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.