Public Transportation in Korea

In Seoul city buses often have bus stops in the middle of a large, busy streets. So, you have to check not only the right, but also the left side of the road to find your bus.

Majority of Koreans use the plastic card “T-money” to pay for public transportation. They sell T-money cards at Seven-Eleven or at subway stations. This card is used to pay for buses, subway and certain cabs. It is necessary to scan this card twice: while boarding and when exiting. The final balance is displayed for your information on the scanning machine called “Cash Bee.” Some Koreans have smartphone applications that allow them to scan cellphones to pay for transportation. Finally, certain bankcards can work as T-money.

Public transportation is reasonably fast. The farthest left lane on a freeway is a designated express lane for buses only. When going from one city to another it is faster to travel by bus. Buses that stay within the limits of one city are driven by speedy kamikazes. These bus drivers love to open doors before coming to a complete stop and taking off with doors still open. Not sure why they are in such a hurry, but it is best to stay in the middle of a bus. Also, bus drivers start driving away from the bus stop before passengers situate themselves, so it is best to board quickly and grab something/someone to hold on to ASAP. Finally, being in such a hurry, buses will not stop at their designated stops unless someone inside the bus presses a request button, or unless someone at a bus stop raises a hand to hail that bus. So, when in Korea, make sure to be vigilant and communicate with the bus driver while a bus is approaching. Subway is trying to implement more express lines as well. Still, when traveling from city to city, prepare to spend at least one hour in traffic.

People waiting at a bus stop in the middle of a busy street

Korean transit is clean, comfortable and cheap. Subway cars get mopping every time they reach the final stop on their line. (To watch Korean subway – click here). Busses have free Wi-Fi and TV screens to monitor the route and for entertainment purposes. Bus stops have monitors to display what buses are en-route and how many minutes left until their arrival at this stop. Some bus lines play radio music while on the go. Transportation is cheap, especially if you travel within boarders of one town or one subway line. The fee goes a little up if you change lines or travel to a different city. Considering the gas prices (2$ per liter = 8$ per gallon), public transportation is the right way to go.

Who needs service elevators?

Suwon – highrises

Korea is a small country. Coming from one-storied America, it takes time to get used to seeing high-rises stretched as far as an eye can see. The country is building up, literally. 20 years ago the place where we live right now used to be farmland. However, the sizes of apartments inside such buildings are typically smaller than the size of an American condo. Elevators in apartment buildings are also on a shy side. I can see a potential problem arising in the event of a major move or trying to bring in a Queen-size bed to the 15th floor using a skinny elevator. If you are interested to see how Korean ingenuity solved the moving issue – click here.

Bus ride to Seoul – Early Spring (written by Daniel)

Arriving to Seoul (March, 2012)

I was told that Koreans have a phrase to describe that lingering cold which settles in the bones and frustrates our desire for the long-absent warmth of the sun:  The late jealousy of the cold.

The jagged winds in these high altitudes grind the bones during the jealous weeks of Spring when all the colors hide for fear of a late and enduring frost.  Brown and grey mountainsides riddled with brown and grey un-leaved trees, like the three days growth of my thin beard, line every mile of the road.  The beauty of these mountainsides just before the resurrection takes hold of me in a subtle, but enduring way.  They are not possessed of that beauty for all to see, the blooming explosion of life adorned with the costume of a Saturday evening out on the town; they are possessed of the beauty of promise and hope and the much-deserved reward after a long Winter’s work.

Every town and city seems surrounded by these mountains, as if they move with us in order to keep our sight contained within a certain diameter.  My sight, which so often strays to the horizons and beyond, does not balk for even a moment.  Continuously strained and tasked with the futile desire of precognition, my sight sighs in relief and settles to the peace and enjoyment of slow and gentle contemplation.

Deoksugung Palace – empty pool

Deoksugung Palace – preparing for Spring (March, 2012)

Taehanmun Gate at Deoksugung Palace

Traveling tips for May aka “Family Month”

University Campus: games and activities

In Korea, May is also called “Family Month” because of all the family holidays that take place. Only the first two weeks of May bring 3 major holidays: Children’s Day, Parent’s Day and Teachers’ Day. Add to that my personal birthday and you have two weeks of cake eating, which we have been engaging in for the past few weeks. I am amazed at the extent of festivals that take place here in May. Every township, city, province, etc. feels necessary to partake in the celebrations and create its own festival. This past weekend our school held a “Rose Festival.” (For video – click here). There were the usual vendor sales, performances, and games with the evening culmination of fireworks. By the way, I was very surprised when I saw that our university is shooting fireworks. I think in the US a school would be criticized for wasteful spending. Here it was all part of a two-day celebration with the hopes of promoting the school in the area. In short, if you are interested in travelling in Korea, I recommend getting here in May. The weather is not too hot, there is little rain, the trees and flowers are in full bloom, and you get to take part in numerous free festivities all around the nation.

University Campus: set up for the Rose Festival

University Campus: set up for the Rose Festival

Life and work in Korea of two English teachers from Wisconsin

Boarding a school bus. Classroom teachers ride in the same bus to pick up and drop off students.

To be honest, we are really happy here. I am afraid to admit this because I do not wish to jinx our feelings towards the place, besides, this can still be just the “honey-moon” stage, but as English teachers we are so much in demand here with all people we meet. This is a very refreshing feeling after years of being treated like a screw inside an invisible yet grandiose machine that knows best what’s good for others.

Here I found more evening hours to teach at a local English school. In Korea, beginning with middle school the life of a child becomes very competitive in the academic sense of the word, and parents sign up their children for after-school schools. Typically, students take extra classes in English. (Taekwondo and music classes are also very popular). So, I now teach 3 nights a week at such a school. The owner is a Korean woman of Japanese descent. She graduated from Harvard (USA) with the degree in Linguistics. Her half-brother is an engineer (an MIT graduate). She is very helpful (like most of the people we meet here) with all our Korean language needs. For instance, she took me to a doctor’s office this past Saturday. I was losing my voice for the second time since coming here. I think this is allergy, and this time we caught it in time to save my voice from being wiped out for 3 days. So, it was all due to Noel’s help.

There are many other reasons why I am also very happy teaching at this evening school. Having an appropriate informative and useful textbook for every course is one of those reasons. In Korea schools are very big on textbooks, especially when it comes to English classes. Pearson, Longman, McGraw Hill and Oxford publishers are the most popular textbooks. Even parents judge schools based on the names of textbooks and their respective publishing year. It is preferred to have the latest edition. Textbooks are a part of tuition, and all students enjoy smooth sensations of silky textbook pages. As a teacher I absolutely love having a solid textbook for Grammar or Writing or Speaking or Reading classes. No more photocopying papers that students will lose before the day is out. The structure of a course is set. I only control the pace at which we walk forward. I also bring many games to supplement the monotony of working with a textbook, especially since my classes run from 7 pm till 9 pm.

The long hours at various schools should serve you as an illustration of the great length that I see this new Korean generation is willing to go to in order to compete in the world job market of today and tomorrow. This is absolutely remarkable. There is a growing solid job market for English teachers who can teach ACT, GRE and TOEFL test prep courses. Rates are generous. Again, I am not boasting, I am just in such a dismay seeing how determined this nation is when it comes to education as compared to how things are in the US. My older university students told me last week: “We are a small nation with no natural resources. All we have is Korean people. That’s why we need to invest in our people.” And they surely do so.

Observable differences in educational approaches start before middle school age. Overall school age and curricular activities are different from the US. For instance, in America our son was going to a day care, because there he was 4 years old. At that daycare kids had breakfast, lunch, 30 minute run on a playground, story time, craft time, phonics games and warm caring daycare teachers. In Korea Ronan is 6 years old (Korean age is different). He is in Kindergarten with the students who started pre-K last year. The schedule has 2 classes a day: English everyday, then once a week he has Korean Traditional Music, Science, Dance class, Physical Education plus lots of other activities to fill in the day, such as: forest exploration (rain or shine), etc. Last week they were planting sweet potato. Once a month a petting zoo comes with 2-3 animals to encourage animal awareness. Students have a field trip once a month. Ronan is learning Korean letters. However, he is laughing very loudly at the way Korean words are pronounced.

We got our fair share of warnings that starting with the middle school life of a child becomes much harder due to the fierce competitive nature of Korean school system. I guess, my observations to be continued…

Dogs in Korea

Last weekend Korea celebrated Children’s Day. Very appropriately for the occasion we set off to Seoul Grand Park. We were riding a bus as usual, admiring the highland views, when my eye caught a pickup truck with an interesting cargo. There were about a dozen metal thin-wire cages filled with…. dogs. I did not noticed how many dogs were there, because my eyes instinctively turned to the other side while I was trying to compute and understand the situation: dogs in cages seemed reasonable, but dogs in overcrowded cages, all the same breed, riding like cattle on an expressway with all that noise and wind – that did not seem right.

I am afraid to admit, but I think what we saw were the dogs destined for slaughter to become food. I have never seen dog meat for sale (but then I do not read Korean)…

I tried to argue in my head to justify eating animals. No, I am not going to become a vegetarian any time soon. Still it gave me a strong stomachache to see dogs destined to be a future meal. Why is it NOT so weird to see cows or pigs in trucks? My first justification was: “Dogs are very intelligent and affectionate.” But pigs are among the smartest animals. And cows are very affectionate.

Finally, in my English class I asked kids: “Who has ever eaten dogs?” Everyone said yes. When I asked: “Have you ever tried horse meat?” (In some Italian provinces this is a very special treat). I saw a look of dismay on students’ faces, just as much as I gave out seeing those dogs.

And that’s it for the cultural note.