Monday, December 28, 2009

Merry Christmas to All

Koreans don't sweat in any measurable amount. As such their demand for a product such as antiperspirant is non-existent. That poses certain problems for those of us that aren't Korean. Where do you buy a product that isn't in demand?

After an initial failed effort at the local grocery store, my second impulse was the scour the local super-store, named E-mart.

E-mart, is to my knowledge, the only company that has managed to enter into a relationship with Walmart and come out ahead. You see, years ago Walmart partnered with a local company in order to penetrate the South Korean market. Walmart received a local partner in order to set up shop in a developed nation that is growing by leaps and bounds. E-mart received first class instructions on how to run an efficient store. But when the time came to renew their contract...E-mart (having learned what they needed) sent Walmart packing back Arkansas with its tail between its legs.

In Korea, there are no Targets, Fred Meyers, or Walmarts. There is only an E-mart in every town. If you want one stop shopping for just about everything that you use in your daily life...E-mart is it. If you've been to any of the above mentioned stores, you can imagine E-mart....only those stores are one 1 story....a typical Emart rises 7 stories...

When I lived Haman, every foreigner knew which bus to take to get there (the 88) Or they would just hop into a cab and say "E-ma-tu" ("E-mart" will just get you a blank stare from the cab driver...) From Migeum (where I live currently) there are 2 within spitting distance from my is a 20 minute walk, 100 meters from the next subway stop.

E-mart is my stop for any groceries that I need that aren't at the local market. Case in point, the local store doesn't have chocolate candy that I use to keep my students under some semblance of control. They also have a selection of Belgium beers (Leffe anyone?) that makes life just a little more livable...

But they don't have antiperspirant.

My third, impulse was to check out Costco. Costco is the only "American" store that I know in Korea. It's similar to what you remember in America, only as is typically Korean, it has multiple floors.

Costco has a wide variety of products that I always bought at home. From the mega-packs of muffins, the Prego spaghetti sauce (you'll probably never realize the craving you'll have for Prego until after you've tried the unpalatable "Korean" spaghetti sauce...) cheese ravioli (or as I had to explain it to my Korean friends "cheese dumplings") and Korean oatmeal (but oddly not Quaker Oats...)

But they don't have antiperspirant either. options were getting shorter and my imagination was running dry...So I headed to the armpit of Seoul...Itaewon... aka the foreigner district.

I have a lot of friends that love Itaewon...maybe I've just been jaded based on bad experiences...but they do have a great book store. They also have Muslims. Which I find it odd that are Muslims in Korea for no other reason than Muslims reject 2 of foundational pillars of Korean culture: drinking and eating pork.

They also have a foreign food market that manages to fill the gaps between what you can't find at E-mart and Costco. Mixed in among the Middle Eastern and Indian spices (such as authentic curry and garam masala) are staples such as Jello, toothpaste, and Quaker Oats.

Still, no antiperspirant.

So I decided to search the one place I KNEW it existed:


I wrote an email to my parents urgently requesting a care package. Despite my reservations against the Korean mail system. They managed to lose BOTH of the other care packages I was sent. But they've managed to deliver the post cards sent by my aunt and I knew that they weren't incompetent, merely kleptocompetent. This time I used my school's address, instead of my own.

And 2 weeks later (the Tuesday before Christmas), low and behold a shoe box wrapped in brown, grocery bag paper arrived at my school from my dear, sweet, wonderful mother.

I took it home after work and unwrapped it.

Only to find that it was again in CHRISTMAS WRAPPING paper! It was Tuesday....Christmas wasn't until Friday. I wanted to open up, but there are RULES against opening presents early.

So, now I had to wait to open the only package I've received in 10 months...well my opinion of my mother turned from saintly to cruel and vindictive...

I spent the day before Christmas dressed up as an unconvincing Santa Claus (or Santa Phil as my kids called me)

Regardless, I made it thru the few days. And celebrated by staying up after midnight, and unwrapped my sole Christmas present with a enthusiasm I haven't experienced since I was 10. Inside, where half a dozen sticks of the much need antiperspirant, nearly 4 boxes of pepto bismo pills (another much missed American staple that can't be found here), forwarded mail, candy canes, a puzzle, and one pair of Homer Simpson pajamas.

I spent Christmas doing a little caroling and finished it off with a white elephant party. I managed to snag a much needed 3000 won umbrella. One of the Koreans managed to snag a rubix cube. To which this high school senior scoffed, "What am I 10 years old!" Well it is a white elephant gift exchange, you're not supposed to walk away with something you like.

This is a struck me as a strange cultural divide. I've had rubix cubes on and off for years...I've twisted and turned and gotten bored with them. But it's different here in Korea. Here they're sold at the stationary stores that are on every block. They don't have just have the plain old 3X3 rubix cubes. They sell 4X4 (as favored by the Harvard bound Korean twins from Vancouver, WA) and 12 sided polygon for the masochist in your life.

Now, I made 28 some years in this world being perfectly blissfully ignorant having never completed a cube without cheating. But for some odd reason, I felt the compulsion to learn while I was here. So I, the then 28 year old learned how to solve "the cube." According to Korean high school senior that puts me on the same level as a Korean 10 year old.

But one thing I did learn by solving a rubix cube, that was that there are certain problems in life that you can try to solve by yourself....but there are certain problems you need help with. The cube falls into the later catagory. You can spend a lifetime attempting to solve it, or you can take the time to learn the half dozen patterns.

That's it 6 patterns. For all the colossal headaches that little box causes people causes, and it's that easy to figure out.

I'm not sure what rubix cube have to do with Christmas....but there it is. Merry Christmas. Glad Yule, Feliz Navidad and have a Happy Year!

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Lions and Tigers and Bears OH MY!

This weekend I went to the zoo. And I actually learned something...animals just don't like cooperating with a camera. First, I should explain camera also can record short videos. So if you're experiencing something that a single picture can't quiet grasp (say a large foreigner wearing skull make up riding a toy motorcycle) a brief video can really help you capture the moment.

I wish someone would tell the animals this!

First, there was this Korean guide for the day managed to get the bird to speak Korean! I whip out my camera, only to have old Cap'n Flint revert into random whistles and clicks. Bird brain can speak more Korean than I can, but just had to get camera shy.

The other was a pair for rhinos. While I watched, the first rhino went up to a pile soccer ball sized (and let's us the Korean word here) ddong and began to roll it around with his nose. Then, he left his own contribution to the pile. Up walks the second rhino...who proceeds to roll around the steaming new ball soccer ball left by the previous rhino. I race to get this on video, only to have the rhino leave his own soccer ball on the pile.

Stupid animals...

The only animals that did cooperate were the tigers. I thought cats were untrainable...but really, all you have to do is to not feed them on Friday, then throw a few whole chicken in the cage on Saturday. Those 200 kg (500 pound) tigers will leap into the air like a kitten!

And could someone please explain why there are totem poles in Seoul Korea!

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Daedun Mountain

For Halloween, the weather report called for rain in Seoul and sunshine in Busan. So when I went on a boat ride half way in the middle of those 2 cities, the weather was beautiful.

So this weekend, I looked at the weather report and saw the same...and expected the same result when I went hiking on a Korean mountain.

Man was I wrong. Instead of blue skies, I witnessed the first snow that I've seen in Korea since I first arrived. It frosted the mountains and made for a beautiful, if not chilly, hike.

I've been on a few hikes now, and I'm starting to notice a few themes of the national parks that the tours go to...

First, Cell phone coverage. I set a new record for cell phone coverage on Mt. Daedun...I sent down to 4 bars.... I don't think I've seen it below 5 bars since I've arrived here. Even on the subway, they Koreans will not be deprived of their cell phones!

Second, silk worm larva. These foul smelling and even fouler tasting grubs are available just about every tourist trap and yet I don't haven't seen anyone eat them.

Third, decked out Koreans. Koreans don't just throw on a random sweatshirt, jeans, and a jacket when they head for the hills. Koreans enjoying their unofficial national past time, MUST be dressed in the latest and greatest Gortex gear from North Face and Columbia Sportswear regardless of the actual weather itself.

Fourth, picnics. These fully decked out Koreans, will never neglect their stomachs on a hike. Case in point, on top of Mount Daedun, all covered with snow, I lost my poor meatball, when somebody sneezed...wait...that's not right...but on top of the freshly powered mountain, amidst the howling wind, half a dozen groups of ajimas and ajashis (old Korean women and men) sitting on thermal pads and sharing soju and kimchi (Korean vodka and sauerkraut)

Fifth, shops. Koreans love to set up shop to sell things. So whether you are on top of a mountain in a national park, as sure are your cell phone has awesome reception, there will be a Korean trying to sell you something. From the Buddhist monks at the top of Mount Sorrak, to the 6 separate professional photographers in the caverns, or at Daedun where you've been scrambling up snow covered rocks for the past hour....there WILL be a shop selling something!

Sixth, Stairs. I guess I'm just used to a slightly more natural hiking experience. But over and over again, the Korean hiking experience involves metal staircase anchored into the rocks. While I have to say the stairs were MUCH appreciated this trip (you noticed more with the stairs weren't there and you end up with scraped hands and a sore rear end.)

Oh...and I carved my first turkey last weekend!