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:

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New Year’s in China for the Non-Chinese New Year

Tiananmen SquareIn Asia, celebrating the new year on January 1 isn’t the biggest of holidays.  It’s not even the biggest of New Year’s celebrations over here.  On this side the Pacific, Lunar New Year, which usually occurs a few weeks after the other New Year, is the more widely celebrated one.  This is the holiday known as Chinese New Year in America, although in actuality this day is celebrated by many Asian countries other than China, including Korea.  Even though Koreans seem to identify more with the Lunar New Year than the one on January 1 my school still had a vacation.  My school never has days off so I decided to do something dramatic and make the most of my time off by going to Beijing, China.

Forbidden CityI went to Beijing with three of my coworkers.  We signed up for a package with an English speaking travel agent in Seoul and got our flight, meals, accommodations, and entrance fees to attractions all for a pretty good deal.  We flew into Beijing and were picked up by Charlie, our guide who looked far more like the reincarnation of Buddha than most people do.  Charlie wasted no time and immediately took us to Tiananmen Square, where we took a few photos and walked over to the Forbidden City.  The Forbidden City, former home of the Chinese emperor, was my favorite thing I saw in China.  The entire palace complex seemed like it could have been an actual city in it’s own right, it was that massive.  The regal architecture and intricate details that are found on everything surpassed any palace I saw in Europe, including Versailles.  After walking around the Forbidden City in below freezing temperatures the group headed to a tea tasting where where we tried various kinds of herbal teas.  I ended up buying some and it’s probably the best tea I have had in my entire life.  This trip taught me that if the Chinese know one thing, it’s how to make truly amazing tea.

Great Wall of ChinaThe next day we got up bright and early and headed to the Great Wall.  The wall is actually about an hour and a half outside Beijing, which means it goes through the more rugged mountains and provides a more secluded feeling than anywhere else I visited on the trip.  Climbing the Great Wall was what I looked forward to the most before I got to China and it did not disappoint.  It’s hard to appreciate how huge the wall is until you are standing on it and there is no end in sight.  After a few hours of walking up and down the hills on the wall we headed back to the city and went to the Summer Palace.  The Summer Palace is where the emperor spent the warmer months of the year.  It houses an enormous lake, a giant temple, and, like the Forbidden City, some great examples of classic Chinese architecture.  My visit to the Summer Palace, unfortunately, was in the middle of winter so the lake was iced over and snow covered the ground but I was still blow away by everything about it.

Summer PalaceThe group decided to hit up Beijing’s markets on the third day and get out haggle on.  These markets are packed full of anything you could ever want, from knock-off Gucci to electronics to tacky souvenirs.  Haggling is expected and it was pretty fun going back and forth with the shopkeepers.  I ended up buying a t-shirt with terrible grammar, a Chairman Mao shot glass, a set of chopsticks, a couple of dragon statues, and a watch with Mao waving his hand as the second hand ticks.  When everyone was finished supporting Chinese capitalism we headed over to the Yonghe Lama Temple, an active Buddhist temple right in the middle of the city.  The temple had a few different pavilions, each with their own courtyards and statues of Buddha.  People were burning incense and praying at each statue and I thought it was very interesting seeing local people doing a simple daily activity of theirs away from all the major tourist sights.

That night we went back out to another market, the Wangfujing Snack Street.  This is the famous street where vendors sell anything that was once alive deep fried and served on a stick.  Seahorses, starfish, and scorpions were probably the most popular items available though there was also ostrich, pigeon, and more dumplings than I thought humanly possible available.  I ate a scorpion and a sparrow fetus.  The scorpion tasted a bit like popcorn and the sparrow fetus was like really chewy chicken.  While neither one triggered my gag reflex, I don’t think I will be indulging in them in the near future.

HutongOn the last day of the trip we went to a hutong, an old neighborhood in Beijing.  Hutongs are all over the city.  They are made up mostly of alleyways and densely packed low-rise houses.  We took a rickshaw ride through one of the hutongs, visited a man’s home, and got a pretty good idea as to what living in a hutong was like.  After the hutong we went to the Temple of Heaven.  Like much of what I had seen the past few days, one of the first things I noticed about the Temple of Heaven was its enormousness.  The Temple of Heaven was more like a park than a temple.  People congregated for exercise, games of cards, and just to socialize.  When I was there I saw people dancing with ribbons, playing hacky sack, and listening to singers performing little concerts.

Temple of HeavenAfter exploring the Temple of Heaven, we headed for the airport to catch our flight back to Seoul.  Even though I was only in Beijing for a few days I really enjoyed the city.  Beijing was just as good as, if not better than, cities like London or Paris at a fraction of the price.  The sights were outstanding and the food was among the best I’ve had anywhere.  Panda Express has nothing on the real China.

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.

Pilgrims and Indian Food

Pilgrims and Indian FoodGiven that Seoul is just about as far from Plymouth Rock as geographically possible, Thanksgiving is not exactly the most important of celebrations in Korea.  I went to work and when I asked my classes if they knew what day it was in America, most students were clueless.  Much like Halloween and the Fourth of July, Thanksgiving seems to be an American experience that has not made the jump across the Pacific.

To celebrate the Pilgrim and Indian-themed holiday I did the next best thing to a turkey dinner surrounded by family:  I went and got Indian food.  If I couldn’t honor Squanto’s farming skills I could at least be thankful that another group of people also called Indians make delicious food.  I’m actually going to go to a Thanksgiving dinner at a bar frequented by foreigners on the weekend but until that rolls around I’m more than happy to ditch the turkey and pick up some naan bread.  This is Thanksgiving, after all, and if a good piece of garlic naan isn’t something to be thankful for, I don’t know what is.

Peppero Day is a Korean Holiday Based on Snacks

Peppero!November 11 is more than just a day when millions of Americans will say “11-11 make a wish,” each thinking they were the first to make the November 11 – 11:11 connection.  In Korea, November 11 is a holiday celebrating what else but snacks.  Not just any snack food, mind you.  November 11 is Peppero Day!  Peppero for all!

What is Peppero, you might be justifiably asking yourself right now.  Peppero is essentially a Korean trademark infringement on the popular Japanese snack called Pocky, those long, skinny sticks with different flavored candy coatings.  The reason Peppero Day is celebrated on November 11 is because when you hold up two Peppero sticks they look like the number 11.

Celebrating Peppero Day is pretty simple.  The only thing anyone has to do is give another person Peppero.  That’s it, the end.  While it might sound just about as exciting as other holidays like Arbor Day or Columbus Day, my students got really into it.  They were giving Peppero to their friends, teachers, and anyone else they ran across.  I even got Peppero from one of my six-year-olds (that would be four-years-old in American age).

I’m still not too sure about why Peppero Day is so popular.  Peppero is an okay snack but I would put it more on the lines of a Mr. Goodbar or a Krakel.  They’re both delicious in their own right, but do you ever go out of your way to get one or just wait until the giant Hershey’s variety bags roll around?  I imagine Peppero Day has something to do with a brilliant marketing strategy by the Peppero makers.