Sunday, April 10, 2011

Q&A Session #1, Jimjilbang, Spring Update

Lots to cover this time around, guys. I slacked off on the blog way longer than I planned, mostly due to being INSANELY busy and stressed with work. Writing was too much like a chore with everything else going on, so I put it off. But! I am caught up on household chores and I no longer want to break down and sob every time something new lands on my plate at work, so I'd better get this taken care of before life gets crazy again.

FIRST THE QUESTIONS! These are YOUR questions, dear readers! If you didn't get around to asking me a question about Korea last time, you can go ahead and post new ones in the comments, and I'll answer them in my next Q&A.

Q: What do you like most about South Korea?

A: That's a tough one. I like a lot of the food (fried chicken and Korean BBQ are AMAZING), the heated floors, the transit system, the insanely inexpensive medical care (USA YOU COULD LEARN A THING OR TWO YES I AM LOOKING AT YOU). I've had mostly positive interactions with the Korean people, and the language is beautiful even if I am struggling to learn more than a handful of phrases. I love the little shops and the weird socks and the cute clothes you can buy in the endless warrens of underground subway station malls.

Q: What will you miss most when/if you come back?

A: Okay, first of all, I AM coming back. In late September/early October, most likely. I am not staying for more than the one year my contract outlines, but barring any mishaps, I shouldn't be returning earlier than that. But just to make that clear.

As for what I'll miss, I'm probably going to have a list. Mostly the aforementioned stuff I like about South Korea. I think I'll compile such a list right before I leave the country as part of my final post in this blog.

Q: How many people are bilingual over there?
A: A lot of Koreans speak English to some degree of proficiency or another, though not as many as I had expected. Koreans also commonly learn Chinese, and sometimes Japanese, as second languages. I'd have to say that overall, they are more likely to speak a second language than Americans, though I don't know if I'd go so far as to say bilingual. A few of my students were raised at some point in the US or Canada, however, so they might count, as their English was learned from a very young age, even if they aren't quite fluent.

Q: What are the public bathrooms like? what are public spaces like in general? tidy? littered? gummy sidewalks? well-kept greenery? a little wild? in good repair?

A: Ok, that's actually a lot of questions, but I'll address it as though it were one.
The city I live in, Anyang, and the city where I work, Uiwang, are both fairly clean. You get your share of nasty smells from sewers and garbage in spots, but that's how it is in any large metropolitan area in the world. Some parts of Seoul are less clean *coughcoughItaewoncough*, but Korea has definitely moved into the modern era in terms of maintaining their cities, and they are comparable if not cleaner than most cities I've seen in America or even Spain. Not a ton of litter or gum on the sidewalks. Trees and so forth are maintained. The pollution is pretty bad, though.

Public restrooms are another matter. They can really vary from place to place, and while most of the ones I've been in are all right, I've run into a few really nasty restrooms here. It's a mixed bag, like anywhere you go in the US. You'll generally find cleaner restrooms in/near chain restaurants, and some of the major subway stations have well-maintained restrooms, but the ones near bars are pretty scummy. Also, you need to make sure you bring your own tissues, because not all restrooms will provide you with toilet paper. I've found the ones that do, as a rule of thumb, are usually cleaner and in better repair than the ones that do not. Also, some of the restrooms have Eastern-style toilets only, which means you have to squat over a trench in the floor. It was awkward, as a Westerner, to use this style of toilet at first, but I've gotten pretty good at not pissing on my own shoes.

ALL RIGHT. So, that covers that. End of the first Hold the Kimchee Q&A session.

Now on to my comprehensive jimjilbang report!

A jimjilbang, for the uninitiated, literally means "sauna room" in Korean. It's a bath house, basically. First, you check in at the counter. You pay the entry fee, which covers access to the facilities, a locker key, towels, and pajamas.

The jimjilbang my friend Michele and I went to was pretty nice, 8,000 won per person on a Sunday afternoon. We got our towels and headed downstairs to the shoe lockers. Leaving our shoes in the little lockers there, we continued on to the bathing area, which is separated by gender. After collecting a set of simple pajamas each, we headed to more lockers to strip and stow the rest of our belongings. There's a concessions counter in the bathing area where you can buy toiletries if you didn't bring your own, but we did, so once we were naked we headed into the baths.

First, we showered. There's an option of getting scrubbed down really thoroughly with exfoliating towels, but it costs extra, so we decided to wait until next time to try that. Once we were all clean, we headed to one of the hot pools. The hot pools are just how I like a good, hot bath. After a relaxing soak, we took a dip in the cold pool, then tried one of the sauna rooms. I endured the sauna for a few minutes before breathing the hot air started to bother me, and moved back to the hot pool.

Meanwhile, all the other women and girls around us are naked. No bathing suits. The towels are small, what we would call "hand towels", so no real chance at covering up. And nobody cares. Nobody's really looking at you, and if they are, it's the sort of open, casual curiosity you get from people who like to sit on park benches and "people watch". It's surprisingly not at all uncomfortable, or at least it wasn't for me. Of course, I'd left my glasses in my locker so everything was a bit blurry, and I didn't have to really notice if someone was looking at me.

Obviously, I don't have pictures, because... well, that's not allowed. Not in the bathing area, anyway.

After the dipping and soaking, we toweled off and put on the provided pajamas, which are just simple cotton shorts and t-shirts. Very comfortable, one-size-fits-all things. We headed upstairs where we had the option of getting massages, foot soaks, and various other services. The foot soak was another 3,000 won and came with scented salts. I got lavender. As we were soaking our feet, a girl from Michele's school, Sejin, came by to visit with us. She didn't speak much English, but she was adorable and very sweet, bringing us water to drink while we sat with our feet in brightly colored, scented, bubbling hot water.

After the soak, we tried to curl up in one of the "cooler" saunas, which was still too warm for me to feel comfortable sleeping in. So, that idea abandoned, we sat for awhile in the Cold Room, which had ice on the walls and was pretty much like walking into a giant refrigerator. Sejin was so excited to hang out with us, and eventually brought us upstairs to another lounge area to meet her family.

The lounge areas were mixed-gender, had mats on the floor for napping or just relaxing, televisions, and snack bars for refreshments. It was very low-key and pleasant, with an overall sense of comfort and community. Probably the most "cultural" experience I've had since I arrived in Korea. We hung out on mats, snacked, and chatted with Sejin's mom and sister and grandmother. I DID get some pictures of that.

Michele and Sejin, who is showing off her "handeu-pon" (cellphone).


Me with my towel turban.


Group shots!






I felt amazingly relaxed and at peace with the world after this experience. I want to do a jimjilbang trip every month! It's incredible, recharges the body and the spirit, and is just a wonderful way to spend time and bond with friends. Not to mention making new friends!

IN OTHER NEWS...

One of our Korean teachers, Amy, had to leave due to her baby being in the hospital. We were all very sad to see her go. Amy is a wonderful, sweet lady, and I hope that her baby gets better. The school hired on a new teacher to take her classes: Lynn. Lynn is very friendly and cute, and we get along quite well.

Look at her. Don't you just want to put her in your pocket? =^3^=


The new kindergarten class, despite a few last-minute changes and some stress, is going pretty well. The kids are all very young, and thus sometimes difficult to keep focused, but they're super cute and most of them seem enthusiastic about the classes. I took a few photos as my seven-year-old class left for the day. Aren't they adorable?











Today, I saw the first cherry blossoms on the trees as I walked to the Lotte Mart for groceries. Spring is finally here. I expect I'll be seeing a lot more of them in the next week or so, and I promise to get out the good camera for some better photos. In the meantime, here are a few iPod photos:














Before I hit the grocery shopping, I broke down and went into a Dunkin' Donuts for the first time since arriving in Korea, which is quite a feat considering you can't throw a stone without hitting a Dunkin' Donuts or Paris Baguette here. I had a green tea latte iced bubble tea, which was fabulous, and picked out a selection of donuts including a glutinous rice cake custard-filled donut and a red bean/walnut filled donut, which I ate in the shop with my bubble tea. The other donuts I brought home, and... I'm not sure if I really want to eat them, but the novelty was too much to resist.

Here they are:




Top left is a raspberry donut. So far, so good. Below that is a fried tofu donut, which I did eat after taking this photo, and it was pretty tasty. Not sure what made it a tofu donut, but I guess tofu is a pretty mild flavor when it's buried in sugar glazing. To the right of that we have a carrot donut. Not... TOO weird, I guess. I mean, we have carrot cake, right?

Then the pi├Ęce de r├ęsistance, a spinach donut. Yes, spinach. I'm a little afraid to eat that one, really. I mean, I like spinach, and I like donuts, but this seems like an unholy union of wrongness to me.

On a final note, Chris will be here for his visit in slightly less than two weeks. I am steadily growing more giddy with every passing day. I still need to plan how I'm getting to the airport and getting us back home to my apartment. Then I need to figure out how we're getting to Busan and/or Jeju during my vacation week. Not to mention where we'll be staying. *flails*

I AM SO EXCITED YOU GUYS I DON'T EVEN HAVE THE WORDS.

Okay. I'd best get ready for bed. Good night, world, and I will have an update again... probably when Chris gets here, or maybe slightly before that if I get some good cherry blossom photos to share.

Cheers,

-Maria