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Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Stars in Korea

A cosmopolitan in Korea: English titles, Korean content.

In Korea there isn't the fascination with celebrities that there is in, well, America. Am I surprised? Sort of. When I left Canada in the fall, stacks of tabloid-style magazines sat beside checkouts. It was an epidemic.

A fun way to kill time in a waiting room, maybe, but serious escapism.

The well known American actors in Korea, apart from Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt, are spokespersons for high end clothing lines. Gweneth Paltrow and Kirstin Dunst are the models for Bean Pole and Thursday Island.

Teenage girls in my classes talk about Korean pop stars: pretty boys, but are generally uninterested in celebrities. The boys ironically praise figures like Leonardo DiCaprio for being, "so vewy vewy handsome," but know nothing about female celebrities.

There are American reality shows in Korea but you'll rarely see a tabloid magazine, unless it's imported for expatriates who need their fix, and will pay $15 USD to get it.

Are there Korean celebrities? Of course. The film industry is huge, but thing about Korean movies is how familiar everything looks. You're constantly going, "hey, look!" because you've been to that bakery, or shopped at that shoe store.

40% of the Korean population lives in the Seoul metropolitan area, so Korean movies have a sense of intimacy. How godly can the celebrities be if they frequent the same Starbucks and basically live the same life as you-- only wealthier. I mean, heck, they probably even have to use squat toilets once in a while.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

For a Laugh: English Key Phrases in Korea

A while back, my friend Min and I were drinking green tea lattes at Dunkin Donuts and he pulled out his Korean-English phrasebook. I read the "relationship" section and he asked if he could have used the lines, on Canadian girl, during his year abroad:

1. Please be yourself with me.
2. I need your arms to hold me.
3. She twined her arms around my neck.
4. When our eyes met, I was on cloud nine.
5. How can you tell me such a joke with a straight face?
6. Please, cry on my shoulder.
7. Kiss me by the book.
8. I will marry you and spend my life with you, if you don't mind.
9. Your beauty overwhelms me.
10. I can make your bed warm tonight... if you don't mind.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Apartment Rental, Korea

Over half the population of South Korea lives in high rise apartment buildings. Americans dream of white picket fences and Koreans dream of a condo overlooking heaven, err, bottleneck traffic insanity.


I'm an exception and live down here, with "the people":

The majority of teaching contracts include a rent free furnished apartment. If you wish to find alternative accommodation, for whatever reason, you receive a monthly housing bonus of approx. 300 USD.

There are three rental systems in Korea: Jonsei (which means money in full) and 2 types of wolse system. About 68% of the rental market is under the Jonsei system. No monthly rent is paid; the tenant gives the landlord "key money" amounting to 25- 70% of the property value. At the end of the agreement, money is returned in full.

The wolse system involves monthly payments, but key deposits are required-- between 10-20x the monthly rent. The larger your deposit, the smaller the monthly payments.

Landlords profit through investments.

A Korean "Business Meeting"

My Saturday was snapped up by the school. I had a presentation at 10 AM- did an introduction in Hangul! I was pleased the parents understood my Korean.

In the evening, the president of the hagwon insisted foreign teachers from all campuses meet for dinner and drinks. If your head honcho calls a meeting, keep Korean drinking culture in mind. There will likely be drinking games, "bottoms up" every 5 minutes, and it's rude to refuse the first drink. I discuss Korean bar etiquette here.

Don't bother briefing yourself on current events. It won't come in handy. Koreans work hard but play with equal enthusiasm. Prepare pop songs for Karaoke and refrain from eating so your stomach can handle the surplus of beer, soju and drink house food.

Cheap Korean Food

Simmered log-form rice cakes in red pepper sauce, flavored with processed fish, cabbage, onions, carrots and leaks. Rabbogie is Dokboggie (which you can buy on the side of the road for 1 or 2 USD) + ramyeon noodles. Definite comfort food. You might not like it the first time but I swear you'll be addicted in no time.

Soft tofu (dubu is tofu, sundubu is soft tofu), freshly cracked egg, chili peppers, a few clams, onions and deunjang paste. Served with rice (what isn't!?)

Kimchi Dapbap: kimchi fried rice. You can also get it with beef. Delicious, filling, very flavorful-- almost like Indian food.

What do you think of these dishes? Let me know!

CGV Movie Theatre, Korea

Suwon's CGV in Cine Park, located near Home Plus and Galleria department stores:

Tae Hun was nice enough to carry my paper towel rolls from Home Plus! Men are very chivalrous in Korea. And no-- it isn't toilet paper, thank you very much.

You're assigned seating at the movies in Korea, like at a live performance. Korean movies rarely have English subtitles. I wanted to see one, anyway, but Babel got incredible reviews. Brad Pitt is Hae Hun's favorite actor and Cate Blanchett is high on my list, so we decided we couldn't lose.

One thing I was aware of during the film were cell phones. Even on vibrate mode, people couldn't resist answering.

The movie was compelling. Rodrigo Prieto's cinematogrpahy was stunning. The color and use of light were skillful and artistic. The intermingling plots were thought-provoking and the pacing was great-- until the second half, where it dragged on, almost painfully.

Not only was it long but emotionally draining! At the end, Tae Hun and I sat there until the everyone piled out of the theatre. We almost couldn't move. By no means is it a light film-- not that I expected fluff from the trilogy to Amores Parros and 21 Grams!

My Ticket: 7 USD. Go in the morning and get a 2 dollar discount.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Followed home by Students

As a foreign teacher, you're bound to be followed home by students, at some point or other. You're a major source of curiosity. What they know of you, they've learned from American TV shows like "Friends," or worse: reality programs.

I have 11 year old students: a girl and a boy, who rarely leave my side. They follow me to the bathroom, peek into my purse, hide under my desk, ask if every passing coworker is my boyfriend.

The little girl writes "I love Eva teacher" on her books. I have no authority over the boy, who stuck giant stickers over his eyes when I read a storybook, today.

After my last class, every day, they're on my heels walking alongside me as I leave the school. My apartment is on their way home.

Tonight the girl told me she was going to a birthday party in my building, and had invited Justin to join her. I was immediately skeptical but she insisted, deadpan expression, that she forgot the building code. She pulled a gift out of her bag. It was chilly and, on the slight possibility that she was being truthful, I let them in.

I said 'goodnight' on the second floor and they continued climbing. I heard their footsteps halt as I put my keys in the door. In an instant they had descended the stairs and were peeking at me from behind the staircase.

5 minutes later, I was on the phone, plugging in my rice cooker. I heard the doorbell ring. "No," I said firmly when I opened the door to their smiles. I'm sure they sensed I was more amused than anything. "You have to leave." And they did.

Their eyes were so big, filled with the Friday night excitement of stalking the English teacher.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Korean Culture- What's HOT

Photo by "Superlocal"

Hot - Engineering. If you meet a Korean student, don't bother asking what his major is. He's an engineer.
Hot - Naps. Take a snooze in public- anytime, anywhere.
Hot - South Korean dramas. Turn on the T.V. and you'll find at least 10 actors having mental breakdowns, sobbing in hospital rooms, staring longingly into their lover's eyes.
Hot - Matching outfits for couples and even friends.
Hot - Discipline. People work hard for success. I'm talking 12 hour days, 6 days/week.
Hot - Grand openings. When a new store opens up, there are big pink bows, plastic flowers, music, go-go dancers.
Hot - Corny ballads. It's the norebang influence.
Hot - Computer games. There's a generation of young boys wasting their youth in P.C. rooms.
Hot - Metrosexual men. Pink shirts, tight pants, styled hair... purses, even.
Hot - Eating out. You don't tip in Korea, and meals are dirt-cheap. I can't get over how many restaurants there are. Business is easily come by.
Hot - Rip-off brands like a Tim Hortons with a bar interior, serving $7 coffees, "Buma" masquerading as Puma, and 'The Face Shop' after The Body Shop.
Hot - Late nights. It's normal for young children to stay up past midnight.
Hot - Shopping and fashion. Millions of people literally shove their way through markets and malls in search of good deals. Koreans are very stylish.
Hot - Drinking. Many people drink for the sake of drinking and it's legal to drink on public transit. What does it say on a Soju (hard liquor) bottle? "Be Happy Again."
Hot - Plastic Surgery. Seoul is the world's hub of plastic surgery. Walk in off the street. Eyelid shaping is the #1 choice.
Hot - Skinny jeans and dangerously short skirts, on women, but not shoulder-bearing tops, considered too revealing.
Hot - Same sex friends. If you hang out with someone of the opposite sex, expect suspicion.
Hot- Kimchi!!

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Chamchi Jiggae

As a fan of kimchi jiggae and a fan of tuna, I've been meaning to try chamchi jiggae for a while now. I ordered it for lunch the other day but wasn't impressed. There was tuna, and chunks of onion in a chili-hot pork broth, but very little kimchi.

The big spoonfulls of tuna were chewy in texture-- it was overload! Mmm, cat food. Has anyone else had a better chamchi jiggae experience?

The English Language in Korea


After work last night, Chung took me for a walk around his old high school grounds. He spent 2 years in the military service and is only now entering University. All of my Korean acquaintances insist they met their lifelong friends in high school, not University.

As we walked across the lamp lit baseball field, I encouraged Chung: "You're older, you know yourself better now, you'll have a great time." He asked what I was nostalgic about and I said nothing.

But when he pointed to North Castle star, I recalled Rockhouse Island where I spent my childhood summers. I corrected myself, "no, wait, I miss my family's island." I asked if he understood and he said, "yes, the country. You miss Ireland." I grinned. I've never been to Ireland.

According to Chung, there are three things he's envious of, in my life as a Canadian: peace, land and the International language. He thinks English cracks the world open like a nut, expands possibilities, and I suppose for him it will.

Most of my students haven't traveled abroad. In fact, they haven't even stepped on Chinese or Japanese soil. Korean students travel during their University years. They head off to Australia, Canada or the U.S. and drop thousands at a language institute.

But South Korea is globalizing its Universities, to both discourage students from seeking overseas study and to attract top foreign students. Elite colleges like Korea University and Ewha Woman's University recently created English-only undergraduate programs.

A thanks to John from Daejeon who sent me this MSNBC Newsweek article: English Orated Here. Read on.

Monday, February 19, 2007

A Quiet Celebration

Traditional Bowing

Lunar New Years in Korea creates major traffic congestion. It's family time and it takes people twice as long, on average, to reach their relatives' towns.

The quiet I felt in Suwon this weekend-- shops closed, unpopulated streets, was also felt in Tae Hun's home. Unlike the heart pattering of Christmas; people sweating in Walmart and laughing over wine, Lunar New Years was contemplative.

Tae Hun's Mother is Buddhist so there was an inherent stillness in the ceremonies.

The family lounged and spoke only when they had something to say. Nothing was forced. Koreans, especially Korean men, don't feel the need to chit-chat. They are comfortable in silence, will sit together comfortably saying nothing.

I often think I need to keep conversation alive, even though I'm not an overly chatty person. I rate the success of social encounters on how well discussions flow. Sunday, I reveled in the relaxed atmosphere. Tae Hun's family even took turns napping on the floor, throughout the day.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Insider's Look into Lunar New Years: Seollal

(Day 1, Month 1 of the Lunar calender.) The entrance to a Korean home in North Suwon. Roosters crowed in the yard. I sensed a clash of cultures, with freeways and apartment buildings in the distance.

30-some years ago, the house was built by Tae Hun's Father and uncle. He, his Mother, Father, older brother and paternal Grandmother live together. Traditionally, the eldest son stayed with his parents and, if he married, his wife joined the household.


Korean society is paternal. Upon entering the home, I was handed this mind blowing genealogy record, stretching thousands of years. Most Koreans have records of their clan's ancestry, yet only the male's history is recorded:

Incense filled the house, and air blew in through the front door, propped open to welcome spirits. Food placed on the table like peeled apples and honey cakes were believed to come from the ancestors. Water was poured for them.

Before breakfast, we did traditional bowing. When bowing to honor the deceased, it's customary to clasp your left hand over your right, raise them to your brow, and bow down to your knees twice.

With breakfast, we drank a traditional rice beverage. The rice sat in sugar water for 16 hours before it was ready for consumption:

Breakfast is the most significant meal on Lunar New Years. The main course is dokgu: rice cake soup. When you eat it, you turn a year older. The soup consists of beef, sliced rice cakes, and pork filled dumplings. You eat your soup, and use chopsticks to take from the side dishes.

I have a sweet tooth, so the sugary items were of interest to me. Here you see dates, dried persimmons, and candies made from pine, rice and sesame:

After breakfast, we did traditional bowing for our elders. Tae Hun's Mother, Father, Grandmother, Aunts and Uncles sat before us. We were given lucky money: 20,000 W (20USD) from each.

Here, Tae Hun's Grandmother gets me money from her wallet:

Later, we drove to the countryside. An ancestral service was offered before the grave of the ancestors:

Here, Tae Hun's family prepares food to honor his grandfather who passed away in 1986. We did traditional bowing and then sat on the tarp, eating dried fish and apples as we drank rice wine.

I didn't know it at the time but one isn't supposed to venture past the foot of the coffin. I climbed the hill, over the head of the coffin, to snap this photo. In doing that, I dishonored the deceast:

A big thank you to Tae Hun and his family:

Friday, February 16, 2007

Korean Blood Type Personality

Photo by L Hutchins

I had my palm read at The Korean Folk Village, a while back, but the analysis was general. If I eat right and exercise, I’ll have health and longevity. If I find a suitable man, we can make a happy family. If I work hard, I’ll come into money and career success. Chung and I laughed. His fortune was similar.

But fortune telling in Korea is more popular than you’d think. Young adults often get their fortunes read, especially around New Years. Fortune telling is a tradition in Korea, stemming from the history of Shamanism.

When society becomes unstable, it’s easier to believe that events are preordained. In Kangnam, South of Seoul, there are dozens of tents lined up with fortune tellers who provide the service for a mere 3,000W (3USD).

I read in the Korea Times that, over New Years, more than 100,000 Koreans seek their fortunes online, as a form of entertainment. But when it comes to Horoscopes, Koreans believe your blood type defines your personality, not your astrological sign.

Here’s a Blood Type Personality Chart:

Type A

Best Traits: Conservative, introverted, reserved, patient and punctual. Perfectionists. Worst Traits: Obsessive, stubborn, self conscious and uptight.

Type B

Best Traits: Creative, passionate, animal loving, optimistic, flexible and individualistic. Worst Traits: Forgetful, irresponsible, and self-centered.

Type AB

Best Traits: Cool, controlled, rational, introverted and empathic. Worst Traits: Aloof, critical, indecisive and unforgiving.

Type O

Best Traits: Ambitious, athletic, robust and self-confident. Natural leaders. Worst Traits: Arrogant, vain, insensitive and ruthless.

Does your blood type suit your personality? Let's hear it!

Korea: Photos from Today

You never get "America" here, without a Korean twist. Chung took me out for my birthday tonight with a black forest cake under his arm. The catch? We couldn't eat it until we finished our platter of grisly chicken feet. They tasted exactly how they look:



A Suwon park. It's February, yet it felt like springtime. I wore only a sweater. Most parks have exercise equipment and this one was no exception. I saw about 10 seniors using the equipment to stretch.

Korean vehicles are "Euro" in design, and come in only 3 colors: black, white and silver. If you want, say, a blue car you usually have to special order it at a cost.

The use of English in Korea can be perplexing! I once snickered at a girl wearing a "NICE BODY" shirt, and was informed that no one pays much attention to the meaning of English on clothes.

Words are simply part of the design. I guess there's no use trying to figure out what "I used to fed but now I car see" means:

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Lunar New Years Prelude!

Knowing how enthusiastic I am about experiencing Lunar New Years, Kyle set me up with his best friend, Tae Hun, whose family is perhaps more liberal than most:

I hadn't met Tae Hun until tonight but he heard about me through Kyle, and decided to invite me to his home for New Years. The three of us went for chicken tonight - very topical, since New York City is suddenly mad about Korean bak-bak. The New York Times recently printed an article about the trend.

Dakgalbi (닭갈비):

We didn't have the crispy fad chicken but rather Dakgalbi, a simmering pot of spicy breast with rice cakes, rice noodles, carrots, etc. It was divine; spicy with a hint of peanut sauce.

Afterwards, we went to a coffee shop to get smoothies and discuss the pending holiday. Tae Hun had prepared notes to educate me about Lunar New Years. I am so excited. In the box at the top right corner of the page is the schedule he jotted down!

10:00 AM: Ancestral service.
10:30 AM: Dokgu (rice cake soup) breakfast.
12:00: Traditional bowing. Family bow at the feet of their elders.
1:00: Take a rest.
2:00: Go to a cemetery, at a mountain, to again honor ancestors.
3:00: Play games like yoots (Hangul pronunciation.)

The ironic part is that Koreans turn a year older when they eat dokgu, and my birthday is on Sunday so it'll be the case for me, too!

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Valentines Day in Korea

The Korean Valentine's Day is slightly different than the North American one. Here, girls and women give chocolate to people they like, but men don't offer gifts.

I gave my students donuts, which they promptly sank their teeth into:

Sandy (posing in front of the white board) wrote me a letter and gave me a candy-filled rose. Fake flowers are surprisingly popular in Korea! They're used everywhere for celebrations and grand openings.

Many women feel it's their obligation to give chocolate, and Sandy said, "teacher, I wish it was Pepero Day or White Day." She gave her brother and father chocolate, but on White Day: March 14th, men are expected to return the favor.

According to Wikipedia, there's a "Black Day" on April 14th where those who didn't receive a gift on either holiday eat Chinese noodles in black sauce!

Instead of sobbing over black noodles, why not buy yourself a treat? This Valentine's Day, I bought some pineapple from the back of a man's truck. It was juicy and sweet:

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Korea, like home tonight.

Suwon, South Korea

It's a mild, rainy night. It sure doesn't feel like February as I know it in Canada! Recent weather reports in Ontario warned people against breathing in the cold air.

I'm eating take-out: kimbap and rabbogie. The rice cakes are swimming in red pepper sauce, with carrots, leaks, cabbage and onions.

At the restaurant on my way home from work, my end of the conversation went like this: Anyoasayo. (Bow.) Rabbogie pojung? Nay. Comsamnida. Anyo (to a bag). Pay-go-payo. Smile. Comasamnida. Anyungekasayo.

Onlookers are amused when I attempt to speak Hangul. Of course, had the waitress asked me anything, she would have revealed my ignorance. Basically I know enough to be fed!

The other day I was approached by a Mongolian woman. She's a newlywed, married to a Korean, with no friends or family in Korea. She and her husband converse in the International language: English.

You'd swear she was Korean by looking at her, so Koreans initiate conversation, and are confused when she doesn't understand. I'm grateful for my pale skin, and that trusty Canadian flag pinned to my coat.

But tonight, for the first time, chopsticks feel natural in my hand. The pressure is effortless.

When you arrive in a foreign country, you only have to wake up to feel alive. Hooking up a phone or mastering the transportation system is accomplishment enough. But it has been over 3 months now and routine has followed me, as it does most people. It's necessary to make an effort to keep life interesting, and push yourself to do better- to learn more, see more.

Tonight I'm reading, studying Korean and writing. I like the rain.

I've been invited to a Korean's home for Lunar New Years, Sunday. The guy's family must be liberal, because the celebration is steeped in tradition. It's the holiday that carries the most weight in Korea so it would be like me inviting a near-stranger to Christmas day at my family's home.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Korea's Singing Culture

Korean pop sensation, Rain

Just how important is a good singing voice, in Korea? Apparently, very.

When I went to Min's University party, Saturday night, he expressed how important singing ability is. He belongs to a music club, and they rented out a restaurant at which to perform. The seniors coached the juniors, whose singing and guitar playing was pretty painful.

Many of the students' parents traveled far to watch the massacre of Korean and English pop songs. I asked Min, "do parents really care about their child's voice?" Of course, he said. "If they sing well, they can be popular. They can easily attract a girl, and socialize well at work."

Young people use norebang to seduce potential mates, and business men congregate over beer, in karaoke rooms.

Most teenagers hit the microphone with friends at least once a week. I was fairly uncomfortable when first shoved into the karaoke limelight, but I see how it could become an addictive past time, even if you have a limited range, like I do.

What's better than expressing emotions through song, under a turning disco ball. Plus, it's a good excuse to hear your guilty favorites. Come on, you know you have a soft spot in your heart for the Spice Girls.

Inside a Korean Home

Climbing Gwangak Mountain with Min a while back, I met a Korean man. He offered his last orange and we enjoyed the view together. He exchanged phone numbers with Min, saying he'd like to have me over as a guest.

Min and I visited his home today. Min had to come because neither the man or his wife speak much English. The man and his youngest son escorted us to their apartment in a taxi.

As we walked up the hill, the boy said, "my Mom's very tired." I asked why and he explained that she spent all day preparing for my arrival, decorating and cooking. That was only the beginning of my guilt. As soon as I hung my coat, the boy handed me a gift: a beautiful pen, a glass jar with dried flowers, a photograph and a letter, as follows:

"Hello, I'm Steve. My Mom say you have a good character. I think so too. I don't know your name now so I wright your name 'my friend.' You ate rice dumpling soop before? My Mom made rice dumpling soup. How about taste, it's good or not. Circle the answer. I think it's taste good. Don't forget me and I invite you again. This present buy comma use my pocket money."

"You used your pocket money to buy me a gift?" I asked him. "You break my heart, Steve! Thank you very much."

The apartment was small. The cost of living in Seoul is high and the lack of land space can make for tight quarters. It was decorated with beautiful armours. The table was a foot off the floor and there was no bed in sight. All three: Mother, Father and son sleep on the heated floor.

The Mother, a homemaker, was dressed beautifully in bright hanbok-esque garb, and the son was an old soul. He spoke English, was inquisitive and was very composed:

We were fed so well. The first course was pumpkin porridge with chewy rice cakes. I'll have to check "good" on the boy's letter because it was sweet and delicious. Next came rice in a stone bowl, and dokgu: rice cake soup, traditionally served on Lunar New Years.

The kimchi was delicious- moist and flavorful. Kimchi recipes were traditionally past down through generations of women (from Mother to daughter or daughter in law). Now most women purchase a tub of it at the grocery store. Not this woman.

The food didn't stop there. We ate radish and leak side dishes, fresh apples, oranges, and pork purchased because they thought a Canadian would expect a meat dish. Pork is one food I'm not crazy about, but she cooked it especially for me, so I dug in. We were later served tea from 24 K gold plated cups- talk about the royal treatment.

I thought it was a casual visit, not a dinner invitation, otherwise I would have brought a bottle of wine. I couldn't get over their warmth and generosity. It's the Korean way to serve too much food. It's a wonder Koreans are so trim!

We ended our time together, cross legged on the floor, talking and flipping through photo albums. There were many pictures from the boy's 100th day celebration. Babies are celebrated because, in the past, the infant death rate was high. It was a blessing to see your son (or daughter) alive and healthy after 100 days.