Monsoon Madness

Monsoon

South Korea quite possibly has the worst summer of anywhere on the planet.  As I am writing this, I am in the midst of monsoon season, also known as the months where it doesn’t stop raining.  The best way to describe my feelings towards monsoons is that I now have a better understanding as to why Seattle has the highest suicide rate in the US.

Before I experienced my first monsoon, I was under the impression that they were pretty much the same thing as hurricanes.  They are not, in fact, as bad as Hurricane Katrina and Seoul is in no way the next New Orleans but they still suck.  There’s no beating around the bush trying to downplay them.  A monsoon is just constant, depressing, heavy rain and from what I’ve been told it lasts for months.  I’m a week and a half into this thing and I’m already about to shoot the first person who crosses my path after walking inside from the rain.

The worst part about a monsoon isn’t the rain or the length, though.  The thing I hate most is how they keep you trapped inside.  My favorite pastime and the most effective cure for a soju hangover I have found has been to aimlessly wander around new parts of the city.  Up until the past couple of weeks I would wake up on Saturday and Sunday mornings and just head to a neighborhood I hadn’t been to before and explore until my legs couldn’t walk anymore.  Since the monsoon started I have spent more time in my apartment than I care for.  At first it wasn’t too terrible for some forced down time, and if I had to be completely honest, it was actually somewhat appreciated.  After the first lazy weekend, that relaxation turned into cabin fever.  I’m constantly itching to go out and walk around outside as opposed to being stuck indoors.

So until the monsoon drifts out to to sea, I’m just going to be that crabby person who was living in Phoenix, Arizona, the Valley of the Sun, a little over a month ago and now cannot leave the apartment without an umbrella.

Monsoon

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Chicken Tenders = America

I have genuinely loved almost everything about living in Seoul.  The food is fantastic, being able to walk places is incredibly convenient, and the city has that never-sleeping quality that makes life here so exciting.  But as much fun as I’m having, there is still a part of me that really misses certain aspects of life in the US.

As odd as it sounds, what really got me thinking about everything I missed from home was a plate of chicken tenders from a terrible Korean fast food chain called Lotteria.  I went and got dinner with some of my co-workers and, unlike normal nights when we eat Korean food, I was pleasantly surprised to get chicken tenders instead.  Were these chicken tenders good?  No.  Did they hit the spot?  More than anything I’ve eaten in Korea.

As appreciated as they were, these chicken tenders weren’t even served the same way they are in America.  I’m used to seeing fast food chicken served with things like barbeque sauce or honey mustard but in Korea they apparently come with sweet and sour sauce.  After seeing the sweet and sour sauce, I was kind of skeptical but took the plunge anyway.  It wasn’t until I took my first bite that I knew how much I was craving something deep fried and in no way nutritious, but after that bite there was no way I could stop until every last crumb was devoured.  Once that chicken touched my tounge, I felt like my mouth was meeting an old friend for the first time in years.  Like an old war widow whose long-thought-dead husband just returned from one of those P.O.W. camps.

My little taste of Americana opened this deep cavern of cravings that can’t seem to leave my mind.  My entire day has been interrupted by thoughts of Lay’s Kettle Cooked Jalapeno Chips, In-N-Out’s Animal-style burger, Diet Coke, Chick-fil-A’s spicy chicken sandwich, Taco Bell’s Fresco Bean Burrito, Trader Joe’s Sicilian-style veggie pizza, Five Guys Cajun fries, Panda Express Orange Chicken, and my dad’s chips and salsa.  I’m either pregnant and experiencing cravings or I’m getting my first twinges of homesickness.  Let’s hope for the latter.

Seoul is Where Vegetarians Come to Die

Initially, my biggest concern about moving to Seoul was by far the food.  I knew Korean food was spicy, which I had no problem with.  The spicier the better.  What had me worried the most was the seafood.  I’m not too keen on eating things that could be living in my aquarium at home and fish is in everything here.  Even if the main dish is not fish based, chances are there is some sort of fish sauce covering 90% of the food on the table so it’s nearly impossible to escape seafood altogether.  That being said, I reluctantly accepted my future of eating Nemo, Ariel, and Shamu along with all my other ocean friends and dove right into Korean cuisine.

My favorite food by far has been jjimdak (pictured below).  I think the best part about jjimdak is that it either has no seafood or masks the fish beautifully.  It’s spicy, flavorful, and has so many different textures and layers to it.  The jjimdak I ate had chicken, noodles, a spicy bean paste, and lots of vegetables all mixed together.  Like most dishes in Korea it is served family-style in one giant platter.  Diners all scoop from the bowl with chopsticks and use scissors to cut the longer noodles.  Scissors are a common fixture at restaurants and while that might sound strange from a Western perspective, they are actually pretty handy and make eating certain foods much easier.

Jajamyeong

As delicious as jjimdak is, eating it wasn’t really a stretch for my American taste buds on my mission to encounter the real Korean food.  My first glimpse of the authentic, truly foreign cuisine of Seoul came a little later with a dish I affectionately refer to as squid bit stew (below).  At a little hole-in-the-wall restaurant I ordered off a sign on the wall that displayed pictures of various menu items and thought I ordered some sort of noodle soup.  When my food was delivered I was pretty quick to discover that what I thought would be noodles were actually tentacles.  In addition to the little bits of squid wrapping around my spoon like some sort of sea monster capsizing a ship, my bowl was full of clams and small crabs.  For someone who previously struggled to finish a basket of fish and chips, this squid bit stew became my Everest.  After eating everything in the soup that did not originate underwater, I ate the squid.  The tentacles turned out to be okay.  They didn’t have much of a flavor, more of a chewiness than anything else, and the crabs were not terrible either.  I could not get through the clams but, really, two out of three isn’t too bad.

Squid Bit Stew

One thing that almost all Korean meals have in common is the endless array of side dishes, called banchan.  The most famous banchan is probably kimchi, which is just spicy, fermented cabbage.  As disgusting as that sounds it is actually pretty good and is inescapable in Seoul.  Other banchan consist of spicy vegetables, soups, sauces, and rice.  The best part of banchan is that they come free with your meal and are all refillable.  When your table runs out of one side dish, a server will come and replace it free of charge.  The picture below shows just some of banchan dishes that are standard at many restaurants.

Banchan

And of course with food comes drinks.  At restaurants, servers will usually bring a jug of water to the table but do not pour it in the cups.  In Korea it is considered impolite to pour your own drink so if you need a refill most people will pour a drink for someone nearby and that person should take it as a hint to pour a drink for the person who poured them a drink.  It is also considered a major social faux pas to refuse a drink from someone older than you.  If a more senior member of your dining party offers you a drink it is very rude to say no to them.  One of the more popular drinks here is called soju and soju is just as much a part of a meal as water is.  Soju is a little bit like vodka in that it tastes like rubbing alcohol but Koreans can’t get enough of it.  Soju is also incredibly cheap, like cheaper than water, and apparently causes some of the worst hangovers known to man.  Unfortunately my experience with soju seems to prove the latter is true.  While soju might quite possibly be the worst drink in the world, makgeolli might be one of the best.  Makgeolli is a rice wine that is sweet and refreshing, something that can easily be enjoyed with dinner, and in my case, usually is.

As nervous as I was about the food when I first got to Korea, I’ve really enjoyed almost everything.  I love how spicy most dishes are, the communal atmosphere at restaurants, and I’m even getting used to seafood.  I wouldn’t say I love fish by any means, but I can tolerate it.  That being said, I don’t think I will be having another helping of squid bit stew anytime in the near future.

Korean Weekends Make My Body Hurt

Friday night was the start of my first real Korean weekend.  While I have technically been through three Saturdays and Sundays since my plane landed, this is the first weekend that followed a full week of work and therefore was the most appreciated.

After a relatively low key Friday night I woke up on Saturday morning and did something I have not done in years and years:  I ran.  Now before any jaws drop to the floor let me explain why I was running.  A co-worker of mine organizes a group that does two-mile runs in various locations throughout Seoul so a few of us decided to join her and see a little more of the city.  The reason I ended up tagging along was because I was informed the endpoint to every run this group does is a bar and drinks are provided.  Now you’re probably starting to understand why I ran.

The first part of the route was fine, it was in a neat neighborhood I had not seen so I was happy I got my tourist fix.  I was keeping pace and everything was fairly flat with some nice stop lights that provided much needed breaks without making me look like a wimp.  After that misleading introduction to the course, we ending up cutting through someone’s backyard and ran up on a trail through the hills.  The wrong turns, hills that felt like they never sloped down, and humidity that kept making the air thicker and thicker finally stopped and pitchers of mixed drinks greeted me as my co-workers and I got to the bar.  Even though I have no intentions of ever running a marathon, or really even running without the prospect of ending up in a bar for that matter, I ended up having a lot of fun and saw a brand new part of the city.  The picture below is from a stretch at the bottom of the hill where we crossed through a random meadow in the middle of Seoul I probably would have never noticed had I not gone with the group.  I might even do this again next weekend.  Maybe.

Run, run, run

After getting back from the run and taking a quick and much deserved nap, I took some of my co-workers who also did the run to Hongdae to meet up with Chelsea, a friend of mine from college.  Hongdae is an area that is filled with bars and clubs and is one of Seoul’s major neighborhoods for nightlife.  I’m not really into clubs and all the sexually transmitted diseases that seem to cover their walls so what I like about Hongdae is the area outside the clubs.  In the middle of endless walls of neon signs are little parks that people crowd around and watch performers.  Vendors sell drinks from carts and convenience stores are on every corner selling cheaper drinks and the always welcome snack.  Foreigners and Koreans seem to be somewhat equal in number so there are just too many different types of people for the parks to get boring.

Hongdae

The picture above is what a weekend night in the parks of Hongdae is like.  Pretty laid back and easy to get away from the scene kids who live and die for the clubs.

This morning I woke up impossibly sore from my long day of running and my long night of drinking so I decided to take Sunday easy and do another touristy thing to scratch off my list.  I left for Namdaemun Market this afternoon and lazily wandered around the narrow alleys of food carts, souvenir stalls, and counterfeit designer goods.  I’d heard a lot of really good things about Namdaemun Market from a lot of people but I’ve got to say I was a little let down.  I didn’t really see that much of a difference between Namdaemun and the trashy shops selling t-shirts in the beach towns of Florida.  There was a lot of stuff, so the sheer size was impressive but there’s only so many times you can see knockoff Adidas socks before losing interest.

Korean Kids Are Really Just Puppies

Workbook

This horrendously amazing conversation is seriously something I taught and it actually is a pretty good representative of my time so far.  In just about every class there is some sort of cultural difference or language barrier that makes the students or the material unintentionally funny.  Whether it’s because of a student’s inability to conjugate verbs or their strange word choice, I’m usually trying my best to hide a smile even when I’m trying to be strict.

Korean age is different from the Western concept of age.  When you are born you are automatically one year old.  When new year comes, everyone who was born in the previous year becomes one year older at the same time.  So if you were born in November 2010, you would be one year old the day you were born.  When the Korean New Year came in February 2011, you became two years old even though you would only be considered four months old in the US.  Because of this difference in age reckoning, my youngest students (who are considered five in Korea) are really only about three years old.  They can barely speak Korean, let alone English, and for the most part just look confused when you say sentences that consist of more than three words to them.  As they should, I mean they are only three.  My curriculum for this class is really just a book of children’s songs and I spend about one month on each song.  This month is Old McDonald Had a Farm.  Thankfully I only have to teach these kids for 40 minutes every other day.

Other than the youngest kids, most of my students are around seven to nine years old.  This is when I am constantly keeping myself from laughing.  For example, when I gave a class time to work on their assignments independently one student decided that I deserved a neck massage.  At first I thought he was joking and just wanted attention but I realized he was being sincere and wanted to show that he liked me.  Just today a student had his mom buy me dinner.  This class only has two students and one was late so we ate our gimbap and talked about his tae kwon do practice.  Later on he got pulled out of class and yelled at by another teacher for lying about that other student skipping school, but for now let’s focus on the positive.  Other students are constantly ambushing me in the hall and trying to hold my hand as I walk to a different room even though I am usually carrying my giant box of supplies.  This seemingly endless display of affection never stops surprising me.

They aren’t always warm and loving though.  They can be violent to each other.  They hit, they kick, they steal.  They constantly have bandages covering random places on their bodies.  But even when they are bad they are abnormally cute.  It’s almost like I’m teaching a class full of puppies.  They’re tiny, loud, hyperactive, and are constantly begging for treats and bathroom breaks.  But most of all when they do something bad and you try to punish them, it’s hard to think about anything other than secretly just wanting to take a picture of their endearing mess.

Other than being extraordinarily cuter than my former American students, one of the first differences between Korean and American kids is the way the Koreans address their teachers.  Technically I am Andrew Teacher but most of the time the Andrew gets dropped and I am just Teacher.  With their accents this usually sounds something like “Teach-ahh!” and I hear “Teah-ahh!” roughly 10,000 times per hour.  Every sentence begins and ends with “Teach-ahh!” and it is oftentimes thrown in somewhere in the middle.  “Teach-ahh, I’m done Teach-ahh!”  “Teach-ahh, can I read? Teach-ahh!”  “Teach-ahh Ricky bit me Teach-ahh!”  “Teach-ahh Grace kicked me Teach-ahh!”  Tired of hearing “Teach-ahh!” yet?  I am.

Strangers on the Subway

It’s official:  I have no reliable Internet access.  The former tenant of this apartment’s subscription was canceled today and I am now stealing wireless from a connection that either gives me one bar of reception or is just absent altogether.  I’ll get my own connection once I get my alien registration card, but until then I’m learning to live a life sans-Internet.

One unexpected benefit that comes from not having the Internet is that I have been forced to go out and find activities in the real world to pass the time as opposed to just checking Facebook or watching some stupid video on YouTube.  And the only way to get to those activities in Seoul is via subway.  The subway here is essentially God’s gift to people watchers.  There are so many different types of people and they all kind of mesh together.  There are the power suit-clad businessmen who look unfriendly and tired, the ajumma who glare at younger people until they get up and forfeit their seats, and my personal favorite type of subway person, the techno-phile.  The people of Seoul have the nicest cell phones I have ever seen and many of them feature live-streaming TVs.  The subway techy always seems to be watching something American on their cell phone TVs, most likely CSI.  Normally if a show has an abbreviation of any sort in its title (a la SVU, NCIS, or the aforementioned CSI) it’s a pretty safe bet that I will hate it, but if it’s being played on a cell phone in front of my face on a Korean subway it becomes sort of endearing.

The subway has also been the easiest place to strike up conversations with native Koreans.  I’m always being stared at by at least one curious person and when Koreans stare, they stare.  I’m used to people casually turning their eyes if they get caught looking at someone a little too long but in Korea they don’t look away.  They continue staring until something more interesting catches their attention.  At first this made me slightly uncomfortable just because I didn’t know what to do when I saw them staring.  I smiled, waved, and I even said hello a few times.  Once the subway starers have been given some sort of recognition there is a very good chance they will attempt to start a conversation and these conversations have proven to be some of my more amusing moments in Korea.  For example, when I asked one woman who was staring at me from a mere two feet away if I was on the right train she did not respond with a simple yes.  She proceeded to tell me all about her trip to New York and how much she loved Central Park for the duration of the 45 minute ride.  I told her many times I that have not been to New York but she didn’t seem to care.

My strangest subway encounter came this afternoon.  I was on the platform waiting for the next train to arrive when I saw an old man leaning over just kind of inspecting me in the same way that I might look over a banana at the grocery store.  A few seconds after he leaned back to a more normal upright position he took out a few coins and bought a cup of instant coffee from a vending machine.  Instead of drinking it himself, he handed the coffee to me and said “I love you.”  I had absolutely no idea what to say so I said thank you and kept waiting on what seemed like the longest period of time between two subway trains in the history of mankind.  I did not drink the coffee at first for fear of poison or being ruffied by an elderly Korean gentleman but he kept staring and I didn’t know what else to do so I just sucked it up and drank the actually fairly decent cup of coffee.

The Seoul subway is one of my favorite things about this city.  Stops are everywhere, it’s cheap, and makes life without a car easy.  Above everything else though it offers a great microcosm of everyone living here and consistently serves up some sort of surprise that makes my day just a little bit more unpredictable.

Welcome to Korea

After 20 hours, three flights, and tornado-induced travel chaos I finally landed in Seoul, South Korea.  Well, kind of.  I actually landed in Incheon, a city west of Seoul on the coast.  From there I rode the never-ending bus to Seoul that took longer than my flight to Korea from Tokyo.  The bus dropped me off at Suyu Station, where  I met Roy, one of the Korean employees at my school.  When I stepped off the bus I was immediately immersed in a sea of neon.  Neon is everywhere in this city; there is no escaping it.  Roy led me through a bright pink and lime green glowing alley to the Four Season Motel.  When Roy said that name my initial jet-lagged thought was something along that lines of “Swanky!”  How wrong I was.

The Four Season Motel (not Four Seasons Hotel) is a sex motel.  Like neon signs, these are ubiquitous in the city of Seoul.  I’ve been told that many Koreans live with their parents until they are married and apartments in Seoul are tiny.  Young couples who want to avoid mom and dad or married couples who just want to get down and dirty without literally bumping into the kids are frequent customers in these establishments.  While the general nature of a sex motel might seem somewhat sleazy, the motel was actually reasonably nice.  The Four Seasons it was not, but it was a step up from the Motel 6.  I had a giant TV, nice desktop computer, and a pool for a bathtub.  I even had a mountain view once I opened the intentionally blacked out windows.

I was in the Four Season Motel for about a week before I could move into my apartment.  I had to wait for the teacher I was replacing to leave and for the school to clean everything up before I could get in.  Now that I’m in, I’m pretty impressed.  I’m not living in some chic Park Avenue apartment but I am definitely comfortable.  The apartment is a pretty basic layout.  When you enter through the front door you are in the kitchen and the door to the bathroom is on your immediate left.  The kitchen is fairly basic.  No oven, but I do have a hotplate and toaster oven.  The bathroom is big but has no separate shower so the shower head just comes out of the wall and the water flows into a drain underneath the sink.

An archway from the kitchen leads into my dining room/bedroom.  My mattress is next to the refrigerator and dining room table.  Because the teacher I’m replacing was married, I got lucky and managed to score a queen-sized bed while other teachers just have twins.  Another opening from the dine-in-bedroom leads to what I’m assuming is a living room.  It has a desk, armoire, TV, and a couple of shelves.  The living room also leads to my favorite part of the apartment: the balcony.  I’m in a high-rise building up on the eleventh floor, surrounded by other high-rises.  My neighboring buildings are not particularly pretty or architecturally unique in any way but my new, sky scraping view is something I was not accustomed to in my ground-level apartment in Phoenix.  I’m really not in my apartment very often but whenever I’m here I almost always go out to the balcony and just watch the people go by from up above.  The balcony also doubles as my laundry room, housing a laundry machine and clothes line instead of a dryer.  It still amazes me that I am living in a country in which I have seen toilets that can speak and yet dryers seem to be Korea’s answer to the pot of gold at the end of rainbow.  You’ve heard of them but never actually seen them.  Here is a picture of the view from my apartment.

View

In addition to moving into a new apartment I also started this little thing called work.  I’ve only taught one day but everything seems to going fine.  The kids didn’t kill me and I didn’t have to discipline anyone.  One thing I have yet to get used to is how they address teachers here.  In America I was Mr. Brown in my classes.  In Korea, I’m Andrew Teacher.  Small detail but weird nonetheless.  One of my Korean co-workers also told me that my name is incredibly hard to pronounce for the students.  I guess they have difficulty with the “ndr” part of Andrew and the day before I started the students spent a lot of time practicing saying my name.  The final result ended up sounding something like An-duh-loo but I’m kind of amused by it.  With a name like Andrew Brown, I never got that experience of the substitute teacher mispronouncing my name.  Now is my time and now I am An-duh-loo Bull-oww-nuh.

When my one day of working came to an end I was treated to a three-day weekend.  I have absolutely no idea what holiday the country of South Korea is celebrating but I do know that everyone under the sun has left Seoul and gone to the beach in Busan.  Since I have yet to receive my first paycheck I am still poor and cannot afford a beach vacation.  Instead I’ve been doing a lot of the touristy things around Seoul.  I’ve gone to three palaces, gotten the necessities for my apartment, and wandered around some of Seoul’s more interesting neighborhoods.  This exploration-based weekend has taught me a lot about life in Korea.  Here is a list of some of the things that stand out most:

1)  The ajumma (the specific type of visor-adorned, permed old women pictured below) are everywhere and will kill you if that’s what it takes to get where they need to be.

Ajumma
2)  Koreans like to drink.  Like a lot.  And when in Rome…

3)  Asian palaces just might beat out their European counterparts.

4)  Korean pop (or K-Pop for those in the know) is one of the greatest gifts given to this world.  This is my personal favorite example of the strange yet oddly fascinating phenomenon that is K-Pop.

5)  Korean food is amazing and eating out is both better and cheaper than anything I could prepare.

With one day left in my long weekend I’m hoping to find a few more things to add to that list.  I plan on checking out some of the big fish markets tomorrow but who knows what could happen.  I may or may not have Internet access for the next couple of weeks so I’m sure my next update will be even more informative.  Until then, you will just have to find another blog to live vicariously through.