the spring cleaning of a lifetime was on and it just snowballed from there. Each trash run or drop-off at Goodwill also brought me a little closer to realizing my intention to live a life abroad that all fit into just 2 suitcases. After considering a few different offers and one brief false-start, I agreed to take a job in central Korea over the bustling capital of Seoul.

My goals upon arrival on the Korean peninsula were relatively simple. First, I wanted to see if teaching was a career path I wanted to pursue in earnest. Second, I wanted to jump-start my traveling adventures as Ontario, Canada, was the only place I had been outside the United States. Finally, I wanted to pay off any remaining credit cards and finally accumulate some real savings for the first time in my life.

After nearly 2 years in Korea, the experiment/adventure has turned into a way of life. Not only have I found a true passion for teaching, I feel I have been forever liberated from a lifestyle that was killing me not so softly. I have also said goodbye to an imaginary American ethos (“The American Dream”) that was really a pleasure to leave behind. The only real things that I miss are my mom’s cooking, good Mexican food, and sharing a laugh and a smile with my family and friends in person. The flip side here has been an experience that helped mature and refine many of my better attributes, while helping to jettison old and negative attitudes that were not working. All this has happened organically, while at the same time achieving all three of my objectives in a way I could never imagine.

After a long flight, high-speed train, and scary taxi ride to my new school, I was given a tour of the classrooms and of my semi-furnished apartment. My airfare here was paid for initially by me and then reimbursed through direct deposit in full once my Alien Registration Card was processed. The school was very clean, bright, and highly modern with computers, white boards, and nice digital projectors and speakers in each classroom. This was my first huge sigh of relief as the academy turned out to be much nicer than I expected. My apartment was also paid for and was to be the other positive indicator of the condition of my life for the next year. Thankfully, it too was also big, clean, modern, and quite well appointed. Apparently my recruiter and I had done pretty good for ourselves and the stage was set for a great experience.

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Teaching in South Korea can take on many forms, the most popular being in public schools, private academies, or in a university setting. While the requirements are slightly different for each and are changing every year, the basics are a native fluency in English, an undergraduate degree, and a clean background check. Some programs and schools require additional training or certification, but were not really required for my employment contract. My school is a private English academy (called a hagwon) with 2 locations in Daejeon. The main location is in Dunsan-dong near City Hall in the center of the city. The second, slightly smaller branch is in the suburbs 20 minutes away in an newer area called Noeun. My contract requires me to be there 40 hours a week from 1-10 p.m. on weekdays only. Students typically come to hagwons during the week after normal classes at their Korean schools finish. This can make for some long days for the students, but I have really grown to like the later hours and altered schedule. This leaves my mornings free for video calls back home and other activities; including lots of coffee, a gym membership, voracious reading, biking, and volunteering at 2Typically classes start around 3 p.m., so my first 2 hours in the office are for prep time and entering homework or grades. While a few of my classes are one hour in length, most are a quick 35-40 minutes. Students come in waves from younger to older throughout the day, so I start with 3rd and 4th graders and end up with middle school kids in the evening. The classes can be as small as 2-3 students and rarely go above 16-18 kids. Throughout the week I teach about 25 classes with a higher concentration of them being on Mondays and Fridays. This semester, I actually have NO classes on Tuesdays, but have to remain on site for what expats teaching here call “desk-warming”. This free time allows me the opportunity to read extensively, make travel arrangements, and to update my travel journal with articles like this.

As I mentioned, my teaching tenure back home was limited to substitute work with high school students, mostly Juniors and Seniors, so I had no real experience with young kids. Once the excitement of leaving the U.S. wore off and the newness of my surroundings sunk in, I began to really be nervous about how exactly I would handle my new position and how they would, in turn, accept me. My fears were pretty quickly put to rest during my first week teaching as the students were friendly, curious, and for the most part, highly intelligent and polite. Once I got the hang of in-class discipline (an evolving art form), I was much more confident as a teacher and far better off as an actual educator. As I often joke, it can’t be “Dead Poet’s Society” every day, but it is relatively easy and rewarding.

The coursework was all provided, including books and corresponding PowerPoint slides, as was some basic training and lots of terrific administrative support. In my second year, new textbooks were introduced and the native teaching staff came up with a suitable curriculum focusing on speaking for the younger kids and writing for the higher levels. While I do generally share a common office with some of the other teachers, I have had occasionally my own classroom, too, which was terrific. Typically, however, I go from class to class depending on my schedule and give the Korean teachers a break while covering my material with students on a weekly basis. Also, I now split my time between the 2 locations and take the subway to the suburban school 3 times a week.

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As for accomplishing my goals, it has been relatively easy to save money each month and send it back home to the states on the fairly standard terms of my arrangement. My expenses are minimal as health care is provided, food is abundant and cheap, and tipping is not a part of Asian culture. Public transportation is easily accessible, reliable, clean, and cheap, so the thought of owning a car again back in the states is a daunting prospect. I am responsible for my internet, gas, and apartment maintenance fees (including electric and garbage), which add up to about $150.00 per month. During my first year here I bought an older smart phone and paid about $30 per month with no contract. Recently I upgraded to a new Samsung Galaxy 3 (sorry Apple) as a small luxury and love everything about my new phone. It is twice as expensive as what I had but is super-fast, convenient, and fairly essential for translations, directions, and conversions. That being said, I can still send home roughly $1,000 per month. I also contribute $100 per month to my teacher’s pension, which my school matches. I can apply for this money back as a refund once I leave the country for good. My contract also includes one month’s severance at the end of each contract period and a return flight home. Any unused vacation time is also paid in cash. All in all, I have made out pretty well.

With regards to travel, the above mentioned liquidity and the ease of travel within Korea means that most weekends and holidays can be spent out exploring or traveling throughout the country. Seoul to the north and Busan in the south are easy to get to by bus or train for weekend getaways and I also visited Hong Kong for 3 days last Fall. I am planning a Summer break trip to Japan this month and then diving lessons in the Philippines over the winter holiday. I was also able to visit Jeju Island and bike around the entire province on holiday recently, as well. This part of my plan could be further extended if I am able to secure a university teaching position. I have discovered that I do indeed want to pursue a career in academia and that teaching at a higher level here might just be the perfect fit. The pay and benefits are roughly the same, but the vacation time is considerably more. Requirements for these jobs have just been completely overhauled, so be sure to do your homework if you wish to follow a similar path.

All things considered, my last 2 years here have been quite unforgettable and I highly recommend the experience to anyone looking to shake things up, travel a bit, and/or pursue a career in teaching. Korea (over Japan and China) seems to offer a nice balance of all the things ESL teachers are looking for; good working and living conditions, ease of travel, and an affordable lifestyle with the potential to save money or pay off debts. It is an interesting culture that can provide some basic challenges, but overall, most Koreans  have been friendly, gracious, supportive, and highly curious about me and the country I left behind. While I am not ready to return to the U.S. any time soon, I will have quite a few adventures to share when I return and an outlook on life that has been permanently changed for the good.

Check out HiWorld Recruiting on Facebook, too, for this and other articles about living and teaching abroad.