A Very Korean Christmas

Christmas in PyeongchangDespite the fact roughly half the population of Korea is Christian (a result of the heavy American presence in Korea since the Korean War), Christmas is in no way as big of a deal in Seoul as it is in the US.  Christmas is actually more of a Valentine’s Day-like couple’s holiday than the day of presents, family, and food that comes every December 25 in America.  I tend to enjoy Christmas.  I like the tacky decorations, lights, and just overall positive outlook on life that comes around at the end of every year.  Since Seoul seems to be missing almost everything that makes American Christmas great, I decided to do something to put me in a festive mood:  I celebrated winter by going skiing in Pyeongchang, the future host of the 2018 Winter Olympics.

The day before my ski trip, my work had its office holiday party at a restaurant down the street from the school.  Korea has a gigantic drinking culture and work parties over here have a reputation of being completely drunken affairs where managers are literally pouring shots down the throats of their employees.  This was my first office party in Korea and I found that everything I had heard was 100% true.  The entire time I’ve been at YBM ECC my manager has said maybe four sentences to me, despite the fact that I teach both her children.  At the office party I coincidentally grabbed the seat at dinner next to her and about 10 minutes into the meal she was pouring shots of soju for everyone around her.  Soon she learned that this party just so happened to fall on my birthday.  When she made this discovery she was giving me extra shots.  There’s a very strict order of respect in Korea that means it is considered rude to turn away a drink from a superior.  By the end of the night I was eating as much rice as I could, trying to coat my stomach with something to soak up the alcohol as well as keeping my mouth occupied whenever the manager looked at me, hoping this might deter her from giving me another drink.

PyeongchangThe next morning, I was up bright and early to catch a 7:30 bus and I was as hungover as I had ever been in my life.  I met a couple of friends that morning and got on the bus.  The ride from Seoul to Pyeongchang took about three hours.  After about an hour of getting all the gear rented and ready, we were on the slopes.  This was only the second time in my entire life I had been skiing and the first time was definitely not at an Olympic-worthy ski resort.  The instant I got off the gondola and attempted to slide away I knew that professional skiing was probably not going to be a future career-path of mine.  I spent more time falling than I did skiing and my hips felt like one of the titans in Ancient Greece had spent some time wreaking havoc on them.  By the end of the day I had somewhat gotten the hang of turning and slowing down and, although I did ski into a bush, I managed to not pull a Sonny Bono.

Even though Christmas in Korea is nothing like it is back home, I was pleased with the way it turned out.  I had no Christmas tree, my presents from home ended up getting to Korea a few weeks beforehand, and there was much more forced alcohol consumption in a workplace environment than I had ever imagined experiencing.  Despite these significant differences, my Christmas in Korea was not as entirely unlike the festivities I know in America.  Mariah Carey’s All I Want For Christmas is You was just as ubiquitous in Seoul as it is every December in the US, and in the end that song is really what Christmas is all about anyway.

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So… Kim Jong-il Died

DMZ2011 wasn’t exactly the greatest year for horrible people.  Osama bin Laden was killed in May and Gaddafi just got taken down in August.  Kim Jong-il rounded out that triumvirate when he kicked the bucket this weekend.  In the span of approximately 36 hours since his death was announced I’ve been bombarded by questions from people back home asking what the response in South Korea was like.  As much as I would like to say there was a really exciting revolutionary wave sweeping over the peninsula, there actually hasn’t been anything outside the ordinary happening the past couple of days.

When the announcement had been made yesterday, many of the Korean teachers and students were shocked.  They asked questions, read articles online, and seemed to want to find out more rather than celebrate the end of a dictator.  Students in my younger classes asked me how he died and who would be the new leader.  I asked my older students what they thought about the issue and they didn’t seem to care one way or the other.  They said Kim Jong-il was gone but Kim Jong-un, his succeeding son, was still just as awful to the North Korean people.

The perspective I found most interesting came from Coffee Boy.  Coffee Boy is a boy with a name impossible to pronounce who works at the coffee shop across the street from my school.  Even though I still can’t quite get his name down I give him English lessons once a week.  He is the same age as me and because of that he is in the Korean military as all male citizens are required to do two years of military service.  He has told me many times about spending time at the DMZ and even about a trip into North Korea when he went to Kumgangsan, a mountain resort formerly open to South Korean tourists (much further into the country than I got when I went to the DMZ and stood across from the propaganda village of Kijong-dong).  I asked Coffee Boy how he felt about Kim Jong-il dying and he didn’t seem to have any feelings one way or the other.  His opinion seemed to align with my older students.  He was happy Kim Jong-il was no more but he realized Kim Jong-un was no better than his father.

As much as I would like to be in Seoul while something as monumental as a Korean reunification happened, I wouldn’t be completely honest if I said this was even close to being on the same scale as the protests in Egypt or even the Occupy Wall Street movements going on back in America.  The major difference between the death of Kim Jong-il and other dictators like bin Laden and Gaddafi is that once they were dead, they were dead.  In this case, Kim Jong-il may be gone but his whole regime is still in place, just as it was when Kim Jong-il took over for his father, Kim Il-sung.  Despite this rather grim reality, it will still be pretty neat to say I was in Korea when Kim Jong-il died and, from a slightly less selfish point of view, the world is down one evil dictator.  I guess that’s not too shabby.

My View of North Korea

It’s Beginning to Feel a Lot Like Winter

Winter!With the first snowfall a few days ago, it is safe to say that winter has officially arrived in Seoul.  Temperatures are dropping, days are growing shorter, and I finally caved in and bought a scarf and hat.  As many people in the world are aware of, I am an outspoken critic of nearly everything involving cold weather but this year I think I’ve decided to suck it up and accept the fact that I can’t hide from the icy Siberian winds blowing through Korea.

It’s a good thing I decided to just deal with winter because the next couple of months are going to be pretty busy.  My last three day weekend was at the beginning of October so I haven’t had a lot of opportunities to leave Seoul.  There are, however, a couple of vacations we get from work in December and January so I’m finally getting an opportunity to get out and see some more of this side of the world.  I decided to post my schedule for the next month just because my skype account might end up going MIA for a little while.

December 17 – Seoul – 12 Bars for the 12 Days of Christmas Bar Crawl

December 24-25 – Gangwon-do (Korea) – Christmas Ski Trip

December 29-January 1 – Beijing!!!

January 7-8 – Gangwon-do (Korea) – Ice Fishing/Ice Festival

January 21-25 – Tokyo!!!

Unfortunately, I also have to go to work in between vacations and work is going to be anything but easy this month.  Starting on December 26 (you know, all of one day after Christmas) my school is starting their winter camps.  Just like the summer camp we did a few months ago, these intensive camps are provided to the students on vacation from their other schools and have parents who feel their children should be in school for approximately 83% of their waking hours.  This means that soon I’ll start my 10-11 hour workdays that will last until after I get back from Japan.  Merry Christmas to me.

The Best Korean Foods (as determined by me)

Without fail, food is one topic guaranteed to pop up whenever I talk to people back home.  Even though I’ve discussed a few different types of Korean foods in previous posts I thought it was about time to put these wonderfully delicious concoctions together (with pictures!) for everyone in the Western Hemisphere to get an idea of what I ingest everyday.  Panda Express this is not; this is Korean food.

BibimbapBibimbap is essentially a Korean take on salad.  It’s initially just a bowl full of vegetables and rice with an egg on top, but before bibimbap is eaten, a healthy dose of hot sauce is added.  The rice on the bottom of the bowl is mixed up with the vegetables on top and everything gets blissfully covered in the red chili sauce.  The hot sauce is really what makes this dish one of my favorites, and an after-work omnipresence in my diet.  I’m still not entirely sure what this sauce is but it’s thankfully in quite a few Korean dishes.

JjimdakJjimdak is far and away my favorite Korean food.  This spicy noodle dish is served communally, a common practice at restaurants in Korea.  Jjimdak is made up of a layer of noodles topped with chicken, potatoes, carrots, onions, peppers, cucumbers, and various other stringy green vegetables, all smothered in a spicy brown sauce.  If I have one complaint about a lot of Korean food it’s that the abundance of leafy vegetables oftentimes leaves you less than completely satisfied.  Jjimdak is hearty and filling and lately it seems as though I’ve been going to get it at least once a week, not that I’m complaining.

KimchiTo say that kimchi is a staple of Korean food is one of the biggest understatements in the history of the world.  Koreans eat kimchi with every meal seven days a week, 365 days a year.  Kimchi is fermented cabbage covered in a brine-based spicy pepper sauce that has been sitting in pots underground for months.  Sounds appetizing, right?  I’m not going to lie, when I first tried kimchi I was less than impressed.  Cabbage and brine aren’t high on the list of my most favorite flavors in the world.  As time goes by, however, kimchi keeps tasting better and now it is a spicy welcome to every meal rather than the lump of fishy cabbage on the side of my plate.

MakgoelliWhile makgoelli technically isn’t a food, it’s so amazing I don’t really care and I’m going to put it on the list anyway.  This is a rice wine that looks more like milk than anything else.  Thankfully, though, this wondrous drink is not milk: it’s alcohol!  Makgoelli is about the same strength as the wine we know back home so it’s not like drinking vodka or whiskey.  Makgoelli has a little trace of rice flavor, and as odd as that sounds it actually makes this a sweeter, more refreshing drink.  It is traditionally served in bowls rather than cups and has to be shaken before it is poured so the grainy bits stay at the bottom rather than get dumped into your glass.  This is one alcoholic drink that doesn’t need to have alcohol to enjoy.  I would drink this like a bottle of pop even without the resulting (mild) inebriation.  That’s just a bonus.

GalbiWhenever you hear about Korean barbeque, chances are you are hearing about galbi.  Galbi is marinated beef strips cooked on a miniature grill in the middle of the table at a restaurant.  The strips of beef are put in leaves of lettuce, topped with various vegetables and sauces, and eaten like little lettuce tacos.  Galbi is served with a seemingly endless array of banchan, or side dishes.  These side dishes are refillable, served communally, and completely free with dinner.  Galbi is DIY-style Korean dining at its best.

DukbokkiDukbokki is a very popular Korean street food.  This dish is made of rice cakes covered in a spicy pepper sauce (see a common trend in Korean cuisine?), sometimes with little fish cakes thrown in as well.  There is a dukbokki shop across the street from my work and this is a fairly common lunch of mine.  Like with my feelings towards kimchi, it took a while for me to appreciate dukbokki.  It can be pretty spicy at times, which I love, but the spicy kick with a sometimes fishy aftertaste wasn’t love at first bite.  Now I know how to avoid the fish cakes and enjoy the spicy noodles just as they are.

SojuLike makgoelli, soju really isn’t food but, it is just as much of an integral part of Korean cuisine as kimchi is so to not put it on a list of the best Korean foods would be a sacrament to everything that is Korean.  Unlike the heaven in a cup that is makgoelli, soju is pure hell.  It’s a hangover-inducing drink that really just tastes like vodka mixed with water.  The real redeeming quality about soju is its price.  A bottle of this is about $1 and that is enough to keep you happy for the rest of the night.  Koreans drink soju like water and I’ve seen many a table at restaurants with three or four ajushis (old men) and five or six empty soju bottles.  I may not be a fan of its taste but I do appreciate a good bargain whenever I find one and an entire night’s worth of drinks for chump change is nothing to sneer at.

JajangmyeonJajangmyeon is Korea’s version of Chinese food, and a la General Tso’s chicken and the fortune cookie back the US, this is a completely foreign take on Chinese cuisine.  Jajangmyeon consists of noodles covered in a thick, black, soybean-based sauce.  It has various chunks in the sauce that get mixed up in the noodles and, to be completely honest, I’m not entirely sure what they are.  Jajangmyeon may be Korean rather than Chinese-made but it still tastes different from almost all other Korean foods and given the astonishingly high amount of food covered in some sort of brine or pepper based sauce that’s reason enough to love this dish.

Korean Kids Doing the Chicken Dance

It just past midnight in Seoul which means it is now December on my side of the world, future living at its best.  December is significant for two big reasons.  The first of which is that I have now crossed the halfway point of my year teaching at YBM ECC in Seoul.  Less than six months from now I will be back on a plane flying somewhere over the Pacific, eastbound this time.  The second reason December is so important is because it marks my birth, also known as the most important day on Earth.  December 23 is right around the corner so if you haven’t gotten a package put together yet it’s probably something you should be doing right about now.

To celebrate December I decided it’s about time to show the world one of my prouder moments as a teacher in Korea:  teaching my class the chicken dance.  There is a boy named Jeff in this class (the one in the red sweatshirt) who loves chicken.  He talks about it about 90% of his waking hours and he has become known as “Chicken Boy” around the school.  I mentioned the Chicken Dance in passing and he was blown away that there was an entire dance devoted to his favorite meal.  After some practice I think the class has this dance down.  And now, for your viewing pleasure, I present the Chicken Dance as brought to you by Jupiter class: