5 tips to save you money/ time when arriving in South Korea

1. Get your Alien Card early. You should ask your co-teacher to bring you to immigration on your first or second day in your city. The earlier you get this card, the easier life will be. You can’t open a bank account or get a cell phone without this card.

2. Ask if any of your teachers has a spare cell phone. These days, people change cell phones like they do socks. Chances are someone in your school has an extra phone lying around. If they let you borrow it, you can then take it to a cell phone store to get a pre-paid plan, which is the most economical (unless you want a smart phone or use your phone incessantly). I got my plan through a place called NRC in Daegu. They have an office near Banwaldong. Super cheap.

3. Set up a KEB (NOT KB!) bank account. This is the best bank account for a waygookin: cheap fees for sending money back home; online banking that also allows you to transfer money overseas, which no other bank has; mostly English-speaking staff; and a check card that you can use overseas when you have your vacation in Thailand or China.

4. Check your ondol. When your teacher first shows your apartment, make sure you ask about the ondol (heater). Find out what buttons control the water heater and what buttons control the floor heater. Find out how to turn it off correctly and set the temperature correctly. Too many friends of mine didn’t figure these things out early and had very large gas bills.

5. Treat your teachers to pizza or chicken on your first payday. Not only is this polite, but trust me, if you do this one kindness, it will be repaid 10-fold throughout the year and you will always have food on your desk.

2011 Hi Seoul Festival highlights

When I lived in New Haven, Connecticut, my favorite time of year was early summer (and this is not only because winter was long gone). Every June, New Haven hosts the International Festival of Arts and Ideas.

The Festival of Arts and Ideas is a two-week event bringing world class performances to the small city: dance, theater, concerts, art installations, circus acts and lectures on current events.

Best of all, most of the events were free.

To top it all off, New Haven’s hipster and counter-culture scene put on their own festival, Ideat Village, featuring local music, burlesque shows and the weirder aspects of the Elm City.

On those June days, I would stop by my favorite coffeeshop, grab an ice coffee and bagel, and walk the transformed streets.

I haven’t seen anything like it since … until last month when I visited the annual Hi Seoul Festival in South Korea’s capital city.

The Hi Seoul Festival is held in the spring and fall of every year. It’s a cultural event bringing together hundreds of artists in many different stripes for (mostly free) performances throughout the city. For the 2011 May Hi Seoul Festival, there was modern dance, puppetry, miming, theater, music from around the world, art installations and some very strange performance art.

There’s no better way to share the event with you than through videos and pictures so here we go:

Mimes in Korea? Who would’ve thought?! But there was Ko Jae Kyung, perhaps the best known mimist in Korea, performing a free show.

Pretty women, bouncy balls, a midget: I’m no fan of modern dance, but this performance by USD Modern Dance company held my interest.

A headless old man, killer fish, skeletons — you have to check out this performance by Theatre Nomad.

The Gwangalli Eobang Festival in Busan, South Korea

It was the best damn fish I ever had.

I don’t know what kind of fish. Or what all the spices were that the lady cook rubbed in. Frankly, the whole operation looked rather rustic. But for the next several years, the taste of that whole, sizzling fish will follow me. The juicy, flaky white meat falling from my chopsticks in one hand. The cold beer in my left. The heat, tang and salt mixing together in perfect harmony.

Now this was the fresh fish experience I was looking for in Busan, South Korea’s famous port city. Forget Jalgalchi Market. The best fish in Busan was in a small stand on one of Busan’s sandy beaches.

Chickpea and I were at the Gwangalli Eobang Festival — a three-day event celebrating Korea’s fishing heritage. Eobang means spirit of the fishermen in the coastal areas, so along with the normal trappings of a Korean festival — mascots, food tents, arts and crafts — there is also several ritual-like performances about fishing in the old days.

If you’re around Busan in the spring, I highly recommend it: if only for the food.

Here’s a look at the Gwangalli Eobang Festival:

Walking dogs in Daegu with the Korean Animal Protection Society

It would’ve been a bizarre sight anywhere, but watching 50 waygookins walking as many dogs through a park in the middle of a Korean city was downright freakish.

This was a dog walk organized by the Korean Animal Protection Society, or KAPS, one of the few animal advocates in Korea. The 20-year-old organization operates shelters in Daegu, taking in small dogs, big dogs and cats.

When Chickpea and I arrived at the shelter, just off the red line subway stop at Daemyeong station, there was already a crowd of foreigners looking to give these small dogs a much needed walk on a sunny spring day. The shelter itself is not impressive by any means — it’s dirty and reeks of urine — but it shows the nature of animal rights in Korea. The volunteers at KAPS are battling more than a shortage of funding and volunteers; they are up against old attitudes in Korea regarding animals and dogs in particular.

It’s no secret some Koreans still eat dog and the way some merchants butcher dogs is pretty distasteful by Western standards. But there is a general apathy toward animal welfare, too, mostly held by the older generation. One of the KAPS volunteers warned the group to stay away from older Koreans, who in past dog walks, showed verbal and physical aggression toward the dogs.

Happily, there were no issues during our walk around Duryu Park. Children and the elderly alike came up and patted the matted-haired mutts. Women squealed in delight at the site of pint-sized pooches. Men stopped their bicycles and asked questions about the dogs in broken English.

It was a good day to be a dog in Daegu.

For more info on the walks, check out the KAPS Facebook page.

Shilla Memorial Park: Korean version of a Renaissance Fair [video]

In late March, Chickpea and I visited the capital of Korea’s ancient Silla empire, Gyeongju.

Tucked between the Taebaek mountain range and the East Sea, Gyeongju is a small city that has married its ancient past with modern Korea surprisingly well. Unlike Andong, which delegates its historical sites to certain areas of town, Gyeongju has put office buildings next to antiquated tombs, temples near hotels. The whole city is ringed by three national parks and dozens of other historical sites.

It has been called a “museum without walls.” That makes it one of the best tourist spots in Korea. Unlike many other small cities in Korea, you can spend a weekend here and not see everything.

This time, we only had a day so we focused on Shilla Memorial Park. This attraction is basically a theme park based around the history of the Silla empire (57 BC – 935 AD). The park offers recreations of royal Silla villages, crafts, a hot spring spa area (which was closed when we visited) and a grand finale performance of an ancient battle. There’s also puppet shows and an interesting martial arts and horse-riding show.

It all seems interesting, but in reality, the park fell a little flat. Shilla Memorial Park isn’t the worse way to spend a day, but it seems like it would be more entertaining for children and their parents than some young waygooks. When you factor in the entrance fee of 18,000 won, it’s probably best to skip it and explore the actual historic sites in Gyeongju.

If you go: From Dongdaegu station in Daegu, hop on a bus leaving from a terminal directly across the street from the Dongdaegu subway entrance (4,200 won). From the Gyeongju bus terminal, catch a city bus to Shilla Memorial Park. The park fee is 18,000 won.

Teaching English is fun, or How I got my students to sing They Might Be Giants

I’m not always happy about living in Korea.

I’ll admit that on some days I roll out of bed and begin my day like a very grumpy zombie. On my walk to school, I curse the sun and the garbage piles and the construction crews destroying the stream near my apartment. Every time a Korean driver speeds up toward the intersection while I’m walking across, I inch closer to having an all-out conniption fit in the middle of the street. As the days get colder and my patience with winter thins, I wonder why I left my sunny city on the beach.

But as soon as I step foot on the schoolhouse grounds, my melancholy lifts. Little children in bright blues, pinks, greens and reds run around, giggling, hugging their friends and sending some very exuberant “Hello teacher!” words my way.

Of all the things that could make an English teacher in Korea hate their job, it shouldn’t be the students. (At least not elementary school students.)

Just the other day, one of my 5th grade classes did something that gave me that same “I’m-s0-glad-I-decided-to-leave-my-life-behind-and-come-teach-English-to-a-bunch-of-kids-in-a-strange-country” feeling. The previous week, they learned the days of the week and so I downloaded a song that would let them use their new English skills. I was a little worried, because they didn’t know all the vocabulary in the song’s lyrics, but I decided to give it a try anyway.

This is what happened:

Japan Benefit Concert in Daegu [video]

This weekend, Chickpea and I headed to downtown Daegu for some live music and drinks to help out the folks in Japan. DIY Daegu Live, Guerilla League, and URBAN organized eight bands, a DJ and some craft vendors for an awesome benefit show. Here’s some video of the bands from that night, including the first Korean death metal band I have ever seen (check it out, it’s at the 4 minute mark). I apologize in advance for the bad sound quality of the louder acts.

A look at the Daegu Orions Basketball team [video]

As the basketball season comes to a close here in South Korea, I wanted to post a montage of two games we attended. I’ve even included footage of our home team, the Daegu Orions, winning one of those games — a rare sight indeed! The video also features my favorite parts of basketball in Korea: the strange mascots, generous audience contests and always entertaining cheerleaders.

If you want to learn more about the Daegu Orions, check out this post by the team’s biggest fan. (Hint: She writes for this blog.)