Korea vs. Prague (or Working Abroad vs. Study Abroad)

Praha

As I’m sure 99% of everyone reading this blog knows, I was able to study abroad in Prague, Czech Republic my junior year of college.  When I talk to people back home now one of the questions that keeps getting asked is how Seoul compares to Prague.  The question sounds pretty simple to answer.  I could say “Well, I like Seoul better” or “I like Prague better” but, truth be told, it nearly impossible to look at the two from a similar vantage point.  In addition to comparing two cities, if I were to look at both Korea and Prague I would also have to distinguish between two completely different lifestyles as well.

Old TownGoing to Prague was, and remains to this day, the most fun I have ever had.  As a study abroad student I had next to no responsibilities in the classroom so the study part of study abroad rarely got in my way.  Classes were only three days a week, which meant my weekends were longer than my weekdays.  As a result of that beautifully minimalistic schedule that will likely never be seen again in my lifetime I left Prague most weekends and treated the semester as a tour of Europe.  I had budget airlines, beds in hostels, and a good group of friends to accompany me on any spur of the moment trip I felt like going on.  Want to go to Dublin?  Sure.  How does Barcelona sound?  Perfect.  Paris this weekend?  Definitely.  My semester in Prague was a great way to see a part of the world I had always wanted to see with absolutely no obligations tying me down.

Seoul, on the other hand, has many of those obligations.  From my very first day of work, I was aware that I was employee first and wanderer-of-Asia second.  I understand this, though.  I would not expect someone from Korea who took a job in the US to spend the majority of their time on vacation so it should be no different in my case.  Because of my long working hours and nearly nonexistent vacation time I have only been able to leave Seoul twice in my three months here, once to Taiwan and once to Busan.  In the same span of time during my time in Prague I was able to see probably eight or nine of the 12 total countries I visited in Europe.  This might seem like a let down of sorts but it’s just really just getting me more in touch with Korean culture and teaching me about a completely foreign way of life.

Hongdae

Comparing Seoul and Prague as cities rather than lifestyles isn’t much easier.  Prauge has a metropolitan area of a little over two million.  Seoul’s metro has a population of over 20 million.  The city of Seoul alone has almost as many people as the entire Czech Republic.  I can ride the subway for close to two hours and never leave the city of Seoul whereas in Prague I could walk or take a tram on the street to get virtually anywhere I needed to go.  Seoul’s entire city blocks of nothing but neon and a cultural propensity to make nights out last until daylight truly gives the city that city-that-never-sleeps feeling that Prague did not have.  But if Prague did not have that high-tech, glowing thing going for it, it did have a certain charm that came from the combination of its architectural beauty and a slightly less beautiful attitude found in many Czechs.  If Seoul tends to embrace foreigners, Prague seemed irritated at their presence.

Despite their differences, Seoul and Prague do have a few (vague) similarities.  Both cities are filled, much to my appreciation, with extremely cheap alcohol.  Prague had amazing beer and Seoul has tolerable soju.  They both also have annoying climates, although I would take Prague’s constant clouds and drizzle over Seoul’s monsoon any day.

If I had to answer the question as to which city I like better, I think I would have to give the edge to Prague.  Prague was a world class, yet manageable city, with its own personality that I have yet to see anywhere else in the world.  While many European cities such as London or Paris are so cosmopolitan that they have lost many of the unique things that made them special to begin with, Prague still feels very Czech, even with the hoards of tourists.  Seoul is still an amazing city that I would recommend anyone put on their list of places to visit but it can oftentimes just seem too big for its own good.  As I said before, this is a city where a subway ride can take a couple of hours without leaving city limits.  Although with Korea’s cheap booze and absence of laws dictating where people can and cannot drink those two hours can easily feel like no time.

Prague

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Busan is the Korean New Jersey

Haeundae Beach

Busan is the Korean New Jersey.  I don’t mean the Jersey Shore guido kind of New Jersey. I’m talking about the overcrowded stretches of sand that have been completely ravaged by man and no longer resemble their natural selves.  Now, I have never been to New Jersey so what I’m saying might be completely false.  For all I know the beaches of the Garden State might actually have white sand and crystal clear water, but in my imagination I picture brown sand and brownish-green water packed with New Yorkers on summer break.  Something tells me the New Jersey of my imagination might be a little closer to reality.

Haeundae BeachWhether or not the sardine can-esque beaches really are a trademark of New Jersey doesn’t matter because I know for a fact that everything I ever thought of as being quintessentially Jersey is in fact found in South Korea.  A couple of weeks ago I went to Busan, the second largest city in Korea.  It is also a favorite place for the people of Seoul to go on long weekends due to it’s nature as a beach city.  Korea isn’t especially well known for its beaches but all the guidebooks and websites kept saying the beaches in Busan were among the best on the peninsula.  I didn’t go to Busan planning on seeing something as pretty as St. Lucia or the Cayman Islands.  I went expecting something along the lines of Daytona or Cocoa Beach which ended up being a fairly accurate assumption.

The beaches themselves weren’t all that bad, but there absolutely nothing about them that looked in any way like they were a part of nature at one point in time.  Busan’s skyline goes right to the coast and then plummets into the water, a bridge connecting two sides of a bay runs parallel to the water in the horizon, and umbrellas completely cover the shore so there is no trace of sand left.  Not even the water is safe.  Bright yellow inner tubes form a line that closely follows the shore.  That being said, those annoyingly colored tubes were pretty fun to bob around in while drinking a beer and hitting Korean children when the waves rolled in.

Gwangalli Beach

When I wasn’t spending my time on the beach, I was able to visit the Busan Aquarium and a Buddhist temple outside the city.  The aquarium is located right on the beach so the whole area outside was more crowded than Disneyland in the summertime.  The crowds did not let up inside the aquarium either, but the inside was air conditioned and it housed some sharks and penguins so the massive amount of people didn’t bother me too much.  In addition to various sea creatures swimming about, the tanks also feature fake animal statues that just kind of hang out while the real ones swim around them.  So while it may look like an anaconda is about to pounce on you at any moment while you’re innocently looking at the piranhas, you can actually be assured that is in fact a fake snake.

The temple outside of Busan was just as crowded as the beaches but the scenery around the buildings was among the best I’ve seen in Korea so, again, I did not think much about the entire population of Seoul having followed me down to Busan.  The temple is right on the water and built up on the rocks on the coast.  Statues of Buddha are found scattered throughout the complex and the architecture is the stereotypical Asian style I love.  I only got to spend a little bit of time wandering around because I had to catch the bus back to Seoul but visiting this temple made me want to see more of the many scattered throughout this country.

Temple

Even though Busan might not be a Korean equivalent to Miami, it was fun nonetheless.  I actually think that if I did decide to do another year teaching in Korea I would want to spend it living in Korea’s New Jersey instead of Seoul.  That’s what Snookie would do at least and what’s good enough for Snookie is good enough for me.

Gwangalli Evening

You Don’t Need Outdoor Skills for Korean Summer Camps

Wednesday was a wonderful day.  Other than giving me that feeling of being over the hill that comes at the end of work on Hump Day, Wednesday marked the end of my school’s summer camp.  Summer camp here is less about speeding down the zip line and more about cramming in more school during a time when most children in the Western world are blissfully spending their days playing in the pool.  Since summer camp here is a more books, less fun kind of experience, I had a more work, less sleep kind of summer.

I’ve said before that Korean kids go to many different schools throughout the day.  They have their main school they attend in the morning and specialized academies they attend start heading to sometime around 3:00 and keep going to until 9:00.  The main school students go to has a summer vacation that lasts from mid-July to mid-August.  When students could have a break from studying, many parents here enroll their children in additional classes that take up the entirety of their summer break.

As one of the foreign teachers, I was given two classes that I taught with a Korean partner teacher.  My students were at camp from 9:00 in the morning until 2:30, something that seems outrageous to my American, pro-summer take on life.  While this may seem devastatingly long for the poor kids who should be anywhere but a classroom, any pity party out there should actually be focusing it’s attention on me.  In addition to teaching summer camp classes, I still had all of my regular classes which meant I was working close to 12 hours a day.

Classes at camp were pretty basic language learning lessons.  My classes were all for speech and listening, although the students also had English language science, cooking, and movie watching throughout day with other teachers.  The students I was in charge of were about 10-11 in one class and 12-13 in the other.  Our classrooms are named after capital cities at ECC school so from now on I will be referring to the 10-11 year olds as Wellington and the 12-13 year olds as Canberra.

Speech class in Wellington was great.  I’m actually fairly sad I don’t get to have this class anymore because it was much better than any class I have ordinarily.  The kids were super enthusiastic, they were always happy, and, most of all, they seemed to care about learning.  They acted like they wanted to be there and because of that I could have lots of fun with the kids by doing things like playing stupid little games and introducing them to American pop culture.  Wellington was my first class of the day so it was always nice to start the day off in a class where the students were just that good.  Below is a picture of Wellington class just so everyone back home can see them.

Wellington

My other class, Canberra, was not what I would call a class full of little angels.  In fact, referring to them as the spawn of Satan wouldn’t be too terribly inaccurate.  It wasn’t that there were really awful students in the class, it was that they were all just bad enough to become this strange superpower of behavior problems when they combined.  It was kind of like Captain Planet in that all the elements separate weren’t much good but when they got together they could really get stuff done.  The only real difference between Canberra class and Captain Planet is that instead of working together to save the world, this class was farting and ruining the world through air pollution.  Just to give a brief reflection of my time in Canberra class, I’ll list a few highlights about the class:  One student twitches.  A lot.  One student cannot speak without screaming, and she speaks.  A lot.  One student threw slices of bread at me, on multiple occasions on multiple days.  Many students have asked me about soju (a Korean take on vodka).  Here is a photo of Canberra class, my sweet little demon children.

Canberra

Truth be told, Canberra did actually make things interesting and there were many times I left the classroom laughing at how horrible they were.  But then again there were also times I left the room gagging because their farts were just that bad.

Taiwan: The Tropical Paradise Your Toys Come From

Grand Hotel

It’s been a couple of weeks since I last updated my blog and in that time a lot has happened both at work and outside the office.  I’ll start off with the boring work related information just to let everyone at home know that I have not fallen off the face of the earth.  At school we have started what are called “intensives.”  Intensives are just extra English classes students take in the summer.  Students in Korea go to many different schools throughout the day, each one specializing in a certain subject.  In July and August their main school goes on vacation and a lot of those students fill up the time they would be at their main school by taking extra classes at another school.  My day normally goes from about noon to 7:30 but with intensives my days now start at 9:00 AM.  This schedule lasts for a couple more weeks, and even though it hasn’t been as bad as I thought it would, I’m still looking forward to having my mornings back.

After the first week of intensives, my school had a week of vacation so I went to Taiwan with some of my co-workers.  In all honesty I didn’t really know what to expect when I went to Taiwan.  It’s one of those places I knew existed, but I never really thought that much about it other than when I saw that “Made in Taiwan” stamp on clothes or toys.  When the plane touched down in Taipei and the group left the airport, the only thing we could see were grey, run-down buildings that blended in with the grey, rainy skies.  After about half an hour or so the clouds gave way and a change of scenery showed that Taipei is actually a very pretty city that looks much more stereotypically Asian than Seoul does.  Asian architecture was plentiful and food carts lined the streets.

After a very brief first encounter with Taipei the group went to the train station and boarded a train to Hualien.  Hualien is a city about two hours south of Taipei nestled between cloud-covered mountain peaks and a clear, wavy sea with plenty of palm trees and tropical plants in the middle.  The first night in Hualien was spent at the beach playing in the pounding waves as the sun set.  After a couple hours of night swimming we went to one of Hualien’s night markets.  Night markets are very popular in Taiwan and they sell all kinds of food at very cheap prices.  Taiwan has amazing food, even better than Korean food in my opinion.  There were so many different fruits, vegetables, and sauces, and they even use lots of tofu which is something I have been missing in Korea.  When we had sampled as much as our stomachs would allow, we went back to the hostel and got some much needed rest before Taroko Gorge the next day.

Hualien

Hualien is the gateway to Taroko Gorge, or the Grand Canyon of the Pacific as one brochure put it.  Taroko Gorge consists of mountains and cliffs all impressively cut away by a clear, turquoise river.  We spent our time at the gorge walking along the trails, playing in the water, and taking in the scenery.  Taroko Gorge is far and away one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen so just looking around at the geography was enough to keep me occupied.  That night after spending the entire day at the gorge we ate authentic Chinese food.  The owner of the hostel told me what she liked, which was a very spicy tofu and noodle dish.  It definitely was not Panda Express but I would probably go as far as to call it my favorite food from Asia thus far.

Taroko Gorge

The next day we hired a driver to take us a few hours further south to Kenting, a beach town on the southern tip of the island.  The drive between Hualien and Kenting followed the coast and the scenery was exactly what I imagine a desert island in the South Pacific looking like, with the soaring peaks falling straight into the ocean.  The group stayed in Kenting for a couple of days for some beach time.  The beach in Kenting was right by our hostel and it had golden sand and deep cerulean-colored water.  The vast majority of my time in Kenting was spent on the beach, soaking in the sun while Korea was being destroyed by massive rainstorms.  Seeing that big, blue sky was worth the price of getting out of Korea.

The second day at the beach was very wavy.  Apparently there was a typhoon in the Philippines and Indonesia which sent the waves north to Taiwan.  My co-worker Aliya and I decided to sign up for surfing lessons to take advantage of the situation.  Another co-worker of mine, Paul, is from San Diego and has been surfing forever so while he was further out on the bigger waves, Aliya and I were on surfing’s equivalent of the bunny slopes.  While I am most likely never going to be a pro-surfer, I did learn to keep my balance, paddle with the waves, and ride to shore without falling off.  In my book that is a major accomplishment.

Kenting

After the second day in Kenting we took the high-speed train back up to Taipei where we did all the sightseeing we could fit in.  Taipei is much smaller than Seoul so it was pretty easy to get around the city in short periods of time.  As I said before, Taipei looks much more along the lines what I imagined Asia being like than Seoul does.  The red roofs, temples, and Chinese-style architecture were universal in the city.  During my time in Taipei I was able to see the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial (which was probably my favorite thing in Taipei), the Grand Hotel, Longshan Temple, the 101 Tower (the second tallest building in the world), and another night market.  Overall I loved Taipei and visiting the city made me regret not looking more into teaching in Taiwan as opposed to Korea, even though I still do really love Korea.  Most of the time.

Taipei