An American in Ulsan

An electronic account of the life and times of the author as EFL instructor outside of Ulsan, South Korea.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007


Due to the insanity that was leaving Korea and the ensuing jet-lag, I am a bit late in posting this, my final post. As some of you already know, I have now left Korea in order to (hopefully!) pursue a PhD in Anthropology, my dream. So, it is now time to reflect on my year-and-a-month in Ulsan. Before arrving in Korea, I was clueless about basically all things Korea, short of the cursory research I did on the country and culture before I left. I originally chose Ulsan as my home for the enxt year because as an island boy I wanted to be near the sea and seafood. The seafood in Ulsan was fantastic, from hoe (raw fish) to king crab to blowfish stew, but as it turned out I ended up in Cheonsang, which is about as far as you can get from the sea and still technically be in Ulsan. I also imagined that Ulsan, being one of the smaller cities in Korea, would be less polluted than, say, Busan or Seoul. Of course, as any Ulsaner knows, we are actually the MOST polluted city in Korea (at least, that's what I've been told, but I don't have any data on the subject), although the mayor has been making steps toward creating the Ulsan "ecopolis." Suffice it to say, Ulsan was not what I expected, but it grew on me. I still wish Ulsan had more "cultural opportunities, i.e. museums, theaters, live music, but once you get to know the city and can explore beyond its facade of concrete behemoths you learn to love it. It seemed like every time I went to Seongnamdong I found something new in one of the many alleyways. Mugeodong was my usual weekend haunt, although I tended to steer clear of the foreigner bars. I got to see Mr. Song's pizza and the D.D.R. Zone come and go and Yoo Jae-Yong expand his business, "Yes" (my favorite bar) into three locations and a samgyeopsal restaurant. I spent a lot of time at the university studying Korean, preparing for my PhD applications, and assisting Professor Hong with her presentation. In that time, I learned that the University community, and by extension the community of 20-somethings of Ulsan, is deceptively small. It seemed that everyone new that I met was somehow connected to someone else I already knew! As to my life at the hagwon: I had orginally intended to write a well-thought out description of the system, somewhat critical, but I don't think it's worth the time it would take. Hagwons can be effective places for learning for certain students, but I often think they are simply places that parents send their children so that they can keep up with their neighbors, and that's too bad. It can be a very stressful environment at times, and at other times mind-numbingly boring. On the other hand, there were every so often times that I loved being a teacher. And with a few exceptions, I loved my students. I was also blessed with great co-workers and bosses who didn't cheat me, so I consider myself lucky in that regard. All in all, Ulsan is a place where I made many friends whom I hope to remain friends with forever and it is a city that I will never, ever forget. I will be back, hopefully as a PhD student in the field in a couple of years, and I'm sure the city will have changed immeausrably by then. As to this blog, I've tried to present some of the things about Korea that amazed me, annoyed me, and intrigued me and I hope that it has been amusing, interesting and maybe even educational for some. I tried to steer clear of controversy (any of you who know me personally know that even when I did touch on controversial subjects I tried to reign myself in), but I do know that sometimes I stepped on some toes, resulting in losing my best friend, so I apologize to anyone I may have offended. It's been fun and even a little therapeutic for me to write this for the past year, so thanks for reading!

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Student Showcase

Friday was my majimak kareuchineun nal, a.k.a. my last day of teaching in Korea. Tomorrow, I'll be posting the FINAL post from An American in Ulsan, but for today I present to you (dear reader) my students on their last day with me as their teacher. Since it was game day anyway, I decided to have a snack party for all of my classes (and even some of the ones that aren't mine) and a pizza party for a couple others. It's amazing how much the make-up of my classes has changed over the year, but some have been there since the beginning. It was nice to have them tell me that they'll miss me, even the bad ones!

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Irresponsible Purchases

As some of you may recall, the last time I was in Seoul I visited the DMZ, where among other things I found some merchandise from across the border in North Korea. There are a few products that North Korea exports into the south, but the only ones that I am aware of are alcohol-related. This particular one is Korean brandy, which I picked up at the train station that could potentially link the South to the North someday. It cost only 9,000 won and it didn't taste especially good, but I was so enraptured with the idea of consuming something from North Korea that I didn't really care. Now, I see that not only was that instinct motivated from a very bad place, mainly a part of me that still sees North Korea as some sort of exotic, secret land in the "East," but perhaps even worse is that I have no idea where the money from my purchase ended up. Most likely, as with just about everything else in North Korea, the money somehow ended up in the hands of the State, a.k.a. Kim Jong Il. The North Korean State is certainly something I do not want to support. The situation in North Korea does get a little bit more attention these days because of its "Axis of Evil" claim to fame and the giant, mushroom-shaped elephant in the room, but I really don't think that anyone except North Koreans themselves have any idea how bad it actually is. Whatever we imagine it is like there, I imagine it is probably one hundred times worse. There are a few good documentaries that have been made about the current situation, one of which I saw last weekend. It included footage shot clandestinely in the North by a defector who routinely crosses the border and smuggles film out in order to bring more attention to the plight of his people (talk about dedication). It was eye-opening even for me, who thought I had a pretty good idea of how bad things were there. At any rate, the idea of consuming something seemingly "taboo" like North Korean brandy doesn't seem worth it to me anymore.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

My University Life

(From left to right: Professor Park Hye-Won, me, and Professor Hong Su-Myeong)
This is a little story about coincidences, taking chances, and above all the Korean spirit of jeong (something akin to what we would call "brotherly love" or "community mindset"), which I believe accounts for why Koreans are so ridiculously kind to foreigners (for the most part). A few weeks ago I was doing some research for my statement of academic intent for PhD applications when I happened upon an article about Korean university students' patterns of PC Bang usage co-authored by a professor at the University of Ulsan. Figuring that I could get a copy of the article for free and possibly even talk about the research with the professor, I tracked down her email address and sent her a message. Sure enough, she was more than happy to meet me, and that is how I ended up going to the mountains to eat guksu with Professor Park Hye-Won and her friend. Strangely enough, Professor Park had visited my hometown (Bar Harbor, Maine) and her friend had studied interior design at UMass Amherst during which time she visited Historic Deerfield, near where I went to middle school. The world is certainly a small place. After lunch, we visited their mutual friend Professor Hong Su-Myeong's house, which is a hundred-year old han-ok (traditional Korean house) in Yuli. The next day, Professor Park asked me if I would be willing to help Professor Hong, a nutrition professor, prepare an English presentation for an international symposium in Seoul in November. Of course, I was willing to help and have been meeting with Professor Hong for the past two weeks to work on her presentation, which is about the proposed implementation of menu labeling in chain restaurants in Korea (actually, pretty interesting stuff). After working and before going to my real job, Professors Hong, Park and three other professors usually have lunch together somewhere near the university. Just imagine, me having lunch everyday with five 50-something Korean women; it's quite funny. To thank me for all of the help I've given her, and because she is a typical Korean who always wants guests to have the best time possible in Korea, Professor Hong threw a barbeque party in my honor at her house today. Unfortunately, the approaching typhoon "Nari" made the weather too bad to have the party outside, and so the guest list was smaller than intended. Still, I had a magnificent time feasting on beef bulgogi, hobakjuk, duck soup, and both year-old and two-week old kimchi, which have incredibly different flavors. Of course, I was ever-so-grateful for the opportunity. It is a shame that I met these wonderful people so close to the end of my time here, but I am hoping that these are connections that I will be able to maintain for some time to come. You never know where a simple little email will lead you!

(This is the ondeol floor-heating system in Professor Hong's han-ok)

(Professor Hong showing off a T-shirt she bought on safari in South Africa)

(The barbeque party-goers)

The End Is Near

(The teacher as chef/party host)
A couple of weeks ago, my director informed me that I would be throwing my own going-away party at my apartment for my students. Although I was a bit perturbed at the prospect of preparing and funding my party, and hosting it myself (which certainly means more cleaning than would otherwise be necessary) it turned out to be a great time. The students from my favorite class showed up, along with some of my new roommate's students from the local GnB. I prepared some makeshift nachos (it's difficult to find the necessary ingredients in Korea):

and some bruschetta, which was a hit with some students, and with my director, but which others found disgusting.

My director brought a cake, another student brought another cake, and it seemed like everyone brought some sort of food. In the end, we had one giant feast! Also, all of my students prepared some small presents for me. I received a photo album of our antics in the class, a new charm for my cell phone, a few bouquets made from colored clay, and a small janggu, one of the instruments involved in samulnori:

Later, my director and the GnB students departed and I was left with my students who wanted to prepare rabokki for me (basically a spicy dish made with ramen noodles, rice cake, and odeng, a.k.a. fish cake):

The kids played cards and watched "Home Alone" on CGV while I, ever the responsible adult (ha!), did the dishes and cleaned up from the party. As stressful as work has been lately, these are the moments that I hope I remember when I leave, and the times that I am happy to be a teacher over here. This year has taught me that I really enjoy working with children and I hope to be able to do so in some capacity in the future. Here are the girls bidding me farewell:

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Health System Comparison

As most people who need to know already know, I might as well go ahead and tell the rest of you who read this site that over the past two months I have ended up in Korean hospitals three times. Nothing life-threatening, just a bit annoying. But it has given me the opportunity (along with a viewing of a pirated copy of Michael Moore's latest mediocre cinematic offering, thanks ridiculously cheap Korean broadband connection!) to reflect on the differences between my experiences in the Korean health care system and the one in my home country. One of the biggest differences for me is that (until recently) I have health insurance in Korea through my job, and I don't have any sort of health insurance in the States. In Korea, I pay 50% of the monthly costs of the insurance (about $60) and my boss pays the other half. But besides available and affordable health insurance, the most shocking difference for me has been the cost of the care. For example, my latest trip over the weekend involved a trip to the emergency room, a series of blood tests, a chest x-ray, and a prescription for two days. On top of all that, I discovered that my health coverage had also lapsed since my previous visa status expired, so the cost was much more than it would have been under my old plan. The damage? 200,020 won, just over $200! I'm not sure exactly what the cost for those procedures would have been in the States, but I'm fairly certain that simply walking into an emergency room would have been around $200 alone. Korea does not have a socialized medical system, but there is a national health care plan that citizens can pay into for which they receive coverage. As I've discovered, this makes their attitudes toward health care different from the average American. For example, whenever I had a slight cold over the winter, my co-workers would always ask, "Why don't you go to a doctor?" I would always reply that I wasn't sick enough to need a doctor and that all I needed was rest, fluids, and time to recover. But since health care is affordable here, Koreans will visit the hospital for what might seem like the most minor of ailments to Americans. In addition, there are pharmacies and clinics which treat patients with traditional Korean medical techniques. I can't be certain that these treatments are covered under the national health plan (anyone with information about that, please enlighten me), but I'm sure they are also affordable. Of course, affordable is a relative term, but let's put it this way: it's not like my salary makes me rich by Korean standards and I could certainly afford the care I needed without going into debt or having to tighten my belt, so to speak. On the other hand, my experience in the States has conditioned me to be afraid of going to the doctor because of how much it might cost. It simply isn't realistic to go to a hospital in the States unless it's absolutely necessary. Now, I know that there are several reasons why our health care is so expensive (malpractice insurance, subsidization of medicine in other countries, etc.), but it also seems as if the privatized HMO system just isn't working for the majority of us. Around election time (like now), there is always a lot of talk about reforming the system, but it seems like nothing ever changes. Perhaps I am naive, but I just don't see why a system like Korea's couldn't work in the States. Does anybody have an answer?

Monday, September 03, 2007

Out On The Range

Who says one needs to have hundreds of acres to enjoy golf? (There's really nothing that could make me enjoy golf, but I digress). Golf is perhaps the most popular sport among middle and upper-class Koreans, who spend exorbitant amounts of money on outfitting themselves in the latest golf gear and paying for club memberships in the country. But in the middle of Ulsan, the land of high-rise apartment buildings and traffic jams, there are only two options for golf enthusiasts. One is "screen golf," which is also popular in the States, where players take shots on a virtual golf course displayed on a screen. The other is the enclosed driving ranges that dot the city with their trademark green netting. These places are often several stories tall and are placed just about anywhere. Not being a golfer, I've never been inside one and I have no idea what it costs. But when I'm one the bus I always see that they are packed with golfers perfecting their swings by whacking balls against the giant green netting. I've also heard that there is an actual golf course somewhere over in Bangeojin, but I'm not certain about that. This is all part of Korea's ubiquitous "bang" culture: rooms (small and large) where people can take part in all variety of leisure activities (online computer gaming, karaoke singing, DVD viewing, baseball hitting, comic book reading, etc. etc.). I would write more here, but as it is (hopefully) the subject of my PhD dissertation, I'll save my comments for later.

Friday, August 31, 2007

Stack Bundles

This is what about nine months or so of work at a Korean hagwon looks like in material form (minus expenses, of course). Thankfully, this money is no longer in my apartment and is safely in my bank account back home. To any aspiring EFL teachers out there, it is a lot easier to transfer your savings (to the States, at least) if you have an account at a large, nation-wide bank, unlike me who has an account with a small-town bank. At least it's nice to have visual recognition that enduring the frustrations that mischievous children and an incompetent hagwon director engender has its reward!