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.