A Travellerspoint blog

Far From Home for the Holidays

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Being away from home is never easy, especially during the holidays. In our last blog we were celebrating Korean Thanksgiving in Japan. Busy as tourists we would have never known it was a holiday but regardless of hosting a Thanksgiving dinner for 12, receiving packages from endlessly supportive families, and keeping ourselves as busy as possible it is still impossible to ignore each millimeter that separates us from the ones we love. However, since it was our second round of experiencing this, we tried our best to create a holiday feel. What better way to do that than with overloaded schedules, stressing to host friends, and cooking more than I ever thought possible (isn't that what the holidays are all about?!?!?!)

For Thanksgiving we decided that since this was the second time we were missing our families’ traditions, we would try our best to replicate them for our closest friends in Korea, those who have become like family for us here. We planned to host twelve people in our 12’ x 12’ apartment and would stop at no costs to make as many traditional dishes as possible on two electric stop top burners, a microwave, and a toaster oven! With a helpful last minute package from home and a few chats about recipes with my mom and grandma I felt prepared to take on my first Thanksgiving!! Joe had to work that day, directing three plays: “The Scary Dino” for a group of 22 six year olds along with “The Wizard of Oz” and “The Enormous Turnip” for a group of 28 seven year olds. Needless to say, this got him off the hook for Thanksgiving cooking, although I know he would have MUCH preferred a day in our 2 foot kitchen! Luckily I had the third piece to our puzzle, Steph, to help me throughout the day!!

We started our morning with some preliminary cooking before going to watch the entertainment of Joe’s plays! I’ve never doubted Joe’s endlessly amounting talents but never did I imagine the day I’d see him directing and dancing to Kindergarten plays. He likes to really define himself as a “true Renaissance man”… with this under his belt, who can ever doubt that?! We enjoyed the entertainment and rushed home to get cooking!

We made appetizers: a cheese platter (I’ve been training for this day in the Rechsteiner kitchen since I could stand), celery with cream cheese inside (a Polyak Thanksgiving staple), crackers with cheese dip… Now that I’m typing this I’m seeing we had A LOT of cheese. I guess you know where our taste buds find happiness! Afterwards I ran to the store to grab a few things to make a center piece… I was really so Martha Stewart for this holiday. Then onto the big culinary tests… we had sweet potatoes, mashed potatoes, corn, stuffing, sautéed asparagus & mushrooms, an amazing salad, and rolls. Joe then ran to our saving grace, COSTCO (I know you are proud Mom & Dave)! He picked up SIX rotisserie chickens and rushed home to carve them all. Needless to say, it was a crazy busy day ~ it helped us get the REAL feel of home! The most important part is that everything came out delicious and we had so much fun with our guests! Tired as hell, I had a new appreciation for my Grandma and knew I’d avoid ever hosting Thanksgiving again!!


my Martha Stewart center piece


Joe's heaven ~ our refridgerator never has any more than tofu, water, vegetables and occasionally cheese when he's lucky!

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romantic, quiet leftovers the day after

After all that work, we decided Christmas would be low key. Thankfully, a certain special American angel (my mom) was completely adamant that we needed presents a many under our quaint tree. They came a whole week early, staring me in the face and torturing me endlessly! Each day it would take all my self-restraint not to open them. They were well worth the wait! Christmas Day was full of Skype time, CSI, and playing on my new IPAD!!!

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Christmas Morning:

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We did get to celebrate Christmas at my boss's house for my school's Christmas Party. It was a potluck so I brought my Grandma's rice pudding. It was the biggest hit there! Everyone was dying to know how to make it! I had to deny them access to the "Polyak Rice Pudding Secret!" ;-)

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The highlight of the party was some good old fashioned arm wrestling competitions. As you can tell, I pretty much dominated across all ages, genders, and nationalities!!

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The holidays are often such a busy time, full of giving and receiving gifts, preparing and rushing, and we all sometimes forget that they are really about those around us and giving thanks for our many blessings. Both of us come from very close families that we miss each and every day but this year we found the support and love from our families overwhelming! Having been gone for almost a year and a half, sometimes it’s hard to still feel like part of the family and feel the love but our families never stop showing us support and love. They do everything in their power to make sure we are included in every way possible and I know I have never felt more blest to have such incredible people in my life. People are always saying “you can’t choose your family” but the truth is that even if I could choose my family from the 7 billion people on this planet I could never find such generous, loving, amazing, incredible, thoughtful people than what we’ve been blest with! Thank you to the wonderful family and friends who even with 7,000 miles between us continue to love and support us! We couldn’t be doing this without you!!! You are our everything!!! As we look forward to a new year and all it has to offer ~ wrapping up our time in Korea, perhaps a visit from some special friends, traveling to many more countries, HEADING HOME, and the adventures of finding new paths when we get home~ before we look to 2012, we want to thank you for everything you’ve done for us in 2011.


After looking through some pictures, I decided to make a video of pictures for the highlights of the past year! It's been quite memorable! Please take a look!

Posted by nlpolyak 07:01 Archived in South Korea Tagged holidays celebration thanks Comments (2)

Celebrating Korean Thanksgiving in Japan

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An overdue hello from Korea! It has been a crazy busy summer filled with tons and tons of teaching, trips to America, time at the beach, and what seems to be a million other things that have kept me from sitting down to write a blog in over 3 months. I have finally dedicated this fine fall Sunday evening to my computer and this blog to tell you about our exciting trip to Japan.

As most of you may remember, last year I went to a Korean island not far off the coast of Busan called Jeju for Chuseok. You can look at the blog for that trip here... Happy Chuseok 2010 This year was Joe's first Chuseok in Korea and we decided we'd like to stick around the peninsula and explore what has become our home country a bit more. This proved to be more of a challenge than we would have anticipated. First we thought, "Why not go back to Jeju?" -- 3 months before the vacation every flight was booked for the days we wanted. We thought this was no problem, we were ready to research the best places around Korea and set out to hit new terrain! We spent countless hours researching and found a few great places we were excited for but unbelievably it seemed that every flight and ferry from Busan was booked for the vacation days. The next plan was for Joe to get an international drivers license and we'd rent a car and go on a road trip around the country for a few days. This was my favorite option. Joe did his research to get a drivers license and hopped through several hoops, my boss made a few calls for us, and we headed to the DMV on Saturday morning the week before Chuseok. We had everything we needed and saw the light at the end of the tunnel after so many dead end ideas! Woo hoo! .... NOT SO FAST! Joe has his "under-21" NJ Driver's License which is still valid for another two years in America so he saw no reason to change it. According to Korea's Department of Motor Vehicles this was the "baby license" and he could not receive an international drivers license with a "baby license". FAIL #499!!! Are you kidding me?!?! haha

In the face of defeat and the prospect of vacation in our shoe box, we came home from work on a Wednesday and decided to hell with it ~ let's go to Japan! So... we booked a flight to Osaka for Saturday and what a great decision it was! We had two days to learn about Osaka and the surrounding area to figure out what we'd like to do with the four days we had there.

We stayed at one of the best hotels in Osaka (unbeknownst to us before we arrived), the Swissotel. One of the best features of our hotel was that it was located directly above one of the two major train hubs in Osaka, Namba. This was great for us because we knew we wanted to get out of Osaka each day to visit the nearby cities of Kyoto and Nara. Once we arrived in Osaka the first order of business was to try to wrap our heads around the expansive and somewhat confusing collection of subways, public train, and private train options that make up Japan's mass-transit system. An hour later we were checked into our hotel room and ready to go out and enjoy the day in Osaka.

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Our initial impression of Osaka was that it seemed like a busy city with attitude and diversity. It reminded me of NYC much more than any cities I've been to in Korea... and anyone who knows me, knows that this is a direct route to my heart. It's a fast paced city, known for it's good food. The phrase kuidaore, which means eat 'til you drop, is often used to describe Osakans' love for good food. (Side note: this was a selling point in choosing Osaka as a vacation destination for Joe! haha) During it's early days, Osaka was Japan's center for trade with Korea and China. After Toyotomi Hideyoshi unified all of Japan he chose Osaka as the site for his castle and merchants began setting up around the castle, creating a new economic center. Obviously, Tokyo has now taken Osaka's position as Japan's economic center but it still maintains it's role as an economic powerhouse and the home to many electronic factories. Many of the books we read about Osaka said it wasn't a very beautiful city since it was bombed to smithereens during WWII and was reconstructed with not much more than buildings that resembled concrete boxes, massive arcades, and elevated highways. But I must say, we found the city quite charming. We had perfect weather to walk around for hours and take in the feel of the streets as bicyclists whizzed past us and the city began to light up as the sun went down. To get some perspective of the city we headed to the city's giant Ferris Wheel. Along the way we ended up getting lost. Joe and I take great pride in our navigation skills and are sticking to the fact that since Japanese people drive on the left side of the road, their maps must be flipped. Well those damn maps led us astray and against our will we hailed a VERY EXPENSIVE taxi! Turned out we were much closer to the ferris wheel than we thought but 7 minutes and $25 later we arrived at our location. Ouch!! Standing at 112-meters high, it's the world's 5th largest Ferris Wheel. Joe sat back and enjoyed the views while I sat on the edge of my seat counting down the minutes until I could have my feet on the ground again! After taking my first breaths standing on solid ground we tried to find somewhere to eat and turned in for the night so we could head to Kyoto the next day!

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We got up way too early the next day to head to Kyoto. The biggest excitement of the morning was that we treated ourselves to our first room service experience. Joe kept reminding me that whatever we charged meant points on my American Express card and everything in the world can be boiled down to the perks of more Amex points! hahaha

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Kyoto, an ancient capital of Japan, is where Japanese people go to learn about Japanese history, it's the place you go to see all the things that you associate with "The Land of the Rising Sun": ancient temples, gardens, shrines, etc. It's known for it's many temples but as much as Joe & I love temples we didn't have much desire to spend the vacation "temple hopping". We picked one temple in each city we were visiting to see and had tons of other plans. We took a very fast train from Osaka to Kyoto and after arriving in the impressive Kyoto Station we headed to the Visitor's Center to receive help from the nicest Japanese man who helped us plan our day. Our first move of the day was a bus from Kyoto Station to Kinkakuji Temple, or the Golden Pavilion. This is one of Japan's best-known sights and no wonder because it is incredibly beautiful. The original building was build in 1397 as a retirement villa. How'd you like to build a Golden Pavilion to retire in?! But this story doesn't end with just gold & luxurious retirement... no, no, no.... in 1950 a monk who had a bit of an unhealthy obsession with the temple thought the best way to express his love would be to burn it to the ground. What the heck?!?! Anyway, in 1955 the temple was completely reconstructed as a replica to the original in the state that we saw it.

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At this point in our day it was about 98*-105* and there was absolutely no shade to be found at the temple so we decided we'd quickly move on to our next sight of the day. After a bus and a train ride we made our way to the Arashiyama Area of Kyoto. Kyoto is surrounded by mountains and Arashiyama is on the western end of the city. There were many exciting things to offer in this area. We spent the afternoon walking around the quaint streets of this small city then made our way through a bamboo grove. I have a particularly weird obsession with bamboo -- almost as weird as the monk mentioned above; albeit, I have no arson-driven desires I just like to drive Joe crazy talking about how much I love bamboo. Have I mentioned, I really love bamboo?!?!?!

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Needless to say, I enjoyed our walk through the bamboo grove. Afterwards we strolled through a park and made our way to the Oi River. We rented a boat and spent the afternoon led by Captain Joe as we floated around, took in the beauty, and relaxed. It was amazing!

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After our boat trip we got a delicious treat that Kyoto is famous for, Yaki-dofu. It was like teriyaki-grilled tofu that was just to die for! Then we headed to sit by the riverbank and enjoy the view. It was really relaxing until a snake slithered up in the grass behind us. For anyone who knows Joe, you know he doesn't do snakes. He shot up, yelled "I'M OUT!", and was out of sight before I knew what was going on. Hell, he just left me hanging! hahaha We quickly changed scenery and walked around Arashiyama a bit more before heading back to Osaka.

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The next day we headed out to Nara, the first permanent capital of Japan. Like Kyoto, it's renowned as a showpiece of Japan's culture and history. One of the things Nara is most famous for is it's amazingly, oddly, ridiculously, scarily, friendly community of 1,200 deer which are considered National Treasures (I guess my hunter of a father with his new crossbow would not be allowed within the city limits!) . Nara is a very small city so you can walk from the train station to all of the main sights and see the city well in just a day. Nara is also the home to the Diabutsu, or the Great Buddha. This is one of the three great sights of Japan, along with the Kyoto's Golden Pavilion and Mt. Fuji. In two days we'd see 2 out of 3 of the great sights. Not bad! Our day in Nara was the ideal of relaxation. We roamed around Nara Park which is over 1,600 acres of greenery spotted with tons of deer, several temples, beautiful gardens, shrines, and museums.

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We had fun with the deer. At first, we were in such amazement. We had grown up with so many annoying deer but the concept of deer walking up to you with no fear, rather excitement, just blew our minds. For the first two hours or so I'd go so far as to say it was enchanting... then we decided we'd buy deer food which was for sale everywhere. The enchantment changed QUICKLY! The deer started to really fight for the food and Joe had an aggressive male deer ramming into his leg and sticking his antlers up his shorts. To be fair they do warn you with a sign (below) but regardless, I didn't have my deer food for more than 2 minutes before I threw it all up in the air and ran away! haha I was amazed to see people laying with the deer, kissing the deer, etc. As long as you had no deer food they were so sweet but completely fearless of humans. I was walking with my hands behind my back and one even put it's whole nose in my hands.


In the middle of Nara Park is Todaji Temple which houses the famous Great Buddha. This temple is the largest wooden building in the world and unbelievably the temple was actually rebuild in 1709 as only two-thirds of it's original size. Housed inside is the Great Buddha, which is one of the largest bronze figures in the world. It stands at over 16-meters tall and consists of 437 tons of bronze and 130 kilograms of gold. There isn't much to say about the temple, the pictures speak for themselves. It was an amazing temple.. one of our favorites since arriving in Asia. It's enormity and beauty were truly overwhelming. In the pictures below, take note of how tiny Joe looks compared to the building so you can try to grasp just how huge this building is.

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The rest of our time was spent in Osaka enjoying the sites there and the opportunity to slow down for a few days, enjoy each other's company, and do my favorite thing in the world -- walk! It was a really great trip that made us so excited for our SE Asia trip in March. We were told that our last day of teaching will be February 29th so we have 98 teaching days left! Woo hoo!!! We can start our birthday month off right on March 1st, departing for the vacation of a lifetime!

PS. We had matching pajamas courtesy of the Swissotel so I'll leave you with this wonderful picture!


If you want to see more pictures from Osaka you can at: Giving Korean Thanks in Japan Photo Album

Posted by nlpolyak 08:32 Archived in Japan Tagged vacation thanksgiving exploration Comments (1)

We Got Sucked In

looks like we're staying longer....

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So in our last blog we told you all the highs and lows of our life here in Korea and that we were considering extending our time here. In the past few weeks we have spent lots of time talking to our families, friends, and each other about the possibility of extending our contracts. Not only does Joe's contract end later than mine but one of the biggest parts in our Korean lives is our students and extending allows us to stay until they graduate. We have decided that although we miss home, we will be staying in Korea for six extra months until graduation. That means we will begin traveling in Southeast Asia in the beginning of March and will be home in late May/early June. The good news is that I have booked a vacation home from Friday, July 22nd through Saturday, July 30th. The bad news is that Joe's vacation is a different week so he will not be coming home with me. :-( Boo! We have both really come to love our life here and are very confident in our decision to stay a bit longer. Perhaps this gives you all the extended opportunity to come visit us or to plan your vacation for next March - June in SE Asia.

Since we're staying here a bit longer we thought we'd show you some updated pictures of our VERY humble abode. There were two stipulations to me staying in Korea. (1) My school had to give me two days off so I could get a full week at home and (2) I had to find a nice picture frame to make our 12' x 14' box more "homey". I remember moving into my apartment in Manhattan and Grandma Polyak asking, "Where is the bedroom?" My response was, "You're in the living room, dining room, bedroom, study, and kitchen." Well... this apartment makes 210 E. 75th look like a palace. We often joke that if we fight, one of us has to go sit on the toilet to avoid being within arm distance of each other but we're fully confident that if we can live together here, we can make anywhere, anytime! Not only are we making it but we're actually extending the time that we get to live here so that's got to say something! *^^* So, without further adieu....


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You have never met any of Joe's students. They are a lively bunch to say the least. Joe recently went on an overnight trip with them to an amusement park. Perhaps he should write a blog about that overwhelming and interesting experience.

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You've seen my kids quite a bit but they just got a very special present today. Koreans LOVE NYC almost as much as I do. I talk about NYC to my kids all the time and they always say they want to come home with me and visit so my mom sent my older kindergarten class, Joe and I I Love NY shirts. They absolutely loved them and they looked so cute! They even recorded a thank you video for "Nichole Teacher's Mom".

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As an added bonus, here's a short look into our average beach-going experience! Tell me you wouldn't extend your time in Korea if you had this to look at every weekend! ;-)

That's all for now. We're looking forward to sharing fun summer adventures in the coming weeks. Keep your eyes out!

love & miss you!

Posted by nlpolyak 05:25 Archived in South Korea Tagged news Comments (2)

Love, Love, Loathe

Reflections on Korea

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Well, well, well… I can’t believe it’s been 3 months since I’ve last posted a blog. Life has been somewhat busy, yet routine, all at once. We have both been working, as per usual, and made it through graduation and the transition with all new students, while exploring as much as we can on weekends. We are both feeling invigorated with “Spring Fever” and back in touch with our adventurous-selves after a bit of a winter slump. I know I say this with every blog, but I genuinely cannot believe I am rounding the corner on 9 months. While it has been hard to be away from family and friends at times, Korea has genuinely become home to us, especially in the past few weeks. I don’t know exactly when but one day we woke up and Korea has just become the norm. The dry cleaning lady greets us by name, the people at Dunkin Donuts can wave to us as we walk by and have our coffee brewing when we walk in the door, we are no longer engulfed with pedestrian rage as we are being knocked from one side of the sidewalk to the other, and we almost forget the incessant stares. It is oddly weird to think about using forks and knives, paying gratuity, hearing others speak English in public, having personal space, paying more than $4 for a meal, and not seeing our students every day. As we began to realize that it would be time for us to start squeezing in everything on our “Korean Bucket List” in the last 3 months of weekends, I was asked to extend my contract. Joe’s contract is up at the beginning of February 2012 and while the plan has always been unequivocally to leave in early September, travel, and be home before Thanksgiving, this didn’t seem like an opportunity we should dismiss lightly. For a few weeks now, Joe and I have spent endless amounts of time, weighing the pros and cons of remaining in Korea for 5 extra months and it got me thinking that perhaps it would be interesting to make a list of things we love and loathe about the ROK. (Mom, Loathe is for you.. It’s not nice to hate!)

Now, for the century old question, good news or the bad news first? I guess we’ll start with the negatives and leave you on a positive note.

1. The Smell of Korea

Every place has a unique smell and let’s just say Korea’s is… well… raunchy! In a recent interview, Joe Howard was quoted saying, “After conducting several unscientific experiments, we can conclude the smell is undoubtedly that of 10-day old sewage.”

2. Incessant Smog

Even on the nicest days, I have not seen a blue sky since coming to Korea. Beyond that, I’ve seen some of the thickest, more ridiculous fog you could imagine and the relentless black dust all over our apartment is enough to drive anyone growing up in Deb’s house to insanity!


3. Living in a Lego City

For someone so in love with the history, architecture, and personality of NYC - Busan is distinctly the opposite. Everywhere you look is a white, 23-25 story, rectangle shaped apartment building with convenience stores, coffee shops, PC Bongs, Norae Bongs, department stores, and gimbop restaurants scattered within. The worst is when you spent a few hours climbing a mountain and as you summit, you take a deep breath in (of the smog filled air) and realize that through the smog, all you can see is a monotone skyline that could have been built by a 4 year old with white legos.

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4. Korean Food

While many people here site their love for the food as a big selling point on Korea, we just genuinely don’t agree! Nothing really tickles our fancy, especially as a vegetarian. We can’t tell you how much we miss simple salads, grilled chicken, breakfast foods, delicious NY style pizza, real meat, Mexican food… the list could go on forever. Coming from NYC where you can have authentic food for any of the 196 countries dotting the Earth, we are extremely limited in our options for GOOD FOOD. Below you will find a picture of our Christmas dinner. Doesn’t that look delicious?!


5. Deep-Rooted Disconnect

Overall, the social norms of Korea will never really sink in for us. We will never fully get used to being stared at or being pushed around by old men and women. People not allowing us off elevators before barging through us to get in as we get slammed into the doors that have no censors will never cease to pi$$ me off. Korean whininess will always be like nails on a chalkboard. The lack of public trashcans continues to blow my mind. Not having to carry my own toilet paper with me everywhere I go will be a luxury. The way people will hawk a loogy in public and spit it right at your feet is oh so endearing. Being laughed at every time we speak the little bit of Korean we know and the constant giggles and social awkwardness that comes every time we enter a room never seem to go away. The biggest zing to this list is the overtly passive aggressive nature of Koreans. They won’t even look at you as they are honking their horns and driving as close as humanly possible to your leg as you cross a crosswalk, as they cut you in line, break a rib with their elbow, or step on your toes as they cut you off. It’s as if they don’t even know you exist! Oh, Korea!

Now that we’ve let out all our pent up steam for the world to hear, it’s time to get positive!

1. Korean Baseball

For anyone who knows me, they know I couldn’t care less about sports. As much as many have tried, sports bore the hell out of me. Well, that was until I went to my first Korean baseball game! Koreans are participators. They have an uncanny ability to have a light-hearted good time and are never too shy to get involved, chant and have fun! For 3 full hours, I can sit in a stadium with a smile on my face chanting Korean cheers and singing along with the songs! All that fun for a mere $8 and you can bring your own beer and food in! Take that Yankees and your $1.3 billion stadium. Definitely can’t have this much fun there!

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2. Temples

I have completely fallen in love with all things, Buddha! One of my favorite pastimes is going to temples late at night when no one else is there to explore. I love everything from the warm feeling they emit to the incredible colors and the painstaking perfection embodied in each swipe of a paintbrush. I don’t think my awe will ever fade! Just last week was Buddha’s Birthday. There was something indescribably incredible about standing in the rain surrounded by tens of thousands of colorful lanterns alit in such an already magnificent place.

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3. Hiking

For two people that already loved hiking pre-Korea, I will say that Korea’s favorite pastime has taken us to the next level. We have obviously continued to enjoying taking ridiculous pictures whenever possible! I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves!

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4. Uniquely Incredible Experiences

We have not done all that much world traveling in our short lives, especially to completely foreign lands. While we all undoubtedly have incredible experiences in our daily life, which are probably overlooked in many cases, Korea has taught us both to take a step back and take it all in. We both feel so incredibly blessed to have been given this amazing opportunity to see the world and all it has to offer. The Busan Fireworks Festival is something everyone should see in their life. I blogged about this once before but my God, breathtaking and mind-blowing is an understatement. If we extend, Joe will get the opportunity to witness this firsthand in October. Anyone else coming? Sunrise on the Bund in Shanghai – actually every step we took in Shanghai—brought me one step closer to unprecedented love. Four-wheeling around Udo Island. Those special, lonely moments in temples. Eating Raw Octopus. Our first and most likely only Christmas that we got to lay in bed and watch movies with no familial hustle & bustle (it was difficult but undeniably unique). Birthdays without our family. The list could go on forever. I have no doubt that when we go home we will have uniquely incredible experiences, but the difference is that when we are in our comfort zone we tend to overlook the daily miracles. Here, we take note of it all and are thankful for it all.

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5. Cheap lifestyle

Dinner: $5
Pint of beer: $2.50
Bottle of Water: $0.60
Full month of groceries: less than $100
Subway or bus ride: $1
Movie ticket: $7
15 minute taxi ride: $6
Keeping a strict budget: PRICELESS

6. Salad Soba

This is the closest we get to salad and a stop-in-your-tracks delicious meal. It includes a nice, green salad with a ginger dressing covering cold soba noodles with a delicious sauce underneath. This delicious $8 meal includes your entrée, a side of kimchi, soup, and rice. Afterwards, we even get treated to some ice cream. We have actually gotten quite friendly with the owner of the restaurant and his wife. We are greeted with a friendly hello, warm smile, and constant refills on any part of the meal we finish. The owner actually drove me and a friend home one night so we didn’t have to take a cab. (At home this would be preposterous but in Korea, it is commonplace and merely friendly.) Joe was also treated to an extensive massage during one meal where he wasn’t feeling well. Nothing but first class service!

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7. Make your Own Spring Rolls

This is Joe’s favorite meal. You are given Vietnamese Rice Paper that you dip in hot water to make soft. You load it up with fresh vegetables and meat that you cook on the table in some sort of broth. It is delicious. Once again, you are treated to your entrée, several sides, and in Korea no part of your meal goes to waste so they cook rice noodles in the leftover broth, followed by rice. We may not like much food here but we know how to pick the good options!


8. Fishy Saturdays

So every Saturday in the winter, a little man makes what I call fishys on the street outside our apartment from the back of his Bongo Pick-Up. They are essentially pancake mix outside with red bean paste and a walnut-y taste inside. They are warm, hot off the grill and utterly delicious! I spent my “winter slump” looking forward to Saturdays when I could go see my VERY old boyfriend (who spoke no English) to get fishys. We never said more than a few words in my broken Korean but our love was in our smiles. I’m surprised I never asked him to take a picture with me. Once the weather started to warm up, the fishys stopped appearing. I’ve said I was going to throw all of my professional dreams to the side and open a fishy cart in NYC when I return. I’m still thinking about it.


9. My Students

The reason I wake up every morning, these children are like my own. I love them all with all my heart!

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10. Koreans

Regardless of anything we mentioned on our “Loathe List”, Koreans as a whole are kindhearted, helpful, and caring people. They are the kind of people that will give you a ride home so you don’t have to take a bus, subway, cab, etc. This has happened on a few occasions. They are the kind of people that will stop on their way to work to help a helpless little blonde girl carry her huge luggage downstairs in the subway. They are the kind of people that will offer you their food on a hike if they are eating and see you walking by. They are the kind of people that will do almost anything in their power to not let the language barrier get in the way without getting frustrated. They are the kind of people that will allow you to make their country your temporary home and make you feel like you couldn’t possibly belong more anywhere else in the world.

As you can see we have no easy decision to make on whether to stay or go but we will keep you updated in the coming weeks as to what we decide. In the meantime, miss & love you all!

Posted by nlpolyak 09:34 Archived in South Korea Tagged reflection transition Comments (2)

新春愉快! 心想事成!

Shanghai ~ Lunar New Years 2011

sunny 50 °F
View Lunar New Year 2011 & Korean Home on nlpolyak's travel map.

I guess time flies when you are having fun, because I can't believe that it's already the end of February, which means I have officially been here for six months. Things have been crazy as we have been getting ready for graduation at school. My six year olds needed to do a 15 minute drama performance of "The Wizard of Oz" and a dance, along with singing other songs. My five year olds had similar requirements and of course nothing short of absolute perfection could be accepted. Work has been really stressful but thankfully, graduation is over and it went wonderfully! The kids have worked their butts off for months, I was so proud of them! It's sad to see a lot of my older kids head off to elementary school. They have become such little adults, full of personality, sarcasm, wit, and of course amazing intellect! Many will be coming back for our elementary after-school program and I'm excited for the challenge of some new babies coming in!

So let's rewind a bit to the beginning of February. In Korea, Lunar New Year is referred to as Seolnal. At school, the kids wore their hanboks. Children traditionally bow to their family members and receive gifts for the holiday so we all learned how to bow correctly. We also played some traditional games. It's always fun to do these things with the kids. Enjoy a few pictures ....

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After celebrating the holiday at school, I was ready to have my own celebration in China! We got a great deal on a flight and hotel quite a few months ago and the anticipation was brewing! We spent many the joyful hour talking to Joe's sister and brother-in-law, Meg and Matt, who lived and worked just outside Shanghai for over six months. They were so wonderful, telling us an abundance of insider knowledge, sending us a little phrasebook they made, a recommended itinerary, and an additional book to the Lonely Planet we got. Meg and Matt, we still can't say thank you enough for all your help and guidance!!

After a short, one-hour flight, we landed in Pudong International Airport and headed to the Maglev, the third fastest train in the world. Joe was beyond excited to experience premium acceleration created by magnetic levitation. We flew off into Shanghai at 431 kmph (~260 mph), banking turns, and quite literally gliding above the roadways below. The quick seven minute ride brought us 30 km towards Shanghai where we took a cab and tried our hand in speaking Mandarin. We were faced with success and got to our wonderful hotel, the Rayfont Shanghai Xuhui Hotel, in the beautiful French Concession around 3 pm on Wednesday, February 2nd.

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Instead of taking you on a step-by-step tour of Shanghai through our eyes, I'll highlight some of our favorite spots. It's nearly impossible to pick our favorites because we were both absolutely in love with nearly every aspect of Shanghai!

The French Concession

Our hotel was located in what is considered to be one of the trendiest areas in Shanghai. It was once the home to adventurers, revolutionaries, gangsters, prostitutes, and writers, able to flaunt Shanghaiese laws within the confines of the concession and under the protection of the French. People such as Sun Yat-sen, sometimes referred to as the Father of Modern China and his wife as well as notorious mobsters and Chiang Kai-shek, leader of the KMT, gathered in this area at one time or another. Now it is a strikingly beautiful area that encapsulates why Shanghai is often referred to as the "Paris of the East". The streets are tree lined and filled with French-influenced architecture. There are no major skyscrapers or anything reminiscent of a colossal, growing city, but instead you seem to warp to old Europe where you are just taken in by the charm and character of every corner, each quiant shop and restaurant, and immediately we were in love. We had the luck of absolutely beautiful weather so on our first day we spent about five hours walking the streets of the French Concession with no need for a coat.

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Within the French Concession, we visited Fuxing Park. A PARK?!?!... It could have been any green space at all and we would have jumped for joy anyway since Busan severely lacks for it, but Fuxing is an absolutely beautiful park. The French created the park in 1909 to serve as an area for residents of the French Concession to relax and escape the city's hustle and bustle. The park was later used by the Japanese as a parade ground in the late 1930s. While Shanghai Parks are notoriously great places to people watch with men bringing their birds, people dancing at their leisure, practicing taichi, men playing chess, people walking backwards... unfortunately we didn't get to experience many examples of this since we got there only shortly before sundown. Nonetheless, we loved walking around the park and having it almost to ourselves for self-timer assisted photo-ops and some yogi moves!

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After Fuxing Park we decided we were a bit hungry so we headed over to Xintandi. This area was modeled as a traditional alleyway, chock-full of restaurants, bars, boutiques, and shops. In a time when most of Old Shanghai is being destroyed and replaced with new architecture, the popularity of this complex, replicating old architecture proves it still has an abundance of charm. The area is divided into two pedestrian blocks and is a pleasant area to stroll about.

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It is worth mentioning, that China is nuts about fireworks which was only exacerbated ten fold by the celebration of Lunar New Year. It quite literally sounded like we were in a war zone with fireworks going off every minute of every day, no exaggeration. Everyone from five year olds to ninety-nine year olds were setting fireworks off. At midnight, on Lunar New Year, we stood on our 25th floor balcony and were amazing at the hundreds of grand finale's that were simultaneously going off. It was truly incredible! We took a video of it but it was unable to capture the sound and ridiculousness of the impromptu show we experienced.

Renmin Gogyuan : People's Square and People's Park

This area lies at the heart of Shanghai and had such an overwhelming feel of Washington, DC, ironic since it's establishment lies largely in the communistic trend to have an imposing square for it's people. While this Chinese square may pale in comparison to Beijing's Tienanmen Square, People's Square is open and beautiful. There are no confining features of the area, rather only incredible sights, such as Shanghai Museum to the south and Shanghai City Hall and the Urban Planning Museum to the North, separating People's Square and People's Park. This area is known as the home of some of the best museums and theaters in Shanghai. Once again we enjoyed the beautiful open space and were drawn to this area time and time again, to sit and take a moment to breathe at the end of a long day of walking. After taking my picture with City Hall (I've decided to take a picture with every city hall we come across, in hopes of it bringing me good luck that I may one day have my head shot in front of a city hall that I am running), we were asked by an entire Chinese family to take a family picture with them. They wanted me to hold their infant while grandmas, grandpas, children, and parents collected around us and smiled for a beaming moment. I must say, walking around China, we felt more like celebrities than ever before. People were constantly taking our pictures, smiling at us, and overjoyed to say hello.

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Across the street, to the north rests People's Park which occupies the site of a colonial racetrack. It was actually used as a holding camp as well during WWII. Weird fact, People's Park is also the home to an unofficial matchmaking market on the weekends. Parents come to the park without their children but carrying their resumes in an attempt to find a successful spouse. (I'd kill you, Mom!) The park is also overlooked by Tomorrow Square which is one of the many examples of the new overshadowing the old. Tomorrow Square is the fourth tallest building in Shanghai and surely looks futuristic. Perhaps Uncle Bob uses something similar looking as a dental instrument?!?!

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The Bund

Oh, the Bund!! I was absolutely in love from the second we stepped onto the Bund. This is the most famous area of Shanghai and encompasses much of the city's riverfront and some of the city's greatest buildings. The Bund lies on the west bank of the Huangpu River and gained it's importance after the First Opium War. It became the commercial heart of the city and the Brits named the waterfront road The Bund, after the Persian term for embankment. While the Bund was part of the British Concession, in 1863 the British voluntarily merged with the American Concession to create the International Settlement further north. By the early 20th century, The Bund was lined with banks and trading houses representing many nations including, Great Britain, the US, Russia, Germany, Japan, Holland, and Belgium. Surprisingly and thankfully the architectural beauty of these buildings have survived years of communism. I was enamored by The Bund by day, by night, and by sunrise! I just couldn't get enough!! Everyday, after hours of walking, no matter where we were I made sure we ended the evening at the Bund.

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One of our most memorable moments in Shanghai, was sunrise on our last day. We got up nice and early and took a cab to the Bund. After being there several times as one in thousands of other people we were essentially alone this time. All the lights on both sides of the river were off and there was an overwhelming solitude. It was incredible to feel like we owned The Bund... we even got to do some gymnastic moves! It was a wonderful way to say goodbye to Shanghai!

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Pudong : The New Face of Shanghai

Now on to Joe's preferred side of the Huangpu. Across the river to the East, is the up and coming, starkly different, and almost Jetson-like futuristic part of Shanghai. It is quite interesting to stand in such a historic area and look across the river at this cityscape that looks like something from the 30th century. After Shanghai's modern development began to take off, Pudong transformed from an area filled with rice paddies, market gardens, and rows of rundown warehouses to an overwhelming urban landscape full of skyscrapers and there seem to be a never ending race to reach the clouds first with tall building, followed by taller building, then tallest building, while the foundation is being built for yet another, even taller building! Some of the most popular buildings along the skyline are the Oriental Pearl TV Tower that is 1,535 feet tall and is the home to nine TV channels and ten FM stations. The Jinmao Tower is the third tallest building in China, standing at an impressive height of 1,381 feet. There are signs on the Jinmao Tower that say, "No Climbing". Apparently, they were put up after a Frenchman, dressed as Spider Man, scaled the Jinmao Tower in 90 minutes in 2007. He was the second person to do this, after a shoe salesman spontaneously decided it would be fun in 2001. Now they explicitly tell you otherwise! Even taller (to make it the tallest in China and the second tallest in the world) is the Shanghai World Financial Center which measures 1,617 feet and while it may not be the tallest building in the world, it is the world's tallest observation deck. Not for long though, the groundwork has already begun for an even taller tower to be built next to these two mammoth buildings. CRAZY!

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There are many ways to cross the Huangpu River, on our way east we chose to take The Bund Sightseeing Tunnel. This tourist trap is about 707 yards long and is "China's first under-river artificial sightseeing tunnel". I must be honest and say that I don't even know what that means but it is indicative of the unusual experience this "artificial sightseeing tunnel" provided. We traveled in "environment-friendly non-driver traction compartments", which were made of mostly windows so everyone could have a panoramic view of a quite unusual (I keep saying unusual but theres no other way to describe it) light show with projections along the tunnel walls accompanying a crazy soundtrack including random English interjections such as "fire and ice, hell on earth"... hahah. A tourist book correctly states that "passengers are treated to psychedelic lighting and images of Shanghai's and China's history".

Once in Pudong we headed over to the Jinmao Tower. After taking three different elevators and feeling quite VIP, we made our way to Cloud 9, the bar at the top of the Tower with amazing views of the Bund. We sat, drank a glass of wine, and enjoyed sundown and the lights coming on in both the new and old skylines.

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On the way home, we decided to take the cheapest route back which was a ferry that cost essentially $0.30 each. It was quite the experience in and of itself but it provided us with a quick, cheap, and beautiful trip back. After docking back on The Bund we headed to the hotel to get ready for two hours massages. HEAVEN!!

Nanjing Road

Making it's way through the middle of what was the British Concession is Nanjing Road. It extends west from The Bund all the way to People's Park. Nanjing Road is now the shopping epicenter of Shanghai. It is a bustling pedestrian thoroughfare full of shoppers, street sculptures, toy trains, street performers, scam artists, and the like. There is no shortage of people trying to sell you everything and anything under the sun, always walking up to you with a magazine like pull out offering you the world at your fingertips. It's both overwhelming and mind blowing. It make's NYC's Chinatown look like a walk in the park, although quite notably Nanjing Road is clean and void of the raunchy smell of fish! Plus 1 for China! Nanjing Road is the place for locals to be seen, to see others, and to shop with the best of the best. It is considered one of the city's parade grounds for prosperity which can be felt through the non-communist, free enterprise, profit oriented atmosphere that surrounds you as you walk Nanjing Road.

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Nanshi : Shanghai's Old Town and the Beautiful Yu Yuan Gardens

If there could ever be a polar opposite to Pudong and where Shanghai's crystal ball seems to be showing the future, it would be Nanshi, or Shanghai's Old Town. While one may think that in a city that seems to be wrecking ball and bulldozer friendly, the fate of Nanshi may seem dim; however, it seems that the area is changing fast, but in a very good way. The area is experiencing a great upswing in it's real estate with a drive to maintian the character of the area while cleaning it up and making it safer and more prosperous. A protective wall was built around Nanshi in 1553 when it was once the epicenter of Shanghai. The wall protected the community for about 289 years until the British decided on one fine June morning in 1842 to surmount the wall. Today, Nanshi is now a thriving business center with an abundance of souvenirs, local foods, and imperial and revolutionary nostalgia. ... Looking for a Chairman Mao lapel pin and propaganda posters -- Got it! What about opium paraphernalia? Sure, they got that, too! Pictures of 1930s Shanghai calendar girls?? Why, of course!! There is something to fill all of your desires in Nanshi!! We walked most of Nanshi and got to see the only remaining traces of the city wall, a Taoist temple, and a mosque but not until after we experienced the chaos of Yu Yuan Bazaar and Gardens.

Yu Yuan Bazaar & Gardens

Yu Yuan Bazaar is a re-created, Ming dynasty-style low rise shopping area. It was named for the gardens within but this is by all means a mob scene of people all bustling and pushing to get into shops and stores to buy anything from traditional medicines to chopsticks, umbrellas to walking sticks, bamboo furniture to ceramics and pottery. Once again, the options are endless... are you seeing a trend there yet? To say that the bazaar is a fire hazard to the few thousand people packed inside would be the understatement of the century. There were times when I quite literally did not have my feet on the ground and was just going where the crowd took me. Joe, on the other hand, took the bulldozer approach and was barging through crowds with women and children yelling and crying in his wake. He was the King Kong of Yu Yuan Bazaar while we were there. Since I was being taken with the crowd behind, I got the opportunity to take in reactions of the people as he passed by and act like I didn't know him! haha As if the bazaar is not crazy enough, in the center outside the Gardens is the Huxinting Teahouse. As you may guess, the crowds are genuinely outlandish. Patrons wait in a line on a zig-zag bridge which was not created just to add to the chaos of the area but was rather constructed such to confound evil spirits and malicious ghosts who, naturally, can only travel in straight lines. It's like an insurance policy for the teahouse to ensure only the good and kind enter! People such as Queen Elizabeth II, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and Gerhard Schroder have all had their tea at this famous teahouse. Given Joe's King Kong nature of the day, it was decided he may have been mistaken for one of the evil spirits trying to enter so we went elsewhere! LOL

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As I've mentioned, in the middle of the bazaar there is a sanctuary of peace and sanity for any who enter the Yu Yuan Gardens. The Yu Yuan Gardens are an example of traditional Suzhous gardens and were established in 1559. In creating the gardens, there was a goal of creating a world in microcosm, with mountains and ridges, lakes, forests, and caves. The more practical purpose though was to create an ideal retreat from the outside world and its problems for its owners and his aging father. They took two decades to create and they have withstood damage at the hands of the Brits, the French, and the Japanese. After being restored, they are now once again breathtaking. While the gardens were not much less crowded than the bazaar itself with over 1,000 visitors daily, it would be hard for anyone not to enjoy the beautiful 5 acre garden that includes six scenic areas, 30 pavilions, all of which are linked by incredible bridges.

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While I left out so many wonderful memories and visits to temples, parks, and any neighborhood our feet would take us to, for the sake of your reading pleasure I'm afraid I need to cut myself off at some point. It's safe to say that we both were reluctant to leave Shanghai to head off to Korea and back to reality. We were both so enamored with the city as a whole and enjoyed every minute we had! It gave us the incentive to budget every won we spend so we can have more of these incredible and priceless moments all over Southeast Asia at the end of teaching. While I'm missing home, I have never been more thankful for this opportunity!

There are more pictures of Shanghai online

love & miss you all!

Posted by nlpolyak 01:11 Archived in China Tagged vacation city new celebration exploration Comments (1)

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