Sunday, July 29, 2012

Goodbye, Korea

I will leave Korea in a few days. After two years of teaching English in a rural mountain town in the middle of the country, I will be setting out for my much beloved Japan, where I will teach English in a rural mountain town in the middle of Kyushu. Same as it ever was, I suppose.

I've been mulling over what these two years have meant to me and I'm stumped. My emotions are not extreme. I'm not collapsed in a corner, crying because I have to go (although I have cried a few times in the last week). I'm not in a rush to leave, either. Korea has been very good to me (although there were many times when I was less than pleased with my host culture). I wish I had something profound to say about my time in Korea—and maybe I will in a year or so after I've had time to process the experience—but for now I will let my mind wander into the recent past and write out the memories that some to the surface.

I remember

my first day of class, all those students smiling and clamoring to get my attention. Some of them are still at school while many are not, having graduated and moved on. I think I will remember my students most of all. They will remain my strongest connection to Korea.

the changing of the seasons reflected in the rice fields around my town: the sparse shoots of spring; the overwhelming lushness and green of high summer; the ripeness of golden fields, ready to be felled; and the sadness of the winter fields, temporarily abandoned.

so much beautiful food. Korea is a food lover's paradise.

the kindnesses of people, both local and foreign. I was lucky enough to land in a wonderful part of Korea (but I'll bet every visiting English teacher says that about where they live) with a caring and supportive group of foreigners that were there whenever I needed them. I will dearly miss the friends I have made.

a beautiful and sad girl that I hope will someday find happiness.

Korea, I am a better person for having lived in your care for two years. I leave on good terms and hope to see you many, many times again. 안녕!

This is the final post for this blog. As I'm starting a new adventure, I thought it was appropriate to start a new blog. You can find me at Bungotaketa.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

I Can't Believe It's Really Happening

Tokyo, 2004
I've been accepted to teach English in Japan with JET. I can't believe it's really happening. I mean, not only that I got the JET job but that I'll finally be living and working in Japan. It's been a long time coming.

In 2003—almost ten years ago—I was living in Los Angeles and working in Anaheim in magazine publishing. I was working in a field I was unfamiliar with (automotive and car audio) and commuting 2 to 4 hours a day, depending on traffic. I had taken the job after a long period of unemployment. It was less than ideal but basically I had no choice; with no college degree my options were limited to what I already had experience in.

That fall, I saw the movie Lost In Translation and it would forever change my life. I was transfixed. I had never had an experience like that. I had never lived in a foreign country. I had never even visited Asia. Even though I was talking about teaching English in Japan as far back as 1992, without a degree it was just a dream. But the more I thought about going (and the more I thought about how unhappy I was) the more I knew I had to take a chance.

And so, on May 1, 2004, I arrived in Japan with little more than a suitcase and a few tenuous hopes. I still didn't have a college degree but I did have a decade of experience in editorial, good enough for Japanese immigration should a local English-language paper want to give me a chance. I lived in Tokyo for 2 months, sightseeing, thinking, writing, and also hemorrhaging the money I got from selling my car. I never did find a job but what I found was a goal, a purpose for my life. On the plane flight back I vowed I would return with an employment visa in my passport.

I went back to school and studied Japanese. I loved being a student. Even when I was stuck for a year in community college taking care of prerequisites, I still loved it. I loved it because I was working towards a goal. I wasn't just floating along, taking what I could get because I didn't have any other option.

Oita, 2009
Doors opened for me. The universe, it seemed, liked what I was doing. I was accepted to study for a year in Japan as an exchange student. I went to a city I had never heard of, Oita, located on the island of Kyushu in southern Japan. It was, without a doubt, the best year of my life. Coming home was one of the hardest things I've ever had to do. But I had to finish school and get that much-needed degree.

A year later, I was, at the age of 37, a college graduate. And not just a graduate, a summa cum laude graduate. That first goal accomplished, I turned my attention to getting a job in Japan. JET was my number one choice but I applied to any school, no matter how small, that was hiring. I would periodically put on my suit and do an interview on Skype in the middle of the night. I even put on my suit for phone interviews just so that I would feel more professional.

And then disappointment.

I didn't make it into JET. Well, I made it but as an alternate. I was moved into JET purgatory to wait for someone to drop out. I had no knowledge of my standing on the list, whether I was next in line or 200 down. So I kept applying. I was accepted by a chain English school but decided not to take the job as it just seemed dodgy. Instead, I took a job teaching English in Korea, mainly to gain teaching experience but also for the adventure.

At that point I had written off JET. When I first applied I was just under their age cap of 40 and I assumed that one of the reasons I didn't get the job was my age. But just this year that dreaded age cap was lifted and JET once again drifted into my sights. I reapplied, spent a lot of money to fly to Guam, the closest US embassy to Korea, and interview. And just yesterday I received the news that I had been accepted.

It's funny but somehow I've known all along that I wouldn't return to Japan to work until I was 40. Sometimes I wish I had done things differently, had finished school when I was younger and got started on this path sooner. But then I wouldn't be me and maybe it wouldn't mean as much.

Next stop, Japan.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Nagasaki Food

On my recent trip to Nagasaki, aside from spotting Korean items, I made it a point to eat very good food. Nagasaki has some famous dishes that I wanted to try plus there was the usual Japanese food to eat. It was a good food trip.

My first meal in Japan was this plate of chicken namban, which I had at Fukuoka Airport. Chicken namban is a specialty of Miyazaki, in southern Kyushu, and I often ate it while living in Oita. It's basically fried chicken with a mayonnaise sauce. "Namban" means "southern barbarian" and is an old word to describe the Portuguese and other Europeans who arrived from the seas south of Japan. So, it's the Japanese idea of what European chicken would be.

Seeing as I live in a small town with no ethic food variety, I'm always on the look out for good Indian food. This was a nice mix of traditional Indian with Japanese (read: sweet) curry. I ended up eating at another branch of this same restaurant later in my trip.
I like to stay at the Toyoko Inn, an affordable chain of business hotels. They have a free breakfast that's pretty good. I especially liked the egg but they only had it that first day.

Nagasaki is famous for champon, the local ramen. It has seafood and pork as well as cabbage, and is unique in that the food and soup are cooked together in the same pan. I picked this place randomly and it was just OK.

One of Nagasaki's more bizarre dishes is Turkish Rice, which involves absolutely no Turkish food at all. There's a European component, usually spaghetti, and an Asian one, which in this case was fried rice. Bridging the two food continents was a breaded pork cutlet, or tonkatsu. So, like Turkey, it's both European and Asian. Get it?

Here's another example of Turkish Rice. I didn't eat this one.

Although Korea has a raw fish food culture it's different from Japan's and I was hankering for some good sushi. This place I found on the water did not disappoint. As is my wont, I also had a tall glass of jizake, or local sake. It was delicious.

It wouldn't be a trip to Japan without a plate of tempura. This was lunch in Shimabara, a city with a castle a few hours south of Nagasaki. It was cold and sleeting outside and this food hit the spot. You can't see it but under the usual vegetable tempura is a battered and fried slice of white fish. It was shockingly good.

Seeing as my first bowl of champon wasn't so hot, I decided to ask for a recommendation at my hotel. They sent me to this place in Chinatown and it was incredible. The bowl was piled high with ingredients and the soup was heavenly. I had to go back to the hotel and lie down after eating it, I was so full.

Nagasaki is also famous for castella, a kind of pound cake based on recipes brought by the Portuguese. Castella is popular all over Japan (and Korea too). Here I'm having some castella with a melon soda at the top of a mountain overlooking Nagasaki harbor.

Nagasaki has a few famous castella bakeries but the most famous is Fukusaya, which has been in business right at this spot for almost 400 years. I bought a box here for the teachers at my school. It was really delicious.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Riding The K-Wave

Kara encourage you to buy chocolate for Valentine's Day.
I recently spent five days in Nagasaki. It was my first time back in Japan since the recent Korean wave took over. Seeing as I live in Korea, I was pretty in tune to all the Korean stuff that was floating around. Here's a few of the things I noticed.

I first became aware of how much the Korean thing has taken over Japan when I was watching TV in the middle of the day in my hotel (yes, exciting vacation). There were Korean dramas on not one but two stations, and one of them was a period drama. Japanese people are interested in the Jeoseon Dynasty? Modern Korean soap operas are full of attractive people being petty to each other and who doesn't like that? But period dramas are pretty culturally specific.

I popped into my local Family Mart and spied makgeolli in cans. Makgeolli is a kind of unfiltered rice wine that's recently outgrown its farmer roots and become popular all over Korea. It's also become popular in Japan. I noticed makgeolli in plastic bottles (how it's usually sold in Korea) in Japanese grocery stores too.

Do you want delicious makgeolli or Seoul makgeolli?
The same convenient mart also had a big display out for Valentine's Day, with Kara as the advertising centerpiece (see above). As in Korea, Japanese Valentine's Day is a day for women to buy candy for men. So the use of Kara here is interesting. Kara are telling women to buy chocolate, not men. K-pop is much more popular in Japan with women than with men, who still prefer their idols teenage and peppy (AKB48 *ahem*).

K-pop in general has gotten really popular in Japan, with most big groups releasing Japanese-language albums. The local Tower Records had an entire wall devoted to K-pop CDs. While taking a small, local line out to see a castle I spied this Kara poster in the window of a tiny countryside train station. Just out of sight are posters for Shinee and Beast.

I think the station master's daughter forced him to put up this Kara poster.
Lastly, it seems like Korean food is getting more popular too. I saw a commercial for a kimchi sauce to use in casseroles. The commercial showed a family with two young children all super excited about this sauce, which they were liberally pouring into nabe (hot pot) and other dishes. They even used it in tteukbokki, a spicy rice cake dish popular with teenagers in Korea, which I don't recall ever having seen before in Japan.

Of course, nothing compares to the real thing. When I arrived at Busan airport I was greeted by this sign featuring K-pop group Secret and their legs, exhorting me to drink this brand of soju "everyday."

The name of this soju is Good Day. It is now.