Tag Archives: culture

Busan to Fukuoka

Three weekends ago, during the Lunar New Year holiday, I took a trip across the East Sea to Japan. It’s been on my list of places to visit for a long time, so I was excited to finally go.

Instead of flying, I took the Beetle speed ferry from Busan to Fukuoka. A round trip ticket cost about 200,000 won ($185) and took just under three hours. The port worked much like an airport. Passengers go through security, show their passport, and present their ticket at the gate before boarding.

Port of Busan Security

Busan to Fukuoka Speed Ferry

The boat also felt like an airplane on the inside. It was a jet-ferry, so it even sounded like an airplane.

I naively expected Japan to be similar to Korea, but the two countries are quite different. The most obvious differences are cultural and not aesthetic. Japanese people seem to be more aware of the people around them, which makes public places in Japan much more pleasant than in Korea. There was a noticeable absence of pushing, spitting, and loud cell phone conversations. When I made an effort to be polite, like holding the door for people, they didn’t look at me like they caught me fingering a cat.

Escalator in Japan

People even follow the rules on escalators, keeping right so others can pass on the left.

I was disappointed that I didn’t get to see any of the weird sexual stuff for which the Japanese are so famous. With the exception of a few women in costumes and a baby-themed liquor bottle at the hotel bar, I didn’t see any weird stuff.

Weird baby bottle liquor in Japanese bar

The liquor bottle shaped like a baby’s milk bottle openly was the only hint that there might be some weird fetishes that don’t carry the same social stigma as in the west.

I stayed at the Crowne Plaza ANA hotel in downtown Fukuoka. Ordinarily out of my price range, I was able to stay at an upscale hotel by using credit card points. After checking in, I went out and explored the city. I tend to travel with a loose itinerary, so most of my time was spent wandering. I managed to incorporate a few of the heavily advertised local tourist attractions into the trip.

My favorite place was Maizuru Castle. This 400 year-old defensive structure was built on a hill in the center of town. It offers stunning views of the surrounding city. The original wooden buildings are gone, but the stone walls remain intact and some replicas wooden buildings have been constructed.

Maizuru Castle in Fukuoka Japan Entrance

This is the castle’s main gate. The Naka river acts as a natural moat.

Maizuru Castle in Fukuoka Japan Stairs

The castle is built in levels. To get from one level to the next, you must pass through a narrow stairway. This allowed for easier defense.

Maizuru Castle in Fukuoka Japan house on wall

All along the walls are guard towers from which defenders could shoot arrows and drop stones.

Maizuru Castle in Fukuoka Japan Panorama from top

The top level of the castle offers beautiful panoramic views of the city.

Not far from the castle was an indoor street market. I never learned the name of the market, but I spent over an hour walking around and checking out the shops. It stretched the length of six city blocks and included several hundred businesses. The shops ranged from fresh produce to traditional clothing to touristy trinkets.

Fukuoka Japan indoor street market

At the far end of the market was a Buddhist temple complex. I walked inside to look around and realized that I had seen the golden steeple of the temple’s shrine several times before. It is visible from several other places around town, including my hotel room.

Fukuoka Japan Buddhist Temple Entrance

The entrance appeared to be decorated for some celebration, but I have no idea what it might have been.

Woman worshiping Fukuoka Japan Buddhist Temple Entrance

The golden column atop the shrine is visible from miles away.

The most surprising thing I found while walking around Fukuoka was a familiar face.

James Brown statue in Fukuoka Japan

That face is pure nightmare fuel.

My only regret was that I didn’t have more time to spend exploring the city – especially the nightlife. I was so tired from walking that I wound up in bed early both nights. Next time, I”ll budget more time for relaxing during the day and hitting the town at night.

Until next time.

-Taft

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Just What I Needed

Lately I haven’t been feeling myself. This happens occasionally. I feel a bit down. This isn’t severe depression, or any other life-altering condition. It is best characterised as a mild slump that leaves me feeling slightly more cynical than usual.

These slumps are exacerbated by a feeling of profound loneliness due to the language barrier and the constant reminders of my status as an outsider in Korea. During these periods, I am extra sensitive to the negative interactions that are sometimes unavoidable here.

About an hour ago, I had to run to catch the subway downtown. I was able squeeze into a car seconds before it departed. As I waited for the doors to close, an ajumma (middle-aged Korean woman) on a motorized scooter showed up. Yelling “Excuse me! Watch out!”, she barrelled into the densely packed crowd of passengers. There was nowhere for me to go, so she ran into my legs, knocking me into a crowd of high school students.

I’ve had enough interactions with ajummas to know better than to say anything. I heard the ajumma saying something, but she spoke too fast for me to understand, so I just ignored it. Next, she started tugging on my backpack. That’s when I knew it was going to get ugly.

“Excuse me. I’m so sorry. Are you ok?” I had been mentally preparing to defend myself, so this took me by surprise. I managed to say, “yes, I’m ok.” She told me that it’s cute to hear a foreigner speak Korean, and that my pronunciation was good (not true, but nice to hear). We talked all the way to my stop. I learned that her daughter is studying English at a university in Daegu. The ajumma always wanted to learn English, but never had a chance to practice with foreigners. Though our conversation was limited by my Korean ability, it was a wonderful change of pace. I’m so accustomed to being stared at and avoided that I forgot how nice it was to feel human in public. She made me feel like something other than a zoo animal while riding on the subway.

I really needed that. Thanks scooter lady!

Until next time.

-Taft

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Road Trip to Andong

Two weekends ago, I took a road trip with a Korean friend. I had a job interview at a university north of Daegu, which is near the historical city of Andong, so we decided to check out the city after my interview. I have some great pictures, and they’re much more interesting than my writing, so I’ll share a few.

We started out by visiting a place called Hahoe Village (하회마을). Pronounced “ha-hway”, this is a traditional Korean village is located about a 30-minute drive from Andong. Many of the buildings appear as they did over 100 years ago. It became one of the country’s premier tourist sites after 1999, when the Queen of England visited.

The views were amazing, but I wasn’t particularly impressed overall because it has become a classic tourist trap. The village is littered with dirty gift shops selling cheap plastic Chinese crap that has nothing to do with the village or Korean history.

Queen Elizabeth visited Hahoe Village

The folks at Hahoe Village were so proud that the Queen of England visited that they built a small museum to commemorate the occasion.

Andong Hahoe Village wooden statues

This dirt road, lined with statues, connected to the main road leading up to the village gate. Notice anything strange?

Andong Hahoe Village wooden penis statues

Yep…them’s peckers.

Andong Hahoe Village 하회마을

This is the main street near the entrance of Hahoe Village.

Andong Hahoe Village 하회마을

This side street in Hahoe had an amazing view of the nearby mountains.

Once we finished the obligatory touristy stuff, we headed to Andong and checked in at our pension. A pension is an old-style guesthouse that is still popular in Korea. Ours was owned an operated by a man whose family can be traced back centuries in Andong.

Andong pension owner

Before we left, the owner came and spoke to us. He showed me his calligraphy skills by writing my name on Chinese on a gift box containing postcards with famous Andong sights. He even agreed to take a picture with me.

Pension building in Andong

This is the building in which we stayed.

Pension room in Andong - Exterior

The room was tiny…

Pension room in Andong - Interior

But it was surprisingly comfortable inside.

On the way out of town, we passed a sign for the longest wooden bridge in Korea – Weolyeong Bridge (월영교). It wasn’t nearly as long as I expected – it only took about three minutes to walk across – but it was beautiful. The mountains in the background made it all the more impressive.

Wolyeonggyo Longest Wooden Bridge in Korea

Wolyeonggyo Longest Wooden Bridge in Korea

If you ever get a chance to visit Andong, I suggest you check out these places. It’s a beautiful city and a nice change of pace after spending time in the big cities.

Until next time.

-Taft

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It’s Cold

In Korea, fall is wonderful. But it only lasts for about thirty minutes. For the past two weeks, it’s been depressingly cold. Since I don’t have a true winter coat, I spend all day trying to get warm. It’s not easy.

My office is connected to my classroom. There is no door separating the two. If I leave the office for more than a few minutes, I return to find that at least a few of the windows are wide open. For this reason, the classroom rarely warms up to 40 degrees Fahrenheit.

The same thing happens in most classrooms and every hallway in the school. During the early afternoon, it is actually warmer outside than inside the school. This makes me wonder if the school’s energy savings project is a bit of a joke.

The school was kind enough to supply me with a small space heater. Since Koreans have a paralyzing fear of fans, the heater is incapable of circulating air. So the area immediately surrounding the element is irresponsibly hot, and the rest of the office is chilly.

Broken heater in a Korean classroom. Cold winter Korea.

I forgot to mention…it’s broken.

Yesterday, while reading through some blogs about China, I came across an interesting and well written one called Ed in China. Apparently, Chinese schools are also completely void of basic logic:

The chilly situation is mitigated somewhat by electric space heaters – we’ve got them in all the offices and classrooms in our school.  They aren’t particularly effective in the coldest weather – kids and the rest of us have to keep dressed for outdoors indoors to be even close to comfortable.  Anyway, it’s quite commonplace to see these things blasting away, doing their best to reduce the chill, the effort defeated by keeping all the doors and windows open.   So local kids and local staff will be sitting around freezing – heaters firing away – windows and doors open, complaining about the cold, while dressed for winter – indoors.

If you try to step these folks through a logical progression that not only is the practice a colossal waste of energy, but also isn’t making anyone warmer, they just don’t follow it.  The reply is that they need “fresh air’ to keep them healthy.  This, amazingly, is in cities with air pollution that is often off the charts.  Explaining that most of the electric heaters use air filters is a hopeless exercise.   China is big, growing, powerful and all the rest, but the inability to think logically in this place is one of several “Achilles’s Heels” that are huge speed bumps – even with the progress being made.

On the bright side, at least I know what I’m getting myself into this time around. I think Korea may be good practice for China.

Until next time.

-Taft

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Weighing My Options

Since suddenly losing a job that I thought was a sure thing, I’ve been considering my options outside of Korea. For the past two years, the Korean government has been moving the proverbial goal line – making it harder and harder to become a university professor. Outside of university teaching positions, foreigners have zero potential for upward mobility. So it’s time to think about alternatives for next year.

Option 1: China

Despite their proximity, Korea and China are very different places. Korea’s standard of living is much closer to that of the US, but I don’t have much of a future here. Without a university position, I’m simply spinning my wheels. The opportunity cost of wasting another year of my life working an entry-level teaching position is significant at my age.

China, on the other hand, has a wealth of opportunities. The English teaching market is booming, compared to Korea’s shrinking market. I can make nearly the same amount of money in a place where the cost of living is significantly lower. There are also opportunities for foreign businessmen, which might allow me to finally put my MBA to use. The most important benefit of living in China is the opportunity to learn Chinese. In today’s global market, Chinese is a much more valuable language than Korean.

The downside of China is the standard of living. I’ve lived in Korea for nearly two years and managed to never use a “squatter” toilet. I’m afraid I may have to step out of my comfort zone and get used to squatters in China. With any luck, the minor culture shock I experienced in Korea will help me prepare for the monumental culture shock that is bound to hit me in China. But, frankly, I just don’t know what to expect there.

Option 2: Go Home

Going home doesn’t seem like a bad option at this point. I could get back to the “real world” and finally get started on a career. Though I’ve enjoyed a good lifestyle for the last eight years, I have been disappointed by the fact that I have heavy student loan debt and absolutely no savings.. Going home is likely the only way that I could make enough money to save and maintain a social life.

There are two things stopping me from pushing this option to the top of my list. The first is the fact that I’m really enjoying the expat lifestyle. Although Korea isn’t as exciting as it was when I first arrived, I still enjoy an easy lifestyle and a great social life. I’m surrounded by like-minded people who are educated and adventurous. As soon as I move home, the social life goes away.

The other, more important reason that I don’t want to move back to the US is the fact that I’m worried about finding a job. I am well educated, intelligent, hard working, and dependable. But none of that matters. In the current US job market, it’s simply not possible to get a job without “2-5 years of industry experience” (as seen in every job posting ever). I’ve been a police officer, a detective, and a teacher – none of which will help me land a job in sales, marketing, or operations. I don’t mind being underemployed for a while, but I am simply unwilling to go back to waiting tables.

So, those are my options. If I don’t get a decent university job in Korea, which appears increasingly unlikely, I’ll have to choose. If you were in my position, what would you do? I’d love to hear any advice you might have.

Until next time.

-Taft

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