Saturday, March 26, 2011


Marathon in Korea? Check. Sore legs? Check. Yellow dust filled lungs? Check.

March 20th was the Seoul International Marathon. Months of lackluster winter training and marathon day finally arrived, rainy and cold. Saturday was beautiful--warm and sunny. Sunday morning however, was chilly, rainy and had dangerously high levels of yellow dust blown over from China. For those of you who don't know about yellow dust google it. Because of polluted China every spring yellow dust blows over Korea and it's harmful to breathe. Also, the dust is apparently worse in the rain (found this out after I ran four hours in the rain). Rain, cold, and yellow dust aside I was running this dang marathon! I paid for it and I dragged my butt outside in arctic temperatures all winter to run.

In spite of its name, the Seoul "International" marathon was not very international. My friend Shea and I were surrounded by a sea of black heads at the start with the occasional blonde or brown head poking conspicuously out. Out of 24,000 runners, the Seoul marathon "boosted" 1,000 foreign runners. Amongst the Koreans Shea and I started the race and took the advice of starting off slow 100% to heart. Excuse all the runner jargon coming up. As a cross country runner I only started becoming more successful once I convinced myself to "risk" starting off fast, but the marathon start was heaven for my obsession with pacing myself. My first 5k was 30 minutes, I think a new record slow for me. But it paid off, I negative split my marathon (i.e. I ran faster the second half).

The marathon wove through Seoul, closing off some of the busiest streets in this buzzing city. Runners were encouraged by Seoul citizens cheers of "Fighting" (Konglish cheer). The enthusiastic Korean supporters kept my spirits high for the whole race. During the 25-35k of the race my legs went completely numb. No joke. I kept reaching down to feel if there were really still there. It was a strange but glorious sensation. With no feeling in my legs, I flew. No pain therefore I just picked up the pace. Then the numbness started wear off and I realized I was tired. No matter I could keep going. Then I reached the 37k and experienced the true meaning of "hitting the wall". Grateful for my ability to effortlessly switch between thinking in kilometers and miles, I started thinking about the remaining distance in miles instead of kilometers since the number was smaller. 5k is only 3.1 miles. I can do that. Side note: one marathon and I am now an expert at jogging through aid stations and chugging water or gatorade, and eating while running. It's actually quite easy.

For any runner, hardcore or recreational, doing a marathon is a necessary evil I think. The experience is taxing mentally, physically, and spiritually. Those last 5 kilometers felt like the other 37 combined. I prayed, I almost cried, and I just kept chugging along even though every step brought shooting pain up my Achilles and my knees ached. For some reason unknown to me a marathon is 26.2 miles or 42.195 kilometers and that 195 meters makes a  HUGE difference. I reached the 41k mark and cried tears of joy! Just one more kilometer to go! I can do this! The crowd of supporters increased and I knew I was closer to seeing a friend who had promised to come out and cheer for us at the finish. WAIT! WHAT? A sign loomed closer reading "1 km to go!" If I had had the energy I would have yelled in protest! You may think 195 meters is minuscule. That's less than half a lap around a track. But it's a BIG deal when you've just run 41 kilometers.

A few long minutes later I reached the Olympic Stadium and finished to the cheers of "Go waygookin!" (Go foreigner!). My friend Shea finished a bit later and we hobbled our way to our belongings (a looooooong process). Now I know what it's like to be old. Walking up and down stairs was a mission but it was a happy mission. The good old endorphins kicked in and Shea and I actually mentioned when we should do another marathon. Crazy!

Three goals complete: 1. Finish the marathon  2. Run under 4 hours (3:54:51) 3. Have an overall positive marathon experience. Naturally, as soon as we crossed the finish line the clouds disappeared and the sun shone. Go figure. Never mind, even with my yellow dust filled lungs, and stiff granny legs, I was on an endorphine high.

My friend Choua cheered us in the rain and brought us home baked sweet treats! She is awesome!

I'm trying to latch onto all the good things that happen each week and remember them so here are the events of last week that made me smile:

-Teaching grades 1 and 2. These little fireballs are so easy please. Singing "Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes" is quite possibly the most exciting thing they've done in their lives ( or at least they act like that). Teaching the little ones allows me to be completely ridiculous and not be ridiculed for it (so basically I get to be myself 100% for an hour twice a week).

-Seeing my old 6th grade students around my part of town. They are so cute in their smart middle school uniforms and are always pleasantly shocked to see me. Their deep bows of respect and surprised "Teacher!" leaves me grinning!

-Not being able to speak Korean and not looking Korean. This means I can get up Saturday morning in the most random attire and not have a clue what people are saying about me. Today an ajumma commented on the fact that I was wearing sandals and shook her head disapprovingly. Yeah I know it's still cold out and it actually snowed two days ago, but I felt like wearing my Birkenstocks. I just smiled and let her continue thinking how crazy foreigners are. Gotta keep those stereotypes going right? ;) Only risk is that most of my students live near me and I often see them when I'm out and about. I also have to preserve my Rachel Teacher reputation.

-90s theme parties. Yes, I'm not a true 90s child but I still enjoy 90s themed parties. Dress up, good music and good friends.

-Visiting Gyeongju, a city in the south of Korea and breathing in semi fresh air, and seeing GRASS and very few buildings more than a few stories high! Glorious!!

LAST thing! Many people are asking when I'm coming "home" which I just take to mean what am I doing post Korea. Good question. Don't really know at the moment in spite of my OCD applying rampages and obsession with having my life planned out. Here are the possibilities:

1. Peace Corps. I am currently in the looong Peace Corps process. Waiting to get interviewed. If I do Peace Corps I HOPE I will start in October but it will all depend on how quick they give me an assignment. I don't know where I would be assigned but I'm hoping for a French speaking African country or somewhere in Latin America. Peace Corps is 27 months and after I will probably go straight and get my PhD.

2. Grad school in Germany. This option is looking less likely because I didn't get a scholarship that would have funded my master's study. BUT school in Germany is dirt cheap so I'm still applying to one program and keeping my options open.

3. Grad school at University of Cape Town in South Africa. This is the option my family is rooting for of course, but it's just one option. Classes would start February 2012 so I have to figure out what I would do in the meantime.

4. Find an interesting job somewhere. Currently looking out west: Colorado, California, Oregon, and Washington.

What I do plan on directly after Korea is heading straight to South Africa to visit a good friend and see the fam. Anyway, I wish I had a set plan but life never seems to be that simple for me. But I'm sure something will work out! :)

Friday, March 18, 2011

Life goes on...

Everyone says you have to take what you read in the news with a grain salt and this year has proved that. I try to be an informed citizen of the world and read multiple sources and sift through the information, but sometimes this task is nearly impossible. The disaster in Japan is just one further example of my increasing frustration with the media (particularly the American media). On Tuesday when I nuclear problems seemed to be escalating, I read three different news sources and got three different numbers about the radiation levels!! Since I'm not THAT far from Japan I figure I need to be very informed on what is going on. To try and clear up some of the confusion that the media has probably caused here are two emails from my friend Lindsey Gilman who is a first year Nuclear Engineering PhD student at MIT. She has access to more information than I do and attended forums with nuclear experts discussing the problems in Japan. The media seems to enjoy throwing scary words like "meltdown" around when the general public doesn't really know what meltdown actually means. I am not endorsing nuclear power by this post but I feel like there needs to be more information on the situation before people start bashing nuclear power. We do need to keep in mind this event is a once in a lifetime occurrence (which still doesn't necessarily justify nuclear power in my opinion).

Email from March 15th (so some information will have changed)

Hello family and friends,
I have received a few emails asking about what I thought about the nuclear reactors in Japan and if I had more information about the process of what is unfolding, so I thought I would send out an email to give you more information and explain some of the systems and designs used to mitigate what is happening.

Background info:
Immediately after the earthquake, the reactors’ safety systems worked as they were designed. For an external event such as earthquake, hurricane, plane crash, etc., the plant immediately “scrams” (shuts down) the reactor. This was the case for the reactors in Japan, and it shut down the reactors successfully. In a nuclear reactor, there is always residual heat being produced even after reactor shutdown due to the fission product buildup that occurs during power production (these fission products are radioactive and continue to decay over time, which produces heat in the fuel, i.e. core, of the reactor). There are redundant safety cooling systems that keeps water flowing through the core to continue cooling so that a meltdown does not occur (the primary concern after emergency shutdown is to keep the reactor VESSEL intact, to prevent a large radioactive release into the environment), that are in this case, run on electricity. The tsunami waves swept away the power lines to the reactor buildings, so all external electricity was lost. Since the power lines were lost, the diesel generators were run to keep water flowing, but in the case of reactors #1 and #3 at the Fukushima Daiichi power station, their generators were too badly damaged by the earthquake and/or lost their fuel supply from the tsunami to run.

As the fuel temperature increased, the water began to boil off, increasing the pressure in the reactor vessel (which is housed in the containment building that is made of thick concrete). Battery-powered cooling pumps were able to run for about 8 hours until all their power was consumed. At this point, the reactors now had no electricity to run the coolant pumps. As the water continued to boil off, the water level decreased, exposing the fuel rods to air. The emergency water supply then flooded the core to cover the fuel again. But after time, this water was again boiled off. Once the fuel rods (made of Zirconium) are exposed to air, they begin to heat up very quickly and can crack and release fission products into the reactor VESSEL. Exposure of extremely hot Zirconium to steam also causes an oxidation reaction that produces hydrogen gas. As the pressure of the vessel continued to rise, the emergency pressure relief valves functioned as designed to release some of the pressure in the vessel to prevent a vessel breach from occurring. This released the steam and hydrogen gas into the containment building. Filters are attached to these vents that filter out fission products from being released (although minute amounts of radioactivity are released, the levels are generally so extremely low, it is not much different from the extra radiation exposure received from a few airplane trips). Both reactors #1 and #3 have since had explosions occur in the containment buildings due to this buildup of hydrogen gas. Both reactor VESSELS remain intact even though the containment buildings are damaged.

The last emergency cooling safety system was started, which flooded the vessels with sea water. Now it is unsure if the water levels in the vessels are high enough to cover the entirety of the fuel. If any of the fuel is exposed to air, it will continue to heat up until it melts- thus a “meltdown” (or “partial meltdown” if only a portion of the fuel melts).

A meltdown does NOT mean that radioactivity will be released into the environment. There are additional safety systems in the design to prevent this. As the fuel melts and falls to the bottom of the vessel, if they can keep it covered with water, it should not breech the vessel. If it does not remain covered with water, and it reaches the melting point of the materials of the vessel, then it would melt through the bottom of the vessel, and this substance is now called the “corium” (basically a mixture of melted metal, fuel, and fission products). Underneath the vessel is a “corium catcher”. This is a large pool of water that allows the corium to spread out thinly over a large area. This creates a large surface area that allows for faster and easier cooling and can thus contain the corium from moving any further and thus preventing its release into the environment. This is a worst case scenario.

This situation is vastly impacting the nuclear community throughout the world. We are holding discussion panels here at MIT in the following few days to hear from faculty, students, and nuclear industry employees about the next course of action nuclear will take on the international scale. My Nuclear Science and Engineering department here at MIT is very diverse in the nationalities of its students and faculty, so I am very much looking forward to hearing the different opinions and courses of action different places in the world are taking.

An article that has a good overview is:

E-mail from March 16th

Hello again,

Due to the latest news reports, I have decided to send out another email for an update on the nuclear reactors in Japan. Today we had a briefing at MIT with a panel of 4 Nuclear Science and Engineering Professors, 1 radiation safety officer, and a radiation environmental hazard specialist. I hope this clears some things up because the information being presented by the media is confusing (I had trouble deciphering it this morning sifting through some articles too!).

Some more background information:
The major problem that has caused this lack of cooling to occur (and subsequent problems), is because of the tsunami that struck the power plant 1 hour after the earthquake. The plant design had barriers 2m high in case of a tsunami, but they were not prepared for an earthquake/tsunami of this magnitude. Thus the wave swept right over the barriers and into the plant. This not only decimated the fuel supply for the generators that would have kept the water pumping to cool the reactor cores (where the fuel is), but it also disconnected the generators from the cooling system and flooded the electrical switchyard. Therefore, before hooking up new generators that could be brought in by ship to the plant site, they have to build/repair this electrical switchyard.

There was also a steam driven cooling system that was supposed to run off of the steam being produced by the decay heat of the fission products in the core in 2 of the reactors. For unknown reasons, this safety design has not been functioning, likely due to damage caused by the tsunami.

Why Nuclear Plants are clustered on the coast to begin with:
Nuclear power plants require a very large amount of cooling, so they are often built next to a large, cool water supply so that there is an abundant amount of water.

To clear up some of the information I stated in the last email:
The reactor vessel is venting steam into the containment building to keep the pressure low in the vessel itself. To keep the pressure low in the containment building, a “suppression pool” is used. A suppression pool is essentially a very large condenser full of water, that cools the steam in the containment building so that it condenses and keeps the pressure of the containment at an acceptable level. The problem was that these suppression pools ran out of water since it was cooling so much steam (cooling the steam raises the temperature of the water in the pool, eventually it also begins to boil off). To be able to pump the seawater into the pools, the pressure in the containment building itself must be below a certain threshold. This was why they vented steam from the containment buildings into the neighboring ordinary plant buildings (releasing a very small amount of radiation levels in the process) in reactors #1 and #3. They were able to reach the pressure threshold and now the water level in the suppression pools seems to be stable, thus allowing the pressure to remain constant in the containment building (so hopefully no more venting of steam into the neighboring buildings, thus keeping even the volatile fission products contained in the containment building.
Both explosions that occurred at reactors #1 and #3 damaged the reactor building, but NOT the containment where the radioactive particles are kept to prevent them from reaching the environment.

This diagram shows the reactor building (which houses in it the containment building and vessel) and suppression pool (labeled as the wetwell): (The suppression pool is also in the containment)

Seawater is continued to be used to flood the reactor vessel itself to keep the fuel (core) covered in water, thus preventing a fuel meltdown.
Problem is now with reactor #2, where the pressure threshold in the containment building has not yet been reached:

As you probably have heard, there was another explosion Tuesday morning (Japan time), this time at reactor #2 on the site. This was again due to hydrogen gas buildup, but this time the hydrogen gas had collected in the suppression pool. Damage was done to the suppression pool, but the amount of damage is still unknown.
A fire was also reported in the spent fuel pool in building 4. This was due to an oil leakage from a coolant pump that then caught on fire. The fire has been extinguished.  The spent fuel pools (where old fuel is placed to allow for fission product decay) are much simpler to keep covered in water since there are no pumps involved, and pressure is the same as the atmosphere. So they are able to just pump water straight from the sea and into the pool. These pins full of spent fuel also produce a magnitude less amount of heat than the fission products in the reactor vessels right now are creating. (~10MW(thermal) in reactor vessel vs ~1MW(thermal) in spent fuel pool)

Health Concerns:
Wind is currently blowing towards the sea, so almost all radiation released in atmosphere is not being transported to populated areas.
It was reported that a reading of 800millirem/hr radiation level was detected inside the plant after the explosion in reactor containment building #2. These levels were only this high at the plant site, and only for a few hours. To provide a comparison, a radiation worker has a limit of exposure to radiation of 5000millirem/year (a very conservative safety limit to prevent any adverse health effects). The evacuation of the plant workers was done to prevent them from reaching their yearly exposure limit. (otherwise they would no longer be allowed to work at the plant site at all)
To give an example of the spread of radiation from this explosion:
After the reactor #2 explosion, radiation detectors in Tokyo, registered readings that are 20 times the natural background radiation. Background radiation is due to naturally present radioactive particles in the earth and from cosmic radiation. This radiation level rise was only in Tuesday morning in Tokyo, and has since dropped. To give a comparison: One flight from Boston to Tokyo would provide 4 years of natural background radiation (due to cosmic radiation). Also, some places in the world, due to changes in the isotope (types of atoms) composition, have a background radiation 40x that of Japan’s normal background (so 2x that of the elevated levels seen in Tokyo). These places have no higher rates of cancer or other signs of adverse health effects.

I encourage you all to avoid reading CNN as I've found from the Japan crisis and the North Korean attack they tend to sensationalize their news more than other sources. To give the media some credit in this situation I think it is difficult to assess the seriousness of the situation in regard to both the nuclear reactors and death counts (another figure that changes based on which source you read). 

Please continue to keep Japan in your prayers. Even though we have been physically unaffected in Korea there is certainly an emotional effect. My 5th grade co-teacher's sister lives in Tokyo and she JUST got a phone call from her yesterday. Before that she had heard nothing and didn't even know if she was alive. Her sister was just able to return to her apartment from the temporary shelter she'd been staying in. She said that Tokyo feels like a war zone. There is no food and normally polite, calm Japanese have reached the desperation of stealing from stores. I sent a message to my couch surf host who lives in Osaka which was unaffected by the earthquake and tsunami. Here was his response: 

what a disaster.
i happened to be right near a tv when it struck.
i felt like it was another country (in many ways it still seems so...).

the last time something like this happened in the world (sumatra) it was very widespread, and many more perished, but this time it's compacted onto just 1 country.
the last time something like this happened in japan (kobe earthquake '95) i was here & more directly impacted, but it doesn't even compare with this.
these folks've been hit by the biggest earthquake in their history, followed by an unimaginable tsunami, on top of a cold winter weekend, snow, rain, no power, water, heat, food, etc etc.

needless to say we've been glued to the set 24/7.

beyond this we're all pretty much speechless. it is surreal.

physically we're okay, of course.
we're completely far enough away from the destruction.
it almost seems like another country, in that regard.

mentally, emotionally, spiritually--it's taxing, you know.
financially i can't imagine or estimate what it's going to do to this country.

I'm not sure what the best way to help in this situation is but I encourage you all to do some research and consider donating to an organization that is helping in Japan. Here are a few that I've heard of:

AMERICAN RED CROSS: Emergency Operation Centers are opened in the affected areas and staffed by the chapters. This disaster is on a scale larger than the Japanese Red Cross can typically manage. Donations to the American Red Cross can be allocated for the International Disaster Relief Fund, which then deploys to the region to help. 

GLOBALGIVING: Established a fund to disburse donations to organizations providing relief and emergency services to victims of the earthquake and tsunami. 

SAVE THE CHILDREN: Mobilizing to provide immediate humanitarian relief in the shape of emergency health care and provision of non-food items and shelter. 

SALVATION ARMY: The Salvation Army has been in Japan since 1895 and is currently providing emergency assistance to those in need. 

AMERICARES: Emergency team is on full alert, mobilizing resources and dispatching an emergency response manager to the region. 

CONVOY OF HOPE: Disaster Response team established connection with in-country partners who have been impacted by the damage and are identifying the needs and areas where Convoy of Hope may be of the greatest assistance. 

INTERNATIONAL MEDICAL CORPS: Putting together relief teams, as well as supplies, and are in contact with partners in Japan and other affected countries to assess needs and coordinate our activities. 

SHELTER BOX: The first team is mobilizing to head to Japan and begin the response effort. 

Friday, March 11, 2011

I'm safe!

Thanks to all of you who expressed concern about my safety! Korea was unaffected by the earthquake/tsunami and I'm very grateful at the moment that I was in Japan two weekends ago not now and that my Valpo friends are already back safe and sound in the states! Please keep Japan in your prayers and thoughts! I'm very worried about my new friends but grateful (if that's really the best word to use) that this happened to a country like Japan that has buildings designed for earthquakes unlike a country like Haiti. The devastation is continuing and my concern at the moment is a potential catastrophe at some of the nuclear power plants. My thoughts and prayers are with Japan and that there won't be too many more deaths! :(

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

6 Month Mark!

Last week marked six months in Korea. It's been full of surprises, challenges, adventures, good friends, and lots of learning and growing. Here are my favorite observations, surprises, experiences, and random thoughts from the past six months:
Oh cheap and abundant avos how I miss you!

-Oats (and pretty much any grain besides rice), avocados, vanilla (and other baking supplies), and proper cheese are difficult and expensive items to find in Korea. BUT, I haven't really missed cheese all that much.

-If you're considering coming to Korea and you're female, don't come single (or at least without an imaginary boyfriend). There are two reasons for this: 1) It is not okay for a person to be single at any point in their life in Korea. They will be extremely concerned for your wellbeing and try to find someone for you. And you will be asked by EVERYONE within the first five minutes of a conversation (on average) whether or not you have a significant other. 2) The dating world is rather dismal in Korea (once again if you're female). I wish I had known these two pieces of information before coming to Korea. I would have created an imaginary African boyfriend which would have served a dual purpose: relieving me of the hassle of constantly being asked if  I've "made a new boyfriend" (as if you can just mix the right ingredients and make them), and providing another way educate about race.

-Whether or not kimchi cures and prevents all illness is still to be decided in my opinion, but what I do know is that I can't survive without the spicy, crunchy, flavorful, deliciousness that is kimchi. I'm a little concerned about my wellbeing when I return to the non-kimchi eating world.

-I didn't realize that loving a country's food would be such a way to successfully integrate myself into a new culture. By loving Korean food "I am Korean", according to my Korean friends that is.

-Just like I've always said, it is totally possible and easy to find amazing, kind, and wonderful people in every corner of the globe. I am overwhelmingly grateful for my friends here.

-The Korean language is not as difficult as it might appear. Saying just one word in Korean (assuming you don't look Asian) will result in Korean exclamations of pride and joy and unfortunately the assumption that because you speak one word of Korean you must be fluent.

-Surviving in a country where you only speak a few words of the language (okay I guess I speak and understand more than that now) and initially couldn't read the language is actually easier than it might seem. Having white skin and top notch miming skills assist in survival.

-Not all Asians look a like. Even though some Koreans assume that someone with "Asian" features can and should speak Korean. I liken distinguishing between the different Asian nationalities as distinguishing between the different European nationalities. It is totally possible to identify the difference between a German and an Italian, but often the distinctions are blurred. I think perhaps as an American I have a harder time differentiating because almost every person in my country is a "mutt" of some sort. I never thought about whether or not I looked "German" even though I have German blood until I came to Korea. I have had multiple people tell me I look German and ask me "what I am". I always respond "American". I guess race and nationality are defined a bit differently in a country where 99% of the population is full blooded Korean. I've never really thought about my race until coming to Korea.

-Racial stereotypes are a result of past bad experiences, education, and simply whether or not you've been exposed to someone "different". Funny that I had to travel all the way to Korea to have my first experience with racism. I am grateful that I grew up "colorblind".

-In Korea it is very simple to cook, realize you are missing an ingredient, throw on your shoes, walk to the store and return less than ten minutes later with the missing ingredient. I am beginning to take this convenience for granted.

-It is not uncommon to see couples wearing matching outfits here. I'm not a fan. Reason number 492 why it's unlikely I will date a Korean.

Not an uncommon sight. 
-I probably see more passed out drunk people on an average week than I did in college. And these sightings are usually around 9 pm and are of middle aged smartly dressed Korean businessmen. Yes there is a huge drinking culture here. I attribute it partially to the fact that Koreans work the most hours of any country in the world. The average Korean adult consumes 81 bottles of soju per year.

-The Seoul subway system is almost ALWAYS crowded anytime of day or night.

-Eating out is CHEAP, delicious, filling, and healthy. Even better the food comes super fast.

-I miss being a student even more than I thought I would after graduation. This longing has driven me to devour books faster than I can get my hands on them, study Korean, and spend hours reading about random subjects that interest me. I need to go back to school.

Here's what I'm looking forward to and planning for the next six months:

-Trips to the Philippines and Bali, Indonesia!!!

-A Buddhist temple stay

-Barbequing on one of the many islands just off the coast of Incheon. Please come fast warm weather!

-Teaching 1st and 2nd graders with no knowledge of English by myself.

-Experimenting with cooking some Korean foods.

-Remembering to treasure the good moments of everyday!

Here are some of my favorite pictures of the first half of my year in Korea: 

Gangwha Island with my friend Shea. Jan. 2011
View from my apartment. 
After a race at the Olympic stadium in Seoul. Feb. 2011
Oh Korean hikers and their kimbap! Jeju Island-Hallasan Nov 2010
Jeju Island. Nov 2010
Korean exercise equipment. 
Busan fireworks! Oct 2010
Halloween: Juno and Bleeker. 
Korean wedding with a friend. Sep 2010
View from the roof of my apartment at night. 
Seoraksan national park. Sept 2010

Monday, March 7, 2011

Japan: The Germany of Asia?

The title of this post is a good indication of how I enjoyed my trip to Japan. Japan, while definitely very "Asian" often made me feel like I accidentally taken a plane to Europe (a good thing in my opinion). Before leaving for Japan though, in typical Rachel fashion, I had to have an extremely busy morning that made getting to the airport for my flight a real challenge.

I think I'm incapable of not leaving things until the last minute when it comes to my trips. My Saturday (I left for Japan on Feb. 26th): got up at 5 am to set out my laundry, eat breakfast and finalize the last details of my trip, pay bills for the month. 5.50 am: left my apartment to meet my trusty running buddy to do our last long run before the marathon. Hopped on the subway for the 40 minute ride to the Han River in Seoul (only place where we can really run for three hours). And at 6 am on a Saturday the subway is unfortunately still crowded. Ran for three hours (yes there are many better things I can think of to fill up three hours). Hopped back on the subway, returned to Incheon at 11.15 am. Showered, finished packing, got money from the bank, ate some kimbap for lunch, and scrambled out of my apartment to the catch the subway for my 2 pm flight. I think I have a guardian angel working overtime to make sure things always work out right because everything went smoothly. Thank goodness for Asian airports where you can arrive 50 minutes prior to an international flight and still make it through everything with time to spare. They've spoiled me and made me lazy. 

I arrived in Osaka, Japan quick and painlessly. Unfortunately, I discovered that you can't send text messages in Japan (unless I have the same carrier as the person I am texting), so I wasn't able to inform my couch surf host of my arrival. But, Japan rivals Korea for being the most technologically connected country. So I simply paid 100 yen to use the computers and send him a message. About 75 minutes later I safely met my host. 

My host Lawrence is an American who has been living in Japan for twenty years. He is married to a Japanese woman and they live in the outskirts of Osaka in a beautiful remodeled traditional Japanese home. The abundance of traditional homes that I noticed on the bus ride from the airport was the first stark difference between Korea and Japan. Besides the many temples that Korea preserves, no one lives in traditional homes anymore. The few areas that have the old style architecture are run down and dirty. Japan, however, boasts many homes that preserve the beautiful Japanese architecture. 

Lawrence's neighborhood seemed like the Europe of Asia: tiny cars, narrow cobbled streets, an abundance of bikes at every corner, and beautiful quaint Japanese architecture. And the best part? The homes had YARDS!!! What? haha! Forgot how much I missed a small chunk of green space. Another observation: in Japan they drive on the left side of the road. I always thought the only countries that drive on the left are those that have some kind of British influence in their history. But perhaps Japan did and I'm just not aware of it. 

After dropping my stuff off at his place we headed downtown to meet some of Lawrence's friends. Downtown Osaka reminded me that I was in fact in Asia and not Europe. It was a typical Asian city with neon lights times a million. Entire buildings were lit up with neon light displays. It certainly fit my preconceived image of Japan. 

We wandered off the beaten path through some alleyways, as I gawked once again at the number of bikes I saw, and ended up at a "standing bar". The name is exactly what it is. There were several of these establishments tucked away in the street we strolled through. The bar was literally the size of a closet. There was only enough room for us to stand. But the coziness of the bar made it easy to talk to each other in peace and quiet and the owner and other customers.  

Culture shock number two came when we caught the last subway back to Lawrence's house. Like the other places I've been in Asia the subway stops running around midnight or a bit before, meaning that the last subway is cram packed. So I expected frantic crowds and pushing and shoving to make the last train. In Korea, I have learned to ready myself to stand my ground against old women and men ready to push me aside to get inside the subway first. I prepared for a similar experience in Japan. There was an equally abundant number of people in the subway but unlike Korea people were calmly waiting in line at the subway doors. Miraculously, I barely even brushed against the hoards of people stepping onto the subway! WHAT? I have heard tales of Japanese politeness but to witness it in action was incredibly refreshing. 

I spent all of Sunday in Osaka wandering through the many shopping areas, getting lost in the coolest art store ever and trying not to spend all my money there, meeting one of Lawrence's Japanese friends for the most delicious sushi ever, and simply marveling at the cleanliness of the sidewalks. I'm fairly certain I could safely eat food picked up from a Japanese sidewalk. It was incredible. Sidewalks in Korea glisten with gobs of spit, vomit, random paper, trash, soju bottles, other unknown dirt, food, wrappers... The list goes on. Japanese sidewalks practically glisten in cleanliness. Once again I felt that I had returned to Germany. How these two neighboring countries can be so similar in many ways yet so startlingly different amazes me. 

Sunday evening I caught a train to nearby Kyoto to meet my friend Laurin, and the rest of a Valpo spring break group. Kyoto was beautiful! The entire city preserved traditional Japanese style buildings, temples, and shrines, and had a more relaxed feel than any other Asian city. Even arriving at 8 pm and feeling how dead the city was surprised me after being used to the 24/7 action of other places in Asia. It was wonderful to catch up with Laurin and fascinating to follow her class around to different temples and shrines and view them from a more academic standpoint. 

Tuesday afternoon I hopped on a high speed train back to the airport to return to dirty, BUT cheap Korea (in comparison). I was relieved to pay for Korean transportation versus Japanese. It is EXPENSIVE!!!! Japan exposed to me the effects of Korea's hasty development: generic boring apartment buildings (or human storage units as some of my friends like to call them), and a huge discrepancy between the economic development of Korea and social development. I think in twenty years Korea will be at the same point as Japan, although I have no explanation for the differences in what I consider polite. Korea is on the upswing of their economic development, whereas Japan has mellowed out a bit because of the slower economy. 

Notes for the week: 
-I have now been in Korea for 6 months! Crazy! Now the question is where will I go next?
-I will be teaching grades one and two after school this year. They have almost zero English knowledge and I will have no co-teacher. I asked for something more challenging and I guess it got handed to me! :)
-Koreans know how to let loose after work (thoughts on this will be posted later). Perhaps this is because they also work the most hours per week of any country in the world. 
-I will post pictures from Japan soon. Actually been busy at work for a change!

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Feeling Love from Across the Globe

What's the best part about living halfway across the world (in relation to my country of birth that is)? Getting two days of birthday wishes!

Yesterday (my birthday in Korea), I was greeted with a influx of facebook and e-mail birthday wishes from my friends in Korea. Today, my inbox was flooded with well wishers in North America, Europe, and Africa. I definitely did not feel any shortage of love for my 23rd birthday! Thank you all for inspiring me, supporting me, laughing with me, loving me, and just simply being amazing people! I am so blessed to have met so many incredible people every place I've been and lived.

Yesterday, I was surprised by a knock at my door around dinner time. I assumed it was a friend delivering me my promised ice cream cake, but instead I was greeted by a group of my friends bearing food, gifts, and drinks! Naturally, we had to set up shop in my messy apartment (give me a break--I did just return from Japan), and I was dressed in sweats but it was lovely to be surprised and treated! Thank you Korea friends! If nothing else, coming to Korea has given me the opportunity to meet amazing people who I've grown so close to in just short six months.

While being far away from the people that are dear to me isn't always ideal, it is certainly a good feeling to receive heartfelt birthday wishes from around the globe for two straight days! Today a friend from the States asked me: when are you returning home? Ha! If only I knew where home is. Ultimately "home" is not a location for me, but a feeling that is generated by the people I'm surrounded. My favorite dictionary definitions of the word home describe this best:
1. any place of residence or refuge
2. the place in which one's domestic affections are centered.
3. (perhaps taken out of context a bit) deep; to the heart.
If I use these definitions I think I have many "homes" around the world. Thank you all for being home to me! I hope I can reciprocate the love that you all have showed me!

 Map of my facebook friends. Love you all!
I will post pictures and write about Japan shortly. I need to gather my thoughts and get my life in order now that the new semester has started and I'm "busy" teaching. Plus marathon day is a mere 2.5 weeks away! Yikes!