Monday, March 29, 2010

Street Vender Food

Korea has so many people and yet it is so small. So it really shouldn't come as a surprise that much of the food from one end of the country to another is basically the same.

By far, one of joys of living in Korea is the food. One of the staple places to get food is from a tok-bo-ki stand.

These stands never fail to amaze me for a variety of reasons. First, there are so many of them. Yet, they all serve basically the same food. This makes them more common than Starbucks in Seattle (barely)!

In the picture you can see 5 stands. Every day, these carts (or sometimes the back of small pickup trucks) move out along the street corner and hawk their wares. At the end of the night, they close up, pack up, and move their restaurant away to do it all over again the next day.

While their is some variety to what they sell from booth to booth...almost all of them have 2 dishes in common. The first is fish paste on a stick. The fish paste (called u-dang) cut into long, strips, skewered like a kabab, and boiled. The broth is later served with onions and pepper as a kind soup.

The other common dish is staple of Korean life called ttok- boki. The ttok is actually just rice cake. When served in ttok-boki, it is served in pieces that size of water chestnuts slices, or maybe sections the size of rigatoni. Sometimes Koreans will make ttok into just that...cakes. It will come in sections the same size as a cake pan. It will be loaded with various nuts, corn, and onions. But that's not their favorite way to enjoy it!

What gives it the name boki is the sauce. At the base of the sause is the chili paste called go-chu-jang. This red, spicy paste is a common as ketchup in Korea. With most Korean meals, there will be wide variety dishes...and always a side of go-chu-jang

The spice is a bit too spicy for most Koreans taste (mine too for that matter) to be eaten in bulk. Instead, they cut it with another less spicy sauce you may have heard of called "ketchup." Once the two are combined in the proper ratio, they are heated with u-dang (that pesky fish paste again) and served. This is basically what you find on every street corner in Korea.

As with all common dishes, there is room for improvements. In fact, most Koreans believe that they have a secret, family recipe. Think like Americans and their chocolate chip cookie recipes. The one time I've been fortunate enough to watch the cooking process. She added onions, tini-weenies, carrots, and cheese. It was ok...but nothing to write home about.

But back to street vendors...other things you may find include deep fried vegetables, mandu (think won-tons) filled with either meat or kimchi (spicy sauerkraut) and various types of meat kababs (chicken or some form of sausage with or without spice)

But they all have ttoki-boki. And by far, whenever I ask my kids what their favorite food is...they always mentoin ttok-boki.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

I can't breathe!

It has begun!

Koreans don't have an expression for "spring is in the air" You see in between the white and brown dreary, beauty of the winter season and the green regeneration of life that is the spring season, Korea has another "special" season. They call it yellow dust season.

To the west of Korea, is a little country you may of heard of called China. In the north west of China is a great desert called the Gobi. A giant dust storm builds over the Gobi and travels over Beijing, across the Yellow Sea and showers the land with a blanket thick yellow air.

Many moonies ago, the Koreans believed that the gods were displeased with them. Now, they know it comes from the deforestation in northern China. The bigger problem is not the dust from the desert per say, but rather the dust it picks up over one of the world's most polluted countries. So instead of sand those 2.5 parts per thousand (please note that air pollution is normally measured in parts per million...) now carries all sorts of goods that you would normally expect to find in a Chinese made toy. According to my good friend wikipedia...the air I breath is now laced with "sulfur , soot, ash, carbon monoxide, mercury, cadmium, chromium, arsenic , lead, zinc, copper fungi, pesticides, antibiotics, asbestos, and herbicides. "

So I probably shouldn't be surprised by the fact that I feel like I have a cold. My throat is sore, my nose runs and my lungs feel tight. In other words, I feel like I have a cold. But from the sound of it, so do all my students. They are constantly hacking up a lung in class.

When I first came to Korea, I could never quite understand why 10% of the population wore surgical masks outside. Now I know!

I also better understand the Korean concept of dirty outside, clean inside. Koreans don't really shower in the morning. When they get home from work (and a long day at that...Koreans work more hours than anyone else in the world) , they immediately take their shoes off. Then and only then do they take their big shower for the day.

They may not be able to control what the air is like. (even though the Koreans are currently planting trees in China the attempt to mitigate the effect) But they can control what their apartment is like. Most Korean apartments have air purifiers. They may not be able to control want comes out of the tap (a suspiciously high concentration of heavy metals) but they can control what they drink. Most Korean apartments have water purifies, too.

Sadly, as a transient foreigner...I never quite got around to investing in an air filter or water filter. Instead I make due with bottled water and a struggling little plant...that doesn't seem to feel any better than I do.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010


It snowed today. It wasn't the 70 year storm of January. But there was a pleasant couple of centimeters that makes everything white, beautiful, and a bit chilly.

What better weather to stay inside and watch a movie.

What an inspired movie it was! It was inspired by true events that were in turn inspired by a movie.

OK...let's play a little game...if you could pick any American war movie to base an expedition on...what would it be?

Today, Korea is "technically" at war with itself. While the North and the South declared an armistice 50 some odd years ago, they are not officially at peace. Occasionally this will lead to minor clashes at sea, tunnels dug across the border or the random launching of rockets.

But it wasn't always this calm. Back in 1968, the North Koreans sent a commando unit into Seoul in order to assassinate then dictator/president of South Korea Park Chung Hee. The South Koreans decided to respond in kind.

Did you think of a movie yet? I gave you a hint...the movie came out before 1968...

The South Korean government selected about 3 dozen death row inmates, staged mock executions, and shipped them off to an uninhabited island (which is near the world's most highly rated airport: Incheon Airport) called Silmido.

Under the watchful eye of a hardened commander, these hardened criminals became hardened soldiers under dangerous conditions. How extreme...if 20% of your recruits don't survive...the training might be considered slightly lethal.

These death-row-soldiers had one purpose. They were to assassinate North Korea's leader Kim Il Sung. After which, they would receive their freedom.

This is where the similarities between Unit 684 and the movie "The Dirty Dozen" end. (Was that your movie?) You see, the Dirty Dozen got to kill many Nazis and some members of the unit actually survived.

Unit 684 started their mission, but their mission was stopped en route after the top brass got cold feet. In the years between the assassination attempt, the tensions had eased between the Koreas. The countries wanted to work towards peaceful reconciliation.

So the project was ordered terminated.

And by terminated I mean, the orders were to kill everyone in Unit 684 and erase all traces of the project.

Instead of being slaughtered like sheep, these honed assassins, overwhelmed their guards, and commandeered a bus headed towards the Blue House in Seoul (home of the president...think the White House...with different paint...)

The South Korean army eventually managed to successfully barricade them. Outnumbered and surrounded, the surviving member of 684 committed suicide...

The official press releases from 1971 indicate a death squad unleashed by the North. It wasn't until very recently that the documents surrounding the incident were declassified. Which promptly spawned a movie.

Which promptly spawned a blog post...

Sunday, March 7, 2010

The Olympics

When I first came to Korea...I would stop in the various stores and gizmo shops looking for various amenities for my home. (Initially it was a coffee grinder)

While I would peruse the aisles...the TVs would have commercials for various Korean products. Sometimes it would be a guy selling a kimchi fridge (at university we called it a "beer fridge") But other times it would be a 12 year old in a blue tutu selling A/C units.

Little did I know that little little girl wasn't 12...she was the darling of Korea...Kim Yu Na (rhymes with gun-a and bun-a NOT tuna)

You see around here she's more on more billboards than Tiger Woods. Coincidentally, both are sponsored by Nike...from A/C (or as they called them here "aircon") to cars for Hyundai and banking products for a Kookmin Bank.

But why wouldn't they celebrate a record setting world champion? Well...I guess my question is...why doesn't Nike pick up Jang Mi Ran?

I mean she is a gold medalist....

She is the world record holder...

She is South Korean...

Wouldn't you buy a car being pushed by her?


Well maybe Kim Yu Na's looks may compound her fame...just a bit.

Almost all of my students watched her skate...all except a 6th grader with the English name of Jennifer. You see, Jennifer didn't complete her homework before Yu Na began her first performance. As such, her mother didn't let her watch it. Let that be a lesson for you, never get between a Korean mother and her child's education...

The obsession with her is so great, the only that could make them more obsessed with is if Japan were somehow involved...low and behold the silver medalist behind Yu Na was Mao Asada...Japan's number one skater. If there's one thing I've learned while living's don't get between a Korean mother and her child's education. If its 2 things...its that Korea will never turn down a chance to one up Japan...ever!

While Korea didn't do well in any of the skiing events....they did have a phenomenal short track team. They dominate the world in this sport!

I have to wonder about the short track. I mean I understand long distance speed skating. It's like running a race in track...all the runners have their lane (generally) and they go as fast as they can. But the short track races remind me of the Figure 8 race at a demolition derby. They cross lanes so much that collisions are not only inevitable...they are the idea.

The same goes for short track...why have so much weaving in and out of lanes if you didn't want them to run into one another. Only, this is an Olympic Sport with 45 cm (18 inches for those Neanderthals still on the Imperial System) razor blades attached to their feet. Collisions are frowned on as a gashed leg just doesn't have the same appeal as a car wreck.

The reality is disqualifications are an integral aspect of the sport. And no one has reaped the rewards of South Korea's mistakes more than Seattlite Apolo Ohno.

Over the course of the past 3 Olympics, he has succeeded in being a thorn in Korea's side. When the 1500 meter (that's right...the Olympics uses METERS) short track race went into the final lap and the rankings were Korea, Korea, Korea, and Ohno. But the 2nd and 3rd place Koreans couldn't play nice with one another ...they collided leaving lonely Apolo an unearned silver medal.

This is just one of many examples in which a slip, crash, or disqualification helped little Ohno.

The South Korean became obsessed with him in a way that could only be enhanced by this American's relationship with Japan.

Oh wait...his father is Japanese...

Yeah....they REALLY hate him over here. He is the MOST hated athlete in South Korea

So much so that when the South Korean received the gold (and Ohno the silver) in the above mentioned 1500 meter short track race....the South Korean later expressed to the newspaper that "Ohno didn't deserve to stand on the same medal platform as me. I was so enraged that it was hard for me to contain myself during the victory ceremony"

I would like to point out that he is the most decorated winter athlete in American sharing the stage with him...might be an honor.

Not here in Korea and certainly not for any Korean in the Olympics...

If you want, I can pick you up a roll of Ohno printed toilet paper.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Migeum Yeok

I live in a strange neighborhood...well at least strange to me...

It's not quite the richest neighborhood of Seoul...just the second largest. Around me are a disproportionate number of well-to-do individuals that make up the upper caste in any society. The "Beverly Hills " of Korea is located in Seoul at a place called "Gangnam" It is a VERY nice area...and the way you can tell is the excessive number of BMWs and BENZs that I'm able to spot in the area. I live in the second yuppiest area of Seoul (and therefore Korea itself) a place call Sungnam City. While the US would call Sungnam a suburb...I find it slightly more complicated than that...

When I think suburb...I think the Seattle suburbs in which I was raised....houses, culs-de-sacs, gardens and a few too many SUVs

In Korea, it's slightly different. It's the fifth most densely populated country in the unless you're on a farm you live in an apartment. Not just any apartment...a Korean style apartment.

These cookie-cuttered monstrosities shoot up at a blinding speed that boggles the mind. They come in complexes of 12-20 and average 20 stories high (but can easily double that in the denser areas of Seoul.)

I live just south of Seoul where the subway snakes south between the hills. The square block immediately surrounding the subway stop is a mecca of restaurants, bars, private academies (like mine) doctors, dentists, spas, hair name it...and there are 2 of them. There are 2 Baskin Robbins...2 Lotterias (the Korean McDonalds)...2 Dunkin Donuts...and many, many other Korean shops. (but no Love Motels...which speaks to the reputability of area in which I live)

But after that first block around the station....there are those Korean apartments...rising up in every direction for a kilometer. Anytime the people living there want to eat, drink, and shop...they congregate around where I live.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

I have come full circle....

It was one year and one week ago that I came to Korea. I had a friend that I hadn't seen in a long time flying to Japan a day before I, so I arranged with my previous employer to fly in a day early. In stead of spending 10 hours flying next to a stranger, I spent 10 hours catching up with an old friend.

We took off from Seattle on the morning of Friday the 13th of February (there will be a test on dates later in this post), but due to the international date line's location in the Pacific Ocean, we landed in Tokyo on Saturday night and caught our respective connecting flights.

After a brief connecting flight across the East Sea (do NOT call it the "Sea of Japan" around a Korean if you value your life!) I arrived in Korea...well...the rest is written about elsewhere.

Due to the fact that arrived a day early, my apartment wasn't quite ready. My boss set me up in a motel room for the night.

Pop Quiz: I arrived in Korea on what holiday?

I you guessed Valentine's win a metal chop stick.

This was my first introduction to what the Koreans call "Love Motels."

I don't WHAT was going on in the surrounding rooms...but it sounded suspiciously like a bed jumping competition.

Now to us foreigners, these hotels serve as staple for traveling. When I visited my friends in various cities around Korea and I needed a place to stay...that was the place...and every foreigner I know does the same. For the following reasons: they are clean, cheap, and you get your own bed.

They have a WILDLY different reputations among the Koreans. Just the as the expression "sleeping with someone" connotes anything but Korean "visiting a Love Motel" implies anything but sleeping.

So much so that last week led to a bit of a tug of war. You see on Sunday, the 5 sisters and the general were all sleeping on the floor of the general's one room apartment. They slept on thin pads on the heated floor...aka Korean style.

I, unfortunately, am a spoiled foreigner that hadn't had a good night's sleep in 3 days and I desperately wanted to sleep in a real bed that night. It took a while, but I finally manged to convince my much scandalized friends to show me where a local motel was.

You see, my friends had never stayed, nor do they ever have any intention of staying at such a place of ill repute. But they did show me across the street where a cluster motels was conveniently located.

I could see the disgusted curiosity shining in their eyes as they escorted me to my room. They know these places as dirty and vial. They were impressed by its cleanliness and awed at the size of the bathtub (big enough to fit 2 people) With their curiosity satisfied, the reputation of type of building they were in came back to them...and they promptly said goodbye.

Pop Quiz: Lunar New Years corresponded with what Western holiday this year.

If you guessed Valentine's Day, you win another metal chop stick.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

A seven sister army

So I caught the sleeper bus Friday night. As every Korean is obligated to go home this weekend...the traffic reminded me of those modern engineering marvels that span Lake Washington...

Oddly enough, the traffic doubled as a mixed blessing. Yes, the
traffic was stop and go, the seats were uncomfortable, and sleep was little and far between. But my friend, her sister, and I arrived in Busan at 7:00 in the morning. Early enough that the day was still young, yet late enough that the subways were up and running and the army was wide awake.

You see, there is more to to the family than just the 2 sisters that I know. There are 7 sisters...they call themselves an army...and the mother the general.

The Korean/Confucian ideal reveres men. In order to honor the ancestors at the traditional holidays (Lunar New Years and Harvest) you need a male descendant...if you have a keep on trying.

The women traditionally spend the entire day preparing many dishes to offer their ancestors ... and lucky me I just happened to visit on a cooking/feasting holiday. I thought I was fortunate to visit on such a holiday...until I sat down to dinner.

You see the matriarch-general grew up poor and hungry. A traditional Korean greeting might inquire if you ate yesterday...because literally the entire country was starving and it was a legitimate question for her when she was a child. Where in America this might translate into a tradition of cleaning your Korea in involves providing more food than your can possibly eat. In Korea, it is considered polite to leave some food on your plate (no matter how delicious it is) in order to show that you were provided too much food and couldn't possibly eat another bite.

I tried that with the matriarch...but it didn't work. You see she prepared enough food for 10 people...5 of her daughters ate peckishly...and I was expected to take up the slack. When I was full...she insisted I eat more...when I was ready to burst, she insisted I eat more...

I began dreading eating meal with her. Not because the food wasn't was
amazing...but because because I felt like a cow being feed in preparation for slaughter...

That and the sixth sister's constant (seen above in pink) mention of making Philip Bone Soup...

Monday, February 15, 2010


Sunday was Lunar New Year's Day. This is a major holiday all over East Asia...and especially Korea. It's one of the 2 major traditional holidays celebrated (along with the harvest festival/Thanksgiving aka chusok) Korea has a few random holiday's such as Childrens' Day and Christmas along with 2 get rid of Japan days...but Sunday is one of those holidays that stretch back into Korea's roots.

It's also kind of unique here in that the entire county. including yours truly, aged one year. Which is strange as my mother could have sworn that was 29 and my friends all think I act like I'm 14. But here in Korea, I'm 31.

As part of their culture, Koreans choose to have all their birthdays on the same day. It's something that permeates all of their culture. All of my first graders are 8 years old. If you are 9, then you are in second grade etc...and that's that.

It's even more confusing when you factor in the way they start counting age. The Chinese didn't have a symbol zero until the 13th children always started their age at 1. (before you mock them for not having zero...please look at your own calender attempt to the 0 AD...still can't find it? The west has known about it longer than Korea has...what's our excuse for having a huge hole in our calender?)

If you are addressing someone that is older than you...the language you using is called "honorific" Case in point, when my students talk with older students...they use "older brother" and "older sister" to refer their elders. If fact, it's hard for students to have friends in different grades. When the person always has to use respectful, honorific, and deferential language...and the older gets to be more creates an imbalance which is difficult to overcome.

In honor of this Korean holiday, my pseudo birthday, and a long weekend...I decided to take my Korean friend/ex-coworker up on her offer to spend the weekend with her family in Busan.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Korean Bathrooms...

So...this is my bathroom.

I've grown up with basically one type of bathroom my entire life. My bathroom here is very similar...with a few minor changes.

First, I want to be thankful what you don't see. A washing machine. Too many of my friends have their washing machine IN their bathroom.

You can't really tell from the picture, but the bathroom floor itself isn't flat. The tiles are angled in such a way that all the water on the floor leads to the drain.

With brings me to my second point...tiles. All my life, I've grown up with bathrooms that had linoleum floors. Everything from my grandparent's house, to the house my dad built with his own 2 hands...all had the same type of flooring. This also led to a problem with water on the floor. If you let water sit there...the floor would rot.

Not in my bathroom.

This brings me to the second thing I am thankful for about my bathroom. In this case, it's something that you can see...a shower...

My shower isn't so much a bathtub, with a curtain. Nor is it a plastic, cage with a drain in the middle. It's more of a glass partition...and that's more than many foreigners have. They just have a washing machine, toilet, and a shower hose that hooks up to the sink. A partitioned shower is luxury that I get to enjoy.

If the bathroom floor is the material as the shower means you can get it just as wet. Not only can you...but you should! Cleaning the bathroom starts with spraying the shower nozzle (if you look closely you can see it's on a hose) in every which direction (except up silly)

The main downside to tile is the cracking grout...that or when the tiles completely pop out of the wall. Which was happening in my apartment in Korea...

Public bathrooms on the other hand are significantly, but not quite radically different....for 3 reasons.

The first is thing that took some getting used to is the squat toilet. Sorry, I don't have a picture at the moment, but I'm thinking twice about storming into a public bathroom in hand...

At first, I found these to be annoying, uncivilized and uncomfortable. But after a just accept it for what it is. In fact...I actually feel slightly better for using one, because as the name are squatting. Therefore you aren't actually touching anything else...while on the traditional toilet...while more comfortable....well you're sitting where 100 strangers sat before you...

Second, public bathrooms here are notorious for being well...public. As can see inside from the outside.

I guess I'm used to public bathrooms being built with right angles in mind. You walk inside and have to immediately take a left turn. I keep telling myself...Toto we're not in Kansas anymore. (which is strange as I've never been to Kansas, nor do I know anyone named Toto...)

I can't count the number restrooms that I've passed with no doors and all the urinals are in plain sight. It's not uncommon to find a restaurant with a mixed bathroom. Not bathroom with a door...that would just make sense...but a room with no door...with arrows guiding both men and women inside. The bathroom itself will have a urinal, a stall and only one sink.

Finally, toilet paper.

It seems like such a simple amenity. You may complain it's not as soft as the luxurious 3-ply-flower-exbroidered-quilted-scented paper you keep at home (or in my case one gigantic pack from Costco that could theoretically last me a decade)

But when you at a place that is find yourself pining for that glorious 1ply sandpaper from high school. Instead...outside of the public restrooms are vending machines almost guessed it...packages of tissue. The kind you normally associate with blowing your nose.

In fact...most Koreans carry these around. Women in their in their man purses.

The Korean public has jumped at the oppurtunity to place advertising on something you carry around with you on any given day. Going down into the subway will sometimes pass you by a little old Korean lady passing out little packages of tissue. I rarely turn down free stuff...and you never know when you're going to need to wipe your....nose...

Sunday, February 7, 2010

The Mopeds are coming!

Oh sure Korea has cars. With cars come roads, traffic, bad drivers, and all the other joys of cars. Oh and smog...Seoul has LOTS of that.

But Korea has made the decision, as have many European countries, that they want to limit the number of people driving. There are a couple ways of doing this. Cuba just doesn't import any cars. But as one of the major companies here makes cars (have you ever heard of Daewoo, Hyudai or Kia) So instead they tax the gasoline up the wazoo.

As much as people abhor extra gas taxes...and Koreans are no's not necessarily that take taxes, it's what they do with them. Seoul's public transportation is going to be one of the primary things I miss when I leave.

The buses run until 1:00 am and start at 5:00. They are clean, usually not crowded and come very often.

The subway is AMAZING. It is clean. It comfortable. Ok, sometimes it's too way too crowded. But it takes me everywhere I want to go in Seoul.

If I want to get away for the weekend, I can take a bus and go anywhere in Korea for cheap.

How cheap? The standard bus/subway fare in Korea is 900 won or about 75 cents. If I have to travel from one end of Seoul to the other...I many have to pay up to $1.50..the horror is overwhelming! in the world can Korea afford such an amazing system? Simple, they tax their gas resulting in the 8th highest price in the world. 1600 won/liter. (I guess I need to convert that into a non-metric system for those of you in the 3 countries in the world that are NOT on the metric know Lybia, Myanmar/Burma...and the 3rd county slips my mind at the moment...for the other 170 countries out there...good for you) That's $5.15 in and day out.

Instead of driving SUVs, Jimmy's and full sized trucks (I know who you are...) The take a LOT of public transportation. They also use motorcycles and mopeds. A LOT. Pizza drivers in America are usually driving beat up used cars.

Well, in case you haven't noticed yes, this isn't Korea. In Korea, delivery is done by motorcycle. Period. Everything from Chinese food, Pizza, and yes even McDonalds...delivers via motorcycle. But with gas ALWAYS above $ else is there to drive?

The curious thing about motorcycle/moped drivers here is that they don't exactly follow the same rules as the cars. And that's really saying something as the rest of Korean drivers don't exactly follow many rules either.

But at least the cars stick to the roads.

The mopeds drive on the roads...they drive on the sidewalks...they drive everywhere. If they are stuck at a red light...instead of waiting...they'll fly onto the sidewalk...once they get sick of weaving around pedestrians on the sidewalk, they jump back onto the road...where they manage to out-do the taxi drivers for crazy, reckless driving...again...another impressive feat.

So the next time you're filling up the gas tank of your gas guzzling monster...remember...the mopeds are coming and at up to 100 mpg (sorry to all my metric fans out there) you'll be ahead of the curve because as soon as gas stays above $5.00 that's what half the country will be driving.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

You can leave your hat on

Koreans have different sense of fashion. It's understandable, because they look different. The men are fond of suits and pastels (especially pink) In the summer the women are fond of miniskirts and high heels. In the winter, the women are fond of furry vests, tights, miniskirts, high heels.

If any girl reading my blog wants a pair of tights that will keep you warm despite near blizzard conditions...let me know and I can send you a pair of the best tights you'll ever own. I must however warm you, if you are fat by Korean standards (aka your legs actually touch and you are unable to hide behind a bean pole) don't bother...they will rip the first time you try them on.

When I when to Busan, I left my hat on the bus. (my umbrella in Tokyo, my hat in Busan...why do I feel like I'm stuck in a Where's Waldo Asia book...) I soon found it eminently necessary to purchase a new one. I opted for a boring, ski hat, that was similar to the one I had when I was young. But I had other options.

The hat and gloves come in two distinct categories, boring and FUN. The boring ones are identical to what you find in Seattle, mittens, leather gloves, ski hats, ear muffs, scarves, etc...

My students don't wear the kinds of hats that I resisted wearing as a small child. Instead, they wear hats with lions, and tigers, and panda bears! Oh My are they cute!

They also don't need to be reminded put on their hats...because want 10 year old doesn't want to dress up like a tiger!

The gloves are either physically attached to the hat by hat by a long piece of cloth...or they are come separately. Either way, when you look at them, you don't see gloves as much as you see stuffed claws.

So you can ask yourself...the next time you go outside and don your warm winter wear...which would you prefer to look like? A disgruntled dock work...but an adult? or a lion?

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Here Fishy Fishy Fishy!

This weekend I went to Korea's #1 fishing festival...or at least that's what the brochure they gave to me said. All I knew was I was going a tour that promised ice fishing, snow hiking, and an excuse to get out of Seoul.

But since we don't have really cold winters in Seattle, my sole source of ice fishing culture consists of watching Grumpy Old Men. So I expected shacks on the ice and fishing poles. Oh ho, not so!

The picture you now see before you is the ice fishing section. There were thousands of Koreans huddled around their holes. The were no shacks. So I, along with the rest of the foreigners, borrowed the giant crow bar / ice hole digging tool and proceeded to attack the ice we were standing. After the hole was dug and scooped clean of snow-cone shavings...we whipped out the fly swatters that the tour company gave us. I mean technically they were fishing poles, but if you glanced in a'd think it was a fly swatter with a bit of fishing line and the saddest, most unappealing lure you've ever seen in your life.

How sad was it?

The Korean in the hole next to us, who had caught several fish using a real lure...communicated to us thru broken, borderline non-existant English skills...(so gestures really mixed with words we didn't understand) that no fish would even bite on our lures.

But yet somehow, almost all of the foreigners wound up hooking a fish.

How? With our pathetic poles, unalluring lure and thousands of other hooks to choose from?

Maybe a little technique that I learned from Bert and Ernie on Sesame Street?

Simple. A reporter with a newspaper wanted pictures of foreigners catching fish. So he came by with a bucket of fish. He set one on each of our hooks and we had to pose surprised, excited, and awed for the camera. He got his picture and we got our fish, so everyone was happy.

Later that evening we drove out to the woods to a ring of cabins. Behind the cabins, thru a brief hike in the snow, there was a bonfire that leaped 20 feet in the air. Such acts of primitive beauty inspired in my soul the immortal words of sages from my teenage years. "Fire is cool!"

At the cabin, 10 of us spread out on the floor and fell asleep.

Korean's don't really do beds. I mean, beds are creeping in as part of the western influence, but most Koreans don't have them. They prefer to sleep on mats on their floor. They don't really have central heating either, but they do pump heat out of their floors. They call it ondol. The room was quite chilly, but the floor was quite toasty. While I lay on my back on the thin mattress pad provided, I could see my breath...but I as everything from my neck down to my toes was being heated...I felt perfectly warm.

Koreans believe in the heated "ondol" flooring so much that apartments are measured in pyeong...or how much space a person would take up sleeping on the floor.

So while I attempted to catch so sleep, the other 2 guys were sawing logs with such window shaking force that it made me miss my grandma.

The next day we went hiking in snow that was loose and powdery, perfect for skiing and sledding, but poor for snow balls and hiking. Many of our motley crew had to turn back do to inadequate footwear.

After the hike, we drove into town, ate lunch and headed back into Seoul... a little wetter, a bit colder, slightly bruised, but all smiles.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Korean Banking Part 3

I've only had one bank my entire life. When I was in elementary school, a nice lady would come once a month and collect a few dollars that my mother had given me (GAVE ME...GAVE ME I'm an English teacher now, I'd better start writing like one!) As I grew older, I continued to use them as for my checking and saving account.

Then one day, I checked the interest rate on my savings account. It was a paltry 0.25%. THAT'S LESS THAN 1% on a "SAVINGS" ACCOUNT I was losing money keeping it at the bank all all these years. do you lose money that's in a perfectly safe, FDIC insured savings account? It's called inflation. Inflation is the fact that everything gets more expensive each year. (There are computers...but they are more than balanced out by other things...say gasoline. Now look in the mirror and ask yourself which would you rather have...$2000 computers and $1 gallons of gasoline or $500 computers and $5 gallons of gasoline...)

For the last few years, inflation has averaged 2.60%. So $100 stuff at the beginning of the year is suddenly only able to buy $97.5 worth of stuff...hmmm this is starting to sound hard. Let's try to explain this another way...using something real...


Last year you spent $100 on beer. Last year, that bought 100 bottles of beer. (This is the good stuff that costs $1 a bottle, I'm from of the micro-brews...after all) The problem is that this year, due to "inflation" (or Washington's bad habit of raising beer taxes each year...) Suddenly, 100 bottle of beer costs $102.60.

But that's OK, since you've saved $100 dollars in a savings account at your local bank. With a 0.25...that turns your $100 in $'re $2.35 short

Now you're only buying 98 bottles of beer. Sad : (

What's even more depressing is that this "inflation thing" stacks on itself every year. So after 30 years, you're $100 is only buying 50 bottles of beer. really need a beer...

...oh wait, you can't afford one...

OK...back to reality...When I found out my bank was only paying me less than a penny on the dollar, I moved my paltry savings to an online. But my checking account stayed where it was.

The bank was sold to another bank and I kept my checking account there. As long as I didn't have to pay for my checking and the statements kept coming in the mail...there wasn't really a difference.

That is until I came to Korea.

While, my banking account isn't a savings account by any isn't a checking account as I understand it.

I checking account involves, well, checks and the attached checkbook.

Well, not over here. Checks here are issued from an ATM machine and they aren't TO a specific person, but FROM a specific. Let me explain, if a Korean has a check for 100 chon-won (around $ 90) and walks into the local "7-11" (and there are more kwiki marts here than there are street corners, I have 3 in my apartment building alone!) and hands over the check and a bag of squid flavored rice puffs...the teller will hand back 99 chon- won and the bag of chips which cost 1,000 won.

That's just how it's done here. Most Koreans don't have more than 100 chon-won in their wallet at any given time, but they will have a couple of checks in there. If they run out of cash, they'll simply buy something small at the "Mini-stop" and get 99 chon-won in change. That's just how things are done here. And the sales clerk just smiles and says thank you!

Odd, just think of the dirty look you would get if you gave a $100 dollar bill at the local AM/PM and asked for $99 dollars in change. That is...if they even accepted $100 bills.

The other thing that they don't do here is bank statements. Instead, they use something called a passbook. It's about the size of your standard check book and in it are pages that look like a check ledger book (you know, that thing that's in your checkbook, above your checks, that you don't use as often as you should...)

But the pass book has a electronic strip in it that lets it double as an ATM card. The ATMs here accept both the books AND ATM cards. When you use the passbook, the ATM automatically prints flips to the last page and prints out your latest account activity.

Case in point, my account back home in the US of A. Every month my parents get a piece of mail from my bank that has all the latest activity. Even if over the course of the past 11 months, only 1 or 2 things happen on my account each month, they still mail me a 3 page letter every month.

While in Korea, all I have is a small, thinner than a diary sized notebook that can fit inside a daily planner. Oh, and it only uses up a much space as it is used...while one person will fill 3 passbooks with all the times they withdraw money, I'm still on my first one.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Snow Day

I really thought that Seattle was the most pathetic city when it comes to snow. I mean 3 inches on snow shuts down half the city. Well Seattle must have a dysfunctional cousin here in Korea called Seoul.

In some ways I understand how Seattle has problems. The city hasn't thought about subway/light rail, the snow/melt/freeze weather cycle, and the hills all compound into one giant massive traffic accident when the snow comes.

Seoul has none of the disadvantages. The city has a spiderweb of 9 subway lines, it's not even close to freezing, it's flat, and the weather isn't even CLOSE getting above freezing. One additional advantage of living in apartment building that are 20+ stories is that half my students walk to their schools.

So a little snow wouldn't stop these dedicated workaholics, right?


They don't have plows, salt, sand, or chains. I live near a major intersection. It's where an 8 lane road meets an 8 lane road, meets a subway stop. If the city was going send a plow anywhere, it would send one by here as it cleared the highway towards Seoul. The road is covered in snow, unsanded, unsalted and unsafe.

The one things that are passable are sidewalks. That has nothing to do with the government as much as it to do with the business that line sidewalks. This morning, while walking to work, I small a small army of ajishis and ajimas (old Korean men and women) shoveling the snow. In fact, the parking lot in my apartment complex is well shoveled. I am truly amazed to see the security guards actually lift a finger let a lone shovel a parking lot. I mean these guys usually reside in a state of torpor that would give Tom Hanks in a League of Their Own a serious run for his money.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

And a Happy New Year

I started off Saturday by going to a protest. While I'm not a real big fan of marches, I've read about this particular protest for a while now. During World War 2, the Japanese drafted Korean women to become sex slaves for the soldiers. And for well over 800 straight weeks these living human tear drops have come in front of the Japanese in Seoul to ask for an apology.

While Japan hasn't quite offered one yet, the Japanese prime minister (aka their president) in 2007 went as far to say that "They probably enjoyed it." But he didn't quite go far enough to say I'm sorry...

And the embassy it's in Seoul? Well there were riot police to fend off 3 old Korean in wheel chairs and half a dozen nuns.

After watching that for half an hour, I headed for the bus station and caught the express bus to Busan for New Years.

Busan is Korea's 2nd city and is know for its port and beautiful beaches. Well an industrial port isn't exactly a tourist destination and the beach isn't my my idea of spending a freezing December afternoon.

I did swing by the world's largest shopping mall, but by for some reason it was closed on New Year's Day. So Korea finally has a holiday that fall on a weekend and the mall celebrates it by closing its doors? What happened to the entrepreneurial, sell you anything anywhere, spirit that predominates Seoul? It must have moved underground. At least the underground mall was bustling with amorous Korean couples buying matching underwear. (and no Toto, this definitely isn't Kansas...)

The most memorial event of my vacation took place at a coffee shop by the hands of Doctor Fish. I drank some tea and stuck my feet in bathtub filled with hundreds of Turkish guppies that wanted to eat me alive. My friend claimed they only ate dead skin, but I can't say I left my feet in the tub long enough to find out (imagine a hundred little fingers rubbing the bottom of your feet and imagine how you'd react)

I can't say I've come up with a resolution yet, but I have a feeling I'll be changing a lot in the next year...hopefully most of it for the good.