Getting 냉방병 and meeting Captain Obvious.

It was 3am and I was in the emergency room of my local Paju hospital.While explaining my symptoms, I wanted to tell him that I felt like I was transforming into a zombie but decided to stick to fever, headache and generally feeling terrible.The doctor then types some things before coming out with the classic “maybe you have a fever”. Wow! Amazing! I hadn’t thought of that one myself. Note the word “maybe”. This is a classic Korean word that can be translated to English as something that is definite. It’s not to be confused with the English word “maybe” which means that something is not yet certain.

No matter how sick I am, a trip to the doctor here is always an adventure. Last time, the doctor told me I was sick. Really? Sick? There I was thinking I had struggled in here for a medal and a chat.  If laughter is the best medicine then these doctors are doing a great job. The times I hobbled into the hospital when I injured my foot had me laughing at the question “where does it hurt?” There I was standing on my good foot wondering if it was a trick question. Was I on one of those shows where they film your response to obvious questions so they can gain more viewers?  Or maybe it’s like a test. If you get the answer right, you can see the doctor straight away. If not, you’re going to have to wait. I’m beginning to conclude that to qualify as a doctor here, you must have mad skills speaking obvious sentences.

This particular adventure was a whole other level of brilliant. It was decided that since maybe I had a fever, they would put me on a drip. This is a classic treatment here so I wasn’t too alarmed.  Excellent, 20 minutes they said. It’ll be grand they said. 1 hour later I’ve got the company of two others who look like they might have something similar to me. I felt good in the knowledge that if whatever was in the drip didn’t work, I wouldn’t be on my own as a Zombie.

After the hour, the doctor concluded that I most likely had 냉방병 (naengbangbyung). What is this you might ask. Well, that’s a good question. Directly translated, it means air conditioning disease. This time of year, you go from super cool air con to hot and humid outside temperatures so it’s really easy to pick up a cold or flu. I don’t know what caused my mad fever but 냉방병 is a great go to when you can’t find any other logical explanation ( flu, cold etc).

I tried to think of the English word for this but being from Ireland, we have no need for air conditioners let alone get the random air conditioning disease. This is right up there with Fan Death, not taking a shower for 24 hours after an injection and kimchi beating SARS in the list of great Korean medical terms.

After an hour on the anti zombie medicine, I felt like I might just pull through and stay human. The nurse sent me away with 3 pouches of mystery pills and the knowledge that she spent the hour practising her English. Thanks to the super cheap healthcare here, the whole thing only cost 13,000won (13 dollars).

Nobody likes being sick but at least in Korea, they make it somewhat of an entertaining affair!

A look into North Korea- Odusan Unification Observatory

We are all guilty of taking what we have for granted. We ignore what is on our own doorstep in favour of what is further afield. For four years I have been living in Paju, home of the DMZ.  Apart from the major attractions like Heyri Art Village and the DMZ itself, I have simply passed by the tourist signs and ignored all other attractions on my way to the Premium Outlets.

Slightly ashamed of this behavior, my friends and I decided to rectify the situation by dedicating our entire free day to truly discovering Paju. What we expected was a fortress and a few tombs. What we didn’t expect was to find ourselves standing just 2km’s from North Korea.

 Odusan Unification Observatory was first on our list.   According to the internet this was a fortress but it soon became apparent that it was an observatory we were looking for. It’s pretty well sign posted coming from Geumchon and we found that the GPS in my car was pretty much useless in getting us there.   The car park (2,000won) for the observatory is the same one as for Kart Land and the drive-in movie theater, a little away from the entrance itself.  

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                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  Statue of Jo Min-sik

From there, we took a free shuttle bus on a mere 5 minute ride to the top. The day couldn’t have been any more perfect. Sunny with a nice breeze, the sky was clear and the landscape was breath-taking. The entry was a mere 3,000won and for the lack of crowds alone, it was totally worth it. The Peace statue and Unification Drum are two of the first things to be seen.

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This observatory is the place where the Han and Imjin rivers meet and flow into the West Sea. It’s also the place where the Goguryeo and Baekje Dynasty fought in the time of the three states. Built on the ruins of the fortress it is a place of great history and  impressing from the outset. This is the Unification Wishing Drum, a hard find behind all the buses but none the less beautiful.

 

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The centre provides information in many languages and there are plenty of exhibitions and pictures explaining the Korean war and significant historical events.A short movie on the Observatory and it’s location in relation to North Korea is shown in Korean on the 3rd floor and English, Japanese and Chinese on the 4th. Usually not very entertained by these sorts of things, I found myself glued to the screen with interest. Not surprising, we were the only ones in the theater!

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                                                                                                                                                                                    Where to sit? Janet and Pratishka enjoying the show.

Between the observatory and North Korea was a mere 2km stretch of water. It’s 2 km’s at the furthers point and less than 500 metres at the closest. The water at high tide is around 5 metres but during low tide the distance is almost walkable.

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What is most fascinating from the observation post if the sheer difference between the two countries. On one side you see and hear hundreds of cars travelling along the Jayuro and the high-rise apartment buildings lined up like lego pieces. On the other side, propaganda houses, mountains and fields. No noise, no signs of life to the naked eye, almost as if you were staring at a picture.

 

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Using the binoculars, it was clear that the unfinished and run down propaganda houses were very much in use. Luckily, I spotted two people walking along a country lane. Both wearing black, they were the only signs of life. No vehicles, idle or otherwise, no animals apart a bird or two. Quiet, eerie, incredible.

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North Korea

Looking out at what is undoubtedly the most secluded country in the world, I was filled with the realisation that this was as close as I am ever going to get. To stand just 2km’s from North Korea brought it home to me how close I really do live to this fascinating country. This observation post, that is ignored by so many and indeed by myself for so long is one of the finest destinations I have been to in Korea. And it was right on my door step. To get here took less than 20 minutes from my apartment.  An educational and eye-opening day, the small crowds make any visit here enjoyable and one to remember!

How to get there?

From Seoul; Take bus number 2200 or 200 at exit 2 of Hapjeong station. Get off at Seongdong Sageori, walk for 10 minutes and take the shuttle bus.

From Paju; Take the Gyeongui Line to Geumchon Station. On the opposite side of the road to the station, catch the 900 bus which brings you to the shuttle bus pick up. 

I had the pleasure of sharing this great day with my good friends Pratishka and Janet. To read about Janet’s thoughts of the day, check out her blog here, http://janetnewenham.wordpress.com/2013/08/15/stunning-views-of-north-korea/

Every family should visit you abroad.

When I share stories about my life here with other people, most of the time they don’t understand. It’s not their fault. They’ve usually never been here and don’t understand the culture or the way of life  so the significance sometimes gets lost.  If someone back home were to look at my Facebook page for example, they might be lead to the conclusion that I spend my time travelling, playing music, sharing funny stories about my students and socializing. I’ve spent every Skype call for the past four years reassuring my family that I am indeed doing alright. I have a job, money, accommodation, friends, a life. They’ve spent four years asking questions, “what do you do out there?, when are you coming home?, what’s the food like?, hows the weather?, what do you do at the weekend?, do you ever get a holiday? is it not dangerous so close to the North?”. The questions go on and on and sometimes I do well answering them but most of the time I don’t. It’s something you must experience.

Before I left for Korea in 2009, the final words my mother said to me in Dublin Airport were “Shauna, if I think you’re going to stay a long time, I’ll come to visit”. I’m not exactly sure if she had an exact timeframe in mind when she said that, but I guess four years is it. A few weeks ago, my sister told me of their big plan to come out here. My mum and older sister are now halfway through a two-week visit and I can honestly say, it’s the best thing they could have done.

The things that I take for granted are such novelties for them. The first day they walked into my apartment, my sister asked where my keys were as she watched in fascination as I entered my door code.  The idea that I can actually read and converse in Korean is a novelty and they are thinking of ways to get my gas range back to Ireland.  My mum calls my phone addiction “networking” and my sister hides her iPhone minus 1 for fear of ridicule from Koreans.(Honestly, I don’t know what version it even is but I haven’t seen it in Korea EVER). The giant screens, the technology in the subway stations, buses and everywhere else is so fascinating. High rise apartment buildings and shops that are on a floor other than the ground floor are possibly the most greatest fun.

Of all the things they’ve done and seen, I think what surprised them the most was how strong Irish culture is here. We organised a session in Seoul for our visitors (my family and my friends family) and Mum couldn’t stop talking about how great the Korean musicians were. I’ve spent over three years telling her but it was only after she heard us playing that she understood.  We’re also heading to a ceili on Saturday night and I think that it’ll be this experience that Mum will take home with her. When Mum asks me how I know people, I mention the Seoul Geals and she’s even more astonished that there’s sport as well as music/dancing. Now she understands that although we look in pictures like we’re enjoying ourselves at Irish events, we also put in the hard work to make them happen. She wouldn’t have understood had she not come here and seen it for herself.

Coming to Korea and indeed to Paju has gone a long way to showing them that living close to North Korea doesn’t mean anything in day-to-day living.  Every time North Korea pop up in the news, people at home gain images of military swarming the area and checkpoints and all kinds of tension and so on.  They now see the reality that life here is  safe and actually a little boring, not at all living up to the images they had conjured up.

This week, I have their schedule jam-packed with lunches and dinners with my friends to make sure they meet every one of significance. Putting faces to the names that I talk about and seeing a bit of the personality behind those names is great. Whenever I’ve had a problem in Korea, although Mum gives great advice, it’s these friends that have been there to help me out of it.  For my real family to see my Korean family brings with it a certain knowledge and comfort that I’m far from alone out here.

Most of all this trip reinforces the idea that this isn’t just an extended holiday I’m on. I have a real job, real responsibilities and a real life. So many times, when North Korea pops up in the news or something bad happens, we all get the emails to just “come home”. Now, my family see that dropping everything and heading back to Ireland isn’t all that easy.

Living abroad, it’s always great to return to the comforts of home for a visit and share the stories of your travels. Having your family walk a mile in your shoes, however, is the best way to help them understand how you live your new life, how you made this life what it is and what keeps you where you are.

Fmily and friends

I know my mother is here because……..

My apartment is cleaner than it’s ever been. Ever. Cleaner than the day I moved in. Mum is definitely here. It’s cleaner than the clean it was when she arrived. It’s cleaner than it was in this picture……………AmazingMy new apartment

The dishes are all washed, always. It’s like magic. I, as usual, throw them into the sink for later. But later, they have not only been washed but dried and put away.korean-slang-lesson11

The bottle of wine is still in the press. It’s been there for a week. I fear it might be going off…………….

My social life has been narrowed down to dinners with friends.

20130322_193604 Except we don’t eat pizza, we eat healthier food. (Trying to qualify for “responsible grown up” status)

I’m in bed earlier than I’ve ever been. What’s going on?  10.30pm is too early to go asleep!

I’m discovering how comfortable the floor really is to sleep on.

The clothes get washed every few days. Usually this only happens when I realise the basket is getting full or when I run out of something and realise it’s time to do the washing.

There is so much food in my apartment, I’m running out of space for it. Honestly, you’d swear we were feeding the entire population of Paju. It will never be this way again.

wpid-20130211_200756.jpg    This is only a fraction of the food that you can find in my apartment. Honestly.

I’m only eating relatively healthy food in an effort to make it seem like I’m qualified at being a grown up. There is a box of Dairy Milk still not eaten that screams at me every time I open the press.

I’ve been to tourist sites that I haven’t been to since the first year I arrived in Korea.

Mum Here we are in Seoul at the Cheongaecheon stream.

My Korean seems to be brilliant. Beside people who don’t speak one word, I seem fluent. This, will also never happen again. The only thing I’m fluent in is Konglish.

I have money in my wallet for “petrol”. I never get petrol money from anyone over here………..

The Subway- Always an adventure.

The subway is a great place, filled with great people, great potential and a nice mix of stories that will keep you talking over lunch. Most of the time you think the journey will be great craic, but sometimes it turns out to something a little different.  Here are some things that can go wrong on your beloved subway ride;

1. The machine eats your money; You try to top up your T Money card and the machine just eats your 10,000w. Then you press the help button, to talk to a Korean adjussi who totally has no idea what you’re saying and now you have hope of getting you 10,000w back. You look around asking for help with your eyes and everyone pretends they can’t see you.   And you haven’t even gotten on the subway.

2. You get the subway in the wrong direction;  You’re in downtown Seoul and you hop on the subway you think is your subway.  You find a seat, pull out your Kindle and settle into your book. After about oh 10 stops or so you begin to wonder why you haven’t reached yours. So you look for the next station name on your Jihachul to realise that you’re not even going in the wrong direction. So now, not only did you waste the last 15 minutes going in the wrong direction but you’re going to have to get out, swap over, wait for the correct subway, waste 15 more minutes going back and then start going in the right direction.

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3. You miss your stop; In the situation that you  get the subway in the right direction, there is always a possibility that you will miss your stop. Sometimes this is because the subway is overcrowded and exiting would mean certain death. Sometimes it’s because you aren’t paying attention to which stop you’re at because you’re reading, tweeting, Facebooking, Instagramming etc

4. You sit beside a drunk; It’s ok to have enjoyed a few drinks and to responsible enough to take public transport home but don’t bring your new-found enthusiasm near me. Sleeping on my shoulder, trying to mutter something, spitting next to me, vomiting next to me, taking off your clothes is totally not ok. Go home, you’re drunk!

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5. You’re surrounded by the church people; Being a foreigner on the subway makes you a magnet for the church people. No amount of listening to music and not speaking Korean can get you out of having to spend your subway ride watching the latest version of the Testament Part 2 on DVD.

6. You leave your bag on the subway; Although Korea is a safe country, leaving your bag on the subway is never a good idea. I’ve known people to get their bags back after leaving them on the subway but I know more who didn’t. And think about the people on that subway.  There they are all sitting around, wondering who left their bag unattended.  They wait a while and eventually everyone is getting a little nervous when nobody comes to claim it. Actually, that’s just me. Koreans on the subway rarely notice these things so while I’m fleeing for the carriage furthest away, everyone else is like 왜?

7. You fall asleep; Possibly the worst thing that can go wrong. Imagine this. You live in say…..Paju. It’s 6am on a Sunday morning. You’ve spent the entire night partying and you’re now ready to go home. You hop on the near deserted subway. You take off your shoes and lie across the seats for a little nap. Except this nap turns into a long sleep and when you wake up you are;

1. Surrounded by Koreans in their Sunday best who have to stand because they don’t want to wake the foreigner who’s taking over the entire row.

2. On your way back to Seoul. You have no idea how many time you did the round trip, but you’re on your way back to Seoul.

3. Hungover.

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Imagine if all the above happened in one journey.  Never a dull moment. Leave your subway adventure stories below!

8 habits I’ve picked up in Korea.

Can I kick these habits when I go home?

1. Bowing; When first I came to Korea, I would stare in amazement at all the people bowing at each other. They bowed all the time, to say hello, goodbye, sorry, the list goes on.  Then I started doing it.  Turns out it’s really fun.  It completely takes away the language barrier, I bump into someone and I just bow.  They know I’m sorry.  I smile and bow, they know I’m happy to see them.  I bow several times while back away towards the door, they know I’m leaving.  Brilliant.  Now, almost four years later, I bow all the time.  I even bow to my foreign friends.  Yes, it gets kind of awkward but whatever, bowing is bowing.

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2. Shoes; Before I came to Korea, I saw shoes as shoes.  Now, I look at shoes and buy them according to how fast I can get them on and off.  Since we take our shoes off when we go into a lot of places, this is essential. You do not want to be slow as a wet week getting your shoes on after you’ve all eaten.  Chances are your party will already be sitting down for beer by the time you get your ridiculously complicated shoes on.  Or worse is at the airport. Sometimes they make you take your shoes off at the security clearance.  The last thing you need is to be holding up the whole line because you can’t get your shoes off.  Fact.

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3. Replacing my ‘v’s with ‘b’s; Possibly my worst habit.  I can’t help myself.  Four years of hearing it day in day out will do this to you.  Koreans have difficulty saying the ‘v’ sound so it usually comes out like a ‘b’. Now, I’ve started to it as well. It’s a bery bery cold day today.  Mostly on the word ‘very’. I’m bery happy!

4. Saying things twice; I have no idea where this one came from, but I say things twice.  For example in a normal school day, I might say, “clean up clean up, hello hello, goodbye goodbye, hey hey, why why thank you thank you”

5. Speaking louder when people don’t understand what I’m saying; When I speak in Konglish and someone doesn’t understand what I’m trying to say, I repeat the sentence a tone louder.  I can’t help myself.  It’s possibly to do with the fact that my Korean skills suck or that my English has gone down hill (refer to points 3 & 4). I must remember that if a person does not understand me, it’s not because they’re deaf , it’s because the sentence itself didn’t make sense.

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6. Making a V when taking a picture; For this one, I think I’m going to need years of therapy to help me stop. When someone takes a picture, or there’s a camera is the vicinity, my fingers automatically make a “v” beside my face.  Every time.  It gets pretty awkward when I’m at an event where doing the V is really not appropriate, in which case, I spend the entire night telling myself not to do it .

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7. Looking at myself in every reflective surface; Korea is the land of mirrors.  There are mirrors EVERYWHERE, elevators, bathrooms, toilet cubicles, handbags.  The list goes on.  People in Korea are always looking at themselves in reflective surfaces and now I’ve joined them.  I’ve got a pretty mild case and I’m not one of those girls who takes 5 million pictures of herself on the subway (that’s random as hell) but I do use the elevator mirrors and other convenient reflective surfaces to make sure I’m still foreign.

8. Brushing my teeth after lunch: I never did this in Ireland. Now, it’s a habit and if I don’t do it, I can feel the guilt gnawing away at me. Must….brush…..teeth…….

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If you’ve got something you’d like to add, leave it in the comment section below!

Life in Paju- still the same.

When first I came to Korea, I couldn’t understand why there were soldiers everywhere.  At first I put it down to living in close proximity to the border. Then I realised that it was actually just because military service is mandatory here. So over the past four years, I’ve become accustomed to seeing tanks and soldiers and training exercises on a regular basis.  

Yesterday, I woke up late.  I got ready for school in about 6 minutes, had my breakfast made in two but still managed to enjoy twenty minutes of Poirot on television.  (Don’t judge me, there aren’t exactly a huge number of English tv dramas showing at 8 in the morning). My day at school was a struggle to stop children crying, fighting and falling asleep while actually teaching them a few words in English. 

On my way home, I realised that not only was there no petrol in my car and no food in my house.  Two stops later and both situations were rectified.  The rest of the day was spent practising music,catching up on some tv dramas and cleaning my kitchen.  This is actually pretty much how I’ve spent every other Tuesday for the last four years.  

Tuesday, April 9th, a pretty normal day, except for the fact that in the last 15 hours or so, I’ve been swamped with emails and messages expressing concern for my safety. I blame this on a sensational headline on RTE News ( it must have been in Ireland because it was my Irish friends and family that were emailing).

Everyone wants to know what it’s like living so close to the border. I wasn’t going to write this blog until the following questions were sent to me. Motivated by nothing other than helping people to understand how this is affecting  daily lives, I’ve put the answers in this blog. I’m not a journalist.  I’m not involved in politics in any way.  I’m just a regular Irish girl, living and teaching in South Korea and the answers are the honest truth about how the whole situation affects me and my daily life.

Q1. Are you worried about it?

No. This isn’t the first time that North Korea have threatened and it won’t be the last time.  The threshold for worry and panic here is a lot higher than in other countries.  I have started talking about it more and the possible outcomes and implications but to say I’m living in fear of an attack would be a gross misrepresentation of the truth.  As with every potential situation, citizens here are being encouraged to remain vigilant and prepared should an emergency situation arise.

No amount of reporting and big headlines changes the fact that I’m doing today what I’ve been doing every other day for four years and tomorrow looks like it’ll be the same.  My school wouldn’t be too happy if I decided I wasn’t going to show up tomorrow and neither would anyone elses place of work.  Away from the headlines and the news stories, everyone is actually just living the same as they were before the media took such a great interest in inter Korea relations.

Q2. Are you even thinking of coming home?

No. Yesterday, North Korea did indeed advise foreigners in South Korea to leave.  As of the time of writing this (April 10th), I have no immediate plans and see no need to return to Ireland.  Foreigners here have jobs, lives and responsibilities that will continue despite threats. Like all responsible expats, I will be closely monitoring and heeding any advice from the Irish Embassy in Korea and making decisions accordingly. 

Q3.  Should Mammy and Daddy Browne be as worried as they are?

 No, definitely not.  I recommend that Mammy and Daddy Browne stop reading CNN, BBC or any other major news source that is getting great air time and page coverage out of all this and spend that time skyping me so they can see how normal and continuously boring everything still is. 

It’s good to be informed and normal to be concerned but people shouldn’t believe everything they read or hear in the media. 

Q4. Has anything changed in your daily routine because of the current situation?

Yes.  I’ve stopped reading CNN.  

Q5. Why don’t the foreigners just leave?

This is my favourite question.  It makes it seem like foreigners have nothing to do but sit around wondering whether North Korea are going to bomb us or not.  Really, we have jobs, lives, responsibilities.  And there are the foreigners here who have families. So far, those jobs, lives and responsibilities haven’t changed in the slightest so you can see that leaving isn’t exactly top of our agenda. Did I mention how my school wouldn’t be too happy if I decided I wasn’t going to work tomorrow?

Q6. What signs of imminent war are there over there?

I’m sure there are loads, but not for the life of me can I find any in Geumchon. 

 You can see that my life is the same old same old . I’ve got to go now because I’m busy planning whether to go shopping after school or go home and get my washing done.The greatest concern in my life this very second is that one of  my best friends in Korea is leaving (because her contract is finished) so tonight we’re going for a goodbye Galbi and a glass of wine.   Then there’s the weekend to continue planning not to mention the fact that I need an accordion, a new computer and a fringe (not all in that order). And when I’m finished with all that, I’ll keep busy with the very exciting life I outlined above.  As ever, if you have questions, leave them below.