Homeworld 2

Homeworld 2

2: Seoul – what is home

Georgia, after graduating the University of Pittsburgh in 2015, is nearing the end of her second year of teaching English in Seoul, South Korea. Besides teaching, she has kept busy this year, traveling to Vietnam, Taiwan, and around Korea, as well as taking a rigorous Korean language course at the Seoul-based Yonsei University over the summer. We were happy to have her back at Myrtle Beach for our annual vacation this year, although the jet lag can’t have been easy. This year for Christmas, we are excited to fly over to spend time with her in Seoul and have her show us her world. As for next year, she is not quite sure where the winds will take her. A trip to China after she finishes her contract is in the works, after which she will return to America, hopefully “for good.”

A week or so back, I wrote the previous paragraph for our family’s annual Christmas letter. How do you condense a whole year into a few sentences? How do you convey the utter vastness of a year’s worth of experiences in a foreign country (or several), but also convey the utter normalcy of everything? How do you put things that are so wildly different from home into terms that even my grandmother could understand? The last post was concerned with what was home. This one is focused on what is home.

My family will arrive here in Seoul in about 10 days. How do you even cram all of those experiences, all the “‘essentials,”” into a week and a half?

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My friends asked me if I will take my family outside of Seoul, and I rationalized against it (plus, although I don’t work for long each day, I still don’t have a proper “”vacation”” during that time, so we wouldn’t be able to go far.) I think that, even though it’s one of the largest cities in the world, Seoul is a pretty accurate microcosm for Korea as a whole. What will you do when they’re here, the next question always comes. Foods, drinks, palaces. Noraebang, jjimjilbang. Hikes, if we can manage it. Trying to give a sense how Seoul has both the ancient and modern coexisting right next to one another, nature and high-rises competing for space within the city, and tradition and innovation in the cultural sphere.

What follows is a Cliff Notes version of what to do in Seoul, curated by me, of course.

Food

I think food is central to Korean life for all, foreigners and Seoulites alike. It’s unique in that everybody has to choose together what they want to eat, rather than agreeing on a general restaurant and all ordering separate dishes. Most of my days are planned around what’s for dinner.

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Samgyeopsal – It’s well-documented (as I mention it in almost every blog post here) that this grilled pork-belly dish is my favorite meal. It’s filling and fun to eat, and comes with enough vegetable side dishes and lettuce wraps to mostly cut through the grease of the pork. If your little lettuce wrap “burrito” bite is well-made, the combination of flavors is nothing short of perfection.

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Duk Galbi (닭갈비) – This spicy mixed chicken dish is wonderfully filling, often cheesy, and all of the friends can eat their fill without necessarily feeling like dying at the end of the meal.

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Salmon – Technically salmon sashimi, my friends and I are kind of addicted to salmon, especially the “infinite refill” (all you can eat) variety. Usually the salmon comes with tasty sides of mixed rice, beef soup, or raw beef called yuk-hoe.

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Bulgogi – While this Korean “fire meat” (the literal translation) is gaining popularity, or at least visibility, in the West, I’ve found that I never really liked it much until coming here. There’s a place in my neighborhood that does a wonderfully simple version – just beef, green onion, mushrooms, and japchae glass noodles – that is perfectly filling and definitely worth scalding the roof of your mouth for.

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Kimbap restaurant – These restaurants, described to me as the “McDonald’s of Korean food” when I first got here, serve so much more than just kimbap, the Korean answer to sushi. In fact, I find them closest to an American-style diner: open 24/7 and serving a wide range of food from snacks to full meals. This is the best place to try a “little bit of everything” without making the commitment of going to a dedicated restaurant for each dish.

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Budaejjigae – This Korean “army stew” came out of frugality during war times, originally: the American soldiers stationed in Korea would give their extra food, like packets of ramen, Spam, and hot dogs to the Korean citizens, who would then whip it up into a filling and flavorful stew with kimchi, rice cakes, tofu, and whatever veggies they wanted. Everyone tends to favor different parts of the stew, so there’s usually little fighting over who gets the spam or hot dogs.

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Samgyetang – A dish traditionally eaten during the summer, this whole chicken, ginseng root, and jujube soup is supposed to be very good for your health. Even though it’s supposed to only be around in the summer, the dish most closely resembles American chicken noodle soup, making it good for winter, too.

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Mandu – It might not be my favorite food, but there’s no denying that the traditional Korean-style dumpling, often filled with cabbage, noodles, and meat and veggies, is one that is important to everyone’s daily life here.

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Ddeokbokki – These rice cake dumplings in a spicy sauce can be at times a wonderful side-dish to your meal, a cheeky drunk food on the street, or a meal by themselves. My first week here, without even any chopsticks to eat with, I got a ddeokbokki from the stall near my house and took it home to eat sitting on the floor.

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Hoddeok – These brown sugar and nut-filled pancakes are the most delicious dessert you can crave in the winter here in Korea. I know that there are also savory varieties, but the sweet one is the only one I go for. However, the scalding brown sugar dripping from the pancake can turn into a deadly weapon if you’re not careful.

 

Drinks

Equally important to life here is drinking, maybe even more important. Almost every person here at any given time will either have a coffee, tea, or alcohol in their hand.

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Cafes – My love of Korean cafes is also well-documented. Before I came here, I made a resolution to try at least one new cafe a week. The real average is probably closer to 1.5 or 2 new cafes a week. There’s a cafe for all tastes, whether you crave a quiet place to camp out and study, a pretty dessert for your instagram, or a kitchy environment that captivates your interest.

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Makgeolli – Many people abroad know what soju is by now, but really, Korean rice wine makgeolli is my jam. A traditional drink after hiking or when it’s raining, it’s a hard sell for some. It’s tangy like a soda but a bit milky like a yogurt, usually drunk from a bowl, and makes for a perfect accompaniment to pajeon, the green onion pancake. After trying all different kinds, I can say with absolute confidence that I prefer makgeolli to soju.

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Soju – There’s no denying soju‘s reign as the most popular alcohol in the whole world. How else could you get completely trashed off of $4 USD’s worth of alcohol? That it comes in different flavors (my favorite is the “toucan soju”), certainly makes it more palatable to many more foreigners. The unflavored kind pairs well with beer, cider, and other things.

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Beer & other things – That Gordon Ramsay endorsed Cass beer was an unfortunate debate topic for a few weeks, but it makes sense: you need a smooth, relatively flavorless beer (water-like, almost) to wash down the strong and spicy flavors you’re consuming. Everybody here, Korean and foreign alike, has their favorite “mix”: somaek, the most common soju and beer mix, soju-cider-beer mix, soju-beer-cola mix, or even soju mixed with the yogurt drink that they give to children. (My favorite is soju, cider, and beer in equal measures).

Traditional Seoul

Some things haven’t changed much in decades. You get the sense that the same noraebangs and jjimjilbangs have stuck around for years and years, the old tried-and-true standbys of Korean life.

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Noraebang – Again, my love for noraebang is no secret. The singing room is a cheap and fun way to while away an hour or two while waiting for the train to start up, or keep the party going when everybody’s a little too drunk to keep dancing but doesn’t want to go home yet. Most people sneak their own drinks or snacks in, and the theatricality of the lights and secluded room really call to me. (It’s also been suggested to me that I only like the sound of my own voice, which.. no comment). You better bet I’m going to spend this New Year’s the same way as last year, singing in a noraebang and drinking toucan soju.

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Jjimjilbang – The Korean-style bathhouse was unlike the Japanese-style I knew about previously. You get a little gym uniform and some towels and go into salt-, charcoal-, or crystal-bedecked heated rooms to sweat out your impurities. You can rest from the heat in the cold room or in the middle room, where many people take a snooze, read magazines, or eat hard-boiled eggs. When you can’t take the heat anymore, you go into the bath area and scrub off all your skin at least three times with a rough cloth, then dip into the baths. Lots of foreigners are weirded out by the nudity (even though it’s segregated by gender), but as a swimmer I don’t find it that weird. At the end you truly feel like you’ve got baby skin, and it’s quite the treat in the winter.

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Hiking – “What, you like hiking? I never noticed,” said nobody, ever. I think that the hiking culture is one of the best representatives of Korean culture as a whole. The healthy practice of hiking mixed with the unhealthiness of drinking at the top of the mountain, generosity with individualism, the tradition of monks and priests walking into the hills to meditate balanced with the modernity of taking all the selfies at the top. Everyone says “hi,” in a mixture of Korean and English, and wants to help you get where you’re going. Young kids hiking with their parents, couples, and old people all coexist happily on the mountain. (We will probably not get to go hiking because it will probably be too cold in a few weeks’ time.)

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Palaces – Seoul’s palaces are a well-known fount of history knowledge for foreigners and Koreans alike. Although there are many palaces in Seoul, two very close to one another are my top picks. While I think that most foreigners know about Gyeongbokgung, the main royal palace, I argue that Changdeokgung is the best palace to visit in Seoul, as it is larger and more well-preserved (and also a UNESCO World Heritage site).

Modern Seoul

Sitting right alongside the many centuries of strong tradition are the modern high-rise skyscrapers and other amenities of city living. Arguably the best transportation system in the world gets millions of Seoulites from place to place every day and anything you can ever want is available at the touch of a button.

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Malls – Boy, do Koreans like to shop. Clothes, electronics, homewares, everything. While there are lots of malls in the recognizable Western sense, many more are underground in subway stations or under other buildings.

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Libraries – Speaking of shopping malls, there’s a huge library inside of a mall in Jamsil area. I haven’t gotten to go yet, but I’m eager to take my family, all avid readers, to see what all the fuss is about.

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Lotte World Tower – The new tallest building in Korea, this tower, well, towers over the Seoul skyline. They were just building it when I got here, and now you can ride up to the top to get a view of all of Seoul (although in my opinion, the view from the top of a mountain is better, and more well-earned). I use this building as a weather gauge each day when on my commute to work: if I can see the tower from the river, the smog isn’t too bad, if it’s obscured, the air quality is pretty bad (and certainly should not run in that weather).

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Namsan Tower – The former most famous tower in Seoul, Namsan tower is a common place for young couples to go and put a “love lock” up on the fence. You can hike up the mountain (not recommended, but that’s what I did, and on the way I met an opera-singing Italian man who was part of an international biking team), take a cable car, or bus to nearly the top. It may be a little overrated, but it’s still a cute way to see your Seoul vista if you don’t want to hike.

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Movie Theaters – Movies are something else here in Korea. While it’s a common and almost mundane part of American life, movies here retain their special-ness. You can see a 4D movie that rocks and shakes your seat or get a set that includes beer, coffee, or dried squid. I’m excited that we might see the new Star Wars soon on the big screen.

Museums

My family is also a big museum-going family, so besides some palaces, no trip would be complete without at least a little bit of outright “”educational”” experience.

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DMZ tour – Not for lack of desire, but rather all of my friends are either Americans who had already done the tour before, or non-American citizens who don’t care much to be so close to the North Korean border. It seems almost a rite of passage for many Americans who visit Korea to go on a tour like this.

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Arario Museum – Located between Gyeongbokgung and Changdeokgung Palaces, I found this modern art museum quite by accident. It’s in the most unique building, and the maze of exhibition rooms are fascinating. It combines a modern glass building with traditional Korean hanok-style building and a 1970s office building with art pieces that really make you think. I’ve been twice already and can’t wait to go back. After you’re done with the art spaces, you can catch a coffee, dessert, and an art magazine in the museum cafe, which has a great view of the busy city life outside.

Neighborhoods

It’s hard to describe Seoul like other cities (like, say, Rome), where you have a checklist of things to see that are clearly defined. For me, Seoul is more a collection of unique neighborhoods to be strolled through at your own leisure. Each area has its own specialties and its own history, its own flavor. I usually go to different areas for different purposes, but find other reasons to stay.

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Hongdae/ Sangsu – My current home neighborhood is a young university-age area dripping with cafes and cute boutiques. I find it hard to go other places when everything I need and all of my favorite bars and restaurants are now within walking distance of my house. Hongdae is a hopping nightlife area whereas Sangsu is more of the quiet restaurant area.

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Insadong, Bukchon, Samcheong-dong, Gyeongbokgung – There’s a long walk that I like to do through all of these neighborhoods, and in it, you can take in the traditional arts-and-crafts street of Insadong, the boutiques and street food of hanok-lined alleyways in Bukchon, or the high-end shops of Samcheong-dong all in one walk. I could never give directions on this walk, but some of the best restaurants I’ve discovered in Seoul have been found on these walks.

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Gangnam – I roll my eyes, but no trip to Seoul would be complete without taking in Gangnam’s high-rises and bright lights, and yes, even the “Gangnam Style” sign that put South Korea on the map for most Americans. Gangnam may be expensive and crowded but it is quintessential modern Korea.

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Itaewon, Noksapyeong, HBC – The cornerstone for most foreigners in Korea is Itaewon. I have spent many a weekend drinking there, and many of the best restaurants I know of are in this area. My favorite cafe in all of Seoul is located in the quieter hillside area of Noksapyeong, and some really excellent restaurants line the quiet “kimchi pot” street of Haebangchon, usually known as HBC. Nestled right next to the U.S. army base, many foreigners work and play in this area, which makes it comforting in some ways and more dangerous in others.

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DDP/ Cheonggyecheon – The Dongdaemun Design Plaza (DDP) is such an amazing sight, hovering like a spaceship in north central Seoul. Housing exhibition spaces, special events, and a design “market,” DDP is a celebration of modern creative thought. Within spitting distance of DDP are many Korean-style shopping malls (cheap clothes, no changing rooms), boutiques, movie theaters, and the Cheonggyecheon stream, which I first heard about when my urban planning-major friend, Earl, did a project on the excavation of the stream from underground and its elevation into a public park. At present, there will be a Christmas light festival going on which we will visit.

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Myeongdong – Quite frankly, Myeongdong stresses me out a lot, but it is the most typical and famous shopping street in Seoul. Geared towards mainly foreigners, the shops are always blaring k-pop songs and trying to get you to come in. The street food stalls are wonderful here and it’s always busy and bustling. The most famous church for foreigners is also located here, but it’s a bit hard to find if you don’t know what you’re looking for.

Well. That concludes the Cliff-Notes. I’m not sure if it was short or concise at all, but it’s hard to keep in my enthusiasm sometimes.

 

A toast, to introducing new people to old things that you love.

 

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on the other side of the desk

on the other side of the desk

It’s become the dead of fall, giant leaves crowding the sidewalks and crunching underfoot. Winter is nearly here. But there’s still one more experience to recount from this eventful summer, full of beach getaways, international vacations, and smaller things like hikes and Pride. That’s not what colored the atmosphere for most of the summer for me, though. What really occupied most of my thoughts during this time was my Korean class at Yonsei University. While I learned a lot of words and grammar forms, I learned some more valuable things from my time there, which can apply to more places than just the Korean-speaking world.

Let’s take it from the top.

We started with a placement exam. When the results came out, I was floored by getting put in level 5 out of 8 levels (I was hoping for a solid level 2 or 3 after a year of study and a year of living here). So yeah. I was shook.  And throughout the entire class, while the other kids (I say kids, I was the youngest in the class by 5-10-20 years) seemed to have learned most of the grammar before, I was scrambling to pick up the pieces. I communicated mostly through jokes and baby sentences, but I was able to communicate.

We got to talk about such awesome things! Like ethics and politics and attitudes towards a lot of things. This isn’t the baby class in university going over things like “What is your name?” “I’m an American.” “I’ve lived in Korea for 2 years,” kind of things. This kind of class, we were talking about friends with benefits or sugar mama situations (no sugar daddies, luckily), alcohol tolerances, and regional differences.  This class was so fun and so challenging that I would definitely say it was the best decision I made this year.

Not only learning Korean, I learned a lot about teaching a second language from our professor. It was my first time being “on the other side of the desk” since I had started to teach, after all.

1. Anything that’s worth doing, it’s worth doing again.

Your entire grade is based on the results of the final exam. While I was most nervous for the speaking (as within the context of the class, my speaking was decidedly the worst), I should have been more nervous about listening. Listening has never been my strong suit. That was the only section I failed. A month later, I headed back for a retest (side story: I sat in the auditorium with all the other kids thinking they were all there for a retest. But in reality, they were coming to take the placement test for the next semester. So much wasted time.) I did pass the second time, and it felt more rewarding to go back and do it right than just let that failing grade stick with me forever. I don’t get a certificate or put any kind of certification on my transcript because of this, but it feels good to “do it right.” In addition, I promised myself that I could only buy that Yonsei letterman jacket if I passed. So.

2. Put good in, get good out.

In a language learning setting, both routine and good attitude are key. One of our classmates would always come in late, and then stopped coming to class altogether. I suspect it was the lack of regularity that got to him. Especially in an adult language learning setting where you can’t really get the students to do homework, the routine of going to class is all you’ve got. In addition, good attitude is the other half of the equation. If you’re not interested in the class, it will be hard to do well and learn anything, but reframing it with better intentions will put you in the right mood to jump in constructively to the conversation.

3. Don’t be a Matthew

A parable: I have a student named Matthew (I always refer to him by name because the contrast between him and my friend Matt, an insanely gifted language learner, is intensely ironic to me) who never listens in class. All of the other girls in his fourth-grade class make an effort, or will ask questions when they don’t understand. They are willing to talk about anything if I can open up the conversation in a constructive way. Matthew listens intently perhaps 10% of the class, therefore learning and absorbing way less. It’s not possible to pay attention all the time, but many times listening and following along in the book are half the battle to understanding what the teacher is saying.

I learned the same thing in Korean class. You will understand more if you’re dedicatedly listening and paying attention as much as possible in class than if you’re zoning out. You can’t get back that lost time of not listening, and it’s nearly impossible to pick up the thread of a conversation that has taken a new turn in such a fast-paced class. Thus, just listen and a lot more things will come naturally, like learning and understanding. (NOT easily, just more naturally.)

4. You don’t have to understand every word.

Another pitfall I learned to avoid is not getting hung up on understanding every word of every sentence, or even every sentence. Many times, I might get hung up on a word and lose the meaning of the whole rest of the sentence, or even more as I frantically tried to look it up. (Sometimes our professor would write the word on the board to make that easier). Instead, much like looking into binoculars, you must focus a little wider on the meaning and feel of the sentence as a whole, how it fits into what the person is saying. I also did not understand a lot of the grammar forms that were being used, but again this zooming out really helped me to get the gist of things.

It turns out, in communication (which is kind of what learning languages is all about, after all), you just have to understand “enough,” to make an appropriate response and show the speaker that you’re listening and understanding. It doesn’t matter that the professor is a fluent speaker basically talking to a third-grader-level speaker like myself, if you have a mind to express those ideas and you have a willing listener, try your best.

5. Different learning philosophies are not necessarily or better or worse than one another.

In our class, we had 2 Taiwanese students, a Japanese guy, our Korean professor, and 2 Americans including myself. This often led to lively discussions about cultural differences, but one day our professor commented on the different ways that Eastern and Western students learn. I’ve also encountered this divide teaching ESL for the past almost-2-years here in Korea.

In the U.S, the focus is on understanding and applying the knowledge. This sounds stuck-up, but the exact grammar forms aren’t as important as being able to get your ideas across, as being able to manipulate the equation to be able to do what you want it to do, or being able to explain something. It’s teaching bigger concepts rather than individual points. There’s a lot more focus on explaining, elaborating, and discussing things than getting everything exactly correct.

In Korea and the East, it’s all about memorization. My little students last year had a speech that was a couple minutes long, that they would memorize word-for-word from reading and listening to my voice recording, together with adding carefully choreographed gestures and expressions. At a college level, this leads to the students taking diligent notes or taking pictures of the board or powerpoint slides and feverishly studying a stack of notecards ahead of the exam.

This is not to say that one style is better than the other, just different. Western students may come across as less smart than their Eastern counterparts because they have less-correct answers, perhaps, when their understanding is better suited to essay tests than their Eastern counterparts. Perhaps a little bit of both sides would make for the best language learner.

6. Talking is just as beneficial as “real” instruction.

While you buy a book to participate in the class and hope to learn most of the material from it, often jokes and real-life talks are better than strictly sticking to the book. I don’t remember the days where we just practiced grammar forms and new vocabulary words. I don’t really remember the grammar from those days, either. Instead, the days that were more fun and really stuck with me are the days where we talked about our actual lives, our homelands, where the professor would listen to the details of our drinking escapades or dating lives with all the relish of a saucy aunt. So I can say from real experience that talking about things that students actually care about and getting interested in their lives really gets them excited to talk.

(On the subject of jokes, I’ve also learned that not being afraid to make fun of yourself as a teacher is incredibly valuable and humanizes you to the students in the best possible way).

7. Gestures, sound effects, expressions are more than half of communication.

You don’t come to a class setting to only learn from a book. You don’t come to a class to listen to a CD recording. Communication is about a lot more than reading and listening, even more than just talking. Real communication is kind of messy, as I’ve learned from my bilingual attempts to talk with my first graders. It involves a lot of dramatic, mime-like gestures, sound effects (seriously considering starting a podcast or radio show I like my sound effects so much), and silly facial expressions convey almost more than the words themselves. You pick up other people’s expressions, too. From talking with my coteacher, Miss Tiffany, last year I’ve picked up a lot of facial expressions, and I learned a great deal more from the Korean professor, too. It’s a delicate art and a big joke at the same time, communicating, but there’s no one right answer.

8. Load on the examples.

The more examples, the better. This is also a function of comedic timing. When explaining a new concept, it’s so important to have as many examples as possible, and writing them down so that the students can follow the pattern is incredibly important, too. When my fourth graders and I played “Fannee Doolee” last year, we filled an entire whiteboard with the things Fannee Doolee likes before the students caught on that it was a spelling thing rather than a spoken thing. The humorous frustration when learning a language is all part of the game, but providing enough background knowledge for the kids to form their own connections is also important.

9. You get what you pay for.

Let’s say these days I work for a significantly cheaper hagwon then I did before. Now, the best students can learn from bad instruction, but the middling to struggling students won’t be able to learn in these ineffective settings. In the same way, at the college level instruction you will also reap the rewards from less-effective instructors. Perhaps you’re paying for the name, but perhaps you’re paying for more effective instructors who better know what they’re doing, and better materials to boot. If you want to go to a free language exchange, it might help, but having the formal direction of a class is more useful to guide your studies and learning, at the very least.

10. Any learning is better than no learning.

That being said, any effort towards learning a language is commendable. I know people who have lived here for a long time who, so far from being fluent, can barely string together a single sentence. Much of the Western world insists that immigrants learn English when moving to our countries, when in reality we are not willing to do the same when the reverse applies. I’m not saying you have to be government-level proficient in whatever your current country’s language is; any effort to learn and better yourself is commendable, no matter how small it may seem. Any way you choose to learn is also good. If you learn best from listening to music or podcasts, watching movies, reading books, magazines, or twitter, whatever is best for you is good. I don’t want to cast aspersions on different learning styles, but just that you should do it earnestly and be a good listener or reader, whatever you do to learn it.

 

Anyhow, I’m indebted to this class. I can’t necessarily say I’m miles better than when I started, but I’m more confident. I learned so much. It’s the badge of a language learner to realize how little you know, and I’m still discovering the gaps even now, doing my best to patch them up.

A toast to language learning, teaching, and communication, with all of their twists and turns.

these are a few of my favorite things,

these are a few of my favorite things,

This weekend, I woke up early, and after my customary slow-starting morning where I spend an hour dicking around on social media, I tied on my running shoes and headed down to Han River park for a Saturday morning run.  As soon as I got into the park, however, I found that there was some kind of huge running race, like a marathon, and the trails were off-limits for a while.  Discouraged, I turned back.  It was the perfect kind of day for a run, the kind of weather that we have in the beginning of swimming season right when the pool opens for the summer (as in, nice to be outside, not so nice to swim in fresh-from-the-fire-hydrant water kind of weather).

I had a change of heart a block later.  It was about 9am, why not try to run on the streets?  You’ll find that foreigner women rarely, if ever, run in Seoul, and certainly not on the streets.  It’s useful to shake up the monotony of running with different things.  As it is, since I’m right next to the river, I usually just choose one of two directions and do a quick out-and-back.  Sprinting between blocks and dodging the few other pedestrians waiting for their brunch restaurants to open was a welcome break from that usual grind.  I ran out to my favorite café in Hongdae, but as I didn’t bring any money, I couldn’t have stopped for coffee even if I’d wanted to.  On the way back, the run through the main drag of Hongdae showed me walk-of-shamers returning from long nights out now that it was full daylight, and I also discovered the diligent cleanup crews responsible for making the disaster areas around the clubs look clean and presentable again.  I was refreshed and buoyed up with renewed enthusiasm for my city.  Afterwards, I got to show some of my favorite areas in Samcheong-dong and Insadong to my Irish friend who lives nearly in Incheon and went out drinking in Itaewon.  The next morning, catching hungover brunch with my friend Kevin, the feeling of “I love this city” luckily didn’t diminish all weekend.

As I’ve often discussed, it can be therapeutic to talk shit about people or places, but that’s no way to live your life all the time.  I just finished reading a book about happiness called “The Happiness Project,” written by Gretchen Rubin.  My thoughts on the book itself aside, it gave me a lot to think about, but especially considering the oft-cited quote by G.K. Chesterton, “It is easy to be heavy, hard to be light.”  It is easier to complain and be critical of your surroundings, especially when they’re different from that which you grew up with.  It’s much harder to find delight and charm, and furthermore logic in the illogical things people do in other countries.  As they used to say when I studied abroad in Oz, “It’s not wrong, it’s different.”  There’s a lot more different coming from the U.S. to South Korea than to Australia.  But honestly, most of it is for the better and not for the worse.

Dwelling on the negative makes me stressed, angry, and snappish.  I don’t want to be this selfish asshole who only blames her surroundings for her bad moods.  I want to be grateful and appreciative and strive to be happy, because honestly, being here gives me such joy that I can’t properly comprehend until I leave the country and then return.  I can’t imagine having to leave for good, but I suspect I’ll be taking trips back here for the rest of my life.  It’s enthralling and addictive and life-giving being here, and I can’t imagine being anywhere else.

What follows is the rebuttal to my drag post of last week.  I wanted to follow it quickly before the karma gods could get me too badly.

  1. Korean food

There’s so much variety here that it’s almost too much to put into a single category, but certainly I’ll write a blog post about all my favorite foods here one day.  Until then, know that there’s a jaw-dropping variety, from grilled meats to soups to poke-like rice and vegetable dish bibimbap, after which my twitter handle is named.  There are certain foods you must eat when it rains.  There are certain foods you must eat when it’s summer.  There are certain foods that you must eat after hiking.  I love all the traditions and the spices and colors.  I think that will be the hardest thing to leave when coming back to the states.  It’s easy enough to find Korean barbeque in the States (although it’s prohibitively expensive unless you live in L.A. Koreatown), but it’s harder to find the perilla seed sujebi soup, the cheesy and spicy chicken dish duk galbi, and the winter treat hoddeok, a delicious honey-filled pancake.  Whatever you happen to be craving, you can find it in this city, whether it’s western food or sushi or Indian food.  My mom has threatened me that I must learn Korean cooking from a proper grandma before I come back, but so far that hasn’t happened yet.

  1. Out until the sun comes up

Everything here is open late.  If you want coffee after a certain time in the United States, you’d better be prepared to make it yourself.  If you want food after a certain time, you’d be best to content yourself to gas-station or diner food.  As for entertainment, after a certain time, you’re out of luck.  Nothing is open.

Not so here.  Time runs a little later here, so you head out to drinking later and stay out until the trains start running again.  Restaurants are open late, cafes don’t close until 11 or midnight, and if you don’t want to go clubbing to stay out all night, the possibilities at arcades and noraebang, one of my favorite hobbies here, are a sure way to pass the time.  If you get hungry, you can get some food at a stall or get some Lotteria (Korea’s version of McDonald’s), which also never closes.  It’s an insomniac’s country here, and this, rather than New York City, is truly the city that never sleeps.

  1. Cafes

It was a struggle not to put this at #1 in the list.  Korea is nearly as famous as Japan for its scores of cutesy theme cafes, and I’ve been to many of them (including the Insadong poop café which I visited last weekend), but that’s only part of the story.  There’s a café for every kind of interest here.  You like animals?  They have not only cat and dog cafes, but also raccoon, sheep, and meerkat cafes.  You like a certain kind of color #aesthetic?  There are pink and purple cafes to satisfy your needs.  Whether you like cacti or ferns, you can find cafes crawling with them.  If you like camping or naps or fishing or nice views, there are cafes catered towards those interests.  There are scores of studying cafes centered around creating a focused environment for Seoul’s many students.  There are beautiful desserts, Instagram-worthy scenes, and quality coffee almost anywhere you go.  In the states, you would be lucky to find even one independent coffee shop as cute as any given café in Seoul, but here, every single café is super cute. (I would cite the website of each of these examples, but that will be for another post).

  1. Hiking culture

In the past, I’ve talked about hiking.  I really think that it sums up all the best things about Korean society in one activity.  Hiking, unlike in the United States, is a hobby for anybody, just hop on the train and get out in front of the mountain and make your way to the top.  It’s a hobby for old and young, sunny and rainy weather.  Instead of everyone’s athleisure in the States being running gear or yoga gear, the go-to athleisure here is hiking gear.  Everyone’s mood is better on the mountain, and many are eager to say “hi” to you (sometimes even in English!!!) and point the way if you’re lost.  Once you’ve reached the top, gotten your selfie, and made your way back down, you can kick back in the little shikdangs (small restaurants) and get some ramen, jeon pancakes, or bibimbap, washing it all down with some makgeolli, as is the way of eating “mountain food” after a hike.  While not everybody is well-versed in exercise culture here, hiking is a pastime that everyone can enjoy.

  1. Service

Koreans adopted the English word “service,” said in the Korean accent much more like “seobiseu,” to describe taking care of your customers so that they will return again.  Not just a sound business practice, it’s also a relationship builder and a really feel-good aspect of living here in Korea.  It often comes in the form of giving free things to customers who are being nice and behaving themselves.  Once, my friend Chris told the story where he was in a little eatery and he mentioned to the lady running the shop that he’d like to buy one of the shot glasses so he could take it home.  He could have easily stolen it, but his good manners prompted the store owner to give him an entire case of the shot glasses, which wasn’t too big of an ask, as she received crates and crates of them as free promotional items, but still a cool gesture nonetheless.  I get free extra time in noraebang all the time and it never goes unnoticed.  Often, the proprietor will plunk down extra drinks or food on your table and announce “service!” automatically lifting the mood of everyone at the table.

  1. General feeling of safety

I’ve done some dumb things in my short, 23-year life, and many of those dumb things revolve around what I like to call the “Simba Complex.”  Remember in The Lion King when King Mufasa tells young Simba, “being brave means you don’t go looking for trouble”?  And then immediately after, Simba decides that that advice doesn’t apply to him and does something reckless anyway?  It’s like that.  That’s why I often find myself doing just slightly dangerous things like walking alone at night in Pittsburgh when lesser humans have gotten shot to death on the same streets.

I contrast that with life here in Seoul.  I do not exaggerate when I say that I never feel unsafe in Seoul.  Or, at least, the times I feel unsafe can be counted on one hand with several fingers to spare.  The only times I truly feel unsafe is when I’m in the foreigner district of Itaewon, to be honest.  You can walk down the street at any time of day or night and count on reasonable safety of your person.

The same goes for your belongings.  Once, I was writing a blog in a café when I got a call from my brother.  He doesn’t call often, so I went outside to receive the call so as not to bother the other patrons.  We talked for over an hour, as is the way with us, and my wallet and laptop sat out on my table in the middle of the café for that hour and nobody touched them.  Even things you want to lose you can’t get rid of.  I had a friend who was trying to quit smoking. Every once in a while, she would buy a pack of cigarettes and smoke only one or two. To get rid of them, she would leave them somewhere, like at a bus stop, so that somebody might take them and she wouldn’t feel bad about buying them.  Returning several days later, she could still find that same pack with all the cigarettes untouched.

  1. Trains!

I’m obsessed with public transport.  When my parents went to Paris this summer, they exclaimed to me, “We used the Metro!! We thought you would be so proud!”  While public transport is partially a cheap young people way to get around in the U.S., it’s pretty much the only way here in Seoul (taxis don’t count, even though they’re far cheaper than in other countries).  The trains here are so effective and reliable, I’ve almost never needed to even use a bus.  But even still, it’s possible to get almost anywhere you want to go without ever renting a car.  You wouldn’t really want to drive here anyway.

  1. WIFI

“Why, why, wi-fi!” the students at my old school would chant, throwing their hands in the air in the shape of a Y.  That really is this country’s lifeblood.  I can’t imagine going back to a place with lesser wi-fi.  In no other place can you survive for months, or even years, without a phone plan.  It’s pretty easy to filch wifi from cafes, restaurants, or even from subway stations as you pass by them on the street.  The phone reception here is insane, too: you can probably FaceTime people from the tops of mountains with absolutely no lag.  (I try to avoid that to keep from sapping all my data at once).  It’s easy to get used to being able to load a whole feature-length movie in seconds, hard to be parted from it.

  1. A culture of creativity

While some things might be a little backward, as far as cultural products go, Korea is on the cutting-edge of the times.  From art to music to fashion, everything here is tightly controlled (for better or worse) and highly branded.  Everyone pays attention to the aesthetic and there is a sharp eye for design in all things, from phone cases to the pencils with coordinating caps that my students use.  My art soul is happy here in Seoul.

  1. Deliver it to me

Anything you want can also be delivered.  If you want McDonald’s or fried chicken, that can easily be delivered to your house at no extra cost (a country that makes their motorcycle delivery boys look like BMX bikers is clearly doing something right).  If you want to buy kitchen appliances or furniture, since almost nobody has large cars, you can get any of that delivered.  If you want to have a picnic with your friends in Han River park, you can easily order the chimaek (chicken and beer, typical summer Han River picnic food) right to your picnic blanket without ever having to lift a finger.

My Korean’s not really up to scratch to order these things, and I still think that for most things that if it’s worth getting, it’s worth me going to get it, but that the possibility exists for anything to be delivered is exciting all on its own.

Honorable mention:

Movie theaters

In my hometown in the U.S., there’s not much to do for fun outside of home.  You can go hang out at the gas station, grocery store, or mall, you can go out to eat, or you can go to a movie.  As such, in my area we see a lot of movies.  This enthusiasm carries on into later life, no matter where you go.  While there aren’t as many western movies to see here, there are enough.  The movie experience in Korea is amazing.  You can go see a show in 4D, which has moving, rumbling seats, flashing lights, spitting water, and wind.  You can get different “couple sets,” like those that feature nachos, hot dogs, coffees, or beers.  Seriously, drinking at the movies is way cool (Koreans turn everything from baseball games to the protests against the former president into drinking events).

Easy-to-read language

It is embarrassingly easy, as a foreigner, to live here for years and never learn much more than you have to of Korean.  But that’s taking for granted the remarkable system of writing, hangul, that King Sejong the Great invented all those years ago.  As far as Eastern languages go, you’re pretty well-off learning to read Korean.  It might not be easy to learn all the different tenses and levels of formality, but to learn to read is remarkably easy, especially compared to Korea’s neighbors, Japan and China.

I don’t think of this often, but I want to take a moment to appreciate the Korean zest for learning languages.  In the United States, unless you happen to be a self-professed “language person,” you probably won’t learn more than one language to any sort of proficiency.  Whereas Koreans love learning and love learning languages in general, even if some of the kids might be salty about having to learn English in particular.  Basically, it’s a pretty good bet that if you’re in trouble someone in the room probably speaks some English, and that’s a huge help.

 

Anyhow, as the song goes, “these are some of my favorite things,” about living here, and why it will be difficult to leave in a little over 10 months.  I’ve already begun my grieving process, starting with a grand to-do list inspired by the one I made when I went to Oz and a 100-day happiness project to keep me positive and appreciative.

10 things i hate about you

10 things i hate about you

Note: if your name is Bonne DuCharme, or actually if your surname is DuCharme at all, do not read this post.  Or if you do, approach it with the same wariness that you would a giant spider.  For the rest, continue.

I wish I had some cool trips to report, some earth-shattering discoveries about life or living here in Korea that I could share to shed some light on my experience.  As it is, I’m lamenting that I’m already a month and a half into my second year here, with the “fresh start,” and it seems as if I have barely accomplished anything thus far.  I should consider myself lucky, with a stable job, nice apartment, and short working hours, I have absolutely no grounds for complaint.  My best friend Erin always comments after these kind of posts that they’re really dark, but that she appreciates that I’m honest in them.  Sugar-coating and gilding lilies?  That’s Instagram kind of horseshit.  I’m only a truther on here.

Less than 11 months out and I’ve already begun to convince myself and my mother that I’m returning to the states when this contract is up.  I’m pretty sure that I will.  Until then, I have lots of major diversions coming up: a trip to Vietnam in May, a revisit from Aidan hyung in June, a visit or several from high school friend Sylvia also in June, and perhaps vacationing with my family in South Carolina in July (uncertain).  In December, it looks like my family is coming here to visit Seoul (hence the warning at the beginning of the post).

It’s hard to leave, and I know I will miss it, but sometimes it is also hard to stay here.  I’m reminded of this every time I see a post detailing the horrific racism my fellow foreigners experience on a daily basis or I see somebody spit INDOORS in the subway.  There are many great things about living here, especially as a young person in my 20s, but right now, here are the best reasons I have why living here can kind of suck sometimes.

  1. Hygiene

Sometimes Koreans’ hygiene is impressive; they are militant about wearing the face masks when they are or might become sick and they brush their teeth multiple times a day (perhaps to the detriment of their tooth enamel, but).  That’s where the good hygiene ends, though.  There might be many moral failings in this country, but my personal pet peeve is everyone chewing with their mouths open, coughing and spitting and sneezing wherever and whenever they please.  That’s okay in your own home, but in public, it’s just not sanitary or polite to be doing that.  I’d rather leave a little bit of mystery than see every bit of food you’re chewing all the time.  The only thing worse than these habits is the fact that everyone denies that they do these things, which smacks of willful ignorance and denial to me.

  1. Vanity

Every country has an obsession with being pretty, but Korea’s takes it to a new level.  In what country do they give plastic surgery as a graduation present because they think their daughters aren’t pretty enough?  I know the attitudes are different toward plastic surgery here, but it’s something else to hear about fourth and fifth graders talking about plastic surgery as a very real possibility in the near future for them.  Ridiculous.  Once you’ve got the face you wanted, you have to accessorize endlessly with makeup.  While in some ways it’s cool being spoiled for choice, it’s insane how many products the average Korean woman uses to stay young-looking.

You can’t ever go in the sun because you don’t want to become darker.  Because, of course, dark is ugly.  And dark won’t match the 80,000 won foundation you bought in the wintertime.  You must always be ready with a pocket hair straightener in case your bangs go flat when riding on the subway (???).  When out with your friends, no matter what the occasion, be prepared to take literally a million selfies to post across all your social media.  (To be clear: I love social media and I don’t mind selfies, but the amount of selfies here is insane.  And it’s not always in scenic little cafes or at cool events, it’s sometimes in dingy alleyways or in line at Costco.)  While I appreciate the aesthetic that everybody puts up, I’m certain it’s not worth the effort.

  1. Bad parenting

I know that somebody who’s not a parent has no business telling a parent what they should do with their kid, I really do.  But, as a current teacher and former lifeguard, sometimes the blatant negligence with which the parents treat their children pains me to the max.  I’m reminded of a story where a foreigner at Costco saw an unattended child walking out in front of a speeding car in the parking lot (parents were nowhere to be found).  He shouted to get the parents attention and saved the kid, but somehow the parents and grandpa ended up yelling at the foreigner, attacking him and blaming him for the incident when really he saved their kid’s life.

The cycle repeats into infinity.  The parents have to work their asses off to earn enough for a big house and comfortable life, so they put their kids in myriad after school programs and academies.  On the days off the parents aren’t so good at parenting, usually much more content to take selfies together rather than preventing their kid walking off a pier into the Han River.  It’s amazing natural selection hasn’t weeded out every single one of these babies already, honestly.

  1. World-revolves-around-me syndrome

There’s an element of this one that can be good and freeing.  But mostly, this is damaging to all around.  Like the foreigner who thought that he was doing right by trying to help someone else, it’s usually best to leave well enough alone.  You see somebody drop their card or something on the ground?  That’s their problem.  You’re leaving the bank as somebody else is coming in?  Don’t hold the door for them, they will only look at you with confusion and bewilderment, not an ounce of thanks.  Somebody’s taking too long to order or scan in their card to get on the subway?  Push right in front of them, they should have been prepared.

There’s an element of this kind of self-defense that is freeing.  Only looking out for #1, or the people in your clique, that makes it a lot easier.  But it’s a lot more isolating.  This is actually one of my main reasons for not staying for another year, or forever.  I don’t want to absorb this element into my personality.  I don’t want to not care about other people.  I want to be nice and help out others, even if it has no discernible benefit to myself.  I would much rather step out of the way on the street than full-on shoulder-check old ladies because they’re too rude to move even a single inch to the side.  Usually I do step out of the way.  But other days, we have shoulder-checking days where I only walk straight, square my shoulders, and plow through everyone in my way.  It’s shitty and impolite but that’s how things are done here.

  1. Why does everything have to be so hard all the time?

Some things here are easy.  Too easy.  It’s too easy to become a full-blown alcoholic or caffeine addict.  It’s too easy to fuel your insomnia or shitty sleep schedule by going to cafes after 10pm (current life).  It’s too easy to get food and furniture and anything you want delivered right to your door without lifting a finger.

Some things, on the flip side, are infuriatingly hard.  For no reason. (Koreans will tell you there is a reason, but really, don’t listen to them.  There is a better way).  In the United States, you can walk into a bank and say “Hey, I don’t know how to write a check, can you help me?”

“Sure, do you know your account number?”

“Nope.”

“Just give me your card and I’ll figure it out.”

Or:

“Hey, I have a whole bucket of loose change, can you count it for me and put it in my account?”

“It might take a little while, but sure.”

In Korea, banking is a nightmare.  Say you want to pay for your plane tickets online.  First of all, you need to enable your card to be used online.  You need proof of employment and a passport and your Alien Registration Card and a score of other things.  You need to create about 5 unique passwords which you inevitably forget by the time the process is even halfway over, making you start again, of course.  And then, nothing works on Chrome, so you must use Internet Explorer for everything, which is absolute bullshit.  I make almost all of my transactions in cash or in person with my card because I still can’t make purchases online with my Korean card, even after more than a year.  In the U.S., if you have a card, you can immediately use it online, at the store, abroad, whatever.  So easy.

  1. Juke & commit

This one is kind of related to #4, but it’s a lot less self-defense and a lot more idiocy.  In the U.S. and other reasonably intelligent countries, if you see somebody directly in your path far ahead of you, you’ll adjust your path by a couple degrees and never run into them.  If you do this early enough, it will be like you never even made the adjustment at all.  Korean method: don’t look up from your phone ever, or better yet, stare right at the person as you plow right through them, coffee or cake box in hand be damned, because your path is more important than theirs.  Most days, I give benefit of the doubt and think, “Okay, that person is in more of a hurry than me, I’ll let it slide.”  But of course the days when I’m in a hurry, everyone else seems to be on a leisurely Sunday stroll with nowhere to be.

Walking is okay because everyone is roughly going at the same speed.  When biking, it’s important to commit to a direction and keep going that way, not swerving.  Koreans are shitty at biking etiquette, I’ve learned (a gripe that didn’t even make the list).  I’ve seen so many almost-collisions on bikes that it ceases to surprise me.  When I’m running on the trails, the walkers stare you down in the same way.  I think to myself, “Do you really want to play this game?  I’m running, I will bowl you over, no hesitation.  This is not a fight you want to pick.”  Usually the walkers spring out of the way at the last second, even though they saw me coming from 100 yards away, outright resentfulness written plain on their faces.  I’m lumping in with this category the driving on the sidewalk.  For cars, usually it’s only to park, but motorbikes and scooters drive for miles on the sidewalks with absolutely no thought to the pedestrians with whom they’re sharing the path.  I’m amazed there aren’t more accidents.

  1. Everything is sweet

To some, this might be a blessing.  But to a red-blooded American who often just craves a salty-ass snack, it seems like an impossible task to find something that isn’t sweet.  Cheetos?  Sweet.  Doritos?  Sweet.  Cheese popcorn?  Sweet cheese.  Garlic bread?  Sweet. (who the fuck decided garlic bread should be sweet because honestly that’s so offensive to my culinary sensibilities).  I’ve heard that Koreans hate our salty American snacks, but I don’t care.  Sometimes you just want something salty, and those kinds of snacks are very scarce here.

  1. Littering is encouraged

This might be convenient to some, but it stresses me out to the max.  There are barely any public garbage cans in Korea, or at least in Seoul.  (They’re afraid you’ll throw your home trash in the garbage cans because you are supposed to buy special garbage bags from your neighborhood store.  Whatever.)  Say you drink your Starbucks iced cherry blossom latte and you don’t want to carry the empty cup with you anymore.   Should you pop into a convenience store and throw it away there?  No need.  Just leave it on any old corner or in a telephone box or on the curb.  Some little old ahjumma will come by a few hours later or that evening and pick up after you.  I suppose this is good that it gives the retired ladies a job, but really just the normalcy of littering here irks me to no end.  It’s to the point where my students even throw things right on the floor rather than putting them in the trash can because they know that somebody will have to clean up after them later (me. It’s me.)

  1. Treatment of animals

My friend Jenn had a roommate last year who decided to get a puppy.  This roommate had no idea how to take care of a dog, how often you should feed or walk it or bathe it or clean up after it.  She didn’t train it, so eventually the dog, living a life of squalor and neglect in its own filth, became angry and lashed out at anybody who tried to pet him.  At long last, the roommate gave the dog over to her parents, who also lived in Seoul, and they agreed to raise the dog properly.  This is a pretty good allegory for how animals are treated here.  They’re only useful as accessories, but the owners usually don’t understand what is involved in taking care of animals.  I’ve seen far too many animals in this country being hit for not obeying orders.  It’s not the animals’ fault that they were poorly trained and have a shitty owner.  (To be clear: I’m not a dog owner, never have been, but I’d rather stay dogless forever than provide a less-than-adequate home for any kind of pet).

  1. Leaving cars running all the time

Seoulites complain about the terrible air quality all the time.  I know an element of that is the evil yellow dust that comes in from China, but a lot of it is also self-inflicted.  You can’t blame all the smog on China.  People in Seoul are TERRIBLE at turning off their cars when they’re not being driven.  I’ve seen people full-on napping in the driver’s seat of their cars while waiting for their companion to return back from wherever.  My street right now is a hotbed for idling taxis and trucks waiting to be called into service.  I hate how much fuel they’re wasting just on being able to charge their phones and listen to music in the car at the same time.  It’s so irresponsible.

Honorable mention:

Street layout

I know exactly why this came to be, that of course Korean streets are never laid out in a nice grid, usually extending in a sort of spiderweb from the palaces, with the more action-packed streets situated exactly one street back from the main thoroughfares, but it’s nearly impossible for a foreigner to navigate if you’re not familiar with the area.

Cheese

Everything is labeled cheese.  Almost nothing actually IS cheese.

Workout culture

Koreans are all really skinny and look really fit, but most of that is just good diet and high metabolism.  When actually in the gym, most are just walking at a leisurely pace on the treadmill or lifting at the plate machines, often with absurdly bad form.  My friend Matt is compiling a video slowly of all the crazy things he has seen weightlifters do at the gyms here.  I’m sure the video can go on and on all day.

Couple culture

Please ignore this as I’m just being a bitter single person here.  But it’s really impossible to be a single person in Seoul.  Not that everyone is trying to hook up all the time, but rather it’s frowned upon to not be part of a couple.  Everyone walking around holding hands, snogging, wearing the matching clothes, talking in whining voices in the café or subway.  Korea is not a friendly place for single people.

 

Take all of this with more than a couple grains of salt.  I really do love being here.  It’s easy to blame my bad days on the place and the people rather than myself, whereas back in the States, with no language barrier, I’d have no one to blame myself usually.  I don’t regret a single ounce staying for the second year.  Most of my sadness stems from this frustration with the place preventing me from getting out more and making the best of my time here.

Immediately following (within a day or so max) is a part 2, of sorts, or 10 things I love about Korea.  I really don’t hate it here, promise.