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Monday, January 27, 2014

The Next Most Challenging Assignment


For many expats in the Daegu area, a fresh school year lies just around the corner. Expectations run high for both teachers and students. There are new schools, new relationships, new textbooks--new beginnings.

These days in Korea the competition is keen. Most students navigate their studies under the intense gaze of their parents. For better or worse, the sacred destination is the infamous national college entrance exam that seems to be in everyone’s crosshairs.

Just a snap of the fingers brings one back in time to the 1970’s when, if you were a Korean college student, odds were, you were amongst the first in your family to be attending a university.  Classrooms were often dark, dreary and cold places in winter. Lucky you were, if your classroom had some sort of heat—at best a single kerosene heater in the middle of the room.  Lighting too was rudimentary; often one or two light fixtures for an entire classroom.
 
Keimyung University students, then Keimyung Christian College, circa 1974
Even in Daegu, many students commuted to school, at least partially, along dirt roads--make that mud roads--during rainy weather. Today, those same roads are now paved and neatly lined with curbs and sidewalks. The university students of the 1970’s are themselves now grandparents of students embarking on Korea’s 3rd generation of college students. These young students have inherited Korea’s educational legacy: harsh competition, long days of unrelenting study and near universal aspirations to work in one of Korea’s huge chaebols: Samsung, LG or Hyundai Motors.

Daegu high school students practice their English with KU student (1974)

In just several decades Korea has catapulted itself to the highest levels of educational attainment in the world. But the accomplishments have created dilemmas. There are 500,000 university graduates a year for only 100,000 of those highly coveted job openings. The incessant competition, for the best schools and the best jobs, has had its social costs. Korea now leads the world in categories it cannot possibly be proud of: suicides, unhappiness and alcohol consumption.

Today’s generation of Korean students have thus been given their most challenging assignment: finding solutions to these tough societal problems. Will the attainment of satisfaction and contentment be worthy goals for this next generation? And will the remarkable educational and industrial progress of the past be matched by equally impressive social accomplishments? Hopefully, these too, will be new beginnings for Korea.


Sunday, January 12, 2014

Winter Vacation Paradise, From K to Z


Expats living and working in Korea have long made good use of their proximity to great winter vacation destinations in Asia, such as Thailand, India, the Philippines, and Indonesia, amongst others. Waiting at the end of a path less traveled, at least from Asia, sits a remarkable destination half-a-world away.

The very sound of its name seems to slide mellifluously off your tongue. Zihuatanejo (zee-what-tan-ey-ho), conjures up idyllic images of time and place like Xanadu or Atlantis--apparitions of a Zen-like land filled with palm trees, full-bodied native peoples, caressing breezes and azure waters lapping at your feet. Well, that pretty much describes the Place of Women, or as it’s more commonly known, Zihuatanejo.

We were searching for a different winter vacation destination, a welcome change from Korea's winter—one that would not break the bank. Recently, we were watching the popular 1994 movie, The Shawshank Redemption and the final scene when Red catches up with prison-escapee friend, Andy, who is rebuilding a boat on some glorious stretch of beach along the Pacific coast of Mexico. Yes, Zihuatanejo! Sign us up!
Mexico's Pacific coastline with the Bay of Zihuatanejo (bottom right)
Zihuatanejo served as a port for the first trip made by the Spanish colonists in 1527. It later became a commercial and cultural navigation route that served to unify the continents of America and Asia. Today, the city of 68,000 lies comfortably along a naturally protected horseshoe shaped bay of the same name. Four beaches, each with their own personality, stretch around the bay: Playa Principal, the most commercial of the four; Playa La Madera; Playa La Ropa, the longest and favorite of the tourists; and Playa Las Gatas, named after the cat shark that used to inhabit its waters.
 
Sunset over Zihuatanejo Bay
Truth be told, Zihuatanejo has been discovered. But unlike its busier cousin, Ixtapa, located about 3 miles north, it’s far less commercial, quieter and marches to the beat of a different drum. The pulse of Zihuatanejo emanates from its downtown area whose streets lie just off the city pier at La Playa Principal.  Evenings you’ll find the area abuzz, its restaurants, commercial shops and ice-cream stalls, attracting a fascinating mix of locals and expats.

Local shops and vendors along Cinco de Mayo Street
Naturally, restaurants here serve up delicious and tantalizing Mexican fare. The guacamole, tamales and traditional soup, Pozole, alone make the trip here worthwhile. But they are just the beginning. Zihuatanejo is still a town proud of its fishing heritage. Fresh tuna, octopus and its trademark dish, red snapper, are served up daily. These delicious dishes may partially explain all the smiling faces along the bay most afternoons and evenings. More on that in un minuto por favor.

Food enchantment: fresh guacamole, chips, salsa, beer and margaritas on the beach

Aside from amazing food, and the warm-hearted, incessantly smiling locals, Zihuatanejo is, of course, known for its amazing beaches, especially Playa La Ropa. Coconut palm trees line the nearly ¾ mile stretch of fine white sand. With a consistent year-round daytime air temperature of about 90˚, and water temps hovering near 80˚, there’s simply nothing to complain about.

Azure seas lapping the shores of Playa La Ropa

The Mexican culture, it seems, prides itself on striking a balance between work and relaxation. Mexico ranks 22nd on the Global Finance Happiness Scale, on the heels of Chile, Thailand and Brazil. Korea, by way of comparison, ranks 63rd. Mexicans know how to relax and for most of us, relaxation is why we’re here. It’s that mellow spirit and understanding that if things don’t get done today, well, there’s always maƱana (tomorrow). That life philosophy lies behind the smiles one sees on faces everywhere in Zihuatanejo. 

 A vendor selling native bags on Playa de Ropa. Smiles are free.

For those working in Korea who hail from North America or Europe, adding a vacation stop in Zihuatanejo may be easier than you think. Flights can easily be arranged through many cities in Canada and the U.S. For others, the chance to experience this unique, still unspoiled paradise, is well worth the trip. Hotels range from $40/night and up. Great deals can be had on condo rentals--usually the longer the stay--the better the deal.

Zihuatanejo has somehow escaped the tourist hordes over the years. Come, relax, and let its magic seduce you.

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Steve Schuit, is an Associate Professor of English at Yeungnam University. He has written for the Daegu Compass and the Daegu Platform. He blogs on his expat experiences at http://Korean Bookends.blogpsot.com/

[Note: this post was originally written for the Daegu Compass Magazine]