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.

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.

A Very Korean Halloween

Halloween BabiesHalloween isn’t the biggest holiday in Korea.  It really isn’t even a holiday at all in fact.  This means that I spent October without seeing pumpkins, costumes, or the witch-themed decorations that litter American stores for the entire month.  Because the school I work at is an English academy, there is at least some effort to introduce the kids to certain parts of Western culture and Halloween was one of those things the students got to see.

We had a Halloween party at my school and the students got to dress up.  Some of the costumes were interesting, to say the least.  I had many male witches, a bride, an elaborately costumed Spiderman, and a belly dancer with an outfit far too revealing for a ten-year-old.  One boy who came as a vampire even brought a bottle of “blood” to put on people when he bit them.  I came dressed as Harry Potter, a costume that consisted of a vampire cape, nerdy glasses, a magic wand, and a Gryffindor badge and lightening scar to complete the look.  The entire getup cost about $10 and took about two minutes to put together.  It ended up okay, everyone knew what I was but I don’t think I will be winning any costume contests this year.

Halloween!To get the kids excited at the Halloween parties I played them The Nightmare Before Christmas, Hocus Pocus, and the Thriller video, all of which they loved, and I had them create ghost stories.  They did not quite understand the concept of making ghost stories scary, so those turned out to be completely unrelated to Halloween but they had fun nonetheless.  During each class we also went trick-or-treating to the other classrooms where the students got candy.  They were instructed to sing “Trick-or-Treat, Smell my feet, Give me something good to eat!” by their Korean teachers rather than to just say “Trick-or-Treat!” making this process take a lot longer than it should have, but the students were happy and it got me out of doing an actual lesson so I can’t complain.

Outside my school the Halloween atmosphere was nowhere to be found in the entire city of Seoul.  I wanted to celebrate the holiday anyway so I went on a Halloween boat cruise out around the coast in Incheon.  This boat was filled with other foreigners who also wanted more Halloween in their lives.  The boat itself was a almost like a gutted out ferryboat that was refilled with a nightclub.  It sailed around for a few hours while the sun set and then all the passengers were loaded on buses headed to Hongdae for a night of more festivities after they were done drinking at sea.  While it wasn’t quite the same thing as seeing trick-or-treaters wandering the streets back home it was oddly comforting celebrating a very big part of American culture.

Halloween Boat

September Ended So I Guess I Can Wake Up Now

Ssangmun

Tomorrow is October, which means in a few short hours I will again be living in the future.  The onset of October also celebrates me living in Korea for four months.  In the past four months I’ve become incredibly comfortable going about my day-to-day activities, more comfortable than I ever thought I would be in this short period of time.  But while knowing that I can become accustomed to life on the other side of the world is pretty amazing in its own right, it also means that I’ve gotten stuck in a routine.  I know some people enjoy having their routines, knowing what they have to do everyday before they already do it, but I am not one of those people.  As of right now I am making it my new goal to do more spontaneous weekend trips out of Seoul and see more of the country.  Actually, this goal will probably be put into action after my next paycheck given the sad current state of my bank account.

The past month came and went pretty quickly.  Apart from my trip to Ulleungdo, September seemed to be spent mostly in the office.  A couple of my coworkers renewed their contracts with our school and they got to go back to America, one a couple of weeks ago and the other this week.  This means that the rest of us not returning to the motherland were pulling double duty to cover their classes in addition to our own.  Any break we had in the day was filled with another class.  Today was the last day we’re short-staffed so, thankfully, I will have my mid-day breaks back when I return to work next week.  I’m grateful the extra hours are over but at least one of those coworkers brought me back American toothpaste and deodorant so now I get to smell like an American again.

Outside work hasn’t been too terribly exciting lately.  The weekend after I got back from Ulleungdo I went to a bottomless wine bar at the InterContinental Hotel in COEX, the biggest underground shopping center in Asia.  The wine was decent and there was a ton of non-Korean food that was also blissfully unlimited.  The next week I did another Hash Run.  A few months ago I wrote about the Hash, a run I did around Seoul that goes for a few miles and ends at a bar.  Running isn’t exactly my cup of tea but this time it was a hike instead of a run so I decided to give Hashing another go.  The hike was by no means an intense climb but it was still fun to see another part of the mountains I hadn’t seen before, and, like my previous Hash experience, there was plenty of alcohol to go around at the end.

Hash Hike

This week has seen a sudden drop in the temperature that I’m still not prepared for.  When I leave for work in the morning and come back at night I now have to wear a jacket.  I haven’t really experienced winter since my senior year of college in Iowa and the current temperatures are already on par with Phoenix in January so it will be interesting to see how this whole fall-winter situation plays out.  I probably should have looked for teaching positions in Tahiti.

The Hills are Alive With the Sound of Makgeolli

At the top of DobongsanToday I had my first Korean hiking experience.  I went to Dobongsan, which is the mountain I have a view of from my apartment, with two of my American co-teachers and one of the Korean teachers.  I went hiking pretty frequently in Arizona before coming to Korea but hiking in Seoul is completely different from what I became accustomed to back home.

The first, and probably biggest, difference between hiking in the US and Korea is the crowds.  In America I think most people like to go hiking to experience nature and get away from the city; at least I like to go.  On Dobongsan there were people all around me, even in the more remote parts of the trail.  At times the trail could feel more like a steeply inclining line in Disneyland than a mountain.  With the crowds came what can best be described as a flea market.  The lower reaches of the trail had vendors selling everything from hiking gear to cotton candy.  As a culture, Korean’s don’t always care about being in nature.  Instead the great outdoors takes a backseat to being comfortable in the outdoors.  While roughing it might be expected for hikes in the US, the millions of other people on the trail with me proved that that is not the case in Seoul.

Another major difference between hiking in Seoul versus Arizona is the humidity.  Seoul in general can feel like a steam bath during the summer and today was no exception.  Arizona might be hot, but at least the dry heat means your can find relief in the shade.  In Seoul it doesn’t matter if you are under a tree or the glowing sun.  It’s always hot.  The humidity thankfully let up the higher we climbed but the bottom half of the trail was like hiking over a boiling pot.

View from Dobongsan

My favorite part of hiking in Korea is definitely the makgoelli.  When hikers here reach the top of a mountain it is tradition to drink makgeolli, an extremely delicious rice wine.  My American co-teachers, Paul and Sean, and I were told by Lily, our Korean co-worker, to put a bottle in the freezer the night before and it would be nice and slushy when we got to the top.  We did as we were told and also brought along food for a picnic up on the top.  The whole group ended up staying on the summit hanging out with our makgeolli and looking out at the scenic view for quite a while.

The hike down was much easier.  After coming off the very top, we took a different route back and passed a Buddhist temple tucked into the mountains.  Though I’m not Buddhist I always take great pleasure in seeing the temples.  They’re usually ornately decorated and, at least the ones I’ve seen, blend in with the surrounding environment in a very organic way.  I also think that seeing them just reinforces the fact that I’m in Asia, especially when I’m living in a city as Westernized as Seoul.

Temple on the Trail

Soon after passing the temple we were back at the entrance to the park, and in true Seoul have-all-conveniences-you-could-ever-want-with-you-at-all-times fashion, the subway and bus terminal were placed right outside the gate.  At this point my legs aren’t killing me yet but come tomorrow morning I fully expect them to feel like they’re on fire.  But despite the massive crowds of people and unrelenting humidity, spending the day hoofing it up a mountain turned out to be a lot of fun.  I mean, just about any day with makgeolli is a good day.  Hiking a mountain just adds to it.

Korea vs. Prague (or Working Abroad vs. Study Abroad)

Praha

As I’m sure 99% of everyone reading this blog knows, I was able to study abroad in Prague, Czech Republic my junior year of college.  When I talk to people back home now one of the questions that keeps getting asked is how Seoul compares to Prague.  The question sounds pretty simple to answer.  I could say “Well, I like Seoul better” or “I like Prague better” but, truth be told, it nearly impossible to look at the two from a similar vantage point.  In addition to comparing two cities, if I were to look at both Korea and Prague I would also have to distinguish between two completely different lifestyles as well.

Old TownGoing to Prague was, and remains to this day, the most fun I have ever had.  As a study abroad student I had next to no responsibilities in the classroom so the study part of study abroad rarely got in my way.  Classes were only three days a week, which meant my weekends were longer than my weekdays.  As a result of that beautifully minimalistic schedule that will likely never be seen again in my lifetime I left Prague most weekends and treated the semester as a tour of Europe.  I had budget airlines, beds in hostels, and a good group of friends to accompany me on any spur of the moment trip I felt like going on.  Want to go to Dublin?  Sure.  How does Barcelona sound?  Perfect.  Paris this weekend?  Definitely.  My semester in Prague was a great way to see a part of the world I had always wanted to see with absolutely no obligations tying me down.

Seoul, on the other hand, has many of those obligations.  From my very first day of work, I was aware that I was employee first and wanderer-of-Asia second.  I understand this, though.  I would not expect someone from Korea who took a job in the US to spend the majority of their time on vacation so it should be no different in my case.  Because of my long working hours and nearly nonexistent vacation time I have only been able to leave Seoul twice in my three months here, once to Taiwan and once to Busan.  In the same span of time during my time in Prague I was able to see probably eight or nine of the 12 total countries I visited in Europe.  This might seem like a let down of sorts but it’s just really just getting me more in touch with Korean culture and teaching me about a completely foreign way of life.

Hongdae

Comparing Seoul and Prague as cities rather than lifestyles isn’t much easier.  Prauge has a metropolitan area of a little over two million.  Seoul’s metro has a population of over 20 million.  The city of Seoul alone has almost as many people as the entire Czech Republic.  I can ride the subway for close to two hours and never leave the city of Seoul whereas in Prague I could walk or take a tram on the street to get virtually anywhere I needed to go.  Seoul’s entire city blocks of nothing but neon and a cultural propensity to make nights out last until daylight truly gives the city that city-that-never-sleeps feeling that Prague did not have.  But if Prague did not have that high-tech, glowing thing going for it, it did have a certain charm that came from the combination of its architectural beauty and a slightly less beautiful attitude found in many Czechs.  If Seoul tends to embrace foreigners, Prague seemed irritated at their presence.

Despite their differences, Seoul and Prague do have a few (vague) similarities.  Both cities are filled, much to my appreciation, with extremely cheap alcohol.  Prague had amazing beer and Seoul has tolerable soju.  They both also have annoying climates, although I would take Prague’s constant clouds and drizzle over Seoul’s monsoon any day.

If I had to answer the question as to which city I like better, I think I would have to give the edge to Prague.  Prague was a world class, yet manageable city, with its own personality that I have yet to see anywhere else in the world.  While many European cities such as London or Paris are so cosmopolitan that they have lost many of the unique things that made them special to begin with, Prague still feels very Czech, even with the hoards of tourists.  Seoul is still an amazing city that I would recommend anyone put on their list of places to visit but it can oftentimes just seem too big for its own good.  As I said before, this is a city where a subway ride can take a couple of hours without leaving city limits.  Although with Korea’s cheap booze and absence of laws dictating where people can and cannot drink those two hours can easily feel like no time.

Prague

A Very Korean Fourth of July

While everyone in America is busy on the Fourth of July blowing things up and having picnics, I will be celebrating the Fourth in a very Korean way:  working.  Not surprisingly, the Korean government does not particularly care that July 4 is when the US became an independent nation and, as a result of that ignorance, the people still go to work.  Maybe after work I’ll celebrate the birth of my country by getting McDonald’s or something equally American but I seriously doubt I’ll be seeing any fireworks tonight.

On Friday I did do something I had never done before, though, by celebrating Canada Day.  On July 1, I got my “eh!” on and went to a Canadian bar with a coworker of mine from Vancouver.  I was classy and celebrated in a Canada t-shirt I got when I went to Toronto for spring break senior year.  For the most part, I spent the night lying to people, telling them I was from Prince Edward Island, so I could be cool and Canadian as well.  When we got Canadian-ed out, my group went to another bar that was full of 6-foot-something Russians.  I’m not quite sure why so many of them were in one place but once they got together I had never felt so short in my entire life.

But whether I’m celebrating Canada Day or the Fourth of July, one thing is certain.  I am going to work very soon whether I like it or not.

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.

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.