Hiking Mudeungsan

This past weekend I finally got around to hiking Gwangju city’s famous: Mudeung Mountain. So many things are named after the mountain: streets, restaurants, libraries, stores, markets… Since I arrived, people have told me I need to go to Mudeungsan Mountain National Park (무등산국립공원). So I finally looked into going when a friend was visiting me in Korea. It was a stroke of luck that the same bus I take to work also goes to the park entrance. It’s that close! Only a 40 minute bus ride to the last stop on the line.

Throughout Korea’s history, mountains have played a powerful role in the myth making and religion of the times. It is said that Cheonwangbong Peak was worshiped and considered a mountain of God. Today you can find a several temples near the base of the mountain. The trail my friend and I took lead us past Jeungsimsa, and Wonhyosa Temple. At Wonhyosa there was a temple service going on and you could hear the monks chanting inside. It made for a very serene feeling. View full post »

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Winter Trip to Vietnam

I had heard so much about Vietnam that it was one of the top countries in South East Asia that I had wanted to visit. I originally had planned on doing all of Vietnam (north to south) and then going west into Cambodia. However, because of my school changing my vacation dates I ended up having to cut my 19-night trip down to 10 days!!! *crying* It took a lot of planning and was a little a little stressful to re-arrange everything, but now I can say I did it and everything went so smoothly. I cut Cambodia and south Vietnam out of my trip, opting for the central and northern part of the country. I planned this trip with my friend and fellow female traveler from Australia, Meg, who I met two years ago while traveling in Hungary. She was doing a few months in South East Asia and we agreed to meet up in Vietnam.

Crazy Traveling… Making Me Crazy

I flew into Da Nang Airport, in central Vietnam. I left work at 4:30 and took a taxi to the bus station. There was no cheap flight from my Gwangju’s airport to Vietnam, so I had to go through Incheon Airport located an hour outside of Seoul!!! The bus took almost 4 hours to get to Seoul, where I transferred to a subway and then airport by subway (2.5 hours). I had planned it down to the minute. Had I been delayed in any of those transfers or at security, then I never would have made it to the airport for my 10pm flight. Thank goodness nothing happened… However, I unfortunately would arrive very late to Vietnam. I got in at 2:30am local time. I had the forsight to have the hostel arrange an airport pick and bring me from Da Nang to the next city over: Hoi An. And thus I start my trip:

Vietnam is a great place to get your feet “wet” in traveling South East Asia. The country has great infrastructure for tourists and backpackers and the popular places to visit are well marked out. It wasn’t difficult once we got there to adjust our tentative itinerary depending on the time and things we wanted to do, booking hostels sometimes the day of.

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Standing at the entrance to the Citadel

The weather was something to contend with. When I arrived in Hoi An it was almost 80°F and sunny, but by the time we made it to Hue, the weather had turned cold, wet, and rainy. By the end of the trip, I was wearing fleece under my rain jacket. We were going at the start of the tourist season, so the weather was still quite cold in the northern region. We ended up not going to Sapa (something I was really looking forward to) due to the fact that the usually beautifully green rice fields were still frozen and it was a muddy, cold mess. The locals said that this weather was unusual even for them this time of year. I blame El Niño and maybe climate change… View full post »

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Japan with my Parents (Part 2)

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Dining with a maiko (geisha apprentice) in Kyoto

The previous post was about the first part of my travels in Japan with Shiori. Half way through my parents, flying from the USA, finally came to visit me!!! We had decided since they’d already seen much South Korea back in 2004, that we should meet up in another country. Although my dad had already been to Japan, my mom and I hadn’t. So we met up in Tokyo. From January 13th onward, Shiori and I explored more of Japan with my parents.

Overview Part 2 of the Winter Break:

We stayed in Tokyo for another day and also visited Kamakura. Then we rode the shinkansen (bullet train) to Kyoto. We spent a few nights in the old city and visited Hakone before flying out of Osaka to Korea. View full post »

Dad - Good read. Thanks for keeping this record of our trip. You fill in details for alot readers including your old man

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Traveling Japan (Part 1)


After the difficulty of negotiating dates throughout December and desk-warming for a week, I was excited to finally stretch my wings and go to my first planned winter destination: Japan (January 7 to 20).

Overview Part 1 of the Winter Break:

I spent five days visiting, Shiori, a good friend from college who had been studying abroad at the school from Japan. I stayed at her home in Tokyo and explored the city with a two trips to Nikkō and Kawagoe. My parents later met up with us in Tokyo for a few days also visiting Kamakura. From Tokyo we went to Kyoto together and also spent a day in Hakone. There we left Shiori and flew from Osaka to Seoul, South Korea to visit the capital city and tour my little city of Gwangju.

How do I summarize my whirlwind 10-day trip to Japan in one blog post? I could easily do one separate blog post for every day, but honestly I’m too lazy to write that much. So I’m breaking it into two main posts: Japan with Shiori and Japan after my parents arrive.

Planning was a little difficult, but I felt Shiori was very helpful in suggesting things to do and her family was wonderful and inviting and it helped me put money I would have otherwise used on accommodation to more important things like food. One thing I was most shocked by was the sticker price of things. Everything. Is. Expensive. After living in Korea where most things are either the same as it costs in the USA or cheaper, going to Japan was painful on my wallet, to say the least. I can stretch my dollar a lot farther in Korea. View full post »

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Graduation: Goodbye Already

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As I said in my previous post, the school year ends in the winter and starts in the spring. The school calendar still confuses me… Final exams are in the middle of December, then there are two more weeks of school where teachers have to attempt to keep students entertained when they have long ago mentally checked out. The principal also discourages watching movies… So there’s that too.

Anyway, the final day of school this was December 30th. That started the winter break. After Seollal, there is usually a week of school where all the students come back to school! It’s another week of attempting to manage students for a random 5 days of school. At the end of the week is 3rd grade (9th grade) graduation. Then everyone leaves again to go on “spring” break to come back the first week of March to start the new school year. It’s a very confusing and disorienting process. I was always on my toes. If you come teach in Korea, you learn really quickly to be ready for anything and ridiculous last minute schedule changes. #adaption

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This past week the 3rd grade class graduated. Even though I have only worked in this middle school since September, I have grown to know many of the students in the 3rd grade and they will be missed (whether they know it or not). There are of course the trouble makers in every class, but as a whole the 3rd grade class was very nice and usually more well-behaved than not.

I can’t recall what my middle school graduation was like, or even if I had one. It’s been overshadowed by my more recent college and high school graduations… I think I did have one though… Like most graduations, it’s held in the largest room: the gymnasium. The students were seated female in the front rows followed by the male students (so from the back it looks like all of the students are only male…).

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Desk-warming & Winter Camp

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Planning my winter dates was one of the biggest headaches, which as far as headache-causing events, it’s not the worst problem to have, I know.

However, my school was very difficult about giving me time off and was very nit-picky about my contract. The current Fulbright ETA contract states that I can get a minimum of 18 business days off (excluding weekends and national holidays like New Years). There is no maximum number of vacation days, so long as there are no students that need to be taught over break, then in theory you could be given practically the entire two months of vacation, at the discretion of the school administration. A good number of other ETAs had this kind of break. After being told I could get the two months off and preparing and everything, I was informed close to a month before my departure that this wasn’t true and the principal had decided to only grant me the 18 minimum days. They decided to be very strict and traditional about the working hours. I had to scramble last minute to plan and change things, dropping my plans to visit Cambodia.

At the end of the very long day, I ended up being able to visit Japan and Vietnam (Central and North Vietnam because of time restrictions).

What did I do with the rest of my time while the students were on winter break? I spent my time desk-warming…

Desk-warming

Mention “desk-warming” to any foreign teacher or non-civil Korean teacher and you’ll get the knowing nod or look of understanding. It is the bane of many teachers here and often dreaded. More or less, the definition of desk-warming is when you have to show up to work when there is nothing to do because there are no students at school. Often foreign teachers are made to desk-warm even when all the other Korean teachers can go home or get a break. As my principal eloquently puts it, it’s a time for “lesson planning and self-education”.

Since the school administration decided that they would only allow me an 18 day vacation, then the remaining of the 10-week winter break would be spent desk-warming in the frigid school, while all other contract Korean teachers were absent and there were no students. *slams head against desk* It’s a difficult reality I had to accept, made harder when I saw how many of my fellow Fulbright teachers get all 10 weeks off to frolic around the artic-Korean landscape and travel internationally. View full post »

Graduation: Goodbye Already » Cara Mooney Photography - […] I said in my previous post, the school year ends in the winter and starts in the spring. The school calendar still confuses […]

Traveling Japan (Part 1) » Cara Mooney Photography - […] the difficulty of negotiating dates throughout December and desk-warming for a week, I was excited to finally stretch my wings and go to my first planned winter […]

Winter Trip to Vietnam » Cara Mooney Photography - […] major problem was that since my school was so strict with my vacation dates, I had to desk-warm the following day. When I was buying tickets a month earlier I did a rookie travel mistake and […]

Teacher Tales: Vignettes of Teaching Middle School in Korea » Cara Mooney Photography - […] Has no classes today because of final exams. Still has to desk-warm. […]

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Happy Lunar New Year!

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Shiori and I together in Japan

새해 복 많이 받으세요~ Happy Lunar New Year!

Throughout many Asian countries, today marked the start of the New Year of the Monkey! In Korea, it’s called Seollal (Hangul: 설날). This holiday is one of the most significant, including Chuseok. Here, the celebration lasts three days: the day before Korean New Year day, Korean New Year day itself, and the day after Korean New Year day. Each country celebrates it differently. Most of the Western world knows Lunar New Year as “Chinese New Year”. This is a misnomer, as it spreads the false idea that China is the only country that celebrates Lunar New Year. Similar to how Chinese influence (technology, ideology, language, etc.) spread throughout the region in ancient times through trade and warfare, the Lunar New Year uses the Chinese zodiac and dates back hundreds and hundreds of years.

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Who celebrates what…

Seollal is a holiday to spend time with your family (even distant and extended family make the trip) and to respect ancestors. The entire country seems to be on the move. It took us twice as long to get anywhere, we went out of the way (read: literally over a giant mountain) to avoid the expressways that were backed up for miles.

Traditionally, many Koreans dress in traditional clothing called hanbok. However, for comfort and freezing temperatures we decided to forgo tradition and wear normal dress. According one article, “Including travel expense, preparation for this holiday is very costly. The holiday period usually witnesses a hike in overall consumer prices due to increasing demand. Gifts are usually given to family members and new clothes are worn during the holiday. Traditional food is prepared for many family members coming to visit for the holiday. Fruits are especially expensive. Food prices are inflated during the month of Seollal. Some people have chosen to forgo some traditions because they have become too expensive.” This is so accurate. This morning I joined the family at breakfast and ate a delicious Jeju orange. After, my host dad turns to me and said, “So did that taste like a $10 orange?” WHAT!?!

As for the food, we’ve been eating nonstop. My host dad’s mother is a professional traditional Korean cook and she make one incredible spread, meal after meal after meal… One thing I’ve struggled with is not really being able to refuse offered food. I was warned that refusing food, especially during a holiday, is seen as rude. Saying, “I’m full” isn’t an acceptable excuse. It’s confusing because many Koreans comment quite freely about their weight and yours, but then tell you to “Eat a lot!”. Also, it’s been Korean food for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. I usually try to keep Korean food limited to two meals a day. Gochujang (spicy Korean red pepper paste) is not of my favorite way to wake up in the morning… Four mornings in a row. Sigh.

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Attempting to preform sebeh correctly…

A big part of Seollal is to show respect to your elders. One way is to preform sebeh (세배, 歲拜, worship elders). Usually you’re dressed in hanbok, but as I said above, none of us wore any. Children wish their elders a happy new year by performing a deep traditional bow. Women and men are supposed to bow differently, so technically I’m bowing like a man. Meh. Opps. See the video of a proper bow here. In my defense, my 8-year old host sister was the one telling me what to do, so I blame my teacher.  View full post »

Graduation: Goodbye Already » Cara Mooney Photography - […] the final day of school this was December 30th. That started the winter break. After Seollal, there is usually a week of school where all the students come back to school! It’s another […]

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That Middle School Teacher Life

For reasons beyond me, not only does school not end after finals, but graduation is an entire month after the normal school year ends. This is the norm for most Korean schools. The last day of “normal” class was the 1st week of December. Then there was two weeks of final exams, followed by a random week of school with random half-day lessons for 3rd grade and full days for everyone else. Then the last day of school before winter break we had our teacher outing.

Now we have entered truly the last week of school. My 3rd grade students will graduate this Friday for high school! It’s only been seven months, but I’ve gotten to know a lot of my 3rd graders very well, especially since my office is on their floor so I see them constantly. Looking back it’s been crazy, and this week has been crazy!!! View full post »

Graduation: Goodbye Already » Cara Mooney Photography - […] school calendar still confuses me… Final exams are in the middle of December, then there are two more weeks of school where teachers have to attempt to keep students entertained when they have long ago mentally […]

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