Sunday, July 27, 2014

Hongdae guitarist

There's an area of Seoul called Hongdae. It's close to Hongik University and is reportedly a really cool neighborhood. I was in the area last Friday and decided to wander around while I had a spare hour or two.

As I was walking, I heard a guitar playing. I listened to him play a song. Then I listened to another. Then another.

Time flies when you're having fun. Forty-five minutes flew by as I listened to this guy. This music completely made my weekend.

His name is Sunho Jung (장선호). Below are a few songs I heard from him (these videos were recorded on different days, but they sounded just as good, if not better, last Friday).

This first one is "Big Blue Ocean," originally written by Japanese musician Kotaro Oshiro:

This one is the theme song from "Mission Impossible." This was awesome!

This one ended up being my favorite one. It's called "Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence."

장선호 감사합니다! Thank you, Sunho Jung!

Thursday, July 24, 2014

What's up, doc?

WARNING: This post was written late at night by a man suffering from an ice cream hangover. (I'm pretty sure that's a thing.)

"Korean health care is AWESOME." - the average sentiment of many, many foreigners who live in South Korea and post their experiences on the interwebs.

Remembering this, I was overjoyed last month when I discovered a new development: An ingrown toenail. "JOY!" I thought, "it's high time to see what this Korean health care system is all about!" I then skipped to the hospital as if I were going down the yellow brick road to Oz, all the while singing, "I'm off to see the doctor."

Okay, maybe that's a slight dramatization.

Thankfully, there's a hospital less than a kilometer away from where I live.

Konkuk University Hospital, picture courtesy of

Even better? There's an international clinic. This incredibly helpful man named Edward helped me through what would have otherwise been a very confusing process.

See, in order to see a specialist about my toe, I had to go to a clinic and get a referral. Edward took me across the street accompanied me to the clinic and told the receptionist what I needed. Soon, I was heading back to the hospital, Korean document in hand.

I went to the dermatology office. I spoke to a doctor, underwent a procedure to fix the toenail (it involved anesthesia and random nail trimming devices), had my toe bandaged, and left the hospital with two prescriptions (one for antibiotics, one for ointment).

This took about 2.5 hours, and the whole thing cost me less than $100 USD. In my experience, that is awesome. Of course, I was insured, so it could have cost quite a bit more. However, in the US, I've been charged quite a bit more than that amount for somewhat similar treatment (this toe has been an absolute diva over the past year, folks) in the US.

After a few follow-up visits, the bandage came off the toe, and everything's looking good.

Korean health care, you've won an admirer...well, that's what I would have said before today.

One of my students is a urologist. Each class, we spend at least 20 minutes (ideally) on conversation. Today's topic was physical appearance, and the topic of plastic surgery inevitably came up. This student said something that has been on mind all day. I should mention that his English is quite good.

Even though the student I mentioned is a urologist, he currently spends most of his time doing Botox injections and the like at a plastic surgeon's office. He does this to make ends meet. As a urologist, for every patient he sees, he should expect to earn about $10. Yep. The wages he should expect to earn from seeing a patient would allow him to buy a Big Mac combo meal and have some change left over.

I say "should expect" because of how insurance works here. It's universal, meaning that it's run by the government. Back to this in a moment...the patients that my student sees each pay him about $3 of the total $10 as a copay. He then has to request the remaining amount from insurance aka the government. The government should then pay him the remaining $7 per patient.

There's that "should" again.

The government can apparently be rather fickle when it comes to paying the remainder of this amount. From what I have heard, the insurance representative can search for (read: create) mistakes that the doctor made as he or she was treating the patient; the representative can then use that as a reason to not pay the full amount to the doctor.

...So much for the Big Mac meal. Perhaps I could interest the doctor in a McChicken?

Back to the government. The politicians are accountable to the citizens. The citizens have to have health insurance. The politicians have an incentive to drive down costs for citizens; in my mind, the incentive is reelection. They don't have that sort of obligation to the doctors, so it's a bit easier to nickel-and-dime them.

I realize that what I have written is one doctor's experience. Other doctors here may or may not feel the same way.

But I can't help thinking about a few things.

First off, apparently the Korean health care system is affordable for patients, but it doesn't appear to provide doctors with a strong incentive to stay in Korea.

Second off, how incredibly different is health care in Korea versus health care in the US? In the US, being a doctor tends to correlate with making a very comfortable living, but patients can expect to pay a significant amount for care, especially if they're uninsured (in which case the amount is absurdly high). If they're insured, they have to deal with ironing out details with their insurance providers. In Korea...well, see the previous paragraphs. Affordable for patients, but the doctors get stiffed and have to take on extra work, such as injecting Botox, to make ends meet.

Back to my student...he ended his thoughts by saying that he was learning English for one main purpose: To get out of Korea and practice medicine in a country that would allow him to make a living wage. I didn't know this until today. Not surprisingly, he is one of the most dedicated students I've seen.

This leads to my final (for now) thought: Health care in the US is undergoing big changes. Some people like the changes, others don't. Regardless, I hope that the changes don't push US health care providers to change professions as a result of an incentive decrease.

Alright, enough of this serious business. I'm off to bed.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014


Earlier this very morning, I was talking with one of my students about rock climbing. He mentioned that there is a rock climbing gym across the street from the school. Since I have a little break between classes (as in six hours after I eat lunch and prep lessons), I decided to go check it out.

After entering the gym and paying a fee, I went upstairs to the lockers armed with a key and bracelet that the front desk lent to me. I walked around in little circles, but I tried to look purposeful while doing it, as if to say, "I have no idea where I'm supposed to go, but I'm sure that meandering aimlessly is the right thing to do."

A man soon noticed me and asked something in Korean. After smiling sheepishly, pointing to my ears, and saying "Sorry," a pattern that I follow too often, he asked (in English) if I had my own rock climbing shoes. I told him I didn't, and we went to a fitting room.

He provided the biggest pair of shoes for me to try. I now (kind of) have a greater appreciation for how Cinderella's stepsisters felt when they tried the glass slipper on. The shoe and my foot were not going to get along.

The man asked me to wait. Then he left. Then he came back in, glanced around, asked me to wait some more, and left. This process happened about two more times; I should mention that the man was very kind and patient. He provided a new pair of shoes which were just as uncooperative as the first pair.

After leaving and entering a time or two more, and after talking with his boss on the phone, the man apologetically explained that the biggest shoes the gym rented out were a Korean size 280, which is about a US size 10. My feet are a US size 12. Not exactly a match made in heaven.

Thankfully, the gym gave me a refund. Maybe another time, K2 Gym.

It's interesting...I know that I'm tall in the US, meaning that I'm quite tall here, but I usually don't feel like I'm that much bigger. Today was a reminder that I'm quite a bit bigger than the average Korean!

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Liberal Interpretations

Ladies and gentlemen, may I present...Tyson and Joanna.

These two are characters in one of the textbooks used for adult classes. They're just friends, and they're a little unsure about who the suitcase in the stairwell belongs to. Finally, Joanna remembers that she is getting a new roommate, and the bag must belong to her. Mystery solved.

I read through this with a class a week ago, and one of the students said that he had an "alternate text" for the story. Intrigued, I asked him to share. His version goes like this...


Joanna, a woman who is married to a man she doesn't love, falls deeply in love with Tyson.

She decides that she must be with Tyson. To save the embarrassment that would come from having an affair, Joanna kills her husband. The husband is then stuffed in a suitcase.

Joanna brings the suitcase outside of her apartment and talks to Tyson, who has no idea what has occurred...

...but someone else knows.

Joanna's son knows what his mother did. He knows that his father is in the suitcase, and he's watching her. Through the window, he glares at his mother, Tyson, and the suitcase that contains the body of his father.


Seriously, I wanted to engage in more discussion about this "alternate text," because, as you can see, it had potential. Then I looked at the other students and their blank, confused faces, and I realized that it was time to keep the lesson moving.

Someday, this suspense-novelist-to-be will get his day in the sun.

Sunday, July 6, 2014


A month ago today, Korea observed Memorial Day. To celebrate, a group of us went to the coastal town of Sokcho. I've spent the past four (US) Memorial Day holidays going to the beach, so it seemed appropriate to keep that tradition.

No, Google Maps. The road was not that straight.
No trains go to Sokcho, so we had to take a bus from Seoul. It took us about three (or four? I can't recall...that's what I get for falling behind in posting) hours to make the trip.

On the way, we stopped at one of the few rest stops along the way, where many other buses were also letting people off for a 15 minute break. With all of the people inside that little rest stop (I'd imagine there were upwards of 70), the chance of going to the restroom in time to make it back to the bus was slim. Thankfully, I beat the line that formed quickly behind me, and I was able to go outside and check out the surrounding area with time to spare.

We jumped back on the bus and continued the trip. Initially, I was a bit befuddled that no trains in Korea went to a city that I'd heard a lot about. When we arrived, I found that the term "city" was unfitting. Sokcho is tiny. And uncrowded. And chill.

I loved it.

Our lodging, which Sarah (one of the group members) secured, was perfectly located. It was one block from the bus terminal even though we wandered around utterly lost for a while before we found the lodging, a ten minute walk from the beach, and right next to the LDS (Mormon) church.

We spent most of the first day checking out the shore.

Mysterious island off the shore. Its purpose is unknown.

I've seen these giant stone jacks before. I'm guessing that they help break some of the impact of the waves, but I'm too lazy to confirm that with Google.

A lot of the seafood in Sokcho is edible. This squid is not.

These murals could be found around the beach.

Cold, and worth it

Sokcho Harbor

Saturday morning, we got up late and walked into a cafe, where we completely overwhelmed the sole worker there. We ordered cocoa, sandwiches, and a bunch of other things. We sat down and just relaxed, because it was a cozy kind of place, and we waited. And waited. And you know what? I didn't mind waiting. We chatted and enjoyed the music. The food came after some time. Do you know what the server then did?

She gave us two pieces of cheesecake and apologized for making us wait so long. It was amazing.

If you want to go to this cafe, you'll know it when you find these pictures inside:

Ladies of the Purrenaissance

From there, it was off to the beach again (and this time, I went all the way in the water. I don't have a picture of it, but we can use this picture of me from three years ago. That should suffice).

This is close to what I looked like in Sokcho. Just imagine an ocean instead of a pool and no shirt, and it's pretty much the same thing.
Off we went to find a trail to hike. We weren't able to find any really cool trails, but the views were pretty great.

We found a 찜질방 (jjimjilbang - Korean sauna) to relax in for an hour or two, and then we had dinner with the LDS missionaries. We ate many, many delicious things. Chicken feet were on the menu, but they were not necessarily delicious.

On Sunday, we went to church and were treated to an awesome lunch by the members.

From there, we returned to the bus terminal and came back to Seoul.

Though I didn't realize it till after, I needed this trip. The teaching schedule I had for all of May was really wiping me out, and something about this trip gave me the boost I needed to keep chuggin'. Perhaps it was the small town feel, or the friendly people we met.

Or maybe it was the chicken feet.

Friday, July 4, 2014



Not my map. Credit goes to

It's known as "The Hawaii of Korea." When you mention it to people in Korea, they will likely smile and say (if they speak English) one of three things:
  1. I've never been there, and I want to go visit.
  2. I've been there before, and I loved visiting.
  3. I've been there before and I want to visit again.
Basically, people in Korea love Jeju, so I figured that I should go check it out.

The round trip flight between Seoul (Gimpo) and Jeju cost 152,000 won, or about $150 USD. I booked the flight, through T'way Airlines, about a month and a half before the trip. Since South Korea is a fairly small country, it took less than an hour to fly from Seoul (in the northwest on the country) to Jeju (off the southwestern coast of the country)...and thank goodness. The flight was fine, but budget airline seats don't take kindly to the knees of gangly folk like me. In other words: My knees were up against the seat in front of me for the whole flight.

I got off the plane, retrieved my luggage, and stepped out of the airport. I saw several palm trees and felt a nice breeze blowing as the sun shone bright. Though Jeju is unlike Hawaii in that it experiences all four seasons, I could see why Jeju has been given the Hawaii moniker.

After a 5000 won (~$4.50 USD) taxi ride, I arrived at my hostel, HK Jeju. HK Jeju was good to us. The staff members were helpful and the rooms were nice enough. Unlike the other hostel I had stayed in when I visited Seoul before, each room had direct access to a private bathroom. Luxury!

The hostel was located right by the sea, and it was also a 10 minute taxi ride to the Intercity Bus Terminal (if you don't rent a car, this is your transportation lifeline).

Front of HK Jeju

Seaside walkway - a five minute walk from HK Jeju

Okay. Enough about that. Let's talk about what to do in Jeju.

My first stop: Seongsan Ilchulbong. I first saw a picture of this place in 2011 at the Korean Cultural Center in DC and thought, "I must go here." Since it would be a few hours before other members of my group arrived, and after an hour-and-a-half of getting lost in Jeju City and trying to figure out which bus I needed to take, I went on my own to the crater.

First, I should note that it took an hour-and-a-half (different from the hour-and-a-half  that I may or may not have mentioned in the last paragraph) to get from Jeju City in the north to Seongsan Ilchulbong in the east. At one point, before coming to Jeju, I had this idea that Jeju was really small and that I could just rent a bike and take a quick ride around the island...lololol.

After a while, the crater came into view.

Oh boy oh boy oh boy!

A few minutes later, I got off the bus, paid the 2000 won to get in, and hiked up. I also took many, many pictures. You've been warned.

Still here? You're tenacious, aren't you?

Seongsan (the village) from the trail

Seongsan from even higher on the trail

At the crater...I couldn't go down in it, nor did I want to. In related news, seeing other birds besides pigeons and crows (Seoul has an abundance of both) is a really nice experience.

Back at ground level

It's hard to see, but there were several divers in the sea. Jeju likes its seafood.
Man. I loved it. I loved it so much, I went again the next day with the rest of my group.

It's a good thing I did, because I ended up running into a friend from DC during round 2 at Seongsan Ilchulbong.

Hey Andrea! She was on her way to China before starting a combined masters/doctoral degree in Chicago. NBD.

Udo Island

Proof that I was in front of Udo Island
On the way back to our hostel, we stopped at Saehwa Beach, because who goes to Jeju without going to a beach?...the truth is, I may have skipped the beach completely if it weren't for the earnestness of a few of my traveling comrades.


See that strip of sand? We walked out to it, put our stuff down, and learned that tides are sneaky critters. Thankfully, no one's stuff got damaged.

Thanks for the sunset, Saehwa.
Okay. Let's be real here. The actual reason for me coming to Jeju was to summit Hallasan, the tallest mountain in South Korea. I was worried about the weather, since late June is around the beginning of monsoon season and weather can be unpredictable on the top of the mountain.

People, the weather couldn't have been better.

The first 60% of the trail on the way up, and the last 60% of the trail on the way down, was covered in pine trees. Beautiful as it was, it got monotonous, so most of these pics are from closer to the summit.

First vista. The city of Seogwipo is in the distance.

See that knob? That's the first sign of the peak.

As Lucy and I were relaxing, someone came up to us and gave us each a potato.

We were then invited over to eat cucumbers, mangoes, and treats with several people who had been friends since middle school. I loved this day! Such generous people.

Getting closer...

One kilometer left!

9.6 kilometers to the top, 8.7 kilometers to go to get the bottom...SO close to the summit


By the way, Hallasan is an extinct volcano.

Jeju City in the seemed so close, but it took SO long to get back.


Last view of the summit on the way down

It was a long hike. But with the chance meetings with generous people, and the amazing views, it was worth it.

I returned to Seoul the next day so that I could get ready for work, which meant that I spent a total of 3.5 days on Jeju. Could I have stayed there for longer? YES. But 3.5 days was a good amount of time to see a few of the things I wanted, and I worry that a longer stay would have tempted the weather fates.

Jeju, it was fun.