Getting Intimate with the Mountains of Korea

Now, it sounds like I am trying to poetic with my title, but sadly, that is not the case. Recently, I have started to get out hiking more, as I want to take advantage of the mountains before the temperatures reach a point where I no longer want to leave my air conditioned apartment.

Over the past month, I have spent several weekends hiking on the mountains of Korea. Luckily, I live on a mountain, so this is as easy as stepping outside my apartment and going for a hike after work. It’s pretty magical to have the opportunity to step outside my door and have an entire system of trails to get lost on. The mountain my home is situated on is not a large mountain by any means, but it fills my mountain void that I constantly struggle with living in Ontario. This is a great opportunity to get out for some solo hikes, and escape the concrete jungle that is South Korea.

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Up and above the concrete jungle. 

However, I have also reached the summit of two mountains in Korea over the past month. The first one was Namsan in Gyeongju – a beautiful mountain that has a spiritual significance to the people of Korea. There are many Buddha statues, and other tributes to Buddhism on your trek up the mountain. My favourite part of this hike, was the post cards and mailing box they have close to the top (*hint hint* some of you should be checking your mail for a surprise).

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Check your mail for these my friends! (For those of you whose addresses I could remember…)

 

We couldn’t have asked for a more beautiful day to get out hiking – the sun was shining, and I was surrounded by more green than I think I’ve ever seen. We met some kind Korean’s, who when we asked them to take a photo of us, decided that we were essentially a tourist attraction, and took turns taking photos with us. I felt like a Disney princess. I also learned on this hike that I am a terrible navigator (and am usually the designated navigator among my friends for some strange reason). I had intended to take us up the mountain, and then back down the same side of the mountain, but what I actually did, was take us up and over to the other side of the mountain – whoops. Luckily, Korea’s transportation system is quite extensive, and we didn’t have to trek too long before finding a bus stop. Namsan was a pleasant hike that I look forward to doing again – hopefully in the fall when the colours start changing.

Now, onto hike # 2 – Sinbulsan. Sinbulsan is the second highest mountain in Ulsan, but it is not even on the top ten list of the highest mountains in Korea – regardless, the technicality of this hike should not be underestimated. I was told that on this hike I would have to semi “rock-climb” and pull myself up several systems of ropes. Okay, I can handle that, I thought to myself.

In reality, Sinbulsan was a terrifying experience once we started to reach the summit. There were at least five sections where we had to pull ourselves up a rope, while walking up a moderately steep rock face. This was fine… I could handle this so long as I didn’t look down. I felt good knowing I had been working out, and this was not as physically daunting as I thought it would have been. However, my paralyzing fear of heights really started to catch up to me.

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All smiles. 

Things got really interesting when we reached the top area of the mountain, and I realized we essentially had to walk across the peak of a mountain – where there was basically a straight drop to death on either side. While I was hyping myself up in my head – “You fucking got this Justine”, I started to walk across the peak and immediately dropped down to straddle the peak of the mountain. Now, this is where things got intimate. Picture this – my friend and I are essentially straddling the peak of this mountain… sliding ourselves across to a more stable section. While this is happening, our other friend and several Korean’s are laughing at us, taking photos, and walking by like it ain’t no thing (I would share the videos with you, but I am not willing to subject myself to that sort of humiliation #Sorry). Apparently dying isn’t a concern for the people of Korea. Eventually we made it across, and later, as we were on our descent, my friend points up to the peak – “Hey guys look, that’s the mountain you essentially had sex with”… Awesome.

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I still haven’t decided if the terrifying experience was worth the views… 
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Views of the peak from below. 

Overall, I am pretty happy I completed Sinbulsan, but I think my irrational fear of heights will stop me from ever completing that trek again. I’m off to climb Mount Fuji with Jay in August, and while it is over two times the elevation, I think it will be a walk in the park after my mountain straddling experience in Korea. Good times.

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I hope to come up with some cuter poses before I reach the summit of Fuji.

Sneaky Shock

Culture Shock – we have all heard of it, and we all think we know what it is, but do we really? Do a quick Google search and you will find a million different definitions and interpretations of it – you will also find about 1.4 million different graphs explaining the process of culture shock.

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According to this graph, I guess I am in the “Argh” phase?

After talking to people I know who have lived abroad, and reading a lot of material on the internet, I have heard it all. “The first three months will be the hardest”. “The first three months will be the easiest”. “After three months, you will have a complete meltdown”. After over three months in Korea, I have come to the conclusion that culture shock is 100% an individual experience that will be entirely different from one person to the next – for me, that has meant random sneak attacks of culture shock that have bitch slapped me in the face unexpectedly.

What has culture shock looked like for me?

  • Culture shock is sitting on a jam packed bus as the only Caucasian English speaker, while listening to some sappy as shit song by Bleachers, and feeling 100% invisible.
  • Culture shock is playing a fucking BEER COMMERCIAL during a “Canadian Culture” lecture, and feeling like you’re about to choke up in front of a room of 24 high school students.
  • Culture shock is staring at a menu in Korean for a solid 27 minutes trying to determine a suitable dish to order that doesn’t contain meat – only to order a meal that DEFINITELY contains meat.
  • Culture shock is searching for those small home comforts; relating to fellow Canadians who resided in neighboring communities to yours, streaming NHL playoff games when you’re not even a major hockey fan, and listening to the Arkells on repeat because it reminds you of home.

Perhaps some of these things didn’t happen in my first three months in Korea, or perhaps I am more sensitive to them as I am inevitably exiting the honeymoon stage of my time here.

Overall, my time in Korea has been relatively seamless, but that doesn’t mean it hasn’t come without it’s downs. For some reason, those “downs” seem to appear at the most unexpected and inconvenient times. I’ve come to learn that this is something you simply cannot control – breathe, accept, and recognize that, like all things, this too shall pass.

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According to my Google search of “This too shall pass”, Korean’s use the phrase as well.

100 Days Later (almost)

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Well, here I am, a quarter of the way through my twelve month teaching contract – seriously, where has the time gone? I had a feeling the time would fly by, but I had no idea it would fly by so quickly.

Before leaving for Korea, I had a lengthy list of intentions for my time here – I was going to learn Korean, save sooo much money, start working out again, get back into running, journal more, blog every week…. you get the idea. Well, I can now say a total of like eight words in Korean, so can’t say I’ve accomplished that. I have purchased flights to Vietnam, Jeju island, Japan, and China, and also purchased tickets for the Olympics, so I clearly haven’t saved any money. I was doing a great job working out for about a month, and then was plagued by a stomach flu, so that came to an end. And of course, for those of you who read my blog, it is pretty evident that I have not been posting on a weekly basis. What a surprise –  I am on the other side of the world, and I am still setting grand ambitions for myself and only completing a fraction of them. Self-five.

I really did want to use blogging as a tool to reflect and document my experience abroad, so I have something to look back on in the years to come. Luckily, I found a blogging challenge that I am hoping will motivate me to blog more frequently (hopefully weekly). Each week, I will receive blogging prompts to my email which will hopefully get the creative juices flowing, so without further ado….

Why am I even here?

This week’s challenge suggested I revisit my “why”, and gave me a series of questions to prompt this. Being that I have been here three months, it seemed like I perfect time, so here is my rambling response to those questions…

Last July, a community colleague randomly told me in passing that he had spent a few years working in Korea – that he made a lot of money, and was able to fund some serious travel. Last September (nine months ago… *mind-blown*), I was driving home from a work event with my co-worker and friend, Giordan. I was complaining about the same old sh*t, and ranting about wanting to leave and live far away. Which now seems alarming, because my life in Kitchener was a solid 10/10 – hindsight right? These two events were pivotal in my decision to leave. After that day in September, it snowballed. Before I knew it, I had interviews for various jobs, I was preparing visa documents, giving notice at my apartment and job – and just like that, I was moving to Korea.

In the months leading up to my move, I made solid plans to pay off all of my debt, made endless lists of all of the places I wanted to see in Korea, and spent hours determining which mountains I wanted to climb. When I think of how much I’ve seen, and how much I’ve experienced in the past three months, I want to say I have achieved some of my hopes and goals for my time abroad. But when I think of my time here as loading screen on a computer, “25%”, I realize that before I know it, I will be halfway, and then it will be over. This really makes me want to get my priorities in line for the next nine months – I want to spend my time in a way that is meaningful and intentional (and that doesn’t involved binge watching Gossip Girl on Netflix again).

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Ah, so this brings me to my next thought, what exactly are my priorities? Saving money, traveling, experiencing as much of Korea as possible, and building relationships with my students, are my key priorities for the remainder of my year. Unfortunately, traveling and experiencing Korea, conflicts with my desire to save money – finding a balance has been difficult, and I’m sure will continue to be.

A big realization that I have come to during my three months here, is most things in life are significantly less significant than we make them out to be. If I had a nickle for every time I  had a “Korea Meltdown” in the months leading up to my move, I’d be rich. The truth is, my transition here has been easy – I had far more meltdowns in the months leading up to my move, then I have since I have been here. I am 11,000 kms from home, and I still feel connected to my friends and my family – technology is a wonderful thing.

At the end of the day, my move here seemed like an earth shattering life decision – and it wasn’t. I’m still the same person. I think the same thoughts. I do the same sh*t. I could have made a million excuses to not take this leap, but I am so glad I didn’t. It took me many years to gain the courage to move so far from home, and pursue this type of experience. I look forward to the next nine months of teaching, and extended exploring after that.

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Different country, same wino.

MSW Completed + Stomach Flu Defeated

At the start of April – I told my co-workers to expect me to be a significantly happier human being at the end of the month. After procrastinating completing my final capstone portfolio for my MSW, I officially had three weeks to submit everything, and four weeks until my presentation – it was time to buckle down. What followed, was a vicious cycle of procrastinating by doing anything BUT my homework (not limited to, but including, an increased amount of working out, drinking wine, going out for dinners, eating pizza, adventuring to new sites, and “studying Korean”). This would then be followed by a period of guilt and stress, which resulted in a period of productivity – April was a god damn roller coaster ride.

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Gamcheon Cultural Village – Busan
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Dinner at White House – An amazing Turkish meal (ironically, one of the best meals I have had in Korea)

In the midst of my procrastination, I was also happy to be distracted by the blooming cherry blossoms throughout Ulsan and Gyeongju. This only happens once a year, so I had to take advantage – right?

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Gyeongju – For the first time, I actually felt like I was in Korea. I am quite fond of the Korean architecture.

Aside from these distractions and periods of procrastination, I had no choice but to buckle down and complete my final project for my MSW. To my surprise, the day I submitted by final project, and one week prior to my panel presentation, I was blessed with the worst stomach flu I have had since childhood. My friend Caitlin and I have shown up a number of times wearing matching outfits – cute, I know. What isn’t cute, is coming down with matching stomach flus. While we spent the week exchanging stories about our bodily fluids, the hilarity behind it all only went so far as I spent over 60 hours dying in my bed.

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The potluck I had with co-workers hours before I got sick – this was super fun to throw up later #nawt

Two and a half sick days, and a few bowls of oatmeal later, I was finally able to start moving around and eat more than a tablespoon of slop (oatmeal) at a time. I felt weak and exhausted, and despite feeling “better”, my stomach disagreed. Luckily, I had netflix, naps and my awesome boyfriend to keep me company over video chat.

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Story time with Jay – he’s the best.
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Attempted to go to work on day three – ended up sleeping the day away in the nap room.

The Saturday after I was sick, I thought I was almost better and decided to go out for the day (I had been trapped in my apartment far too long). I felt okay throughout the day, and when I woke up on Sunday morning I, once again, felt like I was dying. Five days later, the stomach flu had not let up.

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My brief day of feeling better – taking in the beautiful Taehwa River in Ulsan
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I thought if anything could cure the stomach flu, it was puppies – I was wrong.

I decided to go to the doctor – hoping to get a magic pill to fix my problem. Instead, what I got was a two day stay in the hospital – not exactly what I had hoped for. As the doctor told me I would be admitted for three to four days, I nearly had a nervous breakdown knowing I had my final presentation for my MSW on Wednesday morning. After one night, and two miserable days in the hospital, I was able to sweet talk my way out, even though they wanted to keep me at least another day. I have always proven to be quite stubborn, and this was no exception. I spent the next day re-energizing myself with real food after starving for two days and was pleasantly surprised that I felt much better.

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The IV was great until it infiltrated and my hand was swollen like a balloon.
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Apparently, this is what my room looks like after a few days of illness #Impressive

The following day was my final capstone presentation. I practiced in 10000000 x, and finally felt prepared, still completely terrified, I did it!

Blah blah blah, my presentation went well, blah blah… You get the idea.

Needless to say, April brought far too much work and stress than my body could handle, and I could not be happier it’s over. I suppose April showers bring May flowers. Oh, and it didn’t hurt that the stomach flu helped me get bikini ready for my upcoming #Namcation – optimist over here. Excited to head to Vietnam this Sunday – I can’t think of a better way to celebrate!

Underrated Ulsan

Ulsan was my first choice when I applied to EPIK. I was drawn to the proximity to the coast and the mountains, the size of the city, the small expat community and the lack of interest most people have in living in Ulsan. I knew that by applying to Ulsan, I essentially guaranteed myself a spot, because, as many will tell you, “Noone ever requests Ulsan; everyone wants to live in Busan”. Had I chosen a more popular city, I may have been turned down and placed in the countryside far away from any city (which even in Ulsan, still sort of happened).

If you read anything online about selecting a city to live in with EPIK, Ulsan usually falls at the bottom of the list. Why? I’m not sure. Many tell you that Ulsan is just an industrial city – it is home to the largest Hyundai plant and the world’s largest shipyard – they will tell you there is nothing to do, and you will head to Busan every weekend. Essentially, Ulsan is Busan’s ugly step-sister that get’s overshadowed by such a vibrant and large neighboring city. For my Kitchener-Waterloo friends – think of how everyone talks about poor Cambridge, yeah, that’s Ulsan.

I have been living in Ulsan for over a month and a half, and I have come to the conclusion that it is an extremely underrated city. I have spent more weekends in Ulsan then I have in other cities, and there is still so much more to explore. There are plenty of great restaurants to eat at, foreigner bars to go out on a weekend, cafes galore, and many beautiful nature sites to see.

Here are some of my favourite spots throughout Ulsan:

Taehwa River Grand Park

Awesome spot to walk around, cycle, or visit the bamboo forest.

Seongnamdong Night Market

Awesome spot for street food, restaurants and shopping, OR you could spend all your money trying to win stuffed animals out of those claw machines (they’re a pretty big deal here in Korea)

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Daewangam Park

My favourite place in Ulsan by far. How this stunning spot is not in Korean travel guidebooks is beyond me. It’s an absolutely stunning park on the coast where you can spend hours hiking and walking around. It is also the point where the sun rises first in Korea.

Ulsan Grand Park

I just visited this park yesterday (24 degrees and sunshine, sorry to all of my fellow Canadians). It is the largest urban park in all of Korea, and it’s beautiful. Luckily – drinking is legal anywhere in Korea, so that automatically makes any trip to the park more interesting. In Ulsan Grand Park, you can rent tandem bikes (or regular bikes), and make your own DIY sangria right in the park if you are so inclined.

Cat Cafes, Dog Cafes, and More

There’s a local orphanage where people can volunteer to socialize with the kids monthly. There are also a number of cat and dog cafes. I think this photo sums up how much more babies like me then cats do…

 

Pretty beautiful eh? So, the next time someone tells you Ulsan is “just an industrial city”, tell them to think again.

Oh ps. I’ve been doing that whole teaching thing, and that’s been pretty awesome too. Here’s some proof:

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It’s True: “You don’t know what you’ve got til it’s gone”

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This blog post brought to you by: A bottle of a wine…

That cliche “Parking Lot” song, that says, “You don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone” has proven rather accurate since my arrival in Korea. For those of you who don’t know it – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=94bdMSCdw20.

From what I have read on the internet, many blogs about moving abroad and long-term travel include endless positive outcomes to quitting your “shitty” 9-5 job, and going against social norms. I am hear to tell you that it is not always rainbows and puppies.

My move to Korea has been seamless,  it has allowed me to explore a new culture, a country, a new language, meet new people, blah blah, and blah. While all of this has been beyond wonderful, after a bottle of wine, I can now see how wonderful my life in Canada was and how wonderful all of the people I left there are; and I terribly miss them.

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My move to Korea meant leaving my family for the first time ever, leaving long-term friends, leaving new friends, leaving my dog, and leaving my boyfriend. Many praised me for being “brave” and “courageous”, but the truth is, I was shitting my pants (sorry for my trucker mouth, Mom #BlameNancy) in the months leading up to my move. While I am so happy I left Canada to come to Korea for a year, it did not come without it’s sacrifices. While I am enjoying every moment I have spent in Korea, it is easy for me to recognize that I have left my heart in Canada with the people that have left a lasting impact on me over the past several years (and decades).

My undeniable itch to explore the world guarantees that this will not be the last time that I spend extended time abroad, but just so those at home know, I think about each of you everyday, and I look forward to my life at home with each of you when I return. Much love.

EPIK Orientation Week

Wow! What a week that was… orientation was an insanely busy week filled with memorable experiences and invaluable knowledge. While the entire week is a bit of a blur, I will attempt to document my experience.

Day 1: Arrival

On February 19, 2017 I landed in Busan, South Korea prepared to start my week long orientation. We stayed at the Busan University of Foreign Studies, a beautiful school in the mountains outside of the Busan city center. I had my first jet-lagged subway experience (Thanks Lauren).

Top left: First time riding the subway in Korea (in typical Asian fashion). Top right: My dorm room for the week. Bottom: View from my dorm at BUFS.

Day 2: Opening Ceremony

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BUFS Campus

This day we had the opening ceremony – the highlight being a Taekwondo performance.

Day 3: Medical Check-up, Lectures & Soju…

Since I am a baby and don’t like needles, I was lucky enough to get my medical check-up out of the way first thing in the morning and had some time to rest after. A few of us went out that night and I had my first Soju experience. For those of you who don’t know what soju is, it’s essentially less strong vodka. Not so great for a red wine kinda girl. However, I embraced the Korean way and drank the Soju!

Day 4: Lectures, Lectures, Lectures + Korean

The following day we had endless hours of lectures teaching us about Korean history and culture, teaching methods, classroom management, and the Korean language. Needless to say, I was brain-dead after a full day of learning.

Day 5: Busan Field Trip + More Soju…

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Haeundae Beach
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Class 6
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Haeundae Beach
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Pretty neat0 plastic mermaid sculpture
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Korea has a thing for well maintained trees… 
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UN Memorial Cemetery

The field-trip into Busan provided a much needed break from all of the lectures. We visited Haeundae Beach, and the UN Memorial Cemetery. Due to it being a weekday (and since it was February), the beach was quiet and significantly less populated than it will be when I visit in the summer.

Day 6: Lectures & Taekwondo

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Once again, more lectures. Luckily, we got a break to take a Taekwondo lesson. We got to break a board in half with our hands that had a goal on it that we had set for ourselves for the year. I chose “Climb as many mountains in Korea as I can”… great goal seeing as I come from a region seriously lacking in mountains.

Day 7: Lectures + Lesson Demo Prep

Again, more lectures….and a lot of time spent preparing for our lesson demonstration the following day. After a few technological glitches and some rusty practice attempts, we felt confident.

Day 8: Lesson Demonstration & Closing Ceremony

On the last full day, we did our lesson demonstrations with our classes. I was happy that mine went very smoothly and helped me feel more confident moving into a teaching position. Two of us took a hike behind the university on lunch time, which was beautiful. We had a closing ceremony and a massive dinner, and just like that – orientation had come to an end. Ps. Korean convenient stores are pretty sweet and you can even get Pikachu coffee cups…Coolio.

Day 9: Departure to Ulsan

Ah! Finally the day we had all been waiting for.  We took a bus to Ulsan as a group to meet our Korean co-teachers and we got escorted to our apartments and schools. I couldn’t have been happier to get settled into my own place after the hustle and bustle of orientation!

Well, there you have it – that sums up my first 9 days in Korea at the EPIK orientation. I left the orientation excited and feeling prepared to live and work in Korea for the next year.