Sunday, June 15, 2008

Minimum Wage

The current minimum wage in Korea is 3,770 won per hour (~$3.60 by today's exchange rate) or 787,930 won per month (~$754) based on a 40 hour work week.

Let's put this into perspective:
A bibimbap is 3,500 won.
A can of soda is 700 won.
A latte at Starbucks is 4,000 won.
A liter of gas is almost 2,000 won.
An apple is 1,000 won.
An hour of private English tutoring can be between 30,000-60,000 won.
A month of tuition at a private English academy is well over 200,000 won.
A 6 week summer writing class, like the one I'm teaching, at an elite private academy in Seoul is 5,000,000 won.

My students all cite the need to get into a good high school to get into a good college to get a good job for why they have to work so hard starting in elementary and middle school. Many of my classes will be cancelled in the upcoming weeks because my middle school students need to prepare for their final exams. American middle school students don't even have final exams! If they did, I doubt they'd be preparing weeks in advance and dropping out of their extracurriculars in order to study.

America has the Ivy League and a score of top-tier universities that practically assure students a decent (if not outright successful) future. A college degree from any other school still opens up opportunities. In Korea, students aim to get into Seoul National University and a couple of other top schools. Competition is fierce for spots at these few prized universities. Without a degree and the connections from these schools, the best jobs are hard to come by and one's career may be limited.

Most of my students won't ever have to worry about taking a minimum wage job. But for those that don't take their studies seriously and don't have parents that can provide them with additional educational opportunities outside of public school, the bottom rung is quite low.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Seoraksan National Park

My destination this past weekend was Seoraksan National Park, the largest of the Korean National Parks. Although it doesn't include the highest peak in Korea, the Seorak range is acclaimed for its series of dramatic rocky peaks and flora and fauna. Many rare animals and plants are found in the park, especially in the lesser visited areas. UNESCO designed the park a Biosphere Reserve in 1992. The park literature identifies three sections of Seorak and the highest peak is nestled in the middle of Inner Seorak. My target was Outer Seorak, the most accessible and popular part of the park.

Although there were a number of a serious hikers out, recognizable in their uniform of performance tops, black pants, real hiking boots and hiking poles, plenty of women opted for heels or backless sandals and cute tops. One might suppose that they were not there to hike, and just had plans to enjoy the fresh air and refreshments, but I did see some hobbling down trails. Seorak is one of the most beloved mountain areas in Korea and is consequently quite busy. Many school groups take trips here and actually several of my middle school students visited Seoraksan just a few weeks ago with their schools. I was visiting over a three day holiday weekend, so luckily I didn't encounter any boisterous school groups, but I did feel surrounded by people pretty much the whole time.

Without a plan, I decided to explore the temple area first and then figure out what to do. The temple lay just beyond this statue of a large seated Buddha.

From the well-kept temple, there were picturesque views of the nearby peaks, leading one to hope that the residing monks are satisfied with their location.

Since I have found the hiking trails in Korea to be generally quite steep, I was excited for one feature of the park in particular: a cable car. A quick ride on the Kwongeumseong cable car brought me to an elevation of 2198 feet. After a short 10 minute walk, I was on the top of Biseondae, Flying Fairy Peak, and had beautiful views of the surrounding peaks. Each cable car could hold 50 people (but I don't think they filled the cars to capacity each time) and the cars ran every 5 minutes. The cable car cost $8 for return for adults and $5 for children; so in addition to the $2.50 park entrance fee, the park is taking in quite a bit of money!

In a lot of my pictures, I may give the illusion that no other people are around. I don't like random people in my pictures, especially if I'm not trying to take a people picture. However, as you can see, there are always lots of Koreans around.

I thought I could access the waterfall trail from trails near the cable car, but I was mistaken. I took the cable car back down to the bottom of the park and connected with the waterfalls trail. After an easy couple of kilometers, I found myself face to face not only with this waterfall but also with a couple that I know from Cheongju! Considering I know so few people in Korea, I thought it was a lucky coincidence to run into people I know.

I was feeling unusually lonely and out of sorts since departing from Cheongju, so I was happy to some company for awhile. We enjoyed a snack in the shade before moving on to a spot by the river (this is quite a generous term for the meager flow between all the rocks on the river bed). We all wondered whether the woman in the boldly printed "Fuckin' t-shirt store" t-shirt knew what she was wearing. (I was perhaps even more curious about the woman in Seoul who had a bag with thankfully smallish lettering repeating "We are baby poo".)

Jena and Alan had tickets for the cable car, so we parted ways. I found myself a quiet place along the river bed and enjoyed the cool water and the impressive views.

In terms of natural beauty, Seoraksan is probably the most impressive place I've seen in Korea. I didn't do much hiking, but I more importantly had a relaxing and pleasant day outside.

Monday, June 09, 2008

Sokcho Beach

I went to Sokcho this weekend in order to go to Seoraksan National Park. I stopped off at the beach and noticed this enthusiastic group:

What exactly are they doing? No idea.

Since the individuals on top got there by taking a running jump, the balance of the whole structure was not easily maintained:

After everyone was assembled, they played a couple rounds of "Rock, Paper, Scissors" (quite popular in Korea) before toppling to the sand. They seemed to be the most joyous people on the beach.

Sunday, June 01, 2008

Gyeongju 경주

Gyeongju was the ancient capital of the Silla Kingdom, which ruled Korea between the 7th-9th centuries. During the Silla Kingdom, both secular and religious (Buddhist) art and architecture flourished. Although some sites and treasures have been damaged or destroyed over time, there is still plenty to see in Gyeongju. Although no longer a major city in Korea, Gyeongju is arguably Korea's most culturally significant city. In recognition of its role in the development of Korean culture, UNESCO named Gyeongju one of the world's ten most important ancient cultural cities. Gyeongju also boasts several sites on UNESCO's World Heritage List.

Anapji was a pleasure garden for the royalty. When the site was restored in the 1970s, over 30,000 objects were recovered from the bottom of the man-made pond. These two buildings were rebuilt and represent only a part of the original structure.

Cheomseongdae Observatory- this is reportedly the oldest standing astronomical observatory in East Asia. It was built in the 600s by Queen Seongdeok.

Bell pavilion near the entrance to the Seokguram Grotto

Facade that protects the Seokguram Grotto, one of the finest examples of Buddhist stone art in Korea. No pictures were allowed inside, but I assure you that the sculpture were exquisite.

Tumuli Park. These hills are actually burial tombs coming from the Three Kingdoms Period (just prior to the Silla Kingdom). Several of the tombs were excavated and most of the treasure recovered, including pottery and exquisite jewelry, is now displayed in the Gyeongju National Museum.

You can get a sense for how large the tombs are by comparing them to the people.

Doors at Bulguksa, one of Korea's finest Buddhist temples

Also at Bulguksa

One of several buildings at Bulguksa. The temple originally had over 80 buildings, but now there are maybe 10 standing structures.

Quiet study at Bulguksa

Yangdong Folk Village, 30 minutes north of Gyeongju

One of several murals on the wall around the local school for the Yangdong village. This village is from the 18th century Joseon Dynasty.

There are over 150 buildings of historical importance in this village. Unlike other folk villages in Korea, people actually live and work in this village.

A man taking a break from fixing his roof.

A church in Yangdong village. The government has contributed millions to maintain this village, so why did the government or the village permit such an eyesore to be built?

Delicious rice and meat dish

A 7 dollar feast! The main meal that I ordered is boribap- barley rice. I dumped the rice into the larger bowl of greens and added the red gochujang paste. The fish, omelet and tofu soup were brought out as part of the side dishes.
Loveliness is in the Details