(An Irish) Christmas in Korea

Christmas isn’t a very big holiday in Korea. It’s celebrated more along the lines of Valentine’s Day: couple’s give each other gifts and go out for dinner. But the story of Santa Claus has spread to the children of Korea, as I learned from my co-teacher, who was rushing to buy her 3- and 5-year-old sons a gift from Santa on the 24th.

But the department stores in Korea would have you believe Christmas was just as big here as it is back home. Walking around downtown Ulsan almost felt like a trip back to the States, with the Lotte and Hyundai Department Stores’ competing giant Christmas trees.

Christmas Lights in Ulsan

Christmas Lights in Ulsan
Hyundai’s tree had dripping icicle lights, so I think it won.

I was in school up until the morning of the 24th, when the students were let off for their Winter vacation (which corresponds to summer vacation in the States – when they return, they’ll start a new school year). But before they left, I got a couple of Christmas cards, including this drawing of Mario and Luigi from a third grader.
A Christmas picture from a 3rd grader
I thought this was cute, because they love to play this Mario PowerPoint English game in class.

A Christmas Card from one of my 4th graders

A group of fourth grade boys even gave me a Christmas present! It’s a cup half filled with chicken, and half with soda (they’re separated by a plastic barrier, so don’t worry, your chicken doesn’t get all soggy).
Christmas present from some 4th graders

After school on the 24th, I went to an end-of-the-semester dinner with my main teacher crew – one of my co-teachers and the fifth grade home room teachers. We went to a shabu restaurant, where we cooked a bunch of red meat, seafood and vegetables together in a big soup pot. As my co-workers were cutting up a baby octopus with the traditional pair of scissors, my mind was already on the next phase of my holiday: taking the high-speed KTX train to Daegu to search for pumpkin pie at Costco.

Yes, there are Costco’s in Korea. Quite a few. Around Thanksgiving, the rumor was you could find pumpkin pie there. I missed out, and was really hoping to find one for Christmas. But first, I went out for Christmas Eve dinner with some friends at a popular foreigner restaurant, The Holy Grill.

My first hummus in months!
Christmas Eve Dinner in Korea: hummus and pita, half of a vegetarian burrito, and a pint of the locally-brewed Alley Kat Pale Ale. Yummmmmm.

Costco turned out to be a gigantic disappointment, as there were no pumpkin pies to be found. There were, however, Costco-sized apple pies, of which we bought two.

We then headed to the train station to catch a train to Gumi, where we would be celebrating Christmas in my friend Dave’s gigantic three-bedroom apartment. But the next train to Gumi wasn’t for another hour, and so we spent the rest of Christmas Eve in Daegu’s train station, watching a big group of carolers sing and dance to Koreanized versions of Christmas songs.

It was everyone’s first Christmas away from their families, and we were quite determined to prepare a good dinner. They’re not big on turkeys in Korea, but some friends in Daegu found a place that was selling them to foreigners for the holiday.

The turkey
Complete with stuffing, gravy, and a can of cranberry sauce! Just like home.

Upon the arrival of the turkey, we realized Dave only had one butter knife in his apartment. Luckily, stores are open on Christmas in Korea and so finding a knife up to the turkey-carving task wasn’t too difficult. No one had carved a turkey before, but we managed quite well.
The carving of the turkey

We also prepared a bunch of vegetables and mashed potatoes. I was quite proud of the spread we put together.
Christmas dinner

Seated on the floor around the table to enjoy Christmas dinner (this is Korea, after all).
Christmas dinner!

This was my first turkey in about five years, since I’ve opted out as a vegetarian at the past several holidays. I have to say it was pretty delicious!

As I was at my Irish friend’s apartment, Christmas was celebrated with Jameson, Guinness, Bailey’s, and Irish coffees (in addition to soju)…
Christmas in Gumi!

…as well as a ‘Christmas pudding.’ Apparently it’s tradition to light the Christmas pudding on fire. We soaked it in Jameson, but unfortunately couldn’t get it to light.
The Christmas pudding

And so I spent Christmas in Korea eating and drinking, and eating, and eating(far too much eating). And so, even with the flaming Christmas pudding instead of the pumpkin pie, and soju in place of wine, Christmas in Korea felt quite a bit like Christmas at home.

Fall in Ulsan

Fall in Ulsan

It’s a bit of a late update, but this is was I was up to all fall in Ulsan…

Onggi Pottery Festival
My first weekend: in which I am introduced to “Dynamic Korea” at the Onggi Festival

Onggi is a type of traditional Korean pottery that is commonly used to prepare and store kimchi and other fermented things (like makoli). My arrival in Ulsan coincided with a festival in honor of Onggi and fermenting in a village on the southern outskirts of the city. The Metropolitan Office of Education (my employer) organized a visit for interested native English teachers, including a special kimchi-making class that my co-teacher assured me was an important cultural experience.

Within my first few weeks of teaching, communicating with my Korean co-teacher was still rather difficult, so I never determined where exactly I was supposed to catch the bus to the festival. And so on Saturday morning, I gathered in between Ulsan’s two main bus stations with a group of 30-some other uncertain foreign teachers to find our shuttle bus. We figured a giant group of foreigners would be easy enough for our bus driver to spot (we certainly weren’t unnoticed by the other natives passing by).

Thirty minutes passed. No bus. Teachers started to grow impatient, some decided to leave. We noticed a sign across the street in Korean, that someone was able to read said ‘Onggi Festival Shuttle Bus.’ So we moved across the street. Another hour passed, and still no bus. More and more foreigners gave up and left. One Korean-American teacher with some Korean language skills finally ended up on the phone with a very concerned and upset festival organizer, who assured us a bus was on its way. And sure enough, a bus did pull up. We quickly piled on, and then someone determined the bus wasn’t going to be leaving for another two hours. Everyone off the bus. At that point, most of the rest of the group left, just as a second bus was pulling up. The bus driver was able to communicate to the girl who could speak Korean that he was here to take us to the festival. It was now about two hours after our initial point of departure. Half the group decided it wasn’t worth it and just walked away. But me, feeling guilty about leaving the bus driver without anyone to take to the festival, and still wanting to get in on my free Korean cultural experience, climbed aboard.

When we arrived at the festival, we were greeted by a couple of young Koreans in name tags. They threw some name tags at us and ran us across the festival into a tent where a bunch of foreign teachers were already making kimchi. They quickly set us up at a kimchi-making station, where an ajumma brought over a few bowls of ingredients. My appointed ajumma brusquely guided me through the process, doing most of the work herself. The entire thing was over in 10 minutes, after which they judged the best foreigner kimchi, took several pictures of us with our kimchi, and then took back our name-tags and sent us on our way.

The 10-minute whirlwind experience didn’t quite justify the 2 hour wait, but I did get a free onggi pot and enough kimchi to last me for months.

Making some kimchi

Post-making some kimchi

Fall was rather pretty around Ulsan’s Taehwa River.

Ulsan's cute mascots
Ulsan’s dolphin mascots

Exercising ajumma
An exercising ajumma: one of the most common sites on the Taehwa.

More exercising ajummas
More exercising at the bamboo forest. Exercise stations are common around well-trafficked places in Ulsan.

Bamboo Forest
Inside the bamboo forest: one of the ‘twelve scenic locations of Ulsan’

My fall in Ulsan was greatly improved by the purchase of a bike.
First Day with the bike
This is my bike on it’s first day out on the town.

Ulsan is a very bike-friendly city. There’s a big bike path along all of the rivers, as well as along every major road-way. Bicycling on the sidewalks when there isn’t a bike path is completely acceptable. Actually, biking wherever you want is pretty acceptable – but it’s the same for scooters and parked cars. Traffic rules seem to be more like guidelines, especially for smaller vehicles, which makes biking around a bit chaotic, but also easier.

My first day biking, I headed with my friend Dave from Canada to the west part of the city. This is ‘Standing Rock,’ another one of Ulsan’s “Scenic Locations.”
'Standing Rock'
I imagine it must look a bit more scenic at times other than winter, when everything is not brown.

Another important discovery of the fall was that Ulsan has a micro-brewery! The Trevi Brauhaus. This is a terrible cell phone picture of their hefeweizen:
Trevi Brewery
As is the case in most of the world, German beer is very popular here. I believe all of the micro-breweries I’ve come across make German-style beers. Not that it’s anything to complain about – the Germans make some good beers.

Having a bike also makes the eastern part of the city (and the ocean!) much easier to get to. Buses go between the city center and the ocean as well, but it takes about forever with all of the stops along the way, and I always seem to end up on the wrong bus (or in some cases, multiple wrong buses).
Seuldo Lighthouse
Seuldo Lighthouse in Bangeojin

Looking south to the sea
Looking south into the East Sea

And of course, as a native English teacher, my weekends in Ulsan have had plenty of ‘going out.’ Going out in Ulsan almost always happens at one of the two downtown areas. ‘Old downtown’ is on my side of the river, and has most of the city’s foreigner bars.
Entrance to the 'Old Downtown' area
The entrance to ‘Old Downtown’

Seognam-dong (Old Downtown)
In addition to foreigner bars, Old Downtown has many, many fish restaurants. This street happens to specialize in eel restaurants. Outside of each storefront is a tank full of eels, next to which there is usually an older woman or man slicing one up for diners waiting inside. 😦

Seognam-dong (Old Downtown)
(You can also eat these fish.)

industry city
Ulsan tends to get a bad rap amongst the foreign English teachers in Korea, and is generally overlooked for it’s bigger sister city, Busan. As a city, I find it is lacking in some aspects – there isn’t really any music or art culture to speak of, and the majority of the young adult population leaves to go to university in a city with better schools. But it is very scenic, being full of mountains and rivers and coastline. While I appreciate the nightlife and culture of Busan, I do think Ulsan has a unique character and certain charm that shouldn’t go entirely overlooked.

Funny English

I think one of the best things of being a native-English speaker living in an Asian country is all of the funny English writing everywhere.

These are two of my favorite finds so far:

Clotted Blood from Slaughtered Cows and Pigs Soup
Clotted Blood from Slaughtered Cows and Pigs Soup. yum!

This seems a bit harsh to be wearing on the back of a sweatshirt…
Get Real!

There’s also a clothing line called “Urbanist and Acid Squid.” Acid squid?

Sangju – a weekend in small town Korea

Thanksgiving weekend I headed out of Ulsan to visit another friend from my EPIK orientation. She was placed at an all-girls’ high school in Sangju, a rather small rural city (120,000 people) located not too far away from Andong, about three hours north of Ulsan. Rumor had it there was a restaurant that served turkey, and even though only two of us were from the US (among a Canadian, a Brit and two Irish), we were pretty determined to find some turkey for the holidays.

According to my coworkers, Sangju is famous for bicycles and persimmons. It also has some historical significance, according to Wikipedia: it was an important fortress during the Shilla dynasty, and home to some famous rebellions during the fall of the dynasty in the late 9th century.

So my visit to Sangju was in search of turkey, bicycles, and persimmons – all of which we failed rather miserably in finding. But this did not affect the awesome-ness of the weekend.

Sangju has a bike museum that provides free (!!) bike rentals. So Saturday morning, we hopped in a cab and headed to the museum on the outskirts of the city, quite a ways from my friend’s apartment. When we got there, we found the museum was closed and the entire area was deserted.

Bike Museum
Cute design!

But nearby were a bunch of persimmon farms, and supposedly a temple, so we decided to walk the route we had planned to bike.

This guy could use some dental work
On a farm next to the bicycle museum.

On the side of the road. Frankenstein?

Unfortunately, it was winter, and Saturday, so the farms were quite barren and deserted. We had just missed persimmon season. Had we been there a few weeks earlier, our route would have been lined by persimmons hung up to dry. Unfortunately, it was cold and everything was pretty shut down.

We did find a few:
Persimmons, hung up to dry
We bought a bag of them, and they were incredibly delicious.

Disgarded persimmon bits
Someone dumped all their peels on the side of the road.

We continued up the road, which lead up a hill to the temple. Just as we arrived at the temple, it started to rain.
A temple in Sangju

A temple in Sangju

Frozen and wanting to get into the rain, we were let into one of the temple rooms by a woman/Buddhist who worked there.

Seeking shelter from the rain in a temple

The temple smelled like incense. It had heaters, but they weren’t turned on, so it was still quite cold. But at least we were dry.
Cold feet

Left on our own in the temple, we laid down on the floor, ate more dried persimmons, and goofed around a bit. Eventually we noticed the cameras in every corner of the room. Just then, the woman who had let us into the temple came in. She asked us some questions in Korean, which none of us understood. Then she led us in some bows. I don’t know anything about Buddhism, but the bows consisted of standing with your hands pressed together in front of you, then getting down on your knees, kneeling completely forward to press your forehead onto the floor, and then standing up to repeat. We did this three times in front of the big Buddha statue, then three more times each in front of two pictures of some other guys.

After we had ‘prayed’, or whatever, the woman led is into the building next door, which seemed to be the head office. Behind her desk (which was of course on the floor – all of the tables in the rather large room were down on the floor) was a TV showing images from all of the security cameras. Oops.

We sat on the squishy floor and she gave us some coffee and extremely dry rice cake. There was another monk in the room, a Sri Lankan man visiting for a few months. He was studying Korean. Unfortunately none of us spoke enough Korean to really communicate, and so after a little while we tried to call a cab. But because of the weather, the cab company was booked. So the monk lady helped us call a cab. I tried to offer her some of our dried persimmons in thanks, but considering she lived in the land of dried persimmons she wasn’t really interested.

Waiting to catch a cab back into town
Cold, waiting for the cab.

As Sangju isn’t that much bigger than the small suburban city I grew up in, I didn’t expect much for a Saturday night out. But I was pleasantly surprised.

First of all, I found this shop downtown:
New York hot dogs! and coffee!
They seem to have more hot dog options than I remember ever seeing in NYC.

Then we went bowling! I even managed to break 100 (barely) on my second game! Also, please note the red, white and blue banners in the background.

The other most awesome thing about Sangju: the noraebangs come with wigs! And masks! And some even have costumes! Supposedly this is pretty popular in Korea, but I have yet to find another noraebang with such accoutrements, and I would consider my self a frequent noraebang-er.

Sangju's awesome noraebangs

Sangju's awesome noraebangs
Mark channels his inner-Freddie Mercury.

Sangju's awesome noraebangs

Akosua noraes

I don’t know why noraebangs in Ulsan don’t provide you with wigs and masks and costumes, but I’m determined to find more that do.

One of the best things about all of these private room-type places (DVD Bangs, noraebangs, play rooms – which are like DVD bangs but have Nintendo Wii or Playstation and internet hook-ups) is that you can sneak in your own alcohol, and they provide you with free snacks. Which make them significantly cheaper than drinking at a bar.

Sangju was very easy to get to from Ulsan. We thought we’d have to bus to Gumi and change buses, but as it turned out the bus went all the way through to Sangju. It wasn’t that cheap, or quick, but well worth the visit! I’ll be back again in the spring to hopefully find some biking and more operational farms.

Andong and DVD Bangs

On a weekend in early November, I traveled to Andong with my Ulsan friend Paul to visit some friends from our EPIK orientation.

Andong is famous for its traditional folk village, folk museum, and annual mask festival.

Traditional Korean masks at the Andong Mask Festival

While we didn’t take in any traditional Korean culture on our visit, we did take in a lot of fall colors and fruit makgeolli.

Afternoon stroll around town

Setting out for a morning hike
Heading out for a mini-hike…

…up a hill to this pagoda…
Pagoda by Ellen and Savannah's

…where we posed for our future K-pop album cover.
Boy Band Album Cover, take 3

Sharing a moment with a dragonfly. Ulsan doesn’t have any wildlife, so this was pretty exciting.
Befriending a dragonfly
Apologies to my sister for stealing her headband and taking it to Korea.

The highlight of the weekend, for me, was my first trip to a DVD Bang. For those unfamiliar with DVD rooms (bang = room, pronounced bahng), they’re places where you can go with a few friends to pick out a DVD and watch in your own private viewing room. The rooms generally come equipped with a large flat screen (or, if you’re lucky, a projector), surround sound, and some couch-like seating that can fit 2-4 people. And, not to be a nerdy film school student, but the good ones provide a pretty awesome cinematic experience, as I discovered watching Paranormal Activity in Andong with a truly all-encompassing sound system that gave new meaning to the term ‘surround’ sound.

But first, one point must be addressed: In Korea, DVD bangs have a certain reputation. Most people aren’t going there just to watch movies. They’re very popular with young Koreans looking to get away from their parents for a few hours for some ‘alone time’ with their special someone. With this bit of information in the back of your mind, it can be a bit difficult to get completely comfy on the bed-like couches and pillows the place provides (and probably never washes). Checking into a room with more than one friend can get you some weird looks from the guy behind the counter. Telling your co-teacher you went to a DVD bang over the weekend will get you the same weird looks, and some snickers.

That evening we opted for Paranormal Activity, which three of us had somehow never seen. And the reason this is blog-worthy is because of how awesome it was to watch Paranormal Activity at this particular DVD Bang in downtown Andong. First of all, it was a small, completely black room, just large enough to fit all four of us comfortably on the reclined, bed-like couch. A projector filled the opposite wall of the room with the image. And the surround sound was so all-encompassing that the subwoofer was in the couch.

This probably doesn’t sound like a big deal, but the effect it created so enhanced the viewing experience I’m going to elaborate on it more. The sub-woofer only kicked in at the scary parts, like every evening when the couple went to bed, and it created an ominous rumbling vibration underneath us. Every loud noise was accompanied by a shake from the couch. It certainly enhanced the suspense and scares, and kind of reminded me of being in that Alien movie ride/experience in Disney World.

I have since been to other DVD bangs, but this has been the only one with sub-woofer-laced seating. And as they can be kind of expensive (4-6,000 won per person, which is about $4-6 USD), it doesn’t really seem worth it…unless you really need somewhere to get away for a few hours. But if you’re ever in Andong and in the mood for something scary, this DVD bang is highly recommended.

BB gun shooting range
Besides the DVD bang, downtown Andong was pretty cool. Amongst the expected bars, restaurants and convenience stores was a BB gun shooting range, outdoor batting cages, and small outdoor arcade. I’ve since discovered these things in the eastern part of Ulsan and a few other cities, so I guess they’re not uncommon.

The teaching situation of my friends Ellen and Savannah in Andong is unusual for EPIK, the program that brings many of us English teachers to Korea. Generally EPIK places foreign teachers in a public school, where you teach with a Korean co-teacher. They weren’t placed in a public school, however, but a “research institute.” Upon our arrival in October, the research institute wasn’t quite ready (how ‘Korea’), so they taught third grade for a few months. Now that they’ve moved into the research institute, they each have a tiny cubicle-sized office with a computer where they give private lessons to students over the internet 1-9pm every day. It’s not really what they signed up for when they thought they were coming to Korea to work in a classroom, but applying through EPIK you don’t really have any control of where you’re placed. It sounds like their new situation is growing on them, but just a word of warning for anyone who may read this and consider coming over to be an English teacher (not that you’d have the chance for much longer, anyways).

Andong is a much smaller city than Ulsan (it’s pop is 184,0000) and so the network of English teachers seems pretty close-knit. My friends live in a brand new building in a brand new, just-being-developed part of the city, with a bunch of other teachers who work at the same research institute. It felt a bit like being back in the dorms, but everyone has their own bathroom. And heated floors.

While it’s a bit of a hike from Ulsan – about 3 hours on the bus when you have to plod through Ulsan traffic – I’ll definitely be back when it gets a bit warmer to check out that traditional village. The city also supposedly makes its own super-strong soju, which I unfortunately did not have the opportunity to sample. Next time…

An American Halloween in Korea

My first real taste of homesickness in Korea came with Halloween. I really don’t think there is any place in the world to be on Halloween other than New York City. The parade, the mobs of people on the streets and subways in costumes, the decorations.. no one does Halloween like New York (at least, not that I know of).

Halloween isn’t really celebrated in Korea. Very few kids dress up. There is no trick-or-treating. There are no decorations. It seemed like the main reason stores sold any costumes at all (the biggest stores had a stand or two of Halloween-y things) was because English schools celebrate the holiday.

In school, being ambassador of Western culture, I took it upon myself to spread Halloween festiveness. I made a big Halloween presentation for all of my classes, showing a clip from The Nightmare Before Christmas (which never got old – not even on the 19th time). I also distributed candy corn to some of my students and some teachers, in costume. It seemed that no one had seen or really heard of candy corn before, but the verdict was that it was quite good. My co-teacher and I dressed up for the Friday before.

Halloween in School

Halloween in School
With some of my 6th graders.

On Halloween, I headed to Daegu (Korea’s 3rd biggest city) with my English-teaching friends to join a bar crawl. As Koreans don’t really celebrate Halloween, the bar crawl was pretty much entirely foreigners. Most of the locals we encountered on the streets of Daegu seemed to know what was going on with the costumes though, and seemed mostly amused.

I believe the evening is best told in pictures (which I have borrowed from my friends).

Halloween in Daegu - heading out for the evening
Headed out for the evening.

We walk the streets at night...

...we go where eagles dare...

...they pick up every movement...

Mr. Muscle on the streets of Daegu
Mark aka Mr. Muscle (some British thing)

Alan from the Hangover
Dave aka Alan from the Hangover (apparently The Hangover is quite popular even in Korea)

Firework photo op in front of Gogo Party
The first bar we went to gave us sparklers and set off fireworks while they took pictures.

Halloween in Daegu

Cocktail a bag at Gogo Party
They also served drinks in bags.

Harlem Globetrotters

Halloween in Daegu
Eddie the vampire and Ellen the fairy


The best ajumma costume of the night.

Halloween in Daegu

Halloween in Daegu

We stayed at a ‘love motel’, popular to stay at because they are usually the cheapest option. They’re also rent-able by the hour and come ‘fully equiped’:
Love Motel - fully stocked and ready for action
Me and three of my friends decided it would be a good idea for all four of us to try to fit in one room, in one bed. This wasn’t the most comfortable decision, but it was definitely the cheapest.

The weekend ended at The Holy Grill, a western restaurant, for breakfast. Nothing beats an American diner breakfast after a night out!

So, while nothing can quite compare NYC when it comes to Halloween, celebrating in Korea can be very festive as well.

Weekends in Busan

Busan is Korea’s second city. It’s nowhere as big as Seoul, but compared to Ulsan, it’s sort of like the New York City to Ulsan’s Hackensack, NJ. It is generally seen as that much more exciting, metropolitan, cultural, better, and everything.

Lucky for me, Busan borders Ulsan, and is just a bus/train/KTX ride away. Which means I’ve been there quite a few times these past few months. In Busan I’ve found some exciting international culture, clubbing opportunities, and even some reminders of home. Here’s a summary:

Busan Fireworks Festival (Oct. 23)

Dad visits!

My dad’s business trip to Korea coincided with the Busan Fireworks Festival. He booked a hostel in Seomyeon for the weekend to visit.

Seomyeon is one of Busan’s busiest nightlife districts. It’s packed with bars, clubs, restaurants and young people.

Seomyeon at night

Dad wanted to check out the clubs, but I wasn’t really up for it and certainly wasn’t dressed for it, so we had a mini Seomyeon bar crawl instead, where I introduced my dad to the wonders of Korean beer and anju (the side dishes served with drinking) and we explored two of the area’s many Chicago bars.

Gwangali Beach
Gwangali Beach: the scene for the fireworks

Busan’s fireworks festival is a huge event that draws millions and millions of spectators. With nothing else planned for the day, we decided to head down early and beat the crowds. The show didn’t start until 8, but there were quite a few people there by the early afternoon.

Gwangali Beach - camped out for the fireworks
One way to save a spot.

Gwangali Beach - camped out for the fireworks
Camped out for the day to save their spot.

Around the beach, we found some giant crabs:
Giant crabs!

And some smelly beondegi for sale on the street:
(you seriously have no idea how bad this smells…)

The festival also marked the first get together with some of the friends I had made at the EPIK orientation since we all headed to our separate cities.
Waiting for the fireworks to start

The fireworks felt a bit different from a fireworks festival back home.
– Food vendors wandered through the crowds selling boxed sets of fried chicken and radish kimchi.
– Other people wandered through the crowds to distribute trash bags.
– Open alcohol consumption was no problem.
– Once the beach area filled up, a line of police officers kept more people from crowding on. Aisle spaces allowed those already on the beach to leave and return, with a hand-stamping system to make sure only those already on the beach were let back on.

Overall it was rather impressively well-organized.

Crowds on the beach:
Firework festival crowds

5th Annual Busan Fireworks Festival

The show begins:
The fireworks finally start!

Busan Fireworks Festival

Busan Fireworks Festival

Busan Fireworks Festival

In the end, we had been saving a spot on the beach for ~6 hours. But it was well worth it! The show was very impressive.

Afterwards there was some drinking, and my dad managed to match my guy friends in shots of soju 🙂 Eventually, of course, the evening ended in a noraebang.

After-festival noraebang-ing
Mark, always a passionate noraebang-er

After-festival noraebang-ing

International Food Expo and Club Foxy (24 Hours in Busan – Nov 13)

My second trip to Busan was primarily to visit an International Food Expo in hopes of finding a burrito or some pierogies. Unfortunately the festival had neither, but the trip turned out to be worthwhile anyways…

International Food Expo
That looks like garlic…

International Food Expo
Someone put frosted flakes on my sushi.

Seaweed in bulk
Want to buy some seaweed?

A year ago, I would have this this looked gross. But not anymore. Sashimi? Yummmmmmm.

The festival was in Busan’s Bexco center, a giant exhibition hall. Next door was a design expo.

Fancy Water Fountain
A fancy water fountain.

Awesome Water Fountain
Another fancy water fountain. (Hand modeling by Shannon)

Paul sits at a Fancy Bench
A fancy bench. (Bench modeling by Paul)

Bike sky-way!
Every city needs one of these!!

adorable cloud monster bike parking sign

There was also a fish expo, but you had to pay to get in, so we didn’t bother.

From Bexco, we went to a ‘Play room’ to recharge. The play room was a small private room you could rent that came equipped with a TV, internet, video game system, pre-loaded movies, and nice sound system.

Eventually I did fulfill my original goal of going to Busan and got a burrito at the Fuzzy Navel, a western place in Haeundae Beach (a westerny-touristy part of Busan). But it was quite awful.

The night took us back to Seomyeon, where I finally made it to one of clubs (Foxy). It was more packed than any club I’ve ever been to, but played lots of K-pop and American hip hop (including “Wild Wild West” at one point) and so was very enjoyable.

We passed the remainder of the night in a noraebang, and once the subways started back up headed to the bus terminal to catch an early bus back to Ulsan.

Christmas Shopping (Dec 11-12)

Busan having far more shopping opportunities than Ulsan, my friend Paul and I decided to head over there to do our main Christmas shopping. Christmas isn’t really a big holiday in Korea, but it’s kind of like Valentine’s Day, so department stores still get really into the decorating to encourage the gift-giving.

Our day of Christmas shopping started with a visit to a market that was supposed to specialize in Korean antiques and old, interesting things. This was my best find:

At a flea market in Busan

There was also an imitation Oscar, which in hindsight I really wish I had grabbed.

We also checked out Gukje market, one of Busan’s biggest. The first thing I saw in the market was a stand selling pig’s heads!!! I was totally disgusted, as I had never really come across the severed head of any animal (I don’t think), let alone something as big as a pig, let alone several severed pig heads. The market was packed with vendors selling all kinds of clothing as well as western-imports like Quaker Oats and Jack Daniel’s. Luckily there were some souvenir shops as well, perfect for finding Christmas gifts.

The market neighbored Busan’s main shopping district, Nampdong. “All I Want For Christmas” blared out of speakers lining the street. Crowds of people bustled in and out shops and department stores. It felt a lot like Christmas shopping at home.

Nampodong all decked out for Christmas:

Christmas in Nampo-dong

That evening there was a Battle of the Bands in the Kyungsung University area (Busan’s other going big going-out neighborhood, generally full of university students and foreigners). Paul and I went with our friend Mark, where we ran into more people Mark knew from Busan and other people Paul and I knew from Ulsan (it’s a small world for English teachers over here). The bands we saw were a Korean Irish punk band that played covers of The Clash and Flogging Molly (as well as a bunch of Irish traditionals in Korean), and a Korean Rancid-style/imitation punk-rock band that covered several …And Out Come the Wolves tracks. Needless to say, I really let my inner 15-year-old out and danced the night away with a bunch of other foreigners, jumping up and down so much my calves hurt for days after.

Caribou Coffee in Korea!
I managed to track down my most favorite coffee shop – Caribou Coffee – in Haeundae Beach, and after 2+ months of drinking bland lattes and watery Americanos, it tasted amazing. The perfect end to a weekend full of reminders of home!

November: Getting my Volleyball Legs

Dating and relationships seem to be a pretty big deal over here. Introductory conversations with my coworkers at Samil can be summarized like this:

“How old are you?”
“I’m 23.”
“Oh, you’re so young! Are you married?”
“Haha, no, I’m not married.”
“Do you have a boyfriend?”
“Hmm, nope.”

Age and boyfriend/marriage are always the first two questions. Typically in that order. Being in a relationship seems to be pretty important to people over here. When it comes to romance-based holidays, there’s Valentine’s Day (2/14), White Day (3/14), Black Day (4/14), and Pepero Day (and maybe more, but that’s all I’m aware of so far). As explained to me by my co-teachers: On Valentine’s Day, the female half of a relationship gives a gift to her guy. One month later is White Day, when the guy gives a gift to his girl (relationships outside of the girl-guy spectrum generally aren’t recognized). These holidays are shortly followed by a holiday in which those without a significant other get together and eat cold, black noodles to represent the cold, black state of their hearts without a significant other. I suppose in the US all of these things happen simultaneously on Valentine’s Day, although in my experience cold, black noodles are usually replaced by chocolate and/or alcohol for those significant-other-less.

Beyond the holidays, couples dress in matching outfits. Underwear stores that sell matching are very popular. Maybe all this matching is a manifestation of the Asian “cute culture,” but it seems kind of like the public exhibition of coupledom is also important. Or perhaps it’s a PG way to make up for the lack of PDA acceptance. But whatever the reason, being in a relationship – and being able to show it off – is of utmost importance.

I’ve been able to gain a bit of insight into the dating lives of young Koreans through one of my co-workers, who is just around my age. One day, my normally very sunny co-worker looked rather down. She informed me that she had had a very bad weekend – she had just broken up with her boyfriend. Her parents felt they weren’t a good match, and a parents’ satisfaction with a significant other is of utmost important to a young Korean, she informed me. Parents actually play an integral part of Korean dating shows. So, although they were truly in love, and she actually felt that this guy was ‘the one’ for her, she decided her parents knew best and broke it off. But if it was true love, why had her parents decided they weren’t a good match? Apparently they found his choice of employment unfavorable. He worked as a co-captain on a cruise ship, and spent most of the year away captaining. Cruise ship employees also carried a reputation for cavorting with some of the more unfavorable locals on Southeastern Asian islands. And so, her parents felt they were not meant to be.

But when she told him they had to break things off, he promised her that he would “better himself.” He would change – he was testing to become an honorable public officer. He would wait for her to change her mind, to come back.

It all sounded quite dramatic, and I sympathized with her. “I can’t stop thinking about it,” she lamented.

Out of curiosity, I asked her how long they had been together.

“One month.”

Now, I shouldn’t be one to judge, but marriage and heartbreak and all this drama after a month??

Not to over-analyze, but could it be that the importance placed on having a relationship that I sense is there in the culture, magnifies the importance of a relationship in an individual’s life? Generally, this culture seems to be more community and relationship-based than the individualism of American society, so maybe that plays a part in it as well.

Some aspects of dating life are all too familiar:

Five days later, I saw my coworker again. She looked rather upset. “He hasn’t texted me for two days,” she confided, “and I don’t know what to do.”

Ah, the lament of girls around the globe. We may be different, but it’s somewhat comforting to know that even on the other side of the world people are playing these silly courtship games.

Two hours later, he texted her back, and all was well in the world.

But a bit more on Pepero Day.

11/11 is Pepero Day over here in Korea. People give each other pepero (빼빼로), which is more or less the same thing as Japanese Pocky.

This is Pepero:

Happy Pepero Day!

With the way stores were decorated, I figured the holiday was something like Valentine’s Day. And it mostly is, as you’re supposed to give Pepero to people you love. But lucky for me, students also give pepero to their teachers on Pepero Day! I’m a pretty big fan of any holiday where people are giving me chocolate.

A bit on the history of Pepero Day: It’s on 11/11 because the date resembles a bunch of Pepero sticks (perhaps that is obvious). According to my co-teacher, the holiday originated with high school girls giving the cookies to each other to encourage themselves to keep their figures chopstick-thin. Eating cookies seems a bit counter-productive to their message, but I guess Pepero are pretty small, so maybe if you only have one…

Really though, it’s not like Korean high school girls – or Korean women of any age – need encouragement to be skinny. As far as I can see, Korean skinny is a whole nother level from what I’m used to in the US – even skinny Americans seem to have trouble finding pants that fit over here. But of course, this doesn’t mean Korean women are free of weight worries.

My second Thursday teaching was the first (but certainly not the last) time weight came up with one of my co-workers. She had a very important date that weekend, and she asked me how she looked in her skirt.

“I’m a bit worried about my thighs.” She explained, “Korean men are very skinny, and they like skinny women.”

Skinny is a word my co-worker uses a lot. She is definitely petite, but always wants to be thinner. Perhaps it’s because I’m an American, or because I grew up in a time wary of eating disorders, but all this focus on being skinny strikes me as being a bit unhealthy. So my response naturally comes out something like this: People have different body shapes. Even among Korean women, not everyone can be the same kind of skinny. Certainly Korean men have different tastes. Etc etc etc.

“You can say these things, because you’re American, and you’re probably average for an American size. But it’s different in Korea. Men want chopstick legs.”

Ah, the pepero sticks.

I tried to make my case that I really didn’t think it would be possible for every Korean woman to achieve this “chopstick leg” ideal, and that some men certainly appreciated a curvier variety, but she didn’t seem very convinced.

“It’s nice of you to say that,” she said, but I could tell she thought I just didn’t get it. And I guess she’s right. Because I don’t. Good health is certainly important, but striving for a super-skinny ideal just to attract a man is not something I can understand. And I guess that’s the western in me.

Our discussion of chopstick legs came on a rather crucial afternoon, as I had just found out that the following day was ‘Teachers’ PE Day’ where we were going to be playing volleyball, and I was going to need to buy some athletic-ish pants. Considering Korean women tend to have chopstick legs (as pictured below), and I, well, do not, I had little hope for finding anything that would fit.

I took my very un-chopstick legs (I’ll call them ‘American thighs’) to HomePlus – Korea’s Tesco (Europe’s Wal-Mart) – to see what I could find. And I did find pants that fit! I stayed away from the trendier track suits and opted for a pair of sweats, figuring they’d do.

I wasn’t really sure what to expect of this “Teachers’ PE Day,” and was especially unsure of my volleyball abilities. The last time I touched a volleyball was the summer after my freshman year of high school, in summer school gym. My co-workers were all convinced that someone as tall as me would be an awesome volleyball player, and their high-expectations only

The volleyball we played didn’t look like anything I was familiar with, though. First of all, the net was low, tennis-net high. Also, the ball could bounce once after every hit. And, the male teachers could only use their feet or heads – no hands allowed.

I figured this would all make it easier, and it did, I think. But I also fell over quite a bit, one time in which I went sliding nearly into the teachers seated on the sidelines. Which was all very embarrassing. I figure about half of the time I fell over I did actually hit the ball, which may have been able to pass off as an epic dive than me just losing my balance. But the other half of the time, I would just fall over and miss, or make a bad hit. So I figured my days playing volleyball were finished.

But the next day at school, I could tell my co-teachers were raving about my volleyball abilities in Korean. This was also incredibly embarrassing. “You’re even better than the last foreign teacher – and he was a guy.” I think I was supposed to be embarrassed by this, but it just made me proud. I guess these American thighs are good for something.

And apparently hitting the ball half of the time was good enough, because I was recruited to play volleyball every Wednesday and Friday. Which starts with this lower-net ‘foot volleyball’ version, and then becomes more American-style volleyball, where the ball isn’t allowed to bounce (but you can still hit it with your feet if you really need to). I do still tend to fall over a lot, though, which I dont’ remember being a problem when I played on the volleyball team in 7th and 8th grade. Perhaps I should work on my balance…