You know it’s 김장 (kimjang) season, the time when kimchi is made in large batches to last throughout the winter, when you see the following outside every market:
For a cooking exercise with our kindergarten students, we made 깍두기 (Kkakdugi), radish kimchi. Obviously they can’t use real knives, so their task was cutting pre-cut strips of radish into small cubes with plastic knives.
Here’s our steps for radish kimchi!
red pepper powder
minced ginger and minced garlic
chopped green onion
a pinch of salt (not pictured)
After you’ve cubed the radish, apply a good helping of the red pepper powder:
Mix the red pepper powder with the radish:
And continue adding the rest of the ingredients:
Mix all that up and you’ve got your radish kimchi! It tastes delicious fresh, but let it sit overnight in a sealed container to really become delicious!
My co-teacher Mary and I went for a quick trip to Jeju Island for summer vacation (which was only three working-days off). Jeju, for those of you who don’t know, is a Korean island located to the southwest of the mainland and is a popular resort island. Because of travel restrictions due to Covid, Jeju Island has become even more popular this year for Korean tourists who normally might have considered Guam, Japan, or the Philippines as their vacation spot.
The flight was only an hour long, but by the time we reached our hotel in Jeju it was after 5pm and we were beat. We ordered pizza and I ran a bath–something that came with my upgraded “couples” room. It was totally worth the extra cost. I used the Temple of the Sky Lush bath bomb.
On Sunday, we went to the Manjanggul Cave, which has an impressive lava tube that is accessible for about a kilometer underground and ends with a stone pillar that is the largest in the world. I would probably have enjoyed it more if I wasn’t so busy watching my feet as the floor was both uneven (thanks, lava) and wet. There were some wooden bridges over the more uneven parts, but even still, I trekked slowly and was amazed at how many people blew past me wearing flip-flops or even, in one case, platform flip-flops. The lava tube takes about an hour in and back, and going back was certainly easier than going down, although I was wheezing after climbing back up the stairs at the beginning.
What was not lost on me was the fact that there were several handicap parking spots out in front of the entrance and a ramp for wheelchairs, although the cave is completely inaccessible for wheelchair users and many others who have walking problems.
There was a memorial outside the cave that read, “Bu Jonghue and young expedition party: In 1946, Mr. Bu was a teacher at Gimnyeong Elementary School. He and 30 of his students set out to go spelunking without proper equipment. They only had a few torches and wore straw shoes. However, they were well organized into three groups each in charge of the torch, supplies, and measuring the cave. Manjanggul Lava Tube had become known to the public thanks to their numerous expeditions. It was a remarkable achievement of Mr. Bu and his little explorers, which was led with tenacity and an adventurous spirit. Mr. Bu named the cave using the word “Man” meaning long and the word “Jang” come [sic] from the name of third entrance “Manjaengi Geomeol.”
Ah, the 1940s, when you could still take your 10-year-old students spelunking without the proper equipment.
After the cave, we went to visit the recently opened Blue Bottle, located in the middle of nowhere. Having just opened on the 30th of July, there was still a queue and we had a lot of confusion about where to stand, as the information was not explained very well in English. A couple in front of us turned around and showed us their phone, asking if we had made a reservation. When we nodded our heads, they showed us how to make a reservation on an iPad that was on the other side of the line we were waiting in. Our wait from that point on was half an hour, but it would have been much longer had that couple not taken pity on the foreigners who had no idea what they were doing, so thank you kind souls!
Despite the long wait, we were able to get seats after about ten minutes. Blue Bottle is an excellent example of why cafes shouldn’t have wifi–if there were people camping out all day, sales would suffer and people would get annoyed at the lack of available seating. Without wifi, people come in, have a drink, and then leave, creating a much-needed turnover. But I digress.
Blue Bottles everywhere are all the same and yet all different. As each cafe is designed for the space in which it exists, this Blue Bottle had a beautiful open window into the Jeju countryside and a barn-like structure with a high, triangular ceiling fit with strips of lighting. All of the chairs and tables were that recognizable light wood, and there was built-in cabinetry under all of the display shelves.
I ordered an iced mocha with oat milk, a blueberry fizz, and a piece of chocolate pound cake as they were sold out of the liege waffle. Mary ordered the lemon yuzu fizz and a scone. I assisted a woman behind us who basically asked what all the fuss was about and what she should order. I sincerely hope her drinks lived up to the Blue Bottle name and was worth her wait.
I also bought two bags of the Jeju Blend coffee, which has notes of mandarin orange, rose, and caramel. I am excited to try it!
For dinner on Sunday, we went to a spot along Black Pork Street. The black pig is a domestic breed native to Jeju Island, and apparently was kept as a means to dispose of human waste up until the mid-century. In the restaurant we chose, the worker refused to let us just buy one portion of pork belly as we were two people (but Mary doesn’t like pork so she wasn’t going to eat it) but that ended up being just fine as I ate enough for two and also had an entire bottle of beer myself.
Normally I don’t like the fatty bits on meat and will sometimes leave it on my plate at lunch. However, black pig fat makes me understand how some people say that fat “melts in the mouth.” The skin was chewy, and the meat was juicy. The attending kimchi was perfectly sour instead of mind-numbingly spicy, which I prefer, and the ssamjang was excellent on the perilla leaves, which normally I do not like as it tastes too much like herb (it’s related to the mint family). I dipped the perilla leaf into the ssamjang, dipped the pork into a little mixture of salt and pepper and oil, added a string of kimchi, a little rice, wrapped it all up and ate it for one amazing flavor bomb unlike any other. It was easily one of the best meals I’ve had.
That night I ran another bath, this time using the Rose Jam Bubbleroon. In retrospect, I probably should have broken it in half as the entire bar made a bit too many bubbles.
On Monday, we went to the Gwaneumsa Buddhist temple, the oldest on Jeju Island. This wasn’t the temple we were going to originally see, but one that was closer to us so we decided to visit it instead. After the first gate, you’re greeted with a large statue of the Lord Buddha off to the left, and if you continue further ahead, there’s a beautiful path lined with hundreds of various Buddha statues, most holding prayer beads that worshippers have given to the statues.
Further on, there is a small cave. By this time, it had started to drizzle a bit, and upon entering the small cave, one was taken aback by just how incredibly warm the cave was, owing to the hundreds of candles that had been lit inside. (Don’t worry: there was a fire extinguisher inside as well.)
There was a giant gold Maitreya Buddha statue, behind which were thousands of smaller Buddhas. There was the pot-bellied, laughing Buddha of wealth with some coins sitting atop his belly. There was a Buddha statue in the middle of a pond with a small bridge atop a goose’s body. It was a very lovely temple site, with a rich history that tells of Korea’s tumultuous past, as well as the tumultuous path of Buddhism in Korea.
And just like that, the two days in Jeju were over. We left early Tuesday morning as we had to be back at work Wednesday. It was way too soon, in my opinion, but still a relaxing and interesting break. It was the first “proper” vacation that I’ve had since moving to Korea and I plan to make my way to Jeju another time and checking in a cart of fruit for the flight home like all the other Korean tourists.
One thing I really enjoyed was how Jeju does its contact tracing program. We have to pull up our QR code in the KakaoTalk app and scan it in, which sometimes takes several tries. In Jeju, after we downloaded the app, we essentially took a picture of the QR code the business had, and our phones would beep right away. It was much easier to use.
On Saturday, the director picked up the foreign teachers at my hagwon and drove us to the vaccination center, which seemed like some sort of general meeting area that had been cordoned off into different sections for the vaccination process.
The vaccine roll-out did not go smoothly as planned, as many foreigners complained that “glitches” in the system didn’t allow them to register for the vaccine. Fortunately, our director handled our registering so we were all registered and given vaccination dates and times based around our ages. We were able to go all at once to get injected instead of going at various times throughout the week.
We got to the center around 8:30 and were out by 9:40. We were given disposable gloves and had our temperature taken by a machine that you put your hand under and it dispenses hand sanitizer as well as taking your temperature (we have the same one at school now). We filled out some forms and were given a number and sat down in some seats that were socially distanced from one another. I was number 51. There were a lot of high schoolers in the center, as well as delivery drivers, who had all parked their delivery trucks in the parking lot.
They called the numbers and you saw someone that went over the form with you and sent you into the next room, where you sat again and waited to see yet another person who went over your forms. From there, you moved a little further into the room and finally saw a nurse.
The injection itself is a piece of cake, and we were given a sticker with a time on it and sent to sit in another part of the conference room with a projected clock that must’ve been at least ten feet tall. At your designated time, you could take off your now sweaty gloves and leave the center.
I had some minor muscle pain later that day, but nothing since. We’ll go back sometime mid-August to get the second dose. We all received Pfizer which were part of a vaccine swap with Israel.
As far as everything else goes, South Korea has seen a huge jump in number of positive Covid-19 cases, and our level is now a 4. Under it, places must close at 10 pm and there can only be a gathering of two people after 6 pm. Oh, and gyms can’t play music with a bpm higher than 120. That’s a bit ridiculous, but oh well.
I hope everyone is keeping safe and continuing to wear masks and socially distancing!
We got up early and our director took us to the testing place, a parking lot across the street from a health clinic. They had set up several tents and were very thorough. You got a pair of disposable gloves while waiting in line (socially distanced of course) and wore them throughout the entire ordeal, which involved going and filling out some minor paperwork to being handed the two vials and ushered up to a booth where a health professional stood, only their gloved arms protruding from two holes.
The test was not like the test I’ve heard some people in the US have gotten. This was not a mere nasal swab; this was a brain poking. I was honestly shocked that someone could stick something that far back into my sinuses. It wasn’t painful, just really uncomfortable.
All of us tested negative, fortunately, and it was back to business as usual.
The question that has always lingered in my mind is: what happens if one of the students gets Covid?
Unfortunately, a little over two weeks ago, a student did test positive, albeit asymptomatic. Her father had tested positive and when they tested the entire family, she was the only one who also tested positive.
I feel really bad for this student because she had already missed two weeks of school because there had been a positive case at her elementary school, and now she would be missing yet another two weeks of school.
It was determined that only a few of us would get a Covid test: her immediate classmates (there were three) and her two teachers, which included myself. CCTV footage showed that she and her classmates remained masked up the entire time they were at the hagwon, which no doubt helped keep everyone safe.
We were closed Wednesday through Friday of that week, and on Wednesday I went by myself to get tested for Covid again. I had been informed that the center opened at 9 but when I got there at 9:30, I discovered that they actually open at 10, so I was the first in line to get swabbed. It went super quick and was only a little more uncomfortable than the last time.
Fortunately, everyone tested negative and we could open up school the following Monday.
This week we closed Wednesday through Friday because the neighboring town of Okjeong has a massive outbreak involving at least 20 students in a high school. There was also an outbreak in the neighborhood of Hongdae in Seoul that was linked to foreign instructors, including one at another branch of the hagwon I teach at. That outbreak was confirmed to be of the Delta variant.
I’m hoping that all of this can be held at bay and we can reopen on Monday–if not all the way, then at least kindergarten can be in person and we can do online classes in the afternoon. With every day that the school is closed, we lose one day of our holidays, and as selfish as it is, I don’t want to have to lose my summer holiday that I’ve been looking forward to (as I didn’t have any holidays last year because of Covid).
Back in October (my gosh, has it been that long??), my friend Ola and I visited Nari Park in Yangju (양주나리공원). It’s a little off the beaten path (don’t plan on being able to pop into any cafes or restaurants in the area) but absolutely worth it for the amazing views of fields full of flowers. When we went in the mid-morning there weren’t too many people there yet, so everyone was able to maintain a safe distance from others. I can’t say much else so here’s the photos.
While explaining a lesson that involved the story of two students running for class president, one only having a motto and the other having actual policies, I asked my students to think of policies that they would want to implement in their schools. I gave the example of free lunch.
“Isn’t lunch free in the US?”
It’s in these moments that I realize how backwards my lovely home country can be. What’s even worse is how we view stories of good samaritans paying off school lunch debt as “proof that there’s still some kindess in the world” instead of “proof that our country isn’t doing enough to provide for its children.”
At the hagwon where I teach, lunch is served each day for the kindergarten students. It’s a separate lunch to the teachers’, which usually features some spicy things. The lunch is provided by a catering business but we make our own rice and food for snack. When I taught English to Tibetan refugees in India, we had simple lunches that usually featured a Tibetan bread called tingmo, and dinner was almost always rice and dal. Fruit was provided once a week and if you happened to get to lunch late, you were left trying to find the least rotten piece of fruit. As to be expected, the lunches served at my school in Korea are much different.
Tibetan college food pictures below, left to right: a bowl of steamed green vegetables and two pieces of tingmo; a bowl of rice and dal with some spinach and tomato; the special Losar (Tibetan New Year) breakfast of a large circular slice of Tibetan bread, a hardboiled egg, and a mug of traditional butter tea (with added tsampa I had).
Below are some photos of the school lunch here in Korea. In the first picture, there’s tofu and mushroom soup, white rice, chicken nuggets, bean sprout salad, macaroni, lotus root, and spicy slaw. In the other photos, there’s various foods such as steamed green vegetables, sliced potato, spicy pork belly, acorn jelly, burdock root, anchovies, cubed radish kimchi, cabbage kimchi, omelet, fish with tartar sauce, spicy cucumber, tuna salad, apple salad, fried wonton, and tteokbokki.
Here is an example of what the kids eat for lunch. They each have their own lunch tray with chopsticks and a spoon, and this kid has a chopstick training kit (which she’s now graduated from yay). There’s rice and some bulgogi with cabbage, bean sprout salad, not-spicy cabbage kimchi, and quail eggs.
I give lunch twice a week, which entails putting food in their tray, helping them pray (a very unbiased “pray, pray, thank you for the food”) for all the food, watching over them while they eat, and scraping leftovers into the empty soup bowl to be disposed of by the kitchen teacher. Usually I will take my tray to the kitchen to get spicy kimchi and anything that was delivered just for the teachers, such as spicy beef or fish filet.
Below is a view of our kitchen at school. In the first picture is the lunch set-up for teachers. If the kids ask for more food and we run out in the class, we send them to the kitchen to see if there’s any leftover. Usually it’s sausage, meat or seaweed. Once a student came into the teachers’ room to ask if anyone had any leftover sausage because the kitchen had run out!
Our kitchen is equipped with a stove, microwave, kettle, and a large rice cooker. There is a kitchen teacher in the kitchen getting everything ready and washing the empty teachers’ plates and the containers; the kids pack up their lunch trays when they’re done and take them home for their parents to wash.
Once a month, we have a birthday party for any students whose birthdays fall in that month. In this day, we have a special lunch, which includes several types of fried chicken, pizza, fresh fruit, and cheesecake.
Sometimes a student’s parent will order us food, such as a couple of pizzas. We also have leftover chicken from Class of the Month chicken parties. We also get pastries, and sometimes iced americanos.
Our school closed for three days at the end of August, and were forced to close by the government the weeks of August 31st and September 7th. We reopened September 14th. We were closed because we were under a level 2.5 out of a 3-point system.
Under a 2.5, all chain cafes must do take-out only, and restaurants and bars must close after 9pm. I didn’t wander around Uijeongbu past 9pm during the 2.5, but I imagine downtown was completely empty. For the most part, people stayed home during the semi-lockdown and ordered take-away or only ventured out to buy groceries. (I was the former. I prefer calling it “supporting the local economy” not “sheer laziness.”)
Some examples of more permanent changes include checking your temperature whenever you enter a building and either writing down your name and phone number or checking in with a QR code connected to your KaKaoTalk account. KaKaoTalk is a messaging app, first and foremost, but functions like an all-in-one app for almost everything else. This level of contact tracing would be fought against by your average American, but I will gladly give up my information because, let’s be real, my phone is already tracking my movement and at least this kind of tracing is for the greater good.
There are also hand sanitizers everywhere. Including ziptied to a tree along a nature trail and to a lamp pole, as seen below.
Several weeks ago, my school closed for two days because a child was a confirmed case that had Taekwondo with two of our students. Everyone at the Taekwondo academy tested negative, but we closed out of an abundance of caution, and the two students are quarantining for two weeks and not attending classes. We were sitting at a level 2 in the greater Seoul region, but with strict measures implemented: for example, no cafes (including small mom-and-pop) are allowing dine-in and all restaurants and bars must close at 9pm.
And now, as I write this on the 17th of December, we have been without work since the 8th. We are at a level 2.5 with rumors that we may eventually hit level 3, as cases have been creeping up on 1,000 new cases each day. We will hopefully go back to school on December 29th, but if they raise the level to 3, then we may be out of work even longer. Going online is not an option; only two parents have requested it, while a number have confessed that they would be unable to have their students be taught online, so our hagwon loses less money just closing rather than trying to figure out a new system for virtual learning.
For the most part, people here are wearing masks and taking precautions. I feel safe, which I can’t guarantee I’d feel back in the States. Wear your masks, people. Stay at home as much as possible. Don’t be stupid.
When I noticed that the director, putting my bags into his car, was a little careless in tossing my backpack on top of the purple pet carrier that Merlin was hiding in, I realized something was off.
As it turned out, the director was never informed that I would be bringing a cat with me to Korea.
I learned early on in my interviewing for teaching positions not to ask if it was okay that I would be bringing a cat with me. Recruiting companies are looking for red flags, and asking if the school-provided housing will allow pets is considered a red flag because it’s one more thing they have to worry about on their end.
I didn’t mention my cat to the recruiter I worked with until I had a job offer on the table. The person in Korea that my recruiter was working with took a few days and got back to me, saying that as long as I am responsible for any damage that Merlin does, that it’s okay I bring him. Merlin is a very well-mannered cat and doesn’t damage anything. The worst is that his fur sticks to the textured wallpaper when he rubs his face on corners, so I have to wipe that down occasionally.
My director wasn’t informed that I was bringing a cat and the reason for concern is that the other new teacher would be living with me for our week of training. I moved into a male teacher’s apartment while he moved in with the other male teacher who was leaving, and the other new female teacher would stay with me for a week before taking over the other male teacher’s apartment. If she happened to be allergic to cats, there would have been a problem, and had the director known, he would have had to plan around it.
Luckily, she wasn’t allergic and Merlin just hid under the bed from her for that week. I’m also lucky in that it turns out the director has two cats of his own and we sometimes trade cute cat photos through KakaoTalk.
When I was figuring out how to take my cat with me to Korea, some people on the internet told me I was an idiot. I knew I was probably going to be staying longer than a year and knew that I would never regret taking him with me, but I would forever regret leaving him with someone. Merlin has been through a lot of shitty situations, having been a rescue from the streets when he didn’t even weigh a pound, to spending days in the hospital with some kind of infection, to living through a hoarding situation that he needed to be rescued from. He’s my fat cuddly buddy and I can’t imagine life without him.
All this said, I would not recommend bringing your cat if you only plan on staying a year, or if your cat is older. The flight is hard on even the toughest of cats. Merlin didn’t meow at all, just kept looking up at me with sad eyes, and threw up the little food that he had been given before we left. The girls beside me thought I was crazy until I told them I wasn’t just whispering into the void underneath the seat in front of me but that there was an actual animal there.
So what do you need to do to travel with your cat? Well, first off: your cat needs a microchip and a rabies vaccination. The rabies vaccination was $40 at my vet and he waived the health check-up that would have been $32. You need a rabies titer test, which ran me $200 with a sedation and overnight stay costing $50. You also need a full health check-up within ten days of travel that has to be apostilled by the USDA. The vet initially thought he could turn in the health check-up results online on a Saturday, but when he realized he couldn’t, he had to mail the results in and wait for them to get back to us. There was a Monday holiday that week that pushed everything back, so it wasn’t until 9am the day before my flight that I got back that piece of paperwork. (And you may have read that I was so reluctant to let go of it, the customs officer had to tell me that it would only be valid for thirty days and I’d need a new one for travel again.)
At the airport, he cost me a one-way $200 fee. So a breakdown would be:
rabies vaccination: $40
health check-up: $32
rabies titer test: $200
overnight stay and sedation: $50
one-way in-cabin flight fee: $200
cost of mailing the health check-up to and from New York: $??
That’s roughly $600 to have Merlin travel in the cabin with me. If someone told me that it would cost that much, I would have probably cried and wondered where I’d get the money. I’m glad it was spread out over a few months, and no matter the cost: you make things work for the ones you love.
As far as how Merlin has adapted, he’s pretty resilient and adapted right away. I tried to switch him to tofu-based litter but that smelled bad, so I found a brand comparable to what he was using in the States. Although he was initially a touch fussy with the new Korean brand food, he still ate it, just more slowly than usual. He doesn’t like the Korean cat treats that come in a little squeeze pouch for them to lick, but several of my local marts stock Temptations brand and Friskies brand treats. (And my mom sends me Greenies brand treats for him, spoiled cat.) He usually sleeps with me in my bed or on the second-hand chair I have in my room, which is something that he scratches at occasionally even though he has a scratching post. He is probably looking forward to winter, when I turn on the floor heating, because last winter he loved sprawling on the heated floor and sleeping.
I have no regrets taking butthead to Korea with me. I hope he’s my kitty forever.
I left my apartment for the first time in three days to go to the McDonald’s that’s a five minute walk away. I took these shots along the way. And yes, there are that many convenience shops within such a small radius.