Lotte World is the Copyright Infrigement-filled Korean Disneyland

Welcome to Lotte World!Ever since I first got to Korea I wanted to visit Lotte World, one of the theme parks around Seoul.  I had heard it was essentially a complete ripoff of Disneyland, castle and everything.  The only problem was that for nearly eleven months, nobody would go with me and the last thing I wanted to be was that person walking around alone in an amusement park that parents tell their children to stay away from.  Finally, as the end of my year in Korea is in sight, I convinced people to go with me and I got to experience the copyright infringement-filled wonder that is Lotte World.

Lotte World is split up in two different parks; Magic Island, which is the outdoor park, and Adventure, which is the indoor park.  We decided to do Magic Island first since it was about 70 degrees and sunny, the first time we had seen that combination since October.  Magic Island is where many of the bigger rides are, such as the Atlantis (a roller coaster) and the Gyro Drop (Lotte World’s version of Tower of Terror without the haunted hotel theme).  In the middle of Magic Island is a castle that bears a very striking resemblance to a certain other castle in Orlando.

AdventureAfter finishing up everything we wanted to do on Magic Island, we headed inside to Adventure.  The indoor park was giant.  It stretched out over four floors and even included and ice skating rink in the middle.  The rides weren’t as big or thrilling once we got inside but they were fun in a tacky and cheesy way.  My personal favorite part of Adventure was just how blatantly obvious the copying of Disney was, even more so than on Magic Island.  Nearly every ride had a “cousin” in Disneyland that was easily identified.  For example, the Adventures of Sinbad was essentially the Korean Pirates of the Caribbean and Pharaoh’s Fury was Lotte World’s Indiana Jones.  Just as people at Disney parks walk around wearing mouse ears, people at Lotte World wear various animal ears as they manage their way from ride to ride.  I opted for tiger ears.

While Lotte World probably won’t win the world record for the greatest roller coasters or the scariest rides, it did have a certain charm that made it a very enjoyable Sunday activity.  If Disneyland is the happiest place on Earth, Lotte World is at least the happiest place in Korea.

Lotte World

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Pulling a Moses and Parting the Korean Seas

Parting of the SeasOne of Korea’s many odd festivities is the Parting of the Seas Festival that takes place every spring on Jindo Island.  Once a year the tides go down so low that the seas “part” and Jindo Island connects with another island.  While crossing the tidal flats probably wasn’t as dramatic as parting the Red Sea a la Moses, my trip to Jindo was entertaining nonetheless and gave me a chance to see a part of Korea I know I wouldn’t have seen otherwise.

Sea life! When we got to the Parting of the Seas Festival the sea was still a few hours from parting and we had just finished a grueling 6-hour bus ride on the world’s least comfortable bus in existence.  To stretch our legs and revel in the joy that comes with having room to move again, we set out and explored all the booths and had a few drinks by the beach.  From the beach we could see countless Koreans filling bags with seaweed.  As someone who detests the taste of seaweed, these giant bags looked about as appetizing as the mud that was slowly emerging as the tide lowered.

Stripper Rain BootsWhen it was about time for the tide to reach its lowest point, we headed to the spot the path to the other island would soon emerge from.  Before we could cross we had to put on thigh-high, neon orange rain boots as part of the crossing involved trudging through seaweed marshes.  Once we had our new, ever-so-sexy footwear on, we pushed our way through the crowd and raced across to the other island before the tide came back in.  As we got further out the ground became rockier and tide pools revealed starfish and octopuses that were bottom dwellers about a half hour prior to me seeing them.

In addition to seeing various forms of aquatic life slithering about the rocks and shells, I was also able to witness even more seaweed harvesters lining up the path from island to island.  Many of them had sailed to a spot they knew the water would be completely receded from and waited for their boats to eventually be lowered to dry land where they could maximize their seaweed scavenging without having to push past the thousands of other festival goers.  In the spirit of the festival, I took a piece of seaweed from the water but lost it somewhere in the crowd.  Somehow, I think I might find a way to live.

The tide was only out for about an hour and a half so we were only at the festival for a few hours.  Once we crossed back to Jindo Island, we had to get back on the Medieval torture device known as my bus back to Seoul.  Despite the short duration of the actual Parting of the Seas, the festival was well worth the long bus ride.  After all, any experience that involves a festival with a biblical name pun as a title is a-okay in my book.

Pulling a Moses

A Very Korean St. Patrick’s Day

Korean Irish Fest

St. Patrick’s Day is really focused on all things Ireland, so what is there to do on March 17 in Seoul (essentially the complete opposite of Ireland)?  The answer is simply to celebrate anyway.

I went to the Irish Fest in Sindorim, which was every bit as green as an Irish Fest back home might be.  People were dancing, a Korean U2 cover band played, and  there was even Irish bread available for a 2,000 won donation to help build a memorial for the Irish victims of the Korean War (because apparently they exist… well, existed).  Though the crowd was primarily foreigners there was still a significant amount of Koreans out celebrating a holiday I never thought would have made it to this part of the world.  After the Irish Fest, we all went to Itaewon, the major foreigner section of Seoul.  A lot of the bars seemed to be having specials of some sort so we spent the majority night barhopping.  I ended up going to one bar that was supposed to have Irish bands playing all night who ended up being a lot of the same performers I saw earlier at the Irish Fest but, after a few pints of Guinness, I wasn’t really bothered that much.

So even though my St. Patrick’s Day was more kimchi-oriented than would have ever thought possible, the day ended up being a lot of fun.  But just to give everyone out there reading this an idea of what exactly a Korean St. Patrick’s Day is like, I present to you the Korean U2 cover band:

Korean Kindergarten Graduation Is More Elaborate Than My High School Graduation

Since the Korean academic calendar goes from March to March, the students at ECC are all about to move up a grade.  Most students seem excited because in Korea age is a big deal; the older you are, the more respect you get.  Nowhere is this mindset more apparent than with the kindergarten kids.  They are about to go to elementary school and based off their discussions I discovered the process of getting into a good elementary school in Seoul is a lot like getting into a good college back home.  First they apply, then they take tests, then they get accepted, waitlisted, or rejected.  Apparently there are a lot of politics that goes into the admissions process, including bribes and grandfathering in less deserving students based on family ties with older siblings.  When the students all found out which school they would be attending, they either shared their good news with the class or sulked and looked for sympathy because they didn’t get accepted to the school their parents wanted them to go.

The Ants and the GrasshopperThis intense time in the life of a Korean kindergartener came right as their graduation ceremony approached.  I didn’t have a kindergarten graduation.  I didn’t have an elementary school or middle school graduation either.  My first graduation came when I was 18 and finishing high school.  To say that my high school graduation and this kindergarten graduation were similar would be like saying North and South Korea are similar just because they both have the word Korea in their names.  This kindergarten graduation was more like a variety show put together for the parents who wanted one last photo op before their babies were no longer babies.  Each of the five classes performed a play and sang songs.  Mercury, the class I teach, acted out “The Ant and the Grasshopper,” that story about hardworking ants and a playful grasshopper that is supposed to teach kids to work hard so they don’t die of starvation come winter.

After the play, Mercury class did a rendition of Billy Joel’s “Uptown Girl.”  Why?  Your guess is probably as good as mine.  The kids had been singing that song in class while they were doing their workbooks for the past month or so but I didn’t know it was for graduation.  I just thought they learned random American songs from commercials or something else playing on TV.  They knew all the words and even had choreography.  I’m beginning to think Mercury might have a few students become new members of NSYNC and the Spice Girls.

Graduated

My Relationship With Korea (As Told by Dunkin’ Donuts)

Black Coffee!Let me start this story out by stating that Koreans tend to drink Americanos rather than plain, brewed coffee.  Dunkin’ Donuts is one of the few places in all of Seoul that sells my regular, brewed black coffee; no unwanted frivolities added.

The walk between my apartment and work takes about fifteen minutes and a couple times a week I like to stop in at the Dunkin’ Donuts on the way.  The first thing anyone sees when they enter the store is an old man behind the cash register next to the coffee machines.  This man works the counter every weekday at approximately 11:00 AM, right when I walk by the store.  He doesn’t look friendly.  In fact, he looks downright angry.  When people say not to judge a book by its cover, they are not talking about this man as he actually is just as unpleasant as his appearance suggests which is why I call him Coffee Nazi in my head.

When I first ordered coffee from him almost eight months ago I used my (very) broken Korean and asked for a black coffee to go.  He replied with “No.”  Nothing else.  I stood there for a few seconds not realizing if he got confused with “no” and “okay” but when I saw he wasn’t moving I got the hint and went on my way.  A few days later I tried my luck again and I got another no.  This process continued for a couple of weeks.  Finally, just as I was losing hope, I went back inside and asked for my coffee, as I had done countless times before.  For some reason, the old man decided I met the requirements that day and deserved coffee, but as he gave it to me he said in a very deep, raspy voice “I… don’t… like… America.”  I was just as speechless as I was when he denied me coffee the first time.

After this encounter I still wasn’t guaranteed coffee.  It was a 50/50 shot at best.  Over time, though, I started getting coffee more than I was being refused service and the Coffee Nazi frequently asked me questions.  They were oftentimes insulting questions, but at least he was making conversation.  He asked me about my favorite Korean foods and when I told him what they were he said I was wrong.  He asked me if I was married and when I said no he said good.  He even went so far as to tell me he does not like black coffee as he was giving me my order one time.

Nothing is official, but all this seems to have changed.  Today I went in for coffee at 11:00  for the first time since my school’s winter camp finished.  During winter camp I went in at 9:00 AM and a pleasant part-time barista/part-time piano teacher gave me coffee and practiced her English with me as she was preparing it.  As I found out today, absence really does make the heart grow stronger.  When the Coffee Nazi saw me he gave me the customary quazi-bow most workers in stores do as customers come in.  This alone was enough to nearly knock me to the floor.  When I went to order my coffee I decided to splurge and got a donut.  Not just any donut, but the bigger king-sized donut.  Coffee Nazi rang up my order and only charged me for the smaller, regular donut.  Not only that, he gave a half-smile as I walked away.

It might not sound like much, but the little 50 cent discount and the semi-smile is akin to anyone else in the world spontaneously giving me a car.  As sad as it sounds, this completely-out-of-left-field gesture of kindness made me much happier than a simple coffee and donut ever should have.  Although Coffee Nazi is pretty atypical when it comes to the majority of the Korean people I’ve encountered this gradual warming has been a good representative of my time in Korea.  A big initial shock, followed by some resentment, which in turn faded as time went by until it nearly disappeared completely.  Now let’s just hope this ceasefire in the new Korean War remains in effect for the duration of my contract.

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.

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: